Alan Trench says Conservative ideas on improving links between Wales and Whitehall need to be handled carefully or they could be more trouble than they’re worth
A couple of weeks ago, at the Welsh Conservative conference in Llandudno, David Jones MP for Clwyd West suggested a substantially enhanced role for the Wales Office under a Conservative UK Government, to ensure devolution works. It should do more than just process legislative competence orders, he said – and it should be renamed the Welsh Office to reflect a more energetic role. The speech is available here, and there are news reports from BBC News here and the Daily Post here. Clearly Jones’s remarks were prompted by the Welsh Affairs Committee’s inquiry on Wales and Whitehall (he’s an active member of the committee), but also reflect a wider strain of thinking about the relationship between the two governments. And as he’s the shadow junior Wales Office Minister, his thinking about this has particular importance.
It’s worth remembering that this is the third approach the Tories have suggested to improve Welsh devolution at the institutional level, quite apart from a referendum on primary legislative powers. We also have the idea of the UK Prime Minister holding an annual Question Time in the National Assembly, from David Cameron, and ‘junior ministers for Wales’ in each Whitehall department, responsible for ‘Wales-proofing’ departmental policy and legislation, from Cheryl Gillan.
Cameron’s and Gillan’s proposals both present serious problems. Cameron’s suggestion amounts to a further entanglement of devolved and UK functions, in ways that don’t actually promote accountability or improve the ability of the National Assembly and the Welsh Government to discharge their functions. Lord Elis-Thomas slapped it down firmly as a result. Gillan’s is likely to prove a cumbersome, tick-box way of complicating policy-making, with ministers doing what should be a civil service job. Ministerial engagement would help concentrate Whitehall officials’ minds, but this is really a way of creating extra work that doesn’t need to be done by ministers. As such, it’s at odds with the party’s general commitment to reducing the size and cost of government.
Jones’s suggestion is a more workable one, but it’s still hard to know quite what to make of it. On the positive side, Welsh devolution has always depended much more on a strong intergovernmental voice than that for Scotland or Northern Ireland – a reflection of how much public services in Wales are entangled with those in England. That’s the result of long-standing administrative practices, and that long porous border between England and Wales. Building strong intergovernmental links is perhaps a trick that has been missed by Welsh Governments since 1999, though it has been able to count on contacts between the Assembly and Welsh Labour MPs instead. A Conservative UK Government couldn’t rely on those. A more active and systematic approach to managing that from the UK end is to be welcomed.
However, there are two difficulties. One is the risk that the revived Welsh Office tries to engage directly in devolved policy making. It might develop its own policies, different to those of the Assembly and the Welsh Government, and try to promote them in opposition to theirs. There’s a real chance of this. It would be wrong in principle (and ridiculous in practice) to expect the Welsh Office simply to act as the Assembly’s cheerleader in London, and a more active Office that promotes Conservative ideas of what is good for Wales, when that isn’t shared by the devolved government or Assembly, might well politicise matters best kept de-politicised.
The experience of the Scotland Office shows the dangers. In the early years of devolution, John Reid and Helen Liddell sought to build up the Office as a counterweight to the Scottish Executive, with its own policy capacity shadowing that of the Executive. The result was tension between the two governments, hidden behind the scenes but clearly there, as well as a lot of duplication. Since Jim Murphy became Secretary of State in 2008, the Office has not sought to duplicate policy work. However, it has taken a much more active role in political and constitutional debates, churning out press notices of ministers drawing attention to the good things the UK Government has done for Scotland and often criticising the SNP government. This has turned a respected and trusted intermediary between the Scottish Government and Whitehall departments into a partisan actor, which the Scottish Government finds hard to trust to act on its behalf in Whitehall.
The second problem is that this could be a way of justifying the continued existence of a separate Wales Office. If Part 4 of the 2006 Wales Act comes into effect, and there are no Legislative Competence Orders to be dealt with (since the Assembly will be able to legislate without prior Westminster approval), the role of the Office will be much less. There will still be a role for it, but much of its current legislative work would disappear. In fact, in his evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee Sir Jon Shortridge, formerly the Welsh Government’s permanent secretary, said that he thought there would be no role for the Office at all. I’ve already made the case on my blog Devolution Matters for a single ‘department of nations and regions’. (The Welsh Affairs Committee was keen on the idea of Cabinet Office doing this work, which it could, though as I said in my evidence to it it’s something I have some doubts about). Increasing its political visibility in Wales in this way makes it harder to say it has no role. The arguments for combining the Scotland and Wales Offices (and maybe the Northern Ireland Office) into a single department are strong ones, and this may be a way of outmanoeuvring them.
On balance, I’m inclined to think that most of David Jones’s idea is a good one. There are many areas where devolved and non-devolved concerns overlap, where a stronger Welsh voice within UK Government would be helpful. Transport issues are top of the list – Jones talks of upgrading the A483 between Swansea and north-east Wales – but it also applies to other matters like rail connections from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury and London (recently a matter of concern to Elin Jones – though I don’t agree with the idea of devolution of railway powers being effective in solving the problem), or the health service. If a revived Welsh Office makes these intergovernmental issues work better, that’s all to the good. The danger is if it goes beyond that. If it were to be used mainly as a political platform, it wouldn’t improve the working of devolution – and will make life much more difficult for everyone involved. If I were advising Jones, my advice would be ‘Proceed with care’, and take pains to make sure that you don’t muscle in on devolved matters, or even be seen to do so. That would cause more trouble than it is worth.