We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
The next item of business is a statement by Michael Russell with an update from the Scottish Government on the proposed United Kingdom-European Union withdrawal agreement and political declaration. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so I urge anyone who wishes to ask a question to press their request-to-speak button as soon as possible.
I am grateful for the opportunity to update the chamber at this important moment in the Brexit process—though given the speed of current developments, I am not confident that I will be able to cover everything or that things will not have changed again before I sit down.
I make this statement with a heavy heart. In June 2016, Scotland voted to stay in the European Union by 62 to 38 per cent. To be dragged out of the EU against our will is democratically wrong and will be deeply resented by many in this country.
Those of us who regard ourselves as Europeans and Scots, and whose life experience has been embedded in that identity, will feel particularly sad and sore. No doubt there are others who will rejoice at what is taking place, and I respect their view. However, it is fair to note that the experience of Brexit, and the demonstration of Tory incompetence over the past two years, has resulted not only in a growing number who wish to remain in the EU, but in a diminution in the number who are in any way persuaded by the empty bluster of the Conservative Party in Scotland on these matters. Today’s polls tell that story, and I believe that a future election would confirm it.
This is a sad day nonetheless. It is a day on which spin, rhetoric, the misuse of funds and the manipulation of electoral legislation have led to the worst and most damaging decision made by a United Kingdom Government in any of our lifetimes. It is a day on which the UK Government has attempted—voluntarily and for its own selfish political purposes—to lower the standard of living of all the citizens of Scotland and to distance itself from the global benefits of the world’s largest free-trade bloc.
Last night, the Prime Minister described the proposed agreement as
“the best that could be obtained in the circumstances.”
What a difference a day makes, particularly to “circumstances”.
The Prime Minister’s deal was the inevitable result of a series of self-imposed draconian red lines, the wish to turn her back on sensible co-operation across our continent and the loose talk and empty rhetoric of her Cabinet, which has shown contempt for evidence-based policy making.
The death of her deal over the past 24 hours—for it is now essentially dead—arises from the same insularity, the same wrong-headedness and the same arrogance. The Prime Minister has only herself to blame for the appalling circumstances that she has found herself in. Those circumstances are appalling not just for her, but for all of us on these islands.
There has been much analysis of the deal already, despite the fact that the details are still not as clear as they should be, particularly as regards the political declaration.
I will briefly set out the deal. First of all, it maintains a form of customs union for a period for all these islands. That is, in itself, welcome but, because it is partial, it does not include any of the advantages of the single market, and because it is temporary, it is nowhere good enough.
Secondly, it makes a differentiation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in similar terms to those that we suggested for Scotland two years ago.
Thirdly, it prepares the ground for a continuing betrayal of our fishing interests.
Fourthly, it fails to guarantee key rights—human rights, environmental rights and employment rights—that we need and should never give up.
Finally, in its language and outcomes, it continues to ignore the current devolution settlement and the democratic institutions in Scotland and Wales.
Indeed, as the Prime Minster confirmed this morning, Scotland does not exist in her thinking about this deal. That fact was tellingly illustrated by the distinguished blogger and legal writer David Allen Green when he pointed out this morning on Twitter that the document that outlines the deal refers to the British Antarctic Territory but makes no mention at all of Scotland.
In summary, the proposed d eal does not meet the frequently stated Scottish Government requirement of single market and customs union membership for the whole of the UK, and so it fails for Scotland; does not make even a gesture towards recognising the vote of Scotland to remain; does not tackle the considerable and grave problems that will be caused by Scotland coming out of the single market and customs union; takes away the four freedoms, in particular the freedom of movement, which is essential for Scotland; and fails to address in any way the additional pressures on Scotland if its neighbour in Northern Ireland retains the advantages of single market and customs union involvement. It cannot therefore be supported by this Government or the Scottish National Party.
Much of Scotland looks at the current state of the UK Government and Brexit with astonishment and resentment. Scotland is an outward-focused European nation. We voted to remain within the European Union. It is clear that we would do so again tomorrow, if a similar referendum were held.
