The Welsh government’s counsel general and Brexit minister has described as “laughable” any assurances from UK government ministers that the controversial internal market bill would result in more funding for Wales.
In an interview with LabourList, Jeremy Miles discussed the proposed legislation currently progressing through the UK parliament, which would centralise currently devolved powers to the government in Westminster.
The Welsh Labour minister highlighted that while claims have been made about greater levels of funding for Wales, the UK government is also legislating to break an existing agreement with the EU in the same bill – and breaking international law.
The European Commission’s Maros Sefcovic has warned that the plans put forward by the UK Conservative government are “far apart” from what the EU can accept, but Michael Gove has today refused to remove them.
The legislation passed its second reading earlier this month. The final stages of the bill are not expected to be completed until December, with MPs likely to have a final vote just days before the transition period ends.
UK ministers have been making their case for the bill by claiming that it would give way to more spending in Wales after the Brexit transition period ends on areas including infrastructure and culture for the first time since devolution.
Responding to the argument, Miles told LabourList: “The government is also legislating to break an agreement in this bill, so the notion that any government can lend any credence to the UK government’s word in relation to things like that is laughable…
“If the government wants to ensure that further money is coming to Wales, it can make a further commitment on the face of the bill. It hasn’t done that.”
The counsel general for the Welsh government went on to explain that areas for which the UK government is already responsible – such as energy, railway and digital infrastructure – are currently “massively underfunded”.
Miles summed up Welsh Labour’s position by saying: “They are looking for a range of new spending powers in devolved areas while failing to meet their responsibilities to people in Wales in relation to their existing responsibilities.”
On the bill put forward by the UK government, which sets out trade arrangements across the UK after the transition period comes to an end, Miles said the Welsh government does “believe in the idea of an internal market”.
But he added: “This bill is absolutely not how to go about it, and it’s not remotely necessary to deliver a well-functioning internal market. We’ve put forward a set of constructive alternative proposals, which we think are workable.”
The bill includes plans for a “mutual recognition regime” after the UK leaves the EU, which would require regulatory standards in one area of the union to be automatically accepted in others.
The Welsh minister highlighted a number of problems with the bill: “First, the Tories are saying this bill is giving the devolved nation 77 new powers. That’s absolutely not true. The bill does not do that.”
Miles said the powers of the devolved governments would “extend to some extent following the end of the transition period” – but this would be due to the existing devolution settlement, not provisions contained in the new bill.
The Welsh parliament in Cardiff currently has devolved control to legislate on areas such as environmental standards, food regulations and animal welfare, and Miles protested that this bill would stop it exercising those powers.
He explained that the legislation could stop the devolved Welsh Labour administration from banning single-use plastics, continuing to prevent “hormone-injected beef” being sold in supermarkets, or introducing landlord licensing.
Asked about the talks he has had with the UK Labour leadership over the bill, Miles explained: “We’ve had very good discussions with the Labour frontbench in parliament – with Keir [Starmer], with Ed [Miliband] and with Rachel [Reeves].”
The Welsh minister added that he was pleased to see the UK Labour Party oppose the bill in parliament, as the legislation seeks to centralise powers on devolved policy areas in Wales to UK ministers in Westminster.
Miles told LabourList: “There’s a good relationship between the frontbench in parliament and Welsh Labour in the Senedd. There’s good communication, a meeting of minds. It’s a good working relationship.”
Asked whether communication with the UK Labour leadership had improved since Starmer took over, he said: “Speaking personally, I have had more discussions under the new leadership than the previous leadership. And I welcome that.”
He argued that Welsh residents had repeatedly voted for more powers to be devolved to the Senedd in recent years, adding: “There is now recognition of that in the leadership of the Labour Party, and I absolutely welcome that.”
On Starmer’s approach to Brexit, he argued that the UK leader is applying “the Tories the standards they’ve applied to themselves” and described his line on the negotiations and Brexit as “absolutely right”.
Labour leader Starmer has repeatedly urged Johnson to secure a Brexit deal. He told Sky News earlier this month: “Let’s get the deal, let’s move on and focus on the job at hand, which is dealing with this pandemic.”
The Conservative UK government has asked the Senedd to give its consent to the entirety of the internal market bill, which has been proposed by UK ministers as a ‘protected enactment’.
A protected enactment is when the law cannot be amended by primary or secondary legislation by the devolved legislatures, on devolved policy areas, or by the UK government via secondary legislation.
The UK government also asked the devolved nations for their consent to the EU Withdrawal Act. But the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish assemblies all made clear their opposition to the Brexit bill – yet it went through regardless.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that the Sewel Convention, which states Westminster will “not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent” of devolved legislatures, did not mean they could block its passage.
Jeremy Miles told LabourList that the internal market bill is therefore “locking in constitutional change” by being afforded the ‘protected enactment’ status, and that this is usually only applied to legislation on constitutional issues.
Miles said the Welsh Labour government will not be recommending that the Senedd give its consent, and explained that he could not see the parliament doing so. In normal circumstances, this would mean that the UK would not proceed with the bill.
But as evidenced by the EU Withdrawal Act, this is not always the case. The UK government declared in that instance that it was a “unique” situation, however, and Miles argued: “It would struggle to justify proceeding again.”
On devolution and the Labour Party, the Welsh Labour minister said it was very clear that the new UK Labour leader “grasped the fact that the UK is changing, and that we need to recognise that in our policy making across the UK”.
Miles described ‘radical federalism’, which Starmer advocated in his leadership campaign, as building on the ‘four-nation government’ seen during the Covid crisis and putting intergovernmental relations on a “much more stable footing”.
The Welsh minister explained: “Whether that’s to do with powers, whether it’s to do with a fairer funding settlement, it’s just to recognise that there needs to be an overhaul of those arrangements across the UK.”
Asked whether the government’s proposed bill had boosted support for Welsh independence, Miles replied that, although it is being talked about more, “that’s different from it being people’s political position and preference.”
He said Welsh Labour had led the debate on devolution, calling for a settlement that has “more powers devolved but equally puts UK government generally on a different footing”. He described the current arrangement as “absolutely not fit for purpose”.
There is a review currently being undertaken on intergovernmental relations in the UK. Miles told LabourList that “modest progress” is being made, but said that the internal market bill represents a “new low” in the relationship.
He argued that developments with the internal market bill had been “corrosive of relations within the UK”, and described how the relationship between Westminster and Cardiff had deteriorated further under Boris Johnson’s premiership.
Mark Drakeford earlier this month said the internal markets bill represents a “smash and grab” on the devolution settlement as it would take back powers that have been devolved to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland for 20 years.
The Welsh Labour leader and First Minister described the bill put forward by the UK government as an “enormous power grab” and warned that the measures included will “put enormous strains into the union that is the UK”.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon criticised the plans as a “full frontal assault on devolution” and argued that the campaign for independence is now about stopping the “Scottish parliament from being undermined and its powers eroded”.