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'Open mind' on October referendum

20 May 10 17:27 GMT

The Welsh Secretary says she is keeping an open mind about whether an October referendum on further devolution in Wales is achievable.

A request for an autumn poll has been made to Cheryl Gillan in a letter by First Minister Carwyn Jones.

But legislation needs to be passed by Parliament before the summer recess to facilitate such a vote.

Ms Gillan's claim that insufficient preparatory work was done by her predecessor has been denied.

The Electoral Commission say a 10 week period is needed to ensure the referendum question can be easily understood by voters - but that would rule out an autumn poll.

The first minister provided a suggested referendum question to the Welsh Secretary in his letter.

Mrs Gillan says she found key elements of the preparations for a referendum as "unfinished business" on her desk on taking office.

'Open mind'

In an interview with BBC Wales' Dragon's Eye programme she stressed she was keeping an open mind at this stage as to whether an autumn poll was still possible.

However, she said she would take advice from the Electoral Commission as to how long they would take to approve the question to be asked, adding that the First Minister Carwyn Jones would surely agree with her that it was "important for the people of Wales that we get this right".

The Welsh Secretary declined to comment on the suggestion that she was facing a "stitch up" by being portrayed as blocking devolution by not enabling an autumn vote to take place.

The First Minister has said that it is important that there should be "clarity" as to whether a referendum in late October is possible.

Welcoming Carwyn Jones's letter, former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain claimed the work he did while in office is sufficient for the first minister's demands to be met.

Mr Hain said: "The Conservative-Liberal coalition now has a duty to deliver the necessary Parliamentary and UK government agreement on time to keep open the option of calling a referendum this October.

'Back track'

"The preparatory work I ordered to be done as Secretary of State allowed this timetable to be met. Cheryl Gillan has no excuse to back track."

Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams said the new Conservative-Liberal Westminster coalition government is committed to holding a referendum to further Welsh devolution and that Welsh Liberal Democrats would be "whole-heartedly" campaigning for a 'Yes' vote.

She said: "What a difference a week makes. Labour and Plaid Cymru seem to have finally stopped stalling, having spent three-and-a-half years kicking this referendum into touch.

"There is cross-party consensus that the referendum should not be held on the same day as the elections to the National Assembly."

Chair of the Plaid Cymru group in the assembly Dr Dai Lloyd said the new Westminster government must refocus on the "legitimate bid" the assembly had unanimously made for a referendum.

He said: "Clearly time is tight with regard to an October referendum, but the fact is that the arrangements are dependant now on what they have been dependant (on) all along. That is the political will to get the job done.

"On accepting the position of Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan is the one who has now also accepted the responsibility for ensuring that the democratic will of the National Assembly is respected and that the preferred date of all parties in October remains a possibility."

Dragon's Eye is on BBC2 Wales at 1900 BST and BBC1 Wales at 2335 BST.

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