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Mick's Blog Blog

6th May 2015

Why all the constitutional fuss?

It seems that it is the Tories and the Tory supporting press and  in particular Rupert Murdoch who are  the most agitated about the distinct possibility , if not probability, that the  person most likely to become the next Prime Minister is Ed Miliband.

If you would believe what they say, David Cameron should become Prime Minister if he has the largest number of Members of Parliament ,  irrespective of whether he has a  majority. Anything else they say, would lack legitimacy and be a  coalition of losers.

(The fear they have exposes their growing realisation that Cameron is all but finished, it is just the mechanics of the final outcome that are awaited. Await the imminent positioning of former ministers for the forthcoming leadership battle.)

The Constitutional reality is much simpler.It is not as complex as they would have you believe. The role of Prime Minister is not that of a Constitutional President. It is simply , historically , the Crown’s leading minister who can command a majority in the House of Commons. Until this century it was mainly about taxes and raising money for the Crown to fight wars and build castles and palaces but the practical principle of commanding a majority in the House continues to this day.

A vote of no confidence brings down a Government purely because it indicates the Crown’s First (Prime) Minister has lost the confidence of the majority of members.

After May 7th a number of options are possible but  ultimately all are dependent upon having a Prime Minister and Government who are able to command the confidence and voting of a majority of MP’s. This does not have to be the same members on every occasion but can vary between parties , groups and individuals. Wales is an example of a minority government that has been able to achieve a majority on key votes and budgets in this way by constructive negotiation rather than coalition. Issues and votes have been decided on a vote by vote basis.

There are of course challenges and difficulties but with good will and common purpose any difficulties can be overcome. This will undoubtedly be a challenge for nationalist parties who will have to prove their commitment to the overall well being of the United Kingdom as opposed to purely national interests.

So we must oppose the attempts and spin of the Tories and right wing press to mis-interpret and mis-define the Constitution in their favour. Ed Miliband has  a manifesto that in reality has a great deal of support from  opposition parties apart from the Tories  and if Labour alone or with these groups can command general consensus around which a Queens speech can be successfully passed , then Ed should and  will be Prime Minister.

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10th February 2015

Asbestos ruling shows why we need an end to this constitutional confusion and uncertainty

The Supreme Court has decided that my Private Member’s Bill, the Asbestos Recovery of Medical Costs, Wales Bill is not within the competence of the Assembly.

To say I am gutted and devastated by the decision is an understatement. The Bill was intended to recover from negligent employers against whom there was a legal judgment or compensation settlement, the medical costs incurred by the Welsh NHS in order to provide greater assistance to Asbestos victims and their families.

Health is devolved. The recent ruling in the Agriculture Wales Bill, now an Act, supported the view that matters related to devolved areas, even if not specifically devolved are within the competence of the Assembly. However, the Supreme Court by a majority of 3 to 2 do not consider this applies to this Bill which they have decided is a fiscal matter, and therefore not devolved. As it is not within competence it also fails under Human Rights law as an interference in private property which can be justified but only if it is within competence.

The restrospective recovery of medical costs is also something that concerned the Court, but the judgment does not exclude this provided there are significant public interest grounds for doing so. It is disappointing that the majority of judges did not consider this implicit in the Bill and supporting evidence.

The judgment is long and detailed and needs careful consideration, but at this stage it is clear that we do not the power under our current constitutional confused settlement to recover these medical costs from the Insurers in the manner proposed by the Bill.

Having opened the legal “stable door” to Welsh Government, the Supreme Court now appears to be trying to partly close it and limit the scope of the Assembly’s powers. The judgment is clearly a set back and exposes the lack of clarity of the existing devolution arrangements. It has to be said that even a reserved powers model would not necessarily have overcome this decision. What is needed are clearly defined powers . We need an end to this constitutional confusion and uncertainty .

At this stage I am undecided if the Bill can be resurrected in another form and it seems to me that rather than seek a clever legal backdoor way of re- introducing the Bill we must instead seek the necessary powers to be able to pass  legislation of this type.

Clearly the insurance industry is delighted with the decision, but it is at the expense of providing additional support to asbestos victims and their families. It remains to be seen what approach will be adopted by the Scottish Parliament where the first steps have been taken to introduce a similar Bill.

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November 18th 2014

Jobs Growth Wales success making its mark in Europe

Tomorrow in Cardiff, the Welsh Government will host a European forum to discuss Europe’s number one challenge, creating jobs and training opportunities for the seven and a half million young people who need them. It will showcase what Wales has achieved through Jobs Growth Wales and other programmes but also highlight how being part of the European Union has helped us deal with the scourge of youth unemployment

In recent years Wales’ European profile has emerged from the UK shadow; not just because of the positive engagement with European institutions that the Welsh Government has built; or in contrast to the growing sour relations between the UK government and Europe but because Wales has successfully established a consensus across all political parties which recognizes the important economic , social and educational advantages there are from greater European engagement. It is not just about money (but of course that helps) it is about engagement and partnership with other countries and regions where we share common interests. It is about Wales showing it can engage on an equal footing and that we have something to offer.

