Amongst the recent political upheaval, the Wales Bill’s progress through the House of Commons has been somewhat overlooked. Alan Cogbill discusses how the version currently being debated has changed from last year’s much criticised draft bill. He suggests that the new bill is a significant improvement but still leaves fundamental questions unanswered.
Amidst the excitement and despair of the EU referendum, leadership contests, and the new UK Government, a constitutional measure is hastening through parliament with relatively little attention. The Wales Bill, which puts the legislative powers of the Welsh Assembly on a new footing, and reframes the powers of Welsh ministers, was introduced on 7 June, and has already completed second reading and committee stages in the House of Commons.
The government’s 2015 draft bill ran into heavy criticism, in the Assembly, Commons, and outside. A joint Wales Governance Centre/ Constitution Unit report, which reviewed the draft bill in detail, found it severely flawed. In February then Secretary of State for Wales Stephen Crabb announced a re-think. It fell to his successor, Alun Cairns, to introduce the revised Bill.
The new bill has tried to respond to many of the criticisms made – although its authors have not resisted a little mischief. A new duty on the Assembly to require ‘judicial impact assessments’ of Assembly bills was seen in Wales as importing another (covert) fetter, but it appears not; Alun Cairns said on second reading that appraisals would not give rise to any ‘veto’ by the UK. The bill is deliberately declaratory in high constitutional matters, but whether it needs to highlight a small and inconsequential item of inter-government relations seems questionable.
A ‘reserved powers’ approach to devolution in Wales would offer a number of significant advantages, but applying such a model will not be straightforward. Drawing on research conducted with the Wales Governance Centre and the Constitution Unit for a report published this week, Alan Trench outlines the key challenges.
The debate about a ‘reserved powers’ model for the National Assembly has to be one of the most obscure legal issues to enter public debate. The basic idea is straightforward: that the powers of the National Assembly should be defined by setting out what it cannot do, rather than by defining ‘subject areas’ where it does have power to pass laws. The idea is scarcely novel – it was mooted by the Richard Commission in 2004, and repeated by the Silk Commission in 2014 – but it has acquired political legs following the St David’s Day process with all the parties agreeing to adopt it.
A ‘reserved powers’ approach would offer a number of significant advantages. It would mean that Welsh devolution works in a similar way to that in Scotland and Northern Ireland – important both symbolically and as a way of making it clearer to the public how a devolved UK works. It also offers a way to resolve the puzzle created by the UK Supreme Court’s jurisprudence about devolution, and particularly its judgment in the reference about the NHS Recovery Of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases (Wales) Bill,  UKSC 3, by enabling the Assembly to legislate for all matters save expressly those reserved to Westminster. In broad terms, the Scotland Act 1998 provides a valuable model – not necessarily so much in the list of reserved matters in Schedule 5 as in the provisions of the Act for identifying the scope of those reservations and interpreting them in the courts. At present, the list of proposed reserved matters suggests a list of matters Whitehall departments do not wish to see devolved, unsupported by any wider rationale or principle. That is not the right way to proceed when drafting a constitution. It needs some clearer and stronger basis, rooted in a conception of what the UK needs to do at the centre (and why), and what is best done by devolved governments.
Proposals for a reserved powers model in Wales raise major questions about the division of powers between the UK and devolved Welsh tiers of government. Alan Trench argues that Welsh reservations should not simply be an adaptation of the Scottish model. What is needed is a carefully-thought through approach by the UK Government followed by a public debate, engaging the Welsh Government, the political parties and Welsh civil society.
Since at least 2004, when the Richard Commission proposed one, there has been significant support in Wales for adoption of a ‘reserved powers’ model – as Scotland and (in a different way) Northern Ireland have. The call was strongly endorsed by the Silk Commission in its Part 2 report and became UK Government policy with support from all four main parties following the St David’s Day process. There seems to be an assumption now that a reserved powers model is essentially a technical matter and that the Scottish model can and will be taken off the shelf and applied, with appropriate modifications, to Wales. That might not be a bad way forward – there’s a good deal to be said for the Scottish legislation, though it’s not a magical way to solve all problems. But real devils also lurk in the detail of what ‘appropriate modifications’ might be.
What appears to be underway is a process by which Whitehall departments are consulted about what functions they want to see retained, and what they are happy to let go. The Welsh Government is a marginal player in this process, if it is a player at all, and the Wales Office does not appear to have a strategy to go with its consultation list. The first fruit of that trawl appeared in the Powers for a Purpose Command paper published in February at the end of the St David’s Day process, as Annex B.