Presiding Officer rules SNP Brexit legislation unconstitutional

The SNP are on a collision course with the limits of the Scottish Parliament’s powers after declaring that they will push ahead with a bill which falls outside its remit, the Scotsman reports.

Mike Russell, the Scottish Government’s Brexit minister, has declared that it intends to lay down its own ‘frameworks’ for handling post-Brexit policies currently laid down by the European Union.

This is the latest bit of brinkmanship in the ongoing row over Clause 11 of the Withdrawal Bill. As has been set out both on this site and in more detail elsewhere, claims that Westminster is carrying out a post-Brexit ‘power-grab’ against the devolved assemblies is nonsense, but the two extant devolved administrations are heaping pressure on the Government to make huge concessions.

David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister leading the negotiations, declared in a speech this week that many of the powers being contested by Edinburgh and Cardiff vital to the “existence of the Union”, suggesting a stiffening of the Government’s spine on the issue. That may explain why the SNP are committing to this new gambit.

Ken Macintosh, Holyrood’s Presiding Officer (Speaker), has ruled that the Scottish Goverment’s Brexit bill falls outside the remit of the Scottish Parliament.

Russell insists that the SNP will fight any legal challenge by Westminster, clearly seeing a court battle as an opportunity for valuable anti-London theatre. The Nationalists’ odds of winning such a court case seem slim, although the Scottish Government’s lawyers disagree with those of the Scottish Parliament over the bill’s constitutionality.

If Russell hopes to intimidate the Government, however, he should bear in mind that the Nationalists’ last attempt to exploit Brexit in the courts saw them go down to a unanimous defeat in the Supreme Court, which enforced devolution’s limits and refused to invent a new right to a formal role in the Brexit process for the Scottish Government.

Pressure mounts on Jones to publish Sargeant report

Members of the Welsh Assembly have voted in favour of publishing an inquiry into allegations that news of Carl Sargeant’s sacking was leaked in advance, according to Wales Online. However, Wales’ top civil servant may still refuse to make the document public.

Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, has been embroiled in crisis ever since Sargeant apparently took his own life in November of last year, only four days after being dismissed from his post as Communities and Children minister.

The push to publish has been driven by Andrew RT Davies, the Welsh Conservative leader, who insists that despite official denials there is significant evidence that some people were aware of the reshuffle before it was announced, and was supported by Plaid Cymru.

Davies previously called for the inquiry to be led by AMs, but narrowly lost a vote on the issue after Kirsty Williams, the Assembly’s sole Liberal Democrat and Jones’ education secretary, apparently burned £5,000 of public money cancelling an overseas visit to attend. This time Labour AMs abstained, so the motion passed 25 to 0 with 26 abstentions.

Empey criticises Government over legacy institutions

Reg Empey, the former Ulster Unionist leader, has accused the Government of ‘weasel words’ over plans to set up institutions to probe historic killings, the News Letter reports.

Controversy over the issue arose when Sinn Fein claimed to have struck a deal with ministers on this subject separate from their stalled negotiations with the Democratic Unionists over devolution. Many unionists are concerned that Republicans will use the legacy bodies to focus on the security services.

Empey challenged Karen Bradley, the Northern Irish Secretary, to clarify whether the Government was consulting on whether to establish these bodies, or merely how to do it. He added that the Stormont House Agreement which provides the basis for them did not command universal consent.

Tories declare bid to form next Scottish Government

STV reports that Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has said that the party’s upcoming conference will see the launch of its campaign to form the next Scottish Government.

Davidson stressed to the press that next week’s gathering in Aberdeen will see the party discuss a broad range of policy areas ahead of developing a full programme for government. She has previously been criticised for leaning too heavily onopposition to a second referendum, which is a potent vote-winner with a substantial part of the electorate but most likely not sufficient to make the Tories the largest party in Scotland.

However the Scottish Conservatives clearly have no intention of abandoning their direct line to unionist voters: in the pages of the conference guide David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, warned that Nicola Sturgeon might resume her calls for another independence referendum this year.

Theresa May – whose relative popularity in Scotland took many by surprise – also lent her Scottish comrades some firepower this week, attacking the Scottish Government’s record on tax and education whilst reiterating her strong personal unionist views.

Civil servant suggests Ulster can’t handle too much devolution

Writing in the i, Sam McBride reports that a retired Northern Irish civil servant has suggested that the province simply doesn’t have the capacity to handle the huge devolved responsibilities currently vested in it.

David Thomson, who was a senior official at the department responsible for the ‘cash for ash’ energy scandal, pointed out that whilst a team of 77 civil servants worked on the policy in Whitehall only a handful – some part-time or inexpert – developed the Stormont equivalent.

Although reluctant to say it was a “problem with devolution” – the Chair accepted the term – he highlighted the fact that it is very difficult for a country with a population comparable to that of a large English county to fully replicate British Government ministries.