Meeting date: Wednesday, February 3, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 03 February 2021
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Brexit, Universal Support for Self-Isolation, Unexplained Wealth Orders (Donald Trump), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Universal Support for Self-Isolation
- Unexplained Wealth Orders (Donald Trump)
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask members to take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber, and to use only the aisles and walkways to access their seats and when moving around the chamber.
The next item of business is a statement by Michael Russell, who will provide a Brexit update. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.
A month has passed since the United Kingdom Government’s trade and co-operation agreement with the European Union came into effect, on 1 January. As the arrangements bed in, it is important to look at what has happened and to try to discern what are, in the words of the UK Government,“teething troubles” and what has arisen from the fact that the UK has made itself, deliberately and permanently, a third country with a more distant, more expensive and less advantageous trading arrangement with its former EU partners. It is right that I report on the steps that the Scottish Government has taken to mitigate the effects of the short-term and longer-term problems.
To be absolutely fair, I say that some initial problems were inevitable, in the light of the scale and nature of the change in the relationship and the very short notice that was provided—in fact, no notice was given at all—in terms of detail, given that the agreement was concluded only seven days before it was due to come into effect, and at least one of those days was a holiday.
The incontrovertible fact is that Scotland has now been forcibly removed from the world’s best integrated and most successful single market, which is worth £16 billion in exports from Scottish companies. Moreover, that has been done in the depths of a global pandemic in which jobs are being badly hit and our economy is in a severe recession.
It is an incontrovertible fact that four weeks into the new trading arrangements the problems for businesses are not diminishing, but are multiplying and spreading across different sectors of the economy. It is a fact that exporters are struggling with new customs controls, rules of origin and non-tariff barriers. They are experiencing additional costs, and stock is being delayed—and sometimes even spoiled—at logistics hubs in Scotland and at UK and EU ports. In reality, those who are endeavouring to do business are, in essence, having to live test extraordinarily complex, costly and time-consuming new procedures that have been rushed into place.
It is a fact that, since 1 January, there have been significantly reduced freight flows on the short straits and on the Irish routes. At the weekend, the Irish Government announced that although direct transportation to the EU from Ireland is up by 100 per cent, traffic on the Irish Sea routes is down by 50 per cent. However, even with reduced volumes, disruption at our borders continues.
Last Friday, the Confederation of British Industry, British Chambers of Commerce, Make UK, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors released a joint statement setting out
“the substantial difficulties faced by firms adapting to the new customs processes, the sizeable obstacles to moving goods through the Dover-Calais route and the shortage of informed advice”.
They warned that grace periods that have been agreed with the EU will expire over the next two months, at a time when cross-border traffic is due to grow, and that unless measures are put in place to smooth customs procedures, the situation will deteriorate further. Indeed, as has been reported by Politico, according to the UK Government’s own reasonable worst-case scenario, 142,000 tons of perishable goods including food, feed and drink could be wasted over the next six months because of Brexit border disruption.
However, in contrast to those informed views, the UK Government, in its desperation to present Brexit as a success, is playing down the impacts of the end of the transition period. The lack of significant disruption to traffic at the short straits is being hailed as a success by the UK Government, without it highlighting the significant reductions in flow since the transition period ended. The fact is that flows have still not recovered after almost five weeks, and might never recover. Furthermore, a much higher proportion of the heavy goods vehicles that leave the UK are now empty as they head to pick up supplies on the continent.
Far too often, such unambiguous data are glossed to fit a predetermined narrative, even if that narrative does not reflect the lived experience of many businesses. In order to address that issue, the Scottish Government is asking the UK Government to work constructively with us and the other devolved Administrations to agree a set of information that will provide a clear view of what is happening on the ground, and foster mutual confidence in the data. Just as the UK Government strenuously avoided doing an economic impact study of its Brexit policies, it is avoiding close examination of what is happening on the ground as a result of those policies having been implemented. Indeed, it is even denying reality, when confronted with it.
For a long time, Scottish Government modelling has indicated that it would be likely that the seafood and agricultural sectors would be the first to bear the brunt of EU exit. That has proved to be the case. The disruption to the seafood sector has resulted in damaging delays, huge costs and devastating losses, which we feared would be the outcome of our becoming an EU third country and having to deal with new and untested processes.
It is already obvious that the benefits of the so-called sea of opportunity were not delivered by the UK Government in the negotiations, are not being delivered now and will not be delivered in the future. For the second time in even the Prime Minister’s bizarre definition of a generation, Scottish fishermen have been tricked and deserted by the UK Government and UK Prime Minister—a Prime Minister who did not even have the guts to meet those fishermen last week, nor to acknowledge the damage that he has done.
