Meeting date: Wednesday, April 24, 2019
Meeting of the Parliament 24 April 2019
Agenda: Brexit and Scotland’s Future, Portfolio Question Time, General Practitioner Recruitment and Retention, Green New Deal, Business Motions, Point of Order, Decision Time, Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week
- Brexit and Scotland’s Future
- Portfolio Question Time
- General Practitioner Recruitment and Retention
- Green New Deal
- Business Motions
- Point of Order
- Decision Time
- Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week
Brexit and Scotland’s Future
Good afternoon. Our first item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon on Brexit and Scotland’s future. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement. I encourage all members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak button.13:30
Presiding Officer, before I make my statement, and with your permission, I extend my heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of journalist Lyra McKee, who was killed in Northern Ireland last week and whose funeral is taking place right now.
I did not know Lyra, but everything that I have read by and about her makes me wish that I had. Talented, passionate and courageous, she was a symbol of hope for Northern Ireland’s future. Her death is a harsh reminder of the fragility of peace in Northern Ireland and how important it is that that peace is nurtured and protected.
I also express my shock and sadness at the horrific attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday. Senseless loss of life on such a scale is difficult for any of us to comprehend, and my heartfelt condolences go to the bereaved and injured, including, of course, the British citizens who were so tragically affected. To launch indiscriminate attacks on innocent people as they attended Easter services or enjoyed a holiday is barbaric beyond words. Christian churches, like mosques, synagogues and all places of worship, should be sanctuaries of peace and safety.
As we condemn unreservedly those acts of terrorism, we must again express our determination that hatred and violence will be defeated by love, compassion and our common humanity.
My statement will consider the implications for Scotland of recent Brexit developments. As members know, two weeks ago, the European Council extended the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union until 31 October, with a right for the UK to leave earlier if the House of Commons agrees terms of withdrawal.
The extension granted by the EU rescued us from the nightmare scenario of a no-deal Brexit on 12 April. As a result, I can advise Parliament that the Scottish Government has, for the time being, scaled down our no-deal planning. My thanks go to all those across Government and the public sector who have worked so hard to make sure Scotland is as ready as we can be for what would be a catastrophic outcome. However, I also want to express my regret and anger at the money and effort that has been spent preparing for an outcome that the UK Government should have ruled out.
As things stand, if an agreed way forward is not found quickly, the risk of no deal will rise again as we approach the October deadline, with the potential for yet more money, time and effort to be wasted. The UK Government could remove that risk now by making it clear that, if the only alternative is a no-deal exit, it will choose to revoke article 50 instead. I hope that members across the chamber will join me today in calling on the UK Government to do exactly that.
However, the extension afforded by the EU presents the UK with an opportunity to find a positive way forward and an opportunity for me to update Parliament about the implications for Scotland.
The Scottish Government’s view is that the best way to break the deadlock for the UK is to put the issue back to the people, with an option to remain in the EU. The Euro elections will also give voters a chance to back a party, like the Scottish National Party, that wants to keep Scotland in the EU.
Of course, almost three years on from the referendum in 2016, it is impossible to predict with certainty what will happen next. The UK might still leave the EU before October, it might leave in October, it might seek another extension or it might not leave at all.
That chaos is not an inevitable consequence of the vote to leave the EU—it is down to a toxic combination of dishonesty and incompetence. Those who campaigned to leave in 2016 failed to set out what Brexit would mean in reality. To the extent that they made any attempt at all, they misled people. The UK Government triggered article 50 before it had answered that question. The Prime Minister then boxed herself in with a series of self-defeating and contradictory red lines. Instead of trying to build consensus across Parliament or country, she claimed the right to interpret the result in the most hardline way possible.
As a consequence, those who voted to remain question the legitimacy of the whole process; those who voted to leave feel, with justification, that promises that were made to them have been broken; and faith in democracy has been damaged. Throughout all this, the Scottish Government and our party colleagues at Westminster have worked tirelessly to help to find the best way forward for all of the UK. Whatever Scotland’s constitutional status in future, it will always be in our interests for all of us on these islands to have the closest possible relationship with the EU. We therefore proposed the compromise option of single market and customs union membership; we back a public vote to break the deadlock, even though it offers no guarantee that Scotland will not be outvoted all over again; and we are working with others in an effort to remove the risk of a no-deal Brexit. In fact, we have done everything possible to help to avert the Brexit crisis for the whole UK and we will continue to do so.
However, we must also consider the best way forward for Scotland in the event that the UK does leave the European Union. To ensure that all options remain open to us, the time to do that is now. Of course, as we do so, we must learn the lessons of the Brexit mess. Whether we like it or not, the continued lack of clarity around Brexit has implications for Scotland’s decision making—a point that I will return to later. However, one point of clarity has surely emerged over the past three years, even for the most ardent opponent of Scottish independence: the Westminster system of government simply does not serve Scotland’s interests and the devolution settlement in its current form is now seen to be utterly inadequate to the task of protecting those interests. In other words, the status quo is broken.
Scotland’s 62 per cent vote to remain in the EU counted for nothing. Far from being an equal partner at Westminster, Scotland’s voice is listened to only if it chimes with that of the UK majority; if it does not, we are outvoted and ignored. The Scottish Government’s efforts to find a compromise that might mitigate the damage to our economy fell on deaf ears. Cross-party votes of this Parliament have been disregarded time and again. The agreed constitutional principles that have underpinned devolution since its establishment 20 years ago have been cast aside by the UK Government and vital powers were in effect taken from this Parliament without our consent. Even our financial settlement, which already leaves us vulnerable to austerity and with too few levers of our own, was openly breached by the UK Government’s bribe to the Democratic Unionist Party. There is no denying that Brexit has exposed a deep democratic deficit at the heart of how Scotland is governed. Whatever our different views on independence, that should persuade all of us in this chamber that we need a more solid foundation on which to build our future as a country.
The consequences of inaction would be severe. If we are unable to stop or even mitigate Brexit, we will find it harder to export our goods and services across the single market. Scotland will become less attractive to inward investors; a risk that will be compounded if the Northern Ireland backstop takes effect. The result will be fewer jobs and an economy that is smaller than it should be.
The Tory and, I am sorry to say, UK Labour obsession that drives the desire to leave the EU—ending free movement—will restrict the opportunities of our own young people to live, work and study across Europe, and it will send our working age population into decline.
I know that the issue of migration is not an easy one for politicians to address, but I am proud that parties across the chamber are willing to take on the many myths that surround it. In Scotland, we know and understand that the Westminster approach to migration, as well as being deeply inhumane, poses an almost existential threat to our future prosperity. So, the Brexit outlook for Scotland is a smaller economy, restricted job growth, fewer people, narrowed horizons and greater pressure on our ability to fund the public services and social contract that we value so highly.
Let me put it in simpler language. Brexit and all that flows from it will affect the ability of Scottish Governments now and well into the future to do the day job—to support businesses, combat poverty, fund the national health service and public services, and work with other countries to tackle the defining challenges of our time.
At a time when most people in Scotland would, I think, want to see the Scottish Parliament having more influence on the decisions that shape our future, there is a risk of the reverse. As the UK scrambles to do trade deals with Donald Trump or whoever, the inclination to impose uniformity—even in devolved areas—will lead to more Westminster centralisation. It is my judgment that, for the first time in 20 years, there is a risk of devolution going backwards, not through the blatant, wholesale removal of powers—although, on recent experience, more of that cannot be ruled out—but by an increasing use of Westminster’s powers to override the decisions of the Scottish Parliament and constrain devolved decision making.
The question that confronts all of us now is this: if the status quo is not fit for purpose—I know that even some of the most committed believers in the union find it hard to argue that it is—how do we fix it? Can we do so in a way that maximises consensus rather than amplifies our differences?
Those are not easy challenges, but all of us who sit in this chamber are elected to represent the national interest. We have a duty to rise to the challenge, stand in each other’s shoes and find a way forward. No one expects any of us to abandon deeply held beliefs. Just as Labour and Tory MSPs will continue to believe that remaining in the union is the right option for Scotland, I will argue that independence offers the best future.
The case for independence is even stronger now, given the profound changes that have taken place in the UK since 2014. In that time, we have seen the limits of Scotland’s influence within the UK and, in sharp contrast, the power that independent nations have as members of the EU. While Scotland’s interests have been ignored by Westminster, independent Ireland’s interests have been protected by the EU. Of the 27 independent countries that decided the UK’s future at the European Council two weeks ago, around a dozen are smaller than or similar in size to Scotland. Many of those countries are also more prosperous than Scotland. With all our assets and talents, Scotland should be a thriving and driving force within Europe. Instead, we face being forced to the margins and sidelined within a UK that is itself being increasingly sidelined on the international stage.
By contrast, independence would allow us to protect our place in Europe. It would enable us to nurture our most important relationships—those with the other countries of the British isles—on the basis of equality, and it would mean that decisions against our will and contrary to our interests could not be imposed on us by Westminster. It would put our future into our own hands, with the decisions that shape our future and determine our relationships with other countries taken here in our own Parliament. That is the essence of independence.
Let me turn to the issue of when I think people in Scotland should be offered a new choice on independence. My party was elected with a mandate to offer that choice within this parliamentary session should Scotland be taken out of the EU against our will. There is also a majority in the chamber for that position, and polling evidence suggests that a majority in Scotland want a choice on independence, although opinions vary on timing. There are some who would like to see a very early referendum; others want the choice to be much later. My job as the First Minister is to reach a judgment, not simply in my party’s interest but in the national interest.
In doing so, a key priority is ensuring that we learn the lessons of Brexit. To rush into an immediate decision before a Brexit path has been determined would not allow an informed choice to be made. However, if we are to safeguard Scotland’s interests, we cannot wait indefinitely. That is why I consider that a choice between Brexit and a future for Scotland as an independent European nation should be offered later in the lifetime of this Parliament. If Scotland is taken out of the EU, the option of a referendum on independence within that timescale must be open to us. That would be our route to avoiding the worst of the damage that Brexit will do.
However, that intention does not mean that we should cease trying to build as much agreement as we can on the best way forward; nor should we cease our efforts to avoid any Brexit at all. In all our actions, we must also try to avoid the mistakes that have caused so much division over Brexit and bring people together to focus on finding the common ground between us. Our aim must be to act in a completely different manner to the UK Government and Parliament. The fact is that, based on the evidence of the past three years, Westminster has failed. It has failed to protect Scotland’s interests, it has failed to reach a consensus and it has degenerated into chaos. It is now time for this Parliament and for all the parties represented in this Parliament to take charge.
There are therefore three specific steps that the Scottish Government intends to take now. I confirm that the Scottish Government will act to ensure that the option of giving people a choice on independence later in this session of Parliament is progressed. We will shortly introduce legislation to set the rules for any referendum that is, now or in the future, within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. We will aim for the legislation to be on the statute book by the end of this year. Mike Russell will set out the details next month. We do not need a transfer of power such as a section 30 order to pass such a framework bill, though we would need it to put beyond doubt or challenge our ability to apply the bill to an independence referendum. As members are aware, the UK Government’s current position is that it will not agree to transfer power, but I believe that that position will prove to be unsustainable.
By making progress with primary legislation first, we will not squander valuable time now in a stand-off with a UK Government that might soon be out of office. We will seek agreement to a transfer of power at an appropriate point during or shortly after the bill’s passage, on the basis that it will be exercised when this Parliament—and no other—considers it right to offer the people of Scotland a choice.
In 2014, the Scottish and UK Governments and Parliaments—to our collective credit—set the gold standard. Two Governments with very different views on the outcome came together to agree a process that allowed the people to decide. That is what should happen in the future. It is how we will secure unquestioned legitimacy not just here at home but, crucially, within the EU and the wider international community. It respects the principle that is enshrined in the claim of right that the Scottish people are sovereign. Those who oppose independence are, of course, entitled to argue that case, but it must be for the people to decide.
Finally, on this point, let me offer these words:
“With public sentiment nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”
Those are the wise words of Abraham Lincoln, who was an ardent defender of a union, albeit in a great moral cause. For those of us who support independence, his lesson is obvious. If we are successful in further growing the support and demand for independence—I will say more, later this week, about how we will build that case—no UK Government will be able to deny the will of the people or stop that will being expressed.
Let me now turn to two parallel processes that I want to outline today. The first is directed at the parties in the chamber that do not support independence. I might not—as people might have noticed—agree with that view, but I do respect it.
However, what I hope that we might all agree on after the past three years is that serious change is needed. To those who believe that independence is not the right change for Scotland, I say that they should bring forward their own proposals to equip our Parliament with the powers that we need to better protect and advance our interests.
For example, we could have more powers to boost trade and strengthen our economy; more powers to tackle poverty and inequality; powers to protect the public finances that our NHS and public services rely on; powers that will allow us to grow our population; and powers that will give us a stronger voice in the UK, enable us to determine our own future and better protect our interests here at home and internationally. I welcome, for example, the recent signals from the Scottish Labour Party that it now supports the devolution of employment law.
This Parliament was almost unanimous in opposing the Brexit power grab, and I know that many share our deep concerns about migration and recognise that we do not currently have the tools to solve that problem. Perhaps there is already more common ground than we like to admit there is and a starting point that we can build and expand upon. The fact that we do not agree on Scotland’s ultimate destination should not stop us travelling together as far as we can.
I have therefore asked Mike Russell to explore with other parties, perhaps with the help of a respected and independent individual who can broker such discussions, areas of agreement on constitutional and procedural change, and to take the views of stakeholders on such issues. I will write to party leaders today, and Mike Russell will be in touch with their nominated representatives thereafter to consider how those discussions might be progressed.
This exercise should not start with our taking any fixed position—if parties can find it in themselves not to do that—but should openly consider the challenges that Scotland faces and the solutions that might help us address them. If serious and substantial proposals emerge, this Parliament could present them to the UK Government in a unified and united way. If other parties are willing, I give an assurance today that the Scottish Government will engage fully and in good faith.
The last aspect of my statement is also about how we confront the change that our country needs but in a way that tries to build agreement. None of us can fail to be concerned about the polarisation of political debate caused by the Brexit experience. The answer, though, cannot be to ignore or suppress the differing views about the best future for our country. We should try to find ways of debating our choices respectfully and in a way that seeks maximum areas of agreement, and we should lay a foundation that allows us to move forward together, whatever decisions we ultimately arrive at.
I have been struck recently by the Irish example of a citizens assembly to help find consensus on issues on which people have sharply divided opinions. Of course, the circumstances here are different, as are the issues under consideration, but the principle is sound, and I believe that we should make use of it.
I therefore confirm that the Scottish Government will establish a citizens assembly that will bring together a representative cross-section of Scotland, with an independent chair, and which will be tasked with considering, in broad terms, the following issues. What kind of country are we seeking to build? How can we best overcome the challenges that we face, including those arising from Brexit? What further work should be carried out to give people the detail that they need to make informed choices about the future of the country? Again, Mike Russell will set out more details shortly, and he will seek views from other parties on the assembly’s operation and remit.
Brexit was neither the choice of this Parliament, nor the choice of our country. As I said at the outset, the immediate opportunity that we now have is to help stop Brexit for the whole UK; we should seize that opportunity, and my party will certainly seek to do so.
However, if that cannot be achieved, dealing with the consequences of Brexit and facing up to its challenges will be unavoidable. I am aware that the debates that flow from that will provoke differences of opinion. I believe that the case for independence is now stronger than ever and I will make that case. As I have set out today, I will also do all in my power to protect Scotland’s right to choose. To do anything less would risk consigning the next generation to the damage of Westminster decisions that are not in our interests.
However, I know that others take a different view so, as the necessary legislative steps are taken over the next few months, I will also seek to open up space for us to come together and find areas of agreement, as mature politicians should do. In so doing, I will try to set an example of constructive, outward-looking and respectful debate. In recent times, we have seen in Westminster what happens when parties fail to work together, when leaders take a “My way or the highway” approach and when so many red lines and inflexible preconditions are set that progress becomes impossible. Tensions rise and tempers fray.
Twenty years on from the establishment of this Parliament, I believe that we can do better than that. Brexit makes change for Scotland inevitable, but our fellow citizens will judge us on how we lead debate on the best way forward and the efforts that we make to come to a common mind about it. This place was established with the hope that it would be a new type of Parliament. I think that we are, but we can prove it anew by the way in which we respond today to the challenges that lie before us. We can show that we have already begun to learn not just the lessons from Westminster’s failure but those that Scotland has taught us as devolution has grown and strengthened. We can show that we are able to put the interests of the people first.
If others across the chamber are willing to move forward in that spirit, they will find in me an equally willing partner but, if all they have to offer the people of Scotland is a failed and damaging status quo, the process of change will pass them by and support for independence will continue to grow. It is time to look to Scotland’s future. Let us do so together, with confidence in the potential of our country and of all those who live here. I commend this statement to Parliament.
The First Minister will now take questions.
I begin by offering my condolences and those of all Scottish Conservatives to the family of Lyra McKee. Her death at the hands of the IRA is a tragedy and a waste of a talented young life. We all stand united to condemn the cowards who took her life and to ensure that peace prevails in Northern Ireland.
Following the shocks of Pittsburgh and Christchurch, we also yet again join all those who are appalled at the horrendous attack on Sri Lanka and give our sympathies to all those who have been horribly affected. It was an outrageous attack on us all. Perhaps the First Minister will confirm later whether we know of any Scottish citizens who were caught up in the events.
I turn to the substance of the statement. Whatever the First Minister claims, and for all the warm words about being inclusive, her statement is inherently divisive. Astonishingly, the First Minister thinks that the way in which we come together is for the people of Scotland to be plunged into another divisive referendum within the next 18 months. That is just absurd. It is a ridiculous and even disgraceful skewering of her priorities with the real priorities of the country. Frankly, when told of its delivery, as Scotland was enjoying the Easter celebration, my first reaction was to ask why on earth the First Minister felt it necessary to float a dark cloud over Scotland’s sunny spring by updating us on her plan for a second independence referendum. Then of course I remembered: there is another SNP conference coming this weekend.
The only thought of the SNP, which has been amplified today, is how to justify its plans to divide families, workplaces and communities all over again and for the foreseeable future. Well, that is not in the name of the majority of Scotland. Whether we voted to remain or leave in 2016, the past few weeks have fallen far short of what we all wanted to see. In a Westminster of minorities, competing interests have prevailed. There is of course a way to sort that: it is to respect the result of the 2016 referendum and support an orderly Brexit. I want that to happen, and I urge everyone at Westminster to work in a spirit of compromise and co-operation to achieve that. That way, the country can move on. Instead of that, however, today we see a First Minister who, once again, is focusing on her own priorities, rummaging around to create a shopping list of continued constitutional initiatives, however weak and divisive.
There is a big difference between now and 10 years ago. Then, the request for a section 30 order, which led to our once-in-a-lifetime independence referendum in 2014, was supported in this place with the votes of all the political parties here represented. We all agreed then that the question deserved to be answered. That was the process then.
No such coalition exists for more constitutional politics today. For the majority of Scotland, the last decade of constitutional politics and division has been more than enough. The majority of the parties here believe that by using the existing powers of this Parliament and the potential of our people, we can succeed. We believe in disavowing more constitutional division and focusing all our energy on things that we all agree are important: delivering better education, health and economic growth for Scotland now.
I am afraid that the depressing reality is this: independence, and the means to try to deliver it, is the SNP’s central purpose. For the SNP, it is a prerequisite—the essential step to Scotland being all that it can be. The SNP simply does not believe that we can succeed as we are. Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that again today. She baldly stated that the devolution settlement is, in her words, “utterly inadequate”.
No, First Minister, it is not. But that makes the choice clear. Scotland has had enough of constitutional politics and division. With the SNP, more of that is utterly and clearly inevitable. We say: no more. Enough is enough.
I fear that that was a lot of sound and fury, signifying not very much at all.
Jackson Carlaw referred to “a dark cloud”. May I point out to him that there is, right now, a dark cloud over Scotland? It is not in the name of the majority of the Scottish people, and devolution is incapable of protecting Scotland from it. That dark cloud is Brexit.
I can understand—I really can—why the Tories want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that this Brexit mess is not happening, because it shines a very, very harsh light on both the ideology and the incompetence of the Conservative Party, but it is not fair or good enough to expect Scotland to pretend that Brexit is not happening. Nor is it good enough for Jackson Carlaw to say, in effect, to Scotland, “Wheesht!” about it all, “Don’t say anything.”
Given the damage that all of us—even the Tories, in their hearts—know Brexit will do to this country, we have a duty to protect those of us who live in Scotland now and generations to come in Scotland from it and to find a way of building a future that is better and more prosperous and that keeps us at the heart of Europe. That is what my statement today is focused on doing.
Jackson Carlaw seems to be saying that there is nothing wrong with the status quo, although it has not protected and cannot protect Scotland from Brexit. Murdo Fraser seems to take a different view. Only a couple of days ago, he was saying that the current system has to change and was putting forward proposals for change—proposals that, as it happens, I do not agree with but, credit to him, they were proposals for change.
I will end my answer on a note of—again—attempted consensus. The Scottish Conservatives take the view—and I respect this—that independence is not the right way of fixing what is broken about our current system. If it is not, in their view, let them bring forward the proposals for change that they think are right. That is the open offer that we make to the Conservatives today. Over the days, weeks and months that lie ahead, we will find out whether the Conservatives really have any interest in protecting Scotland, or whether all that the Scottish Conservatives will ever do, when their Westminster bosses tell them to jump, is ask, “How high?”
I add the support of the Scottish Labour Party to the First Minister’s comments on the shooting of Lyra McKee and the Sri Lanka terror attacks.
Timing is everything in politics, and the timing of this statement is nothing to do with where we are in the chaos of Brexit. It has nothing to do with where the polls are on the creation of a separate Scottish state. In other words, it has nothing to do with where Abraham Lincoln’s “public sentiment” is on the falling demand for a rerun of the 2014 referendum. The timing of the statement has everything to do with the First Minister’s party conference taking place in just three days’ time. The First Minister is using this parliamentary platform as a party platform and, in doing that, she is devaluing the office that she holds.
Responsible political leadership means that I will work with the First Minister on stopping a no-deal Brexit. It means that in the event of Brexit, we will act to ensure that powers are repatriated to the right level of Government, and I will continue to argue for more powers for this Parliament. However, responsible leadership also means getting out of Parliament and listening to, and thereby better understanding, the daily lived experiences of people across Scotland.
The First Minister knows that this debate is a distraction from the real and serious problems that Scotland faces: a low-pay economy, exhausted public services and one in four children living in poverty. What is worse is that the First Minister knows fine well that there is no evidence whatsoever that the people of Scotland want another independence referendum, and that is no wonder when the chaos of Brexit throws into sharp relief the challenges of leaving a political and economic union.
Despite her protestations, is the First Minister today not plainly putting the interests of her party before the interests of this country?
On the issue of timing, I am prepared to bet that given that the European Council agreed an extension to the UK’s EU membership the week after this Parliament went into recess, if I had not offered to make a statement about the implications of Brexit, the Opposition would have been demanding that I did so. Equally, had I chosen to go to my party conference and say what I have just said here today, the Opposition would have been queuing up to accuse me of disrespecting Parliament. That is the reality.
On the substantive issues, as I said a moment ago, I understand why the Conservatives want to pretend that this Brexit mess is not happening. I do not understand why that is the case for Labour, and as an aside, nor will I ever understand why Labour seems to support independence for countries all over the world, but opposes it so strongly for its own country here in Scotland.
Where I agree with Richard Leonard is on two things. I absolutely agree about testing public opinion. Of course, the last test of public opinion in Scotland was a by-election in this city, just a week or so ago. The SNP won it with an increased vote, the Labour vote went down and independence-supporting parties won a majority of the vote. There are plenty of tests of public opinion that I am happy to trade with Richard Leonard.
The substantive issue of powers for this Parliament comes back to the heart of my premise today. Nobody with the interests of Scotland at heart—and I believe that that is everybody in this chamber—can look at the situation and conclude that it is working for Scotland. We face being taken out of the European Union against our will, with all of the consequences that flow from that. Surely, we must come together and decide what to do in response.
My view, as Richard Leonard and everybody knows, is that we should become a normal independent country like the other independent countries of the European Union, and come together to work with them on the basis of equality. If Richard Leonard believes that that is not the best future, he should come forward, not just with a vague call for more powers, but to sit and talk to us about the specific powers that we think that this Parliament should have. That offer is open to Richard Leonard, just as it is open to Jackson Carlaw and those in other parties in this chamber.
The question for the parties that oppose independence, as they have every right to do, is this: are they going to rise to the challenge of bringing forward real proposals about how we put things right and ensure that this country, in the future, cannot have decisions that damage our interests imposed on us by Westminster? That is the question, and we will see over the coming weeks whether other parties in this chamber can rise to that challenge.
With fellow members, the Scottish Greens pay our respects to Lyra McKee. Our thoughts are with her family and friends, and with all who have been affected by the shocking bombings in Sri Lanka.
Greens believe that Scotland’s future should be in the hands of Scotland, as an independent nation at the heart of Europe. The Brexit shambles confirms our belief that we would be far better off governing ourselves. Therefore, we welcome the First Minister’s statement today.
Support for independence grew over the course of the previous referendum campaign in part due to the breadth of inspiring visions of what our nation could be. The economic vision that is currently being considered by the Scottish National Party looks more like the failed model of the United Kingdom than the bold vision for independence that the Greens believe in. Therefore, my question to the First Minister is this: will the citizens assembly, which we welcome, inform the prospectus that is put forward by the Government in the referendum, and will the offer that is put to the people of Scotland be one that is shaped by the people of Scotland?
I welcome the support of the Greens for the statement today, and I welcome their support for Scotland becoming an independent country. Actually, what has just been demonstrated is the essence of independence. People can have different views on policies and on the direction of the country, but the key point that unites us is that those decisions should lie in the hands of the Scottish people and should not be imposed on us by Westminster. That is the reality that independent countries all over the world take for granted.
On the citizens assembly, as I said in my statement, we will discuss the remit and operation of that with other parties, if other parties are willing to have that discussion. That is very much about opening the process up to people who are not politicians—a representative section of the Scottish population who can start to consider these big questions about the future of our country. I hope that the Greens will take part in that in the spirit in which it is intended. The issues that we are discussing are not easy and there is no inevitability about them, but all of us—notwithstanding the differences of opinion that we have, which are valid in any democracy—can try to come together and see whether we can find areas of agreement and consensus.
Particularly now, given all that has happened in the past three years, there is a real responsibility on politicians not to put aside those things in which we believe passionately but to come together to find a consensus, notwithstanding those passionate disagreements. I am willing to do that, I trust the Greens will be willing to do that and I hope that, once they have had some opportunity to think about the proposal and reflect on it, the other parties will be willing to do that as well.
My thoughts are with the friends and family of Lyra McKee, and also those who have been affected by atrocities in recent days across the world.
The First Minister pleads for consensus, but how can we take seriously her proposals about consensus on the issue of more powers when John Swinney, who is sitting right next to her and who was a member of the Smith commission, trashed that commission within minutes of its report being published? How can we take seriously the SNP’s pleas for a consensus when it treats a well-established process like that?
In her statement today, the First Minister has not done the one decent thing that people in Scotland want her to do, which is to make it stop and take her campaign for independence off the table. With all the division and chaos of Brexit, with all the wounds still open from the previous independence campaign, with all the problems with schools, hospitals and social care, the last thing that this country needs is to repeat the mistakes of Brexit. The last thing that this country needs is more division and chaos, which is what would surely come with a new independence campaign. Will the First Minister listen to Scotland? Will she just make it stop?
The first part of Willie Rennie’s question was such an utter mischaracterisation of what John Swinney said and did that I will not engage seriously with it.
There is a contradiction—some would say “hypocrisy”, but I will stick with “contradiction”—at the heart of Willie Rennie’s position. I know that he opposes independence, and that is absolutely fine. The issue is not about his or my views but about who decides. Willie Rennie thinks that the people of the UK should have the chance to change their minds on Brexit, and I agree with that.
However, Willie Rennie is adamantly opposed—no matter all that has changed in the past few years—to the people of Scotland getting the chance to change their minds on independence. [Interruption.] Willie Rennie is saying that that is because he opposes independence and Brexit, but that is like a Brexiteer saying, “I don’t want people having a second referendum on Brexit, because they might take a decision that I disagree with.” Willie Rennie, the Brexiteer, strikes in this chamber. It is not about the views of politicians but those of the people. Until Willie Rennie can somehow reconcile the contradiction at the heart of his argument, I am not sure that many people in Scotland will take his views on that seriously.
I will repeat to Willie Rennie the offer that I have made to other parties. He does not think that independence is the right way forward, but—surely even more than Jackson Carlaw—he cannot defend the situation in which Scotland faces being ripped out of the European Union against our will.
Mike Rumbles is shouting, “Federalism”. Fine. He should come forward, sit down with us and let us discuss that. But do you know what? Federalism has been talked about in the UK for 100 years or more, and we have not yet found the UK Government that will deliver it. That is the difference between federalism and independence: federalism depends on a UK Government delivering it; independence depends on the people of Scotland taking that decision for themselves.
All the party leaders have had a chance to speak, so we now need to make speedy progress through the remaining 25 or so members who wish to ask a question. [Interruption.] Was that a groan? I call Keith Brown, to be followed by Adam Tomkins.
A former Tory MP made the statement that if a union of free members sought to punish one of its members for wanting to leave it, the union would lose its claim to moral legitimacy. A Tory minister said that, “Once you’ve hit the iceberg”—the iceberg being Brexit—“you’re all in it together.”
In that context, does the First Minister agree that Scotland has bigger things to deal with, and that the parties in this Parliament need to rise above the vicious and vacuous party in-fighting that we see at Westminster and the unfolding disaster of the UK Government’s handling of Brexit? Not least among the things to deal with are the stability and prosperity of Scotland and its future as an independent nation in the EU.
The comment from an unnamed Tory—I am not surprised that they were unnamed—that we should all hit the iceberg together says a lot about the mindset of the Conservatives with regard to Scotland. Nobody in the UK should want to hit an iceberg and, in Scotland, we should do everything that we can to prevent any part of the UK hitting one. However, if the only option is to hit an iceberg, we in Scotland should consider how to get off the boat, rather than sailing into it.
There is a view, which surely extends across all parties here, that we can do better than this right now. We might have different views on how to do it, but we should not accept the situation in which Scotland’s fate is decided by Westminster against the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland.
If those on the Tory benches—and Labour and Liberal Democrat members—believe that the Scottish people do not want independence, why are they so scared to ask them the question? That is the question. Let the Scottish people decide. If that were to be the case, I am confident that the Scottish people would decide for Scotland to be a normal, equal, independent country that is able to play its full part in the EU and stop the damage to this and future generations that Brexit will undoubtedly do.
The First Minister said that we will not squander valuable time. She also said that her Government will shortly introduce a framework bill to this Parliament, paving the way for an unwanted second independence referendum, and that her Government will do that without first seeking a section 30 order. As she said, a section 30 order would be necessary to put beyond doubt the legality of any future independence referendum, yet she proposes now to act without one.
Therefore, my question to her is: how is plunging Scotland into yet more constitutional wrangling about legislative competence and constitutional process a sensible use of parliamentary time? We lost weeks over the failed UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill. Now we face losing months over an indyref 2 framework bill. How is that doing anything other than squandering valuable time?
Adam Tomkins argued that the continuity bill was not within the legislative competence of this Parliament when it was introduced. The Supreme Court took a very different view. It was only because Westminster subsequently changed the law that parts of that bill were then found to be incompetent. For all his undoubted expertise on those matters, I am not sure that we should be listening too closely to Adam Tomkins on issues of legislative competence.
I have no doubt that the bill that we will propose will be within legislative competence. If there is to be an independence referendum, we require to legislate for that, as we did in 2014. In 2014, we got a section 30 and then we legislated. This time, I propose that we do it the other way around. Why are we doing that? So that we protect the ability of Scotland to avoid Brexit. If we cannot do that through our efforts to stop the whole of the UK leaving the EU, Scotland must have the opportunity to protect itself from the damage that Brexit will do—damage to our economy, to our public services and to the opportunities and horizons of this and future generations. I do not call that squandering time. I call that standing up for vital Scottish interests.
Not a single patient will be treated better or quicker as a result of the statement. Not a single family will be lifted out of poverty and not a single child will receive a better education—the issue that is supposed to be the First Minister’s top priority. We have powers over all those areas, so when will we hear a half-hour statement and see rushed legislation from Nicola Sturgeon on those issues? What has been sidelined from the planned legislative programme to deal with Nicola Sturgeon’s real priority of independence?
I will be here again tomorrow at 12 noon for 45 minutes, answering questions on health, education, justice, the economy or anything that the Opposition wants to ask me about.
I disagree with Neil Findlay on his central premise about the impact of the decisions that we take now on patients who rely on our NHS and on children who rely on our schools. If we allow the damage of Brexit to happen to this country, we will face a smaller economy, reduced revenues, a shrinking population and narrowed horizons for this and the next generation. That will hamper the ability, not just of this Scottish Government, but of Scottish Governments to come, to protect our health service, our economy and our public services. That is why we must act.
It is not this Government that needs to be reminded about the day job. We do that day in and day out. Substantial policy work means that more than a dozen substantial pieces of legislation are before this Parliament. By contrast, the Westminster Government has produced not one piece of non-Brexit legislation, the Queen’s speech is indefinitely postponed and the only policy idea of recent times—the one about no-fault evictions and housing—the Scottish Government has already implemented. We get on with the day job every single day and we will continue to do so.
As the First Minister mentioned, the Westminster system is so broken that even Murdo Fraser admitted this week that big parts of it should be abolished. Given that most of this chamber will be in agreement that the current system is not working for Scotland, does that not demonstrate how important it is for all parties to come forward with ideas on how to fix it?
Yes, it does.
There will be a lot of sound and fury in this chamber about these issues today, tomorrow and no doubt on many occasions. In a democracy, that is as it should be. However, I repeat the point that I made in my statement. We also have a duty to try to come together to get over those disagreements and to see whether there is common ground. It will be very telling in the next days and weeks whether any of the other parties are prepared to do that. The offer is there; it is open and sincere. The other parties should bring forward their proposals. If they think that my prospectus for Scotland is wrong, they should bring forward their proposals and let us see how much common ground can emerge from that.
However, if all they have to offer people in Scotland is a broken status quo in which Scotland can be ripped out of the EU against our will with all the damage that that does, they should expect the process of change to pass them by completely, because support for independence will continue to grow.
The First Minister mentioned in her statement the 62 per cent of Scots who voted for the UK to remain in the EU, a figure that she describes as an “overwhelming majority”. The latest poll on support for independence, commissioned by her party colleague Angus Robertson, shows that an even more overwhelming majority of Scots support the union and reject independence. Given that the First Minister is previously on record as saying that she would not pursue another referendum unless there was demonstrable public support for independence, why is she now proposing to take us down the route of further division?
The party manifesto in 2016, on which I was elected as First Minister, said that if Scotland was taken out of the European Union against our will, the people of Scotland should have the option to choose independence. We are not yet out of the European Union and I hope that we will not be taken out of the European Union, but if we are, then, in my view, the mandate in that manifesto should be honoured and people in Scotland should have the right to choose. If Murdo Fraser is so sure that Scotland would choose not to be independent, that again begs the question that I asked earlier: why are the Tories so reluctant to allow people in Scotland to have that choice?
I have mentioned Murdo Fraser a couple of times today and I will praise him again, which would be utter death to his career prospects if they had not probably pretty much died some time ago. However, I give credit to Murdo Fraser because he accepts that things as they are are not acceptable—they are not good enough. As it happens, I do not think that his proposal, which is to put more powers in some new chamber in Westminster, is the answer. I think that the answer is to bring powers to this chamber in Scotland. That is fine; we have different views.
However, given that Murdo Fraser accepts that constitutional change is needed, I hope that he will persuade his party to take part in the process that I have set out today and come forward with its own proposals—the one that Murdo Fraser has already put forward and others. In that way, perhaps we can build some consensus on how this Parliament can be equipped with powers that allow us to grow our economy, better protect our public services and, crucially, grow our population, because the Tory approach to migration at Westminster is the biggest threat to this country’s prosperity that we face. I hope that Murdo Fraser will prevail in his party for once and get some common sense into them over the next period.
In 2014, Ruth Davidson said:
“It’s disingenuous to say No means out and Yes means in, when actually the opposite is true. No means we stay in. We are members of the European Union.”
First Minister, that has been shown to be completely untrue. Is it not the case that we simply cannot stand by and watch the dysfunctional Westminster system ruin Scotland’s future?
The reality that those who were in the no campaign in 2014 do not like to have pointed out to them is that they told Scotland that the way to protect our membership of the European Union was to vote against independence, yet here we are, finding that, because we are not independent, we face being taken out of the European Union and that our future is being determined by a dozen countries that are of the same size or smaller than us, with the UK out of the room. That is the reality that we face.
Adam Tomkins is not listening right now, but it was he who said, in 2014, that there was very little chance of the UK voting to leave the European Union. That is the “material change” in circumstances that has happened since 2014, and that is why people in Scotland should have the ability to choose whether they want to be part of Brexit Britain, with all the damage that comes with that, or whether they prefer to have a future as an independent country that is part of the European family, building those relationships on the basis of equality and building our prosperity on that basis, as well. I think that, given the choice, the people of Scotland will choose the latter—to become a normal independent country.
The First Minister cannot ask for genuine dialogue when she is already setting out her direction of travel. This is a “My way or the highway” statement. She cannot expect people to engage in honest dialogue in a citizens assembly when she has already stated that she will hold an independence referendum before the end of the parliamentary session. She is ignoring the settled will of the Scottish people and creating further chaos and uncertainty. Will she remove that threat in order to allow all parties to engage openly and honestly on what is best for our country?
I will respond to Rhoda Grant in a very genuine way. If she had listened to my statement, she would have heard me say—I will say it again—that, if we are to protect Scotland’s option to choose, we have to put the plans for that in place in this parliamentary term. That is why I have set out the plans for legislation today.
I have also openly invited other parties to come forward with their proposals. If we could agree on change that could be made more quickly and in a different way, I would be open minded on that. That offer is made in a genuine way, and it is for the other parties to decide whether they wish to engage with it. I hope that the Labour Party will do so, but I am less confident about the Tories. I am pretty confident that the Greens will engage with us, and I hope that the Liberal Democrats will do so, as well.
In a democracy, we should not expect any of us to put to one side or abandon the principles that we hold dear. However, notwithstanding those deeply held convictions and the differences between us, the public should expect us, as politicians, to try to come together to see where the common ground is. I am willing to do that, but we will make progress on that only if the other parties are also willing, so time will tell.
Will the First Minister confirm that the significant point in her very welcome announcement is that, while we await any remote sense of clarity on Brexit from the Tory UK Government at Westminster, in contrast, here at Holyrood, we can begin preparations now for a referendum on Scotland’s future, in order to keep our options open? Would a sensible and reasonable Government of any persuasion not do so in any such circumstances?
It is incumbent on any Government to act in a way that best protects the interests of the country that it serves, and my Government will continue to seek to do so. The Brexit situation is not of the Government’s choosing—or of the choosing of the Parliament or, indeed, the country—but we have to respond to it in a way that protects our interests as best we can, and what I have set out today does that. It keeps open the option of this country’s having the right to choose, within this session of Parliament, a different future to that offered by Brexit, in line with the mandate that we have. It also opens up space for others to come forward with different suggestions. I hope that all of us in the Parliament will move forward on that basis.
The First Minister wants to establish a citizens assembly to help us to find consensus. Does she really think that that is possible when her nationalist agenda is driven by grievance and division?
I have to say that a sense of “grievance and division” dripped from every syllable that came out of Maurice Golden’s mouth there.
Over the next period, we will find out whether there is any willingness on the part of all the parties in the chamber to try to find agreement. I am willing to do that, and, as I have said many times before, the offer to other parties is there. All parties should be enthusiastic about the prospect of a citizens assembly and should be prepared to discuss the details of it, because it will involve people from across Scotland helping us to shape the decisions that we take on behalf of the country.
Notwithstanding the tone of that question, I hope that, when the Conservatives have had the time for calm reflection and have got over having to talk again about Brexit—which I know they hate so much, for obvious reasons—we will find them, Labour and the Liberal Democrats coming to the table to see whether we can find common ground amid the disagreements that we have.
Unlike some others, I very much welcome the proposal for a citizens assembly. I echo the comment of an Irish citizen, who said that having such an assembly
“got balanced and truthful information out among the people of Ireland”.
Can the First Minister assure Parliament that that will be the case with the citizens assembly in Scotland and that lessons will be learned on how not to conduct ourselves in the way that has been demonstrated so disastrously by Brexiteers in the collapsing Westminster system?
Yes, I give those assurances. We will seek to discuss with others, and with the Parliament as a whole, the remit and the operation of the citizens assembly.
It will not surprise the Parliament to hear that I think that the experience of the 2014 referendum was very different from the experience of the 2016 referendum. We had a prospectus that people agreed or disagreed with, but people had a wealth of detail with which to inform themselves before the decision was taken in 2014. That detail was completely absent from the Brexit referendum.
I think that we can go even further and use a citizens assembly, among other things, to really understand the detail and the information that people want to have in order to make truly informed choices about the future of the country, as well as to lay a foundation so that, whatever decisions we ultimately take as a country, people feel a sense of engagement and buy-in, so that we can move forward in a unified manner.
It is about trying to do things in a markedly different way from the whole Brexit process, which has caused so much division and angst. I think that we can rise to that challenge in Scotland, and I hope that all parties will help us to ensure that we do.
People in Scotland do not want a second independence referendum. Why is the First Minister making the pursuit of independence her number 1 priority when there are record numbers of children in poverty, when people are working in two or three jobs because of low pay and when patients are stranded on national health service waiting lists, waiting for treatment?
James Kelly asserts that people in Scotland do not want the choice of independence instead of Brexit. I just do not think that he has the evidence for that claim.
He also asks me why I think that that choice is important when children are living in poverty. An increasing number of children are living in poverty because of the welfare cuts that are being imposed by a Tory Government that Scotland did not vote for. That is one reason for independence. He talks about people on low pay. Of course, employment law remains reserved to a Government in Westminster that the people of Scotland did not vote for. Bringing powers back to this Parliament is how, or partly how, we will resolve and address the challenges that James Kelly has outlined.
Although James Kelly and his colleagues do not support independence, I hope that, in the spirit of the question that he has just asked me, we will see Labour come forward with proposals. It has said—I have already welcomed this today—that it now favours the devolution of employment law. If it had favoured that during the Smith commission, we might already be some way forward on that. Nevertheless, let us hear more proposals from Labour, and we might find that there is actually more agreement between the SNP and Labour than any of us likes to admit.
For the Labour Party’s supporters, seeing it side with the SNP on a few things would make a welcome change from seeing it side with the Tories on most things.
Even many Tories are alarmed at the prospect of an extreme Brexiteer such as Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister. Is that not another example of why it is essential that this Parliament keep Scotland’s options open in the face of a clearly broken Westminster system that could inflict even more damage?
When I set out the implications and consequences of Brexit for Scotland, I did not factor in the prospect of somebody like Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister. If that happens—there is apparently now a distinct possibility of its happening—the consequences that I outlined today would get even worse for Scotland. Yes—I do think that that makes the case for Scotland being independent, taking charge of our own decisions and being in control of our own future all the stronger.
Interestingly, I have read voices from within the Scottish Conservative Party saying that, in the event of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister, the Scottish Conservative Party should become independent from the UK Conservative Party. It seems that independence is good enough for the Scottish Conservative Party. Why on earth would it want to deny the people of Scotland the same opportunity?
Given that the Brexit vote will lead to more powers being transferred to this Parliament and in light of the fact that the Scottish Government is not using all the powers that it already has—for example, it has handed back welfare powers to the Department for Work and Pensions—how can the First Minister seriously contend that the status quo is broken and one answer is further devolution?
Powers have been taken away from the Parliament as a result of the Brexit process. Frankly, it ill behoves the Tories to deny that that is the case; with the exception of the Tories, the Parliament was unanimous in opposing that Brexit power grab. I take the view that we should have more powers in this Parliament so that we can take our own decisions, which is better than having those powers in the hands of Conservatives who Scotland, by and large, does not vote for. I hope that we will hear proposals to that effect from the Scottish Conservatives.
In its desperation to stay in power, the Westminster Government has proved itself to be profoundly unworthy of trust in negotiation. Considering the recent direct attacks on devolution and the deep inadequacies of the joint ministerial council structure, what safeguards and conditions has the Scottish Government considered to ensure that talks with the UK Government are conducted reasonably, respectfully and without the risk of undermining Scotland’s interests?
Right now, there are no assurances of that, I am sorry to say. I do not want to speak for the Welsh First Minister, but I am pretty sure that he and his predecessor would say the same thing: we can have talks with the UK Government until we are blue in the face, but it does not listen and it does not act in a way that protects or advances Scotland’s interests. That is an example of the democratic deficit that I spoke about. The views on Brexit of not just the Scottish people but the Scottish Parliament and the views on the best way forward of not just the Government but a cross-party consensus in the Parliament have been cast aside. In my view, that has underlined and illustrated strongly the need for the Parliament to have more powers, to have more control over the decisions that shape our future and ultimately, of course, to be an independent country.
The First Minister has confirmed that, if Scotland is taken out of the EU by a failed Westminster system, we will progress to an independence referendum before the end of the parliamentary session in 2021. How will she take forward the mandate that was given to the Government in 2016 to ensure that Scotland can vote to secure its re-emergence as an independent sovereign state?
As I have set out in my statement today, we will introduce legislation to protect the right for Scotland to have that choice within this parliamentary session. At an appropriate time, we will seek the transfer of power from Westminster that would allow us to apply it to a choice on independence. Whatever our views on independence, the fundamental point is this: if Scotland is faced, as it is, with Brexit against its will, Scotland should have the choice as to whether it wants that or to choose the alternative of being a sovereign independent country that is able to play full part in the European Union. That is the fundamental issue here. It should not be for any of us in the Parliament to determine that issue; it should be for the people of Scotland.
The First Minister has said that she is open minded and looking to build consensus and agreement. If she is genuine in her sentiments, will she be open to dropping this bid for a second independence referendum during this parliamentary session?
I have said that I am open minded to people coming forward with proposals for change. If we can have serious and substantial proposals that deliver perhaps not all the change that I want to see but change that will help to protect the Parliament, I am open minded on that. I say that without preconditions. The onus is on the Conservatives; will they come forward in good faith and have that discussion? If they do, they will find me willing to have that discussion in good faith.
It is less than five years since I spent weeks on the Smith commission engaging in good faith with all the parties here to find agreement on constitutional and procedural change. That agreement included significant tax and welfare powers, yet the First Minister has handed some of those powers back and refused to use others to tackle poverty and inequality. If she can organise another independence referendum by 2021, why will it take until 2022 to pay low-income families the income supplement that she promised them? Should she not rise to the challenge of using the powers that we all agreed in 2014 before we trust her to sit down and discuss what new powers we might need and want now?
We will bring forward our proposals on the low-income supplement in June, which is what we said we would do. It does not do Iain Gray’s case any good for him to stand up and say that we have handed powers back when that is not true. There are carers across Scotland right now who have extra money in their pockets because of our use of welfare powers. There are low-income families who are getting the best start grant when they have a child because of our use of the welfare powers, and the process of completing that will benefit low-income individuals and families the length and breadth of the country.
Labour has changed its mind since the Smith commission met. In the Smith commission, Labour firmly opposed the devolution of employment law, but it has now changed its mind, which I welcome. We are in changed circumstances. One of the biggest risks that our country now faces is Westminster policy on immigration, which threatens to put—[Interruption.] Someone is saying “Tory policy”, but Jeremy Corbyn seems to agree with Theresa May on ending free movement. That will send our population into decline. We are in different circumstances, and that is why we have to look afresh at the powers that our Parliament has. I believe Labour when it says that it has ideas on that, so let us bring forward those ideas and see what consensus we are able to build.
As the First Minister will be aware, the desire for independence is born not out of Brexit alone but out of anger at decisions that are taken at Westminster by a Government that we did not elect and which are increasing poverty, food bank use and inequality in Scotland. Does she agree that it is those issues, along with Brexit, that underlie the need for Scotland to have all the powers to end poverty and for Scotland to be independent?
Yes, I agree very strongly. Brexit has illustrated many of those points sharply and it has illustrated the democratic deficit whereby Scotland can vote overwhelmingly to stay in the EU and yet still face being removed, with all the consequences that flow from that.
The essence of independence is not just about Brexit but about putting decisions about the future of our country into the hands of people who live here in Scotland. That is what happens in countries all over the world and that is what should happen in Scotland, too, so that we can work with other countries in the British isles on the basis of equality but not have decisions that damage children and the interests of this country imposed on us by Westminster. That is why I want Scotland to become an independent country.
In her statement, the First Minister said very clearly that the politics of Brexit have been highly divisive. Does she accept that one reason for that division is the fact that the public feel that the result of their vote has not been implemented, and does she accept that the First Minister would be falling into exactly the same trap by running a second independence referendum to try to overrule what was a very decisive vote in 2014?
I am slightly confused by Liz Smith’s question when she says that, because we have not yet left the EU, the decision of the country has not been implemented. The decision of Scotland, which is the country that all of us in the Parliament are here to represent, was to remain in the EU. So far, that decision is being implemented and I hope that it continues to be so.
A legitimate point that I have heard the Conservatives, including Liz Smith, make many times is that, although the majority in Scotland voted to remain in the EU, more than 30 per cent voted to leave the EU and we should do more to understand and respect that. I agree, and that is a responsibility that is on all of us. However, I never hear the Tories say that there is a need to understand the 45 per cent who voted for Scottish independence, and the growing number of people who, in the light of Brexit, want Scotland to be independent. Things have changed, and they have not changed for the better for Scotland in the UK. That is why it is right to look again at the powers of the Parliament. It is right to become an independent country, to give people in Scotland that choice, and not simply to sit back passively while Brexit—a policy that we did not vote for—does untold damage to the interests of the country now and for many decades to come.
