Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]
Meeting date: Tuesday, January 31, 2023
Official Report 1122KB pdf
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Management of Transgender Individuals in Prison Custody, Brexit and Workers’ Rights, Committee Announcements (Economy and Fair Work Committee), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Youth Vaping
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Topical Question Time
- Management of Transgender Individuals in Prison Custody
- Brexit and Workers’ Rights
- Committee Announcements (Economy and Fair Work Committee)
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
- Youth Vaping
Brexit and Workers’ Rights
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-07710, in the name of Richard Lochhead, on Brexit and workers’ rights three years on. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now.15:05
Today marks the third anniversary of the United Kingdom formally leaving the European Union; it is the third anniversary of Scotland being taken out of Europe against our will. One thing is crystal clear to virtually every person in Scotland: Brexit is not done—far from it. The economic and social cost to people in Scotland of this disastrous, Westminster-imposed, ideological project continues to grow.
There are several reasons why Brexit is not done. The first reason is the focus of this debate: the UK Government is taking advantage of Brexit to impose a legislative programme that threatens hard-fought workers’ rights and protections. The Scottish Trades Union Congress has spent recent months marking its 125th anniversary. However, it is striking to note that, while doing so, the STUC finds itself having to resist those UK Government attacks on workers’ rights—we must never take those rights for granted.
As we can see from today’s newspapers and broadcast coverage, the economic harm of Brexit is far from over; rather, it is continuing and gathering pace, reducing the size of our economy compared with what we would have expected with EU membership, and cutting the tax revenue that would have been available for public services had we remained in Europe.
Brexit reduced Britain’s gross domestic product by 5.5 per cent by the second quarter of 2022 according to the Centre for European Reform. The CER calculates that, in June 2022, UK investment was already 11 per cent lower, and trade was 7 per cent lower, than would have been the case if Brexit had not occurred. Our own analysis shows that Scotland’s trade in goods with the EU was lower by £2.3 billion in cash terms in 2021 because of Brexit. Brexit is estimated—this is very timely—to have added 6 per cent to the rise in food prices. Given that the rise in the cost of living is affecting everyone in Scotland, that is a significant cost of Brexit. The loss of freedom of movement is contributing to labour shortages and harming business, with skills shortages being felt more acutely in rural areas—particular sectors, such as agriculture, tourism and hospitality, are all bearing the brunt.
Last week, the UK chancellor talked about Brexit “energising growth” and “declinism” being wrong—he said that we should stop being declinist. Well, he may not want to be a declinist, but he is certainly a denialist. Ironically, around the same time, The New York Times published an article entitled “Britain’s cautionary tale of self-destruction”. Leading historian Adam Tooze has reported that the UK is experiencing the worst productivity slow-down in 250 years. The Financial Times tells us that UK households are now 20 per cent worse off than our north-western European neighbours. Just this morning, as I said, we saw reports that Britain is the only major industrialised country set to see its economy shrink this year. All of that damage is happening against the will of the people of Scotland.
As new research published this week has shown, not a single constituency in Scotland believes that it was right to leave, yet we were taken out against our will. We now face a conspiracy of silence between both the Labour and Tory parties at Westminster. Labour and the Tories favour not just Brexit—
That is a bit ironic, given that David Lammy made a significant speech last week and our members have been banging the drum about the mistakes that the Tory Government is making. Mr Lochhead’s allegation of silence is totally inaccurate.
Every commentator across these islands has noticed how the Labour Party does not want to talk about Brexit. Starmer has given no indication that he wants to discuss it and certainly no indication that he wants to take the UK back into Europe—or, indeed, the single market, as he has said in the past few days. We hear from Labour and the Tories that Scotland and the UK have been taken out of not just the EU but the huge single market and the customs union.
Today’s debate is an opportunity to speak up against the very real threat to workers’ rights and the rights of trade unions, and to speak up for a social partnership approach in the mainstream European tradition, in which co-operation replaces confrontation. It is also an opportunity to debate what could be done if the Scottish Parliament had access to full employment powers to make the most of the progressive consensus on workers’ and union rights that I believe exists in Scotland and across the chamber.
I agree with much of what the minister says about the disaster of Brexit. We supported the Government’s efforts on the keeping pace powers. Is he able to update members on how many times that facility has been used and what the plans are for the future?
Partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—is an excellent initiative that has helped many people get back into work who have, unfortunately, been made redundant.
I think that we are talking at cross-purposes.
Are we talking about different initiatives?
I was talking about the keeping pace powers that the Scottish Government has sought to deploy.
I apologise to Willie Rennie. I had my employment hat on, as I was speaking about workers’ rights and PACE.
We want the pace to be maintained as much as possible, but we have many other ideas, which I will come on to, that will improve both the situation for workers in Scotland and the Parliament’s powers. The evidence is piling up that, even before Brexit, Westminster economic management was resulting in an economy that was characterised by stagnant wages and low productivity. Since Brexit, the situation has deteriorated further.
The ending of freedom of movement has had a huge effect on key economic sectors, including food production and manufacturing, hospitality and social care. Those sectors have experienced large decreases in the number of EU workers, along with recruitment challenges and skills shortages. In the latest published data, one third of Scottish businesses reported experiencing a shortage of workers, while almost 40 per cent reported difficulties in filling vacancies. At the same time, the UK Government is using the cover of Brexit to start tearing up workers’ protections and trade union rights.
As a Government, we are committed to continuing to work in partnership with trade unions. Our position is in stark contrast to that of the UK Government, which has continuously sought to undermine workers’ rights to strike. Despite the UK Government already having the most stringent anti-union laws in western Europe, it seeks to pass legislation that will further undermine and weaken workers’ rights.
The UK Government’s intention to discard vital standards and protections that have been built up over 47 years of EU membership through its rushed Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill puts at risk vital workers’ rights and protections, as well as environmental, food and animal welfare standards and consumer protection. It also, of course, brings business uncertainty.
According to the UK Government, all law derived from EU membership must be reviewed, or it risks disappearing by the end of this year. That includes regulations on working time and parental leave, the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations and regulations on agency workers and part-time workers, as well as a raft of health and safety legislation. The bill puts vital workers’ rights and protections at risk, including the right to a 48-hour week, to minimum rest periods and to annual paid leave entitlements, as well as the right to paid maternity or parental leave. As Unison’s general secretary, Christina McAnea, said:
“the government should be creating stability and certainty—not a bonfire of workers’ rights and decades of legal wrangling.”
The Scottish Government is firmly opposed to any weakening of workers’ protections. We call on the UK Government to withdraw the bill and have already recommended that the Scottish Parliament should withhold its consent.
Not content with that “bonfire of workers’ rights”, the UK Government has sought to pour yet more fuel on the fire. Expanding on the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill that was introduced to Parliament last year, the UK Government has pushed forward with its new Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill with as little parliamentary scrutiny as possible.
Under current legislation, provided that a union organises a strike in accordance with rules set out in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, the union cannot be sued for damages and workers cannot be sacked. However, under the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which was debated in the House of Commons this week, unions and individuals would have to comply with draconian legislation on minimum service levels to maintain those basic rights. As Dr Deborah Dean, the co-director of the industrial relations research unit at the University of Warwick, has asked, to what problem is raising the threat of sacking essential workers the answer? In just 18 months, the UK Government has gone from clapping essential workers to seeking out new ways to sack them. The bill is not only unwelcome but unnecessary—in fact, voluntary or contractual arrangements are already in place for many of the key workers the bill covers.
Despite UK ministers desperately trying to present the bill as legislation to set minimum safety levels, the Scottish Government knows that it is not about safety—it is simply about further limiting the right to strike. The Scottish Government is wholly opposed to this direct attack on workers’ rights. It is our long-standing position that a progressive approach to industrial relations, along with greater—not fewer—protections for such workers is at the heart of a fairer and more successful society. The Government strongly opposes any bill that undermines legitimate trade union activity and does not respect fair work principles.
The bill is also ineffective. Far from putting a stop to strikes, it will only agitate trade unions further and inflame rather than resolve legitimate industrial disputes.
The bill is a further attempt by the UK Government to bypass the Sewel convention. Like the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill enables UK ministers to take decisions in policy areas that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
The bill gives no indication of how minimum service levels might be defined—it leaves that entirely to regulations that are to be made by UK Government ministers. That brings them into operational decisions in areas of devolved competence. The bill gives them the powers to set staffing levels in areas of devolved responsibility, although health, education, elements of transport and fire and rescue services in Scotland are entirely devolved and separate from those elsewhere in the UK. There is no requirement to consult, let alone reach agreement with, the Scottish Government in making such regulations.
Along with the strike-busting Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022, which were introduced last year, the bill is yet another example of why the Scottish Parliament needs full control over employment powers and levers, which will enable the Parliament to set the legislative framework for our labour market here in Scotland in the 21st century.
The UK Government is clearly on a regressive path. We may not have all the relevant powers, but we are doing everything that we can, with the levers that we have, to drive fair work outcomes in Scotland. We know that fair work brings increased security, better physical health and greater psychological wellbeing for workers. We know that it provides a more engaged, committed and adaptable workforce. It is also good for the economy—it drives productivity, releases untapped potential and inspires innovation.
In the absence of employment powers, we are doing all that we can to strengthen the voice of Scotland’s workers through supporting strong trade unions and promoting collective bargaining. It is clear that there are many constraints that we face as a Government, because of the current devolved settlement. We are doing all that we can with what we have but, fundamentally, that still means that we have one hand tied behind our back.
With more powers, we could introduce a fair national minimum wage that better reflects the cost of living and does not have lower rates for younger workers, or we could strengthen access to flexible working to give parents and carers, most of whom are women, more choice over how to balance caring and employment responsibilities. We could also repeal the unfair UK Trade Union Act 2016.
I am in the last few seconds of my speech, so I will conclude by reiterating the purpose of the debate, which is to acknowledge that, post-Brexit, the UK Government’s Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill poses a significant risk to workers’ rights, which is further compounded by the anti-trade union legislation that has been debated in the Westminster Parliament this week and adopted in previous months. We stand in stark contrast and opposition to the anti-trade union approach that the UK Government continues to take. We recognise that any modern aspirational country would acknowledge and support the role of trade unions in achieving sustainable economic growth and a fairer, more equal and stronger economy.
That the Parliament acknowledges that, post-Brexit, the UK Government’s Retained EU Law Bill poses a significant risk to workers’ rights; further acknowledges that this is further compounded by anti-trade union legislation, such as the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022, and the new Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill; agrees that a progressive approach to industrial relations along with greater, not fewer, protections for workers is at the heart of a fairer and stronger economy; recognises trade unions as key social partners in delivering economic and social aspiration, and as vital for ensuring that the voices of workers are heard; calls on the UK Government not to erode the hard-won rights of workers, and confirms it is committed to continuing to work in partnership as it responds to the current crisis posed by UK Government legislation post-Brexit.
