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Volume 532: debated on Wednesday 14 September 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on Remploy’s operations in Scotland. (70960)

The Government are totally committed to supporting disabled people into employment, and the amount of money going into that is being protected. A consultation event on the future strategy of Remploy is taking place in Glasgow today, and Remploy staff have been invited to attend.

As job losses continue to increase in my constituency, can the Minister say whether he intends to engage with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the Remploy jobs in Dundee are protected?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman, who is a doughty fighter for Remploy, that no decisions have been made. I understand that he attended a meeting in the Scottish Parliament organised by Helen Eadie MSP that undertook to submit a response to the consultation on Remploy, and that response will be welcome.

The Dundee Remploy factory is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern), but many of my constituents work in it. The factory makes first-class chemical and biological suits, which are required by the emergency services and the military. I urge the Minister to speak not just to the Department for Work and Pensions, however important that might be, but to the Ministry of Defence and the Home Secretary to ensure that the emergency services and the military look carefully at what Remploy produces and, in particular, the quality of the suits that the Dundee factory makes.

The hon. Gentleman will know that his constituency neighbour has already met the MOD, which has confirmed the high standard and quality of the work Remploy does in its Dundee factory. However, I urge the hon. Gentleman and everyone in Scotland with an interest to take part in the consultation.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that as well as the Dundee factory there are seven other Remploy factories in Scotland. Does he accept that while his colleagues in the Government are talking about the importance of manufacturing it would be crass and foolhardy to embark on the closure of factories that provide goods and jobs, where public sector procurement could make the difference to ensure that they are viable in future? Will he make representations across Government to ensure that the jobs in those eight factories in Scotland are protected?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is not acceptable that around 50% of disabled people are out of work and that those who are in work often do jobs that are far below their potential. Closing the unemployment gap between disabled and non-disabled people could boost the overall economy by £13 billion, and the Government want to achieve that. We are undertaking a consultation; I urge him and everyone with an interest to take part in it.

Energy Prices

5. What recent representations he has received on increases in prices for electricity and gas by the main energy suppliers in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (70964)

Energy price increases continue to be a matter of concern to the public and the Government. I recently discussed the issue with the six largest energy providers in Scotland as well as with consumer groups.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but he will no doubt be aware that the energy companies are now just a major cartel. I therefore suggest one of two options for him: either to give Ofgem the power to say no to the energy companies when they come forward with huge increases; or—even better—to return that power to this House.

We share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to be vigilant about everything that we see in the energy market, which is why the work of Ofgem and my colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change is so important. The latest discussions with the energy companies took place in the last couple of weeks, building on those that I had earlier in the year. The energy companies are in no doubt that the Government expect them to look carefully at all their pricing policies, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to be vigilant in that respect.

One hundred thousand pensioners in Glasgow face cuts totalling £4 million to their winter fuel allowance this year. At the same time, energy companies are putting up their prices by up to 20%. Does the Secretary of State agree that no pensioner in the UK should have to choose between heating their home and putting food on the table? If so, what is he going to do about this?

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus attention on some of the most vulnerable people in society, both in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland. I would point out to him that the winter fuel allowance will return to its previous level, as planned by the previous Government, and that the cold weather payments—on which we spent over £50 million last year—will continue at a higher level than before. I know that the hon. Gentleman studies these matters carefully, and he will be aware that, through our Warm Home discount scheme—a statutory scheme that is replacing the previous voluntary scheme run by the energy companies—we will ensure that we get more than double the amount of assistance to vulnerable households this winter and during the winters ahead.

I hope that the Secretary of State will take the opportunity to talk to renewable energy providers about the fact that the only way of getting the electricity generated in that way into the grid is via overhead pylons. Given that undergrounding takes place in alpine countries, will he insist that that happens in the highlands and the north of England as well?

I understand the sensitivity of the issue that my hon. Friend raises; indeed, it occurs across the country. This matter must be carefully considered, and the proposals for the transmission network must take full account of environmental and other planning considerations.

In his discussions with the energy companies, has the Secretary of State discussed the 1 million households that are not on the gas main? What are the energy companies going to do to extend the gas main and give those households the opportunity to use a cheaper fuel than oil?

We are keen to ensure that consumers have as much choice as possible, whether through extending the transmission networks for all different kinds of energy or through looking at ways of enhancing competitiveness in the market by increasing transparency and improving smart meters. All those measures need to be looked at, and I will certainly put the right hon. Gentleman’s point to the energy companies the next time we talk.

In those discussions about off-grid gas consumers, did the Secretary of State talk about the escalating price and the need to avoid a repeat of the difficulty in ensuring supplies during the severe weather last winter?

