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Understanding devolution in Wales
Understanding devolution in Wales

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6.3 Two Wales Bills

The UK Government also responded in two parts.

Firstly, with the Wales Bill 2014, which gave the Assembly some competence in matters of taxation. Stamp duty and landfill tax were both devolved. This Bill offered the Assembly the opportunity to set income tax rates, subject to a referendum. It also made some changes to electoral arrangements.

Secondly, with the far more contentious Wales Bill 2016, which was set out to significantly recast the devolution settlement.

Prior to publication of the 2016 Bill, there had been a period of engagement with key political stakeholders. This was described by the UK Government as the St David’s Day process. When it concluded on 27 February 2015, David Cameron and Nick Clegg made a joint announcement in the Millennium Stadium announcing the St David’s Day Agreement. Powers for a purpose: towards a lasting devolution settlement for Wales was published on the same day.

To give effect to the St David’s Day agreement, the Wales Bill 2016 was published. It was extensively criticised by the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee, the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, the Wales Governance Centre and the Constitution Unit. The consensus was that the Bill did not improve the settlement. In its report, the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee said:

The complexity of the draft Bill has been a recurring theme of the evidence we have received. The necessity tests blur the boundaries of the Assembly’s legislative competence and hinder understanding for citizens rather than aid clarity. The provisions relating to Ministerial consents mean that the settlement is considerably more restrictive, not only adding to the complexity but also maintaining exceptionalism and irregular devolution within the UK.

(National Assembly for Wales, 2015, p.43)

The Welsh Government was so unhappy with the draft that it took the highly unusual step of publishing an alternative draft Government and Laws in Wales bill. Launching it, First Minister Carwyn Jones said it had ‘the potential to avoid years of constitutional wrangling’. He argued that his proposals would better futureproof the devolution settlement.

Responding, the UK paused the legislation and making significant revisions.

When it finally passed, the Wales Act 2017 made the following changes to the devolution settlement:

  • move to a reserved powers model
  • made the Assembly a permanent institution which could rename itself as a Parliament
  • recognised a separate Welsh body of law
  • devolved control in a number of areas including Assembly elections, some energy powers, transport and equal opportunities.

Although it finally passed in 2017, this Wales Act was extensively criticised. Plaid Cymru voted against it on the basis that it ‘clawed back’ powers from the Assembly. Constitutional scholar Richard Rawlings told BBC Radio Wales’ Sunday Supplement programme that the Bill ‘was excessively fragmented’ and the Silk Commission's attempt to outline a set of principles for Welsh devolution had been ‘chipped away at through deals, through technicalities and through machinations in the background’ (BBC News, 2017).

  • Do you think the Wales Act 2017 provided the ‘clear, lasting and robust settlement for devolution’ Stephen Crabb envisaged in his speech or do you agree with academic Richard Rawlings that it ‘carries the seeds of its own destruction’?

  • While the Wales Act 2017 did rectify some of the most bothersome aspects of the Welsh devolution settlement, particularly the move to a conferred powers model, many issues are still outstanding. These include the lack of a formal framework for intergovernmental communication and ongoing concerns over the Welsh legal system and funding for Wales.