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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 7th November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales 8:45 pm, 7th November 2016

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely and to the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, for tabling the amendments. I am particularly grateful for the careful way in which they have spoken to them.

I understand the importance of the issues that have been raised, and I shall try to address them in general terms by giving some examples of how the purpose test should operate in practice. First, on the wording, I say to the noble Baroness that the legislative competence in proposed new Section 108A(3) is a dual test. It allows the Assembly to legislate if it,

“is ancillary to a provision of any Act of the Assembly or Assembly Measure or to a devolved provision of an Act of Parliament, and”— so there is the additional requirement—

“(b) has no greater effect otherwise than in relation to Wales, or in relation to functions exercisable otherwise than in relation to Wales, than is necessary to give effect to the purpose of that provision”.

So, it is a dual test. It is not simply ancillary but has to be “necessary”, under proposed new subsection (3)(b) of the provision.

These are important issues but they are not novel. Exactly the same sort of questions arose in respect of the Scotland issue because both in Scotland and Wales we are relying on the so-called purpose test to help define the scope of the relevant legislature’s legislative competence. We now have the benefit of guidance, as has been stated, from the Supreme Court, on the proper interpretation of these provisions. The guidance, although given in a Scottish case, will be highly relevant to the Welsh matters provided for in the Bill before us.

The starting point is that whether a provision in an Assembly Bill could be said to “relate to” a reserved matter is dependent on its purpose. As has been pointed out in the Supreme Court,

“the expression ‘relates to’ indicates more than a loose or consequential connection”.

I stress that the application of the purpose test in a reserved powers model should be interpreted as meaning that a provision that merely refers to a reserved matter, or has an incidental or consequential effect on a reserved matter, will not relate to that reserved matter. In other words, to fail the “relates to” test, an Assembly Act provision must have a reserved matter as its purpose. The purpose of a provision must be established by having regard to its legal, practical and policy effects in all the circumstances. The Assembly Member bringing forward the Bill cannot simply assert a purpose for one of its provisions. The purpose must be assessed by considering how the provision has been drafted and what it actually does, as well as the wider context, including the other provisions of the Bill of which the provision under scrutiny forms a part.

It is also important to say that the move from the current conferred powers model to one based on reserved matters reverses the operation of the purpose test. It shifts the burden, which is important. Whereas under the current settlement an Assembly Act provision needs to satisfy the purpose test by positively demonstrating that it relates to one of the subjects conferred in Schedule 7 to the 2006 Act, the reserved powers model instead requires that such a provision must not relate to a reserved subject matter. In other words, the case would need to be made that an Assembly Act provision is outside competence because its purpose relates to a reserved matter. As I say, it shifts the burden of proof. If such a case cannot be made, the provision would satisfy the requirements of the proposed new Section 108A(2)(c) and would be within competence, provided, of course, that it satisfied the other legislative competence requirements of new Section 108A.

To demonstrate how the purpose test ought to be applied in practice, I thought it would be helpful to give some examples. However, it is important to bear in mind in each of these hypothetical examples that it would depend on how the provision was drafted and what it actually did. As I have mentioned, the purpose test requires assessment of the effect of the provisions, including all the circumstances, in the round. An Assembly Bill which required tenants to insure their residence could relate to the devolved subject of housing and not to the insurance limb of the financial services reservation in Section A3. Rather than aiming to amend the law of insurance, the provision’s purpose would be to ensure the quality of housing stock in Wales. I think that most people would appreciate that that was the purpose.

A further example is that an Assembly Bill provision creating competitive tendering requirements for local authorities would be to improve their efficiency and cost-effectiveness, and would therefore not relate to the competition reservation in Section C3. Furthermore, the jurisdiction of the Agricultural Land Tribunal is set out in the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986. This Act also specifically excludes certain matters from the jurisdiction of the ALT—for example, disputes between landlords and tenants of agricultural land. An Assembly Bill may seek to alter this position by bringing such disputes within the jurisdiction of the ALT and no longer subjecting them to arbitration. This would not engage the arbitration reservation in Section L4 because the purpose of the provision would be to facilitate the smooth and economic operation of the agricultural sector by providing a practical, accessible and cost-effective way of settling disputes about agricultural land. The effect on arbitration would be incidental to, or consequential on, that purpose.

