DEVOLUTION is facing its greatest challenge due to direct conflicts with central government that have been highlighted this week. 

While the greatest potential flashpoint is between the Scottish Government and Westminster over Edinburgh’s intention to hold a further independence referendum the Welsh Government has also found itself in direct conflict. 

Unlike the SNP led Scottish Government, which is pushing a policy it knows the Conservative UK administration is likely to resist, the Labour government in Cardiff has found itself defending legislation it has long-since passed and a challenge to its responsibilities. 

These are the direct challenges the UK Government has made towards devolution this week: 

Trade Union legislation 

On Tuesday, Westminster announced its intention to repeal the Welsh Government's 2017 Trade Union Act, which bans agency staff from being used if public sector workers go on strike. 

The UK Government says it wants equal legislation across the UK, but its proposal is seen as a response to the rail workers strike called by the RMT union. 

Regardless of the opposing views of the Conservative and Labour governments in London and Cardiff the move shows the UK Government’s reluctance to accept its Welsh counterpart’s right to pass its own legislation  - and highlights that rather than seeing Cardiff as a government of equal status  (in devolved policy areas), Westminster views the law making Senedd and the executive as subordinate. 

Funds for Ukraine 

The UK’s devolution settlement is meant to be clear on funding, with cash for devolved policy areas such as health and education transferred to the nations and the UK Government responsible for everything that isn’t devolved such as defence and foreign aid. 

This week however the Welsh and Scottish governments have found their budgets being cut as the UK Government is making an immediate increase in funding to provide military aid to Ukraine. 

The UK Government will provide it with an additional £1 billion with £95m coming from the budgets of the Welsh and Scottish governments despite this being clearly outside of their defined policy areas. 

The decision means cash that was supposed to be spent on things such as new schools, or roads, in Wales is instead going towards anti-aircraft systems in Ukraine. 

Wales’ finance minister Rebecca Evans said: “This is a novel, worrying and potentially divisive approach by the Treasury – seeking to use devolved budgets, that should be for investment in devolved areas, like health and education, to fund reserved spending areas such as military aid and defence. Funding for these areas should rightly be met by the UK Government.” 

The Welsh Government says it (reluctantly) accepted the reallocation of its funding and said: “We have accepted this situation in light of our ongoing commitment to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in their fight against this senseless act of aggression, but it should not be a precedent. 

“This funding has not been provided from Welsh Government underspends but will result in challenging decisions to be made about our limited capital budget.” 

The UK Government’s position is that the Welsh Government was aware of the decision and hadn’t objected. 

Extra funding for adult numeracy 

What Westminster takes with one hand...While Cardiff and the Treasury are in dispute over funding for Ukraine it also emerged Westminster’s Department of Education is to spend money on what is a Welsh Government area of responsibility. 

The Westminster department will allocate £101m towards its Multiply adult numeracy scheme in Wales.  

READ MORE:

But, at the Senedd’s finance committee hearing, Labour MS Rhianon Passmore wanted to know why Westminster was taking responsibility for a function of the Welsh Government. 

Simon Hart, the Conservative secretary of state for Wales, said it was “a nice problem to have” and the UK government’s aim is to improve adult literacy, and it will (at a future stage) involve the Welsh Government. 

He said he didn’t want improving people’s maths skills to get lost in technicalities over what is “within or without the terms of the devolution settlement”. Though the 2017 Wales Act is clear that education for jobseekers is the Welsh Government’s responsibility. 

But the issue remains that the UK Government is encroaching on an area that is the responsibility of the Welsh Government for which it should be answerable to the Senedd. 

And as Passmore sought to clarify during the committee meeting, is that £100m in addition to the Welsh Government’s £585m share of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (a replacement for European Funding) or a percentage of it?

Eventually the under-secretary of state, David Davies, acknowledged: “I think it probably is,” though he promised to find out and write to the committee. 

 

That the UK Government has further directed how Welsh Government funding is spent cuts to the heart of the issue, as he who controls the purse strings holds the power. 

The decision recalls an earlier row, dating back to 2015, when the UK Government unilaterally placed an apprenticeship levy on large employers, including the public sector, to create funds for apprenticeships, which are again devolved.  

That was a foretaste of how the UK would operate post-Brexit with the UK Government taking unilateral decisions, considering it and the UK Parliament supreme rather than an equal partner to the devolved nations. 

It taking control of EU funds, that previously came direct to Cardiff and other UK capitals, has seriously undermined the financial power of the devolved nations, now it appears the UK Government wants to say how, at least some, of those funds are spent. 

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.