The Welsh Government's top legal officer has asked the Supreme Court to decide whether or not the Assembly has the power to introduce a law to make businesses or insurers pay the costs of treating asbestos patients.
The Counsel General, Theodore Huckle, has referred the bill after representatives of the insurance industry questioned the Assembly's power to legislate on the matter.
The Recovery of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases (Wales) Bill was introduced into theNational Assembly for Wales by Mick Antoniw AM on 3 December 2012. The Bill wassubsequently passed by the Assembly on 20 November 2013.
Under section 112 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 I am able to refer the question as to whether any provisions of the Bill would be within the Assembly’s legislative competence to the Supreme Court for decision during the 4 week intimation period. This period runs from the date on which the Bill was approved and expires on 18 December 2013.
I am aware that bodies representing the insurance industry have consistently disputed the Assembly’s competence to pass this Bill. I am of the view that this Bill is within the competence of this Assembly. I consider, however, it is appropriate in this case to have the issue of the competence of this Bill clearly resolved before the Bill comes into force. I have therefore decided to make a reference to the Supreme Court to ensure this matter is put beyond doubt.
– Theodore Huckle QC, Counsel General for Wales
It's the first time the Counsel General has taken this step although the two previous bills have been referred by the UK Attorney General. The Supreme Court cleared one concerning local government bye-laws and will rule on another to protect the wages of agricultural workers in February 2014
A law rushed through the Assembly last month will be challenged in the Supreme Court. The Agriculture Sector (Wales) Bill replaces the system for setting farm workers' pay and conditions in England and Wales, which the UK Government said was no longer needed.
The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, has asked the Court to decide if the Bill is about agriculture, which is devolved to the Assembly, or employment rights, which are reserved to Westminster. The Welsh Government now cannot send the Bill for Royal Assent until -and unless- it wins in court.
The Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill was passed by the National Assembly in July. The Bill will encourage new entrants into the agricultural industry and will help the sector to enhance and retain important skills in order to ensure the future prosperity of the sector.
The Attorney General in the UK Government has decided to refer the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill to the Supreme Court as he is unconvinced that it is within competence of the National Assembly. The Welsh Government disagrees and we continue to maintain that the Bill is within the legislative competence of the Assembly.
– Welsh Government spokesperson
The Court will make its ruling later this year. The UK Government "intends to seek to continue" the old agricultural wages system in Wales until the Supreme Court decides the matter. The Conservatives, who opposed the Bill, say the Welsh Government has brought the court case upon itself.
The Welsh Labour Government was warned numerous times that they may not have the power to interfere in agricultural wages, so this referral to the Supreme Court is not a surprise. Labour Ministers rushed this bill through the Assembly using the emergency procedure to prevent proper engagement with and scrutiny by Assembly Members, farming unions and the agricultural industry, resulting in sloppy legislation and doubts over competence.
A cynic would think Labour Ministers wanted this Bill to end up in the Supreme Court as most of what they do is motivated by identifying differences between themselves and the UK Government. Labour Ministers should ditch their childish party political motives and start acting like a government by taking measured and considered steps to improve conditions for people in Wales.
– Shadow Minister for Rural Affairs Antoinette Sandbach AM