On 9 July 2014, the Supreme Court delivered its unanimous ruling that the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill was within the legislative competence of the National Assembly for Wales.
The Bill had been referred to the Supreme Court in August 2013 by the Attorney General for England and Wales under section 112(1) of the Government of Wales Act 2006 (hereafter GWA 2006). This provision, whose equivalents in the Scottish and Northern Irish devolution legislation have yet to be used, allows for the referral of a Bill passed by the Assembly if the Attorney General or the Counsel General, the Welsh Government’s law officer, considers that it goes beyond the Assembly’s legislative competence.
This is the second occasion on which a Bill has been referred: the first concerned the Local Government Byelaws (Wales) Bill. The Attorney General argued that the Bill exceeded the Assembly’s competence in that it flouted a general restriction on the Assembly’s competence by removing or modifying a function of a Minister of the Crown. In the event, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, while the Bill did remove some of the Secretary of State’s functions, that removal was saved by the exception in the GWA 2006 which permits the removal of a function as long as it is ‘incidental to, or consequential on, any other provision contained in the Act of the Assembly.’ In the case of the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill, the issue related to whether the legislation went outside the subject areas in which the Assembly has legislative competence.
The Assembly’s legislative competence
As will be known, unlike in Scotland and Northern Ireland where all power is devolved unless expressly reserved (or excepted) to the UK Parliament, the GWA 2006 uses a conferred powers model under which the Assembly may legislate only on those subjects enumerated in the Act. Since 2011, those subjects are set out in Schedule 7 of the GWA 2006. Section 108(4) of that Act provides that an Assembly Act will be within its competence if ‘it relates to one or more of the subjects listed under any of the headings in Part 1 of Schedule 7’ and does not fall within any of the exceptions set out under any of the headings in that Part of the Schedule. (Additional limits on competence, such as those requiring compatibility with EU law and the ‘Convention rights’, were not relevant here.) Section 108(7) of the GWA 2006 states that the meaning of the term ‘relates to’ is to be ‘determined by reference to the purpose of the provision, having regard (among other things) to its effect in all the circumstances.’
The Bill under review
The Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill was passed in order to provide for a scheme to regulate agricultural wages in Wales following the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales under the (UK) Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. Until its demise, the Agricultural Wages Board set minimum wages for workers employed in agriculture, and other terms and conditions of employment. The Welsh Government wished to retain a system for regulating agricultural wages within Wales and sought to do this in the legislation under review. In general terms, the Bill preserved a statutory regime for workers in the agriculture sector which acknowledged the distinctiveness of this sector, and sought to safeguard a succession of skilled workers, with provisions for apprentices and trainees. It preserved the level of statutory protections in the Agricultural Wages Order of 2012 which, without the provision of this Bill, would have been revoked from October 2013. That Order recognised different categories of worker based on qualifications, competence, experience and levels of responsibility: all of these grades were above the current national minimum wage. The Bill provided for the establishment of an Agricultural Advisory Panel for Wales which would carry out similar but modified functions to those undertaken by the Agricultural Wages Board.
The Attorney General questioned the competence of the Assembly to make this legislation on the basis that it dealt with employment matters and industrial relations rather than agriculture. The Counsel General submitted that the Bill related to agriculture and on that basis came within the Assembly’s legislative competence.
The Court’s ruling
In reaching its decision, a number of matters to which the Attorney General referred the Court were ruled to be irrelevant to the interpretation of Schedule 7. The Court held that a ministerial statement in Parliament regarding the purpose of the GWA 2006, as being to ‘deepen’ rather than to ‘broaden’ devolution, was too general and ambiguous to be of assistance in interpreting the GWA. It also ruled that it would be inappropriate to consider correspondence which took place prior to the introduction of the Government of Wales Bill in 2005 between the Wales Office, the Welsh Government and Parliamentary Counsel: this correspondence was said to set out the views of the two executives on the scope of the subject of ‘agriculture’ and whether it should include specific references to competence in relation to the Agricultural Wages Board. Since this was correspondence which was never referred to in Parliament or made public, the Court held that it would be inconsistent with transparency and the democratic process to take it into account. Finally, the Court held that the fact that a power had not been transferred under the first or second phases of devolution was irrelevant to the position pertaining under the third, and current, phase of devolution for Wales.
