Conservatives to progress Withdrawal Bill despite lack of support

Scottish government claims clause 11 undermines devolution settlement

The British government will press ahead with the EU Withdrawal Bill despite the Scottish parliament's decision to withhold its consent for the legislation. Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats joined the Scottish National Party (SNP) to refuse consent by 93 votes to 30, leaving the Conservatives at Holyrood isolated.

The Scottish government claims that clause 11 of the Bill, which is making its way through parliament at Westminster, undermines the devolution settlement with Scotland.

Theresa May's government has promised that the "vast majority" of the 158 areas where policy in devolved policy areas is decided in Brussels will immediately return to the devolved parliaments after Brexit. But Westminster has identified 24 areas, including agriculture, fisheries and public procurement, where it wants to temporarily retain powers to ensure an orderly withdrawal from the EU.

The Welsh government agreed to give its consent to the Bill last month but Nicola Sturgeon’s government at Holyrood has rejected what it characterises as a unilateral power grab. SNP member of the Scottish parliament (MSP) Christina McKelvie said on Tuesday that clause 11 would allow Ms May’s government to start dismantling the devolution framework on which the Scottish parliament is based.


‘Arterial gush’

“Like a cut that begins with a trickle and develops into an arterial gush, the damage that is Brexit is leaking and spreading,” she said.

The SNP said after the vote that the Conservative government at Westminster should make changes to the EU Withdrawal Bill to address the concerns of the Scottish parliament. MSP Ash Denham said that if Ms May’s government valued devolution they would remove clause 11 from the Bill.

“Any constraints placed on Holyrood’s existing powers without Holyrood’s consent would be a democratic outrage – and it would fly in the face of the fundamental principles of devolution. It would be even more outrageous if, having seen Holyrood specifically refuse consent to this Bill, the Tories imposed it on Scotland against our will,” she said.

Scottish secretary David Mundell said that, although Tuesday's refusal of consent for a Westminster Bill was unprecedented, the 1998 devolution legislation envisaged such a situation. He said the government would press ahead with the Bill but suggested it would be open to amending it to reflect Scottish concerns.

‘Further debate’

“Obviously, there’ll be an opportunity for further debate and discussion in parliament but also I hope there’ll be the opportunity for debate and discussion between the two governments. I still think we can resolve this issue and that remains my objective,” he said.

The Scottish vote came as Ms May’s cabinet subcommittee on Brexit met amid enduring differences over Britain’s customs relationship with the EU after Brexit. The prime minister briefed Conservative backbenchers on Monday about the two options her ministers are considering: a customs partnership which see Britain collecting tariffs on behalf of the EU; and a combination of technological and administrative measures designed to diminish friction on a UK-EU customs border.

EU negotiators have rejected both options and Conservative Brexiteers have criticised the prime minister’s favoured option of a customs partnership as unworkable and inconsistent with regaining full sovereignty from Brussels.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times