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@roger_scully

In my previous blog post I talked about some of the findings from the recent BBC/YouGov poll conducted in Wales (in parallel with other work on England and Scotland). In this post I will follow on from that by talking about some further evidence in the poll – specifically a series of questions that explored public views on the appropriate level of government decision for major policy areas.

This issue – which level of government should decide what – is something that has been explored previously by various surveys and polls, including several conducted over the years by the Welsh Election Studies. It has also been discussed in places in the past on this blog. It is an important issue, concerning the boundaries of devolution and which of our governments should do what.

A first thing to say is that there is no self-evidently ‘correct’ way to ask about these matters. There are various ways in which past studies have tried to approach asking people about which level of government they think should do what. The particular question form used in the recent BBC/YouGov poll was a little from any that I recall being used in any previous studies in Wales. The BBC/YouGov question asked:

“For each of the following area, please say whether you think decisions should be made by the UK government, by the Welsh government or by local councils?�

This question was then asked about each of the following eleven policy areas:

  • What subjects are taught in schools
  • What NHS services are provided in an area
  • The levels of unemployment benefits in an area
  • How bins and recycling are collected
  • How many houses are built in an area
  • The number of foreign workers allowed to come and work in an area
  • Whether or not a new bus route is opened in an area
  • What level income tax is set at
  • Whether nuclear weapons can be based in an area
  • Whether a nuclear power station can be built in an area
  • What level business taxes are set at

I think it is well worth pausing for a minute to review the exact details of how the questions referred to these policy areas. Note that, for instance, the second question talks about NHS services ‘provided in an area’. So the question is not about ‘the NHS’ as a whole. Many of these questions, with their explicit references to ‘an area’, emphasise locality. Thus, if they would tend to push people to respond in a particular direction, one might expect that they would – compared to other ways of asking about this issue – generate higher numbers of people favouring the ‘local councils’ option.

None of the questions specifically asked about the provision of public services ‘in Wales’. This is in contrast with some other question formulations – such as questions in past surveys that have, for instance, asked about which level of government should take most decisions for education or health in Wales. One would therefore expect that the BBC/YouGov survey probably disadvantages the Welsh government: in the sense that there is nothing in the wording of any of the questions here that might (however sub-consciously) tend to push people to think about Wales as the natural unit of responsibility or government decision-making.

So when we review the results immediately below, we should bear in mind that other ways of asking about this issue might generate slightly lower levels of people giving ‘local councils’ as their answer, and higher levels of ‘Welsh government’ responses. That is not to say that this question wording is ‘wrong’, but simply that we should always be attuned to ways in which question wordings can influence the answers that we get. (And if you want a clear, Welsh example of how big an influence question wordings can have, please see here).

Anyway – how did people respond to all of these questions? The following table summarises the responses received: with any instance of a majority of respondents favouring one level of government being in bold.

Policy Area UK Govt Welsh Govt Local Govt Not sure
Schools 33% 48% 10% 9%
NHS 25% 54% 13% 8%
Unemployment Benefit 37% 43% 11% 9%
Bins & Recycling 5% 20% 68% 6%
Houses 7% 37% 49% 7%
Foreign workers 29% 41% 18% 12%
Bus routes 2% 19% 73% 6%
Income tax 50% 36% 6% 9%
Nuclear weapons 41% 33% 14% 13%
Nuclear power 28% 42% 19% 11%
Business taxes 34% 41% 15% 10%

As can be seen from the table there is considerable disagreement on many of these issues; on only four of them does a majority support responsibility laying with a particular level of government. Two of those four are majorities for local government: refuse collection and local bus routes.

If we take a less stringent criterion, we see that there is at least plurality support for the Welsh government to be responsible in six of the eleven policy areas identified. These include currently devolved matters like the school curriculum and NHS services; but they also include matters that are currently non-devolved in Wales, like immigration, benefit levels, and nuclear power.

Of course, these overall figures disguise internal differences. Looking at the detailed cross-breaks for the poll, it is notable that there are substantial differences by party support – and in very much the expected direction. Conservatives voters in 2017 do not give majority backing for the (Labour) Welsh government to be responsible for anything; Labour 2017 voters respond in kind for the (Conservative) UK government. And Plaid Cymru supporters, unsurprisingly, are the least enthusiastic to vest powers over anything with London.

There are some frustrations about examining these poll results. In particular, it is a pity that nothing was asked about responsibility for the police, criminal justice and prisons. This would have been a particularly interesting area to examine in parallel across the three British nations, because of course those matters are devolved in Scotland but not in Wales. Past evidence has tended to suggest at least a plurality in Wales supporting the devolution of some or all of these matters to the Assembly and Welsh government; it would have been interesting to get further evidence on this, not least because it has attracted some political debate and media coverage in recent weeks. (On this, see here, here and here]. However, given the range of matters covered in these poll questions, and the doubtless limited survey space that was available, we should not be too harsh on those who put together this poll.

Overall, one clear message to come from this poll is that no single level of government has clear majority support to be responsible for everything. Far from it. But, to me at least, it is also striking from the evidence reviewed here that – on a not particularly favourable questions wording – there is widespread support for the devolution of many issues, including a number of matters not currently run from Cardiff.