Creating a clear and stable devolution settlement for Wales

Paul Silk outlines the main proposals in the second report of the Commission on Devolution in Wales published today.

Today, the Commission I chair has presented its report on the powers of the National Assembly for Wales to the Secretary of State for Wales.  We were set up two and a half years ago by the UK Government to review the Welsh devolution settlement and to identify improvements. Our work as a Commission is now over, but the debate we are stimulating is only just beginning.

Our first report, published in November 2012, looked at the financial powers of the National Assembly. We made a series of recommendations aimed at increasing the financial accountability of the Welsh Government through the devolution of tax and borrowing powers.   The UK Government accepted most of our recommendations. Parliament is now considering the resulting draft Wales Bill.

After publication of our first report, we moved on to the second and wider part of our remit. Today’s report ‘Empowerment and Responsibility:  Legislative Powers to Strengthen Wales’ makes 61 recommendations designed to lead to a clear, well-founded devolution settlement forWales.   We propose a realistic, phased timetable for implementation over ten years, including a Wales Bill in the next Parliament.

We wanted to produce a report which was evidence-based and that would be in the interests of the people of Wales – a report that would be focused on the needs of the citizen.  We consulted as widely as possible across Wales and beyond.  We held 16 public events all overWales, from Abertillery to Wrexham. We commissioned a major opinion poll and a questionnaire. We visited England,Scotland and Northern Ireland. We looked at the international evidence. We received over 200 evidence submissions.  We invited experts from a whole variety of fields to give oral evidence to us and we held expert sessions at universities throughout Wales.

We are immensely grateful to all who have given us their views and evidence. The evidence we received gave us the solid basis for our conclusions and allows us to say with confidence that our recommendations will be widely supported in Wales.

As well as being evidence-based, we wanted to ensure that our report was based on a clear vision and on a set of principles. These principles are accountability, clarity, coherence, collaboration, efficiency, equity, stability and subsidiarity – powerful words against which we judged each proposal we were minded to make. As in our first report, we also emphasise the same theme of empowerment and responsibility.

What did we find? That the current settlement was overly complex; that there was a need for Governments and institutions to work together better; and that there was broad support for further devolved powers.

In response, our report has four key strands: to clarify the settlement; to make powers more coherent and exercised at the right level; to enhance scrutiny and accountability; and to improve the way devolution works.

We recommend moving from the current conferred powers model of devolution to a reserved powers model.  A reserved powers model, which sets out the powers which are not devolved rather than the powers that are, would clarify responsibilities and allow more effective, confident governance.  It would also bring Wales into line with the other devolved administrations of the United Kingdom.

We considered whether the National Assembly has the powers it ought to have.   While the report proposes no reduction in the existing powers of the Assembly and no change in the majority of powers currently held by Westminster, it recommends the devolution of further powers in a number of areas, including:

  • devolving most aspects of policing while ensuring that effective cooperation continues;
  • a phased approach to the devolution of the justice system, devolving the youth justice system immediately with a feasibility study for the devolution of prisons and probation to follow;
  • completion and implementation of a review of devolution of other aspects of the justice system by 2025;
  • increasing the threshold for devolved consents for all energy generation from 50MW to 350MW;
  • aligning the devolved competence for water to the national boundary, recognising the need for further consideration of the practical implications;
  • devolving powers in relation to ports, rail, bus and taxi regulation, speed and drink drive limits;
  • strengthening the Welsh dimension of BBC governance within the UK Trust framework and transferring the direct government funding of S4C from the UK Government to the Welsh Government; and
  • specific recommendations on a range of other subjects such as the devolution of teachers’ pay.

We also make a number of recommendations to promote more effective scrutiny and performance within the National Assembly. We discuss some possible short term improvements, such as greater flexibility on the number and size of committees, increased numbers of research staff and better use of Assembly Members’ time, but we also say clearly that the size of the National Assembly should be increased so that it can perform its scrutiny function better.

Effective cooperation between Cardiff and London is crucial, and we call for more effective and more formalised relations between legislatures and Governments in both places.  As far as Governments are concerned, we recommend a Welsh Intergovernmental Committee that would oversee the Welsh devolution settlement.  It would play an important role in taking forward the move to a reserved powers model; in considering proposals for changes to devolved responsibility raised in the future; in resolving disagreements without invoking the full dispute resolution process; in monitoring EU developments impacting Wales; and in resolving cross-border issues.  We also recommend a number of ways in which the National Assembly and the Houses of Parliament can work more efficiently together.

The report also recommends:

  • improvements to public sector capacity;
  • greater transparency and better access to clear and comparable data across the United Kingdom; and
  • the sharing of best practice across the United Kingdom.

