Sunday, 9 November 2008

The C Word

Posted on Bevan Foundation blog on 9 November

Which one? Take your pick: confusion, capacity…con-trick (granted, that’s two words – but, hey, work with me here).

The latest Bevan Foundation pamphlet by a trio of lobbyists* is a far more nuanced and considered analysis than the previews might have led you to assume. But, in my view, it ultimately fails to knock down the target it sets out to.

Darran Hill, Huw Edwards and Leigh Jeffes take aim at the Archbishop of Wales’ claim that the devolution settlement is complex, confusing and unworkable. “Whilst we agree that the new process is not yet widely understood”, the authors state with masterful understatement, “we do not agree that it is unworkable or that there is a ‘constitutional crisis’”.

The evidence they draw upon to back up their view, however, undermines their central assertion. Here are a few examples of their coded observations (with my own decoding thrown in for measure):

“The number of stages an LCO must pass through has evolved as time has progressed”.
Translation: the system is turning out to be far slower and long winded that was promised

“Urgent attention is needed to make sure the process matches the promise of the system”.
Translation: So much for a settlement that would last a generation, Whitehall is having a laugh by making it up as they go along

“Some LCOs are moving ay a painfully slow pace…neither [Environmental Protection of Welsh Language LCOs] examples sheds a particularly positive light on the efficacy of the system”.
Translation: it all seems to fall apart when AMs want to do something controversial

There are many other such elegantly phrased barbs which point to the instability of the settlement. But, as you’d expect from public affairs professionals, they are careful to frame their argument in a way which allows both the Government and the Opposition to draw comfort.

The tasters offered by the Bevan Foundation and the Western Mail , however, focused on a suggestion in the report that it is the lack of ideas for new laws which is holding back the Assembly.

There is some force in the point. Backbench AMs have not been rushing forward with ideas for Measures. But as the report concedes, there are only around 40 backbench AMs compared to over 400 backbench MPs.

The report authors also point the finger of blame on “civic society in general which is clearly failing to provide the ideas and impetus”. Again, up to a point Lord Copper.

In London there is a glut of NGOs with fully worked up proposals looking for a willing backbench sponsor, but how many organisations in Wales have the policy, lobbying and legal capacity to endure the new Welsh law making process?

Not many. There are no doubt many reasons, but chief amongst them is lack of capacity to engage with the process. Unlike the report authors I feel I must declare an interest. I am piloting an LCO though the pre-legislative scrutiny stage in the Enterprise Committee. It has taken a year to get to this stage, and the prospect of getting an Assembly Measure to Royal Assent stage seems a very long way off. Depending on the political dynamics of the next three years it is entirely possible that there’ll be a legislative Parliament in place before the Measure I’m pursuing sees the light of day.

And so to my last C word. At the conference which launched the Bevan Foundation paper the Western Mail’s Martin Shipton made the following point about the 2006 Government of Wales Act:

"Ingenious it may have been - but the point of the exercise was not to create a sustainable devolution settlement, but to paper over the divisions in the Labour Party".

I'll leave that one with you.


* What is that the collective noun for lobbyists?

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