Let us never forget that, on 23 June 2016, Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. Every unpalatable consequence that arises from Brexit does so, therefore, as a result of the United Kingdom Government defying and denying that democratic decision. Leaving the EU—just 100 days from tomorrow—with no deal in place would be the worst such consequence imaginable.
A no-deal exit from the EU would have severe impacts on Scotland and result in irreparable damage to our economy, our people and our society.
We know that and are compelled to say so. Our neighbours, like Ireland, know that and have been saying so for a long time. Now the entire EU27 knows that and will be saying so tomorrow. Even the UK Government knows that to be true, as it acknowledged at its Cabinet meeting today.
W hat a tragedy—what a scandal—it is that Tory members of this Parliament will still not condemn their reckless colleagues who are, carelessly or willingly, taking their fellow citizens to the brink of disaster. They will neither join the rest of us in finding a sensible way to honour Scotland’s choice and avoid a no-deal
Brexit, nor work with us to urge the Prime Minister to rule that out by revoking, or at least by suspending, article 50. Scotland deserves and needs better than the Prime Minister’s blindfold EU exit or a no deal, as both would cause untold chaos.
Last week, I made it clear in this chamber that the Scottish Government believes that it is time to put the choice about our future back to the people in a second referendum. That is more urgent than ever now. It is essential that the UK Parliament takes control of the process, demonstrates that there is a majority for a people’s vote and starts work on the legislation that will deliver another referendum. However, this Scottish Government, as a responsible Government, must also prepare the nation and the people, in so far as it can, for any eventuality, including that of a no deal.
Although this Government will do everything that we can to prepare and help, we must not let anyone believe that we can do everything. That would be impossible for any Government, anywhere. We will, however, work with all those who have a similar task, including the UK Government, and tomorrow I will meet UK ministers to discuss these matters further.
I will outline the Scottish Government’s overall approach. Over the past few months, I have met each of my Cabinet colleagues to discuss their expectations and concerns about a no-deal scenario. That process was underpinned by detailed work across Government to identify the risks and potential impacts of EU exit, and the mitigating actions that we and others could take, across a wide range of issues.
Through those processes, we have considered, in detail, the legislative, organisational and financial issues arising out of a possible no deal. Furthermore, weekly meetings of SGoRR—the Scottish Government resilience room—have been held, convened by the Deputy First Minister. The meetings have input from other cabinet secretaries, including those responsible for health, justice, transport, rural and finance issues, as well as their officials, other organisations such as Transport Scotland, Food Standards Scotland and Marine Scotland, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, civil contingencies responders and, of course, Police Scotland. The structure is supported by a rapid response group of officials, which will grow as need requires.
Staffing is a key issue. Across the Scottish Government, directorates are refocusing on detailed preparations for no deal, realigning staff towards that work where required. We are mobilising the Scottish Government and its associated agencies and public bodies, aligning our existing financial and staff resources towards those areas with specific no-deal impacts and ensuring that we have the right people, in the right places, with the right skills to respond quickly and effectively.
Given the wide range of problems that a no-deal exit would undoubtedly bring, members will understand that our plans and preparations are wide ranging, too. There are a number of key areas of focus. It is well recognised that, for example, the new customs arrangements and regulatory checks that no deal would involve would severely disrupt the flow of goods at UK borders, particularly Dover, which handles many of our key goods, such as food and medicines.
A no-deal exit would jeopardise Scotland’s food security, as well as seriously harming the ability of Scottish food and drink producers to export to the EU their goods, such as our beef and lamb, which would face significant tariffs.
Half of all the food that the UK consumes is imported. Of the food that is imported, about 70 per cent comes from the EU. The availability and price of food and drink are expected to be significantly affected, with a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable in our society. Consequently, the Scottish Government, including Transport Scotland, is working with distributors, purchasers, suppliers, transport providers, ports and Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd to fully assess the impact and identify what can be done to mitigate disruption. Our aim is to secure the best flow of essential goods into Scotland by using existing routes or developing new ones.
