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Common Frameworks in the new Parliamentary Session

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During its membership of the European Union, the UK was required to comply with EU law. This meant that, in many policy areas, a consistent approach was often adopted across all four nations of the UK, even where those policy areas were devolved.

With the requirement to comply with EU law now at an end, the UK and devolved governments have agreed that a number of common frameworks will be needed to avoid significant policy divergence between the nations of the UK where there is shared agreement that would be undesirable. A common framework is an agreed approach to a particular policy, including the implementation and governance of it. Common frameworks are being developed to ensure that rules and regulations in certain policy areas remain consistent across the UK.

While work on common frameworks began in the second half of Session 5 of the Scottish Parliament, the MSPs who were elected this May for a new session of Parliament will have to continue this. Significant work in some areas remains to be undertaken and will constitute part of the initial workload for parliamentary committees this year. The current expectation is that work on the frameworks should be completed by the end of 2021. This blog therefore will summarise the work done thus far, as well as looking ahead at what is to come.

Statutory reporting on common frameworks

Schedule 3 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 requires that the UK Government reports to the UK Parliament every three months on progress in the development of common frameworks. On 20 May 2021, the UK Government published the eleventh such report. You can access both this report, and those preceding it, through the SPICe Post-Brexit Hub.

The most recent report covers the period 26 December 2020 to 25 March 2021 and provides a useful summary of the work completed by the end of the Session 5 of the Scottish Parliament, as well as what work is expected to arise over the next couple of months.

Work to date

Frameworks go through five phases of development, and each framework will move at a different pace. The UK Government works with the devolved administrations at each phase to develop the frameworks.

Further detail of the work done at each phase can be read in a SPICe briefing on common frameworks.

The eleventh report notes that so far eight frameworks are ‘provisionally confirmed,’ meaning that they have been agreed by the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations), a body made up of Ministers from the UK Government and the devolved administrations. These eight are now awaiting final ministerial confirmation by each administration as full frameworks at the end of phase 4.

The report also notes that 21 further frameworks have been operating on an interim basis across the UK at official level while their provisional confirmation is awaited.

What this means is that while no frameworks have yet completed the five phases of development, 29 frameworks are currently being used at an operational level while they proceed through the full development process. This is to ensure that now that the UK has left the EU, there is something in place until the full frameworks are agreed.

The report notes that in the period before the elections in Scotland, progress had been made on the following common frameworks, including scrutiny by the Scottish Parliament:

  • Scrutiny of the Hazardous Substances (Planning) Framework continued with recommendations being issued by all of the devolved legislatures, including the Scottish Parliament. The recommendations made by the Session 5 Local Government and Communities Committee can be read on their webpages. The relevant House of Lords and House of Commons Committees had previously provided recommendations in December 2020.The UK Government and devolved administrations agreed amendments to the framework to take account of these recommendations. The amended framework was subsequently agreed by the Frameworks Project Board on 16 March and Portfolio Ministers completed their clearance on 22 March. The framework was submitted for final approval by the ministers responsible for intergovernmental relations from each administration, at the end of the reporting period.
  • The UK Parliament and devolved legislatures also submitted recommendations arising from parliamentary scrutiny conducted on two other frameworks relating to Nutrition Labelling: Composition and Standards and Food and Feed Safety and Hygiene Law. The UK Government and devolved administrations began jointly considering the parliamentary recommendations for these frameworks.

What to expect at the start of Session 6

A detailed list of the areas where common frameworks are currently being developed can be found in the Frameworks Analysis 2020, which was published by the UK Government on 24 September 2020. This report provides a technical update on the implementation arrangements for each individual framework area.

Four frameworks were published on 23 March 2021, prior to the Scottish pre-election period. These will likely receive scrutiny from Scottish Parliament committees early in the new session:

  • Public Procurement
  • Food Compositional Standards and Labelling
  • Blood Safety and Quality
  • Organs, Tissues and Cells (apart from embryos and gametes)

A fifth framework, the Public Health Protection and Health Security Framework was also provisionally confirmed during this reporting period. It is intended that this framework will be laid before the UK Parliament and published in due course. This will happen after the UK Government and devolved administrations have further updated it to reflect recent public health developments across the UK and the impact of the operation of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (discussed in more detail below).

Cross-cutting issues

The report also acknowledges that in the early part of this year, a couple of key agreements and pieces of legislation came into force that have an impact on the implementation process for common frameworks.

One of these is the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the UK and the EU. The TCA changes the basis of the UK’s relationship with the EU and many of the provisions of this agreement overlap with policy areas that intersect with Common Frameworks. The report notes that the UK Government and the devolved administrations are currently considering how the TCA should best be referenced within the common frameworks.

More detailed information on the TCA and the role of the devolved administrations in its governance and oversight can be found in a dedicated SPICe blog on the topic.

It is also important to note that the UK Internal Market Act came into force during the reporting period, and that this Act has implications for the development of common frameworks. This is because the Act establishes two market access principles to protect the flow of goods and services in the UK’s internal market, but also gives UK Government Ministers the power to disapply these market access principles where the four governments of the UK have agreed that divergence is acceptable through the common frameworks process. How this power may be used in the development of common frameworks has yet to be seen.

You can find additional information on the Act and its potential impact on common frameworks in a SPICe blog that discusses these issues.

Future developments

Scottish Parliamentary committees will continue to engage with the Scottish Government on the development and implementation of common frameworks. You can keep up-to-date on the work of the committees on the SPICe Post-Brexit Hub.

Laura Gilman, SPICe Research