Tensions between Holyrood and Westminster continue to run high, with agriculture and rural affairs two of the key battlegrounds. Abi Kay gets the inside track from chairman of Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee, Pete Wishart.
As Brexit draws nearer, the Government is struggling to keep to the tight two-year schedule it set for itself by triggering Article 50 in March last year.
Just two weeks ago, the Brexit Select Committee warned ‘even under the most optimistic outcome’ of a withdrawal agreement being agreed in October, parliament may not have time to ratify it by the March 2019 deadline.
Brussels officials have also recently told reporters the timetable has slipped, with a December deal now looking more likely.
And even after the passing of the EU Withdrawal Act, 11 Brexit Bills still have to make their way through parliament, four of which are Defra’s responsibility.
The last thing the UK Government needs, then, is another constitutional battle with its Scottish counterpart – but according to SNP MP Pete Wishart, chair of Westminster’s Scottish Affairs committee, that is exactly where things are headed.
“We were profoundly disappointed with the way devolution was treated in the EU Withdrawal Act”, he said.
“We got 15 minutes to discuss huge devolution issues which practically turn the settlement on its head.
“We are of a view that the relationship is so bad, we are not in the mood to give what is called Legislative Consent Motions (LCMs) for the UK Government to legislate on our behalf.”
The Agriculture Bill is one law on which the Scottish Parliament could refuse to give a LCM – though this would not prevent the UK Government passing it anyway and dealing with the consequences later.
“There will be large clauses of the Bill which are English-only, but it will have to generally be UK-wide because it is trying to fill some of the holes which will be left by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)”, Mr Wishart said.
“We will be looking very carefully at the provisions within the Bill and what it will mean for Scottish agriculture, because we are more dependent on CAP funding than the rest of the UK.
“Less favoured area status, for example, has been really supported by the EU. We have got particular issues with convergence uplift where Scotland has been short changed.
“There are huge issues in all of this and it is vitally important as we leave the EU we get this right.”
After the Bill has been published, Mr Wishart’s committee will carry out an inquiry into the future of Scottish farming.
He expects the probe, which will be held before the end of the year, to look at how power is shared between the UK Government and devolved nations and how agriculture will be funded after Brexit.
But the committee is already looking at the impact of Brexit on farming through its current inquiry on trade and foreign investment.
As part of this investigation, its members organised a special roundtable with farmers and agricultural businesses at the Royal Highland Show.
“We tried to get a cross-section of the agricultural concerns in Scotland”, Mr Wishart said.
“It was a really good and productive session.”
Topics covered by the roundtable included future customs arrangements with the EU, how free trade agreements with new markets would affect farming and the future of Geographical Indications (GIs) which protect locally produced goods such as Stornoway black pudding from imitations.
The committee is also looking at how the devolved nations can have a say over future trade agreements.
Mr Wishart said: “We definitely believe there is a place for devolved administrations when it comes to negotiating these deals.
“The Canadians have a very interesting model where there is a mechanism in place, a council of the different provinces, which has a significant input into the designing of trade agreements with third party nations.
“We spent a good time talking it over with the Canadian EU mission in Brussels to try to better understand how that operates.”
But is the UK Government interested in such a model?
“We are getting the distinct impression they think it is their role to govern on our behalf”, said Mr Wishart.
“Everything we have seen thus far shows they are not willing to include the devolved parliaments and they want to do this from the centre.
“A lot of the tension is around agriculture and rural powers and we are just starting to see how this is playing out.”