A new dawn broke in Welsh politics on the 19th September 1997, in the words of the then Welsh Secretary. Eighteen years on, the UK’s political landscape continues to shift, with further powers to Scotland being legislated, a new Wales Bill expected soon and the argument over English votes ongoing. The future of the union was an important issue during this year’s general election campaign, and how the government will proceed with devolution will define the political decade. It can get a little confusing though, so here are your Gair Rhydd FAQs on Welsh politics:
What is devolution?
Devolution is the transferring of powers from a central administration. So moving powers and law making abilities from Westminster to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly.
When and why did devolution start?
There were calls for devolution and some form of ‘home rule’ by some throughout the latter half of the 20th century. A failed referendum in Wales and Scotland in 1979 dampened their efforts temporarily. Another referendum was held in 1997, leading to the creation of the National Assembly for Wales, as well as the Scottish Parliament, both with limited capabilities.
The devolution process in Wales has progressed significantly since then, with the Welsh Government having gained law-making powers in 20 devolved areas in 2011, without the need for consulting Westminster.
Why is there no English Parliament?
In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland there was a gradual demand for devolution, which led to the Labour party offering a referendum on the issue. In England however, these calls have not yet been as strong. There was even a referendum in England in 2004 for a regional parliament in the North East, but was overwhelmingly rejected. Recently however these calls have become stronger, although the Conservatives seem committed to allowing English votes for English laws instead of any kind of parliament.
What areas does the Welsh Government have powers over?
There are 20 devolved areas that the Welsh Government can legislate within. These include everything to do with health, education, the environment, local government and matters regarding the Welsh language. As part of the St. David’s day agreement, a cross-party agreement earlier this year, several changes were proposed which would bring further powers to Wales.
So the Conservative Westminster Government has no say over the NHS in Wales?
While the Westminster government has no say over how the Welsh Government should run services and what to offer, they can change the funding of the Welsh government, depending on how money is spent in England. For example, if the English NHS budget were cut by ten per cent, the Welsh Government would receive ten per cent less on their NHS allocation of their overall budget.
Can the Welsh Government reverse the cuts coming from Westminster, for example in policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’?
In theory, they could, but funding is the biggest obstacle to do this. The Welsh Government’s funding has also been cut, and therefore tough budget decisions have been made. In Scotland, a cross party deal between the SNP and Labour ensured that their budget includes around £35 million set aside to mitigate against the effects of welfare reform, but no such move has been make by the Welsh Government – many argue that this is down to different funding arrangements and levels of devolution.
How is it funded?
The Welsh Government is funded by a block grant from the UK Westminster Government, which varies depending on the Barnett formula. This is a fairly complex formula dependent on Whitehall’s spending budget for England and the populations of Wales and England. Many Welsh Assembly Members, including Carwyn Jones, dispute this method and that Wales is underfunded by it by around £300 million, due to Wales’s higher than average social needs. Plaid Cymru also campaign for reform to the way the Welsh Government is funded, and argue for a funding parity with Scotland, which would deliver an extra £1 billion for Wales.
How many Assembly Members (AMs) are there?
The assembly is formed of 60 Assembly Members (AM’s) who are elected by the Welsh people; with the next election scheduled for May 2016. Gair Rhydd will be covering the elections better than ever before, scrutinizing your local representatives and candidates. They sit in the Siambr (Chamber), in the Senedd building in Cardiff Bay.
How are they elected?
The election is held under a proportional representation system, using mixed member proportional voting. 40 AMs are elected from single member constituency by first past the post, as in Westminster elections. The other 20 members are elected from regional lists using an alternative party vote. On election day, you’ll have two ballot papers for these different members, and the regional members are dependent on the number of regional votes cast, and the number of constituencies won in the region. If you’re still confused then don’t worry, we’ll explain this closer to election day.
Who gets to vote?
Any resident of Wales who registers to vote, over 18 years of age, not subjected to any legal incapacity to vote and a British citizen or a citizen of the European Union or qualifying Commonwealth country. If you’re an international student and unsure then check at aboutmyvote.co.uk.
Despite surging support for 16 and 17 year-olds to get the vote, new legislation allowing this will not be passed in time for this election, but it is hoped it will be in place by the 2021 assembly election.
Who’s in charge?
The 2011 election resulted in a Labour minority government, with 30 of the 60 available seats. Carwyn Jones leads the Welsh Labour party and has been First Minister since 2009, leading his team that makes up the Welsh cabinet. Every week Mr Jones answers questions in First Ministers Questions (FMQs), in the plenary on Tuesday afternoons.
And the opposition?
There are three other parties in the Assembly; the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives are the biggest opposition, led by Andrew RT Davies, Leanne Wood leads Plaid Cymru, and Kirsty Williams the Welsh Liberal Democrats.
What about the future?
A new Wales Bill is in the process of being published, which would give the Assembly more powers and even a chance to vary Income Tax, subject to another referendum. Gair Rhydd will follow any developments closely in the next year. Devolution is not an event; devolution is a process.