Draft National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Amendment of Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006) Order 2007

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Adam Price: That is why I am asking the Minister—obviously, it is the Minister who has political authority in the Government. It would be interesting if he could give the official line and the official definition of a successful outcome. Also, of course, it is not just the letter of the agreement but the spirit to which we are referring here.
On this day of days, when my party has entered Government for the first time in our history—I think that it was 86 minutes ago that we did so—I do not want to strike too discordant a note. However, in response to provocation by the hon. Member for Clwyd, West, may I put it on the record that I have no intention of crossing the Floor? I think that I would feel as uncomfortable on that side as I do sometimes sitting so close to some Conservative Members. Of course, the writ of the coalition Government now formed begins and ends on the Severn bridge. I am sure that that is a source of great relief to the right hon. Member for Islwyn. Nevertheless, we look forward to continued debates that are robust but hopefully also constructive, as we move forward into this new era of Welsh politics.
Turning to the matter in front of us, I have some misgivings that I have been able to share with the Minister; some are about content and some are about process. Regarding content, anything that seeks to set limits on the National Assembly’s powers will clearly not receive much support from a nationalist party; I am sure that the Committee will understand that. The Minister said that the order seeks to set the boundaries in terms of the current settlement. I would argue that it is the minimalist interpretation of the current settlement that is unduly narrow. Clearly the Minister and I disagree on that, but another opportunity has been missed to have a more expansive interpretation of the current settlement.
It strikes me as odd that, for instance, even after going through the pain of a referendum campaign—I am sure that there will be pain for some of us—and securing the successful outcome of a yes vote, we find that we have a law-making Parliament for the first time in our history and the registration of local bus services is beyond its remit. That does not strike me as being particularly consistent with what we are trying to achieve in creating a full law-making National Assembly. Indeed, the Assembly’s Economic Development and Transport Committee and the Welsh Affairs Committee have both asked the Westminster Government on several occasions for the devolution of the registration of bus services, in particular to get away from the absurd situation whereby the traffic commissioner for Wales has an office in Birmingham. In fact, some of the meetings held with local bus companies are held over the border in England, which does not strike me as appropriate. So there have been some missed opportunities.
For a few months, of course, because of a slip of the parliamentary draftsman’s pen, the safety of inland waterways was within the legislative competence of the Welsh Assembly. Now it is being rudely snatched away by the Westminster Government in this tidying-up exercise.
There are a number of other areas where we have some concerns about the effect of the statutory instrument. For example, in housing finance there is a reference to adding an exception that covers housing benefit, but it is unclear whether it covers council tax benefit. Will the Minister say whether it will in any way inhibit the ability of the new Administration in the Welsh Assembly to proceed with their plan in the “One Wales” document to offer extra help to pensioners with regard to council tax? Will it inhibit the ability of that Administration to proceed with first-time buyer grants, which will be a form of benefit provided to first-time buyers? I hope the Minister will respond on that.
On the issue of water, which has always been very close to the heart of my party, the hon. Member for Clwyd, West is clearly more animated by the needs and concerns of English customers of Welsh water companies. Unsurprisingly, I am more concerned about the Welsh customers of English water companies. I am unclear as to the position of the Severn Trent Water area within Wales after the statutory instrument is passed, so perhaps the Minister will say a little on that.
On the issue of inquiries in reserved matters, which was added to the exceptions, my understanding is that the Assembly is currently empowered to hold inquiries that touch, in part, on reserved matters. Such inquiries will principally be focused on areas of devolved competence, but may have to look at areas that are reserved. Will the Minister confirm that this measure in no way changes the position set out in the Inquiries Act 2005, whereby the Administration are allowed to take evidence in areas which are reserved at Westminster?
Finally, on process, I hope that, on reflection, the Minister can agree that while this statutory instrument has been seven months in the making, it would have been wiser to have waited until the new Administration were formed. I have no doubt that detailed work has been done by officials in the Wales Office, in other Departments and in the Welsh Assembly Government. However, we are talking about a change in the settlement post-referendum, and the referendum will not be held in the next few weeks.
