Radical constitutional reform must begin in first year of UK Labour government, says Wales’ Counsel General
Counsel General Mick Antoniw has said there is no reason why radical reform of the UK’s constitutional arrangements can’t begin in the first year of an incoming Labour government at Westminster.
He also believes that a report delivered to the Labour Party last year by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown will inspire further devolution in all parts of the UK.
Mr Antoniw, the MS for Pontypridd, is also the Welsh Government’s Minister for the Constitution. He made his comments during the course of the annual Tudor Watkins Memorial Lecture in Brecon.
Tudor Watkins, a committed devolutionist, was the Labour MP for Brecon and Radnorshire from 1945 until 1970. He was later a member of the House of Lords and died in 1983,
Mr Antoniw said: “For Wales, some of the early general commentary on the [Brown] report has been critical of what is perceived as the lack of detailed Welsh devolution proposals and not being sufficiently radical. That is not an analysis I agree with or accept. Devolution in Wales has always been gradual and incremental. It has been the strength of Welsh Labour that it has always maintained its link and hegemony with the majority of people in Wales. That is why Welsh Labour wins elections and other political parties lose. It is a tribute to this political symbiosis that polls show that half of those who might consider supporting Welsh independence also support and vote for Welsh Labour. This should come as no surprise.
“Support for Welsh Independence, whilst growing, nevertheless is only one of a host of issues of concern. Most people want to remain in the UK but in a reformed UK and with increased devolution. The report recognises this.
“The proposals for Wales are radical and ground breaking . The report recommends constitutional protection for devolution through the second chamber and a supermajority in the Commons, saying: ‘As a matter of principle, devolution to Wales should be constrained only by reserving those matters which are necessary to discharge the purposes of the UK as a Union, and in practice by the wishes of the Senedd itself. So there is no constitutional reason why matters which are devolved in Scotland including the new powers we propose could not also be devolved in Wales.’
“With justice and policing, the door remains open and undoubtedly the views of all the elected Police and Crime Commissioners for the devolution of policing will be influential.
“The deference of the report to the Welsh Government’s own independent commission is also to be welcomed. It is a proper recognition that the decisions over the future of Wales are not the sole domain of Westminster. The report concludes: ‘We expect a Labour Government to engage constructively with its recommendations.’ Those recommendations are expected to be published in January 2024.
“A starting point for Westminster reform must be around the abolition of the House of Lords, an outdated and unrepresentative body, increasingly corrupted by royal patronage exercised by the government of the day. Replacement by an elected chamber, representative of the regions and nations with powers to safeguard constitutional rights is a vital first step. Keir Starmer has recognised this, saying: ‘Labour will rebuild trust. By reforming the centre of government… nourishing the relationship between central government and devolved authorities, and replacing the unelected House of Lords with a new, smaller, democratically elected second chamber. Not only less expensive, but also representing the regions and nations of the United Kingdom.”
Devolution of justice
Mr Antoniw said the devolution of justice was another long overdue policy: “The report recommends starting with the devolution of youth justice and probation and the Welsh Government is already working to prepare the ground for this to happen. It is not about the control of justice but about the irrationality and failure of our existing justice system that is overcentralised, underfunded, inaccessible and which lacks the necessary hegemony with social policy in so many areas such as housing, education, health and community safety, all of which are so fundamental to the cohesion and delivery of a fair and effective justice system which has at its core the principles of social justice.
“It is about delivering justice better… and is as relevant to the regions of England, and to London as it is to Wales. Devolved government, however, provides a framework within which this can happen, as set out so clearly in the Thomas Commission report Delivering Justice for Wales.”
Mr Antoniw said he believed that Labour was destined to become the party “which finally drags our justice system out of the 18th century structure upon which so much of it is based. We must change the justice system from being a Courts and Prisons system to a genuine justice system.
“The Welsh Labour position has always been that our future as a country is best secured as part of the United Kingdom. But it is a United Kingdom that is in desperate need of reform. It is a UK whose hegemony, stability and future is very much in doubt, even with a Labour government in Westminster, unless the importance of that reform is recognised and implemented.
“I do not believe or give credit to the harbingers of inaction that with a manifesto mandate the Lords cannot be reformed quickly, or that the process of intergovernmental reform and further decentralisation of power cannot begin in the first year of a Labour government. Look what we achieved in 1997!
“Such reform is not a luxury but for a progressive government is now a necessity. I do not underestimate the important contribution that the working members of the House of Lords have made to our parliamentary, constitutional and legislative process, but its time has come and gone. It is time for change.
“There are those who doubt a UK Labour government’s commitment to radicalism. I don’t agree. Labour has always been an instrument for, or supporter of reform, from universal suffrage to free health and education, to the welfare state and to devolution. And as in 1997, a UK Labour government will not let us down or betray the interests of the people of Wales and the future of the UK.
“I am confident that in the next 12 months there will be a new government in Westminster, a Labour government and it will overcome those more conservative elements that might be apprehensive about change. I am confident it will be an historic reforming and radical Labour government. As Keir has already committed: ‘Labour will reunite our country… Giving Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England new status and louder, prouder voices in a reformed and modern United Kingdom. We will set out our final plans in our manifesto…Together, we will forge something bold, something modern, somethinghopeful.’
“In so doing it will be continuing the process of radical reform started by those early Labour pioneers and fulfilling their legacy. It is up to us to get that government elected.”
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