11 December 2018

On 12 December the Welsh Assembly is set to vote in Carwyn Jones’ successor. Lucy Valsamidis says that whoever gets elected, they will have to fight to defend the constitutional role of the Assembly.

After almost ten years in office, Carwyn Jones is stepping down as Welsh First Minister. As the newly elected leader of the largest party, Labour’s Mark Drakeford is virtually certain to get the job. Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price and Conservative leader Paul Davies are also expected to be nominated.

To succeed in the new role, the First Minister will have to focus on three key areas. 

1. The new First Minister must defend the Welsh devolution settlement

Speaking at the Institute for Government, then First Minister Carwyn Jones warned that Brexit was revealing the underlying vulnerabilities of the devolved settlements. With Section 12 of the EU Withdrawal Act, the UK Government gave itself the power to freeze powers in devolved policy areas after Brexit. The UK Parliament passed the EU Withdrawal Act despite the Scottish Parliament’s rejection of it, violating the principle of legislative consent.

Although the Welsh Government eventually agreed to accept Section 12, Jones warned that the UK Government’s decision to legislate without Scottish Parliament consent meant that “respect for devolved competence has been overridden”.

Carwyn Jones’ proposal was to strengthen formal relationships between the UK governments. He called for a Council of Ministers to replace the current Joint Ministerial Committee, with the power to make binding decisions and an independent, rather than UK Government-led, dispute resolution procedure.

A reformed Joint Ministerial Committee should be set on a statutory footing, making it less vulnerable to UK Government whim. The Cabinet Office is leading a review of intergovernmental relations: it’s important to get this right because the UK and devolved governments will have to work ever more closely together to agree common frameworks for areas previously covered by EU regulation. 

By making the case for a more formal say for Wales in negotiations with the UK Government, the new First Minister can make sure the voices of the Welsh Assembly and Government are heard.

2. The new First Minister must decide where he wants devolution to go next

The new First Minister has the chance to manage the devolution of new powers in key areas, including taxation. But he also has to decide where he wants devolution to go in the future.

From 2019/20, income tax will be partially devolved to Wales for the first time: in that year 13% of Welsh Government funding will come from income tax revenue rather than the Treasury block grant. Under the new rules the Welsh Government will gain the power to vary income tax rates, offering it the chance to respond more creatively to Welsh needs.

Income tax revenue per capita in Wales is much lower than the UK average, so this change could hit Welsh Government budgets. However, the risk is limited by the Treasury’s decision not to let per capita spending in Wales fall below 115% of the UK average.

Income tax devolution is part of a wider pattern of further devolution of powers that the new First Minister will need to get to grips with. The Commission on Justice in Wales is exploring possibilities for justice devolution, current EU powers are expected to adhere to the Assembly after Brexit, and the Welsh Government has been looking into the introduction of new taxes. Rather than just managing the current round of devolution, the new First Minister needs to decide where he wants the line between devolved and reserved (UK) matters to lie.

3. The new First Minister must help strengthen the legitimacy of the Welsh Assembly

With constitutional reforms to the Welsh Assembly coming up, the new First Minister has the chance to improve democratic engagement. The Assembly Commission has announced that it will introduce legislation to change the name of the Assembly to the Senedd and to lower the voting age to 16: these changes would be introduced in time for the 2021 election. They bring the Welsh Assembly closer to the Scottish Parliament model, in which 16- and 17-year olds have been able to vote since 2015. Further changes are possible too: the Assembly Commission has also consulted on increasing the size of the Assembly and changing how Assembly Members are elected.

This kind of constitutional change could help strengthen the legitimacy of the devolution settlement. After all, it took the introduction of the Welsh Assembly to build support for it. Only 50.3% of Welsh voters supported devolution in 1997; in 2011, 63.5% of voters backed the devolution of powers to make primary legislation.

But participation is still too low: turnout in Welsh Assembly elections has never reached 50%. Although extending the franchise may not increase headline turnout rates, the Assembly Commission is right that it offers an opportunity to increase youth participation. The new First Minister should make the most of these and future opportunities to strengthen the legitimacy of the Welsh Assembly.

The new First Minister can strengthen the Welsh Assembly by managing the devolution of new powers and overseeing constitutional reform successfully. But the reality is still that nothing stops the UK Government from ignoring Welsh Assembly decisions. To defend the constitutional role of the Welsh Assembly, the new First Minister needs to push not just for reforms at home but for a bigger say for Wales within the UK.

Further information

For more on what it takes to be an effective minister, you can explore the Institute for Government's Ministers Reflect archive. In early 2019, we will be publishing a new set of interviews with former Scottish and Welsh First Ministers and other senior Cabinet ministers, as well as a report on the challenges of governing at the devolved level.