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Is Silk still relevant in the era of Yes Cymru?

September 9th 2019

In light of the 5,000 marching for independence in Merthyr Tydfil on Saturday. Victoria Winckler asks if it’s time to move on from the Silk Commission’s recommendations.

The march for independence in Merthyr Tydfil on Saturday was a powerful sign that the tectonic plates in politics are shifting.  It brought together a deep dissatisfaction with the way that politics is being done at Westminster, a concern about rising poverty and inequality, and a desire to ‘do our own thing’.

One of the ‘things’ that any government needs to do is ensure the welfare of its people.

That’s why the NHS and the standard of living are usually centre stage in election manifestos. It’s also why what happens to social security matters.

Having been off the agenda for years, the possible control of benefits by the National Assembly for Wales is finally being discussed.  The devolution of benefits – or at least their administration – is under consideration by the Assembly’s Equality, Communities and Local Government Committee. It is raising some interesting and challenging questions about the current devolution settlement as well as what sort of social security system might suit Wales better.

It’s perhaps surprising, then, that the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government has written to the Committee quoting the Silk Commission. In case you’ve forgotten, the Silk Commission was established in 2011 by then Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan MP. Its aim was to review the powers of the National Assembly for Wales and examine the case for devolution of fiscal powers. It is thanks to Silk that there is now a Welsh rate of income tax, a Welsh duty on land transactions and on landfill, and that the Assembly can decide on its own size and name, and operates on a ‘reserved powers’ model.

In the Deputy Minister’s letter, she pointed to Silk’s recommendation that social security should remain reserved to the UK Government both to preserve the social union and because of the fiscal risks.  This is not quite right. Far from the Silk Commission ruling out devolution full-stop, they recognised that a change of circumstances might lead them to a different view. One of those changes was devolution of social security to Scotland – something which is underway at least partially.

So for this reason alone, there are grounds to revisit the question.

But there’s more.

The march in Merthyr came the day after the UK Government ruled out the devolution of Air Passenger Duty to the Assembly – despite it being recommended by the Silk Commission. The UK Government is clearly quite happy to ignore the Silk Commission’s recommendations (as well as those of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee), so why should Welsh Government Ministers stick to them?

And as for those who marched in Merthyr?

I doubt many of them would stick with something set up eight years ago, when Rihanna and Olly Murs were in the charts, pre-Scottish referendum and before the term Brexit had been coined.  Still less are they likely to want to stick with something that denied control of such an important state function, and one which is widely credited with causing deep hardship. Indeed, when the NHS and education are devolved – two other pillars of a welfare state – why not Carers Allowance or disability benefits?

Outside of the Cardiff bubble, there is extraordinary dissatisfaction with the status quo. It emerged in the vote to leave the EU, it’s emerging again in the New Independence Movement, and who knows where else. Rather than relying on Silk, it’s time for Wales’ politicians of all colours to recognise that times have changed, and to be radical and bold in the powers it seeks.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation.



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