– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 28th March 2023.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of 25 years of devolution in Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir Christopher.
Before I address the motion, may I speak on behalf of the House for the first time, and likely for the last time, in sending our condolences to the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, on the recent sudden passing of his wife, Clare? I never met Mrs Drakeford, but by all accounts she was a kind-hearted and compassionate lady, and I cannot begin to imagine how the First Minister and his family are feeling. I know that our thoughts are with them at this sad time.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for finding time for the debate. I submitted the application last July in the hope of holding the debate in September. The eagle-eyed among us will note that although the debate is entitled “25 Years of Devolution in Wales”, the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales—the Senedd—will be next May. However,
As you well know, Sir Christopher, Wales is a small but proud country, with a unique identity and an unusual degree of political continuity. It ought to have been able to develop and introduce unique policies, implemented in ways that just were not possible prior to devolution. But the record goes to show that in so many measurable ways, devolution has simply not delivered in terms of its impact on the lives of our constituents. It is not good enough to keep blaming Whitehall 25 years on.
In the almost 25 years of devolution, Wales has fallen behind the rest of the Union in nearly all of its devolved policy areas, and has continuously fallen short on UK-wide priorities. Devolution has not resulted in a new form of politics, as proponents had hoped. Far from reinvigorating democracy, voters are underwhelmed by devolution.
What of the increased democratic representation that we were promised? The Assembly was established on a 50.2% turnout of the people of Wales, with an outcome of 50.3% in favour and 49.7% against. From a situation in which 25.3% of the people of Wales voted in favour of establishing devolution, Wales was thrust into a project of seismic proportions, which would change the constitutional make-up of the UK irrevocably. It is ironic that we had uproar and claims of illegitimacy about the recent 52% to 48% vote on the B-word, yet the 50.3% to 49.7% result, which has led to nothing positive in Wales, went ahead unquestioned and, crucially, with no subsequent assessment of whether it is actually working.
Since 1998, turnout in elections to the Welsh Assembly—subsequently renamed the Senedd at great but pointless expense—has declined continuously, reaching as low as 38.2% and never exceeding 46%. That woeful figure only goes to prove that voters have become apathetic and disengaged with the Welsh Government. Can we blame them?
My constituent Mikey Connolly pointed out to me recently that 23 out of the 40 Senedd constituency seats and three out of the five regional areas are covered by people who live in the Cardiff and Swansea regions. No matter what happens, or how bad things may get for people living in the remaining 75% of the country, even if every single one of those individuals voted for the same alternative party in every single election, Labour would never be voted out of power, so long as the majority of voters in Cardiff and Swansea are kept happy.
As Mr Connolly rightly asks,
“what incentive is there then for Labour in Wales to improve the quality of life of those in Mid and North Wales, or even create policies that adequately account for the vast differences in culture, population, needs and quality of life between the South and the rest of Wales”?
He is 100% correct: it is a flawed system that will leave the people of north Wales in particular with a permanent democratic deficit and feeling, as we already do, not like the poor relations, but like the forgotten relations.
The cost of the Senedd in 2021-22 was £62.9 million. There are proposals to increase the number of Members from 60 to 96, which would take an already inflated cost up by another £12.5 million, giving less value for money for the people of Wales time and again.
Recently, we saw a report saying that the buildings of the Betsi Cadwaladr health board in north Wales are only 62% operationally safe, with some £350 million needed just to bring existing structures up to scratch, without talking about any new ones. Now, the health board has been placed in special measures, which are special in name only, because this has been the case for the past eight years, with no noticeable improvement in service for the long-suffering people of north Wales. Had we not been paying the money for a devolved Administration for the past 25 years, we could have ensured that every one of our hospitals across Wales was properly maintained, not falling down around the ears of our dedicated and hard-working NHS staff.
Routinely in this Parliament, Labour MPs attack the Government on a range of perceived issues—rightly so; as Opposition Members, it is their duty to do that—but in Wales Labour has been front and centre since 1999, and failing to deliver since 1999. Since the advent of devolution, Welsh Labour has been virtually unopposed in government. Never having won an outright majority, Labour relies heavily on the support of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, which are both seemingly as reluctant as Labour to accept the part they have played in mismanagement on a colossal scale.
Interestingly, on a visit to Llandudno last year, the Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition, Keir Starmer, said that
“a Welsh Labour government is the living proof of what Labour in power looks like. How things can be done differently and better… A blueprint for what Labour could do across the UK.”
What exactly does Welsh Labour have to show for almost a quarter of a century in power as a blueprint for the rest of the UK?
I want to examine some of the areas of life in Wales that have been devolved, and how they have developed and progressed over the period of devolution. First, let me consider the issue that is probably closest to most people’s hearts and most important in their lives—the health service. As we know, the Labour party in this Parliament relies heavily on scaremongering and unfounded soundbites such as, “Only Labour can save the NHS,” and, “The Tories will sell off the NHS,” while simultaneously going out of its way to ignore the scale of the crises in Wales, and pointing out everything that is wrong in England but never doing anything to fix the even worse issues in Wales.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate to the House, but I am aware that each region should have the opportunity to express its own ideas. I am sure he is not saying any different, but does he agree that the beauty of this United Kingdom is the ability to express our British strength through the lens of our individual nations, and that devolution and the ability for local issues to be determined locally by locally elected representatives are always goals that should be striven for? Will he join me in urging the Government to strive towards those goals, rather than the goal of appeasing the European Union, which we voted to leave, but which is determining the devolution process itself?
As always, the hon. Gentleman makes some excellent points. I agree with the sentiment of what he is trying to get to and trying to achieve, and that it is important for local areas and the regions to have their say on a hyper-local basis, but I am much more focused on outcomes. From my point of view, when we are having these debates and making decisions closer to home, the most important thing is whether people in those areas are benefiting from that process. I hope to go on to prove that they are not.
Especially in this place, we tend to get a little caught up on process and form, and on how we do things. We do not necessarily focus on what we have done, what the outcome is, and how that benefits the people we are here to serve. The hon. Gentleman’s points are well made. I hope I can show that devolution is not necessarily working in the way that it should. Hopefully we can improve it—let us see—but it is certainly not going exactly as it was planned.
