Daniel Kawczynski is frustrated by the way Welsh devolution has affected people who live on the English side of the border.
I have represented Shrewsbury in Parliament for 15 years. Throughout that time, I have seen the pride we take in being a gateway to Wales.
Many of my constituents have friends, family, and business interests across the nearby border.
When rugby season comes around the town is bedecked with both the George Cross and the Welsh dragon, a powerful symbol of the friendship between our nations. But I have also seen first-hand something which has been too long overlooked: the significant challenges posed by our current devolution settlement to border communities such as mine.
There is a clear double-standard in operation. When the Government legislated for ‘English Votes for English Laws’,Welsh MPs made powerful arguments about how decisions made in one part of the kingdom affect the other parts. Yet many of these same MPs have repeatedly backed handing more and more powers to the Welsh Assembly!
Do they think that decisions made in Cardiff don’t have similar knock-on effects? Let me put them right.
Take health as an example. Welsh Labour’s mismanagement of the NHS has been apparent for some time – David Cameron even branded Offa’s Dyke “the line between life and death” at the 2015 election.
In the logic of devolution, this is a Welsh problem. But it has cross-border consequences. Many patients from mid-Wales end up getting treated at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust. As a consequence, my local NHS Trust faces continual budget pressures, because the Welsh Government has in the past paid less per-patient than Westminster.
Some of my constituents think Cardiff Bay should pay the English rate for English care. But I fear this would only exacerbate Labour’s dogmatic quest for ‘Welsh solutions’ at the expense of more effective cross-border alternatives, as when councils in North Wales were recently forced to send Covid-19 tests to Cardiff rather than much closer facilities in England.
As a unionist, I have no time for the idea of letting the Anglo-Welsh border become a barrier to care. But these problems illustrate that you can’t fairly operate a truly national health service without a truly national funding model.
Farmers in my constituency are also deeply concerned that Wales is about to go a different way on testing for bovine TB, and on post-Brexit agricultural subsidies. Many parents I speak to are acutely aware that school leavers in nearby villages will have their university fees subsidised, whilst their own will not. Most significantly, many local business owners fear the possible impact of Wales’ new ability to set its own tax rates on border areas such as ours.
These aren’t concerns I’ve ever seen mentioned in grand papers about the future of the constitution. But they are real, and are chipping away at the foundations of our Union.
Whilst my constituents have no issue with money being distributed around our country on the basis of need, that is quite different to a funding formula which allows the Welsh Government to offer subsidies and tax advantages whilst mismanaging core services such as health and education.
Nor does it seem right that Cardiff should demand to unilaterally set Wales’ path out of lockdown when it is the British Treasury, and the extraordinary package of emergency measures rolled out by Rishi Sunak, which makes lockdown possible. A Union which pools resources but not accountability is on the fast track to falling apart.
This is the basis on which I stake a claim in the devolution debate. I may represent an English constituency, but my electors return me to the British Parliament, and the constitution is every Briton’s business.
Many supporters of the status quo are determined to pretend otherwise. Since I first aired my view on the Welsh Assembly, I have come under ferocious attack from devocrats and nationalists hell-bent on driving me out of the conversation.
But I’m more determined than ever to speak out. Not just on behalf of my community in Shrewsbury, but of all the frustrated Welsh voters who have got in touch to tell me how grateful they are that someone is breaking the omerta on this at last.
On devolution, as on Brexit, the Cardiff Bay political class is not representative of the Welsh people.
That’s why they’re fighting so hard to stop this debate taking place at all. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Welsh votes have simply tuned the Assembly out altogether.
Turnout at devolved elections is consistently much lower than for general elections (a fact which disproportionately hurts the Conservatives) and awareness of the true scope of its powers is low.
This isn’t new. In the 1997 referendum to establish the Assembly, turnout was barely 50 per cent – and only half of them voted yes! At the 2011 referendum, which some claim represents a ‘seal of approval’ for devolution, it was a mere 35 per cent. And we’ll never know for sure if Welsh voters would have endorsed tax powers, because Cardiff politicians fought extremely hard to stop them being asked. Why might that be?
It has been more than two decades since the 1997 vote on creating Welsh Assembly. That’s longer than the gap between that and the 1979 referendum, whose decisive majority against devolution it overturned. It’s time to weigh twenty years’ worth of evidence and experience, and think again. The fate of the United Kingdom may depend on it.
