Joyce Watson AM’s ‘Politically Speaking’ column for the County Times
Many people will be staying dry this month, whatever the weather, as they give up alcohol for January. The Assembly’s agenda for January is anything but dry, with major issues like the Wales Bill and Brexit up for debate.
On Monday, the Welsh Government introduced a bill to repeal parts of the UK government’s draconian Trade Union Act. Media reports have focussed on strikes; the Act imposes a higher ballot threshold in the public sector. I’d never support kerbing people’s democratic right to strike – we need more workers’ rights, not fewer. The bigger picture is that the Act puts employers and workers on a more confrontational footing. We don’t want that in Wales. The junior doctors’ strike in England – they did not strike in Wales – showed what happens when trust breaks down and division hardens. Not only is the Trade Union Act damaging and divisive, it interferes with devolution; the NHS, education, local government and the fire service are the responsibility of the National Assembly for Wales, not Westminster.
On Tuesday, Assembly Members will vote on whether or not to support the Wales Bill. The next stage of devolution, the Bill will extend Welsh powers to tax, energy, transport and elections. Matters of defence and foreign affairs will be decided – reserved – by Westminster. The number and opacity of reservations has been at the heart of the tussle between Cardiff Bay and the UK Government. Overall, the Bill, together with the fairer long-term funding arrangement agreed by the Welsh and UK governments last month, will give Wales more constitutional certainty. I am supporting it.
This is the fourth Wales Bill. With the unkown unkowns of Brexit on the horizon, it is unlikely to be the last word on the UK’s devolution settlement. Withdrawal from the EU is a massive constitutional shift for the UK and it will have far-reaching implications for the relationship between the Devolved Administrations and the UK Government.
First and foremost, Wales must secure the best possible outcome from the Brexit negotiation. Following the prime minister’s speech on Tuesday, the Welsh Government will soon publish a paper setting out its priorities. Access to the Single Market is vital, as is ensuring that we do not lose a penny of the half a billion pounds a year Wales currently receives from the EU.
As well as scrutinising Bills, debating the big issues of the day and questioning ministers, every Wednesdays Assembly time is allocated for a backbench debate. Last week I led a debate on loneliness. New research collated by the Commission on Loneliness, a project devised by the late Jo Cox MP, reveals that almost a fifth of adults in the UK are ‘always or often lonely’. Loneliness doesn’t have one simple cause. Becoming a new mum, children leaving home, retirement, long-term health issues or mobility limitations, bereavement, divorce or separation – these big life events can trigger social isolation. And without the right support loneliness can take root. Community hubs and social events are lifelines, which is why people campaigned so passionately to save the county’s day centres. The Assembly’s Health Committee has now launched an inquiry to look at these issues in greater detail. Hopefully by better understanding loneliness we can do more to prevent and respond to it.