Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:32 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 5:32 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to see several old friends—I use that word deliberately—from across the parties who were there on that first day in May 1999 at the start of the Welsh Assembly. The fact that a significant number of us have been in the devolved institutions and are now here—and in one or two cases the reverse—strengthens both sets of institutions. It certainly means that our debates are enriched and informed in comparison with what would otherwise be the case.

I am sure that my colleagues from that time in Wales remember the sense of anticipation, challenge and excitement of being Members of the new Assembly that we worked together to create. It is important to remember what a challenge that was. Most of us did not know how it ought to work; we did not know how it would operate. In fact, we benefited from the experience of people such as the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who had been in the other place and carried some of its basic rules with them. We also benefited from a lot of people who had been councillors and brought that experience with them.

The referendum was held very quickly in 1997. It is important to remember nowadays, as we talk about the practicality of a people’s vote, how quickly that referendum was held after the Blair victory. There was a wafer-thin victory in Wales for the concept of an Assembly. The moment it was created, there was an active campaign to get it abolished. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for his wholehearted conversion to the cause of devolution, which I know is totally genuine. It is a tribute to all Assembly Members that the extent of the success of devolution can be measured by the fact that, when we held a second referendum in 2011, there was an overwhelming majority in favour of the Assembly having more powers.

I will say a little about the history of liberalism in Wales, and support for devolution. My party is a firm and passionate supporter of devolution, believing that decisions are best made as close as possible to the people they affect. That has been the case ever since Lloyd George formed the Welsh Liberal Council in 1897. In 1967, on St David’s Day, Emlyn Hooson MP, who later became a distinguished Member of this House, introduced a Government of Wales Bill in the other place which advocated a Welsh Parliament. It was roundly defeated by the combined votes of Conservative and Labour MPs. So it is no surprise that we as a party continued to campaign for a Welsh Assembly and were active participants from the start. I wanted to take part in this debate today because I have the privilege of being the only person from Wales to have been in government in both the Welsh Government and the UK Government—and my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace has the accompanying position and experience in relation to Scotland. If I may put it this way, I have seen it from both sides of the fence.

In 2000, the Liberal Democrats formed a partnership Government with the Labour Party in Cardiff Bay, and we had an ambitious programme for government that included a firm commitment to further devolution. That was tricky because there was still quite a lot of opposition from the Labour Party. But Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister, was in tune with further devolution. It is important to remember, as the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, pointed out, that the Assembly had very limited powers. We used to say that Cardiff City Council had much greater powers because it could raise taxes and borrow money. There were no lawmaking powers for the Assembly and, as I say, no tax-raising or borrowing powers. Combined with having only 60 Assembly Members, that meant that the Assembly was dramatically underpowered. In addition, there was the funding problem of the Barnett formula, an enduring cause of anger in Wales that was understood way beyond the inner circles of politics. But we made the most of the powers we had. For example, as a Minister, I was able to introduce Cymru Creadigol, Creative Wales, and Iaith Pawb, Everyone’s Language, which were the first strategies ever on the language and the arts in Wales.

Just as we discuss Brexit here, day after day, we had our own set of dominant popular topics in Cardiff in the Assembly: legislative powers, tax-raising powers, borrowing powers, enlarging the Assembly and abolishing the Barnett formula. I am pleased to say that, to a considerable extent, these issues have now been tackled, or the power to deal with them and tackle them now lies where it should—with Assembly Members. In 2006, a new Wales Act allowed the Assembly to pass legislation. I do not know whether any noble Lords remember a wonderful thing called Measures. We could pass legislation as long as Parliament gave its official seal of approval for what we agreed to do. That was done through legislative competence orders, and it was rather like Parliament marking our homework. We did not like it at all.

So, when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement was signed in 2010, it unlocked the door to much greater powers. As I mentioned, the 2011 referendum meant that the Assembly could pass its own Acts. It has used this power well; the Minister has illustrated that. It has been imaginative and bold. I was particularly involved in the very early days of the campaign for the change to presumed consent on organ donation. The Assembly has not been frightened to tackle new issues.

The coalition agreement also led to the Silk commission, with its recommendations for tax-raising and borrowing powers, and the move to a reserved powers model for the Assembly to tackle the ongoing confusion over exactly what powers it held. The Wales Act 2014, which I took through this House, came as a result of that. In due course, the second Silk report led to Powers For A Purpose, published in 2015 by the Secretary of State for Wales. That led to the Wales Act 2017, which included powers for the Assembly to change its name, its size, its voting system and the voting age. Looking back, it is ridiculous that the Assembly did not have those powers from the start.

Also during the coalition years, we took steps to deal with the problem of the Barnett formula. Some Members may remember the funding agreement signed by Danny Alexander, as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and Jane Hutt, as the Welsh Finance Minister.

Finally, I want to comment on the EU’s role in the devolved Administrations, particularly in relation to Wales. Today is the day before the EU elections, so it is appropriate to think about that. We still have uneven and, in my view, unsatisfactory devolution settlements across the UK. We still have a highly centralised form of government. When I was in the Wales Office, a major part of our work was reminding other Ministers and Whitehall civil servants to remember Wales. My job was to explain to them how devolution works. I hope that that strikes a chord with the Minister.

Over the past 20 years, the EU’s powers have served to lessen tension between the two levels of government. The EU sets out high-level rules about how funds to deal with poverty, agriculture and environmental issues are to be disbursed. No one argues with those rules from a party-political perspective, because they are made on the basis of 28 countries far beyond the realm of narrow party politics. Although some of those EU powers will come down to the devolved Administrations, some of them will lie in the hands of the UK Government. The moment that happens, there will be arguments about the basic rules to be applied and which areas will be eligible for funding. I would predict that we will see a return to a lot of party-political wrangling. The Joint Ministerial Council was set up to try to deal with that wrangling. I do not think that it has ever been up to the job and I certainly agree with the Minister that it needs to be refreshed and modernised. It needs root and branch reform because we need to move to a proper federal system of devolution throughout the UK.