Website survey

We want your feedback on the Scottish Parliament website. Take our 6 question survey now

Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 30, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 30 January 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Public Works Loan Board Rate, Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, European Union Exit, Drugs and Alcohol, Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


European Union Exit

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

I want to provide an update on the EU-United Kingdom negotiations, including Tuesday’s meeting of the joint ministerial committee on European negotiations where, along with representatives of the Welsh Government and the Northern Irish Government—making a welcome return to the forum after three years’ absence—I discussed the role of the devolved Governments in the forthcoming negotiations.

Before continuing, I must acknowledge the desperately sad fact that, despite the unambiguous message of the Scottish electorate in the referendum in 2016 and in subsequent elections, the UK and Scotland will be leaving the European Union at 11 pm tomorrow—although we will be back. After tomorrow night, the UK will become a third country.

One minute past 11 on 31 January may feel no different from one minute before 11, but a profound change will have taken place. No one should be lulled into a false sense of security by that initial sameness, because at one minute past 11, the clock will start again, ticking inexorably down towards the end of the year, when the UK Government insists that the transition period must end, and when we will feel the full impact of what is the most damaging change to our constitutional settlement in generations. It will be ticking down, once again, to no deal or something very similar, with all the extra hardship that that will entail.

The Scottish Government’s single overriding concern over the 42 months since the Brexit referendum—in which we did not choose to leave the EU—has been to protect Scotland’s national interests. We will continue to do everything that we can, inside and outside the formal structures, to minimise the profound damage that Brexit will inevitably cause. That is why I continue to attend increasingly difficult meetings of the JMC(EN).

I go to those meetings because it is vital that Scotland’s core interests—those include the competences exclusively held by the Scottish Parliament—are always spoken for and protected.

It is a fact that the JMC(EN) terms of reference, agreed jointly by heads of Government in October 2016, have so far never been fulfilled. The JMC(EN) is ostensibly the mechanism by which the four Governments

“seek to agree a UK approach to, and objectives for,”

and have

“oversight of”,

negotiations—those are the words of the protocol—in order to secure joint outcomes.

The core problem is that the actions of UK ministers have never matched those commitments, despite the best efforts of the devolved Administrations to persuade them to do so. There are many examples of that disrespectful behaviour—too many to list in full. They began as early as January 2017, when the then Prime Minister announced in the Lancaster house speech her intention to leave the single market and customs union without any consultation and without even considering the detailed arguments that we set out in “Scotland’s Place in Europe” only a few weeks before. It has gone on, right up to the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, which we saw in its final form only after it had been sent to Westminster to begin its parliamentary process.

We know that UK Government departments are now working feverishly on negotiating positions and proposals. Ministers have had no sight of those, despite a formal request being made by us and the Welsh Government at the meeting of the JMC(EN) that was held in London earlier this month. How can we contribute effectively to the development of the UK negotiating position on the most broad and complex negotiations in living memory while being left in the dark about the way in which the UK Government is shaping its own approach?

The fact is that the UK Government has ignored our views, and those of the people of Scotland, throughout the Brexit process. We have repeatedly tried to alter that pattern. Three weeks ago, at the meeting in London, I acknowledged, openly but with regret, the electoral mandate that the UK Government has for Brexit. However, I continue to think that it is fundamentally the wrong approach and will damage Scotland enormously. Regrettably, the UK Government has refused to reciprocate and will not acknowledge the clear mandate that we received to give Scotland the right to choose.

Without mutual recognition of mandates, there can be no trust. With a mutual recognition of mandates, we could start to move forward. With that in mind, I also proposed a model for engagement in the second stage of negotiations. The model suggested an approach that would allow detailed discussion of devolved competences and could make a difference if there was also a genuine commitment from all parties to take part and make it work. With a recognition that Scotland will be able to choose this year whether to become an independent country, the model could provide a period of stability in the political structures and allow a more constructive dialogue. However, it cannot work if there is no binding commitment to it through a reformed intergovernmental relationship, the UK Government proposals for which have not yet been provided to the devolved Administrations, despite promises.

Alas, the UK Government has also made the situation worse by two actions in recent days. First, after this Parliament refused on 8 January by a margin of 92 votes to 29 to give its consent to the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, the Northern Ireland Assembly did the same on 20 January, and the Welsh Senedd followed suit on 21 January. That is a unique situation, but the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union responded by simply confirming that the decision of all three devolved bodies would be ignored. In fact, they went further, insulting our intelligence by profusely supporting in their statements the very convention—the Sewel convention—that they had just buried forever.

