Using Scottish civil service resources to devise a prospectus for independence is the “wrong thing to be doing at this time”, the Scottish Secretary has said.
Alister Jack suggested the SNP-led Scottish Government’s focus should instead be on dealing with the pandemic.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced on Tuesday that her government will restart work on a “detailed prospectus” for independence which would “guide the decision” ahead of a second referendum, with work having been halted following the coronavirus pandemic.
The Scottish Secretary said in the Commons on Wednesday: “Our focus is on rebuilding our economy, our focus is on restoring our NHS, and I think most right-minded Scots would agree with me that using civil service resources to design a prospectus for independence is the wrong thing to be doing at this time.”
Labour’s shadow minister for Scotland Chris Elmore asked if Scottish civil servants being “diverted” away from Covid-19 response work would be included in a Covid-19 inquiry.
Mr Elmore said: “Scotland now has one of the highest Covid rates in all of Europe.
“Instead of learning the lessons of the last year, the SNP government has wasted the summer months with the virus spiralling out of control.
“While Covid rates soared, the First Minister announced this week the Scottish civil servants will be tasked with drawing up arguments for Scottish independence.
“In the minister’s discussions with the Scottish Government, has he discussed the issue of Scottish civil servants being diverted from crucial Covid-19 response work to plans for another independence referendum, and can he confirm that this will form part of the Covid-19 inquiry into the Scottish Government’s failures?”
Scotland Office minister Iain Stewart responded: “I am very happy to agree with the honourable gentleman, whether it’s on learning the lessons from Covid and making sure that our public services can catch up, whether it is on tackling drug abuse, and a whole range of other public service and social issues. That should be the primary focus of the Scottish Government and not obsessing with another divisive referendum.”
As part of questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland in the Commons, SNP MPs questioned the Government on its tax rises to fund health and social care, the effect of Brexit and health outcomes and drug use in Scotland.
Mr Stewart hit back after SNP MP Mhairi Black pressed him on the decriminalisation of drugs, in which she told the Commons: “In what world do you get to claim to be taking our nation seriously whilst with the same breath commit to change absolutely nothing?
“If the logical arguments were not convincing, maybe the financial ones will.
“Crimes linked to drugs in Scotland cost £750 million a year to investigate and prosecute. Experts tell us that money can be better spent. If the experts and the Scottish Government and even the Scottish Conservatives can now agree that health needs to be the main approach, why doesn’t he?”
Mr Stewart replied: “Perhaps they should spend a little bit more effort focusing on tackling some of these social issues rather than obsessing about independence, which no-one wants.”
SNP MP Joanna Cherry urged the Government to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act and follow in Portugal’s steps when it comes to drug consumption.
Ms Cherry told the Commons: “Portugal faced some of the highest rates of drug deaths in Europe at the turn of the century, but they radically reversed the situation through decriminalisation and a public health approach.
“The Scottish Government has used its powers to commit to a public health approach.
“The question for him (Iain Stewart) is whether his Government will use its reserved powers to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act and enable the measures that worked in Portugal … to happen.
“The Scottish Government has done its bit, will his Government do its bit?”