Wales Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 7th November 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 9:45 pm, 7th November 2016

My Lords, I support my friend, the noble Lord, Elystan-Morgan, on Amendment 45, which he moved so eloquently, and Amendment 46, which is coupled with it. The noble Lord has throughout his political life been a strong advocate of the merits of dominion status, as defined by the Statute of Westminster 1931. In his way, tonight, he has, even at this late hour, elevated the debate above the uninspiring contents of a rather unambitious Bill.

Since the United Kingdom became a member of the European Community in 1973 and now—at least for the time being—of the European Union, I must admit that I had tended to look at Wales’s future in European terms more than in terms of the Commonwealth. I had no difficulty in regarding Wales as both an historic nation in its own right and a European region. As the EU grew to its present strength of 28 member states, with eight of them smaller in population than Wales, now including in their own right small countries such as Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Malta and Luxembourg, I looked on our legitimate aspiration as being a member state of the EU in our own right.

That was not in any sense a separatist argument. If England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and indeed, the Irish Republic, were also member states, we could co-operate within a new relationship covering Britain and Ireland. We would have our own presence in Europe. It was indeed the converse of a separatist approach. I regarded a pooling of sovereignty on a European level, subject to the principle of subsidiarity, where decisions are taken as closely as possible to the community on which they impact, as being most appropriate to the modern world, in which the physical barriers between nations should be regarded as a thing of the past.

The recent referendum means that the UK will now, most regrettably, leave the European Union—though goodness knows what new relationship we shall have with our European neighbours, including the Irish Republic. In these circumstances we must all look again at what should be the appropriate place for Wales in the brave new world towards which we are, for better or for worse, heading. I suggest that it is also time for the London-centric political parties to start thinking in these terms, too.

For me, there are three guiding principles. First, the people of Wales should have the right to determine the degree of independence towards which they aspire, and what is appropriate to their developing circumstances. While it is right that no outside body or authority can set limits on the ambitions of a nation, as was once famously stated in an Irish context, it is up to the people of that nation how far and how fast they wish to travel. I say this deliberately, since I do not believe that in the modern world there is room for any such concept as absolute independence, as espoused by UKIP.

Secondly, any new constitutional settlement between the nations of these islands should recognise the practical reality that we must have open borders between all five nations. In that I include the Irish Republic. There must be free movement of people, goods, money and services between each of them, unhindered by customs posts or passport control. Anything else is totally impractical and those who advocated Brexit are now coming to realise that basic fact as they try to square an unsquarable circle with regard to the relationship between the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland and the countries of Britain.

Thirdly, Wales should be empowered to take every decision that can meaningfully be taken in Wales by our own Government in our own National Assembly, to the extent that the people of Wales so wish. Where decisions that affect Wales are taken by bodies outside our borders, we should have a strong, effective and direct voice in those forums.

That is the background against which I approach the two amendments on the constitutional development of Wales. Amendment 45 addresses the broad picture. What should be the degree of self-government and pattern of constitutional development in the new circumstances that are unfolding in Wales? I believe that the working group specified in the amendment should of course include representatives of the Welsh Government and the National Assembly, including perhaps its Presiding Officer, who might well argue that this is a question that needs to be addressed in the context of the democratic relationships between each of the four nations of these islands. That, however, is beyond the scope of this Bill. There needs to be a three-year timescale since the outcome of the Brexit negotiations will be an essential backdrop to any such considerations.

Amendment 46 is a more narrow and focused amendment to deal with the inevitable consequences of the Bill. The Bill as it stands has changed significantly from the ill-considered hotchpotch that it was at the start of its journey. There are still significant and far-reaching amendments that the Government themselves are realising to be necessary. I believe that this salutary exercise in coming to grips with the reality of devolved Wales will not end at Royal Assent—assuming the Bill gets that far. That must still be an open question, given the ongoing resentment in Cardiff Bay, and throughout Wales, at the Bill’s implications of powers being retracted from the Assembly, on the principle that any silent power will certainly be automatically converted into a reserved power. This is the very converse of the intentions, as I understood them, of the Silk commission in putting forward a reserved powers model for Welsh devolution.

I believe that including an amendment to provide for an ongoing review mechanism can get the Government off being ensnared on a hook of their own making. Again, I believe that the working group should, of course, include representatives of the Welsh Government and the National Assembly. If the words of the two amendments are inadequate, let the Minister bring forward a government amendment or a new clause to that end on Report. I believe that a mechanism such as that proposed in Amendment 46 is necessary for the Bill to work when it is enacted.