Cheryl Gillan, the Welsh Secretary, gave evidence to the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee on Wednesday afternoon. This session was nominally concerned with the Wales Office’s annual report and accounts for 2010-11, but in fact ranged widely over many issues including High Speed 2, electrification of the Great Western main line, and the Welsh economy. There’s no transcript yet, but the session can be watched here.
One interesting issue is the position of the long-promised ‘Calman-like process’ for Wales, promised since the Coalition’s Programme for Government was published in May 2010 (not that that stops many thinking that it’s new, or that it’s actually happening every time a minister refers to that long-standing commitment). Some in Wales have dubbed that, rather nicely, as ‘Ap Calman’. There’s still no progress on that, and both her remarks to the Committee and the Prime Minister’s speech to the National Assembly on Tuesday suggest very strongly that there won’t be any soon. It was, the Secretary of State said, a ‘work in progress’, on which the scoping work was still underway, and she could make no statement about when it might be announced. The best she could offer was during this Parliament, before 2015 – although before that we had been led to believe it would be announced before the summer recess.
Gillan also emphasised, as the Prime Minister did in Cardiff, that the UK Government is keen to proceed with cross-party agreement. Clearly that is made more difficult by the jockeying for position between Conservatives and Lib Dems (seemingly interested in adding fiscal accountability to the Assembly’s powers as Calman proposed for Scotland) and the Labour Welsh Government (which wants to talk about ‘fair grants’ but not fiscal accountability). Carwyn Jones’s meeting with George Osborne last week was clearly part of the same process, and the cordiality of that meeting may well have been due to Osborne’s desire to get Jones to take a favourable view of Ap Calman.
On the question of Ap Calman’s remit, the implication of what Gillan said was that this would be narrower rather than wider. She emphasised that Calman in Scotland had been the first review of devolution since 1998, while in Wales there had been the 2006 Act. (She didn’t mention the reports of the Richard Commission and the All Wales Convention – or the Holtham Commission, for that matter.) This suggests that the UK Government thinks that the constitutional aspects of the Calman remit would be of less importance, or dropped altogether. It’s worth noting that the terms of reference of all the earlier Welsh reviews have been about making ‘devolution’ work better, not looking at what its purpose was or what functions should be devolved and what kept at UK level. That question was part of the Calman remit, even if it took a rather cautious and constitutionally conservative approach in its conclusions. There may be other reasons for this as well – the issue of the Crown Estate was covered in just two and a half of the 260 pages of the final Calman Commission report and in a single clause of the Scotland bill, but has proved one of the knottiest issues raised by that bill, and (among other things) has become the subject of a further inquiry by the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee.
It’s easy to be confused by all this. It rather looks as though the UK Government is itself still deeply confused about what the purpose of this process is, what it will involve (does a ‘process’ need a formal commission?), or what it is meant to achieve. That’s without getting into such nitty-gritty questions as remit and terms of reference, composition and membership, or timescale. The Secretary of State is aware of the extent to which this ground has already been trodden, even if she understated it. The question is not so much what should be done in an abstract sense, but what to do in a practical one. I’ve noted many times on this blog the problems that arise because of the UK’s lack of a strategic view of devolution; this looks like yet another instance of that.