Category Archives: Intergovernmental relations

Wales’s new fiscal package: the UK Government response to Silk

Friday’s news had ample coverage of the UK Government’s decision about financing Welsh devolved government, following the Silk Commission’s Part 1 report from last November.  No doubt the looming anniversary of the publication of the Silk report triggered a certain sense of urgency.  Despite promises that the UK Government would produce its response in ‘the spring’ (and strong hints this would be earlier in the spring rather than later), that has been delayed and delayed.  At the end of June, Secretary of State David Jones said it had been postponed until after the summer, and now pretty late in the autumn it has finally materialised.

There has been wide coverage of the UK response.  The Western Mail’s article by David Cameron and Nick Clegg is here, and their news coverage is here, here and here.  BBC News coverage is here, and analysis here.  The Guardian’s story is here.  The official Wales Office press release is here, and the written ministerial statement is here.

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Filed under Calman Commission/Scotland bill, Conservatives, Devolution finance, Intergovernmental relations, Labour, Lib Dems, Wales

Implementing the Silk Commission’s proposals, and the Welsh block grant

This post also appears on the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ ‘Click on Wales’ blog under the title ‘Havering over Welsh taxation’, here.  I was on BBC Radio Wales’s ‘Sunday Supplement’ programme to talk about it at around 8.30 am on Sunday 21 July, available to listen again here or as a podcast here.

While the Silk Commission carries on work on Part 2 of its inquiry, the UK Government has been deliberating slowly on the Part 1 report.  Promises of an ‘early’ response vanished, as did the commitment to one in the ‘Spring’. The summer solstice came and went, with no response from the Secretary of State other than a note that ‘good, positive progress’ had been made, ‘many issues’ resolved, but some remained outstanding. The rumour mill abounds with explanations of what the unresolved issues might be (see, for example, David Cornock here and here). If what happens to the Welsh Government’s Block Grant is not one of them, it should be.

The approach for dealing with the reduction in the block grant recommended by the Silk Commission sounds comparatively straightforward in principle, though it is rather harder to apply in practice. In the first year the new arrangements are in operation, the block grant is cut by an amount corresponding to the yield of the devolved tax ‘space’ – 10 points of personal income tax in the case of Silk (and Calman/Scotland Act 2012) for Scotland.  That cut is then adjusted ‘proportionately’ in subsequent years. What ‘proportionately’ means here is not clear. The Holtham Commission did sterling work in identifying what that might mean in practical terms, recommending what it called the ‘indexed deduction’ approach for personal income tax.  The same approach applies in principle to other devolved taxes, but the yields of those are modest so the issue is not so vital there.

The ‘indexed deduction’ method would involve taking the Welsh proportion of the overall UK revenues from that tax, and reducing the block grant by that proportion.  So, if devolved income tax in Wales generates 1.75 per cent of total UK personal income tax revenues in year one, the reduction in the block grant would be 1.75 per cent of UK personal income tax in each subsequent year – whatever the change in overall UK personal income tax revenues. The amount of the deduction would go down if overall tax revenues went down, and be increased if revenues went up. The result would be that the Welsh Government would gain if its use of its powers increased tax revenues in Wales ahead of the UK as a whole, and lose out if they declined more than the UK as a whole.  This approach has been agreed between the UK and Scottish Governments for the working of the Scotland Act 2012, but work on what it means in practice is ongoing in the ‘Joint Exchequer Committee’ established by the two governments. There has still not been any published attempt to show what the impact of making the cut and adjusting it by that method would be.

Applying the ‘indexed deduction’ method is comparatively easy for Scotland. The Barnett formula means that the Scottish block grant is comparatively generous. One can argue about how generous it is, but it is clear that the Scottish Government’s block grant exceeds by some distance any reasonable estimate of Scottish relative needs. Holtham estimated Scottish needs at 104 or 105 per cent of English ones, but depending on how one cuts the numbers (which is tricky) Scotland gets around 118-120 per cent of English spending for services covered by the block grant.

A further quirk is that the public spending boom of the 2,000s should have led to quite rapid convergence in devolved spending on the ‘English’ level – but, for Scotland, it did not. It appears that Scotland’s declining population cancelled out the convergence effect in the block grant, since convergence relates to per capita levels of spending, while the block itself is calculated as a lump sum and updated population numbers only affect incremental changes to that. So if the application of the reduction in the block grant affects the overall resources available to Scotland, it will only eat into that ‘cushion’ of the Barnett bonus – and it will not make a difficult situation significantly worse as time goes by.

