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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 28 March 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Independence Referendum, Decision Time, Included in the Main Campaign


Topical Question Time

Article 50 (Discussions)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its discussions with the United Kingdom Government ahead of the triggering of article 50. (S5T-00490)

Yesterday, the First Minister met the Prime Minister, and I met the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. I can report that, today, on the eve of the day on which article 50 will be triggered, although we discussed a range of subjects we still have no substantial information on the detail of the article 50 letter. Moreover, the national press were informed of the date of the triggering of article 50 without any attempt being made to inform the devolved Administrations.

I thank the minister for that very dreary-feeling answer. Does he think that the Prime Minister has any rational, sensible or logical reason to stand in the way of a decision of this Parliament to hold a referendum on independence, given that as the UK Government admitted and confirmed yesterday, the terms of Brexit will be clear before the UK leaves the EU?

No. The timescales that are set by the article 50 process are clear, so there is no rational, sensible or logical reason to stand in the way of a legitimate decision of this Parliament.

Thank you, minister. It is another despondent-making and absolutely terrible response to the Scottish Government.

Last night, I received a copy of a report by the Human Rights Consortium Scotland. The consortium’s co-ordinator, Mhairi Snowden, has said:

“This new report says that individuals’ rights must be safeguarded in the wake of the vote to leave the European Union ... Without the EU pushing rights forward, these organisations are concerned that legal rights may be reduced, and that progress on achieving greater rights for disadvantaged people will stall. They are calling for greater participation in decision-making around Brexit.”

Greater participation would be very welcome indeed. Does the minister agree that the intransigence of the UK Government in failing to reassure EU nationals who are resident in our nation should be a clarion call to us all that our hard-fought-for rights could be so easily pushed away?

I agree, because the issue of nationals from other EU states is crucial. It is absolutely astonishing that today, on the eve of the triggering of article 50, no reassurance has been given to those EU nationals. No reassurance has been given, either, to the Scottish and British citizens who are resident in other countries in Europe. Those are two sides of the same coin. It is ridiculous that we are in that situation.

On the wider issue of human rights, it is important that members realise that the threat of Brexit has consequences. Yesterday, I attended a round-table meeting on human rights and social inclusion that was chaired by two members of the standing council on Europe, Alan Miller and Grahame Smith. Through such engagement, the Scottish Government is very aware of the vast and well-rehearsed concerns across academic and third sector bodies about the risk of erosion of human rights and social protections that is presented by Brexit. We will continue to work with those bodies and with civic Scotland to ensure that the key principles that have been set out by Alan Miller in particular are observed. First, there should be no regression; secondly, there should be continued progress; and thirdly, there should be freedom to lead best practice.

Vast amounts of anguish and difficulty are being caused by the Brexit process. That is utterly unnecessary, because the people of Scotland did not vote for it.

In the Miller case a few weeks ago, the United Kingdom Supreme Court unanimously ruled that

“Within the United Kingdom, relations with the European Union, like other matters of foreign affairs, are reserved”,

and that

“The devolved legislatures do not have ... legislative competence in relation to withdrawal from the European Union”.

Therefore, what is the minister moaning about?

I hope that, in time, Adam Tomkins will reflect on the attitude that he has taken in this debate. He might think that it is his duty to be an apologist for the UK Government, for a hard Brexit and for a hard Britain, but his real role in Parliament is to represent the electors of the area from which he comes. I am afraid to say that if he chooses to be an apologist for the UK Government, he chooses to ally himself with a Government that is working against the interests of the people who elected him.

Alex Neil reminded us last week that there are, in effect, two Brexit deals to be done: one to cover the UK’s exit arrangements from the EU and the other on the successor trading relationships between the UK and the EU. Mr Russell will be aware that nobody outside the UK Government has offered a public view that both those deals can be done in 18 months to two years. Does he not prefer the evidence of Sir Ivan Rogers, who recently retired as the UK’s permanent representative to the European Union? He said that the view in Brussels is that it will be at least the summer of 2020 before any agreement can be reached between the UK and the EU, and that it may, indeed, be the early to mid-2020s before such an agreement is in place. Is it therefore not wrong to simply take the word of Theresa May on what is an unrealistic timetable for completion of trading arrangements between the UK and EU?

The First Minister has been very clear that there is a matter for negotiation—in terms of conclusion of the negotiations—on the point at which an informed decision can be made. That is absolutely vital. I note that the Tories keep trying to change their minds on that, but it is the vital point—the point at which an informed decision can be made. I accept that many people doubt the wisdom of the position of the Prime Minister, for whom the Tories here wish to be apologists. However, she is leading the negotiations and she says unequivocally that both negotiations can be done, and that both will be done, within the timescale. In those circumstances, it is absolutely right for us to say that that is also the timescale for the article 50 process and that we will therefore go along with that.

However, I hope that Labour might, even at this very late date, wake up to the fact that the best position to be in on this is to argue for the position of Scotland and not to argue for the position of the Prime Minister or anybody else. I note that yesterday the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland had just woken up to the fact that she should ask the Prime Minister about the need for a differentiated option. However, the stable door has closed and what we should be arguing for is for the right for Scotland to choose, and the Labour Party should be on that side today.

