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Devolution: Wales

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to resolve issues arising from the devolution of powers to the National Assembly for Wales.

My Lords, the National Assembly for Wales is now able to pass laws in all 20 devolved subjects. The Commission on Devolution in Wales—the Silk commission—is looking at how the Welsh Government can be made more accountable for what they spend and at any modifications to the present constitutional arrangements that would enable the Welsh devolution settlement to work more effectively.

I thank the Minister for his reply. With an increasing number of powers being devolved to the Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland and the Parliament in Scotland, what means are there to inform us of what decisions are taken at that level in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland? Moreover, with increasing devolution, what role does the Minister see for this House when it is composed of Members from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England?

My Lords, there are regular exchanges at official and ministerial level where information is given as to legislation passing through this Parliament which has relevance for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and there are close links the other way. With regard to parliamentary and assembly exchanges, the Calman commission, on which I sat, thought that it would be advantageous if there was a greater flow of information between parliaments and assemblies, but recognised that that would be a matter for the parliaments and assemblies and not for government. On the role of your Lordships' House in relation to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it clearly has a role in examining matters which in the case of Wales are non-devolved. We have done so since 1999 and I can imagine that we will continue to give it the scrutiny that we would expect of a revising Chamber.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that, whereas the outcome of the referendum almost a year ago to this week was quite clear-cut, the degree of devolution in various portfolios remains more unclear? In Wales, unlike Scotland, a portfolio is not devolved in its entirety but is dependent on interpretation of legislation. In order for people to understand better how the devolution settlement is working, will he arrange for this to be reviewed so that we might have more clear-cut devolution that is better understood by civil servants, by the press and media, and particularly by the electorate?

My Lords, I recall taking through your Lordships' House prior to the referendum an order in which we sought to try to bring together all the different parts which had been the subject matter of legislative competence orders over a number of years with the objective of achieving greater clarity. However, I note what the noble Lord said. The Silk commission perhaps gives an opportunity for some of these issues to be aired. Obviously, the Government will have to consider what that commission proposes in due course.

My Lords, when the Government established the Commission on Devolution in Wales—the so-called Silk commission—it was surprising to learn that reform of the Barnett formula was excluded from its remit, despite it being a flagship manifesto commitment of both coalition parties. Are the Government still committed to reform of the Barnett formula and, if so, when will it happen?

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness will reflect that the Barnett formula has implications for all parts of the United Kingdom and therefore it would not have been appropriate for the Silk commission to look at it in relation to Wales in isolation. That is why the Calman commission, looking at Scottish devolution, did not feel able to look at the Barnett formula. This Government have indicated that, while there is a case for looking at the Barnett formula, it is important that we first bring the finances of the United Kingdom under control. That is a precondition for any movement on the Barnett formula. For noble Lords who are keen to talk about the Barnett formula, the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, has tabled an amendment to the Scotland Bill which I very much hope will be debated later this evening.

My Lords, one of the remaining issues after more than a decade of devolution is the dire state of the Welsh economy after the Welsh Labour Government have ruled the country. They have got rid of the Welsh Development Agency, which has cost us a great deal, and one Welsh academic has described it as,

“the worst policy decision made in Wales in living memory”.

Does my noble and learned friend agree with that verdict?

My Lords, I am not in a position to agree with that, not having read that particular report. Clearly the economy of Wales is a matter in which your Lordships’ House has a legitimate interest, concerning, as it does, both devolved and non-devolved matters. I understand that on St David’s Day later this week the House of Commons will be debating Welsh affairs generally, and I strongly expect the economy to dominate and not least the Welsh Development Agency and the point made by my noble friend.

Does the noble and learned Lord accept that, although as a constitutional precept this Westminster Parliament can, even in relation to any matter delegated to any one of the constituent parliaments, still legislate as it would wish in relation to any devolved area, in relation to Scotland some 14 years ago a convention was kindly agreed to the effect that this House would not dream of doing that unless so specifically requested by the Scottish Parliament? Particularly now in the context of the added powers enjoyed by Wales since the referendum, will such a convention be considered by Her Majesty’s Government in relation to Wales?

My Lords, I think that the legislative consent Motion, originally described in Scotland as the Sewel convention after the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, who announced it, has worked well in practice. It is my understanding that if legislation which has implications for Wales is brought before your Lordships’ House and the House of Commons, it will be the subject of a similar convention. After each Queen’s Speech there is an obligation on the Secretary of State for Wales to consult the National Assembly for Wales about UK government proposals that may have an impact on Wales, not least since the further devolution on devolved matters.

My Lords, loath as I am to be in disagreement with my colleague on the Front Bench so far as concerns the Barnett formula, I say to the Minister, “Review the Barnett formula but don’t rush it”.

As regards the anomalies in relation to Welsh devolution and some of the problems arising from Scottish devolution, which we will be discussing at length later today, as well as the West Lothian question, on which the Government have set up a commission, would those matters not all be better dealt with if we were to look at the English dimension and devolution within or to England?

My Lords, I think that there has been some history of that, not least pioneered by the Government of whom the noble Lord was a member. I do not seem to remember that there was huge enthusiasm for it in the north-east of England, but it is still a very pertinent point and one which I am sure will be raised again in debates on this issue in the future.