As to how the GWA 2006 should be interpreted, the Court referred to the general principles developed in the previous Welsh Byelaws case, namely that:
- whether the provision was outside the Assembly’s competence must be determined by the rules laid down in section 108 and Schedule 7;
- the GWA 2006 should be interpreted in the same way as any other statute and its description as ‘an Act of great constitutional significance’ could not be taken, in itself, as a guide to its interpretation;
- when enacting the GWA 2006, ‘[t]he aim was to achieve a constitutional settlement’ and it was proper to have regard to that purpose in determining the meaning of words.
The Court examined the subjects listed in Schedule 7, noting the enumeration of agriculture as an area of competence and the exceptions to that particular subject (which relate to hunting with dogs, regulation of experiments on animals, import and export controls and regulation of the movement of animals, and authorisations of veterinary medicines and medicinal products.) Since an exception will be relevant wherever it appears in Schedule 7, the Court examined the other subject headings and the exceptions listed under each of these. The Court noted the areas listed under the heading ‘Economic development’ (which includes economic regeneration and development and promotion of business and competiveness as areas of competence) and the exceptions listed under that heading. In particular, it noted that occupational and personal pension schemes were exceptions to the Assembly’s competence: this exception related to specific aspects of employment but Schedule 7 did not include any general exception in respect of employment or remuneration of employees.
As to the meaning of ‘agriculture’, which is not defined in the GWA 2006, the Court concluded that ‘agriculture’ could not be intended to refer only to ‘the cultivation of the soil or the rearing of livestock’. Rather, it needed to be understood ‘in a broader sense as designating the industry or economic activity of agriculture in all its aspects, including the business and other constituent elements of that industry’. This view was supported by the broad definition that had been given in Schedule 5 to the ‘red meat industry’, the only area of agriculture in which the Assembly had legislative competence prior to 2011.
With agriculture thus defined, the Court had little difficulty in concluding that the Bill was ‘aptly classified’ as relating to agriculture: ‘the purpose and effect of such a regime are to operate on the economic activity of agriculture by promoting and protecting the agricultural industry in Wales.’ However, the Attorney General submitted that the Bill would have an effect on employment and industrial relations, neither of which was listed as a subject on which the Assembly had legislative competence. However, the Court observed that neither were these matters specified anywhere in the Act as exceptions to the Assembly’s competence: as noted earlier, certain aspects of employment are listed as exceptions but in the Court’s view the specifying of these particular aspects suggested that there was no intention to create a more general limitation on the Assembly’s competence.
The Court accepted the Attorney General’s submission that the Bill might be characterised as relating to employment and industrial relations. This made it necessary to consider whether a Bill relating to a listed area of competence might still be regarded as falling outside competence if it also related to an area which was not listed as devolved. The Court considered that this issue would not arise very frequently given the relatively extensive list of exceptions set out in Schedule 7: this case arose because, despite not being devolved, employment and industrial relations were not stated to be exceptions to those areas which were explicitly devolved.
The crux of the Attorney General’s argument was that, in reality, this Bill did not relate to agriculture but to employment and industrial relations and should be characterised in that way. He contended that the Court should determine the ‘real’ purpose and objective effect of the legislation. The Court refused. It accepted that, as in this case, there might be more than one way of characterising the purpose and effect of a Bill: a Bill establishing a scheme for regulating agricultural wages could ‘in principle reasonably be classified either as relating to agriculture or as relating to employment and industrial relations. Which classification is the more apt depends on the purpose for which the classification is being carried out, and on the classifactory scheme which has to be employed.’ In the Court’s view, the rules in section 108 and Schedule 7 had to be interpreted according to the ordinary meaning of the words used: doing so would achieve a ‘coherent, stable and workable outcome’. In most cases, an explicit exception to a devolved subject area would resolve a question about competence. However, when, as here, no exception to the devolved subject was stated, section 108 still provided the test: provided that a Bill ‘fairly and realistically’ satisfied the test set out in section 108(4) and (7) and did not fall within an exception, it came within the Assembly’s competence. It did not matter that it might also be capable of being classified as relating to a subject which had not been devolved, as long as the latter had not been explicitly excepted. To agree to the Attorney General’s submission would be to add exceptions to those specified in the GWA 2006 and would give rise to uncertainty and to scheme that was ‘neither stable nor workable.’ Accordingly, a Bill which undoubtedly related to a devolved subject would be within the Assembly’s competence even if it could also be characterised as a Bill relating to a non-devolved matter which was not explicitly excepted in the GWA 2006.
