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Scotland

Volume 527: debated on Wednesday 4 May 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Work Programme

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the awarding of contracts for the Work programme in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (53554)

9. What weighting was given to the involvement of voluntary sector organisations in the assessment process of tenders of prime contractors for the Work programme in Scotland. (53564)

Over the past year I have had numerous discussions with ministerial colleagues on the development of the Work programme. The Government are encouraging prime contractors to engage voluntary and private sector organisations in the delivery of the programme.

Does the Secretary of State share my concern that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), may have broken the ministerial code of conduct in awarding the contracts to some companies? Will the Secretary of State make a statement on the matter, and what is he going to do to protect the companies that missed out on the awards that were given out?

The hon. Gentleman is making a very serious allegation, which my right hon. Friend absolutely refutes. As with any other instance in which people think something inappropriate is happening, there are appropriate channels through which it can be pursued. If there is some evidence on that or any other matter, those channels should be followed.

I declare an interest as a non-remunerated director of the charity Turning Point Scotland.

There has been great unease in Scotland about the tendering process for the Work programme contracts. The tender document clearly outlined the expectation that at least 30% of a prime contractor’s subcontracts should be delivered by voluntary sector providers, and it stated:

“This will be a key factor in the tender assessment process.”

Yet the successful bids commit to a mere 8% and 6% voluntary sector delivery respectively. I hope that the Secretary of State shares my concern, and my question to him is simple: what went wrong?

I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s work in the voluntary sector, and I believe that it has a very important role to play not just in getting people back to work but in many aspects of Scottish life. Let us remember that the Work programme is a step change in the provision of support for people to get back into work. We are determined to ensure that we tackle all the problems that have afflicted different parts of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

The invitation to tender document was absolutely explicit about the criteria, and they were the ones against which bids were measured. As far as the future involvement of the voluntary sector is concerned, the two preferred bidders have indicated that they fully intend to engage with the sector.

I call Sheila Gilmore, whose question has been grouped with Questions 1 and 9. She is not here.

Does the Secretary of State agree that to secure economic recovery, it is important to listen to the views of the job creators so that we minimise the number of people needing support from the Department for Work and Pensions in the first place?

Of course it is important that as we recover from the terrible economic situation that we inherited, we focus on creating new jobs. That is why we set out in the Budget continued plans to ensure that we keep interest rates low, reduce corporation tax and reduce the burden of national insurance, compared with the previous Government’s plans. We will continue with those measures, to ensure that we rebalance the economy and create more private sector jobs in Scotland and elsewhere.

But does the Secretary of State acknowledge the significance of the fact that 200 leading Scottish job creators have today signed a public statement saying that the best approach for the future is to re-elect the Scottish National party Scottish Government, and Alex Salmond as First Minister?

Funnily enough, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. The best approach to the next Scottish Government is to ensure that we have Liberal Democrats at the heart of it, so that we can reinforce the central part that this Government are playing in rebalancing the economy of the UK as a whole. Our agenda for growth is absolutely essential to our recovery from the situation that we inherited.

I note that the Secretary of State, in his answer to my written question yesterday, stated that at his recent meeting with Scottish voluntary sector organisations, to which he dragged along the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), he had encouraged the successful bidders to

“engage effectively with the voluntary sector”.—[Official Report, 3 May 2011; Vol. 527, c. 662W.]

Will he confirm what he expects that will actually achieve? Can he guarantee that voluntary sector involvement will be more in line with the UK average for the contracts tendered in the Work programme, or is the voluntary sector in Scotland only going to get the crumbs from the table?

May I first say that I was very pleased to invite my right hon. Friend the Minister of State to the employment gathering in Edinburgh, which was very well attended by representatives of the different stakeholders and by a representative of the Scottish Government? As we made clear at the time, it is our intention to ensure that the voluntary sector is as involved as possible. The two preferred bidders, Ingeus and Working Links, have made it clear that they are going to discuss the role of the voluntary sector in their supply chains. That discussion is ongoing and not yet resolved. Beyond that, there are other streams of work coming out of the Department for Work and Pensions for which the voluntary sector and others will be able to bid.

I note that the Secretary of State is still unable to provide us with a figure. Doubt will remain in the voluntary sector, which has suffered a massive drop in income as a result of the Work programme, which offers fewer places than were offered under previous Government-operated schemes. Does he agree that the experience and knowledge of the voluntary sector of the future jobs fund is testament to its strength? Does he agree that Scotland needs a new future jobs fund, so that we can offer places for the thousands of people who are coming out of school and college with nowhere to go?

