Tommy Sheppard: Brexit bill is the power grab of the century

A protester shows her support for the EU outside the House of Commons. Picture: Getty
A protester shows her support for the EU outside the House of Commons. Picture: Getty
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SNP MP for Edinburgh East, Tommy Sheppard, shares his views on the UK government’s Brexit bill.

And so Brexit trundles on. The Government called to collect this week on its billion pound deal with the DUP.

Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP for Edinburgh East

Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP for Edinburgh East

The Brexit bill made it through the second reading in the early hours of Tuesday morning on the back of the votes of Ulster’s religious fundamentalists.
I voted against this shockingly bad piece of legislation and given the narrowness of the vote and the number of Tories who declared they’d support for now but changes were needed, we are in for a turbulent couple of months ahead.

The most distressing thing about this bill is what it says about the preparedness of the government for actually leaving the EU. We all know that incorporating 45 years’ worth of EU law into the British statute book is going to be complicated. Inconsistences and anomalies will arise and they will need to be rectified by amending current legislation.

You’d have thought that by now the Government might have a list of the main areas in which this is the case. Well, you’d be wrong. The current bill is an admission that they are nowhere near ready. So rather than bring proposals to parliament to amend the law of the land in the wake of Brexit the Government wants ministers to be able to make laws themselves.

This is the biggest transfer of political authority from the elected chamber of parliament to the executive in living memory. Unless the proposals are qualified and a framework of scrutinising them is put in place this will represent decisions being taken away from the (limited) democratic and transparent processes of the House of Commons and taken behind closed doors in the murkier recesses of Whitehall.

This ought to be an affront to any democrat. In clause nine of the bill it actually says ministers will have the power to amend the Brexit bill itself! So in effect we voted to allow minsters to change the thing we were voting on without coming back to parliament. Go figure. Little wonder that this is being described as the power grab of the century.

But if clause seven is a power grab by the executive then clause 11 is a power grab by the British state from the devolved national parliaments of the UK. Twenty years ago this week more than 74 per cent of people living in Scotland voted to establish a national parliament in Scotland. The UK parliament then decided which powers would be devolved and which retained by Westminster – a division enshrined in the 1998 Scotland Act.

The underlying principle was that power should be devolved unless there was a very good reason for it not to be – and the presumption was that if something was not specifically reserved then it was deemed to be devolved. The current Brexit bill drives a coach and horses through that principle. Twenty years ago, had control of agriculture and fishing resided at Westminster, there would have been no doubt that it would have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. So, now that powers such as these are being transferred from Brussels the obvious thing to do would be to rest them in Holyrood. Yet the bill proposes that legislation pertaining to Highland hill farms or coastal fishing boats should lie with Westminster.

Moreover, the bill forbids the Scottish government from legislating on any areas which will be repatriated from the EU, even if they are currently within its competence.

On Tuesday Labour, Lib Dem and SNP MPs were united in voting against this bill. Sadly, the Scottish Tories supported the Government. As the months roll on they will have to explain why they wish to allow the Tory government to use Brexit to further centralise political power in the UK rather than respect the devolution of 20 years ago.

Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP for Edinburgh East