The Scottish Government has been clear, and remains clear, that the best outcome for Scotland is to be within the EU, but—and it is a big but; one that has cost the Scottish Government a great deal of effort—we have repeatedly tried to find a compromise position that would allow the UK Government and the Scottish Government to move forward, but to no avail.
What is to be done? First, we should take some heart from a major development this week, when the leaders of all the Opposition parties at Westminster, including Jeremy Corbyn and Vince Cable, took action to ensure that there will be the opportunity for other proposals to be put when the so-called “meaningful vote” is held.
Many alternatives might be considered, including the Scottish Government policy of remaining in the single market and customs union, as well as a European economic area model or remaining in the EU—as the Prime Minister herself let slip yesterday, that is an option. No one can argue that the choice is whatever the Prime Minister says it is; it is what the people and their elected representatives say it should be.
We will, therefore, as a party in the House of Commons, continue to work in a constructive and commonsense way with other Opposition parties to try to save us from the chaos of this Tory Brexit. I commit the Scottish Government to the same constructive working that we have tried to carry forward with other parties in this chamber during the Brexit period.
Not only is this a bad deal; it is being pursued in a bad way. The presentation of a totally false choice, to try and bludgeon members of Parliament and others to support the Prime Minister, is one sign of that. Another is the actions of the UK Government, which has sought to restrict the powers of this Parliament and has already imposed legislation on us against our will.
This is a bad deal not just because it will damage our future relationship with Europe, but because it creates the pretext for a continued unconstitutional assault on the rights and privileges of the people of Scotland, as exercised through this Parliament. It is an attempt to unsettle the will of the Scottish people, while eroding the rights and imperilling the future prosperity of everyone who lives in this country.
What is being offered is unacceptable, and so is what is not being offered. The deal provides for a degree of differentiation in Northern Ireland that we fully support as being essential to the future functioning of the Irish border and the protection of the Good Friday agreement. We want that to happen and we will do everything that we can to help it to happen. The deal provides for the whole of the UK to be in a customs union with the EU—thus rendering Liam Fox’s job redundant at a stroke of the negotiators’ pen—but we understand that there will also be specific provisions, including a single-market alignment provision, that apply only to Northern Ireland. That will see a better level of access to the European market for Northern Ireland than for other parts of the UK.
We rejoice for Northern Ireland that that has been achieved, but we cannot accept that it be achieved only for Northern Ireland. The Scottish Government has been arguing since December 2016 that if the UK leaves the single market, Scotland should remain. However, in January 2017, within weeks of the publication of “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, I was told to my face by David Davis, in his office in the House of Commons, that differentiation could not work in these islands and would not be proposed by the UK Government. Northern Ireland is now, rightly, to receive that special status.
We, alone of the four nations, will get nothing that we voted for. England and Wales voted to leave and they will leave, even though polls now show that the majority in Wales is against and much of England is moving that way. Northern Ireland will get a special deal. Even tiny Gibraltar. which was resolute in its need for continued special treatment—which we understood and supported—has been given that special treatment. However, Scotland, with the highest remain vote of any of the UK nations, is to be dragged out of the EU against our will, be exposed to severe economic disadvantage and damage, have the powers of our Parliament diminished and, yet, receives nothing at all.
Enough, Presiding Officer, is enough. Throughout the long and tortuous process of engagement with the UK Government, we have repeatedly been assured of the importance of our views, but those assurances have turned out to be worthless and hollow.
What do we, in this Parliament, do next? First, we should go on working with others—in Scotland, in the UK and across parties—to ensure that there is a better deal than the false choice that is being offered by the UK Government between this disastrous deal or no deal. Within the mix there should be an election, a people’s vote and remaining.
We will also ensure that the Scottish Parliament has the right to give its own view on the deal. I confirm today that if the deal is agreed at the Brussels summit on 25 November, the Scottish Government will bring it to a vote in the chamber before the vote takes place in the House of Commons. Of course, our motion will be amendable—that is how a proper Parliament should work.
