Posted: Sat 23rd Mar 2024

Calls for UK Government to replace “outdated” Barnett funding formula

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales

The Senedd called on the UK Government to replace the “outdated” Barnett funding formula with a new needs-based way of setting public spending in Wales.

Opening a Plaid Cymru debate, Rhun ap Iorwerth said having to make a case for fair funding speaks volumes about Wales’ status within an unequal union.

He told the chamber the population-based Barnett formula, which was devised in the late 1970s and only intended as a temporary measure, does not reflect the needs of Wales.

The Plaid Cymru leader described the funding formula as a weak, short-term solution from the 20th century based on the needs of another country.

He said: “It has become more and more apparent over the years that the Barnett formula is well past its sell-by date.”

‘Barriers’

Calling out apathy at Westminster, Mr Iorwerth accused the Conservatives of placing barriers before any attempts to reform and he criticised Labour for refusing to promise change.

He urged the new first minister to stand up for Wales, saying: “I want to hear a Labour first minister putting Wales first and not taking ‘no’ for an answer from Keir Starmer.”

Mr Iorwerth told MSs the Barnett formula has been a cornerstone for a broader pattern of unfairness faced by Wales in recent years.

He raised examples such as a lack of powers over the Crown Estate and £4bn in consequential funding for Wales from the HS2 project being withheld.

The Ynys Môn MS said: “This general theme of injustice that flows through all of those cases, and more, all emerge fundamentally from the failure to have fair and appropriate funding arrangements in place, and the Barnett formula is at the heart of that.”

‘Record funding’

Peter Fox said Wales continues to receive record funding, with the largest block grant in the history of devolution supplemented by about £440m of levelling-up funding.

The Conservatives’ shadow finance minister agreed that there needs to be a rethink about how the Barnett formula is calculated to better address Wales’ unique challenges.

Mr Fox said some strides were made to make the settlement fairer, with a 115% funding floor agreed between the Welsh and UK Governments in 2016.

He told the chamber: “That ensures the Welsh settlement will never drop below 115% of the money spent on public services in England. But we know currently that that floor hasn’t had to kick in, as the current settlement is delivering 120%, ie £1.20 for every £1 spent.”

Mr Fox stopped short of calling for the Barnett formula to be scrapped, saying it would be unrealistic in the UK context.

‘Utterly unsustainable’

Peredur Owen Griffiths, Plaid Cymru’s shadow minister, said the state of the Welsh budget for the financial year from April shows in stark terms how poorly Wales is served.

He warned: “The experiences of the past few months have conclusively demonstrated that Welsh public finances are on an utterly unsustainable trajectory.”

The South Wales East MS argued the Barnett formula is ill-equipped to address the precarious state of council finances, with the threat of bankruptcy looming large.

He told the chamber that Wales’ 22 councils have a combined debt of £5.6bn, according to a UK public accounts committee report, with a £354m funding gap next year.

He said: “It would take a work of fiscal fiction that Jeremy Hunt himself would be proud of to argue the Barnett formula, in its current form, is sufficient to rectify this dire predicament.”

‘Vital investment’

Mabon ap Gwynfor focused on the needs of Wales, saying: “The truth is, it’s more expensive to provide health and social care to older, more rural and impoverished communities.”

He argued replacing the Barnett formula should be regarded as a vital investment in health.

Sioned Williams, a fellow Plaid Cymru MS, said a needs-based model would not be an instant panacea but it would undoubtedly be a necessary step in the right direction.

She said: “We need to be honest with voters that the current arrangements will only keep us standing still on a path to a fairer and more equal society.”

Mike Hedges, a Labour backbencher, pointed out that the local government funding formula shows that a needs-based solution can still be controversial.

“The discussion we need is about how to get a needs-based framework to work,” he said.

‘Quick fixes’

Rebecca Evans told the chamber it is clear the UK funding model does not work for Wales.

The finance minister said the funding system for devolved governments is characterised by quick fixes, inconsistency, uncertainty and instability.

Ms Evans called for a new relative needs-based approach, overseen by a body independent of the UK Government and to be agreed by all four nations

She said: “That would be fairer but also more efficient and effective, and it would help reduce the distortions and inefficiencies that arise from the current system.

“It would enable a more rational, transparent allocation of public spending across the UK.”

The Plaid Cymru motion and Conservative amendment were defeated following the debate on March 20. The motion as amended by the Welsh Government was agreed, 37-15.

By Chris Haines, ICNN Senedd reporter

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