Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Baroness Randerson Excerpts
Wednesday 17th April 2024

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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This is, in its own terms and in terms of what is it doing, an indefensible Bill. It is also, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, made very clear, causing real damage and concern to the devolved Administrations and to the nations. I am aware that many Members of your Lordships’ House regard themselves as unionists. If noble Lords want to keep the union together—that is not my position—the Government should think very hard about what they are doing with the Bill.
Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson (LD)
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My Lords, I rise to speak specifically to Amendment 20A, to which I have added my name. I did so because the Bill is yet another intrusion on devolution. It is part of a pattern by which Bill after Bill in this House, Act after Act produced by this Government, raids the powers of devolved Governments and the devolved Assemblies. The Internal Market Act started that, along with the Procurement Act—and there are others. It is a complete pattern by this Government; an intention to reduce devolution in stature and in practice.

As a Wales Office Minister between 2012 and 2015, I recall that it was unthinkable that we, as a UK Government, would ignore the need for an LCM on something like this. We have now got to the point where it is routine for this Government to do that. In addition, in the case of this Bill, the unpredictability of Henry VIII powers will give the opportunity to the Secretary of State to make regulations that could have additional, profound implications for both Wales and Scotland, and throughout the UK.

The Government seem to forget the history of devolution. In 1999, when devolution was established, the Scottish Parliament had a much more comprehensive settlement than that provided for Wales. That proved to be a mistake. It was not just that Wales had fewer powers. The lack of a proper pattern to those powers and a comprehensive picture of them made it very difficult to make devolution work. I am conscious that I have signed an amendment led by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and that I am criticising the Government of whom he was a part. I am sure he would agree that Labour First Ministers led campaigns to increase the powers of the Welsh Assembly, now the Welsh Senedd, specifically because it just did not work with much more limited powers. We now have something much more workmanlike, effective and constitutionally coherent. This Government have set about dismantling it again.

Added to that, the Bill is unnecessary. In the Senedd, the Minister made it clear that the Welsh Government are of the view that the UK Government have sufficient powers in place within the World Trade Organization Agreement on Government Procurement, enshrined in the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, and that those powers enable fair and equal treatment of overseas bidders where there is a relevant trade agreement. They do not believe that there is any need for additional powers. The UK Government already have the power to set sanctions for trade. All these arguments and discussions that we are having are irrelevant because those powers already exist. The Welsh Government fundamentally believe that the powers in this Bill would have a significant impact on the freedom of public bodies and democratic institutions in Wales. They have the majority support of Members of the Senedd on this. The impact would be on their freedom to decide not to purchase or procure in a way that impacts on their existing legal obligations in relation to human rights, abuse of workers’ rights and the environment. In practice, these powers are not going to fit comfortably with the structure of our legislation as it currently exists.

The fundamental reason why I signed this amendment on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Benches is that this is yet another impact on devolution and the coherence and effectiveness of the way in which the Governments of the United Kingdom should work together in a positive and effective manner.

Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, I think that noble Lords who have spoken have misrepresented the devolution settlement. It is clear that foreign policy is a reserved matter. When we come to this Bill, the question of the political or moral disapproval of the conduct of foreign states is a matter of foreign policy that can be determined only by the UK Government.

Noble Lords have been trying to describe devolution as they would like it to exist but the plain fact is that foreign policy is a reserved matter, and that is what is driving this. I do not think that the other matters that the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, just referred to prevent action by the devolved authorities because of the quite extensive exemptions, which align with the procurement legislation, that are set out in the Schedule. We are talking about political or moral disapproval of state conduct, very specifically, and that is a matter reserved to the UK Government.

We have to remember that the devolved Administrations have form here in relation to Israel. To take the Scottish Government, back in 2014, they issued a Scottish procurement policy note which, in effect, encouraged Scottish bodies to boycott operations in the Occupied Territories. That note, which is quite difficult to find on the internet nowadays, because it seems to have disappeared into a black hole of an archive, was reconfirmed by current Scottish Ministers only a couple of years ago, so it remains the Scottish Government’s policy, which they cannot effectively implement because of the reserved nature of foreign policy.

To take the Welsh Government, in 2020 they informed the Welsh Parliament that they intended to issue advice to all Welsh authorities

“that they may exclude from tendering any company that conducts business with occupied territories either directly or via third parties”.

It was only after intervention from an organisation called UK Lawyers for Israel that the Welsh Government deferred their decision. So we have the Scottish Government and the Welsh Labour Government itching to boycott Israel, and to use that as a reason—