Michael Russell’s statement on protecting Scotland from the impact of Brexit

Michael Russell, Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations, has made a statement to the Scottish Parliament on the Scottish Government’s plans to ensure Scotland is prepared for Brexit.


Presiding Officer, on 11 September 1997- 21 years ago to the very day, exactly – the people of Scotland voted in a referendum to re-establish this Scottish Parliament.


That devolution referendum was a recognition of “the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”, to quote the Claim of Right of 1989.


But instead of celebrating on this 21st birthday of devolution, we are instead witnessing that “sovereign right” being ignored as we face the most crucial and damaging change to our lives and prospects that any of us here will have known.


Despite the overwhelming vote in Scotland to remain in the EU, in less than seven months’ time the UK Government intends to take Scotland, and the rest of the UK out of the EU.


It intends to do so despite the vote of the people of Scotland against that step.   It intends to do so despite the views of this Parliament. And it intends to do so despite the fact that it lacks any workable plan or what the consequences will be thereafter.


Presiding Officer, there is vanishingly short window – some 198 days now –  for agreement on the terms of withdrawal.


Meanwhile, discussions on the shape of a political declaration about a framework for future relationship are deadlocked by a UK Government unable to move for fear of destabilising the Conservative Party.


Of course Brexit is, in reality, only the latest round in a 40 year long civil war within the Conservative Party about Europe.


The latest battlefield in that war is the so called “Chequers Agreement”.   The EU have been clear that Proposals on customs and trade in goods are not acceptable.  If the Prime Minister cannot soften her proposals – and she has at least 80 of her own MPs prepared to die in the political ditch because as far as they are concerned the Chequers plan is too soft already  – then the risk of exiting in March with no agreement on the terms of exit and no more than a commitment to further negotiations is very real.


Now Presiding Officer there are some in this chamber that are trying to tell us that we have to choose between those warring factions.  But that is a false choice. Let me make this very clear at the outset No Deal is impossible and unthinkable. But the Chequers Deal is impractical and unworkable, and a Brexit with next to no detail about future relationship – a so called ‘blind Brexit’ – would be completely unacceptable. So we must find something better.


But what a mess the Tories have made of it.  They should be hanging their heads in silent shame in this chamber this afternoon.


This Scottish Government has, however, always made a distinction between the politics of Brexit and the absolute necessity of doing everything we can to ensure no legislative cliff edge.  We are committed – solidly and completely – to taking every action to ensure as little damage to Scotland as possible


The publication in August of the first batch of “no deal” technical notices that laid bare not just the appalling irresponsibility of all those involved, but also illustrate the stark reality of what a no deal would mean for Scottish business and citizens.


Reading those notices, I am struck again and again that there is a simple solution that would avoid all this damage – staying in the European Union.


That should still be our aim.   But we should also be prepared to compromise if others will compromise.


Accordinly,  we will continue to make the case, vigorously, for membership of the European Single Market and Customs Union and to set out the implications of other options and the impact they would have on Scotland’s future.


We will also regrettably have to work as hard as we can to prepare for a no deal, should one occur.


Presiding Officer, I made a statement in June where I advised that the Scottish Government was intensifying its preparations for all exit possibilities in order to support the Scottish economy and our businesses, people and public services in what are and will continue to be very uncertain times.


In contrast, just like in the conduct of its negotiations, the UK Government’s readiness preparations for EU Exit have been haphazard, contradictory and have massively increased the uncertainty for business, citizens and public services


I confirm that, none the less, Scottish Government intends to take a coherent, consistent and collaborative approach to making preparations for EU Exit.  We will be straight with people, and I intend to communicate what the Scottish Government is doing to help Scotland prepare for EU Exit.


Let me start with details of our preparations in parallel with the UK Government’s arrangements:


In June I said I would return to Parliament with more details on how we will legislate to deliver a functioning devolved statute book.


This is an unwelcome responsibility, but it is one we will face up to.  We must act just in case we find ourselves in the worst of circumstances.


This chamber will understand that this is a significant undertaking.  The deficiencies in our statute book that have already been identified – that is the areas where change must be made – are many and varied.   We need to correct hundreds of pieces of legislation, not a mere handful.


But we have no choice.  So as Parliamentarians we will have a great deal of heavy legislative lifting to do over the next few months.


We have always said that the best way to go about this task would be by cooperation and coordination between the governments of these islands, as long as that cooperation could take place in a way that respected the principles of devolution, and gave this Parliament its proper role in the process.


