John Griffiths MSMember of the Senedd for Newport East and chair of the Local Government and Housing Committee
John Griffiths MS discusses the achievements of devolution and calls for further devolved powers, particularly the administration of welfare to the Welsh Parliament.
Devolution in the famous words of Ron Davies, the Secretary of State for Wales, in 1999 is “a process, not an event” and I believe the next chapter of that process should include the devolution of welfare administration powers to the Welsh Government.
I have witnessed firsthand the journey Wales has been on since 1979, having rejected devolution by 713,282 votes to then narrowly supporting it in the 1997 referendum by 6,721 votes. Today, thanks to the successes of the Welsh Labour Governments, devolution is firmly supported by all the major parties in Wales. Polling in spring this year by Redfield and Wilton found a majority of 2019 Labour, Conservative and Plaid Cymru voters believe Wales should have its own parliament.
We have embraced the opportunities that devolution brings as we saw during covid to make different choices in Wales to that of the UK Government. Much good work has been taken forward by the Welsh Government since devolution, building our capacity and ability to shape our own destiny. Creating a greener Wales, to help fight the climate emergency and working closely with our local authorities to maintain vital public services under sustained attacks from Tory austerity. Likewise, in education our new curriculum for Wales will greatly benefit our young people and all future generations in the years to come, ensuring they reach their full potential.
The labour movement has always existed to tackle inequality and social injustice and we want more equality of outcome. It is what inspired me to join as a mature student at university. However, the main levers to achieve this are the tax and benefits system, which are currently reserved powers for Westminster. Before the pandemic, around half of the Welsh population received some kind of social security payment, such as working age benefits (for people in or out of work), the state pension, or child benefit worth around £11 billion a year. There is a huge opportunity in Wales to progressively reform the welfare system so that it provides more support to those with the least income in our society and who are really struggling.
Myself and colleagues in the Senedd and on a cross-party basis have long called for the devolution of the administration of welfare to the Welsh Parliament. We need a fairer and more compassionate system. The UK Conservative Government’s is characterised by indifference, unfairness and at times, even cruelty. We have seen this with the Bedroom Tax which affects those on Universal Credit. How can it be socially just that many of the most vulnerable people in our society have their universal credit reduced by 14% for having one spare room and 25% for those who have two or more? This forces people to downsize from their cherished family home to a new smaller and often unsuitable property, so they are not financially penalised by the state. Many find there are no small properties in their area, and they are forced into a situation, which only worsens their circumstances.
During thirteen long years of Conservative rule and failure at Westminster, we have seen those on the lowest incomes severally impacted. Since 2010 they have severally cut benefits for the unemployed and disabled, who have struggled with their day-to-day bills as a consequence. The IFS have highlighted how regressive these changes have been with families in the bottom earnings decile losing 20% of their net income on average from 2010-19 due to the changes.
I welcome Gordon Brown’s, Commission on the UK’s Future, report which sets out proposals to devolve greater power across the UK and allow power to be exercised closer to the people they affect. It’s why I support the devolution of matters relating to Justice and Policing to Wales and the proposed devolution of Jobcentre Plus across the UK, which is set out in former Prime Minister’s report.
During the last Senedd I chaired a committee which produced the Benefits in Wales: options for better delivery report. The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, when discussing the report, has also said he supports devolving the administration of welfare to the Senedd and in a way that is consistent with Labour’s social justice approach. Our report’s findings revealed the current system is not working for far too many. We repeatedly heard that social security payments were not enough to cover basic and essential household costs, and the system didn’t treat people with dignity, fairness or compassion. The situation has been exacerbated due to the sharp increase in inflation and the Tory vandalism of our economy, which has seen household bills rocket.
Our report sets out how we can devolve the administration of the welfare system. A practical example of administrative change I would like to see is to the sanctioning system for those receiving welfare. I would like to see a far more progressive system than is currently the case. We need a welfare system to work in partnership with those who are most vulnerable, but also support individuals into work. It should be about supporting and empowering, not penalising individuals, to cover for the failures of government policy. The reasons for worklessness are often multifaceted and it cannot be right that we push those already struggling into greater financial difficulty and make an already challenging situation worse.
As Gordon Brown makes clear, a future UK Labour Government should devolve further powers in the first year of a new Labour Government. Due to the Tores’ crashing of our economy with the disastrous KamiKwasi budget and mortgage bombshell, rebuilding it will rightly be a key priority for an incoming Labour Government. But by giving Wales more powers on welfare, we can reshape the system in a way which makes it better suited to the needs and particular challenges we have here.
As Keir Starmer said during his speech to Welsh Labour conference in March this year highlighting the positive impact of devolution “It’s time to use it to transform Britain. Give the communities and great nations of this country the powers they need to control their destiny.”
This is the message of hope the people of Wales and the whole of the UK are desperate for and which only Labour in power at both ends of the M4 can deliver.