The Scottish Parliament is currently going through an extraordinary process where MSPs are considering emergency legislation, brought forward by the Scottish Government, that would protect our devolved powers from the UK Government’s attempted power grab once we leave the European Union.
Clause 11 of the EU Withdrawal Bill from the UK Government seeks to take back 111 powers – that are currently devolved competences to Scotland – to Westminster. These include responsibilities in the areas such as agriculture, fisheries, justice, the environment and animal welfare.
The Continuity Bill seeks to ensure that these powers are matters for the Scottish Parliament, not Westminster, as they are already devolved areas of law making to Scotland.
The Scottish Government is not alone in taking this approach, the Welsh Government is also doing what it can to protect the integrity of the Welsh Assembly and its powers by bringing forward an emergency Continuity Bill to prevent a Brexit power grab.
The Finance and Constitution Committee which I Chair in the Scottish Parliament came to a unanimous, cross-party agreement that Clause 11 of the UK Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill was “not compatible with the devolution settlement” and, therefore, did not recommend that Holyrood grant consent to this legislation being taken forward.
Of course, the preferred option of the Scottish Government is that we remain in the European Union – particularly considering that 62% of Scots voted to remain in 2016 – and it is the case that this would mean that we continue to collaborate on a shared approach across the EU so as to maintain a minimum standard of practice within the Single Market.
The most serious issue attached to the UK Government’s attempted power grab of devolved powers if we are to leave the EU is that this changes the very nature of the devolved settlement. Never since devolution in 1999 has any UK Government approached the Scottish Parliament to take powers away that are enshrined into devolved competency by the Scotland Act.
It has been suggested by the Scottish Secretary that there would be consultation with the Scottish Government in order to arrive at a common framework for the whole of the UK on these powers. The Scottish Government has no problems with the principle of Common Frameworks that are agreed and consented to by the Scottish Government and/or the Scottish Parliament.
However, the Brexit negotiation process and lack of consultation and agreement with the Scottish Government to date does not fill me with confidence about the UK Government’s desire to work constructively and in Scotland’s best interests.
It is clearly the preferred position of the Scottish Government – and of the majority of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament – that negotiations between the Scottish and UK Government reach an amicable solution where the devolution settlement is recognised and respected under the EU Withdrawal Bill. However, with legislative deadlines (and the deadline of Brexit itself under Article 50) looming ever closer, it is crucial that this emergency Continuity Bill is brought forward as an insurance policy to protect the powers of our parliament and the interests of our people.
As I have said previously in the Scottish Parliament Chamber on the topic of this Bill, I am reminded of the words of Donald Dewar on the official opening day of a newly re-convened Scottish Parliament back in 1999:
“This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are and how we carry ourselves.”
Tory MSPs have already agreed that the EU Withdrawal Bill does not respect devolution. They now have a decision to make in the Scottish Parliament Chamber: they will either back this Continuity Bill to keep devolved powers in our devolved Parliament, or they will give in to pressure from their bosses in Westminster.
For the sake of democracy in our country, I hope they choose the former.
Watch my speech during the Stage 1 debate of the Continuity Bill.