Ministers must reform key Brexit legislation, say Scottish Tories

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Scottish Conservative MPs have insisted ministers must reform key Brexit legislation, amid concerns it will undermine devolution and the Union.

Paul Masterton (East Renfrewshire) led the backbench bloc in calling for changes to a section of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill focused on powers currently held by the devolved administrations.

He described clause 11 as “not fit for purpose” and said it must be replaced with a new version, adding progress is being made and he expects further movement at the next joint ministerial committee (JMC) between the UK Government and the devolved administrations.

Mr Masterton noted the Scottish Conservatives “stand ready to help broker a compromise” and outlined assurances he is seeking.

MPs heard clause 11 of the Bill would set as a default that powers currently exercised by devolved governments within EU frameworks would be returned to Westminster.

The Scottish and Welsh governments have called the Bill a power grab by London on devolved matters, and these warnings were echoed by MPs in the Commons.

Concerns were raised over the Bill, which seeks to transfer European law into British law, as MPs continued their line-by-line assessment of it.

John Lamont (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) said the UK Government “needs to do more” to find a way forward with the devolved administrations while fellow Tories Luke Graham (Ochil and South Perthshire) and Andrew Bowie (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) also called for change.

But the Scottish Tories criticised opposition amendments to the Bill, with Mr Bowie claiming SNP proposals would “fatally undermine” the UK and its common market.

They do not plan to oppose the Government during votes on day four of committee stage, with progress expected the Bill undergoes further scrutiny.

Mr Masterton said his vote with the Government “should not and must not be taken as an acceptance of clause 11 as it stands”.

He added: “Clause 11 as drafted is not fit for purpose and it must be changed. It doesn’t need to be tweaked a little bit, it does need to be amended and replaced with a new version.

“But I do not consider now to be the appropriate stage in the process to demand the new drafting be brought forward before the House.”

He went on: “I am prepared at this stage to give the UK Government the time and opportunity to take matters forward and the clear position that both sides need to move from where they are now in terms of clause 11. Movement is what we’re beginning to see.”

Mr Masterton, in response to a question on what action he would take if he does not receive assurances, said: “I’ve said it at second reading, I’ve said it again tonight, I will not support the Bill which undermines devolution and does not respect the integrity of the union.

“I don’t think I could be any clearer to ministers listening tonight.”

Shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman earlier added that it was “wrong” for the Government to attempt to use Brexit as an excuse to gain powers for London.

Labour’s new clause 64 would establish new UK-wide structures for dealing with retained EU law that would involve the devolved administrations.

The party’s new clause 65 would put the JMC’s role in the withdrawal process on a statutory footing.

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford told ministers that clause 11 “completely undermined” the current devolution settlements in place.

He said: “As it stands the SNP cannot and will not support it, clause 11 is a bare-naked power grab and completely undermines the devolution settlements across the United Kingdom.”

Scottish Secretary David Mundell dismissed Mr Blackford’s characterisation as “pantomime”.

Senior Tory Bernard Jenkin shared some sympathy with the points raised by the SNP and Labour, adding: “The manner of clause 11 reflects a lack of sensitivity about these matters.”

Tory f ormer Brexit minister David Jones added: “I do feel the minister…should be giving an indication from the frontbench as to what sort of timescale he anticipates the Government will be adopting in deciding and agreeing with the devolved administrations where those competencies will lie.”

Tory Stephen Kerr (Stirling) said he hoped the Government would shed light on where the powers will rest.

He told MPs: “The Bill will need to be amended, and those amendments will need to reflect where these powers will eventually rest – whether they will go straight to the devolved administrations on the day we leave the European Union, or whether some of them will be subject to mutual agreements, memoranda of understanding, which will create the frameworks that will support the functioning of the UK’s internal market.

“I’m hoping very much that the Government will bring forward detail that will add some light to these issues.”

Asked whether he would vote with the Government, he said: “I believe and trust in the Government – I believe the ministers on the frontbench will deliver on a settlement.”

Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore said the Government is “open to those who seriously want to look at this Bill and productively ensure we make sure” the statute book is complete on Brexit day.

He reiterated further talks are planned with the devolved administrations and issues raised by MPs will be raised at the next meeting.

Mr Skidmore also said p owers currently exercised by devolved authorities under EU law will remain in Westminster after Brexit until “continuity, certainty and control for UK businesses” is ensured.

He said: “The hostility that may be felt in this chamber towards the Government somehow taking clause 11 and somehow saying this is ripping up the devolution settlement is hyperbole.”

Pressed by Labour MP Chris Elmore (Ogmore) to define what he meant by “temporary”, the minister said he did not want to create an “artificial time limit” as it could prove “unhelpful” to the process.

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