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How long should a lasting devolution settlement last?

March 2nd 2016

In the hoo-ha over the draft Wales Bill there’s been little discussion about whether the Secretary of State is right to be seeking a ‘devolution settlement for Wales which stands the test of time’, a phrase he reiterated in response to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee report on Monday.

Senedd large

‘Standing the test of time’ sounds good. Even those who love discussions about the constitution are getting weary of the never-ending devolution ‘process’, particularly one that is, according to the Constitution Unit’s most recent report, ‘confused, incoherent and frustrating’. So who wouldn’t want a devolution ‘event’ that settles debate so that we can get on with other things?

But times change.

The settlement that was right in 2011 when the Silk Commission began its work might not be right in ten years’ time.

One of the clearest examples of this is social security benefits.  Back in 2012/13, I was asked to write a paper on welfare benefits as part of the UK Changing Union project, which was submitted to the Silk Commission. This paper framed much of the narrative about the devolution of welfare at the time, with a broad consensus that most if not all of the system should remain reserved.

Looking back, this argument was based less on principles, such as those associated with a UK ‘social union’, and more on concern about the sheer scale of social security expenditure  – £9 billion on benefits administered by DWP alone in 2014/15. Add to this the sting in the tail which came with the devolution of help with Council Tax (a 10% cut in devolved budget), and it’s not surprising that most politicians and stakeholders at the time didn’t want to touch benefits with a barge pole.

But developments since then should give us pause for thought.

First, there have been further reforms to welfare since 2012/13 and with the distinct possibility of more on the horizon. These changes are having a significant impact on wholly devolved areas of policy. Take housing, an issue to which housing benefit alone contributes £1 billion a year. The spare room subsidy / bedroom tax undermines the Welsh Government’s ideal that people on low incomes should be able to have a stable, long-term home – instead people are expected to move every time they have a different bedroom entitlement, or pay a heavy price. At the very least there is a case for the Welsh Government having a say in changes to benefits that can so dramatically affect its own policies and services, even if the benefit is not devolved.

Second, the UK Government has itself shifted position on welfare benefits. While social security is categorically a reserved matter in the draft Wales Bill, that hasn’t stopped the UK government devolving responsibility for help with council tax, help in crisis and help for severe long-term disability.  None of these are responsibilities that have been sought by Assembly but they got them none the less.

More recently the UK Government has raised the possibility of devolving responsibility for help for older people currently provided by Attendance Allowance, and it has also agreed to transfer to the Scottish Government responsibility for key benefits outside Universal Credit (Disability Living Allowance, Attendance Allowance, Personal Independence Payment, Carer’s Allowance, as well as Winter Fuel Payments, and the ability to make certain variations to Housing Benefit). It can also pay new benefits.  And who knows what other bright ideas for benefit devolution the Chancellor may have up his sleeve?

Now you can argue that devolution is a 21st Century euphemism for cut if you like, but it’s clear that even on welfare, that most reserved of matters, things can change.  What was once regarded as sacrosanct by the UK Government can be devolved when circumstances suit.

And so, I have changed my mind.

I now think that there is real potential for some elements of the social security system to be devolved to Wales – along with an appropriate budget. I think this will enable better, more coherent policies and public services to be developed, so that the benefit system can work alongside devolved areas such as housing, social care and training. It also means that the Welsh Government sees the gains from any reduction in benefit claims that it achieves. A leap of faith, yes, but we can surely develop a fairer and more effective system than the current one.

The fact I have changed my mind matters not one iota to the Wales Bill. What it does make clear is that we cannot have a settled devolution settlement that is based on expediency rather than principles. Even if we do hammer out and get a consensus on those principles, times change and so may those principles.

By 2021, the UK could be out of the EU, Scotland could have left the UK, there will be a different UK Prime Minister and government, and of course the next Assembly will be nearing the end of its fifth term.  The appetite in Wales for what should or should not be devolved in 2021 may be rather different to that in the Silk era – we need a settlement that recogises that too.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation

This article is part of our project looking at ‘Making Welfare Work for Wales‘  To keep up to date with what we’re doing, sign up to our free monthly bulletin.


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