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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 14 June 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Benefits of Independence, Education Reform Update, Business Motion, Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time, Great Bernera Community Land Buyout


Contents


Benefits of Independence

The next scheduled item of business is a statement by Angus Robertson on the benefits of independence. Yesterday afternoon, significant news that should have been announced in the chamber, as a matter of courtesy and respect to Parliament, was reported by national media, which trailed a media event this morning.

Long-established good practice guidance on announcements by the Scottish Government states that

“announcements by the Government on matters of importance”

should

“not enter the public domain before or without being communicated to the Parliament.”

The guidance goes on to say that

“where the subject matter relates to matters on which members of the public would have a clear interest, there is a strong expectation that a Ministerial statement would be scheduled with appropriate notice”,

and that

“where a Ministerial statement has been programmed ... the details of that statement should not be released to the media before the statement is made.”

It is not possible to square the Government’s action on this matter with respect for that guidance, which is designed to ensure that Parliament is given its proper place. It is my role to represent the Parliament’s interests. In doing so, I take account of all members’ interests equally. The Government is in no doubt that I do not regard its action as acceptable. In the circumstances, Parliament’s time will be used best by moving straight to questions.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Conservative members have heard very clearly your standing up for the role of the Parliament and parliamentarians in the parties. I am sorry that the First Minister could not be here in person to listen to your views.

What we heard from Nicola Sturgeon today was an announcement that more of the Scottish Government’s resources and time will, all over again, be wasted on its drive to separate Scotland from the United Kingdom. We heard from the First Minister that Scotland now faces a clear choice between two futures in the crucial years following the Covid pandemic. We can focus on rebuilding Scotland or, as the Scottish National Party wants, on dividing Scotland. Pushing for another divisive referendum—perhaps even an illegal wildcat referendum, as Nicola Sturgeon suggested earlier—is the wrong priority at the worst possible time.

The people of Scotland want the focus to be on the huge challenges that we face. We want the Government’s focus to be on creating better jobs and opportunities, and on improving public services. Instead, the SNP Government just offers more distraction, disruption and division. In the middle of a global cost of living crisis, the SNP is diverting resources and public money away from the front line. Nicola Sturgeon pushes her obsession with separation by asking, “Why not Scotland?”

Let me ask a better question. Why not improve Scotland now? Why not use the powers of this Parliament, which the Government has right now, to improve the lives of the people of Scotland? Why not create better Scottish jobs now? Why not restore Scottish schools now? Why not tackle Scotland’s drug deaths shame now? Why not build a ferry in Scotland now?

This Government is obsessed with independence, when it should be obsessed with delivering for Scotland now. Therefore, I ask the Government just one thing. Please, give it a rest and focus on the priorities that people across Scotland have now.

Clearly, it is an inconvenient truth for Conservative members that 72 of 129 members who were elected by the people of Scotland last year were elected on a manifesto commitment to deliver an independence referendum during this parliamentary session. That independence-supporting majority is larger than the majority at any previous Holyrood election. For anyone who believes in parliamentary democracy—I assume that that includes all 129 members—that should not be shrugged off as an inconvenient fact to be ignored, but should instead be taken as a democratic instruction from the people of Scotland.

Opposition members are where they are because they and their anti-independence ticket were rejected by the people of Scotland. This Government was elected because we are committed to the people having their say.

The paper that was released today provides crucial context for the rest of the independence prospectus series. I note that Douglas Ross did not ask a single question relating to the document. I commend it to Parliament and to colleagues, and I look forward to debating the independence referendum, which we intend will take place next year, following the express wishes of the people of Scotland, who elected a majority of members of the Scottish Parliament who are in favour of holding such a referendum.

Members who wish to ask a question should, please, press their request-to-speak buttons now.

This is clearly going to be the first of several last-minute announcements, when the First Minister has made a press announcement then the cabinet secretary comes to the chamber so that we can ask questions about a lengthy report that has just been published. Does the cabinet secretary not appreciate the irony of launching a report that talks about the importance of doing better a week after his statement on this year’s census failures, which he was in charge of but is yet to take responsibility for?

