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LCOs too often disappear in 'the black hole of Whitehall' But MPs say system working better now.

Byline: Tomos Livingstone

REQUESTS from the Assembly Government for extra powers too often "disappear in the black hole of Whitehall", a committee of MPs said last night.

The criticism is the latest barb aimed at London civil servants as debate rages over the future direction of devolution.

TheWelsh Affairs Select Committee said the current bit-by-bit system, introduced in 2007, was working well despite "widespread misunderstandings" of the way the process worked.

But the MPs complained that Whitehall departments' sluggishness in clearing requests for additional devolution was creating long delays. They cited the plan to devolve extra responsibility for environmental policy, held up for nearly two years, and a bid to give the Assembly power to install fire sprinklers in new homes as examples of the slow progress.

The system involves the Assembly submitting a request for more powers - called an LCO - which is then scrutinised by the Welsh Affairs Committee before final approval by MPs and Peers.

Critics say the procedure is cumbersome and opaque, but its supporters insist it is an effective way of beefing up the Assembly's powers while retaining a role for Members of Parliament.

The MPs' report comes at a delicate time for devolution, with preparations under way for a possible referendum later this year on a Scottish-style parliament - which would render the LCO system redundant.

Whitehall departments have also come in for criticism for a haphazard approach to Wales and devolution.

Earlier this week Sir Jon Shortridge, the former head of theWelsh civil service, said Wales was often seen as "a complication too far" in London.

In the report, MPs say: "We have identified some procedural problems, most notably long and unaccountable delays in the process of negotiation between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Whitehall department or departments that sometimes occurs before an LCO is referred to us.

"There is an unacceptable lack of transparency within the Whitehall clearance process. The Wales Office should provide this committee with a monthly update on the progress of all proposed LCOs together with an explanation of any delays."

After numerous complaints about the jargon used in some LCOs, the MPs also note that, "it should not be beyond the reach of language to provide in addition a simple statement of what the LCO will enable the National Assembly for Wales to do".

They also suggest fast-tracking the process for less controversial LCOs, and say there needs to be a comprehensive "Welsh statute book", available on-line, so the public can access what is in an increasingly distinct body of Welsh law.

Hywel Francis, the MP for Aberavon whochairs the committee, said: "After more than two years in operation, the LCO process is an effective system for the transfer of powers to Wales. However, we remain concerned about proposed LCOs disappearing into the black hole of Whitehall and we intend to create a more formal reporting system to deal with this issue."

Welsh Secretary Peter Hain said: "I have already freely admitted that the system took time to bed down, but we've learnt lessons, and things are very different now.

"In fact, we are making excellent progress as the process grows in strength, effectiveness and transparency."

He said there had been improvements since 2007, with civil servants at either end of the M4 working together at an earlier stage of the process.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 15, 2010
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