Scottish Devolution and Article 50
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the implications for the Scottish devolution settlement of triggering Article 50.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I have to say that this debate has taken on a bit of a different taste in the past few days. On Monday morning, I was quite clear about what we would have to discuss, but by lunchtime my party leader, as well as the Prime Minister, had rather knocked me off my stride. She does that sometimes—she is pretty good. I find myself coming back to the basics of the debate and considering what it is we really need to know: what is in store for Scotland?
If Members will allow me, I will keep things a bit sober and restrained so that we can have a sensible discussion of the issues, which I consider to be extremely important. Over the past few months we have asked questions about the Government’s approach to, hopes for and starting position in the negotiations over the UK’s leaving the EU. I am afraid we have received no substantive answers, which has led some people less charitable than me to suggest that the Government do not know the answers to those questions. I would never suggest such a thing—not yet, anyway.
The point of fracture for me came at the Scottish Tory conference in Perth, where the Prime Minister did two things in her speech. The first was to claim that Scotland has the most powerful devolved legislature in the world and the second was to suggest that competencies repatriated—if that is the correct word—from the EU will be exercised in Whitehall rather than in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.
Let me first address the idea that Scotland has the most powerful devolved legislature in the world. I have seen no evidence to support that claim, although it has been made repeatedly over a number of years. I have seen no comparison made that supports such a suggestion, nor any indication of the definition of a devolved legislature being used. I cannot but think that there are more powerful examples of sub-state bodies, such as the German Länder and the Australian states and territories, which would better fit that description. Anyway, it strikes me that we should not care whether Scotland is the most powerful devolved legislature in the world; we should be asking whether the arrangements—current and proposed—are what best suit Scotland’s needs.
I will argue that Scotland should be independent, because I believe we have a different outlook on public life from that of the fine people south of the border. Our public discourse is different and our values and societies are different. I understand that people on the other side of the debate will see it in a different light: they look at the issue from a UK point of view and decide that Scotland is better where it is. They are entitled to do that. In my view they are entirely wrong, but they are entitled to be wrong and to support the continuation of the UK rather than the re-emergence of its constituent nations.
The idea of the most powerful devolved legislature in the world brings us to the point about where power should rest. In the early days of devolution, some believed that they had squared the circle and that the separation of policy areas that should be reserved and those left devolved was finalised. We discovered fairly quickly, however, that that was not the case and that the issue had to be revisited. The prediction of Ron Davies, the one-time Welsh Secretary, came to pass. Devolution is a process, not an event.
The extension of devolution, by the way, was described by the previous leader of the Scottish Conservatives as the most important debate in the Scottish Parliament. Interestingly, she said that at a time when a Labour Scottish Secretary, Des Browne, was busy trying to strip powers from Holyrood—presumably because the Scottish National party had won the Scottish election in 2007. The upshot was an extension rather than a constriction of the competencies of the Scottish Parliament, and the debate continued. In policy area after policy area, power and competency has been ceded to Holyrood as it becomes clear—even to those opposed to any further devolution—that those powers and competencies are best exercised in Scotland. It is a process, not an event.
The hon. Lady has secured an important debate. When the UK devolution settlements were designed in 1998, there was no thought of Brexit and, at that time, the single market was the European single market. After Brexit, the single market will be the UK single market—at the moment, because Scotland is not independent. How does she believe that will work in agriculture, fisheries and other policy areas?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I will address that later in my speech.
Now we find ourselves about to leave the European Union, the Prime Minister is making the threat of removing competencies from Holyrood as they come back from Brussels; other than that, we do not really have any idea of what she is planning. Leaving the European Union means that the Scotland Act 1998 must be revisited, because it compels Scotland to comply with EU law. The clawing back of powers and competencies from Holyrood to Whitehall, as suggested by the Prime Minister, would also require amendments to that Act.
If Members want to understand exactly how much disentanglement there will be, they should ask the Commons Library, as I did. They will be told that there is a huge number of directives and regulations to look through and that to come up with a definitive figure, list or even idea of what is reserved and what remains devolved is, to all intents and purposes, a fool’s errand.
To give an example, there are 527 regulations under the environment, consumer and health sections alone, and there are a whole host of environmental regulations under other headings such as “energy”. I do not know whether the Scotland Office has been working to draw up a list—or the Wales Office or the Northern Ireland Office for that matter. It would be good to be told, but it is clear that there is an enormous amount of work to be done and an enormous amount of legislation to comb through. Sifting that, considering it, deciding where to lay it and working it out will need a new Scotland Act.
