UK Government’s attempt to ‘override’ will of the people of Wales turning them against the union, Vaughan Gething says
The UK Government’s attempts to override Wales’ devolved powers is driving people to reconsider whethet they want to be part of the union, Vaughan Gething has said.
The Welsh Government’s new Minister for the Economy said that UK Government ministers were mistaken if they thought encroaching on Welsh powers would strengthen the union.
Speaking to the House of Commons’ Welsh Affairs Committee, he said that the UK Government currently had a ‘do as you’re told’ attitude on issues such as freeports and levelling up and needed to reset the relationship.
While he said that he was not someone “who is instantly attracted to independence” he added that “Wales could be an independent country”.
“The UK Government is choosing an argument that I don’t think needs to happen,” he said.
“And I think it’ll promote people to think ‘do we need to be part of this?’ rather than ‘I am glad the union exists’.”
He accused the UK Government of an “imposition” and trying to “override and overrun the settled will of the people of Wales”.
“This is a direct and obvious encroachment on devolved areas and influence,” he said.
“And it almost seems like that was the objective. To those of us that believe in the future of the union as well, it’s really unhelpful.
“To say that the UK Government to cement the union needs to take some of those powers back is a really big mistake. It guarantees unnecessary confrontation.”
‘Win an election’
Vaughan Gething took particular issue with the announcement that EU funding in Wales would bypass Welsh Government and will be distributed directly by Whitehall to councils and other local bodies.
The change means that the Welsh Government will lose the £680m a year it got from the EU, which made up 4% of its budget.
Vaughan Gething said that rather than a strategic regional approach it would lead to the money being spent in an “atomised” way.
“The last thing you want is to have the Welsh Government, created by the people of Wales, in two successive referenda, a government with a new mandate,” he said.
“And straight away there’s an obviously confrontational approach in looking to override devolved powers.
“If UK ministers don’t like the approach of the Welsh Government, the answer isn’t to simply to say let’s ignore the election results of the people of Wales who voted for the Welsh Government.
“If you want to change the Welsh Government, win an election. People have just voted and we’ve got a mandate.
“The answer can’t be that a UK minister in Whitehall says, I don’t like how you’re using your powers so I’m going to change the outcome. That is essentially what is happening.
“There’s been no discussion with us about any of this, and we’re talking about the use of devolved powers here as well.
“If you’re looking for a confrontation it’s a good way to start one.”
The UK Government have said however that the announcement does not directly compromise the devolution settlement.
“The UK Government is stepping up a gear in Wales,” Welsh Secretary Simon Hart said.
“We are accelerating our support for local communities to help them recover from the pandemic, we are bringing the UK Government closer to Wales and we will lead Wales’ recovery into a green industrial revolution of jobs and growth.”
‘Told what to do’
Vaughan Gething’s evidence came after the Welsh Secretary said that he would overrule the Welsh Government if they attempt to block plans for a tax-free free port in Wales.
Some of the tax exemptions freeports use, such as stamp duty, are controlled by the Welsh rather than the UK Government.
But Simon Hart said that the UK Government planned to go ahead with the plan whether the Welsh Government resisted or not.
Vaughan Gething said that “what essentially happened is that we’ve been told what the UK Government is planning to do”.
“The meeting that eventually took place with the Secretary of State for Wales […] wasn’t a serious engagement. ‘Here’s what we think, what are you thinking about?’” he said.
“It was very much, ‘we’re going to do this’. Now that isn’t engagement. It’s a very direct and obvious encroachment on devolved competence.
“There is a view that you will ‘do as your told and use your money to do what we want. That is guaranteed to cause conflict.”
Simon Hart had last week told the House of Commons that it was a “source of some frustration that we have yet to get [freeports] over the line”.
“Now very clearly we would like to do that in collaboration with the Welsh government which is where the blockage currently resides but we can – and if necessary we will – proceed to deliver on our manifesto commitment come what may,” he said.
He added: “It’s a manifesto commitment, the only obstacle standing between us and delivering it is currently Welsh government”.