Two select committee reports published this week have turned the spotlight on the impact of Brexit on devolved administrations, with political deadlock looming at the Irish border and disagreement between central and devolved governments over powers returning from Brussels.
Parliament’s Brexit committee, chaired by Labour MP Hilary Benn, has said it “does not see how it will be possible to reconcile there being no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with the government’s policy of leaving the single market and the customs union”.
A separate report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published on Wednesday warned of devolved administrations’ mistrust of the EU withdrawal bill, parts of which were being interpreted as “an attempt to reverse some elements of the devolution settlements”.
The Exiting the European Union Committee welcomed the government’s commitment to a “frictionless” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but insisted it must provide more detail about how this can work in practice, including if no withdrawal agreement is reached by 29 March 2019.
Benn said: “Our report concludes that we cannot at present see how leaving the customs union and the single market can be reconciled with there being no border or infrastructure.
“Even by their own admission, the government’s proposals are untested and speculative, so it has yet to set out how no border can in practice be maintained with the UK outside the single market and the customs union.”
A report in the Times this week suggested that negotiators were close to a breakthrough on the Irish border – sources in Dublin said the UK government could devolve powers to Northern Ireland to enable customs convergence with the Irish Republic thus avoiding regulatory divergence even if the rest of the UK moves away from EU rules.
The Brexit committee also called on government to publish a white paper on the proposed implementation period as soon as possible after the EU summit in mid-December, to clearly set out its vision for a future trading relationship with the EU, and to ensure a deal on citizens’ rights is ringfenced.
Its report added that the committee is still considering its response to the heavily redacted analysis of the impact of Brexit on 58 sectors of the UK economy that it was given by the Department for Exiting the European Union this week.
PACAC, chaired by Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, highlighted the “disagreement between central and devolved government” over clause 11 of the EU withdrawal bill, whereby powers returning from the EU will initially be held in Westminster even if they intersect with devolution settlements.
The report explained that the UK government’s intention may simply be “to maintain legal continuity”, but devolved governments are worried about a “power grab” with some critics believing that Whitehall departments find it convenient to hang on to powers rather than pass them on.
The problems, PACAC said, derive from “the lack of communication and established mechanisms for both proper consultation and shared decision making between governments”.
Jenkin said: “At this moment, it is both essential and an opportunity to establish an effective system of intergovernmental relations which has always been missing from the UK’s constitutional arrangements.”
He added that the dispute around clause 11 was an example of the need for good relations within the UK. “A system of mutual trust and effective communication and consultation is essential for the internal governance of the UK, now more than ever as we approach our departure from the European Union," he said.