‘Devolution is a process, not an event,’ or so claimed the architect of Welsh devolution, and repeated ad-nauseam ever since by the political class.
But devolution should never be about ‘process.’ Devolution should be about ‘outcomes.’ About lifting the sights and ambition of the Welsh people and empowering them with the tools to reform public services and rejuvenate the economy.
Alas, almost two-decades since Wales voted (by the narrowest of margins) for the establishment of the Assembly, our political class remain fixated on petty constitutional squabbles rather than on delivering what really matters to Welsh voters: growth, jobs, and world-beating public services. A cunning diversion, a cynic might conclude.
After all, fixating on the constitution deflects attention from Labour’s woeful record in Wales – a record which has seen Wales languish at the bottom of economic league tables, a record which has seen the Welsh NHS starved of vital funds, and a record, as the First Minister himself acknowledges, of taking ‘the eye off the ball’ on education standards.
The Wales BIll, which receives its third reading later this afternoon, seeks to draw a line under the constitutional squabbles which have characterised Welsh politics of recent years, by delivering a clearer, stronger and fairer devolution settlement for Wales that will stand the test of time.
The Bill, which I’m proud to have played a small part in developing, delivers a new Welsh devolution system. It moves the Welsh settlement from a conferred powers model to a reserved powers model, similar to what currently operates in Scotland.
This will provide for a clearer devolution settlement which not only make devolution work better, but also provide greater accountability to the Welsh people.
Along with a new reserved powers model, the Bill devolves a bold package of new powers over energy, transport and local government and Assembly elections – powers that will transform the Assembly into one of the most powerful devolved legislatures in the world and which can make a real difference to the lives of people in Wales.
These new powers are in addition to decisions taken at the last Spending Review to introduce a historic floor in the level of relative funding provided to the Welsh Government and to remove the need for a referendum before the partial devolution of income tax powers.
The Welsh Government’s cavalier attitude to public money will become a thing of the past, as it becomes more accountable to the people of Wales for how it raises and spends its money.
As with any major piece of constitutional legislation, the Bill has not been without controversy.
Understandably, the decision to partially devolve income tax powers without a referendum has caused some unease amongst Conservative colleagues, fearing that Labour’s impulse will be to raise taxes on middle-income earners until their ‘pips squeak.’
Yet income tax devolution could prove a major gamechanger for centre-right forces in Wales. As we saw in Scotland, income tax devolution has shifted the debate from the constitution to debates around taxation and public expenditure, making the Conservative party relevant once again in what was arguably, until recently, a socialist bastion (mind you, a charismatic leader also helps!)
The Government’s insistence on maintain the single legal jurisdiction between England and Wales was another major pinch point to arise during the Bill’s pre-legislative scrutiny.
Others, including the Welsh First Minister, and a not inconsiderable strain of learned legal opinion, favoured establishing a distinct, if not separate legal jurisdiction (as in Scotland and Northern Ireland) to take account of Wales’s distinct legal identity and ever diverging laws.
Other outstanding questions to be addressed include the way in which the block grant will be adjusted to take account of tax devolution. As a recent Wales Governance Centre report highlighted, a huge hole could be blown in Welsh public finances if this is done incorrectly.
As we saw in Scotland, we can expect a pretty protracted negotiation between UK and Welsh Governments over the Welsh fiscal framework. The Secretary of State of State will need draw upon all his charm and powers of persuasion to thrash out a deal with the First Minister.
Whilst the bill is silent on the issue, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union should inject some urgency into reappraising the formal machinery of intergovernmental relations between Whitehall and the devolved administrations (especially if the UK Government is to successfully square its negotiating position with the devolved administrations).
This has prompted some to argue for the establishment of a constitutional convention. Historic experience should caution against this. The last Royal Commission on the constitution took four years to report, producing sixteen volumes of evidence along with a separate memorandum of dissent.
Nevertheless, the piecemeal and often ad-hoc approach of successive Governments to constitutional reform is no longer satisfactory. As the House of Lords Committee on the Constitution recently concluded, if a strong and durable democratic settlement is to be secured for the UK it must be built upon the two founding principles of ‘devolution and union’ and applied to all four corners of the UK.
This constitutional agenda should not require a huge leap of faith. Conservatives conceives of the UK as a union of distinct territorial identities. It would be a fulfilment of that vision, not a departure from it, to develop a quasi-federal UK.
The substance of this new quasi-federal order could be underpinned by a new Act of Union. I am not alone in Conservative circles in favouring such a settlement, with such views shared by colleagues in Scotland and Wales.
As ever, the constitutional elephant in the room remains England. By far the largest constituent nation within the Union, an English Parliament would rival the authority and supremacy of the UK Parliament, whilst efforts to divide England into semi-autonomous regions have sensibly been shelved.
Following the experiment of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ by House of Commons standing orders, one solution might be to enshrine a more permanent role and position for the English Grand Committee within the new Act of Union.
In the long-term, it remains to be seen whether No 10 has any appetite to exhaust political capital on constitutional questions. As for today, I wish the Wales Bill a safe and successful parliamentary passage. It is just one of a number of moving parts in an often complex constitutional jigsaw.
The Bill has not been without its controversy, nor has it generated the universal enthusiasm of the public or the political class. But on balance, the Bill gets it just about right. It keeps pace with the appetite of the Welsh people for greater devolution, building a stronger Wales within a strong United Kingdom.
As our Prime Minister herself affirmed on the steps of Downing street, this is the mission to which all Conservatives must now dedicate themselves with renewed zeal.