Health boards are in special measures. As I mentioned, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, which serves my Delyn constituency in north Wales, has been in special measures for eight years, except for a conveniently short period just before the most recent Senedd election. It was brought out of special measures in the run-up to the campaign period, despite there having been no actual changes, and then, interestingly, put back into a regime of targeted interventions shortly after the election. I am sure that was just a coincidence; I would not want to read anything sinister into that.
Labour’s rhetoric on the NHS hits closer to home than it would ever care to admit. Despite no modern-day Conservative Government ever having cut the NHS, Welsh Labour cut it in 2015. The King’s Fund expertly demonstrated that recently. It reported that under the Conservatives the NHS has had a budget increase of 39% in real terms since 2010, with planned spending for the Department of Health and Social Care in England at £180.2 billion. Welsh Labour has failed the NHS. A blueprint for what Labour can do across the UK? I hope not.
Secondly, Wales has the lowest achievement and poorest educational outcomes in the entire UK. Across the period, school spending per pupil has been consistently highest in Scotland and generally lower in Northern Ireland. In 2021-22, spending per pupil totalled £7,600 per head in Scotland, £6,400 in Northern Ireland, about £6,700 in England and £6,600 in Wales. Given the nature of the funding formulas, the funding in Wales should be a lot closer to that of Scotland because, for every £1 spent on services in England, there is around £1.20 for that service going to Wales—a significant uplift, yet Welsh schools are consistently underfunded. Again, Labour is turning its back on students and barely holding up an already struggling education system.
In 2019, it was discovered that out of the £2.5 billion earmarked for schools in Wales’s education budget, at least £450 million never even made it. Where has the money gone? It has been swallowed up by a wasteful bureaucracy and the inefficient spending that lies at the heart of devolution. That proves that Labour’s devolution plans were not fully thought through. A blueprint for what Labour can do across the UK? I certainly hope not.
Thirdly, in a 2019 Cabinet meeting the Welsh Government declared a climate emergency. It was not a priority—they just slipped it in under any other business at the end of the meeting. No real policy action was ever taken. In fact, their preservation of the natural environment is also flawed. In October 2018, Labour AMs voted against stopping the dumping of nuclear mud in Cardiff bay. They failed to invest in proper flood defences. They presided over a 28% increase in cattle slaughtering at the end of August 2019 due to a rise in bovine tuberculosis, causing huge damage to our agricultural sector.
Finally on the environment, a 2018 Senedd research briefing found that pollution was causing 2,000 deaths a year in Wales. Imagine pollution causing deaths in Wales, a land of nothing but fields, trees and wide open spaces. It beggars belief. Despite the UK as a whole being the fastest decarbonising nation in the G7, and despite Welsh Labour’s trumpeting—quite rightly—the amount of recycling done in Wales, Labour has cut carbon emissions in Wales by only half the rate of the UK. On climate and the environment, devolution has categorically failed. How can Welsh Labour be so far behind UK targets and still blame Westminster for its failings?
I will move on to housing, which is immensely important to my constituents and communities across Wales. As recently as the 2019 general election, the leader of the Labour party, who leads the official Opposition to the Government in Westminster, pledged 100,000 new council houses every year. It sounds like a wonderful figure, but we have to remember that the Welsh Government, under Labour management, released data detailing a meagre 57 builds by local authorities in 2019. I am lucky enough to say that 39 of them were in my constituency—but still.
Data from the National House Building Council confirms that, in 2020, there were 125 new homes built in my constituency. In 2021 there were 109, and in 2022 there were a massive 42 new houses. Bearing in mind that those are all new-build private properties rather than social housing, where are all the houses that the Leader of the Opposition pledged would be built under Labour? The Welsh Government have every opportunity to build them in Wales, but they do not materialise. Concurrently, there has been a 45% increase in rough sleeping in Wales under Labour. A blueprint for what Labour can do across the UK? I hope not.
When we delve deeper into the management of the Welsh economy, we see the failure of devolution for voters in Wales. Some £157 million has been wasted on reports and reviews on the much-needed M4 relief road in Newport—a policy that was shelved by the Welsh Government in 2019, despite the astonishing amount of money spent on it. If south Wales had that relief road, it would ease congestion and unlock a new era of opportunities in the area, allowing more people to travel in and out of Wales to work and set up businesses.
Other Members will know much more about that than I do, given that I am from north Wales, but there is a similar situation in the north, with millions of pounds having been wasted on new road plans—red routes, blue routes, purple polka-dotted routes and all sorts of things, such as compulsory purchasing of properties and unfinished road-building projects. I used to refer to one of the Welsh Government’s previous Ministers for the Economy and Transport as the “Minister for Documentation”, as his Department seemed to produce report after report, study after study and consultation after consultation, but never actually did anything to improve things in north-east Wales.
On the subject of business and transport, the Welsh Labour Government and Plaid Cymru want to deliver a hammer blow to our vital tourism and hospitality sector with a tourism tax for Wales. Just when the industry is building back from the pandemic, it needs our support, not to be punished. Thousands of jobs are at risk if we do not stop the tax on tourism. Opposition from the Wales Tourism Alliance and others, including over 400 responses from the tourism industry, has been completely ignored by the Welsh Government, which is frustrating the industry, as it continues to be sidelined and ignored. It is just not good enough. My constituency of Delyn in north Wales relies heavily on our tourism industry, and the Welsh Labour Government’s tourism tax proposals will be a tax on Welsh hotels, Welsh hospitality and Welsh jobs at a time when we need to be taking measures to tackle our cost of living crisis, not to contribute to it.
The Welsh Government are rolling out a 20 mph speed limit across Wales, which will—pardon the pun—slow the economy even further. It denies local bodies the ability to make policy decisions affecting their community on a more local basis, not to mention that the roll-out will cost over £32 million and increase emissions. It is just a bizarre policy.
The correlation between increased legislative powers and decreased political engagement is a sign of resentment and apathy, and it is incredibly disappointing compared with the rest of the UK. The Welsh Government seem hellbent on the ideals of high tax and state expansion, when they have been failing in Wales for a quarter of a century.