I call Donald Cameron to speak to and move amendment S6M-07710.1.
I am sorry; it is me.
I am sorry—I am calling not Donald Cameron but Alexander Stewart.15:19
Before discussing the details of my amendment and the subject of today’s debate, I will reflect on what the debate should have been about. The debate was an opportunity for the Parliament to set out its vision for workers’ rights in Scotland in the coming years. It was an opportunity to set out the importance to the Scottish economy of fair work and workers’ rights. It was an opportunity—dare I say it?—for the Scottish Government to constructively make its case for how such rights should be advanced in the years to come.
However, any hope of such a debate happening today vanished as soon as the Scottish Government published its motion for the debate. It is disappointing but not surprising that the motion is yet another list of grievances and makes no effort to set out the bold vision for workers’ rights that the people of Scotland expect.
In his opening remarks, the minister tried to paint a picture of a United Kingdom Government that is determined to undermine workers’ rights at all costs. The truth is, of course, somewhat different. The UK has one of the best records on workers’ rights in the world, and it has consistently striven to do much more than has been done in many EU member states in different areas. For example, the United Kingdom minimum wage is higher than that in most EU member states. From 1 April, it will increase to £10.42 per hour for those aged 23 and above. That is an increase of nearly 10 per cent on the previous rate, which will leave the UK with one of the highest minimum wages in the world.
We should also remember that United Kingdom maternity leave entitlement is nearly three times the EU equivalent. Statutory maternity leave in the United Kingdom is 52 weeks, of which up to 39 weeks are paid leave.
The right to paid paternity leave was granted in the United Kingdom nearly 20 years before it was granted in the EU, and workers in the United Kingdom receive a minimum of five weeks of annual leave. That is more than the four weeks required by the EU.
We also know that the Working Time Regulations 1998 transposed the working time directive into UK law and that that has been retained through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.
That shows the highly responsible historical record of the UK Government in continuing to do more in those areas. More recently, loopholes have been closed, such as the one whereby agency workers were employed for less money than permanent employees. The maximum fine for employers who mistreat workers has been quadrupled. Several recommendations from “Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices”, which was published in 2017, have already been implemented. An employment bill, which will further implement the review’s recommendations, will be introduced.
It is therefore clear that the improvement of workers’ rights is not a finished project; rather, it is an on-going process. Far from being a threat to workers’ rights across the UK, Brexit can be an opportunity for the UK to continue to do more in that area.
Will the member take an intervention?
Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab) rose—
In a challenging economy and a challenging jobs market, it will be vital to ensure that we have a package of workers’ rights that maintains this country’s historically high standards while allowing the flexibility that employers will need in the post-pandemic recovery.
I think that Emma Roddick was the first to try to intervene.
Alexander Stewart talks about the opportunity for improving workers’ rights, but the UK Government is still refusing to give Scotland the powers that it needs to improve employment rights. Meanwhile, it prevents people from going on strike, legislates to prevent people from going on strike and refuses to take action on fire-and-rehire zero-hours contracts. Is the member in denial?
I am certainly not in denial. Businesses throughout the United Kingdom want opportunity, and businesses in Scotland want opportunity, but the Scottish Government ensures that there are higher taxes and that there are different aspects to the way that government is managed. Earlier, I asked a question about the problems in the retail sector in Scotland. Scotland is not performing anywhere near as well as the rest of the United Kingdom is.
I have confidence that we are moving in the right direction in the area. If the Scottish Government would take a moment to look at the issue more openly, perhaps it would share that confidence.
The minister spoke about the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill—and, no doubt, other members will do so. It is important to remember that the minimum service levels for which the bill would provide are not unprecedented. Similar laws already exist in a number of European countries, and we have seen that strikes still go ahead even with minimum service levels in place. Far from removing the right to strike, the bill is about maintaining life-and-limb services at all times, and it meets all the criteria set out by the International Labour Organization.
For all its talk of the importance of workers’ rights, the Scottish National Party fails to acknowledge the most important right of all: the right of workers to secure a well-paid job of their choosing. On that issue, Scotland is performing well as part of the United Kingdom, and it is benefiting from a labour market that balances employer flexibility with employee rights. The unemployment rate in Scotland is close to historical lows, at 3.3 per cent, and the number of employees on the payroll continues to grow.
Another vital aspect of the labour market is the right to come here to work. The UK should be a place where people can find a job that takes full advantage of their skills, and it should be a place where employers can find flexible labour. The new UK points-based immigration system that has been created provides easier routes for those who work in shortage occupations, including health and social care. According to the most recent figures, total net migration to the UK was more than 500,000, and there are now 60,000 more EU or non-EU migrants living in Scotland than there were before the Brexit vote.
Nevertheless, it is clear that there are still Europe-wide labour shortages in a number of sectors, so it is important that the United Kingdom Government continues to respond to labour requirements. One such area relates to the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which greatly benefits a number of soft fruit and vegetable producers across Scotland, including in many sites in Perthshire and Fife, in my region. The seasonal workers pilot, and the full scheme that was then put in place, provided flexibility. However, the Scottish Conservatives knew that there was still considerable concern, and lobbying from us and from a number of sectors ensured that the scheme was expanded to allow up to 30,000 visas in 2021, which was very much welcomed. The UK Government has continued to listen and respond to market needs, so the scheme will now be extended to allow 45,000 visas in 2023. It is important that the UK Government continues to show the willingness to respond to the needs of employers in relation to the labour market following the pandemic.
Given all the workers’ rights that have been achieved historically within the UK, it is disappointing that, once again, the SNP is looking to cause grievance, as I have outlined. We face a choice: we can have the competitiveness and constructive working that we want to see or we can have members grandstanding and making political points, as we have heard them do today—the Government has chosen that option.
Regardless of the Scottish Government’s approach, Scotland still has at least one Government that is determined to continue working to ensure that our country is recognised throughout the world as a place where individuals can work, do work and want to work.
I move amendment S6M-07710.1, to leave out from “acknowledges that, post-Brexit” to end and insert:
“welcomes the UK’s proud record of protecting and enhancing workers’ rights and welcomes the fact that it has gone further than the EU in a number of areas; notes that, from April 2023, the UK’s minimum wage of £10.42 per hour will be among the highest in the world; understands that maternity leave entitlement is nearly three times higher in the UK compared to the EU equivalent and that the UK introduced the right to paternity leave 17 years before the EU did; recognises that the UK Government is working with industry to reduce labour shortages through programmes such as the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, and calls on the Scottish Government to work constructively with the UK Government to ensure that workers in Scotland continue to experience the high standard of rights that they rightly expect.”15:28
This is an important debate because it is a chance for us to focus on the mess that the Conservatives are making of Brexit, their false promises and what we can do in Scotland.
The SNP is wrong to claim that Labour has been silent on Brexit. Our colleagues are working day after day to stop the Tory Government’s hard Brexit, to have a different approach that supports our businesses and workers, and to stop the damage that the Tories are doing to our economy right across the UK.
As I said in my intervention, David Lammy provided an excellent critique of the Tories last week. However, he did not just do that; he gave a way forward, which involves repairing damaged relations and building closer relationships with the EU and our friends across Europe.
The member probably knows what I am going to ask. Is the Labour Party in favour of rejoining the European Union?
I have to say to the member that, if more of his members and supporters had voted to stay in the EU, we would not be in this position. Look at the figures: 36 per cent of SNP voters voted to leave, and a significant number of Labour supporters did so, too. We have a challenge in ensuring that we devolve power to our communities. There is a challenge for all of us.
Ironically, the SNP changes its tactics daily. First, the next UK elections were to be a de facto indyref; then there was to be a de facto referendum at the next Scottish elections; and then one SNP MP said that there could be a snap Scottish Parliament election, with the vote brought forward from 2026. Angus Robertson has said that the de facto referendum will be on leaving the UK and joining Europe at the same time. However, as ever, there are no details and the difficult questions have been left to one side. We have the same old Tories at Westminster, but we also have the same old SNP in Scotland. There is no clear plan for the people who need support now.
There are elements in the SNP motion with which we strongly agree so, to be constructive, our amendment would keep those bits. The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is massively damaging and could result in around 4,000 pieces of legislation being wiped off the statute book. That is a massive job for civil servants, and we could lose key protections by accident. The response from businesses, including in the food sector, as well as from trade unions and those campaigning for safety and environmental standards, is absolutely clear. Those bits of legislation were not invented overnight; they are the result of years of consultation and parliamentary scrutiny.
Despite all the warm words from Alexander Stewart, it is important that we reject the Tory Government’s proposed anti-trade union laws, which are regressive. They are stepping back in time and do not respect people’s hard-earned rights at work. The Tories are not on the side of working people. They have failed to end fire-and-rehire contracts and to ban precarious zero-hours contracts. We have heard all the talk about the minimum wage, but someone who is on a zero-hours contract does not know when they will get that £10 an hour, and people are terrified of losing their employment. Those are all things that we need to change now.
When we campaigned to remain in the EU, we highlighted the dangers of leaving a union that we had been in for decades and losing the certainty and the co-operation that we had built with our European neighbours. Our SNP Government now needs to do much more. We need political leadership rather than a culture of blame that is an excuse for failure.
Let us think about it. The Erasmus scheme could have been replaced by now, to ensure that our young people do not miss out on opportunities to gain skills and experiences that would help them to develop their careers and contribute to our economy. To see the truth of that, we need only look at the Welsh Labour Government’s Erasmus replacement—the Taith scheme—under which young people in Wales are now getting those much-missed opportunities.
We want the SNP-Green Government to be more ambitious. I want to focus on the use of procurement powers to deal with some of the issues that Richard Lochhead raised. The SNP-Green Government could be doing things now, right across the public sector, to raise standards, secure decent salaries for workers, invest in skills and secure decent terms and conditions. That is not a far-off promise; it could be done now.
It is no wonder that Unite has pulled out of the national care service process, as that process will not deliver national terms and conditions and career opportunities. We need a fair deal for vital staff. It is no wonder that it is hard to recruit carers, given how they are treated. We still do not have a commitment to pay them £15 an hour; instead, we have £1.3 billion wasted on bureaucracy and centralisation.
We want action now. We will support elements of the SNP motion, but our amendment ends by demanding not only that the Tory Government stops undermining devolution, whether deliberately or inadvertently, but that our Governments work together even when they do not agree.
