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National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Agriculture and Rural Development) Order 2009

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Agriculture and Rural Development) Order 2009.

I begin by welcoming the broad agreement that exists towards conferring on the National Assembly for Wales the powers set out in this draft order. The order was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a committee of the National Assembly in Cardiff Bay and, here at Westminster, by the Welsh Affairs Committee and by this House's Constitution Committee. The Government are grateful to these committees for the scrutiny they have undertaken.

I am pleased to say that the Welsh Affairs Committee concluded that,

“the Welsh Assembly Government has identified a clear need for the proposed Order”,

and that the competence it confers,

“represents a useful addition to the Assembly's powers”.

The committee made no recommendations to change the proposed order as a result of its scrutiny. The Constitution Committee similarly confirmed that the order did not raise any matters of constitutional principle.

This draft order, which forms part of the legislative programme set out on 15 July 2008 by the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government, the right honourable Rhodri Morgan, has already been approved by the National Assembly for Wales, in plenary on 31 March, and by the other place on 18 May this year.

The order would enable the National Assembly to legislate in relation to the promotion and development of the red meat industry in Wales. It inserts a single matter into field 1 of Schedule 5 to the Government of Wales Act 2006, which covers agriculture, fisheries, forestry and rural development. Specifically, this order would enable the Welsh Assembly Government to fulfil their policy aim of conferring on Welsh Ministers the functions currently carried out by the Welsh Levy Board, including raising a levy on the Welsh red meat sector. This is not possible under existing powers.

The Committee may find it helpful if I briefly summarise the background to this order. The Radcliffe review of 2005 considered the then five Great Britain and United Kingdom statutory agricultural and horticultural levy bodies, covering potatoes, horticulture, cereals, meat and livestock and milk.

The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, the NERC Act, led to the abolition of these boards and the establishment of a new Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board—the AHDB. The 2006 Act also allowed the Welsh Ministers to create separate Wales-only bodies for the development, promotion and sustainability of their respective industries.

The Welsh Assembly Government consulted the agricultural industry in Wales about how best to manage future promotion and development in each of these sectors. The industry wanted separate arrangements for the development and promotion of the red meat sector in Wales because of its importance to rural community infrastructure and the wider rural economy. As a result, in February 2008, Welsh Ministers established the Welsh Levy Board to set and raise the red meat levy in Wales. The AHDB administers the other levy-raising sectors in Wales as part of GB-wide arrangements in respect of the horticulture, milk and potato sectors, and UK-wide arrangements for the cereals and oilseeds sector.

The Welsh Assembly Government’s general policy is to ensure that, wherever possible, functions are exercised in-house rather than by arm’s-length bodies. Welsh Ministers are able to create separate Wales-only bodies for the development, promotion and sustainability of the respective agricultural industries as a result of the NERC Act. Crucially, however, the Act does not allow the National Assembly to confer those functions directly on Welsh Ministers.

The Welsh Levy Board currently sets and raises a levy for the Welsh red meat industry to fund the promotion and marketing of the industry. In practice, the board has delegated many of its functions to Hybu Cig Cymru, a company limited by guarantee and wholly owned by Welsh Ministers. As a result of the competence conferred by this order, the Welsh Assembly Government would be able to bring forward legislation in the National Assembly to abolish the Welsh Levy Board and confer its functions on Welsh Ministers, including raising a levy on the Welsh red meat sector. This would make Hybu Cig Cymru directly accountable to Welsh Ministers, streamlining the levy-raising process and making it more efficient and accountable.

The scope of the powers that this order would confer on the National Assembly reflects those functions already given to Welsh Ministers and the Secretary of State by the NERC Act. This ensures that levy-raising powers are set within a broader context of developing the red meat industry in Wales. The levy is simply a means of developing the industry through financial support. It is what gets delivered as a consequence of the levy that really matters. The UK Government’s commitment to devolving legislative competence to the National Assembly for Wales is once again demonstrated as a result of this order. That is a slightly otiose sentiment since I know that nearly every noble Lord in the Chamber participated in the Wales legislation and is more familiar than anyone else could be about the detail of these issues. Just in case there is a noble Lord who did not participate in our deliberations, I should reiterate these points. It shows that the system of conferring legislative competence on the National Assembly by means of Orders in Council, or legislative competence orders as they are now better known, is working well.

