Mike Russell: UK Government using Brexit as ‘cover’ to take away devolved powers

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The UK Government is deliberately using Brexit as a “cover” for stripping away powers from Holyrood and the other devolved administrations, Scotland’s Brexit Minister Mike Russell has claimed.

After MPs at Westminster backed the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the SNP minister made a statement on the matter to MSPs at Holyrood.

Mr Russell insisted the Bill as it stands would ” alter permanently the fundamental principle of devolution”.

He spoke out after a legislative consent memorandum, lodged by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that “the Scottish Government cannot recommend the Parliament consents to the Bill in its current form”.

The Scottish and Welsh governments will put forward amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill in a bid to improve it, Mr Russell said.

But as it stands he stated: ” The EU Withdrawal Bill appears to represent a deliberate decision by the UK Government to use the process of Brexit as a cover for taking powers and areas of policy which are clearly within the responsibility of this Parliament.”

He added: “Let me be entirely clear about this, it is not a logical or essential part of any withdrawal bill that new limitations are placed on the Scottish Parliament’s powers or, the National Assembly for Wales’ powers, or the powers of the Northern Ireland Assembly. But that is what the Bill does.”

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have already pledged to work with the Scottish Government on securing changes to the Bill.

Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw said his party also stood ready to meet with Scottish ministers to address their concerns.

Mr Russell said he “warmly welcomed” the Tory offer, describing it as a “significant step forward”.

The Brexit Minister recalled how Scots had voted for the establishment of a devolved parliament two decades ago, but said that for the first time since Holyrood came into being in 1999 the UK Government was now attempting to take “powers for and to itself in relation to devolved policy areas in Scotland”.

Clause 11 of the Bill, which Westminster says is necessary to establish UK wide frameworks after Brexit, “contains a new limitation on devolved competence of extraordinary scope”, Mr Russell said.

He went on to tell MSPs: ” In areas of Scottish devolved responsibility, vital to the success of our country, such as agriculture, the environment,fisheries, forestry, research or justice co-operation, the Scottish Government will have no say on what comes back from the EU on withdrawal or what is done with these important policy areas afterwards.”

Mr Russell argued the legislation would give UK ministers “unilateral power… to change laws in areas of policy which are the responsibility of this parliament, without any reference either to this Parliament or the Scottish Government which is accountable to it”.

He added: ” This suggest an approach to EU withdrawal designed not only without the appropriate respect for devolution but one which wittingly or unwittingly subverts it.

He said concerns in this area were “not arcane constitutional points”, with the minister adding: ” We’re talking about the role and duty of these parliaments to improve the lives of the citizens they service

“The current proposals from the UK Government cut across, impede and diminish what we do day in and day out to serve everyone who lives in Scotland. We can not allow that to happen.”

Mr Carlaw said if there was a “genuine concern matched by an equally genuine resolve to address and overcome” issues with the Bill, then Tory MSPs would “play their part”.

He said: “Both I and Adam Tomkins stand ready to meet bilaterally with the Deputy First Minister and Mr Russell to explore these concerns further, understand the various remedies and positions, and work where we can do, to do all that we feel able to do to secure a legislative consent motion the Scottish Government will have confidence in placing before this Parliament.”

Mr Carlaw’s comments come after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called for a “new spirit of consensus” to ensure Holyrood’s powers are protected and enhanced in the Brexit process.

Scottish Labour’s Lewis Macdonald welcomed the government’s willingness to work with all parties “to seek to protect the devolution settlement and mitigate the impact of Brexit”.

He said: “The Bill as it stands seeks to overturn the basic principles of devolution established by Donald Dewar in the Scotland Act and endorsed by that referendum 20 years ago, namely that what is not reserved is devolved.”

Green MSP Ross Greer said: “The repeal bill is a power grab, not simply for the UK Parliament but for the UK Government over the people of these islands and their elected representatives.

“The Greens will certainly not be supporting legislative consent for this Bill.”

Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott said: “We on these benches will certainly work with Mr Russell on strengthening not weakening devolution.”

But Mr Scott rejected the view that the process of Brexit was a “cover for taking powers”, adding that this assumed a “constitutional conspiracy” within the UK Government.

“This is a UK Government which cannot sort itself out on its Brexit negotiating position nevermind work out what its position is in relation to Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh,” he said.

Scottish Secretary David Mundell said: “It is important we work together on these complex issues.

“Rather than playing politics, the Scottish Government must recognise its responsibility to work constructively with the UK Government as we prepare to leave the EU.

“The sooner we can press ahead with detailed talks the better. We want to discuss the Scottish Government’s views on this.”

Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones warned that Brexit Secretary David Davis risked triggering a constitutional crisis unless he backed down.

He said: “The EU (Withdrawal) Bill, as it currently stands, would allow the UK Government to hijack powers which should come to Wales post-Brexit.

“Our position is clear and unequivocal; we do not accept the Bill in its current form and recommend that the Assembly does not grant its consent.

“This is not about stopping Brexit. This is about protecting the interests of the people of Wales. We simply cannot back any law which would see Wales lose influence over areas that are rightfully ours to control.”

He warned that if the UK Government ” plough on regardless” with the Bill “they will spark a constitutional crisis, which they do not need and we do not want”.