We have also been mindful of constitutional developments throughout our work. Our report is one of a series of events, including the Scottish independence referendum, which will shape the future of the United Kingdom. We have recommended changes that will allow both Wales and the United Kingdom to benefit whatever the wider constitutional future.

The current settlement is not sustainable and does not meet the aspirations of the majority of Wales.  Our recommendations would provide for a stable and clear settlement – a settlement that will better serve the people of Wales and bring to an end a period during which constitutional issues have overly dominated the debate in Wales.

I am delighted that our report was unanimous. We look forward now to some vigorous debate, but we also believe that our recommendations can and should be taken forward on a cross-party basis.

Paul Silk is the chair of the Commission on Devolution in Wales (the Silk Commission). The second report of the Silk Commission is out today. The full report and its Executive Summary can be downloaded from the Commission’s website (

12 thoughts on “Creating a clear and stable devolution settlement for Wales

  1. No offence, but who is Paul Silk? Who is this latter day Solon who so graciously charts out the next ten years of our supposedly democratic development for us poor, ignorant Welsh folk? If he claims the support of the Welsh people, let him stand for election as our leader – after all, we need one.

    His actual recommendations are entirely predictable – indeed they were predicted in 1997 by those of us who saw that devolution would begin a long uncontrolled slide towards independence, or at least quasi-independence.

    The only interesting thing here is that, although devolution was supposed to reduce an alleged ‘democratic deficit,’ it is proceeding in a most undemocratic way. Instead of the clash of ideas at the hustings, and on the floors of the Commons and the Assembly, major policy has been driven almost exclusively by a series of unelected committees of the ‘great and good’ – set up either by Westminster or Cardiff Bay. The promised bonfire of the quangos has become in effect government by quango.

    If we really want democracy in Wales, let the various parties think out their own ideas properly in advance and let the rest of us vote on them.

  2. “…….and that there was broad support for further devolved powers.” I think that I’m right in saying that you were tasked with bringing forward suggestions for measures that would be, as you claim, “broadly supported.”

    The problem is that there is no evidence that there is broad support for extending the powers of the Welsh Government. Both in the case of your ICM survey on Fiscal powers Devolution and in the case of the later Beaufort Research survey the conclusions on the popularity of further devolution were far out of line with subsequent, more focussed, polls.

    In the case of the ICM poll you headlined with ” 64% of people support devolution of income tax varying powers”.

    No subsequent poll has found anything approaching that level of support. The last two Yougov polls which asked about devolution of income tax varying powers had 35% in favour 38% against and, the most recent, 31% in favour and 42% against.

    After the Beaufort poll the conclusion published by the Silk Commission was:

    ““A combined total of 62%
    would like increased powers for the National Assembly for Wales (including 9%
    who wish to see full independence). Of the remainder, maintaining the status quo
    was more likely a preference (24%) than the small number who wished to see
    fewer powers (3%) or abolition of the National Assembly for Wales (9%).”

    There were problems with the design of Beaufort poll and I attempted to point this out in several posts on your Forum. Not one of those posts was published…so much for open discussion.

    To look at the last three BBC/ICM polls asking about further devolution of powers:-
    2012 In favour of more powers (including independence) 43%
    Against further powers (including status quo) 53%
    2013 In favour of more powers (including independence) 45%
    Against further powers (including status quo) 50%
    2014 In favour of more powers (including independence) 42%
    Against further powers (including status quo) 54%

    The repeated and settled wish of people in Wales, over a three year period, is clearly against further extension of the powers of the Welsh Government.
    In 2011 the referendum called by the Welsh Government asked for limited law making powers to be devolved to Wales. The referendum was portrayed as a “simple tidying up process” of the cumbersome LCO system. No further devolution of powers over tax raising or areas of responsibility was envisaged according to the Welsh Government.

    The people voted in favour and from that point forward we have been told that we in Wales have an appetite for further, apparently never-ending, devolution.

    We have no such appetite. It is, Mr Silk, a LIE!

  3. The Silk Commission was set up by and reported to the UK government at Westminster. Love it or loathe it, you can’t blame the Welsh Government for it or its recommendations. Moreover Commissions can only advise, they cannot make or execute policy so they do not resemble quangoes.

    Now I want to make a distinction which people don’t always recognize. Legislative powers or areas of responsibility are one thing. As other correspondents insist, it is up to the Welsh people ultimately how many such powers and areas they want devolved. Personally I have no strong views on the devolution of criminal justice, etc – just haven’t thought enough about it and happy to leave it to my fellow citizens’ preferences.

