Attorney general in court challenge to first Welsh Bill

Senedd The assembly's law-making powers were boosted last year

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The Welsh government has criticised the UK government for temporarily blocking the first piece of legislation passed by the assembly under its new powers.

The UK Attorney General has asked the Supreme Court to decide whether parts of the Local Government Bill - about byelaws - are within assembly powers.

But a spokesman for the first minister called the UK government referral "ridiculous" and "inexplicable".

The Bill was waiting for Royal Assent to become law.

It is the first Bill passed since a referendum last year gave the assembly direct law-making powers.

Passed by AMs before the summer recess this month, it would have been the first Bill to become law since the referendum in March last year.

Start Quote

The secretary of state for Wales and the attorney general are custodians of the devolution settlement for Wales and have a duty to ensure that the provisions of Government of Wales Act 2006 are complied with”

End Quote Cheryl Gillan MP Welsh Secretary

The UK government has a four-week window in which to intervene to stop a Bill passed by the assembly becoming law.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve told the Welsh government he has taken the step amid concerns the Bill changes the powers of UK ministers in a way the assembly does not have the power to do.

A spokesman for First Minister Carwyn Jones said it was a "ridiculous situation that has arisen on what is a totally uncontroversial piece of legislation".

"The primary policy objective of the Bill is to simplify and rationalise how local authorities make byelaws to deal with nuisances in their areas," he said.

"So why the UK government has decided to take this to the Supreme Court, at the last minute, is inexplicable.

"Last year, the people of Wales voted in a referendum for these powers to be devolved. Now the UK government, by this action, have decided to ignore that fact."

As a result of a referendum the Welsh government is now able to make its own laws without reference to Westminster, but it can only do that in areas that are fully devolved.

When this Bill - about byelaws - was chosen to be the first Welsh law, people thought it was a rather uncontroversial measure and terribly unexciting. Perhaps not now.

The UK government is saying that the Bill is not drafted properly because in part it does not restrict itself to just devolved matters. It is saying that it warned the Welsh government that a small change needed to be made to the Bill, and that because the Welsh government has chosen not to do this, the matter will be referred to the Supreme Court for a decision.

The Welsh government is taking a very political stance in its comments, saying the UK government should butt out, though the UK government has said its decision is not about the politics of the situation.

The Supreme Court will decide who is right and who is wrong, but in the meantime this very first historic measure won't become Welsh law via Royal Assent quite yet.

But Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan said the UK government made every attempt to resolve the issue with the Welsh government during the passage of the Bill.

Identified its concerns

"The secretary of state for Wales and the attorney general are custodians of the devolution settlement for Wales and have a duty to ensure that the provisions of the Government of Wales Act 2006 are complied with," she said.

"Currently, both Welsh ministers and the secretary of state have the concurrent power to confirm the making of local government byelaws in Wales.

"The Government of Wales Act is clear that the assembly cannot legislate to modify the functions of a minister of the crown without their consent, unless such a modification is consequential or incidental to other provisions in the Bill."

She said the UK government had identified its concerns over the removal of the role of the Secretary of State in confirming Welsh byelaws at both ministerial and official level with the Welsh government.

Conservative AM Jane Finch-Saunders backed the move to recall the Bill, saying the assembly would soon be dealing with bigger and potentially controversial pieces of legislation, such as the Welsh government's planned changes to the law on organ donation.

"If we are going to get it right then we have got to get it right from day one," she said.

"They should be very familiar and know the law as to what powers they have got and have not got. If they have gone beyond their brief then it's only right to recall it within the time frame."

The Bill was designed to simplify the process by which councils make byelaws, removing a requirement that they are confirmed by Welsh ministers.

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