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Economic Downturn

Volume 492: debated on Wednesday 6 May 2009

3. What discussions he has had with the First Minister on the effect on Scotland of the economic downturn. (271863)

The Prime Minister recently hosted a dinner with the CBI, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and all the party leaders in the Scottish Parliament to discuss working together through the recession.

I suggest that our constituents watching these exchanges are hardly likely to be impressed by what they see on the television. Given that unemployment is rising—it has increased by 87 per cent. in my constituency alone in the past year—and people are worried about losing their homes, does the Secretary of State think it would be better if less time was spent bickering and engaging in political point scoring between Westminster and Holyrood, and more time was spent on working together to help Scots to deal with the effects of the recession?

I cannot come to a judgment as to what the hon. Lady’s constituents who are watching her on telly make of her performance. I have tried my very best in my time in this job to say to Scotland, and to politicians throughout Scotland, that it is time to set aside some of the traditional disagreements. I have tried to bring together all the politicians of different political parties, but a philosophical difference remains. The SNP believes that Scotland would be better off being like Iceland, whereas I simply believe, as do most Scots, that we are stronger, better off and better protected because we are part of one of the largest economies in the world.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the statement by Michael Levack, the chief executive of the Scottish Building Federation, in which he said:

“In the current economic downturn, unless we see rapid progress towards the Scottish Futures Trust actually starting to fund new infrastructure projects, we could see a significant number of construction firms left high and dry within a matter of months and faced with the real prospect of having to down tools.”

When my right hon. Friend meets the First Minister and his Cabinet, will he draw their attention to that statement by builders who face a fall off the cliff in October or November of this year?

My right hon. Friend raises a very important point about the future of the construction industry in Scotland. Of course, the failure of the Scottish Futures Trust to build schools and other public works in Scotland is remarkable, but that will be debated in detail in the Scottish Parliament. For our part, after ensuring that savers were saved from the actions of the banks, our focus was on getting the banks to begin to do more to support the construction industry. There are early signs that that is happening, but more needs to, and will, be done.

We are all reminded of the description of the Labour party by Lord Mandelson that

“we are all Thatcherites now”.

No, we are not—not on these Benches—unlike the Labour Government and their privatisation and cuts agenda. In the same vein, the Treasury has confirmed savage cuts in public spending in the years ahead. In the teeth of a recession, how can the Secretary of State marry his rhetoric against cuts with his plans to cut £1 billion of public spending in Scotland?

We no longer hear from the hon. Gentleman about Iceland or Ireland and the arc of prosperity—now the arc of insolvency. He talks about Thatcherism. Let us recall that it was in this very Chamber just three decades ago that his party ensured the defeat of a Labour Government and a general election. In the Scottish Parliament, the SNP has been supported admirably by the Conservative party in different votes. Despite the SNP and its relentless personal attacks, I am determined to rise above that and work to do what is best for Scotland. The public will punish whichever political party continues to put itself before our country.

My right hon. Friend has always recognised the importance of Ministry of Defence expenditure to the economy in Scotland, and he is well aware of the centre of engineering excellence at SELEX in Edinburgh, which leads on the radar contract for the Typhoon. Given that it has now been reported in the industry that we have negotiated a good new deal on tranche 3, split into two and with the Saudi Arabia export planes counted, will he resume his discussions with colleagues in the Cabinet, such as the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Defence, with a view to ensuring that Britain stays fully behind this world-beating new plane?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point, and he has raised it many times before. I will of course look into the points that he raises, but the wider point that he makes is a fair one. MOD contracts are of great importance to Scotland and its economy, especially the new aircraft carrier orders. It is a fact that Royal Navy orders have ensured years of work in Scottish shipyards, which is of great importance to current workers and those on apprenticeships. It is very welcome investment indeed.

The decisions in the recent Budget, including, for example, the increase in the price of fuel without concessions for remote rural areas and the increase in whisky duty, have made the economic downturn worse in the remoter parts of my constituency. Those increases severely affect Islay especially. Will the Secretary of State come with me to Islay to meet local businesses and discuss how the Government can help to see them through the recession?

I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss any issue relating to his constituency. The Budget ensured record investment in Scotland, building on the pre-Budget report. I have pointed already to the VAT cut, but we also have the support for pensioners in the winter fuel payment and the car scrappage scheme. In a real policy innovation, we are also considering new ways to support grandparents who look after their grandchildren. Of course, I am happy to listen to any representations that he wishes to make.

My right hon. Friend will remember the meeting he attended in Prestwick, where a number of industrialists were very concerned about banks and the problems associated with banks. He will know that he is coming back to Ayrshire for a further meeting. He should be aware that a number of the industrialists are now concerned about the Scottish Executive’s lack of activity in providing them with relief from the problems that they face because of this economic downturn.

I look forward to returning to Ayrshire to meet leaders of large and small businesses and to discuss ways in which we can provide further help to their companies at this difficult time. One thing raised on a separate visit to Ayrshire was how we support people on the minimum wage in the retail and entertainment sectors. That is why we will take further measures to ensure that it is against the law for tips to be used as subsidies for people on the minimum wage. People have to be sure that when they offer a tip in a restaurant or a bar, that goes to the staff rather than to the employer to be used to subsidise low pay.

It is 10 years since devolution and since my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) and I entered the Scottish Parliament as two brand new MSPs. We should not let the occasion go without registering that. It is of course amazing that the silence from the party that introduced devolution 10 years ago has been deafening. Does the Secretary of State think that because devolution has meant that the Prime Minister has had less influence on economic development in Scotland, the country will be in a better position to weather the storm than the rest of the UK? Is it not ironic that the one part of the country that is shielded from the Prime Minister’s economic policies will be the country that he is from?

I welcome the fact that the Parliament that the hon. Gentleman opposed continues to be a success. After his short term in the Scottish Parliament, I welcome him to the green Benches here in the Palace of Westminster. The fact is that Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales are stronger together and would be weaker apart. Together we have this unity and Members on both sides of the House—except for four or five who sit opposite—have a sense that our country has a remarkable history. We have achieved so much together and together we can get through this recession strongly, effectively and successfully and we can continue to be the brilliant, wonderful, successful nation that we all believe that we can be.