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Volume 519: debated on Wednesday 1 December 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What (a) recent meetings he has had and (b) meetings he plans to have with representatives of Scottish Power to discuss the energy industry in Scotland. (26707)

I have regular meetings with the energy industry, including with Scottish Power, and will continue to do so, given the sector’s importance to the Scottish economy.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He says that he has had these meetings, yet British Gas, Scottish Power and Scottish and Southern Energy have said that on no occasion has he ever discussed the price hiking that these companies are undertaking. When will he try to support the people of Scotland by doing something about the price hikes?

What I recognise is the importance of ensuring that we get a fair deal for consumers, as well as for the shareholders—the companies are concerned about that. As the hon. Gentleman will know, Ofgem has announced an inquiry into consumer protection and competition in the sector. I expect that to be a very thorough process.

I am glad to see that the Secretary of State was able to get back from Scotland to be here today, despite the cold weather and the travel difficulties. Given that cold weather, and the increase in energy bills that many people have experienced, is he aware of the concern among many of my constituents and many others that the most vulnerable people will struggle to pay their bills, when they should be entitled to be on social tariffs? Will he therefore undertake to convene a summit of the six energy companies to discuss, in particular, what they are doing to ensure that people who should be on social tariffs are on them, and that people in Scotland are not left cold at home this winter?

I am glad of the hon. Gentleman’s welcome, and I appreciate, as he will, that many people in Scotland, and indeed in the whole of the United Kingdom, have been struggling to get to work and go about their business today. He rightly focuses on temperature and the fact that this will cause extra difficulty for people, so I am sure he will welcome the fact that we are maintaining the cold weather payments and the winter fuel allowance. I am certainly happy to discuss ideas of getting together with the different energy companies to make sure that they are properly focused on the needs of their customers.

Asylum Seekers

2. What discussions he has had with the UK Border Agency on the cancellation of its contract with Glasgow city council to provide services to asylum seekers. (26708)

5. What recent discussions he has had with the UK Border Agency on the welfare of asylum seekers in Scotland. (26711)

The Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with the Home Office on matters relating to asylum seekers. I understand that the UK Border Agency is working closely with support organisations in Glasgow to ensure that there is minimum disruption to those affected by the termination of UKBA’s housing contract with Glasgow city council.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he think it acceptable that no detailed discussions were held between UKBA and either Ypeople or the Angel Group ahead of the decision to scrap the contract with Glasgow city council, even though they will be made to take responsibility for more than 1,000 asylum seekers in the city? Will he agree to meet representatives of all those involved in the dispute, so that he can make an informed contribution to the Immigration Minister?

I will certainly be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and other people who have an interest in this matter. I know that he has already had the opportunity to meet UKBA, and I think that he will share with me the positive view that although the people involved will no longer have a contract with Glasgow city council and will instead have one with another provider, many of them will stay in the same properties and that will minimise disruption.

Does the Minister even start to understand and appreciate the outrage that exists in Scotland about the treatment of asylum seekers? This is not just about the Glasgow situation, appalling though that is; it is also about the detention of children and the operation of the section 4 card. Will he get down to the UKBA to explain that we look at these issues very differently in Scotland and we expect the UKBA to act accordingly?

I do recognise that there are concerns in Scotland about how the matter in Glasgow was handled, and the Immigration Minister accepts that the correspondence with those affected could have been much better handled. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome, as I do, the inquiry that the Scottish Affairs Committee is conducting into relations in Scotland with UKBA.

I welcome the Minister’s acceptance that the correspondence could have been handled better on the cancellation of the Glasgow contract, because as a result of letters sent out by UKBA, vulnerable people, including many families, were left in a state of extreme anxiety about where they would be living. Can he reassure us that lessons will be learned from this, so that such mistakes are not repeated in future?

Indeed, I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. As soon as these issues came to light, the Secretary of State for Scotland was in contact with the Immigration Minister. There is a recognition that the correspondence was inappropriate, and a number of measures have been taken. For example, everyone affected will have at least 14 days’ notice if they have to move. Progress has been made. The initial letter was regrettable, but the situation will be better in future.


3. What recent discussions he has had with the (a) Secretary of State for Health and (b) Scottish Executive on strategies to reduce the incidence of HIV in the UK. (26709)

I am in contact with the Secretary of State for Health and the Scottish Government on a range of matters. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government published their public health White Paper yesterday. As that is taken forward, close attention will be paid to the lessons that can be learned from the Scottish Government HIV action plan.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. On world AIDS day, it is worth reminding ourselves of the rather obvious fact that viruses such as HIV do not respect borders. Will he reassure me that as the Government seek to draw up their sexual health and HIV strategy they will work closely with all the devolved Administrations to ensure a coherent and joined-up approach? That is the only way that we will slow the spread of the virus, which has already claimed far too many lives.

