Maze or motorway?

Geraint Talfan Davies takes issue with the All Wales Convention’s description of the choice of paths to law-making open to the Assembly:

The All Wales Convention quite rightly wants to be seen as impartial in the debate on law-making powers for the National Assembly. It also has the unenviable task of making an arcane constitutional issue accessible to a wider public. The wording of its latest leaflet shows just how difficult it is to achieve both things at the same time.

Under the heading “What’s up for debate?”’ it says that “the question at the heart of the matter” is whether “the Assembly should continue getting law-making powers step by step, or should powers come all at once”. (My italics) Is this apparent sweet reasonableness quite as impartial as it is meant to be?

It implies that the only argument is about timescale, and that sooner or later we will end up in the same place whether we catch the slow train or the express. All things being equal, what reasonable person, posed with a choice between doing something ‘step by step’ or ‘all at once’, would not adopt a gradual approach rather than being landed with everything in one fell swoop?

The convention’s leaflet reinforces this with a quote from a Brian Moylan of Torfaen:

“In general I would prefer to stay with the step by step approach. I think you learn more as you go along – learning from mistakes, adapting and then moving on. I think the same is true of the Assembly and devolution.”

My objection to this characterisation of the choice is that it is simply not accurate. All things are not equal. While gradualism may be a factor in the current argument, the leaflet does not even hint at a debate about the material qualitative differences between the two paths.

The ‘step by step’ approach could just as easily be described as piecemeal or ‘pick ’n mix’ or even un-strategic, and even on the best of experience so far does not address the issue that Lord Richard highlighted when he launched the Richard Commission’s report: “The problem of knowing what the Assembly can and can’t do remains a central issue of accountability to the people of Wales.”

Contrasting ‘step by step’ with ‘all at once’ also carries an implication that getting law-making powers ‘all at once’ doesn’t allow the Assembly to tackle law-making gradually, which is not the case. The transfer of powers en bloc, following a yes vote in a referendum, does not mean that the Assembly would have to rush to change the legislation transferred. It would have the power of choice.

I am not suggesting that the Convention can necessarily adopt a racier description such as a choice between a maze and a motorway, but the latter is easier to navigate, better sign-posted and gets you from A to B more quickly. And, on a motorway you still have a choice: between the slow lane and the fast lane.

There’s more to this debate than the convention’s leaflet allows. Perhaps another leaflet is required to inform the public of some of the key strands in the argument. A good source for those who want to delve deeper into this debate is the IWA’s latest report, commissioned by the All Wales Convention, and published earlier this week: Putting Wales in the Driving Seat: Legislative Opportunities for the National Assembly as a result of implementing Part 4 of the 2006 Wales Act.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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