In health and social care, no deal would risk the supply of medicines and medical devices. It would have a negative impact on our health and social care workforce, on-going clinical trials, access to future EU funding and the rights of Scottish citizens to access state-provided healthcare across the EU.
Our attempts to ensure continuing supplies of medicines are being severely hampered by the UK Government’s refusal to provide us with critical information about which medicines might be subject to supply problems. It is imperative for the UK Government to provide that information now. Just two hours ago, after sustained pressure from this Government, the UK Government indicated that it would share medicines data, but we still await the information. In addition, work on the stockpiling of medical devices and clinical consumables in Scotland is on-going and will have financial implications for us, which could necessitate bringing forward funding from next year.
If there was a no-deal exit, we would lose access to many of the security and law enforcement co-operation measures that Police Scotland and the Crown Office use daily to keep people safe. We would lose membership of Europol and use of the European arrest warrant. We would also lose access to vital information-sharing arrangements. That would represent a significant downgrading of our policing and security capability when cross-border crime and security threats are increasing. Police Scotland is considering what actions could be taken to substitute for those arrangements and is organising itself to be prepared for civil contingencies emergencies.
On fishing, members will know that, unlike the UK as a whole, Scotland is a net exporter of seafood—EU member states accounted for 77 per cent of Scottish overseas seafood exports in 2017. Any delays that were experienced at the vital Dover to Calais and Eurotunnel corridor would have a catastrophic impact on our seafood industry and, in turn, on our remote rural and coastal communities, which rely wholly or partly on seafood sectors. I feel that keenly, given my constituency interests.
The economic effects of no deal—especially of new tariff and non-tariff barriers—and the disruption to trade with the EU would be felt severely and immediately. We are actively investigating what routes might be available to ensure that such goods get to market, although the lack of inspection staff and the reversion of the UK to third-country status might well be insuperable in the short term. So much for the UK Government—and Conservative MSPs—being concerned for fishing communities.
Many other issues are on the list of risks and issues, which is being regularly updated, and work is being done on all of them. In the time that is available to me, I will emphasise four overarching issues that need to be noted.
First, one of the biggest difficulties that faces us is the problem of getting information from the UK Government. There are signs that that is improving slowly in some areas, but it is essential for the UK Government to see the provision of such information and the sharing of plans—along with joint working—as a process that requires the close involvement of, and respect for the institutions of, the devolved Administrations. I will stress that again in London tomorrow.
Secondly, we continue to press the UK Government to assess fully the financial implications of leaving the EU. We have been clear that Scotland’s public finances must not suffer detriment. In the event of no deal, an urgent transfer of funds would be required from the UK Government to allow the Scottish Government to meet the obligations that it would have to enter into. Money is already being spent, and the financial implications of EU exit and its associated preparation activity have been raised on a number of occasions by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work with the chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Thirdly, the UK Government’s nebulous approach to decision making on Brexit has meant that it is impossible to know when plans might need to go into effect. The Scottish Cabinet agreed this morning, building on existing planning and activity, to further accelerate work to mitigate the potential impacts of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. We are undertaking necessary preparations to enable us to operate our arrangements at very short notice. I assure the chamber that I will keep it informed and I make an offer to the party leaders and Brexit spokespeople to ensure that they are briefed whenever new developments make activating our plans more likely.
Finally, it is vital that the people of Scotland get a clear, consistent message about the work that is being done. We are using all the normal communication channels to send that message and we will step up that public information activity if and when we are required to put those plans into operation.
It is essential that there is a single, clear, co-ordinating structure to take forward the plans and to measure them against the reality of what is taking place. Therefore, under the leadership of the Deputy First Minister, the SGoRR mechanism is now in operation and will report to the First Minister.
A no-deal, cliff-edge exit is not yet inevitable. Indeed, leaving the EU is not yet inevitable. However, as a responsible Government, we cannot wait any longer. The consequences and risks are too pressing and too severe. Given the current situation, it is incumbent on us to step up our existing planning for a no-deal outcome in the ways that I have just outlined.
