The anomalies of UK devolution

Mike Hedges compares Welsh devolution with the decentralised governance structures of Spain, Germany, Italy, and Austria

Of the other EU member states that have decentralised government, Spain is the most similar to the UK. It also has a system of what you might call asymmetrical devolution. Interestingly, Spain also has a ‘reserved powers model’ of devolution, in which everything is devolved except those powers expressly retained at the centre – as is the case with Scotland and Northern Ireland, though not Wales.

Article 149.3 of the Spanish constitution states “that powers not expressly attributed to the state under the terms of the constitution may be taken over by Autonomous communities, in accordance with the provision of their respective statutes”. Whilst health, education, social services, and culture are devolved to all, some have financial autonomy and their own police. In recent times the differences between the powers devolved has become reduced as further responsibilities have been devolved to all regions.

Germany is made up of 16 regions called Lander whose legislative competency is regulated by the German Constitution. The federal Government holds exclusive legislative competency in foreign affairs, defence, citizenship, currency and money, the unity of the custom and trading area. Whilst there is an impression that the Lander enjoy almost complete autonomy on domestic issue there are an extensive range of responsibilities exercised by both, including public welfare, economic affairs and agriculture. In practice the Lander have exclusive control over education, police, local government and cultural matters.

Italy is sub-divided into 20 regions with five having special autonomous status allowing them to legislate on local matters. The regions acquired significant autonomy in 2001 following a referendum. However, in 2006 a further referendum decisively rejected greater powers as it was seen by many as the first step to a federal state.

The five special autonomous regions of Italy keep between 60 to 100 per cent of all taxes raised and have to finance health, schools and infrastructure themselves. Sicily also gets additional funds, after keeping 100 per cent of the revenue it raises itself, in order to finance services. The powers held by the Italian state are similar to those of Spain except that general provisions on education are held centrally.

Austria comprises nine provinces and its federal character is guaranteed by the Austrian constitution. The provinces have legislative control over areas such as their own provincial constitutions, housing, regional planning, conservation, tourism and waste management. The constitution also provides for the provinces to implement federal laws in areas such as hospitals, electrical utilities, youth, and  well-being.

In Finland the Åland Islands have the only regional parliament and government which exercises legislative powers separately from the central Finnish state. However, it is not strictly comparable with the other devolved EU states since the Åland Islands have a population of under 30,000. Their special status is also linked to having Swedish as their main language.

Compared with the other devolved EU states the UK has two major anomalies. Firstly there is no devolution of power to either the English regions or to an English parliament – which leaves Tam Dalyell’s West Lothian question still unanswered. This is the position where Scottish MPs can vote on English domestic matters whereas English MPs cannot do the same in relation to Scotland.

Secondly, Wales has a conferred powers devolution model. This makes the Welsh settlement different from other major European countries which enjoy the reserved powers model.

Welsh devolution urgently needs changing to the reserved powers model which gives greater clarity over what is and is not devolved. It is a telling point that this is the method used not just in Northern Ireland and Scotland, but across mainland Europe. It would provide much provides greater clarification over where responsibility lies, which the Silk Commission should note.

As more areas of responsibility are devolved, then as with Spain the asymmetrical devolution will become more symmetrical.  The exception is England, the ‘elephant in the room’. It is unsustainable or acceptable that there is neither an English parliament nor regional government in England.  Whilst throughout Europe there is a variation in the size of the devolved parliaments and their competencies they all have devolution across the whole state with the exception of the Åland Islands off the coast of Finland.

One of the weaknesses exhibited up to now by those of us who support devolution but do not support complete separatism has been our failure to identify those areas that should not be devolved. Powers that should continue to be held at Westminster include foreign affairs, defence, citizenship, currency and money, the unity of the custom and trading area, benefits including the state pension, and overseas aid.  Whilst that is neither an exhaustive nor definitive list it is indicative of the areas that are best dealt with at Westminster.

However, the main lesson from continental Europe’s experience of devolution is that while there are many different ways of creating a devolved structure, all have the reserved powers model in common.

Mike Hedges is Labour AM Swansea East.

10 thoughts on “The anomalies of UK devolution

  1. Part of the problem for England, I suspect, is that the voices calling most passionately for an “English Parliament” are often from the political far-right – which is a pity because, as Mike points out, the idea is not an unreasonable one. However, the English don’t seem to have understood that an “English Parliament” would cover such a large area with such a large population that it would be unwieldy. Far better to strengthen the powers of county councils tenfold and reduce the plethora of borough, city and parish councils beneath them – perhaps even merging some health board responsibilities into the new mix as well. It wouldn’t be an “English Parliament” per se – but it would be a much more sustainable model to devolve powers more locally in the long-term.

    But I digress. Mike makes a strong point about Wales and reserved/conferred powers – but his article is frustratingly light on whether he thinks his Labour colleagues at the other end of the M4 will support such a change come 2015 if they find themselves in control at Westminster.

  2. I agree that there is an urgent need for Wales to move to a reserved powers model, and I hope that the Silk Commission comes out with a strong recommentation to that effect, which a UK government will find difficult to refuse. However, even that won’t begin to address the huge problems facing Wales after a century of neglect and underinvestment.

    Mike is weak on the differences between the European states which he describes. Wales, Scotland and Ireland are not regions, but nations. They each have the capacity, like Eire, to become nation states in their own right.

