Devolution: the sober reality

  • 16 October 2012
  • From the section Wales
  • comments

Is there a so-called drinking culture in Cardiff Bay?

A straw poll of party figures who cross my path this morning says that no, there isn't. A snapshot of comments: "You just can't compare the Assembly with Parliament," "this is a very small bubble in which politicians could put themselves in a vulnerable position," "there's no more, no less drinking here than most people come across in their professional lives."

For what it's worth, I tend to agree.

Is there now a perception that there's a drinking culture in Cardiff Bay? Yes, "an unwelcome perception." Again, I tend to agree.

We learn, by the way, that Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies drinks only water and orange at receptions - "call me boring" - and thinks forsaking family friendly hours would keep some of his colleagues out of trouble. His tongue may have been in his cheek but only maybe.

And there you go. I tend to think there's little more I can add.

So back to my favourite subject and a sober one it is: the "unsustainability", as Carwyn Jones has it, of the constitutional status quo.

Yesterday I blogged about the deal struck between Alex Salmond and David Cameron. But it's looking increasingly clear that, putting Edinburgh completely to one side for a moment, that the constitutional status quo between Wales and Westminster is becoming, to use the First Minister's word, "unsustainable".

Having sat in the Supreme Court last week and listened to the Welsh Government's Byelaws Bill be pushed and pulled this way by the finest legal minds in the country, it was clear that there are all sorts of difficulties buried within the devolution settlement - some now emerging, others buried but ready to explode.

That case remains to be resolved but hardly had "all rise" been called as the arguments over byelaws drew to a close that it was disclosed that another piece of Welsh legislation may well find itself making its way to the Supreme Court - this time the Official Languages Bill. It remains to be seen whether this will happen but I don't think it would meet with the warmest welcome from their Lordships should it come before them.

Today we've had yet more constitutional wrangling, this time over the fate of the Agricultural Wages Board, which has the power to set pay and conditions for low paid farm workers in England and Wales, and which Westminster is looking to abolish. My colleague David Cornock has outlined the issues here but, much like byelaws, the upcoming wrangle over the AWB is largely down to the drafting of the devolution settlement itself.

The Welsh Government has powers over the field of agriculture (pardon the farming pun) as part of the devolution settlement and has signalled its intent to legislation to bring some form of AWB back in Wales. Aha, says Westminster but the AWB is not about agriculture per se but about wage policy - which isn't devolved. So, according to them, any legislation would fall on stony ground.

And then there's organ donation - seen as the flagship legislation of the Fourth Assembly. Again, the Welsh Government is adamant it can push ahead with legislation in this field - namely health, and has already published draft legislation. If the Bill is passed by the Assembly, the hints coming from the Wales Office were that it might end up in the Supreme Court on the grounds that introducing an opting out system of donation goes far wider than health into human rights and even habeus corpus - which is certainly not devolved.

Would the Attorney General really, really want to be seen to be referring the first three bills created from scratch in Wales to the Supreme Court? Surely that's not a 100% record he'd covet. Surely it's clear too to everyone involved how the Welsh Government would grab that particular stick and beat the UK Government with it at every turn.

What's remarkable is how quickly all this has come to a head in a number of different areas. What it perhaps illustrates are the cracks in the devolution settlement which may not have been evident to those drafting it but which have begun to appear as soon as it is tested in anger.

Plaid Cymru say enough is enough and that it's time for a wholesale look at the devolution setup.

Their former leader Ieuan Wyn Jones says, "A new Government of Wales Act which enshrines the reserved powers model into law is the best way forward. We will be looking at this more closely over the coming weeks and will offer a detailed proposal in our evidence to the Silk Commission when it looks at powers later this year. A new Government of Wales Act would strengthen democracy and would bring an end to the expensive and time-consuming legal wrangling that is currently taking place."

This is far from the kind of seismic constitutional change being contemplated in Scotland but taken together with Carwyn Jones' "unsustainable" view of the current settlement it appears that the Supreme Court case is starting to crystallise opinion, in Cardiff Bay at least, that at least some change is needed.

Of course, a new Government of Wales Act is entirely within the gift of the Westminster government and Parliament. Next month we'll get Part One of the Silk Commission review of financial powers but Part Two, dealing with the devolution settlement is still well over a year away. And even then a new Act is a far from foregone conclusion.

In the meantime, let's wait and see just how busy those Supreme Court judges will be.