I am sure that noble Lords will recognise the importance of the red meat industry to Wales. Red meat contributes some 39 per cent to Wales’s agricultural output, and Wales accounts for over 25 per cent of the total levy on sheep collected in Great Britain. A thriving red meat industry is vital to Wales and important to the UK as a whole. It is surely right therefore that this order will enable key decisions about Wales’s red meat industry to be taken by the National Assembly and, if it so decides, by Welsh Ministers. It will enable the best possible framework to be put in place to ensure effective leadership for the industry during these challenging economic times. Accordingly, I commend the order to the Committee.

I thank the Minister for presenting this order so clearly. I do not have a great deal to say about it because, as he explained, it has been extremely well perused by the Welsh Affairs Committee and in your Lordships’ House by our Constitution Committee. I am satisfied that they have probably got it about right and I do not wish to alter it. However, I take issue with a couple of more general points.

This is another example of the Welsh Assembly Ministers centralising power, which seems to be a fairly regular habit of those Ministers. I am not sure that we agree with this continued centralisation; in fact, I tend to be rather critical of it so far as the Welsh Assembly is concerned. I do not think that we have yet seen any noticeable benefit from it.

The Government say that the legislative competence order system is working well. We do not think that it is. We certainly would not give it more than 75 out of 100. This order was missed out, otherwise it would have been included in previous legislation. The Assembly needs to get on its toes a bit more and not miss things out, and to make sure, looking ahead, that it is getting what it wants in good time. We can then deal with legislation in a more orderly fashion.

Having said that, we support—or we certainly do not gainsay—the order.

We also warmly welcome the legislative competence order. I agree that the system of LCOs is taking a long time to be processed. More attention needs to be paid to dispatch the orders much more quickly. Some of us who were involved in the passage of the Government of Wales Act 2006 identified this as a potential problem and were not satisfied with the process at the time, but the Act is as it is. This is an important LCO in as much as the body, Hybu Cig Cymru, replaces the Meat and Livestock Commission functions in Wales. A long time ago, I spent some time driving a Land Rover and weight trays around to weigh lots of animals before the MLC got down to that task.

The red meat industry in Wales is very important, as has been said. Red meat is the backbone of Welsh farming in the uplands, particularly on grade 4 and 5 land, where there are no alternative enterprises. It is interesting to note that production is very sustainable: the inputs are low, grass is the main product required, and that fulfils the sustainability objectives of the Welsh Assembly—something aimed at in the Government of Wales Act 1998. There are more sheep in Wales than in the whole of Scotland, for example, and it is very important that they are marketed and promoted well. Similarly, beef, single-suckled beef in particular, is a very high-quality product produced mainly in the hills of Wales.

The order includes marketing and processing functions, which we in Wales regard as extremely important in increasing the value of the product and improving incomes in the uplands, in particular. Hybu Cig Cymru, which has been in existence for some time now—Meat Promotion Wales is the translation—is doing very well. It has very good officers and is developing a very effective export trade already. The branding of red meat products from Wales is extremely important, and this LCO will push that along substantially and be of great benefit to the farming community. This is an important LCO to all those involved. In some parts of Wales, 15 per cent of the population is still involved in agriculture and down-the-line processing and marketing of the product. Like one or two other noble Lords here, I was involved in the passage of the NERC Act, which has been mentioned. It is good to see that the powers in the Act have been devolved to Welsh Assembly Government Ministers, who have been wise enough further to devolve that to the body I just mentioned, Hybu Cig Cymru, to deliver the marketing and promotion of the product.

With the levy board, the levy gives far greater accountability within Wales. As a result of the Radcliffe review, the time was ripe to rephrase the levy boards in the United Kingdom, and this has given a lot of highly desirable powers to Wales. We believe that this LCO is a good thing and that it will improve marketing; indeed, it is already doing so. It will continue to give a great fillip to the red meat industry in Wales.

I, too, welcome and support this proposal unreservedly, and agree with everything that has been said, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the red meat industry in the context of Welsh agriculture and of the Welsh economy as a whole. Some 33,000 people derive a livelihood in one way or another from that industry. I understand that in the past financial year it contributed £108 million by way of exports and £316 million to the agriculture industry.

