- 1 Mar 2018
On Tuesday I came to the chamber to make a statement about why the Scottish Ministers considered it necessary now to introduce the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill despite the continuing passage at Westminster of a bill with similar intent.
Yesterday, the Lord Advocate came to the chamber to make, for the first time, a statement on the Senior Law Officer's reasons for respectfully considering that bill to be within the legislative competence of this Parliament despite a Presiding Officer deciding not to grant it a positive certificate.
Today, despite the weather, I am here to set out the Government's reasons for seeking to have that bill considered under emergency procedure, and I will in a moment move the motion seeking Parliament's approval for that.
The timetable proposed for dealing with this bill is not – as it has been for previous emergency bills – to deal with all stages in one day. Some of us are old enough to remember that procedure being used for the first time to restore tolls on the Erskine Bridge. It has only been used very sparingly.
Parliament is rightly sparing in its approval of the emergency procedure but I am proposing to Parliament today that we should - with the whole Parliament, sitting in this chamber – consider this bill over the next three weeks, starting with the stage 1 debate next Wednesday, stage 2 the week after that and stage 3 the following week.
I think, first and foremost, it is entirely fitting that a bill which is about defending the interests and powers of this Parliament - perhaps more than any other bill that we have ever considered - should be scrutinized and, if we are so minded, approved at all stages, by the whole Parliament.
But scrutiny of this bill will extend beyond the chamber, as it must. Presiding Officer, I have committed to making myself and my officials available throughout the period to the Parliament in committee and in plenary, and to parties and relevant groups.
I will work tirelessly to make sure, in so far as I am able, that the maximum possible scrutiny of the government's proposals takes place, and that Parliament and its committees are informed and engaged throughout, even if changes to the timetable.
Presiding Officer I observed on Tuesday, echoing your own words in your published views on the bill, that this is a novel situation.
In normal times such a bill would follow a normal timetable. But these are not normal times, after much serious consideration, both the Welsh Government and ourselves have concluded that if the continuity bills are to defend the principles of devolution during the Brexit process – if they are to achieve their purpose – then such a timetable is necessary.
We have both sought to avoid tabling such bills. We continue to negotiate seriously and in good faith with the UK Government to try and secure an agreement regarding the UK's EU Withdrawal Bill that would allow our bills to be withdrawn or, if they have been enacted, to be set aside.
But the timetable for this process is being driven not by us but by the timetable at Westminster for their EU Withdrawal Bill. It is likely that third reading in the Lords will take place in early May, and that it will be submitted for Royal Assent shortly thereafter.
It is essential that the continuity bills in Wales and Scotland becomes law before the EU Withdrawal Bill does.
In the absence of an agreement about a common UK approach and in defense of devolution this Parliament must prepare itself to assert - if it has to - the right to legislate itself about the devolved consequences of EU Withdrawal.
To do so we must put in place the necessary safeguard and stopgaps and this bill is at the heart of that process. Without it not only are we defenseless but our negotiating position as a Government is severely weakened.
We must not only have options and choices, we must be seen to have options and choices. And that is why I hope all parties in the Parliament will back the position I am laying out today, so that there is a united Scottish voice.
In addition this timetable is necessary because if - and I hope this does not come to pass - if no agreement can be reached over the EU Withdrawal Bill, and this Parliament chooses not to consent to it, then the UK Government and Parliament must be given the time to do what they have to in response to that decision. They must amend their own EU Withdrawal Bill to remove the provisions not consented to, and to amend it so that it can work with the two Continuity Bills.
And if we get to that stage, that would be a constructive alternative way forward. Not the best way, but a possible way. A workable way. A way that is being proposed in Wales and Scotland by Governments taking a rational, thought through approach rooted in the devolved settlements which are supported by our fellow citizens and which are the established constitutional order of these islands.
It is unfortunate that to date the UK Government has not shown a willingness to be as constructive and collaborative as Wales and Scotland.
We will go on trying to change that situation. We will never get tired of sensible negotiation.
Presiding Officer –
I am confident that this Parliament can give this bill the scrutiny it deserves in the next three weeks. The Parliament and its committees have already held a large number of evidence sessions and debates on the EU Withdrawal Bill, on which the continuity bill is modeled. The Delegated Powers and Finance and Constitution Committees have produced interim reports on that bill, of the highest quality.
The Parliament is therefore already familiar with the approach and structure of this bill. It knows about the issues it raises. I will ensure that briefing material on the bill is made available as required and on the process of negotiation.
We all understand the scale and gravity of the task we are now engaged in. Brexit has thrown on us all sorts of responsibilities that we did not vote for, did not seek and do not want.
But we must not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by them, or succumb to the temptation by doing nothing and letting them to prevail.
The Government stands ready to help the Parliament with the scrutiny of this bill in any and every way it can.
And even more importantly I am sure this Parliament stands ready to defend the interests of the people of Scotland by ensuring good governance which cannot come from diminishing devolution but only by respecting and building on the work we all do in this chamber on behalf of our fellow citizens.
Sometimes - and especially now -that requires us to do new things in new ways.
I move that the Parliament agrees that the UK Withdrawal From The European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill be treated as an Emergency Bill.