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This statement is being delivered just 23 days away from the possibility of a catastrophic no-deal Brexit.
Scottish ministers have always been clear that Scotland did not choose to leave the European Union and that it is wrong to take us out against our will, which is a view that is shared by many across the parliamentary chamber. We have also consistently done as much as possible to achieve the least damaging Brexit outcome. That work has been and continues to be made unnecessarily difficult by the approach of the United Kingdom Government. Our offer of compromise, made in December 2016 and repeated since, has been rejected out of hand.
The new proposal that the Prime Minister tabled last week is a step backwards from even those of the previous Conservative Government and appears designed to fail.
The UK Government has not put forward a realistic plan to secure a deal; the proposal is instead part of a political tactic to shift the blame on to Ireland and the European Union. The UK Government is making demands of the EU that it knows that the EU cannot accept.
Further, we now know that the UK Government wants a much more distant long-term relationship with the EU, which would mean a harder, more damaging Brexit, in which previous commitments to remain aligned with EU regulations would be abandoned. We find ourselves in a position in which, while the House of Commons has legislated to prevent a no-deal Brexit and the UK Government has told a court that it will send a letter to the European Union to request an extension, the UK Government has also indicated that it will go out of its way to thwart that process. In short, if the UK Government does not correct its current disastrous course, the UK is at significant risk of crashing out of the EU at the end of this month, and Scotland will be dragged—unwillingly—with it.
As a responsible Government, we must do what we can, here in Scotland, to prepare for the impact of exiting the EU without a deal or a transition period. That is why, today, the Scottish Government is publishing an overview of its assumptions and mitigation measures, and the analysis that underpins its approach to handling the impacts of a no-deal EU exit.
Any EU exit would have negative impacts on our economy and living standards, but the impacts of a no-deal exit without a transition period would be particularly severe and should not be underestimated. The document that the Scottish Government has published today is the product of an extensive programme of work across Government and with our partners. The First Minister chairs weekly meetings of the ministerial group on EU exit readiness, which oversees cross-Government activity to prepare and improve readiness for leaving the EU. The Scottish Government is working extremely closely with its resilience partners at the national level and locally across Scotland. That includes work with Police Scotland and other partners through the activity of the multi-agency co-ordination centre. We have also been working closely with local government and the national health service, as well as providing advice and support to businesses, individuals and the third sector. If the UK leaves without a deal, more than 200 legislative instruments will be needed to ensure that the Scottish statute book is ready, and the vast majority of those are now in place.
A no-deal EU exit at this time of year would present additional challenges. There is an increased risk that, as a country, we would also need to address concurrent resilience events such as severe weather, which are more common at this time of year than they might have been in March, when a no-deal Brexit was previously a possibility.
However, it is important to be clear that no amount of preparation could ever make us ready, in any real sense, for the needless and significant impact of a no-deal outcome. In February, the Scottish Government’s report entitled “No Deal Brexit—Economic Implications for Scotland” set out that such an exit would have the potential to generate a significant economic shock that could tip the Scottish economy into recession. If all other factors were to remain constant, the 5 per cent increase in prices that a no-deal EU exit might bring could push an additional 130,000 people into poverty. Even in a scenario under which a free trade agreement with the EU could be secured, our economy would be worse off than it would be under membership of the single market. Our modelling indicates that, under a free trade agreement, by 2030 Scotland’s gross domestic product would be around £9 billion lower than if we stayed in the EU, which is equivalent to £1,600 per person in Scotland.
The Scottish Government is putting in place a range of measures that will help to mitigate the worst economic effects of a no-deal exit. In the event of increased traffic flows between Northern Ireland and Scotland, we will seek to deal with potential disruption by repurposing the disused port at Stranraer to hold up to 300 heavy goods vehicles. We will support our food and drink sector by helping small and medium-sized enterprises to prepare for EU exit. We have plans in place to enable suppliers and public sector caterers to operate more flexibly, and we will continue to support food suppliers with their planning. We will provide online information and support on areas of concern to the public, such as the rights of EU citizens after exit. We will also make available £1.5 million in grants to help small and medium-sized enterprises to prepare for exit.
