Following its recent Report on whether some tax powers should be devolved to the Assembly, the Commission has now issued a call for evidence on broader questions, focusing particularly on the Assembly’s legislative powers. The Welsh Government has responded constructively, and I will continue to contribute to the debate the Commission has initiated.
In the early years of devolution, the Assembly could not pass its own laws – it was only with the overwhelming success of the Yes campaign in the 2011 referendum that we finally established the National Assembly for Wales as a legislature, with primary legislative powers. The Assembly can now make laws for Wales in matters such as health, social services, education, transport, the environment and local government – matters which most touch people’s lives on a daily basis.
I have often said Wales is an old country, but a young democracy. We are still very much on the devolution journey: devolution in Wales has been in a process of growth since 1999. But now, one thing is clear – the people of Wales want their Welsh Government and National Assembly to play an increasingly important part in the governance of Wales.
The time is therefore right for us to establish a longer-term vision for the governance of Wales within the changing UK. We need a new settlement which will settle fundamental constitutional issues for a generation and more, while reflecting distinctive Welsh circumstances. That settlement, the Welsh Government thinks, should be based on four overriding principles – a commitment to a devolved future for Wales within the United Kingdom; that the devolved institutions should have the powers to enable them to improve the quality of life of people in Wales; the importance of having a simpler and clearer constitutional settlement, which enables decisions affecting Wales to be taken in Wales, with clear accountability; and the need for prudence and caution in the Welsh Government’s financial affairs, in what are still very difficult economic times.
Although the National Assembly now has substantial legislative powers, the statutory provisions providing for this differ significantly from those for the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Scottish Parliament’s powers, for example, are defined in law by what it cannot do; certain matters are “reserved” to Westminster, but the Parliament can legislate in relation to Scotland on anything else. The Assembly’s powers, on the other hand, are legally defined by what it is can do: legislative competence is conferred on the Assembly in respect only of a range of specified subjects.
The new constitutional settlement which we have proposed is designed to strengthen Wales’ place within the United Kingdom. It would replace the present model with something akin to the Scottish Parliamentary model, where specific areas of responsibility such as constitutional affairs, defence, foreign affairs, social security and macro-economic policy would be reserved to the UK Parliament, while most other matters would be devolved to Wales. This is not about following Scotland – it is about strengthening accountability within Wales, and by securing greater clarity on exactly what the powers of the devolved institutions are, reducing the scope for conflict between the UK and Welsh Governments, which can only be a good thing.
As part of the package we are proposing, we are also calling for devolution to be extended in a number of areas, to ensure decision making that responds to the particular needs of Wales. I believe key decisions over policing, energy, public transport and community safety should be taken in Wales, for Wales, by those of us directly elected by the people of Wales and accountable to them, and we have made proposals in all these areas, and more.
This is why were are seeking the devolution of executive powers over the consenting of large scale energy generation (except nuclear power) and related energy infrastructure to enable locally sensitive decision making and consistency with other planning powers which are already devolved.
Policing and criminal justice are the only mainstream public services which are not devolved in Wales, even though their day-to-day work involves substantial interaction with devolved services. The status quo is in the Welsh Government’s view increasingly hard to justify, and we believe that a devolved criminal justice system should form part of the long term vision for Welsh governance.
Although it makes sense for the future, we do not for financial reasons feel able to pursue the devolution of criminal justice in its entirety at this stage. But we believe devolving legislative and executive responsibilities for the police service, together with equivalent responsibilities for community safety and crime prevention is entirely manageable and has the potential to deliver significant benefits for the people of Wales.
It is now for the Silk Commission to assess what we have said, and of course also consider the views of the many others who I hope will contribute to the debate. When it reports next year, the Commission can make a major contribution to our thinking on the future constitutional development of the United Kingdom; we must all wish them well in that task.