Wales: A work in progress

A picture of the members of the Constitutional Commission during an event chaired by IWA director Auriol Miller at Hay Festival.

Auriol Miller, IWA Director and member of the Independent Commission’s Expert Panel, on the Commission’s final report, and where we go next.

Today the cross-party Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales publishes its final report

Set up as part of the Welsh Government – Plaid Cymru Cooperation Agreement, its objectives were twofold:

  • to consider and develop options for fundamental reform of the constitutional structures of the United Kingdom, in which Wales remains an integral part
  • to consider and develop all progressive principal options to strengthen Welsh democracy and deliver improvements for the people of Wales.

After two years of evidence gathering and analysis, public engagement with a cross-section of the Welsh population, complemented by new qualitative and quantitative research, it makes ten recommendations.  

The Commission has not recommended any specific preferred outcome – that is for the people of Wales to consider – but what it has done is set out the strengths and weaknesses, risks and opportunities of each of them

Three are to strengthen Welsh democracy:

  • Democratic innovation

The Welsh Government should strengthen the capacity for democratic innovation and inclusive community engagement in Wales. This should draw on an expert advisory panel, and should be designed in partnership with the Senedd, local government and other partners. New strategies for civic education should be a priority for this work, which should be subject to regular review by the Senedd.

  • Constitutional principles

Drawing on this expertise, the Welsh Government should lead a project to engage citizens in drafting a statement of constitutional and governance principles for Wales.

  • Senedd reform

We recommend that the planned review of the Senedd reforms should be resourced to ensure a robust and evidence-based analysis of the impact of the changes, including from the perspective of the voter and of democratic accountability.

The other seven recommendations are to protect devolution from the instability and vulnerability identified in the Commission’s interim report:

  • Inter-governmental relations

The Welsh Government should propose to the governments of the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland that the Westminster Parliament should legislate for inter-governmental mechanisms so as to secure a duty of co-operation and parity of esteem between the governments of the UK.

  • Sewel convention

The Welsh Government should press the UK Government to present legislation to the Westminster Parliament to specify that the consent of the devolved institutions is required for any change to the devolved powers, except when required for reasons to be agreed between them, such as: international obligations, defence, national security, or  macroeconomic policy.

  • Financial management

The UK Government should remove constraints on Welsh Government budget management, except where there are macro-economic implications.

  • Broadcasting

The Welsh and UK Governments should agree mechanisms for a stronger voice for Wales on broadcasting policy, scrutiny and accountability, and robust work should continue on potential routes to devolution.

  • Energy

The Welsh and UK Governments should establish an expert group to advise urgently on how the devolution settlement and inter-governmental engagement in relation to energy could be reformed to prepare for rapid technical innovation in energy generation and distribution, to ensure that Wales can maximise its contribution to net zero and to the local generation of renewable energy. The remit of the group should include advising on the options for the devolution of the Crown Estate, which should become the responsibility of the devolved government of Wales, as it is in Scotland.

  • Justice and policing

The UK Government should agree to the legislative and executive devolution of responsibility for justice and policing to the Senedd and Welsh Government, on a timescale for achieving the devolution of all parts of the justice system to be agreed by the two governments, starting with policing, probation and youth justice, with necessary funding secured, and provision for shared governance where needed for effective operations. 

  • Rail services

The UK Government should agree to the full devolution of responsibility for rail services and infrastructure to Wales, with fair funding and shared governance on cross border services.

Practising what it preached, the Commission openly shared the framework it proposed to use for analysing the three options – enhanced devolution, Wales within a federal UK, and independence – against the pressure points identified in its interim report.  

The Commission has not recommended any specific preferred outcome – that is for the people of Wales to consider – but what it has done is set out the strengths and weaknesses, risks and opportunities of each of them, and where further work is needed. The Commission considers all three options viable, but there are choices to be made, and issues to consider carefully.

As a member of the Expert Panel which supported the Commissioners’ deliberations and recommendations by providing and reviewing the underpinning evidence, I’m pleased that the IWA has been closely involved with the Commission’s work over the last two years. Being part of the Expert Panel has been a challenging, stimulating and a rewarding experience. Challenging from the point of view of wrapping our collective brains around a hugely complex set of interlocking issues and commenting on reams of densely argued papers; intensely stimulating because Commissioners and Expert Panel alike have all learned more about the nitty gritty detail having shared and considered issues from different perspectives; and rewarding because the Commission has produced a thoughtful and considered set of straightforward recommendations informed by both evidence and cross party deliberation. 