It is indeed appropriate that the hon. Gentleman has asked his question on world AIDS day. He is to be commended for his work as chairman of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS and for his work on the “Halve It” campaign. The Secretary of State will shortly meet the Minister for Public Health in Scotland, Shona Robison, and I shall ensure that this matter is on the agenda.

Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking to discuss with the Scottish Government the findings from the eight pilot projects that the Department of Health is running to extend HIV testing in primary care hospitals and community centres?

I am happy to give that undertaking. As the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) intimated, HIV and AIDS know no borders and the rest of the United Kingdom can learn from what has happened in Scotland, just as Scotland can learn from what is happening elsewhere in the United Kingdom.


4. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the relationship between the UK Government and Scottish Executive with regard to economic policy under the devolution settlement. (26710)

I have had a number of exchanges with the First Minister in recent weeks. Yesterday, the Scotland Bill was introduced in this House. If enacted, the Bill will strengthen devolution by giving the Scottish Parliament a financial stake in the Scottish economy while maintaining the economic strength we all desire from being in the United Kingdom.

Now that we know that the Scottish nationalist party—[Hon. Members: “National party.”] It put Holyrood’s tax-raising powers out of commission for two years without telling the Scottish Parliament. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Scottish Government should be made more accountable for their financial management to such an extent that there should be a closer relationship between economic growth and how much money is spent?

My hon. Friend makes some interesting observations. I can confirm that the Scotland Bill, if enacted, will provide exactly what he asks for. It will empower the Scottish Parliament, increase its financial accountability and secure Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.

Where the Scotland Bill makes a real difference to the lives of people in Scotland and to the Scottish economy, it will have the support of the SNP. During the passage of the legislation in this House, will the Secretary of State and his Tory colleagues accept improvements that will deliver additional powers that will give the Scottish economy a competitive advantage?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s initial comments. As he is aware, the Bill introduced yesterday and the Command Paper that goes with it are the result of the work not just of the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats but of the Labour party and others across Scotland. I hope that we will get proper engagement. I am confident that the measures in the Bill get the balance right for Scotland. They are right for this time and I am sure that they will pass the test of time.

The Secretary of State knows that many of Scotland’s leading businessmen and women issued a statement this week, in which they said that there must be

“real economic levers to help sustain recovery and grow the economy.”

Will the Secretary of State and his Tory colleagues reconsider their plans and consider improvements to the legislation, such as devolving corporation tax to help business grow?

I listen carefully to a range of opinion from business and elsewhere about the future of Scotland’s—

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Secretary of State. I do not know what the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) had for breakfast this morning, but I am not sure that it has had the desired effect. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman must not rant at the Government Chief Whip or anybody else. He must calm himself—it is better for his health if he does.

If I can repeat what I was saying before your intervention, Mr Speaker, I listen carefully to a range of opinion from across business and different sectors of Scottish society. The business community was well represented in the Calman commission, which produced and supported the proposal. We will continue to listen to a range of opinion, but we have no intention of devolving powers over corporation tax.

In 1997, the Scottish people voted to give the Scottish Parliament tax-varying powers, but in a disgraceful and secret decision, the SNP Government gave up those powers. I welcome the Scotland Bill. Will the Secretary of State assure us that those tax-varying powers will remain with the Scottish Parliament and that the Bill will be phrased in such a way that, were the SNP ever elected again, it would not be able to give up those powers in a secret decision?

As my hon. Friend knows, the consequences of the Scottish Government’s decision not to maintain the Scottish variable rate have been debated in the Scottish Parliament in recent days. The fundamental difference between the existing arrangements and what will follow if the Bill is enacted is that the Bill will create a Scottish income tax that sits alongside United Kingdom income tax, and there will be a requirement to set that rate every year. That is a fundamental change, and it will bring the accountability and empowerment that I discussed earlier, which will be a good thing for Scotland.

It is shocking that both the UK and Scottish Administrations are failing to prioritise job growth. While there was a slight fall in UK-wide unemployment last month, the jobless total for Scotland continued to increase. The latest figures show that in Campbeltown an astonishing 13 claimants are chasing every available job. Our youngest people are suffering the most, and if Labour wins in 2011, we are committed to continuing the future jobs fund to help them into work. Why is the Secretary of State set on removing that vital support, while at the same time supporting tax cuts for our biggest banks, which are at the root of our economic problems?

