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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, October 25, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 25 October 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Electricians (Regulation), Education (Primary 1 National Standardised Assessments), Home Detention Curfew, Scotland’s Place in Europe: Our Way Forward, Scotland’s Contribution to International Development, Decision Time


Scotland’s Place in Europe: Our Way Forward

We appear to have a problem with the microphone in the middle seat in the Government front row. I ask the cabinet secretary to shift along to his right or left.

The next item of business is a statement by Michael Russell on “Scotland’s Place in Europe: Our Way Forward”. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


I am grateful for the opportunity to update Parliament today on the state of the Brexit negotiations and the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to protect Scotland from the damage that leaving the European Union will cause.

I start by being clear that the premise of all my previous statements to Parliament was that there are on-going negotiations of substance and that the United Kingdom Government is working towards a plan. I am no longer confident that that is the case.

On the withdrawal agreement—which is supposed to be the easier part of the negotiations—it is now clear that UK Government ministers are incapable of reaching agreement, even in their own party, on the crucial issue of the Northern Ireland backstop. With just weeks to go before an agreement will need to be signed, the UK Government does not have a coherent or unified position that it can put before the European Union. Put bluntly, the UK Government has no plan, and no plan to get a plan.

On the future relationship—which even if a withdrawal agreement is made will be subject to probably years of difficult negotiations—again, there is no UK Government position that is worthy of the name. The Chequers proposals have been rejected by the EU and are under attack from all sides. It is time to face the reality that without something new and some means by which the Tory party can set aside its internecine warfare, we are heading to a disastrous no deal.

There is, of course, one credible plan on the table. It is the Scottish Government’s plan, which we have been advocating since the publication of the first part of “Scotland’s Place in Europe” in December 2016, and which continues to attract support.

On 15 October, the Scottish Government published “Scotland’s Place in Europe: Our Way Forward”, which updates the case for both the UK and Scotland to remain in the single market and the customs union, if the best solution—which is that we stay in the EU—is not possible. Later in that week, the European Council broke up without concluding either a withdrawal agreement or a political declaration on the future relationship.

We are, therefore, on the brink of a catastrophic no-deal outcome. Yet, meanwhile, we have tragedy turning to farce even in this chamber, with the spectacle of the leader of the Scottish Conservatives and the Secretary of State for Scotland threatening to resign if a Northern Ireland backstop is agreed, in case that were to strengthen the case for Scotland’s staying in the single market—they would go on the principle that Scotland must be guaranteed a worse deal than that which could and should be on offer.

What this country deserves is a clearly articulated plan. Scotland deserves a plan that is evidence based and objective, that provides a firm basis for fruitful negotiations with our European partners and, most important of all, that will protect jobs, living standards and rights in our society.

The Scottish Government has repeatedly, and in constantly increasing detail, set out just such a plan—one that could and would solve the current impasse in the negotiations, and provide a basis for compromise. Our plan would remove the political difficulties with the EU and would provide a secure foundation for negotiations in the critical coming weeks. It would reassure businesses as they reluctantly start to make investment decisions that will be detrimental to our collective future. As recently as yesterday, the Confederation of British Industry set out that business optimism is falling at its fastest rate since the Brexit vote.

Let me make clear what is required now. Before leaving, the UK Government needs to secure both an agreement on the terms of withdrawal, and a political declaration that provides clarity on the future relationship—both of which, of course, the Prime Minister said in her Lancaster House speech would be secured by late 2018. A small number of simple steps would allow for those difficulties to be resolved—simpler steps than the contortions that were put forward by the Prime Minister on Monday.

The UK Government should revise its negotiating position on the future relationship in order to ensure that the whole UK remains within the European single market and the customs union. However, if the UK Government rejects that, it could seek an extension to the article 50 period to allow for consensus to be agreed across the UK, thereby avoiding a hurried and damaging exit. If that proposal is rejected by the UK Government, the political statement on the future relationship must be sufficiently detailed, and subsequent legislation must be sufficiently clear, to allow the people of Scotland to understand the impact on their lives of the monumental decision to leave the European Union. The political statement should also provide clearly for extension of the implementation period, if that is needed. We must not be required to sign up to a blindfold Brexit, in which the UK would leave with no detail on its future economic partnership.

Our priority is to avoid the damage of either a no-deal or a blindfold Brexit. Both those outcomes would be disastrous for jobs and living standards. We are clear that the proposals in the so-called Chequers agreement will not work: of course, they have already been rejected. However, such issues can be resolved through long-term membership of the European single market and the customs union, so it is demonstrably wrong to say that there is no alternative to the Chequers proposal.

