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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 08 December 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Business Motion, Covid-19, Brexit Readiness, Covid-19 (Education), Parliament’s Evolving Scrutiny Function, Presiding Officer’s Statement, Decision Time, Human Rights Day (70th Anniversary)


Contents


Brexit Readiness

The next item of business is a statement by Michael Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, on Brexit readiness. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

15:25  

It is utterly incredible that, some 1,629 days since the European Union referendum, I should rise to make a statement on the final details of withdrawal with still no clarity about how the United Kingdom will trade with the EU in just 23 days’ time.

The one thing that we do know, however, is that the choice remains—as has been the case since the extremists finally took over the Tory Party and the UK Government—between no deal and a low deal, either of which will be damaging and harmful. They will be damaging and harmful to all sectors of the Scottish economy, to every community in Scotland and, indeed, to every Scottish citizen.

Of course, Scotland did not vote to leave the EU and the issue of how we rejoin as an independent member state is very live. The option of independence is now the majority choice of not only this chamber but also, in the last 15 opinion polls, the people of Scotland. However, that is for another day. What we need to do now is to find a way to mitigate—as much as we are able, although we will not be able to do so completely—the damaging and harmful consequences of the UK Government’s ineptitude and ideological obsession with a past that never was: a mythical past that is corroding any prospect of a prosperous future.

Of course, to add insult to injury, the irresponsible refusal by the UK Government during the summer to extend the transition period means that our exit could not come at a more challenging time. The concurrent challenges of dealing with the end of transition, the impacts of Covid-19 and our normal winter pressures mean that our public services, businesses and communities will be stretched in a way that has never been experienced before.

That is now simply a fact, and it is why the Scottish Government is putting in place a comprehensive set of arrangements based on our existing and well-established resilience processes. We will use those arrangements to oversee and manage—as best we can—our response to the concurrent challenges, together with a wide range of partners. Yesterday, the Scottish Government resilience room for those concurrent risks was activated on a seven-day-a-week basis, and the phased stand-up of the national co-ordination centre and a single Scotland-wide multi-agency co-ordination centre was commenced. The MACC is led by Police Scotland as part of the national co-ordination structure and works with national and local partners such as the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, the Scottish Ambulance Service, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, local authorities and health boards, as well as through the local resilience partnerships.

All those arrangements will build over the next four weeks and will include ministerial oversight through a winter preparedness group, convened by the Deputy First Minister, which has been meeting for some time. Meetings of a smaller ministerial group will start shortly and will become daily after Christmas. Those arrangements will become a 24-hours-a-day operation in the last week of the month and will remain at that level for as long as required.

The Scottish Government has of course been working with the UK Government to scope and exercise the arrangements and scenarios that exist. Attendance by devolved Administrations at meetings of the UK Government EU exit operations committee is by invitation only, but that occurred three times last week. After a long period in which there was limited sharing of the information needed for us to liaise effectively and to ensure that all our plans were complementary to those of the other Administrations, I am glad to say that that problem appears to have eased. Last week, we secured access to the daily dashboard, and we will be feeding into it.

We should be mindful of the fact that all those in the front line of our public services have been working at full tilt or beyond since the start of the pandemic. What is happening now will put a further strain upon them, which was another good reason for the UK to have accepted the extension of transition that was on offer this summer. I express my concern for all those staff, which I have raised at UK level.

Let me dig down a little deeper into the actual areas of activity. Along with standing up our emergency response structures, the Scottish Government has intensified preparations across the board. We are prioritising substantial work around the key themes of protecting people, protecting imports and exports of essential goods, minimising economic impact and ensuring necessary legislative changes.

As ever, it will be those who can afford it least who will be hit hardest. We know that there is a risk that households who are already struggling financially will find life even harder after EU exit, with increasing inequalities and a greater demand on local government and the third sector. That is why the First Minister announced at the end of November a £100 million package of measures to support vulnerable people, communities and the third sector, in order to help those on low incomes, children and people at risk of homelessness or social isolation cope with the economic impacts of Brexit, coronavirus and the winter weather. Work is under way, led by my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, to ensure that the money goes to where it is needed.

