Wales Bill - Report (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:46 pm on 14th December 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

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 4:46 pm, 14th December 2016

My Lords, before we begin our Report stage scrutiny of the Bill, I would like to say a few words on the wider context and timing of the Bill’s remaining stages. This House has undertaken very effective scrutiny of the Bill. On our part, the Government have listened to points that have been made and concerns raised, and have brought forward amendments where we believe this will improve the Bill’s provisions and put in place a more robust and lasting new devolution settlement. The amendments that the Government are bringing forward for debate today, and for consideration by this House on the second day of Report in the new year, are testament to this.

There is a need for the Assembly to consider an LCM on the Bill before our Third Reading, which we will certainly do. Should the Bill then be subsequently different from the one agreed to by the Assembly, a new LCM would be needed. A different Bill post 17 January would need a new LCM. I feel duty-bound to mention this difficulty and this pressure, although the attitude of noble Lords is of course entirely a matter for your Lordships’ House.

On the amendments in this first group, Clause 1 gives important statutory recognition to the existence of a body of law created by the Assembly and Welsh Ministers which forms part of the law of England and Wales. In Committee, I committed to reflect further on the spirit of an amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, that sought to clarify that the body of Welsh law made by the Assembly and the Welsh Ministers forms part of the law that applies in Wales. Having done so, I am pleased to bring forward government Amendment 1, which clarifies that the body of Welsh law made by the Assembly and Welsh Ministers forms part of a wider body of law that applies in Wales. In considering the wording of this government amendment, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, for his wise counsel, drawing on his expertise and experience as a former Presiding Officer of the National Assembly.

On Amendment 2, a non-government amendment, noble Lords will recall that we debated a similar amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, on the first day in Committee, and this issue was also considered in some detail in the other place. It is clear that is there a strong appetite to keep under review the operation of the justice system in Wales as a result of continuing divergence in the laws that apply in England and in Wales, and to ensure that the distinctiveness of Wales is properly reflected under the settlement provided by this Bill.

The Government have been clear throughout the passage of the Bill that we consider the most effective and efficient way to administer justice in England and Wales is through a single jurisdiction. The distinctiveness of Wales can be, and indeed already is, reflected within the single jurisdiction, for example through the National Offender Management Service in Wales and Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service in Wales. This enables, for example, the National Offender Management Service in Wales to work closely and directly with the Welsh Government and with health and education providers to ensure appropriate provision of services for offenders. It allows the courts to be administered directly in Wales by staff in Wales, while ensuring that a consistent approach is taken on justice policy.

There is undoubtedly a distinctive legal identity in Wales. It has two legislatures and a small but growing body of law made by the Assembly and Welsh Ministers which lawyers and judges will have to specialise in and apply appropriately in relation to devolved matters. Even with increased divergence, the vast majority of laws will, however, continue to apply across England and Wales. A separate jurisdiction would therefore create significant upheaval and huge cost for no good reason.

In Committee, I agreed to take away the points made about establishing a commission to review the functioning of the justice system in relation to Wales, recognising the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, that it is an evolving picture and the points made by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, about the sources of Welsh law. But for the reasons that I have just outlined, such a review should be within the framework provided under the Bill; that is to say that it should review the functioning of the justice system in Wales within the single legal jurisdiction. I was also clear that a statutory commission would not be the appropriate solution. This would be unnecessarily costly and complex, and would be constrained in how it approached its task.

The principle of reviewing the functioning and operation of the justice system in Wales is sensible. That is why we established the Justice in Wales Working Group to consider the administrative and practical implications for the justice system of diverging law. The group will report to Ministers and the Lord Chief Justice within the next week. I wrote to noble Lords yesterday with an early overview of its recommendations, and consideration is being given as to how best to inform Parliament and stakeholders of its findings.

The group has met a range of people involved in the justice system in Wales, including the judiciary, academics, legal practitioners, professional bodies and those directly responsible for the delivery of justice, including NOMS in Wales, HMCTS Wales, Youth Justice Board Cymru and the Crown Prosecution Service. Those discussions have yielded an invaluable source of information on the current processes as well as providing sensible, pragmatic solutions for managing the justice system as the law continues to diverge in Wales. But the work will not finish there. There will be a continuing need to ensure that justice operational arms and devolved authorities work closely together to deliver effective justice in Wales, building on existing examples of good practice and co-operation.

I understand that one of the group’s main recommendations is likely to be the establishment of a committee to undertake periodic reviews of the operation of the justice system as the law continues to diverge. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has written to the First Minister proposing that such a non-statutory group be established to keep the operation of the justice system in Wales under review on a permanent basis as the administrative arrangements continue to evolve to reflect Wales’s distinctiveness within the single jurisdiction.

The committee will have a focused remit, and will be chaired by a senior official from the Cabinet Office. It will include a representative from the Ministry of Justice and from the Welsh Government. The committee would report periodically to the Lord Chancellor, with both the First Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales receiving copies. Further consideration will be given to the membership and terms of reference of the committee, and to issues such as how regularly it will report and when it should be established. I understand that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the First Minister are meeting tomorrow to discuss this issue, among others. However, the committee will not consider issues relating to the jurisdiction or the devolution boundary that this Bill puts in place. I trust that noble Lords will agree that this committee provides a solid basis through which to ensure that the justice system in Wales keeps pace with the dual influence of Assembly and parliamentary lawmaking within the single jurisdiction.

I turn now to Amendment 3. Clause 2 places the existing convention on legislative consent on a statutory footing—