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Devolution Funding

Volume 527: debated on Wednesday 11 May 2011

2. What progress has been made on the Government’s commitment to undertake a process similar to the Calman commission on devolution funding; and if she will make a statement. (54353)

4. What progress has been made on the Government’s commitment to undertake a process similar to the Calman commission on devolution funding; and if she will make a statement. (54355)

12. What progress has been made on the Government’s commitment to undertake a process similar to the Calman commission on devolution funding; and if she will make a statement. (54363)

Following the yes vote in the referendum on further powers, we have started to consider the scope and form of such a process. Now that the elections to the National Assembly have taken place I intend to discuss the process with other stakeholders and the First Minister. May I also take this opportunity while I am at the Dispatch Box to offer our congratulations to Carwyn Jones, who is currently considering forming the Welsh Assembly Government and has the largest party in the Welsh Assembly?

Our priority in Wales and elsewhere right now is to ensure that the deficit is under control. However, now that Ministers in the Welsh Assembly have more power, is it not right that they should be financially accountable for those powers as well?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. There is indeed a body of thought that believes that with the power to spend public money should come accountability, and this is certainly a matter that we will be looking at. However, this is not something that should be entered into in haste, and I intend to engage fully with the Welsh Assembly Government on the matter.

The national border between north-east Wales and Chester is almost unique in that it passes through an urban area, with large numbers of people travelling in both directions every day for health care, education and employment. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the remit of the review specifically includes looking at the impact of devolution on such cross-border services?

I thank my hon. Friend that question too, because he knows that we in the Wales Office have been concerned about cross-border issues and their impact on health in particular. I cannot guarantee that that will fall within the scope of the Calman-like process, but I assure him that I will take into consideration any representations that he or any other Member wishes to make to the Wales Office.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that reforming the thoroughly discredited Barnett formula to take a fair and transparent needs-based approach for the whole of the United Kingdom would help Wales and England?

The Government’s commitment to a wider review of the Barnett formula is clear, but stabilisation of the public finances comes first. I think we all recognise that the Barnett formula is coming to the end of its life, but we will consider a change to the system only once we have put the public finances in order. There was a good reason why the predecessor Government to this one made no changes to the Barnett formula in 13 years. It is not something that can be achieved in haste, only to be regretted at leisure.

May I ask the Secretary of State to take great care when she deals with these issues? As she knows, there is really no appetite in Wales for tax-varying or tax-raising powers—the resource base is not there—and even if there were, we would have to have a referendum in Wales for such powers, as happened in Scotland.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, because I always remember sitting and listening to him give evidence to, I believe, a House of Lords Committee looking at the Barnett formula. He said that there was no case for reviewing it because it had served well. The fact that the last Government repeatedly ruled out reforming the Barnett formula means that any reforms must be looked at carefully. He is quite right that giving tax-raising powers would involve another referendum, which is something that this Government would look at carefully, because I am not sure whether Wales has an appetite at the moment for another referendum.

The Calman process in Scotland had a wider remit than merely to consider funding arrangements. Given the Labour party’s opposition to decoupling Westminster and National Assembly constituency boundaries, would it not make sense to base the make-up of the fifth National Assembly on 30 regional and 30 constituency Assembly Members?

That is a very interesting thought. Hon. Members are well aware that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 broke the link between Assembly constituencies and parliamentary constituencies. I have agreed that we need to look carefully at the implications of having constituency boundaries relating to different areas and regions for UK and Assembly elections in Wales. I am taking the hon. Gentleman’s question as a recommendation that we have 30 first-past-the-post seats and 30 elected on a list system, and I will look seriously at that suggestion.

Does the Secretary of State think that the Calman process will be as beneficial for the Tories in Wales as it was in Scotland last Thursday? Will she also congratulate Carwyn Jones on polling Labour’s highest ever Welsh Assembly vote, which included taking Cardiff North—about the safest Conservative seat in Wales—and beating the Liberal Democrats in Cardiff Central and Plaid Cymru in Llanelli? Will she ensure that if any financial concessions or flexibilities are offered to Scotland by her Government, as is now being suggested, Wales will receive equivalent benefits to compensate for the horrendous cuts that the Government are imposing on Welsh citizens?

The right hon. Gentleman is on dangerous ground here. I do not want to engage in any sort of triumphalism or tribalism, to use the words of Carwyn Jones. The right hon. Gentleman will note that I came to the Dispatch Box to congratulate Carwyn, because I have worked well with him over the past 12 months. May I just remind him that the Conservative vote went up to 25% in Wales and the number of our seats went up to 14? We are now the second largest party in the Assembly, and the right hon. Gentleman had better think again before he starts taking us on.

I know that the hon. Members for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) will disagree with the Secretary of State on that, because Labour won the Assembly seats in their constituencies with thumping majorities. If, as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury suggested yesterday, Alex Salmond is to get the borrowing powers that he is demanding, as well as the ability to reduce corporation tax, how will increasing borrowing fit with her Government’s preoccupation with reducing the deficit at all costs? Furthermore, is not her Conservative-led Government playing into the hands of separatists by promoting separate economies?

I would never play into the hands of separatists; I am a devoted Unionist, as I hope the right hon. Gentleman is. Before the Assembly elections, he and his party consistently boasted that they would win a majority in Wales, and I consider failing to do so a significant failure for him and his leader. On the question of separatism, however, he will know that my door is always open, and I would hope that we could join in common cause on this matter. He and I, and his party, support the United Kingdom and I want to ensure that all steps taken by the Wales Office will reinforce the United Kingdom. I see him nodding, and I am grateful for his acknowledgement that he would join me in that cause. I am sure that we can work well together on that.