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Opinion

Devolution: We need a full overhaul

04 Jun 2024 5 minute read
The Senedd and Pierhead Building, image by Sarah Morgan Jones

Mike HedgesMS for Swansea East

As we pass the twenty fifth anniversary of devolution to Wales and Scotland – what has happened and is happening elsewhere.

From June 1921 until March 1972, Northern Ireland had the devolved Parliament of Northern Ireland established by the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and it met from 1932 at Stormont.

It was suspended by the UK Government in 1972 and formally abolished in 1973.

Northern Ireland was subsequently administered by direct rule until 1999, with a brief gap in 1974.  The Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998 formally established the Assembly in law under the name New Northern Ireland Assembly.

In December 1999 full powers were devolved to the Assembly. Since then, the Assembly has been suspended on six occasions and only recently started meeting again.

The Scotland Act 1998 which was amended in 2012 and 2016 sets out matters on which the Scottish Parliament cannot legislate, known as general and specific reservations.

The general reservations are: aspects of the constitution, international the UK Parliament, the existence of the (criminal) High Court of Justiciary and the existence of the (civil) Court of Session; the registration and funding of political parties; international relations, including with territories outside the UK and the European Union, international development and the regulation of international trade; the Home Civil Service; defence and treason. Specific reservations cover particular areas of social and economic policy reserved to Westminster.

Stamp duty

Local council tax and business rates have been devolved to Scotland since 1999. In principle, Scotland could completely redesign these taxes, but this has not happened. Landfill tax and stamp duty were fully devolved by the Scotland Act 2012.

With Land and buildings transaction tax replacing stamp duty the power to set all income tax rates and bands above the personal allowance was devolved in 2016.

The Scottish parliament previously had limited powers to vary income tax rates, but these were never used.

Devolution to Wales and Scotland has been enhanced since 1999. The original devolution settlement in Wales under the Government of Wales Act 1998 did not provide the National Assembly for Wales with primary law-making powers, and therefore most policy areas remained under Westminster control.

The Government of Wales Act 2006 granted the ability to pass primary laws in twenty defined areas. In 2014, the Silk Commission argued that the National Assembly should move to a reserved powers model, a view endorsed by the UK Government the following year following Scotland in dividing reservations into general and specific areas.

Partial devolution

The Wales Act 2014 legislated to devolve tax powers to Wales and it enabled the Welsh Government to legislate in respect of areas to which Stamp Duty Land Tax and Landfill Tax previously applied.

These UK taxes were replaced by Land Transaction Tax and Landfill Disposals Tax, respectively. The Act also legislated for the partial devolution of income tax to Wales which was replaced by the Welsh Rates of Income tax. Non-domestic rates have been fully devolved to Wales since 1 April 2015.

In England regional Development Agencies and “Regional Chambers” were established by the Labour Government in 1999. In 2003, the Government announced that referendums would occur in three English regions: The Northeast, Yorkshire and the Humber and the Northwest.

Each were planned to take place on 4 November 2004, but only the one in the Northeast took place. The result, on an all-postal ballot, was an almost four-to-one vote against a directly elected assembly.

Devolution in England has progressed at a much slower pace than in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Only Greater London was included in the reforms of the late 1990s, while, we have seen the devolving power to clusters of local authorities and the election of “metro mayors”.

In 2014 it was announced that a Mayor of Greater Manchester would be created as leader of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. In 2017 elections were held for Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, the Tees Valley, West of England and the West Midlands as part of the devolution deals.

By 2024 there were 10 regional Mayors in England which was extended by three more in 2024 and in 2025 a further four will be added.

Most metro-mayors have powers over aspects of transport; some local skills provision, including the Adult Education Budget; acquiring and regenerating land; providing support to businesses; and remediating brownfield housing.

The mayor of Greater Manchester also has powers over waste disposal and the fire service.

Some mayors have some control over a ‘key route network’ of major roads and tram services, but not over railway stations, the Strategic Roads Network, or taxi licensing.

In Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Greater London, the mayor is also the Police and Crime Commissioner.

Power

Anomalies abound policing has been devolved to Scotland, Northern Ireland, three English regional mayors but not to Wales or any of the other regional Mayors. Large parts of England still do not have elected regional mayors.

