An existential threat to devolution

The Internal Market Bill is an existential threat to devolution and Labour must continue to oppose it in its entirety. Although presented by the UK Government as an innocuous piece of legislation designed to fill in the space where the EU once roamed, in fields such as internal regulatory standards and state aid, the truth is far more sinister. 

The Bill would, if it became law and for the sake of the continued existence of the UK hope it doesn’t, would ride roughshod over the ability of the devolved administrations to legislate in areas where they currently hold legislative competence, alongside areas in which the Welsh and Scottish Governments have requested competence post-Brexit. Not least the totemic issue of state aid, as this logically would fall within their purview under the portfolio of economic development.  

If it became an Act of Parliament it would give powers to the UK Government to spend money in devolved areas and, as the UK Government claims, allow them to pursue “projects of national significance”. Why, may you ask, is this a problem? Who doesn’t want money spent on them? 

Well, in Wales our Government decided that it would not build a relief road for the M4 Motorway. It took this decision on the basis that declaring a climate emergency and then building a large strip of polluting motorway were not reconcilable positions. Despite this decision, the Welsh Conservatives and Boris Johnson have continually promised to “clear the dragon’s nostrils” and build the M4 relief road regardless. Many assumed this would merely be a campaign promise for next May’s Senedd election, the truth now appears more clearly. The UK Conservative government intends to simply build the road, legislating in direct opposition to the Welsh Government’s decision. Listening to Scottish Tory backbenchers in the Commons it’s clear they just care about the UK Government being emboldened to sink cash into their marginal constituencies – pork barrel politics of the lowest order. Eroding any impression there may have been that sovereignty rested in these devolved legislatures.

This is particularly worrying due to a piece of legislation called the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act. This Act requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to be sustainable and, theoretically at least, place the environment at the heart of every decision. The building of this relief road would contravene this principle and undermine the entire institution of the Welsh Parliament in the process.

The principle of mutual recognition contained within the Bill would present further challenges. If, for example, the Welsh or Scottish Parliaments legislated to ensure that only sustainable resources were used in the building of houses, or in fact, that all housing must be environmentally friendly, this Act would enable a building company to import non-environmentally friendly materials from any other part of the UK. There would be nothing that the devolved Government could do to stop them. Further still, it appears through use of the principle of non-discrimination, any attempt to stop said import could enable that private building company to sue for loss of profit. The same could be said for agricultural standards, something that could decimate the Welsh livestock industry overnight.

The Bill completely undermines the reserved powers model of devolution – in plain English: if it isn’t written down in Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act or Schedule 7a of the Wales Act, then the powers lie with Holyrood or Cardiff Bay and not Westminster. Well not only do the Tories seem determined to ignore this, the more hardline unionists want to tear up the rule book and row back on our hard-won devolved settlement altogether. The Conservative and Unionist Party are the ones putting their precious union at the most risk driving more and more people into the waiting arms of nationalist parties.

Those that follow Welsh Labour know that they do not endorse difference for difference’s sake, nor do they regularly act as a constant thorn in Westminster’s side in an attempt to further devolution – much to the annoyance of many Welsh Labour members and supporters. This makes the comments from Welsh Brexit Minister and Counsel General, Jeremy Miles MS even more stark than they may otherwise appear. Miles said:

“Let me be clear – the UK Government plans to sacrifice the future of the union by stealing powers from devolved administrations. This bill is an attack on democracy and an affront to the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who have voted in favour of devolution on numerous occasions.”

“Their proposals for mutual recognition may sound sensible but they are the starting gun for a race to the bottom, undermining the high standards we currently enjoy in terms of food standards, animal welfare and the environment.”

The bill has now passed its third reading and there still does not appear to be the numbers in the Commons to stop it when it comes back. Leaving us in the unenviable position of hoping the Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled can save us now. 

What all of this shows is that we are quickly approaching a crossroads. Our current constitutional settlement was designed at a time when all Governments of the UK respected each other and work together for the common weal. That is no longer the case. Boris Johnson and his government do not respect devolution and do not play by the rules – he has only been in office for over a year and has bent the constitution of this country more than any other holder of his office to pursue a narrow and dangerous political game.

We can be no clearer than this: The Internal Market Bill is a power grab. This is not about stopping Brexit, it’s about saving devolution and so much more. The Bill’s passing threatens the continued existence of the United Kingdom and the principles of consent upon which this voluntary union is founded. We must oppose it in every part of these islands while we still can.

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