Last week the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed legislation to establish the new Scottish Social Security system which will manage 11 benefits that it is being given responsibility for, including personal independence payments and carer’s allowance.
These new powers were devolved to the Scottish Parliament on the recommendation of the Smith Commission, in the wake of the 2014 referendum, as part of what both the Labour and Conservative Parties promised would make it “the most powerful devolved parliament in the world!”
At the time, the Scottish Government pressed for other powers, particularly around employment law and other aspects of Welfare, but these were blocked by the Labour Party.
One of the other issues that was agreed was that the powers of the Scottish Parliament would be guaranteed in legislation. That was later reneged upon by the UK Government.
In recent weeks, as part of the negotiations around the EU Withdrawal Bill, which is designed to ensure a smooth transition from EU law to English law and Scots law when we are due to exit the EU next March, the UK Government is seeking to go further and retain control of areas specifically devolved to the Scottish Parliament in 1998.
This amounts to a power grab in critical areas of the original devolution settlement, such as agriculture, fishing, GM crops, procurement, food standards, the environment and state aid.
This would mean that, if the Tories wanted to lower food standards or environmental quality requirements to facilitate future trade deals, the Scottish Parliament would be powerless to stop them.
I do not want to see chlorine washed chickens and hormone injected beef for sale in our shops. Neither would I welcome any attempt to open up our health service to private suppliers. However, when Brexit happens, and if Westminster succeeds in retaining power in these devolved areas, these things could happen as the UK seeks trade deals around the world.
In some of these areas it might make sense to have UK wide “frameworks,” and the Scottish Government is not opposed to that suggestion. The important issue of principle is that any frameworks or legislation in these areas should have the consent of the Scottish Parliament.
The issue of consent is at the heart of the current issue around Clause 11 of the EU Withdrawal Bill. The UK Government tell us not to worry and that, for a period of seven years, they would “not normally” legislate in these areas without consulting the Scottish Government.
Last week they said they would seek the consent of the devolved administrations, but went on to define what they regarded as “consent” in the most incredible fashion.
The UK Government offered a ludicrous amendment to Clause 11 which effectively says that the Scottish Government will be deemed to have given consent to the UK government to legislate in these devolved areas if it: a) says yes to such legislation, b) expressly refuses consent to any legislation or c) does nothing.
This shows that the Tories believe that the Westminster government, not the Scottish Parliament, should control of all aspects of the Brexit process, including determining the future for Scotland in devolved areas.
This is wholly unacceptable to the SNP and we cannot, therefore, recommend that the Scottish Parliament gives its consent to the Westminster EU Withdrawal Bill in its current format.
Future Scottish Governments and Parliaments should be able to act differently in Scotland when that is the right thing to do, and also to secure the best deal for Scotland in UK-wide negotiations and frameworks when that is in our national interest.
As Michael Russell, the Scottish Government Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s place in the EU, said at Holyrood, the UK Government is using something Scotland voted overwhelmingly against, Brexit, to undermine something we voted overwhelmingly for, Devolution.
Contrary to Tory claims, the Scottish Government stance on this issue is not about independence. It is about protecting the devolution settlement championed by Donald Dewar 20 years ago. It is a stance supported by former Labour First Minister, Henry McLeish, Leader of the Greens, Patrick Harvie, and now by current Labour and Lib Dem leaders in the Scottish Parliament, Richard Leonard and Willie Rennie.
The SNP will always seek to protect the devolution settlement and to ensure the Scottish Parliament has the powers in full that the people of Scotland voted for, and we will work with any other Party to achieve this.
The only party now isolated and not standing up for Scotland against this blatant Westminster power grab are, predictably, the Tories.