Why Peers must unite to protect devolution from the UK Government’s devastating recentralisation
Lord Dafydd Wigley
The UK Internal Market Bill has already been ravaged by the House of Lords, who at Committee stage, knocked out the entirety of the scandalous sections empowering the UK Government to break its treaty obligations under international law.
This week it was further amended at Report stage, to insist on Common Frameworks to resolve differences – a system supported by both the Welsh and Scottish governments as – if not ideal – a far preferable system to the Westminster-dominated model proposed in the Internal Market Bill. The Government were defeated on this by a whopping 367-209; it is now up to MPs to respond.
The government were also defeated on safeguards proposed by an all-party Lords Committee. The Bill faces two more days of scrutiny next week, and undoubtedly further Government defeats, before it returns for MPs to consider whether or not to accept the second Chamber’s proposed changes.
Much attention has rightly been focused on the far-reaching international implications of the Internal Market Bill, given that it is being debated at a critical time for Britain’s trade negotiations with the EU and at the dawn of a new Presidency in the White House.
Equally stark, however, are the Bill’s implications for devolution. Taken together, this Bill in its current form signals to the world and all four nations of the UK that we are retreating not only from our global role, but also from democracy and devolution.
The way in which the UK government have formulated and progressed this Bill project a worrying insight of Westminster’s vision for Britain’s post-EU future. The Bill threatens international law and at home, introduces a significant recentralisation of power to Westminster. This includes giving power to Westminster to control state aid; giving the UK Government direct control over finance previously provided by the EU through its structural and social funds and allocated by devolved governments; and in these and associated areas, enabling Westminster to bypass our democratically elected devolved governments.
This week, Boris Johnson let the cat out of the bag, when he dubbed devolution as a “disaster”. His comments reflect the thrust of this Bill – a clear rejection of devolution and local democracy. Ministers at Westminster have presented no coherent justification for the centralisation of these powers.
Furthermore, it is quite ironic that this happens at the time when devolution has played an effective central role in our Covid-19 response, demonstrating its inherent strengths from informed local decision-making to community endeavour. Simultaneously, Westminster’s shambolic performance has shown itself incompetent, wasteful and potentially corrupt; to which northern regions of England are now awakening.
Westminster’s stewardship of our economy has created one of the most regionally and socially unequal states in the world, in which one can travel from the wealthiest to one of the poorest regions of Europe in three hours along the M4 motorway. This economic travesty – reflected as it is in chronic poverty and poor life expectancy in Wales – was brutally clear long before the tragic impact of Covid-19.
Yet the UK government has continued its top-down approach in this Bill, claiming that it will facilitate increased investment in Welsh infrastructure. Yet as my Plaid Cymru colleague Ben Lake MP noted, UK Ministers have an abysmal record of abusing their significant powers in non-devolved policy areas, such as over our railways.
Wales was promised in 2010 by the Conservatives that their government would electrify the Great Western mainline to Swansea, and in 2015 that the Valleys lines and the North Wales main line would also be electrified. Yet despite the Conservatives support for other railways like HS2 and Crossrail, the North Wales main line and Valleys line are not electrified, and they have only electrified up to Cardiff in the south.
In this key area – critical to Wales’ economic performance and where UK Ministers can already invest without limit – Wales has, in recent years, only received 1.5% of the money that UK Ministers have spent on rail improvements, despite having 11% of the UK’s railway track. The historic performance of UK Ministers in such matters can hardly fill us with confidence about the likely impact of this new Bill.
The Bill also has the devastating potential of undermining standards and curbing Wales’ ability to promote local growth. In its rush to the regulatory bottom, the Bill weakens our Senedd’s capacity to legislative effectively by forcing the devolved nations to accept goods and services produced to regulations and standards in each other nation – even if those standards are lower than our own.
Equally, the Bill could invalidate “buy local” policies in Wales by making it illegal to favour locally produced goods over goods from another part of the UK. While it won’t mean anything goes, it will largely mean whatever happens in the English economy goes. Wales may find itself powerless to protect its standards or help local businesses.
It is therefore easy to conclude that the Commons have so far been reckless in their approach to this Bill, with each and every Welsh Conservative MP lining up to weaken their own national parliament. This is despite a clear majority of people in Wales supporting our Senedd, be it in its current form, or strengthened with more much-needed powers. I have no doubt that this will generate similar support when the Senedd is elevated to the status of the national parliament of an independent Wales; and roll-on that day.
As the Internal Market Bill progresses over coming days, I hope that Peers will support amendments tabled in my name, and those of colleagues, that would safeguard public procurement policies from being negatively impacted by this reckless Bill; ensure that Wales retains the power to administer economic development funds as we currently do under EU arrangements; and prevent any Westminster government from forcing damaging projects upon Wales without our consent.
The people of Wales have expressed their support for devolution in two successive referenda – we cannot stand by while this self-serving government rips our devolved settlement to shreds.