My second point is that, although the proposal is a complicated one and constitutionally significant, essentially it endorses a de facto situation that already exists, by way of Hybu Cig Cymru—which, as the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, has explained for those who do not speak the language of heaven, is a body that promotes Welsh meat. That body has existed for some years and has won considerable support and acclaim.

I understand, and this was not challenged when the matter was debated in the other place, that the measure has in fact been drafted by Hybu Cig Cymru itself. It is a body corporate that is based on guarantee, wholly owned by Welsh Ministers but enjoying a substantial measure of independence. I seek an assurance from the Minister that the independence of that body will not be in any way affected, even though there is a substantial legalistic change regarding its basis. It is on that basis, I understand, that there has been total support for it in Wales from Hybu Cig Cymru itself and from both farming unions in Wales, which do not always necessarily see eye to eye on everything that occurs in the field of agriculture.

There are two matters that I wish to raise, and I hope that I do not seem churlish in so doing. First, there has already been reference to the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. There was a glorious opportunity there to do exactly what we are doing today, but three years have been lost. The reason for that was some lack of liaison between the Welsh Assembly and Parliament. Who is to blame? Who pleads guilty? Who comes to the stool of penitence in relation to that? I know not; it probably does not matter. But three years of what would have been an opportunity to give an injection of support and inspiration to this body have been lost.

My other point has already been alluded to by the Minister, who quoted the Welsh Affairs Committee statement:

“the Welsh Assembly Government has identified a clear need for the proposed Order”.

I am not sure what that means. If the committee means, “We totally agree that this goes in the right direction and in the rut of a proper principle and the inevitable development,” I wholeheartedly agree. If, on the other hand, it means, “We have set up our little screening device, and one of those screens is that the Welsh Assembly, before it brings any order before Parliament, has to satisfy us and other bodies that there is a need for it”, it has no earthly right to do that. Part 3 of the Act does not set up such a screen, and if the committee proposed to set one up, it would, to use a phrase that is used in courts from time to time, be going on a legislative frolic of its own. I hope that some assurance can be given about exactly what the Welsh Affairs Committee meant by that. If it is the former, fine; if the latter, no.

I have very little to say about the substance of this order; I am mainly concerned about the process and procedure involved in producing it and bringing it before Parliament. I hope that the order and the Assembly measures that may stem from it are beneficial to the Welsh farming community and its marketing of red meat. I shall certainly hope to see more Welsh meat on the shelves of the supermarkets that I patronise from time to time.

I was glad to see from the Minister’s opening speech on this order in the other place, and to hear the Minister say here, that the draft had been approved by the National Assembly in plenary session on 31 March, and that it had also been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a committee of the National Assembly. Your Lordships may think it a pity that the record of that scrutiny is not readily available to us here. Such records should be among the papers tabled before proceedings such as ours.

I say that I am glad because, during the Whitsun Recess, I read the interesting report of an inquiry by the Subordinate Legislation Committee of the National Assembly, chaired by Janet Ryder AM. The committee pointed out that it was prohibited by standing order from considering,

“any statutory instrument or draft statutory instrument that is required to be laid before Parliament”.

I presume that the pre-legislative scrutiny in this case was carried out by the relevant subject committee of the Assembly—probably the Agriculture Committee. I am told that the same standing order prevents the Legislation Committee considering,

“any draft legislative competence order”,

a number of which have come and will be coming before your Lordships. This prohibition apparently runs counter to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006, and the committee has asked that the offending standing order be changed. Of course we understand that that is entirely a matter for the Assembly to consider further.

We attach great importance here to the scrutiny of legislation at all levels. Inappropriate as it may seem for me to comment on Assembly affairs, I nevertheless commend the Subordinate Legislation Committee of the Assembly for its worthy ambition to extend its remit to orders such as the one before us, and to legislative competence orders in general. That committee’s comments are helpful to all of us in Parliament who consider these orders. Whether we agree with those comments or not, the committee at least has a different perspective from our own, and its comments therefore have added value. Our own Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments similarly makes a unique contribution.