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It is these recommendations that must now set the agenda for the next stage of engagement with Wales’ people on our shared future. Each of us will have different views on this, depending on our current level of knowledge on how Wales is run, and specifically on how much we know or understand of the legal powers and the resources available to the UK or Welsh governments. And of course, depending on our own interests and political persuasion. 

One of my reflections having taken part in this work is how little awareness there is of the interconnectedness of so many of these issues. Experts in one field have been near beginners in another.  It has been an object lesson in the importance of continuing to learn beyond the boundaries of your existing interests and – crucially – experience. 

One of the issues the Commission sets out is that people in Wales, through no fault of their own, often lack a basic understanding of where responsibilities lie and how the actual delivery of policy is constrained or enabled by our system of governance itself.

And it is serendipitous timing that this final report is published in the run up to the first of the three elections Wales will enjoy in the next two and a half years. It should be required reading for Labour members currently choosing their next First Minister, for candidates standing for all parties in the impending general election (and particularly for would-be ministers), and – in due course – for candidates to our own expanded Senedd in 2026 too. 

Not that I’d expect everyone to agree with it all – far from it – but rather so that candidates have a better grasp of the evidence in order to argue their own points of view from a basis of fact, not of supposition.

There should also be a concerted effort by Wales’ public service media to serve up bitesize, accessible and digestible chunks of the Commission’s conclusions, to ensure that the Welsh public are better served.  Ideally it should be required reading for all voters too, many of whom – as the IWA has long said and as the Commission points out – would benefit from a more accurate media representation of the complexities of the issues within a clearer  system of democratic education.  One of the issues the Commission sets out is that people in Wales, through no fault of their own, often lack a basic understanding of where responsibilities lie and how the actual delivery of policy is constrained or enabled by our system of governance itself. How things are run, with what resources. Powers and money both matter.

Which is why our role at the IWA is so important. We are here to advance the education of the general public and promote research into the effect of socio-economic and political factors on public policy. We are here to inform and hold a welcoming and inclusive space for informed debate on public policy and its impact on people’s lives in Wales. And we are here to contribute to a successful, clean and fair economy and a healthy, confident and inclusive democracy.  

Unsurprisingly, our work over the last seven years has had numerous touchpoints with the Constitutional Commission’s interests: from the need to improve inter-parliamentary scrutiny of inter-governmental decision making, to our long championing of the role of the media in supporting wider and more effective democratic engagement, to our clear-sighted identification of renewable energy as a new driver of a successful Welsh economy.  And, of course, our scrutiny of the fiscal arrangements with which Wales currently has to contend

As the IWA, we have shared our research and evidence with the Commission through consultation responses, produced background papers to inform its subgroups looking at the powers Wales holds in relation to broadcasting and energy in particular, and participated in those subgroups’ careful exploration of their impact.

Constitutional issues are no mere luxury nor academic pursuit, they are the legal bedrock on which our lives are played out. 

As part of the engagement subgroup, I have also shared our own experience of public engagement, what works and what doesn’t when talking ‘governance’: going to where people are going about their own business, listening hard, boosting people’s own capacity for involvement and scrutiny through active engagement in what matters to them.

And in June 2023, on behalf of the Commission, I chaired a deep dive looking at different methods and experiences of deliberative democracy used in countries around the world, learning from practitioners and academics about what worked where and why. Citizens’ panels and assemblies are not a panacea but they are part of a series of tools and deliberative approaches that we should embed in Wales, ensuring that citizens’ voices are heard far more clearly and help shape our shared future.

So what comes next? At the IWA, supported by the Legal Education Foundation, we’ll be unpacking the report in open sessions, quizzing those who submitted expert evidence and getting them to go through the detail in plain sight, explaining the recommendations, and continuing to hold an independent space for discussion and exploration of the risks and opportunities posed by each of the three options the Commission has considered. 

We know that Wales is a work in progress.  There’s still plenty of work to be done so that the people of Wales can play their own role in shaping our shared future. We know that they want to, in whatever ways capture their priorities and interests most.  Constitutional issues are no mere luxury nor academic pursuit, they are the legal bedrock on which our lives are played out.  All of us who work in public policy must enable and support people in Wales, using the evidence we have, to shape their own future lives, and raise our collective ambition for what is possible. 

First things first though: read the report. Have a think. Talk about it with your friends. At work, in the playground, at the gym, walking the dog, at the bus stop or on the picket line. Talk about it with people you don’t know too. Because we should all know the basics of where we are now, and where we could go from here. 

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Auriol Miller is Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

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