Friday, 29 July 2016

Towards federalism and beyond.

  A guest essay by Glyndwr Cennydd Jones

Glyndwr is presently chief executive of a UK-wide organisation, having previously held a senior position at an international examinations board for over eleven years. Writing in a personal capacity, he is today an advocate for greater cross-party consensus and cooperation in Wales. 

Wales has a proud tradition of being at the cutting edge of political change when the economic and social circumstances of the time demand it. However, the inertia created by the lack of true challenge and debate within today’s Assembly, not to mention the bureaucratic nature of chamber and committee proceedings, has impacted negatively on the development of entrepreneurship and innovation across the Welsh economy, burdening service provision in the public sector with excessive administration and slowing the development of private businesses.

These are symptoms of an institution lacking true confidence, influence and the power to direct and lead change in inspiring a nation to fulfil its considerable economic and societal potential. This limited managerial—rather than strategically empowering—approach to governance in Wales is inadequate in terms of ensuring effective democratic representation of the aspirations, needs and values of our nation in the developing UK context. A context made more complex by the recent EU referendum result, the rise of a strong voice in Scotland, and the general feeling that successive Westminster governments, in their understandable eagerness to secure votes from more populous areas nearby, have tended to neglect the needs of communities further afield. The legitimate ambitions of all people living in Wales are being undermined by a system which has become increasingly introspective, unwieldy and compromised by short-term considerations, particularly in relation to its structural relevance to the modern global environment. One could suggest that the recent EU referendum result should not have been so much of a surprise as it was to many.

Over time, investment in essential frontline service workers such as doctors, nurses, teachers and police has been insufficient, becoming a source of some concern amongst the public. The increasing emphasis on administration rather than the quality of provision is suggestive of a political structure that is serving its own self-perpetuation rather than the developing aspirations and needs of the population. Indeed, many people feel that their personal views and difficulties are not heard or even understood by decision makers, which could well explain the low voter turnout at various elections.

The transparency of the democratic process is made more complicated by unelected appointments to certain positions of public influence in Wales, which raises reservations about the expertise, political alignment and suitability of some influencing policy and service delivery. Special advisers and similar roles lack electoral accountability and can result, through unchecked pressure from lobbyists as an example, in a disproportionate weighting being given to the wishes of major corporations rather than a balanced consideration of all stakeholders’ views—including the needs of mid to small sized businesses, regional employment opportunities and potential effects on the environment.

Government has a responsibility to protect society, ensuring that the actions and choices made by individuals, private companies and public bodies do not impact detrimentally on its people, be it through criminality, exploitation, general irresponsibility or negligence.  A perceived failure to put the concerns of families and victims at the forefront of today’s parliamentary proceedings has undermined the fabric of trust within our communities.  We have seen significant amounts of public money directed towards wealthy institutions which through unchecked practices have brought on financial hardships to many—investment desperately needed by our emergency services, hospitals and schools. These instances often have been progressed without the introduction of adequate prevention measures for the future, leading to public insistence for greater scrutiny of how bonus structures can affect faithful practice and whether multinational companies pay their fair share of UK tax.

A community-focused agenda with the needs of people at its heart demands investment in housing and service provision which supports the wellbeing of all whether they are young, old or vulnerable; in education or seeking work; in good health or not; have dependents or are unattached; are employed or unwaged; and whether they were born in these isles or elsewhere. It is people’s ambitions and talents made real through actions that drive a nation’s growth, so government has a key social responsibility in facilitating success, particularly empowering those who have been caring for others or unemployed to return to education and work. The principle of a compassionate state underpinning the security of its population from cradle to grave is as relevant today than it ever was, but it should strive for improved responsiveness and sustainability in delivery within modern financial constraints.

To achieve these aims, government must be empowered to make decisions that are not always popular with the electorate in the short-term, but benefit and profit society over the longer period. This may appear politically counterintuitive as the relentless cycle of ‘first past the post’ elections encourages a polarisation of views between political parties and the promotion of immediate ‘headline-grabbing’ policies, emerging typically in parliaments which are compositionally unrepresentative of the whole population. Electoral reform across the UK is essential to address this apparent democratic deficit and to improve collaboration within politics—promoting responsible governance which is rooted in a more strategically focused agenda.

