Enjoyed a cappuccino this morning at a Cardiff Bay cafe named Mischief. They remember me there because I was their very first customer. Reading my Telegraph in full relax mode when my eye was drawn to an innocuous little report by James Kirkup at the foot of page 4. The issue under report would be a candidate for 'Most boring subject of the decade' - except that its rather important. I speak of course of 'the Barnett Formula'.
This 'Barnett Formula' is the mechanism by which public money approved for spending each year by the Government is distributed amongst the four nations of the UK. Its so named because it was established some 30 years ago when Joel Barnett was the responsible Minister. It hasn't been changed since. During the 8 years I was an Assembly Member, both Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats were vociferous in their demands that the Formula should be abandoned and a new system put in place - usually calling for it to be needs-based and claiming that Wales would benefit to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds. For part of that period I was the Conservative Finance Spokesman,(shadowing the hugely respected Finance Minister, Sue Essex). We were both reluctant to support what we saw as opening an unpredictable can of worms.
Back to today's article and the point of this post. It seems that the Taxpayer's Alliance has just published a report, written by a former Treasury economist, Mike Denham also supporting calls for a review of Barnett. But from a rather different perspective - and one that I feared might prove to be the most influential worm in the can. It claims that £200,000,000,000 has been spent in Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland over and above the equivalent per capita amount that has been spent in England since the Formula was introduced. The report also points out that in 2007/8 per capita spend in England was £7'535, while in Scotland it was £9,179, in Wales it was £8,577 and in N. Ireland it was £9789. I've no reason to think these figures are inaccurate. The reason for this of course is that public money was distributed according to need when Joel Barnett was in charge, and the need has always been greater in Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland. But its not how everyone sees things - especially in England. Another of the unpredictable worms in the can is the extent to which any review will be subject to political 'manipulation'. My advice to those who assume with casual certainty that huge financial benefit will flow towards Wales following a review of Barnett is 'Be careful what you wish for' and 'Proceed with great care'.