The project generated significant activity under three main headings:
The Forum on the Changing Union
Six Forums were held focusing on the following topics:
- finance in a changing union
- the English question
- the social union
- intergovernmental relations
- the future of the United Kingdom post the Scottish referendum.
The total number of attendees at the six Forums was 117. These included politicians, senior civil servants, journalists and academics drawn from the four countries. The Forums were conducted under Chatham House rules. Ahead of each Forum discussion papers were prepared identifying key issues. Reports on each Forum were produced and disseminated to participants and stakeholders.
Engaging with the Silk Commission
Consistent with our original objectives, we undertook and completed a wide-range of research through three working groups. Evidence produced by our Working Group on Finance heavily influenced the first report of the Commission on Devolution in Wales that focused on the fiscal powers and responsibilities of the National Assembly. These recommendations have now in large part reached the statute book through the 2014 Wales Act.
We believe that our influence was particularly decisive in the context of the debate over the devolution of Stamp Duty Land Tax where the UK Government’s post-Silk report consultation allowed enough time for the project to mobilise and animate broader civil society engagement that helped persuade the UK Government of the case for devolution.
The longer timelines for Part 2 of the Silk process allowed to us to ensure that the research undertaken by our Working Groups on Powers and Legal Jurisdiction were disseminated and discussed in civil society both before and after our initial submission to the Commission (accompanied by 19 supplementary papers and followed by oral evidence). As a result a significant number of contributions by other civil society organisations to the Commission referenced and/or reflected the project’s influence. Most notably, our central recommendation that Wales move to a ‘reserved powers’ model of devolution has won widespread support, with a coalition of 30 civil society organisations coalescing around it to urge such a reform.
It is testimony to the standard of our research and the persuasiveness of our recommendations that the final report of Part 2 of the Silk Commission makes over 50 individual references to our submission with its recommendations closely mirroring our own. Notable, too, is that the main political parties have all now accepted the case for a ‘reserved powers model’ and are set to enter the forthcoming UK general election campaign pledged to enacting this fundamental reform in the next parliament, as outlined in the recent St David’s Day Agreement.
It is important to note that we did not allow ourselves to be constrained by the terms of reference given to the Silk Commission. In particular, the project placed the issue of the size of the National Assembly firmly on the political agenda by undertaking and publishing (in collaboration with the Electoral Reform Society) the first piece of research on the implications for democracy of the small size of the Welsh legislature.
The publication of Size Matters sparked a wide-ranging debate amongst public and politicians, and across civil society. In the course of this debate we noted a marked changed in tone, with our democratic case for expanding the Assembly becoming very widely accepted and our recommendation of a 100-member legislature given serious consideration. Despite the fact that Silk’s terms of reference precluded any discussion of the size of the Assembly, the second report of the Silk Commission nonetheless recommended that the Assembly be expanded to ‘at least 80 members’.
In January 2015 the Assembly Commission (responsible for the operation of the National Assembly) published its own report recommending an expanded Assembly echoing many of the arguments that originally featured in Size Matters. The Commission also recognised that the “right number” of AMs was somewhere between 80 and a 100. It now appears likely that all the main party manifestos for the forthcoming UK general election will recommend that the powers over the electoral arrangements for, and size of the Assembly should be devolved to it, thus enabling an expansion during the next Assembly term.
Encouraging wider participation and debate
We have invested very significant time and energy in encouraging informed debate in Wales (and beyond) on the constitutional issues arising in the context of devolution. This work has taken on many different dimensions including:
- seminars and discussions for various civil society organisation (e.g. NUS Wales, Wales Environment Link, Wales TUC, Wales Council for Voluntary Action)
- public debates at popular events such as the Hay Literary Festival and the National Eisteddfod
- (via the IWA) a online-expert/practitioner debate on the devolution of policing
- numerous conferences with speakers including the First Minister for Wales, a former First Minister for Scotland and
- fringe meetings at all four main party conferences in Wales (at which speakers have included Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander; leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson; Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Owen Smith; and First Minister for Wales, Carwyn Jones)
- talks to Assembly Members and their staff by prominent ‘devolution academics’ such as Professors James Mitchell, Michael Kenny and Nicola McEwen
- providing the Secretariat for all-party groups on Devolution and the Changing Union at both the National Assembly and the UK Parliament
- an expert seminar (with participation from the UK central government and regional departments as well as all the devolved governments) on improving Inter-Governmental Relations, based on a commissioned paper by Alan Trench.
Three elements of our attempts to encourage participation and debate deserve particular attention:
i) Our Future/Ein Dyfodol: We are particular proud of the success of our project’s youth initiative, Our Future, which has encouraged young professionals in Wales and beyond to participate in constitutional debates, many of them for the very first time. After a series of events and initiatives in Wales, and collaboration with the UK Youth Parliament, Our Future’s work culminated in the organising and hosting of the first ever UK Young People’s Constitutional Convention in Cardiff in September 2014, an event that attracted delegates from right across the United Kingdom and received television coverage in Wales.
ii) IWA’s Crowd-sourced Constitutional Convention: In the light of regular calls for a UK Constitutional Convention (by Welsh politicians in particular), and in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, the UKCU project has been the main backer of the IWA’s highly innovative online Constitutional Convention (www.iwaconvention.co.uk). As a project we view this Convention as part of our legacy in as much as it is serving to ensure that the momentum generated by our activities over the past three years is sustained.
iii) Concluding Statement: The final formal element in the work of the project was to produce a Concluding Statement reflecting on the lessons learnt by the project (from the Forum discussions in particular) concerning the future of the Union. It highlights four key principles that, in our view, need to underpin whatever process is established to determine the future constitutional architecture of the UK. We view the Statement as a key part of the project’s legacy.