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‘Lack of clarity’ in Wales Bill

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screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-09-41-16A REPORT on the Wales Bill, published by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, has stated that the lack of clarity over the demarcation of powers between the UK Parliament and Welsh Assembly not only risks future litigation, but the need for further legislation to clarify the settlement.

The report welcomes the move from a ‘conferred powers’ model (where the Welsh Assembly can only legislate on matters specifically devolved to it) to a ‘reserved powers’ model (where Welsh Assembly can legislate on any subject not explicitly ‘reserved’ by the UK Parliament). The reserved powers model offers a relatively clear and simple division of powers, as well as allowing the Welsh Assembly ‘constitutional space to legislate’. However, the Committee say that the way the Wales Bill implements the reserved powers model undermines these key advantages.

The complexity of the settlement set out in the Wales Bill, in which numerous legal tests interact with hundreds of matters reserved to the UK Government and Parliament, risks the courts being asked to make decisions about whether the National Assembly for Wales has the power to make laws in certain areas. The Committee contrasts this with the simpler settlement set out in the Scotland Act 1998, where the subjects reserved to Westminster are relatively limited, ensuring greater clarity about the devolution of powers.

The Committee also point out that in some areas, the list of reserved matters is so extensive, and the number of legal tests that must be met for the Assembly to use its powers are so vague, that the switch to a reserved powers model is likely to actually result in a return of power from the Welsh Assembly to Westminster.

The Committee call on the Government to explain whether the Wales Bill is actually intended to reduce the legislative competence of the Welsh Assembly in some areas and, if not, what steps they plan to take to ensure that the competence of the Assembly is not inadvertently reduced.

The Committee notes, for example, that absolute restrictions on the Assembly’s ability to modify criminal law in relation to sexual offences may affect its ability to exercise its legislative competence in relation to the protection and well-being of children and young adults.

The Committee notes that there is ‘no evidence of a clear rationale’ for the powers devolved by the Wales Bill and calls on the Government to explain the principles which underpin the devolution proposals set out in the Bill.

The Committee points out that in its recent report, The Union and Devolution, it recommended that further devolution should be managed in a coherent way based on sound principles and clarity about the purpose of the proposed devolution. It says the Government has failed to provide a clear rationale for the scope of powers devolved by the Wales Bill.

Lord Lang of Monkton, Chairman of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, said: “My Committee have taken a long and serious look at devolution within the UK in the last year and we bring that experience with us in examining the Wales Bill.

“We welcome the Wales Bill’s move from a ‘conferred powers’ to a ‘reserved powers’ model of devolution. However, the list of reservations is so extensive, and the legal tests that govern the Assembly’s powers so complex and vague, that it could be a recipe for confusion and legal uncertainty. The outcome is likely to be increased litigation as the courts are asked to decide exactly where the boundaries of the Assembly’s authority lies.

“We are disappointed that there is no clear explanation from the Government as to the rationale for the scope of the powers being devolved under the Wales Bill. As we noted in our report, The Union and Devolution, devolution must take place on the basis of appropriate principles to ensure that the devolution settlements evolve in a coherent way, rather than in a reactive, ad hoc manner.

“The Bill also risks, in some areas, actually reducing the powers of the Welsh Assembly. We have asked the Government whether that was their intention, and if not, how they intend to avoid unintentionally diminishing the Assembly’s powers.

“The Wales Bill starts Committee Stage in the House of Lords next week. This is the first stage where amendments can be made and debated and where the detail of the Bill is examined closely. I hope our report will be helpful to the House in informing that debate.”

This week, the Director of the Welsh Governance Centre, Professor Richard Wyn Jones, also raised concerns that the Wales Bill was being ‘rammed through Parliament’, and suggested that it could be blocked by the Welsh Government. Speaking to the BBC, he said: “It is genuinely hard to find people who aren’t directly involved on the UK government side with a good word to say about this legislation, certainly in terms of the detail,” he said.

“What was striking, we did have a consensus, an all-party consensus, in terms of moving to a reserved powers model.

