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Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Independence Referendum, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Business Motion, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Point of Order, Decision Time


Contents


Independence Referendum

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon on an independence referendum. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

14:24  

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The campaign to establish the Scottish Parliament was long and hard. It was rooted in the belief that self-government would improve the lives of those who live here—and so it has proved. There were—and still are—honourable differences about the ultimate destination of Scotland’s self-government journey, but all who campaigned to establish this place were united in and by this fundamental principle: the democratic rights of the people of Scotland are paramount.

That principle of self-determination was encapsulated by these words in the Scottish Constitutional Convention’s claim of right:

“the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.”

The late Canon Kenyon Wright, who led the convention, addressed Westminster’s refusal to accept the democratic demand for a Scottish Parliament with this question:

“What if that other voice we all know so well responds by saying, ‘We say no, and we are the State’?”

His answer—

“Well, we say yes, and we are the people”—

was simple but powerful. It is as relevant now as it was then.

Last May, the people of Scotland said yes to an independence referendum by electing a clear majority of MSPs committed to that outcome. The democratic decision was clear. Two weeks ago, the Scottish Government started the process of implementing that decision with the first in the “Building a New Scotland” series of papers. That paper presented compelling evidence of the stronger economic and social performance, relative to the United Kingdom, of a range of independent countries across Europe that are comparable to Scotland.

That should be both a lesson and an inspiration to us. Scotland, over generations, has paid a price for not being independent: Westminster Governments that we do not vote for, imposing policies we do not support, too often holding us back from fulfilling our potential. That reality has rarely been starker than it is now.

The Conservatives have just six MPs in Scotland—barely 10 per cent of Scottish representation—and yet they have ripped us out of the European Union against our will, created the worst cost of living crisis in the G7 and saddled us with the second-lowest growth in the G20. They are intent on stoking industrial strife, demonising workers and provoking a trade war. Businesses and public services are struggling for staff because freedom of movement has been ended. Our young people have been robbed of opportunity.

The Scottish Government will do everything in our power to mitigate the damage, but that is not enough. Our country deserves better, yet this Parliament, which is looked to for leadership by so many across Scotland, does not have the power to tackle the root causes of the financial misery being inflicted on millions. We lack the full range of levers to shape our economy and grow our country’s wealth. We are powerless to stop our budget being cut. We cannot block the Tories’ new anti-trade-union laws, or prevent them from tearing up human rights protections. We are not able to restore freedom of movement. While we invest billions of pounds in measures to help with the cost of living, tens of thousands of children can be pushed deeper into poverty at the merest stroke of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s pen.

It does not have to be this way. Independence is about equipping ourselves to navigate the future, guided by our own values, aspirations and interests. It is about helping us to fulfil our potential here at home and play our part in building a better world. That takes more than a changing of the guard at Westminster.

I fervently hope that the Tories lose the next election—they thoroughly deserve to. However, on the big policy issues of our time, from Europe to migration, to human rights and fairness for workers, Labour is more of a pale imitation than a genuine alternative. Labour will not take Scotland back into the European Union or even the single market, and neither will the Liberal Democrats. They will not restore freedom of movement for our young people. They will not prioritise tackling child poverty over investment in nuclear weapons. [Interruption.]

I have asked that there be no interruptions during the First Minister’s statement and I would be grateful if we could have some silence. Thank you.

The First Minister

Independence will not always be easy—it is not easy for any country—but it will give us the opportunity to chart our own course; to build a wealthier, greener, fairer nation; to be outward looking and internationalist; and to lift our eyes and learn from the best.

Now is the time—at this critical moment in history—to debate and decide the future of our country. Now is the time to get Scotland on the right path—the path chosen by those who live here. Now is the time for independence.

This Parliament has a clear, democratic mandate to offer Scotland that choice. Regrettably, however, the UK Government is refusing to respect Scottish democracy. That is why today’s statement is necessary. The UK and Scottish Governments should be sitting down together, responsibly agreeing a process, including a section 30 order, that allows the Scottish people to decide. That would be the democratic way to proceed. It would be based on precedent and it would put the legal basis of a referendum beyond any doubt. That is why I am writing to the Prime Minister today to inform him of the content of this statement. In that letter, I will also make it clear that I am ready and willing to negotiate the terms of a section 30 order with him.

What I am not willing to do—what I will never do—is allow Scottish democracy to be a prisoner of Boris Johnson or any Prime Minister. [Applause.]

Members, there should not be any interruptions—of any kind. Thank you.

The First Minister

The issue of independence cannot be suppressed. It must be resolved democratically and that must be through a process that is above reproach and commands confidence. That is why I am setting out today the actions that the Scottish Government and the Lord Advocate will take, in the absence of a section 30 order, to secure Scotland’s right to choose. My determination is to secure a process that allows the people of Scotland—whether yes, no or yet to be decided—to express their views in a legal, constitutional referendum, so that the majority view can be established fairly and democratically.

The steps that I am setting out seek to achieve that. They are grounded in and demonstrate this Government’s respect for the principles of rule of law and democracy. Indeed, those core principles—respect for the rule of law and respect for democracy—underpin everything I say today. Respect for the rule of law means that a referendum must be lawful. That, for me, is a matter of principle, but it is also a matter of practical reality. An unlawful referendum would not be deliverable. Even if it was, it would lack effect. The outcome would not be recognised by the international community. Bluntly, it would not lead to Scotland becoming independent.