Wales would love to have Scotland’s problems. It is clear that Wales is somewhat ‘underfunded’ given its present relative needs. At present, the block grant provides 113 per cent of the English level of spending on devolved services – while Holtham found Wales’s relative needs were between 114 and 117 per cent. That creates a different set of difficulties. If the block grant fails to produce a ‘fair’ level of funding relative to need at the outset, any cut in that grant – however it is adjusted – will probably make matters worse, as convergence happens. As a result, it becomes very hard to reconcile devolved fiscal accountability with reasonable UK-wide equity in public spending.

Matters needs not necessarily get worse, if the grant were adjusted to compensate for unfairness in funding before any reduction is made to allow for devolved income tax. The demand for a ‘fair’, needs-based grant – as articulated by Holtham – would be the simplest and most effective way of doing that. But a needs-based grant looks to be pretty clearly off the cards at present. The effects of introducing that for Scotland, particularly in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, are frightening enough to send politicians running in the opposite direction.

By pursuing its bilateral discussions about the block grant with the UK Government – and excluding it from the Silk Commission’s remit – the Welsh Government minimised its influence over securing ‘fair funding’, as well as preventing the Silk Commission from taking a comprehensive view on Welsh devolved funding. What it got instead – the deal announced last October – was promise of some undefined action if convergence appeared to become a material issue, though it isn’t at present because of the restraints on public spending at Westminster.  (My discussion of that on Devolution Matters is HERE.)

How this would be resolved if or when convergence comes back on the agenda would involve a good deal of bargaining and haggling between the Treasury and Welsh Government, and a good deal of reliance on subjective assessments.  Although the Welsh Government seems to have a good deal of confidence in that deal, it is not so much a sticking plaster to help a broken leg, as a fig leaf.

Even then, a ‘fair’ grant would need an adjustment mechanism. You would need to be able to adjust the Welsh block (before the deduction for the share of devolved income tax) as spending changes in the reference point – so Wales gets a consequential change as spending on health or transport in England goes up (or down).  The simplest adjustment mechanism is that used for Barnett – allocating a population share of changes in spending on ‘comparable functions’ in England.  But any formula that works in that way will have a convergence element built into it.  So the problems caused by the Welsh block grant falling below Welsh relative need will not go away.

Indeed, it is made worse because the devolved tax power transfers a degree of volatility risk to the devolved level, while devolved public services are counter-cyclical or inflationary in their cost. A devolved government needs to know as accurately as it can how much money it will have for those services, and the starting point for that figure must deliver a comparable level of spending to that in England.  The more subjective the mechanism for adjusting the numbers, the less certainty and accuracy there is in the system.

Each of these problems is capable of being fixed. It would be quite possible to build into the mechanism for implementing Silk an adjustment to the block grant to avoid convergence, and another to cut the block grant to allow for partially devolved income tax. It would even be possible to establish a system that was also robust and predictable, and pretty stable, though HM Treasury would probably baulk at the loss of control over spending policy that would entail.

But the problem is that such mechanisms will need to be applied by the Treasury, and run on Treasury estimates which will necessarily have an element of subjective estimation built into them. By contrast, the day to day, year to year, operation of Barnett is pretty automatic and clear. The most serious problems arise when it is changed at a spending review.  So ironically, there is a real prospect that the overall effect of devolving income tax while making sure other changes do not damage Wales financially will increase the extent to which Welsh public spending depends on HM Treasury’s calculations, not reduce it. Ensuring a measure of fairness may mean less clarity about how financing works.

And that is the real problem.  The goal of the Silk recommendations is to increase the National Assembly and Welsh Government’s ‘fiscal accountability’. That means establishing clear lines between what is a devolved responsibility and what is a UK responsibility. There is little point in voters being able to hold the Assembly to account for increased (or reduced) income tax if there can then be arguments that this only happened because the Treasury has allowed it. That would not add to accountability. In fact, by creating scope for extra arguments between governments and blame-shifting, it would reduce it.

There are two points here that require further consideration. The first is that the detail of any response implementing Silk needs to be looked at carefully, to see how that mechanism will work.  Steering a course that delivers the benefits of Silk – in the form of increased autonomy and accountability – is difficult, and UK Government claims of success should be treated with scepticism given the difficulties of delivering these objectives.

