Category Archives: Devolution finance

Brexit, the welfare state and redistribution

My final academic publication is a contribution to a book coming out in June 2019 edited by Scott Greer and Heather Elliott, at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.  Federalism and Social Policy: Patterns of Redistribution in 11 Democracies is an attempt to explore how welfare states actually work in federal and decentralised states, what sorts of redistribution they do and how effectively, and whether and how much there are different welfare regimes at sub-state or regional level.  This comes from the chapter about the UK, which looks at how devolution is financed, and the working of policies relating to under-19 education, health services and pensions.  It should be a significant contribution to the academic literatures about both comparative federalism and comparative welfare states.  Details of the book can be found here

What appears below is an extract from the conclusion, about the impact of Brexit on the welfare state.  There has been much speculation about the sort of country that a post-Brexit UK may be, and some discussion, mostly short-term and very pragmatic, about the impact of Brexit on social policy, such as labour market problems affecting the NHS or social care.  It seems to me, though, that the divisions of the Brexit vote and its likely economic effects will have a grave effect on the future of a redistributive welfare state – generally, not just in territorial terms (though it has territorial dimensions too).  Due to space constraints and the fact this was a comparative project, not particularly concerned with Brexit or the UK, it’s rather brief and under-developed, but nonetheless is worth wider and earlier circulation than the published book permits.  This section was drafted early in 2018, but nothing that has happened since changes what I wrote then – indeed, the only change is that I would now probably put it more forcefully. 

Far more important are the effects of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union in June 2016, with departure to take effect in March 2019.  The significance of the Brexit vote can hardly be understated and is likely to reshape the UK in the years to come.  Its significance has three dimensions.

First, there is the deep social cleavage that the vote to leave the EU revealed, and which has deepened since the vote.  At least in England and Wales (which both voted by majorities to leave), ‘Leave’ voters were generally older (age 49 or older), less well-off and from less well-off parts of the UK, particularly smaller towns that were badly affected by de-industrialisation.  ‘Remain’ voters were younger, better off and lived mainly in larger cities.  (60 per cent of voters in London voted Remain; only slightly smaller a percentage in the West Midlands voted Leave.)   To a substantial degree, this was a vote by the losers from globalisation against the relative winners.  Since those ‘winners’ are also the most economically productive members of British society, who generate the income that is redistributed to those ‘losers’ in the form of public services and welfare benefits for which their taxes cannot pay, there has to be a question in the longer term of why they should continue to do so.  This goes to the heart of the social basis for redistribution through public services and taxation.  Add to this the difficulties younger people face, with very high housing costs, large levels of graduate debt, and limited occupational opportunities compared to their parents’ or grandparents’ generations in an economy that is growing more slowly than in the past.  If, as many expect, leaving the EU adversely affects the British economy for some time to come, these difficulties will be further compounded.  Younger people, faced with increasing difficulties, are likely to be more and more unwilling to see their stretched incomes taxed to pay for those who have made them worse not better off.

Second, there are the direct impacts of Brexit on public services.  While the form Brexit will take remains quite unclear (even in February 2018), it is clear these will be substantial.  In particular, UK economic growth is likely to be weaker, reducing tax revenues for spending on services and increasing costs in some areas.  Social care and the NHS are heavily dependent on staff from overseas and particularly within the EU.  Limiting migration is a key part of the Brexit proposal, and so it may be harder for the UK to recruit from other EU countries, and people from abroad may be more reluctant to work in the UK even if they can, as it has become more hostile to foreigners.  In such circumstances, public services will become more and more stretched.

Third, there is the impact on the UK’s territorial politics.  While the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU, neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland did.  (The Remain vote was 62 per cent in Scotland and 56 per cent in Northern Ireland.)  So far, attempts by the SNP to exploit the difference in the vote to bolster the case for independence or trigger another independence referendum have come to nothing, but that may change.  Such a difference certainly creates the basis for pushing for independence if Brexit works out badly.  In Northern Ireland, the concern of the Republic of Ireland’s government to protect the Good Friday Agreement and avoid a ‘hard border’ have been supported by other EU member states and both UK and the EU-27 have agreed they should form part of the parameters for Brexit, but how that will be translated into practice remains unclear.  Since July 2017, the reliance of the UK’s minority Conservative government on support in the UK Parliament from the only Northern Ireland party committed to leaving the EU (the hardline unionist Democratic Unionist Party) makes this more acute.

