Monday, 27 December 2010

What's this referendum all about?

On 3rd March, people in Wales will go to the polls to decide the future of Wales's law-making system. This explanation is taken from an interview for Celyn magazine issue#3 - Autumn 2009

What’s wrong with the current legislative system, given that it has been in place for a relatively short amount of time?

There are two stages to our legislative system in the Assembly. The first stage involves getting the competence to make the laws drawn down from Westminster and the second stage is making the law itself. The first stage is the issue that has caused the problems. It has been slow and due to a limit on UK Parliamentary time there has been a limit on the number of competence orders we can ask for. There have been opportunities for those who are not positively disposed to devolution to interfere in the system and to water down the demands of the Assembly. If we get a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum we will be able to move straight to the second stage of the process. We won’t have to ask for competence from Westminster and will be able to get on and make those laws in the areas where competence is devolved to the Assembly.

What difference would it make to Wales if the Assembly took powers directly in the 20 areas it currently has responsibility for rather than having to go to Westminster initially?

The main difference is that we could make measures and legislation much more quickly than we can at the moment. We would have more capacity for making measures in the Assembly and there would be fewer opportunities to those who are not disposed to devolution to interfere in the process. Although holding a referendum implies there would be a big change, it is, in reality, little more than an administrative tidying up exercise.

The Assembly has had problems trying to acquire the power to suspend the right-to-buy in areas of high housing pressure. The Right to Buy, brought in by Thatcher, is responsible for taking more than 135,000 council houses out of the public sector in Wales. In order to stop the leaching of houses from the public sector we need to stop the sale of those houses. The Assembly wanted to make that law but the MPs in Westminster have prevented that happening so far. The Deputy Minister for Housing, Jocelyn Davies had to make a fresh attempt to draw down the powers after her first application was blocked. Hopefully, we will be able to suspend the right-to-buy at the end of this Assembly term but only when I see the legislative competence order before the Assembly will I believe it. [update: the LCO has now been granted and the affordable housing measure is going through the Assembly – after three and a half years.]

Would making those decisions in Cardiff really make any difference to the lives of the people of Wales and, if so, how?

People can now have a much greater input into the laws that affect their lives. Many organisations, if you ask them, would support a yes vote in a referendum for that reason. People will not be getting up the morning after a yes vote people declaring ‘my life is a whole lot better’ because the Assembly has the power to make laws.

It will be difficult to see any immediate change but in the long term, I think we will gain more confidence in our ability to do things for ourselves and people in Wales will take a much more active role in contributing to the legislation that affects their lives.

A yes vote will not be earth-shattering, but a no vote would indicate a lack of confidence in devolution as a project and in Wales as a nation. From what I see, most people are proud of what Wales has become. They will have a chance to register that pride on March 3rd.

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