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Wednesday, 18 November 2009

A clearing in the fog?

The devolution settlement in Wales has often been referred to as a ”fog” , but today, the All Wales Convention has reported that the Assembly in Wales should be given full law making powers through a referendum, so there could be a clearing ahead.

The Convention, established by the Welsh Assembly Government, also said that a yes vote for further powers is attainable, that public support is out there, although it is not guaranteed.

For us, the transfer of full-law making power for Wales would be a welcome development on the current system.

BMA Wales gave evidence to the All Wales Convention earlier in the year, and I am pleased to see in the report that the evidence we submitted has been taken on board and cited on numerous pages.

We noted in our evidence that the current system by which the National Assembly can acquire legislative powers is cumbersome and thus not widely understood by the public in general - including BMA members.

In the context of a UK membership organisation, professional association and trade union that the BMA is, there is often central confusion about the extent to which the National Assembly for Wales can legislate in health matters. This can lead to Wales being left behind as it does not have the same tools available to implement BMA policy as is available to our counterparts in other nations. In contributing to debates on policy, in particular on a UK basis, it would be far more straightforward for members in Wales to be reassured that similar legislative change as is often proposed for Scotland and Northern Ireland could also be implemented in Wales by Welsh Ministers.

At the moment, the ability to develop and implement new policy via the legislation route is let down by the need to obtain ‘permission’ from Westminster, and the subsequent delay in that process. Using BMA Wales’ experience with the introduction of a ban on smoking in public places, we highlighted problems inherent within the present system. Although Wales were at the forefront in calling for a ban, ultimately the ban was only implemented marginally ahead of that in England, even though Wales had started the process much earlier. The delay in legislating in Wales caused by the lack of primary legislative powers can be argued to have led to many individuals health being damaged by exposure to environmental tobacco smoke in the interim period.

The report suggests that the Assembly should decide on whether to hold a referendum by June 2010, well in advance of the next Assembly elections. The timing of a referendum is clearly one for the politicians but the view of BMA Wales is that we support primary powers simply to allow effective, timely and consistent policy change in health (and the related portfolios) and to enable the Association work effectively with our members – on an equal footing as our colleagues across the UK.

I look forward to further developments – and to the statement by the First Minister next week.

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