MSPs: EU Withdrawal Bill ‘incompatible with devolution’


Holyrood's constitution committee has backed the Scottish government's refusal to put Brexit legislation to a consent vote unless changes are made.

Scottish ministers want the EU Withdrawal Bill amended before they put it to MSPs for legislative consent.

The committee, which includes Tory MSPs, agreed that, as it stands, the bill is "incompatible with devolution".

Scottish Secretary David Mundell has promised to bring forward changes to the disputed part of the bill.

Meanwhile, MSPs are to debate Brexit on their first day back at Holyrood after the festive break, while the SNP's Westminster group leader Ian Blackford is to meet with leaders from the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Greens to discuss a common approach to backing single market membership.

Labour's Jeremy Corbyn declined an invitation to take part in the summit, calling the group's approach "flawed", and the Scottish party's leader Richard Leonard said the SNP could not be trusted on Brexit.

Scottish ministers have so far refused to put forward two pieces of Westminster Brexit legislation for consent votes at Holyrood – the Withdrawal Bill, and the Trade Bill, which they say puts "unacceptable constraints" on devolved powers.

The two governments are locked in a dispute over what will happen to powers which are currently not reserved to Westminster, but which are exercised from Brussels. UK ministers want them all returned to Westminster in the first instance, before some are devolved and some woven into UK-wide frameworks – but Scottish and Welsh ministers term this a "power grab".

The argument over the EU Withdrawal Bill focuses on Clause 11, which deals directly with the devolved administrations and the powers coming back from Brussels post-Brexit.

The clause has been attacked by groups including the Scottish government, SNP MPs at Westminster and even Scottish Conservative MPs, one of whom described it as "not fit for purpose".

MSPs on the finance and constitution committee unanimously added their weight to this, saying that "Clause 11, as currently drafted, is incompatible with the devolution settlement in Scotland".

They said the committee "will not be in a position to recommend legislative consent for the bill unless Clause 11 is replaced or removed", adding that resolving this should be "a matter of priority" for the UK government.

Continuity legislation

Committee convener Bruce Crawford said that in its present form, the bill "represents a fundamental shift in the structure of devolution in Scotland".

Scottish Brexit minister Mike Russell – who welcomed the committee's report – has said the government is looking at the possibility of introducing its own "continuity" legislation, should it fail to come to an agreement over the UK bill.

The committee said this approach would result in "a reduced timetable for parliamentary scrutiny", urging the government to engage in "early discussions" with the parliament about this.

The Scottish and Welsh governments jointly put forward potential amendments to the Withdrawal Bill during the early part of its progress through Westminster, but saw them rejected by MPs.

However, Mr Mundell told MPs that "the bill will be amended" at a later stage, with consideration at Westminster due to resume over the coming weeks.

Scottish Conservative MSP and deputy committee convener Adam Tomkins said the group "welcomes the progress that has been made" in "developing an approach to agreeing common UK frameworks" for returning powers.

And he said members "welcome the UK government's commitment to respect the devolution settlement".

A UK government spokesperson said: "We want the whole of the UK to come together in support of this legislation, which is crucial to delivering the outcome of the referendum. Every part of the United Kingdom needs a functioning statute book, and that applies as much to Scotland as elsewhere.

"As the committee has acknowledged, we have made good progress in our discussions with the Scottish government on common frameworks and we look forward to making significant further progress over the coming months."

'Constitutional obsession'

Meanwhile, MSPs are to debate the Brexit process and the position of the remaining EU member states on their first day back after the festive recess.

They will discuss evidence gathered by the culture, tourism, Europe and external relations committee on the Brexit process, which began with the triggering of Article 50 in March 2016.

Ahead of the debate, Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard accused First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of using Brexit as a "political opportunity" to distract from devolved issues like health and local government.

As other opposition parties meet for a Brexit summit at Westminster without Labour involvement, Mr Leonard said the SNP "seem never to accept the result of any referendum".

He said: "The people of Scotland can't trust the SNP when it comes to Brexit – it is a political opportunity for the Nationalists to divert attention away from their record in government and towards their obsession with the constitution."

SNP MSP George Adam retorted by calling Mr Leonard a "hard Brexit supporter", saying this was "the return of the 'branch office', where Labour here takes its orders from a London party happy to collude with the Tories' hard Brexit shambles".

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