- May 15, 2019
- Posted by: Mick Antoniw AM
- Category: Featured, Latest News
May 2019 marks 20 years of devolution in Wales. Recently I wrote 2 articles for the Western Mail on the first 20 years of devolution and what the Assembly might look like in 20 years time. Here are the 2 articles:
1. The first 20 years of devolution…the journey from Assembly to Parliament
Eight hundred years ago Edward the first of England conquered Wales. Three hundred years later the Laws in Wales Acts all but abolished Welsh Law and imposed the Supremacy of English Law on Wales by the creation of an England and Wales jurisdiction. It is quite remarkable that this May, we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the creation of a National Assembly for Wales which is soon likely to be elevated to the status of a Welsh Parliament or Senedd Cymru.
It has certainly been a seismic 20 years. Although much of the political focus has rightly been on the delivery of public services in the big spend areas such as health and education, it is important we do not underestimate the political, social and legislative transformation we have undergone during these two decades.
Perhaps the most visible aspect of this is the gender profile of Assembly Members. Assembly elections have consistently returned some of the highest rates of female representation in the world. From a base of 40% female AMs at the first Assembly election in 1999, gender parity was achieved at the 2003 election. Currently 47% of Assembly Members are female, comfortably the highest of the four UK parliaments and the majority of Welsh Government Ministers are also female.
The Assembly is a fully bilingual legislature. This fundamentally important characteristic was further embedded in July 2017 with the Official Languages Scheme for the Fifth Assembly establishing a commitment to develop the bilingual ethos of the Assembly.
For its formative years the Assembly’s legislative capability it was severely restricted, with power exercised only with Westminster consent. The Assembly was in essence an administrative Council for Wales, distributing an annual budget of around seven billion pounds.
It was the Government of Wales Act 2006 introduced by the then Labour Secretary of State for Wales Peter Hain MP, now Lord Hain and its subsequent endorsement by a public referendum that the Assembly was transformed into a Welsh Parliament with significant primary legislative powers.
Wales could now pass its own laws by going directly to the Crown for Royal Assent. The Wales Act 2014 gave the Assembly its first tax raising powers for eight centuries and in 2017 yet another Wales Act extended the areas of responsibility still further albeit by changing its constitutional framework to that of a reserved powers framework, similar to the Scottish model.
Doubts expressed by some politicians about the ability and competence of the Assembly to exercise these powers have largely been dispelled. By any reasonable and objective standard the quality of legislation and committee scrutiny have been as high as you would expect in any of the world’s leading Parliaments.
In its first eight years it has passed 38 pieces of primary legislation and several thousand pieces of secondary legislation, which have begun to transform the Welsh legal landscape. Ground breaking law to provide employment protection to some 13,000 Welsh agricultural workers was challenged by the UK Government but sensationally upheld by the Supreme Court. Simple, well thought out legislation requiring food outlets to display their hygiene ratings has transformed the food standards across Wales. The world leading and pioneering Human Transplantation (Wales) Act 2013 introduced the principle of presumed consent which has not only saved lives by increasing the number registered donors but provided the basis for similar legislation now being adopted by Parliaments throughout the world.
Wales is leading the world in other areas too. The internationally commended Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 requires all public bodies to take account of a number of well-being factors including fair work, equality, community, culture and Welsh language and importantly in today’s political climate, global responsibility. Overseen by a Sustainability Commissioner this landmark legislation has even had an impact at the United Nations.
In a climate of severe austerity the legislative focus of Welsh Government has been markedly different to Westminster, increasingly aimed at promoting socio economic equality. The Trade Union (Wales) Act threw down a direct challenge to Westminster anti trade union laws by limiting some of its worst effects in the public sector. The Regulation and Inspection of Social Care Wales Act 2016 tackled the challenge of zero hours contracts by providing a legal entitlement to a fixed hours contract after three months. Other legislation has sought to protect the stock of social housing by abolishing the right to buy, increasing the rights of tenants, establishing an Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal and setting a minimum pricing for alcohol and safe nurse staffing levels. First Minister Mark Drakeford has committed to introducing a pioneering Social Partnership Act in this session, which will put the existing partnership of business, trade unions and government on a statutory footing and use the leverage of around six billion pounds of public sector procurement each year to establish a framework for encouraging ethical standards of employment, greater collective bargaining and giving workers a greater voice in the delivery of publicly procured services. Together with the implementation of Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 this will represent the most significant use of legal intervention in socio economic affairs by any Government in the UK since the nineteen sixties.
Further law reform is already under consideration with a Legislation Bill to codify Welsh law and increase accessibility and a Senedd Bill to reduce the voting age to 16. In addition, the Welsh Government’s Justice Commission chaired by the former Lord Chief Justice Thomas and the Welsh Fair Work Commission are both due to complete their reports and recommendations imminently.
