Wales

Welsh Secretary 'may accept new referendum question'

Welsh assembly at night, Cardiff Bay
Image caption If voters say yes, the Welsh assembly will gain further devolved powers from Westminster

Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan says she has "a mind to accept" recommendations on the proposed referendum question on further Welsh powers.

It follows a report from the Electoral Commission which said the current suggested wording lacked clarity and was difficult to understand.

Mrs Gillan said had already spoken to the assembly government's First Minister Carwyn Jones on the issue.

She also insisted that the referendum would go ahead in March next year.

The Electoral Commission, which has a legal duty to scrutinise any potential referendum question, said the original wording put forward by the Wales Office contained ambiguous and confusing definitions of what was being voted on.

But welcoming the report, Mrs Gillan said: "I am grateful to the Electoral Commission for publishing today's report and for their comments on the intelligibility of the referendum question and preceding statement," she said.

"It is a thorough report and an important part of the process in ensuring people understand what they are being asked to vote on."

The Welsh Secretary said she would be meeting Carwyn Jones for face to face talks next week.

Spring 2011

She also reiterated her belief that the vote would go ahead next spring, despite the need to redraft the format of the question.

"I will discuss the report with the first minister [Carwyn Jones] next Monday and will work with him to consider the commission's suggestions and how we best proceed to ensure the question set out in the referendum order is clear and concise," she added.

"This will allow us to hold the referendum by the end of March 2011 as intended."

The report from the Electoral Commission followed 10 weeks of 'road-testing' the proposed question with members of the public.

But it found that many had struggled to understand the question, and were not clear what they were being asked to vote on.

The commission said the complexity of the issue and the low level of public awareness made drafting a question difficult.

The commission said it now planned to provide an information leaflet to every household in Wales at the start of a campaign to raise the low levels of public understanding.

The report also warned that there was likely to be debate about whether either the Yes or No campaigns were misleading voters about the referendum subject matter.

It said: "Such debate is a normal part of any election or referendum campaign, but where public knowledge of the referendum subject matter is low, real or perceived misinformation is likely to become more of an issue in the campaign."

Major hurdle

Only when the question has been formally agreed can legal moves begin to call the referendum vote.

The assembly government is committed to holding a referendum early next year on whether Wales should be able to pass laws throughout the devolved areas such as health and education without asking Westminster for the powers to do so first.

It is understood that the rest of the process for calling the referendum is close to completion, so formulating the wording of the question is seen as a major hurdle to be overcome before the vote goes ahead.

The issue of the question led to a bitter political row earlier this year, with the new Welsh Secretary Mrs Gillan suggesting that her predecessor, Labour's Peter Hain had deliberately dragged his feet over its drafting in order to delay a vote until next year.

He vehemently denied the claim, and said in fact it was Mrs Gillan who was holding back the process and that sufficient work had been done while he was in office.

THE ORIGINAL PROPOSED QUESTION

"At present, the National Assembly for Wales (the assembly) has powers to make laws for Wales on some subjects within devolved areas. Devolved areas include health, education, social services, local government and environment. The assembly can gain further powers to make laws in devolved areas with the agreement of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (Parliament) on a subject by subject basis.

"If most people vote Yes in this referendum, the assembly will gain powers to pass laws on all subjects in the devolved areas.

"If most people vote No, then the present arrangements, which transfer that law-making power bit by bit, with the agreement of Parliament each time, will continue.

"Do you agree that the assembly should now have powers to pass laws on all subjects in the devolved areas without needing the agreement of Parliament first?"

ELECTORAL COMMISSION'S PROPOSED QUESTION

The National Assembly for Wales - what happens at the moment

The Assembly has powers to make laws on 20 subject areas, such as:

· agriculture

· education

· the environment

· health

· housing

· local government

In each subject area, the Assembly can make laws on some matters, but not others. To make laws on any of these other matters, the Assembly must ask the UK Parliament for its agreement. The UK Parliament then decides each time whether or not the Assembly can make these laws.

The Assembly cannot make laws on subject areas such as defence, tax or welfare benefits, whatever the result of this vote.

If most voters vote 'yes'

The Assembly will be able to make laws on all matters in the 20 subject areas it has powers for, without needing the UK Parliament's agreement.

If most voters vote 'no'

What happens at the moment will continue.

Question

Do you want the Assembly now to be able to make laws on all matters in the 20 subject areas it has powers for?

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