UK ministers present plan to avoid Brexit ‘power grab’

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The UK government will set out its plan to resolve a devolution “power grab” at the heart of Brexit legislation at last-ditch talks in London today, despite little hope of a breakthrough.

A draft amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill shared with Edinburgh and Cardiff last night would hand over most of the 111 powers in devolved areas being repatriated from Brussels after Brexit, while retaining control over a small number until ‘joint frameworks’ are agreed.

Birds circle above fishing boats and trawlers as they sit moored at Lerwick Harbour in the Shetland Islands. Picture: Andy Buchanan/Getty Images

Birds circle above fishing boats and trawlers as they sit moored at Lerwick Harbour in the Shetland Islands. Picture: Andy Buchanan/Getty Images

As part of its offer to break the deadlock, the UK government is expected to offer to consult with devolved administrations in the areas where Westminster will hold on to authority.

However, Scottish ministers have ruled out any proposal that restricts their ability to legislate on devolved areas, and say they will refuse to grant legislative consent to the Withdrawal Bill without full control.

Speaking ahead of today’s meeting, the Scottish Government’s Brexit minister Michael Russell said: “I will be making it abundantly clear that we need to see further progress on safeguarding devolution.

“We are not opposed to UK-wide frameworks, when they are in Scotland’s interest, but devolved powers can only be changed with the agreement of the Scottish Parliament.

“Failing that commitment from the UK government, we will be unable to recommend consent to this legislation.”

Whitehall fears that signing trade deals with the EU and other countries after Brexit will become impossible if full control in areas such as fisheries, agriculture and the environment are passed directly to devolved administrations when the UK leaves.

David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister leading talks, said the UK government had “demonstrated a willingness to listen”.

“The proposal that we have put on the table is a considerable offer that I hope the devolved administrations will engage with constructively,” Mr Lidington said.

“We have worked closely with the devolved administrations to find a way forward that respects the role of the devolved governments and ensures we are able to protect our vital UK internal market, worth around four times as much to Scotland as the EU’s.

“All sides agree certain areas will require common frameworks - and it’s therefore imperative that we don’t make life more difficult for businesses and families across the UK as we manage the process of bringing new powers back from the EU.”

Today’s meeting is likely to be the last opportunity for all parties to meet before a March deadline to table amendments to the Withdrawal Bill.

The Scotsman reported yesterday that the UK government will press ahead with its own amendments if a deal cannot be reached in time.

A UK source said: “The question the Scottish Government has to answer is, are they serious about doing what’s needed to create the common frameworks that will make this work, or do they care more about having a constitutional row?”

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “Negotiation by press release is not a sensible way of approaching such a deeply sensitive and important issue. We will go to the JMC meeting intent on protecting the devolution settlement and engaging in meaningful talks.”