Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Unholy compromises

I'd intended to comment on the latest twist in the Housing LCO saga earlier, but time didn't permit. It honestly wasn't simply a matter of taking some time to cool down! I understand that the Assembly is due to debate the issue next Tuesday, so it's not yet quite such old news as it could have been.

I thought that the Deputy Minister for Housing, Jocelyn Davies, summed up the situation pretty well on Saturday, expressing the personal frustration which she feels, and which is widely shared in the party. Under what is laughingly described as a Welsh legislative process, we are eighteen months on, and the Assembly still doesn't have the power it needs to carry out a key policy in an agreed government programme. We don't know when they will have the power, and even when they eventually get it, there is the whole process of drafting and approving an Assembly measure to actually use the powers.

This process is a complete nonsense, and is simply unsustainable. And if we have these problems now, when the governments in both Cardiff and Westminster are led by the same party working in smooth partnership (allegedly), where on earth will that leave us if we ever have governments of two different parties?

I know that I'm not alone in feeling deeply unhappy that the only way out of the situation has been to pass a veto to the Secretary of State for Wales – a wholly new constitutional principle never envisaged by any of those involved in drafting the Government of Wales Act. And under a Conservative government, based on past experience, there is every prospect that the person holding that job wouldn't even be representing a Welsh constituency.

But what else should we have done? Our people and communities need action on housing now. It's already taken the best part of two years to get to this point; are we supposed to continue delaying taking any action because LabourTory MPs want to play silly games? Should we be walking out of a coalition on the basis that MPs won't allow us to do something we never wanted to do in the first place? I don't like the compromise which has been reached one iota; but in the interests of implementing the One Wales programme, there seems to have been very little choice. The real question is what it means for the future.

Peter Black seems to suggest that we have not done enough to "push at the boundaries of what can be done". Actually, I don't entirely disagree with him; but in terms of delivering for the people of Wales, I happen to think that getting the powers to do what we want now is more in the interests of Wales than holding out for the power to do something we don't want to do at present. It's a classic case of having to decide between a compromise which enables us to start delivering sometime soon, and a more purist approach which maximises the long term potential. I would very much prefer that Labour MPs had not put us in the position where we have to make such choices; but I really don't think that the people of Wales would thank us for spending the whole of the four year term of government arguing with London rather than trying to get on with the job of delivering now, in spite of the MPs' opposition.

In itself, this compromise over the LCO is not a coalition-threatening issue, largely because the veto applies only to an area of hypothetical future policy which is not in the One Wales programme in the first place. But if it were allowed to become a precedent for other LCOs in the future, in a way which prevents the government from implementing agreed policies, that assessment could change. The overwhelming principle, surely, is that an elected government in the Assembly should be allowed the powers it needs to implement the policies for which the Welsh electorate voted. For one of the parties in any coalition arrangement to use, or even simply allow, their London wing to obstruct that principle must inevitably at some point raise serious questions about the viability of such a coalition.

In the aftermath of the 2007 Assembly election, it seemed as though the Conservatives in the Assembly had travelled a long way. Their willingness to sign up to the All-Wales Accord marked a number of radical policy changes. I was sceptical about that at the time, and it really does look as though, with a few honourable exceptions, (although I disagree with what both of them have said on this particular issue) they have reverted to type. Their London branch seems determined to take every opportunity to wreck the devolution settlement by obstructing the will of the Assembly.

(I note that Nick Bourne has claimed today that he will be talking to Plaid and the Lib Dems about possible arrangements after the next Assembly elections in 2011 - the chance of any such arrangement looks diminishingly small to me given that his influence on his party's MPs seems to be even less than Rhodri Morgan's over Labour MPs. I feel pretty confident that, in any future coalition negotiations, delivering the support of each party's MPs for the granting of the powers necessary to implement the government programme is likely to be a key issue – maybe even a sticking point. Once bitten, twice shy.)

As for the Labour Party, all I can say is that I hope that the 'partners' at both ends of the M4 will use the breathing space granted by the compromise over the Housing LCO to have some very serious and private discussions about the nature of their 'partnership', in order to avoid similar shenanigans over future LCOs. Plaid always knew that 'One Wales' applied only to the programme of the Assembly government; but we genuinely thought that we had signed an agreement with the Labour Party as a whole over the power to deliver that programme. Did they have the same understanding?

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