6 October 2016

Legally, can Holyrood "block" Brexit?

"100 days on from the referendum and with up to six months until the triggering of Article 50 it is time the government got serious and put our economic interests and membership of the single market at the front of their negotiating plans. With a clear majority in the Scottish Parliament for retaining membership of the single market - expressed as recently as last week - it is difficult to‎ envisage the circumstances in which the Scottish Parliament would give consent to any legislation that did not guarantee this."

So said Nicola Sturgeon's Bexit minister, Mike Russell. But what did he mean? What precisely can and can't Holyrood do, in resisting the many-layered legal complexities of Brexit? Several souls have asked me about this other the last day or two. So here's the lightweight primer on the law. Brace yourself. It gets a bit tricky.

First thing's first: Holyrood has no legal power to veto or block Brexit. Start with the basics. Under Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act, foreign affairs – including Britain’s relations with the EU – are matters reserved to Westminster and Whitehall. Under section 29 of the legislation, Holyrood is prohibited from passing its own laws concerning nuclear weapons, defence, and so on. Legally, these are Westminster's purview. And because they are Westminster's purview, MPs and the UK government, don't need the Scottish Parliament's permission to alter the law on reserved matters. 

But there are some kinds of Westminster legislation which do require the nod from MSPs. This isn't a matter of strict law - but of constitutional convention. This convention was set out in section two of the 2016 Scotland Act. "It is recognised that the Parliament of the United Kingdom will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament," it said. As I pointed out at the time, you can feel the caveats in the statutory language: "normally", "recognised." Whitehall's clear view is that this section doesn't limit the sovereignty of the London parliament to make or unmake any law whatever, irrespective of Holyrood's complaints.  

But this statutory recognition includes only part of the convention. The UK government has consistently recognised that Holyrood's consent is necessary, if Westminster wants to change the legislative competence of the parliament, or to add or subtract from the executive competence of Scottish ministers. One good example of that was the 2016 Act itself. David Mundell recognised that the Edinburgh parliament had the right to refuse the new powers, and a vote was taken. 

This convention proves some - very limited - constitutional security for Holyrood from the prospect of Westminster abusing its sovereignty to reverse its decisions in devolved areas. But it doesn't apply beyond that. Holyrood’s consent clearly is not necessary to activate Article 50. Only politics can prevent the hard Brexiters in the Tory government from dragging us out of the single market.

Through some creative  lawyering, you might just be able to cobble together an argument and get a case up on its feet.  In the High Court in Belfast, litigants are attempting precisely this. But their chances of victory are remote. The court case is really about boosting the political salience of the situation in Northern Ireland. As someone tweeted as me, in response to my Times column this morning, if Scotland counts for "nothing" in Brexit Britain, how much the worse for Ulster and its people? 

So that's the bottom line. Holyrood's consent is only needed if Westminster wants to legislate about devolved matters. But even then -- failure to give consent can be overriden by the exercise of parliamentary sovereignty. So what, then, can Mike Russell have meant when he said Holyrood might refuse consent for Mrs May's Great Repeal Bill? And what effect would refusing consent have anyway?

You've got to recognise that EU law is everywhere in UK law, and it isn't neatly packaged in one big book of rules, embossed in gold and bound in red buckram, easily tossed onto a bonfire. EU norms are enshrined in a dizzying array of documents, from the European Communities Act 1972, to ordinary legislation, to regulations, to the Scotland Act itself. In terms of UK constitutional law, some areas principally regulated by EU law are devolved, others not. The UK Equality Act 2010, for example, gives effect to European non-discrimination directives -- and is for the main part, a reserved matter. Holyrood can't amend or repeal it. 

Fishing, on the other hand, is only very partially reserved to the London parliament. But to ensure Scottish Parliamentarians didn't go voyaging on stranger tides, in 1998, MPs decided to constrain the new parliament's powers. Section 29 of the Scotland Act requires all Scottish legislation comply with the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights -- and EU law too. That's why, for example, the Scottish Whisky Association were able to take the SNP's minimum alcohol pricing legislation to court. The liquor manufacturers argued that the legislation interfered, unlawfully, with the European single market, by discriminating against producers able to pump out plonk on the cheap, by requiring them to sell their products at an inflated cost.  The requirement to tender for ferry services is another -- controversial  -- example of EU law at work.

