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Fair, robust, transparent and sustainable

Betsan Powys | 11:46 UK time, Tuesday, 7 October 2008

On my way into work today I popped into the chemist and tried to pay for my repeat prescription for an asthma inhaler. I tried and failed.

"But it's free!" said the helpful pharmacist. "They all are now you know".

But what, I asked, if I wanted to pay because I can afford to, because I'm lucky that I don't need to pay for prescriptions that often, because I know that later today we're about to find out how the government intends to share out the little money there is in the national pot to pay for public services next year and because, frankly, I was just a bit curious.

It turns out that there was no way she could accept my money, "though d'you know what, lots of people say they wouldn't mind paying the £3 or so the charge had come down to".

She hadn't really thought about the practicalities of it before but there was simply no mechanism by which I could pay, nor was there an alternative drug that I could get over the counter that would do the same job.

So I tried and failed to take a little less out of what Andrew Davies, the Finance Minister, this morning described as the "quantum of resource to deliver public services". What he means, of course, is the pot of money we get from Westminster, the lump sum calculated by the much discussed, or should that be subbed to much dissed, Barnett Formula.

This morning the First Minister and his Deputy introduced the two members of the independent commission who, alongside Chairman Gerry Holtham, will consider the way funding and finance works for Wales. Professor David Miles is Chief UK Economist at Morgan Stanley and Visiting Professor at Imperial College in London. He's from Wales but has never worked as an economist here: he is honoured to be given the chance (just when things are getting rough in the day-job you imagine).

Professor Bernd Spahn is Professor Emeritus at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main in Germany. In the past he's served as "Macro Fiscal Advisor to the Minister of Finance and Treasury of Bosnia and Herzegovina" but must now turn his considerable attention not only to the 29 year old Barnett Formula but to the implications of giving Wales tax varying and borrowing powers.

That's right: they're not talking potential tweaks to a formula that even its creator never expected to last this long. They intend to look at comprehensive reform, a Holtham Formula that will aim to be - and I quote - "fair, robust, transparent and sustainable".

But we know that up in Scotland, the Calman Commission are doing, if not the same job, one that goes over similar territory. We know too that the SNP government is having its National Conversation with the people of Scotland along, well, as Gerry Holtham put it this morning, "almost competing lines".

So does our Commission intend to reflect the positon taken in Scotland? Are we aiming for consistency and maximum impact when the reports are finally thumped on a desk in the Treasury? Or are we going it alone, heads down and coming to our own conclusions?

"It would be nice" if there was consistency admitted Gerry Holtham "but we must call it as we see it".

And here's the rub: the First Minister and his Deputy are acutely aware that so far, the issue of funding 'the devolved territories' fairly - and bear in mind that your percentage contribution from the Treasury could go down as well as up - has been defined solely in Scottish terms. The debate in Westminster happens in Scottish terms. Even a quick Google of 'Barnett Formula' and 'unfair' calls up a Telegraph article with the tag Scotland-funding-formula-unfair-says-Lord-Barnett along with a host of articles from Scottish newspapers. Wales barely gets a mention. Also-ran is a dangerous place to be in a debate like this, as the First Minister put it this morning.

And if it's not about Scotland, about oil revenue, it's about English voters asking 'why can't we have free prescriptions/free car parking in hospitals' like they do in Wales?

Those are strong voices that are getting stronger, which is why the Holtham Commission's real job will be making sure the Welsh voice is heard when the shouting really starts.


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