One of the questions apparently put to Peter Hain after his lecture at Cardiff University on Thursday was that a referendum about something other than bringing Part 4 of the 2006 Act into force. Hain apparently replied that this might be ‘looked at’. (I wasn’t there and so am relying on second-hand reports of the discussion.) Part 4 of the Act provides for the Assembly to have ‘primary legislative powers’ over 20 specified fields, set out in Schedule 7 to the Act, including such matters as health, education, local government or the Welsh language.
It’s worth being very clear about this. A referendum – any referendum – requires statutory authority to be held. The 2006 Act provides for a referendum on whether Part 4 should come into effect or not. (For those interested, it’s set out in sections 103-5 of the Act.) It doesn’t provide authority for a referendum on any other matter. While the Secretary of State has power to decide the wording of the question to be put in a referendum, the only issue at stake is ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Part 4. Wider powers for the Assembly will not be on the agenda then, nor will be increasing the size of the Assembly, nor abolishing it, nor any idea of independence.
It might be appropriate to hold a referendum on some of those. Given that establishment of the Assembly was approved by a referendum in 1997, abolishing it would seem to need wider approval. It’s hard to see how Wales might, hypothetically, become independent without at least one referendum. (I’ll be writing in due course about referendums about Scottish independence.) But the only referendum that can be held under the 2006 Act is about Part 4.
Any other subject for a referendum would require specific statutory authority – a new Act of Parliament. So would any other question. That applies to another idea aired by Hain, of going back to the situation before 2007. That would not need a referendum, but it would need a new Act of Parliament. And that means finding Parliamentary time for it, among many other priorities at Westminster. Peter Hain will remember only too well how tricky it was to get a slot for the 2006 Act – securing one was a major achievement in itself. Does he really want to seek another one to unpick his handiwork?