As I said at the beginning of this statement, this is a sad day for those of us who still believe in the importance of European co-operation—those of us who reject the demonising of migration, the misrepresentation of co-operation and the assertion of false claims regarding “taking back control” and the “independence” of the UK; those of us, in other words, who still believe in a better future for our country.
Of course, in one sense, we have been here before. The promises made from 2014—in “lead, not leave”, for example—have turned out to be worthless. We are not an equal partner: the events of this week have proved that beyond peradventure; and I know that, from each and every meeting of the joint ministerial committee that I have attended on behalf of this Government. Far from leading the UK, the people of Scotland have been ignored and dismissed. Westminster has treated and goes on treating Scotland with contempt.
It does not have to be that way, though. It should not be that way, and I would contend that it is the duty of every elected representative in this place to make sure that it is not allowed to be that way.
We should understand that politicians are, if they are anything, people with a vision of a better future who are motivated by a burning desire to help our fellow citizens to achieve it. Brexit is not a better future; it is a backward step into a false and imagined past. That is now crystal clear, and every word of this “deal” proves it to be true. For Scotland, things in Brexit can only get worse.
We must acknowledge that this deal is unacceptable to Scotland and her citizens, and we must then find a way to work together to ensure that our country is not failed by a disastrous Tory Brexit, but enabled to flourish by choosing a different way forward.
That was not a Government statement from a serious minister. It was a cocktail of contrived grievance from someone who, even two years on, has never accommodated himself to the democratic will of the British people that we leave the European Union.
I voted remain, too, but the difference between Mike Russell and me is that I respect the results of referendums and he does not. Unlike some, I was not surprised by yesterday’s events. I always thought that the Prime Minister would get a deal with Brussels. I have never advocated a no-deal Brexit and I have never thought that that would be our fate.
None of us knows whether yesterday’s draft withdrawal agreement will survive intact. Getting a deal through a fractious House of Commons was always going to be more difficult than getting a deal with Brussels, and that task has not been made any easier by the sad and unnecessary Cabinet resignations that we have witnessed this morning. The deal is not perfect. It may or may not survive. With regard to key elements of the deal, I would reserve judgment. What I support, and this is what the Cabinet decided yesterday, is that it should now be subject to intense parliamentary and external scrutiny.
I do not rush to judgment, neither to celebrate every clause of the agreement’s 585 pages nor to condemn it out of hand, as the minister just sought to do.
I want to ask the cabinet secretary about differentiated deals. He wants a deal so differentiated that Scotland would remain in the European single market and customs union, even while the rest of Great Britain withdraws from both. Is it not the case that he wants that for the very reason that I am resolutely against it: namely, that it would destroy the integrity of the United Kingdom, which Scotland voted to remain part of in 2014? Does he not accept that the draft withdrawal agreement published yesterday contemplates nothing of that sort? Its detailed, lengthy and—yes—complex provisions on Northern Ireland are miles away from the Scottish National Party’s disastrous proposals for an altogether different sort of Brexit.
To address the substance of the question, no, I do not agree. It is obvious that a reading of any of the documents indicates that there are huge similarities with what is being proposed for Northern Ireland. A negotiation that led to implementation of some of the recommendations of “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, which was published in December 2016, would allow for a sensible compromise.
It is more likely that the precious union—I notice that the word “union” has to have the word “precious” in front of it now for any Tory to talk about it—is more likely to be damaged in the long term and in extremis by the type of dogmatic approach that the Prime Minister has taken or the completely out-of-touch approach that we have heard from Mr Tomkins. I believe—actually, I know—that on those Tory benches there are people who know how ridiculous and appalling the situation is. There are sensible people who would support a sensible way forward and who could not in any way support what they see happening at Westminster, where the Tory party is literally falling to pieces before our eyes.
I hope that perhaps some of those people might eventually step forward and say that enough is enough, because that is in essence what I think that they should do, as representatives of the Scottish people rather than as Conservatives. That is their choice. I do not believe that the tone of Adam Tomkins’s question does anything other than prove the fact that he may well be one of those people who knows how wrong the situation is.
