On Tuesday 17 January 2017 the National Assembly for Wales debated a Legislative Consent Motion on the Wales Bill. According to a convention (“the Sewel Convention”) the UK Government would not normally bring forward or support proposals to legislate in relation to Wales on subjects in which the Assembly has legislative competence without the Assembly’s consent. The consent of the Assembly is gained via a Legislative Consent Motion (LCM). The Wales Bill changes the powers of the Assembly therefore an LCM was required.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 29.6, agrees that provisions in the Wales Bill, in so far as they fall within or modify the legislative competence of the National Assembly for Wales, should continue to be considered by the UK Parliament.
The First Minister opened the debate. He explained that the Labour group had decided to look at the Bill “as a package” and on balance, decided to support the LCM although that decision was not easy.
When questioned about the key factor in choosing to support the Bill he replied:
The issue with Brexit has been the issue of Sewel for me. The Prime Minister herself said today that there will be no roll-back of powers, and I have to take her on her word, but if it is enshrined in law that there’s a requirement of consent from a devolved parliament or assembly, then that obviously carries more weight than if it’s just a convention. So, enshrining that in law is important, not just in terms of Brexit negotiations, but in terms of negotiations on a number of issues in the future where the UK Government will not be able to say, ‘Of course, in Scotland it’s the law, but in Wales, it isn’t, so we don’t have to pay Wales the same regard as Scotland.’
Huw Irranca-Davies AM, Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, which scrutinised the Bill said:
Wiser people than I have suggested that this Bill will not be the durable, once-in-a-generation settlement promised by Secretaries of State for Wales, and that the complexity and conditionality involved means we may potentially be ceding some ground. But there is no doubt that the ground on which we stand will be firmer and surer as a result of moving to a reserved-powers Bill. It stands us in good stead as we face a transition to Brexit and other external shock factors.
Plaid Cymru opposed the Bill on the grounds that it rolled back the powers of the Assembly. Party leader Leanne Wood AM stated:
We were told that a reserved-powers model would be delivered, and this has been one of the key demands for Plaid Cymru for many, many years, yet it quickly became apparent that the list of reserved powers would contain more than 200 reservations, and that anything relating to that list could be out of bounds by this Assembly in the future. Compared to the conferred-powers model, that represents a roll-back of our powers, and in our judgment it would therefore represent a roll-back on the 2011 referendum result.
The politics of this are clear to me. Following its Supreme Court defeat on the agricultural wages Bill, the UK Government wanted to remodel the Welsh constitution to avoid further defeats.
The Conservatives voted in favour of the Bill and party leader Andrew R.T. Davies AM particularly welcomed “that income tax will be coming to this institution to make sure that we do have greater accountability in the way the money has been spent in this institution and by the Government.”
UKIP voted against the Bill as they objected to the removal of the requirement for a referendum before devolving income tax powers. Leader Neil Hamilton AM said:
I do believe that, whilst the broad principles of the Bill are worthy of support, the way in which this has been handled has been very far from perfect, and, in regard to the removal of a referendum provision in relation to the devolution of income tax powers, I believe that that is a constitutional deficiency that we ought not to ignore.
The Assembly voted 38 in favour of giving its consent for the Bill to proceed and 17 against.
The following day the Wales Bill received its Third Reading in the House of Lords and was passed.
On the 24 January the Bill was returned to the House of Commons for consideration of the House of Lords amendments. The amendments were agreed and the Bill now awaits Royal Assent.
A further development on 24 January was the Supreme Court ruling on Article 50 which also ruled on the Sewel Convention in the devolved legislatures. It concluded that:
[…] the Convention operates as a political constraint on the activity of the UK Parliament. It therefore plays an important role in the operation of the UK constitution. But the policing of its scope and operation is not within the constitutional remit of the courts. The devolved legislatures do not have a veto on the UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU.
The ruling will be covered in more detail in a forthcoming blogpost.
Article by Alys Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service.