The process of transferring thousands of EU regulations covering everything from the 48-hour working week to the protection of birds has started, with Brexit Secretary David Davis promising devolved nations will get “significant” new powers.
The Great Repeal Bill will transfer laws from Brussels ahead of Brexit, using so-called Henry VIII powers to fix gaps in hundreds of regulations without the need for a full parliamentary process so they continue to function after leaving the EU.
The Scottish Parliament will be given the same time-limited powers, with a promise that new responsibilities currently held by the EU will be devolved to Holyrood after a consultation process.
But the move was dismissed as a “power grab” by Nicola Sturgeon, who threatened to try to block the bill if the Scottish Parliament is asked for its consent.
Unveiling a white paper on the bill, Brexit Secretary David Davis confirmed that the UK government would seek to retain control of EU powers in devolved areas like agriculture and fisheries, setting up a new UK “framework” to replace the EU common agriculture and fisheries policies.
“It is the expectation of the government that the outcome of this process will be a significant increase in the decision-making power of each devolved administration,” Mr Davis told MPs.
“But we must also ensure that – as we leave the EU – no new barriers to living and doing business within our own union are created.
“In some areas, this will require common UK frameworks. Decisions will be required about where a common framework is needed and, if it is, how it might be established.”
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer told Mr Davis he should “face down” Tory backbenchers who would seek to water down EU protections for workers’ rights and the environment once they are transferred into EU law.
And SDLP MP Mark Durkan warned that the legislation was a “download and save until delete” bill that would allow a “demolition derby” on EU rights, and claimed it would be a “charter for dilution before devolution”.
The SNP’s Stephen Gethins told Mr Davis “the government have pushed the big red button marked Brexit with their fingers crossed and very little idea of what comes next”.
The First Minister warned that such a move would be unacceptable and she may seek to withhold Holyrood’s consent, with the support of the Greens, for the legislation covering the return of EU powers to the UK after Brexit.
The UK government yesterday published details of the Great Repeal Bill which transfers the whole of EU law on to the UK statute book.
Mr Davis was unable to clarify whether Holyrood would be required to give its consent to the legislation, but Scottish Secretary David Mundell has previously said this would be the case.
“The issue around the Great Repeal Bill is about powers currently with the EU, that if they were to be repatriated in areas that are currently wholly devolved – agriculture, fishing, for example – where should those powers go?” Ms Sturgeon told MSPs.
“Under the current terms of the Scotland Act, those powers should automatically come to this chamber. But nobody in the UK government – and I discussed this with the Prime Minister on Monday – nobody on the Conservative benches will give that guarantee.
“Which leads me to suspect that what the Tories are actually planning is a power grab on this parliament. And that will be absolutely unacceptable.”
Scotland’s Brexit minister Michael Russell later warned that the bill risks undermining the devolution settlement.
“In all other areas where powers already belong to the Scottish Parliament the white paper continues to threaten that in areas such as agriculture, fisheries and the environment, powers will be taken by the UK government after Brexit,” he said.
“For the UK government to seek to impose legislative frameworks on these areas would be to take the unprecedented step of extending its powers over Scotland and must not take place. The Scottish Parliament’s competencies must not be diminished as a result of Brexit.”
A spokesman for Ms Sturgeon said that if any controls over areas such as farming and fishing, which currently reside with the EU, do not come straight to Scotland after Brexit, then Nationalist MSPs would seek to block it.
“We wouldn’t in those circumstances be giving legislative consent,” a spokesman for Ms Sturgeon said. “We’re not in the business of powers being stripped away.”