SNP anger over post-Brexit trade standards ‘power grab’

A row has broken out over UK Government plans to enshrine a UK “internal market” in law after Brexit, after the Scottish Government’s Constitution Secretary has warned it would undermine devolution.

Freight lorries wait on the quayside to board a ferry, as a DFDS ferry arrives at the Port of Dover. Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

Michael Russell has warned that controversial provisions reportedly contained in the plans, which have yet to be formally published by Westminster, would be tantamount to a “power grab” on the responsibilities held by the Scottish Parliament.

But the claims have been dismissed by UK cabinet minister Michael Gove who has accused the SNP of seeking to “confect” a political row.

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The concerns centre on the prospect of a new “mutual recognition” regime that would effectively mean post-Brexit standards in areas like environmental and food regulation, which apply in one part of the UK, would have to accepted elsewhere. There are also claims that a new “unelected oversight body” could be established to test whether Holyrood laws meet a new internal market test. It is claimed such a law could have scuppered previous landmark Scots legislation such as free tuition and minimum alcohol pricing.

Scottish constitutional secretary Mike Russell

Mr Russell said the Scottish Government believes the purpose of such legislation is “not economic but purely political” in a letter to Mr Gove.

“It appears you have been pursuing such a scheme, alongside the reckless action of refusing to extend the Brexit transition period, at the very time when all the focus of the Scottish Government has been on tackling the Covid-19 crisis,” the letter states.

“I want to make it crystal clear at the earliest possible moment that the Scottish Government would not accept any such plans. Nor would we co-operate with them.”

It is feared that the “mutual recognition regime” could lower regulatory standards below what is deemed acceptable at Holyrood. Mr Russell warned that such a move would “ignore the reality and history of devolution” and would be opposed by the Scottish Government.

Mr Russell has previously raised concerns about UK ministers’ intention to renege on level playing field commitments in areas such as environmental, social and employment law despite the undertakings in the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.

It comes amid widespread concerns that the UK government may compromise on regulatory standards in pursuit of trade deals. The UK government has so far repeatedly ruled out extending the post-Brexit transition phase, despite continuing deadlock over a “level playing field” on trade regulations. However pressure is mounting, as a decision on whether to extend the transition beyond the end of the year – when EU laws will cease to apply in the UK and tariffs will be applied if no trade deal is agreed – must be made this month.

“The Tories know they can’t win an election to the Scottish Parliament so have come up with a scheme to undermine it instead,” Mr Russell added.

“They are plotting, in an underhand manner, to introduce a new law which would effectively hand power to Tory ministers in devolved policy areas, under the guise of protecting what they call the so-called UK internal market after Brexit.

“Under their plans, if Westminster adopts lower standards in devolved areas, Scotland could be forced to accept them, regardless of the view of our Parliament.

“And they are considering setting up an unelected oversight body to set a new ‘internal market’ test for any new Holyrood legislation. If this law had been in force, our ability to keep tuition free for students in Scotland while charging students from the rest of the UK, to set a minimum unit price for alcohol, or introduce a smoking ban before the rest of the UK could all have been in jeopardy. This scheme amounts to using Brexit as a cover to mount the biggest power grab on the Scottish Parliament yet and we will do all we can to stop it from happening.”

But the concerns have been played down by Mr Gove.

A spokesman for the Scots-born UK Cabinet minister Gove said: “It’s disappointing that the SNP administration has tried to confect yet another political row to pursue their separatist agenda over rumours.

“The SNP withdrew from work on the UK internal market over a year ago, have since challenged the existence of the UK internal market and now threaten our common frameworks programme.

“As we emerge from coronavirus and focus on our country’s recovery, we will consider how to bring people in the UK closer together, not put up more barriers.

“Sixty per cent of Scottish trade is with the rest of the UK, worth over £50 billion to Scotland – we won’t let the SNP threaten that.

“The UK government will put the interests of people and businesses in Scotland, and across the UK, first. We will respond carefully to this letter shortly and continue working closely with all three devolved administrations.”