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Exiting the EU: Scotland

Volume 618: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2016

[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

It may be helpful if I make it clear at the outset that, as a result of the Division, the proceedings have been pushed back 15 minutes: this debate will conclude at 4.45 pm.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Scotland and the process of the UK leaving the EU.

It is a pleasure to speak here under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

Exactly 174 days ago, 62% of people in Scotland voted to remain in the European Union. We are now about three fifths of the way between the referendum and invoking article 50, so 107 days from now, at most, the Prime Minister intends to trigger—probably irrevocably, although that is subject to some discussion—the process of taking us out of the European Union, despite the fact that 62% of us want to stay in.

Two years after that, we face a spectacle in which the citizens who hold sovereignty over one of the most ancient—indeed, most European—of all nations will face the threat of having our European Union citizenship stripped from us: neither because we wanted to rescind it nor because we broke the rules and it was rescinded by the European Union, but because it was taken from us by the actions of a Government who have never held a majority in Scotland during my lifetime.

There will be some on the Government Benches—there are not many here today, admittedly—and possibly even on the Opposition Benches, whose public response would just be, “Tough! That’s the way things go. If you don’t like it, you just have to lump it,” dismissing Scotland’s concerns out of hand. My advice to them is to think very carefully indeed about how such an attitude is likely to be received north of the border.

With this debate, I am not trying to reopen the argument that was won and lost in ballot boxes the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. I find it strange that, although I have now accepted that certainly England and Wales are leaving the European Union, some hon. Members who represent constituencies in those countries may be trying to prevent that from happening. I respect the will of the people of England and Wales. They have given a mandate and I understand that the Government seek to implement that mandate. However, I ask the Government to accept—even simply to recognise—the fact that no such mandate exists from the people of Scotland or, indeed, the people of Northern Ireland.

I just wondered whether the hon. Gentleman would remind me of the result of the Scottish independence referendum.

I am delighted to remind the hon. Gentleman that during the Scottish independence referendum, Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservative party, promised the people of Scotland that a vote for independence would take us out of the European Union and a vote against independence would guarantee a place in the European Union. I am also delighted to remind him that, in percentage terms, the majority of the people of Scotland who want to stay in the European Union was almost two and a half times bigger than the majority who wanted to stay in the United Kingdom in the Scottish independence referendum.

Just now we are talking about the threat to our membership of the European Union. Other aspects of our constitutional status may well be up for discussion at some other time but, in the limited time available to me now, I will concentrate on the immediate issue, which is respecting the democratic will of the people of Scotland to remain in the European Union.

I spoke to the hon. Gentleman beforehand to ask whether I could make an intervention. The Scottish fishing sector, like the Northern Ireland fishing sector, voted almost unanimously to leave the EU. It is fed up with the EU telling it what to do, with reduced fishing fleets, imposed quotas and reduced days at sea, and with red tape and bureaucracy strangling our once proud fishing fleets. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, for fishing across Scotland and the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, our leaving the EU cannot happen quickly enough?

I certainly understand the frustrations of fishermen and women. I have had some dealings with their representatives in Scotland, but I have not had the same discussions with those from other parts of the United Kingdom, so I cannot speak for them at all. We have to remember that the reason why the fishing industry in Scotland lost out through the common fisheries policy is that, as became public many years later, there was a deliberate decision by the UK Government of the day to negotiate away the livelihoods of our fishing communities in return for something that presumably benefited some other community elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman points to part of the contradiction in the way the European Union operates. Luxembourg, which does not have a fishing fleet for the very good reason that it does not have a coastline, whose population is about the same size as that of Scotland’s capital city, got more votes on adopting the common fisheries policy than Scotland ever had. Regardless of where the European referendum takes us all in the next few years, there are unanswered and unsettled questions about the constitutional status not only of Scotland but of other UK nations in relation to the rest of Europe.

The Government asked the people of the United Kingdom for a mandate on the European Union. They got different mandates from different countries within the UK. That creates a problem—there is no denying that. My concern is how we resolve that problem on behalf of the nation that I call home and that I am here partly to represent.