Accordingly let me make it clear today that where the policy outcome being sought is consistent across governments, we will seek to agree approaches to the fixing regulations required. Of course where they are not, we will pursue our own policies which will require us bringing forward our own secondary legislation.


Even with co-operation, the number of individual items for this Parliament to consider may be between 100 and 200 additional instrument.


That is a heavy burden.  But it could be heavier still if Westminster is not willing to co-operate sensibly.


Presiding Officer I have written today to the conveners of the Constitution and Delegated Powers committees, to set out the government’s approach and to agree a protocol between government and parliament, which will ensure that this Parliament is able to scrutinise effectively the items in question and the whole process.


This is not about the where devolved competence will fall after EU exit. This is not about section 12 of the EU Withdrawal Act, which this Parliament has overwhelmingly rejected and which this Government will have nothing to do with. This is not even about Legislative Consent Motions.  This is about responsibly discharging, as best we can, our duty to ensure a functioning devolved statute book.


Now let me turn to some other associated issues.


In writing to UK suppliers of over 8000 medicines asking them to stockpile up to 6 weeks of supplies, the Secretary of State for Health exposed the scale and complexity of the problems created by Brexit.  Nonetheless the Cabinet Secretary for Health and the Chief Medical Officer are engaged in those discussions and will ensure the full involvement of Scotland in that system.


We are also constantly reviewing our planning for Brexit more generally and after the next two tranches of “technical notices “ are issued by the UK Government we will consider publishing our own supplementary guidance if we feel it can be useful and does not add to the momentum around a “no deal” which could be an unforeseen outcome.    And we are of course, engaged in civil contingencies planning around any impacts which may have an immediate and direct effect on citizens.


But in the event of a hard Brexit or no deal, it is important to realise there may be some risks that will simply not be in the hands of the Scottish Government to mitigate.


If there are customs delays at the border between the UK and EU, food imports and exports could be delayed and disrupted.  Exporters of perishable foods from Scotland could find their products taking longer to get to market, or unable to get there at all, and costing more.


In the fight against crime we stand to lose access to the expertise built up in EUROPOL.  This is used to identify, track and disrupt some of the most dangerous cross-border criminal activity.  The ability of Police Scotland to work with law enforcement colleagues from across the EU to tackle that can be vital in time-critical situations.


If free movement of EU nationals and mutual recognition of professional qualifications is curtailed, this would have serious consequences for the recruitment and retention of public sector workers across Scotland.


Presiding Officer the Scottish Government is aligning existing financial and staff resources towards those areas with specific EU exit-related demands, and is ensuring we have the right people in the right places to respond.


We have created a new Directorate for International Trade and Investment, and strengthened our presence in Brussels, London, Dublin, Berlin and Paris to ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard in Europe.

Every Directorate of the Scottish Government is engaged in planning for EU exit.


The Scottish Government will receive £37.3m of consequentials allocated in 2018-19. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work has made initial allocations of funding to support vital activities, which to date total £26.6m resource and £0.5m capital.


We are prioritising areas heavily impacted by Brexit, such as agriculture and the rural economy.


We are also using these funds to ensure that we have the skilled staff in place to resource the delivery of a functioning devolved statute book for EU Exit and beyond.


It is unacceptable that Scotland’s public finances should suffer detriment as a result of Brexit, and we will continue to press the UK Government to ensure that the financial implications of EU exit and the need for appropriate future funding arrangements for Scotland are fully considered.


Presiding Officer, preparing for an orderly Brexit has been and will be a major challenge in itself.


That displacement of skills and resources will be mirrored across Scotland’s businesses and public services.


How much worse is it to be forced to also address the prospect of a no deal Brexit threatening disruption on an unprecedented scale in peacetime?


However carefully we prepare for a no deal scenario, it will still result in chaos.  Even the UK Government’s own no deal plans will require a plethora of agreements with the EU in order to work effectively.  In a situation where negotiations have broken down, we have to ask how plausible this is.


I will also keep Parliament updated on preparations, and make a further statement in due course.


Presiding Office, a no deal is not inevitable, but the Chequers Agreement is not deliverable, and a blind Brexit is not acceptable.


So, not leaving would be best.   And the only acceptable alternative thereafter is continued membership of the Single Market and Customs Union which is essential for our economy, our society and the people of Scotland,


The Scottish Government will continue to make that case whilst fulfilling our duty of protecting Scotland as best we can from the threats of a  Brexit – any Brexit – that we cannot completely ameliorate, that we do not want, and that we did not vote for.