Theresa May will hold private talks with the Scottish and Welsh first ministers on Wednesday in an effort to end the deadlock over their new powers after Brexit.
May is urgently trying to resolve a heated dispute about Westminster’s plans to temporarily restrict law-making by the Scottish and Welsh governments over at least 24 EU powers which will be repatriated after Brexit. These areas – which are controlled by the EU but overseen by the devolved governments – include GM crops, pesticides regulation, organic farming, fishing quotas and food safety.
The prime minister will host separate bilateral meetings with Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones after all three leaders hold a joint ministerial committee at Downing Street, underlining the pressure May is under to resolve the dispute before meeting other European leaders on Brexit next week.
UK ministers want changes in these areas to be agreed under UK-wide common framework agreements to protect the UK’s internal market and overseas trade. They published an amendment to the EU withdrawal bill on Monday in the Lords which said those restrictions would be temporary.
The amendment binds UK ministers to consult with the devolved governments on the frameworks and report to the Commons on progress to implement them, but the devolved governments insist that is an unconstitutional restriction on their powers.
Mike Russell, the Scottish Brexit minister, warned that Sturgeon would reject these amendments on Wednesday. In a letter to all MSPs, he said these powers had no time limit in the draft legislation. UK ministers had also refused to say whether the Sewel convention – a convention where devolved legislatures are consulted on primary legislation which affects them – would apply.
“That is unacceptable,” he said. “Clearly we cannot agree to such proposals. The devolution settlement cannot be changed, even temporarily, without the consent of the Scottish parliament.”
UK and Scottish government officials are playing down the prospects of a breakthrough at these meetings. Tensions escalated sharply after the Scottish and Welsh governments published their own rival legislation which would replace the EU withdrawal bill if the talks end in failure. The Scottish National party government in Edinburgh and the Welsh government in Cardiff both have majority support for their bills.
Jones is widely believed to be closer than Sturgeon to accepting the latest changes to the withdrawal bill, which will be debated by the Lords on 22 March. UK officials say they have several weeks to finalise a deal, in time for a Lords vote next month.
A Welsh government spokesman said last week’s ministerial meeting between the three governments suggested that UK ministers were “starting to move in the right direction and were willing to consider further changes”, adding: “We will continue to work to secure the amendments necessary to properly protect the devolution settlement, notably on Wednesday when the first minister meets with the prime minister.”
This story originally appeared in The Guardian. Image courtesy of Yui Mok/PA.