With hundreds of thousands of Scots being forced to choose between heating and eating, surely we need to build recovery—[Interruption.]

Colleagues! We will not get very far this afternoon, and we will unfortunately not be able to hear all the members who want to ask a question if I have to keep asking for a bit of quiet for the member who is speaking. Even where we disagree, we all owe one another the courtesy of hearing one another respectfully.

With hundreds of thousands of Scots being forced to choose between heating and eating, surely we need to build recovery from the pandemic, and to deal with the pressures that our national health service faces because of Scottish National Party mismanagement.

Today’s report outlines how we could be like other nations, but is it not true that the Parliament could make similar decisions now on co-operative energy, but the SNP-Green Government decided not to follow the example of Nordic countries and instead decided to sell off our sea bed? Given that the report says that

“An independent Scotland could not be transformed to match the success of the comparator countries overnight”,

and that we have been told that it would be “Brexit times 10”, will the cabinet secretary admit that independence would make Brexit look like a walk in the park?

No, I do not agree with the Labour spokesperson. Independence is about Scotland’s recovery from Brexit, and from Tory rule and Boris Johnson. At its heart, it is a question of democracy.

What is sorely lacking—unsurprisingly from the Conservatives, but disappointingly from the Labour front bench, which has a long tradition of supporting Scottish democracy—is the basic acknowledgement that, in the election that was held last year, candidates who support a referendum on Scotland’s independence won the election, and the Conservative Party and Labour Party lost the election.

I will move on to the substance of the issue. Scotland is not a region of a unitary state. We are a country in what the Welsh Labour Government calls a “voluntary association of nations”. We have a right to decide our own future. All of us should support that. As democrats, we should endorse the fact that a referendum should take place. We will be on different sides of the argument, but please do not deny the people of Scotland their say—which is, in effect, what we have heard from the Labour front bench.

The First Minister described Scotland as “a nation in waiting”. We are exactly that. We are waiting for ambulances and cancer care, long Covid clinics and mental health appointments for our children. We are waiting for overdue ferries and replacement bus services for cancelled trains, for progress on pupil attainment and on the climate emergency, and for help with the biggest hit to household incomes since the end of rationing. We are tired of waiting, so I ask the cabinet secretary why every single one of those priorities has now fallen behind the break-up of the United Kingdom in the queue for this Government’s attention.

Now we have all the Opposition parties lining up in their agreement of democracy denial. It is a sad day when illiberal anti-democrats stand up and suggest that we should not go forward with a democratic vote about the future of the country. It is, frankly, shameful. We will be on different sides of the argument about Scotland’s future, but they should, please, not come to the chamber and say that the people of Scotland cannot have their say after they voted in an election to be able to do just that.

They say that change is made inevitable when parties fundamentally diverge based on their values. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is important to contrast our vision, which is based on democracy and ethical values, with that of the failing UK state? In particular, does the cabinet secretary agree that today’s news regarding the willingness of the UK to break international treaty obligations and, domestically, to shield dramatic levels of financial corruption is merely a glimpse of the folly of dependence, while independence is a harbinger of a very different and better future?

I agree with Michelle Thomson that a better future is possible. That is what we are steering towards.

What has been published today is an analysis that compares the UK with all of our neighbour states—Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands. They are our neighbouring countries. What do they all have in common? They are all wealthier—some significantly—than the UK. The wealth gap is lower, income inequality in those countries is lower, poverty rates are lower, and there are fewer children living in poverty. The comparator countries have higher social mobility and most have a smaller gender pay gap. They have higher productivity than the UK, gross expenditure on research and development is higher in most of them, and business investment is higher, too.

Those are the differences between the United Kingdom and all our neighbouring countries in 2021. The time is coming for us to embrace a better future. We will do that through a democratic vote for independence. We have options: they are the status quo of Brexit Britain under Boris Johnson, or an independent Scotland that is run by the people who were actually elected by the people who live in this country.