The critical point is -- the Great Repeal Bill seems likely to stretch across reserved and devolved issues simultaneously. Some parts of it will require the Scottish Parliament's consent, others not. But as Professor Colm O'Cinneide, from UCL recognised, the legislative consent motion before Holyrood "may have to be drafted in broad terms, and of course will need to cover EU law provisions" written into Scotland's devolution settlement.

Which is where Mike Russell's "block" comes back in. Under the Scotland Act, Holyrood must obey EU laws, on fishing, agriculture, non-discrimination. If the PM wants to strip out those rules or to change Holyrood’s powers – she will need to secure the consent of a majority of MSPs. As things stand, it is perfectly conceivable that Scottish politicians will decide to defy Westminster. Mrs May would then have to decide whether to ignore their objections, riding roughshod over constitutional principles -- or to respect them, and leave Holyrood subject to EU law, but paradoxically, outside the European Union.

It isn’t necessarily obvious, however, why our parliamentarians would refuse their consent. It isn’t the Scotland Act restrictions which guarantees the rights of Scots to move freely, and to work and resettle across Europe – but the UK’s dying EU membership. Many EU rules are, in principle, about sharing burdens as well as benefits, while keeping an eye out for backsliders, free riders and chancers. Every state, for example, is likely to be inclined to discriminate in favour of its domestic industries in the economy, and to cultivate a more unfree market. EU single market rules seek to eliminate this across the whole bloc. 

But why keep the rules, when you aren’t part of the club? Unless the requirement to adhere to EU law was stripped out of the Scotland Act - we'd be looking at carrying their burdens, without seeing their benefits. An invidious position, no? There are a few more and less convincing answers to this objection. The symbolism of such a vote in Holyrood is obviously significant. Most folk won't follow the legal niceties of what the consent procedure actually represents. It will, inevitably, be seen in simpler, more political terms. Does Holyrood capitulate or not in the teeth of the Tories' haughty insistence that Brexit is their baby, and it will be midwived into monstrous shape only on their terms? That is how it is likely to be seen - presented - and understood by many.

For the SNP, retaining EU law might also represent a statement of intent about an independent Scotland’s future inside the Union. Why radically diverge from EU rules, when you want to join the club, sooner rather than later? Shadowing (some) of the regulation could be seen as a significant gesture of this kind. But you could do this, without making it a legal requirement to legislate in a way which is compatible with EU principles. And let's be honest: eliminating EU regulation would create opportunities as well as challenges, to take policy positions prohibited by single market rules.  

Alan Page, Professor of Public Law at the University of Dundee, has identified another - slightly trickier - issue with the Great Repeal wheeze, in his short paper for the Holyrood committee scrutinising Brexit. The key point is identified in paragraph 13 of Professor Page's note.  He is concerned about the possibility of UK government ministers disapplying and altering EU law concerning devolved matters in Scotland, without any reference Westminster, or to the Edinburgh government or Parliament. Law is made in many ways. One important source is what is called "subordinate legislation" - generally powers exercised by ministers in the government, often with lighter scrutiny from MPs than full-blown Act of Parliament. Mrs May's government seems likely to use this tool to prune the EU law which applies in Britain. But there's a problem. Professor Page:

"At the moment there is no requirement of the Scottish Parliament’s consent to UK subordinate legislation transposing EU obligations in the devolved areas; nor is the Parliament routinely informed about such legislation. Were obligations to be transposed by UK Act of Parliament the Scottish Parliament’s consent would be required, but if they are transposed by subordinate legislation its consent is not required. The situation could thus arise in which the UK legislated extensively in areas devolved to Scotland without seeking the consent of the Scottish Parliament as there would be no requirement of its consent in relation to subordinate legislation altering the effects of EU law in the devolved areas. In my view, this represents a significant potential gap in the framework of Scottish parliamentary control over UK law making in the devolved areas, which the Scottish Parliament should be alert to the need to close should UK Ministers be given the power to revise EU law in the devolved areas."

If Mrs May's Great Repeal Bill laid the foundations for this kind of arbitrary mode of decision making, without reference to devolved institutions, the Scottish Government would understandably hit the roof, and refuse to give their blessing to her Bill. They would be right to do so. From a political perspective, all of this is pungent. Legally, however, Holyrood can really only stage a weak, rear-guard action on the Brexit fallout. So long as we remain tethered to the UK government, we're tethered to its fate, outside of the European Union. Despite Mr Russell’s fighting talk, the legal scope for Holyrood to make Brexit mischief remains very limited. As for the political opportunities? Well: they're a different matter entirely.