In the past 24 hours, we have entered the endgame in the 40-year-long civil war in the Tory party over Europe. Two and half years after the Brexit vote, we are presented with a withdrawal agreement that fails to meet the tests that Labour set. We will not support this bad deal. We have always put Scotland first on the issue, and the deal does not meet Scotland’s needs or, indeed, the needs of the other regions and nations of the UK. It fails to respect devolution. It does not meet our demand for a permanent customs union arrangement. It fails to set out the collaborative and co-operative future with the EU that we want. It fails to provide equal access to the single market or guarantee that we will not fall behind on workers’ rights, consumer protection and the protection of our environment.
We cannot have a choice between a bad deal and a disastrous no deal. The cabinet secretary said that he will bring a motion to the Parliament. Will he work with me and others to ensure that the motion garners the widest possible parliamentary support?
The cabinet secretary spoke of a differentiated border and customs arrangements for Scotland; the First Minister has spoken about that, too. What work has been done on that? How will it work, what will the impact be and will he publish the Government’s plans today? Northern Ireland has a land border with the European Union, and we do not. It has a history of conflict, and the Good Friday agreement and the will of the people are holding the peace. The circumstances there are completely different from those in Scotland, and nothing must undermine that peace. Does the cabinet secretary believe that creating a hard border between Scotland and our biggest market—the rest of the UK—would be in Scotland’s interest?
Finally, will the cabinet secretary now do what the First Minister failed to do at question time? Will he call for an immediate general election so that we can rid the country of the shambolic and arrogant Tory Government?
The First Minister was very clear about that. Clearly, there are a range of options on the table, one of which is a general election. If a general election takes place, I will be happy to campaign alongside my SNP colleagues, who will undoubtedly take seats from both Labour and the Conservatives.
On the question of publishing material, we published “Scotland’s Place in Europe” in December 2016, and it contains all the information that Mr Findlay seeks.
It absolutely contains all that information. Indeed, we have gone on publishing more volumes of “Scotland’s Place in Europe”—it is almost like a serial publication from the 19th century—and I am happy to go on doing so. That information is in the public domain.
On Northern Ireland, I entirely agree that peace is absolutely the most important thing, and I indicated that in my statement. However, there are similarities in what could be done with differentiation, which would benefit both sides. What we are talking about and want to put in place does not include a hard border. Indeed, the whole purpose of the Northern Irish situation is not to have a hard border.
Let us move to what can bring us together. I am happy to commit to working with Mr Findlay on the details of a motion to bring to the chamber and to ensure that it has the widest possible support.
I ask everybody in the chamber to join Mr Findlay and me. I am sure that the Greens and the Liberal Democrats will want to do so. There is no joy in heaven greater than when a sinner repenteth—if the Tories want to take part to produce an effective motion that would show that the Parliament speaks for Scotland against Brexit, I would welcome them, too. As Mr Findlay indicated, I will not get my hopes up that that will happen.
As far as I am concerned, we will take forward the process as the parties in the House of Commons are doing. As I pointed out, Jeremy Corbyn and Vince Cable have signed, with Ian Blackford, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, a letter about what they hope would take place in the meaningful vote. I continue to work closely with my colleague Mark Drakeford on those issues. Both of us were at the joint ministerial committee on Tuesday where, as usual, we received no illumination of any description.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s statement. The Greens would be more than happy to work with the Labour Party and the Scottish Government to try to present as close as possible to a united voice from the Parliament on behalf of Scotland.
I understand the Scottish Government’s previous reticence to give momentum to a no-deal scenario by publishing material on its preparations for it, but we are well past that point now. No deal is a real threat, now that the deal on the table, as the cabinet secretary said, is almost certainly set to fall in the House of Commons. We still believe that there are other options. We look forward to a ruling from the European Court of Justice later this month or early next month on whether article 50 can be revoked.
The Westminster health secretary apparently told the Cabinet last night that he could not guarantee that people would not die as a result of a no deal, given the near inevitability of medicine, and other, shortages. Given the serious and mounting concerns and the clear impact on areas of devolved responsibility, will the Scottish Government now publish in full its no-deal preparatory work?
