Welsh Devolution

– in Westminster Hall at 4:01 pm on 12 December 2023.

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Photo of Rob Roberts Rob Roberts Independent, Delyn 4:01, 12 December 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Welsh devolution.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir Christopher. This is a vital topic that impacts the lives of not only my constituents in Delyn, but all the 1.3 million or so people of Wales.

In May 1999, the Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, explained:

“Devolution is a process. It is not an event and neither is it a journey with a fixed end-point. The devolution process is enabling us to make our own decisions and set our own priorities, that is the important point. We test our constitution with experience and we do that in a pragmatic and not an ideologically driven way.”

There are several elements to that remark, and I want to break them down individually. Mr Davies said that devolution is a process and not an event, which seems like a reasonable point of view. It would be beneficial to take an iterative approach to such constitutional change—to test what works and what does not. The wording seems to be similar to saying that devolution is a bit of an experiment—several smaller processes that go together to produce an outcome. The difference, though, is that with an experiment, someone bothers to look at the results. With devolution, there has not been any examination of whether it is working well or badly, and nobody seems to care either way—“devolve and forget” at its worst.

The Westminster Government have a good story to tell: “If you think it is bad here, just look at how much worse it is in Wales.” The Welsh Government have their pantomime villain to blame: “It is all Westminster’s fault, because they continually underfund Wales.” Like, I am sure, all my constituents, I regularly tune into First Minister’s questions in the Senedd—I never miss it. It is a much more serene and courteous affair than Prime Minister’s questions here, but I fail to recall a single time that the First Minister has said that they got anything wrong or made any mistakes. If there is any hint of anything not going well in Wales, it is immediately the fault of Westminster. Both sides have their pre-prepared scapegoats to help them win political arguments, and it is always the people of Wales who suffer.

Mr Davies said that devolution

“is enabling us to make our own decisions and set our own priorities, that is the important point.”

I could not possibly have any more contempt for that statement than I do. It is not the important point. The only important point is the outcome of decisions: how do decisions that are made impact and affect the lives of the people of Wales? Where they are made and who makes them is absolutely irrelevant, as long as they are the right ones.

For the Secretary of State for Wales to say something like

“enabling us to make our own decisions” immediately separates us and encourages division in British society. Who is this “us” who will be able to “make our own decisions”? It is surely not the people of Wales, because only 25% of us voted to have a Welsh Assembly in the first place. Here we are, almost 25 years on from its establishment, and there is no evidence to suggest that the Westminster or Cardiff Governments have done any reflective analysis whatsoever as to whether devolution has been positive or negative.

Finally, the part of Mr Davies’s comment that I completely agree with:

“We test our constitution with experience and we do that in a pragmatic and not an ideologically driven way.”

I agree 100%, so where is that test? Why is nobody doing it? What does “pragmatic” and “not… ideologically driven” mean? The common-sense reading of that statement is that it means exactly the opposite of its previous comment about the geographical location of the decision maker being the important point. The statement is a complete lesson in political contradiction—to please both sides. On one hand, he invokes the idealism of having decisions made closer to home regardless of the outcome, and on the other he promotes a pragmatic examination of the process, which must not be steered by ideology.

Wales is a small but proud country with a unique identity. It has an unusual degree of political continuity. It ought to have been able to develop and introduce unique policies in Wales that were just not possible prior to devolution, but the record shows that it has failed to have an impact on the lives of our constituents. It is not good enough to keep blaming Whitehall after 25 years. In the time that we have had devolution, Wales has fallen behind the rest of the Union in nearly all its devolved policy areas and has continuously fallen short on UK-wide priorities.

Devolution in Wales has not resulted, as proponents had hoped, in a new form of politics. Far from reinvigorating democracy, voters are just underwhelmed by it. Well, that is not quite right: it has brought about a new form of politics, but sadly it has been the politics of division, blame and mockery. The Welsh Government blame everything on Westminster so they have a ready excuse for never having to fix anything; the Westminster Government say, “Well, it could be worse: look at Labour in Wales,” making us the laughing stock of these British Isles. The new politics we were promised 25 years ago has sadly morphed into a horrific parody of itself.

