How should Wales be governed in the future?

Published 08/12/2022   |   Reading Time minutes

There are “significant problems with the way Wales is currently governed” according to the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales.

The Commission’s interim report, published on 6 December, has said that the “status quo is not a reliable or sustainable basis for the governance of Wales” and that it will be exploring alternatives for the future.

This article looks at the interim report’s main findings and how political parties have responded.

What is the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales?

The Commission was established by the Welsh Government, with the support of Plaid Cymru, in November 2021, with two broad objectives:

  1. To consider and develop options for fundamental reform of the constitutional structures of the United Kingdom, in which Wales remains an integral part
  2. To consider and develop all progressive principal options to strengthen Welsh democracy and deliver improvements for the people of Wales

The Commission is co-chaired by Professor Laura McAllister and Dr Rowan Williams, and is made up of a group of commissioners drawn from a broad range of political opinions and sections of Welsh society.

The Commission has identified four values that form the basis of its assessment of the constitutional options for Wales:

  • Agency
  • Equality and Inclusion
  • Accountability
  • Subsidiarity

How has the Commission been gathering evidence?

The Commission has been collecting evidence to inform its conclusions in three ways:

  • Oral evidence sessions with politicians, academics, civil society and others interested in the constitutional future of Wales
  • A public consultation on options for how Wales might be governed in the future
  • A community engagement fund to support community groups and organisations in running engagement projects to contribute towards the Commission’s work

The Commission is also supported by an expert panel, who provide specialist analysis and research on the Commission’s areas of interest.

Assessing how Wales is governed today

The first phase of the Commission’s work has focused on gathering evidence on how Wales is governed today and starting conversations with the people of Wales about how they want to be governed in the future.

Through its work so far, the Commission has identified what it says are four key issues with Wales’ current constitutional position:

  • Devolution was a major step forward for Welsh democracy, but the current settlement has been eroded by decisions of recent UK governments
  • The UK’s unwritten constitution and the unrestricted sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament limits the ability of the people of Wales, and their elected representatives, to determine how they should be governed
  • Wales’ economy has not prospered over a long period within the UK but its prospects outside the UK are highly uncertain
  • Whether Wales should remain part of the UK or not begs the question: what sort of UK would work in the interests of the people of Wales – and is a reformed UK achievable?

The Commission has also set out ten “immediate pressure points” on the current devolution settlement. It says that these pressures mainly relate to “relations between the UK and Welsh governments” and notes increasing policy divergence as devolution “has enabled policies and laws designed to respond to the needs of Wales”.

What are the options for the future?

The Commission has said that the evidence it has gathered so far has led them to conclude that there are only three viable future constitutional options for Wales: entrenched devolution, federal structures and independence.

The report says that entrenched devolution would provide protection for devolution and could include more powers being devolved, including over justice and policing. Whereas federal structures would require wider reform across the UK and could lead to the devolution of welfare and further powers over taxation.

Independence for Wales is the third “viable” option that the Commission is considering to try to understand the advantages and disadvantages of such a change.

The report has analysed each of these options and set out key questions that it will look to answer in its final report next year.

How have political parties responded?

The Commission’s report has been welcomed by the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru, but the Welsh Conservatives have criticised the report as “a waste of time and resources”.

The Welsh Conservatives have said that the Welsh Government should instead focus on improving “the state of the economy, education and the health service” using the powers it already has under the current devolution settlement.

Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price MS has said that the significance of the report could not be “overstated” as the report acknowledges that independence is “both a credible and viable way forward”.

The publication of the report comes only days after the UK Labour Party published a report on the future of the UK, chaired by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

What happens next?

This is the interim report of the Commission. It still has work to do before publishing its final report by the end of 2023.

The second phase of their inquiry will investigate the problems identified so far and continue to engage with the people of Wales about how they might be overcome. The Commission says that the next phase of their work will focus on:

  • Mechanisms for strengthening representative democracy at each level of government
  • Options for reform of constitutional structures, including practical steps to protect Welsh democracy and the current devolution settlement
  • Taking forward the national conversation to explore with the people of Wales how they believe their country should be governed in the future

The Commission regularly publishes progress reports and minutes of meetings, which you can use to keep up to date with its work.

The Welsh Government has said it will schedule a statement in Plenary on the interim report in the New Year.

Article by Josh Hayman, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament