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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 31 January 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Bailey Gwynne (Independent Review), Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, Gender Balance (Parliamentary Bureau and Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body), Business Motion, Decision Time, Veterans


Topical Question Time

United States Travel Ban

To ask the Scottish Government what response it has received from the United Kingdom Government to the concerns that it has raised regarding people from Scotland being blocked from returning from overseas visits due to the United States imposing a travel ban. (S5T-00350)

I am deeply concerned at the executive order that President Trump signed on Friday, which in effect bans people from a number of Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. On Sunday, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary urging him to make the strongest possible representations to the US Government about the effect that the order will have on people who live, study and work here. The First Minister also raised the issue with the Prime Minister when they met at the joint ministerial committee in Cardiff yesterday. I have yet to receive a ministerial reply, but there has been communication at official level.

The Foreign Secretary made a statement in the House of Commons yesterday, saying that the UK has secured an exemption to the ban for UK passport holders, including dual nationals. However, that does not go nearly far enough. We know from cases such as that of Dr Hamaseh Tayari, a vet studying at the University of Glasgow, that the ban may affect many who live, work and study in Scotland but do not have or hold a UK passport. We are still concerned about the confusion over how the ban applies and I am seeking clarification.

More broadly, the imposition of a blanket ban on people on the basis of their birthplace, nationality or religion in the name of security is counterproductive and morally wrong. It risks exacerbating tensions between communities and it will undermine much of the work that the global community has been doing to tackle extremism.

The United States has long been a place that has welcomed people from other countries, especially those fleeing persecution. We will press the US Government directly and through the UK to reconsider the action and adopt an approach that reflects the values of equality, tolerance, diversity and human rights, and we seek the Parliament’s support in doing so.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that full reply and I look forward to any further replies from ministers such as the Foreign Secretary and others at Westminster.

The cabinet secretary mentioned Hamaseh Tayari, a postgraduate vet from the University of Glasgow, who was prevented from returning to Scotland via New York. We must all sincerely thank the women for independence campaign and all the people who have donated money to enable her to return to Scotland. We all recognise that that is a fantastic gesture and it is most welcome. However, does the cabinet secretary agree that the Westminster Government must condemn Trump’s entry ban and work with the Scottish Government to ensure that this never happens again to people who live and work in Scotland?

The confusion and chaos that are evident across the world show some of the issues that arise from the executive order and its immediacy. That an individual who simply goes on holiday is unable to return home shows the extremism of the action. I commend the money that has been raised through crowdfunding for the women for independence campaign and the wider community support that Hamaseh Tayari has received, not least from the University of Glasgow, which is her employer. We should all think very hard about the consequences—not just the immediate consequences—of the action that has been taken and what it says about the world we live in today.

We all realise that the particular issue of bringing Hamaseh Tayari back from the US, although it has been supported fantastically, is largely a reserved matter and is for the most part in Westminster’s domain, but will the Scottish Government make any direct representation to the US Government on the issue? Will the Scottish Government make clear to the world that Scotland is a welcoming country that values people who come here to visit, live, work and study, regardless of their country of origin?

Yes, it is our intention to do that. The number of countries and Governments across the world that have set out their views is instructive. It is clear that the UK Government has lead responsibility on foreign relations, but it does not have lead responsibility on morality. The fact that so many of us view what has happened as morally wrong means that we have an obligation to speak out.

Will the minister join me in commending the University of Glasgow for being so quick to come out in support of its employee? Will she also join me in congratulating the many Scots who were on the streets of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen? It was very encouraging to see that people feel so strongly that the policy of the new President of the United States is racist.

Sadly, there will be more cases like that of Dr Hamaseh Tayari. I am sure that I do not need to get the minister’s assurance in light of her excellent statement but, for the record, will she assure the Parliament that she will be ever vigilant in the weeks and months to come for the many other Scots who, sadly, might be in a similar position to that of Hamaseh Tayari?

