Please find below a note on exchanges from oral questions to the Counsel General, Jeremy Miles AM, on 7th January 2o20 regarding:
- Equality in the law and the findings of the Thomas Commission report;
- The future role of the Supreme Court and appointment of Justices thereof;
- The Welsh Government’s legislative powers in relation to leasehold tenures on houses; and
- Discussions with the legal sector regarding the impact of the Shared Prosperity Fund.
Q: Siân Gwenllian AM (Arfon): What discussions has the Counsel General had with the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip regarding equality in the law, in light of the Thomas Commission’s report?
The Counsel General said the First Minister recently announced in the Siambr the creation of a Cabinet Committee on Justice to take forward the recommendations of the Commission on Justice in Wales. He said access to justice and equality before the law will be key issues as the Welsh Government deliberates how to take forward the Commission’s recommendations.
Siân Gwenllian AM said it is clear that a weak justice system leads to inequality throughout and inequality can be identified in Wales according to the Thomas Commission report. She referred to the overrepresentation of people from minority ethic backgrounds within the justice system and a lack of services for women and those with mental health conditions. She said the report mentions that the current legal system could lead to grave disadvantages for the people of Wales – things that people in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland are not experiencing. She asked the Counsel General to outline the Welsh Government’s long-term vision for promoting equality in the justice system.
The Counsel General said the Welsh Government is calling for the devolution of powers in relation to justice so that it can provide a justice system that is fair for all societal sectors. He said there aren’t sufficient facilities for women in Wales. He said the Welsh Government doesn’t want to see a women’s prison in Wales but it wants to see alternative provision where it will be possible for women to keep in touch with their families and children. He added there are too many women in the justice system generally. He said there are also important recommendations in the report about access to the law through the medium of Welsh (chapter 11) and that will form an important part of the First Minister’s Cabinet Committee’s agenda.
Q: Jenny Rathbone AM (Cardiff Central): What discussions has the Counsel General had with counterparts in the UK Government on the future role of the UK Supreme Court?
The Counsel General said no such discussions have been held specifically with UK Government law officers. He expressed the Welsh Government’s strong commitment to the independence of the Supreme Court. He welcomed the Supreme Court’s first sitting in Cardiff last summer and looks forward to future sittings of the Court in Wales.
Jenny Rathbone AM said a former leader of the Conservative Party claimed that the judiciary distorts the law to reach the result they want to achieve. She said this sentiment has been echoed by other Tory politicians apparently flexing their muscles to try and undermine the independence of the judiciary. She asked the Counsel General to outline what discussions he has had with the UK Government about potential changes in the way in which Justices of the Supreme Court are appointed.
The Counsel General said the 2005 Act which established the Supreme Court sets out very clearly the basis on which Supreme Court Justices are appointed. He said this Act was revisited by the Conservative Government in 2013 and they were wise not to pursue the course of action that has been recently advocated by Michael Howard in the press. He reiterated the Welsh Government’s absolute independence of the Supreme Court. He said the Welsh Government’s Reforming Our Union document sets out changes it thinks would be helpful to see in the Supreme Court to ensure that Welsh law interests are reflected in the court. He said the Commission on Justice in Wales reaches a similar conclusion in its set of recommendations.
Q. David Melding AM (South Wales Central): What assessment has the Counsel General made of the Welsh Government’s legislative powers in relation to leasehold tenures on houses?
The Counsel General said the Welsh Government is currently considering options to reform leaseholds. He said the Law Commission’s report following its consultation on leasehold reform in England and Wales is expected in the spring of this year and will help to inform the Welsh Government’s course of action in respect of legislative options.
David Melding AM said that answer will be very reassuring to many householders throughout Wales, including in his region. He said many residents at St Ederyn’s village in Cardiff have been in dispute with Persimmon and feel aggrieved that leasehold tenure is introduced on sites that formally would have been freehold. He said the Law Commission’s consultation paper states: “The extent to which leasehold enfranchisement is devolved to the Welsh Assembly is unclear. Aspects of enfranchisement have, in the past, been treated as a devolved issue.” He asked the Counsel General whether he is expecting the Law Commission’s final report to clarify the situation.
The Counsel General said he will make his own assessment of the competence on behalf of the Welsh Government. He said one the one hand whilst housing is expressly devolved the law of housing, broadly speaking with exceptions, is reserved. He said the Law Commission’s report will be important in the context of setting the context for legislative options. He noted that some non-legislative measures which have been taken forward by Welsh Government appear to have led to a reduction in the number of newbuild leasehold houses specifically.
Q. Dawn Bowden AM (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): What discussions has the Counsel General had with the legal sector regarding the impact of the Shared Prosperity Fund?
The Counsel General said, as the UK Government has been deliberately vague on its plans for the SPF over recent years, discussions with the legal sector themselves have not been possible. He said last month the FM wrote to the PM to reinforce the Welsh Government’s position for replacement funding in full and for devolution to Wales to be respected.
Dawn Bowden AM asked the Minister to confirm when he anticipates the legal arrangements for the new funding arrangements are likely to be available for scrutiny.
The Counsel General said the Welsh Government is still waiting for proposals from the UK Government to come forward. He said the Shared Prosperity Fund is not an issue on which the Welsh Government is going out of its way to seek conflict with the UK Government.