Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:27 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 6:27 pm, 22nd May 2019

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for his constructive comments.

I am unique in that I am the only Member who has been a Member of both Chambers here and of the National Assembly for Wales. I immediately acknowledge that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, can boast the same in relation to Scotland. There are three Members in their places who were elected to the National Assembly for Wales on that day in May 1999: the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, who has already spoken, and who played a distinguished part as a Minister in Cardiff Bay and in this place, and the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. I, too, want to put on record our thanks for the way he steered and led the Conservative Party in Wales to take a positive attitude towards devolution, which was still in some doubt 20 years ago, but now is fairly clear-cut. I also thank him for his kind words today. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Hain, not only for his words today but for the decisive role he played in 2006 in steering the Government of Wales Bill to the statute book and for persuading the Cabinet to find time for it. That is not perhaps totally appreciated.

I served as leader of the Opposition during that first year of devolution. At one point during the election count, I thought, with some trepidation, that I was heading to be First Minister, but when the final count was complete, although Plaid Cymru had 30% of the vote and 17 seats—a commendable achievement—it was not quite enough to form a Government. In fact, all five Administrations in the National Assembly have been Labour-led, and that is one of the problems of which Welsh voters have become aware. For any democratic system of government to work, it is essential for voters to feel that they can change the political complexion of the Administration. After 20 years, with some of the same Ministers in post in Cardiff Bay today as served in 1999, this is becoming a problem not just for Wales, which needs to feel that we have meaningful democracy, but, I suggest, equally for Labour. It might need a period in opposition to renew itself, to hone fresh policies and to bring in fresh blood.

However, some things have changed. The Assembly elected under the provisions of the Government of Wales Act 1998 was in many ways little more than a glorified county council. It had no primary law-making powers or tax-varying powers, or even control over all aspects of its own Administration. That most inane term—the Welsh Assembly Government—was devised, but it has now, rightly, long since been jettisoned into the dustbin of history.

Much has now changed. The National Assembly now has primary law-making powers over devolved matters. It also has the recently transferred tax-varying powers, and we wait to see the creative way in which these might be used. It is worth noting that, unlike the 1997 referendum, when the vote was very narrow, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, mentioned a moment ago, in the 2011 referendum there was a landslide in favour of enhanced powers for the National Assembly, reflecting the extent to which the devolved system of government has been accepted by Welsh voters.

Successive opinion polls show that fewer than 20% of the voters would now opt to abolish the Assembly, and when they are asked whether they really want to revert to being governed by a Secretary of State like Mr Redwood, that figure rapidly shrinks. Of course, the Assembly has made mistakes over the years, one such being the disbanding of the Welsh Development Agency, which undertook excellent work. The noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, who was in his place a moment ago, played a vital part in the development of the WDA’s work.

Of course people are critical, but nothing like as critical as they currently are of Westminster. That, no doubt, is the background to the independence rally, which attracted thousands of people to Cardiff earlier this month. The demand for independence is not as great in Wales as it clearly is in Scotland, but it is increasing, and the Brexit debacle is undoubtedly a driving force for many people to look afresh at the independence question. If a hard Brexit comes about, the present trickle could well become a surge, and if Scotland becomes independent and Ireland is quite possibly reunited, leaving Wales as a very junior partner in a rump UK, the demand for independence in Wales will also rapidly grow. The prospect of a hard Brexit and an isolationist UK is a major driving force in that direction.

As the powers of the National Assembly have increased, the pressure on the 60-Member Chamber has become ever more acute. The need to scrutinise primary legislation, the need to hold the Executive more rigorously to account, and the need to engage with the implications of the new post-Brexit order, about which we heard a few moments ago, mean that a 60-Member Assembly is just too small. It compares with, I think, 108 Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament. The National Assembly is smaller than some county councils. Its needs to be increased for the next election to between 80 and 90 Members, who, to my mind, should be elected by the STV system of proportional representation. The additional list system currently used is seriously defective. It provides two classes of Member—one with intense constituency work and the other without the necessary focus that serving a constituency rightly imposes on AMs, as it does on MPs.

Fortunately, the design of the Senedd Chamber provides for such an increase at little cost. Incidentally, it is worth reminding the House that the cost of the Wales Senedd building—at around £60 million—compares rather favourably with that of the new Scottish Parliament building, but I will not follow that any further. In considering such electoral reform, I suggest that the Assembly would do well to enable young people aged 16 and 17 to become participant members of Welsh democracy.