I think that the events of the past 24 hours have made no deal much less likely than it was. They have concentrated minds. Some of the work of people such as the health secretary in England has been designed to egg up a no deal, and so doing has made it clear to almost everybody that a no deal should not happen.
However, we will not let up on our preparations. A substantial amount of my time over the past period has been spent on no-deal issues. I expect to be in a position to come to the chamber with more information on that before Christmas and I make an undertaking to do so. I hope that that will include publication of some information.
Ross Greer makes an important point. We must have a careful judgment between whether we are egging on a no deal—encouraging it and making people think that it will happen—or providing reassurance. I will always consider that to be the most important judgment. I give an undertaking that we will say more about that.
The deputy political editor of the BBC has just tweeted:
Given the changing position on public opinion that Mr Russell mentioned in his statement, both in Wales and in parts of England, with London having voted to remain, will he get behind that growing cross-party momentum for a people’s vote and endorse it here today?
I am behind it, remain behind it and will be behind it, because that is the position that the SNP has taken. Tavish Scott and his colleagues cannot take yes for an answer, because they just do not want to take yes for an answer.
We support the people’s vote campaign. That is clear and on the record. In those circumstances, if that is one of the options that comes through the process of the meaningful vote option, they will find that the SNP will support it. Mr Scott may not wish the SNP to do so, because clearly the Liberal Democrats are much happier constantly asking the question. I will go on giving the same answer—yes, we are behind it; we will go on being behind it; and it may well happen.
The Presiding Officer:
There is considerable interest in the subject, as members will imagine. At least 10 members wish to ask questions. I urge everyone to be succinct. I am, however, prepared to let the item run on a bit, which will have an impact on the afternoon’s debate.
I will give a very short quotation:
“There is undoubtedly a need for all the devolved administrations to work with the UK Government to ensure we get a deal that reflects the needs of all of us.
Chiefly amongst this will be our continued access to the single market.
Protecting our trade with the European Union will boost our economy, sustain jobs and help to fund vital public services.”
I would be first to acknowledge that the circumstances of Northern Ireland are different to those of Scotland. However, is not it still entirely legitimate to ask why, if single market access is good enough for Northern Ireland, it is not good enough for Scotland? Does the minister agree with Ruth Davidson’s comments? What common cause could he find with the pragmatic and sensible Tories that he believes exist in this Parliament, and with other parties, to fight for Scotland’s interests?
My friend, Bruce Crawford, has made a good and sound point. We could extend the matter back in time, and consider the role of Margaret Thatcher as the midwife of the single market as it came into being and her enthusiastic view of it.
The single market has developed and changed, and it has brought in a more acceptable situation with regard to employment and conditions of work. It was valued then, and should be valued now, across the chamber.
We have seen a very strange set of circumstances in which people who supported the single market, and who knew that leaving it would be immensely damaging, have been persuaded by the wind blowing from their party in Westminster to do a complete volte face, and to pretend that it does not matter. To say that it does not matter is simply not true. It matters enormously—particularly, as I said in my statement, with regard to freedom of movement, which is vital to the health of the Scottish economy, and for rural Scotland, most of all. I will make that point when I speak to the Scottish rural parliament in Stranraer tomorrow.
I keep hoping that sense will prevail in the Scottish Tory party—it is perhaps a forlorn hope—and that its representatives will recognise that although the stance that they are taking might help Theresa May for a very brief period, it will damage the people whom they are meant to represent.
The Scottish Conservatives yesterday publicly sought assurances from the Prime Minister that the draft deal will protect Scotland’s fishing interests. However, is not it the case that the Scottish Government’s position is to take Scotland straight back into the common fisheries policy and that, accordingly, any betrayal of our fishing interests lies at the door of the SNP?
I like and respect Donald Cameron, but that question was not worthy of him.
The reality of the situation is this: the Conservative Party has been an enthusiastic supporter and implementer of the common fisheries policy since it started. The Scottish National Party has argued, and will continue to argue, as stated in our 2017 manifesto, for the
“scrapping or fundamental reform of the Common Fisheries Policy.”
