In a fortnight when Gordon Brown proposed a federal settlement for Scotland within the UK, Nicola Sturgeon launched a new conversation about the support for independence north of the border and David Davis offered little in terms of detail on possible ‘Brexit’ arrangements to leave the European Union, it is important that Wales does not lag behind in engaging with ongoing debates about appropriate constitutional arrangements for these isles. This is because the economic difficulties and social challenges facing today’s Wales contrast considerably with the UK generally. Growth along the M4 corridor has brought real benefits, but has led to over development in some areas and increased the exclusion of already disadvantaged communities in others. Much of the rest of Wales is encountering low wages, poverty and out-migration of young people. Meanwhile, the UK’s financial policies have led to a gradual shift of resources away from Wales. This, along with collapse of the traditional industries over time, has led to our GDP lingering behind the UK average. The proportion of older people has also increased with obvious impact on demands for health and social services.
However, our health service is enduring the effects of under-funding with staff morale undermined by bureaucracy. The artificial distinction made between nursing and personal care has been particularly unhelpful, as it has delayed early medical intervention to prevent ill health. This situation is compounded by the Barnett formula not taking account of Wales’ ageing population, deprivation levels and the longstanding illnesses caused by lack of employment opportunities in some communities. Not only are the poorest the sickest members of society but illness itself is a key generator of poverty. Also, too many live in housing of unacceptable condition.
Wales is now at a juncture where an objective, realistic view of these challenges from a constitutional and global perspective is required for the longer-term. This is particularly relevant after June’s referendum result to leave the EU, as Wales is/was a net beneficiary of European funding to the tune of approximately £245 million annually. It is not enough to continue using the present ungainly legislative arrangements. As explained in my previous article, the establishment of a federal structure for the UK within the next five years is essential for our economy and public services to function with strengthened accountability, innovation and transparency—underpinned by policy platforms shaped on a Wales-wide basis, enacted regionally—so as to create a secure and successful future for all who live within our nation.
This strategically-focused agenda with the needs of people at its heart must support the wellbeing of all whether they are young, old or vulnerable; in education or seeking work; in good health or not; have dependents or are unattached; are employed or unwaged; and whether they were born in these isles or elsewhere. It is people’s ambitions and talents made real through actions that drive a nation’s advancement, so government has a key social responsibility in facilitating success, particularly empowering those who have been caring for others or unemployed to return to education and work.
Industries that have growth potential demand support including technology, tourism and renewable energy. Targeted investment along with improved transport links will help steer Wales towards a better economic robustness and social coherence. And since small businesses comprise the vast majority of all firms in Wales, our labour market strategy must address the needs of entrepreneurs and promote meaningful employer engagement in the design of vocational training across further and higher education. This in turn will facilitate strengthened progression opportunities for career enhancement.
Education creates a better future. It encourages people to understand themselves and their communities including culture, history, languages, career prospects and relationships. Our curriculum should place an emphasis on key global issues, transferable skills, employability and subject specialism, as well as Welsh and British citizenship. And since the modern world is constantly evolving, these various aspects must be delivered within a strong ethos of lifelong learning and continuous professional development if we are to succeed in staying one step ahead of our international competitors.
This aspiration is of a society where individuals understand their responsibilities to others and themselves. An empowered government with clear jurisdiction in Wales would be ideally positioned to be more imaginative in its attempts to prevent crime and reform offenders whilst placing a greater weight on the needs of victims and their families. Regretfully, we have seen significant amounts of public money directed by the UK government towards wealthy institutions which through unchecked practices have brought on financial hardships to many. These instances often have been progressed without the introduction of adequate prevention measures for the future, leading to significant public insistence for greater scrutiny and concerns about whether multinational companies pay their reasonable share of tax.
So we need a more balanced constitutional relationship within these isles. The Welsh emphasis on equality, fairness and opportunity for all has historically inspired many significant political developments as in England, Ireland and Scotland. This is a tradition that we should rightfully be proud of. An exploration of a federal settlement for Wales within the UK is therefore a natural step at this time so that we can move forward with still even greater aspiration and address our challenges. It is important that we engage with the presently thriving debate…
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