We were promised increased democratic representation. The Assembly was established on a 50.2% turnout of the people of Wales, with an outcome of 50.3% in favour. From a situation where 25.3% of the people of Wales voted in favour of establishing it, Wales was then thrust into a project of seismic proportions that would change the constitutional make-up of the UK irrevocably. Since 1998, the election turnout of the Welsh Assembly, which was subsequently renamed the Senedd at great yet pointless expense, has continuously declined, reaching as low as 38.2% and never exceeding 46%. Those woeful figures only go to prove that voters have become apathetic and disengaged with the Welsh Government. Turnout in Wales at general elections exceeds 70% every time.

The cost of the Senedd in 2021-22 was £63 million, with proposals to increase Senedd Members from 60 to 96, taking an already over-inflated cost up by another third—another £13 million—giving even less value for money for the people of Wales time and again. Earlier this year, a report said that the buildings of the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board in north Wales were only 62% operationally safe, with some £350 million needed just to bring the existing structures up to scratch, without talking about any new ones. Unsurprisingly, the health board has once again been placed in special measures, which are special in name only as that has been the case for the past eight years, with no noticeable improvement for the long-suffering people of north Wales. Had we not been paying money for the devolved Administration for the past 25 years, we could have ensured that every hospital across the whole of Wales was properly maintained and not falling down around the ears of our dedicated staff.

Routinely, in this Parliament, Labour MPs attack the Government on a range of perceived issues—rightly so; that is their duty as the Opposition. However, as we know, Labour has been front and centre in Wales since 1999 and failing since 1999. Since the advent of devolution, Welsh Labour has been virtually unopposed in government. Never winning an outright majority, it relies heavily on the support of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, who are both seemingly as reluctant as Labour to accept their part in this mismanagement on a colossal scale. On a visit to Llandudno last year, the Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition in this place, Keir Starmer, said,

“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”—

Lord help the UK.

What does Labour have to show for almost a quarter of a century in power as a blueprint for the rest of the country? Let me 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 us look at health, at the NHS. As we know, the Labour party in this Parliament relies heavily on scaremongering and unfounded soundbites—“Only Labour can save the NHS” and “The Tories are going to privatise everything”—while going out of its way to ignore the scale of the crisis in Wales. It points out everything that is wrong in England but never does anything to fix even the worst issues in Wales. I wish that Wes Streeting, the Labour shadow Health Secretary, who says that his party would fix everything that is broken in NHS England, would pop down the M4 and tell his secrets to the Welsh Government’s Minister for Health, who makes blunder after blunder and seems powerless to make any positive, lasting change.

In Wales, health boards are all in special measures. As I mentioned, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, which serves my Delyn constituency in north Wales, has been in that state for eight years, except for a conveniently short period just before the last Senedd election. It was brought out of special measures in the run-up to that campaigning period, despite there having been no actual changes. Interestingly, it was put back into special measures just after the election. That is just a coincidence, I am sure—an administrative mix-up.

The Labour rhetoric about poor funding of the NHS hits closer to home than Labour would ever care to admit. Despite no modern-day Conservative Government ever having cut NHS funding, Welsh Labour cut it in 2015. The King’s Fund expertly demonstrated that by reporting 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 more than £180 billion.

The NHS in Wales is failing. Wales had a higher covid death rate per head of population than England. Once again, there is a public inquiry in London to look for lessons learned, or, as it turns out, for the media to be able to allocate blame and denounce politicians. Either way, there is no scrutiny at all in Wales: no inquiry and no accountability, despite a worse outcome.

Moving on from health, Wales has the lowest-achieving education system in the entire UK and is among the worst in Europe. Just last week, we had the PISA—programme for international student assessment—testing results for science, maths and literacy. In science, England scored 503 and Wales scored 473, against an OECD average of 485. In maths, England scored 492 and Wales scored 466, against an average of 472. In literacy, England was at 496 and Wales was at 466, against the average of 476.

One pupil who gave comments to BBC Wales said:

“Some parts of it were tricky, but some of it was interesting…It’s like numeracy. So just using that information we know and using it in real life scenarios, which we don’t normally do in lessons that much.”

Another pupil said:

“I think it helps a lot when we get into the real world and actually have to use the skills that we did in the Pisa test to see where we’ll be at when we have to do that in real life”.

