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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 14, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 14 November 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Products (United States Tariffs), Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Policy Advice (Records Retention)

To ask the Scottish Government how long it keeps electronic and written records of policy advice to ministers. (S5O-03753)

Confirmation of the retention and disposal schedules that are applied to Scottish Government information is provided in our records management plan, which is available on the Scottish Government website.

In the interests of being helpful to my friend Mr Mountain, I advise him that the time for which information on the Government’s electronic records system remains open, before it is closed and the file is destroyed, archived or reviewed, is a defined number of years, according to the nature of the file. In relation to policy advice, I understand that the period is up to 15 years.

Will the minister confirm for how long the Scottish Government keeps electronic and written records of ministers’ notes? Is it for the same period of time?

Mr Mountain and the Conservatives have, misguidedly, been focusing on that issue over the past few days, so perhaps it would be useful for me to explain, once and for all, how the system works. The policy that is used for handling notes in ministerial offices predates this Government. It was introduced in 2004-05 by the Scottish Executive, not by the current First Minister. There has been no change in the handling of hand-written notes under the First Minister, with the practice remaining the same as it was under her predecessors.

It was agreed that, from 2004-05 onwards, responses from ministers are to be relayed by ministerial offices to the relevant policy teams that are responsible for maintaining the official record. It is not the responsibility of ministerial offices to keep the official record. The Scottish Government is confident that we comply with all records management requirements.

European Structural Funds (Replacement)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government about the replacement of European structural funds support after Brexit. (S5O-03754)

The UK Government has committed to rolling out a successor programme to the European structural funds, post-European Union exit, called the UK shared prosperity fund. Following initial discussions in late 2018 and early 2019, the UK Government failed to provide any clarity on the details of the fund. That is still the case. The Scottish Government will continue to press the UK Government on the matter.

Against that background of uncertainty, this Government is undertaking a consultation to ensure that stakeholders are empowered to shape the development of the Scottish approach to any potential replacement.

In any future negotiations, what guarantees can be given that the Highlands and Islands will continue to have geographic disparities recognised—specifically, remoteness, scarcity and the islands dimension?

The member will be aware of my commitment to those issues, particularly given the constituency that I represent. However, there have been no such commitments from the UK Government. The UK Government, in its only statement on the fund, indicated that it would endeavour to use the moneys to support the UK industrial strategy. To me, that does not sound as though the UK Government will be responsive to the needs of rural Scotland.

Yesterday, I met the Scottish Cities Alliance, and the convener of Highland Council phoned in to the meeting. There was the view that there needs to be a strong Scottish dimension, and that the flexibility that existed in the structural funds programme should continue to exist. Of course, the Scottish Government has made it clear that the devolved settlement must be recognised in any new system of distributing the funds.

The Scottish Government looks forward to hearing views through the consultation that we are undertaking. I would welcome David Stewart’s participation in the consultation, so that he can give his views. We will bring forward our own proposals. However, as with many things with Brexit, in the end, it will depend on the UK Government’s decision. So far, it appears to be mired in confusion and without any ability to say what it wants to achieve or how it will achieve it.

Referendums (Scotland) Bill

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the progress of the Referendums (Scotland) Bill. (S5O-03755)

I am pleased to say that the Referendums (Scotland) Bill was backed by members following the stage 1 debate last week and will now continue to stage 2.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that very to-the-point response.

In September, the Scottish National Party Government announced plans for 13 bills, but now those have been moved aside in favour of one that was not announced—the indyref 2 bill—which the SNP Government is trying to push through before the end of this year. When did the SNP decide that legislation on animal welfare, rural support, hate crime and warm homes is less important than its indyref 2 obsession?

I can only presume that the member is misinformed, because I am quite sure that he would not wish to say to Parliamentr something that is not true. The legislative programme remains as it was announced in the programme for government. That is, and will continue to be, the situation. The pressure on the legislative programme does not come from decisions of the Scottish Government on additional bills; it comes from the utter chaos at Westminster. I believe that I am right in saying that not a single bill has been brought forward at Westminster for matters other than Brexit in the past six months; there might have been one or two minor aspects of legislation on such matters. Westminster is in utter chaos with Brexit.

The right thing for Mr Bowman to do would be to reflect on the complete failure of the Tories in government in the United Kingdom. It is not time to cast aspersions on the Scottish Government, which is delivering its legislative programme precisely as it promised to do.

General Election (Effect on Scottish Government Business)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the United Kingdom general election will have on the business of the Scottish Government. (S5O-03756)

During the period leading up to the UK general election, by long-standing convention, the Scottish Government will normally avoid making any announcements that could influence, or might reasonably be perceived to influence, the UK election campaign.

