It’s difficult to know where to start on last week’s Brexit developments. On Monday the Prime Minister was left scrabbling around after the DUP flexed their muscles and refused to agree the deal with the EU that would enable to them to move on to Phase 2 of negotiations.
By the end of the week the deal was done and a joint statement was issued from the UK Government and negotiators from the European Union (read it in full here). I don’t understand why the Brexiteers seem so relaxed following this. I suspect they know something we don’t as on the face of it, you’d think they wouldn’t be keen.
The agreement on Phase 1 negotiations is a positive move – it now enables the more in depth (and significantly tougher) negotiations to take place. But let’s be honest, it’s a disgrace it took 18 months to strike a deal on EU citizens’ rights – something the SNP has been arguing for since day one. We’re also clear that any special arrangements for Northern Ireland must now be available to other nations of the UK. And now it’s time for Corbyn to step up – the Labour Party must unite so that we can secure a majority in the House for continued membership of the single market and customs union.
This week we also had the revelation that the UK Government has not conducted a single economic impact assessment of how Brexit will affect the British economy. It’s staggering and, if accurate, constitutes a serious dereliction of duty. I, and the SNP group, will continue to challenge David Davis on this in the weeks ahead.
While all of this was going on, the EU Withdrawal Bill was back in parliament. On Monday we debated the clauses most relevant to the devolution in the UK. Fundamentally, Clause 11 of the Bill is the biggest power grab on devolved administrations since 1999.
When devolution was set up, all powers that weren’t named were automatically presumed to be devolved rather than reserved to Westminster. You might think then, that on leaving the EU, powers that aren’t reserved would automatically go to Holyrood (or the Northern Irish or Welsh Assemblies for that matter).
Yet there are 111 powers that are going to be retained by Westminster after Brexit. For an unspecified amount of time and with no guarantee they’ll ever hand them over. For some of them (e.g. Fisheries Management), there will be the need for a system or framework that allows the UK to work together across the nations. Like there already is in Europe. For these to work all nations of the UK must be an equal partner with an equal say.
And I should make it clear that, for once, it’s not just the SNP that are opposing the Tory Government. Clause 11 so fatally undermines the devolved settlements across the UK that the Labour Welsh Government and the SNP Scottish Government have worked together in tabling amendments to the Bill. And the Scottish Labour MPs were in agreement too. Makes a nice change!
Even Conservative MPs acknowledged that the clause was flawed. Yet they still trooped through the lobbies with their masters. All 13 Scottish Tories voted to undermine devolution on Monday night. I’m pretty sure even their constituents who want Brexit and don’t wish to ever see an independent Scotland didn’t vote for this.
I spoke out against the power grab in my contribution to the debate late on Monday night – you can watch it here. I also extracted a commitment from the UK Government to amend Clause 11 of the Bill during Scottish Office questions. They still can’t say when but it’s likely to be at report stage in January.
So what were Monday's votes? New Clause 64 was put forward by Labour and aimed to establish procedures for the creation of UK-wide frameworks for retained EU law. The SNP group abstained on this because, whilst we agree with the principal, it would have put the UK Government in control of joint frameworks. I, and my SNP colleagues, are firmly of the option that these should be joint creations of the devolved governments. It was defeated 256-313.
Amendment 42 would have removed the Bill’s restriction on devolved parliaments from being able to change the devolved parts of EU law that are retained after Brexit – it was defeated 292-61. Amendment 72 would have required consent from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments for Clause 11 to happen. Despite Labour’s support it was again defeated 292-316
On Wednesday the focus was on some very technical elements of the bill – particularly around delegated powers for devolved authorities and financial provision and associated powers.
New Clause 70 would have enshrined the Belfast Principles of the Good Friday Agreement into the Bill. We supported this but the amendment was withdrawn after reassurances from the Government about how the principles would be protected. We did push ahead with our amendment to prevent the UK government becoming the authority for regulating on devolved matters after Brexit but unfortunately we were once again defeated (296-316)
There were two New Clauses relating to finances that we supported. New Clause 17 would have meant a vote in the House of Commons to approve any payment to the EU under the terms of the withdrawal agreement (defeated 288 – 316) and New Clause 80 would have required transparency over the financial settlement (again defeated 287-316). Finally, Amendment 229 aimed to remove the powers of public authorities to make subordinate legislation related to fees and charges arising from withdrawal. Again we supported this but it was defeated (286 – 311).
And we’re not done yet. Before the Christmas break we have 3 more days debate on the Bill. Tomorrow I will be leading for the SNP as we move on to debating Clause 7 - the delegated powers being given to ministers (the so called Henry VIII powers) and the accompanying scrutiny by parliament.