Why Wales needs a Parliament

Alun Pugh AM

It is nearly a quarter of a century since I last made a speech in this institution. This University has a fine record in offering educational opportunities to students from disadvantaged backgrounds and as a former president of the students’ union I am very happy to be here tonight to give a personal view on the reasons why I believe Wales needs a Parliament.

Much has changed since I made that speech in 1979. The cold war has ended. The UK was a relatively recent addition to the European Economic Community – a free trade area of 6 States. Closer to home, attitudes to devolution in Wales were entirely different and an ambitious Tory opposition MP who had made her name by stopping school milk in the Heath government was in with a chance of defeating Jim Callaghan’s government in the forthcoming general election.

Wales of course did not vote for the Thatcher revolution in 1979. Or in 1983. Or in 1987. Or in 1992. And it was the experience of seeing Wales and Scotland consistently voting to reject Thatcherite policies – and having them imposed upon us for nearly two decades -that changed my mind about devolved government.

I saw Scotland used as a test bed for the poll tax whilst Wales become a laboratory for the crackpot schemes of John Redwood and William Hague.

Earlier this year it was obvious that the British people were never going to put Mr Hague in charge of the affairs of Great Britain. Yet the people of Wales had no say when he was given a government limousine and his chauffeur brought him over the Severn Bridge to govern us.

Mr Redwood engineered a deliberate underspend on welsh schools and hospitals and returned our money to the UK Treasury to shore up his bid to become Tory leader. The phrase ‘democratic deficit’ was never so apt. The under investment in public services is now being rectified, but its legacy is all around us.

In May 1997 after two long decades the English electorate finally realised that the Welsh and Scots had been right all along and catapulted John Major out of Downing Street and into ajob more commensurate with his ability and charisma.

Membership of the redevelopment committee at the Oval cricket ground.

We have had 4½ years of a Labour Government since that fine and sunny May morning when we realised that after two decades of Tory rule in Wales that things were indeed about to get better. We all went to work with a spring in our step – and bags under our eyes.

Since then some people have asserted that the first Labour Government since the 1970’s has been unduly timid. But the Blair Government has been far more than a safe pair of hands and a competent economic manager.

There are many long-term achievements:

The creation of a legal minimum wage.

The legal right to holiday pay for part time workers.

The statutory freedom of access – the right to roam – on the mountains and moors of Great Britain.

And here in Wales it was a Labour Government that campaigned for and legislated for a National Assembly.

All landmark achievements – achievements which the first ever Labour MP in Wales, Keir Hardie would happily have voted for. These achievements were all bitterly opposed by the Tories – but they are achievements which will stand the test of time.

The National Assembly first met on 12 May 1999. I have the great honour of being one of the first 60 members elected to sit in the first ever nationally elected forum of our small nation. I will be forever ndebted to the Clwyd West Labour Party and the electors of that particularly beautiful part of our nation for giving me the opportunity to serve in the new democracy of Wales.

I have had the huge privilege of seeing from the inside how the new constitutional arrangements have been operating since 1999 and more recently as a deputy minister in the Government of Wales.

The Assembly and the Government of Wales operate under the Government of Wales Act of 1998. That Act was the product of a compromise within the Labour Party -between enthusiastic supporters of devolution and colleagues who were less enthusiastic.

The compromise was to transfer the powers exercised by the Secretary of State to the Assembly. Neat at first glance – but flawed in practice. The problem arises because the Secretary of State’s former powers were gradually accumulated in a haphazard fashion over nearly half a century without any conceptual framework leaving an eclectic mix of powers and responsibilities.

Our Assembly had a rough start. But under Rhodri Morgan’s leadership we can point to real improvements in Wales:

A huge rise in investment in medical staff, equipment and premises in the Welsh Health Service.

An Objective One programme that is improving economic development in one of the poorest parts of the whole European Union.

And free bus transport for our pensioners. 30% of our senior citizens have no access to a car and bus fares make up a significant part of their budgets. Real improvements in peoples’ lives.

And I know that many organisations and individuals welcome the improved access to policy making provided by the Assembly which stands in sharp contrast to the bad old days of the Welsh Office.

Yn wahanol i’n cyd weithwyr yn yrAlban a Gogledd Iwerddon, ni chafodd y Cynulliad bwerau hanfodol i lunio deddfwriaeth sylfaenol. Mae’r gallu i lunio deddf yn yffordd yma yn nodwedd ymhlith llywodraethau rhanbarthol trwy’r byd. Mae’n cael ei ddefnyddio’n effeithiol iawn yn yr Unol Daliethiau, Lander yr Almaen, parthau Canada ac Awstralia.

Dwi isho gweld senedd i Gymru.

Differently from our fellow workers in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Assembly was not given essential powers to make basic laws. The ability to legislate in this way is a characteristic of regional governments throughout the world. It is used very effectively in the United States, the Länder of Germany and the provinces of Canada and Australia.

I want to see a Parliament for Wales.

