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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 26 October 2016

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, European Union Referendum (Update), Enterprise and Skills Support, “Report on the Memorandum of Understanding of Ofcom” , Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Campbeltown Airport (Spaceport Bid)


European Union Referendum (Update)

The next item of business is a statement by Michael Russell on an update on actions following the outcome of the European Union referendum. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement. There should therefore be no interventions or interruptions.


Presiding Officer, forgive me if I croak my way through this statement. I am sure that members will be suitably supportive and sympathetic.

This is our third statement updating the Parliament on our actions following the EU referendum and the overwhelming vote in Scotland to remain. The First Minister last updated the Parliament on 7 September and today I want to give members more information about developments since that statement.

Reassuring our fellow EU citizens about their future right to continue living and working here remains of vital importance. Current Tory rhetoric balances their future against that of United Kingdom citizens who live in Europe, who are equally uncertain about their prospects. Using human beings as bargaining chips cannot ever be justified. The United Kingdom should take the lead and end that uncertainty now.

The impact on EU nationals who live in the UK is just one of many problems that the Brexit vote has created, all of which have been compounded by the reaction, inaction and confusion of the Conservative Government at Westminster. Our approach, in contrast, has been to seek consensus, establish clear priorities and propose solutions to problems, in keeping with the democratic mandate that we have—a triple mandate that arises from the election in 2016, the vote on 23 June and the vote of this Parliament on 28 June.

Since my appointment, I have pursued that mandate at every opportunity. I have twice met the UK Brexit secretary, David Davis, most recently on Friday along with the Secretary of State for Scotland, and colleagues have met Treasury ministers and the trade secretary. I have been to Cardiff to identify common ground with Mark Drakeford, my Welsh counterpart, I have met representatives of the London mayor’s office, and our officials have been engaged with the Northern Ireland Executive. I have begun a series of meetings with party leaders. I have met Willie Rennie and Patrick Harvie and I look forward to meeting Kezia Dugdale and Ruth Davidson. Above all, we have been pressing hard for a mechanism to deliver the full involvement that the Prime Minister promised.

The joint ministerial committee finally met on Monday. The First Minister and I, along with our counterparts from the devolved Administrations, attended the meeting in Downing Street, which the Prime Minister chaired. We considered the means by which the devolved Administrations could and should engage with the UK Government on the development of a negotiating position for our future relationship with the European Union.

That was a long overdue meeting and, unfortunately, it was in large part hugely frustrating. In line with the wishes of this Parliament, as expressed during recent debates, the First Minister set out Scotland’s key interests in protecting our place in the single market, securing continued freedom of movement and protecting social and employment rights. She also, along with colleagues, pressed for more information on the UK Government’s high-level negotiating stance and for some indication of how it would take forward engagement with the 27 remaining EU members. However, we know no more about the UK Government’s approach than we did when we went into Downing Street. We do not know whether the UK Government is in favour of membership of the single market and the customs union, what type of relationship it envisages between the UK and the EU after Brexit or indeed how and when those decisions will be made.

We secured agreement that the JMC in plenary session will meet more frequently, with another meeting promised for the new year, before the triggering of article 50. To put that in context, the last meeting of the JMC plenary before this week was in 2014. It was also agreed that a sub-committee be established to discuss the issues raised by Brexit. That sub-committee—the JMC on EU negotiations—will meet for the first time early next month.

Following a proposal from the First Minister, agreement was reached that a detailed work programme is to be established ahead of the first meeting, which must be linked to the timetable for, and the key points anticipated in, the overall Brexit negotiating process. That timetable must ensure that issues are discussed in sufficient time to inform the UK Government’s European sub-committee’s decision-making process. The Scottish Government will take part in as many meetings as necessary in order to ensure that that is the case, and I shall be speaking with David Davis later today about those issues.

