Internal Market Bill: Westminster’s Devolution Doublespeak

The UK Government’s post-Brexit vision is a power grab to tie Wales to the Conservatives’ trade deals, writes Adam Price.

As their first catastrophic Parliamentary session drew to a close, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Government used their final few days to launch one last assault on devolution before the summer recess, with the introduction of a white paper on an Internal Market Bill.  

It’s a classic case of doublespeak. Warm words about extending devolved powers, are cover for the exact opposite – a shameless power grab that threatens devolution like never before.

The Bill would give Westminster the ability to overrule Wales and force us to accept products made to lower animal welfare or environmental standards, even if they would be illegal to produce under our Welsh legislation.

It would do so by introducing what is being called a mutual recognition and non-discrimination regime, which would require that goods and services from one part of the United Kingdom can always be sold into another. 

The inevitable consequence would be that a reduction in standards in one of the UK nations, would put pressure on the others to drive down their own standards. 

“We would be helpless to prevent an influx of cheaper English produce flooding the Welsh market and undercutting Welsh farmers.”

With a larger population and higher GDP, England would inevitably dominate the UK Internal Market, meaning that goods would be designed according to English rules and regulations.

This has implications for food standards and labelling, animal welfare, public procurement and environmental standards, all of which are at the very core of devolution. 

Let us take food safety as an example. The UK Government would be able to lower food production standards in England, in turn lowering production costs for English farmers. Whilst the Welsh Government could maintain current food production standards within Wales, we would be helpless to prevent an influx of cheaper English produce flooding the Welsh market and undercutting Welsh farmers. 

The UK Government insist that this will not be an issue as they have no intention of lowering standards, but their actions so far give us very little reason to trust their promises. 

Whilst legislating for a new Agriculture Bill, the UK Government refused to support amendments which would have guaranteed that they could not sign any trade deal which would lower animal welfare, food protections or environmental protections. 

During the Trade Bill, Plaid Cymru backed amendments which would have maintained current protections for food standards, protected the NHS from any form of control from outside the UK and given Parliament and the devolved Governments oversight of any trade agreement. Again, Westminster refused to enshrine these protections in legislation. 

The result is that the UK Government is free to agree trade deals which could be devastating for the Welsh economy and allow goods and services of lower standards into the country, without Wales having any say in the decision. 

“If the UK Government enter into trade agreements which drive down standards, Wales will be tied to the mast of their sinking ship with very little choice but to go down with them.”

This is particularly concerning given how desperate the UK Government is to strike a trade deal with Trump’s America.

It is ironic to the point of hypocrisy that the Tories wax lyrical about new trade agreements,  frictionless trade and free movement across the UK, while ripping us out of the world’s biggest free trade bloc.

The doublespeak doesn’t stop there. The consultation they are running on this legislation lacks any real intent to hear from those it will affect.  

Whilst they may say they want to co-operate with the devolved governments to agree common approaches to cross-cutting issues such as regulatory standards, their actions once again reveal how hollow their platitudes are.

If the UK Government was serious about meaningful cooperation, the devolved governments would have co-designed these proposals, rather than being given four weeks to comment after the fact. 

To put these four weeks into perspective, thirty-five years ago, in 1985, the then Tory European Commissioner’s White Paper, which detailed the legislative proposals to complete the European single market, had a seven-year deadline. 

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The truth is clear, the Tories are attempting a naked power grab and hiding it behind the veneer of an Internal Market Bill which lacks real detail. 

The proposals contain no information about how the Common Structures will be decided and what mechanisms will be in place to monitor the various governments’ compliance with these structures.

We need legal commitments that all devolved governments will have an equal role in deciding common frameworks and setting up formal institutions to oversee the Internal Market.

There must be an effective and independent dispute resolution mechanism for when there cannot be agreement.

Without these assurances, this Bill will guarantee that if the UK Government enter into trade agreements which drive down standards, Wales will be tied to the mast of their sinking ship with very little choice but to go down with them. 

With Westminster now clearly undermining Wales’s democratic rights as a nation, the people of Wales must decide: will we sit idly by as our powers are eroded? Or do we make a stance and decide that 2021 will be the year that we build a new Wales which will stand up to Westminster.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Adam Price is leader of Plaid Cymru.

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