Moved by Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town
20: Clause 38, page 37, line 27, after “Kingdom” insert “, acting in accordance with the conventions relating to devolved power set out in—(a) section 28(8) of the Scotland Act 1998, and(b) section 107(6) of the Government of Wales Act 2006,”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment alters the statement on parliamentary sovereignty to take note of the Sewel Convention, as enshrined in the Scotland Act 1998 and Government of Wales Act 2006.
The intention behind this amendment is to provide a key reassurance to Scotland and Wales. As we know, Clause 38 as it stands is pretty meaningless. As we said in Committee, it was added basically as a sop to the European Reform Group. However, as the Explanatory Notes make clear, the clause makes no material difference to the scope of Parliament’s powers.
The problem with it is more what it does not say in that it fails to refer to the Sewel convention—the convention that the UK Parliament will not normally use its powers to legislate on devolved matters without the agreement of the National Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, this stand-alone restatement of what I would call the bleeding obvious in regard to Parliament, without even a nod to the conventions, appears to backtrack on the devolution settlements.
The Welsh Government will therefore wish the Sewel convention to be restated. The noble and learned Lord the Minister said last week that that was not necessary because the settlements are already written into law. Perhaps they are but, for the same reason, there is also no need to restate parliamentary sovereignty. The problem is that doing one without the other gives the impression that the convention is being downplayed, and that is not helpful. I think I am right in saying that the Welsh Assembly, even at this moment, is debating legislative consent, and the rejection of this amendment will not be taken well by that gathering. For all sorts of reasons, it would be a poor precedent for this Bill to be the first to be passed without legislative consent from the Welsh Assembly.
The Government could decide to do what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, urged in Committee and take out Clause 38 altogether. That certainly would not detract from the Bill. They could still do that or they could accept this amendment. Either move would offer comfort to each of the devolved authorities that our departure from the EU was not being used to take back any powers or activities from their purview. Such reassurance, I know, would be welcome. The clock in Wales is ticking. I hope that the Minister can accept the amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment and shall explain why. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has made it clear that in a sense this clause is superfluous, but it is superfluous in a slightly sinister way. It asserts the sovereignty of Parliament and effectively says, “Therefore, this Parliament can always overrule the devolved legislatures.” We know that to be sovereign law but putting it in a Bill rubs salt into open wounds. Scotland and Northern Ireland have already refused consent and it is expected that Wales will vote today to do the same.
Over the last 20 years we have developed what is described as a quasi-federal constitution, but it is not federal; it is unitary, and Parliament, or Westminster, is sovereign. That is a fact. However, the whole point of the Sewel convention was to try to give comfort and reassurance to the devolved legislatures that they have a standing and a status that Westminster will take into account and acknowledge, and in all circumstances do its best to accommodate. It is a convention, not a law. That is obviously the argument as to why we should maybe move towards a federal constitution, which would effectively confer these conventions into law. I welcome the fact that the Labour Party is now engaged in serious consideration of federalism, which has been a long-standing policy aspiration of the Liberal Democrats. Quite genuinely, we should work together on a cross-party basis to develop the thinking behind this.
The Minister’s words may matter—not just the terms of the legislation. There should be a sense of concern that, as powers come back from Brussels to the UK, those powers that do not return directly to the devolved legislatures and Administrations will come to the central UK Government and effectively weaken the existing devolution settlement, unless there is a genuine spirit of co-operation where the devolved Administration’s views are properly weighed and taken into account. If the Government simply say, “We brought back control to a sovereign Parliament. Whether you like it or not, this Parliament can do what it likes and we intend to do so”, that is not a good way to take the UK forward.
I do not necessarily subscribe to the view that Brexit makes the break-up of the United Kingdom more or less likely. The pain and disruption of Brexit might well discourage people in Scotland and Ireland from wanting to add other disruptions to it; I do not think it is as clear and simple as that. It behoves the Government to show a genuine engagement with the devolved Administrations; not just to use sweet words but to look for practical solutions that will ensure that the devolved Administrations are taken into account.
If the Government turn around and say, “We hear how you voted but we are carrying on regardless”, that will not provide comfort and confidence that devolution is here for real and will develop. It requires the Government to show a lot more accommodation. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that there are two ways to resolve this. The Government could simply repeal the clause and leave the Bill vacant on this, or they could accept the amendment. To do neither of those things would leave people in all the devolved areas very suspicious of the Government’s intentions.