It is true that the Government could use section 30 of the 1998 Act further to reserve powers over those areas currently under EU control, but that would seem frankly perverse if the Act has to be amended in any case. That seems simple, but when I asked the Prime Minister last week whether she would consult the people of Scotland properly and seek the consent of the Scottish Parliament before making changes to the legislation that frames devolution, she seemed perplexed. Her answer to me was that she undertakes
“full discussions with the Scottish Government on…reserved matters and…where we are negotiating on behalf of the whole of the United Kingdom.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2017; Vol. 622, c. 808.]
However, we discovered on Monday that that is simply not true. Scotland’s First Minister was clear that none of the devolved Administrations had heard a peep from the UK Government before the announcement that we are all being dragged out of the single market, in spite of that being the major part of the Scottish Government’s compromise proposal on Brexit.
There is a sweetheart deal for Nissan, but no discussion of Scotland’s needs—far less any movement to accommodate those needs. Membership of the single market is vital for Scotland’s exports, and essential to the exercise of the economic competencies of the Scottish Parliament and to the future of many Scottish businesses. An immigration system that offers EU citizens the right to come to Scotland to live, work, study and settle down is essential to our continuing to grow a population that is economically active and demographically sustainable, as was discussed in the recent Scottish Affairs Committee debate. Academic research and the excellent record of Scotland’s universities is under threat, because Brexit will cut them off from an enormous research funder and from the universities they co-operate with on the continent, not to mention the academics who come to Scotland from elsewhere in the EU.
The implications for Scotland of triggering article 50 are enormous and deep-seated and, whichever way things go, they will have a long half-life. We have heard the glib “Brexit means Brexit”, that it will be red, white and blue and that there will be no running commentary, but I am beginning to suspect that there is no running anything behind Whitehall’s firmly closed doors. It is time that the Government started to lay out what Brexit actually means in terms of implications for the people who live on these islands, rather than continuing use of tautology.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Does she agree that those people—the minority—in Scotland who voted to leave the European Union did so hoping that they would see a transfer of powers back from Brussels to Edinburgh and that they will be dismayed that they are getting a transfer of powers from Brussels to Westminster? Does that not do a disservice to those no voters in Scotland as well as disrespecting the entire country, which took a different view?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that I completely agree with. The National Farmers Union of Scotland shares many of his views. It has told me that Brexit is the biggest challenge to Scottish food producers in generations. Farmers, food processing companies and hauliers need migrant workers, access to European markets and guarantees on future financial support. Many of Scotland’s farmers depend on that financial support to remain solvent.
The NFUS is clear that the issue should be in the purview of the Scottish Government, and that the cash should follow that competency. That would be around £600 million a year, or £3.5 billion over the current seven-year cycle. More than 20,000 businesses in Scotland receive common agricultural policy payments, and more than 3,000 of those receive less than £1,000 each; that is subsistence, not luxury. We have no idea what the Government intend to happen—whether the cash will be ponied up for our farmers or what other support is in the pipeline.
We all know that the Government are sick and fed up of having to think about the fate of European citizens here and want it tied to UK citizens abroad—the very definition of bargaining chips. We know that because the Prime Minister keeps telling us. Scotland needs those citizens. Half of Scotland’s population growth in the past 15 years has come from EU citizens, who have come and made a huge contribution to the country. Four fifths of them are of working age, and four fifths of those are employed. They drive Scotland’s economy and contribute taxes, which are of course to be collected for the Scottish Government from April. Scotland cannot hang on and hope that we get something for those people. We need it now because they need it now, so that they can plan ahead rather than planning to leave.
We do not need warm words and vague hopes that a deal can be done, but straightforward action, and now. Scotland needs the UK Government to make the necessary changes now to give EU nationals continuing legal rights—of residence, movement, economic activity and study—that would need legislation to be removed, not a promise to look at it sometime in the future. That is what Scotland needs, what the Scottish economy needs, what Scotland’s public sector workforce needs and what the devolution settlement needs.
If the UK Government want to make a decent fist of Brexit, they have to start being honest. The Prime Minister has to stop telling us that she is consulting with the devolved Administrations when she clearly is not.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Does she share my concerns that, during the passage of the Scotland Act 2016, any amendment proposed by our party, the Scottish National party—which, after all, represents 56 out of 59 Scottish constituencies—was voted down by the UK Government? That does not augur well for the future when it comes to whether the UK Government are prepared to listen to the arguments coming from Scotland.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; what he mentioned sets a very poor precedent. When we see no action, that makes all of us doubt very much the warm words we continually hear from the Government.