The power of regional mayors varies and differs to the powers of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

We need a full overhaul of the devolution settlement to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland plus the English regional mayors.

The regional mayor system needs to be extended to every part of England, we need the same powers available to Scotland, Wales and northern Ireland which they can take up as and when the parliaments are ready.

Whilst the devolution to regional Mayors is well behind that of England, Wales and northern Ireland there is no reason why they cannot have the same end point. Also as the USA has shown we can have the same powers in areas of vastly different size.


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Dave412
Dave412
1 day ago

This article isn’t very clear on why we need an overhaul. I don’t the word because has been used once. It just seems to state what’s happened to date followed by “we need an overhaul” – what does that mean? Hardly much of an opinion.

Gareth
Gareth
1 day ago

Mr Hedges, with all due respect, you are elected as a representative of a constituency in Cymru, should you not first of all fight for the devolution of policing and justice, the crown estates and controll over the railways, social services, and things like the prison services, before you put you’r efforts into worrying what is needed in England, and leave that to English MP’s. Sort out our problems first.

Fi yn unig
Fi yn unig
1 day ago

I appreciate this informative article by Mike Hedges and I would interpret the word ‘overhaul’ as meaning progressive devolution of powers to total completion. Powers devolved to the NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS of Scotland and Wales should always be either one step ahead or in tandem with (but never behind) those devolved to regions of England. The ultimate end will be entirely self governing nations and regions (without any need for referenda) so that nowhere on this island will ever again have to suffer what has happened in the last five especially but also the last fourteen years. A board of the… Read more »

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
1 day ago

We’ve had this debate since 1999. Welsh Labour MS Mike Hedges forgets it was his party in London who in 1979 scuppered devolution giving us 18 years of Thatcherism resulting in the decimation of the coal industry , sell off of public utilities , who are the caused of our housing crisis and post-Brexit economic woes currently faced. And it was UK Labour, so-called “architects of devolution” , that watered down its powers in 1997 leading to eleven wasted devolution. No wonder initially the public were indifferent and apathetic towards the then Welsh Assembly. We all know the Assembly was… Read more »

Neil Anderson
Neil Anderson
1 day ago

Yes Mike, and the never-ending circus can continue, shamefully distracting elected members and civil servants from focusing on the basic needs of many people in Cymru.

Only independence will stop stop this charade of push-me-pull-you politics. The soft option, as Gareth suggests above, would be to focus on our country, where almost all of your electors live.

Annibendod
Annibendod
1 day ago

Wales should be governed by a Welsh Government in a Welsh Parliament, democratically elected by the Welsh electorate. I am open to a Confederal union with the other British Nations but this current UK is evidently, hoplessly broken. That Conservative MP’s are permitted to govern our nation having no democratic mandate is a total outrage! I do not understand why anyone from Wales accepts this state of affairs. Yet, they do. Why? There is no good reason or justofication. Mike Hedges wants the UK to continue. Just think what the UK has delivered for Wales. A GDP/capita gap with the… Read more »

Last edited 1 day ago by Annibendod
Riki
Riki
22 hours ago

Yeah, it’s called independence! Remove consent to see the Germanic Greeks as your royals already! We aren’t Scotland or England so we need not jump through all the “Legal” hoops to gain it. There is only two legally unified nations in the UK, and that is England and Scotland!

SundanceKid
SundanceKid
7 hours ago
Reply to  Riki

And surely the legislation passed by David Cameron’s Government in 2011, which recognised Wales as a “constituent country”, negates the tired old argument that Wales is “a part of England”.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards
19 hours ago

As ever, being Labour means you put Labour ie Westminster first when the chips are down. So Wales waits for England? No, this is what Wales does. We get a Welsh Bill of Rights. This not a charter to get lots of free stuff from the Welsh government. It limits what they can do to us. We put this in a Constitution which gives us statehood with bi-cameral Parliament, directly elected First Minister and independent Courts. Like any free civilised country. Wales votes on the Constitution. Devolution is not to be re-written only by existing MSs, still less the Labour… Read more »

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