Lastly, an Assembly Bill provision requiring information-sharing between schools and Estyn which supported more general provisions aimed at improving the operation of the education sector in Wales would not relate to the reservation for the protection of personal data in Section L6. I hope this explanation of how we see the purpose test working, and these hypothetical practical examples, are sufficient to reassure the noble Baroness and that she feels able to withdraw her amendment. It is not possible to go through every conceivable example. I think that lawyers would accept that, as drafted, this would serve to answer particular cases that may be brought forward.

Through his Amendments 39 to 41, the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, is seeking to broaden the circumstances in which the Assembly could legislate in relation to reserved matters, and in that respect he is probing similar issues to those raised in Amendment 38. I therefore hope that the explanation I have given is reassuring.

As I have said, unlike under the current settlement—where an Assembly Act provision needs to satisfy the purpose test by positively demonstrating that it “relates to” one of the subjects conferred in Schedule 7 to the 2006 Act—the reserved powers model instead requires that such a provision must not relate to a reserved subject, so that the burden is shifted. In other words, the case would need to be made that an Assembly Act provision is outside competence because its purpose relates to a reserved matter. If such a case cannot be made, the provision would satisfy the requirements of the proposed new Section 108A(2)(c), and would be within competence provided, of course, that it satisfied the other requirements. I do not, therefore see a need for the Bill to be amended in the way that these amendments propose. Indeed, a side effect of the noble Lord’s amendments would be to prevent the Assembly being able to legislate otherwise than in relation to Wales for ancillary purposes—currently an important part of its competence that allows for enforcement provisions to apply in England. This is something that I know the noble Lord does not intend.

Government amendment 42A is a minor change to ensure that the wording of the test in Section 108A(5) coincides with the wording in paragraph 12 of Schedule 7B. Both provisions ensure that, when considering the legislative competence of the Assembly in the context of an Act of Parliament, any requirements for the consent of, or for consultation with, a Minister of the Crown, are not relevant. This makes sense on the basis that it would be clearly inappropriate to require a Minister of the Crown to consent to, or be consulted about, an Act of Parliament. This is a technical amendment ensuring consistency throughout the Bill.

I turn to Amendments 47, 75 to 78 and 81 to 82. Paragraph 6 of Schedule 7A reserves the core elements of the single legal jurisdiction of England and Wales. These include the courts, judiciary and civil and criminal proceedings. Sub-paragraph (2) provides an exception to this reservation to enable the Assembly to provide for certain appeals or applications in relation to a devolved civil matter where it is ancillary to a provision of an Act of the Assembly or an Assembly measure.

Amendment 47 seeks to remove the ancillary requirement from this exception and allow the Assembly to directly place devolved functions on to civil courts. This ancillary requirement is crucial in that it enables the Assembly to enforce its legislation and to allow appeal decisions on devolved matters to be heard in a court on civil proceedings, yet it maintains the clear boundary that the single legal jurisdiction is a reserved matter. Paragraph 1 of Schedule 7B restricts the Assembly’s ability to modify the law on reserved matters. This includes any enactment whose subject matter is reserved. Paragraph 2 sets out the exception to this restriction. It allows the Assembly to modify the law on reserved matters where the provision is ancillary to a provision on a devolved matter and has no greater effect on reserved matters than is necessary to give effect to the provision. This provides the Assembly with the flexibility to legislate with regard to the law on reserved matters in a limited way to give effect to provisions that are within its legislative competence. However, such a provision cannot go further than required to achieve its objective.

