The Western Mail today published details of an intriguing story suggesting the Wales Office is seeking to prevent MPs from across the country from considering the Silk Commission’s initial report on fiscal powers for the Welsh Assembly.
In its report, the Commission recommended AMs be given the power to set a range of taxes in Wales – including over income tax. Such changes would undoubtedly have significant constitutional ramifications for the rest of the UK, not least given it raises the prospects of Wales having lower tax rates than England.
The Western Mail, however, reports today that Stephen Hillcoat, Principal Private Secretary to the Welsh secretary David Jones, emailed Mr Jones’s shadow, Owen Smith, asking if he would be content instead with a debate in the Welsh Grand Committee, a forum that would limit debate to Welsh MPs only.
The paper quotes the email as saying:
“The Secretary of State has asked me to check – following your last discussions – that you would be content with him recommending a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee to discuss the recently published Silk Commission report. If so, he will write to you and Plaid Cymru formally.”
The limiting of debate to just Welsh MPs, however, now looks tantamount to a u-turn since David Jones’s predecessor as Welsh secretary, Cheryl Gillan (Jones’s then boss), pledged a debate on the floor of the House of Commons.
Speaking during Welsh Office questions in November 2011, she said of the first part of the Silk Commission report:
“[We] very much hope that we will be able to hold a debate, again on the Floor of the House, at some stage following the delivery of part 1 of the commission’s findings, because the intention is to take the matter forward as consensually as possible.”
Speaking to the Western Mail in response to the developments, shadow Welsh secretary Owen Smith spoke of the case for a debate on the floor of the House as being “unarguable”:
“The case for holding this debate in front of the whole House is unarguable because something as significant as affording Wales tax-varying powers has implications for the whole of the UK, not just for Wales, and so all Members ought therefore to be able to attend.
“I will continue to press the Secretary of State to get over his shyness and urge him to step up to the despatch box in the House of Commons.”
The views were echoed in the paper by Plaid Cymru’s leader at Westminster, Elfyn Llwyd, who observed:
“I believe, bearing in mind it’s going to end up requiring legislation, surely the floor of the House is the place to have the debate.
“Quite honestly, nobody will have failed to notice in the last month we have been treading water furiously so there’s plenty of parliamentary time.
“I think it’s a matter for all MPs, really. I don’t think it has to be in the Welsh Grand to the exclusion of the main chamber.”
Likewise, Roger Williams, the Lib Dem MP for Brecon and Radnorshire and co-chair of his party’s Welsh parliamentary party committee, whilst supportive of a debate in Grand Committee as an initial step, argued a debate needed to include MPs from across the UK given the “constitutional issues” being raised.
A spokesman for the Wales Office told the Western Mail:
“The Silk Commission reported on Monday last. Discussions will now proceed through the usual channels with a view to agreeing an early debate in the Welsh Grand Committee.”