The Scottish Government has also been working with Scottish Enterprise to reinforce the Scotland-wide prepare for Brexit programme, which includes an information campaign, a guidance website and call centre, roadshows and grants. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is working with a number of enterprise agencies, in conjunction with the Scottish Government, on how to support businesses as they prepare.
Scottish communities are already under pressure. Last year, we invested more than £1.4 billion to support low-income households, £100 million of which was to mitigate the worst effects of UK Government welfare cuts. Tomorrow, we will publish an online tool and an accompanying report that highlight the areas in Scotland of greatest vulnerability to EU exit, whether with or without a deal. The analysis, which is the first of its kind in the UK, tracks various factors that make communities vulnerable to the impacts of exiting the European Union.
As a result of that analysis, we are putting in place a plan to establish a £7 million rapid poverty mitigation fund. In the event of a no-deal exit, the fund will be allocated to local authorities so that the people who are most in need can get support quickly and efficiently. That may be through the Scottish welfare fund, discretionary housing payments or particular help with food insecurity or fuel poverty.
We are also giving the farming community and the crofting community the certainty that they need to plan and to invest in their businesses. We have already—on Friday of last week—paid farmers and crofters £327 million of nationally funded basic payment scheme loans to support them if we leave the European Union on 31 October.
Marine Scotland will continue to enforce fisheries legislation to ensure stock sustainability, protect the marine environment and comply with our international obligations. Marine Scotland is working with its partner agencies and counterparts across the UK to prepare for the range of possible challenges following a no-deal Brexit. Specifically, it will work with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to protect environmental standards through continued application of current regulatory regimes.
We are also preparing for the possibility of disorder at sea that goes beyond fisheries offences, which might seriously threaten the safety of marine users. The UK Government is responsible for safety at sea, the enforcement of the UK’s borders and defence against any hostile or illegal activity at sea. Marine Scotland will be a responsible partner and will work closely with Police Scotland and UK Government agencies to provide monitoring and support as appropriate. We expect the UK Government to confirm its capacity to respond to any serious incident and to say how it will work with Scottish partners to deliver on that.
A significant proportion of medicines, medical devices and clinical consumables are imported from the European Union, and the risks surrounding that area were highlighted recently by the National Audit Office. We have set up a Scottish medicines shortage response group, which will review evidence and intelligence and recommend action on such issues, should they emerge.
In our universities and colleges, we have guaranteed the continuation of existing funding arrangements for eligible EU students who enter further or higher education in Scotland up until the 2020-21 academic year. We continue to discuss the impact of Brexit with universities, colleges, students and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, which published advice for universities and colleges last week on the actions that they should take.
Our partners in Police Scotland are preparing for the potential impacts of a no-deal exit. A flexible resource of 300 public order-trained officers has been operational since the beginning of August and is ready to deal with any Brexit-related civil contingency issues that may arise. That flexible public order resource is supported by around 60 officers who are based at the Brexit co-ordination centre in Bilston Glen. We have pledged £17 million to ensure that our police force has the capacity to respond to EU exit-related issues, particularly around ports and borders.
Local government is another vital partner in preparing for EU exit. Following discussion with COSLA on local authority requirements, the Scottish Government gave councils an additional £1.6 million for EU exit preparation. That is the same proportion of additional resource for no-deal preparations as has been made available to councils by the Conservative Government in England. As I stated, a further £7 million to support vulnerable people will be immediately available if a no-deal Brexit takes place on 31 October.
The document that we have published contains a significant number of further actions. I will not set them all out in my statement, but I urge all members to familiarise themselves with the relevant detail.
However, I must stress that much of the responsibility for tackling the issues that we identify in the overview that we have published today rests with the UK Government. That is not a political statement; it is a fact. The document includes information on the actions that we understand the UK Government intends to take. We are reliant on the UK Government, for example, to resolve any issues that are connected to goods crossing the Channel, where the flow of goods is expected to reduce to 40 to 60 per cent of the present flow.
