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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 19, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 19 November 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Covid Vaccine, Youth Football, Coronavirus (Scotland’s Strategic Approach), Point of Order, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Constitution, Europe and External Affairs

I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus, and ask them to take care to observe those measures over the course of this afternoon’s business, including when entering and exiting the chamber.

The next item of business is portfolio questions on the constitution, Europe and external affairs. I remind members to press their request-to-speak button or to put the letter “R” in the relevant box if they wish to ask a supplementary question.

Cuban Government (Discussions)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with the Cuban Government. (S5O-04769)

Following a request from the Cuban embassy in London, Scotland House London held an official-level meeting with the economic and commercial counsellor from the Cuban embassy in London on 10 March this year. The discussion focused on general trade and economic priorities for both nations.

I am pleased that that meeting took place. However, is the minister aware of the support of many people in Scotland for awarding a Nobel peace prize to Cuban health workers who selflessly help countries around the world—including in Lombardy in Italy, which was badly affected by Covid-19—and who do so despite their own country being denied vital medicines because of the US blockade? Does the minister support calls for the removal of US-imposed sanctions, and will she make contact with Cuba to see what we can learn from its successful approach to tackling coronavirus?

I recognise that Elaine Smith recently nominated Cuba’s Henry Reeve international medical brigade to receive the 2021 Nobel peace prize. The Scottish Government of course acknowledges the achievements and great sacrifice of all medical staff—here in Scotland and throughout the world—throughout the pandemic. Although it would not be appropriate for the Government to endorse the Nobel peace prize nomination—I do not think that we have ever done so—we recognise Cuba’s excellence in training medical professionals, and we recognise the humanitarian work that that enables them to achieve throughout the world.

Animal Sentience (European Union Principles)

To ask the Scottish Government how the provisions in its proposed European Union continuity bill will stay aligned with EU principles on animal sentience. (S5O-04770)

The Scottish Government fully accepts the scientific basis for animal sentience and will take all appropriate action to safeguard animal welfare standards. Animal sentience has been implicitly recognised in Scottish legislation for more than a century, most recently in the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. Our newly established Scottish animal welfare commission has a specific remit to report annually on how the welfare needs of sentient animals have been addressed in all areas of relevant legislation.

The power in section 1(1) of the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill is a general power for ministers to align with EU law where appropriate, and Scottish ministers will have regard to many factors. However, should that power be approved by the Parliament, it will not be the only way that Scottish ministers could legislate to align with EU law after the end of the transition period.

My impression of where we ended up at the end of the first continuity bill—UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill—was that animal sentience needs to be reflected in provisions in Scots law. The provisions in laws in relation to agriculture, fisheries, transport, research and technological development have to pay full regard to welfare requirements under current animal sentience provisions. Where will that provision be in Scots law, going forward? Is not there a danger that we will end up with a gap between Scots law and the provisions in European law?

The purpose of the continuity bill is to avoid a gap in such an important area as animal sentience, which was fully accepted during the debate on the first continuity bill. We will use the appropriate provisions as we can. I do not think that there is any danger of its being ignored. It was fully debated and discussed in the first continuity bill and it remains a concern in the second continuity bill. The provisions in the bill, among other provisions, can tackle the issue.

As well as animal welfare being affected by the continuity bill, it could be affected by the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. Has the cabinet secretary had any assurance or any engagement with the UK Government that it will not drive down standards on animal welfare?

The Scottish Government has received no assurances that the UK Internal Market Bill will not have a regressive impact on such standards. Of course, the UK Government’s general position is that standards will be maintained, but I think that we are entitled to be sceptical until we see evidence of that.

The Scottish Government is clear—this is backed up by the views of stakeholders across Scotland—that the correct and proportionate means of dealing with policy differences across UK nations after leaving the EU is through the common frameworks process, on which, despite our strong differences over EU exit, we have made significant progress. That includes an animal health and welfare framework. The UK Internal Market Bill actually undermines and threatens that programme of work.

