Parliament

25 Years of Devolution in Wales

Published date : 28 March, 2023
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Delyn (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. The hon. Member for Llanelli (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.

********

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.

Back to All Parliament