Lord Bourne addresses Academy of Social Sciences
"It is time to settle the constitutional debate in Wales for the long term"
First of all I would like to thank you for inviting me here to speak to you this afternoon. I am pleased that the social science community in Wales remains strong and vibrant.
Social sciences play a vital role in driving innovation in policy making. It is through social research that we can truly understand many of the issues facing modern society.
There is rarely a one size fits all solution to addressing these issues across our country. Instead policies need to be developed that meet the particular needs of local communities in a way that cannot be delivered through the old-style model of a highly centralised nation state.
Instead decisions need to be made as close as possible to the people that are affected by them and I believe that the Government’s programme of decentralisation and localism will achieve this.
Last September, for the first time in nearly a century, the United Kingdom faced the fundamental question of whether a part of the Union would break away to form an independent state.
The public debate that surrounded the Scottish referendum brought to the fore the crucial issues of national identity and how people relate to government.
The battle to save the Union was won, but this is not the time to rest on our laurels. We recognise we must step up to the challenge of bringing every part of our United Kingdom together. To enable our different nations and regions to coexist as One Nation, while giving people more direct power over the areas in which they live.
In doing so we will build on our record in the last Parliament during which we delivered one of the most extensive programmes of devolution of any government. In Wales alone we delivered a referendum on full law making powers for the National Assembly, a Commission to consider the future of devolution in Wales, and a Wales Act devolving tax and borrowing powers for the first time.
Commitments on Devolution
And now we intend to honour the promises that we made during the General Election campaign on devolution. To bring fairness to all parts of the United Kingdom.
We have already introduced a Bill into Parliament which delivers on the Smith Agreement on further powers for Scotland. When enacted it will make the Scottish Parliament one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world.
In Northern Ireland, we will take forward the Stormont House Agreement to help create a more prosperous, stable and secure future for the people there.
And we will bring forward legislation which meets our commitments on the future of devolution to Wales which I will focus on primarily this afternoon.
But of course no constitutional settlement could be complete if it did not also offer fairness to England.
Fairness by making Parliament work in a way that ensures decisions affecting England or England and Wales can only be taken by a majority of MPs from constituencies of those nations.
And fairness in continuing our programme of localism to decentralise powers to local communities in England. Providing for elected metro mayors who will take on responsibility for areas such as transport and skills, to deliver local growth for communities and make sure local people keep the rewards of that growth.
The first big step in this new approach is the creation of the Northern Powerhouse.
New powers devolved across the United Kingdom. A union fit for the 21st century.
Devolution in Wales
But there is no one size fits all approach to devolution.
Those that argue that Wales should have the same powers as Scotland forget the way that individual devolution settlements evolved to reflect the distinct histories, circumstances and geographies of the different parts of our United Kingdom.
Wales is not Scotland. The economic and social boundaries of Wales and England are intertwined to a far greater degree than England is with Scotland. The porous nature of our border sees thousands of people crossing it every single day often unaware of the fact they are doing so, like Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s the Bourgeois Gentleman who had spoken in prose all his life without knowing it.
And whilst Scotland has seen the rise of nationalism support for independence in Wales stands at a record low.
Having been a member of the National Assembly from its inception until 2011, I have seen it grow and mature as an institution. From its beginnings as an executive body to taking on law making powers following the 2011 referendum.
The National Assembly has become a centre for deliberation and decision making and a centre for Welsh national life.
Most of you will know that I was a member of the Commission on Devolution in Wales, the Silk Commission. We had the opportunity to conduct our own social research to inform our work. To speak to members of the public, businesses and organisations, about the future of devolution.
You will appreciate I am sure the breadth of views that we received, but one of the key messages we heard was that there should be a clear purpose for powers being devolved; they should be used to make Wales stronger, benefitting Welsh business, the lives of people the length and breadth of Wales.
St David’s Day Agreement
That was a philosophy that was very much at the heart of the St David’s Day process that the Secretary of State for Wales embarked on last year; a process to reach an agreement on the way forward for Welsh devolution and identify consensus amongst the four main parties in Wales on where the balance of powers should lie between Westminster and the National Assembly.
The outcome of this work – the St David’s Day Agreement – presents a blueprint for the future of Welsh devolution; one that is clearer, fairer and stronger.
We will introduce a new reserved powers model of devolution that will clarify the division of responsibilities between Westminster and the National Assembly.
Wales has suffered in the past from a devolution settlement that is poorly drafted and not fit for purpose. This has meant that disputes over where powers lie has had to be resolved by the Supreme Court.
The new model of devolution will mean that everything will be devolved unless it is explicitly reserved to Westminster – the same model that is already in place for Scotland.
We will deliver a fairer settlement through our commitment to implement a floor in the relative level of funding provided to the Welsh Government in the expectation that the Welsh Government will call a referendum on the devolution of income tax.
And we will strengthen devolution by implementing our St David’s Day commitments to devolve more powers to the Assembly in areas such as transport, energy and elections, as well as powers that will enable the Assembly to manage its own affairs.
We will devolve powers to the Assembly to determine its own name, size and how its members are elected. The Assembly will also be able to decide whether 16 and 17 year olds should be allowed to vote in these elections.
We are already working on a Wales Bill that will legislate for those areas of the St David’s Day agreement that require it. We intend to publish the Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny in the autumn and introduce it into Parliament early next year.
But with this additional responsibility must also come greater accountability of the Welsh Government to the people of Wales.
For it to become a truly mature institution it must be accountable to the people of Wales not just for how public money is spent, but also for how it is raised.
The Wales Act 2014 includes powers for the Assembly to take control of nearly £2 billion of income tax revenue if the people of Wales support that in a referendum. We believe that the Welsh Government should call this referendum.
It is time to settle the constitutional debate in Wales for the long term.
To move on from the seemingly constant debate about whether the Assembly has the right powers to one which centres around how it uses the powers it has for the benefit of Wales.
Because in reality nobody on the doorsteps of Wales is talking about a reserved powers model, nobody is concerned about the detailed operation of the devolution settlement.
Throughout the General Election campaign people told us all about the issues that mattered to them. They talked about jobs, education, the health service, agriculture, tourism – a better future.
This is what the focus should be on – delivering for Wales.