The truth is that the tide of that “sea of opportunity” has turned, and has turned against Scottish fishermen. They were promised a greater share of catch, but instead they have faced reduced access to key species including cod and haddock, and are now dealing with crippling red tape and plummeting sales. Industry groups have universally condemned the deal, with the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations calling it “minuscule, marginal, paltry, “pathetic”, while the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation has said that the Brexit deal falls
“far short of ... commitments and promises”.
Seafood exporters, which have reported their loads being rejected at border control posts and either being destroyed or returned at the exporter’s expense, have simply called the whole situation “catastrophic”. Even when goods eventually get through, the freshness and quality of produce is often affected, so the price that exporters receive is lower. Last week, one senior industry figure in my constituency sent me an email that—leaving out the expletive—said:
“Michael ... do everything in your power to get us the hell out of the UK and back into the EU, or Scotland won’t have a seafood industry left!!!”
There are other effects. Ports such as Lochinver, which is a fragile community in a fragile area, are losing trade because EU vessels that are worried about red tape and about having to deal with a third country’s systems, are choosing to land in Ireland. We have seen Peterhead market suffering, as vessels land their catches in Denmark in order to make use of its EU membership. The whole coastal economy is being hit.
In response to public pressure, the UK Government announced funding of up to £23 million to support seafood exporters across the UK. However, industry groups estimate that as much as £1 million a day is being lost by seafood merchants. In addition, it seems to be unlikely that the money will reach those who need it most, because those who are able to benefit do not include catchers who have tied up due to inability to sell their catches or those who have suffered loss as a result of—understandably—incorrect filing of paperwork.
That is why the Scottish Government has announced today that we will provide an additional £7.8 million to support Scottish seafood businesses and individuals in the sector who have been failed by the Brexit deal, and who are now being failed by the UK Government’s inadequate compensation scheme. That money will seek to protect and preserve vital jobs in our coastal communities. In addition, we will continue to back calls from our food and drink industry for a six-month grace period to allow exporters more time to digest the outcome of negotiations and change as best as they can.
Unfortunately, it is not just the fishing part of the food industry that is being impacted. As the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism set out last week, a whole new category of prohibited and restricted goods has been created, which means that Scottish exporters can no longer trade their produce freely with the EU. As a direct result of the UK Government’s refusal to align UK seed potato regulations with the EU, Scottish seed potato farmers will no longer be able to export their product to Europe—their biggest market—which is resulting in estimated immediate losses of around £11 million.
All that confirms that, although businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises were promised last year that Brexit would open up a raft of new opportunities in new markets, the reality this year is that, already, 38 per cent of SMEs say that their trade with the EU will decrease as a result of Brexit, and 32 per cent are saying that costs associated with running their businesses will be impacted. Instead of providing the business community with exciting new opportunities, the UK Government is putting businesses in a position in which they might have to shrink to survive, or even to move their location to the EU, as UK Government economic sources have apparently advised them to do.
There are wider impacts, too. It is currently estimated that 1.3 million EU citizens have left the UK—1.3 million people who worked tirelessly in hospitals and universities, and in every sector and at every level. They are 1.3 million people whose talents we need and whose presence enriches us all, but who have been alienated by the rhetoric and actions of a Brexiteer UK Government that rejoices in the end of freedom of movement.
The Scottish Government is seeking to counter that. We need EU citizens, so our “Stay in Scotland” campaign pledges to stand by and protect the rights of European citizens who choose to call Scotland their home, and it offers a package of support to help them to stay. Once again, I urge all EU citizens who want to stay in Scotland to ensure that they apply to the UK Government’s settled status scheme by 30 June this year. I say to them, “You are welcome here. Please, stay in Scotland.”
The futures of our young people have also taken a profound hit from this low deal. Due to an explicit last-minute UK Government decision, the justification for which has not been shared with the devolved Administrations, Scotland will no longer be able to participate in the Erasmus+ scheme, which has benefited more than 2,000 Scottish higher education students and more than 1,100 further education students a year.
Among many other positive benefits, Erasmus—which goes much wider than HE provision and the parameters of the supposed UK replacement, which has also not been discussed with us—improves participants’ self-confidence, language learning, cultural awareness and employability. That is why the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science is pursuing the issue. He has met the relevant EU commissioner and, along with all of us, is grateful to Terry Reintke and David McAllister, who have organised an amazing letter that has been signed by more than 150 of their fellow MEPs supporting devolved access to the scheme. Danke Freunde.
