The Prime Minister’s adoption of so-called “Henry VIII powers” is not a sign that her husband, Philip May should perhaps keep his head down for a while. Rather, it reflects provisions within the so-called Great Repeal Bill, currently working its way through the Westminster parliament, which give the government sweeping powers to act without any real scrutiny by MPs.
It is true that ‘statutory instruments’ are a legitimate means of governments amending laws, but given the profound implications of Brexit for our country, the extent of their use in this instance raises serious concerns.
Mrs May argues that in order to respect the woefully unrealistic Brexit deadline of March 2019, there is no option but to fast track changes to EU and UK laws. Such thinking would be dangerous in normal circumstances. In the context of a UK government split from top to bottom over how to handle Brexit, such a cavalier attitude in riding roughshod over parliamentary oversight is reckless, undemocratic and wrong.
The Great Repeal Bill will leave no part of our economy, society and country untouched. Parliament absolutely must have the opportunity to debate fully these impacts. Regardless of how people voted in the referendum last year, no-one voted to diminish their rights, make themselves poorer or make their country less safe. Without proper scrutiny of the government’s plans, however, we risk seeing vital protections eroded in everything from consumer and employee rights through to the environment and public safety. On this, at least, there should be common agreement about how to proceed.
To make matters worse, the UK government’s approach to the Brexit process also threatens to roll back devolution. Given the central role that Scottish Liberal Democrats have played in the delivery of a Scottish Parliament and the decentralisation of decision-making in the UK, I am in no doubt that any repatriation of powers from Brussels must respect the current devolution settlement. Devolution has benefited not just Scotland, but the rest of the UK, and there can be no question of Brexit being used to shift control over certain policy areas from Holyrood to Westminster.
On this, thankfully, there is a growing political consensus across all parties. Moreover, given the UK government’s cluelessness over Brexit, it is hard not to conclude that whatever threat exists to the devolutionary settlement arises more as a result of ‘cock up than conspiracy’.
Nevertheless, the threat is real and the Scottish and Welsh Governments are right to be pursuing amendments to the Great Repeal Bill to address it. Nicola Sturgeon should take care though not to overplay her hand. This is not a battle between Scotland and England. This is about the economic and social wellbeing of the whole country. It is not an excuse to drive a wedge between different parts of the UK, which ultimately share a common goal.
Indeed, in areas such as farming and fishing, it is likely that we will still need UK-wide frameworks given the way in which these sectors operate. These must be determined collaboratively, however, and not imposed, so that devolution and the interests of our rural and island communities are respected.
Reaching agreement though will not be easy. Indeed, simply achieving consensus within Mrs May’s own Cabinet appears a forlorn hope just now. In an attempt to unite her party, the Prime Minister set out her Brexit ‘vision’ in a speech in Florence last week. Early signs suggest this has made no difference. Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson is ‘on manouevres’ again, using a newspaper article to challenge Mrs May’s authority, while reheating the lie about Brexit delivering a weekly windfall of £350m for our NHS. His colleague, the Home Secretary lambasted Boris for being a ‘backseat driver’ while he was also taken to task by the head of the independent UK statistics body for misrepresenting the facts.
All of which mess serves to reinforce the need for the British public to have the final say over any Brexit deal. Rather than engage in the sort of power grab that would make Henry VIII blush, Mrs May must now commit to putting power in the hands of those whose futures are set to be shaped by Brexit.