After today there are only 19 sitting days in this Parliament before the UK is due to leave the EU.
Meeting the legislative pressures of a possible “no deal” Brexit has been challenging and I acknowledge the flexibility and diligence this parliament, its Committees and their Conveners have demonstrated in carrying out that scrutiny role.
However, it is clear that there is a substantial backlog of Brexit legislation at Westminster and, to date, only 73 of the 115 UK SIs to which we have consented have been laid in the UK Parliament.
No one I have spoken to in recent weeks, with the exception of the Prime Minister, believes that Westminster can complete the work it has to finish on Brexit preparations in that time.
Accordingly the Scottish Government believes it is essential that two things happen at the earliest possible date.
Firstly, the Prime Minister must seek an extension to the Article 50 process no matter what other tasks she has set herself in terms of negotiation and Parliamentary decision. That is essential even in legislative, let alone economic and political terms.
And secondly, she – or the House of Commons – must take formal, legal steps to rule out a ‘no deal’ which would reduce the pressure on businesses and individuals as well as on the Parliaments of these islands.
Presiding Officer, in December last year this Parliament voted decisively against the Prime Minister’s EU Withdrawal deal, and for very good reasons.
The Prime Minister’s “deal” would make Scotland poorer, place us at a serious competitive disadvantage and, combined with the UK Government’s hostile immigration policy, make a fall in Scotland’s working, tax-paying population inevitable.
In addition the proposed deal provides no certainty. It will mean years of difficult negotiations with no guarantee that a trade deal can, in the end, be achieved.
Last week the Prime Minister seemed to agree with us, voting against her own deal by backing the Brady amendment seeking “alternatives” to the backstop – a backstop she negotiated, and alternatives she and her colleagues, including the ever flexible Secretary of State for Scotland, said (just two weeks ago) did not exist.
They still don’t exist.
The Prime Minister’s deal isn’t the solution to this problem, it is the problem. It represents the inevitable outcome of ill- conceived red lines. It is those red lines that need to change.
Alternatives are possible.
In fact they are absolutely essential. And they are available.
In 2016 the Scottish Government set out compromise plans that would keep both Scotland and the UK in the Single Market.
Now, with the clock ticking down to exit day the Scottish Government is working with others to try and obtain an extension to Article 50 to avoid a catastrophic ‘No Deal’ outcome and allow time for a second referendum on EU membership.
However, as a responsible Government we must act to minimise and mitigate the impact of a possible ‘No Deal’ outcome in Scotland.
We will do everything we can in that regard, although I repeat the caveat I added when I last updated the chamber about the matter – we cannot do everything.
Extensive preparation has been underway for some time but in the first weeks of this year we have been steadily intensifying this work.
Under the leadership of the Deputy First Minister, reporting to the First Minister, the Scottish Government Resilience Committee continues to provide a single clear, coordinating structure, with COSLA, civil contingencies responders and Police Scotland participating in these arrangements alongside senior civil servants and Cabinet Secretaries.
It will meet again later today and next week during recess. Cabinet will also meet during recess to hear a further update as we are now preparing for the potential need to operate these arrangements on a permanent basis in the event of a ‘no deal’ outcome and to activate public communications.
I have also attended two special UK Government Ministerial meetings in recent weeks which have considered no deal planning and we continue to engage on these matters with the UK Government at the highest levels. The Deputy First Minister will attend another UK Cabinet Sub Committee on EU exit on Monday.
The Scottish Resilience Partnership is coordinating work across Scotland to ensure that Local Resilience Partnerships are fully engaged in planning, mitigation and preparing arrangements to respond to any of the civil contingency issues arising out of EU Exit.
A national EU-Exit Civil Contingencies Plan is being developed on a multi-agency basis and this will be tested and exercised shortly.
A No-Deal Brexit has the potential to generate a significant economic shock which could tip the Scottish economy into recession (potentially into a deep recession).
It would also have a severe impact on the labour market resulting in potential job losses, business relocations and closures, underemployment and a reduction in recruitment.
The SME sector is likely to be the worst hit. Alongside the UK Government we are trying to rectify that and we would support measures to ensure that there is increased liquidity in the banking system should it be required.
As part of our support for business, the Prepare for Brexit campaign offers practical advice which can help to safeguard, as much as possible in these circumstances, a company’s own growth and that of the Scottish economy.
On transport, it remains our aim to try and secure the best flow of essential goods into Scotland. We are concerned at the possibility of severe delays to freight traffic through Dover and the Channel Tunnel.