However, the Scottish Government continues to proceed with business that is necessary to ensure the proper and effective functioning of government and public services. The Scottish ministers continue to carry out their functions, supported by the civil service, in the usual way.

The same principles apply to the UK Government during the period prior to any Scottish Parliament election.

The public and parliamentarians are well aware of the extensive drain on public resources that is being caused by Brexit. Does the minister agree that the UK Government’s delayed budget, which is a consequence of the upcoming Brexit-focused election, will exacerbate those pressures and negatively affect this devolved Administration?

The Scottish Government is working extensively to prepare for the potential consequences of a European Union exit. As of March 2019, around 500 full-time-equivalent staff in the Scottish Government were engaged in EU exit-related work. The Scottish Government is prioritising activity in areas that will be heavily impacted by Brexit, most notably the economy, transport, food and drink, medicines, agriculture and the rural economy.

The 2019-20 budget had been prepared on the assumption that the UK would leave the EU with a deal and that there would be an orderly transition. Very difficult decisions on prioritisation would need to be taken in the event that we left without a deal.

Legislative Priorities (Advice)

To ask the Scottish Government what advice it has received from the permanent secretary regarding its legislative priorities for the remainder of the parliamentary session. (S5O-03757)

With the support of the civil service, the Scottish Government continuously assesses its future legislative priorities. Subject to the risk of an unwelcome diversion of resources caused by Brexit, we remain committed to bringing before Parliament the ambitious legislative programme that was set out by the First Minister in this year’s programme for government.

Papers obtained by the Scottish Conservatives show that civil servants have deprioritised policy areas to work on the Scottish National Party’s indyref 2 plans. When will the SNP Government put schools, hospitals and policing ahead of its indyref 2 obsession and stop blaming all its problems on the Westminster Government?

No Scottish Government bills have had to be reprioritised as a result of work on issues relating to independence. By contrast, five bills and 38 Scottish statutory instruments had to be deferred earlier this year because of the disruption that was caused by the need to make preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

Brexit (No-deal Planning)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its no-deal Brexit planning. (S5O-03758)

The Scottish Government undertook extensive preparation for a potential no-deal exit from the EU on 31 October, as set out in our “Scottish Government overview of ‘no deal’ Brexit preparations” document, which was published on 8 October.

Although an extension to article 50 has been agreed, as a responsible Government, we will continue to do everything that we can do to prepare until the threat of a no-deal Brexit is ruled out, and we will continue to keep Parliament updated. However, it simply will not be possible to mitigate all the impacts of leaving the EU without a deal, should that transpire.

As the cabinet secretary will be aware, Tory Government ministers are on the record as ruling out extending the transition period past 2020. Under the terms of Boris Johnson’s deal, if no free-trade agreement is reached by the end of 2020 and no extension is in place, we will, in effect, again face the cliff edge of a hugely disastrous no-deal Brexit, with all the damage to jobs and livelihoods that it will cause.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the only way to guarantee that a no-deal Brexit is permanently taken off the table is for Scotland to become an equal and independent member of the European Union?

Unsurprisingly, I agree whole-heartedly with Keith Brown. As he said, that is the only way that we can move on from constant uncertainty to a position of certainty about the future. [Interruption.]

A Conservative voice is making noises on the other side of the chamber. Conservatives make noises about this issue because they know the inevitability—

Because they are right.

The Conservatives may try to talk me down, but I will continue to assert the inevitability of the democratic right to allow the people of Scotland to choose their future. That is absolutely unanswerable, in terms of democracy.

You ignore referendums.

The Tories can shout and argue as much as they want, but they are not democrats if they do not accept that.

I will make another point with regard to the EU position. An interesting contribution has been made in the past 24 hours by Phil Hogan, who is about to become the European Union trade commissioner, with responsibility for the trade negotiations with the UK. He has been clear about the timescale and what is expected. On the timescale, he has said that a deal could be done within 12 months, but that that can happen only if there is absolutely complete and permanent acceptance by the United Kingdom of the level playing field. However, as we know, there is a huge reluctance on the part of the UK to sign up to that and, now that the Tory party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Brexit Party, there will be absolute refusal to do so.

I have to say that we are in for a very rocky ride indeed. That is another reason why Scotland should choose independence.

Can the Scottish Government provide me with an update on its planning in relation to potential medicines shortages that might result from a catastrophic no-deal exit from our European neighbours?

There are great concerns regarding medicine supplies, which we must take extremely seriously. A lot of work has been done by the Scottish Government to ensure continuity of supply. However, nothing can ever be completely guaranteed, so in the circumstances we will have to ensure that we keep under review all the issues related to stockpiling of medicines, all the issues that relate to ensuring that priority goods are given priority, and all the considerations that exist in respect of a range of other issues, as we did in our no-deal preparations.

