Tories tell May: spell out devolved post-Brexit laws

Protesters make their way along Piccadilly during of a pro-EU People's March For Europe in London yesterday. Picture: John Stillwell/PA
Protesters make their way along Piccadilly during of a pro-EU People's March For Europe in London yesterday. Picture: John Stillwell/PA
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The UK government will come under pressure from its own MPs in Scotland to spell out which powers it intends to devolve to Holyrood after Brexit.

Sources in the Scottish Conservative group said its members wanted more detail on the UK government’s offer as legislation to enact Brexit goes through parliament.

Members of the group also suggested they would back changes to the bill to limit controversial ministerial powers to change European laws repatriated from Brussels without the consent of MPs. Scottish Tory MPs were “not going to be passive” when legislation to enact Brexit moves on to the committee stage, where amendments can be made, one source said.

Debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will resume tomorrow, with the legislation expected to pass at its second reading. But members of Theresa May’s party on both sides of the Brexit divide have said they will seek changes at the committee stage, when amendments can be made.

The bill has been attacked by critics both for the use of so-called ‘Henry VIII’ powers and the impact on areas of devolved responsibility.

Labour and the SNP have joined forces to oppose plans to ring-fence EU powers exercised by devolved administrations in areas such as agriculture, fisheries and the environment. The UK government says many of these will be devolved soon after Brexit, but that some will need to be retained to prevent internal trade barriers being created.

One member of the Scottish Conservative group said it was “very keen to make sure the UK Government works very quickly to establish what powers will come from day one”. Setting out the areas where devolved administrations will see new responsibilities “would show strong will and intent” and would “take some of the heat out of what the Nats are saying” in claiming the legislation is a power grab, the MP said.

“If the UK government would say, here are some examples of X powers that will come straight to you. That work is going on behind the scenes… I would hope that would happen soon.”

The MP added: “The Scottish Conservative group are not going to be passive at the committee stage. There’s a bigger picture here than just this bill. It’s all about relationship, respect, language and tone. Certainly we’re doing a heck of a lot behind the scenes to make sure the UK government gets to grips with the Scottish angle and understands its responsibilities.”

During the first day of debate, the scope of ministerial powers in the bill were attacked as “frankly ludicrous” by the pro-EU former attorney general Dominic Grieve, while Brexiteer former minister Owen Paterson said he hoped the government would “listen to concerns” about the use of Henry VIII powers.

“I would be astonished if the third reading was on the bill as currently drafted,” one member of the Scottish Tory group said. “I expect it will look fairly different.” The source said the group would work with other concerned Tories to “make changes to the bill where we think they’re needed”.

“My view is that the principles that underpin the bill are absolutely fine, but there are questions about the substantive mechanics of how they are achieved and certainly I think that the concerns of people on both sides of the Remain/Leave debate are valid, and certainly are ones that I would share.”

Another Scottish Tory MP welcomed the idea of a “sifting process” to ensure use of secondary legislation to change repatriated EU laws was scrutinised by parliament.

“There was discussion in the House about having a sifting process,” the MP said. “That had some support. We want to make sure parliament has the right level of oversight.”

Ahead of the vote, the SNP has challenged Scottish Conservative MPs to stick to Ruth Davidson’s commitment that the group would vote “entirely as they believe that they should” and in Scotland’s interests. Davidson has called on the Prime Minister to work towards an “open Brexit” that retains as much access to the single market as possible, and this week warned that the UK might not recover from an economic downturn sparked by a cliff-edge withdrawal.

She said: “My real fear is that if there’s a short-term economic hit, we don’t bounce back from it.”

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford said Davidson had to “keep to her word that her new Tory MPs will stand up against Theresa May’s plans for a hard Brexit”.

“It is inconceivable that Ms Davidson could order her parliamentarians to vote for something which she herself has warned will cause irreparable economic damage,” Blackford said.

“Ruth Davidson is often fond of boasting that she will not just do whatever her Westminster bosses tell her to do – but on issue after issue she does exactly that. It’s time for the Scottish Tories to stand up and be counted. Every elected Scottish MP will have a crucial role in either granting this Tory government a pass to simply do as it pleases, or stand with SNP MPs in the lobby and get the best deal possible, which includes keeping Scotland in the single market.”