Let me make this clear to Parliament. The Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and indeed the people of Scotland are—and must be—equal partners in this multinational United Kingdom. The Scottish Government will not be—and is not—simply a consultee or a stakeholder. That is not what the Parliament—or the country—asked us to do.

There is a huge amount of work to do to satisfy the Prime Minister’s own requirement for

“a UK approach and objectives for negotiations”

before she triggers article 50. As the Welsh First Minister said after Monday’s meeting, “time is against us”, given that there are only 18 weeks between the first meeting of the JMC (EN) and the UK Government’s self-imposed March deadline for triggering the article 50 process. Eighteen weeks—126 days. We cannot afford to lose a single one of them, given the vital importance of a task that includes ensuring that the UK—and Scotland—does not drive straight off a hard Brexit cliff.

Monday made it clearer than ever that there is at present no coherent UK plan. However, there has to be a Scottish plan; ideally, there should be one that is good for the UK too. Alongside our efforts to influence the UK to adopt a soft Brexit with continued membership of the single market, the Scottish Government will, by the end of this year, bring forward our own detailed proposals to protect Scotland’s interests. A key part of those proposals will be ways in which we can maintain membership of the single market for Scotland, even if the rest of the UK leaves.

I have noted recent comments by Alex Rowley, and by David Watt of the Institute of Directors Scotland, suggesting that a consensus position on the key issue of immigration may be possible. We will continue to seek advice from the standing council on Europe to seek agreement on that and other key issues, and I remain open to proposals from all the other parties.

This Parliament also gave ministers a mandate to engage with other European nations and institutions to ensure that Scotland’s position is heard. Since our last statement to Parliament, the First Minister has attended the Arctic Circle Assembly, where she met Iceland’s President, Prime Minister and foreign secretary and Finland’s Deputy Prime Minister. The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs has met the Taoiseach and the Irish foreign secretary, as well as ministers from the French, Italian and Maltese Governments. In addition, along with continued engagement with the diplomatic community in Scotland, we have also met Gibraltar’s Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister.

Fiona Hyslop and I visited Brussels last week. We spent time with Scottish members of the European Parliament, as well as with Guy Verhofstadt, who forms part of the European Parliament’s negotiating team, and with Danuta Hübner, the chair of the Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs, which will take forward scrutiny of Brexit.

Of course, the views of this Parliament remain crucial to establishing the principles behind our approach. My Cabinet colleagues and I have taken part in very useful debates on the implications of the EU referendum. That series will continue with a debate on the environment tomorrow.

Members will also know that this Scottish Government was elected with a clear mandate that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold an independence referendum if there was

“a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will”.

That is a direct quote from the manifesto on which we stood and won. We are now faced with that specific scenario.

As a result, in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum we said that we would prepare the required legislation to enable a new independence referendum to be held if it became clear that that was the only or best way of protecting Scotland’s interests. We repeated that commitment to Parliament in our programme for government.

Last Thursday, we published the “Consultation on a Draft Referendum Bill”. That consultation invites views on the draft legislation and technical arrangements for a referendum. That will ensure that the draft bill is ready for introduction should that be, in the Government’s opinion, the right way in which to proceed.

The people of Scotland, in every local authority area, voted to remain in the EU—that is an inescapable fact, and it is recognised by every party in the chamber. We have therefore sought, and will continue to seek, to work with every party to ensure that the democratic, economic and social advantages of our engagement with and connection to Europe continue to benefit us as a nation. There is much that we can do together. We can continue to seek answers from the UK Government on the most basic of questions; we can continue to bring forward solutions to the problems created by the Brexit vote; we can continue to assert our right to be treated as an equal partner; and, as the First Minister said this morning, we can and must come together to form an all-Scotland coalition to protect our place in the single market regardless of our views on the constitution. We can resolve to ensure the best outcome for Scotland and all the people who live here, including those who come from elsewhere.

Thank you. The minister will now take around 20 minutes of questions.

I thank the minister for early sight of his statement and wish him and his sore throat a full and speedy recovery.

