I haven’t heard such angry words exchanged between the governments in London and Cardiff, although I’m sure they use much stronger language in private.
The words used in Cardiff Bay: ‘Disrespect’, ‘lack of courtesy’, ‘they’re trying to stop Wales discussing this.’
The words from Westminster: ‘Utter rubbish’, ‘reprehensible’, ‘playing politics.’
Let me try to piece together how we got here.
On Monday, as I reported here, the Assembly Government published its last bid for powers (known as a Legislative Competence Order or LCO) which was for the power to make laws on organ donation.
The aim of it is to introduce an opt-out system that presumes patients will donate their organs after death rather than the current opt-in system. I won’t go into the rights and wrongs of the idea. Suffice it to say that it’s sensitive to say the least.
It’s also important to note that there’s a question about whether or not the power CAN be devolved to Wales; a question which boils down to whether or not organ donation lies within the field of health (which is devolved) or human rights (which isn’t).
Also on Monday, the Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan, met the First Minister Carwyn Jones and his Deputy, Ieuan Wyn Jones. I gather the LCO was discussed, but what was said is a matter of dispute.
That same day, Cheryl Gillan put the LCO forward for scrutiny by parliament. Today marked the start of the corresponding scrutiny process in the Assembly.
The Health Minister, Edwina Hart, came to the Assembly chamber today to make a statement on the bid.
She surprised AMs by saying that she’d had an email from the Wales Office setting out the Attorney General’s concerns, but that she only received it at 2.16pm – she said this just after 3pm.
A government source has since said that she didn’t receive the email until she was actually in the chamber and, if Assembly business had been running to time, it would have arrived in her inbox while she was delivering her statement.
The source said ‘this is a disrespect agenda’, before going on to claim that the UK Government is ‘trying to stop Wales discussing it. They’re trying to block it.’
The minister herself was said to be ‘very disappointed by the lack of courtesy.’
In the chamber, Plaid Cymru AM Dai Lloyd echoed that when he said,
I’m perplexed … perplexed and not a little angry actually, as it seems that such a London misgiving could be applied to any LCO whatsoever.
And the former First Minister Rhodri Morgan added,
It seems to imply that one arm or part of the Westminster government doesn’t know what the other arm is doing, and one arm does want to get on with the job as though this were a normal request and another arm is saying ‘ooh, hang on a minute here, you may be into non-devolved territories.’
The Wales Office insists this LCO has been handled in exactly the same way as any other; if anything it’s gone through more quickly to parliamentary scrutiny.
And ‘Reprehensible’, was the response of a Wales Office source to the accusations from Cardiff Bay. ’Some people are playing politics here and that’s regrettable.’
What about the very late timing of the email? ‘A smokescreen. They were made aware of the issues.’
Why weren’t these concerns raised at the Monday meeting? ‘The issues were discussed with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.’
Is Westminster trying to block the LCO? ‘How can putting the LCO forward for parliamentary scrutiny be blocking it?’
Now, as you know, there’s a referendum on March 3rd which could spell the end of this current system of bidding for powers via LCOs and, as Dai Lloyd’s comments show, critics of that system will argue that this spat shows why that system needs changing.
So has the row been engineered by the Assembly Government? Did ministers deliberately table this sensitive bid close to a referendum and election?
‘Nonsense,’ was the response of the government source.
Something tells me the strong words won’t stop there.