The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-01444, in the name of Angus Robertson, on the impact of Brexit on Scotland’s supply chain and labour market.
Members who wish to speak in the debate should press their request-to-speak buttons now. I call Angus Robertson to speak to and move the motion.
In 2016, the people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union, but the United Kingdom Government ignored that vote. Recognising that two countries of the UK had voted to remain, while two had voted to leave, the Scottish Government proposed a compromise, through which the UK would stay within the European single market. The UK Government also ignored that compromise proposal. Instead, the Tory Government at Westminster, under the leadership of Boris Johnson, decided on the hardest of Brexits and a distant relationship with the EU.
At the 2019 UK general election, the Tories sought a mandate for their hard Brexit approach. The people of Scotland gave their answer. The Tories were roundly defeated, and they lost more than half their Westminster seats. True to form, the Tories once again ignored the wishes of people in Scotland.
Then the pandemic hit. Such is their hard-Brexit obsession that even a global public health crisis, the likes of which we have never seen before, was not enough to persuade the Tories even to slow the pace of the economic hit that they were determined to impose on Scotland.
Over the past few days, we have seen the clearest evidence yet of the catastrophic consequences of that reckless decision to press ahead with a hard Brexit in the middle of a global pandemic. The Tories have taken aim at key Scottish industries. Shamefully, they have also taken aim at the poorest people in our society, thereby ensuring that people on low incomes pay the highest price for the disastrous decision to impose Brexit while people and businesses are trying to recover from the pandemic.
The abrupt end of freedom of movement has left Scotland, and the whole UK, with no flexibility to address the impacts of labour shortages in vital sectors of our economy, as is highlighted by the current disruption to fuel supplies that has been caused by a lack of heavy goods vehicle drivers.
Does the cabinet secretary back the Scottish Conservatives’ calls to extend the seasonal agricultural workers scheme? Can the cabinet secretary tell us, after his meeting with the Secretary of State for Scotland, how many of the 30,000 places in the scheme have been taken up by the fruit and vegetables sector?
Last year, the EU made it clear that it was willing to offer the UK an extension to the Brexit transition period. The Scottish Government published detailed evidence setting out why, given the impact of the Covid crisis, that extension should be agreed to. As part of that evidence, the Scottish Government said:
“Brexit represents an additional risk to the sectors already exposed to those COVID-19-related channels, especially through the international (specifically EU) supply and demand exposures and the impact of removal of Freedom of Movement of Workers on labour supply.”
We also went on to warn:
“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the road freight sector faced a shortage of HGV drivers, and any new barriers to employing EU drivers would exacerbate this.”
Yet again, the people of Scotland were ignored by the Tories. Unfortunately, the disruption to fuel supplies is only the most visible example, among many, of the cost of that decision. The end of free movement has created staff shortages across key sectors including food and hospitality, social care and construction, to name but a few.
It was not just the Scottish ministers who issued warnings, only for them to be ignored. In 2018, the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland stated that
“The UK Government’s obstinate approach to immigration is a clear threat to many of Scotland’s businesses and local communities. These proposals will make it nigh impossible for the vast majority of Scottish firms to access any non-UK labour and the skills they need to grow and sustain their operations.”
At the same time, the Scottish Tourism Alliance rang the alarm bells. It warned that the UK Government’s immigration plans
“will exacerbate the existing recruitment crisis considerably, placing our tourism industry and what is one of the most important economic drivers for Scotland in severe jeopardy.”
More recently, on 20 July, the Scottish ministers wrote to the UK Government to push for pragmatic and easily adopted changes to UK migration policies, to highlight the impact of the rules and delays around licensing for the HGV sector, and to ask for an urgent meeting. All the warnings were ignored.
The Scottish Government has long argued that the current UK immigration system does not meet the needs of Scotland. We have unique challenges. Unlike the UK as a whole, all our future population growth is projected to come from inward migration. However, it has also become clear over the past few days that the UK Government’s hostile approach to migration is not meeting the needs of key sectors of the economy across the whole UK.
On that note, this week it has been sad to see the leadership of the Labour Party ruling out bringing back freedom of movement. It has put what it believes are its electoral fortunes in other parts of the UK ahead of the needs of Scotland and the Scottish economy.
Meanwhile, the UK Government’s proposals for a three-month visa route for 5,000 additional hauliers and 5,500 poultry workers is demonstrably inadequate. It is not an attractive offer to workers and it provides no certainty to employers. To quote James Withers, who is the chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, it is “too little, too late”.
However, there are actions that the UK Government can and must take now. It could instead introduce a 24-month temporary worker visa and ensure a formal role for the Scottish Government and Parliament in shaping the Scottish shortage occupation list, and it could review excessive visa fees. After 19 requests—I will say it again—after 19 requests to speak with the UK Minister of State for Immigration on those vital matters, the Home Office has finally relented. Next week, I will reiterate the urgency of making those changes to the immigration rules when I meet the immigration minister to discuss those matters.
The UK Government could easily introduce those improvements if there were the political will to do so. Instead, it has forced EU citizens to apply to the EU settlement scheme in order that they can maintain the rights that they already had. It has labelled people who chose to come to this country to make a positive contribution to our economy “queue jumpers”, and has accused them of “undercutting British salaries”—to quote the Secretary of State for Transport earlier this week. The UK Government cannot simultaneously appeal for migrants to come and help while demonising those who do come. Migration policy must support fair work and protect workers’ rights, pay and access to employment, while preventing exploitation and abuse.
The Tories are taking aim at the Scottish economy by removing Scotland from the EU and imposing a hard Brexit in the middle of a pandemic, which is making recovery so much harder, and they are making the most disadvantaged people pay the highest price. They have decided to combine a disastrous Brexit with catastrophic cuts to universal credit. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has warned that the “triple whammy” of price rises, tax increases and benefit cuts could leave low-income families £33.50 a week worse off.
On this issue, on which there is so much consensus across Scottish politics that what is going on with universal credit is totally unacceptable, it would be really welcome if Tory party members in this Parliament, who we know privately oppose the change that is being made by the UK Government, would find some courage, stand up in the chamber and call out the UK Government. That would be really welcome. I would be happy to give way to Liam Kerr if he is prepared to do so now.
No? I gave the gentleman an opportunity to make clear his unhappiness about the cut to universal credit. It will be noted that he did not take that opportunity.
The UK Government has placed a burden on those who can least afford it. It risks pushing more people into crisis and putting the most vulnerable people in our society at greater risk of food insecurity and homelessness. Within our powers, we are doing all that we can to support people who are on low incomes. The Scottish Government invested around £2.5 billion last year in targeted support, and we will continue that support through the winter. However, the Scottish Government has only limited power to address insufficient and insecure incomes, which are the key drivers of household food insecurity, and Government powers related to the energy market are reserved entirely. [
.] I have to make some progress.
In the run up to the 2014 independence referendum, campaigners for voting no boasted about what they called
“the strength and security of the United Kingdom”.
They said to people in Scotland that they had to reject independence in order to remain within the European Union. Since then, we have had years of Tory austerity, Boris Johnson has been elected as Prime Minister and Scotland has been ignored and taken out of the EU. A hard Brexit has been imposed in the middle of a pandemic, and today, under Westminster control, people are queuing for hours in the search for petrol. There are even shortages of some foods.
The Tory Brexit obsession has hit our world-class food and drink industry, universities, manufacturers and service companies, and the Tories risk pushing 60,000 people in Scotland, including 20,000 children, into poverty, as they are about to take £20 a week away from working people on low incomes.
I am winding up now, Presiding Officer.
All that has happened against the wishes of the people of Scotland. Following the 2014 referendum, all parties in Parliament said in the joint Smith Commission report:
“It is agreed that nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose.”
In May, the people of Scotland elected a new Parliament.
It is the people of this country—not Boris Johnson and his band of Brexiteers—who have the right to decide their future.