That was an interesting insight into the Opposition’s economic policy, although I realise that Opposition Front Benchers are divided on exactly what it should be. I remind the hon. Lady that we are dealing with the consequences of the largest deficit in peacetime history—£155,000 million. We took urgent action to deal with that, which has drawn us back from the danger zone. We will announce proposals in due course on the Work programme which will replace the future jobs fund. We are dedicated to ensuring that we create the conditions for growth and for a private sector-led recovery to deal with the problems that we inherited.

Unfortunately, yet again Scotland’s youth are not the Secretary of State’s priority. His party does not think twice about dancing on the head of a pin. In its autumn edition of “Scottish News Extra”, which is turning out to be one of Scotland’s better reads, his colleague, the Business Secretary, is described as

“launching a scathing attack on the previous government’s unfair tuition fees which still have to be paid by Scottish students studying elsewhere in the UK. He likened tuition fees to the infamous poll tax.”

Now that his colleague has said that he may abstain on the forthcoming vote to increase tuition fees in England to £9,000, will the Secretary of State confirm whether he will support the increase, whether he will vote against it in support of the 3,000-plus Scottish students who are directly affected, or whether he will be absent again from the vote?

Order. In replying, the Secretary of State must bear in mind that we are referring to economic policy rather than higher education policy.

It is interesting that the hon. Lady interpreted the question by seeking to get away from anything that might focus attention on Labour’s record on the economy and on our determination to create the conditions that will get us back to sustainable growth for Scotland and the United Kingdom.

Scotch Whisky

6. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Scotch whisky industry; and if he will make a statement. (26712)

The Prime Minister’s recent trade delegation to China succeeded in securing geographical indication of origin status for Scotch whisky. How much will that be worth to the UK trade balance?

The importance of the Scotch whisky industry, not just to Scotland but to the United Kingdom, is shown by the fact that it contributes roughly £4 billion to our economy, £3 billion of which is represented by exports. At the moment our exports to China are very small in comparison with those to the rest of the world. This important new concession—this agreement with the Chinese—which we very much welcome, will ensure that we can grow our exports in China as we have done in the rest of the world.

I declare an interest as secretary of the all-party group on Scotch whisky and spirits. What representations has the Secretary of State made to the Treasury in connection with the imbalance in the tax on whisky?

As the hon. Gentleman will know from his distinguished position, the industry is well represented in discussions with the Treasury at all times throughout the year, as it was under the previous Administration. I continue to have discussions with my Treasury colleagues on this very important issue, and will continue to do so in the months ahead.

The Secretary of State will know that only yesterday the Scotch Whisky Association said that the Treasury’s review on alcohol tax was a missed opportunity. Will he confirm to the House today that he will make specific representations to his Treasury colleagues for fair taxation of all alcoholic drinks based on their alcohol content only, and no other spurious issues?

The hon. Gentleman has a distinguished record of following these issues very carefully. He will have made representations, as has the industry. The review was concluded a few weeks ago and will report in due course. As I said in answer to the earlier question, I will continue to discuss these issues with the Treasury.

Commonwealth Games

7. What assessment he has made of the lessons learned from the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth games which could inform his Department’s contribution to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth games. (26713)

The Commonwealth Games Federation is currently leading a formal review of the Delhi games. The Scottish Government and Glasgow 2014 games partners are participating in that review, and will be seeking to identify the key messages to inform planning for the 2014 games. The Scotland Office will do whatever we can to contribute to a successful games in 2014.

The Minister will know that one of Delhi’s troubles was in attracting the top athletes. What will the UK Government do to ensure that the best from across the Commonwealth come to Glasgow in 2014?

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, most of the responsibilities in respect of the 2014 Commonwealth games are devolved and rest with the organising committee. I have already met the leader of Glasgow city council and assured him that the UK Government will do everything that we can to support a successful games.


8. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on measures to promote economic growth in Scotland. (26714)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on this issue. In the spending review, the UK Government took decisive action to reduce the inherited record deficit. Along with the June Budget, the spending review has set the conditions to promote a balanced economy and sustainable economic growth for all parts of the UK.

The Scottish Government used to be very keen on the economic growth achieved by Ireland. Will the Secretary of State assure me that, as well as taking measures to promote growth, he will ensure that the First Minister has fiscal responsibility at the top of his agenda?

All of us are very concerned about what has happened to Ireland in recent months, and our Government have set out some very important steps that we are taking to contribute to the recovery in Ireland and other parts of Europe. We need to ensure Scotland’s place within the stability of the United Kingdom. The Scotland Bill, given its First Reading in this House yesterday, will ensure that we give Scotland the tools to achieve that, and I hope that it will be an Act in due course.

For every job vacancy in Lanarkshire there are 10 people on jobseeker’s allowance. Indeed, in Motherwell and Wishaw, that figure rises to 12 or 13. What priority will the Secretary of State give to the Lanarkshire economy to ensure that it gets back on track as quickly as possible? [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many private conversations of a noisy character taking place in the Chamber. I want to hear the Secretary of State.

