In 2016, the people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU.
That vote was ignored by the UK Government.
The Scottish Government then proposed a compromise – recognising that two countries of the UK had voted to remain, while two had voted to leave – through which the UK would stay within the European Single Market.
That compromise proposal was also ignored by the UK Government.
Instead the Tory government at Westminster, under the leadership of Boris Johnson, decided on a hard Brexit and a distant relationship with the EU.
At the 2019 election, the Tories sought a mandate for their hard Brexit approach.
The people of Scotland gave their answer.
The Tories were roundly defeated, losing more than half their Westminster seats.
True to form, the Tories once again ignored the wishes of the people of Scotland. Then the pandemic hit.
But such is their hard Brexit obsession that even a global public health crisis, the likes of which we have never seen before, was not enough to persuade the Tories even to slow the pace of the economic hit they were determined to impose on Scotland.
Over the last few days, we have seen the clearest evidence yet of the catastrophic consequences of that reckless decision to press ahead with a hard Brexit in the midst of a global pandemic.
They’ve taken aim at key Scottish industries.
Shamefully, they have also taken aim at the poorest in our society – ensuring that those on low incomes pay the highest price for their disastrous decision to impose Brexit while people and businesses are trying to recover from the pandemic.
The abrupt end of free movement has left Scotland, and the whole of the UK, with no flexibility to address the impacts of labour shortages in vital sectors of our economy, as highlighted by the current disruption to fuel supplies caused by a lack of HGV drivers.
Last year, the EU made it clear they were willing to offer the UK an extension to the Brexit transition period.
The Scottish Government published detailed evidence setting out why, given the impact of the COVID crisis, that extension should be agreed.
As part of that evidence we said:
“Brexit represents an additional risk to the sectors already exposed to those COVID 19-related channels, especially through the international (specifically EU) supply and demand exposures and the impact of removal of Freedom of Movement of Workers on labour supply.”
“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the road freight sector faced a shortage of HGV drivers, and any new barriers to employing EU drivers would exacerbate this.”
But yet again we and the people of Scotland were ignored by the Tories.
Unfortunately, the disruption to fuel supplies is only the most visible example among many of the cost of that decision.
The end of free movement has created staff shortages across key sectors including food and hospitality, social care, and construction, to name but a few.
It wasn’t just Scottish Ministers who issued warnings only to be ignored.
In 2018, the Scottish Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) stated that:
‘The UK government’s obstinate approach to immigration is a clear threat to many of Scotland’s businesses and local communities. These proposals will make it nigh impossible for the vast majority of Scottish firms to access non-UK labour and the skills they need to grow and sustain their operations.’
At the same time, the Scottish Tourism Alliance rang the alarm bell, warning that the UK government’s immigration plans will:
‘exacerbate the existing recruitment crisis considerably, placing our tourism industry and what is one of the most important economic drivers for Scotland in severe jeopardy’.
More recently, Scottish Ministers wrote to the UK Government on 20 July to push for pragmatic and easily adopted changes to UK migration policies and to highlight the impact of the rules and delays around licensing for the HGV sector, asking for an urgent meeting. All of these warnings were ignored.
The Scottish Government has long argued that the current UK immigration system is not meeting the needs of Scotland.
We have unique challenges – unlike the UK as a whole all of our future population growth is projected to come from inward migration.
But what has also become clear over the past few days is that the UK Government’s hostile approach to migration, is not meeting the needs of key sectors of the economy across the whole of the UK.
On that note, it has been sad to see the leadership of the Labour Party this week ruling out bringing back freedom of movement.
They have put what they believe are their electoral fortunes in other parts of the UK ahead of the needs of Scotland and the Scottish economy.
The UK Government’s proposal of a three month visa route for 5,000 additional hauliers and 5,500 poultry workers is demonstrably inadequate.
It is not an attractive offer to workers and provides no certainty for employers. To quote James Withers, Chief Executive of Scotland Food and Drink:
it is ‘too little too late’.
But there are actions that the UK Government can and must take now:
They could instead introduce a 24 month temporary workers visa.
Ensure a formal role for the Scottish Government and Parliament in shaping the Scottish Shortage Occupation List.
And review excessive visa fees.
After 19 requests to speak with the UK Immigration Minister on these vital matters since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, the UK Minister has finally agreed to meet me next week. =
I will reiterate the urgency of making these changes to the Immigration Rules to ensure Scotland’s businesses and public services can access the skills they need.
The UK Government could easily introduce these improvements if there was the political will to do so.
Instead, it has forced EU citizens to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme to maintain the rights that they already had. It has labelled those who chose to come to this country to make a positive contribution to our economy ‘queue jumpers’ and accused them of ‘undercutting British salaries’ – to quote the Secretary of State for Transport earlier this week.
The UK Government cannot simultaneously appeal for migrants to come and help whilst also demonising those who do come. Migration policy must support fair work, protect workers’ rights, pay and access to employment while preventing exploitation and abuse.
So the Tories are indeed taking aim at the Scottish economy by removing Scotland from the EU and imposing a hard Brexit in the midst of a pandemic – making recovery so much harder.
And they are making the most disadvantaged pay the biggest price.
They have decided to combine a disastrous Brexit with catastrophic cuts to Universal Credit.
Indeed the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has warned that the ‘triple whammy’ of prices rises, tax increases and benefit cuts could leave low income families £33.50 a week worse off.
The choice of the UK Government to place the burden on those who can least afford it risks pushing more people into crisis, putting the most vulnerable in our society at greater risk of food insecurity and homelessness.
Within our powers we are doing all that we can to support people who are on low incomes. The Scottish Government invested around £2.5 billion last year in targeted support, and we will continuing that support through the winter.
However, the Scottish Government only has limited power to address insufficient and insecure incomes – the key drivers of household food insecurity – and Government powers related to the energy market are reserved entirely.
In the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, No campaigners boasted about what they called the strength and security of the UK.
They said to people in Scotland that they had to reject independence to remain within the EU.
Since then, we’ve had years of Tory austerity.
Boris Johnson has been elected as Prime Minister.
Scotland has been ignored and taken out of the EU.
A hard Brexit has been imposed in the middle of a pandemic.
And today, under Westminster control, we have people queuing for hours in the search for petrol.
There are even shortages of some foods.
Our world class food and drink industry, our universities, our manufacturers and our service companies have all been hit by the Tory Brexit obsession.
And the Tories are about to take £20 a week from working people on low incomes, risking pushing 60,000 people in Scotland, including 20,000 children, into poverty.
All of this has happened – all of it – against the wishes of the people of Scotland.
Following the 2014 referendum all parties represented in this Parliament said in the joint Smith Commission report:
“It is agreed that nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose.”
In May, the people of Scotland elected this new Parliament with a clear majority in favour of a fresh referendum on independence.
It is they, the people of this country – not Boris Johnson and his band of Brexiteers – who have the right to decide their own future.