Amendment 27

Part of Trade Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 13th March 2019.

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Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 6:15 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for this amendment, and for his scrutiny of the devolution provisions in the Bill throughout its passage. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for his points, which I will address later. Ensuring that the Bill works for the whole of the UK remains a priority for the Government, so I am pleased to inform your Lordships that yesterday the National Assembly for Wales voted in favour of granting consent to the Bill. I ask that this House consider that when weighing the scrutiny of the Bill in the context of the devolution settlements.

The practical purpose of the amendment is that the UK Government should, as a matter of course, seek the agreement of the devolved Administrations prior to legislating in areas of devolved competence. This is not, in principle, an area of contention; rather, the question is whether this should be on the face of the Bill. I reiterate that the UK Government are committed to not normally using the powers in the Bill to legislate in areas of devolved competence without the consent of the relevant devolved Administrations, and certainly not without first consulting them.

We have respected the role of the devolved Administrations through our programme of engagement with them, government amendments in the other place and my renewed commitment today. The Government will maintain this commitment. More broadly, the UK Government have been working productively and collaboratively with the devolved Administrations on a number of fronts. UK government officials are working with devolved Administration officials to revise the common frameworks analysis and take into account progress on framework areas since March 2018. The Government anticipate publishing a further iteration of this analysis shortly.

During our debates on this legislation, there have been many areas of agreement between us and noble Lords on the opposite Bench. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, was correct to say in Committee that the use of the powers in devolved areas is,

“more complicated than can be dealt with within the confines of the Trade Bill.”—[Official Report, 23/1/19; col. 724.]

Additionally, the amendment risks setting a precedent whereby competence for policy-making is defined outside the established devolution settlements. It seeks to go further than the convention already recognised in the most recent Scotland and Wales Acts, and could require the court to make a decision on whether or not we were in normal circumstances. I do not believe it is the intention of this House to introduce new legal uncertainty to our statute book.

The Supreme Court made it clear in the judgment on the Miller case that it does not believe it is appropriate for the courts to police the Sewel convention, as it does not lie within the constitutional remit of the judiciary. By inviting this potential judicial scrutiny, the amendment could obstruct the programme of continuity that the Bill seeks to deliver, as the use of the powers could be substantially delayed, to the detriment of the UK as a whole.

I shall now deal with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, when he mentioned the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill. As he knows, I was not involved with that Bill, but I hope that I can help. The amendment to that Bill requires the Secretary of State only to consult. Amendment 28 involves a consent requirement. Those are very different—and this plays into the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. For reasons that we have set out, the consent requirement would create a legal test for the courts, and therefore uncertainty. The powers in the healthcare Bill are different, too. The benefit of the concurrent powers in the Trade Bill is that they allow for the relevant Administrations to legislate themselves where a matter falls under devolved competence, and also allows Ministers of the Crown to make regulations for the whole UK when that makes sense.

As well as the benefits to the devolved Administrations of the concurrent powers, we have made repeated commitments on the Floor of both Houses always to consult the relevant devolved Administration. To take up the point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, about creating legal uncertainty, although the amendment includes the word “convention” in its title, it uses words that appear designed to turn the convention into a legal test. It uses the words “may not normally”, which appear designed to make that a legal rule justiciable by the courts. This could be a substantial block on the use of the Clause 1 and 2 powers, and could lead to delay through litigation, or, ultimately, to a block on the use of the powers if the court judged the situation to be normal. This could allow a challenger the power to withhold consent to the implementation of part of an agreement, meaning that the UK could not bring it into force until the matter was resolved.