Secondly, as members in the chamber heard in the debate yesterday, the Prime Minister wrote two weeks ago to the First Minister rejecting summarily her request for a section 30 order that would allow the right of Scotland’s people to choose their own future.

For more than three years, the Scottish Government has sought to engage with the UK Government in the Brexit process. We have developed and passed primary and secondary legislation for withdrawal, and ensured that Scotland is as ready as we can make it for exit, however much we oppose and regret that fact. We have played our part: the UK needs to reciprocate. We must move beyond the current process, mandated by the UK Government, which does not allow constructive engagement and meaningful input, and restricts our ability to protect Scotland’s interests.

How do we make progress? The negotiations, like all aspects of our relationship with the UK Government, cannot be treated as business as usual without a mutual recognition of mandates. Once again, we have done our part. The UK Government must do its part, and it is enabled to do so afresh by the vote in this Parliament yesterday to take forward a new referendum. Despite the shadow that the situation casts over the negotiations, I will continue to seek the meaningful engagement with the UK Government that will allow me to protect Scotland’s interests. That is now urgent, with negotiations likely to start with the EU in a matter of weeks.

At the JMC, alongside my devolved Government colleagues, I identified the two essential components of the step change that is required. The first is for the UK to provide the necessary detail of its developing thinking, in order for us to have a meaningful discussion of the UK negotiating mandate. We are ready to have that discussion at the earliest possible moment but, in order to contribute in a constructive way, we need the information that the UK Government has. The UK must commit itself to a process, no matter how brief, that is seen to offer the devolved Administrations a clear and effective input to that vital final document.

Secondly, the UK Government must give us confidence that, in spite of all the previous false dawns, it will work with us on the negotiations in a way that meets our legitimate expectations and the remit of the JMC(EN). We need to see the imminent UK proposals for the new relationship between the Governments. As devolved Governments, we must be given the space to consider them together and to seek changes as required, with a view to securing statutory backing, in order that—for as long as we are part of this union—we have a platform for discussion and decision making.

It is my sincere hope that this Parliament will support the continued efforts of the Scottish Government to ensure that the legitimate voices of this Parliament and of Scotland are heard in the most important negotiations that any of us are likely to witness, and that it will support the constructive way that we are going about it.

We oppose many things in the Brexit process, as well as the process itself. We must continue to have the right to argue against the UK Government’s reckless decision to rule out any extension to the transition period. Imposing an arbitrary end-of-2020 deadline will sacrifice the depth and quality of any future relationship and, at best, will result in a bare-bones agreement that will serve no one’s interests.

It is a stark fact that, tomorrow, we leave—dragged out against our will, despite the clear instruction of the Scottish people.

Scotland has the right to choose its own future, and the best option for Scotland is to be an independent country in the EU. In the meantime, we will stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of Europe around our shared values and interests, while doing everything in our power to ensure that none of Scotland’s interests are adversely affected as the Brexit process continues. That is a mature way to go forward, but it requires the UK to show an equivalent maturity and a respect for democracy.

Scotland might lie on the edge of Europe, but we have always been—and want to remain—at its heart. We are committed to doing all that we can to get back to where we belong. As we do so, we ask all the remaining 27 members to leave a light on for Scotland as we navigate our way out of an incorporating union that does not work for us into a union of equals that does. We will leave a light on here, to guide us back into our European home.

We ask the UK to behave like the decent, generous democracy that it has been and—I hope—will be again, and to work with us as friends and neighbours as we make our choices for ourselves.

Thank you, cabinet secretary. We have around 20 minutes for questions.

I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of his statement and I welcome the fact that his voice is slowly recovering.

The cabinet secretary recognises the UK Government’s mandate for Brexit. Therefore, as a matter of logic, he must also accept the UK Government’s mandate for rejecting another independence referendum.

The statement says nothing new and, in a week in which this Government has excelled at such practices, is yet more grievance and grandstanding. I expected the statement to contain a number of factual matters and detailed proposals about the practicalities of the next 12 months. As the cabinet secretary says, they will involve the most important negotiations that we will know between the UK and the EU, as well as a number of UK Government bills that will have a significant impact on the people of Scotland—the first of those being the second reading of the Agriculture Bill.

