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

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

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Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench 9:45 pm, 7th November 2016

My Lords, these two amendments, Amendment 45 and Amendment 46, are intended to stimulate thought—particularly the first of those amendments, which relates to dominion status—and to try and deepen and broaden the whole issue of the constitutional future of Wales. The second, which deals with the constitution of reserved powers, is intended to seek to repair and ameliorate some very serious flaws which, in my submission, exist in this part of the Bill.

Dominion status is not about a rigid pattern of government. The principle is enunciated in the Statute of Westminster 1931 and has developed politically, broadly and indeed fruitfully over the 85 years thereafter. It is full of possibilities for meeting different situations in different parts of the world. Obviously, when one is speaking of dominion status in the context of Wales, one is not speaking in any way of a replica of the constitutional situation of New Zealand or Australia. Nevertheless, the common refrain which runs through it all is that it involves a territory that was once under direct British rule and which still accepts the sovereignty and the titular authority of the Queen. Beyond that, the possibilities are almost illimitable. Indeed, my appeal in this situation, when we are thinking of the future of Wales, is to think big. If you think big, you will achieve something worth while; if you think small, what you will achieve will be small, or even perhaps smaller than that which you have set out to obtain. That is the situation that confronts us now.

The possibilities of dominion status are almost illimitable. It is an open secret that about 10 years ago the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of Spain almost came to an understanding—this is hardly believable—about the future of Gibraltar, with a plan for some form of dominion status. In other words, the concept is so flexible, so malleable and so adaptable that it was possible for the ancient conflicts there to come very near to a friendly settlement. That is an illustration of exactly how pliable dominion status can be. It is in that context that I would ask for imagination to roam and for the spirit to be broad and liberal and inspiring in relation to the possibilities here. There are endless plans and changes that can be considered, but within them there is the possibility of Wales playing a full, dominant, honourable and splendid part in the life of the United Kingdom. Who knows what the situation will be in five to 10 years’ time? It is a situation of total flux, and it is therefore incumbent upon us as Welsh people, and indeed upon all of us as British people, to consider exactly what this possibility should be, side by side with many other possibilities.

I turn to the second matter, the question of the creation of a reserved powers constitution for Wales. Normally I would jump with joy at this development because it places Wales upon the same constitutional basis as Scotland and Northern Ireland. It also tidies up a great deal of what is now in a state of confusion and, if I may so describe it, confetti. When you deal with a long period of transferring small powers, day in and day out, coming from hundreds of different sources, you create a situation that almost guarantees some constitutional neurosis on the part of many generations of Welsh lawyers. Avoiding that would in itself be utterly worth while.

However, I am far from happy with the situation because I believe it is deeply flawed and a blueprint for failure and disaster. The fact that there are 200 or more reservations—I am wrong, actually; it is about 198 or 199—and the very nature of the reservations themselves makes the matter a nonsense. Consider the matters that are reserved, though I touched on this at Second Reading so I will not go into all the detail: licensing, something that Wales had devolved to it in 1881; dangerous dogs; sharp axes and knives; hovercraft; prostitution; charitable collections—one could go through dozens of examples here of what are mere trivia, matters that are clearly domestic in their nature. The inclusion of them by way of reservation is to my mind an insult to the people of Wales.

It is on that basis that I ask the House to consider very carefully whether in any way this can fit in with what I have described as the moral and constitutional geometry of the situation. By that, I mean that when you have a settlement such as we are now seeking in relation to Wales, one that one hopes should last for a long time or at any rate be a basis upon which further development can be built, there has to be mutual trust and some sense of balance. The subsidiary parliament states straight away, “We are not concerned with the question of succession to the Crown, defence or foreign policy and perhaps three or four allied questions of that nature, but we are concerned with matters that are purely and classically domestic in their character”. If the current Parliament refuses to accept that, the whole moral geometry of the situation is affected.

How did this come about? Not, I think, on account of any mendacious conspiracy on the part of Ministers against Wales; I do not think there is any conscious machination at all in regard to it. It came from a long history of prejudice that has formed what you might describe as a permafrost of attitude towards Welsh devolution. I do not believe that the situation was anything different from this: the Secretary of State for Wales, perhaps rather deferentially, went to various colleagues and said, “What would you like reserved, my dear chap, from your department?”. Each one said, in his mind and his heart if not indeed in actual words, “Practically everything. It doesn’t matter how meagre, niggardly, small or utterly local it might be, we will reserve it if we possibly can”.

Why? I believe that it has a lot to do with the fact that Wales was England’s first colony. That was the situation in the 13th century. In the Act of Union of 1536, Wales was said to be part, inevitably and as it always had been, of the United Kingdom, and its affairs were to be assimilated, incorporated and included within the greater realm of England. We have not broken through that mould.

On Second Reading, I made this—I think, not invalid—point. When you think of some of these reservations—there are dozens which, to my mind, are utterly ludicrous—can you imagine the Colonial Office of the United Kingdom 60 years ago, particularly when James Griffiths was the head of that department, going to a British Caribbean or African colony and saying, “These are the reservations that I demand of you”? It simply could not happen.

It is against that template that one has to consider this matter. For that reason, I have drafted this new clause, which of course I shall not press to a Division tonight, but it could well be revisited before we finish with the Bill. It calls on the Secretary of State to be responsible for setting up a working party to report to Parliament within three years on the question of how the reserved powers are operating in each case. The purpose of that—allied, no doubt, with recommendations from the working party—would be, first, to narrow the gap between the situation now and that which existed on the very day in July 2014 when the Supreme Court gave its judgment in the agricultural workers case. The gap is immense. The powers that we have under the Bill are, strictly speaking, immensely inferior to what we had then, when it was discovered that silent transferred powers, which no one had ever appreciated, had given immense authority to Wales.

I think that the Government were reluctant to accept the reserved powers constitution that they had enforced on them; their hands were forced. I do not believe that there is even now a messianic commitment, and most certainly there is no incandescent enthusiasm for this reform. It is something to which they feel that they must surrender.

The effect will be, secondly, to get rid of many of these anomalies; and, thirdly, to set out a coherent pattern, for in fact there is no theme—no coherence—to this. For that reason, I beg to move.