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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Agenda: Business Motions, Portfolio Question Time, Deaths in Custody, Retained European Union Law, Cost of Living Support, Social Care Charges, Social Security (Additional Payments) Bill, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Loch Lomond (Proposed Development)


Contents


Retained European Union Law

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a statement by Angus Robertson on retained European Union law. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

15:23  

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

I wish to make a statement on the United Kingdom Government’s so-called Brexit freedoms bill, which will have a profound and, sadly, a damaging impact on this Parliament and Scotland as a whole.

The people of Scotland rejected Brexit by a margin of 24 per cent, and there was a majority for remaining in the EU in every local authority area in Scotland. Nevertheless, in February this year, the UK Government published a document extolling what it called the benefits of Brexit. At the time, I noted to members of the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs Committee the profound absence of Brexit benefits for people and businesses in Scotland. Indeed, the disbenefits were all too evident. Polling shows that 75 per cent of people in Scotland have a negative opinion about whether the UK has benefited from Brexit, and only 2 per cent believe that Boris Johnson has delivered a good deal.

Five months on—and with the Brexit freedoms bill potentially imminent—we find ourselves in an even more desperate situation; we are in the midst of a cost of living crisis. The think tank UK in a changing Europe says that Brexit has led to a 6 per cent increase in food prices. The Centre for European Reform reports that the UK economy was 5 per cent—or £31 billion—smaller than comparator economies at the end of last year, primarily because of Brexit. Scotland’s total trade with the EU was 16 per cent lower in 2021 than in 2019, with food exports down by £68 million.

Now, with the UK in real danger of entering recession, and in the middle of the cost of living crisis, the Tory Government at Westminster seems intent on provoking a trade war with the European Union by tearing up an international agreement that the Prime Minister had hailed as a fantastic moment.

Therefore, despite much searching by the UK Government’s so-called minister for Brexit opportunities, the only thing to have changed since February is that the disbenefits of Brexit are now more pronounced.

Although Mr Rees-Mogg has been on his feet this afternoon in the House of Commons—hopefully providing the clarity that we have not yet received—the UK Government has declined to share the Brexit freedoms bill instructions with us, or provide any settled certainty of its policy intentions. Regardless, we should be under no illusion about the risk that the legislation presents to Scotland. We understand that the bill will end the supremacy of European law and repeal or reform regulations on business. The danger is now greater than ever of a race to the bottom, inspired by a hard Brexit.

Beneath the froth of crown marking on pint glasses and the adoption of imperial weights and measures, the UK Government’s intention to turn away from EU laws should trigger real concern for businesses, members of this Parliament and all those who hold dear the standards that the EU helped to embed in our society.

More than 2,000 pieces of legislation, which were carefully influenced or possibly proposed by the UK Government as a member state over 50 years, must be made to go through a legislative process or, according to media reports, will simply “sunset” and fall away from the statute book entirely.

There is no understanding in Whitehall about how much of that legislation falls within devolved competence. I have had a look at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s statement, in which he makes no mention whatsoever of the devolved consequences of his announcement. There is no desire to understand the consequent implications for devolved powers or legislation.

Apparently, those changes are to be made by 2026 or 2030—dates whose sole rationale is that they make good public relations as an anniversary of the Brexit referendum or the end of the transition period. They are not driven by the magnitude or importance of the task, or by the availability of time in this Parliament, the Senedd, Stormont or Westminster. The dates take no account of the fact that, as a direct consequence of the hard Brexit that the UK Government has chosen to prosecute, there is no Executive in place in Northern Ireland. Instead, yet again, the bill is driven by the same blind ideology that caused so much damage to Scotland in the first place.

The truth is that the pace of the exercise threatens parliamentary scrutiny and workloads. The UK Government is tilting at the windmills of EU standards, when it would be better advised to cease undermining the Northern Ireland protocol, an action that blocks implementation of the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement, and causes our continued exclusion, for example, from the horizon Europe research programme.

There is little to no appropriate consideration of the bill’s impacts—intended or otherwise—of doing away with the regulations and case law that have driven the high standards across Europe and from which we benefit.

The UK Government has said that it wants the Brexit freedoms bill to “utilise regulatory freedoms” by “lightening their burden” on UK businesses. Its main purpose appears to be to give the UK Government the freedom to abandon the legislation that has protected Scottish interests for almost 50 years.