“What’s particularly depressing is, in the enactments of that good intention, we’ve reached a stage where everybody who is looking at this in a relatively dispassionate way is pointing to some fundamental problems.

“I don’t think that anybody is going into this wanting it to fail, in terms of the critics. This is the only piece of legislation on the table, there is a sense the status quo is unsatisfactory and so people want this to work.

“There have been lots of constructive suggestions for change from the Welsh Government, from the National Assembly presiding office, and yet the legislation is being rammed through Parliament with, so far, only very small changes being conceded.”

However, the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew RT Davies, described the ‘landmark’ legislation as offering ‘greater clarity and accountability than ever before in the devolved era’.

“Labour had 13 years in power to address concerns over where power resides and made no meaningful attempt to establish a lasting settlement. Whereas Conservatives have delivered a significant breakthrough, demonstrating our party’s commitment to devolution and the place of Wales as a full partner in the UK,” he added after the MPs gave the Bill an unopposed third reading in September.

“We now have an opportunity to move on from constitutional affairs, and the Welsh Government must now make best use of the tools at its disposal and deliver for Welsh communities; creating jobs, developing the Welsh economy and improving our public services.”

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UK Budget must take crucial steps to help recovery

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LLANELLI Labour representatives are urging the UK Government to take the necessary steps to begin recovery and secure prosperity across all parts of the UK.

Llanelli’s MP Nia Griffith and MS Lee Waters set out Wales’ priorities ahead of the UK Budget on Wednesday March 3 2021.

They are urging the UK Government to make a series of commitments to Wales, including:

• sustaining UK-wide business support
• delivering welfare and taxation measures to support the most vulnerable
• redressing the historical under investment in Wales on research and development and rail infrastructure
• providing an injection of funding to support the transition to Net Zero carbon emissions
• providing guarantees for Wales’ specific funding pressures

Speaking ahead of the UK Budget announcement, Nia Griffith MP reiterated her calls for continued business support for those on the lowest of incomes. She said:  

“It is vital that the Job Retention Scheme and Self Employed Income Support Scheme are retained – not threatened with being removed at the eleventh hour and putting livelihoods at risk. A delay to repayments should also be introduced for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme with recognition given to the self-employed who are facing deferred bills.”

“It is also vital that the £20 per week increase to Universal Credit is maintained and put on a permanent basis, making it available to people in receipt of legacy means-tested benefits. More than 300,000 families in Wales have benefitted from an extra £1,000 a year as a result of the uplift and removing this now would have a detrimental and long-lasting effect on thousands of households across Wales.”

Lee Waters MS said:

“The UK Government should continue to take advantage of historically low interest rates to invest in Wales’ infrastructure and public services. Particularly on rail, where we have been underfunded to the tune of billions since the start of devolution, this is the moment where Rishi Sunak can demonstrate his commitment to ‘levelling up’ all four nations of the UK.”

“This budget is a chance to hardwire a greener, fairer way of doing things into our recovery from Coronavirus. We are ambitious about our target of being Net Zero carbon by 2050, and averting the climate crisis which is increasingly affecting Wales through flooding. But to make that transition, we need a step change from the UK Government’s budget that allows us to invest in renewable energy and green jobs.”

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Politics

MS summoned to Court over tweet

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PLAID CYMRU’s Mid & West Wales Regional Senedd Member Helen Mary Jones has been summoned to appear at Swansea Crown Court.

HHJ Paul Thomas QC ordered Ms Jones to court after she retweeted a third-party’s post which expressed the hope a defendant in an ongoing murder trial would be convicted.

The tweet referred to the trial of 70-year-old Anthony Williams, who killed his wife shortly after the start of the first lockdown in March last year.

Mr Williams had pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to manslaughter.

However, while the trial was ongoing, a domestic violence campaigner tweeted:: “Another perp using the ‘I just snapped’. It is complete b******t! As so many of us will know, there would have been history of domestic abuse.
“I hope this jury finds him guilty of murder. Rest in peace, Ruth.”
On Saturday, before the jury returned its verdict, Ms Jones shared the tweet.

