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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 20, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 20 February 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Climate Change and Agriculture, Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill: Stage 3, Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill, Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Constitutional Convention

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has for a new constitutional convention. (S5O-04137)

I will be inviting members to participate in a new constitutional convention, which will aim to secure a consensus across Scottish society on Scotland’s right to choose. I will shortly consult party leaders and Parliament on the detail.

It has often struck me as a little odd that those who are most hostile to independence are often those who are least likely to propose a coherent alternative or another way of improving Scotland’s constitutional status and governance, instead of independence. If they are willing to take this one final opportunity to put something positive on to the table, I will welcome it.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, as well as dealing with the domestic constitutional questions, we should also have room for discussion about how we can broaden and deepen Scotland’s relationship with other countries, including but not limited to those in Europe, and about our ability to forge those relationships in our own way and on our own terms?

I agree with the member, and he makes an important point. We are talking about openness to discussion, particularly, as I said in my earlier answer, about a consensus on Scotland’s right to choose. There might well be different points of view on the ultimate destination. As I hear from the members to the right-hand side of me, some believe that we have already reached the destination. In those circumstances, openness to debate and discussion is the hallmark of a democracy, and I hope we might all—[Interruption.]

The hallmark of a democracy is not shouting while somebody else is speaking. The hallmark of a democracy is being able to have that debate, and I look forward to it.

I look forward to engaging in exchanges with the cabinet secretary in a constructive way as we go forward. In that vein, as every week goes by, does it not demonstrate that this idea of a constitutional convention is just a back-of-a-fag-packet notion that has been dreamed up to placate the pro-independence fanatics on the Scottish National Party back benches? How much will the taxpayer have to pay to fund this vanity exercise?

I welcome Murdo Fraser to his new role, and I look forward to a continuing redefinition of the English language. The word “constructive” has just been redefined; no doubt there will be more.

The cost to Scotland of the Brexit process, in which we are engaged, into which we have been dragged, and for which we did not vote, will mean enormous harm. We are also now hearing the sensible voices of those who are not mad nationalists by any means, pointing out the disastrous consequences of that for Scotland. All those things make me believe that the expensive option is staying with the status quo.

Despite the differing views on independence in the Parliament, I am sure that we all agree that the people of Scotland should decide on their own future. In light of the cast-iron mandate for another referendum from the public and the Parliament, does the cabinet secretary agree that the United Kingdom Government’s plans to block a second poll are simply unsustainable?

I note that a wider range of people are pointing to the unsustainable nature of the UK Government’s position. The book event that former speaker of the House of Commons Mr Bercow—he was a Conservative—did last night was yet another indication that people who are looking at the situation will say to themselves that there is a basic problem with the attitude of the UK Government. It looks as if it has no interest either in democracy or the voice of the Scottish people. That is a bad look in any democracy. I hope that the UK Government will realise what a bad look that is and come back into the democratic mainstream.

I welcome the opportunity to have a discussion. At the present time in Scotland, I do not think that a majority is demanding a second independence referendum. I have made clear that the right of the Scottish people to determine their own future is absolute, and it is something that the Labour Party will support. However, for me, the discussion should be about how best we move forward, and in doing so, if we reach a point in the future at which there is clearly a demand for a referendum, it should not be denied.

Is the cabinet secretary open to having a wider discussion for those of us who reject the status quo and want to see far greater devolution? Is that issue on the table for discussion?

Yes, of course it is on the table for discussion and I respect Mr Rowley’s position on the matter. I would want to debate it with him and say that I believe that he is wrong with regard to the demand that exists. I would point to the way in which that demand is being expressed, including through elections. I would also point to the fact that December’s manifestos indicated that the election was about Scotland having the right to choose, which was indicated very strongly.

Of course, I respect Mr Rowley’s position as a democrat that he does not believe that independence is the solution at this time, but I am glad about his openness to the continuation of the process. That is precisely what Scotland should be talking about and I want to create the opportunity for Scotland to do so, not narrowly among politicians, but more widely.

I will put forward a set of proposals that will start the process, and if Mr Rowley and the Labour Party intend to contribute to that process on the terms that he has given, I will be delighted.