Every week we sit on the green Benches for Prime Minister’s questions as Opposition Members shout, “You have been in charge 13 years; why haven’t you changed anything?” The Welsh Government have been in place for nearly 25 years, with nothing but downward spirals and declining services, but that is okay, they never shout about that. They are not here today, interestingly, to shout that the Senedd is not doing its job, but they are more than happy to yell across the Chamber at the UK Government.
The Welsh Government’s insistence on raising council tax by pulling those on lower incomes into higher council tax bands, and their decision to pursue a tourism tax, despite one in seven Welsh jobs relying on that sector, show why Wales is consistently failing on UK-wide priorities.
In education, the OECD and the PISA—programme for international student assessment—scores ranked Wales the lowest of all devolved members of the Union in every educational standards category between 2006 and 2018. Running with the same theme, our economic data make for challenging reading. Wales is unique with around 20% of the workforce relying on public-sector employment. That alone is not necessarily a bad thing, but considering that the private sector is equally reliant on Government, it is a harsher picture.
Subsidies and grants mask Wales’s real economic value, and suppress competition, innovation and entrepreneurship. Our micromanaged economy is stifling any chance of increased investment in Wales, which is crucial to any self-reliant economy. The Welsh Government’s inaction in tackling business rates continues to devastate the Welsh high street, where shop after shop has been boarded up and abandoned. To add insult to injury, in 2021 the UK Government provided Wales with the largest annual funding settlement since devolution began, but the mismatch between revenue and properly directed public spending remains a heavily unbalanced picture.
Indeed, only yesterday we found out that the Welsh Government, at a time when there are problems all over Wales with creaking public services, in the middle of covid had to give £155 million back to the Treasury, because they did not spend it in the correct financial year. They sat on £155 million in the middle of the pandemic, when that could—and should—have been used for improving our hospitals and our response to covid, along with other crucial infrastructure. That money was squandered by the Welsh Government. Devolution is failing the Welsh economy. A
“blueprint for what Labour could do across the UK,” the Leader of the Opposition said. I do hope not.
Another sad but prime example of the Welsh Government’s recklessness with money is the purchase of Cardiff airport for £52 million in 2013. In March 2021, it was announced that the airport was being given another £42 million of taxpayers’ cash, while the £42.6 million that it already owed in debt to the Welsh Government was being written off altogether. That was a total spend of almost £100 million in nearly a decade for an airport that is said to be now worth £15 million, less than a third of what the Welsh Government paid for it 10 years ago.
We continue to be told that it will be used to connect Wales with the rest of the world. I have not found a single record of any current Welsh Government Minister having used it for foreign visits. It has cost the Welsh economy millions by failing to keep scheduled flights to Qatar in the middle east. An estimated £200 million of good taxpayer money has been completely and utterly wasted. It would have repaired almost the entire health board estate in north Wales.
As I have touched on the subject of the coronavirus pandemic, it is worth mentioning the abject failure of the Welsh Government, their handling of the pandemic and their outright refusal—inexplicably—to have a covid inquiry on the matter, safe in the knowledge that any UK-wide inquiry will secure media scrutiny only of the actions of the UK Government, and the decisions taken by Labour in Wales mean they will escape scot-free, so they need to answer almost nothing, despite repeatedly saying that every decision was specific and unique to Wales.
The exercise of a range of emergency powers that curtailed the liberty and closed the economy of Wales and its people was bad enough, but for the Welsh Government then to avoid accountability at all costs through an inquiry that focuses on how decisions were made has never been and will never be a tenable position. Under Labour, the fact is that Wales experienced the highest covid death rate per capita of all UK nations, despite a population density significantly lower than other parts, and economically cruel and unnecessary restrictions were imposed. Those measures must be properly scrutinised in an independent inquiry.
The First Minister went on social media at every possible opportunity, every time Boris Johnson was on the TV, and every time he said, “These measures are England only. The Prime Minister does not speak for Wales.” He kept on saying that. If he and the Welsh Government are so confident about their actions and the steps they took, why are they against their being examined in a Wales-specific inquiry? The very nature of devolution means that those in power are held accountable locally for the decisions made: ducking that is shameful and cowardly. That is what people will be saying, when the UK and Scottish leaders have ordered investigations into their own handling of the pandemic.
As discussions are being had by a noisy minority in support of more devolution and even the ludicrous notion of independence for Wales, we must all be bold enough to look at these failures and ensure that above all else, Wales is not handed more powers by this UK Parliament without proper scrutiny from this House. That is not to talk down Wales, as I will now doubtless be accused of doing; it is the harsh reality of the situation.
Wales is subsidised by England—it is. There is no point denying it or getting away from it. The total tax revenue in Wales is exceeded by far by the amount of spending there. The difference comes, quite rightly, from the UK Government, because we are firmly and comfortably part of a United Kingdom, but where do these shouters for independence think they will get the money to pay for everything? None of the public services in Wales work. Where will the funds come from for Wales to have its own courts, police, emergency services, welfare systems, state pension, defence, infrastructure and everything that an independent state would need? It is absolutely pie in the sky.
Whatever participants in this debate think, and wherever they sit on the political spectrum, as I mentioned to Jim Shannon, outcomes should be their priority. What makes the lives of the people in Wales better? The people of Delyn do not give two hoots about idealism or political shenanigans or things that go on in this place or in Cardiff; they do give two hoots about being able to put food on their table. They give two hoots about having jobs and opportunities, being able to provide their children with a better start in life and being able to rely on a health service to help them in their most difficult times.
Finally—hon. Members will be happy to hear—a short mention for the proposed expansion of the Senedd from 60 to 96 Members. I do not even know where to start. It is quite astonishing that an institution that already has 60 people for a country of 3.1 million—one for every 52,000 constituents—would need another 36 elected representatives. What is it going to do with them? England has 56 million people and 533 MPs. That is one for every 105,000 people: double what we have in Wales. London has almost 10 million people and the London Assembly scrapes by with just 25 members.