At the risk of digressing a little from the order, I should say that the report of the Assembly sub-committee to which I referred also contains some telling and revealing criticism of the lack of prior consideration, basically at Assembly level and beyond, of specifically Welsh clauses in general Bills, such as the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which we dealt with recently in this House. The sub-committee says that there was insufficient pre-legislative scrutiny and that the draft Bill contained insufficient information on how powers conferred should be implemented. That last query arises with every piece of legislative power devolved by this Parliament, including the powers devolved in this order. We never know quite what will be done with the powers and we feel slightly uncomfortable about our ignorance of the ultimate aims of those to whom we devolve power. I am glad to see that the sub-committee is seeking to remedy that defect by sending us its observations and suggestions on such Bills as the apprenticeship Bill which will shortly reach its Committee stage here.

I have one final concern about the piecemeal devolution process in which we are engaged today under Part 3 of the 2006 Act. We will have what can only be described as a legislative maze before we are much older, a very dated pattern of legislation with bits of parliamentary Acts interspersed with complementary Welsh Assembly measures and their secondary derivatives. Many plaintive citizens will be lost about which law applies in their particular case. I am sure that the lawyers will have a field day, which is probably beginning now.

I do not rise to my feet on that point, but I want to suggest to the noble Lord that if Part 4 of the 2006 Act is invoked—in other words, if by referendum the Welsh people decide to move under Part 4 to a parliament—all these problems will be answered.

That is a hypothetical situation, as I am sure the noble Lord is well aware. This afternoon we must not embark on the possibilities of Part 4 of the 2006 Act and the consequent referendum, as this order clearly relates to Part 3. For the time being, I am sure that it would be the Committee’s wish that we should confine ourselves to Part 3.

I declare an interest as a Scottish farmer, in so far as it may be considered relevant to this issue. We are talking about the red meat industry. In the Scottish context we have recently seen a contraction of about 20 per cent in both beef and cattle in the red meat industry, and I wonder whether a similar situation is not happening in Wales. That is a useful point. This measure puts more power into the hands of the Welsh Assembly Government. As the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, pointed out, however, perhaps it is just taking up an initiative that exists already. If there is any similarity between the Welsh and Scottish positions, it will take considerably more than this measure to keep the red meat industry from deteriorating further. I understand that the Welsh Assembly Government are resisting the implementation of a review of the less-favoured areas regulation being promoted by the EU Commission. An overall perspective will have to be taken on the situation, and one wonders whether the order should have said more about the powers for rural development.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who contributed to the debate, though I winced a little at the gentle criticism at the beginning from the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, which threatened to develop into a whole survey of the Government of Wales Act. Of course I take his criticism in the spirit in which it is delivered. When I was in opposition, a figure of 75 per cent approval of the legislation passed by the other side would never have crossed my mind, as it would have seemed so ridiculously high. The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, indicated that he thought the legislation was working slightly better than the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, suggested. I am somewhat reassured though I accept the criticism that we can always do certain things better.

Several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, made the obvious point about the importance of Welsh beef and its significance to Welsh agricultural production. It is a significant part of the industry. I do not have the figures to confirm exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, put forward, but my figures broadly confirm what he said about the number of those earning their livelihood in the industry and the value of the industry. My figures suggest that red meat production contributes 43 per cent to the annual total of Welsh agricultural output, which is a pretty substantial percentage. It was worth £361 million in 2006, and Welsh red meat exports are in excess of £79 million a year. So the Committee has rightly given due scrutiny to an order relating to such an important part of Welsh agriculture.

I have listened carefully to the issues surrounding the constitutional arrangements. Early this morning, as we passed like ships in the night, and in pouring rain, I had the great pleasure of receiving the briefest of inklings from the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, that he might raise such an issue. He did not need to mention it to me then because I would have foreseen it in any case. I cannot remember a time when we considered orders such as this one without his commenting on the structures involved. Perhaps I may give him a constructive response to his comments. He mentioned the National Assembly reports not being available in the Library of the House. We cannot locate any papers relating to LCOs in the Library at present, but if noble Lords have the slightest difficulty accessing such papers the Wales Office will rush the papers to them. After this constructive debate I owe it to the Committee at least to examine whether we should not take steps to put the papers in the Library. I shall certainly examine that constructive suggestion.