My Lords, I think it is fair to say that, had we not been in the EU when devolution occurred, we would most certainly have moved towards a more federal arrangement in this country. The fact that our regulations were shared across the UK, even in devolved areas, covered the need for a federal arrangement where the different Assemblies and Parliaments could come together. Now that we will be out of the EU, there is a fair degree of urgency to address this. How are we going to devise regulations in the future? If we start that process by not including the Sewel convention, we start from a point where levels of disagreement are such that it will be hard to have that debate in a calm, careful way. We should accept this amendment, but also go on to explore the ways in which, where devolved matters intercept, we will work together in future across territorial areas. I hope that we can accept this amendment.
My Lords, I rise briefly in support of this amendment, to which I have added my name. I explained earlier today, and yesterday, why it is vital for this Government to recognise the importance of devolution as we go forward. This is a purely symbolic clause which does not make any difference. It could be left out. But, if it is to go in, can it please acknowledge that we live in a United Kingdom that has changed and where we must recognise the devolved legislatures? Conventions are of the utmost importance in this respect and should be recognised in the Bill.
My Lords, I try to follow all the arguments that are put forward about devolution and where it all stands. The puzzle to me is that the logic of the people supporting this amendment seems to be that the Parliament here at Westminster is not entirely sovereign. That may be an issue that we wish to take up at some point in the future, but it is not something that we should be dealing with in the withdrawal Bill. I am not a lawyer, but the way the amendment is phrased seems to make justiciable anything that comes up between the devolved Administrations and Westminster. At this point, I think I would oppose the amendment on the ground that it would detract from the sovereignty of Westminster without all the implications having been thought through.
My Lords, I cannot really think that that is how things will play out. Yesterday I heard that an agreement had been made, meaning that there would be no vote that evening. On the strength of that, I arranged to take my wife out for dinner at last. Then everything changed, and there was to be a vote— indeed, there were to be two votes. I slipped out before any of that happened to phone my wife and say, “Dinner’s off.” I simply make the plea that we distinguish between what is in the marriage contract and the conventions that we create for ourselves that help marriages, and other relationships, to flourish.
This is a convention; it is not a law. But in granting this convention and incorporating it in the Bill, we will improve the relationship between us and the people in the devolved Administrations. It is so simple. We have heard arguments about things being set in stone, and about the thin end of the wedge. Who remembers reading FM Cornford’s Microcosmographia Academica? One or two—these are the educated people. It was an argument about what happens in academic circles, where there is always a body of people who are resistant to change. They resist change on the grounds that it may be the thin end of the wedge, or set things in concrete, and all the other things I have been hearing in these wretched debates. Please let us realise that the softer acknowledgements of relationships, as well as the hard ones, help the debate, and the relationships, forward.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak, but over the last week I have listened to the various representatives of the devolved Administrations in this union of ours. Speaking as a totally English person, without any relationships in any of the three devolved areas—other than being married to an Ulsterman—I think that we English ought to be very careful and listen to what the devolved areas are saying to us. It was said earlier that the Government, and indeed many English people, might not really appreciate what devolution has meant. Perhaps it is time we did.
My Lords, I support the amendment, which would put in statutory form what has grown into an important convention. I would like clarification, which I failed to get in yesterday’s debate, regarding the breadth of the convention. I asked a specific question:
“will the Minister clarify and emphasise that legislative consent would normally be required for any regulation that would be brought in under this Act?”—[
I was referring in particular to Clause 21.
As I did not get satisfaction from the Minister’s reply, I repeated my question later, saying:
“I might be a slow learner, but, following the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, I would like to know which specific points cannot be dealt with by a Section 109 order.”
A Section 109 order would be a consensual matter, as opposed to one imposed from Westminster. The Minister replied:
“I cannot give the noble and learned Lord the answer to that question, but I can give him the assurance, from speaking to my legal advisers, that in the negotiations that will unfold there will be areas that we think will be under discussion that might stand outside those areas I have touched on regarding Section 109 and the ability to direct Welsh Ministers.”—[Official Report, 20/1/20; col. 964.]
My Lords, like others who have spoken about devolution, I have made many points and will not repeat them. However, it is important that the Government do not misinterpret the vote to leave the EU on the back of the slogan of “taking back control” as a vote for yet more concentration of power in the hands of people who work within a mile or so of this building. People want a sense of direct influence over their lives and things that really matter to them.
The amendment simply supports the status quo of the Sewel convention. It respects the relationship between Westminster, the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd. I urge the Government to recognise that it does nothing to constrain their agility in negotiating or their ability to negotiate. If the culture change that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, spoke about so eloquently today is to happen, surely we must recognise that there are Governments other than the one in this Chamber and at the other end of this building.