That the Parliament believes that the UK Government’s chaotic hard Brexit policy is damaging recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic; deplores the decision of the UK Government to ignore detailed evidence from the Scottish Government and others about the harm that would be caused by removing Scotland and the UK from the European single market and customs union in the middle of the public health crisis; calls on the UK Government to immediately introduce a Temporary Worker Route, extended to 24 months, to alleviate some of the damage that it has caused, as part of a replacement immigration system that will both reduce the harm of Brexit and treat people with dignity and respect; recognises that the UK Government’s failure to introduce such a scheme has led directly to serious levels of vacancies in hospitality, distribution, social care, construction, food production, agriculture and tourism, among other sectors; further recognises that this will only mitigate in part the negative consequence for Scotland of ending the benefits of EU membership, including freedom of movement; believes that the UK Government’s actions and lack of action have led directly to serious petrol and diesel shortages on forecourts and to food supply shortages; further believes that these failures are felt across society and most acutely by the poorest, and agrees that, in a rich country like Scotland, the chaos of recent weeks and the deliberate targeting of the poorest in society make clear the heavy cost imposed on people in Scotland by a UK Government that they did not elect.
I speak as a veteran of the many debates about Brexit that took place in the last parliamentary session. There was always a familiar pattern to them when it came to how the Scottish National Party approached the issue—a denial of the democratic decision of the UK as a member state to leave the EU; some scaremongering and precious little regard to the facts; and finally and inevitably, a call to arms and a statement that the way out of that whole situation, somehow, was independence. As we have just seen, it seems that the SNP in this new session has, to borrow a phrase, learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
I say that as someone who voted remain. I have long believed however, that we must respect the result of the EU referendum. It is high time that the SNP accepted that the UK public made a decision to leave the European Union; that the UK Government negotiated a fair exit deal; and that we now need to move on.
I understand the member’s argument. Does he not accept however, that the type of Brexit that his party has implemented has damaged our economy? As a remainer, he surely must accept that that deal was not a good decision.
I do not accept that. Many of those issues are short-term ones, and I believe that the economy will thrive in the long term—[
I am sorry; I would like to make a little more progress.
The SNP-Green Government introduces a motion—strong in hyperbole but weak on substance—that describes the UK’s deal with the EU as “chaotic hard Brexit policy”, but let us not forget that SNP members of Parliament voted against a deal on which the UK and the EU agreed and effectively backed the hardest Brexit policy possible—[
SNP members do not like my saying that, but SNP MPs did back the hardest Brexit policy possible—a no-deal outcome, which would have been crippling for our economy and Scottish jobs.
The motion puts sole blame for the recent shortages squarely on the UK Government, without noting the fact that a shortage of delivery drivers is happening across Europe.
Before today’s debate, I had a look on the main broadcasters of Poland, Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands. Not a single one reported a problem in their country in relation to shortages in shops or labour market shortages. Why are shortages happening here and not in those countries?
The shortage of HGV drivers is happening in Europe. The problem affects countries across Europe: Germany and France are short of between 45,000 to 65,000 drivers and Poland is short of around 124,000 drivers.
The Government tries to argue that certain sectoral vacancies only exist because of Brexit, without acknowledging that, in many instances—in the health and social care setting, for example—those problems existed long before—[
I am sorry; I need to make some progress.
Members on the Conservative benches have always acknowledged that there would be short-term issues after the UK’s exit from the EU and have always accepted that Brexit would present challenges as well as opportunities. We never attempted to say otherwise. It is simply wrong however, to ignore the fact that we are in a global pandemic that is having a definitive and searing impact on our economy, along with all the other causes of disruption in the supply chain.
I turn to the issue of fuel. It is irresponsible of anyone anywhere to peddle fears that there is a national shortage of fuel, and the UK Government has been abundantly clear that the problems are about the HGV drivers and not the fuel supply itself.
The problems are stabilising and easing, and there is optimism that, by the weekend, we will have returned to a more normal position. Without downplaying the inconvenience to those of us who drive, the picture in Scotland is in fact better than it is in the rest of the UK. As of yesterday, 27 per cent of petrol stations in mainland UK were out of petrol, but in Scotland that figure was only 15 per cent.
When it comes to the argument that the shortage of HGV drivers has arisen solely because of Brexit, let us be clear: the Road Haulage Association noted that the vast majority of foreign HGV drivers left the UK because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the pandemic has created a driver test backlog, which has prevented new drivers from getting on the road. I have some statistics. In 2016, 89 per cent of HGV drivers who were employed in the UK were UK nationals. In 2021, the figure is actually the same. The number of EU nationals is perhaps slightly lower than it was five years ago, but it is not substantially different. [
I am sorry; I would like to make some progress. I only have two minutes left.
There is also a shortage of drivers because there is a lot of retirement in that sector. More than one third of HGV drivers are over the age of 55. As I have just said, that problem impacts countries right across Europe.
We welcome the fact that the UK Government will issue up to 5,000 temporary visas to recruit additional HGV drivers, but it is plainly a long-term issue. It is not just a question of visas; it is about creating a high-wage and highly skilled economy.
The member said that the problems that have been facing the HGV sector are not just down to Brexit. Of course, he is partly right in that. Part of the problem is to do with a dispute with the Public and Commercial Services Union saying that the working conditions under the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency are not safe. UK ministers have done nothing about that, which has caused a backlog of 54,000 applications, which are stopping more HGV drivers coming through. Does the member accept that?
That is exactly why the UK Government has announced that it will make up to 50,000 additional HGV driving tests available each year, streamline the testing process, and help drivers to gain an HGV licence more quickly than before. However, I return to the point that I was making. The issue is a long-term one and it is about creating a high-wage and highly skilled economy with better pay and working conditions.
In the short time left to me, I will turn to health and social care because it has not really been mentioned yet. It is argued that the staff shortages in this area have been caused by Brexit. That is one of the most dishonest arguments I have heard this Government make. The idea that staff shortages in the NHS and the care sector somehow only crystallised on 1 January 2021 when the transition period ended is absurd. Health professionals and the care sector have been warning about staffing for years. Whether it is general practitioners, nurses, consultants, or care workers, there are deep and long-term staffing issues that have nothing to do with Brexit. There is only one cause, and that is this Government’s disastrous stewardship of the NHS during the past 14 years.
The most galling thing about this debate is that, while the SNP-Green Government continues to pour doom and gloom over the UK’s exit from the EU, it simultaneously fails to mention the cataclysmic impact that breaking up the UK would have on our economy. It fails to mention that its separatist agenda would put at risk around 545,000 Scottish jobs, and the stark warning from its very own adviser, Mark Blyth, who said that Scottish independence would be Brexit times 10. The people of Scotland deserve better than that. They deserve a Government that focuses on the day job, not constitutional grievance, and they deserve a Government that will work constructively with the UK Government, not against it.
I move amendment S6M-01444.1, to leave out from “believes that the UK Government’s chaotic” to end and insert
“recognises that the UK Government respected the result of the EU referendum and delivered a deal with the EU, which allows the UK to trade freely with other states to the benefit of Scottish goods and services; welcomes the UK Government’s response to the Europe-wide shortage of HGV drivers by issuing 5,000 temporary visas for drivers to come to the UK; further welcomes the UK Government’s positive engagement with the food and drink sector resulting in 5,500 temporary visas being issued to enable the poultry industry to prepare for Christmas, and believes that the Scottish Government should work constructively with the UK Government to ensure the success of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement.”
Today’s debate needs to focus on how we address the crisis that many of our constituents are facing because of the impact of a badly thought-through and chaotic Tory Brexit. The Labour amendment proposes removing the final phrase of the SNP coalition Government’s motion. Although we deeply regret leaving the EU, people voted for it, and the SNP knows that many of their supporters also voted to leave the EU. Our amendment therefore starts by recognising that breaking up economic and political unions has deeply damaging consequences, and creating borders has costs.
We have known that Brexit was happening for years, but people have been let down by the Tory Government not thinking through the details of its impact, and not acting to eliminate the challenges for businesses and workers that new rules at borders have created.
People have been let down by a lack of planning, workforce planning and joint working by the Scottish and UK Governments, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, but many of the shortages of key workers predated the pandemic and Brexit, although those have got worse. We know that, in sectors where pay is low and the conditions are poor or unacceptable, the UK and Scottish Governments have failed to address the issue. Instead, they have turned a blind eye and relied on people from the EU to fill those roles to hide what are systemic issues.