Queensferry Crossing

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that the Queensferry crossing will not be ready by the revised completion date of the end of May. (S5T-00479)

I receive regular updates on progress towards completion of the Queensferry crossing, as indeed does the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. However, following my appearance at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee on 8 March 2017, I asked the Forth crossing bridge constructors, the contractor, to carry out a thorough review of its programme through to project completion. That work has indicated that adverse weather conditions, particularly wind, have had an impact on the removal of the construction cranes and therefore on the estimated completion date. Transport Scotland is currently assessing the review carried out by the FCBC, and I expect to receive a report from it this evening. I have agreed to provide a detailed update to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee tomorrow morning.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his response and for advising Parliament on what has been widely rumoured among the workforce for some time, which is that an extension to the timescale for the works will be required. It was reported in the Dunfermline Press that a worker on the bridge had said that the bridge contractors were asking for the completion date for the bridge to be extended to September. Clearly, such a delay will be met with dismay by my constituents and—I imagine—by the cabinet secretary’s constituents.

Can the cabinet secretary give us a better update on when the bridge is likely to be completed? Does he recognise that this is the second delay that there has been to the completion of the bridge? We were promised by the First Minister previously that the bridge would be completed by the end of last year, we were then told by the cabinet secretary that it would be completed by the end of May and we are now looking at a further delay. When will it be ready?

As I said in response to the member’s first question, the review information is being analysed by Transport Scotland as we speak and I will be able to report in detail, as I have done throughout the project, to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. I should also say that the project has a 120-year lifespan: the bridge will be there for 120 years. It is very important that we get it right and that we do it safely.

I am sure that Murdo Fraser is aware of the conditions in the Forth. For example, it has taken 65 days to take down one of the cranes—it would normally have taken 15 days—because of the consistently high winds. As soon as the wind speed goes above 25mph, it is not possible to work on the cranes, and that has contributed to the delay.

When I have the detailed information from Transport Scotland in front of me, I will prepare a full report that I will provide to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee in the morning. However, this has been a seven-year project that is about £0.25 billion below budget, and that will not change.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his further response. I am aware of the weather conditions on the Forth. Indeed, thanks to the cabinet secretary, I had a visit to the top of the north tower some time ago—I think that it was last summer. However, does the cabinet secretary accept that politicians should not make promises about the completion of projects that they cannot then deliver on?

Over the past few months, the existing crossing has had to be closed twice because high-sided vehicles have been blown over, causing massive disruption to my constituents’ lives. If there is to be a further delay to the new crossing being opened, what additional measures can be put in place to prevent further disruption from vehicles being blown over? For example, could we have Transport Scotland or police staff stationed at the ends of the bridge in severe weather to try to prevent high-sided vehicles from irresponsibly crossing the bridge in those conditions?

On Murdo Fraser’s last point, that matter is being reviewed by my colleague Humza Yousaf, who has responsibility for the Forth road bridge, and I am happy to discuss that further.

However, I think that Murdo Fraser made my point for me when he mentioned that two trucks have been blown over on the existing Forth road bridge, because that exemplifies the state of the wind. As he will now know, having been to the top of the tower, the new bridge is substantially higher than the existing bridge. In fact, I am disappointed—I offered last year to go up to the top of the tower with Murdo Fraser because I knew that he was a bit worried about it, but unfortunately I did not get the chance to do that. [Laughter.]

I was there.

Well, if he had let me know, I would certainly have been there. [Laughter.] As he has experienced at first hand the weather conditions at the top of the tower, he will know that they are substantially different even from those on the Forth itself, and the consistency of high winds has been a particular problem.

As I said, I will fully update the committee tomorrow once I have the response from Transport Scotland. I cannot comment on rumours that have been raised in the press. I have to go on the contractors’ information and Transport Scotland’s assessment of that, and once I have that, I will be able to give a definitive position to the committee tomorrow. I am grateful to the committee’s convener for allowing me an opportunity to go along and do that tomorrow.

Can the cabinet secretary provide details of the number of jobs that have been created due to the building of the bridge and what its wider economic impact has been?

That was not really the subject of the question, but the cabinet secretary may respond briefly.

Presiding Officer, I think that there is a direct correlation in that an extra 200 people are now working on the bridge to make sure that we can get the work done as quickly and as safely as possible. That takes to about 1,500 the number of people who are currently directly employed in the construction of the Queensferry crossing.

Since 2011, over 10,000 people have worked directly on the project, with many more being employed in the supply chain via subcontract and supply orders. Up to 31 December, Scottish firms had been awarded subcontracts or supply orders on the Forth crossing project worth a total of about £335 million, out of a total of £688 million.

The Parliament will well remember that, this time last year, 27 days were lost on the bridge due to adverse conditions, which correlated with a six-month delay in the future opening date. Nobody expects the bridge operatives to work in unsafe conditions, but will the cabinet secretary advise the Parliament what tolerance will be built into the new completion date? If that is broken, will he come back to the Parliament and advise us on the further delay that is still to come?

Of course. I am always happy to come to the Parliament to provide updates.

I will mention for Alex Cole-Hamilton’s information one of the issues in relation to last year—it is a difficult point to get across, but it is very important. If there is a substantial delay, for example in relation to the cranes, it means that other things get concertinaed and bunched up into a smaller timescale. At present, the cranes comprise part of the surface of the bridge, and there is a lot of other work to be carried out once they have been taken down. An extraordinary number of people—1,500—are working to complete the bridge, and when they are all trying to do things in the same space, there can be a concertina effect.

As I said, I will provide the committee with a detailed update tomorrow, when I will have the full information, but I am more than happy to come back to the chamber as necessary.