In a move seen as a significant climbdown, ministers unveiled new amendments to the UK Internal Market Bill that would protect so-called “common frameworks” agreed with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland after the country’s EU transition period ends on December 31.
The bill is intended to create a fair “internal market” between the UK’s four separate nations once Britain finally departs the EU’s single market and customs union, at the end of the transition period on December 31.
The changes follow repeated heavy defeats for the Tories in the Lords over the issue, as peers dug in during several rounds of “parliamentary ping-pong” to defend rights of the devolved administrations.
Nicola Sturgeon has already called the bill “a full-frontal assault on devolution” because it planned to hand London what had been EU powers over food safety, minimum pricing, environmental policy, and animal health and welfare.
Many in the Scottish and Welsh governments had feared the Tory government would use the legislation to embark on a “race to the bottom” on key standards.
The Lords voted three times to back amendments by independent crossbencher Lord Hope of Craighead, a former deputy president of the Supreme Court, to protect common frameworks across the whole of the UK.
Each time the Commons overturned them, but now ministers have decided to go for a compromise solution that allows them to keep the legislation while agreeing to uphold some devolved rights.
Cabinet office minister Lord Callanan announced the climbdown at the despatch box in the Lords on Tuesday, praising Lord Hope for his “constructive” approach.
“The government have listened carefully and reflected upon the points, put forward many times by your Lordships’ House on putting common frameworks on the face of the bill. And I am pleased to say that today we are able to act,” he said.
Under the new government amendments, the “common frameworks” will be given legal force on the face of the bill, along with exemptions from the application of “market access principles” in the legislation.
Common frameworks allow different nations within the UK to set their own standards in those key areas of trade.
Under market access principles, rules would have been applied uniformly across the UK, but the changes mean that each devolved administration can be exempted following agreement with London.
Another change will mean that regular five-year reports on the issue will have to include details about the interaction between market access principles and common framework agreements between the UK government and partners in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Johnson recently came under fire when he told MPs earlier this month that “devolution has been a disaster north of the border”.
But HuffPost UK reported that Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove was keen to defuse the issue as it looked likely to be used as a powerful weapon in any future referendum on Scottish independence.
If the SNP triumphs in next year’s Holyrood elections, a fresh referendum seems certain to be demanded.
The Brexit legislation’s perceived undermining of devolution also sparked fears that Welsh independence could get a boost.
Labour’s deputy Lords leader Baroness Dianne Hayter said: “It’s taken ministers a while to get there but I welcome these concessions and it’s proof we were right to keep pressing on this vital issue.
“When the Bill arrived in the Lords, there was no reference to Common Frameworks – the on-going process of dealing with returning devolved competences post-Brexit.
“But following our thorough scrutiny, the government’s attempt to centralise how the UK internal market should best function will be set aside to allow a more consensual approach.
“And we have also ensured the majority of regulations made under the legislation will be introduced with the consent of the devolved authorities – something that prevents the imposition of a conformity that would have gone against the grain of the devolved settlements.”
However the SNP said that the bill still went too far.
Business spokesman Drew Hendry MP said: “Westminster ministers will have the right to impose lower food, environmental and other devolved standards on Scotland, regardless of the view of Holyrood.
“This bill is the biggest assault on devolution in the history of the Scottish Parliament. It undermines devolved policy making, grabs spending powers and removes state aid from being a devolved responsibility.
“The Scottish Parliament refused to give this bill consent and it is outrageous that the UK government is once again ignoring the wishes of the people of Scotland.”
The UK Internal Market Bill had already seen a huge Lords defeat over its plans to break international law on Brexit.
Ministers ditched that provision too to pave the way for an agreement with Brussels over Northern Ireland trade with Great Britain.