Carwyn and too much cheap booze

When Carwyn Jones said on Friday that Wales was now "a full and equal partner" in the United Kingdom it was either because the euphoria of the occasion had gone to his head, or an attempt at a not so coded message that Labour wants people in Wales to be content with the constitutional settlement we now have and not expect any further progress for a long, long time.

That's simply not good enough. The truth is that Wales is still very far from having the same devolved powers as either Scotland or Northern Ireland ... as this story from Northern Ireland illustrates perfectly:


Plans to set Northern Ireland alcohol prices

The Health and Social Development Ministers are proposing to introduce a new minimum price for selling alcohol in Northern Ireland in a bid to curb binge drinking.

Alex Attwood and Michael McGimpsey are pushing for a minimum price per unit of alcohol to be set between 40p and 70p in off-licences, supermarkets, pubs and registered clubs as part of a government drive to reduce irresponsible drinking. They say alcohol abuse, particularly among teenagers, is costing Northern Ireland as much as £700m a year.

Detailed research from Sheffield University highlights the real impact setting a minimum price of 40p has on reducing alcohol consumption.

In Northern Ireland, the minimum price introduction would mean a six pack of beer containing approximately 11 units of alcohol would cost £4.40 if the price of 40p per unit is accepted or £7.70 if the price of 70p per unit is chosen.

Scotland has already consulted on a 45p per unit minimum price, however, bringing this forward as legislation has proved unsuccessful.

UTV, 7 March 2011

As it happens, Northern Ireland is the third devolved administration to propose a minimum price for alcohol. The Scottish Government attempted to introduce a 45p per unit price last year, but the SNP couldn't command a majority for it in Holyrood, and that part of the bill was defeated.

That's fair enough ... democracy is all about what people, through their elected representatives, want. But the point of principle is that both Northern Ireland and Scotland would be perfectly entitled to pass a law setting a minimum price for alcohol if the proposal had majority support in Stormont or Holyrood.


Only Scotland's attempt to pass such legislation was mentioned in the UTV report, but we in Wales have also been trying to introduce a minimum price for alcohol. I talked about the background to it in this post in August last year. But unlike Scotland, our problem was not that we couldn't get a majority of our AMs to vote for it, but that the Wales Office simply refused to entertain the idea. This is what David Jones, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Wales Office said at the time:

The Wales Office has accused the assembly government's health minister of breaking the devolution agreement by calling for powers over alcohol licensing. Edwina Hart has asked fellow cabinet members to help her "take control and take action" over alcohol policies.

But David Jones said alcohol licensing will never be devolved. He agreed that alcohol abuse was a "major blight" but said laws over it would never be devolved.

Mr Jones added: "Alcohol pricing is specifically excluded from a devolution settlement, it will never be part of the devolution settlement and I'm rather surprised that Mrs Hart made the announcement in the way she did. What it shows is it is useful if assembly ministers consult not only with their own colleagues in the assembly government, but also with colleagues at Westminster before making announcements of this sort."

He said "I fully agree with Edwina Hart to the extent that alcohol is a major blight upon the social life of this country."

Mr Jones said among the proposals the UK coalition government was working up were to ban the sale of alcohol below cost pricing and to review alcohol taxation and pricing to tackle binge drinking. He said they would consult with the assembly government, but "it is a process that should be developed at an England and Wales level."

BBC, 17 August 2010

It's an almost exact parallel of the situation we faced with the smoking ban. We in Wales were only allowed to implement it after Westminster decided to do it in England. But why on earth should things "be developed at an England and Wales level"? If it is acceptable for both Northern Ireland and Scotland to be able to legislate on behalf of their people in areas like this, why shouldn't our National Assembly be able to do the same?

Wales has still got a second class devolution settlement compared with both Scotland and Northern Ireland. Yes, last week's referendum has made some difference to what we can legislate on, but only some. We have a long way to go before we can be considered "a full and equal partner" in the UK. Perhaps when the euphoria has worn off, Carwyn Jones and his party will join us in realizing that we still have a lot more to fight for.

