(Still) Waiting for Silk - what's occurin'?


The sun is shining. MPs are sporting various shades of beige and parliament's terrace bar is doing a roaring trade.

It's the last week of term for MPs (peers are here until the 30th) and there are the July traditions to follow.

These include government departments releasing announcements (no fewer than 32 written ministerial statements today) and the usual reshuffle speculation (changes widely expected at junior level this week).

But whenever two or more Welsh MPs are gathered together, the discussion inevitably turns to the government's overdue announcement on what it plans to do about the Silk commission report that suggested the Welsh government should get the power to borrow money and vary taxes.

As you probably know, if you've managed to read this far, ministers promised to deliver their response by the end of spring, which was then replaced by variations of "very soon" and "in due course".

In what appeared to them a good idea at the time, senior ministers decided to link the issue of more powers for Wales with a completely different commission on the consequences of devolution for the house of commons (the McKay commission).

This was designed to re-assure Tory MPs that despite Westminster losing power to Wales (and Scotland), England had not been forgotten. The "Lib Dem win" on Welsh powers would be balanced by the "Tory victory" on the West Lothian question (younger readers, ask your parents).

It didn't work. The delay in the Silk response caused by linking the two commissions has annoyed both Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs. Presentation in terms of wins for either side of the coalition also oversimplifies the position.

Tories and Lib Dems have in many cases come to the same conclusion - backing the transfer of more powers to Wales - for different reasons. Generally speaking, the Lib Dems have always believed in home rule and federalism; Conservatives support more devolution because they think it will make the Welsh government more accountable. It's amazing what three years of Cardiff blaming Westminster for Welsh woes can do to change minds.

So spring has given way to summer and we may be on the verge of autumn before we get to see the UK government's full response to the Silk commission. Labour's shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith MP has added the hashtag #autumnwatch to his tweets.

When that response comes, it is expected to endorse most of Silk's 33 recommendations, giving the Welsh government the power to vary income tax rates (after a referendum), borrowing powers and control over other minor taxes such as stamp duty. Air passenger duty is likely to remain at Westminster.

Control over stamp duty is the one taxation power Welsh ministers really want, partly because it would generate enough income against which the Welsh government could borrow for major schemes such as M4 improvements.

However, within the UK government there is concern about the reaction of businesses - particularly house-builders - to the devolution of stamp duty. Officials and ministers have been working on an option that could yet see the government give an indication of its plans (a consultation to report by September?) in this area through a (written ministerial) statement before the end of term, possibly as soon as tomorrow.

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

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