'Early referendum for parliament would fail'
Oct 29 2007 by Tomos Livingstone, Western Mail
WELSH Secretary Peter Hain yesterday poured cold water on plans to hold a referendum on a Welsh parliament by 2011, saying an early poll would result in a no vote.
First Minister Rhodri Morgan and his Plaid Cymru coalition partners stepped up the pace for the referendum earlier in the week with the appointment of former UN ambassador Sir Emyr Jones Parry to head a convention on the plan.
Mr Hain’s intervention will be seen as a barely-coded rebuke to Mr Morgan and his Cabinet.
His comments came on the day Labour and Conservative MPs clashed again over whether Scottish and Welsh MPs should be allowed to vote on issues that affect England only.
The issue has been pushed up the agenda since the SNP took power in the Scottish Parliament following the election in May.
In Wales, several boxes must be ticked before a new referendum on a Scottish-style parliament can go ahead, including a two-thirds majority vote in the Assembly and a majority in favour among MPs.
Plaid and Labour agreed to hold the poll by 2011 as part of their Assembly coalition deal, signed this summer. Mr Morgan said earlier this week the referendum “will be on or before the next election (2011). We can see no reason to depart from that commitment.”
But Mr Hain struck a far less enthusiastic note yesterday, highlighting the difficult balancing act Labour is attempting to perform in keeping both its pro-devolutionists and its more sceptical MPs happy.
And Mr Hain suggested he had been “bounced” into the appointment of Sir Emyr, announced six days ago when he was in the United States on Government business.
The Neath MP used an appearance on the BBC Politics Show to underline his concerns, saying, “We do not have that [consensus] now and I do not see that this Assembly term, quite frankly.”
Sir Emyr’s convention is intended to gauge the public appetite for a move towards a Scottish-style parliament. It will contain AMs and MPs, although none has yet been appointed.
Although Sir Emyr was “ideal” for the job, Mr Hain said some might be entitled to feel that his appointment came “out of the blue”.
“An early referendum would be lost,” Mr Hain said. “I didn’t take the Government of Wales Bill through, nor did MPs vote for it, to be bounced into an early referendum.” Referring to the knife-edge vote that created the Assembly a decade ago, he said, “We only just won in 1997.”
Labour and the Conservatives also clashed over the West Lothian question yesterday. The issue of what Welsh and Scottish MPs should do in the post-devolution age is seen by many as unfinished business. The Tories are planning to unveil plans for an English “Grand Committee” of MPs to consider matters which affect only England.
The idea, drawn up by former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind and former Chancellor Ken Clarke, is largely similar – if less blunt – than the “English votes for English issues” policy the party has campaigned for previously.
Tory leader David Cameron told the Western Mail in July, “I don’t think it is complicated. It’s relatively straightforward to look at a piece of legislation and ask if it only affects English constituencies, or which bits of it only affect English constituencies.”
Scots MPs would be barred from the Grand Committee, although Welsh MPs would be allowed to sit on it in certain cases – until a yes vote in a referendum.
A Conservative Party spokesman confirmed that the plan was being considered, but said that no decision had yet been taken on whether it would be adopted as party policy.
“Ken Clarke’s democracy taskforce is looking at the issue and will report back on it, but nothing has been decided yet,” he said.
Mr Hain condemned the idea, saying, “David Cameron promised a Conservative Party committed to devolution.
“But instead what we have seen is a party dangerously pandering to English nationalism.
“David Cameron himself now wants English votes for English laws, while two Welsh Tory MPs have slammed their own party’s official policy on devolution for Wales. A future Tory government would tear the Union apart.”