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Focus on... Brexit inquiries at Holyrood

Aidan Reid

People awoke to a political earthquake measuring 8.5 on the Richter scale on Friday 24th June 2016. As the permutations of what this event would mean for our politics, our economy and our society, the additional workload facing parliamentarians at both Scottish and UK legislatures was unlikely to have crossed their minds.

For regular listeners to parliamentary committees such as ourselves though, we have been fully Brexit-ed out during the last session. On almost every issue considered, the future of EU migration, the replacement of EU legislation, and the potential repatriation and devolution of powers was considered. Thankfully, MSPs are now starting to helpfully condense our exposure to the issue into the more manageable chunks of dedicated Committee inquiries.

The internationalist focus of the Culture, Tourism, Europe & External Relations Committee meant it was always likely to be a natural home for efforts to determine if Brexit really meant Breakfast.

Its inquiry into the shape of a post-Brexit immigration system seeks to investigate how Scotland’s particular need for migrants may be accounted for in future. This issue has fundamental economic, as well as social, implications. The recent 31,700 increase in Scotland’s population was entirely accounted for by net migration into Scotland, with 800 more deaths than births recorded among the already-naturalised population. Such figures prompted the Scottish Government to state that controls on EU migration would “seriously harm Scotland's economy” in its Brexit white paper. A previous report from the Committee on the importance of EU migrants in reversing the decline of the Scottish population would also indicate that it is on board with the Government’s perspective. Therefore, even mooted plans for EU migrants to be able to stay (but not work) in the UK without a visa would likely be considered insufficient, meaning the more radical proposals being considered by the Committee, including calling for the devolution of setting migrant quotas for Scotland, may well come into play in its final report.

The Committee is also seeking to examine the Article 50 process itself. The inquiry sets the Committee members the task of highlighting “implications for Scotland” during the Brexit negotiations and their permutations. The phrase ‘how long is a piece of string’ may apply here, with just about every issue likely to arise in the negotiations meeting this criterion. Therefore, its witnesses and the submissions received from organisations are likely to define its remit more than most inquiries.

While initially examining the opening gambits and red lines of the UK Government and the EU in their negotiations, the call for evidence indicates the Committee will adapt its remit as key issues arise and the negotiations move on from their initial phase. As part of its attempts to increase parliamentary awareness, it has also asked SPICe for regular Brexit updates on the latest goings-on in both Brussels and Westminster.

Not to be outdone, the Finance & Constitution Committee has also launched two dedicated inquiries. The first, The Impact of Brexit on the Scottish Budget, seeks to identify if there are potentially unique financial impacts on Scotland, with the 2018-19 Budget in mind. An issue of such magnitude affects the price of houses and Freddo chocolate bars alike (though the call for evidence seems to indicate houses are the greater concern…).

It hopes that investigating the financial impacts can have an immediate positive impact, providing guidance to the Scottish Government as it attempts to set its Budget for 2018-19 on what areas will require greater funding due to the immediate impacts of Brexit. Employment demands for certain sectors due to reduced migration from the EU and identifying how an approximate €800m funding gap in agriculture support can be filled are likely to be two of the key challenges.

The Committee is also seeking evidence on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. The Bill’s previous moniker in political circles as the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ was not particularly representative of its actual aim, which is to transfer EU legislation onto the UK statutes. It is the likelihood of notionally devolved powers becoming superseded by new UK-wide structures which has caused quite a bit of concern.

Among its desired objectives, the Committee is aiming to focus on the memorandum itself, hopefully providing greater clarity on what may well prove to be the key political event of the upcoming parliamentary session. The inquiry will also seek to examine possible mechanisms to allow the Scottish Parliament oversight of the Brexit process, which would likely aid the Parliament as it shifts from seeking further information on the process to participating and making its voice heard during it.

Meanwhile, the Delegated Powers & Law Reform Committee also has an inquiry of its own as it looks into the minute details of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. As its name suggests, it is considering the powers to be conferred on Scottish ministers and whether the delegated powers match policy intention.

There is no escaping the looming impact in every policy arena that Brexit will have. The attempts by committees to tackle the subject head on are a good start to what will hopefully morph into a concerted effort to tackle and influence the top issue of our times.

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