The evidence is clear that a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster, and I again call on the Tories to work with us to rule it out. The challenges are not of our making, but measuring up to them is something that we can and must do.
The cabinet secretary has just spent 10 minutes unpicking his own argument.
He opposes a no-deal Brexit. So do I. He considers that all necessary steps should be taken to avoid a no-deal Brexit. So do I. However, the truth is that there is no need at all to risk a no-deal Brexit, for the simple reason—it is simple enough for even the cabinet secretary to understand—that there is a deal on the table. There is a concluded negotiated withdrawal agreement. [
.] It is a withdrawal agreement that I support, but which Scottish National Party members of Parliament are set to vote down.
It is sad to see the state to which Professor Tomkins has come. This is a very serious situation that needs to be treated with gravity. It is a situation that is not the making of this Parliament, of the people of Scotland or of any of the parties here—except Professor Tomkins’s party, which has created the problem. Yet, the only response to the situation that we get from the Tories is that they get up to blame somebody else. [
I hope that people who are listening to the debate will hear that the response to this very grave and serious situation from the Tory front-bench members is that they cackle.
“Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools.”
That is a quotation from the Bible, Presiding Officer, in case you were going to upbraid me for saying it.
I say to Professor Tomkins that the UK Cabinet spent this entire morning talking about a no-deal outcome, and is now sending letters to 146,000 businesses. I understand that the Brexit secretary was talking today about the disaster that could take place. [
.] However, that does not matter, because for Professor Tomkins—who is still shouting into the air—it is always because of something other than the Tories. The Tories have got us into this mess, but it is clear that they cannot get us out of it.
It is always telling to observe Mr Tomkins’s body language on such occasions. I know that “Les Misérables” will be shown on television over the holidays; however, we need only look at the Tory front bench to see les misérables.
Mr Tomkins does not believe a single word that he said, and has not believed a single word of what he has said all the way through this sham. The Tories are taking Britain to the brink in a game of chance that risks everything in order that they can try to save the incompetent and useless Tory Government. In two years, they have created huge uncertainty for our economy, for businesses and for those businesses’ employees. Labour has consistently warned against a no-deal outcome, but it is now clear that Tory incompetence is pushing us towards that.
If Tory MPs will act in the interests of the country, not in the interests of the Conservative Party, and work to end this madness, Labour stands ready to negotiate with a customs union plan that would solve the backstop issue, which is the main problem—although it is far from being the only problem.
The cabinet secretary’s statement tells us that there are huge problems in major areas of the economy and our society: at our borders, in food security, in transport systems, in health and social care, medicine supplies, policing and law enforcement, fishing, exporting and much, much more. That catastrophe is taking us to the edge; therefore, it is a dereliction of duty by Scottish Tory members of the UK Parliament and MSPs to take a vow of silence.
I am going to ask a question.
The Tory party’s hatred of the EU clearly outstrips its concern for business, employees and communities. There is still time to change. This cannot be a choice between May’s deal and no deal, because that is no choice whatsoever.
Will the cabinet secretary publish details of the work that is being done in each Scottish Government directorate? Can he advise how many ministers have met with their UK counterparts, and how many times, to discuss no-deal planning specifically? Can he advise us of the budget that has been allocated and the staffing resource that has been identified to prepare for such a scenario? The Scottish Government is right to plan for no deal—indeed, it must—but we need more detail.
I concur with Neil Findlay that the position of the Scottish Tories on the matter is absolutely appalling and is a dereliction of duty, and that they continue to behave in a way that means that no person could take them seriously.
I will address Neil Findlay’s questions. I am reluctant to burden Government staff with more publications, but I am happy to give him access to any information that I can, and will sit down and talk to him about how we can do so.
On his second question about communication, I am happy to discover how many such communications there have been. I know that, for example, Michael Matheson was in touch with his counterpart just last week to press for more information. I think that many of my colleagues are doing likewise. I will try to get the information that the member has requested.
