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21 March 2014

An important milestone in Welsh devolution

An important milestone in Welsh devolution

Thursday, 20 March, marked an important milestone in the ongoing story of Welsh devolution as the Wales Bill was introduced to the UK parliament by secretary of state for Wales David Jones and chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander. The Bill devolves tax and borrowing powers to Wales and has been published before the Queen's Speech, meaning that it should be passed before the next general election.

It is the UK government's response to the report Empowerment and Responsibility: Financial Powers to Strengthen Wales, published by the Commission on Devolution in Wales (aka the Silk Commission).

The Silk Commission is an independent body that was established in 2011 by then Welsh secretary of state Cheryl Gillan. It includes members of all four main political parties in Wales and has two parts to its remit – the first to review the financial powers of the National Assembly for Wales in relation to taxation and borrowing and the second to review the non-financial powers of the Assembly. It is the recommendations in the Silk Commission's report relating to the first part of their remit that are included in the Wales Bill.

The Wales Bill has accepted 31 out of the 33 recommendations and has generally been well received by political parties and pundits in Wales (probably nothing to do with it being published the same day as the International Day of Happiness).

Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams welcomed the Bill, saying that it will "sharpen minds in Cardiff Bay" and bring "much needed accountability" to Welsh government who have been able to spend money without having the responsibility to raise it.

Welsh government was also very positive in their response to the Wales Bill, while stating that finance minister Jane Hutt would continue to press for amendments from the Silk Commission report such as the devolution of Air Passenger Duty.

Conservatives MP Glyn Davies tweeted "Wow! I enthusiastically support parts of it in principle at least" while Nick Bourne, the Tory representative on the Commission, said "Great news that the Wales Bill has been published, substantially what was recommended in the Silk Commission report".

Plaid Cymru were perhaps the most critical, with Hywel Williams MP claiming that the Bill "cherry-picked" recommendations from the Silk Commission report. He said he would press for amendments that would bring maximum benefit to the Welsh economy.

Finally, the Assembly's presiding officer Rosemary Butler also welcomed the Bill, while reiterating a call for the number of Assembly Members to be increased to 80 – a controversial recommendation in the Silk Commission's second report – to enable proper scrutiny of Welsh government to take place.

Although many Christians will have an opinion, often informed, on issues relating to taxation and financial powers, Christian groups have not generally engaged in such debates in Wales. Nevertheless, 'Finance and Taxation' is one of the 32 papers of Evangelical Alliance Wales' Manifesto project, due to be published later this year. There is evidence of Christian engagement and so perhaps we should throw our hat into the ring and get more involved.

Jim Stewart, public policy officer, Evangelical Alliance Wales.