We will continue to push the UK Government for further action, clarity and information in the event that we are to leave the EU without a deal in place. However, the level of engagement from the UK Government in that respect has been inadequate, and our planning has been made unnecessarily difficult by the UK Government’s failures to engage and share information. For example, we have not seen any update of the yellowhammer planning assumptions since we received on 7 August those dated 2 August.
Today, the UK Government is publishing a new report on no-deal readiness, which presents a complacent and entirely irresponsible attitude towards no deal. The paper conveys the additional requirements on businesses and long lists of tasks that businesses would have to undertake to continue to trade. It is no wonder that, yesterday, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs assessed the cost to business of additional red tape from no deal as £7.5 billion or that, today, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that no deal would
“push national debt to levels last seen in the 60s”.
There is a range of actions that we believe that the UK Government must take now in order to further mitigate impacts in Scotland and across the UK. It must put in place plans to ensure that the supplies of essential imports, such as medicines and medical devices, are not disrupted due to border issues, and it must also share the information that we need on delays and other issues at the border. The UK Government must confirm whether arrangements that avoid additional tariff or non-tariff barriers on exports of food and drink produce with priority countries will be in place. It must continue to share data on the continuity of supply of medical supplies and radioisotopes and make sure that regulatory frameworks are in place for their continued supply.
The UK Government must act to minimise as far as possible the worst effects of an economic shock. It must provide urgent clarification on future immigration policy, and it must be able to guarantee financial support to local economies and communities through continued or guaranteed European funding. It must take account of the differences in the separate criminal justice systems in any no-deal planning and tackle the loss of access to key EU law enforcement tools. It should take action now to support households to manage the increased cost of living and prevent more people from falling into poverty.
There are significant financial consequences of planning for and responding to a potential no deal. Of the £98.7 million consequentials from Brexit preparation funding that we have received from the UK Government, we have now committed £98.25 million before the outcome of EU exit is even determined.
In August, the UK Government announced further funding, of which Scotland will receive £40 million in consequentials in the spring. However, the costs of EU exit are expected to far exceed the consequentials that we have received from the UK Government. The finance secretary has requested an additional £52 million from the UK Government’s £1 billion operational contingency fund to help us prepare for a no-deal outcome. A portion of that is to support maritime safety and security, as it is clear to this Government that the resources of Marine Scotland, Police Scotland and the navy will not be sufficient should there be increased activity around fisheries or illegal activities. That is the minimum requirement for operational activity, but the real costs of a no-deal exit will massively outweigh that amount, and further funding will be required.
I have outlined the issues that we face, the range of measures that we are already taking and will take if they are required of us, and the resulting costs to the Scottish public purse. Despite the differences in view between us and the UK Government, we remain committed to ensuring that effective preparations are in place. However, there is only so much that any Government could do to tackle the worst impacts of a no-deal Brexit.
To even countenance no deal as a realistic prospect has always been illogical, and economically reckless. Now, under the Benn act—the European Union (Withdrawal) (No 2) Act 2019—it is also illegal. We therefore call on the UK Government to rule out the possibility of a no-deal exit, as is entirely within its gift to do. The UK Government should instead act to secure from the EU an extension to the article 50 negotiating period, to enable a general election. The Scottish Government would support a future vote on EU membership that includes an option to remain in the EU.
There is no doubt that a no-deal outcome would have profound consequences for jobs, investment and living standards across Scotland and the rest of the UK. The UK Government should do the responsible thing and rule it out now.
I thank the Deputy First Minister for advance sight of his statement. From the outset, it is important to state that although preparing for a no-deal outcome is of course right and proper, Conservative members remain committed to the idea that leaving the EU with a deal is the best way to avoid a no-deal exit. We continue to believe that securing a deal is best for protecting our economy, and that that is where our efforts should be concentrated.
I agree that any responsible Government should undertake no-deal preparations. Medical supplies will plainly be a matter of concern to many people in Scotland. The Deputy First Minister’s statement made reference to a shortage response group, which will recommend actions on medical supply issues. Can the Deputy First Minister give any further details of the work that the Scottish Government has already done to enable the NHS to manage shortages and ensure continuity of medical supplies?
