THE Assembly’s new powers have created a “tortuous and convoluted” system of legislation that is “demeaning” to the people of Wales, the nation’s most senior clergyman has claimed.
The Archbishop of Wales’ comments come as the third Assembly opens, equipped for the first time with the law-making powers bestowed by the Government of Wales Act.
But the political set-up brought about by the Act – which will see the Assembly forced to seek parliamentary approval for new laws – is too complicated to be effective, according to the Most Rev Dr Barry Morgan.
Under the new arrangement, laws agreed by the Assembly will be presented to the Secretary of State for Wales, who will seek an Order in Council to have the law ratified by Parliament.
The system will be “clumsy and cumbersome”, claimed Dr Morgan, and was evidence that Wales and Scotland did not operate on a level political playing field.
Opposition parties last night offered their support to Dr Morgan’s position, with several AMs arguing that the Government of Wales Act was simply a temporary measure designed to appease the sections of the Labour Party in support of both extending devolution and continuing its current status.
Dr Morgan’s comments coincide with the launch today of a guide to the third Assembly by Cymru Yfory, a cross-party, cross-sector movement, which the Archbishop chairs.
He said, “It is good that the Act provides us with a proper separation of the executive and the legislative branches of the Assembly and it is good that we have proper scrutiny of Government.
“However, we now have a rather cumbersome and clumsy method of governance which entails the Welsh Assembly petitioning the Secretary of State for Wales, who in turn asks the Government for time to introduce Orders in Council in Parliament, to give the Assembly powers to pass legislation within the boundaries of each order.
“That is rather a demeaning way of setting about things.
“It is a very tortuous process, even when the Governments in London and Cardiff are of the same political hue.
“If they are not, relationships could be fraught and the governance of Wales would suffer as a result.
“If Wales, like Scotland, is mature enough to have a legislature, it ought to be responsible for law-making itself and not have to petition the Secretary of State and Westminster for the right to do so. It is also a very unequal way of treating Scotland and Wales.
“The new Government of Wales Act is the most momentous event that has happened to Wales since devolution in 1997, whatever its shortcomings.
“It will enable Wales to create a book of law of its very own for the first time since the laws of Hywel Dda. But it is very cumbersome and difficult to understand and the Assembly, Assembly Government and media has made little effort to explain it to the people it will affect.”
Concerns have been expressed that the right of the Welsh Secretary to veto any Assembly-derived legislation could bring about a constitutional dilemma in the event that the three opposition parties, who have recently signed an accord, overturn the Labour administration and form a coalition government.
In that event, a Labour Secretary of State would be running the rule over legislation proposed by the three other main parties.
The leaders of the three opposition parties were last night united in their support of Dr Morgan’s comments.
Ieuan Wyn Jones, Plaid Cymru’s leader in the Assembly, predicted that because the complex means of passing laws would result in very little legislation being passed, the Act would create a growing desire for a referendum on full law-making powers among AMs of all parties.
But he criticised the Labour Party’s handling of the “patronising” Act.
“The problem with this settlement is that it’s there to paper over the cracks in the Labour Party between those who want a full Scottish-style parliament and those, mainly MPs, who want to keep us where we are,” he said.
“It’s a halfway house, designed to serve the Labour Party’s needs more than those of the people of Wales.”
Liberal Democrat leader Mike German described the Government of Wales Act as a “fudge”, which would give an inherent advantage to Labour, because of the 40 AMs needed to give support to any proposed new law.
“That ensures that Labour will be in the driving seat, and that they will continue to have a gun to the head of the people of Wales, which isn’t exactly to their advantage.”
Mr German added that there was continued uncertainty about the conditions under which the Welsh Secretary can veto Assembly-introduced legislation.
He added, “The Act does not say anywhere what grounds the Secretary of State should use in making determinations on whether they would approve an Order in Council.
“We tried to get that into the Bill both in the Assembly and in Parliament, but the only assurance we got was that Labour wouldn’t let us down.
“Where have we heard that before?”
Nick Bourne, leader of the Welsh Conservatives, said he believed the terms contained in the Act had been a mistake from the outset.
“It’s certainly not a stable settlement. It doesn’t reflect the recommendations of the Richard Commission, and it doesn’t reflect the two years of hard work and expense that went into it.
“Demeaning is strong language, but it isn’t a strong, stable settlement, and will have to be revised.”
A spokesman for the Assembly Government said the Act was flexible enough to allow for change.
“Archbishop Morgan is entitled to his opinion on the 2006 Government of Wales Act – a position he has repeated on several occasions,” he said.
“Devolution is an evolutionary process and the new Act opens an exciting chapter for devolution in Wales, allowing the National Assembly to pass laws which would have previously had to go through the UK parliament.
“We are about to embark on the course of the Government of Wales Act machinery for acquiring new powers and the test of their workability will now come into practice.
“The Act sets out a clear procedure through which a referendum can be called to ask the people of Wales whether the National Assembly should have full law-making powers like the Scottish Parliament.”
Page 2 - The evolution of devolution – how the Government of Wales Act works