But Secretary of State accepts two referendums have cemented devolution as part of the landscape says John Osmond
Secretary of State for Wales David Jones has an open mind about the Silk Commission’s forthcoming recommendations on our constitutional future. At least that is what he said in his lecture on Wales in the Continuing Union (here) to the Wales Governance Centre in Cardiff Bay earlier this week. As he put it, “I am open-minded on how we will take things forward in light of the Silk II report next year”.
Yet on every substantive issue Silk II is considering that David Jones addressed, he came out as decidedly against. His most important pre-emptive strike was to reject out-of-hand the notion that the National Assembly should move from its present ‘conferred’ powers structure to a ‘reserved’ powers model on Scottish and Northern Irish lines.
National Assembly supports Reserved Powers Model
In yesterday’s debate in the Senedd AMs voted in favour of the motion supporting a reserved powers model for Wales by voting 43 in favour, 6 against and 2 abstentions. A full voting record can be found here. Those AMs that did vote against the motion didn’t even contribute to the debate, and those who didn’t vote were either not present or were substituted due to absences.
Yet in taking this position he simply ignored the growing consensus across the political spectrum in favour of reserved powers. As Emyr Lewis persuasively argued on this site yesterday, reserved powers will bring “greater clarity, less friction between Cardiff and London, and respect for the Assembly as a democratic body”.
This is probably the most important change that Silk is likely to recommend and there is no doubt that it will bring substantial benefits. Not least, it will stop the Wales Office seeing its role as rigorously policing the boundaries of the National Assembly’s legislative competence. As Emyr Lewis also pointed out yesterday, the UK Government has never seen fit to spend time and money challenging Scottish or Northern Irish legislation. Yet the Wales Office took the first piece of Welsh primary legislation to the Supreme Court last autumn and for its pains was humiliated.
David Jones also announced he was against a distinctive Welsh jurisdiction which, again, both Scotland and Northern Ireland enjoy. He was also against the devolution of Welsh broadcasting. Responding to a questioner at the end of his speech he said:
“Broadcasting should be exercised at the UK level. Within a small country like Wales it is too easy for broadcasting to become politicised. I’m not sure either that the Welsh Government would have the resources to fund it adequately.”
The first point was simply patronising, as was much of the tone of his speech. On the second, if broadcasting were devolved, and particularly in the first instance control of S4C, then like any other devolved function, the appropriate budget would have to be devolved as well. Has David Jones read the submission to the Silk Commission made by the Welsh Conservative Group in the National Assembly? I suggest he takes a look at it. If he does so he will see it is far more nuanced on all these points. For instance on the question of broadcasting they say:
“Key political decisions in relation to broadcasting in Wales continue to be made at a UK level by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. However, public service broadcasters have an obligation to meet certain requirements in relation to output, much of which relates to competencies which are already devolved (such as the Welsh language, education and the economy). The Group feels this provides an anomaly which the Commission might address as part of this Review.
“It is the Group’s belief that broadcasters should be accountable to the Assembly for their work in these devolved areas. To this end, we are supportive of a mechanism for joint accountability to both the Assembly and the UK Parliament. The principle of joint responsibility is in existence already in relation to cross-border issues, so the Group deems this a practical approach.
“The Group is mindful of the strength of arguments which exist against devolving broadcasting. We feel our suggestion addresses an anomaly regarding accountability, whilst building a body of evidence, based on practical experience, which can inform the debate on whether further devolution of broadcasting is valuable.”
We have to assume that David Jones disagrees with all of this. In his speech he said the Welsh Government should “spend a little less time agonising over more powers”. Yet immediately he went on to say: “I am absolutely clear that I’m not opposed to further devolution to Wales”. In its evidence to Silk the Welsh Government said it wanted the following:
- Reserved powers on the Scottish model
- Limited tax and borrowing powers
- Creation of Welsh legal jurisdiction
- Control of policing and criminal justice
- Increased powers over major energy projects
- Competence for water extended to Welsh boundaries
- Full control of public transport – including rail franchise
Because of the UK Government’s delayed response to Silk Part 1 we don’t yet know whether David Jones will go along with limited tax and borrowing powers, which on the face of it he should support but wouldn’t go into in his speech. But he is obviously opposed to all the rest. So what does he mean when he says he is “not opposed to further devolution to Wales”?
Not a lot, it seems. The truth is that David Jones would prefer it if devolution had never happened. In the audience last Tuesday evening was former Welsh Conservative Party chairman Eric Howells. He made a blustering intervention about how devolution was pointless, only supported by a minority, and to boot was a threat to the union. “We’ll have Home Rule next,” he said. “That’s what they’re after. It will break up the union”.
David Jones clearly empathised, but responded, “We are where we are. You will say it never should have happened. But two referendums have cemented devolution as part of the landscape.”
What can we say about David Jones except that he is where he is?