Welsh Liberal Democrat former Welsh Government Minister and Wales Office Minister, Baroness Jenny Randerson, discusses the past and future of Welsh devolution to mark of a House of Lords debate marking 20 years of devolution.
Today I was pleased to take part in a debate in Westminster marking 20 years of Welsh devolution. Of course, this debate takes place two weeks after the actual 20th anniversary of devolution and after the Senedd marked this anniversary. I suppose this is just another way Westminster follows the National Assembly for Wales.
Today’s is an important debate marking an important moment in the history of Welsh politics and of our nation. We’ve come a long way in 20 years. The Welsh Parliament with direct law-making powers and the ability to levy taxes we have today is a far cry from the institution I was first elected to 20 years ago.
The devolution settlement that followed the knife edge 50.3% vote for Yes in 1997 was certainly flawed. It didn’t give the National Assembly anyway near enough powers, meaning much of the previous 20 years has been spent arguing with Westminster about more powers.
The comprehensive 2011 referendum with its 63.5% of people in favour of more powers, played a major part in improving the situation, as did the Silk Commission and various Wales Acts. However, we still have an unsatisfactory and incomplete devolution settlement. Too many powers remain with a Westminster that doesn’t fully understand or appreciate devolution.
As the only Welsh person to have been a Minister in both Welsh and UK Governments, I have seen Welsh devolution from both ends of the M4. As a Minister in the Wales Office, a major part of my role was reminding other Ministers and Whitehall civil servants that Welsh devolution exists and explaining how it works to them.
Sadly, we know that in recent years there hasn’t been the cultural change needed within Whitehall to ensure devolution is given the consideration it deserves. Too often we see policy papers and press releases emerge from UK Government departments that either completely ignore devolution or discuss the UK when they really mean England. We need every Whitehall department to think about devolution as part of their day to day operations.
Whilst Westminster too often forgets or ignores devolution, the EU has been hugely positive for Welsh devolution and has always cared greatly for areas like Wales. Brexit threatens to undo so much of this good work. For 20 years the EU has served to lessen tensions between the Welsh and UK Governments as many European powers have been essentially handed straight down to Wales.
As one of the poorest regions of the EU, West Wales and the valleys has received significant funding from the EU for many years. This funding has helped transform deprived town centres and create valuable jobs. Meanwhile, EU agricultural funding has supported world-class farming across Wales and helped sustain the rural communities that largely rely on agriculture.
There is little party-political controversy around EU funding, including where funding goes and how EU rules are applied. As Wales has accepts this vital European funding, we’ve accepted the rules that come with it. If Brexit does take place, this will all change. Funding will be controlled and rules decided in Westminster. Some final decisions may lie with the Welsh Government, but it will primarily be up to the UK Government to determine what is worthy of funding and to set the rules governing how the money is spent.
There will be no more high-level, impartial funding decisions, instead decisions will be driven by partisan priorities and party-political interests. Funding will become more controversial as parties accuse each other of misspending funds and prioritising the wrong areas. Funding will be skewed to suit the electoral interests of the parties in power instead of being the result of a dispassionate assessment of what’s in the best interests of the people of Wales. What’s worse, UK Government Ministers will be both applicants on behalf of England, and arbiters on behalf of the whole of the UK. A People’s vote with an exit from Brexit is the best way to safeguard the future of the devolution settlement.
But even if we are successful in stopping Brexit, there are a few more clear steps we must take to give Wales the devolution settlement it needs and deserves. We need a proper, balanced federal system. This is essential if we’re to avoid the endless power struggles and constitutional wrangling we have seen in Scotland. We can start by implementing the unfulfilled Silk recommendations by devolving more financial powers and powers over transport, Welsh ports, energy, broadcasting, air passenger duty, policing and some justice powers.
The next stage is to create effective intergovernmental frameworks to ensure decisions affecting all four governments of the UK are made effectively and intergovernmental disputes are resolved fairly. We’re calling for the creation of a statutory Joint Ministerial Council, with regular meetings and clear dispute resolution processes to ensure the UK Government properly considers and respects the views of the devolved governments.
There are steps we can take on our own in Wales to improve devolution and devolved governance. By implementing the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform we can make our Welsh democracy more accountable, effective and democratic. The panel recommended increasing the size of the Assembly to between 80 and 90 Assembly Members, electing these AMs through the proportional STV voting system and lowering the voting age to sixteen. These are all longstanding Welsh Liberal Democrat policies that we urge every party to support.
It has been a personal privilege to play my part in Wales’ devolution journey and to see Welsh devolution mature so effectively over the past 20 years. I look forward to seeing Welsh devolution continue to evolve over the next 20 years. If we stop Brexit, create a balanced federal system and implement democratic reforms to the Assembly; I’ve no doubt Welsh devolution has a bright future.