I imagine they are but I do not have a definitive response to that. If the noble Lord will allow me to develop the theme a little, I may have help near to hand to answer that precise question. I did not look them up on the internet because I have extremely helpful officials who make absolutely sure that I am fully informed before I come to these debates. If it does not appear that way, then that is my fault and not theirs. The papers are on the National Assembly website. So the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, knows where to look in the future. However, I shall be more helpful than that if I possibly can. Not everyone in the Committee necessarily has the instant expertise that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has for pursuing issues in these terms.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, also asked why the Assembly subject committee does not consider the LCOs. The National Assembly for Wales established a specific ad hoc committee to scrutinise the red meat LCO that is before us. Subject committees do not consider LCOs, as a special committee is set up for each one. In the same way, the National Assembly establishes a specific ad hoc committee to consider each measure.

I think that that is right. After all, this is the first measure for some time to be brought under the specifications of the legislation. I do not think that it is too demanding on the resources of the National Assembly that it addresses itself specifically to the orders, because they are always about a specific issue, but they need to be put in the context of the development of devolution legislation. I am rather pleased that it takes that degree of care about its consideration. We benefit from that. The National Assembly's legislative competence is clearly set out in Schedule 5. My noble friend Lord Elystan-Morgan was in danger of waxing lyrical about certain aspects of Schedule 5 and what we could do in a referendum in future. I am glad that he restrained himself on this occasion beyond a mild indication of his support, as I remember our rather lengthy debates on the matter when we considered the Act.

I do not think that Welsh legislation is, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, contended, piecemeal. It reflects the policy and legislative requirements of the Welsh Assembly Government and the National Assembly. Their priorities dictate the emergence of these orders. We all know the scrutinising powers that the Secretary of State and committees here have, but the initiative is their responsibility and I think that they carry out their obligations in a way that we can only applaud. They are certainly not pressing this House and Parliament generally with excessive demands for increasing powers; they do so judiciously, where it can be advantageous. This is one instance where I think that I have detected from the whole of the Committee that the order is of importance to the people of Wales, because of the economic significance of the industry.

I reassure the Committee about the independence of Hybu Cig Cymru, because it was stressed that that ought not to be compromised given the work that it has done and the repute that it has in Wales for the task it has carried out. Nothing in the order threatens it; quite the opposite, it enshrines that degree of independence so that it can carry on its good work in that area. Had there been any suggestion that that relationship changed, we would have had a rather different consideration of the order. That structure still obtains.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, asked me about contracting-out powers. I recognise the difference in Scotland from the Wales arrangements. He will probably appreciate that many in Wales cast envious eyes at some aspects of the Scottish position. It is sufficient to say this. I pricked up my ears when it was suggested that Welsh interests were not being considered on the marine Bill. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, who has worked hard through the long hours of the day and night spent on that Bill, will bear testimony that he has been most forceful in making sure that the Welsh coastline and marine surroundings have been taken fully into account. He has been assiduous in that. Having an interest myself in ensuring that Welsh interests should be fully considered within the framework of that Bill, I have not detected too much criticism on that score, but I may have opened up a flank that the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, will now expose.

I thank the Minister for the work that he did on the marine Bill. I know I should not say too much about it in this debate, but I draw the Minister’s attention to what the noble Duke said about the reduction in livestock in Scotland. There has been a reduction in Wales as well. I cannot put my finger on the statistic but there are at least half a million—I think it is substantially more than that—fewer ewes in Wales than there were five years ago. The point I want to make—with which I am sure the Minister will agree—is that the existence of Hybu Cig Cymru will ensure that the promotion will avert further decline and may even promote expansion in the future.

I accept the point made by the noble Lord. The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, is assiduous in his defence of Scottish interests, and when he talks about a contraction of the herds—which is reflected in Wales—it bears testimony to the importance of that aspect. I want to emphasise that the red meat industry in Wales has had a good record in recent years.

We have had a most interesting debate which has ranged a little wider than I had made preparations for. Therefore, if I have been remiss on the constitutional front, I apologise. I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions.

Motion agreed.