Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Reserved Powers, Constitutional Crisis and the C&LA Committee

When the UK Government published its Command Paper, ‘Powers for a Purpose: Towards a Lasting Devolution Settlement for Wales’, in February this year, I immediately took to social media to voice my suspicions that Whitehall’s new commitment to a ‘reserved powers model’ for Wales was nothing more than a ruse to claw back legislative competence from the Welsh Assembly.

Having studied the UK Government’s original submission to the Silk Commission back in March 2013 where they argued that no fundamental changes were required to the Welsh devolution settlement, it seemed extraordinary to me that they should now be proposing a wholesale change to the entire legal basis of the settlement, essentially along the much more ‘generous’ lines of the Scottish model, and ostensibly in the name of ‘clarity’.

What could have happened in the interim to bring about this Damascene conversion? Had Whitehall suddenly become obsessed with constitutional exactitude? Was Stephen Crabb, the ever-smiling new Secretary of State for Wales, able to charm the socks off gruff old Whitehall mandarins and persuade them that Wales was on the cusp of bloody insurrection if it could not have exactly what Scotland has?

Nothing of the sort. The July 9th 2014 Supreme Court ruling on the Welsh Government’s Agricultural Wages (Wales) Bill is what happened in the interim. This ruling, on a rather dull and peripheral piece of agriculture/employment legislation, essentially interpreted Wales’s current ‘conferred powers’ model at its widest application, ruling vast areas of law to be potentially within competence of the National Assembly for Wales, areas that the UK Government had previously considered to be safely reserved to Westminster, and areas that in some cases are not even devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

Rather than adopting the politically difficult (and highly visible) policy of stripping Wales of competences that it already has by amending the 2006 Government of Wales Act, far easier, is it not, to rip it up, start again and redraft a narrower settlement from the beginning? Since the oiks in Cardiff Bay are already calling for a reserved powers model, and they’re not that bright on the whole, why not just give them what they want whilst dropping in a whole bunch of fail-safe reservations? Nobody will notice, everything will go back to normal, and Wales won’t even have realised that it actually had a proper parliament between 2011 and 2016. Sorted…

I smelt a rat straight away, and so did a few others, though not of course the ‘Welsh’ media who were probably distracted by more important matters at the time such as Kate Middleton’s new dress, Sam Warburton’s view on the latest iPhone or the 25 bumpiest roads in Wales. In fairness to a few AMs, the matter has been raised at FMQs on a number of occasions, and I’ve no doubt that the Welsh Government is privately preparing for a major confrontation (one glance at Annexes B and C of the Command Paper – suggested areas for reservation – shows the extent of the UK Government’s ambition to circumscribe the competence of the National Assembly right back to the real basics). If Whitehall tries it on, and the Assembly refuses to give consent for the Bill, there is the potential for a real constitutional crisis in Wales, and as yet not many people are talking about it.

It is to be welcomed, therefore, that the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee under the chairmanship of David Melding has started gathering evidence on the UK Government’s proposals. Yesterday they took evidence from Professor Thomas Glyn Watkin, Emyr Lewis of Blake Morgan LLP and Professor Adam Tomkins of Glasgow University, all of whom expressed concerns that the process could be hijacked by Whitehall to limit or obfuscate the power of the Assembly rather than enhance it or make it clearer, and that a ‘reserved powers model’ of and in itself was no guarantee of legislative ‘elbow room’ or clarity. “Everything depends on the reservations” was the very strong message emerging from the meeting, and in a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion which also took in considerations of sovereignty, ‘permanence’ and the Sewel Convention, all were of the opinion that the current process represents both an opportunity and a risk to Wales.

The draft Wales Bill that will be published by the UK Government in the autumn has the potential to be a genuinely transformative piece of legislation for Wales, even before considering whether currently ‘out-of-favour’ Silk II proposals such as police and aspects of justice are reintroduced or not. But it also has the potential to trigger a major constitutional crisis of a sort not seen before in Wales if the UK Government tries to manipulate the settlement by sleight of hand. The resolve of the new Welsh polity and its attendant civil society to protect its hard-won ‘freedoms’ has never been tested in anger before, but with Whitehall having bigger European and Scottish fish to fry, I’m not sure that Cardiff has got anything to lose by standing its ground and taking it all the way if necessary.

It is telling, but perhaps not unsurprising, that Professor Tomkins (a scholar on Scottish constitutional matters) made the most insightful comment of yesterday’s session in my opinion. As David Cameron desperately seeks to put an end to the 20-year ‘constitutional question’ and establish his legacy as ‘the Prime Minister who saved the Union and reinvented the UK’, Wales finds itself in a position of tremendous “leverage”. Welsh politicians who choose to help Mr Cameron realise this legacy will get pretty much anything they ask for at the moment in Professor Tomkins’ opinion. Rather than fighting a rear-guard action to cling on to powers that we already have, shouldn’t our leaders be ‘in the faces’ of Messrs Cameron and Osborne demanding much, much more? Silk II in its entirety for example? Home Rule perhaps?

The entire meeting can be watched here

The UK Government’s Command Paper can be read here

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