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Down the line

Betsan Powys | 08:38 UK time, Tuesday, 13 July 2010

b007k3cx_640_360.jpgI'm writing this on the (non-electrified) First Great Western en route to a day at Westminster meeting MPs and catching up on the latest from the London end of the line. But as I head in one direction, there seems more and more momentum for powers to be travelling in the opposite direction towards Cardiff Central - both through a referendum, and beyond.

Let's have a look.

As part of his White Paper on health yesterday, the UK health secretary Andrew Lansley signalled the demise of the Food Standards Agency. The FSA and I had our run-ins over the years - usually involving dodgy chicken and sugar laden cereals. I didn't think then I'd outlast them ... Still. It's highly likely that many of the key functions around public health will be devolved to the Assembly Government. It's already working closely with the FSA on implementing the Pennington proposals to prevent another ecoli outbreak but it's a whole other ballgame to take on the expensive business of running the operation.

A little-noted statement last week from Sustainability Minister Jane Davidson indicated a radical plan is afoot to take in-house to WAG most, or all, of the organisations relating to the natural environment here - among them the Welsh arm of the UK-wide Environment Agency.

There's growing concern in Cardiff Bay about the future of the DCMS-funded S4C. It took a £2m in-year cut this year to its £100m budget. The suggestion at the time was that they'd "volunteered" the cut. Note the inverted commas and imagine the kind of "volunteering" involved when your children "offer" to help you clean the car. But the feeling seems to be that the new administration will be back for more soon - and possibly much more.

The natural reaction from its supporters in the Assembly Government will be to bring the service into its embrace. But the total Welsh heritage budget is £172m and likely to fall. Without guarantees that S4C will bring with it sufficient funding into the future, it starts to look less like a rescue operation and more like chucking an anvil into a dinghy.

Also moving well up the agenda is devolution of the criminal justice system in Wales. Devolving the system lock stock may be a step way too far for now but what about youth justice? Far too many Welsh young offenders are currently locked up in England because there is no space for them in Wales.

Don't think, though, that by simply devolving powers to Wales that the Ministry of Justice will automatically hand over the capital funding for a brand new secure youth offending institution in Wales. Don't imagine they'd offer guarantees of enough money to sustain the service under a Welsh policy framework in the years to come either.

The devolution of policing, too is firmly on the agenda. But as for taking responsibility for funding the four Welsh police forces, between precept, politician, PC and person on the street, there's hardly a more febrile mix of financial and - yes, another 'p' word - psychological relationships anywhere in Government.

There was a strong campaign to bring the Welsh element of the ailing Children and Family Court Service under the Assembly Government's wing.

The fight for CAFCASS Wales was won - but at a price. The transfer from the then Department for Education came with a £2m shortfall. That's grown to approximately £4m annually since 2005-6. The ailing patient turned out to be financially flatlining and has been pretty much on life support from the Welsh block grant ever since.

The moral of the tale?

Not so much a case, you might say, of 'beware Greeks bearing gifts', more perhaps a case of 'beware leek wearing stiffs'. Sorry. Couldn't resist it. It's been a long old Assembly term.

But the lesson is in there somewhere. Just because a service has a Welsh arm that's facing UK government cutbacks is not necessarily a reason to bring it under WAG's control - no matter how tempting it may look.

As politicians start drawing up manifestos for 2011, one of the more superficially attractive ploys will be - instead of proposing expensive and complex changes to existing responsibilities, rather to try and devolve more and more from Westminster - instant progress, in the sure belief that more funding will follow.
This isn't, of course, an argument for or against broadening powers sometime in the future. But as my imminent visit to the buffet car will no doubt confirm, things which look initially attractive can come with a hefty price tag ... and leave a nasty aftertaste.

The upshot? Be careful, I suppose, what you wish for.


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