BBC Cymru-Wales have this week released some of the findings from a poll conducted by ICM shortly after the recent European election. (UPDATE, 16/05/14: the data from the poll is now available, either here or in the Opinion Polls section of the site.) Later in the week there will be some (very interesting!) figures on voting intentions for the National Assembly. But first they have published some other findings, which concern attitudes to, and knowledge of, devolved government.
Among the questions asked were both general and specific ones about the impact of Wales having a National Assembly. The first one asked was a general question: “Since it was established in 1999, do you think that having a National Assembly has…”, with respondents then asked to choose between three main options (there was also a Don’t Know option available). The plurality response, chosen by 46%, was that it had ‘Not made much difference either way’; however, of those who did express a clear view, almost three times as many (34%) thought that the National Assembly had ‘Led to an improvement in how Wales is governed’, than those (12%) who took the view that it had ‘Led to a decline in how Wales is governed’. It is also notable that only among Plaid supporters (of supporters of the main parties) do an absolute majority say that the impact of devolution has been positive.
This could hardly be said to be a vibrantly enthusiastic endorsement of the Assembly and its impact, but at least the balance of opinion among those with a definite view is positive. It is perhaps worth saying, though, that you would expect the proportions with definite views – either positive or negative – to increase during the campaign for the next Assembly election. The election will, to some degree at least, focus more media and public attention on the record of devolution.
However, things look less impressive still when we examine views about the impact of having a National Assembly on what are probably the two most high-profile policy areas that are largely devolved: health and education. For education, the plurality response (chosen by 38%) is once again ‘No difference’, but among those with a view more (26%) say that having a National Assembly has ‘led to a decline in education standards’ than those (22%) who say that it has led to an improvement. And the picture is worse still for health. Here, a plurality (37%) link the National Assembly to decline, with only 23% suggesting that it has led to an improvement and 34% choosing the ‘No difference’ option. Indeed, it is notable on health that even among supporters of the Labour party – the party that has held the health portfolio throughout the fifteen years of devolved government – more people think that devolution has led to a decline in the NHS in Wales than to an improvement. These are rather grim statistics.
The survey then followed these questions on health and education with three ones about public awareness of responsibility for key policy areas. Asking the questions in this order raises an interesting point (well, interesting to me anyway) about survey context and question ordering effects. Respondents to the survey ought to have been somewhat primed by the previous questions on policy evaluations to be aware that the Assembly has something to do with education and health. So when the question asking for evaluations of the impact of the Assembly on health was directly followed by one asking ‘Which of these levels of government do you think are mainly responsible for the NHS in Wales?’, respondents had arguably been helped slightly to give the correct answer. I should make clear that I am not implying any deliberate manipulation or bad practice here; in devising a poll to cover several, inter-related topics, it’s very difficult to avoid some questions potentially influencing the answers of some other ones. But the order in which the questions were asked might be expected to inflate slightly the proportion attributing responsibility to the Assembly, compared with results we might get from a poll that did not have such previous questions.
Yet when respondents were asked about the NHS, it was still the case that fewer than half (48%) gave the correct answer (‘The Welsh Government’), while almost as many (42%) chose ‘The UK Government’ (with the remainder choosing Don’t Know). After a decade and a half of devolution, barely a plurality appear to be aware that the Welsh Government is responsible for the NHS in Wales. (An interesting side-question raised by this finding concerns the wisdom of recent Conservative attacks on the Welsh Government’s management of the NHS. If many people are not even aware that the NHS is a devolved issue in Wales, it is not clear where they would attribute blame for any poor performance on health. Many people might well be inclined to attribute blame to the Conservative-led UK Government, rather than to Carwyn Jones, Mark Drakeford et al).
Things are a bit better for education: here a clear majority (61%) offer the correct answer of the Welsh Government, with about half that number (31%) choosing the UK Government. Greater awareness of the responsibility of the Welsh Government for education probably reflects the fact that education is something that directly touches the lives of so many people, either through their own schooling or that of their children or other relatives. The education system – even more than the NHS – is something that nearly everyone gets to have some personal experience of, and that may well help raise awareness somewhat. Many people will also have had experience of, or relatives and friends with experience of, the education system in England, and that may bring home to them the policy differences between the two nations in this field.
The survey then asked about responsibility for the Police in Wales. Policing is an interesting area, being devolved in Scotland since 1999, now devolved in Northern Ireland, but not devolved for Wales. Here again, though, awareness of responsibility was poor: exactly half of respondents thought that this was the job of the UK government, but almost as many (42%) thought that this was a responsibility of the Welsh Government.
As I suggested previously, we could expect that awareness levels would probably somewhat improve nearer the time of an Assembly election. The figures in this poll paint a somewhat gloomier picture in terms of public awareness than those gathered by the 2011 Welsh Election Study. But, of course, the latter data were gathered after the 2011 ‘Welsh Spring’ (!): we had experienced both a referendum campaign and then immediately afterwards an Assembly election campaign to educate the voters into an understanding of which level of government is responsible for what. The new BBC/ICM poll arguably gives us a better insight into levels of public awareness in more ‘normal’ times. Overall, this poll shows a Welsh public that neither knows a great deal about devolution, nor thinks very highly of its impact. A decade-and-a-half into the life of our National Assembly, this is a message that supporters of devolution can hardly find encouraging.