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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Why we need to settle the devolution debate once and for all

Today is the day that Westminster comes to Cardiff Bay. To be precise it is the day the Secretary of State for Wales appears in front of Plenary to persuade us of the merits of the Queen's Speech. It is a tough job but somebody has to do it.

Over at the Guardian, Stephen Crabbe has given us a preview of what to expect. He tells the paper that the Tories now want to deepen devolution after what he describes as a massive mistake in opposing the process in 1997:

“Strategically we got it massively wrong in 1997 by setting our faces against devolution. There is a strong philosophical tradition within British Conservatism that supports decentralisation and localism and devolution. We have rediscovered that in the last five or six years as a government. You can see the fruits of that now with the northern powerhouse and city deals. We have got to a place where Scottish Conservatives, Welsh Conservatives – we are very, very comfortable with devolution, we want to make it work.”

He plans to tell us that about the new reserved powers we will get in the latest Wales Bill, as well as proposals to allow the assembly to change its name to a parliament and to set its own franchise. He also makes it clear that he intends this to be the last time a Secretary of State for Wales comes to the Senedd to talk down at us about the UK Government's legislative plans. He is planning to abolish that role in the new legislation.

He wants this latest bill to settle the devolution issue for Wales, arguing that the original devolution settlement has had a “long term corrosive effect” on the whole country by creating a culture of blame and grievance directed at the UK government. He tells the Guardian that the failure to ensure that the devolved bodies took some responsibility for raising taxes has created a “long running perpetual complaint” that Westminster was to blame for difficult spending decisions. Unfortunately, the proposals he is bringing forward will still leave control of the purse strings in the hands of the Treasury.

However, others have a different view. In the Western Mail, Stephen Crabbe's former deputy, the Welsh Liberal Democrats peer, Jenny Randerson says it is time to speed up the devolution process. She wants to go further than the present Government is proposing:

Ms Randerson is calling on her former colleagues at the Wales Office to devolve responsibility for policing and youth justice; to be “open to the idea” of a separate legal jurisdiction for Wales; to increase the energy powers; and to clarify whether the UK Government will be “only be publishing a Draft Bill in this parliamentary session.”

The peer said: “No ifs, no buts, Wales must have fair funding. We need clarity on this issue and the best way to tackle it head on is by entrenching it in the Wales Bill.

Jenny points out that devolution under the Liberal Democrats in Coalition Government moved faster than it had in over decade. She is now concerned that with the Tories on their own, this momentum could be lost.

She is also right that unless the funding gap between Wales and the rest of the UK is resolved then the taxation powers which the UK Government proposes to give to us will be meaningless. That is why we need a firm commitment from the Secretary of State for Wales that a funding floor will be put in place as soon as possible.

The new Wales Bill will propose to give the Welsh Assembly reserved powers so that we will have responsibility for everything within our sphere of influence unless the bill says otherwise. The Secretary of State will no doubt argue that this puts us on a par with Scotland, but others disagree.

Over at the Pendryn Drycin blog, Phil Davies sums up much of the evidence given to the Welsh Assembly's Constitutional and legal Affairs Committee by three eminent academics on Monday:

It is to be welcomed, therefore, that the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee under the chairmanship of David Melding has started gathering evidence on the UK Government’s proposals. Yesterday they took evidence from Professor Thomas Glyn Watkin, Emyr Lewis of Blake Morgan LLP and Professor Adam Tomkins of Glasgow University, all of whom expressed concerns that the process could be hijacked by Whitehall to limit or obfuscate the power of the Assembly rather than enhance it or make it clearer, and that a ‘reserved powers model’ of and in itself was no guarantee of legislative ‘elbow room’ or clarity. “Everything depends on the reservations” was the very strong message emerging from the meeting, and in a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion which also took in considerations of sovereignty, ‘permanence’ and the Sewel Convention, all were of the opinion that the current process represents both an opportunity and a risk to Wales.

He concludes: "Rather than fighting a rear-guard action to cling on to powers that we already have, shouldn’t our leaders be ‘in the faces’ of Messrs Cameron and Osborne demanding much, much more? Silk II in its entirety for example? Home Rule perhaps?"

The Secretary of State for Wales needs to understand that he might have to go that extra mile before this issue really is settled for a generation and the Welsh Assembly is in a position to deliver its own agenda in full.

I agree with you that devolution needs to be continued to be developed but I don't believe that it can be settled within the current system.

I am new to the party having joined after the GE. I am formally a member of the SNP but have always considered myself a Liberal and decided that I wanted to get involved in the debate and express my opinion so joined the party.

I feel that the only way that we will resolve the unfair and outdated nature of the UK is a proper federalist system in the longer term and electoral reform by the way of PR in the short term. While we need to continue to fight to make devolution better it can only ever be a bridge to the longer term prize of federalism.

I voted YES in the Scottish Referendum due to the failure of the third question being on the ballot paper, I feel that was a huge mistake by the Liberal Democrats in Scotland working with Better Together to deny that option when they must have suspected that would have been the preferred choice of many voters. Even today the party continues to promote the lie that the Smith Commission is modern federalism or devo max to the most politically educated part of the UK who now understand and see that it is not anything near it. The Smith Commission is a tweaking of minor responsibilities in the main over how we spend our money with both a retained veto and the possibility that Scottish people who want to bring about change may find themselves in a situation of being taxed twice in many ways to pay for it.

The Liberal Democrats have got to campaign on the policy of federalism and electoral reform, I would also be fighting on a platform of social liberalism and that is why I will be supporting Tim Farron and also I suspect why the party did so well under Charles Kennedy and so poorly under Nick Clegg. Yes the party suffered because of broken promises, the coalition and the referendum but these were mistakes of our own making. We lost sight of what we stood for and I suspect, certainly here in Scotland, that the lessons have not been learned and the Holyrood election next year will be a disaster for the party.

We need to be the Liberal movement, not left, right or centre but the voice of reason. The party that understands that both capatalism and the state can work hand in hand as long as we all accept that we have a responsibility to each other. We need to continue to fight for fairness and equality, for human rights, for remaining in europe. I feel we have lost sight of that along the way to a degree.

Thanks for allowing me to comment.

Totally agree. We need to campaign for Home Rule within a fully Federal UK. That is also party policy
Bruce raises an interesting point which I haven't seen addressed elsewhere: how many other people felt forced to vote Yes for the lack of a third question on the referendum ballot?

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