Would it not have been better, therefore, to have waited for the new Administration to be formed, so that both of the parties involved could have had an opportunity to examine the issues from the perspective of the new Administration? We knew that this situation was a possibility a few weeks ago. I accept that it was probably more cock-up than conspiracy and am confident that this will not set the tone under the new political arrangements. On reflection, it might have been better if the timetable had allowed the new Administration, and not just the previous one, to provide some input.
3.3 pm
Huw Irranca-Davies: Thank you, Mr. Chope, for calling me to respond to the many and various comments made on the detail and the overall approach of the order.
I will deal first with timing, which has been mentioned by all hon. Members who have spoken. I alluded earlier to the painstaking work that has gone on in Whitehall and in the Welsh Assembly Government in preparing this very detailed and technical order. There was a commitment under the Government of Wales Act 2006 to bring this measure forward at the earliest possible opportunity, and the process has proceeded regardless of any outside political matters.
My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger), made a commitment to this House to bring this measure forward at the earliest opportunity, to set out the delineations of the powers of Whitehall and the Welsh Assembly Government. That is why the order is being laid; it was not laid previously because of the rigorous examination of the wording in schedule 7 by the Welsh Assembly Government and UK Government Departments. I think everybody would agree that the current devolution settlement is extremely complicated. It has not always proved easy to define the devolved powers in succinct and accurate terms.
Let me deal with the thrust of the order. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr asked whether there has been a missed opportunity with regard to considering the content of the order, and whether there could be more discussion. The purpose of the order was not about such things, however; it was very tightly to define the existing delineations. I do not like the phrase, but this is, was always perceived to be and was argued in the Government of Wales Act as being a tidying-up exercise that would put those clear delineations down—no more and no less. Its purpose is purely to enable technical corrections to be made to details that could not be resolved within the time scale of the Bill.
The order makes no change to the stated purpose and effect of schedule 7, which is to reflect the scope of the existing Welsh Ministers’ functions, so that if the Assembly acquired primary powers, those powers would cover the functions of the Welsh Ministers.
Mr. Jones: The Minister will recall that I reminded him of the commitment that was made to introduce the order before the Assembly elections in May. Why was that deadline passed?
Huw Irranca-Davies: In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s queries, I point out that, as I think I made clear both in my introductory comments and subsequently, given the depth and complexity of the issues, it is far more important to ensure that the information that we have before us is accurate. This is the single order that the House is bringing forward, as a commitment made in respect of the Government of Wales Act, to ensure that schedule 7 is accurate and timely. I accept that that has taken a little more time than we anticipated, but I do not accept any criticism of the work that has gone on behind the scenes to deliver it. Sometimes such matters take a little longer than is expected. I am satisfied, as the Minister standing before this Committee, that we now have an accurate representation of the current ministerial powers.
I turn now to some of the other questions that have been asked. I apologise that my responses will be in no particular order, but I shall try to address each issue. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr mentioned bus services. The registration of local bus services has been excepted from the Assembly’s legislative competence, because there is a unified system of traffic commissioners across Great Britain. Although traffic commissioners are appointed by the Secretary of State for Transport, they have a quasi-judicial role. As a result, they operate largely independently of Government. The role of the traffic commissioners is related to the power of Welsh Ministers to give subsidies to bus services. Here we see the complexity: their role is to ensure that bus operators operate their routes in accordance with the details of the services that they have registered. As a result, it is appropriate for that to be excepted. The Welsh Assembly agrees that that reflects the current powers.
On economic development and nuclear energy, the Welsh Ministers have a role in planning decisions for electricity generation facilities below 50 MW. However, energy policy, including the difficult decisions on whether nuclear energy should play a role in meeting our energy needs in the sustainable mix of sources, has always been a matter for the UK Government in Wales as in England. Again, the order accurately reflects what currently happens; it simply seeks to make it clear. The fact that electricity generation and nuclear energy remain outside the areas where the Assembly exercises executive functions, or where it might have legislative competence following a successful referendum to that effect, does not mean that local people and their representatives cannot have their say. The UK Government’s current consultation on nuclear energy offers the opportunity for the public and for representative groups to set out their views. Furthermore, the Welsh Assembly Government have been consulted, and will continue to be consulted, on the UK Government’s energy proposals in so far as they affect Wales.