It is the UK Government’s position that is unsustainable: it insists on pursuing proposals that are not acceptable to the EU—or, it would seem, to the House of Commons—while rejecting a plan that is. There is no reason why our proposals cannot be accepted quickly. However, if more time is needed to avoid a no-deal or a blindfold Brexit, the UK Government should ask for an extension to the article 50 process. That would also allow time for another referendum on EU membership—which is often being called the people’s vote. The people of Scotland voted to remain. Therefore, if there is an opportunity to ensure that their wishes are respected, it should be taken. If a proposal were to be brought forward for a vote on the final deal, with the option to remain in the EU, the Scottish Government would support that, and Scottish National Party members of the UK Parliament would vote for it.

However, we must also find a way to ensure that a second referendum would not leave Scotland in the same position as it was in in 2016: voting to stay, but ending up being taken out against our will.

As I conclude, let me briefly address three more issues. First, I believe that some people have chosen to misrepresent our position on Northern Ireland for their own divisive ends. We fully and unequivocally back the Good Friday agreement and support the invisible border in Ireland, recognising the unique circumstances there. However, since 2016—well before the backstop was even conceived—we have argued that the UK Government should put forward a differential deal that reflects our remain vote, if the UK is to leave the single market. That was, and is, independent of any Northern Ireland backstop.

Our argument has been given renewed force this week by the news that not only is such a differentiated deal likely for Northern Ireland, but a deal has already been agreed for Gibraltar that maintains its differentiated treatment. It is now clear—contrary to the position of the UK Government in January 2017—that differentiation is not only possible, but is actually the sensible way forward in order to reconcile differences. The truth is that only the intransigence of the UK Government is preventing such a deal for Scotland.

Rather than threatening to resign over securing such a deal, the Conservatives in this Parliament, and in this country, should be fighting tooth and nail—not with each other, but for Scotland to be given the respect that its voters and their decision deserve. Scotland should not be the only nation or territory that voted to remain within the EU that does not have the flexibility of a differentiated approach being afforded it.

Secondly, I confirm that intensive work on planning for there being no deal is under way, and is growing in scope. Secondary legislation is now starting to flow through Parliament; I am grateful for the work on it that is being undertaken by the committees. That legislation currently consists of packets of statutory instruments that have been agreed with the UK Government. Specific Scottish statutory instruments will be introduced later this year and in the new year.

The financial implications of a no-deal outcome for Government and the bodies that it supports are being carefully considered, and discussion with stakeholders, including port authorities, is being undertaken. Senior officials here are in close liaison with the UK Government. I intend to make a further statement to the chamber on the detail of no-deal preparations before the end of the year, or at the first moment when we know that no deal is the inevitable outcome.

However, I stress that there are problems that it will not be possible to overcome if, in the end, the chaos and irresponsibility of the Tories at Westminster lead to no deal. The fact that they are talking of hiring boats, packing motorways with lorries and stockpiling medicines illustrates the vacuum in leadership in the UK, which is resulting in measures that are unprecedented in peacetime. That cannot be willed away by any of us.

I will conclude with two specific commitments. With crucial decisions coming up over the next few weeks, it is vital that the impasse be broken. A decision to maintain membership of the European single market and the customs union would secure a withdrawal agreement and provide the clarity that is needed on the future relationship. I can therefore say that, if the UK Government puts that option on the table, we will commit to supporting it. However, without such a proposal, we will reject every other option short of staying in the EU, because they would all deliver not progress, but a succession of unacceptable and damaging bad deals or, ultimately, no deal at all.

I am also clear that it should not just be voices in Westminster who get to be heard—especially not just those who are determined to ignore the vote of Scotland and to sell Scotland very short indeed in terms of our future prosperity.

During the 2014 independence referendum, we were repeatedly told that the UK was, and must remain, a partnership. “Lead, don’t leave”, they said. However, the Tories now say, “We’re the ones who are leading, and we’re the ones who are telling you that you’re leaving. Your democratic choice doesn’t matter.” Well, it does. The SNP Government will never accept the silencing of Scotland. Therefore, we make the commitment that, if a withdrawal agreement and political declaration are, in the end, concluded and offered to the House of Commons, before the Westminster Parliament votes on that deal, the Scottish Government will seek to ensure that the Scottish Parliament can pass its judgment on it. On this most crucial of matters, Scotland must be, and will be, heard.