The deal has also had a significant impact on the fight against crime in Scotland, with Police Scotland and the Crown Office now having to use slower and less effective tools. The loss of access to the Schengen information system database means that Police Scotland will no longer have access to real-time or immediate alerts from EU partners on wanted or missing persons.
Another serious loss is the European arrest warrant, as the new system allows EU member states to refuse to extradite their own nationals to Scotland. However, even when EU member states permit surrender, bringing someone to face justice in Scotland will likely take longer and cost more than it would have cost under the European arrest warrant.
The deal also does little to facilitate access to the single market for our financial services sector, which employs 87,000 people in Scotland and has exports that are valued at £8.6 billion. I appreciate that the EU and UK are aiming to agree a further memorandum of understanding on financial services by next month, but if it happens it will focus on regulatory co-operation and will, as we understand it, do nothing to reinstate our lost market access.
The UK Government has now admitted that those are not “teething issues”. They are a permanent exclusion from the single market that leaves many businesses in Scotland toothless in a competitive modern economy.
I could go on. Some professions—architects, for example—are already experiencing loss of mutual recognition. There is also now no legal protection for our geographical indicators, which is producing new uncertainty about the market advantage of excellence in products from Scotland.
Despite the ludicrous and offensive decision by the European Commission on Friday about article 16 and vaccines—fortunately, it was quickly rescinded—the aggressive refusal, which is unique in the world, by the UK to officially recognise the EU ambassador in London speaks to a negative agenda that is still being pursued by the UK Government, when a positive one is now urgently required.
There was a further sign of that in Michael Gove’s remarks yesterday about the Northern Ireland protocol, the negotiations for which he oversaw, the implementation committee for which he co-chairs and the details of which he told us all last month delivered the
“best of both worlds”.
I have not even mentioned as yet the cost of all that. The Tories here were baying for blood last week when they thought, mistakenly, that the Scottish Government had recently spent £100,000 on an independence referendum, but their party in Government in the UK is meeting a vastly greater bill for the Brexit boorach.
Bloomberg economics estimated last year a minimum cost to the economy of £130 billion. Even the Bank of England expects the cost to the economy to be about £80 billion. Direct spending by Government on its Brexit preparations has been at least £8 billion in the past four years and is probably much higher and, of course, it is all still costing and is still being pursued in the depths of the pandemic crisis.
In the Scottish Government, we remain determined to act as positively as we can despite that rank hypocrisy. In our agencies, and through the building resilience steering group, we have been offering a wide range of help to those who are affected: for example, by Food Standards Scotland putting additional staff into the three Scottish logistics hubs, by recruiting and training more specialist customs agents, and by providing businesses with tailored advice and support on completing paperwork. With our enterprise agencies, we are building on the engagement that they had with the 1,400 most Brexit-vulnerable companies before Christmas by supporting them to adapt to the challenges that we face.
We published “Scotland’s Vision for Trade” last Tuesday. It sets out Scotland’s trade policy priorities post EU exit, and demonstrates the role of trade as a social, environmental and economic lever in Scotland’s economic recovery. Our work will continue for as long as it is needed. As we have done throughout the Brexit process, we will continue to engage constructively with the UK Government on the issues that we are facing.
We never voted for even the softest of Brexits—which was, of course, the promise that was made five years ago. We have ended up with the hardest of Brexits being recklessly pursued in the very depths of the pandemic. That was bound to be a disaster, and it has been.
It is therefore significant that polling today not only shows that Scotland would, if we were asked again, vote to remain by the same huge margin, but confirms that Scotland emphatically wants to rejoin.
The Scottish Government will, of course, continue to do everything in our power to mitigate the impacts of Brexit on this country and on its businesses and communities. Far from being over, the problems that have been created by Brexit are getting worse, and we face more difficult times ahead. For the remainder of this session of Parliament, I will continue to keep Parliament updated.
However, I will also make sure that Scotland and Scotland’s neighbours understand that we regard exit from the EU as temporary, and that there is a way, but only one way, to rejoin. Westminster parties have sold the pass on that matter, but Scotland’s party and Scotland’s Government have not. The only way back is to choose independence, as virtually all the other normal small countries in Europe have done. Post-pandemic, we will redouble our efforts to secure that goal, which will allow us to rebuild our economy and our society in the way that we wish, and not in a way that we are told to by a Tory UK Government that is the author of this terrible, continuing, costly and, indeed, worsening Brexit mess. We can make our next significant step towards normality on 6 May.
