Trumpeted by the Prime Minister as the “one of the biggest transfers of power” in the fledgling history of Welsh devolution, the publication of the UK Government’s command paper, Powers for a Purpose: Towards a Lasting Devolution Settlement for Wales, represents the culmination of months of cross party negotiations on the future of devolution in Wales. The aim of this process, at least for the Secretary of State for Wales, was the holy grail of Welsh politics “a clear, robust and lasting devolution settlement for Wales.”
Sadly such a settlement remains elusive today. This is not to say that today’s package does not provide some commendable steps forward for Welsh devolution. The command paper not only recommends a reserved powers model of devolution, but also the devolution of local government elections and of the Assembly’s procedures and electoral arrangements (essentially paragraphs 26 and 27 of the Smith Commission proposals applied to Wales). Not only would the National Assembly have the power to rename itself the Welsh Parliament, but it could also lower the franchise to include 16 year olds, increase its size and indeed change the electoral system used for Assembly elections.
In addition, the command paper reports a consensus on the devolution of “responsibility for all energy planning development consents for projects up to 350MW onshore and in Welsh territorial waters”, powers over sewerage, ports, the Wales and Border rail franchise and bus and taxi regulation. And there’s the rub, these areas, while worthy in their own particular way, are not the red meat of devolution proposed by Silk. Where is the devolution of policing, or even the commitment to review the case for criminal justice devolution in ten years time? Both form part of a body count of rejected Silk recommendations that is reminiscent of a Quentin Tarantino film, or even Titus Andronicus. Joining policing and criminal justice, we have the devolution of drink drive limit (despite the fact that speed limits are to be devolved and that both are devolved in Scotland), the requirement of the Welsh Government’s agreement for appointments to the S4C authority or of youth justice. Even relatively minor issues such as the establishment of a High Court office in Wales, or of a Crown Estate office in Wales are foiled by the lack of a consensus.
It is no wonder, then, that while the command paper recommends the establishment of a reserved powers model of devolution, the “illustrative list” of areas where reservations would be needed is incredibly extensive (see Annex B of the command paper). So much so that it brings to mind the byzantine model of legislative devolution provided under Part 3 Schedule 5 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 (a fear that is further stoked by Annex D’s reference to potential ‘carve-outs’ within a system of reserved powers).
Perhaps the biggest coup d’farce, however, arises in the command paper’s financial provisions. A Barnett Floor (explanation here) is not, despite the best efforts of Crabb and his colleagues, “fair funding”, but thanks to the ‘vow’ it is arguably the closest thing to it that Wales can realistically aspire to. It has also, during the past week, been the subject of a ‘Thick of It’ style U-turn from the UK Government. Initially proposed as a quid pro quo for the Welsh Government calling a referendum on income tax devolution, the floor will now be introduced without any such formal commitment. Instead, it has been agreed “in the expectation that the Welsh Government will call a referendum on income tax powers in the next Parliament.” One has to admire the UK Government’s optimism. After all, having sold the pass on the Barnett floor, there now appears to be no inducement for Carwyn to call an income tax referendum. The most egregious aspect of Welsh fiscal devolution, the ability of the Welsh Government to decide whether it wishes to be accountable, seems to be more entrenched than before.
This disappointment rather sums up the whole command paper. Some steps forward, but ultimately a document that, in itself, falls well short of a “clear, robust and lasting devolution settlement for Wales.” This is, of course, a baseline and we will soon discover what the individual parties themselves will propose in their manifestos. But, as Crabb himself has previously acknowledged, “we now have a unique opportunity to reshape the future of our Union.” If not now, when?
Adam Evans is a doctoral researcher in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.