The new UK Government may have been in office for barely 24 hours, but already it has started telling us about its devolution policy. We have two sets of evidence to go on: the ministerial appointments that have been announced, and the ‘Agreements Reached’ document recording the policy agreements between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats published on Wednesday afternoon.
The ‘Agreements Reached’ document (available here) records three devolution policies: on the Calman Commission’s recommendations, on the West Lothian Question, and on a referendum for primary legislative powers in Wales.
The Calman policy is to ‘agree to the implementation of the Calman Commission proposals’. This is interesting as much for its inclusion as anything; there have been ongoing suggestions that the Conservatives aren’t very interested in this (though they seem split about whether they want no devolved tax autonomy at all, and a smaller block grant, or a greater measure of fiscal autonomy). In that sense, this is probably more a Lib Dem policy than a Tory one, as it’s much more one of their priorities. It’s worth noting that the Scottish Lib Dem manifesto emphasised that implementing Calman was just part of a broader process of devolution:
We are calling for a new, permanent Home Rule settlement, within a federal Britain, that will equip Scotland with the powers to build a fairer Scotland and a strong, sustainable economy. We want to see a radical transfer of fiscal and policy powers to the Scottish Parliament within a strong UK framework.
To this end, Calman was to be implemented ‘at the earliest opportunity’, with a commitment that ‘the powers and responsibilities of the Parliament can be extended further still at a later stage’. This was also to be accompanied by a promise of ‘renewed and refreshed’ approach to managing relations between governments and ensuring constructive partnership working.
The questions will therefore be how far the coalition goes in implementing Calman, and how quickly. I’ve written an article about this for the Scotsman which should be published shortly. My view is that, within the framework of Calman, the UK Government can go considerably further than the Labour white paper of last November did – and should do, for both economic and political reasons.
There’s also a question of just how fully the new government goes in implementing Calman. Part of the Calman recommendations was a move toward a block grant based on relative need, rather than on the Barnett formula. To that extent, Calman was on the same page as the Holtham Commission in Wales and the Lords Committee on the Barnett formula (and, for that matter, the Commons Justice Committee). That recommendation – never popular in Scotland, of course, and explicitly intended as a long-term pledge – was quietly dropped as part of the Scotland’s Place in the United Kingdom white paper. Will it re-surface?
The Welsh referendum policy isn’t a surprise, given the strong support for it from the Lib Dems and acceptance of the need for a referendum from the Conservatives. The questions are whether the coalition will whip its MPs and peers in the necessary Parliamentary votes, when those will happen, and when the referendum will be. Here, the views of the actors in Wales should come first. If their preference is an early referendum (October 2010 was being considered by most, at least earlier this year), it should be then. I’ve argued before why this is in the interest of the UK Government and Parliament as well as the National Assembly, and that’s all the more true now that the parties in government in Wales are completely different to the parties in office in London.
The policy on the West Lothian question is the most intriguing. On one hand, there’s no urgent need for the new government to do anything about this: it has an overwhelming majority in England, and its problem is not a lack of an English mandate so much as a lack of one outside England. On the other, this is an ongoing issue of concern to many Conservatives, particularly on the right of the party. A commission to consider this further is something of a kick into the long grass – the Tories already did that, through the Democracy Task Force chaired by Ken Clarke, whose recommendations were adopted as party policy (English/English and Welsh MPs only sitting on Committee and Report stages of provisions relating only to England). As Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s idea – an English Grand Committee – is also still in play, and the Lib Dems don’t have a clear policy (other than the ‘federal Britain’ idea, which certainly isn’t workable in the foreseeable future), perhaps a commission makes sense. Given that the Conservatives’ English majority won’t suffice to get legislation through without support from another party, and the coalition agreement envisages circumstances in which Lib Dem MPs can vote against Government policy, it’s easy to see circumstances in which Labour votes might be needed to deliver Conservative policy. It will be very interesting to see who sits on the commission.
The overall signal from this is ‘modest change’. These are all major issues, raised in the manifestoes and the election campaign, on which action is needed. This is a sensible, practicable approach to delivering policy on them, even if the proposals raise more questions than they answer. It’s not a dramatic opening-up of devolution, and doesn’t signal that it has a high priority for the new government, but it clearly is on their map – and more than one might have thought given the complete lack of any mention of it during the negotiations.
As regards personnel, we’ve been told of four appointments. There are to be three Secretaries of State: Danny Alexander (Lib Dem, and a confidant of Nick Clegg) at the Scotland Office, Cheryl Gillan (Conservative, and the long-time shadow) at Wales, and Owen Paterson (Conservative and also the former shadow) at Northern Ireland. David Mundell (the Conservative former shadow, and their only Scottish MP) has been named as a Minister of State at the Scotland Office as well. (We don’t yet know about junior ministers in the Wales and Northern Ireland Offices, and particularly whether the junior ministers will be Lib Dems.) The advice to combine the offices that was no doubt proffered by officials (and by me: see here and here) hasn’t been taken.
While Gillan and Paterson appear to be full-time in their posts, Alexander also has a role ‘providing ministerial support to the Deputy Prime Minister in the Cabinet Office’, so isn’t going to be a full-time Scottish Secretary. This looks like it’s part of an agreement that each party leader can have a ministerial political advisor; Oliver Letwin has a very similar role, though as a Minister of State attending Cabinet, not Secretary of State.
Cheryl Gillan has already identified her main concerns as a referendum and the Welsh economy. As the key referendum decision has already been taken, presumably the latter will be her main concern in the coming months. It will be interesting to see whether that enables her to maintain a relationship with Carwyn Jones that she’s quoted as describing as both ‘cordial and courteous’ and ‘constructive and business-like’.