Yesterday, this year’s winner of the Booker prize for fiction was announced. I think we know already what one of the leading contenders for next year’s prize will be: Nicola Sturgeon’s programme for government, with its commitment to place education centre stage. It will be a candidate not because it is particularly well written but because, judged by any standard, it is a work of fantasy. It does, indeed, require a great leap of imagination to conjure the image of an SNP Government that is not obsessed with independence.

Yet what we saw last week, with the publication of the consultation on the draft referendum bill, was a simple copy-and-paste job. The question, we are told, will be the same and a simple majority will decide it. A section 30 order will be required as before, and the campaign rules will be unchanged. However, the SNP forgot to copy and paste the fact that we have already answered the question—we said no, and the SNP signed an agreement that it would abide by and respect the answer. Why has it ratted on that agreement?

We often have to remind the SNP that it is now a minority Government, but it seems to have interpreted that fact as a mandate to govern in the interests only of the 45 per cent, not in the interests of the clear majority of Scots who said no to independence. We hear a lot of loose talk about mandates—we heard about mandates in the ministerial statement a few moments ago—based on material change and the like, but the truth is that there is one and only one indyref trigger, and that is a substantial and sustained spike in the opinion polls in favour of independence. Given that there has been no such shift in public opinion, why is the Scottish Government wasting everybody’s time?

When he reads the Official Report, Mr Tomkins might want to reflect on the reality of what I said and what he said in his question, because they do not match each other. The points that I made were about the serious existential threats that Scotland faces in the Brexit process and about the need to work together to answer those threats and questions. They looked for information from the Conservative Party, which obviously—north and south of the border—has no idea and no thought about what is going ahead; it can only bluff and bluster.

I say to Mr Tomkins and his colleagues that I remain very willing to enter into serious discussion about the issues that we have to resolve in Scotland in circumstances that we did not ask for, that we have been dragged into and that threaten our future prosperity and, indeed, much else in our nation. When Mr Tomkins is ready to address those issues, I will be ready to respond.

I, too, thank the minister for advance sight of his statement. He quoted Carwyn Jones, who said on Monday that “time is against us”. Mr Russell counted the days until the day on which Theresa May plans to trigger article 50 and rightly said that we cannot afford to lose a single one of them. We do, indeed, need to know the UK Government’s approach to and objectives for the negotiations, but we also need to know a bit more about the Scottish Government’s priorities and objectives.

The minister says that he will introduce the Government’s own detailed proposals but that he will do so only by the end of the year. That is 66 days away—days that we surely cannot afford to lose. Will the minister not follow the good practice that he has commended to others and go beyond the high principles to tell us precisely what he will be saying to colleagues on the joint ministerial committee? If membership of the single market is the Scottish Government’s red line, what does the minister propose for the customs union, agriculture and fisheries and trade with third parties—all of which lie within the European Union but outwith the single market? If it will take him 66 days to answer those questions, will he undertake today to engage fully with other parties in this Parliament—not as consultees, but as partners in finalising those positions—in the same way as he calls on UK ministers to engage with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations?

On the second point, I am very happy to say that I stand ready to have those conversations. Indeed, I spoke briefly to Kezia Dugdale yesterday to say that we were very keen to have a meeting. We have not got that meeting set up yet, but I am sure that Mr Macdonald will go back and ask Kezia Dugdale’s office to expedite the matter.

On the first point, I assure the member that it will be fewer than 66 days. We do not intend to publish our proposals between Christmas and new year, so we are already counting down to the publication date.

It is important that the standing council on Europe influences the process in an important manner. A lot of detailed work is being done. We have indicated that there are options to be looked at. The member should bear with us and work with us as we develop the right option for Scotland, which we also believe will be the right option for the UK. In that regard, the Prime Minister said at Friday’s European Council that the right option for the UK would also be the right option for the EU. In Scottish and UK terms, we believe the same. We can find an option that works well for Scotland and a differentiated option that works for the rest of the UK. That is what we intend to try to do, and I would be very happy to work with any party in this chamber that wants to do that. I have indicated that Mr Rowley’s contribution on the matter of migration was very helpful. The more that we have that type of contribution and discussion, the better it will be.

