Saturday, November 07, 2015

Importance of S4C to the UK

I have always and will always live in Wales. Wales has much in common with England - a prosperous South East, large parts recovering from an industrial past, and largely overlooked rural areas. But Wales has one unique USP. We have the Welsh Language (Yr Iaith Cymraeg), the Language of Heaven. It is special. I'm not sure that our friends in England, Scotland and N Ireland fully get that. I once won the bardic chair at the Montgomeryshire YFC Eisteddfod (where English Language entries were allowed) with a treatise on the future of the the Welsh Language. I shared a widespread view at the time that it was doomed to continuous decline, and eventual demise as a spoken language. I was mistaken. The establishment of S4C in 1980, along with an early 190s Education Act has made the difference.
S4C was born to the Conservative Govt led by Margaret Thatcher. It was a quite difficult birth. As important as the establishment of the Channel was, the very generous budget agreed was equally important - linked to an inflation-based formula which lasted until the link was broken by the Public Bodies Act 2011. In 2010 the incoming Coalition Govt was faced with the challenge of establishing control over the calamitous state of the nation's public finances. I represented my party at committee stage of the Bill, and will never forget the experience - 1100 emails and protestors shouting at me. In my view, there was no alternative, as the Prime Minister who oversaw creation of S4C may well have observed! 
Let's talk money. S4C has three main funding streams beyond that which it raises in revenue. Much the largest contribution comes via the BBC from the Licence Fee - about £80million per annum. This is supposed to come without editorial strings. The second largest funding stream is also from the BBC, in the form of  broadcast content to the value of around £20 million per annum. None of this is supposed to impact on S4C's independence! 
The third income stream (and the point of this post) is the £6.7 million per annum coming from the Department of Media, Culture and Sport. I do and will continue to plead that this is not reduced. I accept that DCMS is likely to face very difficult choices, as the Chancellor finalises his Autumn Spending Review to be announced later this month. Every budget head will have it's champions. But a reduction in the DCMS contribution would be very unwise penny pinching.
Let's consider the reasons why. Breaking S4C's inflation linked funding in the Public Bodies Act 2011 was a big deal. So big that the Act specifically states that S4C would continue to receive "sufficient finance" to deliver a Welsh Language channel. A bit woolly - but hopefully more than a temporary 'sop' to persuade me and others to vote for it. Words in acts should mean something.
Another reason is the 'Independence' of S4C. To have the BBC providing all of the funding for S4C would seriously question how independence could be maintained. He who pays the piper etc...... And the BBC is far too dominant in Welsh media already.
Let me add a third reason. If DCMS reduces it's already relatively minor contribution further, the case for devolution of broadcasting could well become unchallengeable. I do not think many in the political or broadcasting world support that. And I should add that I am hugely proud that I learned to speak Welsh. Thousands of young people are speaking Welsh as their first language with pride. S4C has played a big part in the renaissance of Welsh. Let's not return to the 'dark days'
When the debate about establishing S4C was raging in the Conservative Party in 1979/80, the wise Willy Whitelaw advised Mrs Thatcher to look on it as an "investment in social harmony". So has proved. Let this investment continue.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Another Wales Bill - early thoughts.

A draft Wales Bill has been published. They're like trains on the underground. One fades from view around Constitution Corner. Then another one comes along. Constitutional matters are very much a minority interest, but they do interest me. Makes me bit of a geek I suppose. But I am fortunate that we have had so many of these Wales Bills coming along!! 

So what is this Bill about. Not that much actually. Most significant change is move from a 'conferred powers' model of devolution to a 'reserved powers' model. At present, all matters devolved are listed with all else reserved to the UK Govt. In future, everything is devolved except those matters listed as reserved. Ever since talking this issue through with an Assembly official, Adrian Crompton (around yr 2000) I've backed this change. Blame Adrian, a top man. However, I always thought this change would be difficult. Inevitably, the list of 'reserved powers' will be extensive. Clarity is essential. Everything not intended to be devolved must be listed to limit uncertainty and money flowing into the rapacious pockets of barristers in the Supreme Court. The problem to be covered is that Welsh Gov't's power to pass laws could have an effect on England. Such laws will require 'Crown consent'. The Welsh First Minister seems not to like this, and revers to this process as an "English veto". He refers to the Wales Bill as 'an old banger'. Seems not very keen on it.

Another issue of dispute is the need to establish a Welsh legal jurisdiction. Understanding this is a nightmare for anyone not well versed in law. There is now being created a body of Welsh law, which in theory should operate within a Welsh jurisdiction. But is it really worthwhile creating such an entity, alongside an England and Wales jurisdiction for what will be a very small body of law for many years to come. Surely legal brains will find a way through this one! Or not!!

The Bill extends power over more matters to Wales - like how to run itself (number of Assembly Members, votes at 16, calling itself a parliament). It also transfers power over energy, which really sticks in my craw, since we know the Welsh Govt has a vindictive determination to desecrate the mid Wales landscape with hundreds of turbines and pylons. This is one reason I'm not at all certain I'm going to vote for the Bill. Controversially, it does not include power over policing. 

There is one matter where I consider the Bill to be an abysmal failure as it stands. It does not ensure 'financial accountability' is vested in Welsh Government by devolving responsibility to levy significant proportion of income tax. In truth, I've never considered the Welsh devolution model to be genuinely democratic. Voters are invited at elections to consider just one side of the ledger - how money is going to be spent, without consideration of how it's going to be raised. Delivers a Welsh Govt which claims credit for all that is looked on with favour by the electorate, and blames the UK Govt for not sufficiently funding all that is frowned by the voters, including mistakes and poor performance. In reality, the Welsh Govt budget has never been more than a 'spending plan' and itself no more than having the status of an elected quango. 

Actually, the Wales Bill does devolve responsibility for levying a significant proportion of income tax -  except that it also requires a referendum be held before it can be introduced. We can predict that any referendum debate will completely ignore the 'financial accountability' principle. It's no more that a 'blocking mechanism'. Holding a referendum will make Wales a laughing stock. Referendumitis is a Welsh disease. The UK Govt should amend the Wales Bill, devolving responsibility for 50% of income tax and scrap the referendum. In 1997, Wales voted for devolution, despite my advice that she shouldn't. Let's try to make it work. 

Daresay I've included some debatable opinions here. It is my first draft of comment on a draft bill. A few meetings this coming week which may instigate a second draft!