The meeting with the United Kingdom Government was a useful opportunity for an exchange of views on Brexit, including discussion of the Scottish Government’s proposed amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which were published jointly with the Welsh Government last week. The discussions were constructive, and we repeated our willingness to discuss where common frameworks may be required, provided that they proceed on the basis of agreement and with the required changes to the bill. We made it clear that the Scottish Government will not recommend to the Scottish Parliament that it gives its consent to the bill unless changes are made to protect devolution, as set out in our proposed amendments.
Mr Russell and I also stressed the need for the forthcoming meeting of the joint ministerial committee on EU negotiations to be a constructive discussion that allows us to contribute to the development of a negotiating position for the whole of the United Kingdom, in line with the agreed terms of reference.
I understand that the talks were described as “constructive”, but there remains no significant movement by the UK Government towards a withdrawal bill that respects the 1998 devolution settlement, respects this Parliament or even keeps the promises that were made by leavers, including Michael Gove, that Scotland’s Parliament would become more, not less, powerful as a result of Brexit.
Has the Scottish Government set a timescale for further talks, and what are its minimum expectations of the UK Government in the interim?
The Scottish Government has said that we will continue discussions with the UK Government and that there will be further contact at official level and at ministerial level in due course to take forward the discussions that Mr Russell and I had yesterday with the First Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Scotland.
We have had discussions on some of the issues in connection with the establishment of frameworks, and further dialogue will take place on that.
The UK Government has also agreed to consider the amendments that we have suggested in partnership with the Welsh Government, as part of the consideration of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that will be making its way through the House of Commons in due course.
Friends of the Earth Scotland last week said that the withdrawal bill would result in an alarming loss of control by Scotland’s Parliament over renewable energy, climate change, air quality and fracking, which are all areas in which Scotland has led the UK. The charity Nourish has warned that the bill could diminish the quality of the food we eat, and NFU Scotland has said that the loss of agricultural payments could amount to £250 million a year. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that, for the sake of our environment and our rural economy, those powers must remain in Scotland, as Donald Dewar’s 1998 devolution settlement intended?
I think that people in Scotland would not be in any way surprised to hear that the Scottish Government and, I believe, the Scottish Parliament would want to protect the settlement that was agreed in 1998 and which has been subsequently updated by transfers of powers on different occasions, most recently by the transfer of powers that was implicit in the enactment of the Smith commission proposals.
I think that people would be perturbed if there was to be an attempt, as a consequence of the withdrawal bill, to essentially recast that settlement. That is why such a breadth of opinion in Scotland supports the position that has been adopted by the Scottish Government.
I make clear that we have no opposition in principle as a Government to working within UK frameworks where it is relevant and appropriate to do so, but it must be appropriate and relevant to do so, and doing so must respect the devolved settlement. We have openly marshalled very specific amendments to the withdrawal bill because they rectify what is wrong in the bill that could be damaging and prejudicial to the devolved settlement.
We will continue those discussions, but I assure Ms McAlpine and Parliament of the Scottish Government’s determination to remain very clear about the issues of principle that are at stake in the withdrawal bill and to work at all times to ensure that we have in place a framework that protects the devolution settlement.
There is, of course, a wider debate to be had about the extension of powers to the Parliament as a consequence of the withdrawal bill. We have yet to hear specifics about what those powers, which were promised during the EU referendum campaign, are likely to be when they materialise.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s recognition that there will be a need for UK-wide, or perhaps Great Britain-wide, common frameworks as we leave the European Union. Can the Deputy First Minister tell Parliament anything about the substantive policy areas where the Scottish ministers think that such common frameworks will be needed? Can he tell us anything about his understanding of the timing for the common frameworks?
Fundamentally, we have to engage in dialogue with the UK Government on those questions. We have been absolutely clear throughout the process that we have no opposition in principle to the development of UK frameworks, but they have to be appropriate and respectful of devolved competences. In my view and that of the Scottish Government, what has been proposed in the withdrawal bill goes about that in entirely the wrong fashion, because it presupposes that all the powers should be reserved to the UK Government, regardless of whether they were devolved in 1998. We need to reverse that process and establish the basis on which UK frameworks should be constructed, what their substance should be and, most important, how agreement should be reached on the operation of those UK frameworks.