The concerns in Scotland are the same as those in Northern Ireland, Wales and indeed many local authority areas throughout the UK. However, there are mechanisms: those set up through the Joint Ministerial Council, through the input that Departments in Scotland and Northern Ireland will have in the preparation for negotiations and through the ongoing opportunities for debate in this House and the Exiting the European Union Committee, of which both he and I are members. Do those not give the regions of the United Kingdom the opportunity to ensure that their voices are heard? The important thing is that the Government must respond positively to the concerns raised.

Order. May I remind Members who have made interventions that the terms of the motion are specifically about Scotland? We should not be trying to develop this into a wide-ranging debate about other parts of the United Kingdom, tempting though I am sure that is.

Thank you, Mr Howarth. May I just say in response to the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) that the jury is still out on whether the Joint Ministerial Council is worth the paper that its name is written on? We will find out once we see the position adopted by the UK Government and the evidence—or lack of evidence—of any change at all in their stance to take account of the very different demands and needs of the different parts of the United Kingdom.

It would be easy for the Government to carry on and negotiate a settlement that satisfied just their own Back Benchers and their own priorities, but to do so would be to ignore the distinct constitutional identity of Scotland and their party’s own promises to treat Scotland as an equal partner in the Union. It would renege on the Government’s call for Scotland to lead the Union and would ditch forever the respect agenda that they were so keen to promote barely 24 months ago.

To ignore and dismiss out of hand the wishes and the expressly stated decision of the people who hold sovereignty over Scotland and who are sovereign even over this Parliament when it legislates on Scottish matters would certainly please the hard-liners on the Government Benches for a few hours—until they saw how it was received in Scotland. How it would be received in Scotland is not hard to imagine, so I do not need to dwell on that here.

The first argument for giving Scotland its proper place throughout the Brexit process is that it is Scotland’s proper place. If we are truly an equal partner in this Union and an integral part of the United Kingdom, we are entitled to nothing less than equal partnership. We should be an integral part of the most important negotiations that the United Kingdom has undertaken since 1945.

The second argument stems from the Prime Minister’s repeated claims that she will negotiate a deal in the best interests of all the United Kingdom. How can she possibly know what is in the best interests of all the different nations and regions of the United Kingdom? Who is now telling her what is in the best interests of the people of Scotland? Who in the inner circle of the Cabinet will speak up for Scotland’s interests or those of other devolved nations when—not if, but when—they do not coincide with the interests of other parts of the United Kingdom? The Secretaries of State for the devolved nations are not even part of that core decision-making team. How can it be credible for Cabinet Ministers to say that they will negotiate for what they know is in best interests of Scotland, when they are fighting among themselves about what is in the best interests of the United Kingdom?

By contrast, the Scottish Government are pretty clear about what they believe is in the best interests of Scottish people. Their immediate response after the referendum was almost unanimous and supported across party lines in the Scottish Parliament. They have committed to publishing proposals before Christmas that could deliver as much as possible of what is in Scotland’s interests, while still allowing the UK Government to respect and honour the decision made on 23 June. It is sad but not surprising that before anyone even knows what that document will contain, it is already being torn to pieces by the social media trolls—none of whom, I am sure, has any connection with the Conservative party.

I hope that the UK Government will at least take time to examine the Scottish Government’s proposals. I am not insisting that they adopt them in their entirety, but I would like an assurance that at least they will be examined and given the respect that they are due. That really is the least the UK Government can do, given that for months their party leader in Scotland has been screaming demands to know the Scottish Government’s plan for Brexit. Interestingly, I do not remember ever hearing her asking to know her own Government’s plans for the United Kingdom, but maybe that is more her problem than mine.

I have not seen the Scottish Government’s document, but—again, in contrast to the UK Government—they have been clear and consistent in setting out what they believe Scotland needs to see at the end of the process. We need to retain full access to the single market. If that does not happen, the impact on our economy may be very serious indeed, because Scotland is a trading nation. Our exports support tens of thousands of jobs—not only in Scotland, but elsewhere. They also provide a very tidy income indeed, thank you very much, for Her Majesty’s Treasury. I hope that that will not be forgotten.