The EU Trade Commissioner recently said:

“If we can’t make it with Canada, I don’t think we can make it with the UK.”

Has the UK Government been overselling its claims about the opportunity to negotiate fully global trade deals?

There has been a great degree of incoherence in the message coming from the UK Government about the possibilities of establishing trade deals. I think that it was the World Trade Organization’s secretary general who said after Liam Fox’s speech that Liam Fox misunderstood what the WTO was—that it was not the world free trade organisation, but the World Trade Organization. The World Trade Organization has a whole range of tariffs and issues that would arrive into any set of negotiations.

There is a sense of unreality in many of the UK Government’s statements. We could take those with tolerance were it not that their implications are so serious, because failing to get Brexit right will lead to prolonged and serious financial difficulties for each one of us. We need to remember that.

The First Minister and the Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe have talked much of protecting Scotland’s interests and addressing the uncertainty that faces Scottish businesses following the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. Will the minister please explain how ripping Scotland out of the UK—a single market to which it exports more than four times as much as it does to the European Union—constitutes protecting Scotland’s interests?

There is a worrying tendency in the Scottish Tory party to become obsessed with independence. I would encourage Mr Stewart and his colleagues to look at higher things, and to look at some of the issues that we need to address over the next 126 days. Mr Stewart may be able to bluster like Mr Tomkins—they both may bluster for the Tory party—but all that they are doing is letting Scotland down unless they are prepared—[Interruption.] Mr Tomkins is now waving the draft referendum bill. He obviously sleeps with it under his pillow he is so fond of the idea.

In reality, we have a lot of work to do. I would dearly like the Tories to be part of that work instead of standing sniping from the sidelines.

We on this side of the chamber agree that the rhetoric at the Conservative Party conference was toxic and hugely unhelpful when it comes to reassuring EU nationals about their status in the UK. We are talking about people who have chosen not only to work in Scotland, but to make it their home.

To provide transparency on the negotiations that he is having on the matter, can the minister publish any minutes on or provide any detailed insights into those discussions? What has he put to Theresa May on the question? What options are on the table that would give legal certainty to EU nationals who want not only to remain here, but to have the protection to do so?

I should have indicated that Pauline McNeill has also made contributions on migration and the movement of people that have been very helpful in this debate, and I am grateful to her for that.

I do not think that anybody would be in any doubt about what took place at the meeting on Monday. Better than a minute were the interviews with the First Minister when she left Downing Street—after two very frustrating hours, they had the ring of veracity about them.

We have made it clear that a simple statement to say that those who are presently resident here will be able to stay would begin to solve the problem. That is what is required. If that statement was made, we could move on from this stage. We would then need to look at the whole issue of migration.

As members will know, there was a report at the weekend that indicated that Scotland would be short of 100,000 members of its workforce without free movement of people. Those workers are immensely important, and decisions cannot be made to refuse to accept free movement of people without addressing the realities of the situation for Scotland and the Scottish economy. Scotland is not full up. I represent a constituency that has a severe problem of depopulation. To approach the issue as one that affects only the south-east of England will do an enormous disservice to the people of Scotland. I believe that we can get an answer on immigration that would suit the Scottish Parliament and Scotland, and which should suit the UK, and I hope that all members will help me to do that.

In common with other members, I appreciate being provided with an advance copy of the minister’s statement. The Greens welcome the opportunity to meet the minister, which Patrick Harvie and I will do soon. Following the answer that he gave Pauline McNeill, will the minister confirm what work the Government is doing to provide further evidence of the vital contribution that citizens from the rest of the EU make to our health and social care services and of the damage that would be done to those services by Scotland being dragged out of the EU, particularly if that happened under a hard Brexit scenario?

