SOME of Wales' finest political brains could lose their seats in the National Assembly if a controversial part of Labour's proposed new devolution Bill goes ahead, it was feared last night.
Despite the severe reservations of the Government's own election watchdog, the Electoral Commission, Welsh Secretary Peter Hain confirmed he was pressing ahead with plans to bar candidates for the National Assembly from standing in both constituency seats and on regional lists.
His refusal to take the advice of the Electoral Commission could cause serious problems for the whole Government of Wales Bill's progress through Parliament, with the strong possibility that the House of Lords will object to the ban on dual candidacy.
If the ban goes ahead, the effect could be that at the next election, prominent AMs such as Plaid Cymru's Helen Mary Jones and the Tories' Jonathan Morgan and David Melding will find themselves ousted from the Assembly. In 2007 they will have to choose which section of the ballot they stand in. Last time, although they didn't win in the constituency seats where they stood, they became AMs because of their high positions on their party's regional list.
Ms Jones and Mr Morgan have indicated their intention next time to stand respectively in Llanelli and Cardiff North, both seats they will have to win from Labour.
Yesterday's launch of the Bill in the new Assembly building was preceded by a stunt by the Plaid Cymru youth group Cymru X. Members posed for a picture parodying the famous devolution referendum photograph from 1997 in which Ron Davies, Peter Hain, Win Griffiths, Dafydd Wigley and Richard Livsey held their arms aloft to celebrate the narrow Yes victory. This time, a character wearing a Peter Hain mask turned his back on the others, indicating Plaid's belief that he has sold out on a full lawmaking Parliament for Wales.
As expected, the Bill proposes a system under which the Assembly would seek permission from Westminster every time it had a new legislative proposal. Permission would be granted via a procedure known as Orders in Council.
Peter Hain and Rhodri Morgan said the Bill would greatly enhance the Assembly's powers, but opposition parties were less enthusiastic.
Plaid Cymru's Assembly leader Ieuan Wyn Jones said, "The contents of this Bill are timid in comparison to those advocated by the £1m cross-party Richard Commission that New Labour set up. Once again we have seen New Labour put narrow party interests first rather than the interests of Wales.
"Labour anti-devolution MPs in Wales have proved a roadblock to better governance for the people of Wales. In Parliament we will attempt to strengthen the Bill.
"Plaid Cymru will call for an early referendum on full Richard proposals ."
Plaid's parliamentary leader Elfyn Llwyd said, "There are four clauses obstructing the legislation process: the go-ahead from the Assembly, the permission of the Secretary of State, Order in Council through the House of Commons and the House of Lords. We all know that Order in Council isn't a favourite among Lords anyway.
"The legislation process is unnecessary and unacceptably slow. Some uncontroversial regulations can take up to three years to go through the process. Imagine if it were a controversial regulation!"
Assembly Tory leader Nick Bourne AM said, "This legislation is nothing more than a cobbled together compromise which offers little prospect of stability and progress for the people of Wales.
"The Bill has been driven by one purpose and one purpose alone - to protect the Labour Party's interests in the House of Commons and head off a rebellion from its own backbench MPs.
"It will be a recipe for constitutional conflict between Westminster and the Assembly. And it will force the Assembly to go to Westminster with a begging bowl to ask for pieces of legislation, or powers to pass legislation."
Welsh Liberal Democrats branded the Bill "a timid step forward" and feared it would create uncertainty that would plague Wales for a generation.
Party leader Lembit Opik said, "Many people enjoy sweets at Christmas, so Labour are bringing out their constitutional fudge just in time.
"This Bill is a step in the right direction, but it is a timid step, taken at a time when we could have, and should have, taken a great leap forward.
"Instead of creating a strong Parliament for Wales, with proper lawmaking powers, they have settled for something far less than Lord Richard and his expert cross-party group recommended."
Welsh Lib-Dem peer Lord Roberts of Llandudno said, "We will be looking to ensure that the Bill provides a strong constitutional settlement which is robust enough to withstand governments of different parties, either in Cardiff Bay or in Westminster.
"Labour must not cobble a deal that works at the moment, but would unravel under any other circumstances."