Lesley Laird: We are reaching a crunch point on protecting devolution
In her regular column, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and Scottish Labour Deputy Leader Lesley Laird gives us the rundown of the view from Westminster, and the approaching vote to protect the devolution settlement from a power grab by the Tories.
Almost 6 months ago to the day, the Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, told the House of Commons that his Government would not accept amendments made by the Labour Party to Clause 11 of the EU Withdrawal Bill. Instead, he promised that he would produce amendments in the very near future before the Report Stage of the bill in the Commons. He did not keep that promise.
It ended up being left to the House of Lords to amend Clause 11 of the bill. Now, we must not forget that when the Tories wrote Clause 11, they wrote something that was entirely contrary to the existing devolution settlement. Indeed, it was described by Scottish Tory MP, Paul Masterton, as “completely unacceptable and must be changed”.
I know that this topic seems entirely irrelevant to most people who are not political anoraks or constitutional law boffins, but this stuff really does matter to people’s daily lives. To put it in layman’s terms, the original proposal by the UK Government was that all powers coming to the UK when we leave the EU should go to Westminster. The UK Government would then devolve them to the Scottish Parliament when they saw fit. Needless to say, this was unacceptable and trampled all over the devolution settlements.
However, due to excellent work done by my Labour colleagues in Wales, a deal was struck between the UK Government and the Welsh Government that all powers would go to the devolved administrations straight away, and that certain powers would then be ‘frozen’ for a period of 5 years after we exit the EU. The reason for ‘freezing’ these powers is to allow the UK Government time to create frameworks that would mean that the whole of the UK is on an even playing field.
Scottish Labour had concerns about the agreement, particularly around the issue of consent, the content of the frameworks and also the length of the sunset clause allowing powers to be frozen for 5 years. It is for that reason that we have proposed our own solution this week.
The proposal that we have set out would mean that the UK Government may only act without the consent of the Scottish Parliament when the UK Government has a reasonable belief that not acting would prevent them from giving effect to international obligations. This is consistent with Donald Dewar’s vision of devolution – it is already contained within Section 58 of the Scotland Act 1998.
It also stipulates that the sunset clause – something that Nicola Sturgeon actually suggested before realising that politically it could hurt her – should be reduced from 5 years to 3 years.
We are reaching the real crunch point and a point of no return in these negotiations. On Wednesday, we will vote on these amendments and our decisions will shape the future of the devolution settlements for many years to come. I for one do not think that the UK Government should be able to legislate on an area like procurement without the consent of the Scottish Parliament – our proposal would solve that stumbling block. When it comes to procurement, we have regulations in Scotland that state that those carrying out Scottish Government contracts must abide by certain rules such as paying the living wage. In England and Wales, there is no such requirement. Would you trust this right wing UK Government to protect the rights currently enjoyed by care workers across Scotland? I know that I certainly wouldn’t.
So I would urge the Scottish Government and the UK Government to get on board and back us in our attempts to fix the deadlock that we are currently facing. All parties in the Scottish Parliament, with the exception of the Tories, were explicit in their rejection of the deal that is currently on the table. But we cannot simply allow this constitutional crisis to continue until there is no way back. We must fix this for the benefit of our constituents but also for the benefit of our country.
We all want to see a better society, and we all have different political ideologies that we believe will help achieve that better society. Ultimately, that is what the people who put us in the positions we are in want us to get on with. They don’t want us to be engaging in a constitutional arm wrestle – they have concerns about the education system, the NHS, housing, transport and our social security system. These are the bread and butter issues that I hear when I am out knocking doors – not what people think Section 1, Subsection 2 of Clause 15 (previously Clause 11) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.
It is incumbent on us to fix the situation we are in. We are caught between two nationalist governments trying to politically point score. But our devolution system is not something that should be weaponised and used to further a particular political agenda. Labour delivered devolution to Scotland, we created one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world, and we want to enhance those powers but not at the expense of the existing devolution arrangements.
So today I’d like to say to Nicola Sturgeon and to David Mundell that the time for disagreement is over. We have a chance to unite behind this proposal that we believe addresses the concerns raised by both the UK and Scottish Government. Wednesday is D-Day, it’s time to deliver.