Wales Bill: Two Steps Forward One Step Back

David Elston's picture

Today the Wales Bill passed in the Senedd with a vote of 38 to 17.

Perhaps the most exciting piece of this bill, is that it does make it possible for us to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in Welsh elections.

For me this is one of the big differences between Wales and England; how we treat our young people. At 16 you can drive a moped, join the armed forces, work full time, buy bonds, donate blood, have a passport, leave home, choose a GP and in Wales, as well as having control over your career, being able to leave school at 16, you may soon be able to vote on the very thing that controls all those other liberties.

This is a massive win for young people all over Wales and I'm really glad that my son, now has a real chance at voting when he is 16. The Pirate Party has been campaigning for an equal approach to young people in the UK. Our final push will be to argue that England must join us all in proving your age will not be a barrier to taking part in democracy.

A little talked about point in the bill, is the final say is now with Welsh Ministers and not the Secretary of State for Wales on Welsh matters. Regulations under the relevant sections of the Bill can no longer happen without approval from the Senedd. Some have criticised the bill for being needlessly complicated but providing you understand that laid out point, it essentially says that the devolved areas are within Wales' control except where a law already prevents a change.

So Wales can pass environmental laws, but not a law that would permit say... fly tipping and can no longer simply make any law to address any problem as that may be against an existing UK law. However Wales can extend existing laws, such as our right to vote at 18 can be extended to 16 and we now have control over tax varying, fracking, energy, water, voting systems and more...

The bill does have one extraordinarily large problem that should not be ignored. The 2011 Welsh devolution referendum showed Wales wanted the ability to make it's own laws. Now I'd be the first one to argue that regrettably Wales' Ministers have made some pretty awful decisions and are yet again debating the Smacking Ban, i.e. trying to use laws and banning to fix social problems. The obsession with banning things through law is a problem the assembly has struggled with for a long time. It seems the powers that have now been provided through the Wales Bill 2017, should have been provided before law making powers, not after. This would have given the Assembly a greater range of more appropriate tools to fix very real issues. Sadly the last Plaid-Labour coalition government perpetually pushed for law making powers. Now we're stuck in the result of their poor foresight, trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle.

A potential fix would have been to introduce the new balance of increased powers from the Wales Bill 2017 and leave the existing ability over primary law making which likely would have solved Senedd's ability to rule effectively without banning everything - but sadly after today's vote we won't know how that would have worked.

While I cannot agree with removing that power from Wales through the Wales Bill, the Assembly have only themselves to blame for losing it. They pushed for it too soon, didn't think what else might have worked well along with law making powers, misused that power and have now collectively voted to remove themselves of it.

Of course most of the established parties in the Senedd are stuck following the party whip, so Labour, Conservatives, UKIP and the Lib Dems seemingly agreed with their counterparts over the border, offering little criticism to the bill. The problems with the bill are very valid and should not be taken lightly. The "Hey no bill is perfect, right?" approach is careless and it will take some imagination from our representatives to think in new ways to make the Senedd work with such a shift in powers.

In short it is certainty a net gain for Wales, specifically in terms of our civil liberties. I am more hopeful of what the end result of our Ministers ruling with this set of powers will achieve compared against its previous set but we must continue the steady handshake of devolution from Westminster.


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