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Constitutional crisis warning as Repeal Bill published

Parliament is expected to spend months debating the Repeal Bill Photo: PA, Matt Crossick

The UK Government can expect criticism from MPs and political leaders in Wales when it unveils its plans to transfer powers back from Europe today

There’s concern that the Repeal Bill will give ministers sweeping new powers at Westminster as well as taking powers that many argue belong with the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.

Here, the First Minister has ordered civil servants to begin work on a bill of his own that would claim the returning powers for the Assembly and challenge Parliament to overturn it, sparking a constitutional crisis.

But the UK Government has dismissed fears, saying that the Assembly will end up with more powers not less as a result of Britain leaving the EU.

‘Legislative war’

The bill will repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, which took Britain into what became the European Union and allows European laws to take precedence over UK laws.

This means that laws and regulations made while the UK was part of the EU will continue to apply, but they will become British laws rather than EU ones.

It would also end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

It’s likely to be controversial amongst MPs because it’s expected to contain powers to make changes to some laws without full Parliamentary scrutiny.

MPs from all parties including the Conservatives are thought to be planning to work together to block these ‘Henry VIII laws.’ One MP is said to have warned of ‘legislative war’ over the bill.

Devolution fears

There are concerns about the impact on the Assembly’s ability to make laws in future.

Critics claim that powers in areas that are already devolved such as economic development and agriculture will be taken by Westminster while it’s decided what to do with them.

Many in the Assembly including the First Minister say they should automatically be transferred to Wales and decisions on their future should be taken by all four parliaments and Assemblies.

When he published his initial plans, in March Brexit Secretary David Davis promised that many new powers would go to the Welsh government and Assembly and to the other devolved administrations. But he also said that it was important to ensure that no damage was done to free trade within the United Kingdom, which he said is worth much more to the home nations than the EU single market.

We will see a significant increase in the amount of powers given to the devolved administrations but we will have to protect matters such as the single market in the UK and other issues such as security and environmental agreements.

Decisions will be required about whether a common framework is needed and, if it is, how it might be established. We will work closely with the devolved administrations to deliver an approach that works for the whole of the United Kingdom.

– David Davis MP in March 2017

Consent

The UK Government has also said that it will seek the consent of the devolved administrations for the Repeal Bill. It means Wales and Scotland can say no to the changes it proposes although legally they can’t block them. It could lead to a huge political row as Carwyn Jones told an Assembly committee earlier this week.

If the bill includes provisions that mean that powers in devolved areas when they return from Brussels go to London and not to Cardiff, we will not support the bill. That’s it. There is no compromise on this. We will not connive in our own diminution.

– Carwyn Jones AM, First Minister

At the same meeting, the First Minister revealed that he’s ordered civil servants to begin drawing up a plan to try to ensure the powers are transferred to Wales.

He told members of the External Affairs Committee that officials have begun work on a Continuity Bill, which would claim the relevant returning powers for the Assembly.

Mr Jones said Assembly Members would be asked to work extra hours to pass the Continuity Bill into Welsh law before the Repeal Bill is passed in Parliament.

It would force the UK Government to accept it or ask Parliament to overturn Assembly legislation, a move which would lead to a constitutional crisis.

Plaid Cymru has backed the First Minister's position, but has warned that Labour MPs should do the same. Plaid's Brexit spokesperson, Hywel Williams said:

Any attempt to water down devolution and Welsh nationhood will be firmly opposed by Plaid Cymru, as will any attempts to trespass on devolved responsibilities. If the Bill turns out to be as bad as all the indications suggest it will be, then Plaid Cymru will be doing everything we can to stop it in its tracks.

The Labour Party, as the party in government in Wales must join us in opposing any Westminster power grab and work with us to oppose the British Government. Abstaining just isn’t good enough.

– Hywel Williams MP, Plaid Cymru