Thursday, 27 March 2008

Government by committee(s)

Governments often react to events in one of two ways.

There is no problem so grave that cannot be solved either by legislation, or by setting up a committee aka working group, review, task and finish group, convention etc.

New Labour has been keen on passing laws since it came to power at Westminster, creating hundreds if not thousands of new offences. Under Gordon Brown, it has also been pilloried for setting up review after review.

The Assembly Government is so fond of committees it recently set up a committee with the task of setting up another committee.

The contrast in styles has emerged on a serious issue. The UK Government is tightening the law to protect NHS staff from violence and abuse at the hands of patients and their relatives. (I thought this was already illegal, but apparently a new specific offence of creating a disturbance or nuisance on NHS premises is needed).

Most criminal law applies across England and Wales but in something of a departure the Ministry of Justice decided that as this law affects the NHS it would give the Welsh Assembly Government the right to veto its application to Wales (which it promptly did).

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "Health is a devolved matter in Wales. Although the provisions create a criminal offence, the offence is aimed solely at creating protection for and benefits for the health service (in response to a problem in the health service) . We consulted the Welsh Assembly Government last year and they confirmed that they did not want the provisions to extend to Wales. We are discussing the issue of the extension of this provision to NHS premises in Wales with the Department of Health, Wales Office and the Welsh Assembly Government."

A Welsh Assembly Government spokesperson said, several hours later: "The Welsh Assembly Government, working with the relevant Trade Unions and professional associations have developed its own set of policies for protecting staff who work in the Welsh NHS. These have recently been worked on further in a group led by a secondee from the Royal College of Nursing in Wales.

The report of that working group is expected imminently and will further inform the development of actions designed to meet Welsh needs and circumstances."

The problem WAG has it that it can't change criminal law so any changes its committee comes up with will stop short of that. If you're a nurse in A and E on Friday night trying to get rid of a drunk you might wonder how different Welsh needs and circumstances are from those over the border, but I digress.

Amid the general confusion, a former First Secretary of the Assembly Government, as it then wasn't, Alun Michael, has been trying to persuade UK Ministers to extend the law to Wales.

He thinks it's absurd that Welsh workers won't get the same legal protection and blamed Whitehall officials who didn't understand devolution for the loophole.

Only when the BBC started making calls did it emerge that this part of the new law was actually vetoed by Assembly Government Ministers.

The redoutable cross-bencher Baroness Finlay of Llandaff has now tabled amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to extend its remit to Welsh hospitals.

It will be an interesting test of devolution. Whitehall departments have been widely criticised for failing to understand devolution and being insensitive to it. It appears that this is a case of the Ministry of Justice being extremely sensitive to the Assembly Government on a non-devolved issue and ultimately annoying more than a few MPs on the way.

For those at the sharp end this must all appear very confusing. If you're a nurse in A and E on Friday night trying to get rid of an aggressive drunk you could be forgiven for wondering exactly how "Welsh needs and circumstances" differ from those over the border.

Perhaps Ministers could set up a committee to find out.

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