It is axiomatic that a referendum must be lawful, but my deliberations in recent times have led me to this further conclusion: the lawfulness or otherwise of the referendum must be established as a matter of fact and not just opinion. Otherwise, as we have seen again in recent days, Opposition parties will just keep casting doubt on the legitimacy of the process so that they can avoid the substantive debate on independence that Scotland deserves but that they so clearly fear. That is not in the country’s best interests.

Let me turn to the detail of the steps that we will now take to secure the objective of an indisputably lawful referendum and then ensure that, from today, we can focus on the substance of why Scotland should be independent.

I can announce that the Scottish Government is today publishing the Scottish independence referendum bill. I will draw attention in particular to three key provisions of the bill. First, the purpose of the referendum, as set out in section 1, is to ascertain

“the views of the people of Scotland on whether Scotland should be an independent country.”

In common with the 2014 referendum—indeed, in common with the Brexit referendum and the referendum to establish this Parliament—the independence referendum that is proposed in the bill will be consultative, not self-executing.

Just as in 2014, and as recognised explicitly in the 2013 white paper, a majority yes vote in the referendum will not in and of itself make Scotland independent. For Scotland to become independent following a yes vote, the legislation would have to be passed by the United Kingdom and Scottish Parliaments.

There has been much commentary in recent days to the effect that a consultative referendum would not have the same status as the vote in 2014. That is simply wrong, factually and legally. Let me be clear: the status of the referendum that is proposed in the bill is exactly the same as that of the referendums of 1997, 2014 and 2016.

The next provision in the bill to which I want to draw attention relates to the question to be asked in the referendum. The bill states that, just as it was in 2014, the question on the ballot paper should be:

“Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Thirdly, the bill includes the proposed date on which the referendum should be held. In line with the Government’s clear mandate, the date is in the first half of this session of Parliament. I can announce that the Scottish Government is proposing that the independence referendum be held on 19 October 2023—[Applause.]

Thank you. Members!

The First Minister

Those are the key elements of the referendum legislation that the Scottish Government wishes this Parliament to scrutinise and pass.

I turn to the aim of establishing as fact the lawfulness of a referendum, which, as I have already indicated—[Interruption.]

Members!

The First Minister

—I consider to be of the utmost importance.

I will start with what we know already. We know that the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament to pass the bill in the absence of a section 30 order is contested. We know that legislative competence can be determined only judicially. We know that, for as long as there is no judicial determination, opinions will differ and doubt will continue to be cast on the lawful basis for the referendum. That benefits only those parties that are opposed to independence, because it allows them to avoid the substance of the independence debate. Finally, we know that if this Parliament seeks to legislate without a section 30 order, the bill will go to court—that is inevitable. The only questions are when it will end up in court and at whose hand.

If the issue of legislative competence remains unresolved at the point of formal introduction of the bill, the UK Government will almost certainly use section 33 of the Scotland Act 1998 to refer the matter to the Supreme Court after the legislation has passed. It is also possible that one or more private individuals will lodge a judicial review of the bill. Indeed, last week, it was reported that Tory supporters are already planning to do so. A challenge by private individuals could also go through successive courts and therefore be a very lengthy process. Either way, at the point of Parliament passing the bill, there would be no certainty about when or even if the legislation could be implemented. A court challenge would still lie ahead and the timetable that I have set out today would quickly become difficult to deliver.

Of course, between now and then, claim and counterclaim, good faith arguments and bad faith fearmongering about so-called wildcat referendums will continue to muddy the water, cast doubt and taint the process. That may well suit politicians who are opposed to independence, but none of that would be in the interests of the country and none of it would serve democracy.

The fact is that neither legal opinions nor political arguments will resolve that point. We must establish legal fact. That is why, in my view, we must seek now to accelerate to the point when we have legal clarity and legal fact. Crucially, in doing so, we would, I hope, establish and safeguard the ability of this Parliament to deliver a referendum on the proposed date.

It is to that end that, some weeks ago, I asked the Lord Advocate to consider exercising her power under paragraph 34 of schedule 6 to the Scotland Act 1998 to refer to the Supreme Court the question whether the provisions in the bill relate to reserved matters. That power is exercisable by the Lord Advocate alone, not by the Scottish ministers collectively. Accordingly, whether she exercises it is a matter solely for her.

However, I confirm that the Lord Advocate has considered the request. She has taken into account the following factors: the Government’s democratic mandate; the constitutional significance of the issue; the fact that the bill raises a genuine issue of law that is unresolved; and the importance of ensuring that this Government and Parliament act lawfully at all times.

She has now informed me of her decision. I advise the Parliament that the Lord Advocate has agreed to refer the provision in the bill to the Supreme Court. Indeed, as I speak, the process is under way for serving the requisite paperwork on the UK Government by lawyers and messengers-at-arms, and I confirm that the reference will be filed with the Supreme Court this afternoon.

