Commission recommends more powers for Wales – but hedges its bets on independence
Wales should get extra powers in the fields of justice, policing, energy, broadcasting and rail infrastructure, according to a Commission that spent two years looking at options for the nation’s constitutional future.
The UK Government should legislate for the transfer of justice and policing to the Senedd, with a timescale for all parts of the justice system to be agreed, starting with policing, probation and youth justice.
The Senedd should be given full responsibility for rail services and infrastructure, ending the kind of funding injustice that has seen Wales miss out on funding because the HS2 rail project was classed as an England and Wales project, even though no part of the route will be in Wales.
On energy, the UK and Welsh Governments should set up an expert group to advise urgently on how the devolution settlement could be reformed to prepare for rapid technological innovation in energy generation and distribution so Wales can maximise its contribution to net zero.
On broadcasting the Welsh and UK governments should agree mechanisms for a stronger voice for Wales on broadcasting policy, scrutiny and accountability, with robust work on potential routes to devolution.
The report also recommends that the proceeds of the Crown Estate should be devolved, as is the case in Scotland.
But the cross-party Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales failed to recommend which of three options the nation should opt for, saying that is a matter for voters to make their own minds up on.
The Commission, jointly chaired by Professor Laura McAllister of Cardiff University and Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said there were positives and negatives in all three options: “enhanced” devolution, a federal UK and an independent Wales.
Considering the merits of the options, the report says: “In terms of accountability, agency, constitutional stability, joined-up government within Wales and appropriate economic policies, independence would in principle offer a significant advantage over protected or enhanced devolution, and would provide greatest clarity on who makes the decisions. But, in an interdependent world, formally taking control is not the same as having complete freedom to shape policy.
“Any independent country, particularly one with a small population and small economy will face significant constraints from the expectations of global markets and the trans-nation nature of many of the most significant issues, particularly climate change and sustainability.
“In contrast, in terms of capacity and cost, coordination of the planning and delivery of services across the currently internal borders in the UK, economic stability, flow of people and goods across borders and, since the negotiation of the Barnett floor [which ensures that the funding of the Welsh Government does not fall below a specified percentage of funding in England], public finances, the current settlement protected and enhanced would offer significant advantages over the other options. These would maintain economic integration within the UK, and as we are discovering with Brexit, this would be extremely difficult to replicate in negotiations between two independent states. At the same time, financial markets invariably react negatively to constitutional change and instability, and this reaction would be exacerbated by the uncertainty about the currency and the share of UK sovereign debt inherited by an independent Wales.
“Independence would require a redesign of the internal governance of Wales, including rebalancing responsibilities and capacity between the Welsh Government and local authorities..
“Many new national bodies would need to be established and recruited to operate functions previously run by the UK Government on behalf of Wales. These risks need to be considered alongside the severe disadvantages of the current settlement overall, which have led us to conclude that the current model of devolution is not a stable basis on which to move forward.”
Discussing the merits of a federal UK, the report says that it might seem to offer a desirable middle way, based on a written constitution defining and guaranteeing the powers of the sub-state governments, which would be a major step forward compared with devolution. However, it would require fundamental constitutional change in the way England is governed, for which it appears there is little appetite at present, and would require Scotland and Northern Ireland to make a much stronger commitment to a long-term future in the UK than seems likely in the foreseeable future.
The report concludes: “We make no recommendation as to which long-term constitutional option is best for Wales. Choosing between the options depends on the relative weighting given to the criteria in the analysis framework – and the level of risk and uncertainty people are prepared to accept. This is not a judgement that the Commission can make. Choosing between the criteria and evaluating risk is a choice to be made by citizens and their elected representatives. In presenting this analysis we hope it will help inform a reasoned and measured debate with citizens about both the opportunities and risks that constitutional reform or even constitutional stagnation can bring.”
On the basis of detailed polling undertaken on behalf of the Commission, the report says: “On balance, the majority of people in Wales support devolution, and many would favour greater autonomy, though their aspirations vary on the extent of that greater autonomy. Support for independence and for abolition of the devolved institutions are currently minority but strongly held views. Support for each has grown significantly over the past few years. The growth in support for these positions appears to reflect a higher level of political polarisation in the population at large.” Tory Secretary of State for Wales David TC Davies said: “The Labour Welsh Government’s commissioned report was only ever going to reach one conclusion.
“It’s a national scandal that, while Wales suffers the worst PISA and waiting lists in Britain, the Labour Welsh Government is wasting time and taxpayers’ money in wanting more powers and Senedd Members. Their focus should be firmly on helping the 27,000 people who have been languishing on an NHS waiting list for over two years and improving children’s education.
“Wales needs more nurses and teachers, not more politicians and powers.”
He added: “I would like to remind the Welsh Government and committee members that the United Kingdom has a proud, shared history and is not simply a “voluntary union of nations”.
“The future of Wales”
Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Wales Jo Stevens said: “This report is an important contribution to the Welsh Government’s considerations on the future of Wales and how its institutions can best serve its people.
“Labour is the party of devolution and we are committed to reinforcing the status of the Senedd, strengthening intergovernmental working and pushing power out of Westminster and into the hands of communities.
“A Labour government in Westminster and Cardiff Bay will work together in a true partnership, driving change across the UK after 14 years of Tory decline.”
“Path to independence”
Plaid Cymru Leader Rhun ap Iorwerth MS said: “This is a very significant piece of work and sets the tone for the discussion to come on the constitutional future of Wales and I’m excited about the possibilities that are explored in this groundbreaking report.
“It is crystal clear that the status quo and the limited devolution we have is not sustainable. Steps need to be taken immediately to build on the current settlement and as a party we will be urging the implementation of the series of recommendations on strengthening Welsh democracy settlement with immediate effect.
“As somebody who has always believed in our ability to take all the levers of change into our hands, to have a report of this stature spelling out unambiguously that independence is a genuine option for us as a means to realise our potential is a very significant step forward in terms of the constitutional debate in Wales.
“While we in Plaid Cymru will always embrace the ability to take on more powers, this report paints a clear picture that neither an enhanced devolution – and certainly not federalism, will provide the long-term answers we really need. While seeking that path to independence inherently comes with challenges, we balance that against what the report tells us about the rewards.”
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