Those quotes from students interviewed by the BBC confirm their resounding opinion that their education is giving them knowledge, but never putting them in any real-life situations where they need to apply it. If we are not teaching them usable skills, what is the point of teaching them at all? We need to teach students the relevance of the knowledge and how it fits in with their lives. The pupils have confirmed that we are not doing that in Wales, so it is no wonder that our children are left behind compared with the rest of the UK.

In every single area of the curriculum, England was above average and had the highest scores in the UK. Wales was below average and had the lowest scores in the UK. The First Minister failing to do his sums properly when questioned about those numbers in the Senedd chamber last week was the height of irony. We are letting down the children of Wales. It is not just the Welsh Government any more, but the UK Government who say, “It’s nothing to do with us—it’s devolved.” That is just not good enough. We are all part of the United Kingdom.

Housing is an issue that is immensely important to my constituents and across Wales. As recently as the 2019 general election, the then leader of the Labour party and the official Opposition to the Government pledged 100,000 new council houses every year in England. That sounds great, but we must remember that the Welsh Government, under Labour management, released data detailing a meagre 57 builds by local authorities in that same year. Where are all the houses that the Leader of the Opposition pledged would happen under Labour? This is a devolved area and it has every opportunity to build them in Wales, but they never seem to materialise.

As discussions are being had by a noisy minority in support of more devolution and the ludicrous notion of independence for Wales, we must all be bold enough to look at these failures and ensure, above all else, that Wales is not just handed powers by the 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 a harsh reality of the situation. Wales is subsidised by England to the tune of approximately £18 billion a year.

The total tax revenue in Wales is exceeded by far by the amount of spending. The difference comes from the UK Government, quite rightly, as we are firmly and comfortably part of the UK. Where do those shouters for independence think they are going to get the money to pay for everything? None of the public services in Wales work already. Where will the funds come from for Wales to have its own courts, police, emergency services, welfare system, state pension and defence infrastructure—everything that an independent state would need? It is completely pie in the sky.

This is the focal point of what I want to say. I have been told a number of things in the past couple of years to try to persuade me of why I am wrong, and I will touch on them briefly. First, I am told by colleagues, who may or may not be in the room, that devolution is not the problem; it is Labour. My response is, yes, but all it does is compound the problem with its incompetence. It has not necessarily created the problem in the first place. The situation would not be any better with the Welsh Conservatives in charge, not because they are also incompetent—although I have seen nothing to make me think that would be a false conclusion—but because the powers that the Senedd has mean that it will never be able to do what needs to be done. For example, the UK Government announced 40 new hospitals. Whether those 40 hospitals will ever exist or come into being is by the by, but the point is that, even in optimal circumstances, Wales would never be able to embark on such a significant capital project because it will never have the funds to do that.

The UK Government have significantly more ability to borrow than the Welsh Government do. Despite the funding being distributed by the Barnett formula—a very poor way to calculate funding allocations—Wales will simply never have sufficient capital to engage in such a wide-ranging project. It does not even have the funds to repair the existing buildings, as I mentioned.

Some people use that as a good reason to devolve more powers so that Wales has those options, but we would get to a point where there are more devolved powers than reserved. At that point, we might just as well have full independence for Wales. I will say controversially on the record that I believe that full independence would be preferable to the current situation. More importantly, full independence is impossible due to the £18 billion a year that would be missing from the Welsh coffers. Bearing in mind that UK national debt is currently £2.5 trillion, presumably Wales would immediately start with 5% of that. So it would be £125 billion in the red on day one, with an extra £18 billion to find every year, just to stand still, from a faltering economy with low average earnings, and a population that cannot be squeezed any tighter. Independence is a fiscal impossibility.

Given that full movement one way or the other is preferable to the current situation, and independence is impossible, the only logical solution is to remove devolution altogether and get back to a single Government for England and Wales. Wherever participants in this debate sit on the political spectrum, outcomes should be their priority. What makes the lives of the people in Wales better? The people of Delyn could not care less about idealism, political nonsense and the shenanigans in this place. They do care about being able to put food on the table, jobs and opportunities, providing their children with a better start in life and relying on a health service to help them in their most difficult times.