The ridiculous situation does not end there. Not only do those in favour want to add another 36 Members to the Senedd, but they want to further strip them of accountability. We currently have a bunch of constituency Senedd Members who are elected on a first-past-the-post basis, as happens here. We also have regional Senedd Members: some across north Wales, south Wales, central south Wales, west Wales and so on. They will do away with the constituency ones altogether—or kind of—and introduce a proportional representation system for the whole thing. We will not vote for an individual any more but for a party, and then the party will fill the seats it wins with whoever is top of its list. Each constituency will have multiple Members, and no people will be elected, only parties, with the seats filled from their internal lists. Call me a cynic, and something of a traditionalist—as I know you are, Sir Christopher—but I think that is an affront to democracy, as people will not be able to vote for the person they want and just have a bunch of people forced on to them by political parties without the first clue as to who they might be.
I have probably spoken for long enough. There is a great discussion going on in the Cabinet Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about regional devolution deals across England. I caution hon. Members who call for increased localism in decisions that having those decisions made closer to the source does not automatically translate into better outcomes. If there is one thing we can learn from the failed devolution experiment in Wales, that is surely it. I have said it before and I say it again: it is my abiding hope that the Minister in his winding-up speech will confirm that there are plans to let the people of Wales have their say: not on whether there should be enhanced powers or more devolution, but on whether devolution should be allowed to carry on at all, so we can redirect the money wasted on a failed institution into providing better services for the people of Wales.
With all due respect, it shows how much value is placed on debating the institution and the issue that, sadly, virtually none of my Welsh MP colleagues are in the room to discuss the nature of the Senedd today—which is fundamental and one of the most important things to have ever happened in the lives of our constituents in Wales. That just goes to show the contempt that both the people in Wales and, potentially, the people in this House hold for the Senedd as an institution.
I really do not recognise a lot of what Rob Roberts has laid out. One great thing about devolution is that there has been far greater transparency and that enables him to make some of his analyses. Every region and council in England has things that have not always gone exactly as they should, and which could have been done better. That is obviously the case for Wales as well. People are not always going to get everything right first time. They are not always going to do everything the best way. However, the point is that they are democratically elected and closer to their communities, and they have the opportunity to improve and change things.
I want to put on record the remarkable progress that Wales has made over the last 25 years. Setting up the Senedd—or the Assembly as it was then—from scratch and gaining greater powers has been done in a remarkably short time. Considering that we were faced with the consequences of a world banking crisis seven years after it was set up it has not been an easy time.
In Wales, we have the opportunity to use powers imaginatively and to do things differently. Right from the start, we in the Labour party looked at who was going to represent us. We decided to go for a twinning process and put constituencies together so that we would have an even number of Labour women and men standing for election in winnable seats. Too often, women were confined to less winnable seats. That provided a strong degree of gender equality in the Assembly, which coloured debate. Why is it that Wales led on childcare provision? We have had a strong tradition of women speaking up in the Senedd. Why is it that Wales spends more on social care? Why does it provide better social care and a living wage for all in the care sector? That has been delivered by the Welsh Labour Government because we believe it is very important. Why have those issues been raised? It is because we have more women taking part. There has been a real shift in focus, and a real determination to do things differently within the powers we have. We do not have all the powers, but we use them imaginatively. For example, how did we ban fracking in Wales? We banned fracking through the planning laws, because that is where we have powers.
In Wales, we have taken up long-term issues such as preventive medicine, the results of which will not be seen for a very long time. We were the first to bring in a smoking ban. Smoking is at record lows in Wales. That is good, but it will be years before the long-term benefits to health outcomes are seen. We have concentrated on the foundation phase of education. Again, it may be a considerable time before we see the full benefit of that investment because we are starting with the youngest children. We have a very innovative curriculum.
What is important about devolution is the closeness of the Administration and the Ministers to the people they serve. Time and time again, whether it is business groups, trade unions or stakeholder groups, people in Wales feel that they can access the Welsh Government. They can have meetings with Ministers or officials. They are involved in consultations.
Take the recent consultation on business rates. People have talked about reform of business rates forever and a day across the UK, but the Welsh Government have got on and started consulting. No one thinks that finding a solution will be easy because there will always be winners and losers, but the important thing is having the consultation and the fact that people in Wales feel they have an opportunity to contribute. A good example occurred during covid, when Julie James, a Member of the Senedd who was then in charge of local government, had regular meetings with council leaders across Wales. Even Opposition party leaders recognised the value of that: nothing was a shock for those councils. Local authorities were under stress, having to deliver everything during covid: providing school meals during lockdown, ensuring social distancing in the workplace and preparing schools for reopening, to name but a few—not to mention the delivery of the test and trace programme, which cost so much less and was so much more effective in Wales because it was delivered by local authorities who knew their people well.
The hon. Lady used the words, “far greater transparency”. I mentioned the covid inquiry; from what she is saying, in Wales, everything was run quite well and all the Ministers made excellent decisions. Is it not therefore incomprehensible that Wales should not have its own bespoke covid inquiry to scrutinise whether those decisions were actually as good as she is making them out to be?
I find that comment surprising from somebody who purports to want to save money. We can do what the hon. Gentleman suggests at one fell swoop, with one covid inquiry. It can have specific studies of what happened in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales; there is absolutely no reason why that should not be the case. The National Audit Office gave Wales a clean bill of health on the way it purchased personal protective equipment throughout covid, whereas we have seen some shocking figures on UK Government money that went astray, and some dreadful accusations of cronyism in who won various contracts; companies in my part of Wales missed out because their emails were never even opened by the Department of Health. I can cite one company that, despite being a trusted supplier to the Ministry of Defence, police forces and health service in Wales, did not even get a look in from the NHS in England.
Getting back to the point, the Minister in Wales talked to the leaders of local councils; they knew that councils were facing the stress of having to deliver measures under covid, so they made sure that councils knew what was coming down the line. That contrasted very sharply with what happened in England; leaders in the north of England found out that their whole areas were being put under covid restrictions literally a couple of hours before it was announced on local radio. That was an utter disgrace. The situation in Wales reflects what can be achieved in a more devolved situation, where people can have greater access. We cannot expect people to have that same sort of access in a UK Government situation, in which we would clearly be dealing with a much larger country. However, there could have been a great deal more co-operation on covid restrictions and with councils.
There was a shocking disregard for the powers of the devolved Governments during covid. They were often not apprised of what was happening at Cobra meetings and found out about things very last minute. There could have been much better consultation, much better dialogue and actual interaction on how things could be done better. The same situation was repeated in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020; instead of constructing a situation in which there would be proper consultation and discussion, the UK Government pushed through legislation that effectively ignores devolution and rides roughshod over the devolution settlement.
