Page last updated at 19:27 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Is a powers referendum unstoppable?

Vaughan Roderick
By Vaughan Roderick
BBC Welsh Affairs editor

Public consultation event

The convention's public consultation ranged from especially-arranged tea dances to curry buffets

Could the All Wales Convention report make the momentum towards a referendum on further assembly law-making powers irresistible?

The publication of the report of the All Wales Convention on whether a referendum should be held to increase the assembly's powers is the latest attempt at reaching a settled system for governing Wales.

It is, in many people's eyes, an admission that after 60 years of trying the politicians still haven't got it right.

After centuries of being governed more or less as an adjunct to England, devolution of power to Wales really began in the 1960s with the creation of the Welsh Office and the appointment of a Secretary of State for Wales.

Even that was controversial at the time.

The weakness of that system was that ministerial posts were filled by members of the governing party at Westminster rather than by politicians chosen by the Welsh electorate.

Some Labour politicians...had been hoping for a less decisive recommendation

An attempt to rectify the situation by establishing an assembly came to grief in the 1979 devolution referendum, but was narrowly approved 18 years later following a succession of Conservative Welsh secretaries representing English constituencies.

The assembly was barely up and running before more powers began to be demanded.

As a result of the coalition agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 2000 a commission was established to review the assembly's workings.

Chaired by Labour peer Ivor Richard the commission recommended granting the assembly the power to make laws in the areas for which it was responsible.

Although supported by all parties in the assembly, the 2006 Government of Wales Act fell short of the Richard Commission's recommendations.

Instead it offered a mechanism for transferring limited law-making powers (the so-called LCO process, using Legislative Competence Orders) and allowing the assembly, with Westminster's consent, trigger a referendum on full law-making powers.

Alarm bells

The prospect of the trigger being pulled far earlier than anyone had predicted came about as the result of another coalition deal - this time the 2007 agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru.

The two parties agreed to establish a convention to take evidence on when a referendum could be held with a good prospect of securing a yes vote.

With convention members drawn from many areas of Welsh life the former British Ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, was chosen as its chair.

The convention set about a wide ranging consultation exercise with the Welsh public, using both traditional methods such as public meetings as well as online and electronic methods to measure the public mood.

Sir Emyr Jones Parry
Sir Emyr Jones Parry had said the report's decisiveness would surprise

As the convention carried out its work it rapidly became clear that its members had little time for the current LCO system and there were strong signs that, although the evidence on the outcome might be ambivalent, the convention would recommend that the assembly should move forward in short order toward triggering a vote.

Those indications set alarm bells ringing amongst some Labour politicians who, fearing a referendum could be lost, had been hoping for a less decisive recommendation.

Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, in particular, has warned the assembly not to rush into a decision.

However, the report's publication may make the momentum towards a third devolution referendum unstoppable.

'Most want' more powers for Wales
27 Oct 09 |  Wales politics

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