There has been talk today about working with our European neighbours. We agree with that. However, we do not agree with all the European Governments that have been elected. Democracy means that different countries have different Governments, but that does not mean that we should not work together. We need co-operation with our EU neighbours and with the UK Government.
We want our Governments to sit together and to work co-operatively, whether that is about stronger action on developing the new green revolution and affordable heat and power networks, developing trade relations that support our communities or investing in innovation and research in our universities and businesses. That is what our businesses, workers and communities need now. They do not need more constitutional stand-offs.
We have one Government that excuses its own failures by going into “if only” mode, forgetting its lack of leadership for 15 years. In the other Government, the Tories are clinging on to power for as long as they can get away with it. However, people want change, and that change will come only with a Labour Government that is elected to rebuild the relations that were damaged after Brexit, to rebuild our economy and to rebuild the infrastructure that has been impacted by Covid and the cost of living crisis.
Instead of introducing regressive and unfair trade union laws that would push back our country by decades, a Labour Government would modernise workers’ rights for the 21st century. We would respect and empower workers, giving them democratic and economic rights.
People do not go on strike without thinking about it carefully. It is a big decision. It means a loss of salary. They do it because they are fighting for a better deal and for respect, not just for them but for the future generation of workers. They are fighting to support their families, to pay their mortgages, to pay their rent, to feed themselves and to turn on their heating.
The sooner we get rid of the Tories and replace them with a progressive Labour Government, the better.
I move amendment S6M-07710.2, to leave out from “anti-trade” to end and insert:
“the UK Conservative administration’s anti-trade union legislation, such as the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022, and the new Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill; agrees that a progressive approach to industrial relations along with greater, not fewer, protections for workers is at the heart of a fairer and stronger economy; recognises trade unions as key social partners in delivering economic and social aspiration, and as vital for ensuring that the voices of workers are heard; calls on the UK Government not to erode the hard-won rights of workers; further calls on the UK and Scottish Governments to work together to solve the problems of the post-Brexit settlement over workers’ rights in a way that respects devolution and does not sideline the devolved legislatures, and notes that the next UK General Election is the best opportunity for replacing the current UK Conservative administration, repealing its anti-union legislation and reinforcing workers’ rights with a better deal for workers, including ending fire-and-rehire practices, banning zero hour contracts, and delivering government-backed pay negotiations between unions and employers on a sector by sector basis.”15:35
We will support Labour’s amendment, as it neatly sets out the reasons for opposing the Conservative Government’s trade union legislation. It argues for a progressive approach to industrial relations along with greater, not fewer, protections for workers. It states that, at its heart, we need
“a fairer and stronger economy.”
I would argue that the Conservative Government has been cavalier, including with the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, by throwing out perfectly good legislation in a cavalier fashion. It has also been cavalier with its Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. I think that it is a sign of defeat from the Conservative Government that it is incapable of negotiating agreements with trade unions. Resorting to those minimum standards is very aggressive and no way to have
“a fairer and stronger economy.”
Three years on from leaving the European Union, and more than six years on from the vote on Brexit, let me get this off my chest: I think that we Liberal Democrats were right about Brexit and right to campaign against it. I have always maintained that Britain made a mistake by leaving the European Union.
Europe’s largest stock market is now in Paris, not London. The minister said, rightly, that the Centre for European Reform has highlighted that GDP is down for the last quarter of 2022 compared with what it would have been if we had been in the European Union. Investment is also down, goods trade is lower and we are poorer as a result of leaving the European Union.
Mark Carney said:
“In 2016 the British economy was 90% the size of Germany's. Now it is less than 70%.”
The devaluation that came with that did not result in an exports boost, because of the trade barriers as a result of Brexit. Michael Saunders, formerly of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, said:
“The UK economy as a whole has been permanently damaged by Brexit”,
and there have been no tangible Brexit freedoms. We have not diverged on standards and regulations, and, other than copying EU trade agreements, the UK has only secured deals with Australia and New Zealand. Even the former farming minister, who partly negotiated the Australia deal, has now condemned that deal.
It was disappointing that, when I asked the minister about the keeping pace powers, he did not have a clue about what keeping pace powers we have utilised. That says something about the rhetoric of this Government. It states a position but rarely follows through. It uses issues such as Europe to advance independence instead of campaigning on Europe in its own right. Even today’s motion, tying it up with workers’ rights, is an indication that the issues are seen as tools in an argument for independence, rather than in their own right.
I have a constructive approach on Europe. The public mood has turned against Brexit—there is no doubt about that. That change in mood means that I am more optimistic about our relationship with the EU than I have been for some time. There are now efforts across the political spectrum to re-engage. All the UK debate at present is about working with, rather than apart from, the EU.
I do not believe that the Conservatives were ever thinking of adopting a Swiss model, but it reveals a line of thinking. Labour now talks about making Brexit work. My party, I would argue, has a gradualist approach—something that the SNP might be familiar with. We need pragmatism to remove barriers and to align where it is of mutual benefit. Let me give some examples about how that could be done.
Sarah Boyack already referred to the Erasmus+ scheme. We could get on and do what Wales is already doing with the Taith scheme.
Will the member take an intervention?
Not just now.
Wales has students who are benefiting right now from exchange in other European countries. Why on earth has this Government still not moved forward on the Erasmus+ scheme? We could do that now. We should be an associate member of the horizon university research funding scheme. We could have mutual recognition on trades and professions to allow people to work across the UK and EU.
Will the member take an intervention?
Not just now.
We could have mutual recognition between the UK and EU registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals arrangements. We could agree a bespoke veterinary agreement to reduce sanitary and phytosanitary checks at the border.
We need advanced linkage between the UK and EU emissions trading schemes, and I hope that the EU will remove the block on the UK application to the Lugano convention, which provides for the recognition and enforcement of a wide range of civil and commercial judgments between the EU and European Free Trade Association states.
With that closer relationship comes the easing—I would argue—of the tension in Northern Ireland, which is at the centre of the issue. It is in the interests of the EU and the UK to be close. We trade, we are Europeans, we share culture and we have common interests. We need to settle the issue.
However, we must learn the lessons from Brexit, and not repeat them with independence. If the past six years has taught us at least one thing, it is that breaking up is hard to do. Even supporters of independence have warned about the current plans. The Sustainable Growth Commission admits the volatility of small economies, and says that independence would mean cuts for up to 10 years.
Senior independence supporter Jonathon Shafi said that sterlingisation
“cleaves so tightly with the economic infrastructure of the United Kingdom, that it undermines the point in pursuing such a project at all.”
That esteemed colleague Patrick Harvie said that we would gain
“political independence but without the real economic control”.
The Sustainable Growth Commission agrees that sterlingisation would
“cede effective sovereignty over monetary policy.”
That is important to the debate, because they all say that sterlingisation would erect barriers to joining the EU. Professor Richard Murphy said that
“Without its own currency, Scotland cannot join the EU.”
For as long as we had sterlingisation, not only would we be dependent on the economic decisions of a foreign country over which we had no control, we would be prevented from joining the EU because we did not have our own currency, and that would take 10 years.
The First Minister recently admitted that there would be checks at the border with England, after years of denying it. Let us get this straight: there would be a decade of superisolation, and we would be stuck on our own, outside the UK and the EU. All that is in the words of independence supporters. If we thought that Brexit was damaging, just wait for independence.
We move to the open debate.15:42
Governments sometimes undertake tasks of breathtaking byzantine complexity, and sometimes they do something of such pointless stupidity that few in any party can truly fathom what they have done. Rarely, however, does a Government manage to pull off the two feats simultaneously. The UK Government is, however, working hard to do the political impossible in just that way, in the form of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill.
I will not rehearse how it was that Scotland did not vote for Brexit and so does not deserve the fallout from it—some things are self-evident. The relevant point today is that even people who voted for Brexit could not in their wildest imaginings have thought they were voting for the REUL bill, which, in tandem with the UK Government’s blatantly anti-trade union legislation, has the potential to destroy decades of legislative progress in protecting workers’ health, safety and wellbeing.
After all, the public was assured by the UK Government and countless project leave advocates, at the time of the Brexit vote and in its aftermath, that workers’ rights would in fact be strengthened outside the EU. Some of them may even have believed what they said.
At least as far as I can understand their reasoning, Brexiteers wanted Parliament—not this Parliament, obviously; the other one—to “take back control” from Brussels. They believed that countless opportunities awaited us once freedom from the EU had been achieved.
I thought, along with most others, that the notion of taking back control was supposed to be about giving Westminster the right to make future laws unilaterally. In other words, if the UK discovered, post-Brexit, that there were things wrong with our laws, the UK Parliament would fix them. Nobody was told that Brexit might also be about scrapping 47 years’ worth of existing UK law and hoping for the best. However, rather incredibly, that is exactly what the UK Government’s Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill now seeks to do. It will repeal virtually every piece of UK legislation known to have any European association that was passed during the whole period during which the UK was an EU member state.
This cleansing of the legislative Augean stables will, admittedly, not be done in the 24 hours that were given to Hercules, but the proposed timescale is not far off that in its ambition. We are invited to believe that, within the next 10 months, the UK will have sunsetted—which is to say, scrapped by default—some 2,400 extant UK laws for no reason other than that they have their origins in Britain’s former membership of the EU. Actually, it might be 4,000 laws—nobody really knows.
I apologise for labouring the point, but, just to be clear, we are not just talking about the UK Government abolishing laws that it does not like or might have good reason for not liking. We are talking about its abolishing all those thousands of laws and then trying at some later date to work out what to put in their place. The expert evidence that the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee has taken has been universally scathing about both how and why it is being done.
Hard-fought workers’ rights and protections are among some of the thousands of laws that the UK Government has in its sights for the post-Brexit bonfire before the end of this calendar year, and, because employment law remains reserved, the Scottish Government cannot move to ensure the continuity of rights and protections for workers directly through legislation.
Of course, there are—other members have alluded to this—things that the Scottish Government can do in the meantime to try to pick up some of the pieces. We can continue promoting fair work, including by paying the real living wage, encouraging employers to adopt flexible working policies and exploring the possibility of introducing a universal basic income to support workers and their families. The Scottish Government should use every available lever, through public spending and policy agenda, to raise the bar on employment standards.
However, until employment law, business law and other areas are devolved to this Parliament—a position to which all parties who care about such issues should sign up—Scotland is at the mercy of pieces of unhinged UK legislation such as the one that is being discussed today. That is without going into the impact of acute labour shortages that affect almost every sector from agriculture to social care, childcare and the national health service—certainly in my constituency—all of which have been exacerbated by the UK Government’s short-sighted fixation with reducing migration at all costs. It is harder and more expensive for businesses to export goods and services to and from the EU and to employ EU nationals in their workforce. The UK Government continues to refuse to engage with the Scottish Government on any viable solutions to those problems, which are of its own making.