That has likewise happened in the distribution of levelling-up funding and the shared prosperity fund. It is quite extraordinary, because nobody logical would ever think of missing out the Welsh Government when deciding how to use the levelling-up fund and the shared prosperity fund. The Welsh Government have been central in the distribution of European funding, and they already have established partnerships with the local authorities. It is absolutely bizarre; there can only be a political motivation. Nobody in their right mind would think of missing out a layer of Government as important as the Welsh Government when managing those funds.
The other thing that the Welsh Government are prepared to do is step in. Again, that is one of the benefits of their being close to people, and being transparent. A Government can step in when they can see what is happening and what is not going right. In Ynys Môn, for example, the Welsh Government stepped in because the local council was failing. The Welsh Government have stepped in with Betsi Cadwaladr. The important thing is that they are being proactive and getting in there. Nobody pretends that everything is perfect; the important thing is that a Government be prepared to act and do something. They should not wait 20 years for somebody to produce a report on how terrible things are, particularly with hospitals. It is important to get in there now and work with the people there to improve things.
I think the hon. Gentleman has said enough on that issue; I am going to have my say. Perhaps I will let him come in on another topic.
I will move on to the situation that we are in now. We are clearly facing a major climate crisis. What are the Welsh Government doing? We are moving forward. We are moving forward on renewables very quickly, and we have set up a company to help drive investment in renewables because we recognise the challenge. We also recognise that we have some of the heaviest and dirtiest industry in the UK, so we have an even greater challenge. Of course we in Wales will find it more difficult to reduce our carbon footprint than areas without those challenges will, but we are motoring ahead.
I want to draw the attention of the hon. Member for Delyn to the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in north Wales. The Welsh Government plan to encourage investment in it. Most importantly, the Welsh Government are trying hard to work with people in Wales; we are trying to consult them and take them with us. That is why we have had fewer strikes in Wales than in England. Railway workers have not gone on strike in Wales because they have already managed to agree something, whereas they have carried on with strike action in England. Likewise, we have had a more constructive approach to workers in the health service; we recognise that standards can be raised only through partnership with everybody involved. That is important.
We could score points forever, looking at what is good in one place and better in another. The fact is that England is a large place. Many rural parts of England have similar challenges and difficulties to Wales; in those places, it is difficult to attract specialist staff. Difficult decisions have to be made about how to provide ultra-specialist services when there is not the population to support the models we have in places such as London, where lots of specialist hospitals are very close together. There are huge challenges, not just in Wales, but in parts of rural England. The same can be said about rural transport.
Let us be clear about some of the things we have done in Wales. We were the first UK health service in Europe to put nurse staffing levels into law, making a real difference to patient outcomes, experiences and quality of care. We were the first country in the UK to introduce a single cancer pathway, making sure everyone gets the best possible care and treatment, and cancer survival rates in Wales are increasing. We were the first part of the UK to introduce special, non-invasive tests for babies before they are born, helping to reduce the risk of miscarriage, and we were the first UK health service to commit to ending new cases of HIV by 2030. As I have mentioned, Wales was the first to ban smoking in public places, and the first to change the law for presumed consent for organ donation. Of course, we championed prescriptions, which continue to remain free in Wales despite many economic pressures.
I could go on, but the important point is that co-operation and consultation matter. We have a new curriculum in Wales. It is imaginative and different. It is not so focused on a narrow set of examination results; it is a much broader education. It reflects a lot of what is going on in many other European countries. It will take time for us to see its results, but it has been developed with teachers, pupils, communities and, most importantly, business and industry, looking at the rounded skills that are so often needed in addition to straight examination results.
As we move forward into the next decade and the challenges that it will produce, the important thing is that people have an opportunity to make their views known at the polls—to elect the people they want to serve them in Wales and on their local councils. To roll back on devolution—to try to centralise things—will not serve people’s best interests.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate Rob Roberts on finally securing the debate, and I echo his sentiment that all our thoughts continue to be with the Drakeford family at this difficult time.
It was something of a shock to me when I realised that I had started being able to measure my involvement in politics not in years or decades but in quarter centuries—and perhaps even in greater increments. Among the first political campaigns that I was involved in, as a university student, were the 1997 devolution referendum campaigns. Obviously, I had been involved in political campaigns before that, but what I found inspiring about the campaign in Scotland was its cross-party nature. Whether people supported devolution or independence, and irrespective of which party people supported—there were even a few intrepid souls from the Conservative and Unionist party who wanted to see a Scottish Parliament of some kind—the ability to set partisan political and policy differences aside allowed us to build a campaign for, win the consent for and then establish that institution.
The referendums in Scotland and Wales were a week apart. It was such a relief to get the thumping result that we achieved in Scotland, and it was with some trepidation that we waited the next few days to see what would transpire in Wales. I remember watching the results that night; I went to bed quite despondent at the way that it looked like things would pan out, only to wake up and find that the good voters of Carmarthen had turned out in such numbers as to take the result over the line and deliver a yes.
It is fair to say that, for different reasons, devolution in Scotland and Wales got off to a slightly shaky start. London imposed a Welsh First Minister who was not perhaps the choice of the governing party in Wales; that was not the wisest piece of party management. That was perhaps an early lesson, for those prepared to take it, that excessive interference in Welsh politics from the London end of the M4 is not the way to go, and that it is best to leave it to the people in Wales to decide for themselves.
After that, the Welsh Government got on with a pretty solid programme of delivery. Dame Nia Griffith gave a comprehensive list of their measures; I would add that it was the first part of the UK to introduce a charge for single-use plastic bags. There were the predictable squeals of outrage from the usual suspects, but the charge is now regarded as the norm right across the UK. There was the abolition of prescription charges, and the provision of school breakfasts. Wales was an early adopter of a children’s commissioner to stand up for the rights of young people who often find themselves without a voice in institutional settings. There were also a range of other policy measures taken to address social and economic inequalities. I have to say, having viewed all that from several hundred miles away in Scotland, that it seemed to me for a time that although Wales had a less powerful version of devolution, the Government in Wales were doing so much with so little, while our Government in Scotland appeared to be doing so little with so much.