My Lords, I should like to reply to the point made by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose. I think he suggested that the inclusion of this amendment in the Bill would render the convention justiciable, and that there was something about it that would attract the attention of the judiciary. I have lived with the Sewel convention for a very long time, particularly with the amendment to the Scotland Act, now enshrined in Section 28(8). One of the points made by the Smith commission was that it wanted the Sewel convention to be given statutory effect. I am afraid that that battle was lost because, as Section 28(8) of the Scotland Act puts it, it remains a convention. Indeed, it was made perfectly clear by the Supreme Court when it considered the matter that it is not justiciable; it is simply a convention.
For my part—having, as I say, lived with the convention repeatedly through the 1918 Act—I relied on assurances by Ministers that they would respect the convention. It was not actually written into the Act, as I recall. So, for my part, I shall listen very carefully to what the Minister has to say, because in the past this has been handled by Ministers giving assurances that the House has respected. I am not certain that it is necessary to write it in in this way, but if I do not get that kind of assurance, I might go with the amendment. The words that the Minister uses will be extremely important to me in deciding what to do.
My Lords, points have been admirably made by many other distinguished speakers. I will just make one: this whole issue unfortunately shows the frailty of devolution as a basis for keeping our partnership of nations together. Devolution had weaknesses built into it, admirable change though it was. As many of us said, the regulatory relationships between the nations were left extremely unregulated, if you like, and in a very imperfect condition, depending, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, said, on the power of the word “convention”, which hovers over the English constitution in a very dangerous way.
The other thing to be said about devolution as a frail basis for a settlement is that it is deliberately asymmetrical, and an asymmetrical devolution means unequal distribution. Wales has always been treated as a poorer relation in the partnership. When there are possibilities of strain, as we see in the case of the Bill, the thing is liable to crumble. The whole basic weakness of the settlement is, alas, likely to continue and to weaken the United Kingdom. It is perhaps appropriate that these aspects are implications of the work of King Henry VIII, who, despite his background, was the master voice of English nationalism. He adopted a colonial attitude to Wales and that is reflected in our current difficulties.
My Lords, I have not added my name to this amendment but would like to register my support for it. Twelve months ago, to this week, Vaughan Gething, the Welsh Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services was asked: if the Senedd refused to grant consent to an Act of Parliament, could it be overruled by Westminster? His reply was interesting. He said that the ability of the UK Parliament to override a measure made in any part of the UK is one of the mischiefs in the UK’s constitution that needs fixing. I do not for a moment suggest that we begin the fixing process today, but I cite his words merely as a fairly accurate summing up of the situation in which we find ourselves today.
The exclusion of a reference to the status of the devolved Administrations from Clause 38 appears deliberate. It seems designed to ensure that the devolved Administrations have no role to play in the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It enshrines, by this omission, the inequality of the power between the nations of the UK. The inclusion of Amendment 20 in Clause 38 would go some way to redress the balance and ensure that the devolved Administrations could represent the views of their respective nations in this massively important process.
I am a passionate advocate for the Senedd. I strongly believe in the principles of devolution, as do my colleagues on these Benches. The Senedd has given Wales a voice and a feeling of nationhood. The exclusion of this amendment could lead to the perception of both being taken away. Accepting this amendment would go some way to preventing those losses.
I know it is not normal for me to speak at this moment, but I thought the Minister might want to reflect on this: having heard and followed this debate, the Welsh parliament has just voted not to give consent to the Bill.
I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. It is obvious that I have spent so long debating across this Chamber with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that she is now able to predict my replies to these questions, because the Government do feel that this amendment is an unnecessary restatement of the Sewel principles, which are already enshrined in statute. However, I accept the points made both by the noble Baroness and by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, in Committee last week that it is not the justiciability of the Sewel convention that matters most in these cases. What matters is that the Government continue to uphold the Sewel convention and make sure that the interests of the devolved Administrations and of the people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are fully taken account of as we leave the European Union. I am happy to make that commitment and demonstrate that we have done so in the passage of this Bill as well. I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, that the Government have engaged constructively with the devolved Administrations—and the Northern Ireland Civil Service when there was no Executive—throughout the development of this Bill. I am sure noble Lords will join me in welcoming the restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland—we will now have an Assembly to engage with as well.