Scotland’s democracy, economy, environment and consumer and workers’ rights all continue to be threatened by the UK Government’s ill-thought-out—if they have been thought out at all—plans in the piece of legislation that we discuss. Like a great many people, my most immediate hope in all this is to discover that Westminster has heeded this Parliament’s objections to the bill or, simply, to find out that the UK Government merely tabled it in jest.15:48
The Government’s motion speaks of workers’ rights but, in reality, the SNP is pursuing its usual tactic of seeking grievances with the UK Government on every single issue. This is another divisive SNP debate. It is not about Scotland’s key priorities; it is about the SNP’s political priorities.
The SNP could have spent the parliamentary time on how the Scottish and UK Governments could work together to attract workers from other parts of the United Kingdom or further afield.
I am interested to know how Sandra Dowey expects the Scottish Government to work with the UK Government when the UK Government treats the Scottish Government with such visible contempt.
We have heard, in every single debate and question in the chamber, that the SNP Government treats the UK Government with contempt. We need to work together constructively, because we have a devolved Government and there are things that the SNP Government is responsible for. We need to focus on that instead of continually trying to cause division in the United Kingdom. I will cover that in my speech. That would have been a worthy debate in which we could have examined ways to grow Scotland’s tax revenues and increase funding for public services. The SNP could have discussed a points-based migration system, which it supported back in 2013 with a white paper from Nicola Sturgeon. That could have been an opportunity to explore what we need to do to attract more highly skilled workers and non-EU citizens.
It could have debated why Scotland is the only UK country—
Will the member give way for a wee quickie?
The Migration Advisory Committee stated that there is a failure to acknowledge that social care workers are skilled. If that was switched around and they were considered to be skilled workers, we might be able to recruit staff from Europe.
That is the point of the whole debate. We could have had a debate about how we can encourage people to come to Scotland and increase our workforce but, instead, we again have a debate on Brexit. The point that I will make in my speech is that we need to concentrate on things that are devolved and that we are responsible for in this Parliament.
Excuse me, Ms Dowey. I am sorry to interrupt. Is your microphone definitely on and in the right position? We are finding that your voice is a wee bit less audible than usual.
That is perfect. Thank you very much. Please continue.
The SNP could have debated why Scotland is the only UK country with a projected fall in population by 2045. That could have established why the rest of the UK seems to be better at attracting people to live and work there.
Will the member accept an intervention?
I am sorry, but I need to make progress.
Instead, this debate is mostly about the SNP Government taking aim at the UK Government. Of course, among the radical claims that the SNP makes, there is plenty that it fails to mention. The SNP does not say a word about the high standards of rights maintained by the UK Government now that we have left the European Union or say that the UK Government has one of the best records in the world on workers’ rights. It does not speak about any of the benefits for business that could come from cutting red tape and bureaucracy.
The SNP does not bring up the fact that the UK already goes further than minimum EU standards on annual leave, paid maternity leave, flexible leave and parental leave or that the minimum wage is higher in the UK than in most EU member states: statistics show that the UK has the fifth highest minimum wage in the world. It does not mention that the UK provided the right to paternity leave almost 20 years before the EU, in the Employment Act 2002, or that UK maternity leave is nearly three times longer than the EU minimum requirement. In the UK, statutory maternity leave is 52 weeks, of which 39 are paid, although EU legislation sets the minimum period for maternity leave at just 14 weeks.
The SNP does not state that the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill allows the UK Government to ensure that there are minimum service levels for key services including health, education, fire and rescue, transport, border security and nuclear installations or bring up the fact that many countries across the European Union, including France and Italy, also have laws protecting a minimum service level.
What we have ended up with today is an SNP debate that does not advance or protect workers’ rights or do anything to improve the lives of the people of Scotland. All that the SNP motion seeks to do is point the finger of blame at the UK Government. Yet again, all that the SNP is interested in doing is complaining that a UK-wide referendum produced a UK-wide result that the UK Government is delivering. As we know, Nicola Sturgeon’s Government does not like to respect the results of referendums.
I would have more respect for the SNP on the issue of workers’ rights if it approached the subject in good faith and with Scotland’s best interests at heart, but it has not done that. The SNP has acted out of blatant political self-interest at every turn. Instead of doing what it could to make Brexit work as well as possible for Scotland, it spent all its energy on trying to exploit it in a vain attempt to drive up support for another divisive independence referendum.
The SNP’s tactics are not working. Time and again, it focuses on provoking a fight with the UK Government instead of giving all its attention to Scotland’s real priorities, and this debate is no different. It looks less like a sincere attempt to stand up for workers’ rights and more like a shabby attempt to further a political grievance.
No matter what the UK Government seeks to achieve, the SNP will oppose it. It is not interested in working together for the benefit of the people of Scotland. It is solely concerned about its own selfish political aims. I urge colleagues, instead of backing the SNP’s latest attempt at division, to support Alexander Stewart’s amendment to the motion.
I point out to members that we do not have any time in hand. If they wish to take interventions, which is up to them, they should factor that in to the length of their speeches.15:55
Three years ago at midnight, in Bowmore, a vigil was held to mark Scotland being removed from the European Union against its will and vote. As the final notes of “Ode to Joy” on a solo recorder drifted into the cold night sky, everyone joined together to sing “Auld Lang Syne”. Candles flickered. The mood was reflective but we still had hope that Europe would leave the light on for Scotland.
Only independence offers Scotland the way to rejoin our fellow Europeans, as it would appear that, no matter who holds the keys to 10 Downing Street, there is no route for the UK to rejoin despite widespread polling showing support for that.
Michel Barnier has just released “My Secret Brexit Diary”, or “La Grande Illusion” as it is titled in France—the great illusion. I suggest that the great illusion included the misapprehension that UK sovereignty was at stake, the misconception that the EU was undemocratic and the false belief of taking back control.
Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU even with the vote leave campaign promising more powers for Scotland.
Another Brexit illusion is clearly the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which represents a shameless Westminster power grab and is disrespectful to devolution. It seeks to give UK ministers the power to legislate on devolved matters without the consent of our Parliament. Alongside the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, it threatens Scotland’s democracy, economy, consumer and worker rights, and environment. Scotland can do so much better than this.
As part of the evidence session in the CEEAC Committee that my colleague Alasdair Allan referred to, I asked the panel of legal representatives for practical illustrations of how the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill would impact on our daily lives. A clear example was given that involved article 157 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, because the right to equal pay for male and female workers for equal work or work of equal value is not fully replicated in the Equality Act 2010. Another example involved the working time directive.
However, it was emphasised that EU law is so woven into our laws that it is now difficult to imagine a sector or area of our law in which there will not be an impact of some kind. The REUL bill rips up 47 years of protections for Scotland’s workers, the environment and workers’ rights, leaving any right that has been democratically shaped by the EU subject to deletion by the end of this year.
As Thompsons Solicitors has said,
“Nobody signed up to giving Ministers in Westminster free rein to abolish, or ‘re-state’, workplace rights like paid annual leave, parental leave and protections on transfers of undertakings”.
This is not “taking back control” for UK workers.
With employment law currently being reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Government is unable to improve statutory rights and protections for workers. The Scottish Government’s motion highlights the importance of having
“a progressive approach to industrial relations along with greater ... protections for workers”,
as well as ensuring that their voices are heard and that they can be represented by trade unions.
The devolution of those powers to the Scottish Parliament would allow us to protect and enhance workers’ rights by making the minimum wage the real living wage and tackling the inappropriate use of zero-hours contracts.
I was pleased to see that the constitution secretaries of Scotland and Wales wrote jointly to the Financial Times in solidarity with the businesses and trade unions that have voiced clear opposition to the bill.
On the point that the member made a moment ago about the devolution of employment law, does she agree that the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill gives the Scottish ministers the power to restate retained EU law and therefore to align or keep pace with EU law, as per Scottish Government policy?
The retained EU law bill gives some powers. However, it is the whole impact of that legislation, which throws us off a cliff edge at the end of this year, that raises the biggest concerns.
I started my contribution by suggesting that the benefits of Brexit that the vote leave campaign promoted were simply an illusion. However, sadly, those myths continue to be perpetrated.
When he signed the Brexit trade deal, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that Britain would be “prosperous, dynamic and contented”. In reality, Brexit has crippled the economy of the UK—the only member of the G7, as has been said, whose economy is smaller than it was before the Covid pandemic. Business investment has been damaged; the pound has been devalued, making imports more expensive and stoking inflation; trade barriers have reduced investment; and the ending of free movement has resulted in labour shortages in key sectors, including food production, lorry driving and hospitality.
The downward trend is set to continue. The principal economist at the Confederation of British Industry, Martin Sartorius, said in a statement:
“Businesses continue to face a number of headwinds, with rising costs, labour shortages, and weakening demand contributing to a gloomy outlook for next year.”
Stanley Kubrick said:
“If you can talk brilliantly about a problem, it can create the consoling illusion that it has been mastered.”?
That is what the Westminster Government is doing. The UK economy is, fundamentally, on the wrong path. Even though the Scottish Government has clearly stated its concerns, the Tory Brexit ideology continues to drive the retained EU law bill and the reduction of workers’ rights, as opposed to safeguarding the best interests of our citizens and businesses. Only independence offers Scotland our escape from that illusion.
I advise that we are tight for time, so I would be grateful if all members could stick to their speaking allocations, even if they take an intervention.
I call Martin Whitfield. You have up to six minutes, Mr Whitfield.16:01
I hear your warning, Presiding Officer.
It is a great pleasure to follow Jenni Minto in the debate. I agree with much of her speech, although I am slightly more concerned about whether Governments speak “brilliantly” on this issue, north or south of the border. However, it would be a brave person who could not see that the current post-Brexit settlement is not working for Scotland or for the UK; and, from discussions that I have had, I am not sure that it is working for Europe.
The belligerent attitude of the Tory Government at Westminster is jeopardising not only future co-operation with our EU friends and allies but the rights and protections of workers and consumers at home. The Tories are continuing to govern to appease a faction within their party, rather than in the interests of this country. The next general election is the best opportunity for replacing a tired and disruptive Tory Government with a reforming, outward-looking Labour Government.
