WALES will finally take a step towards a full parliament this morning when the Queen signs into law the Government of Wales Act 2006.
The Bill cleared its final hurdle in the Lords last night after peers decided further resistance on controversial clauses was pointless.
Under the new Act, the Assembly Government will be able, from May 2007, to draw up its own laws for the first time - provided Westminster agrees first.
A Scottish-style parliament could be created only after a referendum, which will happen if two-thirds of AMs and a majority of MPs want one.
Welsh Secretary Peter Hain said the new Act was more momentous than the 1998 legislation that set up the Assembly.
Mr Hain said, "This is history in the making. We've now settled this whole issue of the constitutional future of Wales, I would say, pretty well for good."
Peers had delayed the progress of the Bill over changes to the voting system, which will prevent candidates standing in constituencies and on the PR regional lists.
Yesterday they decided - a day before parliament begins its summer recess - that since parties had selected candidates for the 2007 poll on the assumption of change, the Act should go through. There had been fears that the legislation would be scrapped if it was postponed until the autumn.
Opposition parties said the new Act did not go far enough.
Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones said, "This was the perfect opportunity to give the Assembly the tools it needs to do the job, but a full parliament has not been provided, and we still have to seek approval from a London-based secretary of state."
Liberal Democrat Lord Livsey of Talgarth said the Act "signals a step forward for devolution in Wales, but it falls far short of the great leap we expected when the Richard Commission published its report in 2004". He said his party would continue to fight for a Welsh parliament.
Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan criticised Mr Hain for not doing more to gather cross-party consensus.
"Instead, he chose to ignore requests and ploughed ahead with this partisan piece of legislation, which will only serve the interests of the Labour Party," she said.
"Far from settling the Welsh constitutional question for a generation, as Peter Hain would have us believe, this legislation leaves it open for years to come."
2006 Government of Wales Act at a glance
- The Assembly Government can pass primary legislation in devolved areas like health and education - but Westminster has to agree in principle first, using a procedure called an Order in Council.
- A referendum on whether to have a Scottish-style parliament will happen only if it is voted for by a two-thirds majority in the Assembly and a simple majority in both the House of Commons and the Lords.
- Candidates standing for the Assembly in 2007 will not be able to stand in a constituency and on the PR regional lists.
- The Assembly Government and the Assembly parliamentary service are formally separated for the first time - a mini executive and legislature.
Link to associated story: Law-making Welsh parliament one step closer