Thursday, June 16, 2016

Wales Bill racing on.

The paint was hardly dry on the Queen's Speech which outlined the Gov't's programme for the new session, when the Wales Bill was published. Second Reading, where MPs debate the general principles behind the Bill was held Tuesday this week. Passed without a division. Welsh Secretary of State, Alun Cairns will have been very pleased. The Bill will now go into committee, where it will be considered line-by-line. Because it's a 'constitutional' bill, the committee will be the whole House of Commons. I believe two days have been allocated, one of which will he held before the summer recess. This is breakneck speed.

The Wales Bill is wide-ranging. But in my view, there are two proposals that stand out as particularly significant. Firstly, the Welsh Assembly will in future function on the basis of 'Reserved Powers' as opposed to the current 'Conferred Powers' system. This means that all powers are devolved to Wales except those on a list of powers 'reserved' to Westminster - rather than only those powers 'conferred' by the UK Govt. Sounds boringly technical I know, but it is very significant. No-one seemed to disagree - except Plaid Cymru MPs, who unsurprisingly want all powers devolved. There will inevitably be debate and disagreement about precisely what powers should be 'reserved'. But hopefully there should be less dispute and confusion over what a Welsh Govt can do (and can't do) in future.

Second big change is that the responsibility to levy a significant proportion of Income Tax will be devolved. I'm assuming it will about 50% of Income Tax. Which means that half of our Income Tax liability will be set by the Welsh Gov't (at present 10p for standard rate payers), while the other half ( (10p) will be levied by Westminster Govt. Both Gov't's will be free to vary it's rate up - both up and down. Some Conservatives are unhappy with this, but I've supported this principle for years. It's the only way to make the Welsh Govt financially accountable. At elections, voters need to study both sides of the ledger - what manifestos say about raising money as well as spending it. When I first advocated this change, very few agreed. Yesterday Second Reading passed without a division.

The most controversial aspect was the dropping of any commitment to a referendum. Most of us have had enough of those. And anyway, I suspect it would not be winnable because the referendum campaign would be focused on Labour wanting to increase our taxes. We have not yet reached the position where voters can conceive of any party but Labour leading a Welsh Govt. Personally I've never believed that and see the argument as self-fulfilling pessimism. 

Several other important changes as well. Welsh AMs will be able to run elections, change voting systems and increase number of AMs. Labour MPs seemed quite exercised that the right to introduce compulsory voting was to be devolved. And formally change the Assembly into a Parliament. 

There may be a bit of turbulence about whether Wales should have it's own separate jurisdiction. It's unchallengeable that Wales is developing it's own body of distinct Welsh Law. But it's minuscule. Don't think the UK Govt will back a separate jurisdiction at present. May be a barny about that.

My view is it's an important bill, and I support it, even if it formalised devolution over energy projects up to 350MWs. This was effectively devolved already, when the Welsh Labour Govt, quite disgracefully in my view, stripped councils of the power to decide wind farm planning applications on March 1st this year. Luckily for Montgomeryshire, the landscape philistines in Cardiff Bay have no power over subsidy regimes. Someday I hope a Welsh Conservative Govt will return this power to local people, as it is in England. 

Anyway, it's onwards to the consideration of the details of the Wales Bill in committee.

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