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Six months on the road….what have you been telling us?

Welsh Assembly Government

Six months on the road….what have you been telling us?

As the All Wales conventions six month tour of Wales comes to an end, Sir Emyr Jones Parry reflects on his journey in a letter published by the Western Mail on July 2nd 2009.

The All Wales Convention’s series of public events drew to a close on Thursday 25 June at a Question Time event in City Hall, Cardiff; the culmination of a six month tour of the country, part of our efforts to get the views of the people of Wales on the powers of the National Assembly.

When the Executive Committee of the All Wales Convention met for the first time in July 2008, its remit was clear - to kick start a debate on the future of law-making powers in Wales and to give the people of Wales an opportunity to give their views. Not an easy task. Law-making is complex and abstract.

However, law is vitally important to our day-to-day lives. Laws permit Governments to deliver their manifestos. Without laws there would be no smoking ban or free prescriptions. Governments need laws to deliver policies. Crucially the rule of law protects us and is essential to democracy.

The first job for the Executive Committee was to agree a work programme that would capture imaginatively all the elements of our remit. Our strategy has seven strands; social research, evidence gathering, working with partners, working with young people, e-communications, media relations and an ambitious public events programme.

Communicating in Wales is challenging. We have however done our best to engage with the media, locally and nationally, to ensure that the Convention's message is read and heard throughout Wales.

We have an interactive website and a lively Facebook group. To date we have received over 400 pieces of official evidence from organisations, schools, politicians and the public.

At the heart of our work programme was our public events programme. Our programme of events in each part of Wales was aimed at bringing as diverse an audience as possible to the debate.  We held roadshows and a family day discussing the issues with people who had seldom engaged in political debate. We also held discussion groups and Question Times throughout Wales.

These successful events have produced valuable evidence. Travelling around the country has provided me with fascinating insights into the views of the people of Wales. The arguments have been strong on both sides.

In support of having the powers all at once, we have been told that it is undemocratic for the Assembly to have to go to the UK Parliament 'cap in hand' each time they wish to have the powers to make changes in Wales - and for these requests to be second guessed by MPs as to their appropriateness. If devolution has happened, why can't the Assembly get on with making laws and not spend scarce resources just to establish the right to make laws.

We have also heard the argument that getting powers step by step does not permit a strategic approach to cross cutting issues. Having all the necessary powers in the first place would be much simpler than separately drawing down the competence separately in each of these areas before being able to act.

Another prevalent argument is that bringing all the powers in one go to Cardiff would be clearer for people to understand exactly who has the power for what - the system at the moment is convoluted, complex and changing. This opaque system perpetuates an information deficit which isn't good for democracy.

However, the arguments against having the powers all at once are equally compelling. One of the most compulsive has been that the Assembly hasn't had the opportunity yet to get used to the current system and that it needs more time for the system to bed down before moving on. 

The system of seeking individual powers is starting to work more fluidly and will only continue to improve with practice.

Moreover, goes the argument, having MPs consider potential powers for Wales is sensible, valuable and democratic. Many consider that Welsh MPs should have an active role in determining the powers of the Assembly. In sum, scrutiny is good for the democratic process.

Of course, some consider a debate now on further power for the Assembly inappropriate in the current economic crisis and with the revelations around MPs expenses. I disagree. Politics matters. Democracy matters. Always.

I'm happy to say that deciding when to hold a referendum is a matter for Politicians and not for me and the Convention. But there is much experience to show that referenda are seldom resolved solely on the one issue that's up for debate; it becomes a referendum on the performance of the Government of the day. In the words of Bill Clinton "it's the economy stupid."

In addition, in light of the MPs expenses fiasco there is a general loss of faith in politicians. According to the recent Ipsos MORI Expenses Poll, 75% believe that the present system of governing Britain needs a lot of improvement. Will people distinguish between MPs and AMs? Will the revelations lead people to think that AMs would do better without the 'guiding hand of Westminster'? Or will the cynicism lead to opposition to any more power for any politicians, regardless of which institution they sit in?

So what's next for the Convention? We will continue to meet with people and organisations to gather evidence; attend events and continue with our social research programme. Our consultation will draw to a close on the 21st of August. Thereafter we will focus on writing and agreeing the report for presentation to the Welsh Assembly Government in November. We're getting close to the final countdown in the devolution debate, so make sure you use your democratic right to have your say.

Sir Emyr Jones Parry