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Brexit: Devolved Administrations

Volume 787: debated on Thursday 23 November 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in discussion with the devolved Administrations relating to the establishment of an agreed intergovernmental forum between Westminster and the devolved Governments to decide on appropriate competence for powers relating to devolved functions repatriated from the European Union following Brexit.

My Lords, the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) facilitates engagement and collaboration between the UK Governments and devolved Administrations on the UK’s exit from the European Union. Important progress was made at the most recent meeting on 16 October in agreeing a set of principles that will underpin the establishment of common frameworks as powers are repatriated from the EU. Following agreement of the principles at that committee, the Government are working with the devolved Administrations to make quick progress on the potential role for frameworks in some specific policy areas. The committee is due to meet again in December, ahead of the European Council.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, when repatriated powers return from Brussels over wholly devolved functions such as agriculture, those powers should be transferred automatically to the devolved Governments, but an intergovernmental mechanism should immediately be put in place to resolve any issues that might distort the UK single market? Does he accept that the fear in Cardiff and Edinburgh is that any such mechanism will deliver only token consultation, with substantive decisions being taken here at Westminster? Could he give an assurance that decision-making will be on the basis of unanimity or qualified majority voting within such a forum, as is currently the case for EU decisions taken in Brussels?

I think those fears—that Westminster will hang on to all the powers that are repatriated from the EU—are misplaced. We want to release as much as we can to the devolved Administrations, consistent with our ability to maintain a single market in the UK, our ability to maintain international treaties that the Government have entered into, our ability to negotiate new trade agreements post Brexit, and our responsibility to manage common resources and assure justice in cross-border areas. Subject to those constraints, we want to make quick progress and devolve as much as we can to the devolved Administrations.

What consideration have the Government given to involving councils as well as the devolved Administrations in this business?

Repatriation of powers from the EU opens opportunities to devolve powers down to local government. We are in consultation with the city region mayors, the local authorities and the LGA as we leave the European Union, to understand the impact and challenges of Brexit, but also to see what repatriated powers can be devolved from Westminster down to local authorities at all levels.

My Lords, I welcome the very positive response from the Minister, but there are clearly a number of significant decisions still outstanding in this regard. I urge the Government to consider at the end of the day, when these discussions have all taken place, having an independent element in the final judgments, because there will be a question of interpretation between the position of the UK Government on reserved responsibilities and the devolved Administrations and Governments on devolved responsibilities. It is vital that we respect the devolution settlement and the principles behind it from 1999 but, at the same time, reach an agreement that does not lead to increased tension inside the United Kingdom. Could there be an independent element in the final judgment when those discussions are reaching their conclusion?

We want to reach consensus with the devolved Administrations on which powers go straight through and which are retained under what is called a common framework. If one looks at the communiqué that was issued at the end of the last meeting, one can see that real progress was made. I think the devolved Administrations concede that some powers will have to be subject to what is called a common framework, for the reasons that I outlined. Greater clarity on this will be obtained once we hit Clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in the other place. There are a number of amendments along the lines of those referred to by the noble Lord on resolving that issue but, at the moment, we believe that the Joint Ministerial Committee is the right place to try to seek agreement quickly. It may be possible to release some of the powers immediately we leave the European Union, if good progress can be made.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that the interests of the English regions, which are different from those of London and the south-east, risk being pushed to one side in dialogue between the devolved Administrations and the central Government in London? The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, has already touched on this. The population of Yorkshire is slightly larger than that of Scotland; the economy is as large. As a region it will be affected quite severely by the loss of EIB funding and a whole range of other things. What mechanism do the Government envisage to bring the interests of England outside the south-east into this dialogue?

I recall a powerful case made by the noble Lord and others when we debated a report last year on the northern regions, but the answer is the one I gave to my noble friend Lady Eaton: there are regular meetings between Secretaries of State, the city region mayors and leaders of local authorities to understand the impact and challenges of EU legislation. I am sure that ministerial colleagues in DCLG, among others, are anxious to see that the interests of the regions are taken on board as we leave the European Union.

The Minister has made a significant and important statement to the effect that certain of the powers now held in Europe will be devolved and delegated to the devolved Administrations. Can he give assurance that there will be a constitutional precept to the effect that there should be a transfer of all powers unless there is a clear case to the contrary and that the onus should be with those who are against devolution, rather than otherwise?

It is always slightly worrying when the Minister is told that he has said something important at the Dispatch Box when he believes that he has stuck to the departmental brief. I say to the noble Lord, who has asked me a number of questions on this, that I have set out clearly the reasons why we think there is a strong case to retain some powers at Westminster. For example, it would be ridiculous if wheat grown in one region was unable to be used to bake bread in another region because of different rules on pesticides, so we need to keep some powers in Westminster. Subject to those requirements, which were set out in the agreed communiqué, it is indeed the case that we would like to devolve as much as we can to the devolved Assemblies.

My Lords, given that the Government have undertaken to share with the EU Committee exactly the same access to the sectoral analyses, which are due in the Commons on Tuesday, can he confirm that they will arrive here that day? What plans are there then to share them with the devolved Administrations? Further, the Commons was told that the impact assessment for the whole of the Welsh economy does not exist, but the Chancellor has said that the Government’s modelling enabled the impact of Brexit to be analysed by country. Can the Minister advise the House whether such work on the impact of Brexit on, for example, Wales will be shared with this House and the devolved Assemblies?

May I write to the noble Baroness on her first Question? On the second, there is an outstanding Written Question from the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, asking whether there will be an analysis of Brexit’s impact on Wales. That Question is due to be answered shortly—I think not by me. So there will be clarity on our position on whether there is a particular analysis of the impact of Brexit on Wales once that Question is answered.