A CONSTITUTIONAL expert has warned that controversial ‘power grab’ proposals will mean the Scottish Government will have to trust Boris Johnson and future UK administrations will not “abuse" new "sweeping powers”.

A row has erupted over the UK Government’s Internal Market Bill, which the Scottish Government claims is a threat to devolution. Westminster insists that the devolved governments will receive more powers, formerly held by the European Union.

But MSPs have been warned that the UK Government could remove healthcare from a list of exemptions in trade deals without the approval of parliament and will be given the “power to rewrite the rules whenever it wishes to”.

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Professor Michael Keatings, constitutional expert from Aberdeen University, told Holyrood’s finance and constitution committee that “I don’t see the justification for this bill given that we are having a process for negotiating policy frameworks”.

Labour MSP Alex Rowley, stressed that the change of government from Theresa May to Boris Johnson “seemed to signal a significant shift in policy” where the input of devolved governments “have been put to the side”.

He added: “My fear is that could this bill be the foundations of future trade where, for example, the UK Government sign up to a trade deal with the USA and then they are able to force goods to be sold in Scotland.

“Worryingly, they could also start to enforce companies being able to get in public services – where public services could be privatised by the back door.”

Professor Keating said “it would apply in the case of trade deals where standards were recognised by the UK Government in effect of England, then that would also apply in the rest of the United Kingdom, irrespective of local regulations”.

He added: “The bill says health and social services are not part of this, they are not part of mutual recognition, they would be exempted. Apart from that, we don’t know very much.

“It does put a lot of power in the hands of UK ministers to do things that otherwise would be constrained.”

But George Peretz QC warned that “the Secretary of State has power to add and take away from those exclusions”, including on healthcare.

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He added: “The check on the UK Government’s ability to do that is a political one rather than a legal one.”

Tory MSP Murdo Fraser insisted the exclusions ensure that the NHS will be protected from any trade deals.

He said: “When I’m looking at the bill, there are specific exclusions in schedule two – devolved mutual recognition and to non-discrimination which includes a whole range of services including provision of healthcare.

“Is it not the case that the bill, as it stands, ensures the NHS in Scotland is exempted from these provisions.”

Professor Keatings agreed, but warned “there are things around the health service like provision of medicines for example, that maybe are in a grey area”.

He added: “Certainly the government has recognised that health services are government responsibility and broadly speaking, they would not be subject to the bill.”

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But Professor Keatings suggested that the internal market bill will give vast powers to UK Ministers they wouldn’t otherwise have.

He said: “We don’t quite know what the scope of these powers is going to be in practice – it's just kind of reserved powers to be used if nothing else works.

"I don’t see the justification giving the Secretary of State such sweeping powers just on the trust that it’s only going to be used to fix the odd anomaly.

“I suspect, and we don’t know, the main reason for taking these powers back in such a sweeping way is to do with trade deals.”

He added: “We’re contemplating here giving ministers sweeping powers without really knowing the extent to which these powers are going to be used in practice.

“I would be hesitant, from a constitutional perspective, in giving UK ministers wide powers and just trusting future UK Governments are not going to abuse them.”

Mr Peretz warned MSPs of the strong hand the UK Government will hold over the internal market.

He said: “The UK Government, because it is also the English government, is by far the strongest player.

“It’s not only the strongest player, it’s also the umpire because in many respects it decides what happens. It also has the power to rewrite the rules whenever it wishes to.

“Because of the unfettered sovereignty of Westminster, if ever the internal market regime ever disadvantages the UK, is ever a nuisance to the UK Government legislation for England, they can simply override it. That’s not something that the devolved parliaments can do.”