The UK government is planning to withhold power from Scotland and Wales when the Brexit transition ends, according to reports citing government sources in the Financial Times and the Guardian.
Scotland’s First Minister described the plans as an “attempt to erode” devolved powers and a “full-scale assault on devolution,” and predicted that support for independence would rise as a result.
According to the Financial Times, which cites two sources familiar with the plans, a proposal to withhold power to control state aid from Wales and Scotland is expected to appear in a bill this autumn laying the legal grounds of a new internal market.
The Scottish and Welsh governments have said that state aid policy should be devolved to them under current legislation, but the UK government insists it should have the power.
The Guardian newspaper also reports on an UK Government attempt to “emasculate” the devolved governments in Wales and Scotland, again by using primary legislation passed at Westminster.
According to the newspaper, the UK Government is planning for an unelected oversight body that would hold any new devolved bills to a “market impact test”.
That could tie the hands of devolved parliaments on matters such university tuition and minimum unit pricing for alcohol.
There is also a proposal for a “mutual recognition regime” requiring regulatory standards in one part of the UK to be automatically accepted in others. In practice this could leave them unable to reject UK government decisions on, for example, chlorinated chicken or genetically modified (GM) organisms.
Wales’ Brexit Minister Jeremy Miles told the Guardian that while the Welsh government “want[s] the union to work”, any mutual recognition scheme “needs to be agreed between the four governments, not imposed by one, and it needs to be flexible and nimble, not a statutory fist crashing down across the UK.”
Proposals to enshrine mutual recognition in law would “create a huge constitutional fight”, he said. “In essence, it emasculates the devolution settlement. That’s not going to be tolerated.”
Legal experts told the Financial Times that Westminster’s decision to legislate to make state aid policy a reserved power was an implicit recognition that the government was not confident of winning the argument in court.
George Peretz QC, a lawyer at Monckton Chambers in London and an expert in EU law, said the UK government had previously contended that its undisputed powers to rule over “anti-competitive practices” also extended to state aid.
“I think that that’s not really arguable. And in seeking to settle the matter through primary legislation — if that is what occurs — it looks as if the government has now agreed that it isn’t arguable either,” he told the newspaper.