The Scottish Conservatives have perpetrated a cruel hoax on the fishing community in Scotland. Yesterday’s part of it was a piece of theatre in which they gave an answer even though the answer was false. There is no doubt that the years-long betrayal of the Scottish fishing industry will continue. I hope that, on reflection, Mr Cameron will realise that what he has just said adds to that betrayal.
As someone who voted for Brexit, I agree with the cabinet secretary that the draft withdrawal agreement is totally unacceptable. It is neither fish nor fowl; it is neither in nor out of the EU. Much is wrong with the draft agreement, but despite what Donald Cameron said, nothing is more wrong than another Tory sell-out of the future of our fishing industry and our fishing communities. The draft agreement again puts at risk one of the most important industries in rural Scotland.
When one reads the document that was published last night—Donald Cameron obviously has not—it is clear that not only is there no deal on fishing, there is no guarantee that the fishing industry will not be in the common fisheries policy. Does the cabinet secretary agree that if the Scottish Tories fail to deliver, every one of their MPs has a moral responsibility to resign his or her seat? They should resign if they do in the Scottish fishing industry for the second time: the first time it was done in by Ted Heath, and the second time by Theresa May.
I know that time is short, but I will make two quick points about fishing. First, of course I agree that the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs should resign, but they are, no doubt, taking their lead from David Mundell, who clearly does not want to resign, no matter what he has promised. I can say nothing other than that resigning would be the honourable thing for them to do.
I will make a key point about fishing. I represent a number of fishing communities in Argyll and Bute, whose interests are very different from the fishing interests that are claimed elsewhere. The worry among many fishermen in Argyll and Bute is about access to markets—for shellfish, for example. The proposals that Theresa May has put on the table will not provide frictionless trade; they will create circumstances in which market access will become ever more difficult. I am talking about people whose livelihoods are directly threatened by what the Prime Minister is proposing. Fishermen and fisherwomen in Scotland will look at the deal and realise that they will get nothing, zilch, nada from the Scottish Conservatives and the Conservatives south of the border.
The Government’s focus today is on arguing for a special deal, although the reality is that, following today’s developments, the deal that we are deliberating over is on the verge of collapse. The deal sets out differentiation for Northern Ireland. Is the cabinet secretary confident that all the proposals in “Scotland’s Place in Europe” on an open border with England—which, unlike Ireland, would be outside the EU—are still workable, given the detail of the draft proposal for Northern Ireland?
I am convinced that it would be easy to find a workable solution on those matters. They can be resolved. Differentiation is vitally important in terms of access, particularly to labour. The member will know that, in the region that she represents, there are many industries and sectors that are already experiencing a shortage of labour. That can only get worse. In addition, there are substantial difficulties with wage inflation, because workers cannot be found.
In those circumstances, the right deal for Scotland would be not to leave the EU, but if a deal can be found, it can be found to work for Northern Ireland and for Scotland.
In the draft deal, Northern Ireland, which voted to remain in the EU, is guaranteed a special deal to stay close to the EU. Where does the cabinet secretary think that that will leave Scotland, which, despite having had the highest remain vote of any UK nation, is being left high and dry, with our democratic voice ignored?
I simply go back to the account that I gave of my conversation with David Davis. There was a root-and-branch refusal to accept differentiation at the beginning at the process. When differentiation became essential for Northern Ireland, the view was taken—by the Prime Minister, I suspect, because she controls, or at least tries to control, everything—that no ground should be given to Scotland. We now know that it was said in the briefings that we understand took place with the EU that nothing must be drafted that would assist Scotland. The Prime Minister’s negative, dog-in-the-manger attitude has affected this. We continue to argue that another way is possible, and we will go on doing that.
The draft agreement appears to offer no guarantees on the future ability of the UK to be involved in European reference networks, which allow knowledge and expertise about rare diseases, and work on treatment and cures, to be shared across Europe. I appreciate that the cabinet secretary is wrestling with many issues, but will he offer his support for the Genetic Alliance campaign to protect involvement in ERNs and will he undertake to raise the matter with the UK Government, given that, for many people, this could literally be a matter of life or death?
