Permanence of the National Assembly for Wales and Welsh Government

Part of Wales Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 24th January 2017.

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Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Europe), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development) 4:15 pm, 24th January 2017

The third group of Lords amendments is wide-ranging and covers a variety of subjects. Some of those subjects are more welcome than others, and I regret to say that some resulted in my party voting down the Bill in the National Assembly. I will not address each amendment, as time is limited, but I will focus on key amendments that are salient to my colleagues’ decision making in the Assembly.

Under scrutiny, the Government have conceded on certain issues, for which I commend them. Those include areas where Plaid Cymru has pressed the Government in both places, resulting in Government amendments—that work should be noted. Lords amendment 73, for instance, devolves compulsory purchase, which was mentioned earlier. A previously silent subject, the National Assembly will now, without question, have the power to legislate to enable important infrastructure projects to go ahead. However, those are only small concessions that skirt around more substantive policy areas that could really make a difference.

Lords amendment 38, for instance, adds a new clause creating a statutory office for the president of Welsh tribunals; Welsh tribunals are already devolved. Although that is a welcome move on a practical level, it does little to satisfy those of us, including the Welsh Government, who have been calling for a separate legal jurisdiction to ensure a truly lasting devolution settlement. Without a strong and definitive legal jurisdiction of our own, surmounting the challenges that we all face in unpicking European law in the great repeal Bill will be even more difficult.

I would go so far as to say that the whole Wales Bill has been overtaken by Brexit. Leading constitutional lawyers and academics, and even the leader of the Welsh Tories, agree that the constitutional future of the British state is in flux. There are many possibilities and opportunities for both those, such as ourselves, who champion devolution and those who are sceptical about devolution. Famously, devolution is a process not an event, and we should be clear about the dangers of substantial rollbacks.

That brings me to the main focus of my speech, a series of Government amendments—all variations on Lords amendment 3—that will give Wales public authorities a different name, that of “devolved Welsh authorities.” The wording clarifies what constitutes a devolved public authority. Although, in isolation, the amendment is not a concern, it alludes to a more worrying aspect of the Bill, in which there are substantial rollbacks.

Throughout the scrutiny of the Bill, we have tabled amendments following concerns expressed to us by the Welsh Language Commissioner regarding the Bill’s potential effect on the National Assembly’s power to legislate on matters pertaining to the Welsh language. The effect of schedule 2 is that when the National Assembly wishes to legislate for the Welsh language, it will require the consent of the relevant UK Minister. Under the current settlement, ministerial consent is required only when legislating to impose Welsh language functions on Ministers of the Crown.

Ministers in both Houses have confirmed that if a future Welsh language measure were to be proposed, it would no longer be applicable to many more reserved authorities, such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Crown Prosecution Service. Consent would be required to add to the list of devolved public authorities, which are contained in the Lords amendments before the House today. The Minister’s words offered no reassurance, or indeed any justification, as to why the Bill should include such a regressive step.

The National Assembly for Wales research service has produced a briefing paper confirming our fears, outlining the fact that under the Bill there will be a loss of legislative power relating to the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011. In the other place, Lord Bourne agreed that that would in fact be true. He justified the Government’s position by stating that amendments we had tabled to rectify that rollback would,

“cut across one of the underlying core principles of the Bill: the Assembly should not be able to impose burdens on non-devolved bodies without agreement…To add a specific exception to the consent process for the Welsh language would undermine that principle.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 January 2017;
Vol. 777, c. 1935.]

So there we have it—an admission by the Government that the Bill does indeed take powers away from the National Assembly; any exemption for the Welsh language would undermine UK sovereignty.

Earlier I mentioned the dangers of a reverse devolution agenda post-Brexit, but it seems as though that is the reality we are already facing today. Unfortunately, that is not the only example of significant rollbacks in the Bill; the ancillary measures in it have been the subject of damning criticism during scrutiny. As to any Assembly Acts deemed ancillary to any of the reservations, of which there are in excess of 200, the UK Government would be entitled to overrule the Assembly.

The Plaid Cymru group in the Assembly last week voted —rightly, I think—against the legislative consent motion for the simple reason that powers are being clawed back. The existing legislative powers of the Assembly were endorsed by a measure of 2:1 in the 2011 referendum, and the powers implicit in that vote are now being retracted. Some of the legislation enacted by the Assembly since that referendum was made under powers that will no longer be available to it when the Bill becomes law. We tabled amendments at several stages of the Bill’s consideration to delete the word “normally”, so that there would be no doubt as to whether the Government would grant an Assembly LCM following today’s historic Supreme Court ruling. We will continue to take that stance, and my colleagues in the Assembly are drafting an LCM as we speak.

To finish, I quote no less a personage than the leader of the Welsh Tories. In a radio interview on 17 January, Mr Andrew R.T. Davies said:

“This won’t be the last Wales Bill. Brexit will require devolution changes to realign those responsibilities.”

I can assure the House that my party will do everything in its power to reverse the rollbacks to ensure that Welsh interests are taken seriously during Brexit and to build a truly lasting devolution settlement for Wales.