Status quo is best for Wales
Sometimes, no matter what the Scouts say, it’s best not to be prepared. I spent much of my journey to Wales this morning writing a brilliant piece on why Wales was making a mistake going it legally alone by setting up a separate jurisdiction.
As it turned out, that blog shall never see the light of day, or at least not for at least 10 years, as the Welsh government kicked the issue of a separate legal jurisdiction into touch.
First minister Carwyn Jones, speaking to a press conference depleted by the BBC strike, explained that the transfer from Westminster of all responsibilities – courts, prisons, judges’ pensions – was simply a cost that could not be justified. Despite the awkward situation of laws made in Wales but applied through the law of England and Wales, the status quo is fine for now, thanks very much.
Jones denied it then and now, but I always presumed that last year’s consultation on separation was for appearances only (I’m conditioned by the Ministry of Justice ‘consultations’, where respondents might as well give their submissions to a brick wall).
Campaign group True Wales, which opposes the Welsh government having more powers, even refused to take part after claiming it was a done deal.
The Welsh government still wants to transfer powers, but for now it has taken the pragmatic and sensible approach. That looks like good news for the legal services sector. Several law firms here have told me that Wales would appear distant – parochial, even – if it took the separation route.
It felt instinctively as if this was a political football – the legal profession was collateral damage for a Labour-led Welsh government determined to distance itself from a coalition in Westminster. Even the devolution of policing, which Jones did recommend, seems more like a gesture than a measure that will have any practical benefit.
I suspect too that justice was an area that the Welsh government was happy to leave in the hands of the Tories and Lib Dems.
Taking responsibility for legal aid, for example, would have raised some difficult questions for a Labour administration already under financial pressure. Just how would it have looked if coalition cuts could not be reversed under Labour?
Ultimately, there are more people talking about the Six Nations in the bars and cafes of Cardiff than a separate legal jurisdiction. The legal profession, on the whole, was not keen. Wales, its economic recovery still fragile, could ill afford to come across as closed for business.
Once the plan also looked like it would cost a small fortune – around £1.2bn – it was dispatched to the long grass. This was one power Wales wasn’t prepared to take on.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter
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