Assembly votes to defend Welsh powers after Brexit

By James Williams
BBC Wales Brexit correspondent

Media caption,
Steffan Lewis: "Protect Welsh devolution before it's too late"

AMs have unanimously backed a Plaid Cymru motion calling for a new law to defend Wales from UK Brexit plans.

Plaid AM Steffan Lewis called it a "strong mandate" for Welsh ministers to publish a bill now to protect Welsh powers currently operated at EU-level.

UK ministers' Withdrawal Bill plans to transfer powers in devolved areas from Brussels to Westminster initially as a "holding pattern".

The UK government has promised to make changes to the proposed legislation.

But it says those changes will not be made until the EU Withdrawal Bill reaches the House of Lords at the end of January despite having previously said that they would be introduced during debate in the House of Commons.

On Tuesday, First Minister Carwyn Jones described the proposed law in its current form as "a fundamental assault on devolution" and threatened to introduce a so-called Continuity Bill to protect Welsh interests before the end of January unless the "necessary amendments" are made.

But Plaid Cymru's Brexit spokesperson Steffan Lewis tabled a motion in the assembly on Wednesday calling on the Welsh Government to push ahead immediately with the publication of a Continuity Bill.

The South Wales East AM said the debate was not about trying to reverse the Brexit process.

"I am a Welsh nationalist and I will always believe in an European future for my country," he said.

"But whether you were Leave or Remain and whether you are an unionist or a nationalist is irrelevant to the question of a Continuity Bill.

"Whether to support a Continuity Bill or not comes down to how you answer one simple question: do you believe that the referendum of 2016 provides a mandate to the UK Government to remove powers from this National Assembly. Plaid Cymru says it does not."

Media caption,
Plaid MP Liz Saville Roberts raised Mr Lewis's bill in Prime Minister's Questions

The Welsh Conservatives said they supported changes to the Withdrawal Bill but drew attention to promises by their party colleagues in Westminster that such changes would be introduced in the coming weeks.

UKIP Wales leader Neil Hamilton also backed the motion saying that he had originally though the purpose of a Continuity Bill "was somehow to delay or get in the way of the Brexit process" but had "now come to believe that this is not the intention".

Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford said the Welsh Government "need to see firm proposals from the UK Government on amendments to the Withdrawal Bill that respect the devolution settlement".

Although it is not the government's preferred option, Mr Drakeford said "there will be a need for a Welsh Continuity Bill if those negotiations and discussions do not succeed."

If a Continuity Bill is to carry any weight, then it will need to have been passed in the assembly before the EU Withdrawal Bill completes its legislative journey in Parliament.

Image caption,
Carwyn Jones has said he will continue Brexit bill discussion with Westminster

Mr Lewis said he was "at a loss to understand why the Welsh Government wishes to push this issue to the very last minute" given that MPs had already rejected amendments to the bill proposed by both the Welsh and Scottish Governments.

He said: "What more do they need to do to threaten Welsh devolution before we are prepared to act in defence of our hard-won democracy?

"We have a window to act in the interests of our citizens and the rights and standards that they hold dear in addition to the democratic structures that they have endorsed in two referenda. Let's take this opportunity with both hands."

UK ministers have said they expect a "significant increase" in the responsibilities of the devolved administrations after Brexit but that there is a process to go through first.