The assembly has wide powers of budgetary allocation but only secondary law making powers. While our colleagues in Scotland are legislating to improve the health of their people by banning tobacco advertising, to secure improvements in education and to end the barbarous practice of recreational hunting with dogs, assembly members last week voted on who should sit on the planning panel for Mr Isaac’s proposed farmhouse conversion in Ammanford. The Assembly’s budgetary discretion needs to be matched with a parallel legislative discretion.

Furthermore, the distinction between primary and secondary powers is fluid, the boundary is essentially a matter of parliamentary drafting fashion. It is quite possible to write an Act of Parliament in such a way that the Assembly’s room for manoeuvre is nil.

The National Assembly has responsibility for education, health, transport and a host of other responsibilities. Yet it is unable to legislate. Legislation for Wales has to compete with all the other bills in the parliamentary logjam. It is only possible for the current settlement to work effectively if the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister dance in perfect harmony, showing neat footwork and perfect co-ordination over some thin constitutional ice. We are indeed fortunate in that in Paul Murphy and Rhodri Morgan we have a modern day Torville and Dean.

For example, the statutory role of a Children’s Commissioner for Wales was set up by grafting clauses onto the Care Standards Act. A second set of legislation had to follow later on to give the Commissioner the powers to do the job. This cannot disguise the fact that a single Act for Wales, rather than a legal lash-up, would have been a more fitting response to the Waterhouse inquiry into widespread child abuse in North Wales.

Similarly, the flagship reforms of post 16 education funding in Wales including the setting up of a much needed post 16 planning and funding body was achieved by having a set of Wales-only clauses tagged on to the Learning and Skills Act.

The Education Bill currently progressing through Parliament is a remarkable piece of proposed legislation. A single bill, it contains two very different sets of proposals for education in England and Wales and is the product of much shuttling between Cardiff and London. The current settlement can work when two sets of politicians from the same party and their officials actively co-operate. But this spirit of mutual respect and cooperation to secure different outcomes in one Act could never survive the election of governments of different parties in Cardiff Bay and Westminster.

The lack of primary law making powers is the biggest flaw in the current set-up. We cannot legislate to carry out our responsibilities in education, health, road transport, economic development and a host of other areas.

Ni allwn hyd yn oed ddeddfu ar yr iaith Gymraeg. Mae’n sefyllfa wirion dros ben. Mae’r Cynulliad yn gallu gwneud “unrhywbeth y gwel ei fod yn briodol” o dan adran 32 i gefnogi’r iaith Gymraeg ac eithrio deddfu! Mae Aelodau Seneddol Lloegr yn gallu pleidleisio i ddeddfu ar sut y dylid trîn yr iaith Gymraeg yng Nghymru – ond nid yw Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru yn gallu gwneud hyn.

We cannot even legislate on the Welsh language. It is a ridiculous situation. The Assembly can do “anything it sees as appropriate” under Section 32 to support the Welsh language apart from legislation! The Members of Parliament in England can vote to legislate on how to deal with the Welsh language in Wales – but the National Assembly for Wales cannot do this.

I have also heard it said that after the assembly “proves itself” by some vague criteria then primary powers may flow in due course. This is like asking a man in a straightjacket to dig a deep trench with his bare hands. Success being rewarded by the removal of the jacket and the presentation of a shovel.

The reforms I am proposing should not be seen as a chattering-class indulgence when we should be concentrating on the delivery of public services; it is precisely because the current constitutional set-up is a unnecessary impediment to the Assembly’s ability to deliver for the people of Wales that I want to change things. We have done a lot, but we could do more and operate more efficiently with primary powers.

Assembly debates generally revolve around policy papers. Sometimes it is indeed like watching paint dry – to use the First Minister’s memorable phrase, while the chief business of parliaments and assemblies at a regional and national level all over the world, legislation, is largely absent.

And ticking away quietly at the heart of the devolution settlement is a constitutional time bomb. It is timed to go off shortly after the election of two different parties to Government in London and Cardiff.

Although you could have endless fun with different permutations, the most likely scenario is a Conservative Government in Westminster and a Labour one in Cardiff. This is not fantasy politics. Indeed such an outcome would have been the norm for much of the second half of the 20th century had we had an assembly then.

Requests for Welsh legislation would receive a polite – or a not so polite – rebuff and as the formula based budget of the Assembly operates in such a way as the Assembly’s only real discretion is deciding where the inevitable Tory cuts in public expenditure would go. Hardly an inviting prospect.

It is unlikely, though certainly not inconceivable, that the Tories will return to Government in 2005. If that happened, Mr Duncan Smith would presumably follow the usual Tory practice of appointing an English MP as Welsh Secretary. Nigel Evans, the current shadow, has never disguised his contempt for Wales, its voters and its elected Assembly – or even the opinion of his own AMs.

While our Scottish colleagues could block the reintroduction of the poll tax, the privatisation of the NHS or the imposition of education vouchers, we in Wales would be steamrollered by the primary legislation whipped though by English Tories. It is possible that we could be faced with this scenario before 2010. In any case nobody seriously believes that the Tories will ever again return to power.