We need a clear indication of what is ahead and what direction the UK Government intend to take. Further to that, we need guarantees that the Scottish people will be properly consulted and that the Scottish Parliament will be asked for its consent, just as the First Minister will ask for its consent next week when seeking a section 30 agreement. If the Prime Minister and her Government do not want to come to the negotiating table with the devolved Administration, we should be told, so that we can prepare for the coming independence referendum. It would be foolish of anyone to assume that that is an empty bluff, or that there is anything other than a hard edge to Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on Monday. The Scottish Government entered into Brexit negotiations in good faith and were met with a brick wall of intransigence. That is simply not good enough. Scotland’s interests need to be defended, and Scotland needs a future we can look to with hope.
There is time for the UK Government to salvage the situation. They can pick up the phone, speak to the Scottish Government and make a compromise deal. However, if they want to keep the UK together, they had better move soon. The Scottish Government will not hang about. Nicola Sturgeon has laid out the case clearly and eloquently: give Scotland due and proper consideration and negotiate in our best interests, or the UK will find it is leaving the EU without us.
No constitutional change is not an option for Scotland now, but we still have the choice about what kind of constitutional change we want for Scotland. The UK is leaving the EU, which at the moment would take Scotland out, but we have the option of opting out of that lemming plunge and choosing instead to be an independent European nation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, especially given your well-known Glasgow roots and your love for Scotland. I am sure you will be among the first to claim citizenship of a newly independent Scotland—or dual citizenship, perhaps.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right: I am 100% Scottish and all of those things. However, he is quite wrong to seek to involve me in the debate, in which I have no interest or involvement whatever.
My apologies, Mr Gray; nevertheless, the pleasure remains. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) said, the circumstances in which we are having the debate have changed somewhat, following the First Minister’s announcement on Monday about the Scottish Government’s decision to seek a section 30 order. I pay tribute to the ever-ready House of Commons Library, which nevertheless managed to capture that announcement in its briefing note just before it went to press.
I will look briefly at the principles behind the debate and some of the practical implications for us in the House and beyond. For me, there are two key principles behind the devolution settlement. The first is the claim of right for Scotland, which we have discussed in this Chamber before. It is the concept of popular sovereignty. The 1989 claim of right was the basis of the constitutional convention and the current devolution settlement. It said:
“We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”.
That claim still stands today, and it was asserted on 23 June 2016, when the people of Scotland said that they wanted to remain in the European Union. That claim was passed by the constitutional convention in 1989 and was again agreed by the Scottish Parliament in 2012, but is the principle of the claim now under threat from the Conservative Government? The Tories have never been clear about whether they endorsed that principle in the first place, and it appears even more under threat now, especially if the Prime Minister tries to block or delay the requested potential independence referendum in Scotland.
The second key principle, enshrined in the Scotland Act 1998, is that whatever is not reserved is devolved. As we all know, schedule 5 to the Act is clear about what is reserved: defence, foreign affairs, social security and aspects of trade and energy. There have been some derogations in those areas over the years, but anything that is not mentioned in schedule 5 to the 1998 Act is therefore devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Climate change is a very good precedent for that. When the UK Parliament decided it wanted to legislate on climate change emissions, responsibility fell to the Scottish Parliament to make legislative provision in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament took it upon itself in 2009 to pass some world-leading climate change legislation, which was some of the most ambitious anywhere in the world. It seems now that the principle of what is not reserved being therefore devolved is also under threat. We have certainly had ambiguous answers from Ministers to date.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely crucial that the UK Government provide clarity of their intent regarding the transfer of powers? The Scottish Government can then plan ahead and ensure that they have sufficient capacity and resource to take on any additional responsibilities.
Planning is of absolute importance, and I have to say, I probably have more confidence in the Scottish Government’s ability to plan ahead, irrespective of what the UK Government is doing. The First Minister has demonstrated at every turn, before, during and since the EU referendum, that the Scottish Government are actually thinking ahead about the consequences of various decisions might be. We have seen that demonstrated again this week.
