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Ministerial Meetings

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2007

I understand that the frequency and format of my meetings with the First Minister are consistent with those of our predecessors. I have also had a series of informal meetings with the First Minister. For example, I met him as recently as this Saturday when we watched Scotland’s magnificent victory over Ukraine at Hampden Park.

What recent discussions has the Secretary of State held with the First Minister about Glasgow’s Commonwealth games bid? What advice has he given the First Minister, who will shortly lead a delegation of 46 members to Sri Lanka to hear the announcement? Does he agree with Glasgow city councillor John Mason, who says that the size of the delegation is “very excessive”? Will the right hon. Gentleman join the delegation?

I have no plans to join the delegation. The appropriateness of the size of the delegation will be determined by the outcome of the lobbying. If Glasgow—as I expect that it will—wins the Commonwealth games, we will look back at the size of the delegation, and if every member has made a contribution to that appropriate outcome, we will celebrate them. It is not in my gift to determine who goes—I have no expertise in such lobbying; perhaps the hon. Gentleman does. If so, he should let Glasgow have the benefit of it. We all look forward to a successful bid. I am sure that he will cheer as loudly as the rest of us when Glasgow makes a successful bid for the Commonwealth games.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will take the opportunity, next time he meets the First Minister, to remind him that my constituents in Ochil and South Perthshire expect to see him working co-operatively and constructively in Scotland’s interests, not using the opportunity for party political grandstanding.

I say to my hon. Friend, and I have said in the past, that my interest as the Secretary of State for Scotland is primarily in making devolution work for the people of Scotland. I am in absolutely no doubt that it will work in the interests of the people of Scotland only if I personally have a constructive relationship with the First Minister, which I believe I do, and if he and his Ministers develop constructive relationships with my colleagues. Some of the activity of the past week suggests that, in order for us to do that, they might need to resist the temptation to develop confrontation out of what appeared to be co-operation.

With that good spirit in mind, will the Secretary of State endeavour in his next meeting with the First Minister to join him, the National Farmers Union Scotland and the Scottish Government in battling for Scottish farmers and Scottish crofters? Will he lend his weight to the campaign for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to live up to its responsibility and fully cover all welfare and compensation payments arising from foot and mouth?

Like everyone else in the House—and everyone else in Scotland—I have enormous sympathy for farmers and the plight that they face. I am among the many hon. Members who have constituents who are directly affected by those circumstances. Our concern for them is heightened by the fact that the events that generated those circumstances were well beyond their control. They were the victims. The hon. Gentleman will know from his colleagues in Scotland that Scotland Office Ministers have been working closely with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues that arose out of the outbreak of foot and mouth, from hours for haulage drivers all the way to support for farmers. Indeed, I met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this morning to discuss that very issue.

I commend the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) for leading a genuinely cross-party initiative and for engaging constructively. I understand that he will be meeting farmers later today with the Secretary of State. He is to be commended for that. Perhaps the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) and some of the members of his party could take a leaf out of that book, by working in co-operation and not in confrontation.

Next time my right hon. Friend meets the First Minister, will he raise the question of our armed forces returning to the UK? If our service personnel return to an English local authority, they receive priority treatment through the health service, but in Scotland they do not. Will my right hon. Friend raise with the First Minister the important question of how our service personnel are treated in Scotland?

My hon. Friend may well have uncovered an application of what I thought was a cross-UK policy to give veterans priority in relation to health service treatment. I suspect that that is not the only area where there are differences between the rest of the United Kingdom and Scotland in relation to veterans’ access to public services. For example, he will know from the work that he has been doing on the Select Committee on Defence that we are making quite significant progress here in England, through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government among others, on removing some of the impediments that armed forces personnel face in accessing social housing. Those are of course challenges that the Scottish Executive face, too. I am sure that, with the encouragement of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and others, they will be up to those challenges, but there are still gaps in their provision of service.

