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Relations fraught between the Welsh and UK governments, Drakeford says in 12-month review

18 Jul 2023 15 minute read
First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford. Photo Picture by Peter Byrne / PA

Martin Shipton

Relations between the UK and Welsh governments were often fraught during the 12 months up to March 2023, according to a written statement issued by First Minister Mark Drakeford.

He said: ”The Welsh Government has continued to benefit from strong relationships with the other devolved governments and with British-Irish Council member administrations outside the UK during this period.

“There have been areas in which constructive joint work and dialogue has been possible with the UK Government, for example in relation to aspects of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, and in relation to Ukraine.

“However, the UK Government’s attempts to undermine the devolution settlement and its continued disrespect for the Welsh Government and the Senedd during much of this period has impaired intergovernmental working and damaged the union of the United Kingdom.

“The UK Government’s Shared Prosperity Fund and its repeated breaches of the Sewel Convention [under which the Senedd can decide to withhold consent for Westminster legislation impinging on devolved policy areas] are particular illustrations of this. However, more recently, the agreement reached in late March to develop two freeports in Wales shows what is possible when the UK Government seeks to work openly and jointly.”

Strengthen devolution

Mr Drakeford stated that the circumstances arising from the UK’s exit from the EU and also Covid-19 had improved knowledge and understanding within the UK Government of the Senedd and Welsh Government’s roles and responsibilities and had highlighted the need to strengthen devolution to secure the future of the Union.

The response to Covid-19 brought devolution to the fore in Wales and elsewhere. People across the UK now had a wider appreciation of what having four governments and legislatures really means, and how the powers of our institutions interact.

However, the wider picture on UK legislation was not positive. The First Minister stated: “Late engagement from Bill teams in the UK Government, alongside unwillingness to share information and drafting, are symptoms of a disregard for the legitimate interest the Welsh Government and Senedd have in UK legislation which touches on devolved issues.

“As a result, of the UK Bills introduced during 2022 the Senedd refused consent to the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill; the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill; the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill; the Procurement Bill (in part) and the Retained EU Law Bill.

“The UK Government has proceeded to ignore the Senedd’s clear refusal of consent in breach of the Sewel convention – the Precision Breeding and Trade Bills are now law.

“As of March 31, the Welsh Government has also recommended consent be withheld in relation to the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, the Illegal Migration Bill and the majority of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.

“More widely, the constitutional structures of the UK have been fundamentally tested. The UK Government’s decision to use s35 of the Scotland Act to prevent legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament in relation to gender recognition from becoming law marked a dangerous moment. Meanwhile, the lack of an executive in Northern Ireland has left one part of the UK without a functioning ministerially-led devolved government. These pressures have prompted more general public discussion about the proper functioning of the constitution of the UK as a whole.”

Independent Commission

Mr Drakeford said that in the autumn of 2021, the Welsh Government had established the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, which forms part of the Co-Operation Agreement with Plaid Cymru.

The commission has been tasked with developing options for the fundamental reform of the UK’s constitutional structures, and with considering and developing options to strengthen Welsh democracy and deliver improvements for the people of Wales.

The commission published its interim report in December 2022. The commission highlighted the fragility of intergovernmental relations as a key pressure point in the current constitutional arrangements. They noted in their interim report that the machinery for intergovernmental relations operates at the discretion of the UK Government, and its reduced engagement in recent years had coincided with its willingness to override conventions. This enabled unilateral decision-making which does not contribute to the best outcomes for citizens.

In terms of the pandemic, Mr Drakeford said: “During 2021-2022 the Welsh Government continued to focus on the response to the most significant public health emergency of our time. The Welsh Government continued to lead a careful and evidence informed response to the pandemic in Wales, working in partnership with the other UK nations and working closely with our partners, leading on our substantial devolved responsibilities.

“Engagement with the UK government on Covid-19 has been mixed, and while there are positives to draw on and close engagement across the four nations in some areas, there have also been long periods of only minimal contact with UK ministers and too often developments have emerged through the press and stakeholders before the UK Government has engaged on an intergovernmental level with Welsh Government.

“In the early stages of the pandemic, the First Minister and Minister for Health and Social Services attended COBR meetings. COBR brings together senior ministers and officials from UK Government departments and the devolved governments to provide high-level coordination and decision making in response to the pandemic. The last COBR meeting the Minister for Health and Social Services attended was on January 1 2021.

“Routine meetings between ministers remained in place during 2021/2022 but following the peak of the Omicron wave in January we saw a divergence in transition arrangements and timing of removal of legal restrictions across nations during 2022. Funding discussions for 2022/2023 were challenging with the UK Government due to a significant reduction in funding and intergovernmental arrangements as emphasis moved to nations developing their own transition arrangements and plans for living with Covid-19 focusing on protecting the most vulnerable. Changes in Ministers in the UK Government have also impacted the level of engagement.”

Ukraine

On the issue of Ukraine, Mr Drakeford said: “There has been significant intergovernmental working on the Homes for Ukraine visa scheme since its launch in March 2022. The UK Government has led a four-nation approach, with weekly senior officials meetings and a regular pattern of inter ministerial engagement.