Have the Scottish Government’s law officers been asked to give an opinion on whether a referendum that is run without a section 30 agreement would be lawful?

Today’s statement is about the opening publication in the series—[Interruption.]

Members! Thank you. We will hear the cabinet secretary.

As the First Minister said earlier, this is the first in a series of publications. More publications will follow covering the full range of issues, including how a referendum will take place. Murdo Fraser will just have to cool his jets—[Interruption.]

A year on from the election, I am fairly sure that all members are aware that if I have not called them to speak, they should not be speaking.

I have pretty much said everything that needs to be said to Murdo Fraser. However, perhaps I could take this opportunity, at the end of my answer, to invite him—I hope, as a fellow democrat—to agree, given that the people of Scotland have voted for a majority in Parliament who want a referendum, that a referendum should take place.

Eight years ago, in 2014, pensioners were told to vote no or they would lose their state pensions. Does the cabinet secretary agree with me—I am a pensioner—that with one of the worst state pensions in Europe, and with each pensioner now losing £500 a year as the United Kingdom ditches the triple lock, Scotland’s pensioners would benefit from independence?

The facts about pension levels are there for all to see in the comparisons with other countries, whose pensioners are significantly better off than pensioners in the UK. Pensions will be explored in greater detail in one of the forthcoming papers in the series, but it is a statement of fact that pensioners are significantly worse off in the UK, so I look forward to their having a better future in an independent Scotland.

The paper is light on detail and heavy on cherry-picked examples, but the First Minister confirmed one thing today when she said:

“If we are in the Single Market, and the rest of the UK is outside the Single Market, then yes there are issues in terms of regulatory and customs requirements”.

The Government paints a rosy picture of trading bliss within the EU, but glosses over the barriers and challenges that lie in the way. The paper that was published today says next to nothing about the actual practicalities of independence. Will the cabinet secretary take the opportunity now to confirm to the democratically elected members of the Parliament, as the First Minister did in her answer to a journalist, that with independence, there would be a hard border between Scotland and the rest of the UK? What analysis has the Government done on the impact that that would have on Scotland’s businesses, economy and wider public services?

It is obviously news to the Labour Party that a border is already being built, because of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Border infrastructure is currently being built in Scotland to deal with trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is the fact of the situation—it is happening already.

The issue of borders, which is a perfectly legitimate area of inquiry, will be in a future document, at which stage no doubt—

Members: Oh!

Well, there is obviously great demand for these sessions—[Interruption.]

Thank you! We will hear the cabinet secretary.

Despite the faux outrage of the Tories, I look forward to being able to discuss all areas of the prospectus in the run-up to the referendum.

I also extend my hand to colleagues in the Labour Party, as I have to colleagues in the Conservative Party, to find agreement on one point, if we are going to disagree about everything else: as democrats, can we please sign up to the fact that the people of Scotland are sovereign? They have voted to have a say on the subject and that is exactly what they should have.

In the challenging times that we are living through, this is an exciting moment to be discussing the opportunities of Scottish independence. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the Scotland that we see now offers hope for the positive, progressive vision of independence that we can pursue more fully with the full powers of independence, such as a social security system that treats people with dignity, fairness and respect, a sustainable and affordable housing system that is fit for the future and an entrepreneurial economy that promotes world-leading standards in fair work and wellbeing?

I totally agree with Emma Roddick. To be able to deliver all those things, we need to have the powers in the Parliament so that we can make the decisions about the ambitions that she has outlined, and that is exactly what this Government is committed to doing.

I hope that, when we move past the faux outrage that we have heard from the Opposition members whose parties lost the election on this issue, we can move on to discussing the substance of issues such as pensions. I look forward to being able to debate those issues in the months ahead, and to moving on to the referendum campaign itself, and I would welcome it if colleagues from the Opposition parties were able to get up at any stage and paint a rosier or better picture of Scotland as part of the United Kingdom in Boris Johnson’s Brexit Britain.