Scottish Ministers (Evidence to Committees)

To ask the Scottish Government whether all existing commitments from current and previous ministers to give evidence to parliamentary committees will be met. (S5O-04138)

Ministers will of course fulfil all commitments to give evidence to parliamentary committees. Requests to former ministers to give evidence are a matter for the individuals and the committee concerned.

The minister will be aware that the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee is midway through a very important cross-party inquiry into ferry procurement. The former Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work was due to give important evidence on the matter, given his specific involvement in some issues that have been raised during the inquiry, not least those of a financial nature.

I appreciate that the Government may choose to send whomever it deems fit, but it is imperative that the committee is able to complete its inquiry by taking evidence from those who have direct knowledge of events. What assurances can the minister give members that the Government will work with committees to ensure that those whom they send to represent the Government will have direct knowledge of and involvement in the matters, and will therefore speak from experience rather than hearsay?

Recognition of their accountability to the committees of the Parliament is demonstrated daily by Scottish Government ministers. As the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, I have clear sight of the interaction between committees and ministers, and we consider their relationship to be generally very good.

All of that is in sharp contrast with the relationship between our committees and ministers in the United Kingdom Government. For example, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, recently pulled out of an appearance before the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee at the 11th hour, and no substantial explanation was offered. Famously, David Davis assured members of the Scottish Parliament that he would give evidence at Holyrood as Brexit secretary, but he failed to do so in a two-year tenure.

Although the UK Government seems to regard the committees of this Parliament with disdain, the Scottish Government recognises entirely its responsibilities in that regard. To be clear, any commitments that have been given by ministers to attend committees will be honoured, but former ministers do not speak for the Government. The situation is that any commitments that have been made by former ministers pass to their successors.

Does the minister share my incredulity at the Tories’ complete lack of self-awareness? Such is their dog-like devotion to their London bosses, they have failed to notice the number of times that UK ministers have cancelled scheduled appearances before this Parliament’s committees, often at short notice.

Will the minister confirm that it is UK ministers who need to up their game, show this Parliament respect and attend our committees when invited?

Absolutely. Earlier, we had a reinvention of the definition of “constructive”; I think that the Tories can certainly reinvent the meaning of the phrase “self-awareness” in this matter.

It is not only David Davis and Alister Jack who have not attended our committees. A raft of others, including, I think, Esther McVey, also qualify in that category. It is high time that the UK Government and its ministers showed the committees of this Parliament the respect that they deserve.

Customs Checks

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of potential customs checks on the Scotland-England border, in light of comments by the First Minister during an address to the European Policy Centre. (S5O-04139)

The Scottish Government is committed to putting all the information on the proposition for an independent Scotland into the public domain ahead of an independence referendum. The Scottish Government does not wish to erect borders. The United Kingdom Government wishes to erect borders, by pursuing a hard Brexit. That is precisely what Boris Johnson is now doing.

Constituents of mine in Borders towns, such as Coldstream, Eyemouth and Jedburgh, are deeply concerned by the comments that the First Minister made in Brussels, in which she failed to rule out a hard border in the event that Scotland becomes an independent country.

Figures show that exports to the rest of the UK are worth £51.2 billion to Scotland—three times more than exports to the European Union, which are worth £16.1 million. Will the cabinet secretary acknowledge the importance of the single market? Why does the Scottish Government want to place a barrier between friends, families and neighbours in my constituency, which would cripple Borders communities and inflict customs checks on Scottish goods?

The term “self-awareness” has just been redefined once again this afternoon. Rachael Hamilton used the words “single market”. Apparently, she is in favour of the single market, which must be news to Boris Johnson. We do not wish—[Interruption.] Presiding Officer, I am trying to make a point. We do not wish to erect borders. The simplest way to have no borders would be the continued presence of all parts of these islands in a single market and the customs union. That is on offer. Anything that the UK Government does to jeopardise that is the UK Government’s responsibility. If Rachael Hamilton’s constituents are worried, they should express that worry to her, to the Conservatives and to Boris Johnson. Their friends in having no borders are me and the Scottish National Party.