Thank you. The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 30 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. It would be helpful if members who wish to ask a question were to press their request-to-speak buttons now. I call Dean Lockhart.
I thank the cabinet secretary for an advance copy of his statement.
The Scottish Government has received £200 million of Barnett consequentials to prepare Scottish business for Brexit but has refused to detail how that money is being spent. Will the cabinet secretary agree today to publish a detailed breakdown of how that £200 million is being spent to help Scottish business prepare for the new trading arrangements?
In terms of disruption to exports to the single market and under the Northern Ireland protocol, it is becoming increasingly clear that the European Commission is acting unreasonably. That came into sharp focus last Friday when the Commission invoked article 16 of the protocol to restrict the flow of vaccines to the UK and, in effect, impose a trade border on the island of Ireland—a move immediately condemned by all parties across the UK and in Ireland but met by radio silence from the SNP. Will the cabinet secretary work with the UK Government to resist any and all moves by the European Commission to use the Northern Ireland protocol to restrict the supply of vaccines to the UK?
In relation to his comments about the impact of Brexit and the costs to the Scottish economy, does the cabinet secretary agree with the report issued today by the London School of Economics and Political Science that warns that the cost of independence to the Scottish economy would be three times greater than that of Brexit?
All those questions are predictable, particularly the last one, which I will come to in just a moment. However, I will start with the issue of the spending of money. The Scottish Government has had to spend far more than £200 million on preparing for Brexit, but I remind Dean Lockhart that the devolved settlement does not require the Scottish Government to submit its accounts for approval by the Secretary of State for Scotland. He might think that he can order the military into Scotland, which appears to be what he was trying to do this week, but he is not the accountant general. We have made it absolutely clear that we are spending every penny and more on the mess that the Tories have created and we will continue to do so.
On article 16, I appreciate that Dean Lockhart is a bit embarrassed because he dashed out a tweet on Friday night condemning me for not having said anything at all about article 16. Regrettably, I had done so before he did, as he now knows, but he was reluctant to apologise for that—indeed, he was determined not to do so—and he has just done the same thing again. I made it clear in my speech what the position is. It is my position, the Scottish Government’s position, the SNP’s position and Scotland’s position and I am glad that it is the Scottish Tories’ position, even though they came to it later than I did.
Finally, I am grateful for the opportunity to address the report from the LSE. I welcome all independent consideration of such matters, but there is something fairly extraordinary in the report. The report assumes that, if Scotland were to become independent—and I hope that it will—we would not change a single policy, we would not use a single lever on the economy and we would not have anything new to do; we would just sit there and pretend that nothing had changed.
One of the key issues is trade dependence. The Irish are a really good example of how to use independent membership of the EU to move from trade dependence on another country to trade independence.
In addition, the report does not fully examine manufacturing and a range of other issues. The authors thank Jim Gallagher for his input to the report. Although I have the greatest respect for Jim Gallagher, he could not be regarded as a man without an axe to grind on these matters—an axe that he usually likes to use on the SNP. I am grateful for the input, which I always consider seriously, but I have reservations about it, and I have expressed them in a reasoned and reasonable way.
I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement. It is clear that the mess set out in the statement is of the Tory party’s and the Prime Minister’s making. As I have said repeatedly in the chamber, it is completely unacceptable that this is happening at a time when lives and livelihoods are still at risk and our collective focus should be on getting through and recovering from Covid.
It is clear that the situation will have an impact on trade and on the free movement of goods. The customs checks are obviously impacting on livestock and fisheries. Clearly, this is not just impacting on Scotland; it is having an impact right across the UK. What engagement has the cabinet secretary had with metro mayors in England and with the First Minister of Wales to find a collective approach to challenging the UK Government on this unthinkable, unforgivable approach to how we trade in the UK?
I want to find agreement with the cabinet secretary on Brexit, and I want to work with him to get through the Covid crisis, but I do not think it is right for us to selectively quote independent experts when it suits our personal agenda and to ridicule them when it does not. He and I will have quoted the LSE on Brexit. He was willing to accept its opinion on Brexit, but he is not yet willing to accept its opinion when it comes to independence. We cannot pick and choose. I suggest to the cabinet secretary that we focus on what unites us as a country, not on what divides us, which is getting through Covid and saving lives and livelihoods.
