THE KEY POINTS AFTER 20 YEARS OF DEVOLUTION
MONDAY will mark the 20-year anniversary of Wales’ historic devolution referen- dum.
The vote to create an Assembly in 1997 was a vote to make decisions in Wales.
The Assembly now has radically more powers than the institution which was launched in 1999.
The differences in everyday life between Wales and England could be about to get much bigger as politicians use tax powers and make laws in more areas.
But since the early days of devolution, Assembly Members have used whatever powers they have had at their disposal to change Wales – they hope for the better.
1. Free Prescriptions
This is one of the moments when people sat up and took notice of the Assembly.
There were only 517,132 Yes votes in the 1997 and there has yet to be an Assembly election in which even half the electorate has taken part.
One of the challenges for AMs has been getting the message across that health and education in Wales are no longer run from Westminster.
The introduction of free prescriptions in 2007 showed that decisions made in Cardiff Bay can have a direct effect on your life.
Northern Ireland followed Wales’ lead in 2010 and Scotland in 2011.
2. Free travel for older people.
Older citizens gained the freedom to travel for free by bus in 2002. Pensioners and people with qualifying disabilities were not limited to travel within their local authority – or within off-peak times – but could use their pass anywhere in Wales at any time.
In July this year free weekend bus travel for everyone was introduced in a pilot scheme on the TrawsCymru routes, which it is hoped will lead to more people visiting the Brecon Beacons.
3. The ban on smoking in a public place.
This came into force in 2007 and meant that a night out no longer means coming home stinking of smoke.
AMs would have probably pushed forward this culturechanging policy much earlier – possibly as early as 2003 – but they only gained the powers through 2005 legislation.
Scotland was the first to introduce a ban in March 2006, ahead of Wales and Northern Ireland in April the following year, with one coming into force in England in July 2007.
4. The bonfire of the quangos.
Devolution gave politicians in the Assembly power to do much more than give away things for free.
They could also crank the levers of power so that Wales would run in a fundamentally different way.
Rhodri Morgan saw that much of public life was managed at arm’s reach from politicians and decided it was time for a “bonfire of the quangos”.
The Welsh Development Agency (WDA) had long been one of the influential bodies in Wales, famed for its efforts to win investment from around the world.
Likewise, the Wales Tourist Board worked to persuade people to holiday here and Elwa was responsible for post-16 education.
All of these bodies were brought into the civil service in 2006.
The abolition of the WDA in particular proved fiercely controversial; this was a shaking of Wales’ establishment that demonstrated that the Assembly Government, as it was then called, was the new centre of gravity.
5. The carrier bag charge.
Wales became the first nation in the UK to introduce a compulsory charge for single-use bags in 2011.
The British Retail Consortium denounced the policy as “disproportionate and draconian” but the 5p charge has proven popular. The Welsh Government says use of the bags crashed by 71% between 2011 and 2014.
A similar charge was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2013, in Scotland in 2014 and in England in 2015.
A made-in-Wales policy was embraced by the whole country.
6. Organ donation.
If introducing a charge on car-
rier bags could trigger denunciations, what would happen if AMs decided to legislate concerning what happens to our bodies when we die?
Wales truly blazed a trail in 2015 when it legislated for an opt-out system for organ donation.
It is presumed that the person was in favour of donating their organs.
There were intense debate and deep concerns were voiced but the BMA is now pushing for other UK nations to follow Wales’ lead and move away from the old system where the onus was on a person to register his or her consent.
The impact of the change will be closely studied around the world.
In 2016 there were 39 organ transplants in Wales through deemed consent.
7. What hasn’t happened.
Cathy Owens, who was a Labour special adviser from 2003 to 2006, argues that what ministers chose not to do has been “as significant” as the policies they pursued.
In key areas, ministers in Cardiff chose not to follow the lead of Westminster governments led by Labour or the Conservatives.
Former First Minister Rhodri Morgan talked of “clear red water” separating the policies of Wales and England.
Ms Owens said: “We didn’t introduce competition in public services.
“We didn’t introduce academies or free schools or grammar schools...
“We tried to maintain investment in charitable organisations and third sector organisations which do good in this country.”
The Assembly will likely soon be renamed a parliament and the transfer of tax powers to AMs means the Welsh Budget will not just be about how money is spent but how it is raised.
There are proposals for a new Welsh Language Commission and a fresh generation of AMs have arrived in Cardiff Bay who will want to put their ideas into action.
The prospect of Brexit has triggered debate about the balance of powers that should exist between the different governments of the UK, and as more Welsh laws are passed there are strengthening calls for a Welsh legal jurisdiction.
Demands may also intensify for the devolution of responsibility for policing, and pressure will build for an increase in the number of AMs.
One of the most dramatic chapters in Welsh politics could be about to begin.
Carrier bag charges