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Wales Governance Centre: Counsel General on Constitutional Reform

Lara Stace
Lara Stace

The Wales Governance Centre on Monday hosted the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, Mick Antoniw MS, to hear about the Welsh Government’s ambitions for constitutional reform in the UK. It follows the publication of the updated ‘Reforming Our Union’ report, which sets out 20 key themes and questions which should form part of a national conversation about the UK’s constitutional future. The webinar provided some interesting detail about the process of establishing a Commission on the Constitution and the ‘national conversation’ we can expect in the coming years.

The Counsel General noted the oft-repeated call from Welsh Government that the United Kingdom should be a “voluntary association” of the four nations, and highlighted the impact that an increasingly muscular, Anglo-centric Unionism could have on inter-governmental relations and the constitutional future of the UK. He warned that if the UK Government ignores the need for reform, alternative reform may follow – such as independence – noting that it would be “irresponsible” not to address the issue.

Those listening heard how the principles of common interest and the benefits of pooling resources affect people’s everyday lives, for example in the rollout of furlough, welfare, and the NHS. However, the Counsel General also noted the areas facing challenge from Westminster since 2019 in particular: he said the Sewell Convention has been breached so often to suggest a new, combative norm, and described the UK Internal Market Act as a “significant assault” on the Senedd – undermining devolution in practice, and showing a lack of respect for the devolved parliaments in its passage into legislation. On the UK Internal Market Act, the Welsh Conservatives have disputed the suggestion that it removes any Senedd powers.

The Counsel General said the Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales will facilitate a national conversation about the constitutional future of the UK and will be established with citizens representing Wales’ diverse communities. The Commission will be expected to reach out into communities, in a genuinely ‘grassroots’ engagement, to develop a consensus. The Counsel General said this would be presented as the consensus opinion of Welsh citizens when making representations to the UK Government – alongside the democratic mandate to deliver Welsh Labour’s promise of such a Commission – given the risk that the UK Government may not engage with these discussions.

On the details of the Commission, the first job is to select a chair, vice chair, or co-chairs – the Counsel General said he would potentially make a statement next week on the matter. Then, over the summer, further work will begin to establish a secretariat, appoint Commissioners and finalise the terms of reference against which it will work. The Counsel General said he hopes to launch the Commission in the autumn, with a report expected within the following 18 to 24 months. Alongside the national conversation, the Counsel General also noted that the Commission would decide whether a permanent standing commission on reform is needed.

Constitutional reform is not the most glamorous subject, and those watching the past few weeks of Plenary will have seen Welsh Conservative Senedd Members question the worth in pursuing its debate – indeed, the party’s manifesto opposed any further constitutional reform and said Wales didn’t need any new powers. However, the Counsel General repeatedly discussed the need for the Commission to consider its language. In place of jargon and – let’s face it – potentially uninspiring reams of paper, the Counsel General said the Commission would talk about the issues that matter to people’s lives. By necessity, the Commission would also help increase understanding of the constitution, whilst setting out the options for the future – their disadvantages, as well as advantages.

The one word largely absent from the Counsel General’s conversation about constitutional reform – although not surprising, as Welsh Labour broadly supports the Union – was independence. Plaid Cymru, of course, pledged to hold a referendum on independence within the first Senedd term if the party had formed a government. In a debate on the Welsh Government’s revised Union report, party co-deputy leader Rhun ap Iorwerth MS said all options need to be on offer when considering Wales’ future and claimed that UK Governments of all colours will never put Wales’ interests first. The party will look to mobilise support for independence when the Commission reaches out for views, but don’t expect the Commission to actively pursue anything quite so radical.

The issue was raised after the Counsel General’s speech, during questions, and although the Counsel General welcomed increased participation in YesCymru – supporting the greater questioning by young people about their future – he suggested that economic viability is a fundamental challenge for independence and said it would be difficult to have a credible conversation about it within the Commission’s work.

In Westminster, work is being undertaken by the Constitution Reform Group and Select Committees on the future of the Union and the constitutional backbone of the UK. The UK Government has taken a slightly different tack in pressing on with unilateral programmes such as the Levelling Up agenda and freeports scheme. Although it claims these strengthen the Union, they have come under fire for ignoring the rights, powers and views of devolved administrations.

Senedd Reform

In response to questions, the Counsel General also touched on reform of the Senedd. Following the work by Professor Laura McAllister and Dawn Bowden MS during the Fifth Senedd, the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee will consider the process of Senedd reform. The Counsel General said there is desire for reform and although the Welsh Government will support the drafting of legislation, the work needs to come from within the Senedd – and that Welsh Government should not decide on its contents.

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