Supreme caught and bowled

  • 21 November 2012
  • From the section Wales
  • comments

We still don't know for sure whether Lord Carnwath, or indeed any of the five judges who sat in the Supreme Court last month, have ever ventured anywhere near a tattoo parlour in Swansea. We do now know where they stand on the legality of the first bill passed by the Assembly. They are unanimous that it is lawful.

In coming to that conclusion they rejected the Attorney General's view that the Local Government By-laws Bill overstepped the boundaries of what is devolved. It may, they decided, have encroached slightly on the powers of the Welsh Secretary and therefore the UK government but only ever so slightly and in a way that struck them, therefore, as appropriate.

Looking back at what I wrote at the time, the clue to the outcome was in some of the questioning:

But I'm also listening to Lord Carnwath struggling out loud to understand what one earth the Secretary of State for Wales' role would be in reality, if Swansea Council were to change the bye-laws with regard to tattoo parlours. No matter what the bare legal analysis, he ventured to suggest, isn't this really all about a political settlement and just how far devolution has come in practice?

Lord Hope picked up the theme. Whatever the complexities of the clauses, sections and sub-sections, 'the nub of the issue' he argued, was what the Bill was meant to achieve and whether it achieves that, or not.

You can read the judgement in full here.

In the Wales Office in London the response was pragmatic. It's a good thing, said the Secretary of State David Jones, that the somewhat hazy boundaries of what is devolved and what is not have become just a little clearer. That's one jagged edge filed down just a little. This is how it works. Raising the question wasn't a hostile act.

In Cardiff Bay there was, um, quiet elation. Why? Because it's about more than one bill that will now become law. It is, as the First Minister told me this morning, one in the eye for those who tend to think that whenever the two governments test each other, 'London must be right.' It turns out that in law, on this occasion, there was every justification for the confidence in Cardiff Bay that London was wrong.

Who are those people, I asked? A commentator or two were mentioned and - get this - it turns out the First Minister sometimes drops in on the blog and you, those who regularly leave what I'll call sceptical comments, got a mention too.

But there's another reason for the Welsh goverment to be rather pleased - the timing.

On Monday the Silk commission published its report on how Wales should in future be funded. Paul Silk and his commissioners now move on to consider the current devolution settlement. The perfect moment then for Carwyn Jones to point to today's ruling and re-iterate a plea - instead of letting the Supreme Court set the boundaries of devolution, case by case, tattoo parlour by tattoo parlour, wouldn't it be in everyone's interests to look again at the devolution settlement as a whole. Rather than rely on their lordships, why not make it clearer in one fell swoop what the Welsh government can and can't do.

Your comments are welcome - and as we now know, sometimes, they get to the top.