Welsh economic minister Ken Skates has no time for those who want to remove the powers of the Senedd in Cardiff
It’s not often these days that supporters of devolution are asked to defend their belief in progressive politics – a belief that has won public support in multiple referendums.
It’s also ironic that those few politicians who want to tear it up are the same ones who demanded we honour the EU referendum result and should never have an opportunity to test public opinion twice. I suppose consistency doesn’t come easily to some politicians.
The fact is that devolution and decentralisation are becoming more commonplace, and are growing in popularity. You only have to look at the increasing number of City Regions and combined authorities in England to appreciate that people want to ‘take back control’, whether from Brussels or from Westminster. Now and again, however, there is the odd person who wants to take us back to the 1980s – a decade which many of those who lived through, I suspect, would not wish to be dragged back to. It was the Thatcher Government that fuelled calls for Wales to have its own democratic institution and which resulted in the first of two successful referendum votes in 1999 and 2011.
I’ve had opposition politicians remind me that Labour has been in government in Wales for 20 years as if it’s a criticism. We are in power because the people of Wales have decided – for five elections in a row – that a Labour government is what they want. It’s democracy in action, and devolution brings democracy closer to the people. As someone born and bred in North Wales, I know that there is still work to do to make people in our region feel connected to the Senedd, and I’m supportive of devolution going further, to the regions and sub-regions of England and Wales, to ensure decisions are made at the most appropriate level of government.
Devolution also allows for different policies to develop in different parts of the UK. It generates innovation. For example, Wales has free prescriptions and free school breakfasts. Next year, 16-year-olds in Wales will be able to vote. As someone who lives a stone’s throw from the border, I’d love to see Marches communities have the power to be creative and responsive to local needs. Sadly, one of your MPs doesn’t share that view and still clings to a ‘London knows best’ attitude. Your interests have been dismissed and investment has been focused on areas that are already wealthy. That’s what centralisation of power in Westminster has done.
Take railway lines as a prime example. Your train tracks and stations are part of a regional route that comprises around 10 per cent of the network in England and Wales, yet for the past decade it has had just one per cent of all UK Government spending on railways and stations. That’s why your lines are creaking and your stations are crumbling, while investment is being ploughed into new infrastructure in safe Tory seats. Instead of shouting for devolution in Wales to be torn up, your MP should be campaigning for more power and more money for the region he serves. Instead, I’m the one making a pitch on your behalf for a better deal from Westminster, which still hasn’t implemented a simple system of online voting during the current crisis as the UK’s devolved administrations have. Perhaps some of the £6bn being spent of refurbishing Westminster could go towards modernising it.
The aim of any devolved administration should be to improve the lives of the people who elect it. The environment has become increasingly important to a lot of people. In 1999, when Wales voted for devolution, we recycled five per cent of our waste. It’s now it’s 63 per cent, the third best anywhere in the world. Before coronavirus, unemployment in Wales was at a record low and GVA, the measure of the value of goods and services produced,had increased by 30 per cent in 10 years. Our economy was stronger than it had been for decades.
English opponents of Welsh devolution often take carefully selected statistics and vague anecdotes to claim cross-border health provision is an issue. Decisions about where people go to hospital are made pragmatically. The England/Wales border is porous and needs sensible solutions, not jingoism. It is not – and I would never want it to be – a slate curtain between our communities. Welsh patients use English hospitals and vice-versa. English health boards are remunerated for treating Welsh patients and vice-versa. The NHS across the UK is not without its problems, but cynically politicising it helps no-one.
I am receiving a huge amount of calls and emails from constituents about the Welsh Government’s approach to lockdown. A small minority want to see restrictions eased immediately, but the vast majority are urging me to support a more cautious approach. Right now, 62 per cent of people believe the Welsh Government has performed well in addressing this crisis, compared to just 34 per cent who say the same about the UK Government.
Devolution evolves. It is a case, like with anything else, of improving as we learn. But one thing I already know is that people in countries with their own well-established national parliaments do not want to be told what is best for them by politicians from elsewhere. That’s a message not just from me, but from the many Conservative MPs and Members of the Welsh Parliament who have been deeply embarrassed by the recent hysterical attacks on devolution.