It is important to recognise that we are in a fast-moving situation that is creating a great deal of pressure for staff. On the actual cost of staff, I noticed that figures were published last week on the number of full-time equivalent staff who are now engaged in the work. I will get those figures to Neil Findlay, if he has not yet seen them. There is a difficulty in fully accessing details of how much money is being spent, simply because the situation is so fast moving, but we will make sure that information is provided.
I absolutely accept what the cabinet secretary said: not only are we being taken to the brink of disaster, but we are being taken there by the most incompetent Government in modern history. That is not the Scottish Government’s doing, but sometimes we—especially Governments—must play the hand that we are dealt.
On that basis, and in the light of the cabinet secretary’s response to Neil Findlay, what information will the Scottish Government put in the public domain—compared with the 105 technical notices that the UK Government has put in the public domain—other than information with which it will brief MSPs?
Each part of the Scottish Government is dealing directly with stakeholders on issues. That we are able to do so is one of the benefits of having a smaller Government. A great deal of dialogue is going on. I know that all members would like more material to be published and put before them. We are doing the best we can with the resources that we have, in order to keep people updated. When there are requests—such as that which was made by Mr Findlay, which has been echoed by Mr Greer—for further information, I will endeavour to have it sent by officials.
We are trying to cope with a situation in which we move step by step to the stage at which, if we have to put our plans into operation, we will be able to so virtually immediately. That is my main focus; I am sure that members will accept that it is best that that is my main focus at this stage, and that I am not distracted from it.
I cannot believe that we are having discussions of this nature. No responsible Government would ever allow this situation to happen. That the situation is real shows how irresponsible the Conservative Government has become. Is the cabinet secretary as frustrated as I am by the inability of the UK Government and the loyal Opposition to lead this country or to lead the UK Parliament? If the UK Parliament cannot decide the future on Brexit, surely it is up to the people. How can we make the people’s vote happen?
I agree with Mr Rennie that the key issue is how the people can be given the opportunity to give their verdict—not on what happened two and a half years ago, but on what has happened over the past two and a half years, and on the situation that we are now in, and to make an informed choice. If it were to be put to the test in the House of Commons, I believe that there could be a majority in favour of a people’s vote.
There is enormous danger in allowing the matter, whether actively or passively, to continue to run on into the third week of January, while the potential to be able to take corrective action diminishes day by day. I am happy to work with Willie Rennie—and to work with anybody—to find a way to force the issue. I hope that there might be a change of heart on that right across the opposition parties, and that people will say that we need to get that done.
There are three possibilities left on the table. One is no deal. It is wise that we prepare for that, although it is a nightmarish prospect. I have spent a great deal of time on that over the past several months, and I do not sleep easy at night when I consider it. The second is the Theresa May deal, which is an appalling deal that would be very damaging to Scotland—in particular, in respect of freedom of movement. One can see today indications from the UK Government that their white paper on migration, which has been delayed for 18 months, will be even worse when it comes out, which is frightening indeed. The third possibility is the people’s vote. It is the people’s vote that all sensible people should settle on, so we should get on and do it.
The Scottish Council for Development and Industry told the Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee that a no deal
“would create substantial delays for imports and exports at airports and ports” with perishable food and drink particularly at risk. It also said:
“Scottish pharmaceutical, chemical and related products would no longer be accredited for sale in the EU. The attractiveness of Scotland as a leading destination for inward investment would be severely damaged. The supply of labour and skills would decrease in an already tight labour market”, which would cause prices to rise for consumers.
I have made it clear that it is not only difficult but impossible to mitigate all the effects. The member raises a sector that is of enormous importance in Scotland—the pharmaceutical sector. Leaving the European Medicines Agency has meant that the agency has moved to Amsterdam. That is bad enough. In the event of no deal, there would be no arrangement in place.
Members may remember that that was a key issue during the referendum. Michael Gove in particular stampeded round the country telling people that having our own medicines agency would accelerate the production of new drugs. That was utterly untrue. What has happened is that, first, drugs cannot be tested for the EMA outside the EU, so we have lost the jobs, potential jobs and part of an industry. The UK will become a small part—about 3 per cent—of the global pharmaceutical market. As a result, work will be done to satisfy the EU regulations and the USA regulations before the UK is even touched. What was a promise and an assertion turns out to be completely hollow and it is costing us all dear.