This point is key as the economic difficulties and social challenges facing today’s Wales contrast considerably with those of the UK generally.  Growth along the M4 corridor has admittedly brought benefits, but has led to over development in some areas and increased the exclusion of already disadvantaged communities in others. Much of the rest of Wales is suffering economic decline, including low wages, poverty and out-migration of young people. The whole nation has experienced reductions in manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile, Westminster’s financial policies have led to a gradual shift of resources away from Wales. This, along with the collapse of the traditional industries over time has led to our Gross Domestic Product falling behind the UK average. The proportion of older people has also increased with obvious impact on demands for health and social services.

But our National Health Service is suffering the effects of under-funding with staff morale undermined by the burden of bureaucracy. The artificial distinctions made between nursing and personal care have been particularly damaging, as it has delayed early medical intervention to prevent ill health. All this in a country that suffers from some of the highest incidences of cardiac disease, respiratory problems and cancers in the western world, and despite this intolerable situation, Wales has potentially the least capacity to treat it, in proportional terms, than any part of the UK. This situation is compounded by the Barnett formula not taking account of Wales’ ageing population, the increase in deprivation levels and the longstanding illnesses caused by industrial collapse in many communities. Not only are the poorest the sickest members of society but illness itself is a key generator of poverty. Shelter also highlights that too many people live in housing of unacceptable condition with problems including lack of social accommodation, backlog in repairs, insufficient numbers of ‘new builds’ and inflated house prices.

It is now not good enough to just continue papering over the cracks using the presently ungainly legislative arrangements and tools. It is necessary to stand back and take an objective, realistic view of the challenges facing today’s Wales from a wider global perspective and with longer timeframes in mind. This is imperative after the recent referendum result to leave the EU, as Wales is/was a net beneficiary of European funding to the tune of approximately £245 million annually. These considerable challenges require responses devised by those closest to them and who better understand their impact on our cities, towns and rural communities, and are well positioned to build the necessary connections and relationships across governments and industries.

To carry Wales forward into the modern era, the establishment of a federal structure for the UK within the next five years is essential for our economy and society to function with strengthened accountability, governance and transparency—and, just as importantly, to harness the talents demanded to ensure the creative, lasting and robust solutions necessary to address the weaknesses. Strategic planning on a national Welsh government level is essential to promote sustainability on the one hand and to enable regionalisation on the other. Our communities must grow and diversify if they are to flourish. It is imprudent that a large proportion of public procurement in Wales is spent outside our localities and regions. There is a potential to harness this spending within our communities to boost the economy. Indeed, development strategies are needed that treat urban and surrounding rural areas as integrated through initiatives which are encouraged centrally and enacted regionally.  

As a hypothetical model, a Welsh government established as part of a federalised structure for the UK could be supported by five regional authorities partially mirroring the composition of the regional seats for present Assembly elections and constituted by amalgamation of the enclosed local government principal areas/unitary authorities. These regional authorities would complement present and past initiatives to develop joint working opportunities across local authorities in Wales, securing better service provision and economies of scale. Enacting Welsh government policies, these regional bodies would take over the responsibilities of existing local authority partnerships; health boards; police, fire and rescue authorities; as well as consortia for education, social services, transport and trunk roads. Such a structure would provide:

·           Clarity and stability in directing and facilitating long-term planning and delivery
·           Accountability for achieving shared outcomes in each geographical area
·           Improved governance between central government, regional and local partners
·           Better efficiency and integration in the convergence of contracted and operational arrangements with key partners—facilitating more strategic working relationships over time
·           Increased capacity.

