Whitehall abjures more Welsh devolution

John Osmond puts yesterday’s evidence from HM Government to the Silk Commission under the spotlight

All is for the best in the best possible worlds for Wales and devolution according to the Wales Office and the rest of the Whitehall machine. Certainly, that is the impression you get from a quick scan across 113 pages of their exceedingly lengthy, dry, turgid, and largely irrelevant evidence submitted to the Silk Commission yesterday (here).

We learn that the UK Government “is proud of delivering our commitments on devolution in Wales” (mainly setting up the Silk Commission), and that it “does not believe there is a case for radical change in the boundary of the settlement.”

There is no engagement with the core question about the architecture of Welsh devolution. This is the debate around the current ‘conferred powers’ arrangement and the strong case for replacing it with a ‘reserved powers model’, as cogently set out by the Welsh Government in its evidence last week (here) and reiterated even more strongly by the Changing Union project on Monday (here).

Instead, there is an exhaustive examination, undertaken by virtually every department across Whitehall, detailing what is devolved – and more emphatically – what is not devolved in the 20 subjects in Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006. There are 22 sections in the evidence (apart from the Introduction), which cover the whole range of conceivable topics, from Ancient Monuments to Highways and Town and Country Planning, to Economic Development, Water and Flood Defence.

You get the impression that a junior civil servant in each of the Whitehall departments has been given the task to work out what their relationship with Wales has been in the past, should be in the future, and why there is no case for any (and heaven forefend, radical) change.

In the case of the Home Office a more senior hand appears to be at work. In the section on Justice a hint of outrage enters the prose at the idea that powers over police and criminal justice might at some stage be devolved to Wales, as proposed by the Welsh Government last week. The notion that Wales could enjoy its own jurisdiction, as is the case with Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, is dismissed as upsetting the ‘England and Wales’ identity of the men in Whitehall and Westminster. As this person states:

“Distinct aspects of the coherent justice system in England and Wales cannot easily be considered separately.”

He goes on to warn that setting up a Welsh legal jurisdiction would upset centuries of well worn custom and practice, and would cost rather a lot:

“England and Wales share a single legal jurisdiction, which has continued to evolve over hundreds of years to meet the changing needs of British (sic) society. We support the continuation of the current unified system, which in our view works well whilst offering scope for close working between devolved and non-devolved partners in delivering justice services in Wales. We believe that a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction would offer questionable tangible practical benefits to people living in Wales and could complicate the system unnecessarily for those who need to use it. We note that it would also result in substantial additional cost, which we estimate to be £105-£125 million per annum.”

A footnote to this paragraph says the cost estimate “assumes there would be a need to replicate many existing justice structures (notably prisons) and arrangements which currently apply across the border”. Why? There is a distinct sense that we’re being treated to a worst-case scenario.

There is a similar sense of suppressed outrage about the idea that broadcasting might be devolved, with all that might mean for undermining the ‘nation’:

“… there is no evidence to suggest that devolution of broadcasting policy or a different approach to funding the BBC would benefit licence fee payers. Essentially, the country as a whole benefits from pooling the licence fee, advertising revenue and subscription fees that go to fund the excellent broadcasting output of this country. This pooling of resources allows major investment to be made in a range of programmes that we can all enjoy – whether they are made in Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland. There is a greater net benefit to the nation and all its constituent parts in having broadcasting reserved.”

As for S4C:

“The Public Bodies Act 2011 makes clear that the Secretary of State [for Culture Media and Sport] must ensure S4C has sufficient funding to carry out its public remit. The UK Government considers therefore that S4C’s interests are appropriately safeguarded.”

Short shrift is given to the Welsh Government’s aspirations to have powers over large-scale energy generation projects above the present restrictive limit of 50 MW. The civil servant in the Department of Energy writes in the section on ‘Town and Country Planning’.

“We consider that planning policy and decision making for major infrastructure in Wales should be viewed in a wider context. England, Wales and Scotland collectively benefit from major developments in terms of economic benefits, security of supply and low carbon deployment. Developers welcome consistent planning policy and decision making to give them the confidence they need to make the very large investments required in, for example, new nuclear power stations at Hinkley and Wylfa, new connections with Ireland, and around £18bn of potential onshore network development by 2021. We consider that the current unified planning regime for England and Wales provides a stable platform for investment in major infrastructure both now and in the future.”

The Welsh Government argued that its powers over water supply and regulation should extend to the geographic boundaries of Wales, thereby for example, giving it control of that part of the Severn Trent water authority that supplies water from the Elan Valley to Birmingham. However, the Department of the Environment in Whitehall warns the Silk Commission:

“Any proposal to align the legislative competence of the Assembly and executive competence of the Welsh Ministers in relation to the water and sewerage industries with the geographic boundary of Wales, would have significant implications – including for the management of water resources; the potential impact on the stability of the regulatory regime for the statutory water and sewerage undertakers; investment and asset management; and the inter-dependence of the cross-border water and sewerage industries.”