In the real world, the UK Government has indicated that goods that come into the UK from the European Union will face import controls from as early as January next year. Can the cabinet secretary outline what engagement he has had with the UK Government over the preparations that are being made to prevent disruption to businesses and consumers?

That is a very broad supplementary question, so please give a short answer, Mr Russell.

As ever, the UK Government has not told us what it intends. In this case, I think that that is because it does not have a clue.

Brexit (International Trade)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met United Kingdom ministers to discuss post-Brexit international trade policy. (S5O-04140)

On 23 January, the Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation, Ivan McKee, discussed a range of trade-related issues with Conor Burns, UK Minister of State for International Trade, and counterparts from Wales and Northern Ireland.

I thank the minister for that answer. He knows that I am robustly of the view that Brexit must be and has been devolved compatibly with our devolution settlement. However, the minister has unilaterally demanded a string of vetoes for his devolved Administration on international trade, which is a reserved matter. How is that respecting the devolution settlement?

Sadly, there is a world of difference between being in the room, putting forward the needs of Scotland—with a view to UK-wide negotiations—and having them taken on board. Unlike Mr Tomkins, I speak from first-hand experience of that, having represented the Government on the joint ministerial committee (EU negotiations), which was designed to inform a joint negotiating position, in order to cater for the needs of all parts of these islands.

During one session, UK ministers insisted to the devolved Administrations that their concerns over continuing access to Erasmus were misplaced, and that access would be taken care of. We all know what happened: at Westminster, the Tories voted down proposals that would have committed them to securing future Erasmus involvement. Whether on Erasmus, migration, trade or a raft of other important matters, there is one certainty: either Scottish ministers fight Scotland’s corner or Scotland risks being turned over by the Tories. We will leave Mr Tomkins to strategise. Our team of ministers will continue to stand up for Scotland’s interests in Brexit negotiations, particularly on trade.

Brexit (Erasmus+ Programme)

To ask the Scottish Government what engagement it has had with the United Kingdom Government on providing young people with clarity regarding whether they will continue to have access to the Erasmus+ programme following Brexit. (S5O-04141)

I welcome the minister, Jenny Gilruth, to her new portfolio.

The Scottish Government has been engaging extensively with the UK Government throughout the pre and post-European Union exit period at ministerial and official level. The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Richard Lochhead, has been in regular contact to discuss Erasmus+ with UK Government universities ministers, including participation in all-UK nations quadrilateral meetings.

Scottish Government officials are engaging with the Department for Education and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on potential domestic alternatives to Erasmus+, while reiterating the Scottish Government’s position that full association with Erasmus+ is in the best interests of Scotland and the whole of the UK.

However, despite frequent requests by the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, Michael Russell—all at the joint ministerial committee on EU negotiations—UK Government departments have refused to share final drafts of crucial value-for-money assessments with Scottish Government officials. Those assessments are being used by the Treasury to make decisions that will directly impact on future participation.

The Scottish Government has raised the issue directly with Her Majesty’s Treasury, and will continue to do so alongside the other devolved Administrations.

I congratulate the minister, and welcome her to her new post. I also thank her for her very full reply. The situation is obviously very concerning, particularly for my constituents in Glasgow Kelvin, where thousands of students have benefited from Erasmus. It is also very worrying for current students, and for future generations of students to come.

The minister mentioned that nothing is forthcoming from the UK Parliament. Has she or the Scottish Government had talks with other European countries? Will she open a dialogue with our European friends to discuss how we can safeguard participation in Erasmus, which is very important for students?

Having studied and lived in Sandra White’s constituency, I am only too aware, from personal experience, of the huge benefit that the Erasmus+ programme brings to Glasgow Kelvin.

The Scottish Government is absolutely committed to ensuring that we do everything in our gift to maintain association with the Erasmus+ scheme. As part of our preparations for European Union exit, we are therefore progressing work in relation to a number of scenarios. Although our preferred outcome is of course that the whole of the UK remains associated with Erasmus+, in the event that the UK Government decides to abandon the programme, we are exploring the option of Scotland’s unilateral association with it. Work in the area is on-going and features a number of interconnected elements, including considerations around how best to engage with our European partners on the issue.

