Wales Bill - Report (1st Day)

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

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will understand that I do not want to be drawn into the specifics but, having said that, I understand that that would be within scope. As I say, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the First Minister are meeting tomorrow to discuss the terms of reference more fully, but as I say I understand that that would be in scope.

Again, I turn to Amendment 3, dealing with the convention on legislative consent which we are seeking to place on a statutory footing as the Government committed to do in the St David’s Day agreement. This is also in line with Section 2 of the Scotland Act 2016. The convention states that Parliament will not normally legislate on matters devolved to the National Assembly for Wales without the consent of the Assembly. Through Amendment 3, the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, is seeking to broaden the convention by removing the word “normally” from it, and I understand that he will come to address the points on this later.

The use of the word “normally” reflects the convention as it is set out in devolution guidance and its removal from the clause would fundamentally change the nature of what is understood by the convention. That is not what was recommended by the Silk commission or what was set out in the St David’s Day agreement and it is therefore not what we are doing in this Bill.

It is a fundamental principle of our constitution that Parliament is sovereign. As such, it can legislate for matters devolved to the National Assembly for Wales as it can for those devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The convention does not seek to fetter this ability. What it does is make clear that Parliament would not normally do so without the consent of the relevant devolved legislature. The inclusion of “not normally” is essential as it acknowledges parliamentary sovereignty. It also signals that it is not intended to be justiciable, because the courts would recognise that it is for Parliament to determine what is and is not normal in this context.

There may be occasions when it makes sense to legislate on a UK-wide basis. Since the convention was established, a legislative consent Motion has always been sought before Parliament passes legislation applying to Wales which, in the Government’s view, relates to the conferred matters within the Assembly’s legislative competence. I can confirm that this is part of the normal working arrangements between the UK and Welsh Governments that work well, and I expect that to continue.

I turn now to government Amendment 9. Clause 5 inserts new Section 13A into the Government of Wales Act which gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations to combine the polls at certain Assembly elections with certain UK parliamentary elections and European parliamentary elections. The exercise of this power is subject to the agreement of Welsh Ministers. We consider that it is appropriate for the Secretary of State to be required to consult the Electoral Commission on any regulations made under Section 13A of the Government of Wales Act. This is consistent with the requirement to consult under Section 13 of that Act. Government Amendment 9 achieves this by adding Section 13A of the Government of Wales Act to Section 7(2)(f) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

Government Amendments 10 and 105 relate to the current limit placed on the number of Welsh Ministers. Section 51 of the Government of Wales Act provides that no more than 12 persons are to hold relevant Welsh ministerial office at any time. A relevant Welsh ministerial office is defined in this section as the office of Welsh Minister appointed under Section 48 of the Government of Wales Act or the office of Deputy Welsh Minister. Noble Lords will be aware that the Bill provides significant powers to the Assembly to be able to increase its size if it so wishes. In this context, it is only right that the Assembly should also have the power to increase the size of the Executive. Amendment 105 devolves power to the Assembly to be able to modify or repeal this limit.

Amendment 10 provides that any Assembly legislation which sought to modify this limit would be subject to a supermajority; that is, it would need to be supported by at least two-thirds of Assembly Members. Given the current size of the Assembly in relation to the Welsh Government, we believe that this provides a sensible safeguard to ensure that any modification or repeal of the limit would have broad support among Assembly Members. We have worked closely with the Welsh Government and the Assembly Commission in preparing these amendments.

Government Amendment 11 is a further minor change to the provisions in Clause 13 that has resulted from discussions with the Welsh Government and the Assembly Commission. Clause 13 requires the Assembly to design and put in place accounting and audit arrangements for various devolved bodies to which payments are made from the Welsh Consolidated Fund. Taking on these responsibilities is a natural next step in the progress of devolution to the Assembly. The Scottish Parliament, under the Scotland Act, has similar arrangements. It is with that in mind that this amendment has been brought forward.

The Assembly Commission in particular has argued that the Assembly needs the same powers as the Scottish Parliament to legislate to make devolved Welsh authorities accountable for funds they receive that are derived from the Welsh Consolidated Fund. The Government have looked at this issue pragmatically and agree that this should be within the Assembly’s competence. Accordingly, having moved government Amendment 1, I shall move Amendments 9, 10, 11 and 105 in due course. I look forward to hearing from noble Lords and Baronesses on their amendments. I beg to move.