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O n 11 September 1997, 21 years ago to the very day, the people of Scotland voted in a referendum to re-establish the Scottish Parliament. That referendum was a recognition of
“the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”, to quote the claim of right, but instead of celebrating on the 21st birthday of devolution, we are witnessing that “sovereign right” being treated with contempt, as we face the most crucial and damaging change to our lives and prospects that any of us here will have known.
Despite the overwhelming vote in Scotland to remain in the European Union, in less than seven months’ time the United Kingdom Government intends to take Scotland and the rest of the UK out of the EU. It intends to do so despite the vote of the people of Scotland against that step, despite the views of this Parliament and despite the fact that it lacks any workable plan and does not know what the consequences will be thereafter.
There is a vanishingly short window—a window of some 198 days—for agreement to be reached on the terms of withdrawal. In addition, discussions on the shape of a political declaration about a framework for future relationships are deadlocked by a UK Government that is unable to move for fear of destabilising the Conservative Party.
Of course, Brexit is, in reality, only the latest round in a 40-year-long civil war within the Conservative Party about Europe. The latest battlefield in that war is the so-called Chequers agreement. The EU has made it clear that the proposals on customs and trade in goods are not acceptable. If the Prime Minister cannot soften her proposals—at least 80 of her own MPs are prepared to die in the political ditch because, as far as they are concerned, the Chequers plan is too soft—the risk of exiting in March with no agreement on the terms of exit and no more than a commitment to further negotiations is very real.
There are some in this chamber who are trying to tell us that we have to choose between those warring factions, but that is a false choice. I want to make it absolutely clear at the outset that a no-deal Brexit is impossible and unthinkable, but the Chequers deal is impractical and unworkable, and a Brexit with next to no detail about the future relationship—a so-called “blind Brexit”—would be completely unacceptable, so we must find something better. What a mess the Tories have made of it. Tory members should be hanging their heads in silent shame in the chamber this afternoon.
The Scottish Government has always made a distinction between the politics of Brexit and the absolute necessity of doing everything that we can to ensure that there is no legislative cliff edge. We are committed, solidly and completely, to taking every action to ensure that there is as little damage to Scotland as possible.
The publication in August of the first batch of no-deal technical notices laid bare not just the appalling irresponsibility of all those involved, but the stark reality of what a no deal would mean for Scottish businesses and citizens. Reading those notices, I was struck again and again that there is a simple solution that would avoid all that damage—staying in the European Union. That should still be our aim, but we should also be prepared to compromise if others will compromise.
Accordingly, we will continue to make the case vigorously for membership of the European single market and the customs union, and to set out the implications of other options and the impact that they would have on Scotland’s future. In addition, regrettably, we will have to work as hard as we can to prepare for a no deal, should one occur.
In June, I made a statement in which I advised that the Scottish Government was intensifying its preparations for all exit possibilities in order to support the Scottish economy and our businesses, people and public services in what are and will continue to be very uncertain times. In contrast, as in the conduct of its negotiations, the UK Government’s readiness preparations have been haphazard and contradictory, and have massively increased the uncertainty.
I confirm that, nonetheless, the Scottish Government intends to take a coherent, consistent and collaborative approach to making preparations for EU exit. We will be straight with people, and I intend to communicate what the Scottish Government is doing to help Scotland.
Let me start with the details of our preparations in parallel with the UK Government’s arrangements. In June, I said that I would return to Parliament with more details on how we will legislate to deliver a functioning statute book. That is an unwelcome responsibility, but it is one that we will face up to. We must act just in case we find ourselves in the worst of circumstances. The chamber will understand that that task is a significant undertaking. The deficiencies in our statute book that have already been identified—the areas in which change must be made—are many and varied. We need to correct hundreds of pieces of legislation, not a mere handful. However, we have no choice, so as parliamentarians we will have a great deal of heavy legislative lifting to do over the next few months.
We have always said that the best way to go about that task is by co-operation and co-ordination between the Governments of these islands, as long as that co-operation can take place in a way that respects the principles of devolution and gives this Parliament its proper role in the process. Accordingly, where the policy outcome being sought is consistent across Governments, we will seek to agree approaches to the fixing regulations that are required. Of course, where the policy outcome is not consistent, we will pursue our own policies, which will require us to introduce our own secondary legislation. Even with that co-operation, the number of individual items for this Parliament to consider might be between 100 and 200 additional instruments. That is a heavy burden, but it could be heavier still if Westminster is not willing to co-operate sensibly.
I am writing today to the conveners of the Finance and Constitution and Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committees, in order to set out the Government’s approach and to agree a protocol between Government and Parliament to ensure that Parliament will be able to scrutinise effectively the items in question and the whole process.
