Eluned Morgan on Labour Peers' approach to the latest Wales Bill, ahead of Lords second reading
The latest Wales Bill is the fourth following the people of Wales' historic vote for devolution in 1997, since when attempts have been made to amend the relationship between the UK government and the Welsh Assembly. The Bill that starts its scrutiny process in the House of Lords this week was meant to a definitive one, aimed at creating not just a clearer and stronger settlement for Wales but one that is durable. While in these tumultuous political times it is perhaps difficult to imagine anything being long-lasting, it is fair to say that in this, its principle task, the Bill has failed spectacularly.
There is much in the government’s proposals that will devolve further powers to Wales and these are to be welcomed. The Assembly will be declared as a permanent piece of the British constitutional architecture and will have the power to determine its own electoral processes and franchise. It will also gain enhanced powers over energy projects and fracking.
It is however, worth noting why this bill has come about. Many recommendations were made by the Silk Committee – established by the Coalition government to advise on devolution in Wales. The way that the powers of the Assembly were defined in the past was through a ‘conferred model’, which meant that the UK government provided a ‘list’ of where the Assembly could apply its work. The problem with all of this is that there were many areas where it was unclear where power lay as there were several policy areas where the model was silent. The Welsh government has “acted” in these silent areas which has upset the UK government.
In the newly proposed system, the opposite approach is taken – with the government effectively defining the powers it will retain at a UK level while everything else is devolved. The UK government should obviously take the lead on issues of foreign affairs or defence. But in the course of scrutinising this Bill, Labour will be questioning whether the government has gone too far in determining the powers that should be kept in Whitehall.
One example of this is the licensing of drinking premises. The number of establishments serving alcohol around the clock has risen dramatically across England and Wales in the past few years, with a huge impact on health outcomes and public behaviour. Health is a devolved area of competence, and so it would be of great benefit if Wales could determine for itself what the licensing rules should be rather than be dependent on those set out in a UK Act of Parliament.
There are plenty of other areas where Wales simply wants to do things differently. The Labour Welsh government has come up with some creative ideas around railway franchising, which will focus primarily on the interests of passengers rather than on lining the pockets of private companies and their shareholders. But to fulfil this vision, there would be a need to remove the reference in the Bill that stipulates such franchises cannot be run by public sector bodies.
Ultimately however, and beyond the scrutiny about to start in the Lords, Labour believes that it will be for the Welsh Assembly to determine whether this Bill is good enough. Much of this will hinge around what the financial settlement will be for Wales which will go alongside this Bill. Wales must not and cannot lose out financially and we will be seeking a copper bottomed guarantee that the will of the Welsh people will be respected by the UK government.
Baroness Eluned Morgan of Ely is Shadow Wales Minister in the House of Lords and a member of the Welsh Assembly. She tweets @Eluned_Morgan
Published 9th October 2016