CONVENTION SPECIAL 6: Moving Beyond Apprenticeship

Edwina Hart welcomes the democratic arguments in favour of more powers for the National Assembly

I want to begin by welcoming the Convention’s report. It is the product of a process which began with the Group of AMs and MPs from both Parties in the coalition. Their original impetus, in helping to scope the work of the Convention and set its terms of reference, has proved to be a very good investment. The consensus which was established then has been continued in the remarkable job which Sir Emyr Jones Parry has led, in crafting a report which was signed unanimously by all members of the Convention, including all those nominated by the four Parties and those selected through open competition.

The Report also demonstrates the success of the Convention’s working methods. There is huge amount of expertise quoted in its pages, from many people, across Wales, who freely gave evidence to it. What it also contains, however, are the views of those who only rarely take part in this sort of exercise. The imagination with which the Convention members went about gathering and testing opinion is a real tribute to them, and those who worked so hard to support their work.

The final document sets out, with real clarity, the current position of the Assembly and the working of the Legislative Competence Order (LCO) and Measure processes. It analyses with precision the powers which the Assembly would acquire under Part Four of the 2006 Act, which Labour put on the statute book. In this sense, the Report is likely to be a work of record, setting out in a way which will be consulted for many years to come the relative merits of different ways of acquiring legislative powers.

The core of the Report, however, lies in its penultimate chapter, where it records its findings in relation to public opinion. The democratic arguments in favour of Part Four powers – clarity, simplicity, accountability – seem to me to just as important as the policy benefits which such a move would bring.

As Health Minister I have been responsible for steering the first-ever Welsh Measure onto the statute book. Through the Carers LCO, the LCO on domiciliary care charging and the Mental Health LCO, I am directly familiar with the process for acquiring new powers which we have operated since May 2007. It has proved to be a useful apprenticeship for Ministers, back-benchers and civil servants, alike.

In a policy sense, its limitations are also identified in the Report. While LCOs allow powers to be drawn down in a specific policy area, they are much less well equipped to allow a pan-Government approach to tackling problems which span a series of Ministerial portfolios. Moving to Part Four will put that right, and make for more effective government for Wales.

I am on record, many times in this leadership campaign, as being a supporter of an early and successful referendum. As I have also explained, many times, the second of those adjectives is more important that the first. The Convention suggest that a vote on a referendum can be won – but that it is by no means already in the bag.

There is a basic predisposition to support devolution, and a strengthened Assembly, but for many people there are questions which still need to be answered. Indeed, as the Report makes clear, the framing of the referendum question itself is a matter which needs very careful attention, as different formulations of the same basic issue produce different responses amongst potential voters.

Inside the Labour Party this process of discussion and refinement will also need to take place. The debate will not be about whether to have a referendum. There is already a commitment to doing so. Our focus will be on testing public readiness to support such a vote. In the end, what all this means, of course, is that politicians will have to exercise their responsibility to make a judgement.

The Convention is just one example of exactly the sort of issue which ends up in any First Minister’s in-tray. I believe that my record demonstrates an ability to deal with complex issues and to make the sorts of decisions which political leadership requires. That’s why I hope to be Labour Leader in Wales and the next First Minister.

Edwina Hart is AM for Gower and a Labour leadership contender.

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