It is still not possible for Murdo Fraser to rise to the occasion. We are here looking at the serious consequences of a no deal. Murdo Fraser thinks that he is in a school debating contest. He would not win a school debating contest, but he thinks that he is in one and that by asking a clever question—it is not a particularly clever question—he can in some way deflect the attention not just of the Parliament but of the Scottish people from the massive dereliction of duty that the Scottish Tories are guilty of and the massive betrayal of the people of Scotland. That we have come to this position is a result of such childish pathetic behaviour. Murdo Fraser does not deserve to be treated as a serious politician. Fortunately, Scotland knows that he is not.
We may have the opportunity to assess that tomorrow when the joint ministerial committee meeting takes place. However, the Prime Minister has shown herself incapable of listening to anybody but herself. It is extraordinary.
The first mistake was that any politician worth their salt, realising that there were competing interests—including the fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland had voted against—would have got the key players in the room and said,“How can we work together to find a way through this? How can we construct something that all of us will get something out of?” There has been no sign of that approach—quite the reverse. She started off by saying “Brexit means Brexit”, and she is still saying it. I have no confidence that she is listening, but we will go on talking because it is essential that we speak up for the people of Scotland.
When Derek Mackay published the Government’s draft budget last week, he indicated that it would have to be revisited in the circumstances of a no-deal Brexit. That budget contains £390 million of cuts to local councils; does the Government’s assessment of a no-deal Brexit mean further cuts to local councils, which would have dire consequences for local communities?
As I have indicated, w e are working through the SGoRR mechanism in partnership with COSLA. It is a member and has been invited to take part in the SGoRR mechanism so that we will come to a common mind about what requires to be done. I will not enter into debate about local authority figures; I simply say that I noticed this morning, in the figures that have been issued, that Argyll and Bute had a £9 million increase, which is very welcome—speaking as the member for Argyll and Bute.
It is important that COSLA’s input is listened to; it will be listened to.
The cabinet secretary has touched on communications, or the lack thereof, from the UK Government. What detail has he, or ministerial colleagues, had with regard to funding for Brexit planning, not least the recently announced £2 billion for a no-deal Brexit? Has any information been provided on how much of that Scotland is set to receive?
I noticed at lunch time today that the chancellor was apparently upbraiding his colleagues for not having spent the £1.5 billion that he has already allocated to no-deal Brexit planning. We have not had anything like a proportionate share of that money. We continue to argue the case for the sums that we require to have. We are expending money; I indicated in my statement that that process has started. Derek Mackay is making representations to the chancellor and to the chief secretary and will continue to do so, but it is vital that they recognise that we will require what we will require to do that job. We will go on trying to get it.
Let us never forget that, on 18 September 2014, Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the United Kingdom; this Government seems to have forgotten that throughout this narrative. The EU has publicly stated [
.]—if I may—that substantive changes to the deal that has already been agreed between the EU27 and the UK are simply not on the table, and so say Messrs Tusk, Juncker, Varadkar, Macron and so on. On what evidence does Michael Russell base his view that anyone else will get a different or better deal?
The answer to the second point is very simple. It has been crystal clear through this entire process that what people get out is a product of what they put in. If they set a series of impossible red lines [
.]—members do not wish to listen to this, but I will say it because it is really important and factually based—they will get the outcomes of those red lines.
I draw Jamie Greene’s attention to a slide that was produced by the Barnier task force and has been reproduced twice in Scottish Government publications, which illustrates the point; I am surprised that he has not seen it. The slide goes through various relationships with the EU, such as the European Economic Area, a trade treaty and the Ukraine association agreement, and indicates in steps how the red lines produce the outcomes. If the red lines—the input—change, the outcomes change. For example, the present red lines include ending freedom of movement, apparently proudly; I do not understand for the life of me how anybody could be proud of that, but that is the Tory position. If ending freedom of movement is a red line, the UK cannot be in the EEA because that arrangement includes the four freedoms. That red line produces an outcome. If we remove that red line, we get a different outcome. That is simple. In fact, it is EU negotiations 101. I am surprised that Jamie Greene has not read that and seen the chart.
