Can I just say first of all how delighted I am to be here this evening and thank you for asking me.
What I want to do is to say why I think it is crucially important for Wales to vote “yes” to more powers in the March 3rd Referendum. You’ll be pleased to know that I don’t intend speaking for long (but then perhaps bishops always say that and can go on and on) nor do I intend going into complicated detail about points of law. What I would like to do is to try and highlight why I think this is a Referendum which has got to be won and for me it’s all summed up in one word – Justice. I want to talk about Justice and the 7 letters of that word.
- When people ask me why I, as an Archbishop, got involved in this debate, because they regard it as political, I say that it all comes down to this one word – “justice” – for Wales.Justice is, in fact, a very biblical word – read the Prophets and the words of Jesus to hear their condemnations of unjust practices, unjust actions and unjust systems. Of all the devolved administrations in the United Kingdom, Wales has undoubtedly had the rawest deal. Scotland has had everything devolved to its parliament except what has been specifically reserved for Westminster. Northern Ireland has a much more generous devolution settlement than Wales. Wales has had 20 areas devolved to it but it can’t legislate even in these areas without asking permission first of the Secretary of State for Wales, and if she agrees to whatever is wanted, the request has to go to the Welsh Affairs Committee in the House of Commons and the Constitutional Committee of the House of Lords. Only if both of these agree and the powers that are needed to be drawn down agreed to then by both the Commons and Lords, can the Assembly begin the legislation for whatever aspect it requires in any devolved area – what is known as Legislative Competence Orders. That is not a just system
It is incredibly demeaning to any administration to have to ask permission of three separate people or groups and also ask another parliament before it can even begin to start legislating itself in areas which in theory have already been devolved to Wales. Most States in the United States have more power than the Welsh Assembly, as indeed have Swiss Cantons. They certainly do not have to seek permission of central government to legislate in areas that are their specific responsiblity. Wales does.
So I regard this as a”justice issue” because it demeans both the Assembly and the Assembly Government.
Even the present Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan, who says that she is neutral on the issue of more devolved powers, has said that if the Referendum is lost, she will need to look at how to make the present system more effective and efficient. I quote, “The present LCO process is cumbersome and time consuming – it needs to be more efficient and effective”.
Now I don’t want to be too hard on Peter Hain, the former Secretary of State for Wales, who got the Government of Wales Act of 2006 passed, responsible for this way of doing things. At the time, it was the only way he could get that Act on the Statute Book because of the internal divisions of the Labour Party. It has to be admitted that although it is demeaning to Wales, it is in another sense, a clever piece of legislation because the Act already gives Wales the power to legislate in these 20 areas, provided a majority of us vote for it in the Referendum.
In other words, if we win the Referendum, then the Assembly can begin to legislate immediately in these 20 areas – no further Act of Parliament is needed because it is on the Statue Book already. It is the first time legislation has been passed giving a body powers for the future if a Referendum is won. To my mind therefore, it makes no sense not to vote “yes” – the powers are there for the taking. By voting “yes” what we are saying is that laws that affect only Wales in 20 devolved areas should be made in Wales.
- Once that happens, we will have a much better understanding of what the law is in Wales. If “justice” is my first word, “understanding” – “u”, the second letter in justice, is my second. At present, even in these devolved areas, parliamentary acts passed for the benefit of England can affect Wales simply by having the words “and in Wales” added to the legislation. The result is that no-one fully understands what the law is in Wales on some issues because there is no Body of Welsh law written up that one can refer to. That does not make for good governance.Therefore on issues for example such as education, health or transport, English legislation can affect Wales if the words “and in Wales” are added; the Assembly has the power to pass some measures into law on its own account if these powers were in the hands of the Secretary of State for Wales before devolution; and then we have the convoluted system, LCO’s, that I have already mentioned. A “yes” vote in the Referendum will give us greater understanding because laws that apply only to Wales in these devolved areas will be made in Wales.
- “Shorter” is my third word – the third letter in the word “justice” because if we cut out the complicated system we have at present, it will take a far shorter time to pass legislation for Wales because it will all be in our own hands.The present system, as I have already said, is time consuming. It obviously follows that if we do not have to refer to the Secretary of State or to the Commons or Lords for permission to pass Acts in devolved areas, then our legislative process will take far less time.
