The Scottish and Welsh first ministers have attempted to increase the pressure on the UK government over Brexit by jointly publishing a series of amendments to the EU withdrawal bill.
Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones are working together to try to fight off what they see as a bid by Westminster to grab powers that will be returning following Brexit.
The pair jointly tabled 38 amendments to the withdrawal bill and wrote to Theresa May insisting that, while they wanted to work with the UK government, they would do so only if their suggested changes were accepted.
Jones accused the Tory government of trying to “hijack” powers that ought to go to Cardiff while the Scottish government released a list of 111 examples of policy areas that it claimed the UK wanted to centralise including railway ownership, GM foods, pesticides regulation, the sharing of criminal data, protected food names, state aid, EU citizens’ voting rights and fracking.
In their letter to the prime minister, Sturgeon and Jones called on the UK government to work with – not against – the devolved nations. The two leaders said: “The Scottish and Welsh governments recognise our responsibility to prepare our laws for the upheaval of EU withdrawal. We stand ready to work in a cooperative and coordinated way with others to prepare for Brexit. But the approach of the UK government to devolution in the … bill is preventing this essential cooperation and coordination.”
The letter said the governments had begun to consider preparing alternative continuity bills if their amendments were ignored – but this was not their preferred way forward.
They added: “We want a [bill] that can be made to work with, not against, devolution. The current bill will need to be substantially amended.”
The pair said they hoped the amendments would be received “as a constructive contribution by the devolved administrations”.
Explaining his government’s approach, Jones, who is also Labour leader in Wales, said: “Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon and I all have very different political positions, but an issue as important as Brexit requires us to put our political differences aside and work together to provide stability for the sake of our economy, jobs and public services. One government cannot simply hijack powers from the other two.”
The Scottish and Welsh governments say all EU powers over devolved competencies should be repatriated directly to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. But in clause 11 of the EU withdrawal bill, the UK government states many new powers will be devolved – but only after they first return to Westminster.
Scotland’s Brexit minister, Mike Russell, who is about to start talks with the Scottish Tories about striking a deal on the amendments and powers, said in a letter to MSPs at Holyrood: “The restrictions in clause 11 of the bill apply to many areas of Scottish devolved responsibility vital to the success of our country, such as agriculture, the environment, fisheries, forestry. The restrictions have the effect that the Scottish parliament would have no say over what is done with these important policy areas after EU withdrawal.”
Russell acknowledged many EU powers will need to be shared at UK level in joint frameworks; Scotland’s farmers, food industry leaders and businesses also want UK-level laws over devolved competencies.
The Scottish government is likely to give way on many topics in the list of 111 but will battle hard over others, such as fracking, GM foods, rail franchises, EU citizens’ voting rights – because that could affect a future Scottish independence referendum – and economic investment.
Damian Green, the UK government’s first secretary of state, said that ultimately more powers would go to the devolved governments after Brexit.
But he said: “The important thing now is to work our way through these lists and find the areas where we will need to maintain a common UK or GB approach, as well as those areas where it will make sense to transfer powers direct to the devolved governments. When it is better to devolve then that is what we will do, as we have done for the last 20 years.”
He said the UK government would listen to those who offered improvements to the bill but would do nothing that risked harm to the UK.
“Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast will receive more decision-making powers as a result of this process. But the UK government will not risk our internal UK market, or make life more difficult or more expensive for UK companies, workers or consumers.
“We all observe the same broad EU rules now. Doing things four different ways – in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – will not be the best way if it adds costs to companies and customers across the UK. I hope and expect that we can make progress in the talks that are planned for the coming week.”
The Westminster government gave examples where it said a common approach across the UK could help companies and customers across the four nations. For example if there was no common approach to food labelling – currently controlled by EU law – companies might have to produce different labels for Scotland and England.
The Scottish Conservatives said the SNP was trying to use Brexit as a way of furthering its own independence agenda. The Scottish Conservative deputy leader, Jackson Carlaw, said Russell’s list simply set out the policy areas currently controlled by the EU that were coming back to the UK. He said: “The test is simple. Let’s devolve what we can, but keep UK rules where necessary.”