John Osmond says the Welsh Government’s legislation for the coming session needs a connecting theme
First Minister Carwyn Jones’ announcement on 12 July of his legislative programme for the fourth Assembly was another milestone in Wales’ devolution journey. Without the resounding Yes vote in the March referendum this occasion could not have happened. For the first time in our history we can see the outlines of a parliamentary nation beginning to take the measure of its legislative aspirations.
In Putting Wales in the Drive Seat, a report the IWA prepared for the all-Wales Convention in April 2009, we looked forward to this day. We argued that the great virtue of the National Assembly being able to enact primary legislation without first seeking permission from Westminster via Legislative Competence Orders, would be to allow it to develop a strategic vision. It would enable the Welsh Government to adopt a holistic approach, dealing with policy in such fields as health, education, and the environment in a wide-ranging and connected way.
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How does the Welsh Government’s inaugural legislative programme measure up on this score? The opportunity certainly appears to have been taken in education. The Schools and Standards (Wales) Bill will enshrine the 20 action points that have been set out by Education Minister Leighton Andrews in a series of speeches over the past six months and hopefully will succeed in improving performance in our schools. In higher and further education, too, legislation may also result in significant institutional change as a result of far-reaching recent reviews.
The social policy agenda is also pretty substantial. The Social Service (Wales) Bill will provide, for the first time, a coherent Welsh legal framework for social services based on social democratic principles, though as ever the devil will be in the financial detail. The proposed Housing Bill will do the same, as well as tackling homelessness which is bound to increase in the coming years as a result of the Westminster Government’s assault on benefits. There are also related Domestic Abuse, Youth Offending, and Children and Young Persons Bills.
The environment is another area where the Welsh Government has commendable aspirations. Who could quarrel with the First Minister’s aim “to ensure that Wales has increasingly resilient and diverse ecosystems that deliver economic, environmental and social benefits”? There was a widespread welcome, too, for the proposed Heritage Bill. The First Minister agreed in debate that the proposed Highways and Transport (Wales) Bill could be widened to embrace the need for an integrated public transport system rather than being just limited to placing a duty on local authorities to provide and maintain cycle paths, laudable though that is.
It was in this last policy area that the First Minister came closest to describing an over-arching theme for his programme. As he put it, “We will legislate to embed sustainable development as the central organising principle in all of our actions across Government.”
Again, few would quarrel with that. But like much of what successive Welsh Governments have sought to achieve in the first decade of devolution, the objective is general and declaratory and provides little comfort that concrete gains will be made in practice. Institutional change may be important in this area, but it is by outcomes that the Welsh Government has asked to be judged.
This first legislative programme is a welcome beginning and marks a significant moment in the maturing of Wales as a political nation. Much responsibility will now fall on the shoulders of the Opposition parties to scrutinise and improve what is being proposed. Their collective performance in the wake of the First Minister’s statement was unimpressive.
But overall, we still lack a convincing narrative as to how the proposed 21 Bills across such a wide range of subject matters hang together as a programme for a full term. There is a striking contrast with the One Wales agreement that was put together, in the wake of the 2007 election, in about the same time period. There are more benefits to coalitions than maximising votes. It was Aneurin Bevan who once said that it is the politician’s job to find the words.