Whether it be fisheries, farming, the environment or trade, those are matters of great import to the Scottish economy as a whole and require to be promoted in a constructive and meaningful way. However, it seems incredible that the Scottish Government will not engage unless its constitutional demands are met. To use the cabinet secretary’s phrase, how is that protecting Scotland’s national interests? Is it seriously his position that no dialogue between the Scottish and UK Governments can occur without the UK Government recognising the Scottish National Party’s demand for another independence referendum? When the livelihoods of so many Scots are at stake, does he feel comfortable operating such a veto?

There is no veto being exercised by any organisation except the UK Government. It is exercising the veto, not the Scottish Government or the Scottish Parliament.—[Interruption.]

I know that Mr Rumbles is really enthusiastic about being with the Tories; however, perhaps he could pause for just a moment and allow me to answer the question. He will, no doubt, have his turn.

The reality of the situation is that I laid out very clearly in my statement the way in which we can work together and the structure that we can put in place; indeed, that structure was proposed by me. It is disingenuous—to say the least—of Mr Cameron to misrepresent that.

It is also shameful to deny the right of Scotland to choose its own future. Any politician in this chamber—who is elected by the people of Scotland—who does that is not observing democracy. [Interruption.]

Ha! Ridiculous.

There is always hollow laughter from Professor Tomkins, particularly when he is uncomfortable with the position that he is holding—and he should be desperately uncomfortable with the position that he is holding, because it denies the right of the Scottish people to determine their own future.

We will continue to work—[Interruption.] We will continue to work with the UK Government to try to get the best for Scotland. I have laid out the difficulties in that, and I would have expected members of this Parliament to stand with the Scottish Parliament and Government in trying to get the best for Scotland; instead, however, they want to stand with the people who are trying to stop that.

I want to make it clear that Labour in this Parliament will continue to support the Scottish Government’s efforts—along with those of the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly—to be at the table as equals in order to minimise the damage of Brexit on Scotland. However, in his statement, the cabinet secretary confused the issues with his obsession with independence.

As I made clear yesterday, Labour believes in the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine our own future, and that is why we say that there cannot be a referendum any time soon. The cabinet secretary stated that Brexit will be the most damaging change to our constitutional settlement in generations. Why, then, would he want to add even greater constitutional upheaval, and why is he ignoring the wishes of the majority of the people of Scotland, who do not want another referendum in 2020 amidst all the chaos that Brexit will bring?

I am grateful to Mr Rowley for acknowledging the reality of the situation and that we all should sit round that table as equals. However, the sovereign right of the Scottish people to choose their own future is not a light bulb that can be switched on and off—it is an absolute. As the Scottish people wish—and are determined—to have the right to talk about their own future, they must have that right.

The reason why that must happen in 2020 is very clear—we need to put an end to the uncertainty. Scottish business, industry, third sector bodies and higher education all need certainty, and that can be guaranteed this year with a referendum for which we have a mandate. [Interruption.] Although I am grateful that the Labour Party is inching towards the reality of the situation, it has a bit yet to go in recognising both what sovereignty is, and the need to bring the matter to an end as soon as possible.

I ask members on the front benches to desist from making exchanges, as I cannot hear the answers.

I have 10 members who want to ask questions; some of them, although they are on my list, have not yet pressed their request-to-speak buttons—they had better press them now.

In order to get them all in, I ask for quick, short and succinct questions; good questions, yes, of course—but short.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland voted against the withdrawal agreement legislation, and consent has been withheld. Has that unprecedented constitutional position prompted the UK Government to reconsider in any way its entirely disrespectful attitude towards Scotland and the other devolved Governments?

No, it has not; indeed, there is considerable annoyance from the other Administrations that, instead of its recognising that fact, there is an allegation from the UK Government that none of the Administrations voted on the issues that are in front of them, and that they voted only on the Brexit issue. Indeed, I know that the Welsh have taken this up with the UK Government directly, and that they are very annoyed that, instead of paying attention to the objections to the bill that the Welsh Parliament had, the UK Government has tried simply to gloss over them.

There has been no movement on the matter. How anybody can say that we support the Sewel convention while—in essence—digging its grave, I do not understand.