We also want to retain free movement of people. The UK Government have decided that free movement of people is fundamentally a bad thing that we should not accept at all, but in order not to have to accept it they are prepared to lose the benefits of membership of the single market. In Scotland, we do not see a conflict, because we want to keep free movement of people. We see free movement of people as a positive. We have benefited as a nation, socially, culturally and economically, from migrants coming in from other parts of the European Union. Our citizens have benefited from opportunities to become immigrants in other people’s countries. We want that to continue, and that is not just the view of the Scottish Government: all the indications are that it is the overwhelming view of the people of Scotland.

I suggest to the Minister that the apparent conflict between Scotland’s attitude to the free movement of people and the attitude of some other parts of the UK, and between Scotland’s determination to remain a full part of the single market and the lukewarm reception that the single market gets in other parts of the UK, can be resolved if the Government are prepared to countenance a negotiating position that seeks an agreement to allow immigration rules to apply different criteria in different parts of the United Kingdom, to meet different pressures on services and needs in the employment market. If they are prepared to accept that—it is now quite common practice in a lot of EU countries—the rules on the single market, trade areas, customs union and so on do not have to apply absolutely uniformly across the whole United Kingdom.

It has become increasingly obvious over the past few years that there are very few areas of public policy in which one size can hope to fit all throughout the United Kingdom. I suggest to the Government today that, for some of the major pillars of policy on which we will need to negotiate agreements in the lead-up to Brexit, one size cannot possibly fit both Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

If the Government are not prepared to seek a solution that allows different sizes and different applications of policy in different parts of the United Kingdom, what are they suggesting instead to deliver the stated wish of the sovereigns of Scotland—the 5.5 million people who rightly and inalienably hold the right to determine what the future holds for our nation and which direction it goes in? If they are not prepared to respect that sovereign will, how will they ensure that, when the Brexit process is completed, the people of Scotland believe that they are still valued, equal partners with a mission to lead the Union?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing this debate. It is a pleasure to return to Westminster Hall, which the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) suggested should be renamed “Brexit Minister Hall” because of the frequency of my visits. I commend him and his colleagues for their active role in supporting the Department’s debates.

Upon her appointment in July, the Prime Minister committed to full engagement with the devolved Administrations to get the best possible deal for all parts of the United Kingdom as we leave the EU. Following the referendum result, her very first visit was to Edinburgh to meet the First Minister of Scotland, followed quickly by trips to Cardiff and Belfast. Make no mistake: the United Kingdom voted on 23 June to leave the European Union, and we will leave the EU as one United Kingdom. I welcome the acceptance by the hon. Member for Glenrothes that a mandate has been given—at least in some parts of the country—for that process, but I noticed that in his avoidance of the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) he neglected to note that the 2 million people in Scotland who voted to stay in the UK in 2014 outnumber significantly those who voted to remain in the EU.

It is great to see the Minister in his customary place; perhaps at the end of the Brexit negotiations his name will be chiselled on to the chair. Does he accept that, as the First Minister said, the United Kingdom that people in Scotland voted to remain part of in 2014 has “fundamentally changed”? That was the expression she used. There has been a fundamental change in circumstances, so we have the right to insist that the mandate in Scotland to remain in the EU is respected in the UK Government’s negotiating position.

I am always pleased to engage with the hon. Gentleman, but it is clear that the referendum was UK-wide. The decision was taken on a UK-wide basis and the negotiations will be conducted on a UK-wide basis. Nevertheless, we do, of course, have to accept the concerns and views of the Scottish people, to which I will come in greater detail.

As we prepare to leave, we stand by our commitment to engagement with the devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Government. The devolved Administrations are having and will have the opportunity to have their say as we form our negotiating strategy. The Prime Minister chaired a plenary meeting of the joint ministerial council in October, at which she discussed the process of preparing to leave the EU with the First Minister of Scotland, the First Minister of Wales, and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

We have created a new Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations), which brings together all the constituent parts of the United Kingdom to develop a UK-wide approach to our negotiations. The committee is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and has agreed to meet monthly as we seek to agree a UK-wide approach to negotiations, share evidence and take forward joint analysis. In our commitment to the JMC(EN) process, we have also agreed to work collaboratively, first, to discuss each Government’s requirements for the future relationship with the EU; secondly, to seek to agree a UK approach to, and objectives for, the article 50 negotiations; and thirdly, to provide oversight of negotiations with the EU, to ensure, as far as possible, that outcomes agreed by all four Governments are secured from the negotiations.

