UK to sign deal with Scottish government before repeal bill

Scotland Flag

The UK government expects to sign a formal deal with Scotland setting out its new powers before Brexit, to head off a confrontation over the repeal bill.

Damian Green, the first secretary of state, said an agreement between the two governments would be published before the EU repeal bill came into force, outlining new powers for Holyrood and the policies set at UK level.

But Green ruled out any substantive changes to the repeal bill, rejecting a key demand put to him by Scotland’s Brexit minister, Mike Russell, during their talks in Edinburgh on Wednesday, when he said the bill should be rewritten.

“It’s hugely in the interests of people in Scotland that we do reach a successful conclusion,” Green said on Thursday morning. “When we reach an agreement on where powers lie, then we will clearly have that agreement and that agreement will be public. I don’t see that as a problem at all.”

With Russell challenging him to agree to devolve significant powers over areas such as fisheries and farming, Green said he was keen on reaching a comprehensive deal to ensure the quick distribution of powers after Brexit.

Until now, the UK government’s formal position – endorsed by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader – was that detailed talks on new Scottish powers would start after the UK quits the EU.

“In practice, it’s all happening in parallel,” Green said.

His reassurances were immediately dismissed as inadequate by the Scottish government, suggesting Green may be a long way from solving the impasse between the two governments.

A spokesman for Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, said the Scottish government was adamant that clause 11 of the European Union (withdrawal) bill, which has the effect of automatically repatriating EU powers to Whitehall and Westminster, had to be substantially rewritten.

“We’re quite clear that the bill as it stands must be changed for us to be in a position where we can give legislative consent,” he said.

The Scottish government wants all EU policy areas currently devolved to Edinburgh – such as fisheries, farming and environmental legislation – automatically given to Scotland at Brexit. At that point, the devolved and UK governments would negotiate UK-level frameworks.

In a joint letter published last month, Sturgeon and the Welsh first minister, Carwyn Jones, accused the UK government of planning to grab powers from the three devolved governments by initially centralising existing EU powers in London.

Sturgeon again threatened to withhold Holyrood’s legislative consent for the bill, a step which would plunge the Brexit process into a major political crisis. If Holyrood refused to consent, that would force the UK government to impose the bill’s measures on the Scottish parliament.

Green said he had told Russell and John Swinney, Scotland’s deputy first minister, on Thursday that retaining most powers in London at first would be temporary.

“We want these [powers] to pass through as fast as possible when we’ve got agreement,” he said. “When you say there’s a fundamental disagreement, there isn’t: we want the same thing, and the purpose of these talks is to ensure that in detail we can get to that point.”

Green implied that Sturgeon’s team was guilty of brinksmanship and posturing because a delay in implementing the Scottish elements of the repeal bill could have serious legal and industrial consequences.

Because Holyrood has significant devolved powers over many areas controlled at EU level and because Scotland has a separate legal and judicial system, hundreds of pieces of secondary legislation must be in place at the point Brexit takes place to guarantee legal continuity.

It is expected MSPs and ministers will have to sit late into the night at Holyrood, setting up new committees, in order to agree and pass the often complex updates and redrafting of existing and new legislation. Holyrood is hiring extra legal experts, consultants and officials to help with the added workload.

Green said it would be hugely undesirable to have gaps in Scottish law on the day of Brexit. “One of the reasons for having this bill is absolutely we want to avoid anywhere in the UK being on a cliff edge on Brexit day where there are gaps in the statute book.

“The last thing anyone wants is to suddenly discover we haven’t got regulations covering food safety, to take an example. That’s why this bill is so important.”

The Scottish government has shifted ground by accepting the case for UK-wide frameworks in areas such as food safety and labelling as well as fisheries and agriculture – a position it rejected before the general election in June.

Green said devolving all power at Brexit and then negotiating a UK-level deal on joint competencies or UK control of some policies afterwards would be impractical, because all three devolved governments had different powers and different legal systems.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Severin Carrell Scotland editor, for theguardian.com on Thursday 10th August 2017 13.39 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010