We are aware that the security of international supply chains has never been so important, so we have launched a new £5 million fund to help Scottish wholesale food and drink businesses, many of which have been affected by Covid-19, in order to support food supplies across the country, especially into our hospitals, care homes, schools and prisons. The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Tourism is maintaining the effective liaison with the retail sector that he undertook at the start of the first lockdown and had put in place for earlier no-deal preparations. We are particularly sensitive to issues arising at the end of food chains, many of which terminate in rural Scotland, even though they start at the short straits. Food Standards Scotland is a key partner in that activity.

Working with the other Administrations, we are doing all that we can to make sure that patients get the medicines and other medical supplies that are needed, and to ensure the continuity of those supplies. Additional freight capacity has been contracted in order to ensure that the most critical goods can reach the UK mainland without interruption.

Pharmaceutical companies have been building up stocks of medicines to mitigate potential disruption at ports. In addition to those arrangements, and in response to lessons learnt from the first wave of Covid-19, we are building a stockpile of around 60 medicines for critical care in intensive care units and supportive care at end of life, as well as supplies of Covid-19 treatments. We have in place arrangements for managing potential shortages, including the Scottish medicines shortages response group, which is clinically led. We will also be making use of new information technology reporting tools to gather real-time data on medicines stockholding and stock usage in hospitals.

Supply issues in Scotland for medical devices and clinical consumables are being managed by NHS National Services Scotland’s national procurement arm, which is building up stocks of main items at the national distribution centre. Eighty-eight per cent of products are already at the target of six weeks or above, and the remaining items are expected by mid-December.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is fully engaged in ensuring that those actions are taking place, even though she is also fully engaged in the response to the pandemic. I pay tribute to her extraordinary commitment and resilience, given the demands on her.

Scotland benefits enormously from the contributions of EU citizens who work in the health and social care sectors, as well as in other sectors, and to lose them would be disastrous for all of us. EU citizens who are currently resident and working in Scotland have the right to remain, under the withdrawal agreement. We encourage all such EU citizens to apply to the Home Office’s settled status scheme in order to exercise that right.

We understand that businesses across Scotland have been put under immense strain over the past year, and that many are struggling with the prospect of dealing with the great complexities that EU exit will bring. The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture is therefore implementing a wide range of measures to support businesses across all sectors of the Scottish economy. The building resilience steering group provides strategic leadership and co-ordination across our enterprise agencies to ensure effective delivery of the joint EU exit and Covid-19 response for Scottish businesses.

Our enterprise agencies have developed mechanisms to identify companies that we anticipate will encounter operational and financial challenges as a result of both EU exit and Covid-19, and are proactively contacting 500 such companies to provide targeted advice and guidance. In addition, our multi-agency Prepare for Brexit website, which is hosted by Scottish Enterprise, provides advice, sources of financial support and online self-assessment toolkits. Enterprise agencies are also working jointly with the UK Government on its field force programme, to provide advice to business.

We are working with seafood exporters, Scottish local authorities and logistics companies to provide an export health certificate signing service at a number of existing logistics hubs in central Scotland. In addition to relieving some of the growing Brexit and Covid burden on local authority environmental health departments, that approach, which relies on a risk-based approach to certification, will provide improved access to those certificates for our exporters.

We will continue all that work throughout the end process of the transition period and beyond, but the stark truth is that we simply cannot avert every negative outcome. All sectors of society must now do what they can to prepare, by using the resources and support that we have put in place.

Finally, there will be an increased legislative burden as a result of the current situation. This Parliament will have to be ready to meet that challenge, first in looking at requests for legislative consent motions for any bills that the UK Government finds it necessary to introduce in the coming days. That issue is being considered by the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, who will consult the Parliamentary Bureau.

It is with profound and deep regret that we find ourselves in this position of uncertainty. In the midst of a pandemic and the worst economic recession of our lives, Scotland is having to cope with the end of the transition period. The UK Government has pressed ahead with its hardline negotiating position, refusing to listen to Scotland’s voice. This catastrophic situation must be entirely owned by the ultra-Brexiteers who have taken over the Conservative Party.

We were told in 2014 not to leave but to lead. What has happened is that we have been led, not into a more equal relationship but into a cul-de-sac of insularity and insecurity. Scotland did not vote for any of this. We must now do our best to help our fellow citizens through it; we must also redouble our efforts to give the people of Scotland the choice to leave this chaos behind.

