Mark Harper MP: Labour's incoherent devolution settlement
Mark Harper, MP for Forest of Dean, looks at some of problems caused at a local level by devolution in its current form.
On St George’s Day, it seems appropriate to look at how devolution has affected England. As this is unlikely to happen in the House of Commons, this forum is probably the next best place. We have Commons debates on the affairs of the other parts of the United Kingdom close to their patron saints’ days, but never on the affairs of England.
The Government is quick to proclaim what Wales and Scotland have gained from devolution, but what of England? Has the Union benefited and if so how?
This is not a comprehensive analysis but a few thoughts based on the experience of my constituents, who are literally on the front line between England and Wales. My constituency, the Forest of Dean, is located by the Welsh border in Gloucestershire, tucked in between the confluence of the Severn and the Wye, the latter of which runs along the England-Wales border for part of its length.
As a result, many of my constituents prefer to pop over the bridge to Chepstow or travel to Newport for their work, shopping or public services, rather than travel up the A48 to Gloucester. They have always done this as it is simpler, quicker and easier. At least it was until the devolution settlement came into effect. Now many of my constituents find themselves battling against the complexities of a system that was never adequately planned.
Take healthcare. We no longer have a National Health Service. Instead, we have four – English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish. Each of these services is run by the devolved authority and they have their own priorities and agendas. This would be fine, if it were not for the fact that English people in my constituency often have to use the Welsh health service, but have no democratic power to change these priorities.
A number of GP practices operate in my constituency as branches of other surgeries registered in Wales. This was never an issue prior to devolution, but now my constituents who attend these surgeries – and have done for many years – are subject to the longer waiting lists of the Welsh health service. The UK Government and the Welsh Assembly Government have still not reached a decision on resolving this despite years of talking. I do not think that my constituents should be forced to leave a GP who they might have been seeing for many years because the Government failed to think out its devolution plans adequately.
At the beginning of this month the Government launched its ‘national’ free local bus travel scheme. But again, it is not really national. It is England only. My constituents can travel to Newcastle or Bognor for free, but have to pay to travel 19 miles to use the hospital in Newport. The ‘national’ pass will not work in Wales.
It is only thanks to my local Conservative Council that short trips into Wales and back are free for concessionary pass holders. Should they wish to go further – over the Severn Bridge to Bristol (in England) for example they will have to pay for any section of the journey that starts in Wales.
I have been repeatedly calling in Parliament for the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly Government to resolve this situation, but the devolution settlement seems to make it almost impossible for them to work together, despite both of them being run by Labour.
Given the benefits of localism, with decisions being made at the lowest possible level, devolution ought to be a good thing. However, the Labour Government implemented it in Wales and Scotland without any thought of the effect on England and, specifically, those living in border areas.
My constituents have lost out from the devolution settlement, but the Government refuses to listen. People living in English border constituencies like mine have only seen the costs of devolution. They have yet to see any benefits, either for them or for the Union.