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Who Runs Things in Wales?

9 March 2016

A bit more from the recent BBC/ICM poll for you. A couple of questions in the poll tried to probe public knowledge of which level of government is responsible for different policy areas. It’s perhaps relevant to say at the beginning that I think this is something that telephone polls are well-suited to exploring. There have been some indications that internet polls tends to over-represent the more politically knowledgeable elements in society (although I know that YouGov, for one company, make active efforts to recruit panellists from those who are not politically engaged or interested). Also, unless they are cleverly designed internet polls probing knowledge are potentially open to respondents trying to google the answers! Telephone polls don’t have such concerns.

Two policy areas were probed in the BBC/ICM poll. The first was the NHS – which, as most readers of this blog will be aware, is a devolved matter. The question asked was:


“Thinking about the delivery of public services in Wales, do you think that responsibility for running the NHS in Wales lies with the Welsh Government in Cardiff or the UK Government at Westminster?”


The question wording is, I think, interesting here. The two mentions of ‘Wales’ before we get t mention of the two governments might, perhaps, be seen as (possibly unintentionally) priming respondents to think about the Welsh level of government. This strikes me as a relatively ‘friendly’ wording of the question if one was hoping to see a large percentage of people give the correct answer – namely, that health is devolved. Anyway, how did people actually respond?


The Welsh Government in Cardiff: 65%

The UK Government at Westminster: 29%

Neither: 1%

Both: 2%

Don’t Know: 3%


On the surface, these results would seem to show a fairly substantial majority of people in Wales recognising that the Welsh Government was responsible for the NHS in Wales. They would also seem to show a big improvement since May 2014, when another ICM poll for BBC Wales suggested that only 48% of respondents thought that the Welsh Government was mainly responsible for the NHS, while some 43% assigned primary responsibility to the UK Government. Now we apparently have nearly two-thirds aware of who runs the Welsh NHS, while then we had less than half. This is good news, surely?

Well, I’m afraid I’m going to find myself in my frequent role of Mr Spoil Sport, as our old friend of question wording rears its head again here. In May 2014, the BBC/ICM poll had asked the following question: “Which of these levels of government do you think are mainly responsible for the NHS in Wales?” That is a quite different wording from the one asked in the most recent poll, and we can’t be at all sure that the apparent improvement in awareness of responsibility for the NHS is a genuine improvement, or simply reflects the changed cues given by the wording of the two questions.

We can draw some evidence on the matter, though, from the answers to the second policy-responsibility question asked in the recent poll. This was:


“And thinking about public spending in Wales, do you think that responsibility for running the welfare benefits system in Wales lies with the Welsh Government in Cardiff or the UK Government at Westminster?”


The same response options were given. This question, though, referred to what is of course still an entirely non-devolved matter. So how did people respond?


The Welsh Government in Cardiff: 50%

The UK Government at Westminster: 45%

Neither: <1%

Both: 1%

Don’t Know: 3%


The picture given of public awareness from this question is substantially less flattering than that from the one on the NHS, with fully half of the sample wrongly assigning responsibility for benefits to the Welsh Government! Why would they do this? I suspect that at least some were again promoted by the gentle cues in the question, with its emphasis on Wales. Those cues may have steered some respondents in the correct direction for the NHS question, but when it comes to benefits those same cues lead the respondents completely astray.

So, while it would be nice to believe that the recent BBC/ICM poll provides evidence of growing public awareness of who runs the Welsh NHS, I’m not at all convinced. We could be looking at nothing more than the impact of a question wording change. Sorry.

There’s one other interesting thing about the details of the answers to these two questions in the poll. This concerns which respondents gave which answers. When we look at both the NHS and benefits questions, those most likely to nominate the Welsh Government as responsible (correctly in the first instance, incorrectly in the second) were those who elsewhere in the poll chose Independence or More Powers for the Assembly as their preferred constitutional status for Wales. And those most likely to select the UK Government as the responsible level of government (again, once correctly and once not) were the people who support abolishing the Assembly or reducing its powers. As I have commented on previously (see link below) Wales seems to have become something of a ‘land of wishful thinking’ on devolution in recent years, and here once again the phenomenon appears. Those opposed to devolution are much less likely to think that the Welsh Government is actually responsible for things than those who support greater autonomy for Wales. This is an interesting – not to say bizarre – phenomenon, which I’m sure I’ll return to in the future.


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