I, too, want to make as much common cause as I can with Anas Sarwar, but I disagree with him on picking and choosing. Surely, as rational human beings, we should read a report and come to a conclusion as to what we agree with and what we do not agree with. We may agree with one report; we may disagree with another report.
On trade dependence, for example—and this is very significant—the percentage of goods that Ireland traded with the UK in 1973 in exports was 55 per cent; in 2018, it was 11 per cent. Looking around Europe, Danish gross domestic product per head is 20 per cent higher than UK GDP per head, and Norway’s is nearly 40 per cent higher. Separating yourself from the EU is not a good thing, but being a small independent country in Europe is a good thing. That is not picking and choosing; it is looking at the information and coming to a reasonable conclusion.
Having disagreed on that, let me agree with Anas Sarwar and, indeed, with his colleagues in Wales. I have worked very closely with his colleagues in Wales, first with Mark Drakeford when he was my opposite number—and I have huge respect for him—and later with the Counsel General, Jeremy Miles, who is my opposite number now. The basic element of our success in working together was that, although we disagreed on the constitutional process, we agreed on the problems of Brexit and we worked together on them very hard.
Anas Sarwar and I will disagree on the constitutional journey—although I must say that Welsh Labour appears to be much more open minded on the issue of sovereignty, which I would be happy to debate with him at any stage—but I am happy to work with him on these issues.
Anas Sarwar and I can also agree that many of the problems that we are discussing arise because the UK is now a third country as far as the EU is concerned, and that is not going away—that is the problem. Whatever initial teething problems there are, that permanent change means that trading will be harder, will take longer and will cost more money, and that is the last thing we need in the middle of a pandemic.
It is clear that the agriculture sector is in need of urgent support to manage pressures arising from the red tape that Brexit has thrown up. The new limitations on exporting certain goods such as seed potatoes are particularly concerning. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the UK Government should be providing more support to businesses in the agriculture sector? Will he give more details of what such support should look like?
I agree with Joan McAlpine. Over the next few weeks and months such concerns will emerge as the agriculture industry realises and experiences such difficulties and the costs of those become clear.
Three things require to be done. First, in advance of such experiences occurring, the UK Government needs to get in, estimate the extent of the problems and be willing to assist with them. Secondly, it needs to ensure that if changes to systems could be made here, they should be made. There are not likely to be many such changes to systems in the EU, because all those aspects have been agreed by the UK Government. However, if the UK Government could perhaps show a bit of humility about the situation, change its own systems and listen, progress might be made, but the problem of our being a third country would still be there and will not go away. Thirdly, the Scottish Government—along with the Welsh Government, the Northern Irish Government and, I hope, the UK Government—could perhaps have a serious conversation about the work that needs to be done. However, that will require the UK Government also to accept the problem. As I indicated in my statement, it is having great difficulty in doing so. It has tried to bluff and bluster its way out of it, but that will not do.
I will try just once again with the cabinet secretary. In his statement, he said a lot about what he believes to be incontrovertible facts. Does he not agree that the LSE report provides incontrovertible facts when it tells us, in some considerable detail, that independence would hit Scottish trade far harder than Brexit will?
No, I do not agree. The reason for that is that I am trying to engage on the issue in a serious way.
My first point is that, as the member will have to accept, the report makes assumptions that no policy changes would take place. That is just impossible—actually, if we step back and think about it, it is nonsensical. My second point is that issues of trade dependence and trade flows need to be considered, especially in relation to how they could be changed. The third step would be to take objective evidence from other small countries, such as Denmark, Norway and Ireland, to see how their situations have changed. Let us add all of that to the mix.
The LSE is venerable, and I am sure that the people who have been involved in producing its report entirely wish to get the right results. However, they are not infallible, which is an important point that should be made about all academic research.
And you are.
Dean Lockhart says that I am infallible. [Laughter.] It is nice of him to say so—I am grateful for that—but it is not true. I am not infallible, the academics are not infallible and even Dean Lockhart is not infallible. [Interruption.] It is a stunning revelation, particularly to Dean Lockhart, that that is the case.
I have to make it clear that what we should do is look at information, judge it and debate it. What we do not do is simply say, “That’s it done and dusted—I’m away now.”
The July deadline for EU citizens who reside in my Cowdenbeath constituency, and across Scotland, to apply for settled status is growing ever closer. Can the cabinet secretary advise whether the UK Government has provided details of how many individuals in Scotland have applied to date? Can he confirm what the Scottish Government is doing to encourage and support eligible individuals to apply for settled status before the deadline?