This is not about where devolved competences will fall after EU exit. This is not about section 12 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which this Parliament has overwhelmingly rejected and which this Government will have nothing to do with. This is not even about legislative consent motions. This is about responsibly discharging, as best we can, our duty to ensure a functioning devolved statute book.
Let me turn to some other associated issues. In writing to UK suppliers of more than 8,000 medicines and asking them to stockpile up to six weeks of supplies, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care exposed the scale and complexity of the problems that would be created by a no-deal Brexit. Nonetheless, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and the chief medical officer are engaged in those discussions and will ensure the full involvement of Scotland in that system.
We are also constantly reviewing our planning for Brexit more generally, and after the next two tranches of technical notices are issued by the UK Government, we will consider publishing our own supplementary guidance if we feel that it would be useful and that it will not add to the momentum around no deal, which could be an unforeseen outcome. We are, of course, engaged in civil contingencies planning around any impacts that might have an immediate and direct effect on citizens.
However, in the event of a hard Brexit or no deal, it is important to realise that there might be some risks that will simply not be in the hands of the Scottish Government to mitigate. If there are customs delays at the border between the UK and the EU, food imports and exports could be delayed and disrupted. Exporters of perishable foods from Scotland, for example, could find that their products take longer to get to market, or are unable to get there at all, and cost more.
In the fight against crime, we stand to lose access to the expertise that has been built up in Europol, which is used to identify, track and disrupt some of the most dangerous cross-border criminal activity. The ability of Police Scotland to work with law enforcement colleagues from across the EU to tackle such activity can be vital.
If the free movement of EU nationals and the mutual recognition of professional qualifications were curtailed, that would have serious consequences for the recruitment and retention of public sector workers across Scotland.
The Scottish Government is aligning existing financial and staff resources towards areas with specific EU exit-related demands, and it is ensuring that we have the right people in the right places to respond. We have created a new directorate for international trade and investment, and we have strengthened our presence in Brussels, London, Dublin, Berlin and Paris to ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard in Europe. Every directorate of the Scottish Government is engaged in planning for EU exit.
The Scottish Government will receive £37.3 million of consequentials that will be allocated in 2018-19. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work has made initial allocations of funding, which to date total £26.6 million for resource and £0.5 million for capital, to support vital activities. We are prioritising areas that will be heavily impacted by Brexit, such as agriculture and the rural economy. We are also using those funds to ensure that we have the skilled staff in place to resource the delivery of a functioning devolved statute book.
It is unacceptable that Scotland’s public finances should suffer detriment as a result of Brexit, and we will continue to press the UK Government to ensure that the financial implications of EU exit and the need for appropriate future funding arrangements for Scotland are fully considered.
Preparing for an orderly Brexit has been, and will be, a major challenge in itself. That displacement of skills and resources will be mirrored across Scotland’s businesses and public services. How much worse is it to be forced to also address the prospect of a no-deal Brexit that threatens disruption on an unprecedented scale in peacetime? However carefully we prepare for a no-deal scenario, it will still result in chaos. Even the UK Government’s own no-deal plans will require a plethora of agreements with the EU in order to work effectively. In a situation where negotiations have broken down, we have to ask how plausible that is. I will keep Parliament updated on preparations and make a further statement in due course.
A no deal is not inevitable, but the Chequers agreement is not deliverable and a blind Brexit is not acceptable. Therefore, not leaving would be best, and the only acceptable alternative thereafter is continued membership of the single market and customs union, which is essential for our economy, our society and the people of Scotland. The Scottish Government will continue to make that case while fulfilling its duty of protecting Scotland as best it can from the threats of a Brexit—any Brexit—that we cannot completely ameliorate, that we do not want and that we did not vote for.
I thank the minister for early sight of his statement.
“It is important that politicians of all parties put their shoulder to the wheel and secure something as close to the Chequers agreement as possible. If we step away from that, it will be detrimental to UK and Scotland.”
Those are not my words; they are the words of NFU Scotland, just yesterday. NFU Scotland is right. Why does the minister not agree?
What we need from Scottish ministers is not more empty posturing on Brexit, which is all that we have been treated to by Mike Russell, but constructive engagement in the work of co-operating with the UK Government to secure the best possible Brexit deal for Scotland and all the UK. On one level, we have to feel sorry for Mike Russell. He is desperate to be the herald of doom, but he is today contradicted over and again by Michel Barnier, no less. The EU’s chief negotiator said yesterday that it is perfectly possible to reach a deal on Brexit in the next six to eight weeks. That is good news, but the Scottish National Party does not want to hear it. Everything that it says about Brexit is negative. The only thing that is being stockpiled here is ministerial grievance and tired political cliché.