    Tax powers and responsibilities are different. Suppose we gave a lot of powers back to Westminster and shrank the devolved budget from £15 billion to £5 billion. Would it make sense to get that £5 billion as a block grant without having to raise any of it? Answer: no. A local or regional government should have the responsibility of raising at least some of the money it spends. That is a principle of sound public finance, whatever the scale of devolution.

    So the Welsh government should have some tax powers and responsibilities and anyone who believes in responsible government should support that irrespective of the scale of devolution they favour. At present if Welsh Government policy either retards or promotes economic growth in Wales it has no effect on their revenue. Moreover, if the block grant is excessive they have to spend it all anyway, there is no option of returning money to the local taxpayer. If the block grant is inadequate to maintain key services, they can’t raise extra funds, they just blame London. The Silk proposals, if accepted in full, would mean the Welsh government would still finance less than 20 per cent of its spending from its own taxes. That is not a revolution or a step towards independence; that just gives it the same level of fiscal responsibility as an English or Welsh local authority.

    There is a bad habit on this site of judging things according to whether they represent a move towards or away from Welsh independence. But Welsh independence is not going to happen, however ardently some people want it and other people fear it. It is a non-issue. So we can judge real issues on their merits. We don’t have to swallow Silk whole, either. But taxation? Come on, time to grow up.

  4. Mr Holtham, in response to your argument that tax powers would give the Assembly a greater sense of responsibility for the economy, the Assembly already has legal responsibility for promoting economic development. Does anyone think it has met that responsibility well? Is it a sound principle to give greater responsibilities to those who have failed with lesser?

    As for the future, none of the parties in favour of tax powers have come up with policies to use those powers in a way that is likely to promote growth. In fact they have said very little on how they would use the powers they want but the little they have said is not encouraging.

    Your argument has merit in theory but in practice Wales in 2014 lacks the political and business leadership to use tax powers beneficially.

    Moreover, with the very greatest respect, it is impossible, even naive to separate the financial question of tax powers from the political question of the drift towards independence. Silk takes us to where Scotland was 15 years ago, and even if Scotland votes against independence this year the fact remains that it is still on the political agenda.

  5. The issue I struggle with is the concept of the nation state of ‘Wales’. There never has been a unified Wales and I very much doubt that the people who live in the territory that is currently known as Wales would ever vote in favour of banding together to form a new country known as ‘Wales’.

    If we reflect on what is happening in Ukraine, Scotland, Spain, Belgium, the former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and so on we can see the dangers in assigning a name to a territory rather than to a group of like minded people, or a group of people that have decided to make a go of it together.

    There must be lots of people living throughout Wales that want to be governed in entirety by Westminster. Equally many others doubtless want nothing to do with such a place. Is it right that we force a form of government not of their choosing upon them just because they live in a certain area? Surely in this day and age we can do better than this.

    And if the likes of Lord Silk had been tasked with spending time on precisely this sort of an issue I think his time would have been much better used.

  6. “Come on, time to grow up.”

    OK. I take your point that I (and maybe some others) are rather immature about this devolution of powers business. Where does that immaturity stem from? Well if you, like me, went to school in Wales in the sixties you remember that Welsh schooling was the envy of the UK. As educators, we were head and shoulders above England right up to the late 90s. England drew level on examination outcomes about 2002 and stretched away from us from that point until the present. We won’t know how we compare with England in the future since we have diverged on examinations and moderation of exams to the point where only PISA will give us an occasional comparison.

    If, like me, you fell ill in the sixties you might very well have gone first to the old cottage hospital and then on to Alder Hey and down to specialist hospitals in London. It’s a trek to be sure but no one but no one gave any thought to the move across a border or about different areas of control and financial responsibility.

    In 1997 after a prolonged period of Tory control I voted, like many, for devolution. I did so for one reason. I wanted to ensure valued services stayed state controlled.

    What a mistake! Yes we have the ethos that I wanted but what has happened? With no credible opposition to Labour except from a similar left of centre party and with an emasculated Tory party that immediately decided that “Going Native” was the way to electoral victory, we have rule by concensus with not one political party deviating on major areas of policy.

    So my childish reaction to more devolution…of anything, is NO. And what’s more Gerry, take a look at that last Yougov poll on devolution of income tax raising powers. Not only is the majority against but the majority of all parties except Plaid are against. Look at the Tory voters: 71% against 16% for. UKIP has come out against devolution of tax raising powers and I expect that they will oppose Silk 2. The Tories will wake up soon (David Davies has already) to the risk of losing voters to UKIP and Labour will do some private polling and find that their voters are not that enamoured either and then “The Journey” will, I hope, go into reverse.