I am happy to acknowledge that under the previous Government, of whom the hon. Lady was a member, youth unemployment rose consistently through periods of growth as well as during the recession. I accept that we have a major challenge, which is why I will bring together different employment sector representatives in Irvine in a couple of weeks’ time.

It is important for all of us that we get the voluntary sector engaged. The future jobs fund was a very costly scheme, and its results do not bear out the hon. Lady’s assertions. It is not the case that it led to sustainable jobs—but the new Work programme will do exactly that.

Universal Credit

2. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the implementation in Scotland of the Government’s proposals for universal credit. (53555)

The Secretary of State for Scotland and I are in regular contact with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on a range of issues concerning implementation of universal credit in Scotland.

In Scotland, the public sector accounts for about 50% of gross domestic product. If we are to succeed in making the country less dependent on the public sector, we need to ensure that the private sector has access to the personnel that it needs to grow. Does the Minister agree that universal credit will help to make work pay, and that it will contribute to the rebalancing of the economy of Scotland and the UK?

I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend, who will be pleased to note that already during the incapacity benefit reassessment trial taking place in Aberdeen, a large number of people who not only want to work, but also want the support to help them to work, have been identified and have found opportunities to work in the private sector.

Will the proposed universal credit in Scotland be affected by the Chancellor’s proposed changes in tax and national insurance, particularly in relation to the tax proposals in the Scotland Bill?

The hon. Gentleman has followed the progress of the Scotland Bill in detail, but he will know that in relation to the core aspects of universal credit and benefits, the Government have given an undertaking that no one will be worse off in cash terms when universal credit is introduced.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the current complexity of the benefits system means that too many Scottish claimants do not receive the benefits to which they are entitled, and that universal credit will help to target the right support on the right people?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. The amount of benefit that goes unclaimed in Scotland is a national disgrace. The system of universal credit will simplify the benefits system, as well as making work pay and combating worklessness and poverty. That is something that hon. Members on both sides of the House should welcome; it is a marked change from the 13 years of inaction from the previous Government.

“The Plan for Growth”

3. What assessment he has made of the likely effect on the Scottish economy of the implementation of “The Plan for Growth”. (53556)

Returning the United Kingdom to sustainable economic growth is the Government’s overriding priority. We are doing everything to create the conditions that enable all businesses in Scotland to be successful and create more jobs. Our plan for growth is a plan for the whole of the UK.

What views and reactions is my hon. Friend aware of among our colleagues in the Scottish Parliament and the business community in relation to the Government’s proposals to support small and medium-sized businesses?

The Government’s proposals for reducing corporation tax and for making changes to national insurance have been widely welcomed by businesses across Scotland. Of course, as my hon. Friend will know, small businesses in Scotland have particularly benefited from small business relief, which was delivered by Conservative MSPs.

Inflation is at double the Government’s target, growth has been downgraded for the next two years, retail figures are down and consumer confidence is at rock bottom. Will the Minister for once stand up for Scotland and concede that while the cuts may be hurting, they are not working, and that it is time for the Government to have a plan B for growth?

This Government do have a plan for growth—unlike our predecessor. We have set out ambitious objectives to create the most competitive tax system in the G20, to make the UK the best place in Europe to do business, to encourage investment and exports, and to create the most flexible and educated work force in Britain.

I am sure the hon. Lady is good at figures. She will know that her party started the Scottish elections with a 10-point lead, and that today it has an 18-point deficit. That is good work with figures.

Can the Minister tell us what part of the plan for growth is behind the bright idea of his colleague the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to impose a massive increase in taxation on the oil and gas industry, jeopardising investment and up to 50,000 jobs?

The hon. Gentleman would have some credibility in asking that question had he not repeatedly raised in the Chamber the issue of the costs of petrol and fuel oil in his constituency. It is clear that the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary got the balance right in the Budget between the taxation of the oil industry and the taxation of the motorist. If the hon. Gentleman wants to tell his constituents that they should be paying 6p a litre more on their fuel, he is welcome to do so.

Unemployment

8. What steps the Government is taking to reduce the level of unemployment in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (53563)

Unemployment has fallen steadily since August 2010 and employment has increased in the same period. This is a welcome sign. Supporting companies to create and sustain jobs and helping people into work are key priorities for the Government. On 19 May I am hosting a seminar in north Ayrshire, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe), on youth unemployment, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will join me at this important event.

I look forward to our meeting on 19 May. On a another matter concerning unemployment, does the Secretary of State think that the separation of Scotland from the rest of the UK would help or hinder employment prospects for people in Scotland?

