A CONTROVERSIAL trade bill will "significantly undermine" devolution, according to academics.

The Centre on Constitutional Change (CCC) and Cardiff University professors have published a report this morning claiming that the UK Internal Market Bill (UKIM) prioritises trade above all else and could prevent devolved governments from pursuing their own policies.

The Bill has drawn attention after Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis told MPs it would break international last month, prompting the resignation of the Advocate General for Scotland Lord Keen.

Read more: Advocate General for Scotland Lord Keen quits over trade bill chaos

It is due to be debated in the House of Lords this afternoon, with more than 100 peers registered to speak at the session.

However Scottish and Welsh governments have been critical of the legislation as they claim it will take power away from them and put it in the hands of Westminster.

Today's report states that the Bill will "blunt policymaking tools" of devolved governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and will lead to a further deterioration of relationships between the UK Government and the devolved governments.

Professor Nicola McEwen, one of the report authors and co-Director at CCC, said researchers were "not convinced that it is necessary to have this Bill at this time, at all."

She explained that although the UK Government plans to have the legislation in place by the end of the EU transition period, December 31, there was still time to make amendments to protect devolved government powers and policies.

The report makes five recommendations including securing "the consent of the devolved institutions before changing details of the legislation after it is introduced" and allow more exceptions to market access principles.

Read more: EU launches legal action against UK Government over Internal Market Bill

Prof McEwen continued: "By introducing uncertainty over new UK Government spending powers in the devolved areas, and by limiting the ability of the devolved governments to pursue their own policy priorities, the Bill is more likely to undermine rather than strengthen the union, and creates the space for political conflict, grievance and a breakdown in inter-governmental relations.”

Asked if the bill could further the case for Scottish independence, Prof McEwen said: "Well, it certainly doesn't do anything to promote the relationships or trust between the governments.

"It looks likely that the bill will be passed without the consent of the Scottish Parliament and without the consent of the Welsh parliament.

"That has happened before, at least with respect to Scotland, it has happened that laws have been passed without their consent but never before on a bill that is so focused on devolution.

"Its certainly unlikely to heal any wounds and doubtless will be politicised in that process."

Read more: Internal Market Bill could ‘destabilise’ devolution, peers warn

Fellow author Professor Dan Wincott of Cardiff University said: "With relations between Westminster on the one hand, and Cardiff and Edinburgh on the other, as fractious as they have ever been, there is clear merit in exploring a more consensual approach to the regulation of the UK Internal Market. The Bill is being perceived as a power grab by devolved ministers, is extremely unlikely to secure devolved consent, and unsettles the territorial arrangement of the UK constitution.

“We are not convinced that this Bill is necessary at this time. However, substantial changes to the Bill could begin to repair the damage it has caused, if they embed principles of consent and co-operation in the process of governing the UK’s internal market.

"The Welsh Government has proposed amendments that, for example, remove the proposed new financial assistance powers, remove the reservation of subsidy provision to the UK Government and would mean the Internal Market legislation would not be a protected enactment. Our report makes recommendations that could minimise the Bill’s detrimental impact and help towards rebuilding relationships between the governments of the UK."

HeraldScotland: Rt Rev Justin Welby

 

The report comes at the same time as the UK's five most Anglican church figures signed a rare joint letter warning the bill could set a "disastrous precedent".

The Archbishops of Canterbury, York, Wales and Armagh, along with the chief bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church, urged ministers not to force through the law against the wishes of the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and the Northern Irish Assembly.

They also claimed the bill presented a “moral” issue because of its threat to break international law by overriding parts of the Withdrawal Agreement.

In a letter to the Financial Times the bishops said: “The bill represents a profound shift in how trading relationships within the UK will be regulated and governed.

“This will not be a return to a trade regime that existed before UK joined the EU, it will be an entirely novel system, replacing one that evolved slowly and by careful negotiation over decades.”

Read more: Holyrood votes to reject controversial UK Internal Market Bill

They added: “The bill is, of course, not just concerned with domestic law. It currently asks the country’s highest law-making body to equip a Government minister to break international law.

“This has enormous moral, as well as political and legal, consequences. We believe this would create a disastrous precedent.”

Responding to the letter, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “Well, leaders of our faith communities have a voice and are at liberty to weigh on any issue that they choose.

“I think they’re wrong in this case, because the most important internal market that we have as a country is the internal market of the United Kingdom, and the bill that we’re piloting through Parliament at the moment, sets out to ensure that there is a free flow of goods and people and services throughout all four nations of the UK.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “When the transition period ends, vast numbers of powers will return from Brussels back to Holyrood, the Senedd and Stormont, who will enjoy a power surge and become more powerful than they were when the UK was inside the EU.”

“The UKIM Bill will continue to strengthen our Union by maintaining our internal market - providing certainty for businesses and consumers across the UK.”

“We have set out our specific reasons for introducing the measures related to the Northern Ireland Protocol in the UKIM Bill. We need to create a legal safety net to protect the integrity of the UK’s internal market, to ensure Ministers can always deliver on their obligations to Northern Ireland and protect the gains from the peace process.”