Brexit bill to go ahead if '˜power grab' talks collapse

UK ministers are preparing to push ahead with Brexit legislation even if last-ditch talks tomorrow fail to win the support of devolved administrations.

UK ministers are prepared to push ahead with Brexit with or without Scottish and Welsh support. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
UK ministers are prepared to push ahead with Brexit with or without Scottish and Welsh support. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Ahead of a summit in London, the Scottish Government said it would reject any proposal that gives Westminster a veto over how powers in devolved areas are implemented after they return from Brussels, and warned time is running out to defuse a constitutional crisis.

UK sources acknowledge that Thursday’s meeting is the last chance for all parties to meet to discuss amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill without delaying its progress through the House of Lords, potentially upsetting the government’s Brexit legislative agenda.

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Introduction of government amendments has been scheduled for the third week of March even if talks hosted by Brexit Secretary David Davis fail to reach agreement tomorrow. Scottish and Welsh administrations have repeatedly described the UK government’s legislation a “power grab” and are demanding changes to Clause 11 of the Withdrawal Bill, which reserves powers in devolved areas at Westminster.

Without amendments to the bill, devolved legislatures will refuse to grant consent for the legislation, triggering an unprecedented crisis.

The UK government says it will devolve powers in 111 areas currently exercised in Brussels, including fishing, agriculture, environmental standards, food labelling and rail franchises, but wants agreement on “common frameworks” for joint decision making between London, Edinburgh and Cardiff first.

Without a veto until those frameworks are in place, Theresa May’s government fears devolved administrations could put regulations in place that erect trade barriers within the UK.

Meanwhile, peers will debate a Labour amendment today that would give devolved administrations a veto over bill, giving them the power to block legislation that is vital to ensuring the UK’s laws continue to function after Brexit day.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, who is proposing the amendment, said the government’s failure to change Clause 11 before it left the House of Commons was a “running sore”.

“Whitehall mandarins and ministers do not understand devolution and have not come to terms with the new reality that there is more than one parliament in the UK, and that the others must, at least, be consulted,” Lord Foulkes said.

“It is a running sore that the government amendments to Clause 11 have not yet been tabled and Labour will insist that Clause 11 is not debated until they are published and considered by the devolved administrations.”

A spokesman for Nicola Sturgeon made clear the Scottish Government’s stance has not shifted, saying: “We’re not prepared to sign up to a deal that jeopardises or cuts across the existing devolution settlement.

“Our position is exactly as outlined before, that all devolved powers exercised at European level must be devolved here.

“We’re still talking, we’re still intent on being as co-operative as possible, but time is running short and we haven’t made the progress so far that we need to see.”

SNP minister Michael Russell, who will represent the Scottish Government in tomorrow’s talks, has signalled that a EU Continuity Bill could be introduced in February if necessary, asserting Holyrood’s authority over powers returning from Brussels posing a direct challenge to Westminster’s constitutional sovereignty. “A continuity bill is one avenue that we could go down,” the First Minister’s spokesman added.

Last night a letter from the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs called on Theresa May to break existing agreements with Brussels and secure full regulatory and trading freedom from EU, from the day the UK leaves.

The letter was signed by three Scottish Conservative MPs, despite Ruth Davidson’s call for the UK to retain “largest amount of access to the single market” as possible.