It would be an absolute disaster for Scotland to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom. It is interesting that even the Scottish National party appears to recognise that, because it is not campaigning very hard on the subject.

In the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin), our Front-Bench spokesperson, he recognised that youth unemployment continues to rise in Scotland. When does he believe that his actions will begin to bring it down to an acceptable level?

In response to the question from the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin), I said that youth unemployment had been a problem for a good long period across the United Kingdom, including under the previous Government during periods of growth. The Prime Minister, the Work and Pensions Secretary, I and everybody else recognise the need to bring it down, which is why we are meeting to discuss the core issues behind the problem, and why, through the Get Britain Working programme and the Work programme, which we have discussed already, we are introducing measures to get young and old alike off the unemployment register and back into productive work.

When will the penny eventually drop for the coalition Government? Last week in response to the Scottish Affairs Committee report on the computer games industry, the Government said that there is no case for tax incentives for the computer games industry, which is very important to this country. That was rather callous coming a week after another computer games company in my constituency went bust. Will the Government accept the blatantly obvious fact that if we want companies to set up in this country, we have to offer incentives at least comparable to those offered by our competitors overseas?

First, may I again recognise the hon. Gentleman’s consistent efforts on behalf of the computer games industry? I recognise the importance of the industry not just to Dundee and Scotland, but to the UK as a whole. As he knows—and as I hope the response to the Select Committee’s report reinforces—we have considered very carefully the incentives we need to offer not just to the computer games industry, but to a whole range of sectors in Scotland and across the country. It is our judgment that to get ourselves away from the danger zone we were in last May, it is important to tackle the deficit and to get ourselves on the path to growth. We have done that in successive Budgets setting out plans to reduce corporation tax, to keep interest levels low, to reduce the national insurance burden and to set out important new targets for banks and their lending to small businesses. That applies to the computer industry sector as much as to any others. Once again I will be happy to meet him to discuss the matter, if he would like.

Unemployment in Kintyre will be greatly reduced if the community group’s bid to buy the former air base at Machrihanish goes ahead. I thank the Secretary of State for meeting the community group recently. I have written to him with a list of outstanding issues that are still to be resolved. I ask that Scotland Office Ministers continue to work with Defence Ministers and the community group to resolve those outstanding issues as quickly as possible, so that the buy-out can go ahead, with exciting prospects for the Kintyre economy.

Again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s sterling efforts on this issue. I also welcomed the opportunity to meet representatives from the Machrihanish group a few months ago. I recognise that there are still issues that the group wishes to see resolved, and that these involve ongoing discussion with the Ministry of Defence. I will ensure that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence are aware of the details of my hon. Friend’s concerns, and that he receives a response to them.

Banking Failure

7. Whether his Department and the Treasury have assessed the potential effect of banking failure on the economy of an independent Scotland. (53562)

Banks and other financial institutions are vital to the functioning of the economy. Although no specific work has been commissioned on the banking bail-out in Scotland, a 2010 National Audit Office report states that the total amount at stake is currently £512 billion. As of December 2010, £124 billion in cash had been invested in Government financial interventions. Based on NAO data, the Scottish Parliament Information Centre, SPICe, has estimated that the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Lloyds Banking Group were provided with £470 billion. SPICe also calculated that this figure was three times the annual Scottish GDP, and that the total UK Government intervention of £751 billion was equivalent to just over half of UK GDP.

Do those figures not show that, like Iceland and Ireland, a separate Scotland would simply not have been able to survive the international banking crisis on its own? Is it not the case that Scotland’s economy will always be better off inside, rather than outside, the United Kingdom?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is interesting that as we enter the Scottish Parliament election period, the Scottish National party appears to have forgotten its proclamation about the arc of prosperity and Scotland’s wish to join the economies of Ireland and Iceland. The First Minister, Alex Salmond, also appears to have forgotten saying in the 2007 campaign:

“We are pledging a light-touch regulation suitable to a Scottish financial sector with its outstanding reputation for probity, as opposed to one like that in the UK, which absorbs huge amounts of management time in ‘gold-plated’ regulation.”

That response shows that what has characterised the Scottish election campaign is that positivity wins over negativity. Will the right hon. Gentleman at least acknowledge and recognise that the failure of those so-called Scottish banks was down to UK regulation?

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was listening to my last response. His leader, Alex Salmond, previously described the UK regulation as “gold-plated” and, at the previous Scottish elections, offered the voters “light-touch regulation”. This is the same Alex Salmond who said that the banking crisis was down to “spivs and speculators”.

