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2nd Day

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:08 pm on 11th September 2017.

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Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Brexit), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade) 9:08 pm, 11th September 2017

I apologise for missing the first few minutes of this debate.

It is a pleasure to follow Charlie Elphicke, who is occasionally my hon. Friend. I remind him that gridlock in Dover is the same as gridlock in Holyhead, Ynys Môn and across north Wales, which causes gridlock for the English economy because so much traffic passes that way. That subject has been even less discussed than gridlock in Dover.

I have only one substantial point to make, which is that the Bill threatens the constitutional settlement between Wales and England, and it seemingly does so almost as an afterthought: Brexit is the issue but, by the way, we are unravelling the last 20 years of careful and moderate devolution, irrespective of the views of the majority of people in Wales, as expressed in two referendums.

I am referring not to the rushed duplicity of the June 2016 referendum, but to the two substantial referendums in Wales specifically on the devolution issue, after decades of the most detailed debates and campaigning. This was not change as an afterthought, when the consequences of the decision on Brexit are beginning to become slightly clearer; these were referendums on devolution itself. Perhaps I need to remind Government Front Benchers of the results of those referendums on the sort of government we want in Wales and with what sort of powers. The first was carried narrowly in 1997 and the second, on a modest extension of powers, was carried overwhelmingly in 2011, with the support of all parties and with the no campaign having degenerated into an obsessional, deluded and irrelevant rabble—I am sorry to see that David T. C. Davies is not in his place to leap up to correct me.

That is the status quo that this Conservative Government either seek to overthrow or might overthrow by mistake, as carelessly as they might toss a cigarette into a pail of petrol. They will argue, correctly of course, that the Brexit referendum is the superior authority to the devolution referendums, but I take that argument, as will many people in Wales, as exposing the true nature of the relationship between our two countries. It is one not of respect, but of heedless and thoughtless power of one over the other. The “Encyclopaedia Britannica” was wholly right in the index of its first edition when it said “For Wales, see England”.

The current devolution settlement is framed in the context of the UK’s pre-existing membership of the EU. By facilitating leaving in this way, the Bill, as drafted, redefines the UK constitution by default; it creates a new body of law and gives Ministers power to change law as they see “appropriate”, as we see in clause 7(1). The Bill intercepts and retains the returning EU power and funds, and maintains what are the responsibilities of the Welsh Assembly, such as agriculture and convergence policy—as London matters. The Bill amends the devolution settlement so that the devolved Governments will have to accept whatever the Minister here decides, including in respect of the provisions of the Wales Act 2017, which has not even come into force. Many hon. Members who spent a great deal of time on that Act may ponder why on earth we bothered.

I wish to go off on a slight tangent now about the offer or suggestion of having a triage system. I took part in a system that was similar but not exactly the same—hon. Members can look this up if they please—when we looked at the powers being transferred to the Welsh Assembly before legislation gave it those powers. Under this legislative competence order system, members of the Welsh Affairs Committee sat to ponder various bits of legislation and the various powers that would be transferred to Cardiff. This led to some powers of great importance, such as those relating to mental health, being passed with scarcely a murmur, while other far more contentious matters, such as those relating to the Welsh language, were discussed endlessly. They were eventually agreed to, as we had expected, but it was delayed and delayed for political purposes.

We have been told that the Bill is a “technicality” and a “temporary necessity” and we are asked to extend our trust, but I would say that we are being asked to extend our credulity much too far. Both the Welsh and Scottish Governments have said that they cannot grant legislative consent to the Bill in its current form. I have written to the Welsh Secretary asking him what will happen if consent is withheld by the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government. My hon. Friend Liz Saville Roberts asked him about this issue again at Welsh questions last week, but we are yet to get a clear reply. So this is how a constitutional question lurches towards a constitutional crisis. We should avoid it, and it is avoidable if the Government would be more open. Their manifesto in the 2017 election promised not to “devolve and forget”. Through the incompetence and arrogance, I fear that they are forgetting devolution, and we on this Bench will oppose their folly.