Whether the reference is accepted, how long it takes to determine and what judgment is arrived at are all matters for the court to determine. I accept that. As I have made clear throughout, this Government respects the rule of law. However, by asking the Lord Advocate to refer the matter to the court now, rather than wait for others to do so later, we seek to deliver clarity and legal certainty in a timely manner and without the delay and continued doubt that others would prefer.

Obviously, it is this Government’s hope that the question in the bill—proposing a referendum that is consultative, not self-executing, and that seeks to ascertain the views of the Scottish people for or against independence—will be deemed to be within the legislative competence of this Parliament. If that outcome is secured, there will be no doubt whatsoever that the referendum is lawful, and I confirm that the Government will then immediately introduce the bill and ask the Parliament to pass it on a timescale that allows the referendum to proceed on 19 October next year.

It is possible that the Supreme Court will decide that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to legislate even for a consultative referendum. To be clear: if that happens, it will be the fault of the Westminster legislation, not of the court. [Interruption.]

Members!

The First Minister

Obviously, that would not be the clarity that we hope for. However, if that is what the law that established this Parliament really means, it is better to have that clarity sooner rather than later—because it will clarify that any notion of the UK as a voluntary union of nations is a fiction and that any suggestion that the UK is a partnership of equals is false. Instead, we will be confronted with the reality that, no matter how Scotland votes, and regardless of what future we desire for our country, Westminster can block and overrule—Westminster will always have the final say. There would be few stronger or more powerful arguments for independence than that, and it would not be the end of the matter—far from it.

Earlier, I said that two principles would guide what I said today: the rule of law, and democracy. Democracy demands that people must have their say. Finally, therefore, in terms of process, I confirm the following—although it describes a scenario that I hope does not arise. If it transpires that there is no lawful way for this Parliament to give the people of Scotland the choice of independence in a referendum, and if the UK Government continues to deny a section 30 order, my party will fight the UK general election on this single question: should Scotland be an independent country? [Interruption.]

Members! Regardless of the content of any statement, it is important that we adhere to parliamentary standing orders and hear the statement without interruption.

The First Minister

The path that I have laid out today is about bringing clarity and certainty to this debate. Above all, it is about ensuring that Scotland will have its say on independence. I want the process that has been set in train today to lead to a lawful constitutional referendum, and for that to take place on 19 October 2023. That is what we are preparing for. However, if the law says that that is not possible, the general election will be a de facto referendum. Either way, the people of Scotland will have their say.

As the Lord Advocate is now referring the question of legality to the Supreme Court, that need no longer be the subject of sterile political debate. Indeed, the sub judice principle and our standing orders demand that the arguments on competence now be made in court, not here in the chamber. That means that we can, and we should, now focus on the substance. That is what this Government intends to do. In the weeks and months ahead, we will make the positive case for independence. We will do so with commitment, confidence and passion. Let the Opposition parties, if they can, make the case for continued Westminster rule, and then let the people decide.

To believe in Scottish independence is to believe in a better future. It involves an unashamedly optimistic view of the world—the belief that things can be better than they are now. Above all, it means trusting the talents and ingenuity of all of us who live here, no matter where we come from. It is not a claim to be better than anyone else. It is about looking around at all the other successful independent countries in the world—so many of which are smaller than we are and without the resources that we are blessed with—and asking, “Why not Scotland?” Think of all our talents and advantages: unrivalled energy resources; extraordinary natural heritage; exceptional strengths in the industries of the future; brilliant universities and colleges; and a highly skilled and creative population. There is no reason at all why an independent Scotland would not succeed.

Nothing in life is guaranteed, but with hard work and the independence to chart our own course, Scotland will prosper. The people of Scotland have told us—all of us in this chamber—that they want the right to decide. Today, we have set out the path to deliver it. [Applause.]

The First Minister will now take questions on the issues that were raised in her statement. I intend to allow about 40 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I wonder whether that Scottish National Party applause was to make up for the people in the public gallery walking out as the First Minister was speaking.

Nicola Sturgeon is at it all over again. Her eye is off the ball once more. The real priorities of people across Scotland are on the back burner. Instead, the First Minister is putting her plans to divide Scotland front and centre.

Nicola Sturgeon has shown again today that the SNP’s selfish obsession with another divisive referendum is always its top priority. She will use Government time and resources to further her plan to break up the country, just when we need to be pulling together and working as one. All our focus should be on tackling the huge challenges that we face right now: helping families with their bills, supporting front-line services and creating good jobs. A potentially illegal referendum next year is the wrong priority for Scotland. [Interruption.]

Members! We will hear Mr Ross.

Douglas Ross

SNP members are unhappy about what I have said. The matter is being referred to the court because the legality of a referendum is not known. Therefore, it is a potentially illegal referendum. It would distract from our recovery, and it would damage our efforts to rebuild the country after Covid. It is also the last thing that a clear majority of Scottish people want.

The First Minister speaks of fear, but what concerns all of us is the price that Scotland pays for her continued obsession with another referendum. Therefore, we will not play Nicola Sturgeon’s games and we will not take part in a pretend poll when there is real work to be done on the global cost of living crisis, and to invest in public services and rebuild our economy. Those are our priorities, and they are the real priorities of people across Scotland, as well.

