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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:45 pm on 7th November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Morgan of Ely Baroness Morgan of Ely Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 10:45 pm, 7th November 2016

My Lords, I know it is very late, but this a critical group of amendments. This is the first time we have discussed the reservations, and it worth pausing a moment to think about them and the way the Government have approached this issue.

There are a number of reasons why I think the Government’s approach to how they have included certain reservations is lacking. I shall refer to some key quotations. The first comes from a letter from the First Minister to the then Secretary of State for Wales after the Secretary of State announced in November 2014 a programme of work designed to produce a new devolution settlement for Wales. The First Minister expressed his support and said that,

“previously, under administrations of both political colours, the development of a clear and robust settlement has … been hindered by a nit-picking reluctance on the part of particular Whitehall Departments to acknowledge the case for further transfers of responsibilities. It will be important that that reluctance should not re-emerge”.

However, I am afraid we have seen it again.

Secondly, there is the paragraph from the report published the week before last by the Constitution Committee of this place, which says that,

“further devolution should take place on the basis of appropriate principles, to ensure that the devolution settlements evolve ‘in a coherent manner’, rather than ‘in the reactive, ad hoc manner in which devolution has been managed to date’”.

Again, there is no response to that from the Government. There is no evidence of a clear rationale underlying the scope of the powers devolved by the Wales Bill. We would welcome an explanation from the Government of the principles that underlie and underpin the devolution settlement set out in this Bill—principles that are nowhere to be seen in the Explanatory Notes. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, referred to the excellent report by the Delegated Powers Committee, which also noted that there were no such principles and no reason why the Government had done it in this way.

Finally, there was the comment by the then Secretary of State when announcing that his initial draft of the Bill was to be paused. He said that during the pause period the number and scope of the listed reservations would need to be reviewed, and that the case for each one remaining in the Bill would need to be explained and justified. We have not seen that justification.

The difficulties with this schedule of reservations largely result from the failure to act in accordance with those observations. We see that nit-picking reluctance on the part of Whitehall departments to accept the case for transfers of legislative competence to the Assembly, and we see a failure on the part of the Government as a whole to provide an obvious rationale for the inclusion of certain reservations. The detailed explanations of why each reservation is appropriate are almost entirely lacking.

As I said in the Second Reading debate, I did not and do not want my noble friends on these Benches to challenge each and every reservation—even though we could have, because of the lack of a rationale. Many of them—for example those on the constitution, defence, foreign affairs, immigration—of course make perfect sense, as we all recognise, but there are many others that do not make sense. I have put down amendments in respect of some of the oddest of them, but I could have chosen many more.

For advocates of devolution, the argument is often made that devolved Administrations can provide a laboratory of innovation and of experimentation from which other Administrations can learn. The legislation to discourage the use of plastic carrier bags originated in the Welsh Assembly and has now been faithfully copied by all three other legislatures in the United Kingdom. That gives us a great example. But how can innovation flourish if the Assembly is bounded on every side by reservations jealously asserted by Whitehall departments determined to preserve their little empires of control?

We have before us amendments spanning a vast range of topics. We will come to a few tonight, but there are more ahead of us in future days. Many in this group pool the theme of anti-social behaviour, and I will move on to address these topics now. We have not decoupled a lot of them, because we recognise that we are under time constraint, but I will just make it clear that even if we do not speak to all the amendments tonight, we still want explanations on these issues. If we do not have them on the Floor of the House tonight, we want them in writing to the issues that are under review this evening. I reserve the right to return to all the amendments in this group on Report if necessary, as I feel that we have not given them justice at this time of the night. Why on earth are matters such as ticketing and bus services being reserved at a UK level?

To begin with, let us consider alcohol. As we have heard, the Bill as drafted would reserve the sale and supply of alcohol and the licensing of the provision of entertainment and late-night refreshments. The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, propose deleting these reservations and allowing the Assembly to legislate on these matters. The noble Baroness covered this issue, and I agree with everything she said. Let us remember the connection between alcohol and the devolved responsibilities of the Assembly on public health and the NHS. There is a pressing need to tackle alcohol misuse in Wales, and the Government there need the tools to do it.

I shall touch on the issue of the Pubs Code. It is important to note that since its implementation in 2016 the code has attempted to improve relationships across the industry, helping tied tenants to get a fairer deal, providing prospective pub operators with information and enabling better decisions about the business and the agreements they are considering entering into. While the code provides welcome protection, we must recognise that the pub sector in England is different from that in Wales; what works in pubs in England does not necessarily suit the industry in Wales, especially in rural areas. The Minister has given us his answers already, which is quite useful, but we need—and I hope that between now and Report we will get—a better understanding of how the levy that the Minister mentioned works, so we can understand why it would not be appropriate. I did not have a clear understanding of how that levy will work but we will have an opportunity to look at that in the next few weeks.

Policing remains a sensitive issue. At present, policing is the only major front-line public service not currently under the responsibility of devolved Welsh institutions. There is a lack of consensus on this question. Whatever the outcome on policing, though, it is imperative that the Assembly’s existing competence for dealing with anti-social behaviour in the devolved context is not reduced. This is why we think that an amendment relating to anti-social behaviour should be introduced. As drafted, the Bill would reserve matters currently within the Assembly’s legislative competence, such as anti-social behaviour issues relating to nuisance and housing. This would represent a significant reduction in the Assembly’s existing competence. Will the Minister state that he is prepared to narrow the reservation to reflect the current devolution settlement?

The Minister talked about private security—the bouncers of the nightclubs of Swansea. I thank him for his explanation but I just do not buy it. What is all this about needing common standards and regulators? We have common standards for doctors across the whole EU, but health is still a devolved issue. There is no logic to the idea that these common standards cannot be recognised across borders. I contend that reservations such as this undermine the case for the Bill and reveal the Government’s underlying intention to constrain the Assembly’s powers in a way that they would not dare to attempt with the Scottish Parliament. This does not serve the Government’s case well, and I invite the Minister to agree that he should reflect on the many, many reservations we have set out in this group that we think should be deleted. I thank the Minister for setting out those ideas earlier, but I hope he will reflect on what everyone has said tonight because the Government have gone too far on most of these issues.