Wales Bill - Report (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:30 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 5:30 pm, 14th December 2016

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have participated in debate on this group of amendments. It was a debate of considerable weight. First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, for his kind words and agree with him about the need for institutions in general to work together, but particularly in the context he mentioned of the legislatures in Wales and here, and his comments about the work of the Counsel General for Wales, Mick Antoniw—his work is much welcomed.

I turn to points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely, about the committee—it is the Government’s view that it should be non-statutory—that will look at the judicial arrangements within the jurisdiction of England and Wales. Points were also made by the noble Lords, Lord Elis-Thomas, Lord Wigley and Lord Morgan, the noble and learned Lords, Lord Morris and Lord Hope, and my noble friend Lady Finn.

First, let me reassure noble Lords that, as I think I indicated, it is intended that this should be a permanent body. We await the recommendations of the working group as to how often it should report. It has been suggested that it could be annually; others have suggested every three or five years. Let us look to see what the committee says, The Government have an open mind on this; we will await the recommendation. The important point is that it will be permanent. I accept the point made by noble Lords that this is an evolving picture; indeed, this is an interim arrangement, as the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, said. In a sense, it is interim between different reports. When the reports come, they will come with advice. It is an advisory committee, but Governments, unless there is good reason, listen to advice—and this will be advice from people with expertise in this area.

I return to the point that there is good will between the UK Government and the Welsh Government as to how this should operate. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is meeting the First Minister to discuss this. I hesitate to say that it is a reserved area or that we feel that there is some veto on it by the Welsh Government, but we can progress only by consensus. I think it is accepted that it needs willing participation by both parties—and that is there, so let us see what evolves.

I should perhaps remind noble Lords that the LCM has not yet been passed, so if the Welsh Government are not happy with it, it will be open to them to turn it down. The LCM is not just about the fiscal framework—although that is clearly an important part—but about the Bill in general.

Welsh law is different in many respects now from English law—I recognise and accept that, and have said so myself before—but the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, referred to the common law of England and Wales. It is a point worth making that this is not exclusively the property of England; the common-law system belongs to both countries and will no doubt remain a bedrock of the legal system. That is what practitioners in Wales want—and what the law schools there want, so far as I can tell from my conversations. However, they recognise that this is an evolving picture, as do the Government. We need the expertise of practitioners and academics as well as the views of the Welsh and UK Governments in moving this forward. We have sought to craft something balanced. There is a general desire to do something in this area and, although opinions may differ to a degree, we are in the same territory, so I hope that this is acceptable.

I turn to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, in relation to “normally”. I accept that putting something into legislation is very different from having it as a convention. Obviously, we await the judgment of the Supreme Court for all sorts of reasons, as noble Lords know. I indicated—perhaps I should have reiterated it earlier—that we are looking at guidance notes, which will be the focus of attention after the Bill has passed. In the light of the Bill, we will obviously need to look at them anyway. I give an undertaking that we will flesh out “normally” in the context of guidance notes, which is probably a better way of proceeding than legislation.

I hope that I have covered the main points in relation to the non-government amendments and thank noble Lords for participating in this debate. I thank my noble friend Lady Finn for welcoming some of the changes that we have made, and the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, for her points about permanence; I certainly give reassurance on that.