Instead of focusing on the right priorities, Nicola Sturgeon is railroading Parliament into talking about the SNP’s obsession. On the First Minister’s watch, this is becoming a do-nothing Parliament. Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed today that she will introduce a bill for another independence referendum, but what is she doing about the country’s top priorities? Nothing. No bills on education, no ideas about drugs and no ferries that float. That is Nicola Sturgeon’s Scotland.

This is beginning to become a Parliament that does not get to act on the people’s real priorities, and which exists only to further the SNP’s interests: it is a do-nothing Parliament with a First Minister who is obsessed with holding another referendum at all costs.

Why should the people of Scotland’s real priorities be put on the back burner for another divisive and damaging independence referendum?

At the last count, Douglas Ross had three jobs. He might be a do-nothing MSP, but this is certainly a do-much Parliament—[Interruption.]

Members! Thank you.

The First Minister

Douglas Ross has also demonstrated an apparent inability to listen to what was said in the statement. I know that the legality of a referendum that is agreed by Parliament without a section 30 order is contested. That is why I have asked the Lord Advocate to refer the matter to the Supreme Court, so that that legality can be put beyond any doubt. A referendum that goes ahead will be undisputedly legal, because the Supreme Court will have deemed it to be so.

At that stage, any claims about boycotts will sound even sillier than they do now, and will demonstrate one thing and one thing only—that the Conservatives have no confidence in the arguments for continuation of the union.

We have a strange conundrum in Scotland, whereby the Tories suggest that nobody in Scotland wants the opportunity to choose independence in a referendum, yet the people of Scotland have somehow managed to elect a majority of MSPs in Parliament who propose an independence referendum.

Douglas Ross also says that a clear majority do not want independence. I gently suggest to him that if he were confident about that, he would be desperate to put the question to the people of Scotland in a referendum.

My plans are to equip Parliament, and this country, with all the powers and resources that other independent countries take for granted, and that we need in order to navigate the challenges that Scotland, in common with the rest of the world, faces now.

The truth is that Scotland is paying a price for not being independent. We were ripped out of the European Union and the single market completely against our will, and we are suffering one of the worst cost of living crises in the developed world because of that. We have higher inflation than any other G7 country and lower growth than any G20 country other than Russia.

We are seeing children being pushed into poverty by a Conservative Government that we did not elect. Scotland needs independence in order to better navigate those challenges, so that all the focus, power and resources of this Government and future Scottish Governments can be on exactly that point: addressing the priorities of the Scottish people, in line with mandates that have been given by the Scottish people.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

It is important to establish the legal basis of a referendum, but it is also important to consider its timing, context and effect. The First Minister gave the game away in the latter part of her statement—that this is actually more about the general election and the SNP having some relevance in it than it is about the Scottish people.

It is important to recognise the context of last year’s election campaign. We were still a country living under Covid restrictions, and more than 10,000 of our fellow citizens had lost their lives. Nicola Sturgeon said during that campaign that people who did not support a referendum or independence through the recovery should vote for her, safe in the knowledge that Covid recovery would be her priority. Covid has not gone away and our recovery has not even started.

Since that election, when Nicola Sturgeon gave that pledge, 4,000 more Scots have lost their lives; in the past week, 43 have died due to Covid. More than 700,000 Scots are on national health service waiting lists. More than 10,000 children and young people are waiting for a mental health appointment. There are almost 20,000 fewer businesses in Scotland today than when the pandemic began. This week, the Office for National Statistics warned that inflation could reach 11 per cent, which will mean higher bills and a deepening of the cost of living crisis. For households across the country, it does not feel like the crisis is over.

Is not it the case that the pandemic Nicola, who said that she wanted to pull us through, is gone, and that the partisan Nicola Sturgeon, who wants to divide our country, is back, pursuing a referendum that two thirds of Scots do not want right now? Worse still, is she not using the thank you that she was given and the promise that she made to lead us through the recovery to pit Scot against Scot and to focus on her priority, her obsession and her purpose instead? Frankly, Scotland deserves better.

The First Minister

Democracy is not pitting anyone against anyone. Democracy is allowing the people of the country—all of the people of the country—to choose. That is not just the right way to resolve differences of opinion on the constitution; it is the only way to resolve them.

It does not surprise me to hear the Conservatives say different, but it does still surprise me to hear Labour set its face so firmly against that fundamental concept of democracy. Anas Sarwar said that it is all about the context and timing of a referendum. He might have more credibility in saying that, if his position was not exactly the same as that of the Tories, which is that Scotland should never get the right to choose independence in a referendum.

The First Minister who is standing here is the First Minister who does believe, and always has believed, that the right thing for Scotland is that we have the powers, the levers and the resources in our hands to chart our course in line with our values, our interests and the aspirations and ambitions that we have for the country.

I do not want a recovery in the mould of Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party. Anas Sarwar is right that Covid has not gone away, but a Westminster Tory Government that we did not vote for has taken the funding for dealing with Covid away from this Parliament. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is taking money away from the poorest people in our society. The way to build a recovery and to build the kind of country that we want—which Anas Sarwar and I probably agree on—is to put the levers and the control of that in the hands of the people of Scotland. That is what independence is about. I suspect that, as long as Anas Sarwar and his party set their face against that, they will continue to struggle as they have over the past decade and more.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

Well, here we are again. What an appalling waste of energy and focus this is. Frankly, I can think of better uses of our time, and I am not alone. I am sure that those who are waiting for cancer care in the longest queue on record can think of better uses of our time; those children suffering from long Covid who were left disappointed after waiting to meet the First Minister in the cold outside the Parliament this afternoon can think of better uses of our time; and island ferry passengers, Ukrainians stuck in hotels and victims of violent and sexual crime who have been left waiting for justice can all think of better uses of our time.