Second, one has to ask how long the financial system for devolution can go on being amended and patched in this way. It is increasingly looking like one of Heath Robinson’s strange jerry-rigged machines, and increasingly incapable of actually doing what is demanded of it. These problems are much worse for Wales than for Scotland, but Scotland has them too. What look like bolder approaches – such as my proposals set out as part of the IPPR’s ‘Devo More’ project – in fact resolve them much more effectively, by trying to start with a clean slate rather than perpetuating the mess that has accumulated over decades. At some point, clarity and comprehensibility need to take priority over political or administrative convenience.

As part of that, the Treasury needs to be asked a hard question: why does the same framework for financing arrangements have to apply to Wales as to Scotland and Northern Ireland? While almost every part of the three sets of devolution arrangements varies a good deal, the Treasury has insisted on a measure of symmetricality in the block grant and the Barnett formula. It is rather a superficial form of symmetry, as when one digs down there are many substantial differences between each country’s arrangements. At present it is Wales alone that is underfunded relative to need by the block grant, and therefore only Wales that is exposed to the acute problems of convergence on an English level of public spending.  Symmetry causes problems for Wales in a way that it does not for Scotland or Northern Ireland.

In his recent speech at the Wales Governance Centre in Cardiff, Welsh Secretary David Jones lauded the virtues of ‘asymmetric devolution’. Asymmetry when it comes to the operation of financing would have a direct and tangible value for Wales.  It will be interesting to see whether that was merely an attempt to defend a messy status quo, or a preparatory step for an imaginative deal to make fiscal devolution for Wales work.

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Filed under Calman Commission/Scotland bill, Devolution finance, Intergovernmental relations, Wales, Whitehall

Inheritance tax, ‘care caps’ for the elderly, and devolution

Inheritance tax (IHT to its friends) is an odd tax.  It doesn’t raise a lot of money; £2.7 billion in 2010-11 according to HM Revenue and Customs, which sounds like a lot of money but was only 0.65 per cent of total UK tax revenues.  It also has plenty of loopholes.  The most important are the seven-year rule (it doesn’t catch anything given away more than seven years before the death of the donor), an exemption on transfers between spouses, and the nil-rate band which taxes at 0 per cent anything up to a specified threshold, currently £325,000 per individual.  The combination of the seven-year rule and the nil-rate band mean that it’s largely an optional tax, hitting the well- and comfortably-off who are disorganised; indeed, the joke in tax classes is that it’s a charge on those who hate their relations more than the Revenue.

So – if the news that IHT is to bear the burden of increasing resources to pay for the new ‘social care cap’ in England is right (see BBC News here, and Sunday’s Telegraph here) – the upshot is rather confusing.  An additional tax burden will be imposed on residents of all parts of the UK, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as England – to pay for a benefit only to be experienced in England.  That is anomalous.

There are two ways to resolve this problem.  One is to allocate shares of the extra tax revenues so generated to devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, since social care for the elderly is a devolved function.  That is attractive, and would be the sort of approach sought by Quebec, where the long-standing demand of the provincial government has been to call for an ‘opt out with compensation’ from expansions of the Canadian federal government’s social programmes.  However, that might not be in devolved governments’ best interests – the tax base that supports inheritance tax revenues is driven by property values, and so hugely skewed toward southern England.  (In Scotland, according to GERS, it only generated 0.4 per cent of total tax revenues in 2010-11.  It’s only 0.37 per cent in Wales according to the Silk Commission report, and 0.33 per cent in Northern Ireland, according to the Northern Ireland Net Fiscal Balance Report.)  Getting those extra tax revenues from the tax base in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would in fact mean a larger share of a smaller cake.  That’s all the worse for Scotland and Northern Ireland given their ageing populations.

The alternative approach would be to let the Barnett formula take the strain, and allocate to devolved governments their consequential share of increased UK Government spending in England.   This is what Barnett is meant to do, after all – allocate consequential shares of spending on ‘comparable’ functions in England to devolved governments.  It appears that the increased IHT revenue will only bear part of the cost of increasing resources for the care cap, so the rest will presumably come from general taxation anyway.  Using Barnett would in fact put rather more funds into the hands of devolved governments, albeit at the expense of English taxpayers, but in a way that accomplishes a form of equity in distributing shares of the cost of the English policy across the UK.

