Lesley Laird: This Brexit soap opera could wreck devolution

In her regular column, Shadow Scottish Secretary and Scottish Labour Deputy Leader Lesley Laird warns that unfolding Brexit fiasco is endangering the devolution settlement.

In the run up to recess we continue to watch what has become the biggest soap opera in history unfold - Brexit.  This week it was the turn of the Trade Bill. 

While the name on the legislation might change, the issues are exactly the same.  Not least of which is a Tory party who have become their own reality TV show.  Who needs Jeremy Kyle when you’ve got Jacob Rees-Mogg!

So, let me start with the technical perspective. The Trade Bill has a significant impact on the capacity of the devolved administrations. Whilst international trade is a matter of exclusive competence of the UK Government, modern trade agreements are so complex and extensive that there are obviously areas where matters of trade will impact directly on areas of devolved competence.

For example, food standards and animal welfare standards, access to fishing waters, determination of regulatory bodies and so on. 

From a legal perspective, it is only right that the devolved administrations are consulted and, where appropriate, their consent must be sought in accordance with the Sewel Convention.   

The Tory Government’s failure to ensure that ministerial powers do not allow for ministerial overreach, and that Ministers of the Crown cannot amend laws passed in the devolved administrations has resulted in the Welsh and Scottish Governments expressing a dim view of the current legislation and the Tories approach.

Labour has been clear – the Sewel convention, and the devolution settlement must be respected.   

However, while Trade remains a matter of competence exclusively reserved to the UK Parliament, devolved governments cannot refuse consent as a means of exercising a veto on legally binding trade agreements – as that would leave the UK on the hook for any failure to comply with agreed obligations under a trade agreement under international law and face potential heavy fines.  

But that is exactly what the SNP sought to do through their Amendments. In essence, they attempted to rewrite the devolution settlement, and, by the back door, rewrite the Scotland Act arguing that they should have the right to veto any trade deal that they did not like.   

All through the Brexit process, the SNP have talked a good game about reasonableness and collaboration. But the reality has been quite different.    

In advance of the Trade Bill, Labour met with the SNP to discuss areas of common interest and where there was a mutual benefit and opportunity with Amendments to strengthen the Bill. We also confirmed areas where we would be prepared to support some of their Amendments.   

But all the SNP did with this was to come back with new Amendments that would simply introduce the power of veto and provide them with the excuse not to support Labour amendments – amendments that would have improved the Bill.  Ah-ha, but why are we not surprised? 

All through this Brexit debacle we hear sniping from the SNP about the consistency of Labour’s position on Brexit.  The irony here is that the SNP have almost had as many positions on Brexit as the Tories. 

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