Wales Bill sparks debate over Westminister’s devolution to the Welsh

By Lydia Jackson

New concerns have arisen this week for the Welsh Assembly relating to the long awaited revision of the Wales Bill, first promised by David Cameron immediately after the Scottish referendum of 2014.

Since devolution was introduced in 1998 it has been a focal point of contentious debate across the UK, particularly with regards to the uneven rates at which the proposed decentralisation has occurred upon comparison of Wales and Scotland.

These concerns find their origins in the ‘Barnett Formula’ created by the Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury Joel Barnett in the 1970s.

The formula has been used as a tool to allocate public spending from the central government in Westminster to the United Kingdom’s devolved powers: Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These tax revenues can then be used by the regional power to spend on public services as they themselves see fit.

Despite the distributions supposedly being based on a fair method corresponding to population size, and therefore the extent to which populations contribute to taxes, there has been notable controversy relating to the disproportionate benefits the Scottish Parliament appears to receive.

A well-known example of this was the Scottish Parliament’s ability to reject university tuition fees, with the standard tuition fee for an undergraduate degree course in Scotland in 2016 standing at £1,820.

In comparison, the majority of courses in the rest of the UK amount to £9,000 per annum. As a result of this (and other examples) the Welsh Assembly has claimed, understandably, that it has felt ‘short-changed’ over the past few decades.

Following the Scottish referendum, many in Wales were disappointed by the promise to preserve the Barnett formula, leading to David Cameron’s proposal that Wales would receive more devolved powers and direct legislative control over their own affairs in the form of the Wales Bill.

These included giving Welsh ministers increased responsibility on both the spending and raising of its own revenue, whilst also promising a “funding floor” to maintain a constant level of income.

The Bill has now been approved by the House of Commons and has met some positive response, such as that from Welsh Conservative leader Andrew Davies praising it as a “landmark piece of legislation”. It has proposed to recognise the permanence of the Assembly whilst giving it new powers over elections, energy and transport. It also moves from a list of approved legislative powers that the Assembly can pass laws on, to one which gives it power over all but a list of reserved powers.

However, although this suggests increased Welsh control, Westminster’s list of reserved powers has been seen as too substantial by some, with Lord Wigley of Plaid Cymru claiming that there are as many as 200. Some have stated that the areas covered by this list would in fact reverse devolution, in an attempt by Theresa May to centralise powers by taking them back from the Welsh Government and sparking a “roll-back”.

The complicated and unclear nature of the Bill has also raised concerns over the extent to which it could come into effect in practicality, and failure to separate Wales’ legal jurisdiction from England’s has added to criticisms that the Bill doesn’t have the capacity to provide substantial change.

First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, who favours the devolution of income tax, has voiced concerns over the details, time scale and failure to guarantee a “funding floor”. He also claims that despite some potential progress, without full reform of the Barnett Formula there is no promise that any changes would be maintained after the end of this Parliament’s office.