Wales divided over tax powers

Roger Scully analyses the results of an exclusive RMG/IWA poll on the public’s attitudes to taxation powers for Wales.

Today’s RMG poll for the IWA offers us some useful information about current public attitudes to devolution in Wales. Though the sample size of this particular poll is a little less than ideal, it nonetheless provides some valuable insights into a number of important issues facing Wales today.

The poll covers four matters. The first concerns public awareness of recent devolution-related events. Awareness is a difficult issue to get at via relatively short polls: uncovering true levels of knowledge is tricky to achieve without asking questions that risk making survey respondents feel stupid or insulted. Alternatively, asking people about how well informed they think they are can fall victim either to people deluding themselves about their level of knowledge or to them offering ‘socially desirable’ but quite untrue responses. To try to combat this (and in line with an approach commonly used in surveys) the question used here sought to reassure respondents that it was OK to acknowledge ignorance: 

“Some people have told us that they did not know about the announcements made recently about the extended powers being given to the Welsh Assembly. Could I ask you whether you are aware of these announcements?”

Despite the clear slant of the question, 74% of respondents said that they were aware of the announcements of extended powers, while 26% were not aware of the announcements. This is encouraging – three-quarters of people seemed to know at least something about what had been announced – although there was not space in the poll to explore further the depth of people’s knowledge. The general pattern observed in major surveys conducted in recent years – such as the 2011 Welsh Referendum and Welsh Election Studies – is that most people in Wales seem to have a decent grasp of the basics of devolution. They may have some more detailed knowledge in areas that touch directly upon their lives, but other than that the subtleties tend to elude most of them.

The second matter covered by the poll was the element of the recent UK government announcement concerning borrowing powers for the Welsh Government.

It has been proposed that the Welsh Government will be able to borrow money to pay for major projects such as upgrading the M4 motorway and similar types of projects that could help the economy of Wales. Do you think this will benefit the Welsh Economy?”

Given the highly negative tone of political debate and media coverage in recent years about deficits and government borrowing, I had expected that there would be substantial opposition to the idea of allowing the Welsh Government to borrow. However, the results of the poll showed a clear majority – 59% of respondents – believed that these proposed powers would benefit the Welsh Economy, compared to 25% of respondents who felt they would not, and 17% of respondents who felt that these proposals would not make much difference. The subject needs to be explored further, of course, but these findings do suggest broad public support for borrowing powers.

The third topic covered by the poll was the thorny question of income tax powers. The question posed on this tried to pitch the subject in as neutral and unbiased a manner possible:

“Would you be in favour or against the Welsh Government having the power to raise or lower income tax rates in Wales?

Note that this question is not asking about voting intentions in a referendum on income tax powers. On the question asked here, 40% of respondents replied that they would be in favour, 43% replied that they would be against, and 18% replied that they did not know. This compared with a question specifically asking about referendum voting intention, asked by YouGov for ITV-Wales in February, where the balance of opinion was 39% to 34% in favour (with the remainder undecided); and the Silk Commission’s research by ICM in May 2012 which – on a slightly different question again – found a 64% to 33% balance in favour of some income tax powers.

Some might see these results as suggesting a trend away from support for income tax powers. I think it would be unwise to conclude that – at least not yet. It is probably more likely that public attitudes are still rather inchoate, and thus highly sensitive to minor variations in question wording. We need more regular polling on income tax powers before we can say that a clear balance of opinion in the public on this issue has been established.

Finally, the poll touched on more general attitudes towards devolution. Here, and despite the apparent caution over income tax, the results were very much in line with what all major surveys over recent years have shown. There is very little support in Wales right now either for independence or for abolishing devolution. The overwhelming majority of people in Wales now support devolution. The major divide is between those who are reasonably happy with the level of autonomy that Wales currently enjoys and those who wish things to go further:

  • 12% of respondents were of the view that there should be no devolved Government in Wales
  • 5% of respondents were of the view that the National Assembly for Wales should have fewer powers
  • 37% of respondents were of the view that the Assembly’s powers should be left as they are
  • 40% of respondents were of the view that the National Assembly for Wales should have more powers
  • 7% of respondents were of the view that  Wales should become independent

In summary, this poll reinforces the consistent picture from evidence over recent years that devolution is now the settled will of the Welsh people. But while the fact of devolution now has stable majority support, the extent of it does not. And whether partial autonomy for Wales should include tax powers is something about which the people of Wales, as well as their political leaders, remain divided.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University.

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