If the outlook is so gloomy, why does the Institute of Chartered Accountants report today that business confidence in the economy is so high? As NFU Scotland and countless others have rightly said, let us get behind Chequers and support the UK Government in its negotiations with the EU, drop the nationalist scaremongering, seize the opportunities for economic growth that Brexit presents and get on with the job of securing the best possible Brexit deal for Scotland.
I echo the words of Brian Taylor who, on the radio this morning, commended the Tories for their brass neck—we have just heard more of that brass neck. In a party that is literally tearing itself apart over Brexit, all that Adam Tomkins can do is to try to create a smokescreen to avoid the chaos that lies ahead.
I will quote somebody who said in this Parliament on 28 June:
“To my mind, leave should mean that we retain full access to the EU’s single market ... leaving the EU’s political institutions does not mean that we have to leave the single market, for there are several countries, including Norway” that have
“just such an arrangement.”—[
, 28 June 2016; c 26.]
That person was Adam Tomkins. [
.] Indeed, let me quote somebody else, who said on 30 June:
“Retaining our place in the single market should be the overriding priority.”—[
, 30 June 2016; c 24.]
That was Ruth Davidson.
The reality is that the only acceptable alternative—and it is not as good—to staying in the EU is staying in the single market and the customs union. Unfortunately, that was what Adam Tomkins, Ruth Davidson and everybody else knew two years ago. The Tories’ requirement to have slavish loyalty to their leader—apart from Boris, Rees-Mogg, Redwood and all the others, of course, for whom it depends who the leader is—is putting Adam Tomkins in a ludicrous position. [
.] The more he shouts, the more ludicrous it becomes.
I thank the cabinet secretary for the not-so-early sight of his statement, but I will not dwell on that.
It is interesting that the cabinet secretary referred to the claim of right at the beginning of his statement, because it is a claim that his party failed to sign.
As Brexit day edges ever closer, businesses, the fishing industry, farmers, workers and our citizens grow ever-more anxious. They see the UK Government in complete disarray with cabinet resignations, threats, counter-threats and a governing party seeing out the final months of a war over Europe that has lasted almost 50 years. We see the Prime Minister dangling by her fingertips as Davis, Rees-Mogg and the odious Johnson prise them from the cliff with a sledgehammer. The already sunk Chequers plan is all that she has to keep her afloat.
A no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for our people, our public services and our businesses, and we oppose the cobbled-together Chequers plan. However, today we are scrutinising the Scottish Government’s preparations. We of course welcome emergency planning for the national health service and medicines, but we are seriously concerned about the lack of detail on other sectors. In today’s statement, there are a lot of headings and plenty rhetoric, but there has been little in the way of practical detail on how the Scottish Government intends to give confidence to businesses, exporters, workers, farmers, the fishing industry, environmentalists and consumers. They need more than strong rhetoric and vague detail.
Will the cabinet secretary set out in detail in the Scottish Parliament information centre the exact progress that has been made in each sector so that we can properly scrutinise the Scottish Government’s proposals?
Mr Findlay has available to him all the detail in the UK documents as they have been published. We scarcely get much more detail than that, except the odd chance to fact check or legally check those documents. They are the core documents in this matter.
I have indicated to Mr Findlay that we will publish additional material as we think it necessary. I have also indicated to him that we will make it clear that our plans are available.
It is important that we do two things. The first is that we do not accept the inevitability of a no-deal scenario and so do not do anything to talk that up. The second is that we have to accept where responsibility for that lies, and always say that there is an alternative, because there is.
There is an alternative to no deal, to the Chequers agreement, which will not stick, or to a blind Brexit, which appears to be where we are going. The alternative is to stay in the EU, which is the best option and what Scotland voted for, or to back the single market and the customs union. Indeed, if the Labour Party was to back that, we would make more progress with that campaign than we have already done.
I also urge the Scottish Government to consider publishing more information, not just supplementary guidance if it feels that such guidance is necessary, but reassuring information so that members of the public will know that the potential chaos of a no-deal Brexit is being addressed and that detailed preparations are being made.
I would like to ask about the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill. As the cabinet secretary knows, he has our support in defending that bill against the UK Government’s attack in the courts. If he is unsuccessful and the UK Government attacks the legislation successfully, will he commit to ensuring that, if necessary, the stronger aspects of that legislation, which are better as a result of cross-party efforts to achieve social and environmental protections and stronger democratic scrutiny, will be reintroduced? Will he commit to ensuring that we will not lose out on that higher level of protection and democratic scrutiny if the UK Government has its way in court?
