Daran Hill explores the implications of this week’s refusal by the National Assembly to agree to the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board
Legislative Consent Motions are curious and relatively rare beasts. When the UK Parliament wishes to legislate on a subject matter which has already been devolved to the National Assembly, convention requires it to approve a Legislative Consent Motion. This is a formal motion whereby the consent of the Assembly is required before Westminster may pass the legislation in question.
A number of these are passed every year and usually even if they promote debate, which is not always the case, the Motions are passed. However, with governments of different complexions at both ends of the M4, the chances of a lack of consent are much higher. Refusal was given to the legislation relating to the creation of the police commissioner elections when Labour backbenchers uniformly rebelled two years ago, making that the first Legislative Consent Motion to fall.
A second fell this week when the Assembly rejected a Motion to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. However, in this instance, the matter of whether to reject the Motion was affected by significant constitutional debate about the boundaries of devolution. Normally the need for a Consent Motion is agreed between the two governments.
On this occasion, however, the Welsh Government took the initiative to table on its own. This was in direct contradiction to DEFRA, which have argued that since employment was not a devolved matter then a Legislative Consent Motion was not required. The Welsh Government were robust in their own line, with the ever vocal Deputy Minister Alun Davies arguing that: A second fell this week when the Assembly rejected a Motion to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. However, in this instance, the matter of whether to reject the Motion was affected by significant constitutional debate about the boundaries of devolution. Normally the need for a Consent Motion is agreed between the two governments.
“By seeking to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board through the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, the UK Government is circumventing the Public Bodies Act provisions agreed between the UK and Welsh Governments as the mechanism for dealing with the UK Government’s proposals for abolishing public bodies for England and Wales. The UK Government’s actions are contrary to the agreed devolution protocols and undermine the respect agenda that the UK Government has stated that it wishes to follow. During previous negotiations with the UK Government, I have made a request to have the functions of the Agricultural Wages Board transferred to Welsh Ministers by Order under the Public Bodies Act. However, my request has been refused on more than one occasion by the UK Government.”
This, he argued, was the constitutional basis on which the Legislative Consent Motion had been tabled. There is also, of course, another rationale and that is a political one. The Agricultural Wages Board was established to protect the rights of poorly paid agricultural workers. By abolishing it, the UK Government can be accused of betraying those workers. It is a classic case of left versus right between Welsh Government and UK Government. To Mick Antoniw, AM for Pontypridd, it was a seminal debate in the political divide:
“The position of the Tory party is in favour of abolition, and it exposes it for exactly what it is, namely a supporter of a conspiracy of the big landowners and the corporate agricultural industry to squeeze money out of the pockets of rural workers into their own pockets.”
But for constitutional analysts, rather than the effectiveness or otherwise of the Agricultural Wales Board the propriety of the process was the matter in question. Simon Thomas, AM for Mid and West Wales, put it succinctly thus:
“This is a question of constitutional principle. The ins and outs of the Agricultural Wages Board can be decided at a different time. I, for one, feel very strongly that this is an attempt to circumvent the constitutional arrangements between this place and Westminster and the different memoranda of understanding that have been put in place. I think that you yield those things with danger.”
And thus, in a combination of political and constitutional debate, the Legislative Consent Motion was defeated. The question will now be whether the UK Government persists in abolition anyway, since it does not believe the Assembly has the legal competence to refuse abolition through rejecting a Legislative Consent Motion, or whether another compromise is reached.