The overwhelming majority who voted for Scotland to remain in the EU will have watched yesterday’s emotional scenes from the European Parliament with regret and sadness. Scotland can become an EU member again as an independent country, but, until we get a say on our future, we have to do everything that we can to protect Scotland’s interests and public services. Therefore, if the cabinet secretary’s wholly reasonable requests for representation for Scotland in the Brexit negotiations and negotiations on other trade deals are ignored, how will his Government protect Scotland’s national health service from a UK Government that, as we approach the cliff edge of the end of the transition deal, will be increasingly desperate to do a trade deal with Trump?

The member makes a good point. We have made proposals about a structure that would work to allow participation in those matters. It must be a structure in which we all sit together round the table as equals, as Mr Rowley said, and one through which we can defend our interests. There is no hierarchy of Governments in devolution; there is a hierarchy of Parliaments. We have responsibility for the Scottish NHS and we should be able to speak up for it and defend it in the negotiations, which is what we intend to do. It would be best if the UK Government recognised the need to put in place a structure and was willing to be bound by it in the way that the UK Government expects us to be bound by it. We certainly want that to happen.

In this sad moment of division, it is disappointing that the cabinet secretary is refusing to co-operate in Scotland’s interest unless the UK Government agrees to another divisive independence referendum. I do not accept that the SNP has the support of the majority of people for a referendum. [Interruption.]

Just a minute. We heard the cabinet secretary, and we should hear everybody else. Please continue, Mr Rennie.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I do not accept that the SNP has the support of the majority of people for another divisive independence referendum. Will the cabinet secretary therefore remove the SNP’s referendum boulder so that we might have a chance of co-operation and partnership as we enter the trade negotiations?

The member’s misrepresentation of my position is as bad as that from Donald Cameron, but that is not surprising because, alas, they are both Tories of the same mould, as we know from Mr Rennie’s statements yesterday.

We are endeavouring to find a solution so that we can get the right structure to move forward, and we have made proposals on that. I hope that those proposals can take us there. However, it would be a pointless negotiation if I simply said, “That’s it—you do what you want.” That might be how Willie Rennie negotiates, but it is not how the Scottish Government negotiates.

Ahead of the 2014 referendum, when the European Commission was asked about an independent Scotland’s membership of the European Union, its response was to say, in effect, that it does not comment on the internal affairs of a member state. From 11 pm tomorrow, the UK will no longer be a member state. Given the good will towards Scotland that clearly exists across Europe, what potential is there for the Scottish Government and political parties to engage more closely with our European friends and neighbours on a future trade deal and on Scotland’s return to the EU as an independent country?

It is clear from all that we have seen this week that there is a huge well of support and sympathy for Scotland because of the position in which we find ourselves. The important thing is for us to move forward in a legitimate, constructive and constitutional way, recognising how we can re-enter the EU. The EU will never say to any country, “Come away in; it doesn’t matter who you are—just join in.” There is a process to be gone through, and we will go through it. However, having had some experience of 2014 and having seen the EU at close quarters in the past few years, I know that there has been a sea change in attitude. I am absolutely certain that we will be able to negotiate a beneficial way for Scotland to re-enter the EU.

The cabinet secretary claims that he has engaged constructively with the United Kingdom ministers. In his trade paper, he demanded no fewer than five vetoes over international trade, which is a reserved matter. How is that constructive engagement?

I do not think that anybody should have a veto. If there is no veto applied and no veto from the UK, there should be no veto from anybody else. However, Mr Tomkins is supporting a system whereby the UK Government and his mates in the Tory party have a veto on everything that we do and we have no protection at all. That does not strike me as a negotiating tactic; it strikes me as a surrender to the UK Tory party. No doubt, Mr Tomkins thinks that that is a good idea, but very few others in Scotland think so.

Scotland’s working-age population risks being plunged into decline by hostile Tory immigration policies. The Prime Minister describes the Scottish Government’s immigration proposals, which have been backed by expert organisations, as “fanciful and deranged”. Can the cabinet secretary tell me whether, in JMC meetings, the UK Government has ever accepted the case for a migration policy that is tailored to Scotland’s particular needs?

We have provided an enormous amount of information to the UK Government on a vast range of subjects—I am holding just some of the papers that we have published—and we have given it lots of information on migration and Scotland’s specific needs. There has been no indication of a change of attitude.