Any time I talk about this on the record I get lambasted by the press, including certain journalists in Wales. One in particular said that I was doing it in a desperate and hopefully vain attempt to revive my career—God forbid. He wrote a long article attacking me personally. As the great woman once said:

“I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”

People say I am anti-Welsh. Nothing of the sort: dim byd o’r fath o gwbl. I am proud to be Welsh and to speak the language. It is because of that pride that I make these points, not from an anti-Wales point of view, but because the outcomes of devolution have led me unequivocally to conclude that it does not work, has not worked and cannot work.

My Welsh pride is such that I am brave enough to stand up in the face of the people who attack me and my patriotism and say, “No”. I stand here and say these things with the knowledge that there are many colleagues in this House of Commons who agree with every word I say on the matter privately, but who are hesitant to speak out against the stated policy of their party. That is not to say that I am any more courageous than they are—just that I have a bit less to lose than they do at the current time.

For a journalist who I have never spoken a word to in my life to draw judgments on my intent and my reasons for making the statements that I make is a sad indictment of a news media who have decided that it is not their job any longer to report the news, but somehow to interpret and speculate as to a rationale behind it, without even bothering to ask. It was notable that in his 1,100-word rant about me, there was not a single counter to any of the points that I made. There was not a single reference to the beneficial outcome of devolution and the intrinsic value that it has brought to the people of Wales, and not a single reference to the litany of successes that devolution has inspired, or the wonderful outcomes that the people of Wales have been able to enjoy that would not otherwise have been possible. There was nothing positive to say about devolution at all—just attacks on me.

That is all right. I am immensely proud of my Welshness, but I would be infinitely more proud if I could say “I’m from Wales”, and other people said “You’ve got great educational results”, or “Gosh, you’ve really transformed your NHS”, or “Your incomes are skyrocketing across Wales.” None of those things have happened in the last 25 years; what has happened has been the clear degeneration to rack and ruin in my fantastic country.

It does not need to be this way; we do not have to be the poor relation any more. We should roll back on devolution. Tomorrow, just after Prime Minister’s questions, I shall present a Bill to the House to allow for a referendum to do just that. I hope that in her response, the Minister will not just confirm that devolution is the policy of the Government. We all know that, and we all know that Wales has to put up with it only because it was brought in to satisfy our cousins north of the border. I would like the Minister to tell me why the Government support devolution in Wales. What are the positive outcomes? What benefits have there been that otherwise would not have been possible? What has come out of Cardiff Bay to benefit the people of Wales and offset the hundreds of millions of pounds that it has cost us over the years?

In 2014, the people of Scotland got to have their say once again to confirm the outcome of the 1997 referendum. In 2016, the people of the UK got to have their say once again on membership of the EU following the previous vote 40 years earlier. Why, then, can the people of Wales not have their say on whether to retain the institution that it never wanted in the first place?

Some people say, “There was another referendum in Wales in 2011”, and yes, there was. That question was:

“Do you want the Assembly now to be able to make laws” on the matters it has jurisdiction for? Of course people did—what a silly question that was. There was a 35% turnout for a 63% yes vote—another win for 22% of the population of Wales. But the question was fundamentally different and was not one that meant a great deal to the people of Wales, who reasonably assumed that the Assembly already had the powers to make laws in devolved areas. I am proposing a simple and straightforward yes or no—keep it or do not keep it.

I hope the Minister 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 that we can redirect the money wasted on a failed institution into providing better services and better outcomes for the people of Wales.

Ron Davies said:

“Devolution is a process…not an event”.

The process has failed to produce any measurable benefit; the process should be discontinued. The people of Wales should be allowed to choose.

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales 4:23, 12 December 2023

I congratulate Mr Roberts on securing this debate on a cause that he has discussed many times in the House. It is a pleasure to speak in my first Westminster Hall debate in my role as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales. I am very privileged to work alongside the Secretary of State for Wales and the Prime Minister in championing economic growth and creating high-quality jobs across Wales. In the limited time available, I will try to draw Members’ attention to the progress that the UK Conservative Government have made so far in securing the investment, opportunity and growth that Wales needs. That progress demonstrates the many benefits of the Union to the people of Wales.

I will start with four towns funds, in Merthyr Tydfil, Cwmbran, Wrexham and Barry. We have city and regional growth deals across the length and breadth of the country, £1 billion for the electrification of the north Wales main line, and specific Government investment in all 22 local authorities in Wales. The Government are backing Welsh business and the economy and delivering a better, brighter future for our communities.

