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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 07 June 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Greenhouse Gas Emissions Statistics 2020, National Parks, UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 (Statement of Policy), Business Motion, Decision Time, Medical Charities’ Research (Economic Value)


Contents


UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 (Statement of Policy)

The next item of business is consideration of motion S6M-04702, in the name of Donald Cameron, on a statement of policy.

17:01  

The motion states that the Parliament resolves that

“the statement laid by ... Ministers ... under Section 7(1) of the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 should not be approved.”

The opposition of members on the Conservative benches to the statement that ministers have laid is based on two points—first, a broad general one and, secondly, more technical arguments about Government transparency to Parliament.

In relation to the first and broader point, we, on the Conservative benches, firmly disagree with the stated policy of aligning with European Union law. The ramifications of Brexit have divided opinion sharply in Scotland and the wider United Kingdom, but the plain fact is that the UK has left the European Union and now has a trade agreement with the EU. However much the Scottish National Party resents that, the fact remains that we are outside the decision-making processes of the EU, we have no democratic input into the EU’s institutions, and we have very little—if any—influence on the legislative choices that the EU makes. However, the SNP insists on having the power to keep pace and align with EU law. That is, of course, predicated on the SNP’s desire to break up the UK and rejoin the EU at the earliest opportunity.

Further, it is notable that, according to a report dated 10 May 2022, not once has the Scottish Government used the keeping pace power—not once. Despite the warnings of the cabinet secretary’s predecessor in the previous session of Parliament, who kept saying that the keeping pace power was crucial and necessary, it has not been used at all. Perhaps more strikingly, there are no plans to use it in the future, as the Scottish Government’s report says in black and white.

Given that background, we are entitled to ask why the power has not been used, why there are no plans to use it and, more generally, what the point is of continuing alignment with EU law. For those very broad reasons, we ask Parliament to support my motion.

The second limb of our opposition is more technical but equally important and picks up on some of the points that the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee made in a letter to the cabinet secretary dated 26 May this year, in relation to transparency to Parliament around the alignment process. The committee’s view was that

“we do not have that transparency at the moment.”

In particular, we, on the Conservative benches, are concerned that the revised statement of policy does not make clear how the Government will make decisions about which EU laws to align with and which not to align with. We are concerned that there is no commitment to set out which EU laws the Scottish Government has decided not to align with so far. Lastly, we are worried that the Government’s decision not to provide details of consultations that include consideration of whether or not to align is disproportionate and contrary to the transparency that Parliament deserves.

For all those reasons, I ask Parliament to support my motion.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the statement laid by the Scottish Ministers on 10 May 2022 under Section 7(1) of the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 should not be approved.

17:04  

I start by making it absolutely clear that Scottish Labour supports alignment with the European Union, which is why we supported the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021. For us, the debate is about transparency and the Parliament’s ability to scrutinise ministers’ decisions and the Scottish Government’s actions.

I have to say that there is a bit of an irony when Donald Cameron suggests that parliamentary transparency is a technical issue, because it is fundamental to how we operate. The cabinet secretary’s reply to the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee, following its consideration of the statement, did not go far enough, although we acknowledge that he made a couple of commitments to us.

The statement that is being considered does not give Parliament adequate scrutiny of the decisions taken by ministers on where to align with the EU and where not to. It will focus only on the areas where the Scottish Government decides to align with the EU, but members of the Scottish Parliament, parliamentary committees and wider stakeholders must have the ability to scrutinise not only where the Scottish Government decides to align, but where it decides not to align. An up-to-date website would have been a very useful and easily accessible tool for MSPs, businesses, the wider public and environmental campaigners.

Secondly, there is an issue about reporting on consultations. We want clarity, and I hope that the cabinet secretary will give us more of that. We mentioned at the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee that we need a list of relevant consultations and we need to see what everybody says, but we did not get clarity on that.

Thirdly, we do not think that there is a strong enough commitment from the cabinet secretary to secure a memorandum of understanding between the Scottish Government and the Parliament on scrutiny of these matters. Simply welcoming our suggestion does not go far enough. There is no milestone for completing the discussions and no clear commitment to definitively have a memorandum of understanding. We need that.

This debate is about transparency. It is vital that we can do our job as democratically elected members. The Scottish Government must be transparent and give us a clear commitment that it will be transparent, not just on EU legislation where it seeks to maintain alignment but where it does not seek alignment, because people might not agree with that judgment and might want the Scottish Government to align.

There is an irony in that the Tory UK Government has been completely inadequate in delivering parliamentary scrutiny on trade deals and other Brexit-related matters, whereas the SNP has stood up for parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that we will get a commitment from the Government to change the statement, because we cannot support it as it currently stands. We will vote against it today, but, if the cabinet secretary takes on our points, we will support a revised statement that enables greater transparency and scrutiny so that we can do our job, make sure that we can see where alignment is needed, take the debate into the Parliament and have proper scrutiny of the cabinet secretary and his colleagues.

I call Angus Robertson to respond on behalf of the Scottish Government.

17:07  

The continuity act was introduced in response to Brexit, to ensure that Scottish ministers are able to protect the world-class standards that Scotland has enjoyed as a member of the European Union. It bears underscoring yet again that Scotland was removed from the European Union against its will and that, as we see daily, there are no benefits of Brexit.

Will the member take an intervention?

No.

The Scottish Government is clear that we must remain close to the EU and continue to protect the high standards that benefit our country. The people of Scotland have spoken in a referendum and they voted overwhelmingly for pro-EU parties in last year’s election. Their will is clear. That is why we will continue to align with the European Union where it is possible for Scotland to do so under the devolution settlement. We will not stand by while the UK Government is intent on a race to the bottom.

The policy statement that we are considering is largely about the “how”. Our intention is to align where possible by subject-specific powers, or by primary legislation where necessary. For example, in June, we used regulations under powers in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to ban single-use plastics—a move that was proposed and scrutinised by the Scottish Parliament, as members would expect. Where powers are not available or would not allow us to align effectively, we will consider the use of the continuity act power.

The transparency of decision making by Scottish ministers is of the utmost importance. We will report annually where the continuity act power has been used, where its use has been considered and where its use is planned. Our policy statement reflects that, as well as setting out how we will meet other considerations that are required by the act. How we will decide on the power’s use is described, reaffirming our commitment to engage with relevant stakeholders just as we do on other legislation. We take transparency very seriously and our approach goes further than is required for other legislation, as we will lay statements specific to the measure in question so that Parliament can scrutinise exactly why we believe that we need to use the power.

Following representations from the CEEAC and RAINE committees, we have been happy to offer additional information to support transparency. We will provide an annual forward look that will reflect on the European Commission’s legislative programme, setting out where the Scottish Government expects to prioritise alignment and where that might not be possible. We have offered to append information to all relevant legislative policy notes and consultations. That goes beyond the requirements of the continuity act and the information that is required for other legislation, and it will allow the Parliament to fulfil its duty of meaningful, effective scrutiny of the Executive.

The Opposition motion is simply an attempt to distract from that party’s calamitous Brexit and its on-going efforts to undermine Scotland’s retained EU law, as well as from the devolution settlement. Our commitment to Europe remains steadfast, as is our commitment to transparency to the Parliament. I advise the Opposition to reflect on that in considering the motion.

The question on the motion will be put at decision time.