The central federal government in London would typically maintain control over defence, exercising international diplomacy and the right to sign binding treaties within limits of a defined UK constitution. It would also hold overall responsibility for promoting equality in sharing baseline investment, particularly in relation to a redistribution of a proportion of the joint prosperity generated through the federal capital to the nations.
In April 2016, the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University published its report on Government Expenditure and Revenue which identified total public sector revenue in Wales as £23.3 billion for 2014-15, approximately 3.6% of total UK revenues of £648.8 billion. The largest source of Welsh revenue was Value Added Tax followed by Income Tax and National Insurance Contributions. This composition contrasted significantly with the UK as a whole where direct taxes such as Income Tax and Corporation Tax constituted a larger proportion. The report also estimated managed expenditure in Wales for the same period as £38 billion, approximately 5.2% of total UK expenditure of £737.1 billion. Social protection accounted for most of Welsh expenditure, including social security payments and pensions etc, followed by health and education. The present Assembly government in Cardiff and local authorities were responsible for 53% of this total spend with the remainder attributed to UK government departments.  Therefore, greater fiscal devolution presents risks and opportunities for the future. In the medium to long term much depends on how a more influential Welsh government and an informed public respond to financial empowerment, whilst questions remain on how the deficit should be supported during transition whether through adjustment of the Welsh block grant from HM Treasury and/or borrowing.

Whatever the approach or methodology, Wales must move forward with renewed confidence and vision. Not bearing past burdens—especially baggage of a party political nature—but striving to form a common consensus across politicians in acting faithfully with wisdom of lessons learnt. Never leaning blindly to the left or right of a notionally theoretical policy platform, purely on a matter of some historical or misconstrued principle, but devising ambitious and sustainable solutions appropriate to the modern challenges facing each governmental portfolio as presented in the context of today’s Wales. Indeed to labour solely with the aim of creating a secure and successful future for all who live within our nation.

Sectors that have growth potential require support including, for example, technology, tourism and renewable energy in which Wales has a distinct geographical advantage. This targeted investment along with improved road and rail links will help steer Wales towards a better social coherence and economic robustness. And since small businesses comprise the vast majority of all firms in Wales, our labour market strategy must address the needs of entrepreneurs and promote meaningful employer engagement in the design of vocational training across further and higher education. This in turn will facilitate strengthened progression opportunities for career advancement in industry.

Education creates a better future. It encourages people to understand themselves and their communities including culture, history, languages, career prospects and relationships. Our curriculum should place an emphasis on key global issues, transferable skills, employability and subject specialism, as well as Welsh and British citizenship. And since the modern world is constantly evolving, these various aspects must be delivered within a strong ethos of lifelong learning and continuous professional development if we are to succeed in staying one step ahead of our international competitors.

This vision is of a society where individuals understand their responsibilities to themselves and others. It is right to promote individual choice, but let us not forget the responsibility of government to ensure that these choices are both well informed and do not impact negatively on society as a whole. An empowered government with a separate legal jurisdiction in Wales, as part of a federal structure for the UK, would be ideally positioned to be more imaginative in its attempts to prevent crime, improve conviction rates and reform offenders whilst placing a greater weight on the needs of victims and their families.

Therefore, the main political parties in Wales must establish greater consensus in directing and moving towards a new constitutional relationship within these isles, giving priority to the important values of ‘care’ and ‘opportunity for all’ which embed our society. Indeed a consensus that inspires and underpins a vision that:

·           is strongly committed to being a clear voice for all people of Wales, addressing
directly the deprivation and lack of opportunities in some of our communities
·           pledges resolutely to reduce bureaucracy across all levels of government and to ensure that public money is spent where it is most needed—in our surgeries/hospitals, schools/colleges, police and emergency services
·           promises to work tirelessly to support development and growth across the private business sector and key industries—thereby stimulating job prospects
·           firmly advocates an approach to government policy and planning which is realistic and sustainable in nature—one which acknowledges our limited resources and addresses the pressures on public services and housing as a matter of priority
·           passionately believes in electoral reform and accountable governance for Wales, empowering all who live within our nation to shape the future with ambition and confidence.

The Welsh emphasis on equality and fairness has historically given birth to many noted politicians, thinkers and writers as in England, Ireland and Scotland. This is a tradition that we should rightfully be proud of. In the wider context of Europe and the reinstatement over recent decades of nations previously absorbed into larger political structures, a consensus to secure within the next five years a federal settlement for Wales as part of the UK is both a necessary and natural step at this time. It is by putting these economic and social cornerstones in place that Wales can dream of a financially and spiritually rewarding future of still even greater aspiration…

To paraphrase Bernard of Chartres ‘We stand on the shoulders of giants. Let us make sure that future generations of people can say that of themselves in relation to our efforts in creating a modern Wales.

Twitter: @GlyndwrCJ