Where's the Welsh Safety Valve?

When David Cameron heard this week that the House of Lords had just defeated his Government’s plans for a £26,000-a-year household benefit cap he might have felt a flash of envy at the law-making freedom enjoyed in the National Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.

The Welsh Government does not have to worry about a troublesome second chamber. But if checks and balances are considered essential at Westminster to prevent the executive whipping through hasty and dangerous legislation, why are such safeguards not in place in Cardiff, not to mention Edinburgh or Belfast?

Many politicians will tell you that (a) people do not want to pay for more politicians and (b) the Assembly has a splendid record of performing “pre-legislative scrutiny” before drafting laws.

Especially in the wake of last year’s referendum on full law-making powers for the Assembly, these two arguments are increasingly unsatisfactory.

On the first point, there is no need to build a great Gothic House of Lords in Cardiff Bay.

There are other ways of enhancing scrutiny. If groups of citizens can be brought together in juries to rule on murder cases and high crimes why should they not be able to debate and amend individual pieces of legislation?

A far more controversial suggestion would be that if Welsh MPs (soon to be cut from 40 to 30) are banned from touching English legislation in Westminster they could serve their electorate in Wales by performing the function of a second chamber for the Assembly.

The argument the Assembly does not need such a safety valve because it performs a higher standard of scrutiny before producing legislation is troubling if not patronising. Essentially, it is saying that Welsh people should trust AMs to consult and think about things in more detail than MPs.

A campaigner against plans for presumed consent on organ donation recently described in astonishment how the soon-to-close consultation does not ask the public whether they want the policy to go ahead or not. Instead, there are questions such as: “Do you agree discussions between clinicians and family in the event of an individual’s death, will identify and safeguard those who lack capacity?”

The situation is made more urgent in Wales because there is no equivalent of the restless army of backbenchers that keeps the coalition on its toes. Of the 30 Labour AMs, eight are in the cabinet, three are deputy ministers one is a presiding officer, and another is a chief whip.

The 2004 Richard Commission called for 20 more AMs and the new power and prominence of the Assembly means the case for reform should not be ignored.

A Thursday Column.

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