The UK Government’s Wales Bill: a lasting settlement? A National Assembly for wales QUICK-READ

The Wales Bill currently making its way through the UK Parliament is over-complicated, bureaucratic and will not deliver a lasting settlement for Wales.

The Wales Bill is important because it sets the framework within which the National Assembly can make Welsh law in areas such as health and education to improve the lives of, and opportunities for, the people of Wales.

The clearer and more workable that piece of constitutional law is, the easier it will be for the process of government and scrutiny to be delivered effectively and successfully.

Why is this important?

Dr Diana Stirbu giving evidence to the Committee on 22 July 2016
"… a constitutional settlement should be also aspirational. And I think what we fail to see is a clear ambition and aspiration for the constitutional status of Wales and for how Wales will be constitutionally repositioned within the UK… I think constitutions send messages about what kind of politics you are conducting in a country, what kind of society you want to live in, what kind of aspirations you have for your future generations." - Dr Diana Stirbu, London Metropolitan University

The Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee is a group of four Assembly Members from across Wales. Their job is to try and make sure that any laws or policies in relation to our constitution are in the best interests of Wales and its people.

The Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee

The Committee first looked at the Bill in October 2015 when it was introduced in its draft form. This draft Wales Bill received widespread criticism. Many people with direct experience of working with the existing law that gave Wales its devolution settlement made constructive suggestions to improve the proposed legislation and expressed a willingness to work with the UK Government for the benefit of the people of Wales.

But even after a number of changes were made to the Bill from the draft, the Committee’s overall assessment is that it is a complex and inaccessible piece of constitutional law that will not deliver the lasting, durable settlement that people in Wales had expected.

Professor Rick Rawlings providing evidence to the Committee on 22 July 2016
"I don’t think the Wales Bill is durable, because of the signal failure to deal with the key infrastructure foundational question of jurisdiction." - Professor Richard Rawlings, Professor of Public Law

What are the problems?

The Committee felt that there were a number of key issues the Bill failed to deliver:

  • It does not deliver greater parity with Scotland and Northern Ireland in terms of powers and responsibilities, and in fact introduces the possibility of rolling back Wales’ existing powers;
  • The UK Government has missed a golden opportunity to deliver a law with the consensus of all sides, including the Welsh Government and National Assembly, even after pausing the process following the considerable criticism;
  • Even though the list of reserved powers is shorter, in many cases powers have simply been lumped into one category. An example being architects, auditors and health professionals;
  • The Committee was critical of the speed at which the Bill was taken through the House of Commons, meaning the House of Lords has ‘an added burden of responsibility for effective scrutiny before this Bill can be passed as fit for purpose.’, and
  • A failure to provide a distinct or separate jurisdiction for Wales compounds the complexity and durability and, the Committee concludes, will lead to pressure for change.
“...I think the legal system needs to adapt itself to that new reality, a reality that is growing as the body of law that applies only in Wales and the body of law that applies only in England increase in size.” - Professor Thomas Glyn Watkin, Emeritus Professor of Law
Professor Thomas Glyn Watkin, Emeritus Professor of Law

What positive change does this Bill bring?

Although the complexity and lack of clarity calls into questions the durability of the settlement, the Committee was pleased to see the Wales Bill include:

  • The move to a reserved powers model, which would mean powers other than those explicitly retained by the UK Parliament coming to Wales;
  • A declaration about the permanence of the Assembly and the Welsh Government; and
  • The granting of competence in relation to National Assembly elections and the electoral system.

What does the Committee think?

Based on the evidence the Committee has heard, there is a clear danger that the space provided by the Bill for the National Assembly to legislate is difficult to define and potentially more restrictive than at present.

The Bill does not offer the progressive, ambitious and aspirational settlement that many in Wales hoped for and believe is needed; neither does it befit a modern legislature and equal partner within the family of nations that make up the United Kingdom.

The Committee feel that it is regrettable that the Bill is likely to continue, rather than resolve, constitutional uncertainty.

The next steps?

The Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee presented its findings to the House of Lords Constitution Committee on Wednesday 12 October in London.

The Constitution and Legislative Affairs Committee have called on the UK Government to adopt a new approach to constitutional law involving devolved legislatures. One that will involve:

  • Intergovernmental working on policy development and drafting of a Bill;
  • All relevant Assembly and UK Parliamentary committees considering the constitutional Bills either collectively or in joint sessions; and
  • As appropriate, Ministers of the Crown, the Secretary of State and the First Minister to appear in public before all relevant parliamentary committees.

Chair’s closing remarks

Huw Irranca-Davies AM, Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee.
“It is disappointing to see that the UK Government has not taken on many of the worthy and important recommendations made by many people and organisations.
While we accept that some changes are for the better, Wales is still left with a complicated law that threatens to roll back our existing powers and that fails to give greater parity with other devolved nations.
At a time when the UK is defining its relationship with Europe following the EU referendum, it should also be defining the relationship among its own member nations.
We believe that it would be far more sensible but also essential if there was an agreed means of co-operating between two parliamentary bodies—between the National Assembly and its committees and Parliament and its two Houses and its committees.
We recommend the development of new ways of working together as a matter of urgency, ideally before other major constitutional legislation is brought forward, and our committee stands ready to contribute to this work.”

Keep in touch

To keep up to date on the progress of the Committee’s work on Welsh laws and policies that effect the people of Wales, visit their webpage or follow @SeneddCLA on Twitter.

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