My hon. Friend leads me on to the important practicalities of how the implications of triggering article 50 will be felt in Scotland and their implications for devolution. The first—I hope we will have an opportunity to find out a little bit more about this—will be when we finally get to see and hear more about the Government’s thinking on the great repeal Bill, or, as it is increasingly known in some circles, the great power grab. It is a serious concern for Members from all parties, not least the hardcore Brexiteers who wanted to restore sovereignty to the House of Commons, that what will in fact happen is a power transfer—a power grab—by the Executive in the United Kingdom.
We read in The Times the other day that it will perhaps not just be a great repeal Bill, but that up to seven or more pieces of individual legislation will be needed just to deal with the complexities of taking us out of the European Union. The Government have to start answering questions, precisely as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, so that we can make plans.
The consequences for devolution are profound. Which will come first, the chicken or the egg? Are we going to see an amendment to the Scotland Act to reserve powers as a result of Brexit, or will individual pieces of legislation come forward that reserve different powers? What exactly is going to happen?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am happy to, if the hon. Gentleman has an answer for me.
I speak as someone who was not a hardcore Brexiteer but voted to remain. Agriculture is an area that affects my constituency in Suffolk, as it does many of the constituencies in Scotland. Given that many agricultural tariffs are currently set at a European level, if Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom and we have a UK single market, it would be appropriate for the UK Government to be involved in dealing with those agricultural tariffs, on a point of principle. Does he agree?
The principle that is very clear is that if something is not reserved to the UK Government, it is therefore devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I have not read the words “reservation of agriculture” in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act. Some of my hon. Friends might want to clarify or expand on the practicalities of that.
Let us take fisheries as an example, which was one of the potential Bills listed in The Times the other day. There are potential consequences for that. If the Government bring forward a fisheries Bill and have not clarified whether that is devolved or reserved, it seems to me that, under the English votes for English laws Standing Orders, it will fall to the Speaker of the House of Commons to decide whether or not that hugely profound, massive area of policy needs to be certified under the EVEL procedures. That could therefore deny a say to Members from Scotland on something that the Scottish Parliament equally has no power over, because we have been left in a legislative limbo. The Government have to start making clear exactly what their thoughts are on these issues.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the case of fisheries, the most appropriate people to administer are the Scottish Government? We have witnessed in the past inexperienced members of the UK Cabinet representing the UK at EU talks, with much more knowledgeable and seasoned Scottish Ministers being snubbed.
Indeed. That goes right back to the very process of the UK joining the European Community in the first place, when the fishing communities of Scotland were sold down the river as a bargaining chip in those original negotiations. There is a fear that that will happen again.
The final area that needs to be clarified is the Sewel convention, particularly as it relates to secondary legislation. One fear about the power grab that will come in the great repeal Bill is that the Government will take much power for themselves, through Henry VIII powers, to deal with European regulations by secondary legislation. However, secondary or delegated legislation is not subject to the Sewel convention. Concerns about that were raised by the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament in written evidence to the Procedure Committee, which was published this afternoon. He says:
“Looking beyond the Great Repeal Bill, I would also observe that the current deadlines under which subordinate legislation is introduced in the UK Parliament would already constrict the timescale for any consequent scrutiny at the Scottish Parliament. There is a worry that any suggestion of foreshortening those deadlines may not be conducive to allowing proper oversight of any instruments that may include devolved matters.”
The consequences are profound, let alone the fact that the Supreme Court has already said that the Sewel convention is a political decision and therefore not worth the vellum it is inscribed upon.
The implications of triggering article 50 for devolution are profound. The Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions today that she is listening and discussing, but now is the time for agreement and action. Perhaps the Minister could start by answering some of the questions we are raising today.
Order. It may be helpful for Members to know that I intend to call the first of the three party spokespeople at 5.10 pm, and therefore we have about 15 minutes left for three speakers. If my arithmetic serves me right, that means about five minutes each. I call Ian Murray.
Thank you, Sir James. May I apologise to the—
Order. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I am not in fact Sir James. It may be in the post, but it has not yet arrived.
It must be in the post; I hope it is, because it would be thoroughly deserved. I apologise to you for elevating you to a knighthood, Mr Gray, and also to the House for being slightly late. A major constituency issue delayed me, so I only heard the end of the speech by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock).
This issue will be a key element of the discussions over the next few years in this House. I am not sure how many thousands or tens of thousands of statutory instruments and pieces of legislation we will see when the great repeal Bill is announced, but I hope we will have some kind of process that takes into account three things. First, English votes for English laws should be suspended with the great repeal Bill, given its severity. Secondly, there must be a streamlined process, so that we do not all end up having to sit and consider 10,000 statutory instruments. I am sure that the House, and certainly the Clerks of the House, would very much welcome that.
