An essay by Sir Emyr Jones Parry, Chair of the All Wales Convention
My remit was to stimulate a debate on the working of devolution, to test the views of the people of Wales on the future law-making powers of the National Assembly for Wales, and to make any recommendations. It has been a privilege to meet people throughout Wales and to receive nearly 3,000 views on how Wales should work in the future.
Some have questioned whether this issue is relevant during an economic recession. In one school, a young student said to me “why should we care? – we are not interested in politics”. My answer remains simple. Politics, hard choices for those in all levels of government, affect us all and are vital for the future of our nation. Hard earned rights carry responsibilities for us all.
We found that the processes of getting powers to the National Assembly for Wales are not much understood. Indeed, despite the efforts of the National Assembly and of the Welsh Assembly Government, there is little understanding of how complex arrangements work. That is not good for democracy. The rule of law is our protection, but laws need to be adopted by a transparent process, acceptable to and understood by the electorate.
Nonetheless, devolution is now firmly embedded in Wales and our polls showed strong acceptance of it. We listened to the evidence submitted to us. We concluded that bringing all the available powers to the Assembly at once offered advantages over the present arrangements where step by step, some part of one power is transferred to the Assembly with the approval of the British Parliament after a lengthy process.
The Government of Wales Act 2006 provides for law-making powers in 20 areas, corresponding to those areas administratively devolved to Welsh Ministers, to pass to the Assembly. But if they are to come to Cardiff all at once, the people of Wales must vote ‘yes’ in a referendum, and both the Assembly and the Houses of Parliament in Westminster need to approve the holding of such a referendum.
Our research, including polling, underlined the complexity of any referendum question. Voting intentions are affected by many issues – the question, the language and leadership of the yes and no campaigns, different perceptions of Nationhood, events and circumstances at the time. But on the basis of the evidence, we judge that a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum is obtainable, but there can be no certainty of such an outcome. There would be everything to fight for in a referendum campaign, which should itself shed more light on devolution.
We have conducted our work impartially and scrutinised arguments robustly. A decision on whether to hold a referendum was always reserved for the politicians, and it is for them to decide how to proceed. I hope that our report will help that process, but also be a quarry for the people of Wales in the wide-ranging debate which should now take place. The report also includes a number of practical recommendations and observations, which, whatever is decided on the referendum question, we believe merit consideration.