The UK Government publishes figures on such applications—I think it does so every three months, although I would require to check that. I assure Ms Ewing that Jenny Gilruth, the minister who is responsible for that matter and who happens to be sitting behind me, will provide that information to her as soon as she can.
We have taken a number of actions to ensure that we are supporting people who have applied or are applying for settled status. I deeply regret that we have to do so. Some of my own constituents have told me how insulted they feel that they are having to do so, having lived and contributed here and having been our fellow citizens. However, regrettably, they have to apply—and they should do so.
Once people have settled status, we will do everything that we can to defend them and to stand up for them. I hope that the UK Government will show a generosity that, so far, has been lacking in recognising the contribution of such EU citizens. We have undertaken a great deal of work—for example, through citizens advice bureaux—to ensure that we are providing information. We will continue to do so and to reach out to EU citizens—as the First Minister did last year on a number of occasions, most recently in December—and we will go on doing so.
We want people to stay. Our stay in Scotland campaign is crucial to that, too. Those EU citizens are our fellow citizens. I want to be an EU citizen with them again, and I look forward to that day.
I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement. Like the cabinet secretary, I am very concerned about the effects of Brexit on our seafood industry, which have been well outlined in today’s Press and Journal. In the past, as the cabinet secretary is well aware, the Highlands and Islands have benefited greatly from EU structural funds and the European maritime and fisheries fund. What discussions has the cabinet secretary had—[Inaudible.]—over the shared prosperity fund and other instruments, to help to protect this vital sector?
I know of David Stewart’s very good work on such matters and of his hard work for the people of the Highlands and Islands on that and on other considerations. The new shared prosperity fund has not been put together with the involvement, say-so or input of the devolved Governments—that is simply the case. For example, the Secretary of State for Scotland is apparently going to administer some of those funds but I know nothing about how he will do so. He regards himself as able to do all sorts of things, such as order troops about and be an accountant general—I presume that he also has to sign the cheques. As far as I am concerned, however, it would be far better had the precedent been set of ensuring that the devolved Governments were involved in the administration of those funds.
On support for the fishing industry, anybody who goes about the Highlands and Islands—whether in my constituency or in the area represented by a regional member such as Mr Stewart—can see the investment that we have had from those funds. Money has come from the European Investment Bank and elsewhere into the infrastructure of the Highlands and Islands. The fact that the funding has stopped—just like that—and nothing has been put in its place—not a penny is yet flowing from the new shared prosperity fund—is a thundering disgrace, and it is making the people of the Highlands and Islands suffer for something they did not vote for and would not have voted for.
Further to the cabinet secretary’s remarks about the Erasmus+ scheme in Scottish Government talks with European commissioners, has the UK Government given any indication of whether it would obstruct such Scottish participation? If it were to do so, would the Scottish Government consider taking that to the courts, in order to clarify in whose competency the issue falls?
Yes, I am sure that we would consider that. However, I hope that the UK Government might be sensible about it, although it has not been sensible about negotiating it. On a number of occasions, Jeremy Miles and I raised at the joint ministerial committee—and, I think, on other occasions—the possibility that, if the UK Government did not wish to continue with Erasmus, although we thought that it did, we would like to see a negotiation for the devolved Administrations to continue. That suggestion was brushed aside—I remember David Frost brushing it aside at a particular meeting. I raised it with the EU, and I was told that it was a matter of competence between the UK Government and the EU and that the UK Government had made no such approach. It might have been possible for the UK Government to negotiate even when it was deciding that it did not want to be part of it, but it refused to do so.
Nevertheless, I hope that better sense might prevail. I am always hopeful of a rational approach from others. As we move forward, I therefore hope for two things: first, that the UK Government will not interfere; and, secondly, that the money from the UK Government that might have gone on the scheme will be divided among the devolved Administrations, if they wish to continue, so they can choose whether they take part in Erasmus, in the Turing scheme or in a bit of both.
Brexit is truly a mess, and I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for, once again, providing a long list of reasons why we should not repeat the mistakes of Brexit with independence. However, in a spirit of consensus, I add my support to the efforts to resolve the export routes for seafood products—particularly those from Pittenweem, in my constituency—and to the efforts to rejoin the Erasmus scheme, which has benefited many students right across Scotland.
I am grateful to Willie Rennie. I will dwell not on his first sentence but on the others. As Anas Sarwar indicated, it is important that we try to make as much common cause as possible.