As I say, a lot was done in Wales with limited powers. Since then, devolution has evolved, and further powers have been devolved. I was very taken by the child poverty figures. Child poverty outcomes in the UK show us that child poverty rates are far too high. They are far too high in Scotland, at 21%. However, now that Scotland has used its devolved powers, its child poverty rate is much lower than the rate anywhere else in the UK, as a result of measures such as the introduction of the pioneering baby box. I am sure that we will see further push-down on that figure as a result of the increase of the Scottish child payment to £25 a week. I must pose a question: how much more might the Welsh Government be able to do if they had resources at their disposal, and the power to use them?
There is a similarity between much of what I heard the hon. Member for Delyn say this morning and what some of his counterparts in Scotland say. It comes down to a “What have the Romans ever done for us?” style of argument, if I can characterise it thus. I hear echoes of Michael Forsyth, as he was in old money; he is now Lord Forsyth of Drumlean. This is going back 25 years. When I was a student at Stirling University, he was for a short time my Member of Parliament, and in the lead-up to the 1997 general election, he said that devolution would create a costly and unnecessary tier of government. I am sure that the hon. Member for Delyn would agree with that assessment. I almost agreed with it at the time; it is just that, as a supporter of Scottish independence, I took a slightly different view about which tier of Government was the costly and unnecessary one. The argument used to be made: “What could devolved Governments do that an engaged Secretary of State couldn’t?” I would say that, first of all, there would have to be an engaged Secretary of State, which we did not always have, or they might not be engaged in a way that we liked. However, the fundamental point is about democracy; it is about people in Wales and Scotland always getting the Government that they vote for, and their being able to hold that Government to account, however they think best.
It is telling that despite people voting for devolution in Wales by a very slim margin in 1997, when the opportunity came along to empower the Welsh Assembly with legislative powers to make it a proper Parliament—the Senedd—people in Wales voted decisively for that. That showed that the institution had won its spurs, and that Welsh self-government had very firmly come of age.
The hon. Member is making some excellent points. However, I am interested in the idea that this thumping margin in 2011, when there was a vote for increased powers, somehow made things legitimate. The turnout in Senedd elections has never been more than 46%. How can he possibly say that such elections have legitimised the institution in the eyes of the people of Wales, when more than half of the country does not even turn out to vote in elections to the Senedd?
If turnout is low in Wales, then politicians there—perhaps even including the hon. Member—need to look at the prospectuses and the arguments that they are offering. If they cannot inspire people to turn out to vote, that is perhaps as much a reflection of some of the politicians and the quality of the debate being held as it is of anything else. Certainly, however, decisions in a democracy are taken by those who turn out, and there was a difference between the vote in 1997 and the vote to empower the Senedd; for me, a very clear message came out of the latter vote.
We have heard today a litany of woes about the alleged shortcomings of this quarter-century of various Welsh Governments. As a Front Bencher for the Scottish National party, I am certainly not here to defend the Labour party in any way, but my response to that charge is twofold. First, many of the complaints we have heard have been about the enactment and delivery of policies, rather than about the institution of the Welsh Government. Secondly, it really does not say a great deal for the Conservative party in Wales that, if things really are as dreadful as we are invited to believe, it has not been able to persuade enough people in Wales that it offers a compelling alternative to replace the Government. For all we have heard about Swansea and Cardiff, I know that Cardiff has elected Conservative representatives in the past. It is simply a question of providing a compelling prospectus, which is quite clearly not something that has been done.
We hear a similar refrain in Scotland from some quarters, which is to attack the institution and the party in power without offering a great deal that is positive in return. That is perhaps one of the reasons why the last time such arguments were put forward at a Scottish election, people in Scotland chose to re-elect my party to Government and came within a hair’s breadth of sacking the Conservatives as the official Opposition. I think that that is part of the political failure that goes some way toward explaining the current centralising tendencies in Westminster. As we have heard, there has been a power grab through the United Kingdom Internal Market Act, which was designed purely to undermine the democratic choices made directly by people in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere, and to make sure that the priorities they vote for are not the priorities they will necessarily get—all this led by a Conservative party in London that is incapable of persuading voters to elect it in sufficient numbers to govern in either Wales or Scotland.
Looking to the future, it is clear that devolution still has some significant shortcomings, despite the way that the institutions have developed. In Wales, I find it bizarre that a major infrastructure project such as High Speed 2 can go ahead without the consequentials feeding through to Wales for investment in Welsh infrastructure; and the failure to devolve the Crown Estate in Wales, as has happened in Scotland to great effect, is inexplicable. It seems to be a complete disjoint and mismatch in terms of the strategic nature of government. Given the apparent determination of the UK Government to reassert themselves in direct, day-to-day governance of devolved matters in Wales, it is absolutely bizarre that Ministers should be content to see the number of Welsh MPs elected to this place reduced from 40 to 32, further marginalising the voice of the people of Wales in this place.
I will address as independently and as gently as I can the argument from the hon. Member for Delyn against expanding the size of the Senedd, even though the Senedd currently has fewer Members than many local authorities in Scotland. Broadly speaking, the Members of any democratic institution can be subdivided into four categories across parties: those who are running it, those who could run it, those who used to run it, and those who we would not want anywhere within a million miles of ever being able to run it. Sadly, sometimes people in that last category even get to be Prime Minister. I am sure that each of us knows which category we would like to fall in; if we are very fortunate, perhaps our friends and colleagues might even agree with us.
My fundamental point is that the success of self-government, wherever it is, depends very much on the three Ps: the powers that you have, the policies that you enact, and the personnel who are elected. Perhaps unlike the hon. Member for Delyn, I have full confidence in the people of Wales to continue making what they see to be the best choices across each of these categories.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate Rob Roberts on securing the debate, and I associate myself with his condolences to First Minister Mark Drakeford and his family.
It is a shame that the hon. Member has used the debate as an opportunity to talk down devolution. It seems he has done so to score political points, which is such a shame. His view is also at odds with the views of the vast majority of the people of Wales. A large number of surveys on devolution have consistently confirmed that people across Wales support devolution and, in some cases, the devolution of further powers. Those who support rolling back devolution or, at the other extreme, independence, are very much polarised on the margins. The vast majority of people are supportive; they can see the benefits and the evidence of what devolution has delivered for Wales under the stewardship of Welsh Labour.