The debate is important for a number of reasons. I will spend a moment talking about the legislative consent process on the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill—albeit not from the positions that have already been posed during the debate. I am very open to interventions regarding the Scottish Government’s attitude to the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee—indeed, it is a great pleasure to see so many of the committee’s members in the chamber. That is because I am concerned that, to a greater extent, in this and in previous debates, and over motions that the Parliament has voted on, the very positive work that is being done by the committee—which, I understand, has already heard oral evidence and has taken written evidence in respect of these matters—is being curtailed.
Our committees are the source of expertise on which members make decisions. It may well be that members, as a whole, agree—in fact, I would probably go so far as to say that I would be surprised if they did not agree—with the way that the debate is progressing. However, I am concerned that, on a number of occasions, the Government has, through the Parliamentary Bureau, chosen to hold debates that cut across questions that we have asked or instructed committees to look into.
I do not raise that as a fight or a matter of contention, but it would be interesting if, in the summing-up, comment were made as to why it was felt necessary to do that. I have great faith in our committee system, but that faith can exist only if our committees are handled with, and shown, respect by the Parliament as a whole and by the Government.
In the short time that I have, I want to take the opportunity to talk about some of the other Brexit legislation and EU programmes that have gone to challenge, and the fact that the Tories have needlessly taken the UK out of additional schemes that were separate from our membership of the EU. I talk, of course, about the Erasmus+ programme for education and the crucially important horizon Europe research and development scheme. Although the SNP promised a replacement for Erasmus+, I understand that it will not act on that until at least 2026.
I draw members’ attention to the fact that the Labour Government in Wales has already replaced Erasmus+ with its own Taith programme, which supports learners and staff across all kinds of education providers, formal and informal. Learners and staff are benefiting from the more than £13 million that is available to all sectors for this year’s projects. Pathway 1, which focused on mobility of participants, launched in February last year. Its projects are bringing to 5,000 staff and learners in Wales opportunities for life-changing learning experiences across the world that involve 75 countries, 28 of which are in Europe.
On 5 October 2022, pathway 2 opened for applications. It is designed to give even more support to projects that have a more strategic focus on things such as developments in education, diversity and inclusion, and climate change. Two million pounds has been made available for such projects in schools and the adult education, further education and vocational education sectors. That is a Labour Welsh Government promise and delivery of a partnership that endures despite the loss of Erasmus+.
It is to that that we should look for our young people—that promise of reaching out across Europe and further so that young people experience culture, friendship and challenge. Those things would make them greater contributors back home in Scotland, when they returned, than the things that they face now. With the greatest respect, I say to the SNP-Green Government that it is devastating that we cannot offer those things to our children who are in high school now. At the earliest, it will be children who are currently in primary school who will be able to benefit from the promises that have been made. That is a dire disappointment for our young people, and it is something that a Labour Government at Westminster would seek to change.
The horizon Europe programme is about developing the industries of the future with the technologies, skills and workforce for the future, and that could make Scotland a better and stronger place.
I whole-heartedly agree with Sarah Boyack, who spoke about the “if only” attitude of so many Governments north and south of the border: “If only we had this,” “If only we did that,” and “If only they did this.” That speaks to the fact that the two Governments—the Government in Scotland and the Government at Westminster—need to sit down together and talk, even if they do it quietly, and reach a considered understanding that works for the people of the UK.
You need to conclude, Mr Whitfield.
My colleague Sarah Boyack called it an “if only” attitude, but I find it to be mainly deflection and a case of always blaming someone else.
I remind members that if any member makes an intervention and is planning to speak later in the debate, they will need to re-press their request-to-speak button.16:08
“Brexit—three years on.” What a dismal phrase to hear, particularly in Scotland, where, in 2016, 62 per cent of people voted to remain in the EU, which was a much higher proportion than the 51.8 per cent across the UK who voted to leave. In Glasgow, 66 per cent of people voted to remain in the EU, and, as recently as August last year, a Panelbase poll for The Times newspaper found that 72 per cent of voters in Scotland would now vote to remain in the EU.
However, here we are, three years on, reaping the economic and social whirlwind of the most ludicrous, self-destructive policy that a nation has inflicted on itself in recent times. Citizens, workers and students look on as their employment rights and living standards are stripped away before their very eyes. So many promises were made by Brexiteers, and so many promises have not been delivered.
Workers’ rights are already under threat from yet another Tory Government, which is pursuing legislation that will, in effect, ban strike action and whose Public Order Bill would result in unprecedented restrictions being imposed on the right to protest in England and Wales. Without a doubt, the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill poses the most serious threat to workers’ rights. So many of our employment rights are bound up with EU membership and, in particular, with the European social chapter.
I remember the heady days of the 1997 general election, when not a single Tory MP was returned in Scotland. Tony Blair’s Labour Party finally managed to win, and he made good on his commitment to remove the Tory opt-out from the social chapter of the Maastricht treaty, which meant that, at last, UK citizens gained access to rights that were enjoyed by workers across the EU—rights relating to working hours, childcare, parental leave and health and safety. Things, they told us, could only get better.
However, we are now locked in a UK that is run by increasingly right-wing Tory Governments. We have had our EU membership removed, against our democratically expressed view, and it appears that not a single unionist party is interested in our returning to EU membership or in standing up for the full range of rights represented in the social chapter. The trade union Unison has warned us about the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. It is a warning that we ignore at our peril. Unison states that the bill
“has set a fast-moving conveyor belt in motion, which will see all protections for workers and UK citizens that come from EU law fall off a cliff in December 2023, unless the government decides to produce new and equivalent UK laws.”
I am a trade union member and I have attended many trade union rallies outside this Parliament in recent months, including rallies by the Fire Brigades Union and the University and College Union. Although there is anger, and clamour for investment in people and in the services that they provide, at more than one of those events I have heard an acknowledgement that dealing with the Scottish Government is completely different from dealing with the UK Government. I suggest that that is because the Scottish Government is committed to a progressive approach to industrial relations and recognises trade unions as partners in delivering economic and social goals.
Which of us believes that the UK Tory Government has any interest in resolving current disputes in partnership with trade unions and the workers they represent or in developing employment law that will safeguard rights in the way that they are protected today by the various clauses of the EU social chapter? I suspect that neither the trade unions nor the striking workers believe that. I certainly do not.
I hope that colleagues across the chamber acknowledge the potential bonfire of workers’ rights and protections that the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill represents. Scotland must not sit on the sidelines in that debate. Time and again, we have made clear our views on EU membership and the benefits that it confers. I echo the words of those who will gather this evening to call for the EU to leave a light on for Scotland. I, for one, hope that we will be back one day, ideally as an independent nation.16:13
As others have said this afternoon, Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster for Scotland. On the third anniversary of Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will, we know that Brexit has increased staff shortages in the national health service, social care, hospitality and other sectors. It has damaged Scottish businesses and has ended the right of people in Scotland to live, work and travel across the continent.
In the run-up to the European Union referendum in 2016, many of us who campaigned to remain part of that union talked about the importance of the rights and protections that our membership of the EU afforded us: workers’ rights, environmental standards and the wide-ranging protections under the European Court of Human Rights. We were told by Brexit supporters that we were scaremongering—that none of those rights or protections were under threat. Indeed, promises were made to improve things. However, we know now, just as many of us knew then, that those promises were hollow and empty.
We have clear evidence of that now. The UK Government’s Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will mean that all EU law-derived UK legislation will automatically be repealed and will, therefore, expire on 31 December this year unless specific legislation is implemented by the UK Government to retain it. So, unless we get explicit, positive action by Westminster, existing employment protections will be lost at midnight on 31 December. That creates a very uncertain outlook for the future of employment legislation. What we are seeing are regulations and bills at Westminster that will further erode the rights and protections of workers. Let us remember that we are not exactly leading the world on the protections that we do have in place compared to some of our European neighbours. I will say a bit more about what we could do on that later.
First, I want to spend a moment reminding us all how EU membership significantly enhanced the rights of one group of workers. Gender equality is a founding aim of the EU and it is recognised as a fundamental right in EU law. Since the UK joined the EU, in 1973, women in work have gained significantly from this strong underpinning to their rights. EU laws that the UK has drawn on have expanded the right to equal pay, strengthened protection from sex discrimination and improved remedies and access to justice for women who have been unfairly treated. They have strengthened protection for pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace, and they have created new rights that have helped women to balance work with care and have encouraged men to play a greater role in family life. They have benefited the many women who work part time or on a temporary basis, improving their pay and conditions and giving them access to rights at work from which they were previously disqualified. I know that many of us in the chamber do not want us to lose any of those protections.
There are other significant implications for workers’ rights. We face the possibility of losing employee protections such as the TUPE rules and of changes being made to part-time, fixed-term and agency worker regulations. Specialists in employment law, industrial relations and human resources have a good understanding of the industrial chaos that would result from the material undermining of employee rights and protections, unlike most of the “red-tape bonfire” politicians who are in favour of Brexit. Those specialists are also clear that it would be a disaster for workers, and for their employers and the wider economy in the longer term, if we ended up with weaker health and safety protections, if discrimination in the workplace was easier and cheaper, or if our trade unions were no longer able to organise, campaign for and deliver better conditions for workers as a whole.
Alexander Stewart said earlier that we should be discussing opportunities for improving workers’ rights in Scotland. Well, maybe if his colleagues, along with those in the Labour Party who actually vetoed it, had supported the full devolution of employment law to Scotland during the Smith Commission, in 2014, we might be able to do just that and have a much more meaningful discussion and debate today. I would love to be discussing how we could strengthen trade unions in Scotland, how we could outlaw zero-hours contracts across the board and not just for our public sector workforce, and how we could require all employers to provide safe travel to and from work, but we just do not have those powers, because parties that are represented in the chamber refused to give them to Scotland.
However, we are taking some of the steps that we can take within the limitations of the devolved settlement. We secured a commitment to conditionality in public sector grants as part of the Bute house agreement with the Scottish Government. That makes this the first Government in Scotland to enshrine the criteria of the fair work first framework—effective voice, opportunity, security, respect and fulfilment—in its contracts with the public sector. We have done that because we know that workplace fairness and equity underpin economic efficiency and productivity. We believe that public sector funding should lever in wider benefits for our society as a whole. We know that, when workers are well supported, well compensated and well treated, they are happier and healthier members of society who are less reliant on social security and health services.