The Erasmus scheme has been beneficial to many young people, so we should all be behind it. I remember a time when the Tories were behind it, but, alas, they seem to have walked away from it. I hope that they might come back to support Scottish membership of the scheme and to persuade their colleagues in London to do what I have just asked for.
The current situation is tragic for many seafood producers, whether they are in Pittenweem or Tarbert, in Argyll. Livelihoods and businesses are being destroyed. The additional support scheme that Fergus Ewing has announced will be helpful, but we need to ensure that there are ways for people to continue in business in the long term, and that is what we will try to do.
Does the cabinet secretary share my concern and that of many businesses that the UK Government is not taking sufficient steps to support them to adapt to the new customs processes in order to ease cross-border travel? Does he agree that additional action is absolutely essential in order to prevent further mass wastage of perishable goods?
The member raises an interesting point. I will answer in two parts. First, because people are not travelling as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the real problem is not being demonstrated. When people start to travel as individuals again, we will see considerable problems, because every traveller from these islands will be a traveller from outside the EU and the European economic area—we are all familiar with the signs that refer to that—and so we will not be included in the faster flow. For example, the passport machines will not be available to us.
As individuals, we will find out how bad it is, and we will probably also find that with things such as mobile phone roaming charges. Many of the things that we have taken for granted in recent years will simply not be available to us. Some people who live abroad for part of the time are already finding that. For example, they are discovering that there is a limitation on the time that they can spend abroad, as it is now 90 days out of 180.
Secondly, the need for customs clearance for goods creates a big increased cost. This morning, I talked to somebody who pointed out that customs agents, who do that job for people, were previously charging £125 a consignment but are now charging £500 a consignment. I am not criticising them—it is because they have so much work and they are in demand. Businesses cannot meet that cost on some consignments. That is impossible, because they simply do not sell enough at a big enough profit margin. Therefore, unless they do the work themselves—some cannot do it—that prevents goods from being exported or imported. We are still in a period of comparative grace, and the situation is going to get much worse. It is wise to say that rather than to pretend that that is not the case, as the UK Government is doing.
Given that businesses are still adjusting to leaving the EU, that we have the serious economic challenges of Covid still to face and that people’s jobs and livelihoods are at risk, can Michael Russell tell us which, if any, business organisations, trade bodies or industry groups agree with him that the nationalist obsession with another divisive independence referendum is the answer?
It is important that Mr Halcro Johnston steps back a little and perhaps rewinds to when I made my statement. I quoted the CBI, British Chambers of Commerce, Make UK, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors, which have made a joint statement setting out
“the substantial difficulties faced by firms adapting to the new ... processes”,
“sizeable obstacles to moving goods through the Dover-Calais route”.
I did not ask those organisations about anything else; I did not even ask them about that—they published the statement voluntarily. When we get into a debate about independence, I am happy to have a debate with Mr Halcro Johnston and those organisations on what I think will be beneficial.
Forgive me for saying this, but Mr Halcro Johnston is engaged in a smokescreen activity. He does not want to address the very serious issues that I have raised today. He says that—[Interruption.] He says that this has been happening during a Covid pandemic, but the opportunity was there for it not to happen, because all of us—every voice, apart from the Scottish Tories—said to the UK Government, “Do not do this during a pandemic.” What did the UK Government do? It did it during a pandemic. The UK Government was warned, and it was warned often. [Interruption.]
I am happy to have a debate with Mr Halcro Johnston, even though he keeps shouting from a sedentary position. It is difficult for people to see that if they are watching this from elsewhere. Mr Halcro Johnston has not listened to a word that I have said; he has just shouted from where he is sitting. I regret that because, in the end, he will have to debate the issue seriously, and he cannot do that if he is sitting there roaring and yelling.
I remind the chamber that I am a member of the Musicians Union.
Scotland’s music sector has been severely impacted by the pandemic and is facing future barriers to recovery in the form of the UK Government’s hard, isolationist Brexit deal. Will the cabinet secretary commit to continuing to apply pressure on the UK Government to get back round the negotiating table and strike a deal that restores musicians’ right to work unhindered across these islands and the European Union?
One of the saddest aspects of the issue that Mr Arthur raises is that it is now clear that if the UK Government had asked for an exemption for performing artists, it would have received such an exemption. Why David Frost—who, fortunately, is not to be the national security adviser, which allows all of us to sleep easier in our beds at night—did not ask for that, I do not know. The circumstance is that that industry, which had already been hit extraordinarily hard by the Covid pandemic, has now been put in an impossibly difficult position. I hope that the UK Government is considering that, and that it might—with a degree of humility—go back to the EU and say, “We got that wrong. Is there something we can do?”
