David Cameron followed his visit to Scotland on Friday with one to Wales on Monday. There are news reports from the Western Mail here and BBC News here, the No. 10 press notice is here, and discussion from Betsan Powys of the BBC here. As in Scotland, Cameron was keen to promote the ‘respect agenda’ and create a good first impression for his government and its ‘fresh approach’ to intergovernmental relations. Again, he had meetings with ministers (the first and deputy first ministers), and leaders of the other parties. He didn’t come to Wales with as many presents as he did for Scotland, though there was reassurance of a sort about the future of the St Athans Defence Academy (though that might seem to prejudice the outcome of the Strategic Defence Review). However, it’s hard not to start picking holes in his actions, and omissions.
First, he repeated his undertaking to attend a question time annually in the National Assembly, qualified (as in Scotland) by saying this must be if Assembly wishes. He’s given them the choice (one rejected by the Presiding Officer when first made, as constitutionally inappropriate). Cameron also suggested UK ministers would give evidence before Assembly committees – but as quid pro quo Welsh ministers would have to give evidence to Westminster ones. This is more problematic than it should be. ‘Partnerships’ are only possible when the parties are of equal status. It’s evident that the National Assembly isn’t, particularly because of the system of legislative competence orders. When it comes to legislative powers, the National Assembly is a supplicant to Westminster, not a partner of it.
The willingness of the UK Labour Government to move slowly in conferring legislative powers sought by the Assembly, and of Parliament in rejecting or obstructing requests for such powers from the Assembly, suggest strongly that London hasn’t seen its role as a constructive partner but more like the parent of a small child, deciding whether to provide sweeties when asked for them. The big question for the new government is whether that approach has changed.
Second, Cameron’s version of ‘respect’ does not seem to extend to respecting the Assembly’s views when it comes to the timing of a referendum on primary powers. It looks increasingly unlikely that that will be not held this coming autumn (see Betsan Powys here). Cheryl Gillan has been keen to pass the blame for that to Peter Hain, and with some point – there’s plenty to go around. Hain has never supported a referendum on primary powers before 2012, and emphasised that his priority was the UK general election rather than referendum preparations when the trigger vote was carried. This meant that preparatory work by officials could only go so far, without direct engagement with ministers who were otherwise preoccupied. But official work has been proceeding, and my information is that it should still be possible to go ahead in the autumn if the new Secretary of State is able to make the decisions quickly. Most of those decisions are not difficult; the options for wording the referendum question are narrow, for example. Given that, and its experience of other referendums, it’s hard not to believe that the Electoral Commission could not proceed with dispatch, and it should be encouraged to do so.
The Assembly is not blameless, either. It ducked the opportunity to express a collective, formal view about timing in the trigger vote held in February. A clear preference could have been included in the motion, which at least would have set a benchmark to assess what followed.
The important point, though, is that the initiative on this now lies with the Secretary of State. To stall on a referendum, and maintain what is at best a cumbersome system of conferring legislative powers for a protracted period, when both public opinion and the Assembly itself appear to support the holding of a referendum this year, is not a way to indicate the strength of the new government’s respect for Wales.
Third is the issue of finance, which directly affects Scotland and Northern Ireland as well. Cameron is clearly well aware of how divisive the question of spending cuts could be; he was keen to liken the UK to a family, and is reported as saying ‘while families sometimes fell out when money was tight, it was his intention to keep the UK firmly together.’ But keeping the ‘family’ together in such circumstances calls for more than just saying you want to hold the family together. It’s also about communication, and a willingness to share. We can all remember the sight of the Boswell family gathered around the kitchen table in Carla Lane’s comedy series Bread, contributing their (often ill-gotten) gains to the family kitty.
One practical way to deliver this – and indicate a change in how intergovernmental relations will operate – would be to adopt a recommendation of the Calman Commission that Labour dropped: to establish a Joint Ministerial Committee (Finance). The UK Government should call an early meeting of devolved finance ministers with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Chief Secretary to the Treasury to discuss the UK emergency budget, while those plans are still being formulated, to discuss how the budget plans are going to affect the devolved administrations this year and in coming years, and for the UK Government to hear devolved views. That’s strongly in the UK’s interest; not only will it show goodwill in a more tangible way, but it will also make it harder for the devolved administrations to object to the UK’s proposals when those are announced. No doubt George Osborne and David Laws have much on their plates at present and little time to spare, but a couple of hours spent engaging with the devolved governments would be a significant indicator that the new government really was taking a different approach.
Respect is about more than just words. It has to be about deeds as well. Cameron and the coalition government are making a good start on the verbal front, but the real tests have yet to be faced.