Eluned Morgan on Labour's plans to improve the government’s Wales Bill
Just as Parliament is about to shut up shop for the summer, the Wales Bill will be introduced to the House of Lords. Timing seems currently to be the most notable thing about this Bill, which is deceptively highly political despite most of its content appearing to be technical.
The Bill is another step along the road to further devolution for Wales. Since the 1997 referendum, where a whisker of a majority helped to establish the Welsh Assembly, support for devolution has increased significantly. To some degree, in response to a Labour-led Assembly responding to the needs of the local population.
Scrutiny of the Bill will not take place until after the summer, and more significantly after the Scottish referendum. A new Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb has just been appointed, and promised to develop a better relationship with the Assembly. It was no secret that his predecessor, David Jones managed to alienate not just the Assembly but most of the people in his own party. Even the Prime Minister realised, finally, that Mr Jones had to be sacked. It will be interesting to see if Mr Crabb is willing to listen to Peers and the constructive suggestions we make to improve the Bill.
We are also entering a pre- general election period where manifestos are being drawn up with the backdrop of an increasing awareness of over-centralisation in Westminster and Whitehall. The Bill is largely based on the recommendations of the first Silk report – a cross party committee set up by the Coalition. Since then, the second Silk report has promoted the need to move onto the next phase of devolution.
Labour believes we should move without delay to adopt what is known as the ‘Reserved Powers’ model, making absolutely clear what is devolved and what is not. This is in contrast to the current hotchpotch of a system, which has led the Coalition to question who should be in charge of certain policy areas. As a consequence, repeated and expensive referrals to the Supreme Court have been upheld in favour of the Welsh Government.
My support for devolution in Wales has never been rooted in any romantic nationalist ideals. Neither is it controlled by a fixation to limit the role of the State and take advantage, as some might argue has been attempted in this Bill, through promoting the idea of competitive taxation. Wales is certain to lose out if Britain starts down such a path, and the inevitable race to the bottom and cuts in services.
The central reason why Labour is keen to support this Bill is because for the first time, the Welsh Government will have the power to borrow for the first time. This is particularly important because there has been a cut in the grant allocated to Wales of almost 10% in the past year. Plus also a 31% cut in the amount earmarked for capital expenditure – a severe handicap on the Welsh Government’s ability to invest in projects and infrastructure to increase economic activity and grow the economy.
There are also constitutional aspects of this Bill relating to electoral systems and the frequency of elections. It does seem strange however, that we are even discussing these issues in relation to a devolved body. If we have the confidence to allow nations and regions to establish Assemblies and Parliaments, we should surely also allow them also to determine how to organise their own electoral arrangements?
We can ponder these issues over the summer and return with renewed vigour to challenge some of the details in the Bill. Albeit hopefully without the Scottish referendum causing a political earthquake in the intervening months.
Baroness Eluned Morgan of Ely is Shadow Wales Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets at @Eluned_Morgan
Published 22nd July 2014