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Friday, December 17, 2004

Lessons of devolution

It is the case that no matter how long we have devolved administrations that there will always be English politicians that do not get it. Such politicians will consider it their duty to interfere in Welsh affairs, suggest that we might benefit from doing things a particular way because it works in England or worse, seek to impose on Wales an English framework or policy because they feel that they have jurisdiction over us. To those politicians I should say that even if you come to Cardiff to make these statements that does not make them any more devolution-friendly.

I do not consider Liberal Democrat MP, Ed Davey, to be such a politician as I respect him greatly and consider him to be a champion of devolution. But he is human and even he can have lapses caused by not thinking through fully the consequences of what he is saying. Thus, his pronouncement yesterday that Wales should follow the example of England in introducing Comprehensive Performance Assessments for local Councils and then produce performance league tables, must rank as a major gaff.

There are a number of reasons why this is so. The first of these is that the diverse nature of Welsh Councils makes comparison meaningless. There simply isn't enough of them to produce a league table of similarly sized and comparable local authorities. Secondly, the idea that comprehensive performance assessments should be used as a tool for Assembly interference in the way that Councils are run goes against the whole ethos of devolution and local determination that has been an important principle for the Welsh Assembly Government from day one. The Government of Wales Act is founded on the basis of partnership not dictatorship. The fact that a system would be useful to identify good performance by Liberal Democrat run Councils and poor achievement by Labour is not a justification for it. In fact it is bad policy-making.

Thirdly, question marks have to be raised about the effectiveness of the CPA process itself. Admittedly, it focuses the minds of Councillors on their own performance and offers an independent peer review to provoke critical questions and drive forward improvements. However, it is open to a Council to seek this voluntarily anyway as Swansea did a few years ago. There is an argument that the CPA process is unnecessarily time-consuming, that it diverts staff resources away from providing services and that it acts as a means of undermining local democratic accountability.

All three of these points are valid reasons why Liberal Democrats would oppose such a process. The ends do not always justify the means. However, Mr. Davey's gaff goes even deeper. He says "The fact is that people in Wales are being used as guinea pigs for a policy that holds serious dangers for Labour." The system he is criticising is called the Wales Programme for Improvement. As the Welsh Assembly Government spokesperson says, under this system "all local authorities in Wales report publicly on their performance, using a common means of measuring it and subject to a common regime of audit and inspection. All local authorities publish an annual improvement plan, and are under a statutory duty to do so. The plan sets out their performance in detail and the steps they intend to take to improve it. The formal views of the Audit Commission and other regulators are also made public, for instance in the form of the Commission's detailed Audit Letter to each authority, social services and education inspection reports." This is a system that reduces bureaucracy and regulation, something that Liberal Democrats oppose in other policy areas.

Not only is that a liberal and enabling approach which, if it works properly, can provide information so as to allow voters to effectively judge the performance of their Council and vote accordingly, it is also an approach that was introduced in Wales by the Labour-Welsh Liberal Democrat Partnership Government with the full agreement of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and their Local Government Deputy Minister (who happened to be me). This dangerous experiment that Mr. Davey is so keen to condemn therefore was put in place by his own party in partnership with Labour.

The Welsh Assembly Spokesperson concludes by saying: "It is not for us to comment on the merits or otherwise of the English Comprehensive Performance Assessment system." Perhaps the same discipline should be adopted by English politicians coming to Wales.

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