Retained EU Law: Ministerial statement

Statement given to Parliament by the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture Angus Robertson on Wednesday 22 June 2022.

Presiding Officer,

I wish to make a statement on the UK Government’s “Brexit Freedoms Bill” which will have a profound and sadly a damaging impact on this Parliament and Scotland as a whole.

The people of Scotland of course rejected Brexit by a margin of 24 per cent and there was a majority for remaining in the EU in every single local authority area in Scotland.

Nevertheless, in February this year the UK Government published a document extolling what they call the ‘Benefits of Brexit’.

At the time I noted to members of the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs Committee the profound absence of Brexit benefits for people and for businesses in Scotland.

Indeed, the dis-benefits were all too evident.

Polling shows that 75% of people in Scotland have a negative opinion about whether the UK has ‘benefited’ from Brexit, and only 2% believe that Boris Johnson has delivered a good deal.

Five months on – and with the Brexit Freedoms Bill potentially imminent – we find ourselves in an even more desperate situation.

We are in the midst of a cost of living crisis.

The think-tank UK in a Changing Europe says Brexit has led to a 6 per cent increase in food prices.

The Centre for European Reform reports that the UK economy was 5 per cent – or 31 billion pounds – smaller than comparator economies at the end of last year – primarily because of Brexit.

Scotland’s total trade with the EU was 16 per cent lower in 2021 than in 2019, with food exports down by 68 million pounds.

And now, with the UK in real danger of entering recession and in the middle of this cost of living crisis, the Government at Westminster seems intent on provoking a trade war with the European Union by tearing up an international agreement, that the Prime Minister himself hailed as a fantastic moment.

So, despite much searching by the UK Government’s Minister for Brexit Opportunities – the only thing to have changed since February is that the dis-benefits of Brexit are now more pronounced.

And whilst Mr Rees-Mogg is on his feet now in the House of Commons – hopefully providing the clarity we haven’t yet received, the UK Government has declined to share the Brexit Freedoms Bill instructions with us, or provide any settled certainty of its policy intentions. Regardless, we should be under no illusions about the risk this legislation presents to Scotland.

We understand that the Bill will end the supremacy of European law and repeal or reform regulations on business.

The danger of a hard Brexit inspired race to the bottom is now greater than ever.

Beneath the froth of crown marking on pint glasses and the adoption of imperial weights and measures, the UK Government’s intention to turn away from EU laws should trigger real concern for businesses, for members of this Parliament and all those who hold dear the standards the EU helped embed in our society.

Over two thousand pieces of legislation – two thousand pieces of legislation – carefully influenced, or possibly even proposed by the UK Government as a member state over almost 50 years – must be made to go through a legislative process or, according to media reports, will simply ‘sunset’, and fall away from the statute book entirely.

There is no understanding in Whitehall about how much of that legislation falls within devolved competence,

I have had a look at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s statement. He makes no mention whatsoever about the devolved consequences of his announcement.

And he makes no desire to understand the consequent implications for devolved powers or legislation.

Apparently, these changes are to be done by 2026, or 2030; dates whose sole rationale is that it makes good PR as an anniversary of the Brexit referendum, or the end of the transition period.

Not driven by the magnitude or importance of the task.

Not driven by the availability of time in this Parliament – or that of the Senedd, of Stormont, or indeed of Westminster.

And taking no account of the fact that there is no Executive in place in Northern Ireland, as a direct consequence of the hard Brexit the UK Government has chosen to prosecute.

Instead, yet again, the Bill is driven by the same, blind ideology that caused so much damage to Scotland in the first place.

The truth of the matter is, Presiding Officer, that the pace of this exercise threatens parliamentary scrutiny and workloads.

The UK Government is tilting at the windmills of EU standards, when it would be better advised to cease undermining the Northern Ireland Protocol – an action which blocks implementation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and causes our continued exclusion; for example, from the Horizon Europe research programme.

There is little-to-no appropriate consideration of the impacts of this Bill – intended or otherwise – of doing away with the regulations and case law that have driven the high standards across Europe and from which we benefit.

The UK Government has said it wants the Brexit Freedoms Bill to, and I quote, “utilise regulatory freedoms’” by, and again I quote, “lightening their burden” on UK business.

Its main purpose appears to be to give the UK Government the freedom to abandon the legislation that has protected Scottish interests for almost 50 years.

This Bill will create uncertainty for business, and threatens to fire the starting pistol in a race to the bottom on standards – on food, the environment, animal and plant health, and workers’ rights.

This is a threat to devolution. Taken alongside the powers of the Internal Market Act, devolved competencies will be disastrously exposed and undermined by a UK Government searching for an answer to the self-inflicted pain of Brexit.

Our policy of aligning with EU standards will be at risk.

The Common Frameworks process, which is designed to manage divergence and alignment, looks to be side-stepped or ignored completely.

Sensible standards and regulations will only be kept if they are re-enacted through this Parliament, and then only temporarily protected if the Internal Market Act is directed to undercut them.

We don’t yet know the exact implications for the legislative programme for this Parliament, as we have not been provided with the necessary detail.

But we do know that if we want to maintain the legislation we will have to find a great amount of Government and a great amount of Parliamentary time.

When I met the Minister for Brexit Opportunities I was assured by him that the Sewel Convention would be respected.

If that commitment is to be honoured it would mark a departure from the UK Government’s approach during the Brexit process when it has repeatedly legislated on devolved matters despite this Parliament refusing its consent to do so.

An approach that ‘sunsets’ EU law – which would see legislation automatically fall if un-amended by a fixed deadline – takes no account of our priorities or our interest in keeping aligned with EU legislation.

It is unacceptable that the UK Government seems ready to unveil sweeping measures that could have profound consequences for Scotland with such little discussion or, indeed, respect for this Parliament, the Scottish Government, or indeed the people of Scotland.

This makes a mockery of the UK Government’s recent commitment to reset relationships with the Devolved Governments.

I said at the beginning that the Minister of Brexit Opportunities has been searching for the benefits of Brexit since at least February.

This has included the attempt to crowd-source ideas from the public via the media, presumably in the absence of suggestions from Whitehall departments.

Presiding Officer,

The disaster of Brexit is becoming ever more apparent, and the attack on this Parliament by a UK Government that was comprehensively rejected by the people of Scotland is gathering pace.

The question for all us here is whether we are prepared to put up with this unfolding catastrophe which is being imposed against the wishes and interests of Scotland, or whether we say enough is enough and forge a better future for everyone who lives here.

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