LCO consensus ... with a sinister undercurrent

I've just caught up with today's Welsh Grand Committee debate on the Welsh Language LCO. Of course it was primarily a backslapping session before the LCO is finally approved by Westminster. As Peter Hain made quite clear towards the end, there's not going to be any more opportunity for the WASC to debate it or change its form when it finally sees the light of day. I trust there will be no nasty surprises. Nobody expects there to be.

     

The main impression I was left with was the almost complete consensus from all parties at Westminster on the need for further legislation to build upon the 1993 Act, and how fair and reasonable everyone thought the end result had been. Now of course I would demur, because I think the more fundamental point is that it should be entirely up to the Assembly to decide what legislation it wants to make in relation to Welsh, in just the same way as the Scottish Government has always been able to enact language legislation for Scotland, both Gaelic and Scots. But nonetheless, as the GoWA 2006 allows Westminster to do whatever it chooses to control the LCO process, the final LCO that we are now about to get is remarkable in that it reflects the unity and consensus between each of the four parties.

It is, as Wayne David said in closing, only "a modest step" and no-one in their right mind would imagine that things won't be revisited in a few more years, but it is hardly unimportant that this step builds on the all-party consensus that has existed for some time. Whatever some rogue individuals in some parties might think (or even say) they most emphatically do not represent the view of the parties as a whole, not least because no party wants to be seen as anti-Welsh. Some individuals can't help themselves, though, and David TC Davies had displayed what Paul Flynn gently called "another one of his junior moments".

     

Paul Flynn's contribution was excellent, and even Alun Michael managed to come across as reasonable. In fact I will give him credit for saying the most sensible thing of the day. He picked up on evidence given by the Catalan government in which they said that a framework of language law was indispensable, but that the framework should be used to strengthen the consensus that was already there, not to undermine it. Those are wise words, and I hope the Measure we eventually enact in the Senedd will do exactly that.

     

There was however, a rather sinister undercurrent, which had no direct relevance to this LCO, but will definitely be relevant when the Tories get into power. Cheryl Gillan started by trying to get the debate postponed, on the grounds that she wanted to see the final LCO first. That was a bit silly, because today's debate was about the WASC's report, and she didn't get her way on that.

But she kept on that tack, and later in the debate came up with the extraordinary idea that Westminster should see the actual content of the Measure the Assembly would enact if it gained the competence to do so. Everybody laughed her down for this, Peter Hain and Lembit Öpik in particular. Peter Hain said it showed the anti-devolution stance of the Tories and Lembit Öpik said it would roll back one of the fundamental tenets of devolution.

Now, in normal circumstances, that pair usually find that they are objects of ridicule, but on this point they were quite right. Yet Cheryl Gillan wasn't a woman in any mood the see sense. She was incredulous and thought that she was being "perfectly reasonable" in wanting to have "all the information". She simply couldn't understand why anybody would not insist on getting it before making a decision.
 

     This should ring alarm bells.

 
She is making it as clear as possible that she, if her party was in government, would insist that Westminster not only has the pre-legislative scrutiny it now has, but legislative scrutiny of the Measure itself. As I've said before, it doesn't matter whether her interpretation is right or wrong, because if she wants it to be done that way, she would have the power as Secretary of State to insist on it.

So to Labour in particular I would say, Don't get carried away with the backslapping, and especially don't let yourselves think that the LCO process works ... it only works for you because you are in control of the process. When the Tories are in charge they will make sure it works in the way they want it to work.

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