Brexit has highlighted the stark reality of the situation, and it is now time to ensure not only that the wages match the contribution that the people who play those roles make to our society, but that the conditions are fit for the 21st century. We urgently need union engagement in the sectors concerned. We must work across all bodies to ensure that pay and conditions are not just minimally acceptable but attractive.
We support the call for options to enable temporary workers to access our labour markets to help us to get through the next few months as we recover from the pandemic, but that is not enough.
When Labour was in charge in the Scottish Parliament, we negotiated people having the ability to stay in Scotland after they had graduated from university, so we understand the importance of the Scottish Government having the flexibility to work with the UK Government.
Earlier, at portfolio question time, I mentioned the work that my colleague Alison McGovern is doing, which involves going straight to the EU to stand up for our musicians, our artists and those who work behind the scenes, whose work is among our greatest exports, to make sure that they get the support that they need to stay in employment. We do not want to keep losing talented artists and others who work in the music sector, many of whom have had to leave it and take other jobs to keep going. We need real action and leadership from the parties in government in the UK and Scotland, rather than the usual blame passing that has been evident across the chamber today.
Scotland is a rich country, but those riches are not shared across our country. There is a real irony in an SNP Government not drawing to voters’ attention its independence plans while decrying the impact of a Brexit that many of its members voted for. The SNP knows that independence would lead to austerity, that it would threaten even more job losses, particularly in our public sector, and that it would be like Brexit times 10. Those are not just my views but those of a former colleague in this chamber, Andrew Wilson, and Professor Mark Blyth.
We need action, not rhetoric, and we need it now. Our constituents need access to fuel and food. We are moving into winter and, for many of our constituents, a lack of Government action here and in the UK will leave them vulnerable. That is why my colleague Anas Sarwar has called for an increase in winter fuel allowance payments, and it is why we have called on the Tories to abandon their universal credit cuts.
Our amendment calls on the Tory Government and the SNP coalition Government to work together, instead of constantly inventing constitutional stand-offs, in which they blame each other for their lack of action. The people of Scotland deserve better. They need action now to invest in jobs and training in the key sectors where we have labour shortages and to provide workers in those sectors with decent terms and conditions. Workers in the care sector should get a minimum of £15 an hour and be given support to develop career options, and Scottish Government contracts should be used to prevent people from ending up in precarious employment.
The Scottish Government needs to focus on the day job, to plan for the long term and to step up and secure investment in jobs that will allow us to develop the low-carbon economy that we need now, not in 2045. We need a recovery-from-the-pandemic strategy that puts the needs of the most vulnerable first. The debate should be about how we use the powers that we have to bring that about now.
I move amendment S6M-01444.3, to leave out “by a UK Government that they did not elect.” and insert:
“; recognises that breaking up economic and political unions has deeply damaging consequences, and creating borders has costs; believes that people have been let down by a lack of planning and joint working by both the Scottish and UK governments, and calls on the Scottish and UK governments to act together to resolve the shortage of workers in key sectors of the economy and ensure that people have access to employment opportunities, training and financial support as Scotland comes through the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuilds its communities.”
There is quite a bit of the Government’s motion that I agree with, and some bits that I agree strongly with, but, if anything, it is a tad simplistic. There is no single cause of the current chaos. Of course, Brexit is a major contributor, and not acknowledging that demeans the Conservatives. Broader immigration policy is a factor, too, but free movement of people, on its own, would not have solved the workforce shortages that we are now experiencing as a result of the current chaos.
I will take the berry and vegetable fields of Fife as an example. New growing techniques demand more workers for longer periods because the season has been extended and the sector has grown significantly. The sector has tried to recruit locally, but there are not enough people locally. Workers came from Poland, until the Polish economy improved. Workers have come from further and further east year on year, and now come from Moldova and Ukraine, beyond the EU. We need a bigger seasonal workers scheme that can cover them. The recent decision by the Home Office not to extend and deepen that scheme is utterly reckless. The scheme is poorly designed and managed, which, combined with the pandemic, means that many workers did not even venture across Europe to join us this year.
The hit on the fruit and vegetable sector in Fife stretches to millions of pounds in this year alone. The sight of rotting berries and vegetables left in the fields this year is unlikely to be repeated next year. Farms will not invest in those crops unless they have guarantees about their workforce very soon.
That situation affects not only farms but food producers such as Kettle Produce, which supplies supermarkets across the country. The seasonal workers scheme in that sector must be extended to ensure that it is covered too.
In the fishing community of Pittenweem, boats have been tied up for weeks, not because of a lack of markets but because of a lack of workers. A once-thriving community is being prevented from catching high-quality prawns and langoustines for the tables of Europe. The short-sighted immigration rules recently prevented a Ghanaian fisherman from working here within the 12-mile limit, where he could have earned more money than he could ever have earned back home. That would have been good for him and for our economy too.
The post-Brexit cabotage rules make it unprofitable for European HGV drivers to come to the UK. There is already plenty of work for them in Europe. Why would they bother crossing the channel? However, the Scottish Government also bears some responsibility for the current predicament. The limited nature of the transition funds and of the independent training account—it is worth only £200, whereas the cost of learning to drive an HGV stretches into the thousands—means that it comes as little surprise that very few extra HGV drivers have come through that route.
I probably should not have been surprised that the First Minister blamed Brexit for all the problems of Scotland’s social care sector. Brexit does make a contribution, but those problems have been brewing for years—since well before Brexit—and are due, in large part, to the Government not funding social care so that it can pay its carers decent wages. [
.] I will not take an intervention just now.
All of that is a big lesson that the SNP seems unprepared to heed. We must learn the lessons of Brexit, not repeat them with independence. The last thing that we need in the middle of all this chaos is yet more chaos. Breaking up is hard to do. That is something that we should all have learned by now.
I will start again. Thank you, Presiding Officer.
The Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise, Ivan McKee, may remember that I wrote to him in June to express my concern about the impact that Brexit was having, and continues to have, on the supply chain, particularly for businesses in the construction industry. There is no doubt that EU exit has had a severe impact on Scottish companies’ ability to function.
I know that all too well from speaking to businesses in my Aberdeenshire East constituency. They are struggling to obtain mechanical parts and materials such as cement, steel and timber. As we know, costs are soaring, particularly in recent weeks, due to the shortage of drivers. The cost of timber has risen from £1.60 to more than £5 per metre, and the cost of steel has risen from £1,000 to £1,500 per tonne. Fabricators, kitchen and bathroom companies, garages, joiners, plumbers, builders, farmers and civil and mechanical engineering businesses have all been impacted as their overheads go through the roof. Ordering from suppliers outwith the UK has become arduous and time consuming, and bureaucracy has multiplied for our exporting companies.
The UK Government has been aware of those issues for months. Earlier this year, my colleague Councillor Alastair Forsyth wrote to former Scottish Office minister and Tory MP David Duguid, on behalf of local Turriff-based businesses. Mr Duguid said by way of reply:
“There has almost always been a relatively straight forward resolution to such issues.”
Okay. What is the solution for the owners of the White Heather hotel in Turriff, whose manager I met while she was on her way to the local Tesco for food and drink supplies because her wholesaler could not give her half of what she needed to serve her customers that evening?
What is the solution for Keenan Recycling in New Deer, which wants to expand its waste management facility to help us to meet our net zero goals and provide more local jobs, but which cannot get the steel and concrete that it needs for its building work?
We hear warnings from retailers every day about higher food and fuel prices due to Britain’s supply chain crisis—a crisis that former EU exit negotiator Michel Barnier said this week was a “direct consequence of Brexit”. Who is going to be hit hardest by the increased food and fuel prices? Yet again, it is our poorest citizens—those who have to make a daily choice between heating and eating.
Every week, we debate in this chamber the drivers and consequences of poverty for so many Scottish people. We debate the drugs crisis, and the root cause is poverty. We debate the educational attainment gap, and the root cause is poverty. We debate health inequalities, and the root cause is poverty. We debate malnutrition in the elderly, and the root cause is poverty. We debate adverse childhood experiences, and the root cause is poverty.
