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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 14 March 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Inclusive and Accessible Tourism, Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, Decision Time, Play Scotland (Play Charter)


Topical Question Time

Article 50

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding triggering article 50. (S5T-00444)

The Scottish Government has been pressing the UK Government since December last year to give serious consideration to the proposals that are outlined in “Scotland’s Place in Europe” through the joint ministerial committee framework and via bilaterals with the UK Government. Despite a range of meetings and repeated requests for involvement, there has been no formal response to the Scottish Government’s proposals; no consultation on the terms of the article 50 notification letter or clarity on the timing of when article 50 will be invoked; and no substantive discussion about what role the Scottish Government might take in the negotiations once article 50 has been triggered.

Last July, the Prime Minister came to Scotland and promised that she would not trigger article 50 without first securing a UK-wide approach. In fact, she said:

“I’m willing to listen to options and I’ve been very clear ... today that I want the Scottish government to be fully engaged in our discussion.”

From the minister’s first-hand experience of the JMC discussions, can he say to what extent the UK Government has been willing to reach a position that fulfils that promise by the Prime Minister?

Regrettably, I have seen no such willingness. The terms of reference of the joint ministerial committee (European Union negotiations) say that one of the purposes is to

“work collaboratively to ... seek to agree a UK approach to, and objectives for, Article 50 negotiations”.

At no time has information been brought to the JMC that would allow us to do so. It is that frustration, among others, that gives the lie to any claim that there has been some attempt to engage. There has certainly been no attempt to do so with the Scottish Government, and I know that that has been the view of ministers of other devolved Administrations, too.

Yesterday, the First Minister announced that the people of Scotland will get a choice on their future. They will decide what they want and will not be told what they are getting by a Tory Government that has one member of Parliament in Scotland. How will the Scottish Government ensure that the will of this Parliament is respected if we seek a section 30 order from the UK Tory Government to give the people of Scotland their right to choose their future in a referendum?

It will be for the Parliament to request a section 30 order and then it will be for the UK Government to respond. If the Parliament expresses that will, I find it difficult to believe that anybody who is a democrat and who believes in democratic decision making would—[Interruption.] I hear the Tories laughing at democracy—not for the first time in Scotland. I find it difficult to believe that, in a democracy, that would not be respected.

Of course, the precedent of the referendum in 2014 is that it should be for the Scottish Parliament to decide on such matters. That is absolutely correct. If the Scottish Parliament seeks a section 30 order, to try to thwart that will not, in any sense, be a democratic move.

Given that, yesterday, the First Minister jumped the gun by issuing uncalled for and unilateral demands for a second independence referendum to break Britain up, why should UK Government ministers now take Scottish ministers into their trust at all on the UK’s Brexit negotiations?

I hope that the UK Government is made of more thoughtful stuff than Mr Tomkins. A moment’s consideration would make people realise—and there has been some difference of opinion on this—that the right way forward for Scotland is to ensure that the people have their say. The request from the First Minister and—if it is followed—by the Parliament, is very clear: to do so within the same timescale as the article 50 process as set out in the treaty. That is a fair thing to do, and it is fair to do it in a civilised and constructive fashion.

As a member of the JMC(EN), I do not feel that I have been taken into the UK Government’s confidence on any occasion, but I will be quite happy if it chooses to take me into its confidence now.

The minister will recall that, last month, he told a House of Commons select committee that the so-called article 50 letter should remain at the top of the agenda for discussion, including

“the way in which that letter will make mention of the devolved administrations and their requirements, including that of differentiation”.

Does he not recognise that it is the First Minister who has taken all those issues off the top of the agenda this week in order to launch her campaign for Scotland to leave the UK even before the article 50 letter has been sent? Will he tell us what was so pressing for Nicola Sturgeon that she needed to say what she did yesterday without having heard the response for which he says he has been pressing for all these months?

Two considerations need to be taken into account. First—the First Minister said this, but I will repeat the point as a member of the JMC(EN)—I have no idea when the article 50 letter will be lodged. I have no idea what is in it. We know that there are 17 possible days—actually 16, as the commitment is not to do it on 25 March. Speaking as a member of the JMC(EN), I think that the fact that I do not know when it is going to happen and have not had any discussion of any sort about what is in the letter rather indicates that there is not a seriousness of purpose, even on the question of how long the letter should be, which has been the subject of debate.

Secondly, what the First Minister did yesterday shows her leadership in this matter from the very beginning in being absolutely clear that we will bring the maximum certainty that we can bring. Unfortunately, it is not within our gift to wish away the foolishness of the Tories in the matter nor to wish away the way in which the Scottish Tories are not listening to the people of Scotland but listening only to themselves and to London, but it is within our gift to ensure that the period of uncertainty is kept to a minimum and to do this within the window of the article 50 process. The First Minister showed leadership yesterday. If only there was leadership in the chamber from the Tories and Labour, we might be in a different position.

Does the Scottish Government want to see an independent Scotland as a full member of the European Union?