One of the most pernicious effects of the banking failure in Scotland at the moment is the withdrawal by nationalised banks at short notice of funding for small businesses, such as TDI Ltd in my constituency. What will the Minister do to hold the moneylenders’ feet to the fire and get Project Merlin properly adhered to?

The Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with the banks operating in Scotland to ensure that Merlin goes forward as envisaged. We are also willing to take up individual cases such as the one that my hon. Friend mentions, which, if he refers it to us, we will refer directly to the banks in question. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. It is very discourteous, and I am sure that the House wishes to hear Mr Greg Hands.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the report by the Independent Commission on Banking, under Sir John Vickers, and will he remind the House who, in the last Parliament, awarded Sir Fred Goodwin a knighthood for services to banking?

My hon. Friend’s interventions at Scottish questions are always welcome. He is quite right to suggest that it was the Labour Government who not only awarded Sir Fred Goodwin his knighthood but involved him in virtually every other initiative that they pursued in Scotland. The Vickers report is to be welcomed in Scotland, as it is elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Election Timing

11. What progress he has made on measures to prevent the coincidence of elections to the House of Commons and to the Scottish Parliament in May 2015. (53566)

Government amendments to the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill deferring the 2015 Scottish Parliament elections until 5 May 2016 were agreed by the other place on 29 March.

In addition to outlining those measures, will my right hon. Friend update the House on progress towards the establishment of the commission to examine the West Lothian question, on its membership and on when we might expect to see its conclusions and recommendations?

As my hon. Friend knows, the coalition’s programme for government promised to establish a commission to consider the West Lothian question. A commission will be established this year to consider it, and the Government are committed to addressing the issue. We are continuing to give careful consideration to the timing, composition, scope and remit of the commission. It will need to take into account our proposals for reform of the House of Lords to create a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber, the changes in how this House does its business, and amendments to the devolution regimes such as those in the Scotland Bill, which is now before the House.

Renewable Energy

12. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the potential for renewable energy generation in Scotland. (53567)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a wide range of energy-related issues. Scotland has a growing reputation as a world leader in renewable energy, and we will continue to work with industry and the Scottish Government to develop these opportunities.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Last month, six Scottish wind farms were paid a total of £900,000 to stop producing energy because the grid could not absorb it. What will the Government do to strengthen grid capacity and improve energy storage so that that kind of waste does not happen, and so that Scotland can properly harness its vast resources of marine, hydro and wind energy?

First, may I highlight the fact that, under the complex energy management arrangements for the grid, arrangements have to be made from time to time to ensure that we can stop or increase energy production? Through those arrangements, payments are made for stopping and increasing production; that is understood. The Government have set out an ambitious programme for energy reform through our energy market reform proposals. The consultation on that programme was recently concluded, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change intends to publish a White Paper on the subject in the near future. Through that, and through other measures such as the transmission grid charges review, we will seek to ensure that we have the capacity and capability to exploit the renewable energy potential not only of Scotland but of the whole United Kingdom. Our other initiatives relating to the green investment bank and the offer to the Scottish Government to release the fossil fuel surplus are indicative of our intention to play a full part in the renewables revolution.

What meaningful discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Scottish Government on this vital issue? [Interruption.]

I am afraid that I did not hear the hon. Gentleman’s question. I wonder whether he could repeat it.

I was asking the Secretary of State what meaningful discussions he had had with the Scottish Government on this vital issue.

There have been regular and ongoing discussions with the previous Scottish Government on these issues. I have to record great disappointment that despite our offer to release the fossil fuel surplus—something that eluded the previous Government—they were not keen to take it up. I hope that the new Government elected tomorrow, with Liberal Democrats at the core of it, will take up that very positive measure.

The Secretary of State may know that the Energy and Climate Change Committee has had meetings with investors in the renewables sector in which concerns have been raised that long-term capital investments are involved, and that if the price of carbon were to change in investors’ favour, future Governments might introduce a windfall tax to compensate electricity consumers. Will my right hon. Friend reinforce the point made in the debate on Treasury matters last night that the Government want to engage with the oil and gas industry to ensure that any concerns about the stability of the tax regime can be dealt with, so that we can have a constructive engagement with the aim of maximising investment in all energy futures for this country?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I followed his contribution and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) last night with great interest. As my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury pointed out, their thoughtful and constructive contribution to the debate was very worth while. We are properly engaged with the oil and gas sector, as we will be with the renewables sector, to ensure that we can put in place long-term sustainable tax regimes and other arrangements that will help to boost those important parts of the British economy.