    The ‘British’ model has had its day. It never was a satisfactory solution, especially considering how it came to be in the pre-democratic age. Tensions within it have existed from its birth arising from its asymmetry. Those tensions increased during the 19th century. Eire became independent, and there were powerful Home Rule movements in both Scotland and Wales which were supressed but not eliminated during and after the Great War. Post 1945 the tensions have re-emerged and grown yet again.

    The direction of travel is unstoppable, regardless of the inertia in Westminster and Whitehall. If anything, the weak devolution settlements have fed the desire for more power to be devolved. Consequently the centre finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The unionist parties are in denial where Scottish aspirations are concerned, and are hoping the problem will just go away. It can’t, and won’t. The system just isn’t working for Wales and Scotland.

    Mike lists powers that should not be devolved, including: foreign affairs, defence, citizenship, currency and money, the unity of the custom and trading area, benefits including the state pension, and overseas aid. However, he makes no attempt to justify this apportioning of powers, but assumes that they are handed down as if from Mount Sinai. Unfortunately, the British Mount Sinai on the banks of the Thames has made a real cawlach* of running the UK, let alone Wales and Scotland. If history is anything to go by, worse is to come.

    Fundamental constitutional reform will happen in the UK, willingly or otherwise, like it or not, it’s inevitable. It’s better to manage the process well and end up with a solution by which the four nations can co-exist amicably in these islands. The war of words between Westminster and Holyrood doesn’t bode well for a happy future.

    *a right mess (cawl = stew)

  3. A reasonable piece of writing but I’m a bit concerned that you as a politician don’t seem to understand the nature of money. Money is widely understood to have 3 main functions: 1. A system of accounting; 2. A medium of exchange; 3. A store of wealth. Sterling performs 1 and 2 as do most other currencies but does it act as a store of wealth with the massive Quantitative Easing being undertaken mainly due to the profligacy of the last Labour government which has seen it drop for example by 25% against the dollar which has itself been devaluing against gold and natural resources. So, I wouldn’t fall too much in love with the pound if I were you.

  4. Sensible points by Mike Hedges about reserved powers and what should be reserved. My concern is that a reserved powers system, without significant additional devolution, would in Wales’ case leave an absurdly large reserved list. It wouldn’t just be foreign affairs, defence and the centralised stuff, it’d also
    include a huge range of anomalies including energy, bits of rail, teachers pay, policing, charity commission…it’s a messy situation. I’m not yet convinced Labour at Westminster would devolve these powers, although helpfully we now know the Conservatives and Lib Dems definitely don’t see the need for change to the current settlement.

  5. To do all requested above I would need a book not a 1000 word article. What I was attempting to do was show that the UK is different in having a large part without devolution and that Wales was annomalous in not having the reserved powers model. To David can I refer you to my article on the Euro in the western Mail on 8th November last year.

  6. @ Frank Cooper “Part of the problem for England, I suspect, is that the voices calling most passionately for an “English Parliament” are often from the political far-right –

    You suspect wrongly Frank, but thanks for the slur

    “However, the English don’t seem to have understood that an “English Parliament” would cover such a large area with such a large population that it would be unwieldy.”

    Yes we’re all way too stupid to understand that an English Parliament would cover, er, England;

    Can you explain why the British Parliament seems to have successfully covered a much larger population for a few hundred years without the accusation that it is “unwieldy”? Why therefore is an English parliament considered “unwieldy” amongst those clever enough to understand that an English Parliament would pertain to England?

  7. Irrespective of what people outside of England say ! “We English” want a ENGLISH PARLIAMENT with self determination the same as Wales Scotland Northern Ireland ! Democracy and Equality for ALL !

  8. “Mike is weak on the differences between the European states which he describes. Wales, Scotland and Ireland are not regions, but nations.”

    Catalonia and the Basque Country are also nations and there are independentists in northern Italy.
    Spain’s reaction would be one of the biggest obstacles to an independent Scotland joining the EU, but I’m sure Scotland would still be accepted.

    I’m surprised there’s no mention of the referendum on devolution in north east England.

    In respect of the West Loathian question, it should be pointed out that, as far as I know, Plaid Cymru (and the SNP?) don’t vote on issues affecting England only.

  9. I agree with Leo Christian when he says, “We English” want an ENGLISH PARLIAMENT with self determination the same as Wales…” (Scotland and NI have different models).

    Presumably he means that England should be offered a weak English Assembly with responsibility for counting civil service paperclips. After a few years we could then pass a new act allowing the English to make laws in a few narrowly defined areas, provided that each is approved by the Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish. Maybe a few years after that, if they can show that they can be trusted to run their own affairs and subject to a referendum we could let them pass laws in those areas without grown up supervision.

    Who knows in a few decades the English could even have reached the point where we can think about giving them tax varying powers or even a reserved powers assembly. We could even rename it the ‘English Parliament’ to make them feel like a proper grown up region. But that’s a long way off so no need to think about it yet.

  10. Leo Christian is simply wrong. The English do not want an English Parliament, most of them anyway, as repeated soundings and opinion polls show. He is in small minority. Nor do they want regional assemblies, as the North-East referendum demonstrated. It is pointless for tidy-minded federalists to try and carve up or carve out England in a way its people don’t want. The English don’t care if the Welsh get more devolution and they don’t care if the Scots do either, so long as the latter don’t keep getting too much money. They would also like the Scots to make up their mind to stay or go and either way stop whingeing. As for the West Lothian question it is not a question that 99 per cent of Englishmen ever put to themselves. England has about 540 of the 630 MPs in the House of Commons. They run the country; they know it and aren’t worried about piddling anomalies that change nothing.

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