England, Scottish Referendum, Wales

Failure to give serious consideration to a UK Constitutional Convention is a sign the Union is not working properly says devolution think tank

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The UK Government’s failure to give serious and formal consideration to the Welsh First Minister’s proposal for a UK Constitutional Convention is a sign that the union is not working properly, according to a Welsh partnership that has been studying the UK’s changing union over the past three years.

The UK’s Changing Union project, a partnership of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, the Institute of Welsh Affairs and Tomorrow’s Wales warns that continuing fragmentation of negotiations about the future of the Union across its four countries is not in the interests of the Union or of Wales.

The project’s statement says: “There is a danger that constitutional issues affecting the whole of the Union will be considered in a series of separate bilateral agreements between London and each of the four countries that may not provide the basis for a coherent and stable reform of the Union as a whole.

“It is a point that has been argued effectively by Wales’s First Minister, Carwyn Jones, in his calls for the establishment of a UK-wide Constitutional Convention. A properly functioning Union should have been able to give his proposal the serious and formal consideration it deserved.”

Chair of the project and Director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, Professor Richard Wyn Jones said, “We have suggested four principles to underpin the union as well as a set of proposals for ensuring fairness across the four countries. We believe that these should be central to any post-election process focused on the future of the Union, whether or not this takes the form of a UK Constitutional Convention.”

The suggested principles are:

– shared sovereignty between the four countries of the UK

– subsidiarity – devolving powers down, including to local government

– shared solidarity – collaborating for the common good, that would include improving economic cohesion and fairness across the UK

– recognising that England has its needs and rights, but also that its dominance is such that mechanisms have to be introduced to guarantee fairness.

The statement adds, “If the country is to work as a genuine Union then there must be reform of the central institutions of the state and not just reform in the devolved territories.”

Among the mechanisms it says are needed to guarantee that England’s size does not result in unfairness are:

– Strengthening systems for inter-governmental relations

– A system independent of the Treasury for allocating financial resources to devolved administrations

– A system for resolving disputes

– Replacement of the House of Lords with a Second Chamber reflecting the nations and regions of the UK.

It adds: “Ensuring that Wales is at the heart of the debate is, therefore, not just a matter of defending the Welsh interest, but also of giving a clear public signal that the Union is being considered as an all-embracing working system rather than a series of disconnected ‘concessions’.

The project team argues that were a UK Constitutional Convention to be established its agenda would have to include the following:

– The definition of the key purposes and character of the Union fit for its role in Europe and the world.

– The definition of the core powers reserved to the UK Government, with possible variations to take into account the circumstances of the constituent nations.

– The clarification of the core UK-wide entitlements of UK citizens (e.g free primary and secondary education, health service free at the point of need, state pensions, human rights etc.);

– The budgetary principles governing central and territorial taxation and borrowing powers;

– Mechanisms to ensure the fair and consistent functioning of the Union;

– The role of England in an asymmetric Union, taking into account whatever is decided upon as regards the internal governance of England.

Lee Waters, Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs said:  “It would be foolish to pretend that debate on these matters is at an end. There is a real risk that Wales will be left out of a debate around the union which focuses solely on Scotland and England. For this reason, once the General Election is concluded, we believe a formal deliberative process – parallel to any UK process – needs to be created in Wales by the Welsh Government and National Assembly.”

“As a precursor to this the UK Changing Union project has already committed to support a legacy project that will be led by the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA). The IWA’s constitutional convention will be an eight week project to launch at the end of January, to try and establish, among the people of Wales, what our next steps should be. In order to broaden the debate and engage civil society this will use crowd-sourcing techniques similar to a process that was used effectively in Iceland to draw up a new constitution in the wake of its economic crisis.”

“The IWA hopes that in this way it can give a wider range of people in Wales a voice and create a continuing dialogue within civil society at a pivotal moment of constitutional change,” he said.

Notes

The four principles it has outlined for the future of the Union are:

A union state not a unitary state

That the United Kingdom state consists of four national entities – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – sharing sovereignty, expressing themselves democratically through Parliaments and Assemblies whose continued existence are henceforth guaranteed, and freely assenting to cooperate in a Union for their common good. This signals the end of “devolution” to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and a move to a more overtly federal or quasi-federal framework. This recognition of the four-nation state would also explicitly demonstrate respect for the rich cultural diversity in the Union.

Subsidiarity, consistency and clarity

That in the distribution of functions between the tiers of government – across the full range from European to local – the principle of subsidiarity be applied. In applying this principle it is vital that consistency and clarity be secured throughout the Union, taking fully into account, as appropriate, differences in their respective governance and internal circumstances.  The application of this principle need not, therefore, imply uniformity. Moreover, this principle of subsidiarity should apply not only with respect to the four nations at national levels, but should be also extended to local government within each nation as appropriate.

A shared solidarity

That the four countries of the Union severally and together commit to the principle of shared solidarity, collaborating for the common good and for economic and social cohesion across the UK as whole.

Tempering the UK’s asymmetry

That the parties to the Union acknowledge the dominant role of England within it and that England has its needs and rights, but that England also acknowledges that the asymmetry between it and the other nations is of such a scale as to require tempering, in the interests of fairness, by the introduction of a range of institutional mechanisms.

Possible mechanisms for improving the operation of the union include

  • Means of strengthening the inter-governmental relations between the different legislatures (Joint Ministerial Committees,  Memoranda of Understanding,  Statutory Codes of Practice);
  • An independent UK-wide system for assessing (determining) the fair distribution and redistribution of financial resources on a clear statutory basis, limiting UK Treasury and ministerial discretion, designed to be equitable between all parties on the basis of examination of needs and with no expectation that transfers would be continued when needs had been met satisfactorily ;
  • A system for the resolution of disputes between governments and/or legislatures; and
  • Changing the role and composition of a Second Chamber for the Union state to reflect the nations and regions of the UK.