Indeed. We need to be vigilant and alert to any cases. The lack of clarity means that we do not know who will be affected and why. That is why we are seeking clarification on what exemptions the UK Government may or may not have secured and when. Does exemption apply to dual nationals from one of the listed countries who are also European Union or Commonwealth passport holders? If a person is French-Iraqi or German-Iraqi and lives in Scotland, what does that mean? There are also issues to do with the suspension of the refugee programme in relation to the Geneva convention in particular.

Those are very big issues that people want to have a greater understanding of. People also want a greater understanding of the details of some of the confused statements that have been made.

On the point about the University of Glasgow, civic Scotland, including our universities, is very aware of its responsibilities to individuals from elsewhere who live and study in the country in which we live. They are of us, and that is why we respond to them as part of the community of Scotland, which has responded well. When I was travelling back from Brussels yesterday, I saw amazing pictures of people responding immediately and saying loud and clear that such behaviour is not in Scotland’s value system and that we will join the rest of the world in speaking out.

Many thousands of refugees who expected to come to a sanctuary soon have had their hopes destroyed by the ban. We know that many of them would be welcome in Scotland.

Today, the Westminster Home Affairs Committee published a report that was damning of UK Home Office accommodation services for asylum seekers: it described them as a “disgrace”. Following the Scottish Parliament’s vote a few months ago, can the cabinet secretary update us on what representation the Scottish Government has made on the devolution of such services to the Scottish Parliament? Short of that, what consideration has the Scottish Government given to a public sector bid for the contract?

The Home Affairs Committee’s report is very important and instructive. We have always made clear how Scotland deals with and supports refugees. From day 1, the quality of that support, whether in housing or otherwise, must be secured.

I recall that one of the first things that I did as a temporary convener of a Scottish Parliament committee was to ensure that the conditions of asylum seekers in Glasgow were subject to an initial inquiry by the Parliament. I think that that was back in 1999-2000. At that time, the UK Border Agency’s predecessor ensured that Glasgow had greater responsibility for accommodation for asylum seekers.

Having moved on, what have we learned in 17 years? The lessons that Scotland learned many years ago about how people who came to seek refuge in this country were treated stand us in good stead now. We have had issues and concerns with the centralised control of support for refugees, which has meant that the responsiveness that we could and should see has not been secured.

We will closely examine the committee report. Dr Alasdair Allan, who has lead responsibility in some of these areas, particularly in relation to the Home Office, will look at it but, clearly, the impact affects all cabinet secretaries with health, housing and other responsibilities.

Joint Ministerial Committee (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update following the meeting of the joint ministerial committee on 30 January 2017. (S5T-00359)

The meeting discussed the lack of progress towards agreeing a common position on the triggering of article 50, which was the purpose of setting up the joint ministerial committee (European Union negotiations).

Given that the United Kingdom Government has announced its intention to trigger article 50 before the end of March, the First Minister stressed to the Prime Minister that the UK Government needs to intensify joint work on the proposals from the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru. The UK Government must demonstrate how it will incorporate the devolved Administrations’ interests into its negotiating position.

On the issue of powers, the First Minister made clear that it will not be sufficient to guarantee the powers that are already devolved; rather, we must see a clear indication from the UK Government that there will be a major transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament once the UK leaves the European Union.

The Scottish Parliament is aware that the Scottish Government believes that, should the UK Government persist with its plans for the hardest of Brexits and remain unwilling to incorporate into its position the needs of the devolved Administrations, there would be no choice but to give the people of Scotland an opportunity to have their say on the matter. The next few weeks will be crucial in demonstrating the UK Government’s intentions.

In line with the written agreement between the Scottish Government and the Parliament on intergovernmental relations, the First Minister will write to the Finance and Constitution Committee to provide a summary of the issues that were discussed at the joint ministerial committee.

I welcome the First Minister’s commitment to intensify joint work on the Scottish Government’s proposals. I note her comments from yesterday that the process cannot go on indefinitely. When does the Scottish Government expect a substantive response to the proposals? Does the minister regret that that has not been forthcoming ahead of the UK Government’s decision to press ahead with the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill in the UK Parliament to trigger article 50?

