All parties in Parliament have agreed with the Finance and Constitution Committee that the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is incompatible with the devolution settlement in Scotland and with the committee’s conclusion that Parliament should not give legislative consent to that bill as currently drafted. In those circumstances, the Government has a responsibility to prepare so that, under any scenario, there is a legislative framework in place for protecting Scotland’s system of laws from the disruption of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Michael Russell and Joe FitzPatrick set out those plans in their letter to the Presiding Officer of 10 January.
I note the Scottish Government’s openness to the possibility that agreement can be reached on changes to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, however unlikely that prospect seems to be. However, Michael Russell, the minister responsible, has told the Finance and Constitution Committee that a continuity bill has already been drafted and given to the Presiding Officer. It is clearly not possible for that bill to be published until the Presiding Officer has made a ruling. If we are to take seriously Mr Russell’s commitment to maximum scrutiny, surely the Scottish Government could publish at least a discussion paper on the possible contents of such a bill, given that we are not going to be able to have any kind of meaningful public consultation on such a huge and far-reaching piece of legislation as the withdrawal bill.
I am sure that Mr Harvie will understand that the Government has to follow the arrangements put in place by Parliament for the Presiding Officer’s proper consideration of bills, and that is exactly what we have done in these circumstances.
To help Mr Harvie in relation to the contents of the continuity bill, Mr Russell has set out clearly to the committee the provisions that would be necessary in such a bill. As I said in my original answer, they would seek to put a framework in place to protect our system of laws from disruption as a consequence of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
We will consider Mr Harvie’s point about any dialogue. Mr Russell has made it clear to the committee that the Government wants there to be maximum possible scrutiny of the bill in the circumstances that prevail. We will have to consider that point in the context of the wider discussions that we have with the UK Government around the amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.
I thank Patrick Harvie for bringing this matter to the attention of the chamber. It is an exceptionally important one.
Given that the United Kingdom Government has repeatedly committed to amend the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to meet the concerns of the Scottish and Welsh Governments—concerns that the Scottish Conservatives have shared—and given that negotiations between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations on this matter are proceeding and are making progress, does the cabinet secretary not agree that introducing a continuity bill in this Parliament at the moment would be unnecessary, premature and unwise?
I encourage Mr Tomkins to reflect on the circumstances and scenario that I put to Parliament in my original answer to Mr Harvie. I said that, as things stand—and Mr Tomkins is a signatory to this—the Finance and Constitution Committee has indicated that it cannot give legislative consent to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.
I am party to the negotiations with the United Kingdom Government, and I have to say that I have a less optimistic assessment of where we are than the one that Mr Tomkins has given to Parliament today. Mr Tomkins will know that I am very familiar with negotiations with the United Kingdom Government and with coming to agreements on such points, and I am far from optimistic about where we are placed.
In such circumstances, the Government in Scotland has a duty to make the arrangements that we have made. We are not doing anything prematurely. We are doing things to ensure that we can have a protective framework of stability around legislation in Scotland if we are unable to give legislative consent to the bill. As things stand, the Scottish Government remains unable to give legislative consent to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.
I am also grateful to Patrick Harvie for asking his question today. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the ball is in the court of the United Kingdom Government to respond in the way that the Welsh and Scottish Governments and Parliaments, and indeed the Conservative Party and the Labour Party in this Parliament, want it to respond?
Does the cabinet secretary also agree that this is quite a clear issue to be resolved—either people believe in the devolution settlement or they do not—and that it is time that the UK Government expressed in a proper way that it believes in that settlement?
The very sharp issue that we are confronting is whether the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will be compatible with the devolved settlement. That is the hard test that must be resolved by the negotiations in which we are currently involved.
That view has been expressed very powerfully in the House of Lords by Lord Hope, who has given a very clear assessment of the legislative difficulties that this Parliament would face in signing up to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill as it is currently constituted. He has given to the United Kingdom Government a very clear direction as to what amendment has to be made to make the bill compatible with the devolved settlement.
I agree with Mr Crawford that that is the sharp issue that the UK Government has to resolve, because however much we might wish to get to a point of agreement, we cannot get to an agreement that jeopardises the integrity of the devolved settlement, which was legislated for in 1998, was subsequently amended and has served this country well.