There are just two areas in the document that I could find where Whitehall concedes there might be a case for allowing some further devolution of powers to Wales – over the railways and teachers pay. On the former the document says it would welcome the Silk Commission’s views about transferring the UK Government’s “residual rail responsibilities” over the Wales and Borders rail franchise which comes up for renewal in 2018.

The UK Government would also “welcome the Commission considering the subject of teachers’ pay and conditions”. However, this is because, contrary to the UK Government’s view, the Welsh Government has argued against moves towards localisation of pay deals and linking pay with performance. As section in the document dealing with ‘Education’ says:

“The school systems in the two countries are diverging at a growing rate, and it could be argued that devolving the pay and conditions of teachers in Wales is a logical consequence of deregulating teachers’ pay and conditions in England and should be explored.”

At the outset of the evidence, on the second paragraph of the first page, the UK Government claims, “We believe in devolution, and have demonstrated a strong commitment to taking devolution forward because it gives people choice and a real say over their own affairs.” Delve a few pages in and you find this sentiment contradicted time and again. Instead of being expansive in their approach, and seeking a stable and equitable constitutional relationship between England and Wales, these English civil servants seek every opportunity to restrict divergence and prevent any further development of devolution.

So much so, in fact, that it underlines the likely irrelevance of these views. Much more important will be the outlook of the next Westminster Government, following the 2015 general election. It looks increasingly likely that this will present a different political hue to the present incumbents. It will be interesting to hear the views of the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Owen Smith.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

12 thoughts on “Whitehall abjures more Welsh devolution

  1. John,

    The political objective of the Government’s document is so obvious and lacking in respect for the Silk process as to render it worthless and of immediate irrelevance.

    It is clear that they don’t see Silk as an objective and ‘scientific’ exercise to properly engage in, but simply as a brokerage. The Labour Government in Wales and most of civil society have pitched in with ambitious, ‘high’, bids. These were probably higher than the UK Government expected and have therefore simply come in with a meaningless ‘basement’ bid to equal things out. Anything more than this would have immediately taken the ‘mean’ negotiating floor higher than they are comfortable with.

    Those 113 pages are no more than pitching at 50% of what they perceive to be the market value, when the competition has already pitched at 150%.

    The saddest thing is that by doing that, they have walked away from the intellectual arguments of what the real ‘market value’ (or ‘right’ framework of devolution in Wales) is at this time and they will find it incredibly difficult to regain any territory in that respect.

    However, since they hold the cards, the game is over for the time being. And of course they knew exactly what they were doing. Any hope David Melding had that the Conservative unionist mainstream could start to vision a more federalist dispensation and narrative seems to be dead in the water.

    As you say, the circus moves on to camp Milliband. Modest levels of incremental devolution in line with Carwyn’s plan (and it has to be said very modest timescales) for the 2015 GE manifesto? Surely that’s a no-brainer for Labour HQ? Broadly in line with Welsh polling, easy vote winner in the heartlands if presented in the right way, keeps Plaid on the back foot, provides plenty of ‘anti-Welsh’-Tory-bashing material elsewhere…?

    We shall see. But it does seem that the findings of the final Silk report have been chopped at the knees by this paper and will therefore be timid and worthless or (if I’m proved wrong) sit on a shelf in Whitehall untouched and unloved by an ungrateful sponsor until a new Labour government comes along, whereupon it will be adapted and moulded to suit that party’s interests and probably implemented in a broadly partisan way.

    As per usual, it’s just sad for the chair, commissioners, staff and thousands of people who contribute evidence to these things really. Richard, Holtham, Silk…where angels fear to tread…

  2. I agree, as the Westminster Government holds the cards, it looks like the Silk Report will join all the other reports on the future of Wales that get ignored.

    I must admit I haven’t read the Welsh Government/Labour submission but the media reported that they wanted some further devolution (still leaving us with a weaker settlement than they gave Scotland at the end of the last century) sometime in the early 2020’s.

    If that’s the case I wouldn’t expect to see anything in the 2015 manifesto, but there may be something in the 2020 manifesto if they haven’t changed their minds. Labour have always been reluctant devolutionists so I expect to see their proposals watered down.

    If we are serious about devolution what we need is a non-partisan campaigning body arguing for a devolution settlement that has broad public support, and which is able to make the case regardless of which parties are in power at either end of the M4. This is how Scotland got its Parliament; sadly in Wales, tribalism rules the day.

  3. One irony in all of this is that the UK Government “would welcome the Commission considering” devolving power over teachers’ pay and conditions – the one area for which the Welsh Government has stated it would prefer not to take responsibility.