The ruling in this case makes a significant clarification in relation to the competence of the Assembly. The Supreme Court sets out a straightforward approach to determining whether there is competence, which is grounded in the terms of the GWA 2006: as long as a Bill ‘fairly and realistically’ relates to a subject which is listed in Schedule 7, this being determined by reference to its effect and purpose, it will be within the Assembly’s competence unless it falls within an exception listed in Schedule 7 or elsewhere in the Act.
While most cases will be determined by the express grants and exceptions in Schedule 7, there will be other cases where there is less certainty. One such case would arise if the Assembly were to enact legislation providing for a general prohibition on smacking children and young people, by removing the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’: this was a commitment of earlier Welsh Governments but was not included in the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 and when the issue was raised by the Assembly’s Health and Social Care Committee during the passage of the Bill (18 April 2013), the Deputy Minister expressed concerns that if such a prohibition were included in the Bill, there would be a challenge to the legislation from the UK Government regarding the Assembly’s competence ( Under Schedule 7 is it is clear that that the Assembly has competence in relation to protecting and promoting the well-being of children and young people. Criminal law on the other hand is not listed among the devolved subjects. However, section 108(5) provides that an Act will be within the Assembly’s competence if it is to enforce a provision of legislation that is within the Assembly’s competence or is otherwise incidental or consequential on such a provision.) The Welsh Government has stated that it has no plans to legislate on this issue during the current Assembly term: if such legislation is put forward at a later stage, we can expect another reference to the Supreme Court and a further clarification of the Assembly’s competence.
There is one further reference to the Supreme Court in the pipeline, concerning the Recovery of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases (Wales) Bill. This Bill allows for the recovery of costs incurred by the NHS in Wales in providing care and treatment to victims of an asbestos-related disease. Interestingly, this Bill has been referred by the Welsh Government’s own law officer, the Counsel General. His statement to the Assembly made clear that he considered the Bill to be within the Assembly’s competence but, aware of the fact that the insurance industry had disputed this throughout the Bill’s passage, wished the matter to be determined by the Supreme Court before its entry into force rather than waiting for what he considered an inevitable challenge afterwards which would be more time-consuming and more expensive. Were the Bill to be found to be outside the Assembly’s competence, this ‘pre-emptive challenge’ avoids the possible need for unpicking transactions made under it. The Counsel General considered it ‘very unlikely’ that such home-grown references would be made very often, although he was reluctant to describe this approach as ‘exceptional’.
While many in Wales consider that a move to a reserved powers model would greatly improve the clarity of the devolution settlement for Wales, some disputes will arise whatever the model. Nonetheless, the particular conferred powers model in Wales with its very specific grants and exceptions, and, as in this case, issues which are not mentioned explicitly as exceptions to devolved subjects, does not help. Accordingly, the recommendation in the Silk Part 2 Report for a reserved powers model was generally welcomed in Wales. However, the current arrangements are likely to be in place for some time still – even if the UK Government were to follow the Silk recommendations, the Silk report does not envisage an Assembly operating under the new system until 2021. In the meantime, and for those disputes which concern ‘borderline’ areas under any model, the clarification provided by the Supreme Court is valuable in improving the workability of the current arrangements.
Ann Sherlock, Centre for Welsh Legal Affairs, Aberystwyth University
(Suggested citation: Ann Sherlock, ‘Supreme Court ruling on Welsh legislation’ U. K. Const. L. Blog (30th July 2014) (available at: http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)