The Labour party is the party of devolution. The UK Tory Government have no respect for devolution or devolved Government, and have taken every opportunity to undermine the devolution settlement. Devolution is one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour Government. Unlike the Tories, a UK Labour Government would respect devolution and the Sewel convention. In a report by the commission on the UK’s future, led by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Labour proposes ways of modernising and updating our constitutional arrangements, improving the process of intergovernmental relations and putting more power in people’s hands. The Tories have overridden the Sewel convention on several occasions in recent years, disrespecting the devolution settlement.
Tory attacks on Wales and on Welsh Labour are born from desperation. They are fiddling while Rome burns in order to deflect attention from the shambles at Westminster, their failure to tackle the cost of living crisis effectively and their mismanagement of the economy. Historic underfunding of Wales has torn billions of pounds out of the Welsh budget, while the Tory-made economic crisis has only brought greater costs.
The spring Budget makes no provision for public sector pay and includes no funding for health or social care. The Budget was the Tories’ chance to use their financial levers and capacity to provide comprehensive and meaningful support, as well as to invest in public services, public sector pay and economic growth.
I thank the shadow Minister for proving my point succinctly: we have already had 25 years of saying that everything in Wales is London’s fault, so can we not have another 25 minutes saying it is all Westminster’s fault and instead address some of the points of the debate? What are the Welsh Government doing? How is devolution working? What are the outcomes for people in Wales and how are they making our lives better? It is not working.
Yet again the Conservatives have fallen woefully short, failing the people of Wales. We know the Tories promised Wales would not be a penny worse off, with EU regeneration funds replaced in full, but that is far from the case, with huge uncertainty over the shared prosperity fund leaving Wales worse off, while the scandal of levelling up for Wales has meant a Tory smash-and-grab, wrapped up in a sustained attack on devolution, instead of collaborative work with the Welsh Government and local authorities in Wales.
In his opening speech, the hon. Member focused on health, so let me inform him about some of the things the Welsh Government are doing across Wales and the difference a Labour Welsh Government have made. They will always invest to protect health and social care. We spend 14% more per person on health and social care in Wales than in England. While 13 years of Tory Government have been ruining and running our public services into the ground, we have been taking difficult decisions to provide a higher level of NHS funding per head in Wales, where we know the population is older, sicker and less well off.
The NHS is facing similar challenges across the UK, yet performance at major accident and emergency departments has been better in Wales than in England for the last five months. Waiting lists are growing faster in England than in Wales. In the six months to December 2022, waiting lists increased 0.4% in Wales and by 6% in England.
I think the hon. Gentleman has said quite enough for now. In the last 12 months, waiting lists have increased by 7% in Wales and by 19% in England.
With the industrial action taking place, Welsh Labour Ministers have got around the table with trade unions, taking tough decisions to find whatever resources they can to negotiate a resolution to the current pay dispute. There is not enough money in the budget for a fully consolidated pay offer, but the Tories have not provided an adequate level of funding for years.
Welsh Labour is training more doctors and nurses year on year. As my hon. Friend Dame Nia Griffith said, Welsh Labour has implemented the real living wage for social care workers, and has ensured that prescriptions and hospital parking are free, and care charges capped. Prescriptions are free in Wales, but people in England are being forced to go without medication they desperately need because they can no longer afford it. The NHS bursary was axed in England in 2016, but has been protected in Wales because of Labour’s values. In England, the 40% drop in student nurse applications over subsequent years has been widely attributed to the axing of the bursary.
In transport, despite having 5% of the UK population, 11% of track miles and 20% of level crossings, Wales receives only between 1% and 2% of rail enhancement funding. That is not a fair funding settlement.
The reality is that only Labour will devolve economic power and control out of Westminster. The next Labour Government will return power over its economic destiny to Wales, and the decision-making role for the Welsh Government on structural funds will be restored.
There is a number of examples of businesses in Wales receiving more support during the recent pandemic. Vaccination rates were higher, and delivery in Wales was consistently faster than in England. PPE procurement was transparent and cost-effective, in stark contrast to the experience at Westminster under the Tories. Welsh Labour’s trusted decision making protected lives and livelihoods, which was without doubt reflected in Welsh Labour’s historic 2021 Senedd election victory.
To work even more effectively, devolution needs a strong partnership between the Welsh Government and a United Kingdom Labour Government, working together to deliver the priorities of the people of Wales and ensuring that Wales has a strong part to play in a strong United Kingdom. I hope we will not have too long to wait for that, depending on when the Prime Minister calls the next general election.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend Rob Roberts on securing the debate, which has triggered a wide-ranging discussion on Welsh devolution.
As we have heard throughout the debate, devolution in Wales has evolved considerably since the incredibly close referendum in 1997, when I was still in school—quite possibly, my hon. Friend was too. Successive UK Governments have devolved further powers to Cardiff Bay in an attempt to place the settlement on a firmer footing and to put more responsibility and accountability at its heart. That has included providing powers to make primary legislation in devolved areas, and powers to introduce replacements for stamp duty land tax and landfill tax in Wales, as well as the introduction of a new Welsh rate of income tax and powers for Welsh Ministers to borrow to fund capital expenditure.
Nowadays, the devolution settlement is based on the reserved powers model, in line with that in place in Scotland. The devolved Administration have greater powers to manage their own affairs, as well as matters relating to elections, transport and natural resources. There has been a great deal of debate this morning about the future of Welsh devolution and whether the current boundary between devolved and reserved powers is correct. It is clear that different views exist, and we must acknowledge that they are reflected among the people of Wales.
In the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn focused on disappointing policy outcomes with reference to Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, education, transport and so on. He also talked of the north-south divide in Wales, and the sad disengagement with politics—turnout at the last devolved election was just under 47%, compared with 67% at the general election.
Jim Shannon intervened to talk about his desire to see local representation wherever possible, and more positive comments came from the hon. Members for Gordon (Richard Thomson), for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones). The hon. Member for Llanelli talked about the importance of the accessibility of Ministers at all levels of government, and co-operation too.