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Anonymous said...

Exactly. It was Labour bigging themselves up but at the same time saying 'Taff, know your place. Don't push your luck.'

Anonymous said...

a very timely piece Syniadau! Ive been rather surprised by the numbers of people ive spoken to since friday who believe we now have a real parliament for wales - we have nothing of the kind!

what we now have is certainly an improvement on what existed before march 3rd but as you correctly point out we still dont quite have parity with the other devolved administrations of the uk!

Leigh Richards

Anonymous said...

Fundamental to any discussion over the breadth of law making powers at the assembly should be based on moving away from what is devolved from Westminster to what is reserved there (as is the case in Scotland and N. Ireland). Although a rather technical point it would make things much clearer and mark a substatial shift in mindset.

Anonymous said...

No power over:

water (particluar thanks to Peter Hain's GoWAct 2006 for that - thanks Pete!)
social services
legal services
energy creation of any substance

As for Hain criticising IWJ today over economic policy. The Assembly has less power over economic policy than a county council in Wales. All county councils can vary rates - IWJ and the Assembly can't. And of course it was Labour's steady hand at the helm that created the financial crisis we're in now.

Owen said...

This could be down to the fact Westminster's powers in relation to Scotland are reserved, as Anon 12:47 says. Also there's the whole seperate legal system issue.

If the Assembly tried to do the same thing, without the powers being specifically granted to it, then I doubt it would be legally enforcable without a seperate legal juristiction. Our current one being "England & Wales" of course. Very soon we'll only have 30MP's in Westminster to oversee this important function.

EagleDragon said...

MH: Wouldn't alcohol pricing come under health since the NI proposals are being proposed by their Health minister? If so I say Edwina Hart should go ahead with this legislation & see where it goes? I guess London could attempt to block it, and take it to the Supreme Court if necessary.

I've heard somewhere that David Jones and a few other tories want an England & Wales law that repeals 24 hour drinking? That would be a totally idiotic move!!

MH said...

I'd agree with Anon 12:47 and Owen about the need for better definitions of what is and is not devolved. The devolved administrations/legislatures in Wales, Scotland and NI each have different ways of defining their list. Scotland has an exclusive list of areas reserved to Westminster, NI has two exclusive lists of areas reserved and areas excepted, but we have an inclusive list of devolved areas. It's another example of the GoWA 2006 being a dog's breakfast.

If I was concerned to get a stable, UK-wide model of devolution, I would at least define everything the same way, even if the actual areas that were devolved varied from country to country. Nothing has been thought through from an overall perspective. Maybe the ConDems will do that, but they aren't showing any signs. But the asymmetric model is, in practical terms, a lot of help to those of us who want independence. The bigger the mess the UK makes of things, the more incentive to get ourselves out of it. And from a Welsh perspective, as we're the ones always playing catch up, every extra area devolved to Scotland and Wales on an ad hoc basis gives us a reason to try an get extra things devolved to us on the same ad hoc basis. It doesn't particularly matter in what order we get things, we'll just go for whatever the administration of the day in Westminster shows signs of being prepared to let go of.


But Owen has a good point about what is and isn't devolved not always being clear. The LCO system operated on the principle of a proposed area of legislation only being devolved if everyone agreed, because it wasn't always clear from the GoWA (dog's breakfast again). In fact the LCO process was largely made up as it went along. It developed into something that suited Labour, but the Tories could have changed it to suit them. Anyway, that's water under the bridge now. There will of course still be potential questions over whether something is or isn't devolved (organ donation as one example) because of whether it is seen as primarily part of an area that is devolved, or whether it overlaps into an area that isn't. But I would hope that such questions would now be decided by objective legal principles (the Supreme Court, as ED says) rather than by political considerations. David Jones' big problem in this is that he looks at things primarily from a political policy rather than legal point of view ... but he is a minister in the Wales Office, so what else would we expect? One reason for getting rid of the Wales Office is for these things to be decided on objective legal grounds rather than political policy grounds.

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