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.

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