BBC BLOGS - Betsan's Blog
« Previous | Main | Next »

Departures and arrivals

Betsan Powys | 15:48 UK time, Wednesday, 6 January 2010

_46438708_trainanno.jpgForgive me a bit of a childhood memory. There is a point to it, honest.

Waking up, looking out of the window in Roath Park in Cardiff and seeing snow, knee-deep. Sunday morning meant ... no chapel! Or so we'd thought. Dad, who from memory had been asked to fill in for the minister that day, had other ideas. Anoraks, scarves and gloves on and off we went, Dad, my big brother and I.

We fought our way through the snow all the way over to Minny Street chapel in Cathays. 10.30a.m. No-one else there - not that we'd dare suggest that was no great surprise. Dad had a key so in we went. He wasn't, was he? He wasn't actually going to preach? We sat in the vestry and Dad opened the Bible. That, he said, had been the whole point of the journey and it was important, given we'd ventured out at all, that the Bible had simply been opened. Why go to all that trouble otherwise?

We had a whale of a time getting home again and Dad will be surprised to know that I actually remember what he said. You see Dad, I did listen.

Now, I said there was a point to this and here it is.

You might well have spent much of today staring at various bus and train timetables, scratching your head and weighing up whether it's worth venturing out and it just struck me that a number of people within the Welsh Assembly Government have been doing a similar thing. The difference is that their timetable is section 103 of the Government of Wales Act. Like many roads and railway lines at the moment, it must seem littered with unexpected obstructions and patches of black ice.

At the moment, the Assembly's Future Business agenda for plenary sessions runs to January 27. Between now and then, AMs can look forward to debating the outcome of the Copenhagen conference, the local government settlement and many other topics. What, at the moment, they won't be talking about is Sir Emyr Jones Parry's Convention report on a referendum.

Bus and train timetables, in theory at least, provide a time for departure, and a time for arrival at your destination. If you're on board in time for departure, weather permitting, you'll arrive where you want to get to, when you want to get there.

And it's that departure time that is preoccupying ministers at the moment. Because if your destination is a referendum on further powers for the Assembly in the autumn of 2010, well that train must be perilously close to leaving the station.

Here's why.

The "trigger" I was talking about a few days ago is a resolution of the Assembly. Under the Act, 40 or more Assembly Members must vote in favour of a resolution introduced by the First Minister or another Welsh minister.*

There will need to be a lot of talking before this happens but for the sake of getting to this blog entry's destination, let's just assume that these are relatively short conversations. Let's say the resolution is tabled and voted on at the last plenary session of the month, January 26.

The First Minister Carwyn Jones would then write to Secretary of State Peter Hain by, say, February 1st, indicating that the Assembly has requested a referendum. Mr Hain then has 120 days to lay a draft Order before Parliament.

Here's where things are going to get really slippery. This Order, as laid down in the Government of Wales Act, is not simply to ask both Houses of Parliament and Her Majesty the Queen to give their blessing to a referendum. It's actually going to be a very detailed piece of legislation, including the exact question that will be asked, the organisation of the poll, funding of the costs of holding the referendum and - critically - the exact date of the poll.

So in theory at least, the Secretary of State is in charge of deciding the date of the referendum. Now it's inconceivable that this wouldn't be a joint decision with the Assembly Government, but what it does indicate is that the Assembly Government is going to have to have come to a clear decision as to the exact date it wants to see the referendum before it tables that resolution.

See now why getting to Minny Street by 10.30am on that snowy morning came to mind?

So why the rush to table the resolution you ask?

Because the timetable for an autumn poll is now extremely - perhaps impossibly - tight. From February 1st, according to the Act, the Secretary of State has 120 days - around four months - to lay the draft Order before Parliament. That takes us to June 1st. But slap bang in the middle is the small matter of the General Election. The very latest that Parliament can be dissolved is May 10th. Allowing for four to six weeks for Parliamentary procedure between laying and voting and not leaving it till the very last minute, this indicates that the draft Order would need to be consulted on, drafted and laid by late March.

So what if it isn't? Well, then the Order goes into abeyance until the new Secretary of State arrives. Then, the consultation period starts again - but of course we're now weeks closer to that autumn destination. There's simply no way of knowing whether the new Welsh Secretary will see the referendum Order as a red hot priority, or whether they'd rather take their time on such an important issue.

Either way factor in your four to six weeks to get the draft Order through a post-election Parliament, another month for Royal Approval in a Privy Council meeting and the Jones-Parry Convention recommendation for a 10 week referendum campaign and the chance of a late September, early October poll looks pretty small.

The next feasible opportunity for a referendum is the same day as the Assembly election in May 2011. Yes, aiming for next year slackens the timetable considerably in terms of starting the journey - but it comes with its own set of problems.

What I understand is that senior ministers are on the platform but they haven't yet decided whether to get on board the train. Concentrating their minds is the thought that once you're on board, there are precious few opportunities to stop ... and get off.

* This is what it says in the Act's Explanatory Memorandum: "The third stage in the process could however only be introduced following endorsement of that proposal in a referendum. The White Paper noted that the Government had no current plans to hold such a referendum, but the Bill implementing its proposals should nevertheless provide the powers for one to be held, so as to avoid the need to have to return to Parliament to secure the necessary legislation if it was ever decided to hold one at some future time".

Is it me, or do you hear echoes of Peter Hain's voice in that "if it was ever decided"! Did he think then there was even a chance that he'd be getting a letter from the First Minister less than four years later? Probably not.


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.