This Tory Government leadership said during the Brexit campaign that leaving Europe would enable the British people to take back control. This Bill does the opposite of that. It is driving a race to the bottom by harmonising standards in a way that gives the UK Government the power to overrule the devolved nations. Experience tells us that this Conservative Government have repeatedly refused to commit to higher standards in legislation, and there has not been negotiation, involvement or informed consent to any of this with the devolved nations.
While it is important, as the UK leaves the EU, for us to have a system to harmonise standards across the four countries, any internal market legislation should look to do the least possible on a centralised basis and as much as possible on a decentralised basis. In the view of the Senedd in Wales, there already exists a successful regime to form the basis for all future arrangements: the common framework.
This attempt to harmonise standards throughout the UK is, in fact, an attempt to replicate the EU’s internal market but with some crucial differences. In the EU, dispute resolution is independent and done in a way that prevents bigger members from being able to force smaller states to accept undesirable standards. Under the Government’s proposals for the UK, the opposite will be true, as the Conservatives prefer a mutual recognition principle of harmonising standards, so that the lowest standards legislated for by any of the UK Parliaments must automatically be adopted by all.
Devolution is not just an abstract concept. It has allowed the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government to develop more ambitious standards and policies than their Westminster counterparts, such as protecting the NHS as a publicly owned service and developing world-leading standards on food, animal welfare and the environment, which are now under threat from the Conservatives’ internal market Bill.
I am an environmentalist, and I have a great interest in reducing the use of plastics. The Minister for European Transition in Wales, Jeremy Miles, has spoken on this issue in the last couple of days. The Welsh Government propose to introduce a ban for nine single-use plastic items, but the UK Government propose a similar ban on just three of those nine items. The principle of mutual recognition in the UK could mean that Wales will be unable to enforce the ban on the sale of the other six items. The Chair of the Senedd Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, Mick Antoniw MS, has stated that it is clear from this Bill that the aim of the Tory Government is
“to cement their neoliberal economic and social agenda into the framework of a centralised…
and that the Bill shows their
“contempt for devolution, the constitution and the rule of law”.
I agree with him.
Mutual recognition is a blunt instrument, and it is not clear why this path is the Government’s preference when it renders the notion of common frameworks completely obsolete at a stroke. The Government have previously supported a common frameworks approach. In fact, all four UK Government signed up to that in 2017, although it should perhaps not come as a surprise that the Government in Westminster are prepared to sign things in bad faith. Common frameworks would allow for a genuinely collaborative approach between Westminster and the devolved Administrations, with standards between the nations being harmonised through discussion and negotiation between equals—I stress that point: equals—as opposed to new obligations being imposed on the devolved Governments against their wishes under the new mutual recognition principle.