    All very immature but people are like that… What’s wrong with Policing in Wales? Are we crime ridden and anarchic? What’s wrong with the criminal justice system? Not a lot. Why would anyone want to change the system then? No reason of course except Nation Building. Without extra powers we can’t justify an extra 20 AMs…and another 20 after that…and all those extra civil servants ….and another £22 million office block in some obscure corner of the country.

    Enough is enough Gerry.

  7. I respect your views but they don’t bear on the point I was making. If there is a devolved government at all, however restricted its ambit, it should raise some of its own taxes. You can argue for a narrower ambit and responsible financing without any inconsistency.

    On taxation I do not deny that mine is the lonely voice. There is no great enthusiasm for income tax devolution on the part of the majority of Welsh politicians. Why be accountable and have to worry about your tax base if you can take the block grant and blame London for any shortfall? It seems you don’t think they are doing a good job yet you want them to have an easy life!

  8. Mr Holtham, in response to your argument that tax powers would give the Assembly a greater sense of responsibility for the economy, the Assembly already has legal responsibility for promoting economic development. Does anyone think it has met that responsibility well? Is it a sound principle to give greater responsibilities to those who have failed with lesser?

    As for the future, none of the parties in favour of tax powers have come up with policies to use those powers in a way that is likely to promote growth. In fact they have said very little on how they would use the powers they want but the little they have said is not encouraging.

    Your argument has merit in theory but in practice Wales in 2014 lacks the political and business leadership to use tax powers beneficially.

    Moreover, with the very greatest respect, it is impossible, even a bit naive to separate the financial question of tax powers from the political question of the drift towards independence. Silk takes us to where Scotland was 15 years ago, and even if Scotland votes against independence this year the fact remains that it is still on the political agenda.

  9. Mr Richards, well, the Tories want to cut taxes to promote growth. That’s a policy. The others haven’t said what they would do, it’s true but they would have to if the power were there. If their policy was different from the Conservatives’ wouldn’t you like the choice? After all you have been complaining that currently the Parties are all the same.

  10. Mr Holtham, as I have written elsewhere, I agree completely that an independent or autonomous Wales could, if it established a comprehensive low-tax regime, become very prosperous very quickly. My opposition to independence or autonomy is based on the knowledge that our current political leadership is far more likely to do the direct opposite. What the Welsh Conservatives might propose is therefore irrelevant: they are likely to have little or no say in the matter.

    As for a more immediate, post-Silk scenario, if I read some of your own previous writings correctly, I suspect we might be in agreement that a minor tax cut of a point or two off higher and basic rates would make very little difference to the overall Welsh economy. An increase, on the other hand, would be yet another straw on the poor camel’s back.

  11. This is a sound, sensible report which will bring a more settled and responsible devolution to Wales if, and only if, it is implemented in full. Mr Holtham and I don’t share the same vision for Wales but you can not fault his logic that having a government which has no responsibility for raising at least part of its own revenue is irresponsible and infantile. Indeed, let us grow up and start shaping our own destiny.

  12. Gerry Holtham is entirely right to argue that to have a more mature democracy you have to have some form of revenue raising powers. It really is a potential game changer in Welsh politics and that is why so many politicians are frightened of it. It is far easier to hand out the money and blame someone else. Local government has being doing it for years. It also leads to the absurd situation of opinion polls which on the one hand clearly show a negative approval rating for the Assembly government when it comes to service delivery. But then the same poll shows that as far as those who give the negative ratings are concerned it will make no difference to their future voting intentions. For most voters the 2016 Assembly election will once again be a referendum on the UK government. If Labour wins in 2015 expect the backlash as would have been the case in 2011 if Gordon Brown had hung on. If the Tories win then expect a rerun of 2011 with comments about if only Miliband had adopted Carwyn Jones’s strategy. It’s all immature politics. If you want t6 have a mature political institution that really engages the voter then it has to have a variety of direct revenue measures which affect that voter . Direct revenue raising introduces an element of real debate and real accountability into Welsh politics. It would be great to have an electoral contest between a tax cutting and small government Tory Party on one side and a Labour Party committed to using tax raising powers to deliver public services. As for the reduction in the number of MPs etc which many people fear that revenue raising powers will bring about . That is exactly what the logic of devolution based on Celtic nationalism eventually leads to. The potential loser in the long run was always going to be the UK Labour Party. It was one of he reasons why privately I argued in the 1990s that devolution on nationalist grounds was a major mistake. Unfortunately the lack of real debate on the principle of devolution in the first instance to Scotland and Wales within the Labour Party meant that no one thought through logically the possible end game. Just look at the end result of 2006 Act which many of those who voted for it believed would postpone full law making powers to some time in the distant future.. Devolution you might argue as far as the Labour party is concerned is a classic example of the law of unintended political consequences.

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