May I impress upon the Secretary of State the importance of making communication work between London and Edinburgh? If communication between his Department and the Scottish Government in Edinburgh does not work, the devolutionary settlement will not work, and that can lead in only one direction. The people who will suffer in the meantime are those whom we are supposed to represent here, such as those in the Scottish livestock industry, to which he has referred. I am having to take representatives of the industry, along with people from other parties, to meet the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this evening, simply because relations between the two Departments have broken down.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the parties to a successful devolutionary settlement, at Government level, must be able to work with each other openly and with confidence. Undoubtedly, some of those currently in that partnership appear to have something to learn about such work, and about the degree of trust necessary; I am certain that they will learn. On support for the livestock industry, I have commended the hon. Gentleman on his action, and I assure him that he will find support from Ministers in the Scotland Office. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that the issue is resolved, not only in the best interests of the farming community but in those of the welfare of animals.

Instead of constantly picking a fight with Westminster, the policy-light and heavily aggressive Scottish National party Administration in Edinburgh should provide solutions to the everyday problems faced by our constituents, whether in health or education, and help to make Scotland a better place. Does the Secretary of State agree that the £30 billion comprehensive spending review settlement for Scotland—which, incidentally, is double what Scotland received in 1999—is a good deal for Scotland, and that enough policy measures can be implemented with that generous budget?

I agree with my right hon. Friend that the Scottish Executive have at their disposal a budget that, on any measure, is twice what Donald Dewar had when devolved Government took responsibility for areas of public policy delivery. More immediately, the Scottish people are watching exactly what the minority Administration in Scotland deliver. They promise announcements: by my calculation, they have told us that about 60 of their policy promises have been delayed pending the generous settlement that they have received. Their manifesto made several very important promises, and they ought to know that the people of Scotland are watching. Those who were voted in to keep an eye on them in government will bring to the attention of the Scottish people their failure to deliver, I suspect, on every single one of those promises.

We heard today, and in the last Scottish questions on 10 July, the Secretary of State’s commitment to co-operate. At the beginning of this term of the Scottish Parliament, the new First Minister said that under his stewardship the Scottish Parliament would be about compromise, concession, intelligent debate and mature discussion. The Secretary of State will accept, however, that the people of Scotland have not seen that over the past two weeks, and that they expect and deserve better from both their Governments. Does he now accept that the memorandum of understanding on managing the relationships between the UK Government and devolved Administrations is no longer fit for purpose? Does he agree that the Secretary of State for Justice should review it as soon as possible?

The memorandum of understanding to which the hon. Gentleman refers says, in particular, that most contacts between the Government and devolved Administrations

“should be carried out on a bilateral or multi-lateral basis, between departments which deal on a day-to-day basis with the issues at stake”.

That is how the UK Government want things to work in practice. There is a long record of such arrangements working in practice, benefiting not only the people of Scotland but those of Northern Ireland, Wales and London. There is no reason why we cannot return to that basis, within the context of the existing memorandum of understanding. We ought to be able to get to a situation, within the existing memorandum of understanding, in which not only can the words of co-operation be used but the deeds of co-operation are manifest.

On foot and mouth compensation, surely the whole episode was entirely predictable as soon as the draft statement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was changed. Why did not the Secretary of State for Scotland move to manage that situation? Will he tell the House when he knew that foot and mouth compensation had been offered by DEFRA, and when he knew that the terms of that offer had been changed? Will he clarify newspaper reports that the Minister of State has been charged with running round Whitehall Departments to tell them now not to give information to Scotland?

The Minister of State has been charged with no such responsibility. The hon. Gentleman ought not to believe everything that he reads in the newspaper, even if he has briefed the newspaper himself—indeed, especially if he has briefed the newspaper himself: that might be a reason for not believing what is in it.

In relation to the issue—[Hon. Members: “When?”] Perhaps Conservative Front Benchers would have the good manners at least to wait until the question has been answered before deciding that it has not been answered.

At no point was I aware that an offer had been made and withdrawn, because no such offer was ever made and withdrawn. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made that absolutely clear. He has personally made it public that he played no part in the sort of behaviour in which he was accused of taking part, and in withdrawing an offer that had been made.

All of us who have been in government—and there are still some Members on the Conservative Benches who have experience in government—know fine well about discussions on access to the reserve. If the scale and nature of a bid is appropriate to a reserve that is held for particular purposes, there will be arguments about access to it, but all who have been in government know full well that that involves a debate with the Treasury. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, we shall be able to see whether it supports such a bid as the situation evolves.