Minister tries to end Welsh powers arguments (again)

Andy Palmer of Aston Martin and Alun Cairns MP Image copyright Wales Office
Image caption The name's Cairns. Alun Cairns. The Welsh Secretary (right) with Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer looking at one of the vehicles the company will be building in South Wales.

"The Wales Bill," says the secretary of state, "is in the finest traditions of Welsh radical reformers like Lloyd George. It is designed to set the course for decades ahead and put a definitive end to outdated arguments over who possesses what powers."

What could possibly go wrong?

You cannot fault Alun Cairns's optimism as he unveils the latest Wales Bill on Tuesday but you may feel we have been here before. Who can forget the "red letter day for devolution" that marked the arrival of previous Welsh legislation?

"What I hope this will do," said the then secretary of state," is settle for a generation - if not more - the whole constitutional obsession we have in Wales about the powers and the status of the Assembly."

The secretary of state was Peter Hain. He was speaking in 2005 ahead of the Government of Wales Act 2006.


Then there was the Conservative Secretary of State, David Jones, who promised MPs a "once in a generation" opportunity of further devolution. That led to the Wales Act 2014.

The ink on the vellum was barely dry when Mr Jones's successor, Stephen Crabb, set out his long-term vision for "a clear, robust and lasting devolution settlement for Wales".

That led to the St David's Day agreement (although critics said it was neither an agreement nor St David's Day) and the draft Wales Bill, which Mr Crabb thought would "draw a line" under arguments over where power lies.

His optimism turned out to be misplaced and as the constitutional arguments raged in politics, civic society and over Pontcanna dinner tables, Mr Crabb was forced to pause the increasingly friendless draft legislation ahead of the Welsh Assembly elections.

Tuesday's publication of the new Wales Bill "unpauses" that process and the UK government has made major concessions over the more controversial parts of the draft legislation. The so-called necessity test has been scrapped, more recognition of distinct Welsh law introduced and the ability of UK ministers to "veto" Welsh laws restricted, according to the Wales Office.

The list of powers reserved to Westminster has been cut and Wales will now get control over road signs, street traders, coal consent and heritage railways. But hovercrafts, despite Mr Crabb's own surprise at their inclusion in the original list, will remain reserved to Westminster.

Leaving control over hovercrafts in Westminster is unlikely to provoke riots in the streets but the reluctance to transfer powers over policing and teachers' pay, among other issues, means the arguments are unlikely to end anytime soon even if the new law has prompted a more measured response from the Welsh Government than its draft version did. You can study the new Bill here.