The chlorinated chicken and egg question: Why concerns about a devolution ‘power grab’ are overblown

Could the Internal Market Bill lead to the M4 relief road being forced through? Picture by Ben Salter (CC BY 2.0).

Andrew Potts

In publishing the Internal Market Bill the UK Government, and therefore the Conservative Party, has come in for much criticism across the political spectrum including from within its own Welsh ranks.

It has already been described by Welsh Labour as a “power grab” that undermines devolution and erodes existing powers.

Other commentators have expressed their frustration that Wales’ political institutions have failed to prepare for this type of “attack” despite having two decades to do so.

I agree with part of this sentiment. Twenty years of Welsh Labour has led to complacency not confidence as a devolved administration.

But I do not view the draft legislation as an attack on Welsh devolution. The UK Government states that it represents “the biggest transfer of powers in the history of devolution”.

The Bill passed its first reading in the Commons last week with a majority of 77 votes, while its second reading saw Labour MPs abstaining. I am sure there are complex legislative reasons for abstention but as an ordinary member of the public I have often wondered the reason for being non-committal in a political arena where decisions are made.

Back in Wales, Jeremy Miles claims that the UK Government “plans to sacrifice the future of the union by stealing powers from the devolved administrations”. Mark Drakeford said that the legislation would “hasten the break-up of the Union”.

But the draft Bill, put forward by the Conservative and Unionist Party, would see approximately 70 additional powers transfer from Brussels to Cardiff.

Critics say that it will give Westminster the ultimate say on decisions ranging from food standards to infrastructure. But whomever you believe, what is important is how these powers are used.

The Bill contains clauses which include mutual recognition provisions to ensure that any goods which are legally sold in one part of the UK can also be sold in in the other parts of the UK. This has provided fears that local quality controls could suffer.

 

Access

So let’s start with the chlorinated chicken and egg question. The UK enjoys some of the highest food, health and animal welfare standards in the world, but there is concern that a post-Brexit trade deal will be struck with the US allowing such things as the importation of chlorine-washed chicken to England.

Under the proposed Bill all four nations would have to ‘accept goods and services at the standards set in any one country’. However, various powers would be directly controlled by the devolved administrations, including farming standards and food labelling.

Over 75% of Welsh trade goes to the rest of the UK, and this Bill would allow the seamless internal market to continue. Around 60% of Welsh lamb is sold to other parts of the UK, but without the Bill a Welsh lamb producer could end up being unable to sell their lamb in the other three nations due to differences in rules.

The proposals would ensure Welsh farmers continue to have guaranteed access to the markets they currently enjoy.

So let us assume that what the Welsh Labour Government views as a “race to the bottom” pans out, whilst ignoring the fact that UK ministers insist they want to maintain high standards so would not enter into such a trade deal in the first place.

As consumers of the various goods and services on offer we exercise choice every time we make a purchase. And Cardiff Bay would have the say over food labelling. If items don’t meet local (or your own) standards, don’t buy them. My preference is coronation chicken not chlorination chicken.

Assuming the Bill is passed, vote with your wallet and continue to buy Welsh/British produce.

Ignore

Now let’s look at infrastructure. The major concern seems to be that the rejected M4 relief road would suddenly be built.

The new legislation would give the UK Government powers to fund large infrastructure projects, but as planning is already a devolved matter it would need Welsh Government approval to carry out the work.

In simple terms, if you’ve got a plot of land and want to build a house you need both money and planning permission. Whilst we are all now used to seeing Boris Johnson driving a bulldozer, he’ll first need Welsh Government consent to drive it around Newport.

It has been suggested that the Internal Market Bill would enable the UK Government to simply ignore the wishes of Wales and the Welsh Parliament, and force through whichever projects it sees fit.

But the Welsh Secretary Simon Hart has said that the Bill would mean “more money coming into Wales” and that “what we shouldn’t be doing is saying ‘we know best, we’re just going to put investment where we think is best’ – we need to be guided by local opinion.”

The Conservative Party did well in Wales in the 2019 General Election and wants to build on that success at next year’s Senedd elections. You don’t win votes but rubbing your electorate up the wrong way so why expect unpopular projects to be imposed?

Labour MP Alex Davies-Jones said “it would allow the UK government to decide if they wanted to spend money on something and then…take that out of the budget”.

The Conservatives 2019 General Election manifesto committed to matching EU funding for the four nations as a minimum – approximately £375m a year for Wales. With elections in Wales next year, even the most cynical cannot expect that such a commitment wouldn’t be honoured.

With no sense of irony, Plaid Cymru MP Ben Lake said that UK ministers had “failed to make the most of the powers they already have” in Wales. What do we want? Independence. When do we want it? Whenever it suits us.

Meanwhile, Shadow Welsh Secretary Nia Griffith said that “if you look at the devolved budget, what has actually happened over the last 10 years is the Tories have cut and cut and cut.”

The Barnett formula means that Wales was not singled out, and without reforming it Wales’ share of the UK pot would have altered in the same way even if Labour was in power in Westminster.

Values

What perhaps should be revisited is the Sewel convention. Currently a political convention which is not legally binding, it means that the UK parliament does not usually pass legislation which impacts on devolved administrations without their consent. For a notable recent exception to this, see EU Withdrawal Agreement Act 2020.

A legally binding ‘Sewel Act’ would put all four nations on a more equal footing.

In the meantime, it should be remembered that Welsh Conservatives are by-and-large Welsh people with conservative values, not Conservatives who happen to live in Wales.

We want to see the best for Wales, with increased investment, improved education, safer streets, a flourishing economy and better standards of living.

For devolution to work effectively, and for Wales to have a stronger voice, vote Welsh Conservative next May.

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