Yes, I regret that. Clearly, there are events within the timeline that provide crucial moments. The next of those is most probably the triggering of article 50, presuming that the legislation that is being introduced today into the House of Commons is passed. It is essential that we have an intensification of the process in the run-up to triggering article 50; it is essential that that is a meaningful process that produces the compromise from the UK Government that would match the compromise that has been offered by the Scottish Government.

I was surprised to hear the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, who was speaking ahead of the House of Commons debate on the UK Government’s article 50 bill today, describe a hard Brexit for the UK as a foregone conclusion or, to use his words,

“a point of no return already passed.”

Does the minister agree that such comments fly in the face of previous assurances by the Prime Minister to consider carefully the proposals brought forward by the devolved Administrations and perhaps typify the UK Government’s regrettable approach of doing as it pleases when it comes to Scotland?

It is regrettable that such language was used today, considering that David Davis was present as I was at yesterday’s meeting, in which there was clear agreement to intensify the process. That intensification is vital. If everything is a foregone conclusion, regrettably, there is no point in having a process, let alone an intensification of the process.

I hope that that was a slip of the tongue; I hope that what David Davis was indicating was not an intention to refuse to listen. I hope that he will be as good as his own word yesterday and will take part in the intensification of the discussions, so that we can come to positive conclusions that show that the UK Government is prepared to match the compromise that the Scottish Government has put forward.

In “The Handbook of EEA Law”, edited by Carl Baudenbacher, the president of the European Free Trade Association Court, the following conclusions are defended: first, that it is a “major weakness” of the European Economic Area agreement that EFTA states’ ability to influence EU law to which they are subject is extremely limited; and, secondly, that such is the “complexity and sophistication” of the EEA agreement that in practice it would be difficult for any state other than Switzerland to qualify for membership. Have conclusions such as those, which come from Europe’s leading scholars on the EEA, been addressed in JMC or JMC(EN) meetings?

Well, I suppose I should say, “If only.” If only the UK Government actually thought in some detail about those matters and entered into the debate—because, on both points, there are responses that are perfectly possible.

The first is to point out that we would be considerably weaker were we not engaged in the single market. This is not a question of saying that there would be a weakness; if we are not in the single market, there are huge disadvantages to Scotland, as the member will know, having read the important paper that we published in December.

On the second point, nobody is understating the difficulties. The paper does not understate the difficulties. However, I have to say that the difficulties of the UK position are also legion. This is not a simple matter for the UK. I am happy to quote chapter and verse of authorities who indicate that many of the things that the United Kingdom is saying will present enormous difficulties in negotiation.

There cannot be one law for the UK Government and another for the Scottish Government. The reality is that the difficult situation in which we are placed is not of our making, but we are still prepared to work exceptionally hard to get the best result for Scotland, as part of the best result for the UK. What we need is engagement in that process from the UK Government. The commitment to such engagement was given months ago, but the process has not yet produced any results. That is why there is an agreement to intensify the process over the next few weeks.

In the spirit of the wider perspective that he has just elucidated, will the minister talk about the level of engagement on the Welsh Government’s proposals at yesterday’s meeting, and in particular the bilateral engagement between the Scottish and Welsh Governments on the proposals?

I am fortunate to have a productive relationship with the Welsh minister who is responsible for the matter, Mark Drakeford. We met twice yesterday: before the plenary session and then after it. We agreed joint action to take forward the intensification.

I spoke briefly to the Welsh First Minister yesterday and the view that we all have is that the Welsh paper, which was produced jointly between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government, which of course includes a representative of the Liberals, conforms closely with our views and there is clearly a community of interests in taking forward the discussions. Indeed, at the JMC two weeks ago, in my presentation of the Scottish paper, I said that the process of engagement on that paper must include consideration of the Welsh paper. That was welcomed by the JMC and by the Welsh Government.

I should also say that we recognise the contribution that Sinn Féin made before Christmas and the publication of a shorter document that indicated a desire for special status for Northern Ireland.

There is a widespread view that there is a requirement for differentiation in the UK position when article 50 is triggered. That is the key to the issue. That is one of the reasons why the Scottish Parliament’s discussion of the article 50 process will be so essential; it is important that members are engaged in the discussion about why the triggering of article 50 needs to take place, recognising the need for differentiation.