Eluned Morgan on making Wales central to unfolding debates about the future of the UK constitution
Before the summer, many of us warned that the referendum in Scotland was likely to change the nature and tone of the debate of the Wales Bill currently going through Parliament – and so it has turned out. Our piecemeal approach to constitutional change is no longer sustainable and there is now a need to review of the entire structure of the UK.
As with Scotland, there are many people in Wales who feel cut out from the political process and want their voices heard. But where there is a clearly an appetite for a further devolution of power from Westminster, support for independence has fallen to an all-time low of 3%. So for Scotland, do not read Wales.
The Wales Bill, now at Report stage in the House of Lords, is a hotchpotch of ideas containing a broad but unstructured approach to a new devolution settlement, including electoral arrangements and new tax raising powers. Labour supports the latter, as it would enable Wales to access borrowing powers – critical for economic development, at a time when the Coalition has slashed infrastructure funding by 35%. We are reluctant however, to embrace partial income tax raising powers without a review of the current underfunding system. To do so would lock in a long term financial disadvantage to Wales.
We also want to see an immediate move to simplify the system of devolution, with the introduction of the ‘Reserved Powers Model’. This would define much more clearly where power lies in relation to policy. The current Heath Robinson system of a ‘Conferred Powers Model’ has caused chaos, with nobody quite sure which institution is responsible for what – leading to numerous Court challenges by the Coalition, each costing £150,000. On every occasion the UK government has lost, but even the Tories have now seen sense and agreed that a new simpler model should be introduced – albeit with the killer caveat “not just yet”.
We are also trying to introduce two further electoral measures in the Bill.
The first is to allow anyone over the age of 16 to vote in Welsh Assembly elections or referenda. After the enthusiastic and intelligent response of many 16-18 year olds in Scotland to the referendum debate, it seems odd not to extend this facility to the whole of the UK. (Indeed, should Scotland’s 16-18 year olds be disallowed from voting in the upcoming general election, it will be the only occasion in world history where a group were given the vote and then had it taken away – in a democracy, at least.)
The second measure is to introduce a system to make it much easier for young people to register to vote. This follows a campaign vigorously promoted by Bite the Ballot, which has also highlighted how, in 2011, only 35% of young people voted in the Welsh Assembly elections compared to 70% of over 65s. The measures proposed are incredibly simple and have proved successful in both Northern Ireland and the US. A tick box method would enable Welsh citizens to opt in and join the electoral register when filling in details, for example, on passport or driver’s licence applications. This should be rolled out alongside a schools initiative programme to give Election Registration Officers greater responsibilities to register people from under-represented groups.
More generally, the Wales Bill as a whole now feels a bit out of date, and not just because of Scotland’s ‘Crie de Coeur’ and what is happening post- referendum. That is why Labour’s calls for a constitutional convention are so important. Radical change is necessary for the UK but it must take into account the relative balance of power between its constituent parts. And as we all reflect on what has happened recently and rethink and reframe the debate, Wales must be central to the discussion.
Baroness Eluned Morgan is Shadow Wales Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @Eluned_Morgan
Published 10th November 2014