I welcome the First Minister’s proposal for a citizens assembly. I believe that it is a concept that could have a wider applicability in the future. What steps will the Scottish Government take to ensure that the assembly captures the widest possible range of voices from within Scotland—particularly from minority communities and communities of disadvantage and poverty, whose voices are all too often not heard loud enough in the debates that we have in the chamber and in the country as a whole?
That is an important point to raise. By its very nature, the citizens assembly model works when it is as representative of the country as possible. It is important to stress that that does not simply mean being representative of the different sides of a constitutional argument: it means being representative of the glorious diversity of the country. That will be an important part in constituting the citizens assembly.
I do not want to say any more about the detail, because it is important that we take time to discuss with other parties and stakeholders how it will best be taken forward, but I give an assurance that that diversity will be very much at the heart of what we seek to do.
Ever since it was announced that the First Minister would be making this important statement, the Tory and Labour parties have been squawking about the Government getting on with the day job. For the avoidance of doubt, will the First Minister set out what actions the Government is taking to deliver for the people of Scotland?
We do the day job every single day. This month alone, we have extended free personal care to the under-65s, we have introduced the new ground-breaking and world-leading Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, we have signed contracts on the Laurencekirk junction and the Maybole bypass, and we have invested millions of pounds in schemes to tackle fuel poverty and to fund low-carbon initiatives. In recent days, we have invested money to make sure that children do not go hungry during the school holidays. Just this week, I think, we extended free tuition to European students who live in Scotland. The list goes on and on. Getting on with the day job is our responsibility: we will continue to discharge our responsibilities day to day.
The debate today, however, is in fact about the day job. When you listen to the Tories, Labour and the Liberals, it is almost as though they think that we should be oblivious to the Brexit juggernaut that is coming towards us. Our sitting passively and allowing it to hit us will have implications for our economy, our population and our revenues. All that, and the ability of this and future Scottish Governments to do the day job effectively, will be affected. It is very important that we do not let that happen, and that we allow people in Scotland the choice to have a better and more prosperous future.
On getting on with the day job, a few weeks ago we learned that Scotland’s police officers are chasing criminals in cars held that are together with duct tape. [Interruption.] Why is—[Interruption.]
Why is endless constitutional wrangling—and using resources to draft legislation that might not even be competent and which hinges on an event that might not even occur—more important to the First Minister than resourcing police constables on the front line?
This Government is increasing the police budget. We have just agreed a pay award for our police officers, which is—according to the Scottish Police Federation—the best police pay award in Scotland in 20 years. The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London described the UK Government’s pay award to its police officers as
“a punch on the nose”.
There is a bit of contrast for Liam Kerr.
It is not this Government that needs to be reminded about the day job. At Westminster right now—this is a point that the Tories should reflect on—there is not a single piece of non-Brexit legislation before the House of Commons. There is no policy agenda on any issue except Brexit, and they are making a complete and utter hash of it. The Queen’s speech will apparently not happen, because the Tories do not think that they can get it through the House of Commons. By contrast, we have a policy reform programme under way, and a dozen or more pieces of substantial legislation before the Scottish Parliament.
We will get on with delivering on health, education, the economy and justice. We will also do everything that we can to protect the interests of Scotland from the actions of the incompetent Tory Westminster Government.
There is a contradiction in the First Minister’s statement. She talks about there being so much division over Brexit. Does she recognise that, for many, that was the experience and the legacy of the 2014 referendum? When there is little appetite in the country for another referendum in this session of Parliament, is she really prepared to cause greater division in our public discourse by pursuing the bill?
That was not my experience of the 2014 referendum. [Interruption.] I accept that other people feel differently. [Interruption.] Somebody is saying that that is because others were on the receiving end of abuse. One need only to go to my social media accounts to see that I am daily on the receiving end of a fair amount of abuse.
What is more important is this: all of us should try to do things better, differently and in a way that accentuates agreement rather than disagreement. The answer to worrying about division or disagreement cannot be simply to ignore the Brexit juggernaut or to suppress the differences of opinion about the future of the country. The answer has to be for all of us to rise to the challenge—to confront the challenges that our country faces in a more unified way. That is why I have made my offer today. I hope that people such as Claire Baker in the Labour Party—who I know wants to consider how we might do things more consensually—will prevail on her party leadership to enter those discussions in the spirit in which they are offered.
The First Minister may have seen comments from the Prime Minister’s office today that crumbling Westminster has
“bigger things to deal with”
than Scotland. Will the First Minister join me in reaffirming that the interests of Scotland are—and always will be—at the top of the SNP’s agenda?
I have to say that I have some sympathy with the Prime Minister and the UK Government, because there is no denying that the utter mess that they have made of Brexit is a pretty big thing for them to have to deal with. They are certainly not dealing with anything else in the UK—whether in health, education, justice, the economy or anything else. It is a big thing for them to deal with.
However, if I was in the Scottish Tories, I would be despairing at that comment from this morning, because it drips with contempt for Scotland and for the idea that Scotland might not be entirely happy with the direction in which we are being taken by this Brexit-obsessed UK Tory Government. That is a big problem for the Tories, because it backs up the experience that we have had over these past three years, which is that the Tories want Scotland just to wheesht, keep quiet and go along with whatever they want. I do not think that that is right for Scotland. That is the difference between those of us in the SNP and the Conservatives. We think that Scotland should stand up for its own interests and that Scotland should have the right to choose its own future.
The First Minister asked the question: if the status quo is not fit for purpose, how do we fix it? Does the First Minister not understand that the Liberal Democrats and others in this chamber support a renewed federal democracy for our United Kingdom, and that her insistence on legislating with the aim of breaking up and dividing our United Kingdom totally undermines her siren calls for reaching agreement with other parties across the chamber?
I accept and respect the longstanding view of the Liberals on federalism. I often wonder why, when the Liberals were in Government at Westminster in recent years, they did not lift a finger to deliver the federal Britain that they claim to back.
I am absolutely willing to sit down with any party in this chamber to talk about our different visions for how we fix what is wrong with our current system. However, the question for those who propose federalism is where is the UK Government that will deliver it? We cannot unilaterally turn the UK into a federal country; it would require the UK Government to act, and no UK Government in the history of the UK has shown any interest in delivering a federal Britain.
The difference with independence is that it is within our control. If the people of Scotland choose to be independent, we do not have to rely on a Westminster Government; it is a decision that we can take for ourselves. Therefore, I will leave Mike Rumbles to continue to beaver away, trying to—at some point—persuade a UK Government to deliver federalism. If he ever manages it, I will be the first to congratulate him.
I welcome the orderly and inclusive path towards a second independence referendum that has been outlined this afternoon. Given that deprived areas tend to have lower electoral turnouts, will the First Minister consider the opportunities that a citizens assembly may present to boost democratic participation in some of our most deprived communities?
Yes. It is not the case that we have no experience of the citizens assembly model in Scotland—the work that we did in advance of establishing Social Security Scotland used a not dissimilar model, although we do not have the same experience as Ireland, for example. I believe that the model could be powerful in engaging people in all our communities in the democratic process and in how they can influence that democratic process, which is one of the reasons why I look forward to discussing with parties how we take it forward.
The First Minister talked about a busy legislative programme. If she wants the framework bill to be on the statute books this year, as she says she does, there is bound to be an effect on that programme. Which bills or proposed bills are likely to be delayed?
I do not expect it to have an effect on any of the other bills that are before the Scottish Parliament. I am sure that all MSPs across the Parliament are capable of working hard enough to deliver the legislative programme that is before us with another bill added in.