Marcus Stead

Journalist Marcus Stead

Devolution in Wales: Twenty years of failure

with 2 comments


WALES is the country whose devolution settlement is talked about the least, for reasons that are understandable with all that’s happening in Scotland and Northern Ireland. But there are big problems emerging, and the case needs to be made loudly for the abolition of a failed institution the people of Wales never really wanted.

From the outset, Wales was never very enthusiastic about devolution. Fewer than one in four of the Welsh electorate voted for the creation of the Assembly in 1997. Fewer than one in five voted to increase its power in the referendum of 2011.

Social media is hardly an accurate snapshot of society, but it’s telling that First Minister Mark Drakeford has just over 62,000 followers across his two Twitter accounts, compared to Nicola Sturgeon’s more than one million.

As recently as 2014, data collected by BBC Wales showed that just 48% of respondents knew that the Welsh Government is responsible for the NHS in Wales. A similar number, 42%, wrongly thought policing is a devolved area.

In the 20 years since the Assembly first came into being, turnout at elections has been as low as 38% and has never exceeded 48%.

The very principle of devolution has created a constant tension between the governments at opposite ends of the M4. During the years when Carwyn Jones was First Minister and David Cameron was Prime Minister, a culture of ‘blame Westminster’ was coined every time shortcomings in the Welsh NHS or education system were exposed. Successive Welsh Government ministers have blamed the ‘Barnett Formula’ for supposed under-funding in Wales.

Yet the reality is that in July, figures released by the Office for National Statistics showed public spending in Wales was £13.7 billion more than the total amount collected in taxes, which works out at a deficit of £4,376 per person.

In other words, the English taxpayer is being compelled to subsidise the Welsh standard of living, but has no say in who makes the decisions on devolved areas of governance. This is taxation without representation, or an instruction to the English taxpayer to give Wales your money but mind your own business when it comes to policy formation.

The culture of the Assembly has been that of a ‘groupthink’ cartel in Cardiff with limited competition between Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. Former Labour Welsh Office Minister Jon Owen Jones referred to a ‘great deal of cohesion around consensual views’. This infects not only the Assembly, but also the civil service and prominent lobbying bodies.

The cartel has manipulated public appointments. Between 1999 and 2015, 195 Welsh appointees had direct links to Labour (nine times the Conservative total) and 45 had direct links to Plaid Cymru.

Devolution was supposed to bring to an end the ‘quango culture’ in Wales, but, in the words of Cardiff University professor Kevin Morgan, Wales now has a ‘cowed culture’ of public bodies who are reluctant to speak out against the political status quo because they are dependent on funding.

There is no Welsh register of lobbyists, but the Cardiff Bay bubble is full of people who were once Assembly Members or worked for them.

One outfit alone boasts of four former Labour Special Advisers, along with a former Plaid Cymru Assembly Member and the party’s former chief executive.

The Welsh Labour group in the Assembly fares no better. Of their 29 Assembly Members, 24% used to work on the party payroll as advisers or staffers, 21% worked for third sector organisations, 21% worked in the media and 14% worked for trade unions or a union-affiliated law firm. Even Mark Drakeford himself was a predecessor First Minister’s special adviser.

A decade ago, the political editor of BBC Wales was Rhun ap Iorweth and his ITV Wales counterpart was Lee Waters. They are now Assembly members for Plaid Cymru and Labour respectively. During the intervening period Waters was vice chair of the ‘Yes’ campaign in the 2011 referendum on increasing the Assembly’s powers.

Many job advertisements among the Assembly apparatus state that the ability to speak Welsh is either a requirement or an ‘advantage’, despite the fact that the 2011 Census showed more than 80% of the people of Wales spoke little or no Welsh. Of the areas within reasonable commuting distance of the Assembly, 89% of the population of Cardiff and Swansea classed themselves as unable to speak Welsh, while in Newport the figure was 90%.

Not only do Welsh language requirements drastically reduce the potential talent pool of Assembly staffers in a country of just three million people, it by definition attracts a certain type of person, one who is highly unlikely to say that Welsh language provision has already gone far enough, or that the Welsh Government’s target of one million Welsh speakers by 2050 is absurd.

For example, since 2016, there has been a policy of ‘Welsh first’ road signs being gradually rolled out across Wales, regardless of the fact that in most parts of the country, only a small minority of the population speak Welsh.

There was virtually no public consultation or debate about this. It did not appear in Labour’s manifesto at the last Assembly elections. It was just decided by the cosy cartel, and as a result, citizens and visitors alike face a potentially dangerous and confusing distraction while travelling at high speed on Welsh roads.

There are enormous perks to being part of the Assembly gravy train, keeping your mouth shut and not rocking the boat too much. Welsh Government SPADS can earn over £50,000 a year working in a culture Steve Jones, ex-adviser to Carwyn Jones, described as ‘toxic’ and ‘pure poison’.

Between 2017 and 2018, Welsh Government credit cards were used to spend more than £1.5 million on frivolities, including £203,645 on flights and £110,890 on luxury accommodation.

A favourite tactic of the Welsh political establishment is to muddy the waters, to make comparisons between other parts of the UK more difficult.

For example, the proportion of children in England and Wales achieving five or more GCSEs at A*-C was very similar between 1995 and 2002. By 2011/12, 82% of children in England achieved this threshold compared with just 73% in Wales. The Welsh Government chose not to mirror Michael Gove’s reforms in England, and within a few years created a completely different grading system, so making comparisons has become much more difficult.

In September 2018, Wales’s Education Minister Kirsty Williams (the Assembly’s sole Liberal Democrat) decided that a taxpayer-funded trip to Los Angeles and New York at a cost of £32,123.12 would help matters. A further trip to Texas, Alabama and Georgia followed in September 2019.

The very principle of devolution inevitably sets one part of the UK against another. For example, thanks to the Welsh Government, people requiring residential care will stop paying care home fees when their assets have been whittled down to £50,000, more than double the figure in England. Now Plaid Cymru wants to abolish care home fees entirely.

It all sounds very noble, until we consider that this policy will encourage English retirees to move to Wales. At the same time, bright graduates are leaving Wales due to Welsh speakers being given preferential treatment in so many public sector jobs, along with the lack of a skilled private sector (just one of the FTSE top 100 companies is based in Wales).

Post-Brexit, the United Kingdom will need to take an urgent look at its constitutional arrangements, from the botched Blairite House of Lords reforms to the restoration of the devolved institutions in Stormont.

Wales needs to be honest with itself. Twenty years of devolution has led to the worst public services in Britain, and an unhealthy culture of groupthink has emerged around the Assembly, the civil service and lobbying institutions.

The people of Wales have always been lukewarm about the Assembly. They now deserve the opportunity to vote for its abolition.

Written by Marcus Stead

December 7, 2019 at 4:35 am

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  1. […] – A Country Divided Devolution in Wales: Twenty years of failure Posted in Breaking News | Leave a […]

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