At the Finance and Constitution Committee, the Law Society of Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates and NFU Scotland all expressed concerns about the inadequate level of parliamentary scrutiny and stakeholder consultation that are set out in the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill. All those provisions are significantly lower than the equivalent provisions that were agreed to at stage 3 of the previous continuity bill. Why did the cabinet secretary ignore the will of Parliament as expressed at stage 3 on the previous continuity bill and attempt this blatant power grab in the current bill?

I am always amazed by the look of satisfaction that Conservative members have when they ask such questions—it is as if they have found the holy grail of questioning. They have actually opened up their own inadequacies.

Let me just point out to Mr Lockhart as kindly as I can—although I do not feel particularly kind, after the experience that Scotland has been through and is still going through on Brexit—that, on the issue of consultation, he should examine what the UK Tory Government has done on the UK Internal Market Bill. Then, to quote a former leader of the Labour Party, “a period of silence” would be in order.

I call Christine Grahame to ask question 3.

We will come back to question 3 in a moment. In the meantime, I move to question 4.

Scottish Parliament (2021 Election)

To ask the Scottish Government what contingency work it is carrying out to prepare for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election should Covid-19 restrictions remain in place. (S5O-04772)

The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill, which was introduced on Monday 16 November, sets out measures to help to ensure that the Scottish general election next May can take place fairly and safely. It also sets out a number of contingency measures in the highly unlikely event that the election has to be deferred.

The bill has been prepared in partnership with the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, the Electoral Commission, the Scottish Parliament and the other political parties represented in the chamber. Parliament will be asked to scrutinise the bill on an accelerated timetable in order to provide surety to voters, candidates, campaigners and electoral professionals. That process began this morning.

I am aware that the bill gives ministers the power to hold an all-postal-vote election. The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans stated earlier in the year that the Scottish Government had yet to carry out a feasibility study into conducting the Holyrood election exclusively by postal ballot.

Recent postal ballot voter-registration rates that have been published by National Records of Scotland indicate that only 16.9 per cent of the electorate is signed up for postal voting, with one seat in Glasgow having a sign-up rate as low as 12.2 per cent. Will the minister outline what work is being undertaken to encourage postal vote sign-up, because that is an important issue of access to democracy? What feasibility work has the Government carried out on an postal-vote-only election?

The current level of postal-vote uptake is about 18 per cent. The Government is working closely with the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Management Board for Scotland to develop and build on that, because our having an enhanced postal-vote element will be extremely helpful.

We have put in place additional resources, which we believe have the potential to increase the postal vote to about 40 per cent. I should say to the member that it would be highly unlikely for an all-postal ballot to be necessary; the measure is about providing an enhanced element in relation to the election.

Does the minister agree that the priority must be to ensure that next year’s Scottish Parliament election can take place fairly and safely? Can he provide further information on the steps that have been taken to develop the bill in partnership with political parties and relevant stakeholders?

The process has been very much a collaborative one. I commend the participants from other parties for the positive way in which they have embraced it. I advise Mr Lyle that considerable work is being done to develop the content of the bill and to achieve consensus on it.

As for the safety and security aspects, those are being driven by electoral professionals, to whom we are listening. They are conducting a review of polling places to determine what procedures would need to be in place—not only to allow the election to be conducted safely, but to give people confidence that that will be the case. For example, we do not want there to be queues at particular times of the day.

It is, therefore, a partnership-driven approach, with electoral professionals providing advice and evidence on the practical side, and the Parliament being here to deliver the powers that might be required to allow them to get on and do their job.

We now come back to question 3.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I thought that my question had been nullified, because my temporary card was not working either for a bit.

United States Presidency

To ask the Scottish Government what difference it anticipates Joe Biden taking over the presidency from Donald Trump will make to its relationship with the United States and Europe. (S5O-04771)

The relationship between the USA and Scotland is strong and enduring. Indeed, Scotland has a well-established diaspora community in the US, with some 30 million Americans identifying as having Scottish heritage.