There was a query, again from the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr, about the issue of inquiries. He asked whether we could clarify the position in terms of previous statements, and whether there was any intention to change the current position. I can give him the assurance that there is none at all. The position set out in statements that are on the record already, made in previous Sessions, stays exactly as it is.
The hon. Member for Clwyd, West asked whether the Assembly lacks competence with regard to hazardous substances. The answer is no. To be quite clear on this subject, hazardous substances are already included under the “Environment” heading, so they are within schedule 7, and there is no intention to remove any competence for the Assembly. That reflects the actuality. What we are trying to do here is avoid repetition, because hazardous substances appeared twice in the original document.
Mr. Jones: Am I therefore to understand that, although the Assembly has no competence in respect of new nuclear installations, it has competence in respect of nuclear waste? Is that correct? Furthermore, if that is indeed the case, is there not likely to be potential for conflict between the Assembly and Parliament?
Huw Irranca-Davies: If I can carry on addressing various issues, I shall try to return to the hon. Gentleman on that issue before I finish.
A query was raised about housing benefit. I would like to clarify matters for the benefit of the Committee. On the subject of housing finance, there will be an amendment to clarify that housing benefit and council tax benefits are not included in the Assembly’s legislative competence. As these are non-devolved subjects, that change is wholly appropriate.
I think that I have dealt with inquiries. Let me check whether there are any issues outstanding.
Adam Price: I specifically raised the issue of council tax benefit. If the Welsh Assembly Government proceed to provide an additional benefit to pensioners, for example, is there anything in this statutory instrument that would prevent them from legislating to do that, even after a successful referendum? I realise that such a referendum is what we are talking about now.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. If he is content, I would be happy to write to him to clarify that issue.
The hon. Member for Clwyd, West asked about water issues; he had a very technical query about water companies that supply areas not only in Wales, but across the border. Again, if he is content with this, I will happily write to him to clarify exactly how that system will operate under schedule 7.
May I also clarify another matter that the hon. Gentleman raised? The phrase “including reservoirs” will be added to the water resources management measure. That is to clarify that the Assembly would be able to pass Acts in relation to reservoirs generally, including their construction, enlargement and so on. The current wording gives the Assembly competence only over the safety of reservoirs, which does not accurately reflect the extent of Welsh Ministers’ functions in this area. Also, in terms of water resources, the addition of the word “regulation” to the first exception reflects the current devolution settlement. So this is very much a tidying-up exercise.
I think that I have been through all the issues that have been raised, unless the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene.
Mr. Jones: I note that the Minister will be writing to me about the question of water companies and I think that I know what his answer will probably be. I also raised the issue of tidal impoundment, which is a matter of some concern. Perhaps he could let us have an explanation of that issue too.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Again, if the hon. Gentleman is content, I am more than happy to write in detail on that particular matter to satisfy his query.
Mr. Jones: Yes, I am content, but I would say that this illustrates the need for proper pre-legislative scrutiny, which we have not had on this occasion. Perhaps the Minister could bear it in mind that these issues do arise, and that it is important that Members should be satisfied on them. As I have already said, I do not propose to make an issue of the order today, but a warning note ought to be struck, which he should bear in mind.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I think that it would be right to say that this particular policy area is one of the most complicated in the devolution settlement. During the passage through Parliament of the 2006 Act, it was acknowledged that the area would have to be looked at. I am confident that we can write to the hon. Gentleman with detailed answers to his queries, but I am not in a position today to answer him in the detail that he requires.
With those remarks, I am content to offer the order to the Committee for its satisfaction.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Amendment of Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006) Order 2007.
Committee rose at seventeen minutes past Three o’clock.
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