A range of statistics prove the point that Ross Greer makes. The workforce statistics for the health service and the social care service make the point for him: 9 per cent of our doctors and 12 per cent of our social care workforce come from other European countries. There is a great deal of material on the table and a great deal of material being produced that testifies to the fact that severe problems will be caused for all parts of the public service by the proposed changes.

That puts into sharp relief the request that was constantly made to the Scottish Government that we should say what we wanted as regards the devolved competencies. The issue is not just about the devolved competencies; the way in which the single market operates, the free movement of people, the free movement of goods, the ability of companies to set themselves up elsewhere and passporting are all matters that deeply affect the devolved areas of competence, even though they might not be devolved. That is another reason why Scotland must be at the heart of the discussions and the negotiations.

I, too, thank the minister for providing an advance copy of his statement. I sympathise with him in relation to his ailment—I hope that it was not caused by all the shouting in London on Monday.

A month before the EU referendum, Theresa May warned Goldman Sachs of the consequences for the UK of leaving the single market. Of course, the Prime Minister now considers ending the free movement of people across the EU to be more important than the single market itself. Would it be helpful if, instead of telling American bankers why the single market matters, she made that case to her Cabinet? Does the Scottish Government recognise that the chaos that has been caused by the UK Government’s current position is not helped by the uncertainty over independence for Scotland?

I was with the member all the way until the last sentence. We have to find something to disagree on; I do not agree with his last sentence, but I agree with the rest of what he said. He will be familiar with the old Westminster maxim that the vote follows the voice, and it is fairly astonishing to discover that the Prime Minister’s voice was saying that Brexit would be a disaster and that now she is telling us to whistle a happy tune and believe that everything will be well. I call that hypocrisy.

The UK Government appears to be working towards sectoral deals for the City of London and car making. Does the minister believe that Scotland should be treated as a special case, given its overwhelming vote to remain?

There is no doubt that differentiated deals are going to be of great importance. Scotland will require to consider why, if it is possible for the UK to consider differentiation for the City of London and the Japanese car factories in north-east England, it is not possible for the UK to consider differentiation for Scotland. That makes no logical, political or economic sense.

Unionists might want to consider that differentiation is the basis on which the United Kingdom was established and on which devolution was set up. To be against differentiation is to be against the thing that one is trying to defend. That seems wildly illogical.

Theresa May and David Davis are fully committed to engaging with all devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Government, as an equal partner, and they are open to proposals that Mike Russell submits to the joint ministerial committee. What evidence can the minister share with the Parliament that, instead of threatening to break up our country, he and his ministerial colleagues are co-operating with the UK Government so that we can obtain the best deal for Scotland and the UK?

I am reminded of a line from, I think, the ballad about Sheriffmuir—“If you had seen what I have seen”. I was in the room and I saw the Prime Minister’s willingness, which was not as the member described it.

Following suggestions that hard-right Tory MPs are planning, in a bid to scrap red tape, to insert into Theresa May’s Brexit bill a sunset clause that would mean that all EU laws automatically expired after five years, does the minister agree with Antonia Bance, the Trades Union Congress’s head of campaigns, who said yesterday that, as we all know,

“This is how workers’ rights come under threat”?

First, I should correct the record. Mr Fergus Ewing has reminded me that the song that I was referring to was about Killiecrankie and not about Sheriffmuir. I would not like to mislead Parliament about folk songs.