Time after time, Tory members get to their feet to demand that this Government mitigates the effects of poverty—poverty that they will exacerbate by reducing universal credit and simultaneously increasing national insurance; poverty that they will create by withdrawing furlough; poverty that they will worsen as they remove the energy price cap; and now poverty that they will create through the effects of their ridiculous solution to the Tory party’s former existential crisis, which resulted in a needless hard Brexit.
Members on the SNP benches know what the solution is: Scotland joining the EU as an independent nation state. [
I will start by reflecting on the tone and intention of the motion. The SNP-Green coalition, rather than dealing with the real challenges that are facing our country, would clearly rather spend its time on another tedious piece of Brexit bashing. The motion does not focus on how the Scottish Government can support our businesses to seize the opportunities that are available to them on the global stage, nor does it focus on an approach to working together with Governments across our United Kingdom for the benefit of all our citizens. Instead, it is a catch-all rant against the British Government, which has become a tedious and oft-repeated mantra of this SNP-Green coalition. Its political interests will always come before the countries’ interests.
I will address all those points, so Daniel Johnson should listen.
Otherwise, the SNP would be seizing this opportunity. It would be standing alongside Scottish businesses and supporting them as they export to the world. Accessing international markets is a boon to Scottish business. Our food and drink sector is worth £14 billion to the Scottish economy and it supports 115,400 jobs. There are massive opportunities for the sector to export to the world.
I do not know what universe the member is in, but he must appreciate that Scotland’s food and drink sector is being absolutely hammered by restrictions being put in place at borders because of Brexit, and has been further hammered by the process that we are going through because of the shortage of drivers and the logistics problems that that is causing. The member should reflect on that.
Yes, we are working very hard with Scottish business to exploit the opportunities, but, frankly, that is made much harder by the misguided policies of his Tory party colleagues in Westminster.
We heard ideology, now here are the facts. I will take seafood as an example. In the past few months, we have seen a 9 per cent growth in our global exports to non-EU countries. [
.] These are the facts.
Just today the Scottish Chambers of Commerce announced its attendance at the world expo in Dubai. It is an exciting time for Scottish luxury products.
Since the UK left the European Union, the UK Government has signed 70 trade deals with countries around the world, including the EU. The UK has also signed new agreements that go above and beyond trade agreements that it had when it was a part of the EU, such as a new deal with Japan.
Now is the time to support Scottish entrepreneurs, not sit and wallow in politically motivated false despair. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce is up for that. Scottish business is up for it. Why is the Scottish Government not up for it?
The British Government is standing alongside Scottish business. The recent announcement of £24 million in research and innovation support for the Scottish seafood sector is part of a £100 million package of measures. That is on top of the furlough scheme, the kickstart scheme, export finance and access to 119 Department for International Trade missions and the British Business Bank, to name a few. The British Government has stepped up to the plate, so let me say this to the Scottish Government: work with the British Government to back Scottish business and support our exporters.
Yesterday, the Tories posed as defenders of this Parliament—a Parliament that they actively campaigned against re-establishing. Their blustering had as much credibility as the Orange order defending the Vatican. Today, the Tories have exposed their ostrich mentality by simply ignoring the realities of a Brexit that they imposed on an unwilling Scotland. Their irresponsible “It’ll be all right on the night” approach and complete absence of forward thinking, let alone planning, have led to chronic shortages of workers in many key sectors, not least in haulage, as we have so clearly seen in recent days. That has been accompanied by a sharp decline in exports and difficulties experienced in securing imports, all accompanied by an inflation rate that is almost double that of the euro zone.
The damage spreads far and wide. Eurostat analysis shows that UK exports to the European Union declined by a mind-blowing €16 billion—a 17.1 per cent fall—in the first seven months of this year compared with the same period in 2020, when Covid first struck and lockdowns peaked.
Meanwhile, even Lord Wolfson, the chief executive officer of retail giant Next and an ardent Brexiteer, has awoken to the inevitable disadvantages now that Brexit is affecting his own business. He said:
“The HGV crisis was foreseen, and widely predicted for many months. For the sake of the wider UK economy, we hope that the Government will take a more decisive approach to the looming skills crisis in warehouses, restaurants, hotels, care homes and ... seasonal industries. A demand-led approach to ensuring the country has the skills it needs is now vital.”
Unsurprisingly, Next may soon have to increase its prices, to the detriment of customers.
Collectively, businesses are losing millions of pounds a week and Brexit is projected to cost the Scottish economy £9 billion by 2030, which is equivalent to £1,600 for every man, woman and child who lives here.
On the haulage crisis, Edwin Atema, the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions head of enforcement and research, has said that
“the EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help the UK out of the” mess
“they created themselves.”
Those comments were echoed by Juan Jose Gil, the secretary general of the Spanish National Federation of Transport Associations, who said that the visa offer to foreign truckers would be a non-starter. He said:
“Since Brexit, Britain is not such an attractive place to work anymore”.
The reason is extra bureaucracy.
“Before Brexit there was no extra paperwork. We just drove through the border.”
He also said:
“The effect of the British Government’s offer to go and work in the UK for three months is going to be nil. What Spanish driver wants to leave his job in Spain to work in Britain” only to return to Spain after three months?
The assumption that, just because emergency visas are now frantically being offered through this temporary scheme, drivers will want to make use of it betrays a high level of arrogance as much as a lack of foresight on the part of UK ministers. In fact, many EU citizens no longer feel welcome in the UK and will not return for love nor money.
We need to employ and encourage our domestic workforce. Martin Reid of the Road Haulage Association attended the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee on 1 September and talked about a lack of diversity and a lack of young people going into HGV driving. It is important that we recognise that there are issues in relation to people being interested in HGV driving, too.
I do not think it helps that the DVLA has a backlog of 4,000 new HGV licences and 50,000 licence renewals to process. As a matter of competence, when the UK Government knew that the problem was coming, why could it not have had more staff in place to deal with that important issue?
Labour politicians share responsibility for the fiasco. Their duplicitous policy of constructive ambiguity—of agreeing with the last person they spoke to—destroyed their credibility, not least in the north of England, which allowed the Tories to secure a thumping majority at Westminster. After Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s deadly dull 80-minute speech yesterday, Unite the union’s national officer, Rob MacGregor, said:
“If you’re a Unite member worried about the cost of living crisis, empty petrol pumps, abhorrent ‘fire and rehire’ in our workplaces and the end of furlough just hours away, there wasn’t much for you in this speech.”
Petrol pumps running dry, emergency visas and calling in the armed forces to deliver fuel—is that the best that Scotland can do?
Only the SNP and the Greens now believe that Scotland should be at the heart of Europe. Support the motion.
I will begin with a few clarifications.
First, on the title of the Government’s motion, Scotland does not have a singular unitary monolithic supply chain. It has a multitude—a rich and diverse mosaic—of supply chains plural, more and more of which are, I am bound to say, concentrated in the hands of overseas corporations and private equity funds.
Secondly, I do not think that we should accept either that working people are simply a commodity in a labour market. We should resist the idea that everything—absolutely everything, including working people—can be marketised.
Thirdly, we do not want to return to a world in which a person’s passport and where they were born matter. We want to see borders coming down, not going up. However, we have to be careful to distinguish between the revered principle of the freedom of movement of labour and the unethical worldly practice of the freedom of movement of cheap labour.
It is no coincidence that the lowest common denominator that links the industries listed in the SNP motion today with those facing the biggest shortages of skilled workers is that they include the ones with the poorest pay and the ones that rely the most on a hire-and-fire culture. They include the sectors with the worst health and safety records and those that exploit the shoddiest employment practices, such as the extensive use of umbrella companies, employment agencies, outsourcing, subcontracting and zero-hours contracts.
We know that some workers have poor terms and even more shocking conditions—look at what the road haulage drivers have to put up with. So, the very idea that 5,000 temporary HGV driver visas that expire on Christmas eve are the answer to this crisis, as the Tory amendment suggests, is economically illiterate. Worse, when we consider that more than 50,000 HGV applications are backlogged at the DVLA partly because of an industrial dispute with the Public and Commercial Service Union that has been provoked and prolonged by Tory Government ministers—by their own admission—the Conservative position is not only economically illiterate, it is morally indefensible as well.
