Draft Wales Bill - I See A Real Risk Of Constitutional Red Tape

Welsh Grand Committee

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab): It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. It is also a pleasure to participate in my first Welsh Grand Committee.

I want to engage in a spirit of pragmatism and problem solving, which is needed particularly when we are dealing with what are often relatively technical issues. To an extent, there is an opportunity to take some of the politics out of this and to adopt a positive, problem-solving approach, and it is in that spirit that I make my speech.

I also defer to colleagues who have been involved for far longer than I in some of these areas, so I am not going to dive down into the weeds of some of the issues. The benefit of being a relative newcomer is that one is perhaps more able to apply a common-sense test, and that is where the red lights start to flash for me. I see a real risk of what I would call constitutional red tape. I know that the Conservative party is a great enemy of red tape and is passionately committed to removing it whenever it possibly can, so let us examine some of the red tape of the Bill, which contains a 34-page list of 267 powers. I feel convinced that if someone in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills came forward with a new proposal for regulating business in this country and it consisted of 34 pages of 267 new sets of regulations, the Secretary of State for Wales would be jumping up and down and ringing alarm bells.The Bill really does not pass the test for which we are looking: streamlined, well co-ordinated, smooth and effective government.

Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab): Never mind our test, that clearly fails the test of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills of one rule in, two rules out.

Stephen Kinnock: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. It an issue of clarity, common sense and making progress. The message that the Secretary of State for Wales has received from both sides of the Committee, and from our very own favourite AM, Mr David Melding, will be heard loud and clear. The critical point is to ensure that the Bill is not made in London, but is developed in collaboration with Wales. I welcome all the feedback that has been given today.

The lack of clarity also means that we run the risk of the Bill being questioned from the point of view of politicising the approach. For example, clauses 13 to 16 state that Westminster will retain control of ports with a turnover of £14.3 million. Lo and behold, that means that Milford Haven would remain under UK Government control. To my knowledge, the Secretary of the State has not made it entirely clear —it is not clear from the Bill —why it is necessary for Milford Haven to remain under Westminster’s jurisdiction. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would want to make that clear in the Bill and to dismiss any damaging speculation that it might be because the Government are preparing to privatise the port.

Stephen Crabb: The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful and interesting speech. May I allay his fears on this point? One of the voices that has not had enough air time in this whole constitutional debate is that of the business community. However, on the issue of ports, and especially a large, strategic energy port such as Milford Haven, the voice of the business community came through loud and clear. This is entirely to do with UK strategic issues, despite any scaremongering that we might hear from the hon. Gentleman or his political colleagues regarding potential privatisation.

Stephen Kinnock: I thank the Secretary of State for his intervention and welcome the clarity that it brings. I am trying to make a broader point: when there are gaps, loopholes or a lack of understanding, they open up the risk of speculation about the motives behind a policy. That is why clarity is so important and I cite that example simply to illustrate that risk.

The necessity test is another prime example of how the Bill risks creating uncertainty and ambiguity. We must take with the utmost seriousness the quote by our favourite Assembly Member, Mr David Melding, about the possibility of legislative gridlock, or the very basis of legislative function being compromised.

All hon. Members in the room will recognise the broader point that politics and politicians are not always and universally held in the highest regard by the public. Anything that looks as if it might mean more and more Committee meetings, more and more bureaucracy and more and more legislative ping-pong between Westminster and Cardiff has the potential to bring the Assembly and this place into disrepute. I am sure that all Members would not want that to happen. Although the hon. Member for Cardiff North has told us how much he enjoys sitting endlessly in Committees, I am sure that he agrees with that point.

My final specific concern is about ministerial consent and the risk that this process is seen as tantamount to an English veto. We must be absolutely clear that the direction of travel for devolution is more devolution and more decentralisation. The referendum in Wales in 2011 made that clear and we need to recognise the democratic voice of the people of Wales in that context. Anything that looks as if it may be a way —even through the back door— of pulling powers back from Cardiff to London must be treated very carefully indeed and could again create concerns, with some speculating about a possible hidden agenda.

I conclude with the broader point that I sympathise with the Secretary of State for Wales because I feel that he has been asked to take on the task of creating something that is very important, even though, as hon. Members have said, it might not be what gets the average constituent of Aberavon out of bed in the morning. It is very important is because it is about saving the United Kingdom. I am proud to be Welsh and I am very, very proud to be British. I believe passionately in the integrity of the United Kingdom. In a rapidly globalising world, with huge challenges coming at us from all angles, the last thing that we should be doing is diminishing the role, power and influence of the United Kingdom on the global stage.

The draft Bill must be seen in that context. We are not talking in isolation about reserved powers, the necessity test and the question of distinct or separate. We are talking about the architecture of the United Kingdom. The debate around the Scottish referendum was, of course, very passionate, but it demonstrated that the constitutional foundations upon which this country is built are cracking beneath our feet. The main reason why they are cracking beneath our feet is because we have had this piecemeal, sticking-plaster, botch-it and-scarper approach to building our constitution over the years. That is why we need a constitutional convention —so that the things we are discussing today can be discussed within a broader context.

I know that the Secretary of State for Wales is an avid fan of rugby, our favourite and national sport. In some ways, he has been asked to define the rules at the breakdown of the ruck without having any sense of the broader rules of the game of rugby—the offside rule, passing backwards, the knock on, or whatever it might be. So many issues are in the framework of what we are talking about today, and they are the broader debate within which this debate must exist. The result of a lack of clarity is the kind of constitutional red tape to which I referred.

In conclusion, this plea for a constitutional convention is not at all about what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who is no longer in the room, said with regard to kicking this into the long grass. It is not at all about wanting a pause and a broader discussion because we do not want to take the hard decisions—quite the opposite. Labour Members want to take the hard decisions because we wish to save the integrity of the future of the United Kingdom. If we do not adopt the radical, bold solution of a constitutional convention that leads to a full—and, in my view, written—constitution, with a clear definition of powers that defines where the English regions fit in with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we will find, in 20 years, that this great United Kingdom will no longer exist.