Assembly expected to say yes to Brexit bill despite powers row

AMs will vote on giving consent to the UK Government's main brexit bill Credit: PA, Tim Ireland

Welsh ministers are standing by their deal with the UK Government on post-Brexit powers for the Assembly and say AMs should vote today to give it the green light.

The Welsh Government says its agreement 'strengthens devolution and protects the United Kingdom.'

However Plaid Cymru accuses Labour ministers of 'bowing down to the Tories at Westminster and supporting their power grab.'

The agreement means a majority of Assembly Members are likely today to say 'yes' to the plans set out in the UK Government's EU Withdrawal Bill.

They're expected to vote to give the bill consent as it affects areas which are the responsibility of ministers in Cardiff.

It also seems certain that members of the Scottish Parliament will reject it when they hold a similar vote today.

The bill has been hugely controversial for a range of reasons and the focus of months of talks between the three governments during which time both Carwyn Jones and Nicola Sturgeon described it as a 'power grab.'

They claimed that it would see ministers in London keeping hold of powers currently held by Brussels when they return to Britain after it leaves the European Union.

Those powers they said should go straight to Cardiff and Edinburgh or at least that the devolved governments should have a say in what happens to them.

The Welsh Government has now agreed to a way of working with the UK Government which it says allows it to have that say over the disputed powers in future.

Ahead of today's vote that agreement has been heavily criticised by Plaid Cymru's leader Leanne Wood.

The Scottish Government has succeeded in building a consensus that the EU Withdrawal Bill will damage Scotland's economy, communities and environment.

In contrast, Wales’s Labour Government is willing to bow down to the Tories in Westminster and support their power grab that will interfere with our democracy. And for what? What have they got for Wales in return for caving in? Nothing.

By uniting to refuse consent for the damaging EU Withdrawal Bill, our Assembly could send a strong message to the Tory UK Government that Wales will put up a fight and defend itself when its powers are threatened and people undermined.

As things stand, Labour in London and in Scotland object to this Tory power grab, but Labour in Wales happily sign up to it.

– Leanne Wood AM, Plaid Cymru leader

There have also been serious concerns expressed by a committee of Assembly members.

The External Affairs and Additional Legislation (EAAL) committee published a report last night which said that despite 'considerable progress' there remains a 'risk to the [devolution] settlement.'

In its interim report published in December the EAAL committee had said it couldn't recommend that AMs give the Withdrawal Bill their consent.

It doesn't go so far this time but its Chair, the Labour AM David Rees, summed up the committee's concerns:

The Committee can see that considerable progress has been made and we accept that negotiations require give and take on all sides, with compromise being reached to deliver an agreeable settlement.

However, the committee’s objectives have not been met in full and we remain particularly concerned that the Assembly’s ability to pass laws in devolved policy areas such agriculture could be constrained by the UK Parliament, even in circumstances where the Assembly has refused consent for such constraints to be imposed.

– David Rees AM, Chair EAAL committee

The Welsh Government is defending its decision to reach agreement.

In an interview with me for this week's Sharp End programme, the Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford told me:

What we are about is trying to get the very best form of Brexit for Wales and for the United Kingdom. Our agreement on the Withdrawal Bill strengthens devolution and protects the United Kingdom. We're the only party in that position. The Tories in Westminster don't understand devolution and don't really support it. The nationalist parties don't believe in the United Kingdom and won't agree to anything that strengthens it. Only Labour is on that ground of devolution and the United Kingdom.

That's what our agreement secures and our action with the UK Labour party is designed to be the very opposite of a hard Brexit. It's to get a Brexit that supports our economy and allows the United Kingdom to go on prospering on the other side of [leaving] the European Union.

– Mark Drakeford AM, Finance Secretary

Here's the full interview:

Since that interview took place it's become apparent how much of a difference of opinion there is within different levels of the Labour party.

Not only will Scottish Labour MSPs vote against consent later, but they've also been supported in that position by the UK party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who used the term 'power grab' which Carwyn Jones has now stopped using.

Acknowledging the different stance taken by Welsh Labour, Mr Corbyn said 'devolution sometimes throws up interesting answers. That is what devolution is about: people making their own decision.'

Privately Welsh Government sources say the difference is between being in government as the Labour party is in Wales and in opposition as it is in Edinburgh.

That's reflected too in the official position as articulated by a Welsh Government spokesperson:

Through careful and persistent negotiations, we have secured a huge shift from the UK Government from its initial hard-line stance to one that is fair and works for Wales.

In Wales, we are in government with all the responsibilities that brings. The agreement we have reached is both responsible and effective in protecting devolution in Wales.

– Welsh Government spokesperson

Plaid Cymru has sought to highlight the differences between Welsh Labour's agreement and Jeremy Corbyn's support for the Scottish Party.

Plaid's leader Leanne Wood has written to the Labour leader:

On Tuesday 15th May, the Labour Welsh Government will work with the Conservatives and UKIP to support Westminster’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill in a vote on the relevant Legislative Consent Motion. A Bill which will weaken our national parliament and strike a decisive blow against the fundamental principles of devolution.

I would like to remind you that under the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, consent, lack of consent, or refusal of consent by the National Assembly for Wales will always count as permission for the UK Government to overrule Wales in devolved areas. This is the deal that the Labour Party in Wales has happily signed up to for my country.

I would like to ask you to impress your concerns upon the Labour Welsh Government, whose views on devolution and the power grab clearly differ so greatly from your own and those of their Scottish colleagues.

– Letter from Leanne Wood to Jeremy Corbyn

When the vote is held later, only Plaid Cymru AMs are expected to vote against granting consent. Labour AMs are expected to vote to give consent along with the Liberal Democrat and Independent members of the Welsh Government, Conservatives and UKIP AMs.

In Edinburgh, Scottish Labour is expected to vote alongside SNP, Lib Dem and Green MSPs to deny consent.