It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham.
I rise to speak to amendment 21 and new clauses 1 and 4, which I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues have tabled with the purpose of building consensus, which has been sorely lacking in the whole process of the Bill. From the publication of the White Paper and its incredibly short consultation period back in July, to the rushed programme for debating the Bill, there is clearly no willingness on the Government’s part to find any degree of consensus. We have heard some of that rancour this afternoon.
The devolved Administrations have indicated that they are unlikely to give legislative consent to the Bill. Although it will not, that should be something that gives the Government pause for thought. It is not just the SNP that thinks the Bill does real damage to the devolved settlements, but Welsh Labour and colleagues in Plaid Cymru. As a Liberal Democrat, I must say that the Government are making it hard for those of us who want to keep the United Kingdom together to make the emotional case for doing so.
It seems easy to forget that just four years ago the Conservative Government were passing the Scotland Act 2016. That piece of legislation was grounded in consensus and, although it was an Act of the UK Parliament, the Smith commission that preceded it was made up of Scottish political party representatives. I am afraid that in the past year the Government have taken us far away from that model of consensus.
The Government have been determined to leave the customs union and the single market above all else, and the Bill is a clear indication of that. I fear there has been no consideration of cost, and not simply in financial terms. The Prime Minister signed a withdrawal agreement that created a border in the Irish sea—one voted for in January and overturned by the Bill we are debating. How many more people in constituencies such as North East Fife that voted clearly to remain in the EU are the Government willing to alienate?
It is a matter not just of conduct but of the practical realities. For example, the University of St Andrews, the largest employer in my constituency, has ongoing concerns, not assuaged by this Government’s current actions, about the impact of our final departure from the EU in December. I urge the Government to change tack. Surely working in co-operation and trying to find consensus should be the way to demonstrate Government good faith in the UK and its workings. That is why I have tabled my amendments, along with my parliamentary colleagues.
New clause 4 and amendment 21 try to take some of the spirit of what was in the Scotland Act 2016 and apply it to this Bill. I thank Richard Fuller, who is now back in his place, and Paul Bristow for their supportive comments on them. I hope that the Government will give some indication of seriously considering them.
One of the steps recommended by the Smith commission was put into law by section 65 of the Scotland Act, which gave Scottish Ministers the power to appoint a member to the panel of Ofcom. This Bill creates new responsibilities for the Competition and Markets Authority —a body, as has been well debated already, whose public appointees are chosen by the Secretary of State for Business in the UK Government. As others have rightly pointed out, the Government have a less than transparent approach to appointments and contracts of late. Would it not be simpler to mirror what the Scotland Act did for Ofcom for the CMA, given the Government’s intention that the CMA has a very important role in relation to the functioning of the Union? That is what new clause 4 is about. It would give the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Administrations the ability each to appoint a member of the CMA board, giving them a degree of buy-in to this body. I really hope that the Government will consider supporting the new clause. There is a clear precedent for it in the Scotland Act. It would give the devolved nations a degree of ownership over the CMA and make it a more collective body.
Amendment 21 tries to ensure that, as this raft of new responsibilities is going to the CMA, there is proper buy-in and consultation with the devolved Governments in that regard. Again, this is based on provisions that currently exist in law in the Scotland Act, which specified that for agencies such as the Maritime and Coast- guard Agency there should be consultation with the Scottish Government about their strategic priorities in the exercising of their functions. Consensus, consultation and collaboration, with a four-nations approach, should be the root of all we do as a United Kingdom. It should be and must be our starting point.
One of the key concerns around this Bill is the fear of a race to the bottom, as Neale Hanvey said. One easy way that the Government could assuage these fears is by accepting likely amendments to the Trade Bill and the Agriculture Bill in the Lords, which they have previously failed to do in this place.
New clause 1 fills in one of the missing pieces of the Bill but also provides an opportunity to strengthen intergovernmental relationships. The White Paper for the Bill posed the question of what body to use to examine the functioning of the internal market, but it did not discuss what to do when there is a dispute, nor is this answered in the Bill itself. I find that strange, because there is lots in part 4, not least in clause 32, dedicated to the CMA investigating whether a provision passed by a national authority has a detrimental effect on the functioning of the internal market. If the CMA does indeed find that there is a detrimental effect, then other than clause 33, which states that the relevant Administration should table a written statement in their respective Parliament in response to the report, not a hint of the process to be used to reach a resolution in order to do that is detailed. It may be that the UK Government are intending for dispute resolution to take place within existing intergovernmental bodies such as the Joint Ministerial Committee. As part of the ongoing review taking place, that may well be the case, but it is important that that is set out. It is also important that such a decision is made with the support of the devolved Administrations. New clause 1 will ensure that the Secretary of State has to carry out that process of consultation and that any dispute resolution mechanism provides for representation from each of the devolved nations.
The Joint Ministerial Committee has been at the heart of the devolution settlement for the past 20 years, as the previous Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee reported in its inquiry into devolution, but it has its limitations. The Committee’s inquiry found that the
“existing setup and organisation of the JMC has resulted in it being predominantly controlled by the UK Government”,
which has “limited its effectiveness”. In the Committee’s current inquiry into coronavirus, we heard that the JMC has not even met during the pandemic. There is also no formal mechanism for coming to agreement or resolving disputes generally. As I said, there is an ongoing joint review of intergovernmental machinery. The Minister mentioned that that is due to report by the end of the year, but it has been ongoing since March 2018. New clause 1 would set the UK Government and the devolved nations on a path to a dispute resolution mechanism. Fundamentally, we need a route to rebalancing the relationship between the four nations and moving to a more equitable, and arguably more federal, United Kingdom.