Fourthly, the Scottish Government is today calling on the UK Government to take action, and that is right. We are experiencing a form of Brexit that has been steered so much by rigid ideology that it has driven out economic fact and replaced it with political dogma. However, it is not enough for the SNP Government to lodge a motion in Parliament that is solely about the Tory Government, the action that it must take and the failures that it needs to address. What about the action that this Government and this Parliament can take? And, yes, what about the failures here that we need to address?
The Scottish Government is in charge of economic development, industry, education, training and skills. The Scottish Parliament is not made up of bystanders: we are legislators with powers for change and a £48 billion budget last year. As far back as November 2016, in a debate in this Parliament, I called for a leadership role for the Scottish Government and its agencies, such as Skills Development Scotland, in ensuring that there are no skills gaps. However, I have to say that, five years on, the evidence is that no such plans exist and no such leadership has been given.
It is clear to me that what we need, what this Parliament needs and what the people who elect us need is an economic plan and a jobs-first industrial strategy that is investment led, people centred and manufacturing driven. We need that to make a just transition to a net zero Scotland, we need it to rebuild Scotland’s working communities and we need it to counter the economic shock of Brexit.
In the world of Brexiteers, the Tory and Labour parties and even some reporting outlets, it has become common to lay the blame for trade and supply chain problems on the pandemic rather than on Brexit. Problems are presented as a short-term shock instead of there being an acknowledgement of real long-term supply chain issues, despite evidence to the contrary.
Earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics published compelling analysis in which it compared the first quarter of 2021 with the first quarter of 2018. It used quarter 1 of 2018 as the most recent stable period, as it was pre-Brexit and pre-pandemic. Brexit uniquely affects UK relationships with the EU, whereas we acknowledge that the pandemic is global in its impact. Therefore, if the Tory and Labour Brexiteers were right, we would expect UK trade with non-EU and EU countries to have been similarly disrupted, but what has the ONS found? It states:
“Total trade in goods with EU countries decreased by 23.1% and with non-EU countries decreased by 0.8%”.
To put it more simply, trade with EU countries has been negatively impacted 29 times more than trade with non-EU countries. That is the Brexit effect. As James Withers of Scotland Food & Drink has noted,
Project Fear’ is
Softer data confirms that. The most recent business insights and conditions survey revealed that 39,000 businesses across the UK believe that Brexit has been by far the most significant factor in the disruption of importing and exporting.
As trading patterns change, the elephant in the room is China. Since the second quarter of 2020, the UK has imported more goods from China than from any other country, and China is now one of the UK’s top five import partners. In fact, imports from China grew in the comparative period that I outlined earlier, from quarter 1 in 2018 to quarter 1 in 2021. That presents structural, strategic and environmental challenges, as it greatly extends supply chains and makes for huge logistical challenges.
In other words, the UK Government has swapped our export trading with our nearest friends and neighbours, despite their proximity, for a flood of imports from China. Frankly, that is based on ideological decisions that Scotland opposed and that the Opposition was well warned about but ignored.
Like all constituencies, Falkirk East has significant issues across a variety of sectors, with the food and drink, retail, engineering and manufacturing sectors all under additional pressure. Staffing concerns are uniformly highlighted. The Economy and Fair Work Committee, of which I am a member, has already identified a lack of access to labour in supply chains as a huge issue. We have heard evidence on that from Martin Reid of the Road Haulage Association and Ewan MacDonald-Russell of the Scottish Retail Consortium. [
.] I will not give way—I am just finishing.
Scotland is just starting to experience the impact of Brexit. However, in my time at Westminster, I spoke to many major businesses and they were clear that, when Scotland becomes independent, as she surely will, they will be looking to move major operations to Scotland so that they can access the valuable EU market. We should not forget that.
No one denies that the country is dealing with some very serious issues at the moment, but it is utterly facile and disingenuous to suggest that the UK’s leaving the European Union—which the SNP conveniently forgets was a UK-wide democratic decision—is their primary cause. Even the most cursory glance through the news shows that myriad reasons underlie the current situation—for example, as Donald Cameron highlighted, HGV drivers retiring during a Covid pandemic that has shut crucial agencies, and gas price rises throughout Europe and Asia, which have been caused by global events and challenges in renewables generation.
Martin Reid from the Road Haulage Association has not been quoted at all. He said in committee that the roughly 75,000 HGV driver tests that are normally done in a year were not happening because of the pandemic and that only 50 per cent of people passed. That left us 40,000 tests short. SNP members need to realise that the restrictions that were put in place by Government caused such issues.
I am grateful for that intervention.
There is a record number of construction and engineering vacancies but, according to Randstad, that is due to a surge in demand for workers specifically rather than a post-Brexit fall in supply.
The utter hypocrisy of the Government’s motion is revealed by the fact that, since the UK left the EU, we have concluded more than 70 trade deals worldwide, but the SNP voted in favour of none of them. One of those deals was the deal with the EU to prevent a hard or no-deal Brexit. The SNP voted against that. [
.] No, I will not take an intervention. The SNP’s talk on immigration rails against the very points-based system that its white paper advocated in 2014.
This is the second time this week that the SNP, in a desperate attempt to divert attention from record ambulance waiting times and Scotland having the lowest number of hospital beds in a decade and the worst drug deaths rate in Europe, has brought forward a debate in which it has attacked the UK Government. I think that the people who are queuing outside petrol stations, waiting for a hospital bed or waiting for goods to be supplied want to see solutions, such as the downstream oil protocol, more than 10,000 new visas being issued by the UK Government, the UK Government stepping in to ensure that the country has enough CO2
, the UK Government’s health and care visa, making it easier for healthcare professionals to apply, and the extension of the seasonal workers scheme. The people of Scotland want to see our Governments working together to sort these things out.
I agree with Angus Robertson that our Governments should work together. That is why it is so bizarre that the cabinet secretary proposes as his solution separating Scotland from its largest trading partner and entering the EU. Leaving aside the fact that the people of Scotland clearly signalled that they did not want separation in a democratic vote—another vote that the SNP chooses to ignore—and the years that that would take, even if it were possible, the proposal offers no solution to the issues that are raised in the motion. The cabinet secretary completely fails to mention that even Mark Blyth, who is one of Nicola Sturgeon’s own economic advisers, said that Scexit would be “Brexit times ten”. In fact, he said:
“If your argument is that we need to do this because of Brexit, then Scotland separated from England is the biggest Brexit in history ... if pulling apart 30 years of economic integration with Europe is going to hurt, 300 is going to hurt a lot.”
What Scotland needs more than anything is a Government that acknowledges that issues have many causes and that solving them requires thoughtful and considerate interventions, and which seeks to deliver those solutions in collaboration with all those who can do that. What Scotland does not need is more grievance, division, misinformation, and misconception that is meant simply to divide us. Donald Cameron’s amendment seeks the former. That is why I support it.
To respond to Liam Kerr, I struggle with the case for the union if his strongest argument is that the disastrous negotiation of Brexit is the best case for keeping the union together.
So, there is no fuel crisis. We are going to suspend competition law to allow fuel companies to collude and share market information—but there is no crisis. Petrol stations have had to close because there is no fuel—but there is no crisis. We are going to make a massive U-turn on visa rules to allow EU HGV drivers temporary access to work in the UK—but there is no crisis. We are going to call in our British Army—but there is no crisis. Food prices are expected to rise by 5 per cent before Christmas—but there is no crisis. And by Jove, Gove, it has nothing to do with Brexit, of course.
Grant Shapps finally admitted earlier this week, however, that Brexit is undoubtedly a factor. Of course it was. We know that EU workers from many countries and many industries, including HGV drivers, returned to their native countries because of the hostile environment that was exacerbated by Brexit and the end of freedom of movement. No other European country is suffering the food and fuel shortages that are being suffered across the UK, as the cabinet secretary pointed out.