Experts from Finland, Germany, Denmark, the European Commission, the OECD and others will come together to look for common solutions and learn from each other.

At 19.3 per cent, unemployment amongst 16-24 year olds in Wales is slightly below the European average. Whilst higher than Germany at 7.9% it is significantly lower that the unemployment rates in Spain and Greece which are over 50%, a scale unheard of in the post second world war era.

The estimated cost of youth unemployment in Europe is estimated at 100 billion Euro a year, an unsustainable economic cost with severe long term consequences if not tackled.

For us the challenge is to ensure that those leaving school have a future and that the 42,400 young people currently out of work are provided with training or educational opportunities which will lead to decent full time employment. And here EU funding has a vital role to play, especially after a one and a half billion pound cut in Welsh Government funding from Westminster and if reports of a further similar cut to come are correct.

Jobs Growth Wales, which has received extensive EU funding, is successful because it is the product of extensive consultation with local employers and businesses and honed to the needs of the local economy.

Over 16,000 job opportunities have been created, 18 months ahead of target, leading to the creation of almost 13,000 jobs outstripping the UK Work Programme at every level. Whilst Jobs Growth Wales bursaries have led to the creation of 220 new young entrepreneurial businesses.

The number of new apprentices is at an all time high having risen from 17,900 in 2011/12 to over 28,000 on the latest figures, 90 per cent of whom go on to full time employment, compared with just 72 per cent in England and many Welsh Government apprenticeship schemes such as Young Recruits are also part financed by the EU.

Wales is bucking the UK and European trend and beginning to lead the way in the development of a localised home grown youth employment and training strategy that is increasingly viewed in European circles as a model program and example

of best practice when it comes to using European social funding to good effect.

Last week the Deputy Minister for Skills and training announced the establishment of an access to employment working group to focus to look at the relationship with the UK government Work Programme and Welsh schemes. This may well lead to calls for greater local accountability, leading to eventual devolution of responsibility for all programs to the Welsh Government, subject of course to the devolution of the corresponding funding.

The pan European experience is that public employment services are most successful when developed at a local level , with local knowledge and the engagement of trades unions and local businesses.

Despite the success of Jobs Growth type schemes in Wales, there are other successful initiatives across Europe we can still learn from. Germany’s occupational orientation program training centres which support the transition from school to working life; Luxembourg’s Mosaic Classes identifying students at risk of unemployment ahead of leaving school providing intensive remedial support; Sweden’s navigator centres, one stop shops for reintegration in education and training of unemployed and disengaged youth, or Lithuania’s youth employment centres which also promote entrepreneurship.

Europe can certainly learn from our Welsh experience, but there is also much to learn from our European partners in tackling the greatest challenge facing the future generations of Europe

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23 September 2014

The Union is dead, Long live the Union

The Scottish referendum is the most significant constitutional event in the UK for generations. The most important consequence is not the outcome, but the fact that England has now woken up to devolution. If the referendum teaches us anything, it is that the disengagement of so many people from politics and the disdain in which they hold our political institutions will only be satisfied by a complete overhaul and regeneration of our over centralised and dysfunctional political system.

Many well meaning but ill thought out promises have been made and will have to be honoured in some way but the most significant step forward will be the establishment of a Constitutional Convention as called for by the Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones. Listening to a number of English MP’s, including some senior Cabinet Ministers, it is clear that very few understand devolution, decentralisation or have a clear thought process about the constitutional ramifications. There is a lack of understanding of what has been happening in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and some of the ill thought out suggestions being made reflect that.

So, let me set out my thoughts from the perspective of a Labour Assembly member who has been writing about this issue for the last 7 or 8 years.

Wales now has to be offered the same deal as Scotland. The Silk Commission on Welsh powers is no longer a sufficient blueprint. It has been completely overtaken by events. There are some useful proposals which could be implemented without great difficulty, but Silk does not deal with the issues arising from the increasingly dysfunctional and contradictory UK Constitution. Federalism is not an option and would be a disaster creating four national blocs with widely differing aspirations regarding defence, monetary policy and social policy. It would create a permanent political conflict leading to on-going instability. It will be doomed from the start. Devolution should be focused on the decentralisation of power not nation building.

The only political route forward is the creation of English regional assemblies and for a restructuring of the UK Parliament. It is essential we define the role of Parliament. A written constitution delineating its role is necessary. I would argue it should set out the purpose of the UK parliament and establish key principles which should include sustainability, equality, redistribution of wealth and social justice.

This would enable all UK MP’s to have equal status. A suggested model whereby English MP’s only vote on English issues would be unworkable and divisive. How would it deal with London, the one devolved part of England where there is also the greatest concentration of wealth?

We will need to overhaul the way we look at taxation. Central taxation will need a clearly defined role and objective and be at the core of equality and redistribution. Barnett will also need to be completely overhauled as under this system we will need for example, to look also at the funding of the regions of England such as the North East and North West. It does mean a major change in the role of the UK parliament and MP’s but also the way our towns and cities work.

If we do not implement radical reform people will feel betrayed and the consequences will be disastrous for our society and future generations.