Examination of Witness

Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:14 pm on 8th November 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Angus Robertson MSP gave evidence.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon 4:31 pm, 8th November 2022

We are moving on to Scotland. We will hear via Zoom from Angus Robertson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture in the Scottish Government. This session must end at 4.53 pm. Thank you for joining us, Angus.

Angus Robertson:

Thank you for having me, Sir Gary. Hello to erstwhile colleagues.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Lovely to have you with us, Angus. The first question will be from the shadow Minister, Justin Madders.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

Q Good afternoon. For the Committee’s benefit, will you set out which areas covered by the Bill will be considered to be within the competency of the Scottish Parliament?

Angus Robertson:

If you do not mind, I was told that I could briefly make a few points at the beginning of the session. If you would indulge me, I might be able to both answer the question and set out some of the concerns of the Scottish Government and, by extension, the Welsh Government—we have the same position.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you all. I know you have had a lot of witness sessions today, so thank you for your patience. It will come as no surprise to members of the Committee to learn that the Scottish Government have deeply held, fundamental concerns about the legislation, particularly because of the undermining of devolution. There is concern about the democratic deficit that it exemplifies, and there are concerns, as we heard in the previous session, about the potential deregulatory challenges. We would want amendments brought forward in each of those areas.

Fundamentally, the Bill is the result of Brexit, which was overwhelmingly rejected by people in Scotland and is causing real damage to our economy and our society. The Bill is yet another example of a policy agenda being imposed by the Westminster Government on people in Scotland against their consent.

Let me start with devolution and why that is important. I represent a Government who were elected with a mandate to maintain close regulatory alignment with the European Union and EU standards. I recognise that the UK Government have a different agenda, but the whole point about devolution is to allow diversity, and it would be entirely possible to reconcile the difference in approaches through agreed common frameworks. After the EU referendum, that exact approach was agreed between the devolved Governments and the UK Government, yet the United Kingdom Internal Market 2020 and now this Bill make that near impossible. The Bill would allow UK Government Ministers to act in devolved areas without the consent of Scottish Ministers or the Scottish Parliament; there is no requirement even to consult. The internal market Act is having an insidious and erosive effect on devolution; in contrast, this Bill is a direct assault on devolution.

The second concern is about democratic scrutiny. The Bill grants Ministers, including Scottish Ministers, powers to amend or abandon legislation with minimum democratic scrutiny. Mere inaction or oversight could result in important protections falling from the statute book. Far from the promise of Parliament taking back control through Brexit, the Bill sidelines proper and appropriate parliamentary scrutiny.

Thirdly, on deregulation, the UK Government have said that they want the Bill to “utilise regulatory freedoms” by “lightening their burden” on UK businesses. The businesses here that I hear from are not interested in discarding 47 years’ worth of protections. Businesses, workers, consumers and our environment all benefit from high standards and not from a race to the bottom.

In conclusion, the people of Scotland rejected Brexit by a margin of 24%, and there was a majority for remaining in the European Union in every single local authority area in the country. The more people in Scotland see of Brexit, the less they support it; a panel-based survey this summer found that 63% of people in Scotland would vote to rejoin the European Union. Given that level of support for the EU, I note with some sorrow Labour’s pro-Brexit position alongside the Tories, most recently articulated by Keir Starmer when he was in Scotland at the weekend.

To finish where I started, the Scottish Government are fundamentally opposed to the Bill and have lodged with the Scottish Parliament this very morning a recommendation that consent be withheld. Thank you very much, Sir Gary.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Thank you so much for making your position crystal clear. Justin, do you have a follow-up question?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

Q Yes. I would just point out that we are pro democratic decision making in this country and we respect the outcome of the referendum.

I wanted to ask specifically about some of the inconsistencies when it comes to the powers available to you vis-à-vis the UK Government. Am I right that you will generally have the power to revoke and amend regulations, but the power to extend the sunset clause is not available to you? Do you know why that distinction has been made?

Angus Robertson:

Indeed. It runs contrary to the conversation that I had with the erstwhile Cabinet Minister with responsibility for this, Jacob Rees-Mogg. He was very keen to give me assurances that devolution would not be undermined and that Scottish Ministers in the Scottish Parliament would be able to exercise maximum control to fulfil our democratic mandate: to remain aligned with the European Union.

Different powers are being assigned to UK Government Ministers and Scottish Government Ministers in important respects, and that is problematic for us—as is the point of capacity. I do not know whether you want to come on to that, but it is an absolutely massive challenge given that we are a Government who have a legislative agenda already. If we want to remain aligned with 2,000-plus or, if the Financial Times is to be believed, 3,000-plus pieces of European legislation, many of which are about devolved areas, we are talking about massive displacement activity in our Parliament here in Scotland. That is hugely challenging.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

Q I have one final question. Have your officials done an analysis and come up with a figure on the numbers of regulations covered by the Bill?