The bill will create uncertainty for business and threatens to fire the starting pistol in a race to the bottom on standards with regard to food, the environment, animal and plant health, and workers’ rights.

The bill is a threat to devolution. Taken alongside the powers of the UK Internal Market Act 2020, devolved competences will be disastrously exposed and undermined by a UK Government that is searching for an answer to the self-inflicted pain of Brexit.

Our policy of aligning with EU standards will be at risk. The common frameworks process, which is designed to manage divergence and alignment, looks to be side-stepped or ignored completely.

Sensible standards and regulations will be kept only if they are re-enacted through this Parliament, and they will then be only temporarily protected if the 2020 act is directed to undercut them.

We do not yet know the exact implications for this Parliament’s legislative programme, as we have not been provided with the necessary detail. However, we know that, if we want to maintain the legislation, we will have to find a great amount of Government and parliamentary time.

When I met the minister for so-called Brexit opportunities, I was assured by him that the Sewel convention would be respected. If that commitment is to be honoured, it would mark a departure from the UK Government’s approach during the Brexit process, when it has repeatedly legislated on devolved matters despite this Parliament refusing its consent to do so.

An approach that “sunsets” EU law—which would see legislation automatically fall if unamended by a fixed deadline—takes no account of our priorities or our interest in staying aligned with EU legislation. It is unacceptable that the UK Government seems ready to unveil sweeping measures that could have profound consequences for Scotland with such little discussion with or indeed respect for this Parliament, the Scottish Government or the people of Scotland. This makes a mockery of the UK Government’s recent commitment to reset relationships with the devolved Governments.

I said that the minister of so-called Brexit opportunities has been searching for the benefits of Brexit since at least February. That has included the attempt to crowdsource ideas from the public via the media, presumably in the absence of suggestions from Whitehall departments.

The disaster of Brexit is becoming ever more apparent, and the attack on this Parliament by a UK Government that was comprehensively rejected by the people of Scotland is gathering pace. The question for all of us here is whether we are prepared to put up with this unfolding catastrophe, which is being imposed on Scotland against its wishes and interests, or whether we say that enough is enough and forge a better future for everyone who lives here.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I have sat through many ministerial statements, many full of details and statistics, many with policy announcements and many with something that, as an Opposition MSP, one can get one’s teeth into, but never have I sat through a statement so thin, so devoid of detail and so empty of substance as this one. No new information has been imparted; it is essentially one long complaint about Brexit, and that is it. There is no UK bill; it has not been published yet. The cabinet secretary has no idea what it contains. He knows that discussions between devolved Governments and Cabinet officials are on-going and it is at the discretion of devolved Governments to decide how they deal with retained EU law that is devolved. However, the Scottish Government might just have waited for the UK Government to set out its position and publish legislation, and then the Scottish Government could have come to the chamber with a properly researched and argued response, underpinned by the facts.

The cabinet secretary speculates that the bill will create uncertainty for business. Does he agree that what is really creating uncertainty for business and for people across Scotland is his Government’s own “blind ideology”, to use his phrase—its obsession with independence and another divisive, polarising referendum?

Angus Robertson

I disagree with much of what the Conservative spokesman has said on this issue, but I can agree with him on one thing—it is about the need for information. The UK Government should be sharing information on a measure that will have a profound impact on this Parliament and its ability to deal with business. However, to give just one illustration of the situation, I have had one meeting with Jacob Rees-Mogg on this subject. He travelled all the way to Edinburgh, he asked to meet me, and then he could not be bothered to make the last 200m of the journey to come to Scottish Government office buildings and discuss what was being planned. He could not even tell me how many of the laws that he was planning to “sunset” by some arbitrary deadline—as the media has reported—will impact on the devolved settlement.

In that respect, Donald Cameron is absolutely right in his point about needing information; the amount of information that has been shared with the Scottish Government has been woeful. It follows an all too familiar pattern from the UK Government of little to no detail on proposed legislation beyond what can be gleaned from the media; broad assurances that devolution will be respected, with nothing on how that will be ensured; and performative engagement, rather than a genuine attempt to engage on policy substance or a willingness to adjust proposals to reflect the Scottish Government’s concerns.

I would have thought that that should concern every member of the Parliament across all parties—it is disappointing that that attitude is not to be found among members on the Conservative benches.

I remind members who wish to ask a question to please check that they have pressed their request-to-speak button.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement.

