Wales Bill - Report (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 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 7:30 pm, 14th December 2016

My Lords, I will address the remarks on this group of amendments and I thank noble Lords who have participated in the discussion. First, I will deal with a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, in relation to the grouping of amendments by pointing out that it is entirely possible through the usual channels to decouple amendments. That has happened in at least one other group, so I do not think the accusation was entirely fair. It is open to other parties to challenge that.

Initially, I will address government Amendment 38 to Clause 37, as well as Amendments 36 and 37, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. The government amendment is a technical one to address concerns raised by the Welsh Government. Consistent with the principle of establishing a lasting settlement, it simply acknowledges that future Acts of the Assembly may prove relevant factors in the exercise of consenting powers under the Electricity Act 1989. This addition simply amends that Act accordingly to allow for that possibility.

The noble Lord’s amendments seek once more to reopen the basis on which the Government endorsed a key recommendation of the Silk commission. I note what the noble Lord said about the commission, but he will know that the legislation is essentially based on the St David’s Day agreement, which took forward a lot of the Silk commission recommendations but not all of them. What is in the Bill is essentially based on the St David’s Day consensus rather than on the Silk recommendations, although in this context they are the same.

As I said in Committee and have subsequently reiterated in writing to your Lordships, the Bill has been carefully drafted to give effect to that political consensus around the devolution of new powers which will give Wales a substantially greater degree of autonomy in determining the shape of its future energy structure. To use a word that has been used recently, it would be paradoxical if the Government ignored that consensus and came up with a figure that was not part of it. Key to that consensus was recognition that Wales and England are, and will remain, intrinsically linked through a common electricity transmission system which depends on the inputs from a broad range of generating sources.

The Government continue to be firmly of the view that the larger the capacity of those sources, the greater their significance beyond Wales and to the United Kingdom as a whole. Consensus was reached around 350 megawatts being the appropriate watershed, and I do not believe that the landscape has changed to such a degree since then as to necessitate exploring an alternative approach. The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, I think, and possibly others asked whether we already have the powers if we were to subsequently seek to increase that. Yes, we have the powers, without fresh primary legislation, under, I think, the Electricity Act. It might be under a planning Act, but I can assure the noble Lord that those powers exist in relation to upping the figure. That is not to say that factors might not emerge in the future which would give us pause for thought on this front. I do not believe, however, that now is the time to alter the 350 megawatts figure, but as I have indicated, the power is there if it should be needed.

Government Amendments 117, 118 and 119 relate to generating stations and provide Welsh Ministers with greater flexibility for the future around the exercise of their new electricity generation consenting functions in Welsh waters and in relation to the amendment of existing onshore consents up to 350 megawatts under the Electricity Act 1989. They simply and sensibly provide Welsh Ministers with the ability to delegate the exercise of their new functions to a person they appoint for the purpose. This is a flexibility which the Welsh Government have asked for, and I am happy to provide it.

Government Amendments 56 and 83, and opposition Amendments 57 and 58, relate to fixed-odds betting terminals. I confess that I am not acquainted with these either, although I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely, has been experiencing them in the last week or so to see how they work, in addition to Nessa’s Slots in Barry Island. In Committee last month, I committed to reflect further on the arguments in favour of devolving powers over fixed-odds betting terminals. Having done so carefully, I am pleased to bring forward Amendment 56, which will transfer the power on fixed-odds betting terminals in exactly the same way as has been done for Scotland. I am very grateful for the intervention from my noble friend Lord James, indicating that the amount relates to a bank rather than a stake. I hope that gives some reassurance to the noble Baroness opposite and ties in with her experience on this issue.

The noble Baroness, quite fairly, raised the issue of whether, if the amount were to change in England, it would translate across to Wales. I can confirm it would. As she rightly says, this is a serious problem which has been exercising the all-party group and others. If it were to be altered in England, that would have the effect of transferring that same amount to Wales. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, as well for his contribution. I know he feels strongly about these issues and has spoken on them forcefully and persuasively in the past.

The amendments would devolve legislative and executive competence to the Assembly and Welsh Ministers to regulate the number of high-stakes gaming machines authorised by new betting premises licences in Wales. It is right that they are new betting premises, as the noble Baroness confirmed. Once again, I think the Government have been given rather a raw deal here; having come up with something that has been welcomed, we have then been accused of not going as far as noble Lords thought we had gone. I thought I was absolutely clear that we have gone as far on this as we did with Scotland. I note the comments and this is a serious issue, but I hope I have given some reassurance that if there is some movement in England, that would affect the position in Wales as well.

The Silk commission made no recommendations on the devolution of betting, gaming and lotteries, but we agreed as part of the St David’s Day process to consider non-fiscal recommendations by the Smith commission and it was in that context that we decided it would be appropriate to take this forward in relation to Wales. We reflected on it and mirrored the provisions in the Scotland Act 2016. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, has proposed going much further than the position in Scotland in the Scotland Act but I am afraid we cannot agree to that. I take issue with her on one point on which she spoke passionately in relation not just to gaming machines but to the SNP. The Scotland Act is not an SNP Act—it is an Act of Westminster to which we all contributed. I think we can all reflect on that.

Amendment 60, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, seeks to devolve the management functions of the Crown Estate commissioners in relation to Wales to Welsh Ministers or a person nominated by them. This broadly reflects a provision in the Scotland Act 2016 that devolves management functions of the Crown Estate commissioners in relation to Scotland to the Scottish Ministers or a person nominated by those Ministers. The devolution of the Crown Estate in Scotland was recommended by cross-party consensus in the Smith commission report. It was not part of the Silk recommendations and I am not aware that such a consensus exists in respect of Wales.

The Crown Estate works closely with devolved services in Wales; for example, it has agreed memorandums of understanding with the Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales. I believe the Crown Estate commissioners are doing an excellent job. Last year the Crown Estate recorded a record profit of £304 million, which was returned to the Exchequer. This is not revenue retained by the Crown. The revenue from the Crown Estate is used to fund public services across the UK, including in Wales. This means that Wales is already directly benefiting from the management of Crown assets by the Crown Estate. I urge the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, to withdraw his amendment.