There was no history of domestic abuse and no suggestion of it was raised during Mr Jones’ trial.

When the Jury returned to Court on Monday, HHJ Paul Thomas said: “It’s come to my attention that, over the weekend, there have been some highly inappropriate comments made on social media about this case.
“I should make it abundantly clear that those comments have not come from anybody connected with the case and, having been shown the contents of one such piece of social media, they clearly don’t have any idea about the evidence in this case or the issues in this case.”
None of the jurors saw the offending post and continued their deliberations.

On Monday afternoon, the jury acquitted Mr Williams of murder.

By retweeting the remarks made by a third party, the risk existed that the jury could have been influenced and their decision-making compromised.

On Thursday, Helen Mary Jones will have the chance to explain her actions to Judge Thomas in person.

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Welsh budget ‘very much a draft’

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THE SENEDD’s Finance Committee’s report on the Welsh Government’s Draft Budget for 2021-22, voices serious concerns for public services, inequality and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Committee is clear that the need to address and alleviate poverty is more critical than ever, with the pandemic deepening the problems already faced by low-income and disadvantaged households.

HEALTH AND SOCIAL CARE

The Finance Committee is worried about the impact of the pandemic on non-COVID care, due to sustained pressure on the NHS and its healthcare workers. The Finance Committee also believes the impact of the pandemic on mental health will be considerable over the next year and beyond.

The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee agrees that the public health emergency Wales is facing should not be underestimated, either in terms of responding to the immediate challenges of the pandemic, or the need to do what can be done to maintain the vital non-COVID services on which people rely.

The Committee believes the true scale of the implications for the health and wellbeing of people in Wales, may not become clear for years. The crisis has also exacerbated underlying issues, including the fragility of the social care sector, the ongoing health inequalities across Wales, and the need for a clear strategic vision to drive health and social care integration and service transformation.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND EDUCATION

The Finance Committee is concerned that increased funding in the local government settlement will not cover all cost pressures, such as social care, childcare, and education.

The Finance Committee is deeply concerned about the risks to children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those in early years, falling behind in their education as a result of the pandemic. The Finance Committee is calling for more information about how funding will support learners to ‘catch up’ while also delivering the current ways of learning.

ECONOMY, SKILLS  & REGENERATION

The Finance Committee heard evidence that the Draft Budget does not provide a coherent approach to supporting businesses through the pandemic. While recognising that it may be sensible to allow some degree of flexibility, the Committee is concerned that the implementation of the business support packages has been “patchy” with smaller businesses finding it harder to access funds. This has been further complicated by the different approaches to business support from different Governments within the UK.

The Committee believes the Draft Budget could have been clearer in outlining the Welsh Government’s long-term approach to potential shifts in consumer behaviour towards online retailers and the effect on local economies. The Welsh Government should rethink previous policies on revitalising town centres in light of the pandemic.

CHALLENGES NEED LONG-TERM APPROACH

Llyr Gruffydd MS, Chair of the Finance Committee said: “This is the final Draft Budget of the Fifth Senedd. This year the pandemic has delayed UK fiscal events, resulting in delays to publication of the Welsh Government’s Draft Budget. This has reduced our time for scrutiny which is particularly concerning given that COVID-19 will have an impact on public spending for years to come.

“This Draft Budget is very much a draft. A lack of forward-funding figures with only a one- year revenue funding settlement, and the timing of the UK Government’s Budget set later for 3 March has made budget-setting even more challenging for the Welsh Government.

“Much of our work is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst welcoming the extra money for health and social services, the Committee is concerned about the long-term impacts on non-COVID care. We also have serious concerns over workforce capacity and mental health.

“Our businesses need support more than ever, with many being forced to close. For them to have a future after this pandemic, we support calls for the simplification and consolidation of the financial assistance schemes available.

“COVID-19 has brought many serious challenges and the financial impact on health, the economy and public services will be felt by society for years to come. While there is a need to respond to the immediate situation we are hopeful that there is an opportunity for longer-term planning to ensure that Wales can recover strongly.”

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