It is not terribly credible for Donald Cameron to say that leaving with a deal remains the position of the Conservative Party, either north or south of the border, given that the Prime Minister has constructed a proposition that, to any reasonably minded person, looks like a proposition that is designed to fail, because it cannot be agreed by the European Union. The second reason for that not being credible is that Mr Cameron’s interim leader in Scotland has made it expressly clear that the Conservative Party in Scotland would countenance and accept the leaving of the European Union without a deal to enable Brexit to happen. That is a complete volte-face on the Conservative position in Scotland, which ignores the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland; the people of Scotland will not forget about that.
I turn to Mr Cameron’s substantive question about medical supplies. There has been extensive dialogue between the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and the national health service in Scotland with many of our suppliers in the medical supply community to enable the stockpiling of supplies to provide reassurance in the short term. There has also been dialogue with the UK Government on that issue. We anticipate that there are six weeks’ worth of supplies available as a consequence of stockpiling. However, the information that I have conveyed to Parliament today of the potential disruption to supply routes casts doubt on whether we would be able to sustain that position in the medium term.
The purpose of the shortage response group is to ensure that we have intelligence and information available to us at the earliest possible opportunity, so that we can take practical action in dialogue with suppliers and the UK Government to ensure that we have all the medical supplies in place that members of the public will want to be assured about. Mr Cameron is correct: the issue will cause unease to members of the public. That is why we want to avoid a no-deal Brexit at any cost.
I, too, thank the Deputy First Minister for early sight of the statement. The Deputy First Minister’s statement reaffirms the severe and unnecessary harms that would result from a no-deal Brexit. We can agree who would be held responsible for bringing about such grim consequences: the Tories, including those who sit in this chamber. It has been utterly disingenuous of Tory MPs and MSPs to tell us that they are seeking to agree a deal with the EU, when all that has been put forward are unworkable solutions.
The scale of planning that has been laid out by the Scottish Government today is welcome. However, it is based on a no-deal Brexit going ahead. Given that measures—namely, the Benn act—have been put in place by the UK Parliament to avoid no deal, what is the Scottish Government’s most up-to-date legal advice on the scope for no deal going ahead? Does the Deputy First Minister agree that the best way to avoid the disastrous outcomes of no deal is to bring the country together and get rid of the reckless Tory Government and Prime Minister in Westminster, and to allow the people to decide between a credible deal and remain?
I agree with Mr Rowley that a no-deal Brexit represents the inflicting of unnecessary harm on individuals in Scotland. I am aware of Mr Rowley’s long-standing—if not lifelong—commitment to tackling poverty in the communities that he represents, and it would be those selfsame people who would suffer most acutely as a consequence of a no-deal Brexit.
I agree with Mr Rowley that the measures that the United Kingdom Parliament has undertaken through the Benn act should provide the necessary legal protection. Mr Rowley will forgive me if I am not permitted to talk about matters concerning legal advice, but I will reflect on the legal issues that have been discussed recently.
In his judgment at the Court of Session yesterday, Lord Pentland made it very clear—I will summarise his judgment—that the Benn act provided a legal obligation to avoid a no-deal Brexit and that the Prime Minister had given assurances of the status that he needs to give to the court to assure it of his good faith in implementing that act. However, I read press reports suggesting that some other person speaking on behalf of the Prime Minster had suggested that there are ways to avoid doing that. We are dealing with matters that fundamentally question the integrity of the office of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister should act within the law and follow the Benn act. That would give us all a great deal more reassurance about the conduct that we could expect from the Prime Minister.
I agree that we should take every step to avoid a no-deal Brexit, and I have set out the measures that the Scottish Government is taking to respond to those circumstances. The UK Conservative Government is reckless and damaging. Mr Rowley and I may agree on the necessity of the public exercising a choice on these matters. However, when it comes to exercising that choice, I want the people of Scotland to be able to protect themselves from future reckless Tory Governments by deciding on their Government for themselves through Scotland being an independent country.