The First Minister is putting disquiet in her party ahead of the needs of this country. Why will her fixation with breaking up the United Kingdom always trump the needs of the people we are all here to serve?

The First Minister

We have so many Ukrainians here in Scotland right now who are in the process of being given refuge because we fought to get a supersponsor scheme in order to speed up the process for those fleeing the war in Ukraine. We would be able to give more refuge to people fleeing conflict and famine around the world if we were not trapped in a hostile environment immigration policy by a Government that we do not vote for and that does not have the support of people across Scotland.

Yes, it is this Government’s responsibility to support the national health service into and through recovery and to deliver for long Covid patients, but I pose this question: will we be better able to do that if we are in charge of our own budgets and resources than if we are still subject to a Government that cuts this Parliament’s budget at every opportunity?

Not many years ago, Alex Cole-Hamilton and I were on the same side of a debate in the Brexit referendum. He told people across Scotland that Brexit would be a disaster and so it is now proving. The difference between him and me is that his party no longer even says that it would try to take Scotland back into the European Union. I do not want to give up on that European ideal and aspiration. Now, the only route for Scotland back into the European Union and the European family of nations is by becoming an independent country.

The Presiding Officer

Members will wish to be aware that I have 20 members who wish to ask a question in a 20-minute period. I will certainly do my best to get through as many questions as possible but we will have to focus on more concise questions and responses.

Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

Following the 2014 referendum, Opposition parties promised through the Smith commission that nothing would prevent Scotland from becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose. Therefore, does the First Minister share my view that it is indefensible for the Prime Minister, Keir Starmer and Opposition members in this Parliament not to respect that pledge and the clear mandate secured by the Scottish Parliament for a referendum to be held on Scottish independence?

The First Minister

In the 2014 referendum, the leaders of the no parties at the time said:

“Power lies with the Scottish people and … it is for the Scottish people to decide how we are governed.”

That is, of course, until Scotland might take a decision that they do not like and then they think that their right is to block it.

The Smith commission report said that there was nothing in it that prevented Scotland from becoming independent. The truth is this: the Opposition parties in the Parliament will always try to block an independence referendum. They do that not out of concern for the country but because they fear the debate and the verdict of the Scottish people on independence.

I was reminded the other day that, in June 2017—I have here the front page of the Scottish Daily Mail from that month—the Conservative Government said:

“We’ll block a referendum for five years”.

Here we are five years later and it is still blocking a referendum because it fears Scottish democracy and the verdict of the Scottish people on independence.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Given the centrality that the First Minister accords to the Lord Advocate in the process, and having set the precedent a few years ago with the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill, will the First Minister commit as a matter of urgency to having the Lord Advocate appear in the chamber to answer questions from MSPs on the legality or otherwise of the proposals that the First Minister has just outlined? Sub judice rules do not apply in Scottish proceedings until parties’ pleadings have been finalised.

The First Minister

I cannot and will not seek to commit the Lord Advocate to anything because she acts independently and, on the matter in question, the power that she has agreed to exercise is one of her retained powers under the Scotland Act 1998. However, I am sure that the Lord Advocate would be more than happy to answer questions from MSPs.

I make it clear that the course of action that has been set out is to ask the Supreme Court to opine on the legality of a referendum, not to make it the matter of opinion—even the matter of esteemed legal opinion—but to get that judgment from the Supreme Court to put the lawfulness of a referendum beyond any doubt. I cannot imagine how anybody in the chamber could find anything in that aspect of my statement to disagree with in any way, shape or form.

Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

Aside from the fact that it is our sovereign right as Scottish citizens to determine the democratic path that our nation takes, in the current cost of living crisis, the most vulnerable in society are consistently being failed by the UK Government, while the Scottish Government is doing more than any other UK Administration to tackle poverty and support hard-pressed households. Does the First Minister think that all that serves to highlight just how important it is for Scottish citizens to exercise their democratic right to decide which Government they can trust to address the urgent crisis and our recovery from the pandemic via a referendum on independence?

The First Minister

That is the nub of the matter. In my view, the right to self-determination is absolute. Scotland has a right to self-determination, and the minute that another Government tries to dictate when or how often that right can be exercised it ceases to be a right.

However, this is not abstract. Independence is about addressing better the key challenges that we face as a country and about being able to better fulfil our full potential as a country. Other members will argue, as they have done today, that independence somehow distracts from the challenges and the priorities that many of us share. On the contrary, it is about giving us the wherewithal to better meet the challenges.

On the cost of living, as I have already said, much of the world is facing a cost of living crisis but, in the UK, it is being deeply exacerbated by a Brexit that was imposed on Scotland against our will. That is the price of not being in charge of our own destiny and of not being independent, and people across Scotland are paying that price right now. Independence is about enabling us to fulfil our full potential; it is about the priorities of people across this country.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

Even SNP voters do not want a referendum on the First Minister’s timescale. They want action on the cost of living crisis and they need action now. They do not want division, deflection or excuses from the First Minister’s Government, which has the powers to deliver the support and change that they need; they do not want to have to choose between heating and eating. Fuel poverty pre-dates Brexit and the pandemic.

How does a referendum in just under 16 months help people who cannot afford their bills now, never mind this autumn or winter? When will the First Minister’s Government take responsibility and use to the max the powers that it already has?

The First Minister

Of course, we are using the powers; let me set out how we are using them in that regard. Benefits that Social Security Scotland is in control of are increasing by 6 per cent rather than 3 per cent, so we are putting more money into people’s pockets. Indeed, many of those benefits do not exist anywhere else in the UK; they have been established in Scotland only, because we are using the powers that we have. The most important of those is the Scottish child payment, and a child payment of that type does not exist in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. It exists in Scotland because we are using our powers.

What are the root causes of the cost of living crisis when it comes to energy? They are fuel prices and the energy market, all of which is reserved to the Westminster Government.

I will give a direct response to Sarah Boyack’s question on what difference a referendum will make. By being able to exercise those powers ourselves, we could do more than just mitigate; we could address some of the root causes of the problems that people are facing. That is what independence is about; it is about empowering this Parliament and this country to take the action that people want on these priorities.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

For Opposition members, the time is never right, and they use every opportunity to deny our democratic mandate for an independence referendum. Will the First Minister confirm that the “Building a New Scotland” papers will ensure that the national conversation ahead of the referendum will be of a high standard, informed and an example of open democracy in action? Will she again invite Opposition members to drop their empty posturing against the referendum’s mandate and, instead, join the debate?

The First Minister

Absolutely. The “Building a New Scotland” series of papers will continue. It will set out the positive case for independence, and it will take on and answer the tougher questions and challenges that people want answered. It will be about the substance of the choice that we are asking people to make.

It is perfectly legitimate in the chamber and in the democracy that we live in that people have different views and will want to make the opposite case. The issues of process will now be determined, I hope, through the Supreme Court, so let us have the debate on substance. I and my colleagues will make the case for independence, so I challenge Opposition members: why do they not come and make the substantive case for Scotland continuing to be part of the union? I suspect that I know the answer to that question. Let us have the debate on substance and then do the democratic thing: let the people decide.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

The statement proves beyond doubt that the Scottish Government is committed to deliver its democratic mandate and give the people of Scotland the opportunity to build a fairer and greener independent nation. The very same Conservative Party that has been rejected here again and again is now trying to stop that democratic exercise, aided by a Labour Party that seems equally intent on obstructing Scottish democracy. Does the First Minister agree that pro-independence parties winning more seats and more votes than our opponents is the gold standard of democratic mandates for putting Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands, through a referendum on our independence?

The First Minister

Ross Greer is absolutely right to point out that the mandate for an independence referendum that exists in this Parliament is stronger than any mandate for Brexit that ever existed in the UK Parliament. The mandate is undeniable. The only question is whether Opposition parties and the UK Government are prepared to respect Scottish democracy. So far, they have not, which is why I have set out the path today.

Scotland has the right to choose. I want that to be in a legal constitutional referendum—that is the path that I have set in train today. Come what may, Scotland must have the right to choose independence, because that is the right of self-determination.

Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

Scotland should believe that she is hopeless, helpless, worthless and voiceless—that is the ambition that the unionists have for Scotland. Their belief that they can prevent the Scottish people from having a vote on Scottish independence is based on the fundamentally undemocratic idea of the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament and the denial of the principle of the sovereignty of the Scottish people. Does the First Minister agree that attempts to block the right to self-determination and the sovereignty of the Scottish people cannot be sustained while, simultaneously, attempting to claim that democracy matters?

The First Minister

I absolutely agree with that, and that will not be sustained. The UK is either what we have always been told that it is, which is a voluntary union of equals, or it is not and it is a structure in which Scotland has no legal democratic right to decide a different path—that cannot be sustainable.

This is about the right to self-determination, but, more than that, it is about the willingness of politicians who disagree, legitimately, to let the people decide and to respect the democratic process and the democratic outcome. In recent days, I heard some unionist politician—I cannot remember which one; they all begin to sound the same after a little while—say that they had worked it out, and that I did not really want a referendum and I did not think that we would win one if we got one.

Do you know what? I suspect that if any of the unionist parties thought that either of those things was the case, they would be rushing to call my bluff. This is an invitation to all of them: come on, call my bluff.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

In his address to the Royal United Services Institute think tank, General Sir Patrick Sanders says that his “singular focus” is on mobilising the British Army to help to prevent the spread of war in Europe, by being

“ready to fight and win alongside our Nato allies and partners”.

These are serious times. Putin continues to invade Ukraine, we have a cost of living crisis due to global inflation, and public services are trying to recover from the pandemic. Every year, for the First Minister, now has been the time. Why is her constitutional obsession more important than global peace, security and recovery?

The First Minister

That is utterly shameful and I think that people across the country will see it as that. All of us stand united behind the people of Ukraine and none of us should seek to use their plight and the horror that they are living through for our own political ends.