The point is very material, because we cannot have a situation in which the Scottish Parliament cannot properly and fully represent the interests of the people of Scotland in the frameworks and finds that the outcome of the frameworks will be determined by decisions made by the UK Government. Those will be the issues that will be taken forward as part of the on-going discussions. However, I reiterate to Mr Tomkins the position that the Scottish Government has made clear to the Scottish Parliament, which is that the withdrawal bill in its current format is not a bill to which the Scottish Government could recommend giving legislative consent, because of that fundamental weakness in the bill’s composition.
The Deputy First Minister will be well aware that UK ministers have made a couple of assertions about the withdrawal bill that I am sure he will want to test. First, there is the assertion that, of the powers that are coming to the UK under the terms of the bill, the UK Government will transfer without delay those that can be transferred directly to the Scottish Government. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that during his visit to Scotland yesterday. The other assertion is that the UK Government is taking all the responsibilities for devolved areas as a temporary measure in order to put frameworks in place. Can the Deputy First Minister indicate whether the discussions that he has had with the UK Government so far have identified some of the 111 devolved areas that the UK Government has no quibble with transferring immediately to Scottish Government responsibility or whether there has been any indication of the UK Government’s intention to amend its bill in order to time limit the exceptional powers that it will take under the bill?
The way in which Mr Macdonald categorised the chancellor’s remarks of yesterday is not consistent with what is in the bill. The bill says something very different from the way in which Mr Macdonald characterised the issue. Fundamentally, there has to be a change in the bill to avoid the situation that the Scottish Government is concerned about, with, I believe, broad support from the Scottish Parliament, because the proposal in the bill is to transfer all those powers to the United Kingdom. I can give Mr Macdonald no clarity about how temporary that would be. He said that the UK Government has said that it would transfer the powers “without delay” but, based on the discussions yesterday, I can give no guarantee to Mr Macdonald about that.
There is a material conversation to be had about the powers within the range of responsibilities in the list of 111 that was shared with the Finance and Constitution Committee last week. There are discussions to be had about what should be the subject of UK frameworks and what should not, but I cannot at this stage share with Parliament any outcomes from the discussions as to which powers fall into which particular categories. That is a material issue that has to be addressed in our dialogue.
I recently visited a social enterprise in Glasgow that was set up to teach European languages to both children and adults. By necessity, it has found itself forced, in effect, to provide a support group for the many EU citizens and their families living in Glasgow, who find their lives in turmoil with the complete lack of clarity about their future.
Will the Scottish Government, in its discussions with the UK Government and others, place a high priority on the need to recognise and remember the position of people in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland who are part of this European country and who we value, and to make sure that the UK Government gives them the clarity that they deserve? So far, the UK Government has been unwilling to do that.
I agree whole-heartedly with Mr Harvie’s point in his question. At a personal level, I met a week past Saturday representatives of the Polish community in my constituency, and I detected exactly the unease, the anxiety and, frankly, the hurt that are felt by European citizens who have come here and are making their contribution to our society—both to the economy and to our communities, our schools and the lives that we all lead.
I completely accept Mr Harvie’s point. I reassure him that, in the meeting yesterday, I made clear to the First Secretary of State the importance that the Government attaches to being able to give certainty to those individuals, but also to having an approach, once the UK has left the EU, to enabling the free movement of individuals. The substantial contribution that the migrant population has made to our population as a whole and our economy should not be understated by anyone in this debate.
These issues are very much on our agenda. We have tried to seek clarity on every occasion that has been available to us, and I assure Mr Harvie of our determination to make sure that that continues in all further discussions on the question. The joint ministerial committee on EU negotiations, which will take place in October, will be an opportunity for us to engage substantively on the discussions around the United Kingdom’s negotiating position for the longer term. Again, I assure Mr Harvie that that will be a priority for the Government in those negotiations.