It did not have to be this way. I sat in the House of Commons for many years and listened to Theresa May box herself in with her self-defeating red lines. We warned her over and over again that she did not need to pursue the form of Brexit that she started and that Boris Johnson rebadged and made worse. The Scottish Government tried to help find a compromise at the time. The UK Government could have kept a more open relationship with the EU. It could have listened and engaged with the Scottish Government to pursue a customs union, single market deal that would have kept freedom of movement in place and would have spared us many of the labour market challenges that we now have. However, Theresa May was too scared to stand up to the extremists in her own party and was totally beholden to them, boxing herself in with her own red lines, failing to listen to the needs of employers and failing to listen to anyone who was warning about the impact of stopping freedom of movement—and so we see the crisis that is now before us.
To acknowledge Willie Rennie’s point about challenges going beyond freedom of movement, imagine if Michael Gove had honoured his promise during the Brexit referendum campaign for Scotland to have control over immigration powers. Perhaps if he had followed through on that promise, we could have at least cleared up a bit more of the mess from Westminster, with a fair system that reflects our needs.
I think that is something that needs to be considered.
Aside from the Brexit failures, the Tories are culpable in other ways, too, regarding the HGV crisis. We know that there is a backlog of 54,000 licence applications. I understand from local employers in Airdrie and Shotts who have been impacted that most of those are licence renewals. That is because UK ministers have failed to deal with the concerns of members of the Public and Commercial Services union, who say that their working conditions are unsafe. That dispute has dragged on for months, and I fail to see what UK ministers have done about it until some 11th-hour desperation set in, when it is too late—and now look where we are.
The Tories are desperate to try and distance themselves from any responsibility for this mess. Let us therefore use a measure that they normally love to use. The Tories love looking to the markets as a barometer of success. I wonder what they reckon the pound suffering its biggest fall against the dollar and a sharp fall against the euro means. I suspect it means that the markets are losing confidence because of Brexit and the UK Government’s failure, which is to the detriment of the people of Scotland.
Why will the Tories not just apologise for being wrong, instead of showing the screaming defensiveness that we see today, because they are embarrassed? Does that not show, once again, that Scotland could do so much better with the powers of independence?
The debate brings with it a weary sense of déjà vu. For five years now we have discussed Brexit in the Parliament and, for most of that period, its potential consequences. Committees held inquiries, collected huge volumes of evidence and published report after report. We debated the issues, both in Government time and in Opposition time, on a regular basis.
I say all that to underline the point that the disruption and damage being inflicted on this country by the UK Government was both foreseen and entirely avoidable.
If it had happened under a Labour Government at Westminster, I have no doubt that the Conservatives would be lodging votes of no confidence and calling on the Prime Minister to resign over issues such as fuel shortages and empty shelves in supermarkets.
In recent years, the Road Haulage Association has barely been out of the Scottish Parliament and Westminster, warning of the potential—and now very real—effects of the Tories’ post-Brexit immigration policies. By the end of the debate, we will probably have quoted every last word that Martin Reid said to the Scottish Parliament’s Economy and Fair Work Committee last week. I will add another section of his evidence, where he said:
“A number of the EU nationals who came here did so as self-employed or agency workers. The changes to tax status and so on meant that they either renegotiated higher rates or just stopped, because there was easier work to be had on the continent without the bureaucracy”.—[
Economy and Fair Work Committee
, 22 September 2021; c 2-3.]
The motion calls for a temporary workers visa to be introduced immediately and to last for 24 months. Let us be honest, how attractive is a three-month visa and the temporary work that that would entail for a driver from Europe, who would have to contend with the UK’s shambolic and bureaucratic customs and borders arrangements? Yesterday, one driver told ITV news:
“I don’t want to work on a temporary visa because I think of the future. If the Government offers a 12-month visa I could plan for my life, but three months is not an option. I’d collect about £12,000 ... what next?”
It is not just HGV drivers who are impacted by the hostile system. As we have heard already, and as referred to in the motion, sectors from hospitality to agriculture are suffering from the same labour shortages, which in turn cause similar levels of destruction and outright harm to our wider society. Some of those are inconvenient, but properly manageable if they are only short term. For example, Inverclyde Council in my region has notified parents of a significant reduction in what they will be able to provide in the school canteens. However, as one would expect, the council is going to prioritise children and young people who are in receipt of free school meals and those with specific dietary requirements.
However, other impacts will be far harder to undo. A friend of mine runs their own small business, a shop in a rural community. The disruption has caused them to cancel contracts with suppliers whose goods they have sold for a long time. They simply cannot afford the significant delays and huge amounts of additional administrative work that have resulted from Brexit. It is an existential threat to their business and they do not know whether they will be able to survive it.
I want to address the role of large corporations in the crisis. They are at the other end of the scale from small businesses that are left vulnerable to wider supply chains that are completely outwith with their control. Richard Leonard spoke on this subject very well. The UK was short of something like 50,000 to 60,000 HGV drivers before most Brexit-related barriers were put up earlier this year. A range of factors contributed to that. In many cases, European drivers and haulage firms were already moving away from UK routes in anticipation of exactly the kind of challenges that the UK Government has put in their way. However, we cannot ignore the role of wages and conditions in the road haulage sector over a much longer period. The one thing that I welcome in the current situation is the sudden spike in wages offered to drivers. Far too often in a capitalist economy, resource scarcity drives up the costs of goods and services, but it is far too rare that a labour scarcity drives up wages. In this case, that is exactly what is happening in a sector where it is long overdue. However, offering decent wages will not solve the problem on its own, for exactly the reasons described by the driver I quoted earlier.
The consequences of Brexit cannot be easily swept away. The only way to undo the damage of Brexit is to rejoin the single market and the customs union—and eventually the European Union itself. I look forward to the day when Scotland can take that step as an independent state, rejoining the European family of nations.
As a dual national and an immigrant, I want to speak about the urgent need for Scotland to have the right to a bespoke immigration system to help to deal with the chaos caused by the disastrous Brexit that we did not vote for.
As a former community wellbeing spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, I negotiated on behalf of all Scotland’s local councils for a more flexible system to address the needs of the Scottish economy, workforce, our shortage occupation list, and our ageing population, and to accrue more policy levers to encourage people to move to Scotland. Those calls were roundly ignored or rebuffed by the UK Government.
I also argued that flexibility cannot stop at the national level; the system must be able to accommodate Scottish local authority areas and their specific needs. That position was clearly set out in the COSLA leaders report in November 2018 on local authority work to tackle depopulation. Scottish council leaders have endorsed continued lobbying of the UK Government for an immigration system that recognises Scotland’s needs and they continue to make the case that a reduction of inward migration to Scotland from EU countries will adversely impact Scotland’s economy. Sadly, we are living that reality—with empty shelves, wasted produce and fuel shortages. So far, the only Brexit bonus that I can see is the shortage of fireworks.
I have deep-seated concerns that an immigration system that has the express aim of reducing net migration, in which the bar is consistently raised to the exclusion of particular jobs and sectors, causes untold harm not only to our economy as a whole, but to specific regions and towns. My constituency has seen its share of net outward migration over the past four decades, and I will continue to support the work of west coast local authorities as they seek to address the significant demographic challenges that they face, along with their calls for a Scottish visa system.
Inward migration is crucial to Scotland’s economy, and the appetite for the continuation of free movement of people is entirely evident in Scotland; the election results in May emphatically endorsed that aim. We know that it would be the most advantageous system for Scotland, despite what Labour’s Lisa Nandy proclaimed last night on “Newsnight”.
Despite the Prime Minister’s scrambled last-minute plans to introduce short-term visas to attract HGV drivers, the current system is not fit for purpose. Incidentally, some of the UK’s issues with the retention of drivers perhaps arise because we do not, collectively, demonstrate their worth by providing them with a network of safe, free places that enable them to park up, grab a hot shower and access hot food, as is the case in mainland Europe
The salary threshold in our immigration system is too high, and is a barrier to many occupations in our key sectors, including agriculture and hospitality. There should be more focus on the value of, and the need for, a job, rather than on an arbitrary salary threshold. In addition, we should always ensure that we keep fair work principles at the heart of our consideration.
