Welsh Constitutional Commission takes shape

But John Osmond reports that continuing negotiations over its terms of reference and membership are delaying its start

Cheryl Gillan, Secretary of State for Wales

If Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan is to keep to the timescale the four Welsh party leaders have set out for work to start on the new Welsh Fiscal and Constitutional Commission she is running close to the wire. In their letter in mid July, which we published here, the four leaders in the National Assembly stated that the Commission should start work this month. However, with only a week left before the end of September, and with only an outline agreement secured on the Commission’s terms of reference and membership, it looks as though this timescale is bound to slip.

Nothing has yet been made public but I understand that the Chairman of the Commission will be Paul Silk, formerly a Clerk in the House of Commons and also Clerk to the National Assembly itself from 2001 to 2007. In that role he was the most senior official within the Assembly Commission and principal adviser to the Presiding Officer.

Following his time with the Assembly Paul Silk was seconded back to the House of Commons where he undertook a number of special projects before finally retiring to his home in the Black Mountains near Crickhowell in September 2010.

Silk was a House of Commons Clerk for almost 25 years, from 1975, and has a wealth of constitutional experience. He was the Clerk in charge of the Government of Wales Bill that established the National Assembly in 1998 and also contributed to the drafting of its first standing orders.

He has worked as presidential adviser in the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and has written and lectured widely on constitutional matters. In fact, today he is participating in an Assembly Commission conference in the Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay on the theme The National Assembly for Wales as a legislature – then, now, the future.

Important news, too, is that the Commission’s secretariat will be provided by the Treasury rather than the Wales Office, an indication that its recommendations are more likely to be listened to by those at the heart of the Westminster Government. I understand the secretariat will be headed by Mark Parkinson, an expert on the Barnett Formula who has worked for a number of years within the Treasury’s Devolved Nations and Regions unit, and who has responsibility for liaison with the Welsh Government.

There will be four party representatives on the Commission together with two independent members. Negotiations are still underway about precisely who these will be but the following party names are being suggested: Sue Essex, former Labour Minster of Finance in Welsh Government, Nick Bourne, former leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the National Assembly, and Rob Humphreys a former Welsh Liberal Democrat President who was also the party’s representative on the All Wales Convention. Plaid Cymru’s nominee is likely to be its economics adviser Eurfyl ap Gwilym who is currently also heading its Commission looking at the party’s organisation and policy in the wake of its poor election results in May.

However, a question mark is hanging over Plaid Cymru’s involvement. This is because the Cabinet Office have suggested amending the Commission’s terms of reference  agreed last July so that, in addition to examining the “current constitutional settlement in the light of experience and recommend changes”, it would have the words added: “and continue to secure the position of Wales within the UK”. According to leading figures in the party, if such an addition finds its way into the terms of reference that eventually emerge, the motivation would be to ensure that Plaid Cymru does not participate in the Commission.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA