Meeting date: Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 17 March 2021
Agenda: Human Right to a Healthy Environment, Portfolio Question Time, Scotland’s Railway, Testing Strategy, Business Motion, Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill, Scottish Land Commissioners (Reappointment), Standing Order Rule Changes (Urgent Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Questions), Standing Order Rule Changes (Public Petitions System), Standing Order Rule Changes (Equalities and Human Rights Committee Remit), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Clydebank Blitz (80th Anniversary)
- Human Right to a Healthy Environment
- Portfolio Question Time
- Scotland’s Railway
- Testing Strategy
- Business Motion
- Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3
- Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill
- Scottish Land Commissioners (Reappointment)
- Standing Order Rule Changes (Urgent Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Questions)
- Standing Order Rule Changes (Public Petitions System)
- Standing Order Rule Changes (Equalities and Human Rights Committee Remit)
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Clydebank Blitz (80th Anniversary)
Portfolio Question Time
Justice and the Law Officers
Good afternoon. I remind members to follow the social distancing procedures that are in place across the Holyrood campus, particularly when entering and exiting the chamber and accessing and leaving their seats.
Our next item of business is portfolio questions. In order to get as many people in as possible, I ask for short and succinct questions and answers. I remind members to type R in the chat box or to press their request-to-speak button if they wish to ask a supplementary on a particular question. The first questions are on justice and the law officers.
Domestic Abuse (Court Delays)
To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service regarding any court delays in cases relating to domestic abuse. (S5O-05114)
Before I answer on the substance of the question, I pay tribute to Linda Fabiani’s interest in raising issues of domestic abuse, both in relation to the relatively new domestic abuse offence that was passed by the Parliament in 2018 and on a range of other relevant issues such as non-harassment orders. She has been a champion for the rights of victims and survivors of domestic abuse and I am sure that, even after she departs this Parliament, she will continue to champion those worthy causes.
The Scottish Government is in regular dialogue with its justice partners, including the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, about the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on court proceedings, including cases that relate to domestic abuse. We understand the impact that delays have on victims and witnesses, and on the accused. That is a key driver behind our commitment to invest £50 million in our recover, renew, transform programme to increase capacity, drive further reform and, ultimately, tackle the backlog that has built up. A few weeks ago, I hosted a constructive round-table event to discuss proposals from the criminal justice board on increasing that capacity, and I will continue to take forward similar discussions with a wide range of stakeholders across the justice system—including, of course, those third sector organisations that represent victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that detailed answer. I know that he recognises the added stress that delayed court cases cause to victims of alleged domestic abuse, in the form of uncertainty, family worries and, in too many cases, fear. Of course, such delays happened pre-pandemic, but the situation has got worse, for understandable reasons. When he meets the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and other partners, will the cabinet secretary always stress the absolute importance of quick and speedy resolution of such cases? That is so important to victims and their families.
Linda Fabiani is right to raise those concerns. I am in regular discussions with the Lord Advocate, the Crown Office and other justice partners about the issue. The Lord Advocate can, of course, speak for himself, but in any discussion that I have had with him, he has completely and absolutely understood the trauma that survivors and victims of domestic abuse face and suffer. That is why, despite the restrictions on court proceedings, domestic abuse cases will be prioritised—Linda Fabiani might have noted that. I will certainly continue to work with our partners to make sure that we do everything in our power to lessen the trauma that domestic abuse survivors face when it comes to reporting their case to the police and, ultimately, coming to a trial at court. I absolutely commit to Linda Fabiani that we will do that.
Covid-19 (Routine Testing of Police Officers)
To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the justice secretary has had with ministerial colleagues regarding offering routine Covid-19 testing to police officers. (S5O-05115)
I have very regular discussions with my ministerial colleagues on the Government’s response to the pandemic, and I have been liaising closely with Police Scotland and other police and justice partners on Covid-19 issues, including on the testing of police officers. Testing for police officers and staff began on 6 April 2020 and will continue for as long as is necessary. Any police officer or member of staff who is concerned after having a Covid-19 interaction can access a test, even if they are asymptomatic.
The cabinet secretary will know that police work is such that social distancing is often not possible. Police officers must enter homes or visit hospitals and get close to people, all of which can put them at far greater risk of contracting and spreading the virus.
Will the cabinet secretary explain what consideration has been given to prioritising police officers to receive the vaccine and whether local health boards should be encouraged to offer excess vaccine, which would otherwise be wasted, to front-line police officers?
I have had positive engagement with Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Federation, both of which have raised the issue with me. The chief constable has also raised it in conversations with other ministers.
For good reasons, we are following the guidance issued by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. Everyone accepts that the age-based roll-out of vaccinations has worked well and gets the vaccine to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.
The member’s second point is an important one. We have been liaising with our partners in public health and local health boards to ensure that end-of-day or excess vaccines can be offered to the police. That has so far been successful. The latest figures show that more than 1,000 police officers have benefited from excess vaccines. Those discussions with local health boards will continue.
Domestic Homicide Reviews
To ask the Scottish Government what progress it has made with its commitment in the 2017 equally safe delivery plan to develop multi-agency domestic homicide reviews. (S5O-05117)
It remains a Scottish Government priority to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls. That is why we have committed to develop multi-agency domestic homicide reviews to improve our multi-agency response and our understanding of how we can prevent such deaths from occurring in the first place.
Although that commitment was initially put on hold due to the pandemic, officials are now in the process of convening a steering group, including Police Scotland and key partners, in order to drive forward that critical work.
Although the minister has highlighted recent progress, the lack of overall progress is disappointing. The delivery of the equally safe plan was a priority in 2017-18, but we have seen very little action on the issue.
A joint letter sent by the Victims Commissioner and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales to the United Kingdom Government last week pointed to a culture of misogyny in the criminal justice system, including in the response to domestic homicide. The commissioners called for an independent review of every domestic homicide.
Will the Scottish Government commit to introducing a review of every domestic homicide in Scotland and will it address the deficiencies in the justice system regarding outcomes for crimes that disproportionately impact on women?
The member raises an important issue. I will discuss it with the cabinet secretary and come back to the member with more detail.
Members will understand why work was paused during the pandemic. It has recommenced, and we will soon convene a short-life steering group that will drive the work forward. The safety and wellbeing of women and children who experience domestic abuse is a priority for the Scottish Government. It is important that they are protected and that support services remain open so that people can access the help that they need to stay safe from harm.
Knife Crime (North Ayrshire)
To ask the Scottish Government how many knife crimes there were in North Ayrshire in the most recent year for which information is available, and how this compares with the peak year for such offences since 1999. (S5O-05118)
The police recorded 130 cases of offences of possessing an article with a blade or point in a public setting in North Ayrshire in 2019-20. Due to earlier changes in data collection, long-term comparisons can be done only for cases where the weapon was not used by the perpetrator. Such cases almost halved between the peak year of 2008-09 and 2019-20.
Other sources show the progress made in reducing the devastating impact of knife crime on communities in Ayrshire, with emergency hospital admissions due to assault with a sharp object down by two thirds across Ayrshire and Arran since 2009-10. Over a similar period, the proportion of people in Ayrshire who thought that knife carrying was common in their local area fell from 31 per cent to 7 per cent.
The fear of knife crime has plummeted under the Scottish National Party Government by more than 75 per cent, as the cabinet secretary said. Can he advise the Parliament of the measures that have been implemented by the Scottish Government, Police Scotland and others that have delivered that success?
The member is right that it has plummeted, and much of that is down to the public health approach to tackling violence that has been taken by not just the Government but the Parliament, which I think endorses that approach. We have invested £21 million in violence reduction programmes across the country since 2008. That includes the Scottish violence reduction unit, which I referred to, as well as investments in the no knives, better lives programme, Medics Against Violence and the mentors in violence prevention programme. Any member of Parliament who has seen those projects at first hand will know what great value they are in helping us to reduce the abhorrent effects of knife crime that have blighted too many communities across Scotland.
Over the past decade, our no knives, better lives programme has reached more than 100,000 young people in schools in every local authority area to highlight the issues and consequences of knife carrying. The programme encourages young people to make positive changes in their lives. We will continue to take that public health approach and to fund interventions for young people in particular, which will benefit the member’s constituency as well as other constituencies across Scotland.
In the year when the cabinet secretary was appointed to his role, 111 crimes relating to offensive or bladed weapons were recorded in Aberdeen. This year’s statistics for the equivalent period show 303 knife crimes, which is a 173 per cent rise in just two years, yet only 38 per cent of criminals who are convicted of handling offensive weapons went to prison in 2018-19. How does the cabinet secretary defend a presumption against short prison sentences and writing off 35 per cent of community payback order work hours when it is clear that that approach is not deterring dangerous knife crime in places such as Aberdeen?
The member has often tried to articulate the debate through the prism of soft versus hard justice. That does not work. His approach would of course result in more people in prison—I accept that—but fewer people would be rehabilitated. That would mean more people committing crimes and more victims of crime, including more victims of knife crime. We tend to follow the evidence that is in front of us. Our approach is not a hard or soft justice approach; it is a smart justice approach. Because we have followed that approach, violent crime has almost halved in a decade, as I said to Kenneth Gibson. That is the effect of the approach that we have taken.
I will let Liam Kerr continue to appeal to the gallery that he chooses to appeal to in terms of the right-wing press, his supporters and perhaps members of his party. However, we will not follow a soft or hard justice approach; we will follow the smart justice approach that has resulted in Scotland having one of the lowest levels of crime in 40 years.
Miners’ Strike (Pardons)
To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on the pardoning of miners convicted of offences relating to the strike in 1984-85. (S5O-05119)
In October last year, I announced that the Scottish Government had accepted in principle the recommendation that was made by an independent review panel that, subject to suitable criteria being established, legislation should be introduced to pardon miners who were convicted for matters relating to the 1984-85 strike. I also committed to giving careful consideration to what the qualifying criteria should be for the pardon, and to consult widely on that.
I am pleased to confirm that I launched a public consultation on 12 March, which will run until 4 June. Responses to the consultation will help to shape the qualifying criteria and the future legislation that will give effect to the pardon.
I also confirm that, last week, I wrote to the Home Secretary to make her aware of the consultation and to once again urge her to commit to holding a full United Kingdom public inquiry into the policing of the strike.
Events have overtaken my question, but it is good news that the consultation has started. How will the cabinet secretary ensure that the consultation goes out to the people who are most impacted? Can he confirm that the timeline that the civil service is working to will allow the legislation to proceed in the new session of Parliament, irrespective of who makes up the Government?
I recognise—I suspect that the whole Parliament recognises—Neil Findlay’s efforts in championing the cause on behalf of miners up and down Scotland. I know that the issue is personal to him, as he has a family history of and tradition in mining. It would be churlish not to recognise that, as it would be not to recognise that his efforts have been instrumental in getting us to this point.
On the substance of the question, I have met Nicky Wilson of the National Union of Mineworkers, with whom I know that Neil Findlay is very familiar. My officials met the NUM again at half past 10 this morning and discussed the very issue that Mr Findlay raises.
Obviously, we are still in the middle of a pandemic and restrictions still apply, so we are working closely with the NUM to make sure that we can reach out to as many miners and affected miners as possible. So far, the consultation, which was launched only a number of days ago, has received more than 150 responses. That is positive.
On the second part of Neil Findlay’s question, we launched the consultation pre-election so that whatever Government comes in post-election will have the responses available, which will mean that it will be able to do the analysis quickly and, I hope, introduce a bill to give effect to a pardon to the miners who deserve it as quickly as possible.
I, too, welcome the launch of the consultation, and pay tribute to all who have campaigned so hard to get to this point. I, of course, include Neil Findlay in that regard.
To pick up on Neil Findlay’s question, what specific steps will be taken to raise awareness of the consultation in former mining communities in my Cowdenbeath constituency? It occurs to me that one possible vehicle would be to write to the secretaries of the relevant community councils.
That is an excellent suggestion, which I will take away and mention to my colleagues and my officials. I pay tribute to the fact that Annabelle Ewing has also championed this cause. Every time I have made a statement or answered a question, she has always stood up for the mining communities in her Cowdenbeath constituency and beyond.
I will take note of Annabelle Ewing’s suggestion and pass it on to my officials. I am sure that it is one that we can take up.
Covid-19 (Reintroduction of Local Restriction Levels)
I, too, appreciate that my question may have been overtaken by the First Minister’s remarks yesterday.
To ask the Scottish Government what preparations Police Scotland is making for the reintroduction of Covid-19 local restriction levels. (S5O-05120)
I engage with Police Scotland regularly around Covid-19 regulations. Operational policing decisions are, of course, a matter for the chief constable. However, Police Scotland has advised me that officers will continue to work alongside its national and regional partners to support people through the move out of the current stay-at-home period and back into the restriction levels.
Police Scotland has advised that contingency plans are in place for national and local policing divisions to ensure resource and response capability during the transition, and that it will consider a number of pertinent themes, including the reopening of hospitality, retail, the night-time economy and so on and so forth.
Officers will continue to respond to breaches of legislation, including large indoor and outdoor gatherings, taking enforcement action where it is proportionate and necessary to do so in order to support the national health emergency and protect the citizens of Scotland.
A range of important stakeholders will be involved in the monitoring of compliance with regard to the reintroduction of the restriction levels across Scotland. As Dr Allan alluded to, the First Minister mentioned in her statement yesterday that the Government will enter into discussion with island communities on that very issue.
As the cabinet secretary alluded to, particular questions are still being discussed around the level of restrictions that might apply to travel to and from islands. Can he say more about what the police will do once there is greater clarity on the level of restrictions?
As they have done previously, the police will work, where necessary, with local authorities and with the transport providers—in the case of Dr Allan’s constituency, that means the ferry operators and the aviation sector.
I am sure that, at a local level, the police will engage with Dr Allan on his constituency because, where necessary, they will take enforcement action where there are particularly egregious breaches of the travel restrictions.
However, we must remember that, although the police have a role to play, so do local authorities and transport providers. It is incumbent on all partners to be collectively engaged in the discussions that the First Minister alluded to in her statement yesterday.
Covid-19 (Reoffending and Youth Justice in Dundee)
To ask the Scottish Government what additional support it has provided to support efforts to reduce reoffending in Dundee and ensure continuity in delivering a fair and balanced approach to youth justice, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-05121)
We have had considerable success when it comes to young people in our criminal justice system. That includes, for example, a fall of 75 per cent in the number of 12 to 17-year-olds proceeded against in Scotland’s courts.
Throughout the pandemic, Government officials have maintained contact with Dundee City Council through the Dundee city vulnerable adolescent partnership, and quarterly national youth justice advisory group and whole-system approach local leads meetings. Those meetings address specific issues and support the sharing of good practice.
I understand that support for children and young people in Dundee has continued during the pandemic. I appreciate the efforts and put on record my thanks to all those in Dundee and others across Scotland who have worked with children and young people to maintain a consistent level of service during the past year.
The cabinet secretary will be aware of the work of the Tayside arrest referral service, which is provided by Action for Children and which offers a tailored, holistic approach to support young people at risk, and initiatives such as The Circle, which brings together organisations across the spectrum at its hub. Does the cabinet secretary agree that those community-based support models offer great potential? What further support is the Scottish Government providing to them and to others in Dundee to continue to build on that potential?
I recognise the excellent work that is being done by the Tayside arrest referral service and The Circle.
I agree that services must attend to the needs as well as the actions of young people in trouble. We promote desistance by giving positive alternatives to young people and minimising the number of future victims.
Scottish Government officials are in contact with Dundee City Council to discuss the services that are provided across the city for young people at risk and whether any additional support is required.
Like other cities, including Dundee, Edinburgh has problems with antisocial behaviour. Today, Lothian Buses has announced that buses in Edinburgh will come off service at 7.30 in the evening because of attacks on buses and bus drivers. That is an urgent situation for people in Edinburgh. What intervention can the cabinet secretary make to try to address that situation?
Neil Findlay is absolutely right: that could have quite an impact on public health workers and many other people who need that public transport. I will ensure that I speak to Police Scotland—I am due to speak to it imminently—and that my officials take up the issue with local policing divisions. Ultimately, of course, issues to do with tackling antisocial behaviour are operational matters for Police Scotland. I am certain that it will be working with local transport providers.
Let us make it very clear that, regardless of my intervention or Police Scotland’s intervention, all of us agree that any type of attack—whether that be an assault or a verbal or spitting attack—on our transport providers, particularly during the pandemic, is to be condemned.
Constitution, Europe and External Affairs
I remind members to press their request-to-speak button if they wish to ask a supplementary question.
Michael Russell will be making his final substantive contribution in the chamber. I will invite him to make some valedictory remarks after he has answered the final question.
Independence Referendum (Publication of Draft Bill)
I wish Michael Russell well in his retirement. I am sure that he will still be very actively involved in the political scene in Scotland. We recognise the contributions to the Parliament that he has made over a number of years.
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on when it will publish the draft bill for an independence referendum announced in its programme for government for 2020-21. (S5O-05122)
I thank Mr Balfour for his kind words.
The Scottish Government will publish the draft independence referendum bill as announced in the programme for government before the pre-election recess begins.
Does the cabinet secretary not accept that it is completely irresponsible timing to bring forward that bill when the priority needs to be recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic and putting all our energy into getting businesses back on their feet, supporting people into work and investing in our schools to help children to catch up, with so much lost teaching time?
What is the cabinet secretary’s number 1 priority: Scotland’s recovery from the tragic effects of the pandemic, or his party’s obsession with indyref 2?
My urgent priority—as it should be for all of us in the chamber—is to ensure that Scotland recovers from the pandemic. That has to be done according to what the Scottish people choose rather than what Boris Johnson chooses—that is the big difference. If we look at what will take place, I would rather move forward from the pandemic and rebuild Scotland in a way that is commensurate with the people of Scotland’s urgent necessities rather than Boris Johnson’s obsessions.
We have two supplementaries to that question.
Ian Blackford has said that another independence referendum could take place this year. He cited the cabinet secretary’s comment that there should be six months between the legislation and the referendum. Does the cabinet secretary agree with Mr Blackford that there could—or should—be a referendum this year? If the urgent priority is to focus on the national recovery from Covid, surely that should be the focus of the next session of Parliament.
I welcome Mr Smyth to his new role as his party’s spokesperson on the constitution. However, this is “Hail and farewell”, as far as I can see, because I do not think that I will have an opportunity to take questions from him again.
Unfortunately, I start by disagreeing with Mr Smyth. He will have heard what I said in response to Mr Balfour. The urgent necessity is for Scotland to build forward from the pandemic in a way that will give it a sustainable future. That cannot be done by a United Kingdom Government, and I am disappointed that the Scottish Labour Party still believes that it can.
I, too, add my thanks and wish the best of luck to Mike Russell, who has been a great support to me over the past five years and before that. I am sure that I will see him before we both go.
The report of the Smith commission included a clear commitment that
“nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose”.
Does the cabinet secretary agree that all parties in the chamber should honour the commitment that they signed up to, and that they should not stand in the way of people’s right to have a say over their future?
I thank Gail Ross for her remarks. I wish her the best, too. We have been friends over a long period, and I am sure that we will continue to be so as we both go on to different things.
Gail Ross rightly quoted the report of the Smith commission, which said:
“nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose”.
I emphasise the words
“should the people of Scotland so choose”—
not the Prime Minister, the UK Government, Douglas Ross or the Scottish Conservatives, but the people of Scotland. That is why the Scottish Government is clear that if there should be majority support for an independence referendum in the next parliamentary term there could then be no moral or democratic justification whatsoever for any UK Government, or any of the aforementioned, to ignore the rights and will of the people of Scotland.
“Breaking Point” (Response)
I would like to pay my respects to Mike Russell and to wish him well. In particular, I recognise all the work that he has done on protecting our environment and shaping our response to the sad demands of Brexit.
I turn to my question. To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the recent report by the Disasters Emergency Committee, “Breaking Point”, and how this will impact on its international development strategy. (S5O-05123)
The Scottish Government shares the concerns expressed in the Disasters Emergency Committee’s report about the impact of Covid-19 on the world’s most fragile states.
Through our humanitarian emergency fund, which is aligned to the DEC, we provide assistance to support the response to some of the worst humanitarian crises. I recently updated the Parliament on the results of our review of our approach to international development in light of Covid-19. We will keep the DEC report in mind as our approach to international development evolves
This year, Scotland will host the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—and the build-up to it. As a sub-state of COP26, Scotland must set an example for the rest of the world to follow in its approach to support for countries on the front line of climate impact. However, the climate justice fund has stayed at £3 million despite non-governmental organisations’ call for it to become £10 million this year. What discussion is planned, or has been had already, with Scottish Government colleagues on global justice ahead of COP26, given the parallels between the global challenges of Covid-19 and climate change for countries that are particularly challenged?
With regard to COP26, Claudia Beamish said that Scotland needs to set an example to the world and I think that she is absolutely right. We are keen to work with our international development partners and do just that.
The climate justice fund sits in Roseanna Cunningham’s portfolio area and, in terms of the response to the requests that come from organisations at the moment, I imagine that the parties’ manifestos will address that key point in future.
My portfolio has made a number of contributions to international development. The Disasters Emergency Committee launched a fundraising appeal following a cyclone that left a trail of destruction back in 2019, meaning that more than 400,000 people lost their homes and vital infrastructure was destroyed by major flooding. A further £50,000 was allocated to support emergency flood relief in Malawi, in addition to the £175,000 that will be delivered through the University of Strathclyde hydro nation programme.
Claudia Beamish is absolutely right to raise the issue of climate justice and, as she says, it is important that we use COP26 to showcase Scotland’s key work in those areas. The UK Government also works with us on those matters.
European Union Exit (Impact on Opportunities for Young People)
As other members have done, I thank Mike Russell for his substantial contribution to the Parliament for many years, not least of which has been his commitment to Scotland’s constitutional future.
To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union on the opportunities for young people from Scotland to live, work or study in the EU. (S5O-05124)
Our analysis makes it clear that the UK’s exit from the EU is extremely damaging for Scotland. Our further and higher education students, schoolchildren and young people will be particularly affected by the UK Government’s decision not to participate in the Erasmus plus mobility programme, through which, between 2014 and 2018, 13,957 participants from across Scotland gained valuable international experience. The UK Government’s replacement Turing scheme is a watered-down imitation, which offers no support for our adult learning or youth work sectors.
The Scottish Government welcomes the announcement that the UK will associate to the horizon Europe programme. However, even with that association confirmed, the overall loss of freedom of movement within EU countries will act as a barrier to young researchers and students, and will result in additional expenses for young people who are looking to further their careers or expand their horizons abroad.
As the minister said, one of the EU’s benefits for young people was Erasmus plus. For instance, the scheme recently assisted 56 young people from Royston Youth Action in my constituency to visit Finland, Austria and Estonia for what were life-affirming experiences; I know that lifelong friendships were forged.
I am deeply concerned that the UK’s Brexit will make similar visits far less likely in the future. Despite these difficult post-Brexit circumstances, what opportunities now exist to benefit young people who live in areas such as Royston?
The replacement scheme for Erasmus plus falls considerably short of what we have lost. In fact, it offers no provision whatsoever for youth work or projects such as those that are undertaken by Royston Youth Action, nor does it offer support for adult education or staff mobility. That loss of opportunity for our most vulnerable communities is deeply concerning.
Throughout our discussions with the UK Government, the Scottish Government has been clear that support for our adult education and youth work sectors is vital. My colleague, the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, has been working with Welsh and Northern Irish ministers to challenge the UK Government but we have yet to receive a satisfactory response on how it will address that substantial gap.
The Scottish Government has always been clear that mobility is about more than just higher education students, and Erasmus plus was the best way to enable people from across Scotland to take part. The UK Government scheme leaves our most disadvantaged learners with no support. The Scottish Government is currently in communication with the European Commission to see how we might maximise Scottish participation in the elements of the programme that remain open to us.
European Union Withdrawal (Relationships with Non-EU Countries)
I enter into the spirit of the afternoon’s proceedings by also wishing the cabinet secretary—indeed, everyone—all the very best for the future.
To ask the Scottish Government what impact the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union has had on Scotland’s relationships with countries outwith the EU. (S5O-05125)
I thank Mr Lindhurst, and I wish him well, too.
The UK’s decision to leave the EU has undoubtedly posed challenges to Scotland’s ability to engage closely with international partners, whether directly or through arrangements that have been agreed by the EU. Despite that, the Scottish Government stands firm in its outward-looking and values-based approach. We will continue to strengthen our international relationships within the EU and beyond, to work ever more collaboratively with others on the challenges that face our post-Covid world, to increase our international trade and investment activity and, ultimately, to achieve our overarching objective of sustainable and inclusive economic growth in Scotland.
We need to recognise the benefits that we have already seen—for example, the United States Government’s recent lifting of tariffs on many goods, which should result in millions of pounds from exports of cashmere and of cheese and other delicacies. Will the cabinet secretary commit the Scottish Government to working positively to benefit the whole of Scotland from the advantages that have already been seen?
Gordon Lindhurst should differentiate between the removal of trade tariffs that were imposed because of a trade dispute—thus, the reversion to the previous situation—and the question whether there are any benefits in becoming a third country outside the EU. The answer is that there are no such benefits; there are no such benefits for Scotland and, actually, there are no such benefits for the UK. Although I admire the member’s optimism, I do not agree in any sense with his accuracy.
Having known Mike Russell for many years, I also wish him well.
A close relationship between the UK and the EU is in everyone’s interests. Will the cabinet secretary join me in calling on the UK Government to take a more co-operative approach to its relationship with the EU in order to develop better outcomes for people in Scotland and across the UK?
Richard Lyle makes a very sensible point. I have written to Lord Frost about that matter just this weekend. I do not know whether the response will come before I finally leave Parliament, or come in anything other than the usual dismissive terms, but there is no doubt that the way in which the business is being conducted by him and by Boris Johnson is counterproductive and damaging.
United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020
I also wish the cabinet secretary well and look forward to continuing to work with him as he helps us, as I am sure he will, to deliver independence.
To ask the Scottish Government to what extent it expects the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 to impact on the powers of the Scottish Parliament. (S5O-05126)
Last week, we published a paper, “After Brexit: The UK Internal Market Act and Devolution”, which sets out how the act will impact fundamentally on the power of the Scottish Parliament. It will constrain our ability to take decisions that reflect the needs of Scotland’s businesses and people.
The Scottish Parliament’s ability to ensure high food standards and to prevent, for example, sale of single-use plastics, could be rendered obsolete, which would undermine Scotland’s ability to shape its future. The UK Government also announced plans to use the 2020 act’s spending powers to deliver the levelling up fund, which is bypassing any Scottish Parliament involvement in about £400 million of expected consequential funding.
Since the Brexit vote, there has been a systematic attack on the Scottish Parliament’s powers and on devolution. That is why we will continue to resist the damaging effects of the UK Internal Market Act 2020 in every way possible.
Does the cabinet secretary share my concern that the UK Government and UK Parliament are now regularly legislating in devolved policy areas and adjusting the powers of the Scottish Parliament without its consent?
Indeed, I do. There was a further example of that yesterday afternoon, when there was a series of Trojan horse amendments that were, I believe, called “probing” amendments, but which were designed to do what Fulton MacGregor described. I pay strong tribute to my friend and colleague John Swinney, who saw them off with aplomb.
There is a supplementary question from Dean Lockhart.
I also add my best wishes to the cabinet secretary for the next stage in his career, and I acknowledge his contributions to the Scottish Parliament and to public affairs in Scotland. I have shadowed Mike Russell for only six months, but it has been an eventful and interesting time.
I turn to my question about the UK internal market. As the cabinet secretary is aware, the UK internal market accounts for more than 60 per cent of Scotland’s trade, but Scotland has only one trade promotion office in the rest of the UK, compared to 32 trade offices in other markets across the world. Does the cabinet secretary agree that having more trade offices in other parts of the UK would help to increase Scotland’s trade with our single most important market?
That is an interesting proposal. If Dean Lockhart wishes to encourage the Scottish Government to open offices right across these islands, who am I to object? His usual approach to the issue—he has taken me a bit by surprise with that question—is to demand that we must recognise that that trade is so important that we would disrupt it by not being in the same political union. However, if that were true, the UK would not be leaving the EU, so I am glad that he has moved on from that tired and erroneous argument to a new argument.
I shall consider carefully in the very short time that I have in office whether we should open an office in every burgh in which that would be possible throughout these lands—[Laughter.]—because it is an interesting prospect.
Visa Requirements (Work and Student Internships)
I congratulate Mike Russell on his huge contribution to the Parliament over the years, and to the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future. He will be missed.
To ask the Scottish Government what recent representations it has made to the United Kingdom Government regarding visas for people wishing to work in Scotland, and whether it is able to clarify the visa requirements for student internships to ensure that these international exchanges can continue. (S5O-05127)
Scotland must be able to attract talented people from across the world to work and study here, and migration policy should support mobility, collaboration and innovation.
The UK Government did not seek an extensive mobility framework with the EU, which has created barriers to cross-border exchanges in both directions, and there is no clear visa route for young Europeans to undertake internships in the UK. We have urged the UK Government to enable mobility of European students to the UK, especially now that we are, sadly, no longer full participants in the Erasmus+ programme.
As we face the biggest economic crisis in decades, the UK Government must allow for the level and type of migration that the economy and our communities need in order to prosper.
What steps is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that visa issues resulting from exit from the EU are resolved swiftly to ensure that native speakers who work in foreign language teaching in Scotland do not face further barriers to working here?
We welcome the UK Government’s recent announcement that some regulated qualifications framework roles in levels 3 to 5, including secondary school modern foreign language teachers, will be added to the shortage occupation list from 6 April this year. Although that falls far short of the benefits of free movement, those skilled teachers will now be exempt from the minimum salary threshold of £25,600 when applying to work in the UK.
However, the UK Government’s decision to delay further the inclusion of all recommended RQF level 3 to 5 roles means that many workers who are vital to our economic recovery will have no route to enter the UK until the list is reviewed in 2022. Denying access to those uniquely skilled workers risks acute labour shortages across many sectors, and will compound the damaging effects of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic across Scotland.
Settled Status Scheme (Deadline)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to raise awareness ahead of the June 2021 deadline of the European Union settled status scheme. (S5O-05128)
More than 250,000 applications have been made to the EU settlement scheme by people in Scotland, but many more people have yet to apply. That is why we have we have provided more than £1 million of support through our stay in Scotland campaign.
To increase awareness of the deadline, the Scottish Government is running a campaign on radio, on digital services and on social media. I wrote to MSPs on that matter last week, and I encourage all members to share that information via their social media channels.
We are also supporting our partners to inform EU citizens about the need to apply before the deadline. Together with our partners, we fund a network of qualified advisors to help people to apply to the scheme. Anyone can call the EU citizens support service for advice and support on 0800 916 9847.
I know that the minister will agree with me that it is essential that we treat EU citizens with dignity and respect, and that we do all that we can in Scotland to educate people and encourage them to apply in time. However, what can be done to assist those who, through no fault of their own, miss the June deadline?
I agree with Gail Ross: EU citizens who fail to apply to the scheme before the deadline will, at best, face the hostile environment and will, at worst, be subjected to enforced removal. The Windrush scandal demonstrated the United Kingdom Government’s callousness; we must do everything that we can to prevent the same thing from happening again to our European friends and family. That is why I am pleased to say that the Scottish Government will continue to fund our third sector partners after the EUSS deadline in order to assist our EU citizens in making late applications.
The Scottish Government has long argued that the UK Government should adopt a declaratory system, which would allow our EU citizens to retain their rights without the need to apply. We are concerned that some people might remain unaware of the scheme, or might think that it is not for them. The pandemic might have impacted on people’s ability to apply by the deadline in June. In the light of that, we are calling on the UK Government to extend the deadline.
Our message to EU citizens in Scotland is clear: Scotland values you, and you will always be welcome here.
Brexit (Support for Companies)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the action it is taking to support companies that have been the most impacted by a loss of business due to Brexit. (S5O-05129)
The Scottish Government is deeply concerned by emerging evidence that Brexit is having a severe impact on the ability of Scottish companies to trade effectively and competitively with the European Union, with lasting consequences. The Scottish Government will continue to work hard to address the problems and blockages that are being faced by companies where it is in our power to do so. We are working with our partner agencies, business organisations and others to assess the impact of Brexit and to help companies to adapt to new trading arrangements.
It has been reported that exports to the EU are down by 40 per cent. Does the cabinet secretary believe that United Kingdom politicians who misled voters and firms to support Brexit should now apologise for misleading them?
I call Michael Russell to answer his final question and make his final remarks.
I do indeed hope that they will apologise, but many of my hopes have come to nothing in recent years, so I am not holding my breath for that.
Presiding Officer, thank you for allowing me to spend just a few moments on what I think will be almost my final remarks in the chamber, after 18 years as an MSP. I say “almost”, because I may have to move a motion this evening.
First, I want to say sorry. I know that that will surprise people, but I noticed in a recent article that one member singled me out as the person they most disliked in the Parliament. Given that one of my many faults is that I find it hard to resist a good line, I know that I have rubbed some people up the wrong way, sometimes on several occasions and sometimes even my own colleagues, so I start by saying sorry to those whom I have upset or offended, on any side of the chamber. I suppose that retirement is a fresh start—and who could resist that? I just hope that I can now behave myself for the last few days in this place.
