Hywel Francis MP, the former chair of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee and supporter of the Yes campaign, sets out the state of play in the run-up to the March 3 referendum on extending the powers of the Welsh Assembly.
Shortly after St David’s Day the people of Wales will have the democratic right, through a Referendum, to extend the powers of their National Assembly for Wales.
Carwyn Jones, the First Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government, has explained the issue in this way:
"It’s about using powers more freely. At the moment, the Assembly can make laws in the areas it’s responsible for, like health and education, but very often we have to ask Westminster first for the powers to do so…..
The question you have to ask yourself is this. Do you think that those laws which only affect Wales should be made by people that you elected as Assembly Members and who you can kick out if you don’t like what they’re doing? Which system is the more democratic and best for Wales?"
Since the Labour Government’s 2006 Government of Wales Act, powers have been delegated to the Assembly through legislative competence orders. With the co-operative work of Westminster’s Welsh Affairs Committee – which I chaired – and several Assembly Committees, many significant powers were transferred. It was a steep learning curve for everyone in the skills of drafting and scrutinising. There was some exemplary work in significantly improving proposals by joint AM/MP work particularly on the Welsh language and this was achieved unanimously.
That however is now behind us. The National Assembly for Wales is ready to take on full law-making powers within such key areas as health and education, having gone through the learning experiences of the past five years.
The Yes Campaign has made a good start with the four main parties within the National Assembly supporting it, along with such important bodies as the Wales TUC – a long standing supporter of democratic devolution since the 1970s. Broad-based local groups are also being set up all over Wales.
But the challenge is still a very considerable one. As a campaigner for democratic devolution I know how important it is to take the argument beyond simply a constitutional matter: that is what happened in the heavy defeat in 1979 and the close vote in 1997 - on both occasions the challenge of linking these changes to an improvement to the quality of life of ordinary people was not well made.
So, any constitutional change will require the enthusiastic endorsement of Wales’ great estates. Not the aristocratic landed estates of the past, but the working class housing estates across Wales.