“For the first six months, discussions were focused on operational issues to ensure the scheme was rolled out and worked across all the devolved administrations, taking into account different approaches on issues in non-devolved areas such as safeguarding, transport and education. This engagement has been maintained as the scheme developed and the numbers of arrivals increased sharply during the summer months.

“Ongoing ministerial engagement has focused on parity of support for different cohorts arriving under various visa routes, funding for integration tariffs and hosts and the longer-term plans for the programme. These discussions escalated from December 2022 following the UK Government’s decision to cut integration tariff funding from January 1 2023.

“With the exception of the funding cuts mentioned above, the intergovernmental working on the Ukraine response has been a good example of how the UK Government and the Welsh Government can work constructively to support the integration of migrants in our communities. We are encouraging the UK Government to replicate the respect for devolution, the access to data and constructive engagement we have had through this scheme in relation to schemes relating to Afghanistan, Hong Kong, the asylum system and refugee resettlement.

“Our engagement with the UK Government in relation to other protection-based migration schemes has been less positive. There is regular engagement between the Welsh Government and Home Office/Department for Levelling Up officials in respect of Afghanistan and Hong Kong schemes but the Welsh Government is frequently not provided with sufficient data or advance notice of proposed policy changes to enable the most effective delivery possible.

“In relation to the asylum system, the Welsh Government is provided with very little data and there is no regular bilateral engagement between ministers or officials to ensure policy changes are understood and likely devolution impacts are understood in advance. The Inter Ministerial Group on Security, Safety and Migration has only met once and the Minister for Social Justice and Chief Whip has separately had just one meeting with the current Minister for Immigration, Robert Jenrick MP.

“The asylum system continues to rely heavily on devolved public services, including healthcare services, education services and local government, but the Welsh Government is not consulted adequately to understand and prepare for changes and appropriate funding is not made available by the UK Government.

“Welsh Ministers are now notified of Home Office intentions to procure asylum accommodation with 24 hours’ notice. This is a limited improvement on previous circumstances, but often Welsh Government questions about proposals cannot be answered by Home Office counterparts in a timely manner.

“While the immigration and asylum system is reserved, the responsibility for integrating those residing in Wales rests with the Welsh Government. UK government departments with equivalent responsibilities (Department for Education; Department of Health; Department for Levelling Up) are engaged in cross-Whitehall planning for integration support but such engagement is not offered to the Welsh Government.”

Brexit

Referring to issues arising as a result of Brexit, Mr Drakeford said: “The UK Internal Market Act received Royal Assent without the consent of the Senedd or Scottish Parliament. The Act is problematic for devolution and has the potential to undermine the progress made through the Common Frameworks programme. The Welsh Government subsequently initiated legal action challenging parts of the Act and its purported impact on the devolution settlement. The Supreme Court dismissed this action on the basis that it was premature in the absence of any practical examples in the form of Senedd legislation against which to test the issues under consideration.

“However, the Welsh Government maintains its position advanced in the litigation and will continue to monitor opportunities for further challenges in the future. The UK Government’s use of the financial assistance powers within the Act nevertheless continues to undermine devolution and represent poor value for money for the taxpayer.

“Prior to the Autumn Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review in October 2021, we asked the UK Government to work with us and provide funding to support the long-term remediation and repurposing of coal tips in Wales. We also pressed for clarity on the Shared Prosperity Fund and none was forthcoming. Ahead of the UK Spring Statement in March 2022, the UK Government fiscal events of autumn 2022 and the UK Government Budget in March 2023, the primary focus of our engagement with the UK Government was to press for urgent action to address the cost-of-living crisis and invest in public services.

“No or limited information was provided by the UK Government in advance of its fiscal events despite the implications for the devolved nations, including our own budget planning and Senedd scrutiny. We were only notified of the UK Government’s cost of living package in February 2022 on the morning of the Chancellor’s Statement.

“There have been occasions where the UK government has worked with us positively and constructively, for example, in relation to freeports where the UK government showed willingness to work as equal partners. This is an example of how we can work together and bring our different powers, levers and expertise to deliver for Wales. This way of working needs to be applied to other areas including the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) and Levelling Up Fund, where funding should come directly to the Welsh Government so that all sectors can benefit from these programmes.

“As a replacement to EU funding, the SPF not only leaves Wales £1.1bn short compared to EU Structural and Rural funds, but also sets up a funding system that: bypasses the Welsh Government and the Senedd; excludes key growth sectors including universities, colleges and the voluntary sector; prevents high-impact strategic projects; and puts unacceptable demands on our local authorities.

“The poor design and delivery of the scheme is clear. Funding under the SPF for the financial year 2022/2023 was only released to local authorities at the end of January 2023 (the UK government was due to approve the plans and start payments in October 2022). To ensure that spending is completed as required by March 31 2025, SPF project activity will need to cease by December 2024. This means that despite being a three-year scheme, the SPF will only have around 18 months of project delivery.