Thanks to Mr Greer and his colleagues, it is absolutely clear that article 50 can be revoked by the UK or an application can be made for article 50 to be extended. That is the right and sensible thing to do.
It is fairly clear that article 50 would be extended if the reason for that were either to hold a general election or to have a people’s vote. In those circumstances, an extension could take place; that option is on the table.
Given the verdict of the European Court of Justice, it would be possible for the Government to revoke article 50, to have an election or vote and then resubmit the article 50 letter. That is what the judgment says. I hope that the UK Government would do a bit of work on that letter first, because it did not do any work on the first version.
In those circumstances, it would be perfectly possible to say, “Let us stop this now.” We would then revert to the existing terms, which would be tremendously welcome throughout the country.
Which ports and routes are the Scottish Government considering as alternatives to Dover? What boats does the Government hope to procure, given that it cannot find boats to fulfil its own routes and services? Will the cabinet secretary publish the Government’s impact assessments so that the agriculture and fishing industries can prepare?
Grangemouth and Rosyth are the obvious ports. Transport Scotland is considering those carefully to assess whether there is additional capacity. The member’s assessment in comparison with ferry vessels is not accurate. It may not be possible to source an alternative ferry for the Western Isles—even I have requested that—but the requirement is for a completely different type of vessel. The vessels in question are much more common and are available. That will certainly be considered.
A great deal of work is being done. I will not start publishing a great deal of material on that, because it is far more important that the work gets done. I have made it clear that I am open to answering questions, giving information and doing what we can to ensure that people understand what is taking place. However, at this stage, publishing more material on the issue would not be helpful to anyone.
Given that Scotland voted to remain in the EU, but we are being dragged out against our democratic wishes, does the Scottish Government agree that the resources that the Scottish Government is investing would be better spent preparing Scotland for the future, rather than mitigating the damage that will be inflicted by a hard Tory Brexit?
One of the many great tragedies in this appalling situation is the time, effort and resource that are being absorbed by the whole Brexit process. Planning for a no-deal situation takes up a great deal of that. I have spent a lot of my time—as have ministers and officials—working on that and will continue to do so.
The whole thing is like a black hole that is sucking in energy and resource at a time when they could be far better expended elsewhere. It will be the judgment of history on the Conservatives that they frittered away so much on something that was so pointless.
Everywhere we turn, we see that Westminster is gripped by inertia—whether that is the inertia of Theresa May in postponing the meaningful vote, or of Her Majesty’s Opposition in refusing to use the supremacy of Parliament through a vote of no confidence in the Government. While we defer that decision, uncertainty reigns and planning for a no-deal Brexit has to happen, because until we have that meaningful vote, we cannot begin to game out the other scenarios, including a people’s vote.
Does the cabinet secretary agree that we must force the Government to have the meaningful vote before Christmas, even if that means cancelling Christmas for our Westminster colleagues?
I am sure that the member would not encourage me to play Scrooge—it would be very unlike me and I am not going to do it. It would be far better to have the meaningful vote this week or possibly on Monday, which is Christmas eve. It would be far better if we were able to get to the stage of bringing the issue of a people’s vote to the House of Commons as early as possible in the new year. I agree with him on that point.
I agree with the member on something else: I am heartened to discover that Alex Cole-Hamilton now shares my despair and disdain for Westminster—I welcome him to the nationalist club.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The cabinet secretary responded helpfully to two members that he will give them information about how much the Government has spent on preparations for a no-deal Brexit, and what proportion of that is coming from the UK Government. Would it not be more appropriate for the cabinet secretary to lay that information in the Scottish Parliament information centre for all members of the Scottish Parliament to see?