We are working with the Department for Transport to establish the extent to which its contingency plans are addressing Scotland’s needs for critical goods and in particularly how rurality can be factored in to supply chain issues. Given my constituency experience I am especially conscious of the position of the Scottish islands and I discussed some of those matters when in Orkney earlier this week.
Transport Scotland is also working with transport providers and ports and airports in Scotland to assess their existing capacity and identify how they could help mitigate disruption and ensure that Scotland’s exporters can continue to get their goods to market.
Uncertainty about future tariff arrangements provide another, key, demonstration of the potentially damaging consequences of No Deal.
Studies by the British Retail Consortium and others suggest that in the absence of a trade agreement between the UK and the EU reversion to WTO tariffs for imports and exports could lead to significant price increases, particularly for food and drink. The Governor of the Bank of England has identified potential rises of between 5-10%.
Our red meat industry and seafood sector will be severely impacted by punitive tariffs, and by severe disruption at the port of Dover. The seafood sector will also be required to comply with a range of additional administrative burdens.
We are seeking urgent clarity on updated UK Government technical advice on Protected Food Names in the event of a no-deal. Not only did the UK Government fail to consult or inform us of the updated notice, the UK Government states that current holders, for example Scottish Salmon, Scotch Beef and Scotch Lamb, may need to re-apply to EU for protection in Europe, and also in other countries where there is a mutual recognition with third countries.
It has long been clear that leaving the EU, under any circumstances, will have a negative impact on the health and social care sector.
If free movement is curtailed, this would have serious consequences for the recruitment and retention of health and social care workers.
On medicines, the Scottish Government is working with all other UK administrations to make sure that patients get the medicines and other medical supplies they need, as far as is possible.
Many of the practical issues connected to medicine supply such as entry and custom controls are out with the devolved competency and we continue to raise specific concerns directly with Department of Health and Social Care.
In addition last week the Scottish Government’s Chief Pharmaceutical Officer wrote to pharmacists and other health professionals to provide information and advice.
One particular point being emphasised is that it is important that patients take a careful view, discuss issues with their GP and pharmacist and do not rush to increase their own supplies
A “no deal” Brexit also raises concerns in areas such as the supply of medical devices, clinical trials, access to future EU funding and the rights of Scottish citizens to secure state-provided healthcare across the EU. NHS Scotland Boards are taking forward their own planning to mitigate this with Scottish Government support.
If there was a no-deal outcome, be denied access to many of the security and law enforcement co-operation measures that Police Scotland and the Crown Office use daily to keep people safe. We would lose membership of Europol, the use of the European arrest warrant and access to vital information-sharing arrangements. That would represent a significant downgrading of our policing and security capability when cross-border crime and security threats are increasing.
As the Chief Constable outlined to the Justice sub-committee on policing last week, Police Scotland is taking forward extensive preparations for loss of these measures, working closely with the Scottish Government. It is also making arrangements to ensure that officers are available for, and trained for, civil contingencies demands and for mutual aid requests.
Police Scotland has today announced plans to put 360 officers on standby from mid-March to deal with any incidents that may arise across the country, such as disruption at ports.
Across the Scottish Government, we are now aligning our existing financial and staff resources towards those areas with specific no-deal impacts and ensuring that we have the right people, in the right places, with the right skills to respond quickly and effectively.
Across the public sector, resources are being diverted to essential preparations for the impact of Brexit. A decision to remain in the EU would allow those resources to be returned to the support and development of frontline services and delivery of Scotland’s priorities.
Our basic principle is this; the Scottish Government believes that any costs related to EU exit by public bodies be they in government, local government or the public sector should not have a detrimental impact on Scotland’s public finances.
Finally, Presiding Officer, let me turn to communications,
The Scottish Government does not intend to replicate the UK approach of publishing a myriad of technical notices. Where those affect Scotland or Scottish issues we are happy to see them distributed and we have done our best to influence them.
We will however do all that we can to ensure that the people of Scotland get a clear, consistent message about the work that is being done and what actions they need to take.
We have therefore launched a public information website to provide important advice around issues such as transport, food, medicines and citizens’ rights. It is now available at mygov.scot/euexit.
This will be regularly reviewed and updated, in order to ensure that the latest information is made available.
We are however coordinating our message with the UK Government where possible and supplementing their message, as we feel necessary. That is the right way forward in terms of resources and clarity.
We do not accept the suggestion that no deal is somehow inevitable, and nor should we allow anyone to ‘normalise’ it.
Unless and until the UK Government takes the necessary steps to rule No Deal out, the Scottish Government must go on with, and indeed intensify, our work to prepare as best we can.
Though Scotland did not vote for this, and should not be having to go through it.
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