Peers debate where power lies - Wales or Westminster?

 

It's fair to say that the Silk commission has yet to set pulses racing the length and breadth of Wales.

The House of Lords (yes, they're still hard at work) was told today that only 11 people turned up for its first public meeting in Swansea.

Perhaps there were competing attractions in Swansea that night, although that argument also applies elsewhere. "There were only 5 in Welshpool, including me," tweeted the Montgomeryshire Conservative MP Glyn Davies of the commission meeting there.

Perhaps it's just "constitution fatigue" and the commission should have taken a leaf out of a previous convention's book and laid on the odd tea dance or curry for voters.

Today's debate in the Lords was led by the Liberal Democrat, Lady Randerson. She told peers: "The assembly has always lacked credibility because, uniquely in the UK, it has no responsibility for raising the money it spends.

"Even parish councils have more financial credibility than the assembly. The Welsh assembly is probably the only body in the world which is able to pass laws and spend money but which has no power or responsibility over taxes.

"What is clear to me is that control over some tax levers will encourage the Welsh government to be more strategic in its thinking, would encourage it to concentrate on the economic growth Wales so badly needs and it would increase democratic accountability."

Labour's Lord Anderson (of Swansea) suggested that the turnout in his home city showed a lack of interest in the commission's work.

"For me the real problem is channelling more resources to Wales and the questions of accountability, and that irresponsibility which comes from spending without actually raising the taxes, are secondary issues.

"But it is an important issue, bristling with problems, and I'm sad to see the lack of interest shown in Wales to the Silk Commission."

Former Plaid Cymru leader Lord Wigley linked the future of devolution to House of Lords reform: "There are models of government short of independence which may warrant consideration. These include federal, quasi-federal and confederal structures.

"I believe that when we debate the future of this chamber it would be a missed opportunity not to consider the possibility of it becoming a federal chamber, particularly if devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland move towards the devolution-max model which apparently is very widely supported in Scotland."

It wouldn't be a debate on devolution without someone raising the formula that decides changes in the Welsh government's budget.

Lord Howarth of Newport said the formula meant Wales received less funding than it would if it were a region of England:"Barnett is comprehensively discredited. It is bizarre, unjust and it makes a mockery of the devolution settlement."

He told peers: "I hope people in Wales will consider the issue of an elected second chamber. If there are to be senators for one vast constituency, wandering around undermining the work of Assembly Members and Welsh MPs without any accountability, and they are to be members of a second chamber which is going to be much more assertive in fiscal matters, then they will find this particular reform travelling in the very opposite direction to the devolution they want."

For Labour, Baroness Gale said further constitutional change was not a priority: "It seems that the coalition Government is far more interested in constitutional matters than they are on addressing the real issues facing families in Wales, such as the high cost of living, an economy in recession and high unemployment."

Lord Wallace of Tankerness, the UK government's Lords spokesman on Wales, didn't rule out a referendum on further devolution of fiscal powers but he said discussions about one were "probably jumping the gun at the moment given that we don't actually know what the proposals might be".

He said the prime minister had indicated there would be a need for "an open conversation" about "the kind of Union we want to see" but he said that should await the outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

 
David Cornock Article written by David Cornock David Cornock Parliamentary correspondent, Wales

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