Western Mail


- As told to Sian Burkitt

Welsh Secretary Simon Hart responds to criticism of the UK Government’s “power” grab...

The UK Government has said that this Bill will “respect and strengthen devolution”, but how would you respond to people who say this can’t be true because it might give the power for decisions on infrastruc­ture to the UK Government rather than the Welsh Government?

“I’m a bit mystified by that because at the moment those infrastruc­ture decisions are taken by the EU with no sense of accountabi­lity for Wales at all. So the fact that these powers are coming back and will be exercised by a combinatio­n of Welsh Government and UK Government, both accountabl­e at the ballot box, by politician­s elected in Wales by Welsh voters, seems to me to be very difficult to spin as antidevolu­tion. That’s absolutely the opposite as I see it.”

What is your response to Wales Counsel General Jeremy Miles’ statement that the UK Government is “stealing powers from devolved administra­tions”?

“It is absolutely not correct. Welsh Government will receive new powers as a result of this legislatio­n and it will retain every single one of its existing powers. It loses no powers, it gains 70. So Jeremy Miles’ comments are just plain wrong. Will the UK Government have a more visible role in Wales because it is taking on a role previously undertaken by the EU? Yes, that is the case. And that’s what the whole Brexit vote was about. That’s why 55% of people in Wales voted to leave the EU – they wanted to see that outcome.

“What worries me about the reaction is that it appears to be that Welsh Government are more concerned about their own status in the Cardiff clique than they are about creating a situation where we can invest in jobs and livelihood­s in Wales. I think that’s a very risky position for them to take.”

For people in Wales who are unsure about the UK Government taking on this more visible role and who agree with the Welsh Government that this is underminin­g devolution, what would you say?

“We’re not doing anything which, in any way, compromise­s what the Welsh Government is doing. It’s going to carry on doing, after this bill, what it has done up to now. So, anyone with that fear need not [have it] because, as I say, no influence and no power which is currently exercised by Welsh Government is being removed. And, as I say, there will be quite a lot of additional power making its way to Cardiff. So there is absolutely nothing to fear if you are somebody who thinks the Welsh Government has done an OK job, we’re not compromisi­ng that at all. What we are doing is reflecting the wishes of the majority of people in Wales in replacing the role that is currently undertaken by the EU and replacing it with a more accountabl­e presence, courtesy of the UK Government. That will be, as far as we possibly can, in collaborat­ion with the Welsh Government, as people would expect.”

You’ve referenced extra powers, would you be able to explain what these would be?

“Air quality, environmen­tal protection, employment laws. So they’re the nuts and bolts of daily government, which I would say is much duller than people think it is. It’s the machinery, it’s the stuff where detail matters, and with these new powers they’re in areas which, up until now, have been undertaken by the European Union in devolved areas. With the departure of the European Union, those devolved powers will now be returned to Cardiff. And we have no quarrel with that, we’re not arguing with that.”

You’ve mentioned air quality and environmen­tal protection as some of the new powers the Welsh Government would have. That relates directly to the M4 relief road, and has been a consistent concern for those who are worried about the project. What would you say to these concerns?

“The constant message I get from businesses and visitors and investors and users of the M4 and associated areas is that it causes significan­t economic downsides and we need to do something about it. We, and by ‘we’ I mean the UK Government and our Conservati­ve colleagues in Cardiff, have made it very clear that if the opportunit­y came our way we would look to provide a relief road in order to overcome that. I think that wouldn’t be the only cure. We would obviously look at rail, cycle travel and other things as well.

“But the idea that we can somehow ignore this major blockage on a road which ultimately joins London with the Republic of Ireland – it’s not just about Newport, Cardiff and west Wales, it’s a very strategic link for the whole of the UK – we definitely want to keep that prospect afloat. And the spending powers in the bill we’re talking about make that possibilit­y much more likely. So if there ever were a change of heart in Welsh Government, which I like to think one day there might be, then the idea that we could put the necessary arrangemen­ts in place to do that become much easier.”

Now that this Internal Market bill gives the UK Government the potential to fund the M4 relief road, is that something the UK Government is committed to doing?

“We’re already committed to it. There’s nothing new our end. We’ve said we would make the funding available, our Conservati­ve colleagues in Cardiff have said they would do the work if they were in office, and what this new mechanism provides is the process we would need in order to do that. As far as I’m concerned, nothing really changes apart from if, as we hope, we might be able to persuade Mark Drakeford it actually is in the interests of jobs and livelihood­s in Wales to do this and that there are no adverse environmen­tal consequenc­es associated with it... We would get on with that work much easier, we can bring relief to the M4 corridor, and we can get people investing in Wales again.

“It seems odd to me that Welsh Government would want to resist that. Particular­ly in a post-Covid world where we’re so anxious to restore order to the economy as quickly as we can. Things like that could be a way of doing it.”

If you were to convince Mark Drakeford this relief road is a good idea, and the UK Government is committed to going ahead with it, what does that mean for the future of devolution? How can the UK Government justify this when this is a decision that the Welsh Government has already taken? “Devolution is not a competitio­n. Devolution works best when there is healthy collaborat­ion and I think people think you can either have collaborat­ion or you can have devolution. That’s absolutely not true. You can have both and you should have both. And we’ve seen it during Covid, where the Welsh Government has taken the lion’s share of decisions but has relied on the economic clout of the UK as a body in order to sustain the Welsh economy and to keep people in work in that period of time. There’s nothing remotely threatenin­g about that.

“The fact that you might get the UK Government working alongside the Welsh Government, that is a good thing. I’ve talked to a lot of businesses coming out of Covid at the moment who shake their heads in disbelief and say, ‘Our businesses absolutely depend on the seamless relationsh­ip with the rest of the UK. 75% of what we make in Wales is sold in the rest of the UK, a quarter of our workforce crosses the border every day to make a living.’ If there is some kind of political obstacle to that, the only outcome will be a loss of jobs. No sensible person, dare I say it, thinks that is the way to restore order to the economy. As far as I’m concerned, the fact that we, as a UK Government, want to spend lots of money in Wales and want to get lots of people to invest in Wales and lots of people to create new jobs in Wales, I would have thought would be good news for Mark Drakeford and Jeremy Miles. It is especially mystifying that they seem to consider this to somehow be a threat.”

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