I recognise the challenges faced by Lanarkshire and other parts of the Scottish economy and by those who are looking for a job. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, I visited Lanarkshire recently and met people who are working their way into employment, and students at Motherwell college. We have to keep focused, and we have to put in place the right conditions to ensure that we achieve a sustainable recovery across the country. I believe that the measures we are taking will ensure that that happens.

The Secretary of State will know from his visit to the north-east of Scotland just how important the region is, not just to the Scottish economy, but to the UK economy as a whole. We received a welcome boost this week with the announcement of the extension of the runway at Aberdeen airport and improvement in that transport link, but will he emphasise to the Scottish Government that all transport links in the north-east need to be improved? They do not need new levers to improve Scotland’s economy; they need to use the existing levers, as well.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our Government here in the United Kingdom are committed to ensuring that we invest in infrastructure that will support growth, and we have produced other support for business that is geared towards growth, but I take his points about the Scottish Government. His points will have been heard, and I am sure that they will form the basis of further discussions between myself and Scottish Ministers.


9. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effect on average household outgoings in Scotland of raising the rate of value added tax to 20%. (26715)

The VAT rise is part of the Government’s credible plan to tackle the largest deficit in peacetime history. Difficult decisions are necessary, but as a consequence we will get our country back on a sustainable economic footing, to the benefit of everyone.

Does the Minister not agree that the rise in VAT—the most regressive tax, by his party leader’s own admission—will hit the poorest in our society hardest, particularly in Scotland, where incomes are lower and jobs continue to be lost?

What I acknowledge is that the Labour Government left us with a deficit £12 billion larger than they had told us, and that if we do not tackle that deficit everyone in Scotland will be worse off. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The voluntary sector in Scotland plays a vital role in supporting some of our most vulnerable families. The increase in VAT will cost Scotland’s voluntary sector dearly. What is the Minister actually doing to support that sector, so that it can deliver his vision of a big society?

This Government are committed to supporting the voluntary sector in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK, but the hon. Lady should tell people in that sector and elsewhere in Scotland that the rise in VAT is a consequence of her party’s Government’s overspending.

MOD Hospital Unit

10. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on commissioning a Ministry of Defence hospital unit in Scotland. (26716)

Although there are currently no plans to extend the existing network of Ministry of Defence hospital units, I can assure the hon. Lady that the Government recognise the importance of maintaining world-class medical services for our armed forces in the UK.

Despite the increase in the number of injured coming back, we have no MOD hospital unit in Scotland. Organisations such as the Royal British Legion Scotland believe that there should be one. Will he meet the Royal British Legion Scotland, myself and any interested colleagues to discuss the matter?

Indeed, I am happy to meet the hon. Lady and any colleagues. It is important to say, though, that many military personnel are treated extremely well in non-military hospitals in Scotland, where they are closer to their friends and family.


11. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of employment in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (26718)

In recent months, the numbers in employment have been rising in Scotland, though overall labour market trends remain mixed. This Government will continue to create the conditions to foster sustainable and balanced economic growth.

What steps are the Government taking to ensure that unemployment in Scotland does not rise to the level in the Republic of Ireland—part of the circle of misery? Does he agree with me that a small country and bad banks result in misery for working people?

I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman that Scotland benefits hugely from being part of the United Kingdom, and under our proposals set out in the Scotland Bill, it will firmly stay within the United Kingdom.

Does the Secretary of State agree that current levels of unemployment in Scotland are the fault of 13 years of mismanagement by the previous Labour Government and that the people of Scotland need to back this coalition Government to give Scotland a chance again?

Since this Government came to office, they have taken decisive action to tackle the issues that we inherited—a record deficit of £155,000 million. We have pulled Britain back from the danger zone, we are setting out the conditions for sustainable economic growth, and that is the right way for this country.


12. What recent estimate he has made of levels of economic growth and inward investment in Scotland. (26719)

The latest official statistics show strong economic growth in Scotland in the second quarter of this year. We are determined to ensure that Scotland will benefit as the Government tackle the deficit to secure growth, and provide the confidence that businesses and individuals need to invest.

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House whether those figures support the claim made by the last Labour Secretary of State for Scotland that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) would be a “kamikaze” Prime Minister who would “plunge” Scotland “back into recession”?

Funnily enough, I completely disagree with that assessment. I am pleased to say that not only has the Prime Minister led the Government’s efforts to get us away from the danger zone that the economy was in, but he has set out a constitutional path for Scotland that will enhance its economic growth and keep it within the United Kingdom.