Since the early days of its creation, the mantra of the European Union has been that of ‘ever closer union’. If we look at the situation regarding devolution in the UK it appears that a similar mantra exists, but is unsaid, and that is ‘ever more devolution, but not for England’.
Back in 2000 there was no area of UK public life where policy was devolved to sub-national tiers of government. However, the impact of the 1998 devolution referendums was the creation of a devolved parliament in Scotland and a devolved assembly in Wales (the Northern Ireland Assembly was created some years later), while 84% of the UK (i.e. England) had no form of sub-national government and all aspects of public policy were driven from London.
The former Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, was quoted as saying that ‘devolution is a process not an event’. Davies was presumably implying that devolution would not stop at the 1998 settlement but would continue and evolve.
In theory, this could have meant that the boundaries of devolution would be adjusted so there was a smaller amount of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern. But, in reality, the pressure has been in the opposite direction of greater devolution. Since the creation of the assemblies and parliament, there seems to be a path of ‘ever more devolution, except in England’.
The situation regarding Scotland is well known and may end up in Scotland leaving the UK or, at the very least, having substantially increased devolution (the so-called devo-max option). In Wales, however, we have also seen a creeping devolution taking place.
Following a referendum in 2011, the primary law-making powers of the Welsh Assembly were enhanced making it possible for it to legislate without having to consult the UK parliament, nor the Secretary of State for Wales in the 20 devolved areas. Proposals have also been mooted for the Welsh Assembly to have, in due course, powers of taxation.
In 2001, the Commission on Devolution in Wales (the Silk Commission) was established by the UK government and supported by the Welsh government and by all four political parties represented in the National Assembly for Wales. The commission’s remit was in two parts. Firstly, to review the case for the devolution of fiscal powers to the National Assembly and, secondly, to review the assembly’s powers in light of experience and to recommend modifications to the present constitutional arrangements.
In all of this, there had been little consideration as to how well devolved government in Wales has actually worked in terms of on-the-ground public service improvement. Instead, there was lots of waffle about national status and identity.
Consequently, in 2013, I presented written evidence to the Devolution Commission concerning its work on extending the powers of the National Assembly. The thrust of my argument, which was quoted by the Commission in its Part 2 report published in March 2014, was:
‘The evidence suggests that the Welsh Government has not performed well with regards to the two key public services of schools education and health, and a similar situation may exist with regard to other public services. It would be best to concentrate on improving core public services and return to the issue of further devolution of responsibilities towards the end of this decade provided the situation has improved.’
In response to my evidence and similar comments from others, the Silk Commission’s report stated that: ‘It is not our function to assess the performance of the Welsh Government in this or any other field… our task is to consider where power should be held rather than the policy decisions of a particular government.’
While this may be true in terms of the commission’s terms of reference, it seems a strange position to take such that decisions about granting enlarged powers should take no cognisance of past performance with regard to existing powers. This must really cast doubt on the workings of such commissions.
Not surprisingly the Silk Commission has gone on to recommend further devolution for Wales. Its 61 recommendations include the devolution of police, youth justice, energy projects up to 350MW and water as well as the limited tax devolution that was recommended in its Part 1 report. This also called for the current conferred powers model to be replaced with a reserved powers model, which is currently the case in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.
To those of us who strongly supported the concept of devolution in Wales, what has subsequently happened has come as a huge surprise. What we expected was a ‘largish’ county council for Wales (after all Wales is not that much bigger than Birmingham or Manchester) with a considerable degree of devolved authority from Whitehall on public policy development and implementation issues.
Instead we got a bloated organisation with many of the trappings of Whitehall and with an executive arm populated by individuals who, in another incarnation would have been local councillors but now bear the grandiose title of ‘minister’, with all that goes with that title. Imagine if the Cabinet members in Birmingham City Council started calling themselves ministers.
In the past 14 years the Welsh government has presided over a significant decline in the standards of health services and schools education in Wales. This situation is compounded by the fact that Wales is essentially a one-party state with the government being various combinations of Labour, Labour-LibDem or Labour-Plaid Cymru, so there is little chance of implementing radically fresh policies that might reverse the decline.
Pupils predicted to get grade A* in English received a grade D or unclassified. Schools where 60% to 70% of the children were expected to get a grade C or better in English obtained rates of 27%.Typically, the Welsh government has ordered an enquiry and no doubt there will be endless buck passing taking place, but the truth must be that something has gone catastrophically wrong with the implementation of the new examinations to get discrepancies of this magnitude. Fiascos like this are getting increasingly commonplace and follow a previous fiasco last year where thousands of scripts had to be remarked.
Devolution has been a huge disappointment for Wales, and yet the Silk Commission is calling for more powers for the National Assembly. We should not be giving greater responsibility to an already bloated and ineffective institution