Part 4: Acts of the Assembly
Overview of Part 4
371.Following paragraphs 3.22 - 3.29 of “Better Governance for Wales”, this Part of the Act makes provision for the Assembly to have primary legislative powers across the broad range of the subjects in Part 1 of Schedule 7 without the need for further recourse to Parliament. As the White Paper made clear, such powers will only be conferred on the Assembly following approval for this in a referendum, and this Part of the Act also makes provision for holding one.
372.Section 103 of the Act provides for a referendum to be authorised by Order in Council (and Schedule 6 makes more detailed provision in relation to its organisation), but an Order in Council may not be submitted to Her Majesty in Council for approval unless a draft has been approved by both Houses of Parliament and the Assembly; and in the case of the Assembly, such approval must be demonstrated by Assembly Members representing not less than two-thirds (i.e. 40) of the Assembly seats voting in support of the motion. If a referendum is held and there is majority support for conferring these powers on the Assembly, the effect of section 105 is that the Welsh Ministers would be able to make a commencement order to bring the relevant “primary power” provisions into force. Once that is done, the Order in Council/Measure provisions of Part 3 of the Act will cease to have effect, and the Assembly would in future be able to pass legislation, to be known as Acts, in relation to one or more of the “subjects” set out in Schedule 7.
373.The White Paper stated that conferring primary legislative powers on the Assembly would mean that “it would be able to make law on all subjects within its devolved fields”. That is, the Assembly’s primary legislative powers would extend to those subjects where the Assembly constituted by the Government of Wales Act 1998 already has executive competence, and would preserve restrictions in particular areas where they exist now. The Act sets out those subjects, and some restrictions, in Schedule 7. Section 109 provides Order in Council powers for this Schedule to be updated to take account of any Measure making powers granted or transfers of functions agreed by Parliament between enactment and the time when any referendum might be in prospect; in other words, any referendum would proceed on the basis of an up to date statement of the scope of the powers to be conferred if the electorate approved of the Assembly gaining these powers.
374.Unlike the Scotland Act 1998, the Act defines the scope of the Assembly’s “primary” legislative powers (after a referendum) by listing the subjects in relation to which the Assembly would be able to make law, rather than only listing those areas outside its legislative competence. The reasons for this were set out in a joint Memorandum from the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister for Wales to the Welsh Affairs Committee(14):
“Under the approach of the Scotland Act 1998 changes to the law which are made by the Scottish Parliament are not limited to specific subjects. They can include changes to basic principles of law. For example, the Scottish Parliament has made changes in land law in Scotland, beginning with the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000).
Scotland has its own distinct legal jurisdiction, with its own system of courts, judges, legal profession and provision for legal education. An ability on the part of its legislature to change basic principles of law and specific rules relating to subjects such as land law which have a general impact across almost all day-to-day activities is consistent with this situation.
Wales is different. It forms part of a single unified England and Wales jurisdiction with a common courts system, judges who can act throughout the two countries and lawyers who are educated and who practice in a way which does not distinguish between England and Wales. There is no intention to change this. The Assembly is to be able to make laws which apply in relation to activities in Wales but these will be part of the general law of the jurisdiction of England and Wales.
Lawyers who practice in Wales and judges who normally sit in Wales would inevitably be more familiar with laws which applied only to Wales than their colleagues in England but they would still be working within a single unified jurisdiction and if, in the course of a case being heard in England, it were relevant to consider something done in Wales to which an Assembly Act applied then the court would apply that Act in exactly the same way as it would apply an Act of Parliament.
If the Assembly had the same general power to legislate as the Scottish Parliament then the consequences for the unity of the England and Wales legal jurisdiction would be considerable. The courts would, as time went by, be increasingly called upon to apply fundamentally different basic principles of law and rules of law of general application which were different in Wales from those which applied in England. The practical consequence would be the need for different systems of legal education, different sets of judges and lawyers and different courts. England and Wales would become separate legal jurisdictions.
In order to avoid this result the simplest solution is to follow the Scotland Act 1978 model, limiting the legislative competence of the Assembly to specified subjects.
The other approach having, in principle, the same effect would be to transfer general law-making powers to the Assembly but then to reserve fundamental legal principles and basic legal rules to the UK Parliament. The view of Parliamentary Counsel is that such a reservation would be so complex and its effect so uncertain that the alternative of limiting devolved legislative competence to specific subjects would be by far the better approach.
There are further, subsidiary, reasons for adopting the Scotland Act 1978 approach in relation to Wales. Firstly, the list of reserved subjects which would apply in relation to Wales would be substantially longer and more complex than that in the Scotland Act 1998, in that it would need to include subjects such as criminal justice and the courts which are generally devolved in relation to Scotland but not in relation to Wales. Secondly, the task of formulating a list of devolved subjects in relation to Wales, which builds on the executive functions already devolved to the Assembly, is one which can develop out of the existing pattern of Welsh devolution and is therefore much easier to accomplish accurately and effectively than would be that of compiling an exhaustive list of subjects in relation to which the Assembly does not exercise executive functions”
375.Assembly legislation made in exercise of “primary” legislative powers will be known as Acts. Section 108 specifies the tests that provisions of Acts must satisfy if they are to be within its legislative competence. In particular, they must relate to one or more of the subjects in Part 1 of Schedule 7, and not fall within any of the exceptions in that Part. Restrictions on the use of the Assembly’s powers, within the scope of its general area of legislative competence, are set out in Part 2 of Schedule 7. The question whether a particular provision of an Act relates to a subject is to be determined by reference to its purpose, having regard (among other things) to its effect in all the circumstances” (section 108(7)). Subject to these and other tests being satisfied, an Assembly Act may make any provision that could be made by Act of Parliament.
376.Sections 110 and 111 make provision about Assembly proceedings on draft Acts, which are referred to as Bills. Subject to exceptions for special categories of Bill (see section 111(3)), standing orders must include provision for general debate and a vote on the principles of a Bill; for detailed scrutiny of its provisions; and for a final endorsement of the Bill (including a final endorsement of a Bill which has been reconsidered and amended by the Assembly). Once Assembly consideration of the Bill is complete, the Clerk submits it to Her Majesty for Royal Assent, and the Bill becomes law on receiving this. But a period of four weeks following completion of the Assembly’s deliberations on the Bill must elapse before it can be submitted, during which time the Counsel General or the Attorney General may refer to the Supreme Court any question as to the vires of the Bill; or the Secretary of State may prevent it from being submitted for Royal Assent if the Secretary of State has reasonable grounds to believe that its provisions are incompatible with international obligations or the interests of defence or national security, or might have a serious adverse effect on water resources, water supply or water quality in England, or would have an adverse effect on the operation of the law as it applies to England, or on non-devolved matters. Section 111(6) requires the standing orders to provide for Assembly reconsideration of the Bill’s provisions in such circumstances. The Bill may be submitted for Royal Assent before the end of the four weeks following its passing by the Assembly, if the Attorney General and the Counsel General have notified the Clerk that they are not going to make a reference to the Supreme Court, and the Secretary of State has notified the Clerk that no order is going to be made under section 114.
Evidence to the Committee, 10 November 2005.