I understand and even sympathise with many of the issues that Mike Russell has raised in his motion. We will also, of course, support the Green and Liberal Democrat amendments. This is an incredibly uncertain time for business and our economy. Brexit is not something that I voted for, but, whatever one’s view of it, any proposals that have an effect on how business, industry and the devolved nations operate must be fully consulted on and scrutinised.
I echo many of the concerns that have been raised by my Labour colleagues in the Scottish Parliament and at Westminster and by the Welsh Labour Government. The UK Government’s white paper has a significant number of flaws in both its content and the manner in which it has been consulted on. Along with colleagues in the Finance and Constitution Committee, I have expressed regret that the proposals in the white paper were published during the Scottish Parliament’s recess and that, even more frustratingly, only four weeks were allowed for consultation. Indeed, the members of the Welsh Parliament’s Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee described the timeframe as “wholly inadequate”. I suspect that they were being polite.
It is completely unjustifiable to allow such little time for consultation on legislation that has such momentous repercussions. It was also very unhelpful and disappointing that Alok Sharma declined the committee’s invitation to provide evidence. His comments would have helped to inform our response to the consultation. On the morning that the committee was taking evidence on the white paper, he told us that he could not come. It would have been helpful for us to have been able to explore the policy objectives that underpin the proposals with the minister. I am sure that the views that we submitted to the consultation would have benefited from a reflection on the minister’s comments, had he taken the time to meet us. Unfortunately, no such opportunity was given to us.
For the proposal to progress further, we need better, more transparent consultation. We need better involvement. Without it, the market will not function effectively in support of the four UK nations, which is ultimately what we all desire. We need co-operation and consensus rather than a high-handed, take-it-or-leave-it approach. I agree with the UK Government that the solution to the challenge of a UK internal market is needed. However, the solution must be arrived at with the full consideration and input of the devolved nations of the UK. I have repeatedly stressed the need for full co-operation between Scotland and the UK on a range of different things, in general terms. I much prefer consensus to stand-offs, which do not help anybody.
In particular, we need co-operation between all four nations on the decision-making process to arrive at agreed frameworks for the internal market. We do not know what mechanisms will be put in place to enable and promote that cross-Administration co-operation, and it is essential that we know exactly how the legislative bodies of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England work together so that we can be sure that devolved powers are not undermined.
I commend the suggestions of my Welsh colleagues that any plans for a UK internal market post-Brexit must include an independent oversight framework and a dispute resolution mechanism. However, once again, I do not see any sign of those suggestions manifesting themselves. That creates further uncertainty in a situation in which certainty and confidence are a must. Having a proper UK-wide and independent dispute resolution mechanism would go a long way to providing the protection and reassurance needed by devolved Administrations that is currently missing from the white paper.
At a UK level and in Scotland, the Labour Party has consistently called for the devolved nations to be protected in any legislative change to the internal market. We created the Scottish Parliament and we respect and support the devolved Administrations and the devolved settlement. It is therefore paramount that the standards in any post-Brexit settlement are no lower than the current standards enjoyed by devolved nations under EU membership. Administrations should be able to move beyond such standards but should not be allowed to go below them.
Similarly, current state aid rules must be mirrored in any new legislation. Devolved nations have to be able to provide support to industries where it is deemed necessary. At a UK level and in Scotland, we have called for better consultation and a UK-wide dispute resolution mechanism—something akin to a European Court of Justice. Whatever the solution, we need to arrive at it together, and plans for the current formulation in the white paper need to be withdrawn. Where I depart from Mike Russell’s view is that I think we need plans to legislate for the future but the key issue is what is in those plans, and the white paper in its current form is not fit for purpose.
A number of issues need to be addressed that possibly would have been addressed had the Government allowed for a proper period of consultation and dialogue. Above all, the interests of the devolved nations must be respected, but that is not currently the case. The UK Conservative Government needs to respect the devolved settlement across all four nations if it wishes to succeed in creating the conditions for an effective and robust internal market.