Fitting the different pieces together

Published: 2 March 2015

The current round of enhancements to the devolution settlements, including that to Wales, require establishing more formalised mechanisms for relations between governments if they are to prove enduring, says Dr Elin Royles of Aberystwyth University.

What a weekend. Wales has been ablaze in daffodils; Welsh cakes and many other clichés in a combined celebration of St David’s Day and a rugby win against France. The UK Government’s ‘St David’s Day Agreement’ announced to start off the weekend was also a ‘winner’ for Wales with recommendations that demonstrated a commitment to enhance Welsh devolution. Yet, the agreement’s discussion of the crucial Wales-UK level relations raises questions about its ability to deliver a more stable and long-lasting settlement.

Two aspects surrounding the Agreement take us down the Welsh devolution memory lane: its association with St David’s Day and the humiliating defeat of the 1979 referendum and similarities between Secretary of State, Stephen Crabb’s assertions that these are ‘long lasting’, ‘enduring’ proposals and predecessor Peter Hain’s claims back in 2006. Suffice to say that the Government of Wales Act 2006 constitutional arrangements enacted in 2007 only lasted to 2011 when a referendum moved Wales to full legislative powers arrangements.

Nevertheless, the St David’s Day Agreement signals a different devolutionary path. It’s the culmination of a process to achieve cross-party agreement bravely led by Stephen Crabb in the shadows of Scottish developments. In past attempts, achieving consensus on Welsh devolution was a narrower internal Labour party challenge. Moreover, the recommendation to adopt a reserved powers model of devolution (as in Scotland) to address the structural limitations of the current conferred powers model is indeed a ‘fundamental’ reform. Amidst the growing divergence between the parties in the aftermath of the agreement’s publication and in the run-up to the general election, a reserved powers model has strong support and should create clearer and more stable arrangements. 

Whilst there is no doubting the Agreement’s achievements, solid groundwork had been set by the UK Government-established Silk Commission. Based on rigorous evidence gathering, its second report on the Assembly’s powers produced carefully measured recommendations to place Welsh devolution on firmer footings. Consequently, engagement between the two governments was high on their agenda: points 3-9 in their 61 recommendations (with the reserved powers model ranked first).  Silk highlighted the all too familiar limitations of intergovernmental relations evident since the early days in 1999. What has been repeatedly raised in governmental reports and academic analyses continues: informal, non-legally binding arrangements and a dependence on good personal relationships. These arrangements have left Wales vulnerable on many occasions, including not being adequately considered in UK legislation or policy developments. In response, Silk’s detailed recommendations sought to introduce more robust mechanisms for intergovernmental relations. They include a statutory Code of Practice on intergovernmental relations; a role for Welsh and UK audit bodies in the joint audit of intergovernmental relations, and a bilateral Welsh Intergovernmental Committee to oversee relations between both governments and enhance consultation, cooperation and accountability. Overall, the aim is to enable both governments to work more closely for the benefit of Wales.

The St David’s Day Agreement is short on detail and explains that the recommendations are being considered as part of the review of intergovernmental machinery. Any changes will be ‘developed collaboratively by the UK Government and the three Devolved Administrations.’ Work to revise the Memorandum of Understanding, the overarching agreement between the four governments, signals an important step in this direction. Other references in the Agreement to bilateral relations between both governments use phrases such as a ‘commitment to working together’ and to ‘closer coordination’. They largely suggest a continuation of current practices and the related risks.  

Whatever the end point of the current round of enhancements, the asymmetry of UK devolution will remain. Quadrilateral features, such as the Joint Ministerial Committee, aren’t always the most appropriate for relations between governments under asymmetric arrangements. They would benefit from more formal bilateral engagement mechanisms that could be more attuned to the specificities and differences in constitutional arrangements and political relations between the UK and respective devolved government.

The baton has been passed to the review of IGR to take heed of Silk’s recommendations. The devolutionary journey has illustrated that relations between the governments need to be based on stronger mechanisms, including some legal underpinnings. They may be slightly dull, but they’re crucial if Wales’ fourth set of constitutional arrangements is to live up to the hopes that they will, in Crabb’s words, ‘stand the test of time’.

Elin Royles is Lecturer in Welsh Politics at Aberystwyth University.

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