Does the Deputy First Minister agree that the hospitality and tourism industries are vital components of the Stirling area and Scotland’s economy? Like me, does he have local tourism-related businesses telling him that access to the EU is essential to ensure the sustainability of that industry? How does he think that at a no-deal chaotic Brexit might affect businesses such as the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum, which can have about 70 per cent of their workforce made up of EU citizens?
My heart sank when I saw at last week’s Conservative Party conference the joy that was expressed about the Home Secretary’s ending of free movement for individuals. I found that chilling and stomach churning. We need to encourage migration into our country. It makes us a better society and it boosts our population.
I agree with Mr Crawford that our tourism businesses rely substantially on the many people who have chosen to come to this country and make their future here. I, too, represent many of those people and many of the businesses in those sectors. Mr Crawford referred to the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum, which is one example of a business that has substantially prospered because of the contributions of individuals who have come from other countries to be based here. We need to counter the messages that the current uncertainty and chaos signal to some of those individuals, because we need them to feel welcome, to stay here and to make an economic contribution. Ideally, we need to get to a position in which we do not have to suffer the loss of free movement of individuals, because free movement is an economic, social and moral enhancement of our country.
I, too, thank the cabinet secretary for the advance copy of the statement. In a similar vein to the previous question, I will ask about EU citizens who are already here, whose lives have been subject to such uncertainty and anxiety and whose valuable contribution to our society has, frankly, been demeaned by the UK Government and those seeking to end the freedom of movement.
If a no-deal Brexit at the end of October can be prevented—as, of course, it should be—they will still face the prospect of future vulnerability, not least if a subsequent general election leads to the implementation of a Conservative manifesto whose central mission is to throw those people’s lives under a bus in a more brutal no-deal Brexit to come.
Will the cabinet secretary tell us what the Scottish Government is doing not only to give information to EU citizens living in Scotland but to identify their support needs? The impact of this current situation on their emotional and mental wellbeing is surely up there with anything that the brutal anti-immigrant hostile environment has inflicted on anyone.
Mr Harvie raises a serious issue, and I agree fundamentally with the concerns that he has expressed about how the individuals who have chosen to come to live in our country must be feeling in all of this uncertainty, and the impact on their wellbeing is an issue that is of great concern to the Scottish Government.
Mr Harvie will be aware that, in April, the Scottish Government launched our stay in Scotland campaign, which was expressly targeted at those individuals in order to encourage them to stay and to let them know that they are welcome here and that the Government welcomes them. I see that Mr Ruskell is sitting beside Mr Harvie, and I know that he and Mr Crawford have co-operated on events in the Stirling area to get that message out to EU migrants—I have undertaken meetings of that type in my constituency with my Westminster parliamentary colleague, Pete Wishart.
Ministers have also engaged in correspondence on the issue. For example, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has written to members of staff in the health and social care sector who are from other countries in order to reassure them of the importance that we attach to their presence. I hope that a combination of such measures will give a signal to those individuals that they are welcome.
People will still have to navigate their way through the settled-status scheme. One thing that concerns me is the relatively low take-up of that scheme in Scotland. Clearly, the current uncertainty will be having an effect on that, but I commit today to ensuring that the Government puts all energy and industry into ensuring that we encourage individuals to take part in that scheme.
Of course, fundamentally, the answer to Mr Harvie’s question is to have an immigration system that is appropriate to Scotland. The immigration system that has been talked about by the Home Secretary is, frankly, hopeless and counter-productive for Scotland, and we wanted to have nothing to do with it.
The cabinet secretary has responded to a question about medical supplies. Many anti-seizure medicines and insulin need to be refrigerated, have short shelf lives and are not made in the UK. I register my interest in the issue, as I have type 1 diabetes.
Can the cabinet secretary clarify that, as Scotland is forced to leave the European Union, the Scottish Government is doing everything that it can to support those people who are in need of vital life-saving medicines?