Points should be awarded with reference to the parts of the country that need an increase in population, right down to local authority areas and regions. I know that UK Tory ministers develop a nervous twitch when that is talked about, and they proclaim that such a system would be too complex. Nonetheless, it would be remiss of me, as a Canadian, to neglect to explain how such a system is not only entirely possible but, in fact, works beautifully. Canada is a federation made up of 10 provinces and three territories, which all have very different economies and demographic needs. The country’s hugely successful provincial nominee programmes offer pathways to? Canadian permanent residence?for individuals who are interested in immigrating to a specific Canadian province or territory.? There you have it—the art of the possible.
I believe whole-heartedly that the best way to serve Scotland’s needs is via independence, to give us all the levers of control. At this exact moment, however, there is zero justification for Westminster to retain all controls over immigration while Brexit bites hard. Scotland’s people deserve better, and I ask members to support the motion.
I do not think that we have done the subject in front of us today any justice at all. Two parties in particular have presented it as a binary issue, and both are equally guilty of ignoring salient and important issues that we have to address if we are going to tackle the twin crises that have been created by Brexit and Covid.
In Angus Robertson’s opening remarks, there was much with which I sympathised and agreed. I find the intransigence of the UK Government, and the fact that the Scottish Government has had to ask 19 times to speak to it, completely unacceptable. I agree with Mr Robertson’s analysis: that the creation of borders where once there was free trade has stopped people moving and prevented them from doing the vital jobs that this country needs. It has prevented goods from arriving and forced prices up, and it is increasing bills and bureaucracy. Those are the consequences of creating borders where previously there were none.
I found it telling that it took Mr Robertson until his 10th minute to squeeze in independence—he was so busy trying to sound reasonable that he had to squeeze it in at the end. That says something about the justifiability of that argument. He knows that all—[
.] I ask members to be patient.
Just a moment.
SNP members believe that the prescription for the disease is more of the disease. They identify a mistake, and then they want to repeat it. That is simply incoherent.
It does my Conservative friends across the chamber a great disservice when they say that they thought Brexit was going to be a bad idea, which is why they argued against it, but that now they think that it will be okay, because these are just temporary inconveniences, which we will get through, and there will be wonderful opportunities. Indeed, there was a great deal of irony in Liam Kerr’s plea for the Government to focus and look at the issues in detail, while his party ignores the issues that Brexit is creating.
This afternoon, there has been gross oversimplification on both sides of the chamber, but Richard Leonard was absolutely right, and Ross Greer, again, highlighted the complexities of the issues that are at hand. Absolutely—Brexit has exacerbated the issues with HGV drivers but, in the words of Richard Leonard, we must look at what they have to put up with. The wages for the job have declined against median wages for the past decade; that is why a third of HGV drivers are looking to retire, and it is why their average age is 55 and less than 1 per cent are under the age of 25. It is not just Brexit that caused that issue but poor terms and conditions, and focusing on training and support will solve those issues. In addition, it is not just a problem in this country: Poland is short of 120,000 HGV drivers and Germany is short of 60,000 HGV drivers. The USA is also short of HGV drivers, and the USA’s shortages are not caused by Brexit.
If Daniel Johnson listened to his colleagues this afternoon—including Mr Leonard, as he mentioned—he would know that the problems are about employment practices such as zero-hours contracts, which are in the control of the Westminster Government. For Sarah Boyack, it is about post-study work visas, which were a brilliant measure that was introduced by Labour but taken away by the Tories at Westminster. Why on earth would he be content to leave those key issues to do with migration in the hands of a Government that does not care about Scotland or Scotland’s migration needs?
That is an entirely false choice, because the issues that we are facing and discussing are immediate and need to be dealt with in weeks and months. The reality is that, whatever merits of independence SNP members like to claim, they cannot claim that independence would be resolved quickly; we are talking about years and decades. The Institute for Government was clear that it would take Scotland a decade or more to regain entry to the EU and that it might take years of negotiation even to secede from the UK. Therefore, to claim that the way to solve the issues of today, which face families in a very immediate way, is independence is, frankly, disingenuous and a gross oversimplification. Those members cannot claim that independence is quick or easy, because it is not, and they do their argument and belief a gross disservice by trying to claim that it is.
The reality is that we face serious issues now: furlough is ending; there is a potential shortage of jobs; small businesses have £4.5 billion-worth of debt; high street footfall is down by 20 per cent; and the hospitality industry is struggling. We need to be serious about how we support those industries and look at what we can do now, not talk about fantasyland politics and something that might happen years and decades down the line. We need to look at how we use the powers of the Parliament, here and now, to protect wages, jobs, families and livelihoods.
Everybody in the chamber, whatever our political views—and, my goodness, they are diverse—and however we all voted on Brexit, fully acknowledges that we are currently facing one of the most difficult periods that there have ever been in British and Scottish politics.
It is true that Brexit has been difficult and, for some people, it has been deeply troubling. It has been emotive and it has also been divisive in exactly the same way that the independence referendum was in 2014. However, as we try very hard to take an objective stance in the current debate, we should remember two things, the first of which relates to Daniel Johnson’s point that we have a democratic duty as politicians to deliver what people voted for, even if we do not personally like the result of that vote.
Secondly, as Maurice Golden said, voters want us to focus on the outcome that works for them. I believe that they want Governments to co-operate, most especially during the dark days of the Covid pandemic, and to listen carefully to the sectors, most especially in business and industry, on which our economic recovery depends.
We should also acknowledge that in 2014, when the people of Scotland made a decision to stay in the United Kingdom, and in 2016, when the people of the UK made a decision to withdraw from the EU, they made those decisions after the terms of the plebiscite had been agreed. That agreement embodies
an acceptance by both sides that the result of the referendum would be respected.
I have said many times in this chamber during Brexit debates that I was very disappointed with the result of the EU referendum. I will be the first to acknowledge this afternoon that Brexit has exacerbated some of the issues that Scotland faces. However, it is neither fair nor accurate to say that Brexit is the sole cause of all the pressures in the economy. Indeed, it is completely disingenuous to suggest that.
Willie Rennie and Richard Leonard made very balanced speeches. I do not agree with some of what they said, but they both argued that this is not a simple situation. Brexit has undoubtedly had implications for visas and therefore for some movement of labour, but there are several other reasons for the current situation. Conservative members have cited comments from key figures in the haulage industry who have made it very clear that the industry has been suffering from labour shortages for some time, partly because of the age profiles of their drivers and partly because the Covid situation has meant that, understandably, fewer drivers have been able to, or wanted to, work away from home. The pandemic has also obviously had an impact on the ability of those who train and test drivers to provide the necessary certificates and licences.
Those issues are by no means unique to the UK. The driver shortfall across Europe is 400,000-plus, and that includes countries that remain in the EU. Poland and Germany are among those that are suffering many of the same workforce and recruitment difficulties.
Liam Kerr pointed out the hypocrisy of the motion in its excoriating attack on the UK Government. That Government has secured 70 different trade deals, and the SNP did not vote for even one of them, including the deal that was finally agreed with the EU to avoid a no-deal situation. The SNP continues to forget conveniently that that final deal, with all its imperfections, had the support of key players in Scotland, including Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the heads of the UK’s four national farmers unions, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, the Scotch Whisky Association and major companies such as Diageo. Those organisations are not arguing about abstract and finer points of the constitution; they are looking at what is best for their sectors in terms of stability in the future and the securing of jobs and investment, especially at a time when our economy is so fragile. [
.] No, I will not take an intervention, if you do not mind. Like them, the Scottish Conservatives believe that, after all the tortuous negotiations, the Brexit deal was the only viable means of an orderly exit from the EU.
However, the SNP persists in claiming that the current situation is far better for fostering a debate about another independence referendum, even though we have heard several times today about the warnings that its own advisers are giving. Some of those warnings cause little surprise, given the divisions that have been created in the difficult period of the upsetting of 50 years of UK economic integration with the EU.
What would it be like if we separated from the United Kingdom? Not one single piece of respected, independent economic analysis have I seen that provides any evidence whatsoever that breaking up the union would provide Scotland with the same economic benefits and stability that it has now. There would not be the sums that point to fiscal stability, nor the drivers of economic growth—particularly those relating to economies of scale—that the UK brings. There would not be the same opportunities for investment, nor the safeguards that the union provides via UK spending—and, my goodness, how much we have needed that guarantee in the current pandemic.