I want to touch on the words that Boris Johnson used—“absolutely fanciful and deranged”—about the paper that he had not read. The people who are “fanciful and deranged” would include, then, the former Conservative MP for Stirling, Mr Kerr, who said that they were “worth looking at”, the writer of a leading article in The Times, the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the policy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, the chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the director of Reform Scotland, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the director of Universities Scotland, the public affairs manager of NFU Scotland and the director of the David Hume Institute, all of whom have supported the publication of our proposals—although not necessarily each individual proposal—and the views that we have put forward. It is not just the SNP—we are obviously deranged—but those people who, according to the Prime Minister, are “fanciful and deranged”. We have, unfortunately, a deranged Prime Minister who thinks that.

We have to rely on reports from the Scottish Government and the UK Government about what happens. We are entering tough negotiations. Following the recent JMC meeting, Michael Gove said that the Scottish representatives were stressing

“the importance of making sure that we’re outside the common fisheries policy.”

Does the cabinet secretary acknowledge that, if Scotland was to re-enter the EU as an independent nation, we would have to accept the common fisheries policy?

What I accept is that there is a process of negotiation to be done on fishing interests and fishing rights. The attitude of the UK Government at the moment is unrealistic in that regard. Obviously, there have to be changes, and it is the Scottish Government, and this party, that has argued over many years for changes to the common fisheries policy. I wish that we had been supported by Labour on that matter. We talked about the way that the CFP needed to change long before the Tories did, because the Tories were enforcing the CFP. That is the reality.

This Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee wrote to the UK Government asking for information on what will replace the €940 million that Scotland will lose with the end of the European structural and social funds, which support everything from training young people, to small business loans and support for the disabled. Does the cabinet secretary agree that those funds must be replaced in full and that the Scottish Parliament must have democratic oversight of how they are distributed?

I agree that a very worrying situation is developing. If it is true that a final decision on all these matters has to be reached by the end of this year, there are now just 11 months to put in place a shared prosperity fund. As a former environment minister, I was involved when one type of Scottish rural development programme funding moved to another type, and that took 18 months to resolve. I do not think—[Interruption.]

Mr Tomkins, of course, wants to defend that. He would defend anything that the Tories did, no matter what it was. The Tories will impoverish the third sector, but Mr Tomkins will be in favour of that, because it is the Tories who are doing it. It is an extraordinary position for him to find himself in. It is intellectual gymnastics that, I must say, are not worthy of him in any way.

The reality of the situation is that there will be many bodies that will suffer greatly, because the UK Government has made as much a mess of this, as it has of all its other responsibilities. We will do our very best to protect the third sector and rural Scotland against that but, unfortunately, the UK Government is doing something absolutely unconscionable in terms of the damage that it will cause.

I will try to get the last few questions in, if they are short.

It has been 24 short hours since the Scottish Government introduced a debate on the constitution, but 24 long months since it introduced one on education. Does that not sum up perfectly the priorities of Mr Russell and his party? I ask this very simply: why does the Scottish Government continue to refuse to accept that the Scottish people voted to remain part of the UK? Would that not be the democratic thing to do?

This Parliament did not last debate education two years ago; that is another—I suppose that I cannot use the word, but that is what it is. That is another one from the Prime Minister. It is a fact that this Parliament debated education two weeks ago, so Jamie Greene falls on the first part of his question.

On the second part, Jamie Greene may well have been hiding somewhere for the past five years, but Brexit changed everything. Indeed, tomorrow changes everything. There has been a material change in circumstances.

I know that the Tories will not apologise for what they are doing, because they would never apologise for the damage that they are doing, but Jamie Greene must realise that things have changed profoundly since 2014. Many of the people he knows will say that to him—he is just not prepared to listen to them.

I am keen to hear the cabinet secretary’s response to the views of senior members of the UK Conservative Party who are of the opinion that,

“It doesn’t matter one jot what the Scottish Parliament has decided”.

I deeply regret that, because I think that the Parliaments and Governments of these islands should be trying to work constructively together. However, those UK Conservative Party members are encouraged by the attitude of the Scottish Conservatives. That is regrettable, because the Scottish Conservatives want to roll over and accept anything that they are told to do. I suspect that members of the UK Government judge this Parliament by the Scottish Conservatives. They should not do that, because they will find that the members on the SNP benches are made of far tougher stuff.