EU Withdrawal Bill must not be allowed to roll-back hard-won devolution
David Rees, Chair of the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee
Huw Irranca-Davies, Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee Chair
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – AKA the “Repeal Bill” – is a landmark moment in constitutional legislation.
The impacts of this legislation may go far beyond its stated purpose, which is to begin the process of converting EU law into UK law. If badly handled, it could disrupt the existing devolution settlements of the Nations and Regions, and unravel the constitutional arrangements for the wider United Kingdom.
There is a huge burden of responsibility on the UK Government to work constructively with the devolved governments and administrations to get this right, and to respect the existing devolution settlements. The legislation must be right. The process must be right.
But let us be clear: our role as committees is not to oppose Brexit. Far from it. Our role is to ensure that in leaving the EU, any changes to the constitutional arrangements of the UK as a result, do not impact negatively on the Assembly and the people it serves.
The Bill itself and the implications which flow from the Bill are complex. They demand the most intense analysis and scrutiny. That is why we are joining forces to consult on the implications for Wales; we want to hear the views of as many people and organisations as possible in the coming weeks.
By working together, we hope to reach out to a wide sector of society and hear what people have to say, drawing on their experiences, expertise and knowledge.
We’ve already made clear that our first impressions on the Bill have already given us – and others – cause for concern.
For example, Clause 11 of the Bill freezes the competence of the National Assembly for Wales in relation to EU law.
The National Assembly for Wales must currently comply with EU law and the Bill says that, after exit, the National Assembly for Wales will still have to comply with the body of EU law that will be retained after exit.
The Explanatory Notes to the Bill say that this is intended to be a transitional arrangement while decisions are taken on where common policy approaches are or are not needed.
It also says that the Bill provides that the Assembly may only modify retained EU law to the extent that it had the power to do so immediately before exit.
However, the Bill does not include any such freezing in relation to the Westminster Parliament, which means that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is having an uneven impact on the constituent countries that make up the UK.
We are concerned at the appropriateness of this transitional arrangement and in particular that the National Assembly for Wales will still have to comply with retained EU law, while the Westminster Parliament will not.
In addition, the Bill doesn’t include any information about how long this transitional arrangement will last and the specific circumstances under which it will be brought to an end.
We are also concerned at the significant powers the Bill gives to UK Ministers in clause 7. While they may be necessary to address some practical and legal issues arising from our exit from the EU, they allow UK Ministers to modify legislation in devolved areas without requiring the Assembly’s consent.
Furthermore, we note that the Bill will not give Welsh Ministers in Cardiff and UK Government Ministers in London the same powers to amend laws after Brexit.
The Bill will dictate to the National Assembly for Wales the procedure to be applied to regulations that are made by the Welsh Ministers in devolved areas and that are laid before, and scrutinised by, the National Assembly for Wales.
However, it is important that we test these views with people across Wales, so that we can build up a fair picture of the Bill and its implications for the devolved settlement and our ability to make laws and decisions relating to people’s everyday lives after Brexit.
We hope to hear from many more people in the coming weeks, and we will also be engaging with the UK Government and parliamentary committees in order to safeguard the Assembly’s law-making powers as the UK exits the EU.
To respond to the consultation: please submit your response to Committees@Assembly.Wales. The deadline for submissions is: 10.00 Monday, 4 September 2017