Amendments 75 and 76 seek to remove the second limb of this exception—that the provision must have no greater effect than necessary—from Assembly provisions that seek to modify the law in relation to paragraphs 6 and 7 of the new Schedule 7A. These are the reservations for the single legal jurisdiction and tribunals. Amendment 77 seeks to remove the necessity element of this test altogether. This would allow an Assembly Act to be able to amend the law on reserved matters without a requirement for it to act proportionally to meet its objective. The law on reserved matters is, by definition, not an area of the law that should be open to wide-ranging alteration by the Assembly in this manner. This is vital to effect a clear boundary between what is devolved and what is reserved.

The matters within paragraphs 6 and 7 to Schedule 7A specifically are fundamental to the maintenance of the single legal jurisdiction of England and Wales. The Government’s position on the maintenance of the single jurisdiction is clear. Allowing the Assembly to modify these areas puts at risk the uniformity on which the single jurisdiction is based. Removing the requirement that Assembly modifications to the law on these matters should go no further than necessary would give the Assembly a significant increase in competence. The constraints represent an appropriate and balanced limitation on the Assembly’s competence. This gives the Assembly the same powers to modify the law on reserved matters as the Scottish Parliament has in relation to Scotland.

Amendment 78 seeks to omit the criminal law restriction in paragraph 4 of the new Schedule 7B and replace it with a restriction that would bring it in line with the private law restriction at paragraph 3. Paragraph 4 sets out a category of offences which the Assembly would be unable to modify. These include the most serious indictable offences, such as homicide and sexual offences. The Assembly would also be prevented from making modifications in relation to what might be termed the architecture of the criminal law, which includes matters such as criminal responsibility, the mental elements of offences, inchoate offences and the composition and definition of sentences.

This amendment would remove the restriction on modifying the law on these listed offences and the architecture of the criminal law. It seeks to enable the Assembly to be able to modify the criminal law as it relates to devolved matters. It would enable the Assembly to create its own serious criminal offences for devolved purposes and, in relation to those offences, provide different sentencing regimes, new definitions of criminal responsibility, change the law on inchoate offences and so forth. Again, these are fundamental elements that make up the criminal law in England and Wales, which should remain consistent across both countries. The criminal law restriction achieves the best balance between allowing the Assembly to make appropriate provision in relation to criminal law, while ensuring consistency on the most serious offences and important mechanisms of criminal law.

Paragraph 4 strikes the right balance by allowing the Assembly to apply the existing framework to its own enforcement provisions and to decide which aspects of the existing criminal law apply. It would allow the Assembly to create strict liability offences or the appropriate mental element to attach to the offence as well as choosing the sentences that apply to devolved offences.

Amendment 81 seeks to allow an Assembly Act to modify the Minister of the Crown functions listed in paragraph 11(1) of Schedule 7B without the consent of the relevant UK Government Minister if the modification is incidental or consequential to an Assembly Act provision. The Bill establishes a clear boundary between what is devolved and what is reserved. This includes making clear those devolved public bodies which are accountable to Welsh Ministers and the National Assembly for Wales, as distinct from reserved public bodies that are accountable to the United Kingdom Government and to this Parliament. It is only right that United Kingdom Government Ministers are asked to consent to any Assembly Act which seeks to modify their functions. I should be clear, however, that the consent of a Minister of the Crown is not required to subject reserved authorities to general duties imposed by the Assembly; for example, requiring planning permission or prohibiting smoking in public buildings.

Similarly, Amendment 82 would remove the requirement for the Assembly to seek the consent of United Kingdom Government Ministers for an Act of the Assembly that would modify the functions of a reserved authority, including a United Kingdom Government Minister, if such an Act related to a Welsh language function. We have taken a number of steps to minimise the impact of the Bill on the Welsh language. For example, paragraph 199 of Schedule 7A includes a specific exception to the particular authorities’ restrictions in paragraph 198 to ensure that the restrictions do not apply in respect of those authorities’ Welsh language functions. This means the Assembly will continue to be able to legislate, with consent, to modify the Welsh language functions of the named particular authorities. In addition, the consent requirements under the Bill are not retrospective and will therefore not affect the implementation of standards made under the Welsh Language Measure 2011. The consent of a United Kingdom Government Minister would not be needed for regulations made under that measure which relate to reserved authorities other than Ministers of the Crown.