    On this point, it’s hard to fault the UK Government’s logic. The power over the vast majority of education policy is already devolved; “the school systems in the two countries are diverging at a growing rate”, and the current England-and-Wales framework for setting pay and conditions is about to be entirely dismantled by Michael Gove in favour or local pay (which is a misnomer; it actually means individual headteachers deciding the pay of individual teachers).

    Why, given these circumstances, wouldn’t the Welsh Government seize the opportunity to secure national pay and conditions for teachers in Wales?

  4. It remains to be seen whether civil Wales will greet the government’s pre-emption of its own commission with its usual lugubrious passivity or whether it will be able to kindle a spot of righteous indignation and make a noise about it.

  5. As a teacher I would greatly welcome the devolution of teachers’ pay and conditions as education policy in Wales is diverging greatly from that in England.
    Very disappointed however that the Westminster government’s report has brushed aside other policy areas that would greatly benefit the government and people of Wales e.g. police, water. I’m very puzzled as to why the Westminster government believes that it can provide better service than our Welsh government, there is very little, if any, experience of the Welsh language for example in Westminster / Whitehall which all public bodies, including the police, are obliged to provide information etc. in.

    A very poor submission to the Silk Commission that does nothing to serve the people of Wales from the UK government. What a shame they have missed this great opportunity.

  6. Is not Silk a waste of time?
    We should follow the Scots and demand independence now. The fact is the so called United Kingdom Government is not a fit body to run the internal or external affairs of Wales. Its not fit to run economy of Wales nor our relations with other countries. Its mandarins can see no reason to disrupt their incompetent empires.
    An example has been quoted elsewhere ” There are no jails for female prisoners in Wales,so the prison system must remain united with that of England.” Nonsense the question should be why are there no female prisons in Wales? The answer is United Kingdom Government incompetence. Its time we got shot of them.

  7. I would have thought it was in the very long term interest of ENGLAND to transfer as much power/responsibility down the M4 as soon as possible,and at the same time correct the public funding to a pound in/pound out basis. let us seperate BBC Wales out of the UK body and after paying for national(UK) services only receive whats left and it can be joined with S4C as part of the’nationalist’public broadcasting service. R.T. Where is this ‘civil Wales’,and can ordinary people meet them and discuss the real problems they face,and not mattters they could’nt care less about!!

  8. Yes I’m with Keith Parry here…lets have a referendum on independence NOW……or at least after we have brought in a law making it compulsory to vote in referenda. Wales can’t stand decades more of creeping devolution (or at least I can’t stand decades more of Nationalist whinging about what Scotland, Ireland the Basques, Catalonia…….have got that WE want).

    I am firmly of the opinion that our own s**t politicians are as good as any of the C**p in London.

  9. The only reason a ‘Calman-style’ Commission was included in the Coalition agreement document was to avoid discussing the Welsh-style Holtham Commission. It’s job done as far as Danny Alexander is concered. Trebles all round, as Private Eye would say.

  10. I think Keith Parry should meet Howard Morgan. Howard could tell Keith that the English transfer about £12 billion a year to Wales in public spending over and above Welsh tax receipts and you can’t be “independent” if the neighbour is paying your bills. Keith could explain to Howard that civil Wales does not reside elsewhere. Keith and Howard are both part of it. Wales is a democracy, like it or not, and we are all responsible for what happens here. Politicians are ordinary people too and will be no better than they should be if other ordinary people don’t take an active interest in what they do.

  11. The real hope for devolutionists now is that the Commission sees that the UK Government’s stance doesn’t reflect public opinion. You can tell from the first Silk report that they are monitoring all opinion polls, so there is some hope on that front. It’s interesting though that this UK Government is a Tory-Lib Dem one. Half of the coalition is supposed to be a UK federalist party (the Lib Dems), but this document doesn’t so much support home rule as it does direct rule. There’s also an interesting point to be made about David Melding’s musings about a centre-right federalism. The small obstacle of course is that his own party, the one he stands for at Welsh elections and the one he campaigns for and votes for at Westminster elections, is simply not interested in federalism. They’re not even going to give you power over bank holidays! Let alone the serious stuff.

  12. As a Cornishman i can, in genereal only look on the current Welsh situation with a degree of envy, but even so it just shows the reluctance that those in Westminster have for wholesale devolution for Wales. And of course this does not bode well for any future debate on the Cornish question either if Westminster is unwilling to debate on further devolution even for Wales. I think the outcome of the Scottish referendum will renew or end a debate on the future of all the other Celtic regions of the U.K..

    Just to quote David Cameron’s own words on the outcome of the Falklands referendum ‘We believe in self determination’.. Well, certainly to us here in Cornwall This couldn’t be any further from the truth and smacks of hypocrisy.. This government (and all the previous ones) have continued to totally ignore us despite massive public opinion (perhaps not well known outside of Cornwall). Without a continuing road-map and debate for Welsh devolution i fear there will never be one for us here in Cornwall.

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