This young Parliament is rapidly transforming the legal landscape of Wales and creating a new Welsh legal jurisdiction. The past 20 years have been a legislative roller coaster. The next 20 years will be even more challenging. There is much to do but if we can get it right we can prepare Wales for the momentous changes facing Wales and the people of Wales.
2. Devolution : the next 20 years
It is 2039 and we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of devolution. The last 20 years have been a period of rapid and unprecedented change. The UK is no more. Scotland has left and joined the EU. The predictions made two decades earlier about the planetary effects of climate change are now an everyday reality for governments, with food and water security the nation’s top concern. The combination of increased life expectancy and a population which has grown to 3.5 million is placing huge pressure on public services, with NHS spending now accounting for two thirds of the Welsh Government’s budget.
It is of course, almost impossible to predict what the Assembly and the UK will look like in 2039, but this is just one of the many alternative scenarios that could play out over the next two decades. What is clear however, is that as we enter a period of accelerated environmental, technological and societal change a number of destabilising factors are coming together to make 2019 a challenging time in which to build a solid foundation for the next two decades.
The ongoing experience of Brexit in particular has highlighted the volatility and vulnerability of our political institutions and constitution. The Brexit Genie cannot be put back in the bottle. It has triggered process which could potentially lead to a constitutional meltdown.
Across Europe and globally, the growth of far right nationalism contributes to this political instability and exposes long standing failures to address the consequences of decades of increasing social inequality.
When Theresa May said that we joined the EU as one nation and that we will leave as one nation, she was manifestly incorrect. We are not the same as we were in 1974. We are now four nations, with devolved government. Whatever the outcome of the current Brexit turmoil, without a new constitutional settlement the UK as we know it is unlikely to survive.
In my view a decentralised or federalised structure is the likely way forward. A new Joint Ministerial Council operating as a UK Council of Ministers currently has the support of nearly all the members of the Inter Parliamentary forum of constitutional and legislative committees in the Welsh, Scottish and UK Parliaments. It is an option which offers a solution to the most difficult part of this constitutional conundrum i.e. the lack of any strategic devolution process in England and the inability of Westminster to come to terms with its own need for radical reform.
At the core of any future realignment must be an overhaul of the financial arrangements between Wales and Westminster. The Barnett formula has worked surprisingly well over the years but is now past its sell by date. We need a new UK needs-based formula based on the principles of equality and social justice.
As we move toward 2039, Wales’ population will become increasingly older, which will reshape thinking in a range of policy areas including health, housing, transport and social care. The ability of our services and infrastructure to meet these challenges will depend greatly on funding decisions made today. The damaging legacy of UK government austerity is likely to still be felt in twenty years’ time, but action now can at least offer the potential for service recovery.
The Welsh NHS is Wales’ most loved institution and that isn’t going to change, but failure to properly fund the NHS could undermine its long term existence and lead to the creation of a two tier health system. I do not believe the public would every forgive politicians if that was to happen.
Within the next decade I believe that Welsh legal jurisdiction will be administered within Wales. Initially policing and youth justice will be devolved followed later by criminal justice. The growth of Welsh law and the divergence of English law will contribute to a more federalised legal system with the Supreme Court increasingly acting as a Constitutional Court. There would need to be another Wales Act to make the Constitutional reforms that are necessary.
Further devolved powers will heighten the need for a new judicially binding Sewell agreement to clearly define the decision making processes between Westminster and the devolved institutions and the creation of a disputes resolution process. In addition, the increased legislative responsibilities and scrutiny may eventually lead to an increase in the number of Assembly Members, probably to 80.
The most immediate threat to the process of devolution, which most people see as on-going may come within the next couple of years. A UK Government, which already appears to be seeking to recalibrate devolution through international trade agreements, through trade dispute mechanisms and through the management of financial programmes such as an ill-defined shared prosperity fund, attempting to replace Brussels with a recentralised Westminster Government would undermine devolution and create conflict which might well lead to increased demands for and eventual independence.
It is 2039 and we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of devolution. A new UK constitutional settlement proved to be the precursor to a reformed, fairer funding formula, from which Wales and some English regions have been the main beneficiaries. The 80 members of the National Assembly now have responsibility for policing and Wales has its own justice system as part of the ongoing and evolving devolution process, which has also seen further devolution of powers to Local Authorities. Visionary decisions made two decades earlier to commit to an integrated transport system, a social partnership model and a twenty-first century housing policy continue to be major factors in increasing social justice in Wales.
These are some of my hopes for the Assembly of 2039, but ultimately the measure of success over the next 20 years will be whether the Welsh Parliament has grown the economy, increased the overall prosperity of the nation and ensured a fairer redistribution of wealth.