If the latter is the approach to be taken, it should form part of the Department of Health’s formal announcement.  The pre-announcement briefings have suggested a UK-wide tax to fund a purely English policy, which may make electoral sense for the Conservatives but not much constitutional sense (and that’s without judging whether this policy approach is in fact right or not – given that it has been criticised by Andrew Dilnot as well as Labour spokespeople).  It looks rather like the sort of high-handed approach from Whitehall that has been all too common in the past – and which in the present context strengthens arguments for independence in Scotland.  (Of course, it also sits on top of the UK Government’s exclusion of claims for attendance allowance from beneficiaries of that policy after free long-term care for the elderly was introduced.)  It also suggests that a more nuanced approach to welfare devolution may be hard to implement, because doing so is beyond Whitehall’s habitual ways of working.

What this is not is a case for devolving inheritance tax.  IHT is one of few taxes emphatically not suitable for devolution on fiscal grounds.  Experience in both Canada and Australia of transferring the death/estates duty tax base to the provinces/states was that within a decade, tax competition between the various governments drove the rate of tax to zero across the whole country.  There are few cases where the evidence of fiscal competition cannibalising a tax base is so clear.

Thinking about social care costs is actually a tricky challenge.  It involves redistribution across time as well as space.  At present, devolved governments have the responsibility for providing care, but not the policy or legal instruments to secure its funding.  The way the UK Government has ploughed ahead making policy for England with so little regard for the position of devolved governments has done it few favours.

UPDATE: This post was written just before Jeremy Hunt made his statement in the Commons (which is available here) or the Department of Health published its white paper Caring For Our Future: Reforming care and support, Cm 8378 (available here).  There’s no mention in the white paper of the use of changes in inheritance tax (or NICs transferred from the soon-to-be-discontinued second state pension) to fund the new policy.  Indeed, for that matter there’s no mention of devolved governments or institutions at all.

Yet the white paper notes, without irony, ‘Fragmented health, housing, care and support are letting people down.  A failure to join up also means that taxpayers’ money is not used as effectively as possible, and can lead to increased costs for the NHS’ (p. 16).  Moreover, the DH statement says, ‘A national minimum eligibility will make access to care more consistent around the country, and carers will have a legal right to an assessment for care for the first time.’  All that is true, but applies as much to policy across the UK as that within England.  When directly asked about the devolution implications in the Commons, by Willie McCrea from South Antrim, Hunt stalled, saying ‘different approaches are being tried in all four constituent parts of the United Kingdom and we must look at what is happening in the different parts and all learn from each other.’

The UK Government has set out a policy only for England, which affects devolved governments and their policy functions quite significantly – but without there being any apparent assessment of its impact on them, or the fact that the UK Government possesses and is using policy levers that are not available to them despite their similar responsibilities.  This is simply confused policy-making; and the fact that the financing was discussed in the press and Commons statement, but does not appear in the published documents, suggests it was made rather late in the day too.

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Filed under Conservatives, Devolution finance, Intergovernmental relations, Northern Ireland, Policy issues, Scotland, Wales, Whitehall

My involvement in the IPPR’s Devo More project

On  Friday, IPPR published my paper Funding Devo More, the fruit of a long period of reflection about devolution finance and how the UK might do it differently and better (that’s available here).  It also marks the start of my involvement in IPPR’s ‘Devo More’ project.

The aim of this project is to consider how devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might be enhanced; how to make a devolved UK work better.  That means increasing the scope of devolved powers and responsibilities, but also looking at the Union as a whole and how to improve that.  Effective devolution means more self-government, but it also means ‘more Union’; a more effective tier of government that delivers certain functions that devolved governments are unable to, in a way that makes it clear what the Union does for citizens as well as what devolved governments do.  That is a far cry from the vestigial sort of entity it has often become in many of the Scottish debates.  It’s also a step beyond the current thinking that suggests ‘more powers for Scotland (or Wales) means less for Westminster'; this need not be zero-sum game, if the thinking about what is involved is careful enough.  If we are to continue to live in one decentralised country, we will all need to be clearer about which government does what and why.

I’ve explained separately some of the ideas underpinning my financing paper, which will be carried through into the project as a whole.

The ‘Devo More’ project will necessarily be a wide-ranging one, and our next big piece of work is to look at how devolution of aspects of welfare and social security might be accomplished, and what the implications of that will be.  Another strand will be the sort of changes needed at the centre of government for is rather different sort of union to work.  There is a good deal involved in the project, and those interested should keep an eye on the project’s webpage, which is here.