The member makes a very good point. That is one of the issues that cause enormous concern, of which there are many. If Mr McDonald would like to write to me or to come and see me, perhaps with the organisation concerned, to give me that information—I have seen the outline information—I will undertake to take the matter forward.
I make the general point that there are whole areas in which, although issues might be referred to in passing, nothing is tied down. The process of tying down the relevant material and information will take years. The real problem that we now face if anything like the Prime Minister’s deal were to go forward is that we would face an implementation period that would have to be renewed and at any point in which there could be a collapse in the talks. We would be in that limbo for a long period of time. None of that would be necessary if we took a single market and customs union approach.
The member would have to remind me of the exact context of that remark. Unlike Mr Kerr, I do not scrape through previous speeches in an effort to quote people out of context.
Membership of the single market and the customs union is essential. We have said so from the beginning, and we have had the backing of the Scottish Conservatives—we have had the backing of Ruth Davidson and even of Adam Tomkins—on that. Therefore, in all those circumstances, I say today as I said last year and as I will continue to say: we need to be in the single market—that is it.
What has been announced is an agreement on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, but the long-term relationship is yet to be agreed. Indeed, the political declaration that details it is only seven pages long and provides no firm commitments about the future economic relationship. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the risk of a blind Brexit is now very real?
It is true that the blindfold aspect, which has been much discussed in recent months, has not diminished. There is an expectation that we might see more of the political declaration next week, but that is not legally binding, of course—the exit agreement would be legally binding, but the political declaration is aspirational. Then we will have the immensely detailed negotiations that will have to build on those to get to the final relationship, which will all take a great deal of time. We will know more when we see the full political declaration, but if this were to go ahead as Theresa May wants—that is highly unlikely, given where the House of Commons has today shown itself to be—there would be whole areas about which we know absolutely nothing and on which we would have no purchase or heft in negotiations.
Given the many references in the statement to special status for Northern Ireland, does the cabinet secretary agree that the focus should be on permanent membership of a customs union? That would protect the interests of all four nations and also protect the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. Importantly, it would allow the economies and interests of all the nations, including Northern Ireland, to be equally protected.
I agree with Pauline McNeill that an agreement for the UK to stay permanently in the customs union would be a big step forward. In my view, it would not give us enough in terms of the single market issues, but the single market can of course build on a customs union; if there was an intention for the UK to do that, that would be a step forward. However, we do not have anything like that at present.
I am preparing for all sorts of eventualities, but one has to be that, if this were to happen and Northern Ireland were in that position, Scotland would have to be in the same position, for two reasons. First, we would find it necessary and, secondly, it would be very difficult for us to compete with Northern Ireland. For example, we would not have a level playing field for European investment and European workers. I agree with the member that the best solution of all is for the whole of these islands to stay in the EU—that would be a much more sensible decision. Failing that, a decision to move from that should move as little as possible. Staying permanently in the customs union is not as bad as some of the things that Theresa May is proposing.
No mention of Scotland in the 585-page Brexit document and no briefing for the Scottish Government—what happened to the 2014 entreaty, “Lead us, don’t leave us”? Does the so-called respect agenda simply not exist?
Annabelle Ewing is correct; I made that point in my statement. It is now a complete sham. When she asked her question, I noticed that there were mutterings from members of the Scottish Conservative front bench. They do not want to confront the reality that the arguments that they put forward in 2014 have turned out to be completely and utterly untrue. In other words, Presiding Officer, they were a lie.
The Presiding Officer:
I urge caution in using such language in the chamber. That concludes our statement on the UK EU withdrawal.
Our next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-14749, in the name of Joe FitzPatrick, on physical activity, diet and healthy weight. I allowed the statement to move on, so I have to suggest to the members who will speak in the open debate that they trim their speeches from six to five minutes—that includes Brice Crawford, Stewart Stevenson, Emma Harper, John Mason, Liz Smith, Tom Mason and Iain Gray. I apologise that we have to do that, but there was a healthy political interest in the previous subject.