Nicola Sturgeon calls Brexit Repeal Bill a ‘naked power grab’

In a joint statement, Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones (bottom right) called the bill an attack on the founding principles of devolution. Scottish Secretary David Mundell said the legislation was  a "bonanza". Pictures: PA
In a joint statement, Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones (bottom right) called the bill an attack on the founding principles of devolution. Scottish Secretary David Mundell said the legislation was a "bonanza". Pictures: PA
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Theresa May’s government is facing a major battle over crucial legislation to implement Brexit amid a fresh row between Edinburgh and London over sweeping powers being handed to UK ministers.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will transfer EU regulations into British statute from the day Brexit takes effect, preventing “black holes” appearing in UK law that could stop rules governing areas such as environmental protection and financial services regulation from functioning properly.

Scottish ministers will not be able to amend European Union powers over devolved areas. Picture: SWNS

Scottish ministers will not be able to amend European Union powers over devolved areas. Picture: SWNS

As the bill was published at Westminster, Brexit Secretary David Davis said it would give the UK “maximum certainty, continuity and control” as it leaves the EU, and said he was willing to “work with anyone” to get it through Parliament.

But the first ministers of Scotland and Wales threatened to withhold their consent for the bill, branding it a “naked power grab” after it was confirmed that no new powers will automatically be passed from the EU to devolved administrations.

And the Labour Party signalled that it would pressure Scottish Conservative MPs to back more powers for Scotland, and would not support the bill unless its concerns about the legislation were addressed.

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Critics have warned about the possible extent of so-called “Henry VIII” powers under the bill which could allow ministers to amend the law without consulting parliament.

The wide-ranging powers to correct “deficiencies” in EU regulations transferred into British law will last for two years after Brexit day.

Ministers will be able to amend UK laws and even create new government agencies and regulators if necessary.

However, ministers will have their powers time-limited under a two-year “sunset clause” in the bill, and will only be able to make changes where technical problems arise because of the transfer of EU regulations.

Scottish ministers will not be able to amend European Union regulations over devolved areas such as agriculture and fisheries after Brexit, with powers instead being ring-fenced in UK law until the Scottish and UK governments agree on which ones can be safely devolved without creating trade barriers at the border with England.

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Scottish Secretary David Mundell said the arrangement was “transitional” and that the bill was “not a power grab but a power bonanza for the Scottish Parliament”. Mr Mundell said he hoped a “range of powers and responsibilities” in some areas could be devolved “immediately” after Brexit, but did not give specific examples or a timetable for their transfer.

In a joint statement, First Ministers Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones called the bill an “attack on the founding principles of devolution” and threatened to vote against a consent motion expected to go before the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly early next year. Devolved parliaments cannot block its progress, but failure to get the consent of all parts of the UK could fuel a constitutional crisis.

“Today’s publication of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is the first test as to whether the UK government is serious about such an approach. It is a test it has failed utterly,” the two leaders said in a joint statement.

“We have repeatedly tried to engage with the UK government on these matters, and have put forward constructive proposals about how we can deliver an outcome which will protect the interests of all the nations in the UK, safeguard our economies and respect devolution.

“Regrettably, the bill does not do this. Instead, it is a naked power-grab, an attack on the founding principles of devolution and could destabilise our economies.”

Ms Sturgeon and Mr Jones said they “agree we need a functioning set of laws across the UK after withdrawal from the EU” but said new devolved powers had to be agreed “through negotiation and agreement, not imposition”.

Labour also said it would vote against the crucial legislation unless it is amended, because the European Charter of Fundamental Rights setting out key employment benefits will not be among the EU laws transferred after Brexit.

The party also said it wanted the government to reverse its stance on the devolution of powers, with a presumption that responsibilities will be handed to Cardiff and Edinburgh except in specific cases.

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A Labour source said an amendment to the bill on devolution would “cause problems” for the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs, who would have to vote against it because of the government’s slender House of Commons majority.

The Liberal Democrats warned the government faces “hell” over the bill, and a “political nightmare” that could cost Mrs May her job.

And the SNP accused the UK government of being “in hiding” after the bill was introduced at Westminster without debate.

Peter Grant MP, the SNP’s Europe spokesman, said: “It has become clear that this a Tory government that operates on glib and grubby deals.

“The UK government’s refusal of a statement or debate on the bill yet again shows a Tory government in hiding at the first sign of parliamentary scrutiny.”

Under the terms of the legislation, EU law will cease to have supremacy in the UK on Brexit day.

However, all European case law prior to the UK leaving the EU will continue to apply, and judges at the UK Supreme Court and Scottish and English High Courts will only be able to move away from existing interpretation of that case law in limited circumstances.

It is understood only a handful of new quangos will be needed, with most responsibilities being passed to existing agencies, such as the UK Civil Aviation Agency taking on enforcement of European air safety rules.

Meanwhile, Mr Davis suggested last night that the UK could get “associate membership” of the Euratom agency which regulates the transfer of nuclear material in Europe.

Concerns have been raised over the impact on cancer patients from the decision to withdraw from Euratom as part of the Brexit process, with critics claiming that the supply of medical isotopes could be restricted. The government has dismissed those claims as “scaremongering”.