In the past twenty years, the UK has embarked on extensive devolution, with profound effects on public services.  It now faces leaving the EU with consequences that cannot be calculated or even roughly estimated, for large areas of public services and for the state as a whole.  Its tolerance of anomalies, public policies that are frequently altered against a backdrop that can only be explained historically, and large territorial variations has led to a backlash from voters, whose vote to leave the EU reflected much wider discontents.

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Filed under Devolution finance, English questions, EU issues, Publications and projects, Referendums, Westminster, Whitehall

Tax devolution and the block grant: a solution for Scotland that doesn’t work anywhere else?

This is a guest post by Gerald Holtham, who chaired the Welsh Government’s Independent Commission on Funding and Finance in Wales and is adviser on finance to the Welsh Government. The question he addresses – of how to manage a reduction in the block grant to allow for tax devolution while maintaining the Barnett formula – is a highly timely one, given the ongoing discussions about the ‘fiscal framework’ for Scotland (for which this is the key issue) as well as corporation tax devolution for Northern Ireland and moves on income tax devolution for Wales announced in the Spending Review.  (My own comment on this post can be found here.)

In all the discussions about tax devolution for all parts of the UK, a key issue has not been clarified. That issue is how to reduce block grants when a tax is devolved. Indeed there still appears to be no general agreement between the devolved governments and the UK Government about how to proceed. It is a particularly knotty question in discussions about income tax but also VAT and it has the capacity to delay devolution to Scotland and to stall it altogether for Wales.

There is little problem in the first year of devolution. An estimate can be made of the revenue foregone by the Westminster government, given prevailing tax rates, and that can be deducted from the block grant. Subsequently the deduction can be revised when actual revenues differ from the estimate. The difficulty comes for subsequent years when the deduction must be expected to grow with the economy and its tax base but must not be affected by changes in tax rates by the devolved administration – otherwise devolution of tax powers is not real.

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Filed under Devolution finance, Guest posts, Intergovernmental relations, Whitehall

Wales and the 2015 Spending Review

The 2015 Spending Review makes two significant changes to the Welsh Government’s finances: it removes the requirement for a referendum before introducing the partial devolution of income tax, enacted in the Wales Act 2014, and it proposes to introduce a ‘Barnett floor’ for the overall envelope of devolved funding.

The referendum on the Welsh rate of income tax was a way of ensuring that devolution did not happen automatically (as is the case for Scotland) – a rare case of common ground between David Jones and Carwyn Jones. It never made much sense intellectually; if the rationale for income tax devolution was ‘financial accountability’, why should that be optional? And why should the body that would be made accountable get to choose whether it should be accountable? It made even less sense politically, if the aim was to make income tax devolution happen rather than ensure it could not. A referendum campaign would be hard to stage and harder to win. It would mean asking voters to vote for potentially higher taxes, with no guarantee that they would even enjoy additional spending as a result given the lack of clarity about the mechanism for reducing the block grant as a result. There would be little chance of a cross-party consensus, so while Conservatives had a strong interest in seeing income tax devolution since it would enable them to offer a tax cut, they would struggle to find allies for a referendum campaign (unlike 2011). Abandoning the referendum had become the only way to create even a possibility of income tax devolution, and now has support from not just Conservatives but Plaid Cymru.

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Spending Review 2015: a test the Treasury flunked

The welter of responses to yesterday’s UK Spending Review and Autumn Statement have overlooked an important set of things the review did not do when it comes to managing the devolved UK. Despite proposals on the table for tax devolution for all three devolved governments (if not the English city-regions), we learned nothing about how this fiscally devolved UK will work. We got a new, updated edition of the Statement of Funding Policy (the seventh in all and the first since 2010) , but that remains essentially the operations manual for the Barnett formula it always was. Nothing substantial about the framework for managing devolved finances has been altered, despite recommendations for this from a variety of bodies including the Bingham Centre Constitutional Review, the Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s recent report on The Implications of Financial Devolution to Scotland and committees in all the devolved legislatures.  The devolved governments remain as entangled in the UK system of public finance as they ever were.