I am equally disappointed with the ideology behind Brexit and with the UK Tory Government’s thoughtless dishonesty, which has impacted people in Scotland and right across the UK. We need to protect the Sewel convention and our devolution settlement. There is an irony that we have two Governments that are promoting their ideologies and seeking to divert attention away from their failures and their lack of support for our constituents, who are experiencing a massive cost of living crisis.

Scottish Labour supports aligning with our EU neighbours, protecting our labour, consumer and environmental standards, and enabling trade with our neighbours. We made those points in the recent debates on the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020.

As the cabinet secretary has admitted, his statement is light on content and, as he said, hard work needs to be done to protect our constituents and businesses from the damage and the uncertainty that have been, and will be, created by Brexit. What is the cabinet secretary doing now to identify how he uses our Parliament’s devolved powers to the max in order to protect labour standards, to incentivise our businesses to produce products that protect consumer rights and that meet standards of health and safety, and to deliver the environmental standards that we need? Although that will involve a huge amount of work, as the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee acknowledged, we need to monitor and track what is happening with alignment with the EU both at the EU level and, it appears, at the UK level. Those are the practical things that I would like to hear from the cabinet secretary about in terms of his action plan.

Angus Robertson

I thank Sarah Boyack for her questions and the positive way in which she has put them. I welcome the Labour Party’s commitment to protect the Sewel convention and to protect standards.

Sarah Boyack is absolutely right that we look at all means that are at our disposal to be able to protect those safeguards. She will understand what is involved in that, given the paucity of information that we have had from the UK Government—save for the mention of the quantum of the legislation that is being envisaged, which is more than 2,000 pieces of legislation.

Let us say for the sake of argument that the Parliament agrees that it will decline to give legislative consent for that UK Government’s measure. Unfortunately, our experience thus far in the Brexit context is that the UK Government overrides the Sewel convention. If that is the case, we will have to use a lot of parliamentary time to find ways of being able to protect and maintain the safeguards that have existed through EU legislation.

We are right at the beginning of that process. I say to Sarah Boyack that she is absolutely right to highlight that that is the key challenge for us all. We have been trying to find our way through it, together with colleagues in the constitution committee, and have been looking at how we have been able to remain aligned with the EU thus far.

What we need to do now is of an order of magnitude that is far beyond that, and a lot of work will have to go into that. I look forward to working across the chamber to make sure that we use all the powers that are our disposal, as a Parliament and as a Government, to protect and retain the benefits of the safeguards that have been legislated for in an EU context.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary referred in his statement to the bill impacting on devolved nations, without any prior discussion. The Brexit freedoms bill seeks to “lighten the burden” on businesses. Does the cabinet secretary share my concerns that that translates to undermining workers’ rights and protections? As employment law is not devolved, how can this Parliament ensure that those areas remain protected?

Angus Robertson

Christine Grahame is absolutely right to home in on the specifics of different aspects of European Union law that we have enjoyed and that we value as a society. We have the EU to thank for some of our most cherished employment rights, including basic fundamentals such as written terms and conditions and equal pay.

Those rights are now at risk as a consequence of the UK Government’s reckless drive to heap yet more misery on millions of working families across this country. Creating the conditions for our citizens to secure safe and fairly paid work is not red tape; it is an essential requirement of every responsible Government.

At this stage, we simply do not know what the UK Government intends to do with employment rights in the future, as it has not told us—and it has clearly not told members on the Conservative front bench in this Parliament either. However, we know that the minister for so-called Brexit opportunities—I should always take the opportunity to say that—has said today that he might wish to retain only dozens of the 2,400 laws that have been identified. Therefore, there is a real risk that protections for workers might be undermined by the powers that are to be provided to UK ministers through the Brexit freedoms bill.

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

When it comes to gene editing, the Scottish National Party has shown that it is perfectly capable of diverging from the UK standard and, potentially, from the future EU standard, which unnecessarily and unfairly punishes Scotland’s farmers for no good reason—even the Government’s own chief scientific adviser agrees. Does the cabinet secretary agree that he should give the situation a serious rethink and stop holding back Scotland’s farmers?

Frankly, that has absolutely nothing to do with my statement, and I am sure that I would be rebuked for going down highways and byways that have nothing to do with—

Cabinet secretary, perhaps you could extract the general point that was being made and briefly respond to that.