We do live in very serious times, which is why I want to see an independent Scotland being truly international by rejoining the European family of nations and playing our full part, albeit as a relatively small country, in trying to build a better world today and for future generations. I do not think, and I really do not believe, that the response to what is happening across Europe right now and to the gravity of this moment should be to try, in our own country, to block democracy. Quite the reverse is the way to respond to that.

Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

First, I congratulate the First Minister and the Cabinet for delivering on the voice of the people first, because Westminster is clearly intent on destroying the idea of the UK as a voluntary partnership of nations. A Tory UK Government with only six MPs from Scotland, supported on this issue by Labour, is seeking to deny the people of Scotland the democratic right to choose their own future. Does the First Minister share my concern, and indeed anger, at that total disdain for the democratic will of the people of Scotland? Why are they so afraid of respecting the right of the people of Scotland to choose their own future?

The First Minister

They are afraid of allowing people in Scotland to choose their own future because they are afraid, and suspect, that when people get the opportunity, they will choose to be independent. In the years since 2014, we have seen all the things that were promised by the no campaign turn to dust. We have seen many of the things that the no campaign said would happen if Scotland voted yes happen because Scotland did not vote yes, chief among those being taken out of the European Union against our will.

More and more, people see that the best way to build the Scotland that we want to see is by being in charge of our own destiny and not having it governed by politicians like Boris Johnson, who nobody, even in this Parliament, thinks is fit to be Prime Minister. The Opposition parties want to block Scotland’s right to choose because they think that Scotland will make a choice that they do not like, but that is not democratic.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

How can the First Minister give serious attention to addressing the fact that sexual crimes have increased by 15 per cent to the highest level since 1971—an issue that I know she cares deeply about—and to resolving the crisis in legal aid and the fact that morale in Police Scotland is so low that we are losing hundreds of police officers, if most of her Government’s attention will be focused on preparing the arguments for independence? Does that mean that she expects to put those issues on hold for the next 16 months? The people of Scotland have the right to know.

The First Minister

No, of course it does not. If that is the best that the Opposition can do, they are clearly going to struggle to sustain a position in this debate.

After years of my party being in Government, we have crime rates that are at their lowest level since 1974. This Government, with the support of the Parliament, has passed legislation on domestic abuse to make it more possible for people to get justice before the courts. We are supporting our justice system into and through recovery from Covid.

I come back to the central issue. We will be better able to build the public services that we want, and to support the recovery of our public services, if we are in charge of the resources that we have to do so, rather than being in the position that we are in right now, where we are having budgets cut and constrained by a Westminster Government that we did not elect.

The case for independence and the priorities, on which I am sure that Pauline McNeill and I agree a great deal, are two sides of the same coin. It is about equipping this Parliament and this country to better meet the challenges that we face.

The Presiding Officer

We have several members who still wish to put a question. I will try to get to the end of the list, but I would be grateful for more concise questions and responses. I call Sandesh Gulhane, to be followed by Joe FitzPatrick.

Sandesh Gulhane (Glasgow) (Con)

One in two of us will get cancer in our lifetime. This morning, new statistics revealed that cancer waiting times are the worst on record, but what are we talking about this afternoon? Another divisive referendum.

Someone waited 277 days for treatment. In Glasgow, someone waited 210 days. When will the First Minister realise that a referendum is the wrong priority, and when will she shift the focus away from division and grievance and on to real issues such as addressing those dire waiting times and preventing the resultant, and totally unnecessary, deaths?

The First Minister

This Government is focused on supporting our NHS and our public services and on supporting the country through the remainder of Covid and the recovery from it. Every single day, we focus on those priorities, in common with Governments elsewhere. Health services in countries around the world are dealing with those challenges.

I come back to the central point. A Government, Parliament and country that has the full powers and resources of independence will always be better able to meet those challenges than one that has one hand tied behind its back.

My apologies—I call Jenni Minto, who will be followed by Joe FitzPatrick.

Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

As the MSP for Argyll and Bute, I am regularly reminded of the valuable contribution that European Union nationals make to our communities. I am also very aware that the tourism and hospitality industries, which have relied on EU nationals coming to Argyll and Bute for work, have struggled to fill job vacancies post Brexit. Will the First Minister advise us of the Scottish Government’s plans to rejoin the European family of nations on our independence?

The First Minister

The Government wants to see Scotland rejoining the European Union and the European family of nations: that is one of the key benefits of independence. Indeed, independence is now the only possible route for Scotland to do that. We know that there will be processes that an independent Scotland will be required to go through to achieve that: one of the papers that we will publish in the series that I have already referred to will set out the route to that in more detail.

I think that the key point that is understood across Scotland is that there is no route back to the European Union without independence. Not only are the Tories against that, but we now, disgracefully, have a position in which neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats want to take Scotland into the European Union or even into the single market. They are now happy to allow the damage caused by the Tories to continue. That demonstrates that the only route for Scotland to get back into Europe is by becoming an independent country.

Joe FitzPatrick (Dundee City West) (SNP)

The First Minister has already mentioned the Scottish child payment, which is being delivered by Social Security Scotland from its headquarters in the “Yes” city of Dundee. Will the First Minister say more about how the powers of independence would enable this Parliament to go much further to deliver a fairer and more equal society that improves people’s lives, as we see in so many comparable countries in Europe and beyond?

