Major row erupts over ‘attack on devolution’
APOLITICAL row has broken out over the publication of a Bill by the UK Government which critics claim will destroy devolution.
The Internal Market Bill seeks to tear up the EU Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between Boris Johnson and the EU last year and give the UK Government powers to spend money in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in previously devolved areas.
It is thought the Westminster Government may intend to use the new powers conferred on it by the Bill to build the M4 relief road.
The £1.4bn plan to cut congestion around the motorway in Newport has been rejected by the Welsh Government, and First Minister Mark Drakeford recently said that the “decision is over” and people should move on.
But there are concerns that the Internal Market Bill, which was published yesterday, gives the UK Government the power to go ahead with it – provided it had the support of MPs and local authorities.
Last night a Welsh Government source said it was unclear from the Bill’s text whether such spending would be deducted from its annual block grant by the Treasury.
The Internal Market Bill details what will happen from January 1 when the UK’s transition period comes to an end and powers held by Brussels are repatriated. It will mean
sweeping new powers for the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and will “protect jobs and trade” within the UK, the UK Government stated, saying the law will allow Westminster to replace existing EU funding programmes.
However spending powers on infrastructure, economic development, culture, sport, and support for educational, training and exchange opportunities will move to the UK Government.
The Bill also allows the UK Government to impose post-Brexit terms of trade across the UK without taking on board any concerns of the devolved administrations, which has prompted fears this opens up the possibility of lower standards in the areas of food, animal welfare and the environment.
The Welsh Government said the bill is “an attack on democracy” which will “sacrifice the future of the union by stealing powers from devolved administrations” – an accusation denied by Secretary of State for Wales Simon Hart – while the Scottish government branded it a “Westminster power grab”.
Wales’ Counsel General and Minister for European Transition Jeremy Miles, who said he was only briefed late on Tuesday, 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 [of standards] 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.
“Vital decisions over support for Welsh businesses, important infrastructure and investment opportunities and the safety of the food on the shelves of Welsh supermarkets should be made in Wales, by the government of Wales, and with the consent of the Senedd – and not at the behest of Conservative backbenchers.
“The UK Government is explicitly seeking to rewrite the devolution settlement. The fact that they are also seeking primary legislation shows they are taking those powers from us.
“We believe in the principle of an internal market – but this bill is not remotely necessary to deliver it. We will do everything we can to challenge the power grab and the race to the bottom which this bill represents.”
Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price said independence for Wales was the “only way” to resist Westminster and ensure Wales’ democracy is protected.
The Plaid leader said that the Westminster Government’s Internal Market Bill was “not simply a power grab, but the destruction of two decades of devolution”.
He made the point that new spending rules contained in the Bill would allow the UK Government to force projects in devolved areas such as economic development, infrastructure, culture, sport and education without the consent of the Welsh Government – an explicit dismantling of the devolution settlement.
Mr Price challenged the Labour Government in Wales to do more than offer “warm words about devolution”, alleging they had sat on their hands as “Westminster’s slow drip erosion of devolution has turned into a tsunami that risks washing the whole thing away”.
He said: “The Internal Market Bill is not simply a power grab but the destruction of two decades of devolution. Two referendums will be ignored and the will of the Welsh people overturned if this law is passed.
“Independence is the only way we can protect Welsh democracy. Without a pro-independence government in Cardiff, Westminster will continue to bully Wales.
“We need more than words. We need a pro-independence government in Wales that will empower us to resist Westminster’s attacks on our democracy.”
Former Counsel General Mick Antoniw, the Labour MS for Pontypridd, said: “Two decades of devolution are under attack. The UK Internal Market Bill is designed to bring an end to devolution as we know it and recalibrate a centralisation of power into the hands of Number 10 Downing Street. It is not accidental.
“The Conservative party’s contempt for devolution, the constitution and the rule of law grows year on year. Consistent use of the royal prerogative and legislation to bypass Parliament or to limit parliamentary scrutiny has become normalised.
“The Bill is an attack on democracy and an affront to the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
“It is the culmination of a series of Bills and proposals which in similar vein seek to centralise powers in the hands of UK Ministers even where they relate to areas of responsibility that have been long devolved by Parliament; powers which will be exercised by the UK Government alone, bypassing Welsh consent and even UK parliamentary scrutiny.
“The combined impact will lead to the greatest recentralisation of power experienced by any European state since the Second World War.
“There is no room left for polite discourse. Number 10 has declared war on the devolved administrations by its willingness to cast aside decades of devolution.”
Downing Street denied the UK Internal Market Bill was a “power grab” and said devolved administrations would instead see a “power surge”.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Absolutely not. What the devolved administrations will enjoy is a power surge when the transition period ends in December.
“There will be no change to the powers the devolved administrations already have and the vast majority of powers with devolved competencies returning from Brussels will go straight to Holyrood, Stormont and Cardiff Bay.
“This will be a significant increase in the powers of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Parliament, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, which are already among the most powerful devolved administrations in the world. Where powers are coming back to the UK Government this is to protect the economy.”