My first sounds in the delivery suite of Llwynypia Hospital in 1955 are not recorded. They could have been “Eden OUT!” I joined the Labour Party shortly after I gave up wearing short trousers. I will work for the return of Labour candidates at all levels – in Conwy, Cardiff, London and Brussels. And I will do everything I can to block the imposition of Tory policies on Wales. A Welsh parliament would be a very formidable obstacle to a modern day John Redwood or William Hague.

Finally – the corporate model of the assembly has proved to be deeply flawed. The separation of the Assembly as a whole from the Government of Wales is not understood by the people of Wales. This has not been helped by an inadequate communications policy down in Cardiff Bay but it is more than just a failure of the Assembly to communicate its achievements effectively to the public.

In making this speech I will no doubt be called a closet nat. That’s a tag that has used in the past against Rhodri Morgan and Jack McConnell the new First Minister of Scotland. So I’m very happy to be in such exalted company.

Earlier I mentioned Keir Hardie.

Keir Hardie was the first ever Labour MP in Wales. A man whose personal motto was “votes for women and socialism all round”. Amen to that! He represented Merthyr Tydfil, just a few miles up the road from here. A founding father of the Labour Party and giant of a man in whose shadow we stand. A century ago he campaigned for votes for women, a legal minimum wage, the abolition of the right of hereditary peers to make laws to govern us and parliaments for Wales and his native Scotland.

This is no nationalist agenda. “Uniting the red dragon and the red flag” was Hardie’s vision in the Merthyr Pioneer. Democracy, empowerment and accountability are core Labour values and I believe that a Parliament for Wales is Keir Hardie’s unfinished business.

But I would say a few words about Plaid Cymru. They are not remotely interested in devolution. Their only aim is to split Wales off from the rest of the UK in order to create a nation state. While the Welsh nation is a reality, I think a Welsh state would be a huge mistake. And a Welsh state run by the anti-English faction of Plaid Cymru would be a pretty uninviting place to live.

The Partnership Agreement has brought stability to the Government of Wales. The coalition agreement between Welsh Labour and the Liberal Democrats commits the Government of Wales to set up a review of the powers of the Assembly and to report after the next Assembly elections in 2003. I think that is a wise step with a realistic timetable. I intend to give evidence to the review and I believe that any fair-minded review would conclude primary law making powers should reside in Cardiff, as well as Belfast and Edinburgh.

We need to build up the policy development and law drafting capability of the Assembly. At the moment the Assembly does not have the infrastructure to cope with primary powers, but a programme to develop a compact and highly professional unit capable of turning policy into statute needs to be developed. As an interim step we need to be producing draft bills here in Wales for presentation to our colleagues in parliament. And outside Cardiff Bay we need to support the development of organisations such as the Aneurin Bevan foundation – research foundations providing politicians with the raw material for future policies and programmes.

Such a serious set of changes to the constitutional settlement would require a New Government of Wales Act. With the Tories mortally wounded as a result of their disastrous record in the 80’s and 90’s, their civil war over Europe and their permanent leadership crisis it seems improbable they will be in a position to win in the UK general election in 2005.

It is the job of politicians to give leadership. How to respond to the twin pressures of globalisation and the entirely understandable need for people to be in more control of their daily lives. To me it means a full engagement with what Tony Blair called “the emerging reality of European integration” and a parallel recognition that decisions with a Welsh only remit are best made in Wales. This is not a comfortable message for anybody who believes that the world revolves around London and Westminster politics.

Speaking for myself, I believe we should seize this historic opportunity to build on the 1998 Act, correcting its defects and bringing Wales into line with Scotland before this decade is out.

Our Assembly would in effect become a Parliament. At the same time I believe a name change to the Welsh Parliament – Senedd Cymru would be appropriate to signal that change.

Name changes have already taken place of course. The titles First Minister, Education Minister, Welsh Assembly Government, Health Minister and so on, have no basis in law whatsoever. The Act specifies First Secretary, Assembly Secretary for Health and so on as the titles by which these office holders should be called. The new Government of Wales Act needs to tidy up this anomaly.

More importantly the new Act would clearly separate the legislative and executive branches.

Such an Act would require the endorsement of the electorate by clearly signalling an intention to legislate in the 2005 UK General election manifesto. I do not believe that a second referendum would be required unless we were considering giving the Assembly powers to vary income tax. I certainly am not.

Acts of Parliament which have constitutional implications do not normally require a referendum. The Single European Act 1992, The Human Rights Act which incorporated non British law into the British judicial systems and indeed the NATO treaty which transferred sovereign control of our Armed forces did not trigger referenda.

While the setting up of an all Wales elected body was indeed a matter for referendum, modification of its remit is a less significant constitutionally decision.

The publication of a draft Bill to effect these changes would need to come at an early stage. The Bill, which would become the Government of Wales Act 2007 or 2008, would provide for a full and public debate in Cardiff and London.

More importantly, a debate within Wales needs to take place in order to win acceptance for the concept of a legislative powerhouse in the hearts and minds of the Welsh people.

This evening has been an opportunity to engage in this debate.

This speech was given by Alun Pugh AM to students at the University of Glamorgan on 5 December 2001. Alun Pugh is a Labour member of the National Assembly for Wales representing Clwyd West, and is Deputy Minster for Education and Lifelong Learning. He may be contacted at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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