I’m very glad to be working with the Institute for Public Policy Research, and particularly Guy Lodge, on this project.  IPPR have long taken a serious interest in debates about devolution and its implications, including the work they have done recently on developing public attitudes about national identity in England, their ‘Borderland’ project on the implications of change for Scotland for northern England, and how ‘English votes for English laws’ at Westminster might work.  (The same can’t be said for most of the other London think-tanks.)  For my part, working with IPPR isn’t a reflection of any political views; as well as formal committees, I’ve advised parties and politicians from across the political spectrum in the past (including Conservatives, Lib Dems, Labour, the SNP and Plaid Cymru), and hope to continue to do so.  It is simply a pragmatic judgment about who has the willingness and the resources to do serious, policy-oriented thinking about the future of the UK.  In this respect, IPPR have stolen a march on their rivals.

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Filed under Devolution finance, Intergovernmental relations, Northern Ireland, Publications and projects, Referendums, Scotland, Wales

Financing devolution and the More or Less Federal model: report launch

One reason why this blog has been so quiet for the last few weeks is that I’ve been trying to finalise work I’ve had underway for some time on what I call the ‘more or less federal model’ for devolution finance.  The idea behind this project was to see what sort of lessons could usefully be learned from the financing arrangements in federal systems for financing devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; how to extend devolved tax-setting powers in a workable way, and reconcile these with securing an equitable distribution of resources across the UK.  That work is now completed, and the paper is due for publication by the Institute for Public Policy Research next week. It’s a detailed and chunky piece of work, drawing on data published in GERS, the Northern Ireland Net Fiscal Balance Reports, and by the Silk Commission, and I hope it will be a valuable contribution to the current debates in Scotland and elsewhere about the future of devolution.

There will be a launch of the event at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on George Street in Edinburgh at 8.30 am on Friday 25 January.  Speakers will include me, Guy Lodge of IPPR, Willie Rennie MSP, leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, and a Labour speaker.  There’s information about it on the IPPR website here, and anyone would like to attend should email Glenn Gottfried of IPPR at G.Gottfried@ippr,org to book a place.

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Filed under Comparisons from abroad, Devolution finance, Events, Intergovernmental relations, Northern Ireland, Publications and projects, Scotland, Wales

Evidence to the Holyrood Referendum Bill Committee

I gave evidence last Thursday to the Scottish Parliament’s Referendum (Scotland) Bill Committee, which is considering the section 30 order that forms part of the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’ between the UK and Scottish Governments as a preliminary to the Referendum Bill proper.  (My earlier post on that is HERE.)  I appeared with Professor Aileen McHarg from Strathclyde University; Michael Moore, the Secretary of State, followed us.

My memorandum can be found here, and the transcript is available here.  I can even be watched giving evidence on the BBC’s Democracy Live website, here.

My appearance, and remarks about the role of the Electoral Commission, led to coverage in the Herald on Thursday here, and in the Scotsman, leading page 1 on Friday, here.  The other slightly surprising issues to come up in questioning were the role of the Civil Service and the Continue reading

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The UK-Welsh Government agreement on borrowing powers and Barnett convergence

The agreement between the UK and Welsh Governments on borrowing powers and finance announced on Wednesday has been much trumpeted by the Welsh Government.  In truth, it’s hard to see that it adds up to a great deal, and it raises more questions than it answers.

The press statement relating to the agreement can be found on the Wales Office’s here and the Welsh Government’s here.  The Agreement itself is on HM Treasury’s website here, and the ‘technical annex’ (which considers the operation of the Barnett formula in relation to Wales) is here.  My own earlier posts on these negotiations, and the Welsh Government’s approach to them, can be found HERE and HERE.

It’s worth remembering that this ‘intergovernmental’ process was adopted by choice of the Welsh Government, which sought to ensure that these issues were kept out of the remit of the Silk Commission.  That of course makes the work of the Silk Commission all the harder, as matters which relate to how devolved government in Wales is funded are excluded from its remit.  That was the subject of particular criticism in a Lords debate on the subject back in July.  In effect, Silk can only consider half the subject.  A Welsh Government official defended this to me on the ground that the issues regarding both borrowing and the block grant were now clear, thanks to the Holtham Commission, and what was left was the political matter of resolving them.  Implicitly, the Welsh Government bet that it could get a better deal by negotiating them directly with the UK Government, rather than letting them form part of the remit of the cross-party Silk Commission.

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Filed under Devolution finance, Intergovernmental relations, Labour, Wales, Whitehall