United Kingdom Internal Market

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 18th August 2020.

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Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

There is no one more nationalist than the British nationalists on the Tory seats over to my left.

It is clear that few people are being taken in by Tory assertions and assurances. Folk are not so daft—they have long memories and remember that the Tories fought tooth and nail against the very existence of this Parliament. Few people believe that the Tories have any interest other than in tightening London’s grip, so the members who are sitting opposite me should at least have the honesty and decency to admit their intention.

A coalition of 40 Scottish environment charities has warned that the UK Government plans to create a post-Brexit UK internal market that could end up causing significant harm to Scotland’s wildlife, landscape and food standards, given that it is aimed both at removing regulation and at forcing all four nations of the UK to adopt the same standards, irrespective of each nation’s environmental context or needs.

Scotland will have to accept the lowest common denominator, especially when countries that are negotiating bilateral trade deals with the UK are demanding lower standards, thereby seriously undermining efforts to combat climate change and biodiversity decline. As Charles Dundas, who is the chair of Scottish Environment LINK, said last week:

“Scotland’s world-renowned natural environment is central to all our lives, and we must not allow arrangements for a UK internal market to put it in jeopardy by dragging standards down.”

As we have already heard, last Friday, NFU Scotland expressed its concern in a press release that was headed, “White paper proposal presents risks to vital internal UK markets”. It is worth restating that point. The press release went on to say:

“It is the clear view of NFU Scotland, and the other faming unions of the UK, that the proposals pose a significant threat to the development of Common Frameworks and to devolution. The Union stresses the need for agricultural support policies to diverge where necessary to reflect different needs and objectives in different parts of the UK”.

NFU Scotland also said that

“The proposal on ‘mutual recognition’ contained in the paper raises the potential for Common Frameworks to be rendered meaningless” and went on to say that the

UK Internal Market proposals put forward limit the devolved administrations’ ability to act if any standards were lowered and give the UK Government a final say in areas of devolved policy, such as agriculture, the environment or animal health and welfare.”

The internal market consultation took place over a period of only four weeks in the midst of summer. We have already heard that UK minister Alok Sharma contemptuously refused to participate in the inquiry during the devolved Parliaments’ and Assembly’s recess, which tells us that there was no real desire to secure well-considered views. After all, the opinion of Scotland’s Parliament will not actually be taken into consideration by the UK Tory Government, will it?

The impact of the proposed internal market on Scotland’s trade, economy, businesses, employment and people would be momentous. Although we are getting used to it, it is shocking once again to see the Sewel convention being violated.

The Tory talk of “a power surge” is deliberately misleading. The white paper makes it clear that state aid will be removed from this Parliament and reserved to the UK. It also clearly identifies minimum unit pricing, the smoking ban, animal health and welfare, environmental standards including on recycling targets and deposit return schemes, food safety procurement and other devolved policy areas as being at risk from the proposals.

However, Dean Lockhart is easily pleased: he talked about a mass of “new” powers that are already devolved. I will give a couple of examples of that. Council tax benefit powers were devolved, but with only 90 per cent of the budget having been devolved, which costs this Parliament £22 million and local government £17 million each year. Powers on employability were devolved, but only after a 93 per cent cut in the budget. Tory MSPs might be happy with those costly crumbs from the table, but we have higher ambitions for Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament is, largely, being ignored. A few points—six, to be precise—will be put before committees to be scrutinised. I know that we will do that to the best of our ability, despite the general feeling—among everyone but the Tories—that although we take Scottish Parliament deliberation seriously, the Tories, as they prove time and again, do not.

Hazardous substances planning will come to the Local Government and Communities Committee, on which I serve. It has become all too clear recently how devastating the consequences can be when things go wrong. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency is dealing with an application from the Ministry of Defence to increase discharges of radioactive waste from Faslane into the Firth of Clyde, which will inevitably have a detrimental impact on Scotland’s environment and on the local communities.

If the application is approved, liquid waste from the reactors that drive Royal Navy submarines and from processing of Trident nuclear warheads will be discharged from Faslane into the nearby Gare Loch via a proposed new pipeline. That location was decided under the guise of replacing ageing waste facilities with a new nuclear support hub—words that somehow make it sound almost sustainable. However, the plan will lead to cobalt-60 discharges that are estimated by the MOD to be 52 times higher than the average annual discharge over the past six years. The consultation opened on 13 January and closed on 13 March. Due to an incredibly high number of responses—more than 7,000—SEPA is still reviewing them.

In addition, when the UK Government’s Oil and Pipelines Agency applied to Argyll and Bute Council to use two underground tanks to store more petroleum products at the fuel depot in Garelochhead in April, it did not bother to detail what the substances are made up of.

Should we lose powers over such matters? That would be a truly retrograde step. In keeping an eye on the UK Government and protecting our people, the work of the Scottish Parliament and its agencies matters more than ever to the safety, wellbeing and prosperity of Scotland and those who live here.

How the UK Tory Government has treated the devolved nations makes it painfully clear that what we have heard from Tory MSPs—who are utterly beholden to London and their new king over the water, Douglas Ross MP—regarding increasing the powers of this Parliament is simply hogwash.