A better way of putting it

Following my earlier post today, I'm conscious that are major differences of opinion about how to approach the referendum question. The argument put forward by the Electoral Commission is that it's pointless to mention either the Schedule or the Act, because people would then be expected to read it, and the vast majority of people wouldn't do that. This is what they say:

4.9  In our view, a question that asks expressly whether the National Assembly for Wales should have the law-making powers set out in Part 4 and Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006 would not be understood by voters. Expecting voters to read explanatory material to accompany such a question, either in a lengthy preamble or in a leaflet, is unrealistic. While a leaflet can help, as we have explained in the ‘Context’ earlier in this report, it can never be a complete answer. In this particular case, our public opinion research has amply demonstrated the need for a question and supportive preamble to be written in language accessible to voters.

Let me illustrate the absurdity of that argument by asking how a question on the Treaty of Lisbon would have been phrased. How on earth would it be possible to hold a referendum on it without specifically referring to the document itself?

If anybody tried to make oblique references such as "a treaty that would improve the workings of the EU" such a proposal would quite rightly be shot down in flames. The only possible form a fair and unbiased question could take would have to refer to the actually treaty itself ... even though only a few thousand sad bastards like me would read it. Most voters would make up their minds on the basis of what people they trust said about it in the campaign ... but when anyone questioned what they did say about it, the document itself was there (on the internet or in public libraries) for anybody to read for themselves if they chose to.

Or, to put it another way, many things we buy or use make specific reference to "Terms and Conditions". I'm sure most people won't read them, and some might not understand them even if they did read them. But you couldn't sign a contract that didn't make specific reference to them.

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I don't want to be over critical of the Electoral Commission. As I said, what they are trying to do is right, but they obviously don't understand the precise details and, because of that, end up with a question that is misleading. I think the general format is OK, and therefore don't want to needlessly re-invent their wheel. But with just a few small modifications it could be made very much more precise, without in any way changing how readable or understandable it is. This is my suggestion:

The National Assembly for Wales:
what happens at the moment

The Assembly has powers to make laws on within 20 subject areas, such as:

•  agriculture
•  education
•  the environment
•  health
•  housing
•  local government

In each subject area, the Assembly can make laws on some matters, but not others. To make laws on any of these other matters, the Assembly must ask the UK Parliament for its agreement. The UK Parliament then decides each time whether or not the Assembly can make these laws laws on these matters.

The Assembly cannot make laws on subject areas such as defence, tax or welfare benefits, whatever the result of this vote.

If most voters vote ‘yes’
The Assembly will be able to make laws on all a wider range of matters in the 20 subject areas it has powers responsibility for, without needing the UK Parliament's agreement. These are set out in Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006.

If most voters vote ‘no’
What happens at the moment will continue.

Question
Do you want the Assembly now to be able to make laws on all matters in the 20 subject areas it has powers for within the 20 subject areas devolved to Wales, as listed in Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006?

Yes
No

The underscores are not for emphasis, but simply to highlight the changes. These are my reasons for them:

•  "within" rather than "on" is a minor change which shows that the proposed lawmaking powers are limited

•  "laws on these matters" rather than "these laws" is a critically important change. As currently drafted, the question implies that the UK Parliament has to agree to the details of individual laws the Assembly wishes to pass. It doesn't. It can only decide whether or not to give the Assembly power to make laws on a particular matter, and this is then added to the list set out in Schedule 5 of the GoWA 2006. Once legislative competence is transferred, the Assembly is then able to make any laws on those matters, as well as to subsequently repeal or enact new laws on those matters at any time in the future without reference to the UK Parliament.

•  "a wider range of" rather than "all" is for the same reason as my first bullet point

•  "responsibility" rather than "powers" is probably only a semantic change, but I think it's important. The key to understanding what this referendum is about is that the Welsh Ministers (what we might otherwise think of as the cabinet, but this is the legal term used) have executive or administrative responsibility in the twenty areas devolved to them, but that the Assembly does not have a corresponding ability to make laws in those same areas ... except in so far as specific matters have been agreed by Parliament and added to Schedule 5 on a case-by-case basis.

•  The final two changes simply add the reference to "Schedule 7 of the GoWA 2006"

 

I believe that these small but important changes would preserve the good intentions of the Electoral Commission, which have been let down only because they don't seem to have properly understood what the Government of Wales Act 2006 actually says.

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5 comments:

Cibwr said...

This is much better, I share your worries that the Commission was giving the impression that Welsh Laws are subject to scrutiny at Westminster, which is as we know not true. Further by misleading people in that way it plays into the hands of True Wales and its miss information.

Cibwr said...

http://devolutionmatters.wordpress.com/2010/09/02/welsh-referendum-question-the-electoral-commission-reports/

For further reading on this.

Cibwr said...

Just listened to Rachel Banner on Radio Wales, she is not happy with the question either. Not happy that it doesn't list more subject areas, not happy that it doesn't reference taxation (says that a yes vote indirectly is a vote for taxation powers so it should be in the question) and no mention of Parliament acting as a second chamber scrutinising Welsh legislation.

Siônnyn said...

MH - I like this version, and accept you reasons for including reference to section 7, and like your relegating it from the heart of the question to a qualifying clause. The work of letting people know, in general, what this means will fall to the YES campaign.

In the WM -

http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2010/09/03/war-of-words-breaks-out-over-question-of-referendum-91466-27191424/

Peter Hain uses the EC report to attack Gillan! I'd be more impressed if he were to publish the question that HE'D have suggested, if only he'd had the time!

The same article has Rachel Banner's ridiculous effusions as well. Looks like the NO lot are pannicking!

MH said...

Somehow I think Peter Hain's hindsight is so acute that whatever the final version of the question, it will turn out to be exactly what he always had in mind.

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