The cabinet secretary will take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I will allow around 20 minutes for that. Anyone who wishes to ask a question—I stress that they should be questions rather than statements—should press their request-to-speak button.

I thank the cabinet secretary for providing advance sight of his statement, although there is little in it that we have not heard before. Indeed, all that today’s statement seems to be is another opportunity for yet more grandstanding and grievance from a minister who has become a master in both. The cabinet secretary told us how catastrophic a no-deal scenario would be but, astonishingly, he went on to say that SNP MPs would bring on such a scenario by voting against proposals brought forward by the UK Government. That is an irresponsible approach and will be seen as such by the people of Scotland.

It seems extraordinary that a cabinet secretary in the Scottish Government is unable to draw a distinction between the arrangements for Gibraltar, which is a British territory with a tiny population that is geographically situated thousands of miles away and attached to mainland Spain, and the very different situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are fully part of the United Kingdom.

A differentiated deal for Scotland would put at risk the internal UK market, which is worth four times more to the Scottish economy than trade with the EU, a point that has been made by Sir David Edward and Lord Kerr, who are both members of the First Minister’s standing council on Europe. Will the cabinet secretary at last acknowledge the basic fact that maintaining the UK internal market is of far greater importance than the EU single market?

Finally, on the issue of the so-called people’s vote—

Please speed up, Mr Fraser.

Is it really the SNP position that all referendums must be rerun until it gets the result that it wants, or does that apply only to referendums in which the SNP is on the losing side?

The one thing that never astonishes me is Murdo Fraser’s brass neck—indeed, it is not so much brass as titanium lined.

We are in this situation because of the total and utter incompetence of the Tory party in government at Westminster. That incompetence is now matched by the extraordinary, extreme, knee-jerk constitutional unionism of the Scottish Tories, who have nothing else to argue for. Meanwhile, Scotland is facing a unique and damaging crisis that has been brought about by the Conservatives and yet we have had not a word of apology from Murdo Fraser—instead he pursues the old arguments and chimeras.

David Edward would be horrified to know that he was being called in evidence by extreme Tories to justify the destruction of the European Union and its institutions, to which he has given many years of service. That approach by the Tories is disgraceful. The reality is that the Tories should hang their heads in shame, rather than burble from the sidelines and make things worse for themselves.

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

The Conservative Party’s handling of Brexit has been a disaster. We are now just a matter of months from the date that the UK is due to leave the EU and yet no one is any clearer on what has been proposed. The Prime Minister was humiliated in Salzburg and has been repeatedly humiliated by her own party. The Chequers plan is dead and her handling of the entire process has gone from neglect to dark, unfunny slapstick—there is nothing funny about the stockpiling of food and medicines. With only a few weeks to go until a deal must be agreed, businesses, communities, and our citizens are in the dark about the Tory plans.

On the very serious issue of the Northern Ireland border, the Tories have no answer. We do: we should have a customs union. That would resolve the problem. We should have single market access and we should protect the rights that we have secured and enjoy. We should have a collaborative and co-operative relationship with our EU neighbours and we should have a deal that respects the nations and regions of the UK, ensuring the security and safety of our citizens. We must have a migration system based on fairness.

Quickly please, Mr Findlay.

The Scottish Government is right to plan for a no-deal scenario. Indeed it must plan for a no deal, as that is the very scary prospect that we face. Can the cabinet secretary give us more detail on what plans have been put in place for such a scenario? These are worrying times and we must keep all options open to keep the maximum political pressure on the UK Government and the Prime Minister to try to completely avoid a no deal.

I do not want to go into full detail because, currently, there is too much discussion of a no deal, which might make that more likely than not. The momentum is towards a no deal, but we should do everything that we can to hold it back.

However, I can say that individual cabinet secretaries are now engaged in discussions with me, their stakeholders and, where possible, with civil servants south of the border, to scope each of the issues that confront them. I will give Mr Findlay one example of that, on a matter that is a cause for great concern. Any continuation of an export trade in meat and shellfish will require phytosanitary inspections to be undertaken, but there are currently not enough qualified people to undertake those inspections. How do we resolve that question? How can we put in place a system to address that?

That is the type of extremely difficult question that is being addressed. I assure Neil Findlay that, right across the portfolios, those questions are being scoped and looked at. Some are capable of resolution. For example, I mentioned ports. It would be conceivable, if there was too much pressure on Dover, for Rosyth and Grangemouth to be brought into operation, although some major changes would be required. However, there are some issues, such as the one that I mentioned, on which it is very difficult to see how a short-term solution could be put in place. We are doing scoping work and, as I have said, I will come back to the chamber at the earliest opportunity to outline further where we are.