The general point is that the question that has been asked has nothing to do with the bill that is being proposed by the UK Government.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

It is up to the chair to determine that, and I had felt that, in broad-brush terms, something could be extracted. However, the cabinet secretary has responded to the member in the way that he considers appropriate.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

On “Brexit freedoms”, “getting Brexit done”, and “levelling up”, does the cabinet secretary feel the same frustrations that many of my constituents feel about the UK Government’s list of empty post-Brexit slogans, and is the Scottish Government dismayed, as I am, about the potential damage that will be done by such heavy-handed and sweeping legislation, despite its light title?

Angus Robertson

Yes and yes. The title given to the bill would be laughable if its potential impact were not so deadly serious. The only freedom that is on offer is that of being worse off, more polluted, and less safe as a consumer, customer or employee.

While all this untold damage is being inflicted at breakneck speed—all to meet an artificial public relations-drive deadline—this Parliament will have no freedom whatsoever to pass the measures that the member’s constituents and mine actively want to see. Frustration and dismay are just two of the many words—some of which are more colourful—that I would use to describe our reaction.

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

The negative impact of Brexit on Scotland and on the whole of the UK is clear, as is the Conservative Government’s failure to work with all the devolved institutions. Will the cabinet secretary outline what he can do to ensure that legislation on matters such as agricultural subsidies, for which it is clear that there is devolved responsibility, is brought before this Parliament as soon as possible? What work is being done on how, for example, public procurement will be affected, and what legislation can this Parliament enact?

Angus Robertson

I thank Katy Clark for the positive way in which she asked her question. It mirrors the point that was made by her Labour front-bench colleague.

We will have to ascertain which of the UK Government’s proposed list of 2,400 pieces of legislation—which has apparently gone up by 700 in the past week—might or might not have an impact, depending on how the UK Government decides to treat the Sewel convention. Incidentally, if the UK Government wanted to take devolution seriously, it could legislate and limit the scope of its legislation to England or to England and Wales only, such that retained legislation could remain on the statute book in Scotland.

I give a commitment to Katy Clark and to any of her colleagues who have a close interest in particular policy areas that, over the months ahead, we can discuss what needs to be done to protect safeguards, and the most appropriate way of doing that, and to protect the Parliament’s ability to better understand the proposals that are being made, while at the same time having a conscious understanding of the scale of the potential job at hand, given the way in which the UK Government is planning to go forward with this measure.

Siobhian Brown (Ayr) (SNP)

As the Scottish Government begins setting out the progressive, hopeful vision for a wealthier, happier, fairer Scotland in the European family of nations, the UK Government instead continues to drag the devolved countries through a regressive and damaging Brexit, epitomised by the disastrous proposal of the so-called Brexit freedoms bill. Does the cabinet secretary believe that, now more than ever, the people of Scotland must be given the democratic choice for which they have repeatedly voted: a referendum on independence and a decision on Scotland’s future?

Angus Robertson

Yes. The one lesson that can safely be drawn from this sorry episode is that for as long as Scotland is misgoverned by Westminster, the UK Government will continue to inflict on the people of Scotland the long-running psychodrama that is Brexit and its dire unfolding consequences.

The real freedom that we need to be talking about is for the people of Scotland to be free to make their own choice about the future of their own country. The bill will merely serve to make it more obvious which choice the people of Scotland should and will make.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Brexit is a disaster and the Tories are terrible at government, but none of that is new. Although that is always worth repeating, in my mind, I am not sure that this statement of endless speculation moves us any further forward.

I support the keeping pace powers, but the lack of co-operation reflects badly on both Governments. Both the Scottish and UK Governments are responsible for this terrible relationship. What steps will the cabinet secretary take to improve that relationship, so that he does not have to make another speculative statement to this Parliament?

Angus Robertson

First, let me identify the thing that we agree on—that would be a good way to start. Willie Rennie said that he supported the keeping pace powers. I think that he is trying to say that he supports the Scottish Government’s position on safeguarding European legislation and retaining pace with that. If that is what he meant, I welcome that.

On the equivalence in Willie Rennie’s question criticising the state of relations between the UK Government and the Scottish Government, I say to him that there is no such equivalence. I have already informed Parliament that when the Scottish Government tried to have a conversation with the UK Government and asked specific questions of it, the minister responsible was not even prepared to come and meet in person.

