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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 29 May 2019

Agenda: Next Steps in Scotland’s Future, Portfolio Question Time, Wind Turbine Construction (Fife), Business Motion, Decision Time, Expanding Scotland’s Railways


Next Steps in Scotland’s Future

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The first item of business is a statement by Michael Russell, on the next steps in Scotland’s future. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

The Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations (Michael Russell)

Much has happened since late April, when the First Minister set out the Scottish Government’s view of the continuing Brexit chaos and of the measures that this Government must bring forward to protect the people of this country.

Last Thursday, Scotland said, loudly and clearly, that it is a European nation and it intends to remain one. It also rejected all attempts to deflect that argument with spurious assertions about other matters and showed its contempt for equivocation.

Elections can be brutal judgments on parties and politicians. This one certainly was. Elections can also be fresh starts. If all the parties in this chamber are willing to hear the clear voice of Scotland, I believe that we can find a way to put behind us the divisions of Brexit and move forward together. That is what this statement is about.

On 11 April, when the European Union threw the United Kingdom a lifeline so that it could avoid a no-deal Brexit, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, said to Westminster:

“Please do not waste this time”.

He has been ignored. Not only has nothing happened to resolve the Brexit impasse, the stalemate looks like lasting for several more months whilst ever more extreme Tory members of Parliament vie with each other to present the most hard-line positions to their party faithful.

The Tories are heading for a no-deal Brexit, and some positively welcome that disastrous direction of travel. A Boris Johnson premiership is no longer a bad joke; it is a frightening possibility. Substitute Raab, or Leadsom or Gove or Hancock, or McVey, or any of the others, for Johnson and the situation is no better. Most are heading, with pleasure, to the cliff edge, but Scotland must not be forced to go with them against our will.

So let me at the outset make one thing very clear to the Tories at Westminster and the Tories in this chamber. The Scottish National Party manifesto on which we won the Holyrood election in 2016, and on which this Government is founded, said that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum

“if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”

Any deal that takes Scotland out of the EU against the wishes of the majority of people in Scotland has that effect. That is what people voted for when they voted the SNP into Government.

If a new Tory prime minister attempts a no-deal Brexit, although we will do everything possible to stop it, and everything we can to mitigate it, it will be yet further proof that the conditions set out in our manifesto in April 2016 have been met in full, and there will be even greater urgency to give Scotland the choice of a different future.

The Scottish Government and the SNP at Westminster will continue to do all that we can to stop Brexit for the whole UK. In particular, we will continue to support a second referendum on EU membership, a position that received widespread support on Thursday. However, time is running out. The third anniversary of the Brexit referendum will be with us in less than a month. The accelerating shambles has caused and is causing real damage to Scotland’s economy and social fabric.

The assumption that a UK Government and a UK Parliament would or could in any way do better for Scotland than our own independent institutions has been finally and completely destroyed.

There must be—and there is—a better way forward, and that is for Scotland to become an independent European nation. As we seek that way forward, we must try to build as much consensus as we can.

One thing that we have learned from Brexit is that there is a need for reconciliation and the bringing together of different views. The current Prime Minister did none of that when in office, and the baleful result is there for all to see. We must try to break the current logjam with the power of fresh ideas.

To do that, we must approach our collective national future in a spirit of openness and acceptance that we all want the best for our country. We must be mindful, not just of those who won but of those who lost, not just this week, or even in 2016, but in 2014 too. It will not be easy, but at least we start the process with a high degree of consensus on the basic fact: the Westminster system is broken and there is no mending of it in sight.

Last month, the First Minister said that we must reach out and be inclusive, and our approach to the three tasks that we are now taking forward has been, and is, just that.

First, as context, I can confirm that despite the chaos that we witness in Whitehall, my colleagues and I will continue to attend intergovernmental meetings with UK and Welsh—and hopefully soon Northern Irish—counterparts. The destination that the Scottish Government wishes for this country is independence, but as we travel towards that, we have a role in helping to improve the structures under which we presently live and work.

In the past two years, I have often quoted the terms of reference of the joint ministerial committee (EU negotiations). They have consistently and fundamentally been ignored by the UK Government, and that strategy was—I believe—at the express wish of the current Prime Minister, and was imposed upon her ministers at every level and every turn. She had—and continues to have—no interest in seeing the devolved settlement observed.

Now that she is going, that must change; there must be a new, meaningful respect for our position and for the responsibilities that are ours as of right. There needs to be a clear and urgent timetable for the current intergovernmental review, which must secure a legal underpinning to the relationship, and the UK Government must commit to respecting the legislative consent mechanism, rather than ignoring it. Those matters will be discussed at the next JMC(EN), which is due before the end of June. We must see significant progress on them, if those meetings are to have any future purpose.

That is about the journey. Let us now turn to the destination and the three areas of activity that the First Minister set out in her April statement.

First, the Referendums (Scotland) Bill was introduced to the Parliament yesterday and has been published this morning. It is hoped that the bill will have completed its parliamentary progress by the end of this calendar year. As the First Minister said in April, it is the intention of the Scottish Government to offer the people of Scotland a choice on independence later in the term of this Parliament. Of course, should circumstances change, we would have the option of seeking Parliament’s agreement to proceed on an accelerated timetable.

The bill provides a legal framework for holding referendums on matters that are now, or in future, within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. The rules it sets out are of the highest standards and will ensure that the results are widely and internationally accepted. It brings Scotland into line with the UK, where there is already standing legislation for referenda through the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, which Westminster passed in 2000.

As the First Minister indicated in her statement, at a future date, we intend to negotiate with the UK Government for a section 30 order to put beyond doubt our competence to hold a referendum on independence. When the framework is used in those, or any other circumstances, a separate vote at a future date will allow members to consider the specific topic and approve the question.

The proposed franchise will be based on that used for local government and Scottish Parliament elections, which includes EU citizens and 16 and 17-year-olds. It will be updated to incorporate future extensions to the franchise. I have previously set out my intention to extend the franchise for Scottish Parliament and local government elections to all people legally resident in Scotland, whatever their nationality. Those proposals will be brought forward shortly. Given the disastrous and shameful experience of many EU citizens last Thursday, it is now obvious that that is the only way to secure the democratic rights of every citizen.

I look forward to working with other parties at all stages of the parliamentary process.

Secondly, on cross-party talks about the broken Westminster system and the future needs and direction of Scotland, I welcome the commitment from Labour and the Greens to explore what might be possible. I hope that the other parties who have not yet responded will now confirm that they wish to do so. I have suggested using an independent interlocutor who would talk to parties separately to gather views and create an agenda and format for the talks. That would take the pressure out of the process and allow better engagement, without any hangover from past discussions. I intend to start a first round next month and to build on that, if the other parties are willing.

Those talks are without preconditions, and I commit myself and the Scottish Government to constructive engagement in them. I know that wider civic Scotland is keen to be involved, and I will work with the parties to consider how that might be possible.

Finally, we have made considerable progress on the creation of a citizens assembly. Two weeks ago, I visited Ireland, where I met some of the key people responsible for its constitutional convention and citizens assembly. I am meeting a range of experts from this country and overseas in order to further inform our own planning.

There is already a lot of interest in and enthusiasm for the assembly. I hope that all parties will welcome and become involved in the initiative, as was the case in Ireland. In order to help members to engage more, I have arranged for the secretaries of the Irish initiatives to come to Scotland on 19 June to speak to members of the Scottish Parliament and others. That will include a briefing session for party leaders or their nominees. At and after the meetings on 19 June, I would want all parties to offer their thoughts and suggestions.

I hope to be able to announce an independent chair and the formation of an expert steering group in the coming weeks and to confirm the timetable and the process for formulating the precise issues for deliberation when we return in September. We intend to hold the first session of the assembly in the autumn and to have all five or six sessions completed by next spring.

In conclusion, as we take forward a range of activities based upon consensus and compromise, we will be endeavouring to get away from the negativity and nastiness of the current Brexit process. Scotland deserves—and this week has clearly demanded—better. We must create a country in which we all feel that we have gained something worth having and where we all feel part of a shared national endeavour, regardless of the particular side of the argument that we come from. That is the spirit that imbued the First Minster’s statement in April and which the Scottish Government is determined to carry forward. I hope that we can do so together. That is the fresh start the people of Scotland have offered to us. We should all grasp it with both hands.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement. I intend to allow about 20 minutes for questions.

Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

I thank the minister for early sight of his statement.

In a week in which new figures show that more patients than ever are waiting more than 12 weeks for treatment in Scotland’s national health service, we might have expected a ministerial statement on the Scottish National Party’s mishandling of the health service, but, no—here we are again, talking about Nicola Sturgeon’s pet obsession with independence, and this is only a few days after she said that a vote for the SNP in last week’s European election was not a vote for independence. She must think that our heads button up the back.

First, although there is a case for standing legislation on the conduct of, and the campaign rules for, referendums, the bill goes much further than that. Under the bill, the SNP ministers will have the power to set any referendum question at any time on any matter of their choosing. Ministers, not Parliament, will set the question, pick the date and determine the campaign period. Further, if they change their minds, ministers, not Parliament, can then change any of those rules. The bill is not about the democracy of letting the people decide in a lawful referendum; it is about the diktat of ministers. Even the powers of the Electoral Commission to scrutinise proposed referendum questions will be diminished in comparison with the position in United Kingdom law. Why should ministers, not Parliament, determine these matters?

Secondly, can the minister tell us whether referendums under the bill will have to be binary—yes/no; leave/remain—or whether multi-question and multi-choice referendums could be established?

I agree with the minister that Scottish independence could be established only by a referendum. Clearly, we could not have independence without a lawful referendum. However, what are the other matters that the SNP ministers are proposing to put to a referendum? They claim that the bill is a framework bill for referendums in general. I suspect that it is no such thing and that, in reality, it is a Trojan horse for a wildcat indyref 2. However, the minister could prove me wrong. What are the other issues—besides independence—that he intends to put to the people in a referendum?

Michael Russell

There were a number of questions there, and I will do my best to answer them.

On the issue of priorities, my friend the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is working hard on the health service, and some of the results of that are clear. Scotland’s core accident and emergency services are the best performing in the United Kingdom—that has been the case for almost four years. We have record highs in health funding and patient satisfaction; NHS staffing is up by over 13,600, or 10.7 per cent, under the SNP; and patient safety is massively increased. Further, 5.1 million people are now registered with an NHS dentist. Of course, work continues, but that record is a good one.

Let me move on to the question of the First Minister apparently attempting to achieve the referendum by stealth. Not only did the First Minister announce her intention to take forward this bill on 24 April, but she was so stealthy about it that she sent a card to every household in Scotland—every single one—that said:

“We’ll offer people a choice of a future for Scotland as an independent, European nation.”

How stealthy was that? [Interruption.] A stealth referendum. [Interruption.] Absolutely. How stealthy was that?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Can we calm down a bit, please, if we wish to listen to the cabinet secretary?

Michael Russell

How stealthy it was to send a message to every household in Scotland—[Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Excuse me, Mr Russell. It is very difficult for anyone to hear anything except front-bench members shouting at each other.

Michael Russell

Thank you very much, Presiding Officer.

Let me address the issues that Mr Tomkins raised about the bill. Mr Tomkins is a constitutional lawyer, and he therefore understands that, at Westminster as here, the Government proposes and Parliament scrutinises and decides. That is exactly what happens in line with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which was passed by Westminster—it is exactly the same process. If Adam Tomkins wishes to have a system in which Parliament proposes the referendum, he can support a move to such a system, but it is not the system at Westminster and it is not the system here. Nevertheless, Parliament will, of course, be able to scrutinise and decide on every single detail.

If Mr Tomkins wishes to see developments to the bill, it is open to amendment. The bill will go through a system in which amendments would be welcome, because I have always welcomed full debate on such matters. The problem with Mr Tomkins’s position is that he does not want this Parliament to decide: he wants Westminster to decide. No, he actually wants the Tory Prime Minister—whoever that is—to decide, and he wants them simply to say no. That is not democracy, and that is not what we will be doing.

Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement.

Labour delivered devolution, and, in the 20th anniversary year of the Scottish Parliament, Labour continues to support and defend devolution. Up until Brexit, the devolution settlement, which was founded on the Scotland Act 1998, worked well. Although it is evident that there is a breakdown of trust between the present UK Government and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, that is not because it is a UK Government but because it is a Tory Government.

The cabinet secretary noted in his statement that Theresa May has had

“no interest in seeing the devolved settlement observed.”

However, it is clear that the Scottish National Party Government here does not observe the devolution settlement either. Today, it is once again seeking to advance the cause of the break-up of the United Kingdom. Does the cabinet secretary not understand that his party’s obsession with the creation of a separate Scottish state is a distraction from the real issues that this Parliament was brought into existence to tackle?

Michael Russell

Let me start by paying brief tribute to my former shadow, Neil Findlay, who, regrettably, is not in the chamber today. Although it is no secret that he and I were not soul mates, I regret that any individual has decided that they do not want to continue in the role, and I absolutely wish him well in the future. I hope that, whatever he decides to do, he enjoys it more than being a member of the Labour group. I also make the point that only 14 members of the Labour group are present. I wonder where the others are—are they still in office or still attending?

Let me come to the points about the referendum. Respectfully, I do not agree with Mr Leonard, because I do not believe that the bill is in any sense a distraction. Mr Leonard has to address this question: how will he achieve the things that he wants to see if there is a constant block on them from a Tory Government at Westminster? I have lived through even more Tory Governments than Mr Leonard has, and the reality is that, whatever happens, that is the block on progress on Scotland.

There is an opportunity to ask how we can move forward to a more socially just, fairer and more equal Scotland. Mr Leonard and I have a genuine disagreement about how that will be done, but the evidence of the past 50, 60 or 70 years is on my side. The evidence shows that that cannot be done through the United Kingdom, but it could and should be done through the Scottish Parliament. I therefore ask Labour members to join us in that task. There would then be a substantial majority in the chamber for the type of equal and fairer Scotland that we all want to see. I regret that the barrier to that happening is on the Conservative benches and, alas, still on the Labour benches. It does not have to be like that.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

I, too, am grateful for the advance copy of the statement, and I welcome the publication of the bill.

I certainly commit to working with any other political party that has serious proposals to make the process more democratic and to ensure that powers are properly with the Parliament, not ministers. We have done that before, and we are willing to do it again if there are serious proposals—even if some political parties have not recognised that the collapse in their vote last week means and necessitates a change in their position in relation to the political crisis that we are living through.

One aspect of that crisis is the hacking of democracy. We have seen a growing body of evidence that the 2016 referendum was affected not only by empty promises on the side of a bus and racist rhetoric from Farage and Johnson but by dodgy money and dodgy data. What opportunity is there to ensure that the bill prevents undermining of the democratic process such as we saw in the 2016 EU referendum?

Michael Russell

Patrick Harvie makes a very important point. We saw a great deal of shady activity—and probably worse than shady activity—in that referendum campaign, and we have seen today a charge pending for misrepresentation against one of the Tory leadership contenders. It is, of course, up to the courts to decide how that matter will proceed.

In those circumstances, I am very open to discussion with any party in the chamber that wants to strengthen the legislation—not just the Referendums (Scotland) Bill. Two other bills on electoral matters are due to be introduced. One, which I have mentioned, is on the franchise; the other is on the conduct of elections. Once members have seen those proposals, it will certainly be possible to consider how they could be strengthened.

If the whole chamber showed that it supports democracy and the rules that underpin democracy, that would send a powerful message. I will work with anybody to send that message and ensure that elections are run properly.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The cabinet secretary has learned nothing from the chaos of Brexit. Surely, by now, even he must understand that economic damage and national division are caused by breaking up long-term economic partnerships. Independence will mount chaos on top of the Brexit chaos.

The cabinet secretary also has an awful lot to learn about building consensus. In one breath, he appeals to all of us to work together reasonably and maturely before he launches another attack on every single one of us.

The cabinet secretary says that there are no preconditions for his cross-party talks—apart from another independence referendum, that is. Does he not understand that that is a major barrier to our participation in those talks?

Michael Russell

I regret that, and I hope that Mr Rennie will think that matter through. If there are no preconditions, there are no preconditions. The First Minister has made it absolutely clear that the cross-party talks are to look at alternatives that parties wish to bring forward. I have tried to create a non-confrontational structure for those talks that will allow people to take part without confrontation. I hope that all the parties will take part in those talks—certainly through the first stage of talking to the interlocutor to see what the agendas are. If there are alternatives, they should be put on the table. I cannot say fairer than that. That is important.

The other question that needs to be addressed, which I put in one form to Richard Leonard and put very clearly to Willie Rennie, is: what is the alternative to a no-deal Brexit when we get to that moment at Westminster? Do we just do what we are told? Do we just accept the economic chaos and disaster that will take place? Mr Rennie might not have sympathy with the Secretary of State for Scotland—I do not have much sympathy with him—but he described the potential of a no-deal Brexit as an economic catastrophe. The reality is that that is where we are heading; that is where we are being driven by Tory leadership candidates. What will Mr Rennie do in those circumstances? That is a vital question, and he needs to answer it.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Members will be aware of the inordinate amount of time that has been taken by questions from party leaders. If I ask for brevity, I ask members to please bear that in mind so that as many members as possible can ask their question.

Tom Arthur (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that it should be for the Scottish Parliament, not Westminster, to decide whether people in Scotland should be given a choice over their future, particularly given the chaos that is unfolding in the Westminster Parliament?

Michael Russell

Yes. If any other country was substituted for Scotland in that question, people would realise how obvious the answer is. Of course the people of Scotland should decide their own future.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

In his statement, the cabinet secretary talked about “consensus”, “reconciliation” and leaving behind “negativity and nastiness”. However, he has never apologised for suggesting that our colleagues in Westminster are traitors to Scotland. In that spirit of reconciliation and making a fresh start, will he now do so?

Michael Russell

It is very difficult for me to apologise for something that I did not do. Let me try to reach out: if those colleagues and those who support them on the Conservative benches were offended by what I said, I am sorry that that took place.

Can we now accept that we should be looking forward and trying to find a way of working together? Will Murdo Fraser commit his party to sitting down and having the conversations that we need to have?

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

In 2016 and in last week’s EU elections, Scotland decided overwhelmingly that it wanted to remain at the heart of Europe. Will the cabinet secretary tell Parliament the extent to which the UK Government has listened to the views of the people of Scotland during the Brexit process?

Michael Russell

It has not listened at all. As I said in my statement, there has been a deliberate attempt by the Prime Minister to ensure that those voices are not listened to. The Prime Minister is not a person who finds dialogue easy.

We are all hoping for positive change, but I know that often that has proved not to be what happens. It is always dangerous to say that things cannot get any worse, because clearly they sometimes can. However, in these circumstances, there is the opportunity for change at Westminster. The next meeting of the JMC(EN) will be held sometime in June, and I will be delighted if I find that there is a changed attitude at it.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

In the 13th year of this Government, more than a million people in Scotland are living in poverty, with children going hungry, rough sleeping on the increase and pensioners being unable to afford to heat their homes. Where do the SNP’s priorities lie? The statement talks about “consensus”, but when will the Scottish Government respond to the clear consensus among anti-poverty organisations, who have called for urgent action? When will the Government make tackling poverty its priority, rather than focusing yet again on the constitution?

Michael Russell

I refer the member to last week’s United Nations report. [Interruption.] It is important that we deal with facts. The UN report is absolutely clear about where the responsibility lies; alas, it lies with successive Westminster Governments.

I say to the member, as I said to the leader of her party, that there is a way to move on and do the incredibly hard work that is required to recreate Scotland in the way in which we would like it to be recreated, with poverty eliminated. However, that will require a national consensus about putting the country’s resources to the good of the country. We cannot do that unless we have control of those resources. The issue is simple.

I commend the member on her passion on the subject. It is a passion that she is right to feel strongly about. Poverty shames Scotland, but the only way that we will move on fully and finally from that situation is by ensuring that all the country’s resources and efforts are devoted to tackling poverty. That cannot be done within the current settlement.

Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

In relation to the Scottish Government’s offer of cross-party talks, does the cabinet secretary believe that there could be some consensus around, for example, migration in the light of Scotland’s particular circumstances, as recognised most recently by the director general of the Confederation of British Industry?

Michael Russell

The member makes a very strong and good point. In panels that I have been on with Opposition members, all of us—even the Conservatives—have been able to agree that the devolution of migration is something that should move forward. However, the problem lies with the timescale and the decision-making process: there is no timescale for it, and the Tory Government’s decision-making process has been entirely negative.

The current Prime Minister is a woman obsessed by migration. She is against any form of migration, and she talks with pride about ending freedom of movement, which is a matter of grave shame and real damage to Scotland. If there were a willingness to change, the Conservatives could bring the issue to the cross-party talks, and we could agree to put that point to Westminster, with the complete agreement of this chamber, and hope that that would have some effect.

I am very happy for that to happen. It is something that every single one of us could back—

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (Roseanna Cunningham)

No—they are shaking their heads. [Interruption.]

Michael Russell

I am sorry, but there are some members of the Tory party who are not willing to back that. That is a pity, because the effect of ending freedom of movement will be profoundly felt in every constituency and region of Scotland that they represent.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Does the cabinet secretary believe that referendums under this bill should be advisory or binding, and can he point me to the provision in it that states that the Scottish Government will respect the result of them?

Michael Russell

I think that we have to be firm either on one side or the other. For example, the UK Government’s EU referendum was meant to be advisory, but apparently it is now the most binding thing that could possibly have been decided and cannot be changed in any way. If the member wants to engage seriously with this bill, as I am sure he does, let us have that debate about what the right thing to happen should be.

Adam Tomkins

What’s your view?

Michael Russell

That is a rather curious position that we have just heard from Mr Tomkins. He lambasts us for apparently not having any desire to involve Parliament in this, but when I say, “Let’s have a parliamentary debate on this,” he shouts, “What’s your view?” The reality is that ye cannae win with them. I hope that we can have that debate; we will come down on one side or the other, and perhaps it will be an amendment from one of the Tories that will allow us to do so.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes questions on the cabinet secretary’s statement. I apologise to Stuart McMillan, James Kelly and Fulton MacGregor for being unable to bring them in.