Thirdly, I hope that the Minister and the Government—I say this with all respect and in the interests of trying to find a way through—take into account the political difficulties and sensitivities of the Scottish Parliament’s responsibilities and schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998. Schedule 5 is incredibly simple to read now because it has got so small, given the number of powers that have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but the key one in there is the relationship with the European Union and foreign affairs. That should not be an excuse for the Government to say that the devolved Administrations should not be heavily involved in this process.
None of us wanted to be here—I certainly did not—in terms of Brexit, but we are, and this process has to be followed through. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith for securing this debate. It will probably be one of many we have on Brexit and Scotland over the next few years.
I said this to the Prime Minister yesterday in the House and will emphasise it again now. The general principle should be that where a power is not in schedule 5 to the 1998 Act and where a power has been devolved—whether to Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or the metro mayors we are about to elect in May—the power should be devolved. The reason I put it as a principle, rather than saying everything should be devolved in a blanket way, is that some things will take some thought when it comes to the framework. While things such as fisheries, agriculture, the environment, regional development and policy from the European Union are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it is under the EU framework. That EU framework gives the minimum standards and framework in which member states have to operate.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech. This is a difficult area, as he has outlined. Agriculture, for example, is devolved to different parts of the United Kingdom, and there is disagreement on areas such as genetically modified crops. However, when the Secretary of State for International Trade needs to make a trade deal, that is surely something that the UK Government across the UK single market are best placed to do.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that point, although my response will not necessarily be on the complicated nature of what he determined in his intervention; rather, it will be on how crucial it is for both Governments to work together. Unless both Governments work together, all the negotiations that are happening on trade deals or otherwise will be incredibly difficult to resolve. Given that Scotland and other regions and nations of the UK have some significant products that are of a singular nature to those particular geographical areas, we will have to work together.
Agriculture is one of three or four big areas where we need some kind of working together to ensure that this works properly. Take, for example, cattle movement across borders, which is a hugely complicated and difficult thing. It is about not only the cattle themselves and their welfare but the spread of disease and other issues. We will need some kind of working together and a framework to allow that to happen. While repatriation and devolution should be the principle, we should do this in a systematic way, not only for the benefit of the country and ensuring that this works properly, but for the benefit of the practitioners in all those areas—whether it be the environment, agriculture or fisheries—that will be repatriated and devolved.
Finally, it is not only about devolution; a cheque has to go with it. It cannot just be devolution of power without the devolution of the money. If we take agriculture as an example, again, Scotland gets 16% or 17% of UK agricultural spending in the round. That would have to travel with the devolved powers, which is why I think we need to be quite careful that the frameworks in place for each of those big items are dealt with properly.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Mr Gray. I must admit that I did not originally intend to, but I was impelled to do so by the excellent lead given by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). In my brief contribution I want to drive home the message about the importance of doing things right, particularly for big areas such as agriculture and fishing. I shall focus on agriculture.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) reinforced the principle: if it is not reserved, it is by definition devolved. Let us consider the distinct nature of Scottish agriculture: 85% of our land has less favoured area status; as a nation Scotland is approximately 8.4% of the population; we received 16.5% of CAP and we are approximately 32% of the land mass. We have to have a policy that reflects that profile and the different challenges in Scotland. I am the Scottish National party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson and have yet to meet a Scottish farmer who is happy for this place to be responsible for Scottish agriculture—and, by the way, a lot of those farmers are not traditional SNP supporters.
At the moment we have no confidence. To be honest, English farmers do not have confidence in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. At the Oxford conference in January, when I stood in for the Scottish Farming Minister, the audience was asked who had confidence in DEFRA to deliver in a Brexit world, and no hand went up until, belatedly, the Farming Minister, sitting in the front row, put his hand up, thinking “At least I should have confidence in my own Department.” The industry across the UK, but especially in Scotland, lacks confidence in this place’s capability to design a UK framework—particularly one that takes into account the distinct nature of Scottish farming.
The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) made an interesting contribution. There is a bigger picture and the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) reinforced aspects of that. We are not saying that there should not be a level of negotiation within the UK; absolutely there should. There is a need for common frameworks in certain places. Within the common agricultural policy there is a common framework, but there is a level of devolution and Scotland and England have different CAP deployments. However, we are absolutely clear that we must negotiate that as partners—as equals at the table, looking for the common framework and agreeing it. At the moment, all the mood music and the signs suggest a power grab. The message is “Don’t you worry. We are the head of the family. We’ll look after you.” I am afraid that that will not wash with the rural communities in Scotland.
Before I close, perhaps I might reinforce the explanation of why there is a lack of trust and why the Government should actively seek to be as transparent and open as possible about their intention. The fact that they do not do so sends out the wrong signals. It worries people. That is because of our experience. We have heard what happened to fishing; it was “expendable”. Even today, as Brexit negotiations go on, a certain individual from the UK Independence party who leads the charge on many such things is going around TV studios saying “I’m hearing fishing is expendable again.” There is no trust that a UK Government will stand up for Scottish fishing. Let us remember, more fish were caught in Orkney and Shetland than in the whole of England and Wales put together last year. It is overwhelmingly a Scottish industry.
The second area I want to mention is the convergence uplift. It is EU money—€230 million—almost all of which should have gone to Scottish farming. It was distributed across the UK and we got 16%. Scottish farmers see that and think “If they will take money out of my pocket, will they look after me when they design a UK farming system?” I do not think so. The Government must step up and be clear, and if they do not pass on responsibilities the judgment will be at the ballot box.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and take part in this debate, which was ably introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). She laid out the position very well. The tone of the debate has been very good; I hope the Minister will continue in the same vein.
Let me mention a few issues that my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) raised. One of the main reasons for the situation we are in—and why we are having these debates—is the huge uncertainty we face. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) said, there has been no clarity from the UK Government about how the processes or the timescales will work. Will there be a fresh Scotland Bill or just amendments to the Scotland Act 1998? Exactly how will the processes work? As for the timeline, we do not want to fall into a legislative trap or get stuck in legislative limbo. I am sure that the UK Government have plans, but it would be nice if they told us what they were, so that we could be aware of the timescales. If we are going to try to work together in a future settlement, it would be best if we got off on a good footing, with as much information as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North and I have discussed the great repeal Bill at length; no doubt we will continue to discuss it in the coming months, because we are particularly interested in the process. The great repeal Bill has the potential to become a great power grab for the UK Government, giving them a lot of powers that they do not currently have. I do not imagine that that is what most people who supported the leave campaign had in mind. [Interruption.]
Order. There is a Division in the House. The sitting is suspended for 15 minutes, or less if Members come back earlier.
I think we can assume that the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) is not returning to the Chamber, or perhaps he will return in a moment. Because of the Division, the debate will finish at 5.45 pm. Therefore, if my arithmetic is right, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) has another three minutes to go, the Labour spokesman will have five minutes and after that, the Minister will have 10 minutes.
Thank you, Mr Gray. I am always a bit discombobulated if there is a vote in the middle of my speech, but I will do my best. I was asking for clarity over the process of the great repeal Bill. We very much make the case to the UK Government that as soon as they have clarity, we would like that to be passed on to us, so we can make informed decisions.
On agriculture and fisheries, there is a lack of trust from a huge number of people in those industries because of how they have been treated. Part of that is genuinely a lack of understanding from the UK Government about the differences in fishing in Scotland compared with fishing in the south of England, for example. On that note, I understand that the Prime Minister will undertake a tour of the UK to talk to us about how wonderful Brexit will be. When she comes to Scotland, I would appreciate it if she spent her time listening—rather than talking—to people from industries, and particularly those that are over-represented in Scotland but under-represented in England. She may know less about them, so that would be good.
I will briefly mention trade deals and protection for communities. We have a lot of communities in Scotland—as in Wales—that are heavily reliant on one industry. Aberdeen is very reliant on the oil industry. Areas such as the one that represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) are heavily involved in the farming and agriculture industries. If things are not right for those industries, those communities are likely to be decimated, so the UK Government should think about prioritising industries that will have a dramatic impact on certain communities rather than those that are the most lucrative for the UK as a whole. They should think about that and reframe the position.
Finally, Brexit is not a situation of our making. The Scottish Government have done their very best to propose a compromise, which we put forward in December, but we have struggled to get any sort of coherent response. It is really important that the UK Government start to work with and talk to us. If we are going to work together, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South suggested, we need actual, real dialogue, rather than the Prime Minister just standing up and saying that she is talking to us. If she actually talks to us, it will make the process a whole lot easier and a whole lot better tempered.
It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Mr Gray.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) on securing this debate, on focusing our attention on a really important issue and on setting the tone for the debate in a way that has been reflected in a number of serious, thoughtful and challenging contributions for the Minister to consider.