The Scottish Government’s position on that matter has not changed; it continues to be the same as it has been. As the First Minister said yesterday, our policy has been to seek full membership of the European Union. She said:

“Obviously we are in different circumstances now ... But on this issue, as on all of the many other issues that people will want to consider in advance of a choice ... we will set out our proposition in advance of that choice so that it is an informed choice.”

Mike Rumbles knows perfectly well that I have been a long-term proponent of the benefits of EU membership. Perhaps if that issue had been pursued with more vigour by the Liberal party among others, we would not be in the unhappy position that we are in now.

The minister will be aware that, last week, the Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee published a report that concluded that

“a bespoke solution for Scotland must be considered before ... Article 50 is triggered.”

Does he agree that it is unacceptable for the UK Government to continue to be so stubbornly averse to respecting the views of the Scottish Parliament at every turn; that, so far, Theresa May has failed to treat Scotland as an equal partner; and that, if anyone is guilty of “tunnel vision”, it is the UK Prime Minister?

I could not disagree with that thesis. The reality is that the “tunnel vision” has come from the Prime Minister, who has not, I am afraid, facilitated the possibility of an agreement on a compromise position.

I have read the committee’s report, which we will debate in the chamber tomorrow. Suffice it to say that the conclusions that the committee reached are not dissimilar to those that the Scottish Government has reached. A differential solution was possible and it is much to be regretted that there has been a refusal to engage with the Scottish Government—for example, on the issue of migration. Last week, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson unilaterally ruled out such a solution while a high-level group of civil servants was still discussing migration issues. In other words, we were not negotiating; there was an ex cathedra pronouncement from Downing Street, which was meant to settle the matter. I am afraid that it does not.

The minister demands that the Westminster Government respects a resolution in the Scottish Parliament although, of course, the Scottish Government now routinely ignores those. Given that the First Minister has said that she will disavow and campaign against any agreement that is reached on the terms of withdrawal from the European Union, why should the Governments of Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, Gibraltar or the rest of the UK have any confidence in the participation of Scottish Government ministers, whose sole objective now is to campaign for independence and not for the best terms for Scotland out of the European Union?

I find myself in agreement with many of the things that ministers from other Administrations have said about the process. I think that, most recently, the Welsh minister indicated in his evidence to the House of Commons committee that the JMC(EN) was less well organised than St Fagans community council. That conforms with my views.

The reality is that we can work together to try to continue to make some progress, because the issues are serious. This is a serious moment. If Jackson Carlaw is suggesting that there should be an exclusion of one part of these islands from any further discussion, that would send a very interesting message to the European Union. That is not the observing of due process; that is saying, “Take it or lump it.” That, of course, has been the Prime Minister’s view up until now.

Will the minister remind members what mandate the Government has to give people in Scotland the right to choose between a damaging hard Tory Brexit and becoming an independent country?

I am sure that the Scottish Tories do not wish to remember last year’s election in which they did so badly—it is why we are sitting here, with double the number of seats, and they are sitting there.

The manifesto on which Mr McKee and I—indeed, all the members on the SNP side of the chamber—stood contains these words:

“the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum ... if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”

That is very clear.

I remind the Scottish Tories that we are sitting here and they are sitting there. We stood on that mandate.

If Scotland were to leave the EU as part of the UK and, at a future date, seek to rejoin the EU—whether as part of the UK or not—will the minister and the Government give a 100 per cent commitment to support the holding of a referendum before that could take place?

When the proposition is put to the people of Scotland, there will be absolute clarity on what we are suggesting be done. If Mr Findlay could show the patience for that, perhaps he would also accept the bona fides of a Government that, on all occasions, has been unequivocal in its support for the European Union—something that one could not say about Mr Findlay.

Article 50 will be triggered with no protections in place for EU nationals living in the UK. Yesterday, Labour was still making the ludicrous claim that it will challenge the UK Government’s Brexit plans at every turn. So far, that party has failed to provide any opposition to the Tories or to stand up for EU nationals. Surely the Labour Party will not fail to give the people of Scotland a choice over their own future, will it?

The Labour Party position is, to put it kindly, confused. However, confusion is one thing, but voting against the rights of EU citizens is quite another. Yesterday, some Labour members in the House of Commons did that, which was disgraceful.

The position of this chamber has been, and continues to be, clear: EU nationals should not be used as bargaining counters. However, yesterday evening, the Tory party whipped its members to vote to use EU nationals as bargaining counters. Some Labour members voted in support of that Tory motion. The people of Scotland can judge for themselves who is standing up for the rights of human beings and who is not.

The minister lectures Parliament about the importance of respecting democracy. What respect do the minister and the Scottish Government have for democracy when they want to stampede the country into a divisive referendum that no one wants? It has been only two years since we had a clear, democratic vote in favour of staying in the United Kingdom.

Clearly, Mr Kelly is not a Corbynista. The reality is that Mr Corbyn is quite happy to accept the democratic right of Scotland to hold such a referendum.

I return to my earlier point. I stood—the people around me stood—for election to this chamber on a manifesto that referred to Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will. I am standing full square on the mandate that I have; so is this party. If only Labour were thinking of Scotland rather than of its threadbare self.