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UK Government Reshuffle

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Rhodri Morgan, First Minister

Met Peter Hain on Monday as I do most Mondays.  We discussed a range of issues.  Very much business as usual.

Has been much conflicting speculation about what the changes actually mean – some of it wilfully misleading and negative.  So just to set the record straight, Peter Hain is still Secretary of State for Wales, and there is still a Wales Office at Gwydyr House and in Discovery House here in Cardiff Bay.

The only differences as far as we’re concerned are that:

  • the Wales Office is now located within the new Department for Constitutional Affairs for administrative purposes; 
  • the Department is headed by a new Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Lord Falconer of Thoroton;
  • Peter Hain is also Leader of the House of Commons but not Lord President of the Council.
  • Don Touhig, MP for Islwyn, remains the junior Minister, who will take Welsh legislation through its Commons Committee stage.

That’s scarcely the major betrayal of Wales’s interests that some have suggested.  The changes proposed to the machinery of UK government are very significant indeed, but they concern the proper separation of judiciary, legislature and executive.  They would bring Britain’s constitution into the 21st century. What has happened as regards Wales, and for that matter Scotland, is not in the same league.

Consider for a moment what the Secretary of State for Wales and the Wales Office is for.  As I see it, and as I know Peter sees it, the proper role of the Secretary of State is to represent the interests of Wales within the UK Government, in particular as regards primary legislation and negotiating the Welsh Block, and on occasion to seek to mediate in disputes.  None of that has changed.

But let’s be clear that the Secretary of State never was the only, or even the main, channel of communication between the Assembly and the UK Government.  It simply isn’t the case that every contact we have with Whitehall is routed via Gwydyr House. Great majority are directly with the Ministers and Departments responsible for each policy area.  Indeed, that has to be the only way if the Assembly is to be seen as a mature policy-making body in its own right, rather than a mere creature of devolution.  We are and should be treated as equals rather than having to go cap in hand to the Secretary of State for Wales on each occasion.

That cuts both ways.  Wales Office not just there for our benefit, but also to give advice to UK Government departments.  As devolved government becomes less of a novelty and departments more able to deal with us directly, arguable that that role is less and less necessary.  Indeed perhaps always only a matter of time before the status of the Wales and Scotland Offices was re-examined.  The fact that it has is a testament to the success of devolution, not its failure.

So those who believe that we’ve somehow been cut adrift from either a unionist or a nationalist perspective have clearly never understood how the system works, and why it works well.  That’s as true for primary legislation as it is for everything else.  Secretary of State will still consult the Assembly about each year’s legislative programme, and we will still work with him and his colleagues to secure the best deal for Wales.  And let’s not forget that in his other role as Leader of the House, the Secretary of State will play a central and powerful role in determining the legislative programme each year.

Mr Llywydd, we need a close and harmonious relationship with central government, as do all devolved and regional governments around the world.  We achieved that some time ago, and I see nothing in last week’s announcement that put it in any kind of jeopardy.