By Harry Phibbs
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There is lots of attention being paid to Scotland's future in the United Kingdom (or lack of it) with next year's referendum. But what about Wales?
The Welsh Secretary David Jones made a speech last night which resisted the constant demands from the Labour-led Government in Wales for more powers. In an interview before hand he said:
"It's like a butterfly collector: here's a new one, I'll just pin it up on the board. We need powers for a purpose. Frankly, a lot of the powers they have at the moment are not being used."
"The model we have in Wales is the correct one. It should be a dynamic form of devolution that sees powers flowing backwards and forwards as and when required in a way that best meets changing circumstances."
In the speech itself Mr Jones could not have been more emphatic about his unionist credentials:
I am a proud Welshman, but I am also a Unionist, heart, mind, body and soul. I shall be campaigning vigorously in favour of Scotland remaining part of the Union, and I hope that as many others as possible in Wales’s political and civic life – from the First Minister down – will do the same.
For Wales there is not much of a debate about full separation from the rest of the UK – "even leading members of Plaid Cymru have rowed back from that aim. Support for independence has historically always been low – at less than 10% – and remains so."
However members of the National Assembly for Wales are keen to have more power. They would, wouldn't they? Just as, for example, local councils in Wales would like more power. Or the European Union would like more power.
I support the current arrangements for devolution in the UK as providing the constitutional flexibility with which the peoples of all the British nations are comfortable, rather than a one size fits all approach which I believe would satisfy few.
I believe that to federalise Britain would be to create a constitutional straitjacket that would stifle the flexibility which the current arrangements provide, and which are most suitable, especially, in the context of England and Wales.
There are some here in Wales who see the process of devolution in Wales as an inexorable journey towards the Scottish model and in so doing, by implication, seem to favour symmetry between the devolution settlements – whether within a federal structure or not. In certain respects it may make sense for Wales to have similar powers to those north of the border – the Silk Commission’s recommendations for fiscal devolution, which we are still positively considering, are certainly similar to the arrangements for Scotland.
But in general terms I do not believe that Wales needs to accrue identical powers to those that Scotland has or that it is desirable for it to do so. The differences between the history, geography, institutions and culture of Wales and Scotland mean that different arrangements for devolution in the British nations make sense.
Mr Jones does not regard Wales as subjugated by England. ("Henry Tudor’s victory at the Battle of Bosworth could be claimed (as indeed I once did claim on the floor of the House of Commons) as a Welsh annexation of England, or at least of the English throne!"
Furthermore Wales, "unlike Scotland, has a densely populated border country, parts of which are among Wales’s most economically successful areas. In many respects, the border is invisible, with English and Welsh residents passing across it in both directions every day."
Mr Jones opposes a seperate legal system for Wales:
There is a single, unified legal jurisdiction between the two countries. A jurisdiction that has evolved for over some five hundred years to meet the changing circumstances of society in England and Wales.
Let me say directly that I believe the unified jurisdiction is hugely beneficial to Wales.
Unlike some in Wales, I do not believe that the Assembly’s recently-acquired powers to create primary legislation warrant the establishment of a separate Welsh jurisdiction.
Indeed, as a lawyer, albeit one who no longer practises, I consider that there would be significant practical disadvantages to a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction.
There are, for example, issues of scale. In terms of the judiciary, the limited number of serious and complex cases, which currently are usually dealt with by the High Court or Court of Appeal in Wales, would mean only a handful of judges hearing these types of cases, with an obvious impact on the range of experience available for exclusively Welsh judges.
The benefits of interaction and insight gained by judges working across Circuit boundaries, or through participation in common training, would be diminished, and the relative lack of opportunities to gain experience and develop careers would risk Wales losing judiciary of higher calibre to England.
Similarly, Welsh litigants at present have access to a large, strong and diverse England and Wales Bar, with a wide range of specialisms. Splitting the jurisdiction would significantly diminish that access.
Usually the term "devolution" is taken to mean handing power from Westminster to Cardiff. But what of handing power from the Labour-led Welsh Government down to local councils? Mr Jones gave a pretty clear hint at this when he said: "I believe in devolution: devolution at every level, down to the right level."
Later on he gave an even clearer hint:
I know that it’s said by some that the 22 councils in Wales are too many, that Welsh local government is consequently too small for meaningful devolution to take place. Local government is one of the twenty devolved subjects, and the structure of local government in Wales is for the Welsh Government and the Assembly to decide. All I will say is that I feel very strongly that local communities in Wales should be empowered to take as many decisions as possible locally.
Certainly setting up the Assembly has not proved an economic panacea. Wales remains relatively poor:
Since devolution, the prosperity gap between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom has widened. In 1999, Wales’s economic output per head of population was 76.9 per cent of the UK average. Fourteen years later, it is 75.2 per cent.
The Welsh Government was hostile to business "the regulatory burdens placed on the construction industry, for example, testify to that." ("Why is the regulatory burden on business in Wales is increasing, rather than being trimmed. Is that really what devolution is for?)
Perhaps the sharpest comments were about the way the Assembly conducts its own proceedings.
When I visit the Senedd, I am often struck by how quiet it is, how few people there are in and around the building. And, frankly, how tame its debates are. It is almost serene, disengaged from the hurly burly of real life, something reflected upon by national newspaper editors at the recent conference held by the Assembly.
BBC Parliament Controller, Peter Knowles, said that some debates can be “grim to watch”, with AMs “typing and fiddling with their computers”. Following the conference, Kevin Maguire, associate editor of that well-known Conservative mouthpiece, the Daily Mirror, said of the Assembly: “Debates aren’t that exciting. Most Welsh Assembly Members don’t look that excited about them, so why do they think the voters would be interested?”
Compare that with Parliament, which is always full of people, bustling about, seeking out and sometimes haranguing their elected representatives, accessing and engaging in modern democracy and observing vibrant, but often rough and tumble, debate.
Mr Jones concluded with a call for:
Devolved arrangements that empower local communities and local people in Wales by divesting powers and devolving down to serve all of Wales. Not hoarding them in Cardiff;
And an agile, can-do attitude to policy making in Cardiff, stripping away the burdens on Welsh business that put us at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the United Kingdom.
The 1997 referendum result in Wales for setting up the Assembly was Yes 50.3%, No 49.7%. Not the most ringing of endorsements. It seems to me that it is an astonishing waste of money. The poor record of the Welsh Labour Government on the NHS is often raised. But Wales has also missed out on other important reforms – suuch as the free schools and academies programme, the Council Tax freeze and town hall spending transparency.
Mr Jones has not ruled out more powers for the Welsh Government but he is rightly sceptical. The real question is what can be done for force the Welsh Government to devolve some of its own powers? Or indeed all of them – real devolution achieved through the Assembly's abolition. How about a referendum on that?