I stress, as much as possible, the importance of polite, courteous and constructive speech, here perhaps more than anywhere else. It is not easy for politicians, and the polarising effect of social media, the pressures of lockdown and the frustrations of Brexit, among other impositions, have made this place more fractious and less friendly than it once was. However, freedom of speech does not just mean being free to be nasty to each other; we should try to be as constructive, civilized and courteous as possible. That approach is what the people of Scotland thought they were getting back in 1999. We have not been able to live up to that as much as we might have done, but perhaps this institution can recapture that spirit, for itself and for the health of democracy, in the next session. It is a worthy ambition, but there are other ambitions that the Parliament should have, too.
Scotland has benefited greatly from the restoration of its Parliament after almost 300 years of recess. I have been grateful for the opportunity to play a role in securing that and in helping to nurture the infant institution. It has grown well, but it has further to grow.
It will be no surprise to anyone that I believe that this place must have the full powers of a full and normal independent Parliament before we can do our job for the people of Scotland to the full extent that this country needs, particularly as we rebuild post-pandemic. If some disagree with that—and some still do—we should surely be ambitious for Scotland and its democracy.
Scotland is a better country than it was when the Parliament was restored, and I think that it is a better country since the Scottish National Party entered government in 2007, but we can all do more, both in how we use our current powers and with the powers that we need to regain.
Increasingly, democracy is not just about what powers but about who gets to exercise them. We need to recognise that democracy is changing fast. The horrid experience of Covid and the resulting lockdown has accelerated a desire in communities across the country for change. They are telling us that nothing should be done to them or agreed for them that has not been decided with them.
Of course, the same imperative drives the issue of independence. It is also true, in Scotland, that nothing should be done to us or for us that has not been decided by us, but we must ensure that that imperative is answered across the country at every level. That is the developing challenge. The radical views of the citizens assembly are a sign of things to come. Power will have to shift and be shared, not just by the Parliament but by each party in the Parliament. Westminster must accept that in terms of Scottish self-determination, and this Parliament must accept it for all our communities, and embrace and enable it.
Edwin Morgan, our great first makar, told us, when we took possession of this wonderful building, to open our doors. He wrote:
“We give you our consent to govern, don’t pocket it and ride away.
We give you our deepest dearest wish to govern well, don’t say we have no mandate to be so bold.”
Boldness will be needed again—indeed, its time has arrived.
Finally, I will thank a few people for what I have experienced. I thank all my colleagues in this place and in the Government, at least a few of whom I hope to regard as friends still; I hope that they will think the same of me. I thank my two deputy ministers, and others with whom I have worked—I am sure that Graeme Dey and Jenny Gilruth in particular have great futures ahead of them once I am no longer holding them back.
I thank the many parliamentary officers and staff who have done so much for me over the years, including in my role as a founder member of the first Parliamentary Bureau, of which I am the last member still in this place, and subsequently in attempting difficult, but not impossible, tasks such as taking a complex bill through all its stages in a single day, as we did together last April.
I thank all the imaginative and dedicated civil servants at every level with whom I have worked in six different ministerial roles. In particular, I thank those who have led my private offices during that time, who have become key advisers and friends: my private secretary since 2007, Scott Sutherland, Darren Dixon, Laura Holton, Ellen Burt, and the one who has suffered Brexit with me, and suffered me for most of the past five years, Kirsty Hamilton.
In my constituency, I express my thanks to Ron Simon, who set up my office in Dunoon and who, tragically, is no longer with us. I also thank my extraordinary and talented team: Heather Wolfe, Keir Low and, above all, Marie-Claire Docherty. I am going to miss them all. I also thank my family, of course, who may now see more of me, if they so wish.
Finally—it is honestly finally, Presiding Officer—I thank those who allowed me to come here, not to speak for myself but to speak for them. Not only is Argyll and Bute, encompassing as it does not only 23 inhabited islands but a large part of the western seaboard of Scotland, the most beautiful constituency in Scotland; its people are among the very best. It has been a huge honour, and nearly always a huge pleasure, to have served them to the best of my ability over the past decade, and to have served the people of the South of Scotland, whom I represented for two sessions before that. I say to them: thank you for trusting me—I hope that I have, in the greatest part, done what you wanted, expected and needed, and I hope that you choose Jenni Minto to do even more.
I have quoted Edmund Burke in the chamber before, but it does no harm for me to do so again, and remind us of his wisdom. Addressing the electors of Bristol in 1774—the very electors who threw him out five years later—he wrote this:
“it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents ... It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures ... to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.”
I said my first words in what was then the newly convened Scottish Parliament on 13 May 1999—the second sitting day, when I raised a point of order concerning the election of the First Minister. I spoke for the first time in this chamber as the newly appointed Minister for Environment—the best job that I ever had—on 31 May 2007. I must have spoken here hundreds of times since, although, not being Stewart Stevenson, I have not kept count.
Now I am speaking for the last time, although I may move a motion later on. I am grateful to you all for listening. Thank you. [Applause.]
Thank you very much, Mr Russell. That concludes portfolio questions.