Further powers for the assembly now is a mistake

Chris Davies MP expresses his concerns over the Wales Bill.

I am grateful to have the opportunity of writing for the Institute of Welsh Affairs. Not just because, as proud Welshman, I get to show my nationalistic pride, but also because the Institute has frequently campaigned for the cultural, social, political and economic well-being of Wales – something I too wish to use my time in the House of Commons to echo.

The Wales Bill, brought before the House recently, aims to devolve further powers to the Welsh Assembly. Powers over issues such as tax, ports and transport are all aiming to be devolved, and I wanted to support it, I really did. Reading through the Conservative Party Manifesto, on which I was elected, I believed we would be bringing forward a Wales Bill that would settle devolution once and for all and make us a stronger nation overall. A stronger nation playing its part in a United Kingdom.

But I, like other MPs was to be disappointed. There were many issues I had with the Bill but I shall restrain myself and cover only a couple of them here. Mainly, the timing of the Bill and the abolition of a referendum on tax raising powers.

The timing of the Wales Bill could not have been worse. We have just had an Assembly election that returned a ‘no overall majority’ vote, which to my mind is hardly a ringing endorsement of the competence of the Welsh Assembly Government. Further, our economy is just chugging back into life but faces uncertainty through the fallout of the recent EU referendum. So not the best timing.

To devolve further powers now to the Assembly is, in my view, a mistake. We need to devolve powers at a time when the Welsh Assembly is strong and capable of handling new powers in order that they can make the best of them. After all, we currently have (essentially) the same Assembly government who have presided over failing education standards, consistently missed health targets, and who reduced the agriculture budget and left the rural welsh voice silenced around the Cabinet table. This is the same Assembly government who paid around £50,000 for a wind turbine for the Assembly buildings that created £5 worth of electricity a year before being switched off. The same Assembly Government who has presided over one incompetence after another.

Giving this Assembly more powers, at a time in which they cannot responsibly use the powers they have, to me is like hiring the same cowboy builder, who built you an unstable house, to come and build you an extension. It is piling more Jenga bricks on top of a wobbly tower to try and make it more stable. It just doesn’t work.

Another section of the Bill that, for me, does not work is the removal of the need for a referendum on tax raising powers. The former colonies demanded “no taxation without representation” and I looked to echo this sentiment in my speech on this Bill in the House.

The Manifesto I stood on, and the pledge I made to many of my constituents, was that the Welsh Assembly would not get tax raising powers if the Welsh people did not want them to. The way we were to find out if the Welsh people want the Assembly to have tax raising powers was through a nationwide referendum. It was in black and white on page 70 of our Manifesto, but reading through the Wales Bill it had been erased.

A referendum would give the Welsh people the chance to have their say over how they would like to be governed. In a democracy as strong as ours, this is a fundamental right that the people of Wales deserve as giving the Assembly tax raising powers is a fundamental shift towards separate Government from Westminster. It is therefore only right that the Welsh people are given the chance to decide if that is something they want. We have seen the rise of nationalism in Scotland and the troubles in Northern Ireland and so it is only right and proper that the people have the opportunity to have their say on the issues that affect them.

I know that the country may be tiring of Referendums, I know I am, but my view is that a referendum on tax raising powers is a fundamental pillar of democracy that the Welsh devolution settlement should be built upon. We are not a colony, nor will we ever be, so I shall propose a similar edict to our colonial forefathers – no taxation without consultation.

Since the Welsh Assembly was first established in 1997, we are yet to have a devolution settlement to settle devolution once and for all. We first had the Government of Wales Act 1998, then the Government of Wales Act 2006 and now the Wales Bill of 2016, it seems never ending. It is time to have a final settlement for Wales that doesn’t end in a comma, but a full stop.

I believe in a strong Wales, playing its part in a United Kingdom. At a time when our Welsh economy is just grunting back into life, with businesses starting to create jobs and increase investment, and a time of political fallout from the Assembly elections and the recent EU referendum, we need a final settlement that looks to create that strong Wales. I am not convinced that this is that settlement.

Chris Davies MP is the MP for Brecon and Radnorshire.

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