Let me try. John Kay, a leading economist and former adviser to the Scottish Government, warned that an independent Scotland would start off with £180 billion of debt and would be forced to borrow £20 billion annually to plug the huge black hole in public finances. Does the cabinet secretary seriously believe that saddling Scotland with that level of debt is either fiscally prudent or what businesses in Scotland really want?

What Liz Smith failed to mention is that the United Kingdom has had one of the biggest debts of any country in the European Union, so we will take no lessons from those on the Conservative front bench.

It is eminently better for us to be able to make decisions closer to home on all the key issues. I invite Liz Smith to have a look at the document, which rests on reputable statistics of a high standard from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and others, and ask herself why it is the case that all our neighbouring countries are significantly better off than Scotland is in the United Kingdom.

I know that it must be a very difficult read when confronted with the facts, but the facts are the facts, and they show that our neighbouring countries are significantly better off. I suggest that that is a much better future for Scotland, rather than a United Kingdom with its mountain of debt.

It is always better to make our own decisions than to leave them to our next-door neighbour, and for unionists the time is never right.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that Scotland, like other independent nations from Australia to Canada to New Zealand and, indeed, the United States—which had to fight for independence, not just vote for it—will flourish with the self-confidence, ideas and innovation that independence inspires? Does he also agree that we will be able to harness our economy and natural resources and work globally as an equal partner in the family of nations to deliver prosperity for all who live and work here?

I agree with Kenneth Gibson. Not only will we be one of the wealthiest countries to have become independent, but we will have more institutions in place in the run-up to the forthcoming referendum than we had in the run-up to the 2014 referendum. That will give a great many people who are open-minded about the prospect of voting yes the assurance that they need that a Scotland in charge of its own destiny is a significantly better prospect than leaving it up to people whom we have not elected—and, incidentally, from a party that has not won a single election in Scotland since 1955—to make bad decisions on our behalf.

There is a better future in prospect. There will be different views about the merits of the case, but we should all agree that we have elected a Government to deliver on a referendum. That is exactly what should happen.

Today’s paper notes that inequality and poverty rates are lower across a number of countries comparable to Scotland. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, given that organised workforces are the most powerful way of raising wages and thereby lifting families out of working poverty and that the UK has some of the worst anti-worker and anti-union laws in Europe, independence gives us the opportunity instead to make Scotland one of the best countries in the world in which to work and to organise in the workplace?

Yes, it does, and that is exactly what our neighbouring countries have done. One of the interesting aspects of the research on this question is that there is no fits-all approach across our comparative neighbouring countries. There are different models—some that Ross Greer might find to be closer to his political heart and others that centre-right politicians might see as the right way forward. What is interesting is that all of those countries, across the piece and almost without exception in terms of the metrics, are better off. What appears to be key to the success of them all is that they are able to make better decisions for themselves.

Incidentally, I note that, with the exception of Switzerland, every single one of our comparator countries has, in relatively recent historical memory, been part of a wider union and decided that it was better for them to make decisions closer to home. They managed it, and I am sure that we will manage just as well.

Independence will allow all decisions, in every aspect of Scottish society, to be put in the hands of the democratically elected Scottish Parliament. Can the cabinet secretary reaffirm that that will allow this Parliament to reverse the harms that have been created by consecutive UK Governments and to build a fairer and more inclusive Scotland that values human rights as well as the wellbeing of our citizens? Will he also reaffirm that no Government should deny the people of Scotland the right to take that decision?

Indeed I will. However, this is about much more than just ameliorating harms; it is about making better decisions for the future. One thing that is very close to my heart—as it should be to the majority in the chamber and across parties who believe that we should be in the European Union—is the restoration of EU citizenship rights to everybody in this country, which is something that I look forward to.

There is absolutely no chance that either a UK Tory Government or even a Labour UK Government is going to see Scotland, while part of the UK, re-enter the European Union. The only way to do that is for Scotland to be an independent member state; that is the way that we can rejoin the European Union. In all the conversations that I have had with a great many European politicians, there is a significant appetite for Scotland to become a member of the EU again. I look forward to that greatly.