I have two points to make in response to that. On reassurance, we will continue to do everything that we can to make sure that Scotland is protected. However, I have also made it clear that we cannot mitigate every outcome of a no-deal Brexit. There are two reasons for that. First, we do not know what every outcome will be and, secondly, no deal is, by definition, disastrous. We have made that clear. I would love to give more reassurance, but we have to be realistic, as I have indicated. There are things that cannot be mitigated and I have indicated what some of those are.
On the continuity bill, I agree entirely with the member. The UK Government’s attack on the bill was most unwelcome. However, that having been done, we have defended ourselves vigorously. Depending on the outcome, of course, we will consider how to bring to the Parliament the ways in which we can undertake the actions that we wish to undertake. I hope that the bill can move forward and get royal assent—that would be the right thing to happen and if it happens, we will move forward with it. If it does not happen, we will consider closely what we can do. I hope to involve the parties in Parliament that are not attacking the bill in that.
I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of the statement. I agree with him when he talks about the UK Government’s false choice between the options that are being presented—the economic damage and massive surrender of democracy of the Chequers plan or the massive economic and financial consequences of no deal.
For ages, the cabinet secretary has said that he is open to the British people having the final say on the Brexit deal. Now that there are fewer than 200 days left, has he made up his mind yet? Support is growing across the spectrum, including from the Trades Union Congress yesterday and from members on the Conservative and Labour benches, so will he get off the fence? Will he back the people’s vote?
I have made it clear from the beginning that I am not opposed to that and neither is the Scottish Government. However, we have posed some questions. If Mr Rennie is serious about engaging the Government on that issue, he needs to help us to answer those questions. I am open to him helping us to answer them. Perhaps he could get his friends in the movement for a people’s vote to help to answer those questions too, as none of them was answered in any way by a demonstration outside this Parliament during August. It seemed to me that that demonstration ignored those questions.
Let me just make it clear what the core question is. The people of Scotland have already voted to remain in the EU. We voted decisively on 23 June 2016. What would happen if there was another vote and they made it clear that they wanted to remain and yet the people in the rest of the UK did not? That question requires to be answered. There can be answers to it—I am happy to sit down and get those answers—but ignoring that question and ignoring what the people of Scotland did on 23 June 2016 will not produce an answer. That is the question that Mr Rennie needs to answer.
If Mr Rennie wants to answer that question, I am delighted to speak to him about it—I make that offer now. However, we require that question to be on the table and answered, not hidden away and ignored.
In a moment of candour recently, Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, told the website “The Truth Trade” that we must not succumb to “irrational positivity” about Brexit and that
“everything will not be wonderful just because we are leaving the European Union”.
That point will not come as a surprise to the cabinet secretary or many other members of this Parliament, but does the cabinet secretary agree that that admission from a zealous Brexiteer comes far too late in the day and that the best preparation and protection for us is for the UK to agree to keep us in the single market and the customs union?
Absolutely. Brexit is not a reason to be cheerful—quite the opposite. The reality of the situation is that the campaign was fought on a false prospectus. We now know that it was also a campaign that appears to have had extreme irregularities in both its organisation and its financing. It is extraordinary to me that those people who opposed leaving, including Professor Tomkins, are now the most slavish supporters of it. That shows a distinct lack of political principle, just as Dr Fox has done.
Mr Fraser does not seem to be a very keen student of these matters, because it seems to many of us that that is not likely to be the outcome at all. What is much more likely to be the outcome is, for example, a choice between a blind Brexit—a very vague, high-level agreement—or no Brexit at all.
However, I made it clear in my statement, which Mr Fraser should have listened to, that the Chequers agreement option—which is no agreement, because it cannot be agreed in its present form and the Prime Minister cannot move from it for fear of Rees-Mogg et al—the no-deal Brexit option, which comes from the people who have no connection at all with reality, as far as I can see, and the blind-Brexit option are all unacceptable options.
There are two acceptable options, one of which—the best option—is not to leave and the second of which is to have as close an alignment as possible through the single market and the customs union. I will not be pushed to choose sides in the Tory civil war. I want the Tory civil war to stop, because at present we are all collateral damage.
Across the country, day in and day out, people are becoming more deeply concerned and alarmed about whether there will be an appropriate Brexit deal. What confidence does the cabinet secretary have in the UK Government reaching a deal based on the Prime Minister’s so-called Chequers plan? Does he agree that it is high time that the Tories halted their hugely damaging infighting and just for once put the interests of the country first?