We have been discussing this Bill with the Scottish and Welsh Governments, as well as the Northern Ireland Civil Service, since July 2018 and we have incorporated suggestions from those Administrations into the White Paper. We discussed its contents with them in the following months. Following those discussions, the UK Government made significant changes to the Bill, including ensuring that devolved Ministers will have a clear role in the functioning of the independent monitoring authority that will monitor the citizens’ rights provisions in the Bill, restricting the powers in Clauses 18 and 19 from amending the devolution statutes and strictly limiting the number of provisions protected from modification by the devolved institutions to those of a constitutional nature.
We strongly believe that the changes we have made and the process we have followed have respected the devolution settlement. In line with the Sewel convention and the usual practices and procedures, we sought consent and I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, that we have worked extensively with the devolved Administrations to reach agreement in the hope that we would be able to achieve consent for this Bill. It is worth noting that the Scottish Government have publicly stated that they would refuse consent for any EU exit Bill. We took all reasonable steps to secure consent while respecting the constitutional fabric of the United Kingdom. This is not affecting our work with the devolved Administrations on other EU-exit-related legislation. Earlier this month, the UK Government introduced the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill into Parliament. The Government sought consent for the relevant parts of that Bill and the Scottish Parliament voted to provide it earlier this month. This will ensure that the UK Government and devolved Administrations have the necessary powers to provide direct payments to farmers after we leave the EU on
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, informed us, we have just discovered that the National Assembly of Wales has voted not to consent to those parts of the Bill on which we sought consent. We are of course disappointed that the devolved legislatures have withheld consent and we recognise the significance of proceeding without it. Nevertheless, these are exceptional circumstances and the Bill must proceed so that we can deliver on the referendum result and leave the EU by the end of this month.
My Lords, as unamended, the clause we are debating restates the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. Many of us considered that the devolution settlement had modified the Victorian concept of unitary sovereignty. In Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, went out of his way to reassert that AV Dicey’s views on parliamentary sovereignty—that the imperial Parliament is supreme and cannot share legislative power with other Assemblies—is what this clause means. Does the Minister not therefore recognise that the inclusion of this clause as it stands undermines the conventions established by the devolution settlement?
I am not sure I want to get into an arcane legal debate with the noble Lord, my noble and learned friend Lord Keen and others. I do not accept what the noble Lord says; I do not think this undermines the settlement.
We will of course continue to seek legislative consent. We will continue to take on board views and will work with the devolved Administrations on future legislation, whether related to EU exit or otherwise, just as we always have.
There was much wisdom from the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port. It would help the atmospherics a great deal if the Minister could reassure the Scots and the Welsh—I think the Northern Irish are reassured already—that they will be included in the United Kingdom team negotiating in the joint committee. I say that because I think it is right to try to improve the atmosphere and because, after all these years, the Lady Griffiths is entitled to a dinner out.
She is indeed. I hope that at some stage in the future the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, will repeat the endeavour which failed last night. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, made a good point. We have already started discussions with Scottish and Welsh Ministers, and I hope that those with Northern Ireland Ministers are to come. I was present at some of the discussions in London a couple of weeks ago. A frame- work was put in place for joint ministerial committees; one on EU negotiations and one on ongoing EU business, which I chair. We will develop those consultations as we go into the next phase, and we are working on proposals to involve them in future negotiations. We will, of course, take that point on board.
We understand the importance of preserving both the spirit and the letter of the devolution settlements and the principles of the Sewel convention as the UK exits the EU. In response to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, I say that international relations are indeed a reserved matter. However, the devolved Administrations do have an important role in implementing these agreements. Any devolved provisions made under the Act will normally be made only with the agreement of the devolved Administrations and we will engage with them on this, as we have always done in the past. The Government are committed to upholding these principles, but this is not changed by restating them in the Bill. Given what I have said, and the reassurances that I have been able to give, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister, though I am obviously saddened by his response. My noble friend Lord Griffiths clearly abides by the conventions laid down by Lady Griffiths and we would do well to listen to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who said that we need to listen to what devolved areas are saying. The Government are not doing this: the devolved regions have come to us and said that they are not getting enough of a hearing. I will not repeat what all noble Lords said, but the comments are general. We need to give respect; we need to respect the convention which offers, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said, “comfort and reassurance” and, in the words of my noble friend Lady Bryan, “confidence”. This is all about recognising the convention as part and parcel of our parliamentary system. It does not override parliamentary sovereignty; it is a part of the way we are. It is a terrible shame that the Government cannot see that this detracts nothing from the Bill, but I seek to add it to the Bill. I therefore beg leave to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 239, Noes 235.