Ministers 'close to deal' over Brexit powers with Scotland and Wales
UK due to agree to repatriation of powers in areas such as farming, justice and food safetyWhile sectors such as agriculture will be devolved, there are still concerns about how much policy freedoms will be given.Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA
The UK government believes it is on the brink of a deal to ends months of deadlock with the Scottish and Welsh governments over an alleged "power grab" after Brexit. Ministers will offer to drop their controversial plans for Whitehall to take control over as many as 111 EU powers that Scottish and Welsh lawmakers insist should be handed over to them. The three governments meet in London on Thursday for a further talks over the repatriation of significant EU powers in areas such as farming, fisheries, justice, environmental protection and food safety, which are currently overseen by the UK's devolved parliaments.
Welsh officials said they were happy to continue the talks, suggesting a deal could be agreed. Even so, ministers in Cardiff are pressing ahead with rival measures to legislate for Brexit if the talks with the UK government collapse. But in an article for the Guardian, Scotland's deputy first minister John Swinney and Mike Russell, Scotland's Brexit minister, said they remained deeply suspicious about the mooted offer.
The UK government is expected to promise on Thursday that clause 11 of the EU withdrawal bill will now repatriate these EU powers directly to the devolved governments and assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Stormont. The amended clause will be presented in the House of Lords in mid-March, when peers vote on the bill - two months later than originally promised. But at the same time, the UK will insist that the devolved governments agree to freeze policies in some significant areas, likely to affect fisheries, farming, food labelling and environmental protection, until a UK-wide common framework can be agreed.
Conservative ministers say that in these industries it would disrupt the UK's internal market if different parts of the UK had different rules and standards. They also warn that exports, particularly to the EU, will be undermined if different standards are in place within the UK. Swinney and Russell said this was still a power-grab, even if fewer policy areas were involved.
Scotland currently has a ban on growing GM crops, using its autonomy under EU law. Scottish ministers would also continue with an EU ban on chlorinated chicken imports. But after Brexit, the Tories may seek to allow GM crops and unrestricted US agricultural imports to further a crucial trade deal with Donald Trump.
"This remains a powers grab in critical areas at the heart of the devolution settlement, areas like fishing, farming, GM crops, vital aspects of environmental quality, food standards and state aid," Swinney and Russell said. "This would mean, for example, that if the Tories wanted to lower food standards we could do little to prevent it. If they wanted to reduce environmental quality requirements we would be similarly powerless.
"If Brexit happens there will be years of international negotiations with the EU and other nations on trade deals which could see guaranteed access to UK markets for chlorinated chicken and hormone injected beef and oblige us to open up our health service to private suppliers." A UK government source said: "We have listened to the constitutional concerns that hae been raised and we'd hope the Scottish and Welsh governments will engage constructively with these new proposals. "It is hard to see the difficulty with having a limited number of common frameworks applying in the UK to protect the economy."
A Welsh government spokeswoman said they still had fundamental objections to the EU bill, but they were optimistic a deal could be agreed.
"Discussions are ongoing and we are continuing to exert pressure on the UK government to amend the bill, so it is unhelpful to speculate at this stage on the prospects of an agreement," she said. "While we are hopeful an agreement can be reached, we continue to prepare for the introduction of our own legislation as a fail-safe to provide certainty and protect devolution."[embedded content] Brexit weekly briefing: get a regular rundown on the debates and developments as Britain trundles ever closer to the exit from the European Union