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UK Government proposals for post-Brexit powers ‘one of the most significant threats to devolution yet’

Saltire and Union Jack - Image credit: PA

UK Government proposals for post-Brexit powers ‘one of the most significant threats to devolution yet’

UK Government proposals for the handling of post-Brexit devolved powers are “one of the most significant threats to devolution yet”, the Scottish Government’s constitution secretary has warned.

While UK Government minister Michael Gove described the plan as a “power surge to the devolved administrations”, Scotland’s constitution secretary, Mike Russell, warned of a “power grab” in disguise.

The UK Government today launched a white paper and consultation outlining its plans for EU powers that will return to UK control on 1 January 2021, after the Brexit transition period ends.

It claims this will give all the devolved administrations power over “more issues than they have ever had before, without removing any of their current powers”, with at least 70 policy areas previously exercised at an EU level being passed to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In total, Northern Ireland will be receiving 157 new powers, Scotland 111 and Wales 70 in areas such as energy efficiency of buildings, air quality and animal welfare, according to the UK Government.

But Russell, has described the proposals in the white paper as an “outrageous attempt to disguise a power grab”, warning that they could see the UK Government override the Scottish Parliament in devolved areas.

At the centre of the controversy is the UK Government’s proposed basic principle of ‘mutual recognition’: that regulations from one part of the UK will be recognised across the whole of the UK and that there will be a level playing field for companies trading anywhere in the UK.

The UK Government says these principles are essential to protect the UK internal market and ensure that businesses can trade seamlessly without barriers or extra costs.

Without such an agreement, the UK Government warns that different rules and requirements set by each of the four nations could mean that businesses across the UK face problems, such as a Welsh lamb producer being unable to sell their lamb in Scotland or Scotch whisky producers losing access to barley from English farmers.

“These proposals create certainty for businesses that might otherwise face a complex and increasingly fragmented regulatory environment,” the UK Government says.

It adds: “All powers that have been devolved will remain devolved.”

UK Government business secretary Alok Sharma said: “The UK’s internal market has functioned seamlessly for centuries.

“When we exit the transition period at the end of the year, we want to ensure the most successful political and economic union of nations in the world continues to grow and thrive. 

“This plan protects jobs and livelihoods. Without these necessary reforms, the way we trade goods and services between the home nations could be seriously impacted, harming the way we do business within our own borders.

“Ensuring businesses will be able to continue trading freely across all four corners of the UK without the burden of inconsistent regulation or additional costs will be essential as we fire up our economic engines as we recover from coronavirus.”

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said: “The UK Government is rightly taking action to protect jobs, businesses and consumers in every part of the country.

“We will ensure that seamless trade continues across all parts of the UK when the EU transition period ends on 31 December.

“That is more important than ever as we bounce back from the economic shock of coronavirus and begin to grasp new global opportunities outside of the EU.

“The UK internal market is Scotland’s biggest market, worth £55 billion a year, and a massive sixty per cent of all our exports.

“Scottish businesses sell more to the rest of the UK than they do the rest of the world put together.

“It is vital for Scotland’s economy and Scottish jobs that we continue to protect that highly integrated domestic market.

“Our proposals respect and strengthen devolution. I hope the Scottish Government will work with us as we take this forward for the benefit of businesses and consumers in Scotland.”

But Russell warned that the principle of mutual recognition could be used by the UK Government to impose lower standards in areas such as food and the environment against the wishes of the Scottish Parliament.

He said: “This is an outrageous attempt to disguise a power grab that will strip power from the Scottish Parliament and put the Scottish people, environment and economy at risk. 

“This is one of the most significant threats to devolution yet, even eclipsing previous UK Government attempts in this area.

“The 70 so-called ‘new powers’ are in areas that are already devolved, and they include matters such as food safety, animal and plant health and environmental standards, all of which are at the core of devolution.  

“While ‘mutual recognition’ of standards and ‘regime across all areas of non-discrimination’ may sound innocent, what they disguise is a mechanism that will enable the UK Government to impose lower standards on Scotland – for example in food safety and environmental protections – as it seeks to achieve trade deals with countries outside the EU.

“The system would require regulatory standards in one part of the UK to be automatically accepted in the others, regardless of whether those standards are lower than those the Scottish Parliament might find acceptable.

“Our world-class reputation for high-quality food and drink would suffer from these proposals as the UK Government embarks on a race to the bottom – to the huge detriment of people and businesses across Scotland.”

The consultation on the UK Government white paper runs for four weeks from today.

As well as the consultation, the UK Government will be hosting several sector-specific roundtables with academic experts and representatives of businesses from across the UK in areas such as manufacturing, agriculture, professional and business services, technology, energy, life sciences and tourism, as well as with representatives of the devolved governments.

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