Medicines of the type that Emma Harper refers to are defined as category 1 goods, which will have priority in transportation across the short straits at Dover. In my statement, I said that the United Kingdom Government expects capacity to be at 40 per cent to 60 per cent of existing capacity. Obviously, in any situation in which capacity is diminished, greater priority will be given to essential medical supplies that are defined as category 1 goods. I hope that that provides some assurance to Emma Harper.
However, we should not dismiss that lack of transportation capacity, because there will be an effect on items that many individuals in our society believe to be essential, and, once a prioritisation exercise is undertaken, not all of the essential goods that people would expect to see in our country will be able to reach here. In that regard, however, I reassure the member that the work that we take forward under the medicine shortage analysis will identify any concerns about the issues that she has raised, and the Government will do all that it can to address those issues in dialogue with the UK Government and suppliers.
There is no Brexit deal that is better than the deal that we enjoy as members of the European Union.
No deal will be devastating to all the people, across the whole of the United Kingdom, and we must do all that we can to stop it.
Will the Deputy First Minister talk about the extent to which no-deal planning has led to the deprioritisation of other Government activity? How much Government effort is being consumed, and what areas of Government activity have suffered because of the preparations?
The Government is having to redeploy resources to take account of the planning that is required. A developing number of staff are being allocated to these priorities as we get closer to the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, and the finances and costs involved in that are recounted in the paper that I published today.
The Government is having to provide for a significant financial undertaking, and we are required to make constant decisions, daily, about what work can be taken forward to support these efforts. The situation is monitored on a regular basis by the permanent secretary; she takes operational decisions in that respect, to ensure that all the needs of Government can be met as a consequence of our taking all the steps that we can to deal with a no-deal Brexit.
The Presiding Officer:
Members on the front benches of all the parties have had a chance to ask an extended question. I ask the remaining nine members who want to ask a question to keep their questions concise—and I ask for answers to be kept similarly so.
Late last night, Scottish Government officials were given a copy of the report that the United Kingdom Government is publishing this afternoon, as I understand it.
We have taken part in a number of no-deal Brexit planning meetings with the United Kingdom Government—albeit that ministers have taken part in a minority of those meetings. I will take part in two such meetings this week and Mr Russell took part in one last week.
Our officials were given a copy of the UK Government’s paper late last night and ministers’ comments today reflect the benefit of our having had a brief amount of time to consider it.
Twelve days ago, I asked the First Minister about funding for councils to deal with Brexit. I said that there were Brexit consequentials of £93 million—at that time; the figure might have gone up. Councils have so far received £50,000 each, to employ Brexit co-ordinators, and are expecting about £7 million extra.
Councils in England have just been given all the money that they need—[
.] Councils in Scotland have to make business cases; has that approach changed, and if not, why not?
It is laughable for Graham Simpson to come to the chamber and say that local authorities in England have been given all the money that they need by a Tory Government. If he just has a look at what has happened to local authority services in England, he will understand the decimation that the UK Government has inflicted on local government in England.
We have given an allocation to local authorities. I announced today that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, particular programmes will be put in place to support local authority expenditure on mitigating poverty.
I have just come from a meeting with the leadership of COSLA—it was just before I came down to the Parliament today. We discussed Brexit preparations, and a fair summary is that the local authority leadership expressed its satisfaction with the partnership work that is going on to take forward the work. Of course, we remain in dialogue with local government about funding requirements, and I assure Mr Simpson that such discussions are undertaken regularly, by me, Mr Russell or Aileen Campbell, to take forward the issues.
We have allocated £17 million to Police Scotland to cover the additional arrangements to deal with the potential impact on civil contingency matters that I set out in my statement. The chief constable took operational decisions to establish the EU exit capacity in March. That was stood down, but has been stood back up again, and it is obviously part of the planning. The Scottish Government is meeting that cost, and we have to wrestle with that issue within the resources that are available to the Scottish Government as a whole.