The hon. Lady was right to ask questions about the Government’s plan for Brexit; I have to say that it is not just Scotland that is being kept in the dark. She is probably right when she says the Government do not really know. It is not necessarily that they are hiding their secret plan; it is so secret that they themselves are not aware of it. Indeed, there were reports this morning in the papers that a battle is going on inside No. 10 about how much the Government will tell the EU about their plans for Brexit when they start the negotiations, and that battle has yet to be resolved.
In the winding-up speech by the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), the point was made that we really do not want to be here; none of us do, but clearly we are. Over the past few weeks, we have been talking very much about process and it is important that a debate such as this one takes place, because it begins to shift our attention back to substance. There are some very real issues on which we need to hold the Government to account in—let us not forget—what are the most important negotiations this country has faced since the second world war.
All our attention needs to be on that task, without distraction, because the Government’s approach so far really cannot fill us with much confidence. I do not know whether other Members have caught up with this story, but apparently this morning the Brexit Secretary told the Exiting the European Union Committee that the Government have not carried out an assessment of the economic impact of leaving the EU without a deal. I am not sure, therefore, on what basis the Foreign Secretary said that would be a good thing for Britain, when even the International Trade Secretary, who is a bit cavalier about these things, has warned about the risk of crashing out without a deal.
Those sorts of conflicting statements, as well as the lack of certainty and the lack of the type of information that hon. Members have been seeking, is causing huge uncertainty, which the Government must be aware of. We hear all the time from people who are wondering whether to build their lives here, what their future is for their businesses, and so on.
A lot of these issues could have received a positive response in many of the amendments that were tabled to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, but the Government’s obsession with having a clean and unamended Bill has added to the lack of clarity, not just on the issues we have faced this week on the final vote and on EU nationals but on the attempt by the Labour Front Bench to require the Government to consult regularly the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and to put the Joint Ministerial Committee on a statutory footing, and to consult it at least every two months.
I hope that the Minister will make up for that uncertainty by responding to requests from hon. Members and explain exactly how the Government will not talk but listen to, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen North said, the people—not only people in Scotland but around the country. Can he say how he and the Government will ensure that there is a strong voice for the nations and regions of our country in these negotiations? That matters, because although people voted to come out of the EU, they did not vote to be shut out of decisions, and there are a range of related issues that many Members have commented on and about which we need clarity.
Above all, it would be useful for the Minister to confirm whether there will be a presumption that any powers in the devolved areas that are repatriated to the UK following Brexit will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament and other devolved Assemblies. What is the starting point for the Government’s thinking? Other Members have mentioned funding, which is important not only for agriculture but for structural funds and university funds. What sort of clarity can the Government give about their intentions? Will they seriously consider Scottish Labour’s suggestion about bringing all the peoples of the UK together in a constitutional convention, so that at this profound moment of change for our country we can bring in a new settlement on all these issues for the benefit of all the regions and nations of the UK?
It is a pleasure to appear before you, Mr Gray.
You can “appear” before a judge.
Well, that has not quite happened yet. Nevertheless, it is a great pleasure to be here and to represent the House in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) on securing this debate; I am sure it is one of the many debates on this subject that will continue to take place.
As a Government, we are keen to ensure that the process of leaving the European Union receives the maximum scrutiny and parliamentary debate possible, and this discussion has been an important contribution to that dialogue. In fact, Ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union have already responded to more than 600 parliamentary written questions, appeared at 13 Select Committee hearings and given six oral statements in eight months, and there will, of course, be many votes on primary legislation to come, as I am sure hon. Members recognise.
The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is a straightforward Bill. It is intended to implement the outcome of the referendum. That trusts the decision of the British people, and respects the judgment of the Supreme Court. In June last year, the United Kingdom voted as a whole to leave the European Union. By invoking article 50, using the authority given by Parliament when it passed the Bill on Monday, the Prime Minister will simply be getting on with the process of taking forward that result.
When they invoke article 50, the United Kingdom Government are committed to ensuring that the interests of all parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are represented as we enter negotiations to leave the European Union. Since the referendum, we have ensured that the devolved Administrations are fully engaged in our preparations to leave the European Union. We established the Joint Ministerial Committee on European Negotiations, chaired by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, which has met four times since its inception in November. The Joint Ministerial plenary, chaired by the Prime Minister personally, has also met twice—in October and January—and there has also been substantial bilateral engagement between Ministers.
Will the Minister give way?
