Cheryl should stop teasing on Assembly powers vote

Peter Price urges a quick decision on the date of a referendum on law-making powers

When he visited the National Assembly earlier this week Prime Minster David Cameron confirmed that the referendum to advance the Assembly to the primary law-making powers will go ahead – but we still don’t know when.

Yesterday Conservative leader in the Assembly Nick Bourne said that, although he would prefer the Autumn, he thought there wasn’t sufficient time for the Electoral Commission to ‘road test’ the question with polling and focus groups to ensure that it would be readily understandable by the public. On Radio Wales this morning Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan added to the uncertainty by raising similar doubts.

However, a few hours later, in a letter to the Secretary of State, First Minister Carwyn Jones challenged her by insisting that a referendum in the Autumn is entirely possible. As he put it:

“…it is our understanding that the drafting work on the Order in Council to be laid before Parliament will have been substantially completed by the end of this month. We have expressed our strong preference for a referendum to be held in late October of this year.”

The First Minister also suggests a question and pre-amble for the Secretary of State to consider.

“At the moment the Assembly can make laws about some, but not all, things which only affect people in Wales. Parliament has decided that the Assembly should be able to pass its own laws for Wales on all devolved subjects. But this can only happen if voters in Wales support this in a referendum. The devolved subjects include health and social services, housing, education and local government. The laws could not be about social security, defence or foreign affairs.

“Do you want the Assembly to have the power now to pass laws on all the subjects which are devolved to Wales?

YES

NO.”

There are powerful arguments why a question along these lines should be put to a referendum in October or early November this year. There has been too much doubt for too long. The outgoing administration kept us guessing for months. The new Secretary of State should act decisively and quickly.

We have four clear months before October. If the political will is there surely technical issues around designing the question and other procedures can be overcome in that period.

The principle is decided. Both coalition partners are committed to the holding of that referendum and the Lib Dems are very positive about further devolution. So, timing is the only issue.

The Conservative Party in Wales will be divided but most of their AMs are in favour – and their election comes next. They do not want the referendum held next May, mixed up with Assembly elections, and it would be to their advantage for it to be out of the way well in advance rather than in February or looming for Autumn 2011. Tory opponents would be given more time to organise and it would fester within the party, potentially having wider effects.

Cheryl Gillan will not be the sole influence. Her brief comes under the political reform umbrella of Nick Clegg. He has no reason to urge postponement. Moreover, his role may give some positive spin to the UK government’s ‘neutrality’. David Cameron also shows no signs of wanting delay.

So, the doubt is mainly technical. We know that the Assembly vote came on about the last date for the stages to be completed in time for October. There are technical proprieties and getting the question right may not be easy. A change of government may have made it more difficult. But I doubt that any of these obstacles are insurmountable with political will, because the decision of principle is already taken.

Cheryl, please don’t tease us for long.

Peter Price is a member of the Executive Committee of Cymru Yfory/Tomorrow’s Wales, and was a member of the Richard Commission on the powers of the Assembly

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