Mr Russell makes valid criticisms of the UK Government’s handling of Brexit. However, turning to areas in which the Scottish Government has responsibility, in light of the fact that, over the period since 2013, local government is £937 million short of funding, what action will the Government take to support local government to mitigate the adverse effects of leaving the EU?
I continue to work closely with local government. I meet the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on a fairly regular basis.
I think that Mr Kelly perhaps misses out an element, which is that the Scottish Government has been under enormous pressure and has sought to maintain the funding that it provides to local government at as high a level as it possibly can, and certainly in a better way than has been done elsewhere. We have provided resources to local government and will continue to do so, to help it to come through the pandemic and to meet the other challenges that exist. However, it will be tough on all of us, as Brexit will be damaging to all of us. I welcome the Labour Party’s support for that point to be made, and for it to be made clearly. I think that we should make it in a unified manner, too.
The cabinet secretary said that 1.3 million EU citizens have left the UK, which is obviously disappointing. Does he anticipate that farming and other sectors will struggle to get the labour and the staff that they will need in the coming year?
I think that there will be labour shortages this year. The UK Government has launched a new scheme, but it is far more bureaucratic and will be more difficult for people to apply to. That is one side of the equation.
The other side of the equation is willingness. There is a shortage of agricultural labour throughout Europe—in fact, there is a worldwide shortage of agricultural labour—so people can earn a living in places that they feel are more hospitable than the UK has become through having a very negative view of migration.
I think that there will continue to be difficulties. The real sadness about that is that there do not need to be difficulties, because freedom of movement worked for Scotland—it worked extraordinarily well for Scotland. It worked for the rural parts of Scotland, in particular, and it also worked for us, as Scottish citizens, because we could go elsewhere. Losing freedom of movement is not something to crow about or to express pleasure in; it is deeply damaging and it should not have happened.
In his statement, Mike Russell said that the Scottish Government’s modelling showed that the seafood and agriculture sectors would be the hardest hit post-Brexit. That being the case, why has the transfer depot at Larkhall been such a cause of delay in getting seafood out of Scotland, given that that part of the process is totally in the hands of the Scottish Government? It has failed our seafood exporters, despite knowing for months that such hubs would be required.
I have seen that bizarre excuse in letters from the rickle of remaining Tory members of Parliament in Scotland, of whom there are fewer with every election; hopefully, there will eventually be none. It is a ludicrous excuse. It is yet another smokescreen. We had Mr Halcro Johnston’s smokescreen; no sooner had that started to blow away than we got Mr Chapman’s smokescreen.
The reality is that the suffering of the seafood industry and the fishing industry comes from Brexit and from the betrayal of those industries by the UK Government. Not only does Mr Chapman support that Government but, time and time again, he told us in the chamber how wonderful it would be for the seafood industry and for fishing. Either Mr Chapman did not know that the industry was about to be betrayed, or he knew and did not say.
The Scottish Government has affirmed its desire to continue in the Erasmus+ scheme. Can the cabinet secretary provide an update on discussions with the European Commission to explore Scotland’s continued engagement with the programme? Does he share my concern about recent reports that European Union students who come to study in the UK may be asked to pay for access to healthcare and claim it back—a process that could take up to a year?
The constant and increasing complexity of the problems that people will face in both going out to Europe and coming in from Europe are beginning to become clear. The Erasmus+ scheme is something that we would like to see and are working to have reinstated, but if it is reinstated, it will be in a changed environment. The member is absolutely right to point to parts of that changed environment that may make it less attractive to students.
Another issue with attracting EU students is the fee structure. I am the person who introduced that and I think that we all came to realise that it worked well for Scotland, but unfortunately and regrettably it has had to change, too. We have a series of difficulties that feed on one another.
We could move forward in this Parliament if the Scottish Conservatives accepted that they endorsed and supported something that has turned out to be disastrous and that they should not have done so. That is where they started in June 2016, because, to their credit, most of them did not support Brexit then. However, they have gone along with it, so they must take their share of responsibility for what has happened.
We have seen no sign of that from Mr Halcro Johnston, most recently from Mr Chapman or from the other Conservative members in the chamber, and that is deeply to be regretted. I hope that they will change that stance. If they do not, I have to say that I think that the people of Scotland will change it for them.