Steffan Lewis, Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales East
Tomorrow, I will move a Members’ Legislative Proposal in the National Assembly that calls for a Continuity Bill to defend Welsh democracy from a Tory power-grab.
The UK Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill, ostensibly an exercise in administrative tidying up to prepare for Brexit, is being used to smuggle in a roll-back of Welsh devolved powers. Our national parliament must resist.
During the 2016 European referendum, no-one promised that a vote to leave the EU would result in the full or partial reversal of two referenda in favour of devolution.
In fact, the opposite was regularly repeated by those in favour of separation from the EU.
Depending on the final relationship, what should happen post-separation is that the EU ceiling currently in place on the powers of the National Assembly would simply be lifted; but the powers themselves remain where they have been for almost twenty years. Here in Wales.
The Westminster Withdrawal Bill introduces an abrupt interruption to that process: it places jurisdiction over devolved matters in the hands of ministers who – up till now – have only been responsible for English policy areas.
They will have unprecedented powers for an indefinite period of time.
Plaid Cymru has always argued that our new relationship with the EU would result in the need for new arrangements between the governments and parliaments of these islands – but such arrangements can only be implemented on the basis of agreement.
Indeed it is my deeply held view that Article Fifty should never have been triggered without at least an outline agreement between the nations of these islands on what our future relationship should look like.
From the moment the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ White Paper was published, Plaid Cymru warned that it represented a direct threat to Welsh democracy.
When the renamed EU Withdrawal Bill was introduced, our worst fears were realised.
Clause 11 of the Bill puts new constraints on the Assembly’s ability to legislate. English Ministers alone will have the power to amend EU regulations that fall within the Assembly’s competence, without any oversight from AMs.
Both the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government have described this as a completely unacceptable re-centralization of powers.
They jointly tabled amendments to the Withdrawal Bill that were then blocked by the UK Government in the House of Commons.
We are speeding headfirst into a constitutional crisis.
I have long advocated a Continuity Bill as a means of pre-empting and mitigating a potential power-grab. This was never the preferred option, but I believe it essential.
Whether you are ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ is irrelevant in terms of the Continuity Bill.
It comes down to one simple principle. Was the referendum in 2016 a mandate to take powers away from Wales?
I’m pleased that after consistent moves by Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Government has confirmed that a Continuity Bill has been drafted and is ready to be tabled.
They have thus far been reluctant to progress it, probably hoping that the Westminster Bill can be salvaged.
But time is running out. Once the Wales Act 2017 comes into force at the beginning of April, the Assembly’s competence will be curtailed. A Continuity Bill may no longer be possible.
The fastest a piece of legislation has ever been passed by the Assembly is roughly one month. We have until the very beginning of March to introduce the Bill.
We won’t know whether amendments to Clause 11 of the Withdrawal Bill have been tabled for debate in the House of Lords until the very end of February. By waiting, the Welsh Government are taking an unwise gamble with Wales’ constitutional future.
The Welsh Assembly has voted in favour of developing a Continuity Bill before, when a Plaid Cymru amendment passed in April last year.
The stakes are higher now, the Tories have been unwilling to compromise so far and the clock is ticking.
This is the National Assembly’s opportunity to defend the Welsh constitution from attempts to undermine our competency without any democratic legitimacy.
We cannot allow Brexit to be used as an excuse to roll back the hard-won powers of our national parliament, as voted for by the Welsh public in two referenda.
If we fail, the consequences of the current Tory cabinet having powers over devolved matters may prove irreversible and almost certainly damaging.