It is also worth noting that the European Commission has proposed to double the funding for Erasmus in the next cycle to €30 billion. That is funding that Scotland will miss out on; it is also knowledge transfer, friendships and relationships that the next generation will miss out on. I am sure that I do not need to remind members that that is not what our constituents voted for in June 2016.

Trade Deal (Protection of Crofters)

To ask the Scottish Government what communication it has had from the United Kingdom Government on how it will protect Scotland’s crofters in upcoming trade deal talks with the European Union. (S5O-04142)

We have received no communication from the United Kingdom Government on the protection of crofting interests in upcoming trade deal discussions.

The Scottish Government is committed to doing all that it can to support crofting for the benefit of present and future generations. As a former crofting minister, and as an MSP with constituency interests, I know that crofting continues to form an integral part of and to contribute to the sustainability of our rural and remote areas. Crofting delivers real benefits: sustaining agricultural activity; supporting the rural economy; enhancing wildlife and the natural environment; and retaining young people in our remote, rural and island communities. It is worth standing up for, and we will stand up for it.

The cabinet secretary knows that Brexit is a disaster for the Highlands and Islands. He also knows of the importance of rearing sheep to crofters, and of potential tariffs of 40 to 50 per cent being imposed on lamb. A 2017 survey by the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers showed the significant dependence on migrant labour, which makes up 52 per cent of the unskilled workforce, 44 per cent of the skilled workforce and 16 per cent of supervisory and management staff.

Will the cabinet secretary advise what consultation the UK Government has had with the Scottish Government about the horrendous consequences of its hard-Brexit strategy, coupled with its newly announced immigration policy, and the implications for meat production in the Highlands and Islands? Meat production is one of the many sectors that will be negatively impacted by the ill-judged actions of a far-right UK Tory Government.

John Finnie is absolutely correct on lamb and sheep production. I know from my constituents and from my engagement with NFU Scotland in Argyll, for example, that the potential tariffs that he talked about would mean the end of the lamb trade for my constituents. I know that that is also the case in Wales. There has been discussion at the joint ministerial committee about lamb and the impact on the Scottish and Welsh economies.

I reassure John Finnie that we will continue to pursue those issues. However, the situation shows very clearly that the idea that—in the words of not just the Prime Minister, but even Douglas Ross, who was a member of the Scottish Parliament, and who I understand is now a Scotland Office minister—there is some one-size-fits-all form of Brexit that will, in some sense, always benefit Scotland is untrue.

Devolution (European Union Powers)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to ensure that European Union powers that related to devolved matters are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. (S5O-04143)

Sarah Boyack is right to be concerned about that matter, and this is not the first occasion on which she has asked about it. There is a continuing risk that the United Kingdom Government will use Brexit to claw back powers from the Scottish Parliament. We have been clear that, on withdrawal from the EU, powers over agriculture, fisheries, the environment and other areas should be exercised by the Scottish Parliament, in line with the devolution settlement.

We have tried to work with the UK Government and the other devolved Administrations to negotiate and agree UK-wide frameworks where that is in our interests, but those must be agreed and not imposed. We will continue to resist any and all attempts to constrain the Parliament. I am grateful that parties across the chamber have in the past supported that position, and I hope that that will continue.

On the environment, will the Scottish Government continue to use EU standards—for example, in relation to food standards and procurement—as a benchmark to drive continuous improvement?

As I made clear in my evidence to the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee this morning, we intend to take steps to ensure that we can keep pace with European regulations and standards. Moreover, we believe that it is our absolute right as a devolved Administration to choose how we benchmark ourselves and how we go forward in the areas of devolved competence. As I have indicated previously, we will bring forward a continuity bill that allows us to do so and, in other areas, we will insist on the highest standards.

I should point out that the issue is not arcane or technical; it is about ensuring that common interests, beliefs, opportunities and views across Europe are sustained. We want to associate ourselves with the standards not because we want to associate ourselves with Europe but because they are the right things for Scotland, and that is what we intend to do.