Our countries have a bright future, working together with President-elect Biden and the first woman Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris. Many of our policies, including our support for fairness, equality and a strong rules-based international system, closely align with those set out by the new Administration during the recent election campaign.

Is the minister optimistic that, with the change of presidency—that is, once Mr Trump takes a tumble to himself—relations between Scotland and the USA will benefit? With President-elect Joe Biden being a self-proclaimed Europhile, we have an ally in our continued support for the value of membership of the European Union.

The Scottish Government welcomes President-elect Biden’s comments on Europe—in particular, his emphasis on the value of the United Kingdom maintaining a close relationship with Europe and the necessity of abiding by the principles of the Good Friday agreement. We look forward to working with the new Administration when it is sworn in in January, and we welcome the opportunity to work with it on issues such as Europe, free trade agreements and climate change.

Independence Referendum

To ask the Scottish Government on what basis the constitution secretary stated that an independence referendum would take place in 2021. (S5O-04773)

On the basis of ambition and democracy.

We are, of course, in the middle of the biggest health crisis that any of us has experienced in our lifetime, which is rapidly turning into an economic catastrophe. The First Minister has made it clear that all her energies are focused on those vital issues. We have also just heard that the Scottish Parliament election, which is due in May, could be deferred as a result. How can the constitution secretary possibly defend diverting the resources of the Government into another divisive referendum at such a difficult time?

With respect, the member did not hear that we were discussing the postponement of the Scottish Parliament election—that is inaccurate. I am sure that that problem resulted from our having to communicate electronically rather than from any attempt to misrepresent what my colleague said.

I will answer Mr Fraser’s question in two parts. The first is to say that, of course, we are solidly focused on the pandemic. However, we must also consider how we might rebuild. The results of today’s poll on how Governments are trusted indicate that the people of Scotland would trust the Scottish Government to rebuild far more than they would trust the United Kingdom Government to do so. Therefore, getting independence as soon as we can, in order to rebuild—and to rebuild better—would be our priority.

Let me also say something about priorities. The very small number of people who, at some stage, will be engaged in putting together a bill on the proposed referendum would be minuscule compared with the estimated 25,000 civil servants who have been working on Brexit at a cost of more than £200 billion so far. To be honest, Presiding Officer, a person would need some brass neck to compare those two things.

Of course, for Murdo Fraser, the time will never be right. The Tory UK Government continues to stand in the way of Scotland’s people having a say through an independence referendum that takes into account the new post-Brexit landscape. Does the cabinet secretary agree that decisions on Scotland’s future should be made by the people who live in Scotland and that the UK Government’s position is both undemocratic and unsustainable?

Just as I indicated to Mr Fraser in response to his question that the basis for an independence referendum taking place in 2021 was ambition and democracy, I entirely agree that the basis of the UK Government’s objection is a lack of democracy and a refusal to listen to the ambition of the Scottish people.

I am pleased to hear the would-be President’s commitment to democracy. I am sure that that commitment comes before his nationalism. However, for the purpose of this question, can we put aside the timing of any referendum and indeed the detail and, instead, can I raise the issue of principle? Does the cabinet secretary believe, as a democrat, that allowing voters choice by widening the options in any potential referendum is both democratic and indeed desirable?

I notice that Mr Findlay is debating within his own party the issue of the referendum and I am pleased that he comes to the chamber to debate it as well. Let me draw the member’s attention to the Venice commission, which looked specifically at referenda and recommended that there should be a clear choice, which can be encompassed by answering yes or no.

However, I am delighted that, in one wing of the Labour Party—of course, there are many wings in the Labour Party, far more wings than the average bird has—there is a recognition that democracy should prevail.

I say to Mr Findlay that we cannot qualify democracy by timescale—either democracy prevails or it does not, so join in and support a referendum now.