We have more to do—of course we do—but we know that the Brexit bonfire of regulations and laws that the UK Government seems to be content to stoke and tend will be bad for everybody. It will be bad for workers, bad for Scotland’s economy and bad for everybody who lives here. We need to do whatever we can to resist those changes and to enshrine workers’ rights in Scots law.16:19
As it is the last day of January, I will quote from Robert Burns:
“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”
The bard could have been writing about Brexit, which represents the biggest act of self-harm that politicians in Westminster have wrought on the UK. If only the leave campaign, the European research group and the voters outwith Scotland and Northern Ireland had listened to our “counsels sweet” and had heeded our “sage advices”. Yet here we are. The erstwhile triumphalism of 2020 seems oddly muted as we mark three years since Brexit officially darkened our doors.
The Brexit agenda has driven us to the worst economic outlook for generations. As the International Monetary Fund reported today, the UK forecast leaves it as the only country in the G7 with an economy projected to have negative growth, and even Russia, with a litany of economic sanctions in place due its shameful invasion of Ukraine, has a more positive growth forecast. The UK is in rapid, sustained and self-inflicted decline.
A decade-long Westminster assault on our public services and social security system has compounded the current cost of living crisis. The conversation has shifted from a stark choice between “heating or eating” because, now, many cannot afford either. Reliance on the third sector to fill in for UK Government failures continues apace. Food bank demand surges and the Tory response is indifferent. We are steadily normalising food banks, which are wholly indicative of state failure. There is more to come. There were reports this morning that the Kantar Group’s data shows grocery inflation running at 16.7 per cent, which is adding £800 a year to shopping bills.
The interparliamentary forum, which I attended as convener of the Constitution Europe External Affairs and Culture Committee, was dominated by post-Brexit problems. At the most recent IPF, we had a session focused on touring artists. Complex bureaucracy that we were promised would disappear—remember that bonfire of red tape?—means that short-term working in the EU has become incredibly difficult for UK music workers. Visa costs and cabotage issues mean that touring Europe as a UK service is a nightmare. That is disastrous for our artists and national performing companies, which are already contending with recovery from a pandemic. As Michel Barnier put it on Sunday,
“Not all difficulties come down to Brexit, but I am convinced that Brexit makes everything more difficult.”
Our students are being denied opportunities through Erasmus, and our universities are at a rank disadvantage as horizon funding is held to ransom. Westminster has failed to resolve the implementation issues over the Northern Ireland protocol, and Ursula von der Leyen’s comments on the UK’s attitude to an international treaty that it seems capable of breaking are well documented.
I am not speaking as the convener today, but I thank my colleagues from the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee—and Martin Whitfield, in particular—who have highlighted our work and published reports and have reflected on some of the evidence that we took in our inquiry on the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, although the report is not due to be published for a few weeks.
The committee’s findings from its post-Brexit UK internal market inquiry demonstrate that there are fundamental concerns that need to be addressed by the Scottish Parliament in relation to how devolution works outside the EU. In our report on the legislative consent memorandum for the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, the committee said that
“the Bill provides further evidence for the need to re-set the constitutional arrangements within the UK following EU withdrawal, both in respect of relations between the UK Government and the devolved governments and between the four legislatures and governments across the UK. These relations are clearly not working as well as they should and this needs to be addressed.”
That is about not grievance or disrespect but a broken system following Brexit. As we agreed in our September 2022 report on the impact of Brexit on devolution,
“the Sewel Convention is under strain”,
and the First Minister has said that it is broken. The Institute for Government put it this way:
“there is a risk of the convention, and the legislative consent process that puts Sewel into practice, collapsing altogether.”
That is the legacy of Brexit.
The REUL report will come out soon. I commend my colleagues again for raising the points that have been made on animal welfare, regulatory chaos, employment rights and product and chemical safety by stakeholders such as the Faculty of Advocates, the Law Society of Scotland, trading standards officers, NFU Scotland, the RSPB and Scottish Environment LINK—the list goes on. That leaves me with one question for my fellow Scottish people: are ye yes yet?16:25
In his opening speech, my colleague Alexander Stewart hit the nail on the head when he said that this could and should have been a debate about the Scottish Government’s vision for workers’ rights, the importance of fair work and the contribution that workers’ rights make to our economy. However, as is ever the case with the Government, it has been another debate in which ministers and SNP members are sent out with their prepared soundbites to play grievance bingo. Therefore, I will reiterate some of the points in our amendment that my colleagues Alexander Stewart and Sharon Dowey have already made, but which are worth making again.
First, the UK Government has, time and again, repeated its commitment to maintaining and enhancing workers’ rights. It has demonstrated that commitment. The United Kingdom has one of the best records on workers’ rights in the world. The minimum wage is already higher in the UK than it is in most EU member states, and it will rise by nearly 10 per cent in April. Maternity leave entitlement in the UK is nearly three times higher than the EU equivalent. The UK introduced the right to two weeks of paternity leave 17 years before the EU did, and the working time directive has been retained in UK law under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.
The UK Government has made clear its determination to build on the progress that has been made over a number of years. That progress means that workers’ rights in the UK already go further than those in many countries in the EU. However, that is not what people in other parties—particularly the SNP—want people to believe.
As is so often the case, the nationalist narrative is far from reality. In respect of the impact of leaving the EU, it is further from reality than normal. For example, the number of non-EU nationals in Scotland has increased by 29,000, while the number of EU nationals in Scotland since Brexit has increased by 31,000. There are now more EU nationals living in Scotland than there were before Brexit. That is welcome because—to quote the words of former Prime Minister Theresa May—
“EU citizens make an invaluable contribution to our United Kingdom: to our economy, our public services and our everyday lives. They are an integral part of the economic, cultural and social fabric of our”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 26 June 2017; Vol 626, c 302.]
That is very different to the language that was used by the then SNP deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon, in 2014. Responding to reports—which were later confirmed by the EU itself—that an independent Scotland would not gain automatic entry to the EU, she said:
“There are 160,000 EU nationals from other states living in Scotland, including some in the Commonwealth Games city of Glasgow. If Scotland was outside Europe, they would lose the right to stay here.”
What a surprise that we do not see that on the SNP leaflets that are sent to EU nationals.
However, we cannot be complacent, because there are labour shortages in Scotland and the UK. There are labour shortages in the EU, too. That has been a constant theme through the work of the Economy and Fair Work Committee, of which I am a member. We have heard from a number of sectors, including tourism and hospitality, about the challenges that they face in recruiting and keeping staff.
Some of those issues were issues even before we left the EU, because Scotland was not attracting the inward migration that our economy needed. That has continued, with even David Bell, who is a member of the Scottish Government’s regional economic policy advisory group, suggesting that although the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy was “showing promise”,
“Scotland punches below its weight in attracting foreign migrants”.
Other issues are hangovers from Covid. An increase in economic inactivity is a challenge for countries all around the world. Getting people back into work, which includes supporting them, where necessary, is something on which all Governments need to focus. That is why it is disappointing that the Scottish Government has cut more than £50 million from its employability budget.
The Government and employment sectors also need to work better together to make sectors more attractive. They need to work with our further education and higher education institutions and with apprenticeship providers to support the recruitment pipeline.
There are areas where the UK Government can act, and already has acted, to alleviate shortages. Health and care professionals who are looking to come to work in the UK can access a fast-track visa application process. Lobbying by the Scottish Conservatives and others has meant that the number of seasonal workers who are allowed to come and work in UK agriculture has been increased to 30,000.
I turn briefly to the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. The new legislation will not make the UK an outlier; EU countries including Spain, France and Italy already have in place similar legislation. The bill is about balancing the right to strike with the need for key services to continue. It aims to protect key services including health, education, fire and rescue, transport and border security. I think that most people would consider that to be entirely reasonable.
However, as predictable as the nationalists’ claim that independence is the answer to everything is Labour’s go-to position of calling for another general election. On strikes, as on so many issues, Labour’s position is utterly confused. Its UK leader, Keir Starmer, would not let his MPs join picket lines. He has said that
“you can’t sit around the cabinet table and then go to a picket line.”
He even sacked his shadow transport minister for doing just that.
Tomorrow, when hundreds of thousands of people are prevented from going to work, Labour MSPs will choose not to go to work. They will not show up for work when others cannot, but we Conservatives will be here tomorrow to do our job.
More Scots voted to stay in the UK in 2014 than voted to stay in the EU in 2016. Three years on from the UK leaving the EU—
You need to conclude now.
—and despite years of taxpayer-funded nationalist agitation and obsessive ministerial navel gazing, most Scots still want to remain part of the UK.
You need to conclude. I will move on to the next speaker—
They want more collaborative working—
Mr Halcro Johnston, could you resume your seat? I indicated earlier that members should stick to their speaking time allocation.
I also remind members of the expectation that, after they have delivered a speech, they will remain in the chamber for at least two speeches.16:32
As a number of members have said, it is becoming increasingly clear what a complete disaster Brexit is, with labour shortages, difficulties in obtaining many products and appalling growth predictions. I welcome this timely debate, which focuses on workers’ rights—rights that were hard fought for.
During the EU referendum campaign, trade unions warned of the risk that Brexit would lead to the loss of vital employment rights and protections. The UK Government’s Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill shows that trade unions were right in their warnings. The Work Foundation, which is based at Lancaster University, has warned that the bill will put at risk the rights and protections of more than 8.6 million UK workers. The bill could lead to loss of protections for part-time, fixed-term and agency workers, and it could have an impact on other employment rights, including holiday pay and maternity leave.
The UK Government is also using the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which is being debated in the House of Commons, to undermine workers’ ability to take strike action in defence of their pay and conditions. That bill will empower ministers and employers to force workers to work during strike action. If workers fail to comply, they will risk being sacked. Trade unions that fail to comply will face huge damages.
The rights of individuals to take strike action and the rights of trade unions to operate legally were hard fought for. The Taff Vale decision in 1901 led to the Trade Disputes Act 1906, which provided the legal immunity that trade unions currently have when their members take strike action.
However, rather than addressing the concerns of nurses, firefighters, public transport workers and others, the UK Government is now threatening to sack them if they choose to exercise their right to strike. We have gone from clapping our front-line workers to sacking them.
The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is fundamentally undemocratic. It will force workers to cross picket lines, even if, in a legal ballot, they have voted to strike. The Trades Union Congress is right to call the bill “draconian”.
In the Scottish Parliament, we must oppose the bill and work with trade unions throughout Scotland to protect the right to strike. I am therefore pleased to hear that the Scottish Government is willing to refuse consent to the bill, given the potential impact that it would have in devolved areas.
As the UK Government attacks workers’ rights, we must reflect on whether the Scottish Parliament is using all our powers to strengthen workers’ rights in Scotland. The Scottish Government’s current fair work first approach does not go far enough; fair work first is too focused on encouraging employers to change their employment practices, rather than on delivering enforceable standards that employers must adhere to.
In addition, there is no clear consistency from the Scottish Government in its own application of fair work principles, with employers that have poor records on workers’ rights receiving significant public contracts. Amazon has received tens of millions of pounds of public money from the Scottish Government over recent years, despite the fact that we know that the experience of the workers at Amazon warehouses in Scotland is that they have been denied basic employment rights. We have heard reports of workers being forced to stand for hours on end, being denied paternity leave, and even being followed by managers into bathrooms. When I was a Westminster Parliament constituency member, many constituents came to see me who had travelled from Ayrshire to the Gourock warehouse only to be told that there was no work for them, or to be given one or two hours of work when they had expected a full day of work. They were paid only for those hours.
We have heard whistleblowers describing the conditions at Amazon as being those of a work camp. If the Scottish Government is serious about fair work principles, it must cut all ties with employers such as Amazon.
In recent months, Scotland has seen a wave—and it will continue to see a wave—of strike action across the public sector; indeed, there will be strike action in the Scottish Parliament building tomorrow. If the Scottish Government is serious, it needs to engage on fair pay and conditions with the trade unions that represent those workers.
I strongly welcome the debate, but the Scottish Government must do everything that it can to put its warm words into practice.16:38
It is hard to believe that it has been three years since we left the EU, and it has been a difficult few weeks for anyone who supports independence, devolution or, indeed, democracy. The unprecedented use of a section 35 order to block a bill that was passed with a two-thirds majority in the Scottish Parliament was an affront to democracy, and the subsequent refusal of Whitehall ministers to have a discussion with, and explain themselves to, committees here simply adds insult to injury. Tory MSPs can keep calling for the Scottish Government to work with the UK Government—as they do in their amendment—but Whitehall does not want to work together. We have seen that again and again. Its ministers are not interested in discussion or explanation, and they do not respect the Scottish Parliament.
Section 35 is not the only example of how skewed the union is against Scotland and the Scottish Parliament. Brexit itself was a tough pill for many to swallow. In 2016, all 32 local authority areas in Scotland voted to remain, only for Scotland to be dragged out of the EU anyway, thanks to the decisions of other countries. That demonstrates that we are not a so-called equal partner in the union.
This week, I learned of data, gathered by UnHerd, that shows that all but three UK constituencies now agree that it was wrong to leave the EU. Only 29 per cent of folk in the northern isles and the Western Isles disagree that it was a bad move, and the figure is 27 per cent in Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. My constituents can see the failure of Brexit for what it is.
Since Brexit, there have been even more efforts to bypass the Scottish Parliament and the people of Scotland through decisions that affect them. Devolution was created with the fundamental principle that anything that is not reserved is devolved. That is why schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998 specifies as reserved matters not only whole portfolios such as immigration, employment rights—which I will come to later—and defence, but more specific issues such as Antarctica, gambling and time and space. It is why specific pieces of legislation, such as the Human Rights Act 1998, are protected from modification by the Scottish Parliament. We can legislate on everything else, because everything that is not reserved is devolved. The Sewel convention states that the UK Government will “not normally legislate” on devolved matters without the consent of MSPs.
That principle has been completely torn up by the UK Government’s actions and its Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. More concerning to workers specifically—but, I hope, to all of us—is what is being pushed through in place of Scotland getting to take decisions itself. The legislation rips up decades—47 years—of progress on workers’ rights, as well as about 4,000 other laws, which are to be replaced by the Conservatives’ race-to-the-bottom attitude. That puts at risk working time regulations; paid annual, maternity and parental leave rights; and rights to breaks. I think that we would be hard pressed to find even someone among those who voted to leave the EU who would say that they did so because they thought that it would put their rights in the workplace at risk.
The approach does not even work. Presiding Officer, I assure you that I would be stood here arguing against this attack on workers even if it were benefiting the economy. However, despite all the rhetoric, the UK Government’s attack on workers, with it racing to deregulate whatever it can, is not even boosting the economy. As my colleague Clare Adamson pointed out, the IMF has just predicted that the UK is the only country in the G7 that faces economic decline—a worse decline than that forecast for Russia. That is ridiculous to the point of being laughable, but I doubt that my constituents will take any comfort from the comedy of it while inflation continues to push the cost of food, energy and building materials out of their reach.
Brexit also resulted in many workers leaving our health and social care sector and the hospitality sector, both of which are struggling in the Highlands and Islands and across the rest of the UK. Staff who are now working extra hours to do the work of vacant positions need more rights, not fewer, but the UK Government is responding with legislation that will prevent them from going on strike to say so.
Opposition members have criticised me and my colleagues for linking the issues relating to Brexit and workers’ rights to independence, but this all relates to independence. It is not because the constitution is the most important issue on the table but because it will lead to the fundamental change that will transform how whichever parties the electorate puts into government in Scotland at any time can react to events and progress, not regress, the laws of the country. If Scotland were independent today, we might be debating making the changes that Scottish Labour has just been calling for—the same ones that SNP MPs are calling for in Westminster, such as action on fire-and-rehire practices.
You are talking about vague plans for the future, but we want to use the powers that the Scottish Parliament has now. That is the key difference. It is about supporting people, businesses and workers now; it is not about your—
Speak through the chair, please.
Sorry—it is not about the member’s long-into-the-future aspirations, which include no details whatever.
What I just outlined was quite detailed, and those are not things that Scotland is able to change at the moment. That is the whole point. Given what the UK Government is doing and what we are unable to change right now, I hope that Labour might back us in calling for powers to be devolved so that we can do better by workers.
If Scotland were independent, we could be talking about what is happening in the EU, of which we might be a member, and aligning ourselves with international best practice. We could be making our own way in the world instead of waiting to see how bad the latest UK Government shambles will be for the people whom we represent and hoping that our letters to UK ministers will get a positive response—or a response at all.
It is not off topic to point out that Scotland cannot do anything but call for the UK Government to stop this attack on workers’ rights. This is fundamentally about democracy and the right of the people who live here to have a say in how we are governed.
We move to the closing speeches.16:44
I recall the surreal moment in the Donald Dewar library when, along with other members, after handing over my mobile phone, I was given 15 minutes to read the highly confidential first assessment of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. I remember that the assessment was utterly jaw-dropping.
It was the UK Government that led us to this point. It is a result of David Cameron’s recklessness and a poor campaign that did not seem to understand that ordinary people felt remote from Europe’s decisions and could not see the good that it also did.
As Martin Whitfield said, the current arrangement is not working for Scotland or the UK, and, in fact, it is not working for Europe either. It is certainly not working for workers or ordinary people. People took many things for granted, such as freedom of movement, easy access to Europe and low-cost mobile tariffs, and we are beginning to realise the benefits of being in Europe. Since the vote to leave the European Union, UK and Scottish Labour have insisted that workers’ rights should be maintained and enhanced.
As previous speakers—including Willie Rennie in an excellent speech—have said, three years on, we are still arguing about the Northern Ireland protocol. The situation threatens long-term peace, and civil servants have spent tens of thousands of hours on the task of trying to solve the real economic and political problem of goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland, which has affected many businesses and patterns of trade.
I have to say that I probably agreed with Willie Rennie’s entire speech, and I also agreed with Alasdair Allan’s very considered speech. Willie Rennie talked about the UK Government being
“incapable of negotiating ... with trade unions”
when that should be entirely possible. He exposed the fallacy of the trade agreements that we were promised but that we now find do not really exist. We have the agreements with Australia and New Zealand, but we are yet to see whether they will make any difference.
As many members have said, this morning, we heard that the International Monetary Fund is forecasting that the UK economy will perform worse than that of any other major advanced nation. In other words, Scottish workers will count the cost of Brexit. The IMF says that Britain faces
“the bleakest two years of any major industrial nation”.
Many core workplace protections such as holiday pay, maternity pay and equal pay for women and men, which Maggie Chapman mentioned, come from the European Union. For decades, European Union laws have ensured decent working standards in the UK, shielding workers from exploitation and discrimination. Trade unions have been crucial in advocating policies on sick pay, maternity and paternity pay, bereavement, health and safety and many other aspects of working life.
Right now, workers do not understand what the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill and the proposed anti-trade union laws mean for them. However, if that bill is passed, it will be yet another slap in the face. As the minister said in his opening speech, unions have described the bill as a “bonfire of workers’ rights”. It sets a time bomb beneath the vital working regulations and other EU-derived laws. Why did we need to get to this point? We have left Europe—I know that many members on the Tory benches voted to stay in the EU—but does it really have to be this bad? Without the shield of EU law, I wonder what workers will be exposed to every day in the UK.
Disabled people, minority ethnic communities, refugees and asylum seekers and women tend to be at higher-than-average risk of poverty and insecure employment or unemployment, which suggests that they are more reliant on public services and anti-discrimination law. The bill poses particular risks to protections for women in the workplace. As Unison has said, some family-friendly policies and even equal pay law might be questioned by the framework of UK legislation.
During the pandemic, young women, particularly young black and minority ethnic women as well as those on low incomes, were less likely to be furloughed and more likely to be surviving without a furloughed salary, so they were most at risk.
If we want to live in a better country, the UK Government really has to step up to the mark.
Recent analysis has shown that the impact of Brexit is acute. Clare Adamson made the point that we can see that the pandemic has caused problems for the economy—of course it has—and now we have the cost of living crisis and inflation, which have had a massive impact on households, but Brexit has made that far more acute.
Scottish Labour calls for the UK and Scottish Governments to work together to solve some of the problems there are, following Brexit. In the previous session of Parliament, I found myself agreeing with Mike Russell on some points on many occasions. Who would have thought it? Not me. However, I was at one with him when he said, as minister, that we have more in common than we have disagreement on what we need to do to make sure that we do not have the worst possible Brexit.
The history of the UK does not matter. What matters is now—and, by the way, I say to Jamie Halcro Johnston that I will be proud, as will other Labour MSPs, to support solidarity for the trade unions tomorrow. Sarah Boyack said that it did not have to be like this. The public did not expect or need the most harmful, hardest Brexit, an irrational immigration framework and the handling of the Northern Ireland protocol destroying our relations with European institutions. Let us get on with it and see the UK Government step up to the mark.
I call Donald Cameron for up to seven minutes. [Interruption.] I now call Donald Cameron for slightly less than seven minutes.16:51
Apologies for that error, Presiding Officer.
This has been a strange debate. Many things have been discussed. We have talked about Brexit, devolution, independence, workers’ rights, strikes and fair work. Those are obviously linked issues, but they are very different. There is a slight sense that they have been jammed together with perhaps a lack of focus, and I have listened very carefully to everyone who has spoken.
