Friday 26 June 2009

All Wales Convention

As Betsan has already blogged, yesterday evening saw the final event in the grand tour by the All-Wales Convention. It wasn't all they did yesterday, however - earlier in the day, they were taking oral evidence from bodies and individuals, and Plaid's Chief Executive, Gwenllïan Lansdown, and I were there to give evidence formally on behalf of Plaid.

No surprise to anyone, I'm sure, that our view was that there should be maximum devolution of powers to Wales in the shortest possible timetable; and that the referendum on implementing Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act should be held within the timetable agreed by ourselves and the Labour Party, and set out in the One Wales agreement. What other position would anyone expect Plaid to adopt?

The line of questioning was interesting, but it's hard to know whether Sir Emyr, in particular, was revealing his own attitude in asking questions, or merely playing devil's advocate. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter, which means that it's hard to read any hint about the probable outcome of their deliberations from the line of questioning.

The points raised with us about how we enthuse people in Wales to vote for what is in a sense a technical change - a matter of 'when not what' - were entirely valid, and they are issues which those of us who want to see a referendum held, with a successful answer, will need to consider. I'm not entirely convinced that they're relevant factors for the Convention to be worrying about; but that doesn't detract from their seriousness and relevance to the wider debate.

All too often, people are referring to a Scottish-style Parliament - but that, of course, is not what is on offer. I firmly believe that it would be a much easier proposition to sell than the content of GOWA 2006, largely because it's so much clearer. But if the problem in selling the next step is a direct result of the lack of clarity over the difference between where we are and where we would be after implementing Part 4, then what is the mechanism which ends that lack of clarity?

I have to admit that I don't see one; to argue that it will take more time for people to understand the issue (which seems to be the position of some who want to delay holding a referendum) leaves me cold. I don't think any amount of time is going to enthuse people about a largely technical change - the only thing more time will do is to continue to highlight the problems of the current system. There is a real danger that using the difficulty of getting people to understand and vote for change on the basis of lack of understanding becomes a permanent cop-out.

We got into an interesting debate with Sir Emyr about seatbelts on school buses at one point. We mentioned it as an example of the Assembly Government wanting to act but being unable to do so under the current settlement. He asked why they needed to legislate; why couldn't they just impose the change through the contracts individual councils have with the bus companies. It's an entirely valid point about the style of government – should governments always seek to resolve matters through legislation or should they look at other approaches? Entirely valid at a philosophical level; but surely irrelevant to the debate about where the power should lie?

Our final parting shot was a very simple, but I think very important, message. The Commission has done a great deal of detailed work and analysis. That will be reflected in their report when they conclude their work. That report will be an input - a very important input – into the final decision as to whether and when to hold a referendum. But the decision on that issue will be taken by politicians, not by the Convention's members. The One Wales Government has appointed the Convention's members to do a job of work and return with some considered advice; it has not abdicated its responsibility to them.

When it comes to commissioning and considering reports, governments can't win. If they do whatever their appointees advise, they can be accused of hiding behind others; and if they ignore reports, they can be accused of wasting time and money on an unnecessary exercise. I think it's more subtle than that. Good government uses all sorts of tools and methods to obtain views, to make assessments, and to provide advice. But good government also means that the final decision rests with elected representatives, who take their decisions having heard all the advice and considered the implications.

Finally, lest anyone jump to the conclusion that I am expecting a negative result from the Convention and seeking to justify over-ruling it in advance, let me add that this works both ways. If the Convention recommends an early referendum, the politicians have the right to decide otherwise, just as they have the right to decide to go forward if the Convention recommends no progress.


Anonymous said...

Seat belts on buses.....plastic there any wonder that Welsh people aren't greatly interested in the law making process?!

John Dixon said...


I agree. If a Scottish-style parliament was on offer, I believe that it would be very much easier to enthuse people.