- And that brings me to my fourth word and the fourth letter in the word “justice” – “transparency”. In other words, the legislative process will be clearer – laws for Wales will be made in Wales and everyone will know what they are.The Welsh Convention, under the chairmanship of Sir Emyr Jones Parry, said that if the Welsh Assembly had power to make laws for Wales in Wales there would be far greater transparency. A European Commission Paper on Good Governance in 2001 stated that good government needs to be transparent, comprehensive, effective and efficient. The present system is none of these things. The Convention Report, having held wide consultation throughout Wales, concluded “having proper law making powers would offer a substantial advantage over the present system”.
- And that brings me to my fifth word and the fifth letter in “justice” – “independence”. If we vote for more powers, we are not voting for independence for Wales. Independence is not the issue at stake in this Referendum. It is simply giving Wales the power to pass its own laws in 20 specific areas – no more and no less. And it will still be nowhere near as powerful as the Scottish Assembly which, as I’ve already said, has far more powers or the Northern Ireland Assembly. So please don’t let anyone tell you it’s about an independent Wales – it’s about laws that affect only Wales being passed in Wales in just 20 devolved areas.
- And my sixth word and the sixth letter in “justice” is “confusion”. Vote “yes” in this Referendum and we will not have the confused and confusing system we have at present which I’ve already explained in terms of no-one quite knowing which part of which Act affects Wales.The trouble at the present time is that no field is fully devolved which means that in every devolved area either central government or the Welsh Assembly Government exercises power for Wales. The division of power is negotiated on an individual basis between the Assembly Government and each Whitehall department. You can imagine how convoluted and cumbersome all that is. Vote “yes” in the Referendum and it does away with this confusion so that it will be a much clearer system – another “c” for you. There will also be less prospect of conflict with Westminster. I say that because the present system has led to conflicts. All that should happen under the LCO system is for Whitehall and Westminster to look at the principles involved – that is whether the Assembly can legislate. What has happened however is that both Whitehall and Westminster have got immersed in the details and there has been wrangling over for example suspending the right of tenants to buy council houses; the Welsh Language Bill and even placing fire sprinklers in new homes. Some of these have taken more than 3 years to resolve.
- And that brings me to my seventh word and seventh letter “e” – “expensive”. Vote “yes” in the Referendum and we will not have the expensive system of involving the two legislative assemblies of Westminster and Cardiff and two sets of civil servants – again Whitehall and Cardiff Bay – all dealing with the same issues. Only the Welsh Assembly and Welsh civil servants will be involved in law making in these 20 areas in Wales. Obviously that cuts down on the expense and it will be an enriching experience for Wales – another “e” because it will lead to a more confident and more mature Wales.Voting “yes” in the Referendum then is a matter of justice because 1), it is far juster than the present system, 2) it will provide clarity about laws in Wales – greater understanding. 3) the time taken to legislate will be shorter, 4) it will be a more transparent system, 5) it’s not about independence but identity, 6) it will be a less confused and clearer system and 7) it will be less expensive because it will save money because Westminster will not be involved at all in those areas. In short, laws affecting only Wales will be made in Wales.
To my mind, it is possible to be proud to be Welsh and also at the same time to be proud to be part of the United Kingdom. Voting “yes” in the Referendum says “yes” to both Wales and the United Kingdom and it comes at a time when it is possible that instead of 40 Welsh MP’s at Westminster, we will only have 30 because of boundary re-organisation and so we will need a stronger voice for Wales and in Wales and voting “yes” in the Referendum is one way of doing it.
To vote “no” to my mind would be a disaster for Wales. It would not even be business as we have it now because it could send the message to the coalition government and to Whitehall that Wales is not really serious about devolution.
If we say “no”, every time the Assembly wanted to pass a law, instead of considering the principles of what is involved, the Welsh Office, the Welsh Affairs Committee, the Lords Constitution Committee, the Commons and the Lords, might regard themselves as having a right to veto legislation. In effect, power could slowly pass back to Whitehall and to London and whatever government is in power might well be able to argue that it spoke more clearly for Wales than the Assembly. Wales would become a marginal land.
Voting “yes” is a vote of confidence in Wales and in devolution and in the belief that the National Assembly is of benefit to Wales. Certainly since 1999 and the advent of the Assembly and then the Assembly Government in 2006, we have a greater sense of our own identity, decision making has been brought closer to ordinary people, and Government has become more accessible in Wales. In short, voting “yes” will enable Wales and its people to be better served in terms of both governance and what government provides. Wales has come a long way since it voted for devolution in 1997. It has shown, over the years since then, that it has the ability, the maturity and the capability of taking the next step along that road. We need now to make it happen.