I have 20 minutes and no more for members’ questions. There is no spare time. Please make your questions succinct—I ask the cabinet secretary to do the same with his answers. I ask that particularly of members who are working remotely, because it is more difficult for you to realise that you are going beyond your time.

I thank the cabinet secretary for the advance copy of his statement.

Negotiations continue with the EU, and I remain hopeful that a deal can be reached. In the past few hours, it has been announced that agreement has been reached on the protocol governing Ireland and Northern Ireland. I noticed that the cabinet secretary did not welcome that.

Committees of Parliament have heard that large parts of the Scottish economy are ready for Brexit. The financial services sector, for example, has taken all the necessary steps to be ready, the farming sector is looking forward to shaping agricultural policy to the needs of Scottish farmers, and Scottish fishing communities want to secure access to our seas. The majority of EU free-trade agreements with third countries have been rolled over.

All that is despite, not because of, the efforts of the Scottish National Party. The SNP wants to return to the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy, and has failed to support every trade deal over the past 15 years, including free-trade agreements with Canada, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

Is it the cabinet secretary’s policy to force fishing communities to return to the common fisheries policy, amended or otherwise? Is it his policy to return Scottish farming to the common agricultural policy, reformed or otherwise? Will he explain why the SNP failed to support every trade deal over the past 15 years? Is it because the reality is that the SNP is, deep down, an anti-trade party? Is that the real reason—

No, no. You have had your—

Is that the real reason why the cabinet secretary has refused—

No. I did ask. When I say “Stop”, stop.

—to support any deal with the EU?

Sit down. You have had 1 minute and 30 seconds.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. That was a merciful ending.

It should astonish every member in this chamber that that is Dean Lockhart’s response, 23 days before we leave the EU, which will, however we leave, be damaging and harmful. When, for example, in the farming sector in my constituency—I am a constituency member—the sheep and lamb trade is facing ruin, it is utterly shameful that that is the response of the Scottish Conservatives.

No—the SNP is not anti-trade. We are pro-Scotland, and if we had a Conservative Party that was pro-Scotland we would not be in this mess.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement.

I share the cabinet secretary’s frustration and anger. This is a mess of Boris Johnson’s and the Tories’ making. That it is happening in the midst of a global pandemic in which thousands of people have lost their lives, and when people’s lives and livelihoods are still at risk, is completely unforgivable.

At this late stage, we still need to avoid no deal, but I accept that any deal will be far from ideal. Does the cabinet secretary accept that our collective focus must be on Covid recovery, rather than the two Governments focusing on their ideological obsessions? We must bring our people together, rebuild our economy, protect and create jobs, fix our education system and deliver a national health service that never again has to choose between treating patients who have a virus and treating patients who have cancer. Should not that be our collective national mission?

I am glad that Anas Sarwar agrees that the situation is a complete Tory mess, and I hope that he will continue to oppose that Tory mess. Undoubtedly, a deal of some sort is better than no deal, but there is no doubt that, whichever one is chosen, it will be very bad. That is the result of Tory ideology and Tory incompetence. Mr Sarwar may take his pick of which is more damaging.

I also accept that rebuilding is absolutely essential after the pandemic. It is wrong to talk about advantages, but there are things that we should be talking about doing—and are talking about doing—to make a much better society. We should be focused on the green recovery. We should be focused on the phrase—much abused by the UK Government, but much used across Europe—“building back better”. The key question on that is, of course, whom we trust to build back better. That is the problem that Mr Sarwar must face. Would he trust a Tory Government at Westminster to build back better or would he trust Scotland to make choices? I know which I would choose: I would choose Scotland to make the choices to build a better country and a better society.

There are 11 more questions and about 11 minutes. That is the warning.

Regardless of whether we see a UK Government very, very bad no deal, or a UK Government very, very bad deal, significant concerns have been raised about the additional burdens that will be involved in transporting to market premium Scottish products such as salmon, beef and lamb. Does the cabinet secretary share those concerns, and has he received any assurance whatever from the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson?

No, I have not, and I share those concerns. The assurances that we need are not just about seamless trade but about lack of bureaucracy at the border. Whatever happens, even if there are no tariffs there will be a major increase in bureaucracy at the border. I refer Annabelle Ewing to Jimmy McMillan of Lochfyne Langoustines, and his illustrating of that recently by demonstrating on Twitter the amount of paper that he is going to have to deal with.