I would like to make a point about customs union and single market access.

Quickly please, Mr Russell.

In that case, I will make a point simply about migration. The migration issue is crucial to Scotland and, in particular, rural Scotland, and I am shocked that the UK Government is still unable to discuss that in a constructive way with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Labour Government. Mark Drakeford and I made that point very forcibly at the joint ministerial committee two weeks ago, and we will go on making it.

The members who asked the first two questions went well over their allotted time. That has an effect on questions from back benchers. I ask back benchers to be quick so that their colleagues have an opportunity to ask questions.

Yesterday, the leader of the UK Conservatives in the European Parliament caused deep offence when he compared the 200-strong socialists and democrats MEP group to the Nazis. That came on the back of the British Foreign Secretary comparing the European Union to the Soviet Union. Does the minister agree that the Tories are poisoning the UK’s image in Europe and the world, and that those narrow-minded British nationalists do not speak for Scotland?

I agree. If further evidence of that were required, it could be found in Murdo Fraser’s question. He did not address the issue seriously; he addressed it from the narrowest partisan point of view. Such an approach damages all of us.

Given that the statement makes it clear that a no-deal scenario would be “disastrous” and terrible for Scotland, why are SNP members here and at Westminster so desperate to vote for such a scenario?

That just shows the problem that the Conservatives have. The reality of the situation is that nobody is desperate to vote for a no-deal Brexit. The only people who want that are colleagues of Mr Golden, some of whom are lauded by Scottish Conservative MPs.

A false choice is being presented. It is not a choice between the Chequers deal and no deal. I have spoken at some length about the other choices that exist. If the seriousness of the situation was addressed by the Conservatives, they would be responding, but they are destroying the country’s prospects with the extremism that we hear from them.

The cabinet secretary mentioned the important issue of immigration. Will he set out what he thinks will be the specific impacts of the ending of freedom of movement? Has the UK Government shown any flexibility on a differential immigration policy for Scotland?

The UK Government has shown no flexibility on migration. All we hear from the relevant ministers is the parroting of the phrase, “Freedom of movement will end.”

We have published a variety of information on the impacts, which I will not go through now. There will be a severe impact on the flow of EU migrants here. Scotland is not increasing its population naturally, so we need migration. There will also be a severe effect as people are turned off staying in this country by the type of rhetoric that has been encouraged by the Conservatives.

The cabinet secretary rightly recognises how disastrous a no-deal Brexit would be. Many would say that Brexit will be disastrous regardless of whether a deal is reached.

I want to ask Mr Russell about an issue that troubles many people. If the UK Government brings a deal to Parliament that might not be everything that we want, will SNP MPs vote for it because it is better than no deal at all?

The only possible deal that is acceptable beyond staying in the EU is a single market and customs union deal. I do not want to equivocate, because the reality of the situation is that there are elements of a single market and customs union deal that would have to be examined closely, as I know that Jackie Baillie appreciates. For example, the four freedoms are absolutely essential.

I have made it clear that a deal containing the important single market and customs union elements could conceivably go forward. However, I am immensely resistant to the argument that the only choice is between Chequers, which has already been rejected by the EU, and no deal. That is not realistic. It a false choice. It should not be put in a way that asks people to choose between one or the other.

Nobody wants to see a no deal. The no deal that appears to be hurtling towards us is not doing so because of the SNP or Labour. It is because of the Conservatives and the two factions in that party. One faction wants a no deal—unbelievable though that is—and the second faction is so incompetent that it cannot get a deal.

That is what we are faced with, but we should not accept the false dichotomy that is presented by the Conservatives.

Mr Fraser, please stop your constant muttering, which is becoming very annoying in my right ear.

On the people’s vote, the cabinet secretary said that we should find a way to ensure that Scotland is not left in the same position—again voting to remain but being taken out against our will. I agree that that would be preferable.

However, if, as seems likely, some kind of four-nation lock proves politically impossible to achieve, does the cabinet secretary agree that that should not stand in the way of a people’s vote that gives the public the opportunity to do what Westminster parties will not do, which is cancel Brexit and stop this mess?

I am certainly not going to give away my desire to ensure that Scotland is protected in those circumstances. However, we have been and remain clear: the SNP MPs will vote for a people’s vote. That is unequivocal. I see a people’s vote not as a second chance but as a verdict on the Tories’ stewardship of Brexit—and it would be a savage verdict.

