Brexit: Warning of ‘constitutional crisis’ over repeal bill

Carwyn Jones

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Labour’s Carwyn Jones is working with the SNP to block the bill

Theresa May has been warned of an “immense constitutional crisis” if she ahead with a key Brexit bill without the consent of devolved governments.

Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones said the repeal bill, to convert current EU laws into UK law, was a “naked power-grab” which he could not support.

He has joined forces with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to opposed the bill, which ends the supremacy of EU law.

Downing Street says it is “optimistic” of getting the bill into law.

But the prime minister also faces a battle at Westminster, when MPs debate it in the autumn, with Labour promising to vote against it in its current form.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is demanding concessions in six areas, including the incorporation of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights into British law and guarantees workers’ rights will be protected.

The bill needs to be passed by the time the UK leaves the EU – which is due to happen in March 2019 – otherwise the UK will be left with no laws in areas previously covered by EU-derived statutes.

Brexit Secretary David Davis rejected claims ministers were giving themselves “sweeping powers” to make changes to EU laws as they are repatriated – as Labour and the SNP claim – and he is willing to “work with anyone” to get the repeal bill into law.

He has also claimed that no powers currently exercised by the devolved administrations will be removed, in a bill which he says is mainly “technical” in nature.

Could Scotland and Wales block repeal bill?

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Under a political agreement between the devolved institutions and Westminster any new law that relates to devolved matters needs a legislative consent motion passed in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

The government’s repeal bill does cover devolved areas, particularly in farming and fisheries, and UK ministers have said they will seek the consent of the devolved legislatures.

The Sewel convention governing these matters, named after Labour peer Lord Sewel, dates back to 1998 when the UK Parliament passed legislation setting up the Scottish Parliament.

Although the convention was included in a 1999 memorandum of understanding between the UK government and devolved administrations, which established a broad statement of principles for relations between the executive authorities, it was never enshrined in law.

Media captionDavid Davis defends ‘repeal bill’ plans

This means, in essence, that the convention is a political undertaking and does not have legal force and should not allow any of the administrations to veto the legislation as it stands.

But in a joint statement on Thursday, first ministers Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones described the bill as a “naked power-grab” by Westminster that undermined the principles of devolution.

They say the bill returns powers from Brussels solely to the UK government and Parliament and “imposes new restrictions” on the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly – and they will not back it.

Speaking on Friday, Carwyn Jones said the UK government could not be trusted to keep its promise to hand powers back to Cardiff and Holyrood after Brexit had happened.

Asked whether it was not the case that, legally, the UK government could go ahead with the bill anyway, he told BBC Breakfast. “If they did that…there would be an immense constitutional crisis because it would go against everything the UK is based on.

“It would also mean all the words they have used so far are worthless. David Davis and Boris Johnson have both said the consent of the devolved Parliaments will be needed so their words are absolutely worthless and they are prepared to override something that has been in place for 18 years.

“We have offered to work with the UK government. We’ve said ‘let’s get to a position where we are all happy’ and the door has been shut’.”

A Downing Street spokesman said First Secretary of State Damian Green had contacted the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the government was confident of gaining their consent.

Asked if there was a contingency plan if he didn’t win their backing, the prime minister’s official spokesman said “not that I’m aware of”.

The repeal bill

  • Formally known as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the draft legislation is a key plank of the government’s Brexit strategy
  • The first line of the bill says the European Communities Act 1972, which took Britain into the EU, will be “repealed on exit day”
  • This will end the supremacy of EU law and stop the flow of new regulations from Brussels
  • But all existing laws derived from the EU will continue to be in force – they can be changed or scrapped by further legislation
  • The bill does not detail policies line-by-line but transfers all regulations into domestic law
  • It gives the UK two years after Brexit to correct any “deficiencies” arising from the transfer

In February, the Scottish Parliament voted against plans for the UK to kickstart the Article 50 process but this was purely symbolic as the UK Parliament voted soon after by an overwhelming margin to notify the EU of its intention to leave.

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, whose party is seeking to join forces with Labour and Tory rebels, said he was “putting the government on warning”, promising “if you found the Article 50 Bill difficult, you should be under no illusion, this will be hell,” he said.

The Conservatives are relying on Democratic Unionist Party support to win key votes after losing their Commons majority in the general election, but could face a revolt from Remain supporting backbenchers.

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