There has been some suggestion in the days since the EU Referendum, in which a sizable majority of Scottish voters voted to stay while a smaller majority of voters across the UK as a whole voted to leave, that the Scottish Parliament can in some way block the UK’s exit from the European Union. That suggestion is, in my view, wrong; the Scottish Parliament cannot block the UK’s exit from the European Union.
Since Devolution there has been a convention operating whereby it has been understood that Westminster would not exercise its power as the sovereign and supreme legislative body for the United Kingdom to legislate in an area for which competence over has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, without first obtaining the consent of the Scottish Parliament. This convention is known as the Sewel convention.
Following the 2014 referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country, a Commission was established by the UK Government to look at the Scottish devolution settlement. That Commission, the Smith Commission, recommended that the Sewel convention was given legislative force. Section 2 of the Scotland Act 2016 amends Section 28 of the Scotland Act 1998, which confirms in subsection (7) that Westminster can still legislate on areas of devolved competence, to add a subsection (8) which gives effect to that recommendation. Section 28(8) provides that “it is recognised that the Parliament of the United Kingdom will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.”
What this means is that Westminster will not normally legislate on a devolved area without first obtaining the consent of the Scottish Parliament. However, it can still legislate on an area of devolved competence without the consent of the Scottish Parliament (for example, in a time of emergency and where it wouldn’t be practical to obtain the Scottish Parliament’s consent).
What relevance does this have to blocking the UK’s exit from the European Union? It would appear to me to be of no relevance whatsoever. Firstly, we are not in a situation where the UK Parliament is going to be legislating. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU is an exercise by the Executive of the prerogative power to conduct foreign affairs. The Executive might well seek a vote in the UK Parliament on exercising the prerogative power (in the same way that appears to be becoming convention with the prerogative power to declare war), but that is not a legislative act by the UK Parliament. Secondly, the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union is a specifically reserved matter in Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998. We are not, therefore, dealing with a devolved matter; we are dealing with a reserved matter. Section 28(8) of the Scotland Act 1998 only relates to devolved matters.
It might be the case that, when the UK Parliament comes to give legislative effect to whatever relationship the UK is to have with the EU in the future, the Scottish Parliament may be able to invoke Section 28(8) of the Scotland Act 1998. If that legislation were to affect a devolved area the Scottish Parliament could very well refuse to consent to the legislation; however, that would not necessarily equate to it being blocked. The UK Parliament might have to rely on the word “normally“ in section 28(8) to legislate anyway so as to give effect to, what will be by then, the UK’s international law obligations.
The Scottish Parliament is still free to debate and vote on any issues that it chooses to do so. We could therefore see in the coming days or weeks a debate and vote in the Scottish Parliament on whether the Parliament agrees with the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. However, it cannot invoke what is now Section 28(8) of the Scotland Act 1998 in relation to this issue. Moreover, even it if it could invoke Section 28(8) of the Scotland Act 1998, that would not necessarily have the effect of blocking the action it refused to give consent to.