I am grateful to Mr Crawford for that question, because it is absolutely clear, and has been for some time, that the Chequers plan as it is cannot produce a solution—it would have to be substantially changed to produce a solution. That is why officials describe the plan as evolving. However, the Prime Minister describes it as settled, because the more that she moves away inch by inch from the Chequers plan to anything that could get a deal, the more trouble she will have with the Conservative Party. I do not mean the Conservative Party in this chamber, which is utterly spineless; I mean the Conservative Party that hates that idea of change.
In those circumstances, we have a difficult problem to face. As I have said, the way to face that problem is to be absolutely clear that the false choice or dichotomy that is presented to us time and again by the Tories in trying to wriggle out of the problems that they have is not a choice at all. We should be clear about what is and is not acceptable. The EU does not find the Chequers plan acceptable, nobody would find a no-deal Brexit acceptable and a blind Brexit is a pig in a poke.
In light of the numerous references in the statement to the threat to public services, what assessment has been done in relation to the 2019-20 budget of the impact of Brexit on the funding of public services?
The member will find that when the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work comes to present the budget, he will make it absolutely clear, as he should do, what the effect of Brexit has been. There are issues to do with consequentials. I am sure that Mr Kelly, as a member of the Finance and Constitution Committee, will have a chance to question that very closely at the time.
Given that the Scottish Government is now faced with the prospect of seeking to prepare for a no-deal Brexit because Conservative Party members have been too busy fighting among themselves, is it not the case that the UK Tory Government is guilty of a total dereliction of duty to the citizens of Scotland and the rest of the UK?
Yes, that is absolutely true. One would have thought that members of the Scottish Conservative Party would recognise that and endeavour to do something about it by listening to Scotland but, instead, they are simply making the situation worse by their slavish adherence to the Chequers agreement and the Prime Minister, neither of which is going to last terribly long.
Gosh! It is almost as if a machine is writing these questions, and what a machine it is. At some stage, the people of Scotland will have to make a choice between whatever Brexit is presented by the member’s colleagues south of the border and a normal independent future. During the independence referendum in 2014, colleagues of Mr Golden as well as members on the Labour Party benches and the Liberal benches said that, if we were independent, we could not be in the EU. As exactly the opposite has happened, I commend to Mr Golden what I was talking about earlier: a period of silence.
The cabinet secretary mentioned in his statement some of the sectors that we know will be extremely negatively impacted by the Tory-led hard Brexit, should it happen, but there is more bad news by the day—news that cannot be dismissed as scaremongering. This week, it comes from the oil and gas sector. What is the cabinet secretary’s response to today’s Oil & Gas UK report, which concludes that a hard Brexit
“could lead to platforms being shut down”, because of challenges in recruiting staff from the EU?
One of the most astonishing aspects of this whole issue is the way in which, day after day, there is evidence, from those who know what they are talking about, about the damaging effects of Brexit, and yet it is completely ignored by the Tory party, the Prime Minister and the Conservatives in this chamber. I saw that report today, and it is quite clear that there is huge concern, particularly about the flow of labour, and that there is a need for labour. The response from the UK Government was to say that labour would still be available until the end of 2020. The reality of that is no comfort at all for an industry that does long-term planning. It is like last week’s so-called concession on seasonal workers; the numbers were minuscule compared with what is required.
Earlier, someone talked about a dereliction of duty. I have to say that the dereliction of duty to key Scottish industries from the Tories over Brexit is absolutely mind boggling. It is also incredibly damaging.
I want to press the cabinet secretary for some detail on the directorate for international trade and investment that was mentioned in his statement. Will there be offices in London, Dublin, Berlin and Paris, when will they be established and what relationship will they have with the UK trade offices? I think that that is an important question.
There are already offices in London, Dublin and Berlin, and Paris is just about to open. I was in Paris two weeks ago, speaking at a large business conference, and I talked to the person who will be running that office. Those offices are in place. They work through Scottish Development International, usually, and through Scottish Enterprise, and there are close relationships between those bodies and the UK where appropriate. That has been the case, for example, with the office in Washington and the member of staff in Beijing, and those relationships have continued. However, the important thing is the focus on promoting Scotland and making Scotland’s voice heard. That is taking place, those offices are crucial to it, and my experience of them has been very positive indeed. They are out there doing the things that need to be done. Very often, the UK Government is not doing the things that need to be done.
The Presiding Officer:
I apologise to those members who did not get an opportunity to ask their questions. I allowed the topical questions to run on somewhat this afternoon.
The next item of business will be a debate on motion S5M-13813, in the name of Aileen Campbell, on the social enterprise world forum. I invite all members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now. We will allow a few seconds for members and ministers to change seats.