In a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research in July, the First Minister laid out a series of tests for the options that we are considering. Those tests included the economic test, the democratic test and the test of social protection. Christina McKelvie is absolutely right to say that guaranteeing social protection—not just the continuation of the existing social protections but the continuing improvement of social protection, to which the EU is committed—will be vital to Scotland’s national interests. The issue is also tied up with the single market; if the single market is undermined and removed, social protections, too, are undermined and removed. The idea of a sunset clause, as proposed by a very right-wing ex-Tory chairman, is in fact an attempt to undermine that and should be resisted with vigour.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Scotland is caught between two nationalist Governments that are both obsessed with rhetoric and wildly inaccurate claims about taking back control but which are in reality not concerned in the least about the impact that leaving the EU or the UK will have on people’s jobs, public services, people’s right to live and work across the EU or indeed the UK, or trade opportunities that exist in the EU and the UK for companies that export. Given that the Scottish Government delivered in short order an economic impact report on leaving the EU, when will the same report in the same terms be published on Scotland leaving the UK?

Well said.

Just two years ago, the Government was relaxed about challenging the single market and threatening freedom of movement. We have heard again today about the hard Brexit cliff. Why is the Government so relaxed about the hard independence cliff?

I give two pieces of friendly advice to Anas Sarwar. The first is that he is bound to be on the wrong side if Mike Rumbles is applauding him.

There are Labour members who have made a sensible and thoughtful contribution to the debate because they realise how serious it is. I have spoken about the contributions of Pauline McNeill and Alex Rowley, and Lewis Macdonald made a sensible contribution, too. My second piece of advice is that Anas Sarwar would be well placed to emulate them. What he just asked does him no credit and certainly does not benefit his party.

We have problems to solve and I look forward to sitting down with Kezia Dugdale to discuss how we will solve them. I do not imagine that Anas Sarwar will need to be in the room if that is his contribution.

The UK Government promised to treat Scotland as an equal partner in the union, yet it swiftly moved to introduce English votes for English laws, and it now looks determined to ignore the 62 per cent of Scots who voted to remain in the EU. Is such behaviour consistent with the promises that were made to Scotland?

No. The Prime Minister said that Scotland should be fully engaged and fully involved. She has talked about a UK position, rather than a UK Government position, before article 50 is triggered. However, none of those things has come to fruition yet. Rachael Hamilton believes that the Prime Minister is well intentioned in the matter, but I have yet to see that. I am still waiting and, if it happens to be the case, I shall be pleased, but I will not hold my breath.

Given the meeting that has been mentioned that the minister had on Monday with the Prime Minister and the heads of the devolved Assemblies, does he have any worries about the potential impact on education in Scotland? Does he agree with Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, who said on Monday that the potential impact of Brexit on higher education

“ranges from bad to awful to catastrophic”?

I am grateful to Mr Dornan for raising the important point of the impact on higher education. The impact on higher education research, in particular, is crucial in the discussions. Tim O’Shea’s contribution was, as ever, measured and in-depth. He knows more about the running of universities and higher education in the UK—and globally—than most people and, when he uses such language, he uses it in a considered fashion.

In the process that we are now embarked on, we have to ensure that we have detail early so that the UK Government takes forward proposals that do not damage higher education—in particular our involvement in horizon 2020 and in Erasmus—and do not impact the flow of talent into and out of this country. Universities are in a talent game and there is an invidious possibility—we are just beginning to see and hear about it—that senior academics who might be tempted by the offers that they are being made to come to Scotland or the UK to further their career will say, “Is Scotland and the UK a place that will welcome me? Is that a place that can sustain me and will the connections be worth having?” If the answer to any of those questions is no, they will not come. That will lead to a diminution of our excellence and we must avoid that at all costs.

As our Governments approach the Brexit negotiations, what discussions has Mr Russell had with secretary of state David Mundell about developing a joint approach to representing Scotland’s position? If he has held such discussions, what matters were agreed?

I thank Mr Scott for that question. The secretary of state has raised the subject with me and I am more than willing to attend events at which we both speak and to listen to sectors. I am sure that we could co-operate in that way, but it would have to be done on the basis of equality and on the basis that we are there to listen and to put our point of view. The outcome would have to influence the negotiating position. If we can achieve those things, I have no difficulty.

I thank the minister and members for their contributions.