The First Minister

One of the biggest arguments for independence is that we would be in charge of our own resources so that we could dedicate all our efforts to tackling poverty and, in particular, to lifting children out of poverty. We can illustrate how having only partial power over social security holds us back. This Parliament, using its limited devolved powers, has established the Scottish child payment and has now decided to double that and then extend it further. That is lifting thousands upon thousands of children out of poverty but, at the stroke of the chancellor’s pen, £20 a week was taken away from families on universal credit, which pushed children back into poverty. We need all the powers of a social security system to make sure that everything that we do is lifting children out of poverty, rather than being in the situation that we have now, in which everything that we do is undermined by a Government that is pulling in the wrong direction.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Will the First Minister clarify a point about the process that lies behind her statement? Did the Lord Advocate refuse to certify the referendum bill as being legally competent? Is that why the Lord Advocate is taking it to court, rather than the bill being brought before Parliament today?

The First Minister

I will not breach the ministerial code by getting into legal advice. [Interruption.] Members should listen to this point, because it is important. I asked the Lord Advocate to consider exercising the powers that she has under schedule 6 to the Scotland Act 1998 to refer the matter to the Supreme Court. I did that because I know that the power of this Parliament is contested. If the ministerial code were otherwise, and even if I were to bring forward and publish a dozen legal opinions on competence, the Opposition would say, “Ah, but that’s only an opinion. The referendum’s gonnae be illegal,” and they would undermine the process. It is better to ask the Supreme Court for its judgment on the lawful basis of the referendum and then nobody can gainsay that, because it is no longer a matter of opinion; it is a matter of legal fact.

Siobhian Brown (Ayr) (SNP)

As MSPs, we are all acutely aware that Scotland faces a workforce crisis throughout every industry and sector. With an ageing population, it is impossible for us to magic up people to fill those roles. Does the First Minister agree that it is only as an independent Scotland with normal powers over things such as immigration, employment law, energy and borrowing, to name a few, that we can start to recover from the Covid crisis and to address the cost of living crisis?

The First Minister

If you speak regularly, as I do, to people in public services and businesses across the country, one common theme will emerge—the shortage of labour that makes it more difficult to tackle the backlog in our national health service and more difficult for businesses to recover. That has been caused and exacerbated by the ending of freedom of movement, which came from us being taken out of Europe against our will and comes from a highly restrictive and, in many cases, deeply inhumane immigration policy.

Scotland needs to be able to determine our population and we need to be able to determine who can come to the country so that we can grow that population, because that is in the interests of our economy, our public services and our society more generally. The only way to do that is by Scotland becoming independent, with the powers that independence brings in that regard. That is another key argument for taking those powers out of the hands of Westminster and putting them into the hands of this Parliament.

Did Westminster have the final say on 18 September 2014?

The First Minister

Westminster and, in fact, all the better together parties in this chamber, ahead of the referendum in 2014, said that if Scotland voted yes, we would be taken out of the European Union. Then, of course, we were taken out of the European Union because we did not—[Interruption.] I will come on to an important point. Actually, Oliver Mundell probably did not mean to be helpful in that question, but he has been. However, I will come back to that in a second.

The UK that existed in 2014 does not exist now, because we are out of the European Union, and that is one of the many reasons why people in Scotland should have the choice.

Of course, it is the case that, in the lead-up to 2014, the then Westminster Government respected democracy and agreed a process with the Scottish Government. We accepted that we disagreed but, nevertheless, agreed a process that would allow the Scottish people to decide. If this Westminster Government had any respect for democracy, that is exactly what it would be doing. I think that Oliver Mundell has actually put his finger on the deeply undemocratic nature of the Westminster Government that is in office right now.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

Does the First Minister agree that the unionist Opposition in here has nothing to do with the mandate and nothing to do with the argument that now is not the right time? It is actually saying, “Never”, defending a permanent veto by one partner nation to prevent another partner nation from simply exercising its right to choose its constitutional future. In those circumstances, does the First Minister agree that the Opposition parties in here should be ashamed of themselves? [Interruption.]

Thank you, members.

The First Minister

On so many matters, I agree with that, but on this matter, yes. It is entirely legitimate for us to disagree on the merits and the substance of independence. That is the stuff of democracy. What it is never acceptable to do is to try to block democracy because of a fear of the outcome of the democratic choice that people will make. That is what the Conservatives are doing. Shamefully, it is what Labour and the rather misnamed Liberal Democrats are doing—[Interruption.]

Thank you.

—but the right of the people of Scotland to self-determination is there and it will be exercised.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. It is clear to me that the Lord Advocate has been unable to sign the referendum bill, which is why it has not been introduced to Parliament, but the important issue is that the First Minister was in the position of answering questions on behalf of the Lord Advocate. Given that the referral to the Supreme Court is an independent process that is free from the influence of the First Minister, surely the Lord Advocate should make a statement to the Parliament and answer questions about that process. Will the Presiding Officer, as a matter of urgency, consider that alongside the Parliamentary Bureau?

The Presiding Officer

I thank Ms Baillie for her point of order. I have no doubt that the bureau will consider this in due course. Thank you.

There will be a brief pause before we move on to the next item of business.