The draft Wales Bill is a timid little thing. It is clear from first reading that it falls far short of the Secretary of State’s rhetoric and promises. Far from creating the basis for a lasting settlement it is in serious danger of being yet another unhappy chapter in the miserable recent history of Welsh devolution whereby successive Wales Acts are passed every few years with each one conceding as little as possible only to be replaced by another within four or five years.
This cycle of failure is not the responsibility of Cardiff Bay but is firmly the responsibility of the Westminster system and of the Wales Office. It’s time for all those MPs who grizzle about the governance of Wales to put their own house in order and to provide the people of Wales with a settlement that reflects and respects the 2011 referendum and which ends the constitutional debate for a generation.
When the Secretary of State spoke at the National Assembly in June he gave a wide-ranging, generous and gracious speech. He reached out to Members, some of whom were suspicious and sometimes distrustful. At the time I felt strongly that we had a responsibility to respond in a positive way and to engage in a serious and far-sighted conversation about the future of Wales and the future of the United Kingdom. Reading the bill today I feel short-changed, let down and I also feel somewhat foolish that I may have been taken in by the rhetoric.
So this is a personal challenge for the Secretary of State as much as it is a political challenge. Is Stephen Crabb a man of vision who can bring people together to agree a comprehensive and sustainable settlement? An agreement which will bring long-term stability and clarity to a settlement which has been plagued by a lack of ambition and any sense of joint endeavour since before 1997? And an agreement which is an agreement and not an imposition? Or is he someone who prefers spin to substance?
We are told that the draft bill will now be subject to consultation and that the UK Government are open to amendments based upon that conversation. I, like many others, will judge the Secretary of State’s work by his own words where he has been clear that he wants to create a lasting settlement – “clearer, stronger and fairer”.
So far the omens are not especially good. The Scottish referendum started a process which was to culminate in an announcement of agreed new powers by St Davids Day. In reality the St Davids Day Agreement was an agreement within the Conservative Party. It reflected the lowest possible common denominator and the furtherest extent of the tolerance of Welsh Tory MPs. And as such it also reflected where power now lies in the Welsh Conservatives. And that is firmly in London with the Westminster Party calling the shots. It is difficult to see anywhere where the influence of the Welsh Assembly Party has driven the vision with the possible exception of issues over the name of the institution and its ability to manage itself. And if the Secretary of State is not willing to listen to his own colleagues what are the chances of him listening to the rest of us?
This draft bill does not form the basis for a lasting settlement. And this is not simply about playing politics ahead of an election. It’s only a few weeks since I sat in the Chamber and listened to Paul Davies telling us that any diminution of the current powers would be unacceptable and it was no surprise to hear of Sir Paul Silk’s disappointment that the findings of yet another commission of the great and the good has been put aside on the basis of what appears to be political expediency.
Most of us are tired of twenty years of sterile debate on the constitution. It’s time for a settlement based upon the principles accepted by the referendum in 2011 and then endorsed by most political parties in subsequent elections. If politicians are unable to deliver this lasting settlement then perhaps its time to create not another commission or committee but a peoples’ constitutional convention led not by politicians but people, representative of the life of the nation, but not tied to individual parties. Either this or perhaps the Welsh political parties should agree a joint statement which will form the basis of a manifesto commitment in next year’s Welsh elections. Either way it is time to put aside the old arguments and create a lasting settlement which reflects the settled will of the Welsh people rather than suffered the consequences of yet another inadequate compromise within a single political party.