Brexit legislation ‘must be reformed’ say Scottish Tories amid concern for Union

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Scottish Conservative MPs have insisted ministers must reform key Brexit legislation, amid concerns it will undermine devolution and the Union.

But the UK Government steered the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill through its fourth day at committee stage without amendment after winning four votes by majorities ranging from 24 to 57, as the backbench Scots Tory bloc remained onside in expectation of future progress.

Paul Masterton (East Renfrewshire) led the calls for change to a section of the Bill focused on powers currently held by the devolved administrations, describing clause 11 as “not for purpose” and suggesting it must be replaced with a new version.

The Tory added progress is being made and he expects further movement at the next joint ministerial committee (JMC) between the UK Government and the devolved administrations.

Mr Masterton noted the Scottish Conservatives “stand ready to help broker a compromise” and outlined the assurances he is seeking.

MPs heard clause 11 would establish – as a default – that powers currently exercised by devolved governments within EU frameworks would be returned to Westminster.

The Scottish and Welsh governments have called the Bill a power grab by London on devolved matters, and these warnings were echoed by MPs in the Commons.

Concerns were raised over the Bill, which seeks to transfer European law into British law, as MPs continued their line-by-line assessment of it.

John Lamont (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) said the UK Government “needs to do more” to find a way forward with the devolved administrations while fellow Tories Luke Graham (Ochil and South Perthshire) and Andrew Bowie (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) also called for change.

Speaking earlier in the debate, M r Masterton said his vote with the Government “should not and must not be taken as an acceptance of clause 11 as it stands”.

He added: “Clause 11 as drafted is not fit for purpose and it must be changed. It doesn’t need to be tweaked a little bit, it does need to be amended and replaced with a new version.

“But I do not consider now to be the appropriate stage in the process to demand the new drafting be brought forward before the House.”

Mr Masterton, in response to a question on what action he would take if he does not receive assurances, said: “I’ve said it at second reading, I’ve said it again, I will not support the Bill which undermines devolution and does not respect the integrity of the Union.

“I don’t think I could be any clearer to ministers listening.”

Shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman earlier added that it was “wrong” for the Government to attempt to use Brexit as an excuse to gain powers for London.

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford also told ministers that clause 11 “completely undermined” the current devolution settlements in place and hit out at the ” bare-naked power grab”.

Scottish Secretary David Mundell dismissed Mr Blackford’s characterisation as “pantomime”.

Senior Tory Bernard Jenkin shared some sympathy with the points raised by the SNP and Labour, while Tory f ormer Brexit minister David Jones added an indication of a timescale would be helpful.

Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore said the Government is “open to those who seriously want to look at this Bill and productively ensure we make sure” the statute book is complete on Brexit day.

He reiterated further talks are planned with the devolved administrations and issues raised by MPs will be raised at the next meeting.

Mr Skidmore also said powers currently exercised by devolved authorities under EU law will remain in Westminster after Brexit until “continuity, certainty and control for UK businesses” is ensured.

He said: “The hostility that may be felt in this chamber towards the Government somehow taking clause 11 and somehow saying this is ripping up the devolution settlement is hyperbole.”

Pressed by Labour MP Chris Elmore (Ogmore) to define what he meant by “temporary”, the minister said he did not want to create an “artificial time limit” as it could prove “unhelpful” to the process.

The Bill will return for its fifth day at committee on Wednesday.