I would like to make some progress.
In December, the Scottish Government published their proposals for a differentiated settlement in their paper “Scotland’s Place in Europe”. Contrary to much of the narrative on this topic, the United Kingdom Government have repeatedly recognised that paper as a serious contribution to the debate. Michael Russell, the Scottish Government Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe, presented the paper for discussion at the Joint Ministerial Committee on European Negotiations in January, and lots of officials across both Governments have been working intensively and well, both to deepen our understanding and to forge a constructive dialogue between Scotland’s two Governments.
There is common ground between the two Governments, for example on workers’ rights, the rights of European Union nationals and the important issues of criminal justice and counter-terrorism. Those were all key elements in the Prime Minister’s keynote speech at Lancaster House and the subsequent White Paper, and I suggest that they demonstrate that there is much we agree on. We are committed to continuing to work closely with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations after article 50 has been triggered.
I am conscious of the time, but I will give way to the hon. Lady.
I heard today that the Government have announced the JMC will not be meeting again before article 50 is triggered. Is that correct?
There have been several meetings, as I have enunciated, and no doubt there will be more meetings to come. There is close working between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations, and ensuring that we take into account the interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is vital for securing a future partnership with the European Union that works for the whole of the United Kingdom. It was only a little over two years ago that people in Scotland voted decisively to remain part of the United Kingdom, in a referendum that the Scottish Government called a “once in a generation” vote. The evidence clearly shows that a majority of people in Scotland do not want a second independence referendum.
As the Prime Minister and others across the political spectrum commented following the First Minister’s speech on Monday, another referendum would be divisive and would cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time. The tunnel vision that the First Minister demonstrated in her speech is deeply regrettable. Instead of playing politics with the future of our country, the Scottish Government should focus on the state of education, hospitals, the police service, jobs and the economy. The Scottish Government have significant powers at their disposal, including those under the Scotland Act 2016. We need to hear how they intend to use those powers.
As for the practical business of leaving the EU, there will be much work ahead to ensure legal certainty from the day we leave. Looking forward, the great repeal Bill will be included in the Queen’s Speech. That important piece of legislation will provide legal certainty by ensuring that wherever practical and appropriate, the same rules and laws will apply the day after we leave the European Union as did before. The Government will introduce a White Paper providing more detail in due course. The Government are conscious of the importance of that work for economic and policy operations in Scotland and the significant interest that the business and legal community and civil society generally will have in the continued smooth operation of domestic legislation.
The Scottish devolution settlement was created in the context of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. As we leave the EU, we will use that opportunity to determine the best place to make new laws and policies on these issues, ensuring that power sits closer to the people of the United Kingdom than ever before. As set out in the White Paper, our guiding principle will be ensuring that no new barriers to living and doing business are created within our own Union. On that basis, we will work with the Scottish Government, along with other devolved Administrations, on an approach for returning powers that works for the whole United Kingdom and reflects the interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Government have made it clear on numerous occasions that no decisions currently taken by the devolved Administrations will be removed from them. Moreover, we will use the opportunity of powers returning from the EU to ensure that more decisions are devolved.
The process of leaving the European Union has aroused a passionate debate about our future partnership with Europe. As a Government, we will continue to listen to all voices in that debate while weighing the evidence appropriately. We have engaged extensively with stakeholders in Scotland about EU exit, and we are committed to continuing to do so. The Government continue to believe that we will get the best deal for Scotland and the whole United Kingdom if we have a united front.
I thank all my hon. Friends and Members for their incisive, thoughtful and, in some cases, very passionate contributions. I am a little disappointed that there are not as many people from the other side here today as we might have expected, given the subject matter and the fortuitous timing of the debate this week.
The Minister spoke about the Government being keen to receive maximum scrutiny of Brexit plans. He referred to 600 written questions, many statements in Parliament and so on. I hesitate to speak for colleagues, but in my experience, questions are stonewalled, not answered, and the rising levels of frustration across the House and from devolved Governments and Assemblies are almost palpable.
We are all asking, not unreasonably, for some clarity—clarity on how we exit the EU, what it will mean for devolution across the UK, and specifically, given that I am a Scottish MP, what it means for Scotland. If the UK Government continue their stonewalling of our reasonable requests for information on behalf of our constituents and the people of Scotland, many of whom are extremely concerned about what a future out of the EU will mean for them, I am afraid we will simply take matters into our own hands.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the implications for the Scottish devolution settlement of triggering Article 50.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.