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OK, sorry about this, but it’s Brexit again this month. Don’t blame me – I voted remain.
Remember the Great Repeal Bill David Davis promised last year. Well, it’s arrived, Except it’s now called the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. I’ve no idea why withdrawal is in brackets, maybe it’s not going to happen. It’s not that great either – just nineteen clauses, half of which are legalistic gobbledygook.
The reason the bill is so slender is of course because no-one yet has a clue of exactly how things could or should work after leaving – so the bill simply sets up a series of future bills and gives ministers the power to change things as and when incompatibilities are discovered after Brexit.
Anyway, this is it. And the first thing to note is that it looks as if the election last month didn’t happen. You see I thought the Tories lost their majority. As a result, I thought that they’d maybe have the decency, if not the practical imperative, to adopt a more cross-party approach, seeking consensus on the best relationship with the EU whilst not actually being a member.
I thought that might mean the UK government would perhaps seek a joint approach with the Scottish Government – and with the other devolved legislatures in the UK. And whilst I doubted they would wholeheartedly adopt the suggestions in the Scotland in Europe report published by the Scottish Government last Christmas, I thought they might at least be prepared to discuss them.
I’m something of a sceptic when it comes to the veracity of UK government pronouncements – especially regarding devolution of power. But here was an opportunity to make real the claims that Brexit would mean more powers for the Scottish parliament. Here was a chance to make a simple statement that any powers being repatriated from Brussels which were in an area of competence of the Scottish parliament would go straight to Holyrood. Period.
So, has it? Nope, not a bit of it. This bill might as well be subtitled “Who’s the Daddy?”. It makes it clear beyond dispute that the Daddy is Westminster.
They say the devil is in the detail. Here’s the detail you need to know. It’s called section 11 .2 (4A). And I quote “An Act of the Scottish Parliament cannot modify, or confer power by subordinate legislation to modify, retained EU law”.
The Westminster government on the other hand will be given absolute power to change not only the stuff that comes back to it, but also to change the laws of the devolved legislatures where it feels it needs to.
The mood music which accompanied the publication of the bill was far from consensual. Yes, it was accepted that technically the consent of the devolved parliaments would be required for those parts of the bill which would affect what they do. But try to withhold that consent and feel the wrath of May. Some UK ministers even made it quite clear that the Scottish Parliament can refuse all the consent it wants, they’ll go ahead anyway. Get back in your box indeed.
Now, it really doesn’t need to be this way. I take the view that powers should come direct and in a single phase to Holyrood, with the Scottish’s parliament then bringing forward legislation to amend them as they see fit. Of course, there’ll be areas where a UK framework would be necessary – something that applies with independence too by the way – but the framework should be the creation of those in the frame, not an imposition by the biggest fish.
We shall be voting against giving this bill a second reading until changes are made which ensure Brexit delivers further devolution to Scotland, rather than giving the UK government to power to interfere in the existing competence of Holyrood. I look forward to receiving the support of the 13 new Scottish Tories.
Column written for Edinburgh Evening News - 20th July 2017
Time is running out for many of Edinburgh's small businesses. Today I've written to the Chancellor asking for additional emergency assistance for our hospitality sector through the COVID-19 epidemic.