Whatever criticism we might have of the Welsh Government in policy terms, they have overall been generally prudent in their use of resources, and, incredibly, were punished by the Westminster Government for being so. A decade ago, the Labour-Plaid coalition Government rightly decided to aggregate moneys which at the year end, for whatever reason, were not spent and to pool them into a fund for capital projects. The first such fund of some £400 million was used to invest in hospital and school buildings; the second fund, when it had reached some £300 million, was appropriated by the Treasury under the Conservative Government. That, frankly, was an absolute disgrace. What a way to reward financial probity.

While in theory the new constitutional settlement under which the National Assembly works, with a reserved power model replacing the conferred power model of the 1998 Act, is much more acceptable, as has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, in practice the extent of exceptions and split authority renders it open to the same criticisms of opaqueness and uncertainty as was previously the case. You go around the square but in the opposite direction and sometimes arrive at the same point.

We get the impression in Wales that civil servants in Whitehall are still reluctant to recognise that in most devolved matters there should be a clean break to facilitate clear lines of responsibility and answerability. Within the framework of a British state, which may or may not survive, there is a clear logic in having a federal model, with the clear-cut delineation of responsibility that that implies. This will become even more pressing if we leave the European Union, and powers—for example, over the UK single market or state aid—currently exercised in Brussels will in practice thereafter be centralised in London. That, frankly, is just not acceptable. It is as though EU responsibilities for the single market were put exclusively into the hands of Germany. Unless Westminster wakes up to this danger, it will become another driving force towards the break-up of Britain as we know it.

We need such a level playing field for a purpose: to trigger self-regenerative and sustainable economic growth in Wales that can at long last raise average incomes in Wales to an acceptable level. This has been one of the greatest disappointments of the economic failure of successive Governments both in Cardiff and in London. The ONS figures published today for gross disposable household income per head show that Wales is at the bottom of the UK table, both of nations and of regions. Our figure of under £16,000 per head compares with London standing at over £27,000 per head—an astounding 77% higher.

That is the pattern that we suffered before devolution and it persists. We desperately need a change of Government in Cardiff Bay to deliver economic regeneration for our country. In securing this, we need to see not just worthy plans, blueprints and initiatives, which the Assembly would be very good at; we need to ensure that these are turned into reality, which is sometimes more of a challenge.

Then there is the issue of which government functions are devolved and which, within the framework of the current devolution settlement, are best undertaken on a UK basis. This matter was addressed a few years ago by the Silk commission, of which the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, was a distinguished member. The commission recommended the devolution of police responsibilities to the National Assembly, and it did so after considering compelling reasons, including the fact that many responsibilities which impact on police work, such as highways, social work, community cohesion, mental health and local government, are all already devolved. Police and home affairs are devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I ask the Minister, in responding, to give some commitment that the Government might look again at this matter.

Finally, perhaps I may address an issue that is a challenge to the National Assembly: the erosion over the past 20 years of the media in Wales, as indeed elsewhere. The financial pressure on newspapers has led to a staggering reduction in the coverage of political and civic matters, and now we have the centralisation of commercial radio, with implicit uniformity of news coverage and the elimination of proper reporting of the National Assembly’s work. The result is that the voting public are just not given in-depth analysis of the decisions and debates undertaken in the Assembly. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that turnout in elections has steadily reduced. This has to be addressed for the sake of effective democratic government.

The real test of the devolved system of government in Wales will come at the next election, when, for the first time since those heady days of 1999, there is a real possibility of the National Assembly not being governed by a Labour-led regime. Plaid Cymru and its new leader, Adam Price, in forming such a Government, will play a responsible part in improving the government of Wales within the present settlement, while of course seeking greater powers for the Assembly and seeking to retain Wales’s essential links with Europe, which are so vital for our manufacturing and farming sectors, as well as for our cultural identity. This will inevitably lead to greater independence, but that should not frighten the citizens of our fellow nations in the UK. It is a matter of taking responsibility, and of mutual respect. It is a journey that we have already started, and it will go just as far and as fast as the people of Wales wish. It will be completed when we reach a stable, ongoing, harmonious relationship with our British neighbours and with the nations of the European mainland to which we belong.

Wales could do so much more to help itself, given a stable union of European nations within which to grow and flourish; given the powers to do everything we can to help ourselves; and given an appropriate voice within wider contexts, where decisions are taken further afield that influence our well-being and prospects. The step taken 20 years ago was in the right direction, but we have so much more to do. My party looks to an opportunity at the next election to lead Wales towards the self-fulfilment that is within our reach and thereby to contribute to our continent and to a wider world.