The hon. Gentleman’s speech focused instead on constitutional issues and demonstrated his firmly held belief about the future of Welsh devolution. It will not surprise him—I know he will disagree with this—that I am bound to say that his argument is not with the Welsh Parliament, or with devolution, but with Welsh Labour. I am sorry that not one of the 22 Welsh Labour Members felt able to come to this Chamber this afternoon to defend Labour’s record in Wales—unless Daniel Zeichner would like to have a go.

I know that this will disappoint the hon. Member for Delyn, but let me be clear that this Government are firmly committed to devolution. I am proud that successive Conservative Governments have strengthened devolution in Wales, from delivering a referendum on full lawmaking powers to delivering two Wales Acts, devolving tax and borrowing powers and placing Welsh devolution on a firm footing with the reserved powers model. We have seen the National Assembly for Wales transform into the Welsh Parliament.

I believe that now is the time to move on from constitutional debates and that we should instead focus on growing and levelling up our economy, creating jobs and supporting people with the cost of living, because these are the priorities of the people of Wales—not extra devolution to the Senedd and certainly not creating more Senedd Members, which would cost an extortionate amount of money. It is imperative that the UK Government makes the most of devolution, and close collaboration between the UK Government and the Welsh Government is absolutely vital.

Our joint work to deliver two investment zones and two freeports in Wales will help to grow the Welsh economy and therefore the UK economy by attracting new businesses, jobs and investment.

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

I have very limited time and the hon. Gentleman treated us to a 23-minute speech, so if he will forgive me, I will press on.

Collaboration with local authorities in Wales is also key, as has been proven through the growing success of the Welsh city and growth deals, which are delivering real results for regional economies. But in recognising the positives of devolution for Wales and the opportunities that arise from having two Governments, it would be remiss of me not to recognise, as we heard the hon. Gentleman so eloquently explain, that there are legitimate and significant concerns in Wales about the performance of public services and the decisions being made by the Welsh Labour Government.

As the hon. Gentleman outlined, the most recent PISA results show that Welsh scores in maths, reading and science tests continue to be the lowest of the United—

Photo of Jonathan Lord Jonathan Lord Conservative, Woking

I agree with the Minister that our UK Government have done fantastic things for Wales in recent times, and I agree with her and Mr Roberts in relation to the devastating takedown of the Welsh Labour Administration, who have failed the people of Wales over such a long period. Can I ask the Minister for at least an assurance that we will not give further powers to a Welsh Administration until there is proven public support for that and until the Administration has perhaps proven themselves worthy of the powers that they already have?

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance: now is not the time to talk about providing more powers. Now is the time to talk about generating economic growth and opportunity in Wales—something that the Welsh Labour Government seem allergic to.

Rather than improving failing devolved public services, the Welsh Government’s firm focus is on issues that do not reflect the priorities of people in Wales, whether it is spending vast amounts of money to pay for more politicians in Cardiff Bay, implementing highly unpopular policies, such as the disastrous tourism tax or the 20 mph speed limit that cost £33 million, or refusing to build new roads—not forgetting that they wasted £157 million on the M4 relief road, which they then scrapped, before wasting a further £4 million on buying Gilestone Farm, which is in my constituency. As I can see that the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries is here this afternoon, I just point out the enormous disparity between the fortunes of farmers in England and those of farmers in my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire.

I understand and share many of the frustrations that people in Wales have about the Welsh Government’s direction of travel. However, people in Wales support devolution, as they have made clear in two referenda, and I do not believe that the answer to their concerns is to reverse devolution. Instead, if people are unhappy with the performance of the Welsh Government, I encourage them to make their voices heard through the ballot box at the next Senedd election.

The hon. Member for Delyn remarked that, over the years, the Senedd has become a political football between the two Governments, and he is right to point that out. However, the way to test that is to let someone else take responsibility. If a car is heading in the wrong direction, we do not scrap the vehicle and revert to walking, although I believe that is what the First Minister would rather people did. We find a better driver, we find someone with a map, we find somebody who knows what they are doing, and I submit that that is the Welsh Conservative party.

Question put and agreed to.