Angus Robertson:

We have begun to do that. I should say that when I asked Jacob Rees-Mogg—as the proposing Minister, you would have thought he might have known—how many pieces of legislation would impact directly on the UK Government but then also on devolved policy areas, he was not able to tell me. We have still not been told the scale of the legislative impact, but it will be very considerable. Consider what is devolved—environment, rural affairs, transport and a whole series of other things. It will necessitate the legal services of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament spending a lot of time dealing with the consequences of this Bill.

The problem could quite easily be solved by the UK Government simply acknowledging that there is no demand for this to happen from either the Scottish or Welsh Governments and simply carving out devolved areas. It would remain on the statute book here. If colleagues down south want to go ahead with that, I leave that up to them. We did not vote for this, and we certainly do not want it to happen, yet our parliamentary process and the way in which Government operates here is going to be deluged by trying to deal with this proposal, to which little to no thought has been given as to how it impacts on the devolved institutions of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Q Mr Robertson, you have been crystal clear that you do not support any aspect of the Bill. The Bill provides for broad powers that the devolved Administrations will be able to use concurrently to preserve retained EU law. Will these powers not make it easier for Scotland to align its REUL more closely to the EU if it wants to?

Angus Robertson:

The Bill confers significant powers on Scottish Ministers and UK Ministers in devolved areas. Where the powers are exercised by the UK Ministers, no role is afforded to the Scottish Ministers or the Scottish Parliament. In devolved areas, it is the Scottish Parliament that has a democratic mandate to hold Government to account. That is why we have consistently argued that where the UK Government have powers in devolved areas under this Bill, they should need the consent of the Scottish Government, which is of course scrutinised by the Scottish Parliament, in order to exercise those powers.

As it stands, the powers you highlight would allow the UK Government to make broad changes in retained EU law in devolved areas, including revoking and entirely replacing standards that we have inherited from the European Union. This Bill will introduce a massive democratic disconnect. I would hope that colleagues across the parties would realise that this is a huge challenge to the basic understanding of how devolution works.

I would be interested to know, Sir Gary, because we have not yet heard, how this will work now that the Scottish and Welsh Governments have both withheld consent for this legislation. We have the ability through the Sewel convention to say that this, as it stands, is not workable, practical, proportionate, and I could go on—

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Please don’t; I think the point is crystal clear. So much of this is caught up in legal language. You made it clear that there are some powers that would allow you easily to align yourself to retained EU law. This Bill does not limit the powers given to Scottish Ministers in the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 to align with EU law in areas of devolved competence. Rather, the Bill will give Scottish Government Ministers further powers to more easily preserve or sunset retained EU law within a devolved competence. These new powers sit alongside those given to Scottish Government Ministers in the 2021 Act. I can fully understand that you have perhaps had some unsatisfactory conversations with Secretaries of State, or not had the assurances you are constantly seeking, but the reality is that you would have far more authority than you are alluding to with regards to control of legislation with this Bill. [Interruption.] Let’s move the conversation on, because we are very short of time. If we follow your argument, there is a concern that the Bill will cause greater divergence between retained EU law in England and Wales and retained EU law in Scotland. Is that conflict a concern for you?

Angus Robertson:

With the greatest respect, the point about devolution is that we are able to do things differently in different parts of the United Kingdom. That is the point.

There are two significant problems that I really hope colleagues understand the scale of. We do not wish the proposal to go forward, yet if it does, we are a Government who already have a legislative programme which is going to come under massive pressure over the next years, depending on when the sunsetting arrangements are finalised for, and we are going to have to legislate through primary and secondary legislation to retain alignment with the European Union. That is the first point. I would hope there is an understanding of that.

The second point that I have tried to underline is the ability of UK Government Ministers to, in effect, override the concerns of the Scottish Government. That is much more than a democratic deficit; it is an undermining of the devolution settlement in its entirety. I am sure that some colleagues on the Committee will have looked closely at the workings of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and the common frameworks. In effect, they mean that decisions made in the UK Parliament in relation to England are then applied throughout the UK regardless of the view taken by Parliaments in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. I hope colleagues understand the seriousness of the territory we are getting into.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Q I want to understand exactly which laws you think will be returned to Westminster. Instead of being broad, can you say exactly which laws you believe will be returned to Westminster? I can then try to respond to the points raised.