I should put on record the fact that although the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain, in my constituency the majority voted to leave. Nevertheless, throughout Northern Ireland many people who were in the remain camp now accept that the decision has been taken UK-wide, and as such they want to move forward. The issue today is not the decision that was taken on 23 June, but how we move forward for everyone, even those who were in a different camp, most of whom accept that we should move forward.

I totally accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. Indeed, I was in a different camp during the referendum. I said at the end of last week’s debate that we all must now move forward to ensure that we make the process work not for 48% or 52%, but for 100%. The hon. Gentleman’s point was well made.

The Minister mentioned the meetings of the committee that has been set up under the Secretary of State’s chairmanship. The Secretary of State agreed last week that a plan would be put to the House before article 50 is triggered—will that group meet before then, during the process, or what?

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his intervention. I assure him that the group will meet before that plan comes forward. As I said, monthly meetings of the group are already arranged, and there will be further meetings before the publication of the plan. It is important that the views of the JMC should be taken into account.

Although there is going to be consultation through the JMC, will the Minister make it clear, now, that that does not mean that different regions of the United Kingdom can have a different relationship with the EU, either by volunteering for it or by having it forced on them?

I absolutely accept the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s point; we need to conduct the negotiation for the whole United Kingdom. Nevertheless, it is important that we demonstrate that our door is open to the Scottish Government and all the other devolved Administrations.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already had a number of discussions with the Scottish Government’s Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe, Mr Russell. Indeed, I welcomed Mr Russell’s comments to the Scottish Affairs Committee on Wednesday 7 December, when he said: “The hotline is working”. I personally attended the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council in Cardiff, with the First Minister of Scotland and Minister Russell, and was pleased to have constructive discussions with that important forum. Such engagement at ministerial level is being complemented by a good deal of engagement at official level. We are holding detailed bilateral meetings with each of the devolved Administrations on key sectors that they identified as priorities, and UK Government Departments are continuing to engage with each of them on their key policy areas.

In preparing for this debate, I decided to revisit the views of the hon. Member for Glenrothes on EU policy. I was pleased to read that last November he said that

“the experts on matters such as fishing and agriculture are very often the people who work in those industries. If we do not listen to them from the very beginning of the process, we will get it wrong.”—[Official Report, 10 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 79WH.]

I could not agree more. It is crucial that, as we prepare to leave the EU, we listen to voices from across the UK, and, indeed, from across Scotland. I have detailed some of our engagement with the Scottish Government, but that is only part of the picture.

The Minister’s exact recollection of my words is better than my own, but I certainly will not disagree that that is what I have said. Given that we agree that the people who understand the fishing industry best are the people who work in the industry, with hindsight does he accept that a previous generation of Ministers treated the fishing industry very badly when they sold it out to Europe in return for benefits elsewhere?

In this debate, we should focus on the future rather than debate the past, but I think we all accept that we are where we are today because mistakes have been made on Europe in the past.

On our engagement with Scotland and more widely, DExEU Ministers have met more than 130 companies from every sector of the British economy since July. That is one part of a whole of Government effort to speak to every sector and region of the British economy. Behind the scenes, officials across Whitehall are working together to ensure that businesses’ views reach the policy makers who are working to get the right deal for the UK. We have hosted round-tables with universities, energy companies, retailers, professional and business services providers, the financial sector, automotive companies, construction firms, oil and gas companies, farmers, fishermen, the food industry and businesses in regions throughout the UK. That is just the start of a national conversation that will continue as we leave the European Union.

We will continue to speak to businesses of all sizes and shapes, in every corner of the UK, including Scotland. We want to give small businesses the opportunity to have their say. The Prime Minister has held her first business summit with the Federation of Small Businesses, and we have been visiting chambers of commerce throughout the country and speaking to groups representing family businesses. Our Ministers have visited Wales, Northern Ireland and every region in England, and, of course, the Secretary of State went to Glasgow, where he visited the Tontine business centre and held a stakeholder round-table at the University of Strathclyde.

