Constitution

The draft Wales Bill

29 October 2015

Article by Steve Boyce, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

This is a picture of the Senedd.

Last Tuesday, 20th October, saw the publication of the draft Wales Bill by the UK Government.  The draft Bill is the prelude to a new phase of legislation on devolution in Wales which draws on the recommendations of the Silk II report and the St David’s Day discussions between the Secretary of State for Wales and the Welsh party leaders.  The intention is to publish the Bill itself next year and to have an Act on the statute books by early 2017.

The draft Bill sets out a new devolution settlement for Wales in terms of a reserved powers model (see blog post 8 October 2015) which lists the subjects on which the Assembly cannot legislate, rather than those on which it can, as under the current model.  The reserved powers model, together with the tests of competence to be applied to legislation, will create the framework within which devolution in Wales will operate in future.

The draft Bill also provides the Assembly with powers in new areas such as energy, transport, local government, and its own functions (including Assembly elections and the number of AMs), and it sets out the arrangements for agreeing Westminster legislation on devolved matters.

The publication of a draft Bill provides an opportunity to scrutinise the proposals before the Bill is introduced into parliament next year.  The Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee will examine the draft Bill during November as will the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee.  The two Committees will take evidence together in the Senedd on 9th November.

The Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb, launched the Bill last Tuesday as the UK Government’s plan for a “stronger, clearer and fairer devolution settlement for Wales that will stand the test of time.”  Whether the draft Bill achieves this will be exercising the minds of politicians and other stakeholders in Cardiff and London over the coming weeks.

A Welsh Government statement to the Assembly on the draft Bill last Tuesday provided AMs with an opportunity to give their initial responses to the proposals.  The First Minster, Carwyn Jones, described the reserved powers provisions in the Bill as:

“plac[ing] new restrictions on the National Assembly’s ability to legislate, which would make our settlement more complex, and less powerful, than it currently is.”

Had the draft Bill’s provisions been in place during this Assembly, he said:

“lawyers advise that less than one third of our Bills could have been passed without the prior approval of the UK Government.”

And:

“without major improvement, the Bill is a recipe for ever more referrals to the Supreme Court, and ever more inter-governmental disputes.”

Welsh Conservatives leader Andrew RT Davies said the draft Bill would give the Assembly “considerable powers”:

“I do believe the raft of powers that are on offer will substantially reinforce this institution’s capability to legislate and actually resonate across the whole of Wales. And that’s the important thing: that what most people want is actually for this place to be relevant to their everyday lives.”

Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said the draft Bill “confirms our worst fears”.  She believed the set of powers and responsibilities to be reserved to Westminster would consign to Wales the status of a “second-rate nation in comparison to the other devolved countries”

The Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams said:

“What is before us today potentially takes us back to a situation where the democratically elected Members of this Chamber, on behalf of the people of Wales, will have their actions thwarted by a UK Government who may or may not decide they like what we are doing.”

She hoped that the Bill which eventually emerges achieves a “strong, secure and clear devolution settlement”

The Assembly’s Presiding Officer issued a statement to coincide with the launch of the draft Bill in which she expressed disappointment at the way the reserved powers model has been dealt with in the draft Bill.  She viewed the current draft as a “backwards step for the National Assembly” which “would not deliver the lasting constitutional settlement for Wales, and the UK as a whole.”

Elsewhere, Sir Paul Silk has expressed “disappointment” at the scope of the new powers being offered to Wales.  He told the House of Lords Constitution Committee on 21 October the draft Bill does not reflect what the Silk Commission recommended.

Nevertheless, Professor Roger Scully of the Wales Governance Centre says in a blog post that the new powers in the draft Bill on the functioning of the Assembly are “significant” since they could allow changes to the size of constituencies, the number of Assembly Members and the way they are elected.  Changes in these areas would require a two-thirds majority in the Assembly.

Whatever the eventual outcome, the debate on Wales’ devolution settlement is far from over.  The statement issued by the Secretary of State at the launch of the Bill emphasised that:

“The Government will continue discussions with the Welsh Government on the detail of the reserved powers model alongside Pre-Legislative Scrutiny. It is vital that we deliver a robust new devolution settlement that works for the people of Wales.”

Scrutiny by the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee and Welsh Affairs Committee will now begin in earnest and both Committees plan to report before Christmas.  Meanwhile an Assembly plenary debate on 3 November will provide AMs with a further opportunity to debate the issues.

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