Holyrood will be given a ‘power surge’ by Brexit insists Downing Street

The UK government will publish its plans to protect the country’s internal market and preserve free trade between its four nations on Thursday, in a move that will reignite a constitutional row over claims of a Westminster “power grab”.

Independence supporters march through Glasgow in January.
Independence supporters march through Glasgow in January.

A white paper will set out proposals for a mutual recognition and non-discrimination regime to ensure standards and regulations for goods and services remain the same across the UK once European Union law ceases to apply at the end of the year.

It will see the UK government assert its authority over key areas of policy like state aid, in what Scottish ministers have denounced as a “power grab”. But Downing Street insisted the measures were a “power surge” and that the Scottish Government’s responsibilities would be enhanced.

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The white paper promises to restart the constitutional row over Brexit that was put on hold by the coronavirus crisis, with less than a year to go until Scottish Parliament elections.

Businesses and civil society groups will be asked for their views on the white paper, which will set out how 111 powers returning from Brussels will be handed to Edinburgh.

The UK government said the changes would give devolved administrations influence over policy for the first time in areas that were previously held by the EU.

But the SNP Constitution Secretary Michael Russell said this week the Scottish Government would be unable to prevent UK ministers taking part in a regulatory “race to the bottom” to secure post-Brexit trade deals with countries including the US.

Trade negotiations are reserved to Westminster, and Washington is eager to see the UK open its market to agricultural products including chemical-washed chicken and beef from cattle fed with hormones ­prohibited by the EU, although Downing Street insists standards will not be lowered.

In order to negotiate with other countries, the UK government will need to ensure goods and services could be exported to the whole of the UK on an equal basis.

The rules governing state aid and subsidies are a particular point of contention, with Scottish ministers claiming a UK-wide regime could see devolved policy initiatives such as minimum unit pricing for alcohol struck down at Westminster – something Downing Street denies.

There is also anger at plans for the UK government to take control of regional development funding, which was previously distributed by the Scottish Government.

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Last night Mr Russell claimed the white apper was “one of the most significant threats to devolution yet”.

“While ‘mutual recognition’ of standards and ‘regime across all areas of non-discrimination’ may sound innocent, what they disguise is a mechanism that will enable the UK Government to impose lower standards on Scotland – for example in food safety and environmental protections – as it seeks to achieve trade deals with countries outside the EU.”

A Number 10 official said systems of mutual recognition and non-discrimination were used in other countries around the world like Australia and Switzerland. They added: “The question for the Scottish Government is why is it OK to be set at EU level but not at UK level where we have Scottish MPs directly voting on measures and influencing, and some of those MPs in government.”

A UK government official warned that without a system of mutual recognition, “it would mean that one part of the UK could put in place a regulation that could stop goods or services from being provided by another part”.

Publishing the white paper, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove said: “This plan is a power surge to the devolved administrations, giving them powers in dozens more areas. As powers flow back from Brussels to the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff – as well as to the UK government – we want to build on the good progress we have already made.

“We will develop new ways of working together and learning from each other to help create more opportunities for jobs and investment for businesses and citizens across the United Kingdom.

He added: “People right across the UK want their governments and institutions to work together at every level to improve their lives, and the UK government is committed to working to do this.”

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Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said the UK government was “rightly taking action to protect jobs, businesses and consumers in every part of the country”.

“We will ensure that seamless trade continues across all parts of the UK when the EU transition period ends on 31 December,” he said.

“That is more important than ever as we bounce back from the economic shock of coronavirus and begin to grasp new global opportunities outside of the EU.

“Scottish businesses sell more to the rest of the UK than they do the rest of the world put together. It is vital for Scotland’s economy and Scottish jobs that we continue to protect that highly integrated domestic market.”

He added: “Our proposals respect and strengthen devolution. I hope the Scottish Government will work with us.”

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