Angus Robertson:

I am not talking about any laws returning to Westminster; I am talking about UK Government Ministers having the ability, in effect, to legislate in areas that are devolved. That is a totally different thing—

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Q Which particular area that is devolved will they be taking control of?

Angus Robertson:

They can in any area they like—that is the problem. That is the concurrent nature of the powers for UK Ministers and devolved authorities. It is clear to be read: it is a power that can be used. I cannot foresee exactly which Minister would seek to use such a power or for what purpose, but they would have that power. That should surely be a concern for everybody. Is it not?

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Good afternoon, Angus. To be clear, the Scottish Government have a fundamental objection in principle to the fact that this Bill, as past Acts of Parliament have, creates the possibility of a UK Government Minister ruling in devolved areas. That is your objection, yesQ ?

Angus Robertson:

Yes, it is. I believe the Welsh Government are withholding legislative consent, as are the Scottish Government. If the UK Government are true to the word of the erstwhile Minister with responsibility for this legislation, Jacob Rees-Mogg—when I met him on 28 September he said to me, in terms, that the UK Government would respect the Sewel convention—it is a moot point because they will not proceed. I hope they do not.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Q If, as the Minister appeared to suggest a few minutes ago, nobody in the UK Government has any intention of ever acting in the way you fear, would it be reasonable to expect them to support an amendment that explicitly prevented UK ministerial interference in devolved matters?

Angus Robertson:

Indeed. First, the Bill could be drafted in such a way that it did not apply to Scotland or Wales. That would be the easiest solution: just limit the scope of the Bill to non-devolved areas. That is suggestion 1. Suggestion 2 is to amend it now to do that or to have a similar effect. Why proceed, given the serious concerns that have been raised by both the Scottish and Welsh Governments? I do not understand why the UK Government seem to be ploughing on regardless, given that there has been a dialogue and these concerns have been enunciated for quite some time now.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Q We have heard from a number of witnesses today concerns about the capacity of the UK Parliament and the UK civil service to properly scrutinise all this legislation, potentially before the end of 2023. Have the Scottish Government been able to put any kind of figure on how many hours or days it would take?

Angus Robertson:

We know that the scale of the challenge is significant first, for the reasons that I have pointed out: we already have a legislative programme and a Government legal service involved in all the legislation currently going through the Scottish Parliament.

Now we have this additional challenge, which has not been properly quantified by the UK Government, who cannot even tell us what they believe to be the split between reserved and devolved. As I have outlined, we know in broad terms what devolved powers are—they cover very significant areas. Our estimation, which is still to be gone through with a fine-toothed comb, is that this will have an extremely serious impact on the ability of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to scrutinise legislation that would need to go through our process to ensure that legislation does not fall over the sunsetting cliff edge. That is very significant.

Should the retained EU law dashboard identify whether retained EU laws in scope of the Bill are devolved or reserved? Absolutely. Do we have any sense that that is going to happen? No, we do not. A lot of work will have to be undertaken, and it is a massive displacement effort from what we are trying to get on with. If the UK Government really want to respect the devolved settlement and listen to the Scottish and Welsh Governments, and do not want to break the Sewel convention, they should bring forward an amendment that disapplies the legislation either in whole or specifically in devolved areas. That would be the most sensible and, given what the UK Government Ministers have said to me personally, the most pragmatic way of going forward. If not, one can only conclude that what was said was not said in good faith.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Thank you very much. We have one minute left. I am keen to bring in Stella Creasy for a quick question, and then Angus for a quick answer, please.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

Q Angus, I understand why you suggest that the challenge is that we need a practical response because our constituents will cross borders, but so will Dikerogammarus villosus, which is a killer shrimp. Although that species has not been found in the River Tweed, is it not better—rather than not involving devolved areas—to look at how we could redo the whole process so that constituents and shrimp crossing borders do not come a cropper?

Angus Robertson:

I am all in favour of good intergovernmental relations. I have been doing this job since last year, and I have gone into conversations in good faith about any and every potential challenge. If that is one of them, I am happy to do so again.

The wider point is that we are supposed to have a range of measures that we can use to make devolution work, including the Sewel convention. We have subsequently agreed ways in which Governments in the UK should work together to push through potential challenges, and common frameworks and the like are supposed to deal with some of these issues. I wish the UK Government would live up to their promises to work with the devolved Administrations across the UK, as I am keen to do. They have an opportunity to do so by respecting the Sewel convention in this particular piece of legislation.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Thank you so much. Your evidence has been very clear, but sadly we have run out of time. It is very nice to see you again.

Angus Robertson:

Thanks for having me.