This article was first published by Western Daily Mail
Supporting strong rules in Wales
The Welsh Government has long been clear in its view that sensible, properly-enforced regulations can deliver diverse social, environmental and economic benefits, and protect Welsh interests. It has recognized the many advantages provided to UK citizens by EU law, and supported regulatory alignment with Europe and participation in important EU regulatory bodies.
This positioning is in stark contrast to the views of many within Westminster, for whom Brexit has always been seen as an opportunity to deregulate Britain. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is the Welsh Government who are more in step with British public and business opinion. Our own poll of younger Leave voters found strong support for regulations across many areas of public life, with most participants stating a preference for maintaining or increasing food safety, environmental, consumer protection and workplace rules and standards. And our research, carried out last year with first-time Conservative voters in so-called ‘Red Wall’ constituencies, including Wrexham, finds that Welsh Leavers and Remainers alike support robust, well-enforced food standards. Unchecked UK is shortly due to publish the findings of a Welsh-specific poll, carried out in early 2021 by YouGov, which strongly supports these findings.
However, as sensible and well supported as the Welsh Government’s position is, challenges remain. Firstly, the terms of the trade deal agreed on 24th December 2020 fall short of Welsh Government ambitions. While the text contains a clause which commits the UK and EU to “not weaken or reduce” current levels of protection, this only applies if any reduction in protections affects trade or investment between both parties – an outcome which can be extremely hard to prove. Given the current deregulatory momentum in Westminster, it seems likely that there will be some weakening of important protections (including environmental and workplace regulations) over time.
Clearly, outside of devolved policy areas, many of the levers for change lie with the UK government. But even within areas of devolved competence, there remain opportunities for the Welsh government to further accelerate the high standards agenda, and address the risks that could compromise the achievement of ambitious social and environmental goals for Wales.
Our new report, “Safeguarding standards in Wales: why Wales should lead the way”, published earlier this week, looks at environmental safeguards, employee protections, and public health and well-being standards, highlighting the ways in which these risk being undermined in Wales, and flagging the opportunities to ensure they are protected.
It outlines the ways in which the Welsh government can further set itself apart from Westminster, using domestic policy levers to drive progress, and ensuring that ambitious policy goals are underpinned by specific targets and are carried out within acceptable timelines. This could include action not just on devolved areas, but in areas such as employment. Whilst there is limited scope for the Welsh government to effect legislative change to employment law, given that this falls within UK government competency, there is scope to build on the use of domestic provisions – including by strengthening the Economic Contract to ensure it drives genuine improvements to how employees are treated, for example by requiring employers to pay the Living Wage for Wales.
Troublingly, our report also finds a huge ‘enforcement gap’ in Wales, with many regulators struggling to fulfil their statutory duties. The ‘enforcement gap’ is further exacerbated by a lack of availability of Wales-only data (Wales-related data published by UK-wide regulators is often extremely patchy), which makes it difficult to analyse trends over time, and ensure that regulation is being effectively enforced. This is extremely problematic. Regulation without enforcement does not get us very far, and without the ability to measure compliance, it is impossible to measure progress against important social and environmental goals. The development of Wales-specific reporting would be a crucial first step in tackling this problem.
At Unchecked, we believe that common-sense regulations act like society’s immune system, keeping things ticking along smoothly, building resilience, supporting decent businesses and constraining damaging and harmful activities. As Wales seeks to emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic, navigate the ongoing challenges of Brexit, and tackle the economic consequences of the past twelve months, we believe that sensible, properly-enforced regulations can and should be at the heart of the Welsh recovery.
In the run up to the Senedd elections, we are calling on Welsh politicians to commit not only to maintaining and strengthening public standards, but to advocating for them as part of a narrative approach which portrays regulation as an integral part of Wales’ future as a prosperous, thriving and fair economy and society. As the evidence above shows, this is not just the right thing to do – it could also prove a crucial vote-winner come May.
Emma Rose is Director of Unchecked UK