“The smaller and narrower scope of the SPF compared to the EU funding programmes is having a real impact on the economy and skills in Wales. The UK Government is also top-slicing the SPF to support a UK Government adult numeracy scheme called Multiply, while denying us funding to support strategic priorities like Business Wales, SMART Cymru and apprenticeships.

“Not only is Multiply poorly designed and beset by delays, but it also encroaches on a devolved policy area, is too narrow in focus and risks duplicating provision in Wales. We have continued to raise our concerns with the UK government that its approach to SPF fragments the funding landscape in Wales, puts at risk established ways of regional working and passes responsibility to local authorities to deal with the consequences.”

Challenges

More generally, Mr Drakeford said: “While engagement was significantly increased during the pandemic, we continued to face challenges around working collaboratively. The Welsh Government was often treated as a stakeholder rather than a devolved government partner. The opportunity to inform policy that ensured Wales’ needs were properly reflected could be sometimes challenging when faced with decisions already taken by the UK Government with only minimal consultation.”

There had been little progress on the Welsh Government’s wish to influence social welfare and benefits policy. Mr Drakeford said: “The majority of the levers to tackle poverty and support the people of Wales through the cost of living crisis sit with the UK government and although there have been good working relationships at an civil service officials level which have facilitated the quick introduction of funds such as the Welsh Government Fuel Support Scheme and the Cost of Living Support Scheme there has been little interaction at a ministerial level.

“The Minister for Social Justice and Chief Whip [Jane Hutt] has repeatedly written to the DWP Secretary of State (including joint letters sent with the other devolved governments) suggesting policy changes that could be made to lift the most financially vulnerable people across the UK out of poverty with no responses received. This total disregard of the only form of communication with the DWP Secretary of State is a major concern. During the reporting period at least nine letters were sent with no reply.

“Our Programme for Government commitment to explore the necessary infrastructure required to prepare for the devolution of the administration of welfare is at risk of being undermined by the UK Government’s lack of support as this will require cooperation from both governments. This was apparent in the UK Government’s response to the Welsh Affairs Committee (WAC) inquiry into the Benefits System in Wales where they rejected the recommendations completely.

“The message was clear that they do not intend to devolve any elements of social security to the Welsh Government, have no intentions to discuss this further and rejected the recommendation to set up a UK-Welsh Government Inter-Ministerial Advisory Board on Social Security.

“Similarly the WAC recommendation relating to carrying out a joint impact assessment of the Basic Income Pilot was dismissed out of hand by the UK Government. In developing the Basic Income for Care Leavers in Wales pilot, the Welsh Government has been engaged with UK Government departments on how the scheme interacts with the policy areas of tax, benefits and legal aid. There have been good working relationships between officials and HM Revenue and Customs in agreeing the handling of tax payments and we had some initial helpful discussions with colleagues at the Ministry of Justice on the implications of the pilot for accessing legal aid.

“The interaction at Ministerial level with the UK Government has been less positive in relation to the interaction with the benefits and legal aid systems, in particular the way in which the most recent correspondence regarding legal aid was handled.”

The statement concludes:”We continue to have positive relationships with the other devolved governments, and there are also clear examples of constructive and collaborative working with the UK Government. However, for much of this period the Welsh Government has encountered a UK Government that has been hostile to devolution, and whose actions are damaging to the Union as a result, particularly in relation to the impacts of the UK government’s legislative programme and financial issues.

“There have been some indications that the relationship is capable of being improved since autumn 2022, and we welcome those signs of progress. There are still clear tests to come where we hope to see the UK government follow through on its stated commitment to the Sewel convention, devolution and the Union.”


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Bachgen o Lerpwl
10 months ago

Well he would say that wouldn’t he. He is hardly likely to say well done lads and lasses.

Cathy Jones
Cathy Jones
10 months ago

I must say, those are some very politically strong words from Mr Drakeford, and despite being Plaid all the way these days, I found it impressive and inspiring. Strong yet quiet words from a real leader. The Saesneg parties should hang their em,pty heads in shame, as they are continually outclassed and outperformed by this man who leads a country they mock and shepherds a democracy they no longer have across the land border. Stronger ties with the other nations of this archipelago, but Westminster (which is the enemy of democracy in both Cymru and England), is not a nation,… Read more »

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
10 months ago

All these issues with Westminster and Welsh Labour still wants to strengthen the Union – unbelievable! What will it take for them to realise Westminster will never work for or benefit Wales. If the party wants to serve the people of Wales 100% it must ditch this ardent support of unionism – further poverty for us all of us is the only thing we get from it.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
10 months ago

Will Mr Drakeford be a part of the conversation between Rishi Ji, TATA and Modi Ji about Port Talbot and Battery Factories ?

Alun Gerrard
Alun Gerrard
10 months ago

I read echos of the SNP who always blame the UK government…always blaming their tools. From Anglesey, North Wales things have never been so bad. You see we are a long, long way from Cardiff and it is still quicker to get there via the M5. It might even be longer unless we get another bridge over the Straits. Anglesey Council are pushing for it again but the WG have made their decisions…once to build it and then cancel it. Northern Ireland are losing out too but this means they will be pushed to become part of Eire..Holyhead is also… Read more »

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