I was originally planning to visit Scotland this week, but the pressure of parliamentary business means that I now intend to travel to Scotland early next year, as does my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Exiting the European Union. Incidentally, on my way here from the voting Lobby, I ran into my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, who assured me that he is very much looking forward to a meeting with the Scotch Whisky Association to discuss some of the opportunities of this process. We will listen to stakeholders, including farmers, the fishing industry, and food and drink manufacturers, as well as the universities—including Scottish universities—representatives of some of which I met earlier today.

The hon. Member for Glenrothes touched on the future trading relationship with the EU. One of our first priorities is to allow UK companies to trade as freely as possible with the single market in goods and services—that is the very point he was making. We will work hard to get the best deal for the whole UK, and we are considering all factors carefully in implementing the referendum decision. We are, though, looking for a unique outcome, not an off-the-shelf solution. We are aiming for the right deal for the United Kingdom. As we conduct our negotiations, it is a priority to secure British companies’ trade with the single market in goods and services.

Indeed, we want the best possible arrangement for trade in goods and services with the EU. We are not seeking to replicate any other model; we want a bespoke approach that works for the whole of the UK, including Scotland. This objective is a priority that I believe businesses across the United Kingdom and across Scotland will share. A single UK position in relation to our future relationship with the EU is vital to protecting the UK’s interests as a whole.

For Scotland, exports to the rest of the UK are worth four times as much as those to the EU. This Government are determined to promote Scotland’s future, including through the extra £800 million of capital funding through Barnett consequentials, as a result of the autumn statement. If that funding is used properly by the Scottish Government, it will make a real difference to productivity, jobs and growth, so that the Scottish economy can perform even more strongly in the future.

I note that the hon. Member for Glenrothes and some of his hon. Friends have touched on a role for the Scottish Government in the negotiations themselves. We have made no decisions yet about the format of the direct negotiations with the European Union. Of course, it will be for the Prime Minister to ensure that we negotiate the best possible future for the United Kingdom, and our Department is there to support her, representing the interests of all the UK’s constituent parts. However, it is very clear that in each of the three devolution settlements, the conduct of international relations is a matter that is expressly reserved. In the Scotland settlement,

“international relations....including relations with the European Union”

is a reserved matter. That does not diminish our commitment to engaging the Scottish Government. I say again that the JMC(EN) has an important and enduring role in overseeing these negotiations as they take place.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about Scotland’s position on free movement and I know that in the past he has raised the issue of EU citizens living in the UK. Let me repeat what I have said many times on that: I want and the Government want to ensure the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. We need to do that through negotiation and through a reciprocal agreement that also secures the rights of UK citizens, including many Scottish citizens, living in the European Union. It is absolutely vital that we do that at the earliest possible opportunity, and I hope that we will be able to bring news on that front early in the negotiation process after article 50.

Although it is a priority to do that, obviously it must be done through negotiations. Doing otherwise would risk adversely affecting our negotiating position and hence the position of British citizens, including many from Scotland, who have chosen to build a life with their families in other countries.

This is a very important issue and an important debate, and I welcome the discussion that we have had today. The hon. Gentleman is clear that Scotland’s voice will be heard in this process and so am I. We have established good processes for engaging with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations through the JMC forums. As we have seen today, Scottish MPs are playing a full and active part in the parliamentary scrutiny that is ongoing in this United Kingdom House of Commons. As the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) pointed out, MPs from across the United Kingdom have that opportunity and are taking it.

We are ensuring that channels exist for official-level discussions on the detail and seeking to build a common evidence base. We stand ready to talk to the Scottish Government at any time. I know that we have heard much talk of plans lately in this House, as per the debate last week, and we will set out more of the detail for the UK plan ahead of the notification of article 50 before the end of March 2017.

We will leave the EU as one United Kingdom, but in doing so it is vital that Scotland’s interests are understood and that the voices of the people, businesses and other groups in Scotland are heard.

Question put and agreed to.