The UK Government has given the Scottish Government some £214 million in Barnett consequentials, plus an additional £20 million to deal with Brexit preparedness, making a total of £234 million. Has every penny of that been spent on preparing Scotland for Brexit, and when will we see a full accounting?

We keep giving money to the Treasury and we have, undoubtedly, had some money back. However, the full accounting for that money, when it is shown, will illustrate, for example, that the promises that were made to the Scottish Government and the Scottish people about there being no detriment have been utterly false. Brexit will cost each one of us vastly more than anything the Treasury has given back—vastly more.

Three weeks ago, I asked about the impact of Brexit on road haulage and logistics. The UK Tory Government’s chaotic handling of arrangements has been described as a “shambles”, “incomprehensible”, “nonsense” from the start, “sleepwalking to disaster” and “bonkers”. Given the critical importance of the logistics sector, which employs 2.54 million people in the UK, and on which we all depend for goods and services, are we any nearer to a resolution?

It is immensely illustrative that the two Conservative questions that we have heard so far were attacks rather than examinations of the facts. The Road Haulage Association has given Parliament evidence in which it pointed out that the situation is shambolic. We have heard road hauliers say that not only do they not know how they are going to operate, but they fear that hauliers from the continent will not come in because they are so concerned about the problems. Those are facts; all that we have had from the Conservatives is propaganda—propaganda to disguise the fact that an appalling thing for which we did not vote has been foisted on Scotland. That fact alone needs to be repeated every single day, so that the people of Scotland understand what damage is being done by the Conservatives and their friends—or masters—south of the border.

At present, to verify that an EU citizen has settled status, banks and landlords can access a UK Government web portal. Many EU citizens are concerned that that system and the lack of a physical token of their status will exclude the most vulnerable people for a variety of reasons, and will result in incidents of discrimination.

Assuming that the Scottish Government can access that portal, will the cabinet secretary consider operating an on-demand service whereby the Government would provide a letter, certificate or some other physical token to EU citizens who have settled status?

That is an important question, and I am glad that Ross Greer has raised the matter with me. We have considered that approach on a number of occasions, but there are difficulties in doing so because of the artificial recognition that it might give, and because some people might not apply for or have it. The right thing was to have given people physical proof of settled status, so we should continue to argue strongly for that to be put in place. The UK Government has stepped back from illegality today, and according to Dean Lockhart, I should be celebrating that and dancing in the streets, but it has not stepped back from the poor—indeed, shameful—way that it is treating EU citizens.

We were told that Brexit was over, but the pain just goes on and on. As the First Minister—sorry, the cabinet secretary—raised independence, I say gently to him that I cannot imagine that breaking from the United Kingdom would be any less painful than this.

What specific emergency measures from the long list that he has provided to us this afternoon is the cabinet secretary most concerned about?

I am grateful to the First Minister—to the leader; we are both getting it wrong. Maybe there is something in the air today that is misleading us both.

I am glad that the member recognised the range of things that are under way—and the range is comprehensive. I do not want to single out issues that I am particularly concerned about, but there are issues such as business preparedness that are not in the gift of the Government. We can encourage people to be prepared, we can go out and talk to people and we can tell people what is available; indeed, I indicated that the enterprise agencies have been doing that. However, business preparedness also relies on businesses themselves. Many businesses are not at fault, because they have been so preoccupied with Covid that it has been difficult for them to move forward on this—I have heard that argument several times.

I know that Mr Rennie is a man who likes detail. I encourage him to imagine a better future, because that better future is independence.

I am concerned about what the situation means for our farmers. About a third of Scottish lamb is exported—98 per cent of it to the EU. What is the forecast cost to and effect on Scottish sheep farmers of the low deal that is being negotiated or of a no deal, once the transition period has ended? What are the implications for food processors more generally of the lorry queues that are expected for customs checking cargo at ports?

I share the member’s concern. There is no doubt that, in a no deal, food exporters would be faced with tariffs—in the case of lamb, for example, pretty ruinous tariffs—which would certainly make Scottish hill farming uneconomic.

With a low deal, the difficulty is the act of exporting and the additional cost that would come from additional paperwork—for example, somebody being required to undertake that task. People cannot get a customs agent for love nor money now because they are so busy. The real problem will be that exporting will be much more difficult. If it is more difficult, people will also be more reluctant to buy, because they will not want to jump through lots of hoops to buy. In the circumstances, both sets of problems will be concerning. We are trying to provide as much support as we possibly can, and I know that Fergus Ewing is working very hard with the agricultural sector and the fishing sector to help.