What the Treasury could and should have done was put the basis for devolution finance under the Conservatives on a clear and transparent footing, in particular by:

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

The Bingham Centre devolution review: the UK at a constitutional crossroads

This post also appears as a guest post on the Centre on Constitutional Change blog here, the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog here, and the Institute of Welsh Affairs blog ClickonWales here.

The impact of the Scottish independence referendum has been wide-ranging. It raises a number of questions about how the UK works as a whole and its territorial constitution, as well as ones about Scotland.  But for all the importance and urgency of these issues, they have not yet been subject to any wide-ranging or sustained scrutiny.  A new report from the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, available here, seeks to change that and look at what issues the UK as a whole will need to address in the coming months and years.  The review commission has been chaired by Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC, and its membership is here and remit is set out here.

The Commission’s starting point was to consider the implications of the piecemeal, ad hoc approach to devolution taken so far.  Its view is that this has reached the end of its road.  The knock-on effects of the Smith Commission proposals for Scotland mean that this now creates serious constitutional difficulties beyond Scotland.  A more systematic view, considering the UK as a whole, is badly needed.

The first big recommendation to address that is a Charter of the Union, to be passed as a Westminster statute with consent from the devolved legislatures, and setting out key principles for the working of a devolved union.  These draw on what already applies – they include such principles as respect for democracy, the rule of law, autonomy of each government and comity and respect for each other in their dealings with each other.  Subsidiarity and social solidarity are also key principles for the Charter of the Union.

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Filed under Conservatives, Devolution finance, English questions, Northern Ireland, Publications and projects, Scotland, Wales, Westminster

How Labour messed up 1998-model devolution

It’s intriguing to see various senior figures from the New Labour era call for a return to something much more like new Labour to revive the Labour Party. Those figures seem to overlook how responsible New Labour’s politics and legacy are for the mess Labour now finds itself in. (On the nature of that mess, I agree with quite a lot of what Paul Mason says here; it is very clearly a structural problem caused by the collapse of an electoral coalition, not just a question of policy detail or leadership.)
New Labour helped create the mess, at least in its territorial dimension, in two particular ways. First, its political economy depended on getting London to generate large tax revenues to pay for redistributive benefits and much of public services in the rest of the UK, and satisfying those already owning property in London through a property boom. This has left a lasting and damaging legacy by creating or at least magnifying huge inequalities and resentments arising from different regional economies and levels of prosperity.  (In technical terms, it sought to use a huge vertical fiscal imbalance to redress horizontal inequalities.  What actually happened was that those horizontal inequalities increased.)
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Filed under Devolution finance, Elections, English questions, Labour, Scotland, Wales

Bingham Centre review of devolution in the UK

For the last few months, I’ve been working with the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law on a major inquiry into devolution and how it should develop, from the point of the UK as a whole. The starting point has been constitutional: what sort of constitutional system has emerged given the fragmented nature of the process of devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and across England. Our committee has been chaired by Professor Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC, Director of the Bingham Centre, and includes such figures as Professor Linda Colley, Gerald Holtham, Sir Maurice Kay, John Kay and Philip Stephens of the FT. (Full details of the committee are here.) Adam Tomkins and I have acted as advisers to the committee.
We’ll be publishing the report on 20 May, with a launch at Middle Temple Hall, and have a number of important recommendations for how the UK should work which we hope will shape the actions of the incoming UK Government, whatever political complexion it may have. Key to these is the need now to think about devolution as affecting the UK as a whole, and what the nature of that Union is – not unitary, but not federal either. No new government can afford to ignore these issues, or fail to try to tackle them.

UPDATE: Anyone wanting to come to the launch should email Sandra Homewood on s.homewood[at]binghamcentre.biicl.org to confirm their attendance. 

UPDATE, 21 May:  The report, A Constitutional Crossroads: Ways forward for the United Kingdom, can now be downloaded here as a PDF file.

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Filed under Devolution finance, English questions, General, Northern Ireland, Publications and projects, Scotland, Wales