I say again: you cannot keep demanding reruns of referenda just because you do not like the outcome. I happen to think that that view is shared by a large proportion of the electorate. They are fed up with the constant tone of grievance that, sadly, has become the defining element of the SNP.
I am delighted to close the debate for the Government.
I will go around the chamber and wind up on some of the contributions, starting with Donald Cameron, who was hiding from the fact that Brexit has made the problems so much worse. He talked about HGV drivers. There are, of course, other challenges, but Brexit has made that situation worse. It has made us unable to access available labour from across the continent of Europe, which has caused us problems. Donald Cameron will not accept that Brexit causes us problems, in line with many of his colleagues who made the same points—Brexit deniers, as they are. Even Grant Shapps recognises that. Brexit is mentioned a lot and there is no doubt that it will have been a factor. Grant Shapps can accept it, but Conservative members here cannot.
There are the Brexit deniers to one side, while on the other side Sarah Boyack laid out Labour’s position of supporting Brexit. Labour are apologists for Brexit and do not recognise the Scottish reality. The people of Scotland recognise that.
You have just done it again. You have just apologised for Brexit. You said that Brexit is here to stay and that you are going to get on with it. The reality is that the Labour Party is no longer opposed to Brexit; people in Scotland recognise that. In a poll that is just out, 68 per cent of the people who were polled in Scotland think that Brexit is going badly and 11 per cent think that it is going well. Labour is on the wrong side, on the issue.
Willie Rennie still opposes Brexit, I think, and acknowledged its impact on the economy of Scotland, on investment in Scotland and on exports from Scotland in key sectors including agriculture, food and fisheries.
That gives me the opportunity to highlight “The Brexit Balance Sheet”, which was published today by the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations. It concludes that, far from the £148 million benefit that Boris’s Tory Government told the sector would result, there has been a cost to the sector of more than £300 million over a five-year period. That is the reality, recognised by fishermen’s organisations, of what the Tory Government’s Brexit has delivered to people in Scotland and across the UK.
Gillian Martin—whom I thank for voting for me; it is much appreciated—highlighted some hugely important issues. This is not just about what we see on fuel-station forecourts and the empty shelves in the shops; it is also about the materials shortage that the labour shortage has caused, up and down the country and across so many sectors. I see that through the work that I do with the construction sector and others daily and weekly. That is being caused largely by Brexit and the shortage of drivers, and by our inability to access the European labour pool to help to deal with the challenges.
Maurice Golden, who is another Brexit denier, asked what we are doing to support exports. I have told him what we are doing to support exporters in dealing with the problems that his Government has caused—and which it has made so much worse.
Michelle Thomson highlighted the impact that Brexit has had on exporters. The impact on their exports to the EU arises precisely because of the actions of the Tory Government and the hard Brexit that it has taken forward.
Maurice Golden talked about trade deals as if there is something wonderful about what the UK Government has done to replicate the deals with third countries that were already in place, and which we benefited from as a member of the EU. All the UK Government has done is replace those deals. The Japan deal is almost entirely a replication of the deal that Japan has with the EU, with one or two minor tweaks, and the Australia deal basically throws Scottish agriculture under the bus. That is the reality of where we are.
Let me tell you, Mr Golden, you and your Government got us into this mess. You ignored our efforts to warn you about it and to help to fix it through the constructive approach that we took—
I apologise, Presiding Officer.
Mr Golden, you got us into this mess. You and your Government ignored our efforts to warn you what would happen, and ignored our constructive approach to help to fix the problem. Mr Golden, you created this miss. Mr Golden, you and your party own this mess.
I recognise that you are not part of the UK Government, but that you are an apologist for it.
Kenny Gibson made a brilliant contribution as always, in which he recognised that the reality of Brexit makes it much more difficult for workers, particularly because of the “not welcome” message and the hostile environment that has emanated from the UK Government—of which Mr Golden is not a part. Brexit has made it much more difficult for people to make the decision to come to this country, because they know that they will not be welcome when they get here.
If the member is talking about the agriculture visa scheme, Lee Abbey from the National Farmers Union has said that the 22,000 number that Alister Jack has talked about is completely inaccurate and out of date. More than 20,000 workers have been recruited so far through that scheme in a process that has been made difficult by paperwork and other hurdles. He says that 30,000 is far from being enough, and that operators are already turning away clients because they do not have enough people to carry out the required work.
I turn to Richard Leonard’s contribution, in which he made some fair points. As the minister responsible for many of the sectors that he has talked about, I am determined to do what I can to work with those sectors and their unions to raise wages across them. We recognise that everybody should be earning at least the real living wage. I am delighted to support the Unite Hospitality charter for the hospitality and tourism sectors, because it seeks to take that agenda forward. I am keen to work with anyone else who has that agenda.
I also remind members that many of the problems that we have to work around in order to reach resolutions are happening precisely because we do not have devolution of employment law to the Scottish Parliament—a policy that Labour supported as a consequence of the Smith commission.
Liam Kerr talked about working with the UK Government. A common theme from the Conservative members today has been, “Why don’t you work with the UK Government?” My colleague Angus Robertson has already highlighted his efforts to work with the UK Government: he tried 19 times and got nowhere. I could talk for an hour about the times when we have tried to work with the UK Government, but we were rebuffed at every attempt.
The latest example is Alister Jack’s saying that the words “real living wage” must under no circumstances appear in our green ports proposal, which means that the UK Government will not work with us to take forward green ports to support Scottish workers to lead us towards net zero and to deliver for Scottish business.
The Scottish Government supports free trade and understands that there are challenges around it, with winners and losers in the sectors that are impacted. The Government and businesses recognise the value and the importance of free trade with the European Union, as our single biggest market. The Conservative Government and Conservative members here do not understand that point, which is why they have taken forward a Brexit deal that puts huge barriers in the way of trade.
When it comes to supporting trade, the Scottish Government is in a position to align with businesses that want to trade freely, while the UK Government and the Conservative Party have put themselves in a position in which the trade barriers that they have erected make it so much more difficult for business in Scotland and across the rest of the UK.
Neil Gray made the valid point that Brexit did not need to mean what it ended up meaning; it did not need to mean stopping freedom of movement. It was not a choice that was made at the ballot box in 2016, but a choice that the UK Government and the Tories made after that, when they decided that they would stop freedom of movement and leave the single market, which has caused today’s problems. I reiterate that Brexit need not have meant leaving the single market or ending freedom of movement.
Ross Greer highlighted the message of the hostile environment again and its knock-on effect on businesses—a message that is now coming home to hurt us.
Elena Whitham made a hugely valid point about the importance of immigration policy to tackle Scotland’s population challenge, among other things. Our approach in Scotland is 180° opposed to the UK Government’s direction of travel and to its attitude to immigrants and immigration, which is why independence and having the ability to set our own immigration policy is so important.
Elena Whitham also made the point that immigration could be devolved tomorrow. Canada works an effective system whereby immigration policy is devolved across the provinces; it works well. If the other parties in the Scottish Parliament are not going to support independence immediately, they should at least support our calls for full devolution of immigration policy.
For the avoidance of doubt, I say to Daniel Johnson that I am in favour of independence, Mr Robertson is in favour of independence, all the members in the seats behind me are in favour of independence, and more than half the people of Scotland are in favour of independence. It now appears that Daniel Johnson’s only objection to independence—
That is not the cause of my confusion. I am confused because the minister has failed to set out a single way in which independence would fix any of the problems that we face now, or how it could be delivered within a timeframe that would allow it to deal with the issues that he has identified.
Absolutely; I am almost finished, Presiding Officer. When we have our own immigration policy and we are able to decide—[
Does the member want to listen to what I have to say? It will help to have our own immigration policy in order to be able to bring in people to tackle the challenges that we have. It will help when we have full control of our welfare policy, so that we can mitigate what is happening to the poorest people in our society as a result of Tory Government welfare cuts.
Independence will allow us to have our own policies to take forward what the people of Scotland want, which is for Scotland to be a full member of the European Union and to turn back Brexit. That will enable us to resolve many of the challenges that we see resulting from what is happening now.