The environmental health officers issue that I mentioned is important—reducing the bureaucracy as much as we can is important, but it will not be possible to reduce it. That also shows the problem of concurrent risk, because environmental health officers are under a lot of pressure to assist with inspections of premises for Covid. The demands on those people are great and there are not enough of them.

Trying to change the system has been difficult; we have made some progress, but the situation will not be easy over the next few months.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the admission by the UK environment minister that there will be a modest increase in food prices exposes the blasé approach of the Tories to the impact on ordinary people of rising food costs? How can the Scottish Government help to mitigate the cost of food to ordinary people?

I accept that point, which again illustrates the refusal of the two Conservative questioners from whom we have heard so far to accept or acknowledge the fact that the UK Government has accepted that there will be an increase in prices. When the UK Government says that a price increase will be modest, I am not inclined to believe it. There will be difficulties.

The UK Government has also admitted that there will be difficulties in the supply of some items, although it has argued that there will be no shortage of food. That will greatly affect poorer families, because of the many items that will be affected.

We will do our best to guarantee support for the supply chains, where issues arise. As I said, we have made moneys available for third sector organisations and other bodies, some of which will go to help with food resilience in communities.

We must also say to people, as Pauline McNeill said openly, that the situation is unacceptable. It is the poorest—those who are furthest from society—who will suffer most greatly. We must make it clear that that is the result of a deliberate Conservative policy. That is where the problem comes from and that is what we must resolve.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that no politician who opposes Brexit could vote for any deal that the UK Government presents, because to do so would be to give our consent to an outcome that Scotland did not vote for and which will do untold damage to our country?

Given the circumstances, I cannot imagine that any politician who finds Brexit as unacceptable as we and many others do would vote in favour of that. It is absolutely no argument to say that we had better just do it to get it over and done with. We have heard that argument too often.

It is interesting that polling evidence suggests that a considerable majority of people are now against Brexit, yet, at the UK and Scottish levels, the Tories continue to pursue it as if it were the will of the majority, which it is not. Any sensible Government would have stepped back from this complete nonsense a long time ago. It is unfortunate that we do not have a sensible Government.

I call Liz Smith. [Interruption.] I will take the next person and come back to Liz Smith, whose microphone is not on. You cannot shout, as that cannot be recorded for the Official Report—you might have to move to another seat.

What additional resource has the UK Government provided to the Scottish Government and the port authorities to assist with the shipping of goods to and from Scottish ports?

There has been a lot of discussion about additional moneys for ports, but none has come into Scotland yet from the UK Government. Cairnryan is a difficult problem, with which today’s interim agreement on the protocol might assist, although I have not yet heard whether that will be the case.

As the situation has developed, the promise of no detriment and the argument that moneys would be provided have been false. Detriment is occurring and emerging in almost every area. One of the most serious outcomes of Brexit is that less money will come to Scotland. Given the scale of investment from programmes such as Erasmus+, there will be a rude awakening about the financial cost of what is taking place.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that, on food standards, which he mentioned in his statement, good progress has been made in recent weeks between the UK and Scottish Governments? Food standards are a reserved matter on the export and import side of things, whereas the rest is devolved. Does he acknowledge the good progress?

I am not sure to what the member refers. If she refers to the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, the lack of progress has been appalling. Any standards that this Parliament sets will be able to be fatally undermined by the UK Government. That is not good progress; it is a further undermining of devolution.

If the UK Government approached the bill in the way that it has done today, by finally agreeing not to implement illegality, to withdraw clauses and to support amendments from people such as Lord Hope, we might see progress. I would like progress, but the bill has so far been a big obstacle to it.

At a meeting of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee last month, the cabinet secretary said that Scottish Enterprise would contact 500 businesses by the end of November and, in his statement, he again referred to 500 businesses. Has a target been missed or are we still on course to meet the commitment to contact 1,200 businesses by the end of the year?

I understand that contact is still being undertaken, but I will ask the business secretary and the enterprise agencies to update the member.

That concludes questions on Brexit readiness. I thank members and the cabinet secretary for managing to get through all the questions.