As the title of the debate acknowledges, it has been three years since the UK left the EU and almost seven years since the British people delivered their verdict that the UK should leave. Of course, many people here will remember that, in the previous session of Parliament, the SNP Government held debate after debate on Brexit and, in my view, did not offer anything positive to say. Therefore, in some ways, this debate is a trip down memory lane. Yet again, we have an SNP Government that continues to obsess over Brexit and that is, yet again, refusing to accept the democratic outcome that people across the United Kingdom delivered. Instead of trying to make the UK’s exit from the EU a success, the SNP wills it on to fail, and we all know why.
We, on the Conservative benches, have consistently acknowledged the challenges that Brexit has produced. We have always said that there would be issues along the way and that it would take time to adjust, but the unrelenting negativity of the Scottish Government serves nobody and means that the important issues that people across Scotland care about the most remain neglected.
As other speakers have already noted, the UK has often taken the opportunity to go further on a range of areas than other member states of the EU. Let us not forget that Brexit meant that the UK was able to take a more rapid decision on the Covid vaccine, meaning that we had one of the fastest vaccine roll-outs anywhere in the world.
On workers’ rights specifically, the UK has, in a number of areas, already exceeded EU protections for employees, even before Brexit. Of course, people across the chamber will agree that we need the strongest rights possible for workers. People across Scotland expect proper job security, robust working practices, employers to treat their employees fairly, protection against discrimination and avenues to recourse when a difficult situation arises, but those principles are not undermined because of Brexit.
I will come to the minimum service levels legislation in a moment, but Brexit has led to not one diminution of employment rights. In fact, the UK Government has consistently said that it wants to enhance workers’ rights. I welcome the commitment from Rishi Sunak that the UK will maintain high standards in the future and that there will be no race to the bottom.
Will the member take an intervention?
I would love to, but I am already down in time.
It is important to understand where the UK stands on workers’ rights. I restate what my colleague Alexander Stewart said: the UK introduced the right to paternity leave in 2002, 17 years before the EU introduced it. Maternity leave entitlement is nearly three times higher than the EU equivalent. The UK minimum wage, which is due to rise to £10.42 an hour from April, is one of the highest in the EU27 and the UK. Those are positive things and, although no one is suggesting that we stand still, they are important to acknowledge.
A significant part of adjusting to life after the EU will be listening to employers and employees about the things that work for them, and that is what is being done. Jamie Halcro Johnston referenced the seasonal agricultural workers scheme and the significant point that, since Brexit, Scotland has seen increases in the number of EU and non-EU nationals.
I will briefly touch on the other aspect of the Government motion, which is the reforms over strike action. We recognise that the right to strike is important; in Scotland, we have teachers strikes and the first firefighters strike in 20 years. There is obviously a huge dispute on the subject of pay between the Government and those striking, but no one questions the right of anyone to strike within the law. We believe that striking should be the last resort, and we acknowledge that all Governments have a duty to the public to ensure safety, protect access to vital public services and help people to go about their daily lives. As others have said, many countries across Europe have similar minimum service level laws when it comes to strikes. That is why the reforms are necessary, and I urge the Scottish Government to work proactively with the UK Government rather than carp from the sidelines.
I turn briefly to members’ contributions. I have mentioned Alexander Stewart. I listened carefully to Alasdair Allan, but I listened with some incredulity, because he suggested that nothing would change. Like him, I voted remain, but did he seriously think about what would happen if the UK voted to leave? What would be the point? The whole point of Brexit, whether you supported it or not, is divergence.
Clare Adamson mentioned the work of the committee that she convenes and I sit on. Although I did not agree with much of what she said, it is important to acknowledge the work of the committee and the evidence that we heard for its report on the bill, which is due to be published soon.
We support the strongest rights for workers, and we support the work that the UK Government is doing to ensure that laws that work for employers and employees are protected and enhanced. The UK remains ahead of the EU in a number of areas, and the UK Government will continue to ensure that we remain at the forefront of delivering high-quality jobs and a strong economy.
Instead of fighting old battles as the SNP-Green Government continues to do, we, in the Conservative Party, will look to the future and do whatever is needed to meet the challenges ahead.16:57
Emma Roddick said in opening her contribution that she cannot believe that it is three years since Brexit, and I am sure that most of us are thinking that to a degree. We can also reflect on the fact that many, if not all, of our worst fears have come to pass. Brexit has impacted on our economy, how we travel, jobs, young people, universities and colleges—the list goes on and on. For some Conservatives and, indeed, some Labour members to say that we should perhaps not debate all the points that we have raised today is plain nonsense, because this is about people’s livelihoods and the damage that is being caused to Scotland by a Brexit that we did not vote for.
We have lost free trade and freedom of movement. Based on recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and IMF forecasts, the UK is predicted to have one of the highest inflation rates among the G7 nations in 2023. Many members have raised today’s IMF growth forecast, in which the UK is the only G7 nation forecast to have negative growth.
I saw a graph this afternoon that showed the UK coming 30th out of 30 nations on growth and the only country forecast to have negative growth in 2023. The impacts of Brexit are not over, and we are set to lose a lot more. The governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, said in November that Brexit is causing a “long-term downshift” in UK productivity.
The Office for Budget Responsibility expects UK GDP to be 4 per cent lower as a result of Brexit in the long run. That equates to around £100 billion in lost output and £40 billion in lost public revenues each and every year as a consequence of Brexit—£40 billion in lost public revenues at a time when, over and over in this chamber, we debate the impact of the cost of living crisis.
Many employers across many sectors of the economy are experiencing workforce challenges. The end of freedom of movement has exacerbated labour shortages across key sectors such as food production, manufacturing, administration and, in particular, hospitality and social care. Those are areas of the economy that, typically, used to rely on EU workers.
Data from the business insights and conditions survey indicated that, in October 2022, 39 per cent of businesses with more than 10 employees faced recruitment difficulties. Of those, 23.6 per cent cited fewer EU applicants as a factor, which rose to nearly 50 per cent of businesses in the accommodation and food services sectors. We have consistently called on the UK Government to make urgent changes to its immigration system to enable a migration system that is fit for purpose for Scotland—for instance, by implementing a Scottish rural community immigration pilot and aligning the shortages occupation list and visa conditions to the sectoral needs of the Scottish economy.
Sharon Dowey said that we should not be debating Brexit and that we should be talking about working with the UK Government on how to attract more people to come and work in Scotland to address labour shortages. I have written several times to the UK Government to ask for a labour shortages workforce to be set up with all four nations, but I do not think that I have received a reply yet. I appreciate that the UK Government keeps on changing ministers, but I have written to the newest minister and I am still waiting for their reply. I say to Sharon Dowey that it takes two to tango and we are getting no buy-in from the UK Government to address Scotland’s labour shortages.
Another fear that has come to pass is that Brexit would lead to a race to the bottom in deregulation, and another focus of the debate is the impact on workers’ employment rights.
As a Government, we have long championed the role of trade unions, and we continue to work in partnership with them as part of our inclusive wellbeing economy. Meanwhile, the UK Government is further entrenching its position as having the most stringent anti-trade union laws in western Europe by seeking to pass yet more legislation to further undermine and limit the hard-fought rights and protection of workers. We opposed the Trade Union Act 2016 and continue to call for its repeal.
Will the minister reflect on the comments from earlier today of his ministerial colleague who called into question Unite the union’s right to speak about the national care service due to what he believed to be a lack of members in the care sector? Does that represent respecting trade unions?
Many commentators have looked at the difficult issues that are being dealt with north and south of the border and said that Scotland has been much more constructive in dealing with those issues than the UK Tory Government, which has been aggressive and poured fuel on the fire. That is the wrong way to go.
We have opposed any weakening of workers’ rights and protections, which are still under threat from the UK Government’s retained EU law bill. We also oppose the proposed legislation on minimum service levels, which would strip workers of their democratic right to strike.
The retained EU law bill puts at risk the high standards that people in Scotland have rightly come to expect from EU membership. The UK Government appears to be rowing back on more than 40 years of protections in a rush to impose a deregulated, race-to-the-bottom society and economy, which we do not want in Scotland. Safe limits on working hours and the rights to take a break, holiday pay, parental leave and more will all become subject to amendment by the UK Government, which has a clear ambition to deregulate and strip back workers’ rights.
Was any consideration given to the work of the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee when it came to the scheduling of the debate?
If the committee has any concerns, it should write to the relevant minister about the issue.
I turn to the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which has been a focus of the debate. The UK Government has coupled the rush to remove rights for workers with yet more anti-trade union legislation. The bill is just the latest in the series of steps that the UK Government has taken to erode workers’ rights and weaken industrial relations. Although the UK Government has claimed that the International Labour Organization supports the bill, it failed to mention that the ILO requires the presence of compensatory measures, an independent arbitrator and many other things, none of which are provided for in the UK Government’s bill. In fact, the ILO’s director general has said that he was worried that workers would be forced to accept a situation that is way “below par” compared with the rest of Europe. Many other experts have lined up to criticise what is happening with UK trade union law.
In contrast to the UK Government, this Government maintains a progressive approach to industrial relations, along with greater protections for workers, at the heart of a fairer and more successful society. Governments should be working with the public sector and trade unions to reach fair and reasonable settlements that respect the legitimate interests of workers, not seeking to limit their right to strike. We are doing that through the fair work agenda that some members have mentioned. We have published our action plan to transform Scotland into a fair work nation by 2025. We recognise that the cost of doing business has increased dramatically and that consequential costs have been passed to consumers and customers, but the fair work agenda is as good for businesses as it is for workers.
I do not think that I have ever mentioned the name of one of my relatives in all my years in Parliament, so I am going to do that today. Agnes Somerville Marshall was my great-great-grandmother. In 1866, she lost her father, 57-year-old Thomas Marshall, in a mining accident. She lost her son, David Robertson, who was 22, in a mining accident in 1909. She lost her 58-year-old husband in a mining accident in 1911. Imagine losing your father, son and husband in separate mining accidents.
I mention all of that not only to thank my wife for researching my family history but to explain the many years of blood, sweat and tears that have gone into delivering protection for workers, and workers’ rights, in this country. This Government will oppose every effort to dilute or remove protection for employment or workers. That is part of what this debate is about. The UK Tory Government is using Brexit to try to do that. We need employment powers that are devolved to this Parliament—an idea that is backed by the president of the STUC—to help us ensure that that does not happen.
Most of all, we need independence. We have looked at the damage that Brexit has caused and at the threats to workers in this country. It is clear that we must be back at the heart of Europe and that Scotland’s democratic will must be respected.
That concludes the debate on Brexit and workers’ rights three years on.