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

First, does the cabinet secretary accept the principle of extending the transition period, which the European Union proposed last week?

Secondly, if and when there is no deal in March next year, salmon, whitefish and mussels will be on the high seas between Lerwick and Aberdeen, due to be in France by the following morning. What in heaven’s name will happen to those businesses?

As the member knows, live langoustines from the village of Tarbert, in Argyll, and other shellfish will be on their way, too. What will happen? That is the question, and at present there is no answer to it, because there are not enough phytosanitary inspectors to do the inspections. Nor is there any guarantee that the goods will be accepted.

The no-deal papers from the UK Government say that material can come in without a check, but that will not solve the problem that we are talking about—and material that comes in without a check will be open to fraud, undoubtedly.

This is a highly unsatisfactory situation, and I simply do not know the answer. Neither does the UK Government—and that is a measure of the incompetence of those people.

On the member’s first question, if transition is required, there should be a longer transition. It is interesting that the argument about transition has gone on for two years, and people have said all along, “You will need more than 21 months.” It started with David Davis saying that there would be no transition—I remember him saying that to me in October 2016, in Glasgow. The UK Government moved to a transition period of 21 months and now it is talking about a possible transition period up to the end of 2021 or beyond.

Transition has to be for something. This is absolutely clear: it cannot be instead of the backstop. If that is what Theresa May is proposing, as appears from the bizarre statement that she made on Monday, it will not fly.

Has the Scottish Government had any indication from the EU that it is prepared to accept the UK Government’s argument that the Northern Ireland backstop should be temporary? That might impact movement through the Cairnryan port, in my South Scotland region.

No. There is no question of the backstop being temporary. That is entirely clear, and both sides will indicate that. The solution has to be found by the Prime Minister moving from her position—and by the Scottish Conservatives moving from their position, because the Scottish Conservatives appear to be making some of the loudest noises on this and seem determined that Scotland should do as badly as possible out of any deal.

Just over one hour ago, John Swinney was telling the chamber why he will ignore its vote on P1 testing. What effect, if any, will a vote on the final EU deal in this Parliament have? Does the Scottish Government think that votes in this Parliament should be heeded only by others?

It would be inconceivable for this Parliament not to have the opportunity to say what it thinks about this issue. If the Tories think that it should not, I must ask why the Tories are bothering to be elected here.

Has the cabinet secretary had any indication from the UK Government of how it intends to ensure access to European markets for the fresh fish that is processed in my constituency and elsewhere and, in order to avoid damage to that produce in transport because of the forecast lengthy waits at the Channel ports, whether he will as a matter of urgency, as Angus MacDonald and I have both asked, have those talks with the ferry companies to divert at least one ferry to use the Rosyth to Zeebrugge route?

I am sympathetic to direct transport between Scotland and the EU and I hope that it can be arranged, although there are difficulties in doing that. There have also been difficulties with securing that route, but I am keen to do so and I am sure that my colleague, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, will wish to consider the issue too, so I shall discuss it with him.

The point that the member has raised about fish is essentially the same point that Tavish Scott raised, that I have raised, and that others have raised. It requires a solution but there is presently no solution. That is the conundrum of the no-deal scenario. There are matters that cannot be solved in the medium term and possibly even in the long term.

What demands will the Scottish Government make for a differentiated settlement? More important, and notwithstanding what the cabinet secretary has said, when will he set out what a no deal actually means for the people of Scotland? We are entitled to know that. Does he agree that we should not contemplate a no deal on any terms?

Yes, I do. We could ask for an extension of article 50 if we cannot get to the stage at which we get an agreement and we say that no deal is an impossibility. We have been arguing that for several months. Regrettably, that is not where the UK Government has found itself.

On differentiation, we have indicated from the very beginning how we see a differentiated solution operating and we continue to do so. As I indicated in my statement, the issue now is that we are essentially the only nation in the UK that voted to stay that is not being offered differentiation. That is unjust and damaging, because there are issues such as migration on which we absolutely require differentiation and the solutions being provided for the UK are not solutions that could possibly work for us.

In terms of information on a no deal scenario, I have indicated my timetable for that. I will do the best that I can, but I do not want to stoke it.

On Monday at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that her Government wants an EU deal that works for Scotland. When I asked her who was best placed to determine what works for Scotland, she said that that would be the UK Parliament.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that that sums up the attitude of the Tories to Scotland, and that it is the Scottish Parliament that is best placed to decide what is best for Scotland?

How could I possibly disagree with that?