Road Haulage and Logistics Sector (Impact of Brexit)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact of Brexit will be on the road haulage and logistics sector. (S5O-04774)

The impact of Brexit on the road haulage and logistics sector will be considerable and damaging. The expected delays and consequent costs that it will bring will impact greatly across a sector that is made up of small and medium-sized enterprises. There will be particular issues for those companies in Scotland that are involved in the transportation of fresh and live produce to the continent.

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity recently met the Road Haulage Association, which also gave evidence to one the Parliament committees recently. Its primary concern is about delays to the movement of goods at border crossings. That will be exacerbated by an inadequate number of properly trained customs agents and the delay in developing an information technology system to manage the documentation process. There is also concern regarding the potential for an insufficient number of permits to be made available to United Kingdom hauliers and the lack of progress on bilateral agreements with European Union member states that would enable those businesses to continue to work. Those concerns are compounded by the absolute lack of clear information being made available to this and other sectors.

A “shambles”, “incomprehensible”, “nonsense” from the start, “sleepwalking to disaster” and “bonkers” are just some of the comments made at a recent Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee meeting by Rod McKenzie, the managing director of policy and public affairs for the Road Haulage Association, who was describing the UK Tory Government’s chaotic handling of arrangements for logistics and road haulage once Brexit transition ends. Given the critical importance of the sector, which employs 2.54 million people in the UK and on which we all depend for goods and services, the abject incompetence of the UK Tory Government and the likely interruption of supply from January, what assistance can the Scottish Government provide to this key sector in the weeks and months ahead?

It is hard to disagree with the views of Mr McKenzie. I think that it is only the Conservative Party that appears to be unwilling to listen to the views of those who are actually doing the job. The Scottish Government is working with the industry’s trade associations to encourage their members to seek out what information is available.

The Scottish transport and logistics intelligence group has been reintroduced. Its members include representatives from all modes of freight transport. It will be a vehicle—that is not a pun—for sharing information and developments in planning between Government and transport operators, ports and airports on issues and risks. My colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity has also recently written to Grant Shapps to highlight concerns and to seek assurances that everything possible will be done to minimise disruption to businesses, but alas we have no evidence that that is what will take place.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Discussions)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last spoke with the office of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in relation to European Union/United Kingdom future relationship negotiations. (S5O-04776)

The last meeting of the joint ministerial committee (European Union negotiations) took place on 29 October, at which the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I were present. I also attended an EU exit operations—XO—committee preparedness meeting on 16 November, which was chaired by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

I am glad that there are meetings about preparedness because, with the end of the transition period looming, businesses in my constituency of East Kilbride and beyond that import and export both goods and expertise feel that they have been left in the dark with no time at all to prepare for the forthcoming end of the transition period. Can the cabinet secretary offer those businesses any comfort at all?

I would like to be able to offer them the comfort that many of them voted for, which was not to have Brexit but, alas, that is not where we are.

The Scottish Government is doing everything that it can to mitigate the effects but, as I have said regularly, we cannot do everything. This morning, I outlined to the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee a range of actions that the Scottish Government is taking, and I am happy to write to the member to set those out. For example, the multi-agency prepare for Brexit website, which is hosted by Scottish Enterprise, provides advice, access to sources of financial support and online assessment. Scottish Enterprise is now proactively targeting high-value traders to offer support, and we are introducing a customs academy that will provide additional support to companies that export.

All those things are happening, and there is a great deal of work in the Scottish Government that is focused on the concurrent winter pressures. There is the continuing pressure of Covid, the pressure of Brexit—the transition period should have been longer, but the UK Tories rejected that—and of course the inevitable normal winter pressures. None of us should be in any doubt that we face a very serious situation, and we should all be encouraging companies to seek information. We know from talking to companies that, because they have been focused heavily on the pandemic, there are huge problems ahead.