It is utterly irresponsible of any Government to create circumstances in which people who are vulnerable and who suffer from illnesses are nervous about provision of the core medicines that they require. That is unforgivable, and the UK Government stands condemned in that regard. Any UK minister or Scottish Tory who supported that should hang their head in shame.

Brexit (Care Services Staffing)

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to mitigate the impact that difficulties in recruiting European Union citizens as a result of Brexit will have on the staffing of care services. (S5O-03759)

EU citizens play a vital role across our public services, including social care. That is why we have launched the stay in Scotland campaign, and why we will continue to argue for free movement of people.

Retaining and attracting the right people into the social services sector and raising the status of social care as a profession are key to delivery of quality sustainable services. We have taken action to protect our social care services, including paying the real living wage to adult care workers.

Under our “National Health and Social Care Workforce Plan: part two”, which has been co-published with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, we are working with partners, including care providers and COSLA, to support recruitment and retention in the social care workforce. That includes work that is in progress to deliver a national recruitment campaign in early 2020, which will promote adult social care as a meaningful, valued and rewarding career choice. The campaign will link to the Scottish Social Services Council’s new careers website, which was launched in September this year, and which contains inspirational case studies and tools to help staff to build careers in the sector.

I thank the minister for sharing my concerns about the impacts on EU citizens who work in the care sector—uncertainty and worries about their loss of rights. He acknowledged that work is being done, but I ask him to redouble those efforts. We need a specific plan to ensure that we retain those staff, given the demographic pressures that the Local Government and Communities Committee highlighted only last month in our budget representations, and the important role that EU citizens play in delivering those services.

Today’s worrying survey results from Unison show that 90 per cent of social workers are considering leaving their jobs. We face a potential crisis across health and social care, which requires that everybody step up to ensure that there is support for those staff, and that we look at issues such as the real living wage and much more beyond.

Sarah Boyack raises important issues. She and I do not entirely agree about independence, I am sure, but even the devolution of migration policy would be a step forward, in the circumstances, because it would allow us to do things that we cannot currently do.

We are very aware that a number of factors are bearing down on the EU workforce in Scotland. The loss of rights is certainly one of them, and the value of the pound is another—sometimes the major—factor. There are also worries about the long-term sustainability of employment and about the welcome that people might receive.

A variety of things can be, and are being, done. I commend my colleague Jeane Freeman for working to offer reassurance to the health and social care workforce, and Ben Macpherson for his work with EU nationals, which takes place across Government.

We will continue to undertake such work to ensure that the workforce from other EU countries is valued. We encourage people to stay and contribute in the care sector, and we will do our very best to ensure that that happens. However, having control over migration would give us an easier and more effective tool, in that respect.

Brexit (Scotland’s Economy)

8. Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has undertaken of the impact of the United Kingdom Government’s Brexit deal on Scotland’s economy. (S5O-03760)

On 30 October 2019, the Scottish Government published our assessment of the revised withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. It sets out that it is estimated that, with a free trade agreement of the type that the UK Government wants to negotiate, Scottish gross domestic product would be 6.1 per cent lower by 2030 than would be the situation under continued European Union membership. That equates to a cost to each person in Scotland of £1,600. Further details can be found on the Scottish Government’s website.

The Brexit deal will be devastating for Scotland—not least, in my constituency, which receives tens of millions of pounds in EU funding to help small businesses to grow, to support people who are in poverty and to tackle unemployment. Does the cabinet secretary agree that any replacement of that vital funding must have input from people in Scotland? How is the Government facilitating that to ensure that those voices are heard, with regard to such important resources?

I agree. In answer to David Stewart, I indicated that the shared prosperity fund is a considerable worry to the Scottish Government. The fund was announced in the 2017 Tory party manifesto; I first discussed it with James Brokenshire when he was Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government—which was not yesterday. Nothing has happened since then, and there has been no indication of how the fund might move forward.

We have five very important red lines. Scotland should not lose out financially in comparison with the level of funding that it currently receives. The devolution settlement must be respected and the UK Government must not attempt to take back powers that the Scottish Government has rightfully executed in this area to date. The Scottish Government must be an equal partner in development of the shared prosperity fund, and the current level of flexibility and allocation of funds should not be reduced. Last, the replacement scheme should be operational in time for it to be implemented in early 2021 so that stakeholders do not suffer difficulties as a result of funding gaps.

In all those areas, we know little more than we knew two years ago. We are taking the same position as the Government in Wales. I am increasingly worried about the timescale, more than anything else, because it looks almost impossible to meet. After the election, the UK Government—if it is still in power; let us profoundly hope that it is not—will, in the circumstances, have to pay attention to the matter, because many organisations and individuals in Scotland will feel a severe draught if the funding is not moving forward.