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Last Updated: Monday, 29 March, 2004, 06:07 GMT 07:07 UK
Wait ends for devolution report
David Williams
By David Williams
BBC Wales political editor

Lord Richard of Ammanford
Lord Richard will deliver his report this week
On Wednesday morning a heavy document, eagerly awaited and with the potential to bring about considerable constitutional change in this country, will be handed over to the First Minister of Wales by Lord Ivor Richard of Ammanford.

In a carefully-staged photo opportunity - an event which is likely to pass relatively unnoticed in large parts of Wales - the Richard tome and all it contains will be passed on for political scrutiny and public debate.

At last the Richard Commission report on further powers for the Welsh assembly - or not as the case might be - will be out in the open after almost two years of evidence taking and deliberation at every conceivable level.

And then the real debate will begin.

Additional powers

I understand that the report will recommend that the assembly be granted legislative powers in those areas, like health, education and transport, which it is already responsible for.

Welsh assembly (Picture courtesy of FreeFoto.com)
Currently, the assembly can enact only secondary legislation.

This may not happen 'Big Bang' fashion, but instead by degrees.

Richard is expected to go further and suggest that there could also be an additional transfer of legislative powers to areas not currently devolved.

Such transfers would be subject to the approval of the secretary of state for Wales.

At the moment the assembly has power to enact only secondary legislation.

What seems to be emerging then is a gradual, piecemeal progression towards a parliamentary body with legislative powers.

In other words a route map to the future of devolution in Wales.

It is the Labour party which holds the key to what happens next
No-one, at this stage however, is clear how long all this will take.

On this uncertain journey it seems that one thing is certain: tax varying powers of the kind available to the Scottish parliament are going to be parked in a lay by.

If they are not, they could become an obstacle to progress and no-one wants that.

Also on Wednesday, when we get to see the small print of the Richard report, there is likely to be a recommendation that the number of assembly members be increased, possibly to 80.

Currently there are 60 Assembly Members, 40 of them elected on a first-past-the-post system and the remaining 20 via a top up or list system.

New referendum

This allows for a degree of proportional representation or PR.

There is almost certain to be a recommendation for change here, with Richard advocating a different type of PR.

The most logical alternative, it seems, is the Single Transferable Vote or STV system.

This has already been recommended for local council elections and if applied to the assembly it would be welcomed by the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, but almost certainly rejected by the Labour party.

Peter Hain
Welsh Secretary Peter Hain has to approve further transfer of powers

It will be interesting too to see how the Richard Commission deals with the question of the need for another referendum aligned to any increase in powers.

The question of a referendum is not strictly part of the Richard Commission remit, but we may get pointers to its thinking on an issue which is almost certainly going to concentrate minds in the months ahead.

This has already created some strange bedfellows.

Labour MPs at Westminster and Tories in the assembly are warning that the assembly should not be given new powers without a further referendum.

If the predictions are right, all these recommended changes will lead to a significant constitutional step change for Wales; an event even, in what has been called the process of devolution.

Internal struggles

But there is a catch! These and other recommendations are just that - recommendations.

They may take years - even a decade or more - to implement.

Site of the new Scottish Parliament
The assembly currently has fewer powers than the Scottish Parliament

Before that, there is the small matter of getting some kind of consensus in Wales and before that there is a debate to be had where it really matters - in the Labour Party.

It is the Labour party which holds the key to what happens next.

The party may get the route map next week, but right now the road ahead looks long and bumpy.

For the Wales Labour Party, it leads to a special conference in September.

By that time, it is hoped that the internal struggles and angst will be over and the party will have arrived at a settled view which can be included in the party manifesto for the next general election.

At the moment, though, that goal seems a long way off and there are those in the party, particularly Labour MPs at Westminster, who are openly hostile to the idea of any increase in powers.

Thaw in attitude

It could be that they fear a reduction in their own numbers if the assembly is given more powers.

They might sleep easier in their beds if they thought that that could be achieved gradually rather than in a rush.

Downing Street, meanwhile, seems positively relaxed about whether or not the assembly should have greater powers.

Around the Cabinet table there appears to have been a considerable thaw in attitude towards devolution in the last few years.

The inconvenience and problems associated with the introduction of Welsh clauses into UK Bills may have persuaded some at Westminster that legislative transfer is not such a big deal after all.

The tome delivered this Wednesday may prove too heavy a burden for some, too lightweight for others

Blood pressures may rise and the calm may shatter, however, if Tony Blair discovers, that in the run up to a general election, he has a bunch of disgruntled backbenchers in full flow against giving the assembly greater powers.

He will not want that distraction.

One thing, then, is non-negotiable in the Richard Commission debate: that is any reduction in the number of MPs in Wales.

That may be an increasingly difficult position to sustain in the long term, but for now it is taboo to even talk about it.

If the Labour party holds the key to what happens to the Richard Commission recommendations, then one man holds that key.

That man is Peter Hain, leader of the House of Commons and secretary of state for Wales.

Architect of settlement

He has the unenviable task of balancing the differing needs and aspirations of all his colleagues in Westminster and Wales.

But Peter Hain is a consummate juggler and probably relishes the thought of delivering another performance worthy of the devolution Big Top, but he will have his work cut out and he has difficult choices to make.

It may come down to deciding whether or not he wants to be remembered as the architect of a new settlement for Wales or as the person who preserved the status quo.

The other key player in this is Rhodri Morgan, the assembly's first minister and leader of the Labour party in Wales.

He has declared his personal preference for greater powers for the assembly and his cabinet is largely supportive of that view.

'Richard plus'

The trick now is to convince colleagues in other parts of the party to support that view.

The timescale on this is tight. As outlined above, the Wales Labour Party will hope to have arrived at a consensus by the time of their special conference in September.

Rhodri Morgan
Rhodri Morgan has said he would like greater powers for the assembly

In the meantime, the opposition parties will be watching with interest to see how Labour resolves its internal difficulties over this issue.

Of course, some opposition parties have their own problems to resolve.

Plaid Cymru will want 'Richard plus'.

That is a legislative parliament with tax varying powers as a step towards their ultimate goal of independence for Wales.

Not everyone in the party is convinced about the 'i' part, but they will put up a united front next week.

The Liberal Democrats also want Wales to have powers similar to Scotland while the Tories' official policy is to preserve the status quo.

Unanswerable case

All three parties, however, may at some time in the future be prepared to put aside, at least temporarily, their public positions in favour of a coalition of ideas.

The aim of that would be to put forward a co-ordinated and unanswerable case for greater powers to Westminster, whoever is in charge.

It is a long and complicated process and there are no guarantees at the end of it.

The tome delivered this Wednesday may prove too heavy a burden for some, too lightweight for others.

But whatever it contains it will be the staple diet of constitutional diners for months to come.

If Richard says 'Yes', the question is will the Labour Party say the same thing?

Assembly powers change warning
13 Jan 04  |  Wales
'Weak' assembly harming Wales
24 Nov 03  |  Wales
Review seeks assembly opinions
15 Jan 03  |  Wales
Hannan's Call to Order
23 Apr 02  |  Wales

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