European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Report (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 2nd May 2018.

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Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 7:45 pm, 2nd May 2018

My Lords, in addressing Amendment 89DA, I will, as did the Minister, cover the broader ground contained in the amendments in the group. Some of my misgivings with the new proposed settlement dealt with in this group will arise in later amendments, 91 and 92, which for some reason have not been coupled with these.

While I welcome the progress that was made in the joint discussions on resolving some of the difficulties between Westminster and the devolved Governments—a welcome that has been expressed by both Mike Russell of the Scottish Government and Mark Drakeford, Wales’ Brexit Minister—I am acutely aware that not all the difficulties were resolved, and I beg the indulgence of the House for a few minutes in setting these issues in their context. I realise that some of my points may seem to be Second Reading ones, but in these amendments—there are 21 in this group alone—we have matters before us which were not in the Bill at Second Reading. I noted in particular the Minister’s invitation in his speech for us to contribute positive ideas in this context.

The adjustments before us tonight are in the context of what many people in Cardiff and Edinburgh, across party lines, regarded as a power grab—to use the term that was used then—by Westminster, in taking unto themselves powers returning from Brussels, including powers in what had previously been regarded as devolved functions such as agriculture. The fact that the Labour Government in Cardiff held out so long before agreeing reflected that fear; as did the fact that members of all parties in the Assembly—including initially Tory and UKIP AMs—supported having a continuity Bill to withstand that perceived power grab. The recent debate in Edinburgh reflected similar cross-party support for its continuity Bill. Rather than just scream “power grab” and hurl abuse at those we see as the authors of our difficulties, I will try to put forward what I see as a considered case and implore, even at this late stage in the Bill’s passage, that noble Lords appreciate the complexity of these issues—some of which have already emerged tonight—and rise to the challenge of finding a positive way forward, if not in this Bill then in some parallel or future legislation.

There have been calls from all sides for greater mutual respect in this process—for a mutuality that is not reflected by one side having a veto but other partners being denied that facility. The difficulty, repeated time after time by those involved in the recent negotiations over several months, is that there seems to be a basic lack of trust between Westminster and the devolved regimes. That is not so much a personal lack of trust but rather a lack of trust in the respective institutions.

Part of the lack of trust felt in Wales arises, perhaps, from different social values and from historic experience. There has been a growing lack of trust in Wales during my lifetime, emanating from difficult issues such as the Tryweryn Valley flooding in the 1960s, the S4C debacle of 1980 and, more recently, the Barnett formula. Devolution was meant to help avoid at least some such difficulties, but power devolved is power retained—a truism of which we have become acutely aware in these recent experiences. The underlying issues, which recent difficulties in the context of Brexit have highlighted, are not going to go away. They will continue to plague us until a proper constitutional settlement is reached. I suggest that the sunset clauses define a timescale within which this has to be sorted out.

In the wake of Brexit, the sorts of issues that will arise, and which will strain our constitutional settlement, perhaps to breaking point, include for Wales state aid for threatened industries like steel, the establishment in place of the CAP of a viable sheep-meat regime, and an acceptance that procurement rules can be used to ensure maximum community benefit from public expenditure. Sheep meat is an excellent example of the different perspectives of Westminster and Cardiff. Westminster tends to see it in terms of consumer needs; the Assembly sees it as the cornerstone of our rural economy and of local communities and their attendant culture. Quite frankly, I do not begin to see such considerations being addressed, and if Westminster insists on having a veto over such policies as agriculture, it will be seen as a constraint on devolved ambitions. There has to be give and take or the whole edifice will crumble under the strain of its own self-inflicted tensions. We are in fact trying to constrain the needs of a quasi-federal system within the straitjacket of a unitary state, and it just will not work; four into one will not go.

I ask the Minister to be judicious in the way that he uses his powers and that his colleagues do likewise—ones secured with Cardiff by agreement—and I hope before too long that there can be sufficient movement by the UK Government to secure Scotland’s agreement too. I beg him not to use these clauses as juggernauts driving pre-conceived ideas into legislative force; but rather, and notwithstanding the powers of these clauses, still to seek agreement on all matters of mutual concern. I put it to the Minister that the price of maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom is to find effective mechanisms that respect diversity.

The wheels of Brexit re-orientate so many aspects of our lives in these islands, it is time for a new beginning, a new mutual respect, between the peoples of our four nations; and the time is now. As I listened to the previous debate on Ireland, I pondered on what might have been our history had there been a federal solution a century ago; but then I remembered that this was not possible because Westminster always wants to have the whip hand. We should now return to that agenda. We should seek to build a new partnership between the nations of these islands to cope with the new world into which Brexit places us. There needs to be a new order—one based on mutual understanding, mutual tolerance and mutual respect. Only then will we get a lasting settlement of these most difficult issues.