Historic Vote Triggers Referendum

John Osmond reports on today’s Senedd debate that kick started moves to holding a referendum on increasing the National Assembly’s law making powers

In an historic vote in the National Assembly this afternoon Members voted Yes without opposition in favour of the so-called ‘trigger’ motion, setting in train moves towards holding a referendum on more powers, probably in the Autumn. The vote was 53 of the 60 Members in favour with no one against. The Presiding Officer did not vote and other members were absent from the chamber, in the main due to ill health. The fact that Members from all four parties and from all parts of Wales voted in favour of holding a referendum on transforming the National Assembly into a Parliament with law making powers marks a substantial change compared with the politics of Wales in the late 1990s. Until the weekend there were doubts whether the Conservatives or even the Liberal Democrats would support the motion, because of fears that a referendum might be held on the same day as next year’s Assembly election. This, they thought would work to their disadvantage in the election campaign. However, their worries on that score seem to have been assuaged by private assurances from First Minister Carwyn Jones.

In the 1997 referendum the Conservatives led the campaign for a No vote on establishing the Assembly in the first place. Now the party, at least in the Assembly, has swung firmly behind extending the existing powers of the Assembly, producing a consensus that increases the chances of a Yes vote being achieved whenever the referendum is held.

Today’s vote now goes to the Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, to respond – First Minister Carwyn Jones has to notify him of the Assembly’s wishes within 14 days by letter. Under the 2006 Government of Wales Act Hain then has 12o days – or until 9 June – before laying a draft order for a referendum before both Houses of the Westminster Parliament seeking assent to the National Assembly’s request for a referendum. Alternatively he has to respond to the National Assembly itself explaining why he is minded not to do so.

The complicating factor is that 120 days takes us beyond the likely date of the forthcoming UK General Election, widely predicted to be held on 6 May. If an order is not laid before that date it will fall to the incoming Westminster government to deal with the National Assembly’s request.

Hain’s position is politically highly sensitive. He has made no secret of his strongly held view that this Autumn would be too soon to hold the referendum. Privately, he believes the Welsh people need to experience a number of years of a Conservative government at Westminster before they can be easily persuaded to agree with more powers being handed down to Cardiff Bay. He may be tempted to delay responding until after the general election. By then, of course, he might be out of office and it could be up to a Conservative Secretary of State to make a decision.

These and other factors could have a significant impact on the timing of a referendum. If there is a minority government at Westminster or a hung Parliament, with no party in overall control, then the prospects for a further general election within a year or even months, as happened in 1974, could get in the way of the Autumn date for the Welsh referendum which is broadly favoured in Cardiff Bay.

Immediately following the vote in the Senedd Peter Hain issued the following Press release, emphasising that his mind was focused on the forthcoming general election:

“Carwyn and I have been working very closely together over the past two months to make progress on this issue. I fully support the First Minister’s approach and now look forward to receiving his letter so I can begin the necessary preparatory work to take this forward. In the meantime, as Carwyn and I have said jointly, we both agree that the priority in the coming months will be the General Election, the outcome which will be so important for Wales. We must secure economic recovery for Wales, not choke it off with hasty cuts to Government spending.”

Part of the “necessary preparatory work” will be asking the Electoral Commission to produce ground rules for the referendum, in particular devising a comprehensible but balanced question that will be put in it. The Commission have already indicated that this work will probably involve polling and research with focus groups. All this could be used by Hain as reasons for delaying a response until beyond the general election.

In today’s Senedd debate Cardiff North’s Conservative AM Jonathan Morgan explained most succinctly why his constituents and, indeed his party, had changed their mind on devolution. In the 1997 referendum he said they had voted overwhelmingly against the National Assembly. Yet at a Women’s Institute meeting he attended in Cardiff only two years later he recalled a sense of outrage that the National Assembly had fewer powers than either the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly. This, he inferred, might be the best way to frame the argument for a Yes vote in the forthcoming referendum.

The only note of disagreement in the debate was between some Plaid and Conservative Members. Plaid Cymru Conwy AM Gareth Jones suggested that what the referendum would in practice be about, moving from Part 3 to Part 4 powers under the 2006 Act, was merely an administrative tidying up exercise. The principle of allowing the National Assembly to pass primary legislation had already been conceded by the 2006 Act. South Wales Central Plaid AM Leanne Wood, questioned whether a referendum was really necessary for so small a change.

However, South Wales Central Conservative AM David Melding took them to task. He stressed the symbolic importance of the National Assembly acquiring full primary powers over its areas of competence without having to go cap in hand to Westminster for permission to legislate, via legislative competence orders. This he said would be a major change, one that would have profound consequences for the constitution of the UK as a whole, and would probably be the last referendum on a change to the operation of the National Assembly for at least a generation.

Other AMs warned that despite the consensus in the chamber there was no such consensus outside in their constituencies across Wales. They would need to work hard, co-operating in a cross-party campaign, to get the arguments across to the people of Wales on how they would benefit in bread and butter terms by voting Yes in a referendum to increase the Assembly’s legislative powers.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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