Rhys ab Owen MS advocates for a Human Rights (Wales) Act to safeguard citizens’ rights.
For a Government that seems to be obsessed with “the will of the people”, the 1997 referendum for Welsh devolution and the 2011 referendum to expand the powers of the Senedd seem to have slipped Westminster’s mind. After 24 years of human rights protection under the Human Rights Act, the UK government has taken the extreme action to remove the rights of its citizens, instead of building upon them.
The Welsh government’s conformity with the European Convention on Human Rights has already been written in Welsh law under the Government of Wales Act 2006. Yet the Westminster government still insists that we should not be bound to hold governments, whether that be the Welsh government or the UK government, to account for their actions.
By stepping on convention rights that are enshrined in the very fabric of devolution, Westminster makes its position very clear: devolution was an error, and it is its intention to rectify it. Of course, this power grab is nothing new. We saw this a few years ago during the passing of the Internal Market Act, which allowed UK Ministers to break international law and went against the consent of both Welsh and Scottish parliaments. This encroachment on devolution showed the Sewell convention to be practically non-existent.
The Welsh Government should be taking steps to ensure that it does not allow Westminster to rewrite the rulebook on human rights
Another example of the control the UK government holds over Wales is the so-called “levelling-up fund”, intended to replace the investments made by the European Union into Wales. This money bypasses the Welsh Government entirely, instead, going straight into the hands of local authorities. Surely it should be up to the democratically elected body of Wales to allocate these resources fairly rather than playing party politics.
Since my election in May 2021, I have consistently warned against the undermining of Welsh democracy by the overuse of Legislative Competence Orders that suppress scrutiny. They also grant powers to UK Ministers to amend the Government of Wales Act 2006 and Welsh primary legislation through secondary legislation. I hope that the recent announcement by the UK Government to “remove” the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017, a Welsh primary legislation, through UK primary legislation will finally make people realise that Welsh devolution is under threat.
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That begs the question, where is the unionist answer to this steamrolling of devolution? Those who are insistent on the Union remaining as one seem to have brushed aside this issue, with the Westminster Conservatives resorting to a form of muscular unionism to try and enforce their will. But surely it should be the will of the Welsh people that matters in regards to devolution, not those who happen to be in power at Westminster? Even the Labour Party, the ruling party of Welsh devolution, seems to have ignored this glaring inconsistency with the constitution.
An article by Gregory Davies and Daniel Wincott published recently in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations notes that the ideology of Welsh Labour in recent times has been that of “soft nationalism”, but is that enough to fight back against the fresh wave of attacks against Welsh democracy? It seems as though the Welsh government is sleepwalking toward human rights violations by not standing strongly against Westminster in their proposals to prevent courts from quashing legislation which goes against the ECHR, a principle which the Senedd should hold dear as a method for holding the government responsible for their actions. It is important that we keep these values of accountability in mind for the future, as the UK government shows their intention to stray further and further away from the rest of Europe in its human rights protections.
In the wake of the rewriting of the ministerial rulebook after Partygate, the Welsh Government should be taking steps to ensure that it does not allow Westminster to rewrite the rulebook on human rights, and that we in Wales are able to hold onto our commitment to following the principles of the ECHR. Welsh devolution has a strong basis within human rights protections provided by the Human Rights Act, and so the replacement of these values should make us all too aware that devolution, and the democratic accountability that comes along with it, can just as easily be replaced.
This is one reason why I decided to put forward a members’ legislative proposal for a Welsh Human Rights Act.
The Welsh Government recently commissioned a report on how to strengthen and advance equality and human rights – this document shows the need for this legislation.
If it became law, my bill would, as recommended in the report, ‘…give effect to international human rights in Welsh law through a Human Rights (Wales) Act to make select international human rights part of Welsh law so that they are binding on Welsh Ministers and public authorities in the exercise of devolved functions and may be enforced by a court or tribunal.’
This would protect the human rights of all citizens living in Wales, keeping us in step with the European Convention on Human Rights and securing our human rights to continue to be a cornerstone of devolution and Welsh democracy.
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