I am firmly of the opinion that the overwhelming priority of the people of Wales is not an incessant, one-way transfer of powers down the M4, or a route to more separatism, but delivery on the important matters of the day, such as health, the cost of living and education. Sadly, we continue to see poor levels of interest and awareness of the roles of our various and different levels of Government, and therefore often limited democratic accountability.
In the context of Wales, it is important to remember that 50% of the population of Wales live within 25 miles of the border with England, which does influence how many people view the devolved settlement. Bringing decision making on devolved issues closer to people affected by them is one of the real opportunities of the devolution agenda, but it would be remiss of me, as we reflect on the last 25 years of devolution in Wales, not to acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns among many in Wales about devolution and the direction of travel that has been taken in Cardiff Bay.
All too often, we have seen attempts to centralise decision making within the Welsh Government, which goes against the concept of true devolution. Contrary to some of the arguments that have been made today, it has been particularly pleasing to me to see this Government deliver on our promises of true devolution in the allocation of shared prosperity funding. I have seen that at first hand in Denbighshire, my own county, as a member of the county’s shared prosperity fund partnership group, which allows new and refreshing approaches to local problems and opportunities, driven by local people.
The Minister makes a good point. It reminded me of the point Jim Shannon made about local decision making. About two years ago, the First Minister appeared in front of the Welsh Affairs Committee. I remember asking him whether he was going to devolve more powers to the regions—specifically, to north Wales—as he had previously said that he thought that was a good idea. I asked him when those powers were going to come and what powers they were going to be, as none had materialised. I think the First Minister was a little bit indignant at the question. Does the Minister agree that the current arrangement of devolution is not working, and a potential solution might be to give more autonomy to north Wales to make some decisions for itself?
My hon. Friend makes a strong argument. In fact, he will be aware that one of the Labour Members in the Senedd called for greater powers and autonomy for north Wales in response to the recent roads review, and today a representative of the business community in north Wales has called for a directly elected mayor for north Wales. It comes back to my point that devolution should be true in nature; it should be led by local people and local representatives, which is not always the case at present.
Under the Welsh Labour Government, the economy in Wales is growing at a slower rate than in the rest of the UK. In education, Wales is, sadly, at the bottom of the PISA rankings compared with other parts of the UK. In the health service, we see abysmal performance and outcomes data, and we also see what I regard as very detrimental policies on road building and tourism. All of that is despite the UK Government providing the Welsh Government with record funding, which is, as we have heard, higher per head of population than in England.
The UK Government have a duty of care towards all British citizens and it is important that UK-wide comparable data is used to justify and learn from different policy approaches across the country. The days of “devolve and forget” have to be over. I am deeply concerned that, despite the challenges the Welsh economy faces and failing devolved public services in Wales, the Welsh Government’s unrelenting focus is often on constitutional matters, including increasing the number of politicians in Cardiff Bay and changing its voting system, which some have suggested would be at a cost of £100 million over five years.
Devolution in Wales means that Wales has two Governments. Both should be fully focused on the issues that really matter: levelling up our economy, creating jobs and supporting people with the cost of living. The UK Government’s investment to address those priorities, through initiatives such as the levelling-up fund and our support with energy costs, highlights the benefits that Wales enjoys from being part of the United Kingdom.
I want to emphasise something that is not always said. A very clear majority in Wales believe in the United Kingdom and are proud to be part of it, and this place—Parliament—will always have a critical role in delivering for Wales and its people. Our approach to devolution is underpinned by our commitment to work collaboratively with the Welsh Government and all the devolved Administrations.
On the point about collaboration with the Welsh Government, does the Minister think the way the UK Government clawed back funding from the Welsh Government is unacceptable? My understanding is that issues around switching between revenue and capital have been agreed many times before. The level of underspend is significantly below that of some other UK Departments. Does he agree that was a pretty poor show by the UK Government?
The hon. Gentleman puts that in an interesting way. The other side of the story is that all who are entrusted with spending public money should do so carefully, and should make efforts to comply with the rules and arrangements around that money. The other way of looking at that is that the Welsh Government failed in their duty to spend wisely the money that was available to them.
Moving on from that, the landmark agreement reached last year between the UK and devolved Governments further strengthens our intergovernmental structures. The new structures provide a firm foundation to deepen our partnership working. Our joint work on city and growth deals in Wales, as well as our announcement last week that we will establish two freeports in Wales, following agreement with the Welsh Government, exemplify our approach to collaboration.
Over the past 25 years, we have seen dramatic changes in the way in which Wales is governed. It is clear that a wide range of views exists over how that might change in future, but I urge all to focus not on the constitutional debate, but on delivering on the real priorities for the people of Wales.
I thank all hon. Members, from all parts of the House, for their constructive approach to the debate. I would like to pick up briefly on a couple of points. Dame Nia Griffith spoke passionately and well about the Welsh Government, the Senedd and the structures. She said on a number of occasions that the Welsh Government have taken action. With the north Wales health board being eight years in special measures, taking action will sound a little hollow to my constituents, unfortunately.
The shadow Minister accused me of using the debate for nothing more than scoring points. I asked him about outcomes, but he ignored the point and did not address anything. He covered exactly the ground that I had mentioned in my opening remarks. His entire contribution was about what happens here, and nothing to do with the nature of devolution or what the Welsh Government do. I thank him for proving my point so perfectly.
The shadow Minister used the word “vast” several times: a “vast” number of people in Wales—a “vast” majority are supportive of the Senedd. In fact, 35% of people turned out in 2011 for the referendum that Richard Thomson mentioned, with regard to increasing powers. That is hardly a shining example of legitimacy for an institution of which people are vastly supportive.
I am in danger of rehashing all the points I made earlier, so I will not do so. It is sad that the Minister was not able to commit to giving the people of Wales another say on whether that institution should persist. It should be okay; I am sure the Labour party would support it, because after all, the “vast majority” of people in Wales are in favour of the Senedd—I suspect not.
I thank everybody for their contributions. I hope this will be the start of a series of discussions on the constitutional future not only of Wales, but of Scotland and Northern Ireland. That is something we do not often debate, although it is so important to the outcomes, the lives and the day-to-day activities of the people we are sent here to serve.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the matter of 25 years of devolution in Wales.