First, we should not be facing a no-deal Brexit and it would be unlawful to leave without a deal on 31 October. Secondly, this week is challenge poverty week and the work that the Scottish Government is doing on no-deal preparedness should not be necessary. The £7 million for a poverty mitigation fund will be spread thin across Scotland. Will the fund be demand led, wilI it be allocated between local authorities and will it be capped at £7 million?
The first thing that I will say to Claire Baker is that it is nonsensical, when we all know the scale of poverty that exists in our society, to wander into a no-deal Brexit that all the analysis tells us will exacerbate poverty. If there is ever an example of recklessness and the harshness and lack of concern of a Conservative Government, this is it: to pile problems on those who are already facing poverty. I agree with Claire Baker entirely on that point.
On mitigation measures, I have been candid with Parliament today, as have my colleagues over a long time. It would be impossible for us to mitigate all the effects, but we will do all that we can. We have set out the provision of £7 million in the mitigation fund, which will be available should there be a no-deal Brexit. The decision making on the allocation and utilisation of those resources will be informed and driven by the analysis that I cited in my statement, which will identify the areas of the country that are most likely to be severely impacted by a no-deal Brexit.
We will keep under review all the sums of money that are relevant and available. The finance secretary is acutely aware of the issues that Claire Baker has raised and will want to do whatever he can within the resources that are available to him to respond to the scale of the challenge that we might face.
As a member who covers a rural region of Scotland, I am interested in how the Government is preparing rural communities—specifically, farmers and crofters—and the rural economy for Brexit, ahead of 31 October.
Some weeks ago, the Government decided that if we were to face the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, we would want to make sure that we equipped the farming and crofting community with as much protection and support as we possibly could in advance of that. Last Friday, we were very pleased that the first payments were made to that community, with more than £327 million arriving in the bank accounts of 13,450 farmers and crofters, and further payments will be made in the coming weeks. Those advance loans are the single biggest mitigation action that the Scottish Government can take to support farmers and crofters. I am very pleased that the rural economy secretary has been able to accelerate those payments, in dialogue with the finance secretary. They are the first such payments to be made in the United Kingdom and they are in the bank accounts of farmers and crofters to give them the opportunity to plan for what will be a very destabilising situation as a consequence of a no-deal Brexit.
A combination of measures have been put in place, which include the provision of information to individual businesses to enable them to understand and accommodate the changed environment that they will have to deal with. The document that has been published today by the United Kingdom Government goes into extensive detail on what is an enormous set of burdens to add to the business community. I am horrified by the document’s contents and the burdens that are being passed on to businesses, many of which are small and medium-sized enterprises. Much of the advice will have to be enhanced, given the scale of the burdens that are being added to business by the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.
Some of the support relates to direct financial interventions. I know that such interventions do not always sit comfortably with those on the Conservative benches, but this is an interventionist Government and we believe in acting where we can to support sustainable businesses. There will be businesses that, through no fault of their own, will be destabilised by a no-deal Brexit and this Government will want to support them as much as we possibly can. We will be engaged in dialogue with our local authority partners about how best to do that in different localities around the country.
The shellfish sector accounts for approximately 90 per cent of the total value of landings in the Western Isles. Shellfish exporters face challenging circumstances as it is in delivering via ferry and road to their primary export markets in France and Spain and ensuring that the shellfish stay alive on the way. Does the cabinet secretary have any information regarding contingency plans that might have been put in place by the UK Government for the shellfish sector? What representations has the Scottish Government made to the UK Government on that point?
One of our specific priorities has been to try to secure for the shellfish sector and, indeed, the fisheries sector in general much greater clarity and assurance about the ability to get product to market as timeously as possible. We have been raising that issue with the United Kingdom Government for some time. We have not got to a specific point of agreement, but I am more hopeful that we can get to a position whereby the UK Government understands at last the importance of giving priority to ensuring that shellfish produce can get to market as quickly as possible. We will obviously keep the sector informed of that dialogue as it continues, but I assure Dr Allan that the Scottish Government is, in all its representations to the UK Government, trying to secure that type of access to the market and transportation arrangements that will enable his constituents who do valuable and dangerous work to be able to reap the rewards of the activity in which they are involved.