Devolution’s Triumph

John Osmond probes behind the headlines given a provocative article analysing devolution by the Welsh Government’s former Permanent Secretary

Predictably the media latched on to just one throwaway line in this week’s analysis of the progress and future of devolution by the former Permanent Secretary Sir Jon Shortridge. Writing in the March issue of the normally little noticed trade magazine Public Money and Management, he declared, “It can be argued that one of the reasons Wales is so relatively poor is that it has been governed from England for too long.”

If this had been backed up by some analysis and a few statistics it might have been interesting. However, the sentence merely trailed a plea for a much better financial settlement for Wales. The inevitable headlines, about a British civil servant apparently arguing the case for an independent Wales, merely served to drive attention away from the main thrust of the article. This takes a cool look at Wales experience of devolution over the past decade, at the extremely poor hand we were dealt in terms of the constitutional architecture that was handed to us in 1999, but nevertheless how remarkably well we have done.

As Sir Jon puts it, “Despite its difficult birth, the Assembly in many ways has been a triumph – not least because it has been able largely to surmount the problems caused by its original design and deliver some real and important benefits for Wales.” It might be judged that all this is somewhat self-serving since for during practically the whole of the devolution period as the man leading the Welsh civil service Sir Jon was at the helm.

Nonetheless, he has a good story to tell and one that is little acknowledged at a time when, along with the rest of the political world so much of Welsh politics and governance has been discredited by a few bad eggs at Westminster. Sir Jon lists five main areas of success for devolution in Wales:

  1. The Welsh budget has been more effectively spent than previously. This is because it has been subjected to close scrutiny by 60 elected members and the four political parties.  As a result it reflects the needs of Wales much better than under the old system in which budget outcomes were determined by the closed, behind-the-scenes dialogue between the Secretary of State for Wales, his two junior Ministers, and a handful off officials. As Sir John puts it, “This is a huge improvement and one which more than justifies the constitutional change that Welsh devolution represents.
  2. Political and administrative decision making has also improved This is simply because the decision-makers are subjected to much more scrutiny than ever they were in the past. Moreover, because they are closer to the people they serve Welsh politicians are not exposed to a wide range of informed views and advice. “It is certainly not the case that civil servants are the monopoly providers of advice to Ministers.”
  3. The Welsh Government has gained a reputation for good quality administration and sound financial management. Sir Jon cites its record in making subsidy payments to farmers as amongst the best in the EU. Major capital projects, for example the Senedd building, have been delivered on time and on budget (compare Scotland). Legislation has been well prepared and there have been very few challenges to decisions in the courts. All this is extremely I important for Sir Jon since, as he says, “I was very clear from the outset that, given the very narrow majority in favour of devolution, the fledgling Assembly might well not have survived the kind of scandals that have afflicted Whitehall in recent years.”
  4. With the constraints imposed by its lack of primary powers the Welsh Government has embarked on a series of innovative reforms. These include free acess to services, either for all or for particular groups, to public transport, precriptions, hospital parking, and swimming. This is just not a matter of free handouts butpart of a wider strategy of improving thehealth of the nation, rather than merely tackling ill health. The Government has also taken itsown line on education by abandoning much of the testing regime it inherited, introducing the Welsh Baccalaureate, and the radical policy of learning through play in the Foundation phase up to age 7. The Welsh Government has also been willing to confront difficult issues in ways that the UK Government has often avoided, for example with the unpopular decision to cull badgers in carefully defined circumstances.
  5. The National Assembly itself, despite having many relatively inexperienced politicians, has successfully operated through coalition arrangements.

All these achievements give Sir Jon the confidence to predict that in time Wales will be granted full parliamentary powers on the Scottish model. However, he is doubtful that this will be achievement in the timetable set by the present One Wales coalition Government between Labour and Plaid – that is, at or before the May 2011 election. Reading between the lines of the article, there is a definite impression that, if he were still in charge at Cathays Park, Sir Jon would be advising First Minister Carwyn Jones that he should first sort out the Welsh Government’s funding arrangements and get the better financial deal it deserves from Whitehall.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

Also within Politics and Policy