I ask members to please not propagate a false equivalence when they are aware of the facts. The Scottish Government has asked for but has not received the information. [Interruption.] There is no point in members shaking their head; I am telling Parliament the facts. I asked the questions but did not receive the answers. I asked to meet the minister in question, but he was not prepared to do so. Those are the facts, and if Willie Rennie takes them to heart, he will stop drawing a false equivalence, as he so often does in this chamber.

Four more members wish to ask a question. In order to get all of them in, I would appreciate short and succinct questions and answers.

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

Retained EU law has been a buffer for Scotland against the damaging and far-reaching effects of a hard Tory Brexit. Now that the UK Government is seeking to shake aside those safeguards, does the cabinet secretary believe that the Scottish Government’s firm commitment to continuity with European law will be undermined and made more difficult by the obsessive Brexit freedoms bill?

Angus Robertson

As members will be aware, this Government passed the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 with the express purpose of providing Scottish ministers with the powers needed to ensure that Scotland can keep pace with future developments in EU law, where appropriate. EU laws have set high standards for our environment and air and water quality, for example. They have upheld workers’ rights and employment law, and they have protected animal welfare, plant health and biosecurity. Those are far from trivial matters; they are the very substance that underpins what we recognise as important to our society and our environment.

I very much hope that parties can work together across the Parliament to do everything that we need to do to protect those safeguards in our public life and national legislation, and maintain the alignment that Scotland has had over the decades with the rest of the European Union in those important areas of life.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

Jacob Rees-Mogg is so desperate to find a benefit of Brexit that he has outsourced research to The Sun and the far right Daily Express. That is clearly intended to advance the Tories’ decades-long campaign for British workers to have the weakest rights and protections in Europe. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, with little prospect of workers’ rights being devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the only way to protect those rights is through independence and membership of the European Union?

Angus Robertson

Ross Greer is, of course, correct. Ultimately, our only way to safeguard being part of the European Union’s legislative framework is to be in the European Union. That is exactly where an independent Scotland shall be, and that is exactly the choice that people should be able to have, given that we live in a democracy.

In the meantime, we need to do everything we can, in this Parliament, to make sure that we do not have the rug pulled from underneath us by the UK Government removing safeguards from the statute book and acting in a way that will deluge the Scottish Parliament through its having to find precious time to legislate to retain the safeguards—[Interruption.] Clearly, that is something that Conservative members do not take particularly seriously.

Maurice Golden (North East Scotland) (Con)

The cabinet secretary suggests that there will be a race to the bottom on the environment, but the opposite is true. The UK Government is going further than the EU on the environment. It is targeting a 68 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 versus a reduction of just 55 per cent by the EU. Furthermore, it is ending the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030, versus 2035. Does the cabinet secretary recognise that the UK Government’s actions simply do not match his rhetoric?

Angus Robertson

No, I do not. However, perhaps we can find some common ground on that question. If it is the case that the member and his colleagues are happy to see EU standards as a minimum, they will no doubt be happy to impress on the UK Government that it respect the Sewell convention and this Parliament’s decisions on legislative consent. If the UK Government then wants to legislate on devolved matters while excluding Scotland, it should take the praise for that.

Why do we not work in partnership on that challenge, make the UK Government proceed for England, and let the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government work on the standards that are based on the safeguards of European legislation that we agree should be retained? I look forward to that. [Interruption.]

Excuse me. There is a lot of sedentary commentary.

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

In the lead-up to the European Union referendum, Brexiteer Tories insisted that they were not seeking a race to the bottom on food, environmental standards and workers’ rights, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We are now seeing undeniable proof that our standards and rights are being eroded with dodgy trade deals and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, undoing decades of progress within the European single market, which is 10 times bigger than the UK internal market. Does the cabinet secretary believe that the UK Brexit freedoms bill, whenever it appears, will accelerate that politically motivated downward spiral in trade standards?

Angus Robertson

Willie Coffey has every reason to be concerned. During the passage of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, we warned that it would open the door to lower standards across a range of areas in which EU laws used to apply. We are already seeing that threat being played out in relation to trade deals. Whatever the views of this Parliament or the people of Scotland, the United Kingdom Internal Market Act means that there is little that we can do to stop goods entering this country that do not meet the EU rules on, say, animal welfare or food standards.

That concludes the statement. There will be a short pause before we move on to the next item of business, to allow front-bench teams to change position, should they wish to do so.