This whole statement and this morning’s media circus are a shameful deflection from the priorities of the people of Scotland. The SNP’s agenda of separation is rarely if ever stated as a priority by the Scottish people; indeed, the SNP likes to talk about anything other than the people’s priorities. Today, my colleagues and I submitted a raft of urgent questions about issues that impact the everyday lives of the people of Scotland—health, education, transport, justice, net zero and jobs—but here we are talking about the same old SNP obsession.

Let me help the cabinet secretary. Will he apologise to Parliament and the Presiding Officer for the contempt that he, his boss and his Government have shown Parliament today?

Talk about deflection, Presiding Officer. I am just asking myself whether the Stephen Kerr who just asked that question is the Stephen Kerr who ran in the Scottish Parliament elections last year in Falkirk West and came third. If it is the same Stephen Kerr, and I imagine that it is—[Interruption.] Is it not the same Stephen Kerr? Was it another Stephen Kerr who stood in Falkirk West? I do think that it was the same Stephen Kerr who was defeated in Falkirk West.

Why this is relevant—[Interruption.]

Members!

Why this is relevant is that in that election, Stephen Kerr stood in that constituency asking for the vote of electors in opposition to a referendum, and he lost. The candidate who stood for the Scottish National Party in that constituency won. I know that humility does not come easily to Stephen Kerr. However, perhaps as a fellow democrat—I hope that he is a fellow democrat—he will acknowledge, as an election loser, that the people who won and the Government that is in office were elected to deliver a referendum, and that is what should take place.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I hope that the cabinet secretary is not implying in any way whatsoever that regionally elected members of Parliament are in any way inferior to constituency members. If that is the case, he should apologise to each and every one of us.

Thank you, Mr Greene. As that is not a point of order or a matter for the chair, I will move on to the next question.

I start by reminding members that I did not come third.

How can the Government give us a preferred date for a referendum, but not a date for closing the education attainment gap? What does the cabinet secretary think that that says about the Government’s priorities?

I look forward to the proposed date for the independence referendum being confirmed in good time. It will take place in the autumn of next year, as has been outlined by the Government. That is what this Government has been elected to do, and that is what we are working towards.

There is something that I hope that Conservative members will impress on their UK colleagues, given the great many quotes on it from many people. Indeed, I came across an interesting quote on this very question from Ruth Davidson, who said that, if political parties

“get over the line and can make a coalition, make a majority, get the votes in the Parliament, then they’ll vote through a referendum. That’s what democracy is all about.”

Hopefully the Conservative benches still agree with that.

Some of the rhetoric that we have heard paints independence as a terrifying and unprecedented journey and a terrible risk for Scotland. Will the cabinet secretary point out, as the new paper lays out so clearly, the many examples in northern Europe and across the wider world that illustrate the simple fact that independence is normal for middle-sized, internationalist and progressive democracies such as our own?

I totally agree, and I observe that, of the 10 comparator countries—our neighbouring comparatively sized countries in northern Europe—nine were previously in unions and governed or were governed by neighbouring countries. Not a single one of them has thought it a good idea to give up its independence and return to being governed by a neighbouring country. It is good enough for them to govern themselves—in fact, it is more than that; it is much better than how we are governed as part of the UK. This is a great idea, and the fact that all those countries have done it should give us inspiration to get on with it.

Health inequalities and poor life expectancy are exacerbated by a welfare system that punishes and sanctions—that has been the view of successive witnesses at the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee over the past month. Does a Scottish social security and welfare system not present a seismic opportunity for the people of an independent Scotland, who have suffered as a result of being dependent for decades on the broken institutions of the UK? Do those people not deserve a chance to vote on their future?

Yes, they do. Obviously, a Scottish social security system is developing, but the majority of social security powers still rest with the UK Government. We have shown that, with limited powers, we can do much; with independence, we can do much more. That is an additional reason for having the referendum and for voting yes in it—it will be transformational for people in this country.

That concludes the ministerial statement on the benefits of independence. Before we move to the next item of business, I will allow a moment or two for the front benches to reorganise.