People are acutely aware of the problems caused by the weather last winter and the winter before that. That is why the measures to keep resilience in the network are particularly important. Equally, however, we need to recognise that that adds cost to consumers, which is why we are maintaining the cold weather payments. We will also have the winter fuel allowance and, through our new measures, we will enhance the support for vulnerable people across Scotland.

Many of my constituents, particularly those on low incomes, are struggling with the large increases in their gas and electricity bills. I very much welcome the recent news that Ofgem has brought in a firm of specialist auditors to help its investigation into whether the high energy prices are really justified, and I look forward to seeing its report at the end of the year. Will the Secretary of State and his colleagues ensure that Ofgem has all the necessary support to carry out a thorough investigation, and sufficient powers to sanction the big six, in particular, if, as I expect, it finds that they have been acting unfairly?

Certainly, a feature of the discussions that I have been having recently is that many of the energy companies recognise that they need to regain the trust of the consumer concerning price rises and the reasons that they have come about. In the next few weeks I will be bringing energy companies and consumer groups in Scotland together to look at these issues in detail. I will ensure that the companies focus on the appropriate responses and that we take away whatever work we need to do.

Given that surveys conducted by Consumer Focus Scotland show that nine out of 10 people who bought energy products on the doorstep would never do so again, does the Secretary of State agree that it is time for all energy providers in Scotland—not just four—to end the practice of cold calling? If so, when will the Government introduce legislation to ensure that this foul practice ceases?

I join the hon. Lady in condemning the sharp practice that has been on display in many parts of the country, particularly in Scotland. That is one of the issues that we will discuss in the meeting that I mentioned in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). We are determined to get the companies to recognise that that is an unacceptable practice.

At a time when Scottish and Southern Energy will be adding an average of £171 a year to each of its customers’ electricity and gas bills, tipping thousands of people in Scotland into fuel poverty, and when other energy providers are following suit, does the Minister agree that it is unfair and morally inappropriate that its chief executive officer received a bonus of £2 million on top of his £840,000 salary when the wholesale prices of energy were actually going down?

Remuneration is a matter for the energy companies themselves, but all of us have to ensure that we are carefully focused on the performance and behaviour of all these companies, which is why I have been ensuring that their focus is on what their consumers, and particularly the most vulnerable, need. The hon. Lady is right to focus on fuel poverty: at the end of 2009, a third of Scottish households were measured to be in it. The measures I have already outlined will go a long way towards helping to tackle it.

Highlands and Islands (Economy)

4. What recent assessment he has made of the prospects for the economy of the highlands and islands; and if he will make a statement. (70963)

Despite challenging international circumstances, the UK and Scottish economies are growing, rebalancing and creating jobs. The Government are creating a new model of economic growth that is more evenly balanced across the UK.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. He has welcomed, as have we all across Scotland, the formal confirmation of university status for the University of the Highlands and Islands. As he knows, the university has put in an application to the Scottish Government for an additional £3 million in view of the extra demands now being placed upon it. Is that something to which my right hon. Friend can give his discreet support?

I am always happy to look at these cases and provide support as necessary. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this is an important step forward for the highlands and islands. I hope that the Scottish Government will reflect carefully on what he and others have been saying.

Yesterday I had an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on fuel duty. Is the Secretary of State aware that the duty is then subject to tax by VAT?

I think that everybody in the House is aware of the realities of fuel taxation. I am therefore sure that the hon. Gentleman was welcoming the fact that in our Budget earlier this year we reduced fuel duty rather than increasing it in the way the previous Government had planned. This question gives me the opportunity to remind the House that we have made further progress in the derogation for highlands and islands fuel prices, which is very welcome news indeed, so that we can get a reduction in fuel duty in the islands.

The highlands and islands economy is being held back by the high price of fuel. I warmly welcome the Government’s progress on the island fuel discount and on the cut in fuel duty in this year’s Budget. However, a further increase in fuel duty is planned for January; if the price of fuel remains high, I hope that that will not go ahead. Will the Secretary of State make representations to the Chancellor?

I am very aware from my own travels around Scotland, particularly to my hon. Friend’s constituency, of the extremely challenging circumstances for users of cars and vehicles across rural areas and, indeed, all of Scotland. I therefore particularly welcome, to repeat my earlier point, the Budget reduction and the European Commission's announcement about its support for our derogation. We want to keep all these things in balance. My hon. Friend’s comments will have been heard by the Chancellor, but he alone is responsible for taxation matters.

It is to be welcomed that unemployment is down in Scotland and that employment is up, but challenges remain, not least in the north of Scotland where, because of defence cuts, £30 million will be lost every year due to the closure of RAF Kinloss as an airbase. Will the Secretary of State confirm that no specific financial support has been provided by the UK Government to help deal with that economic shock?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that, in reaching some difficult and complex decisions over the future not only of RAF basing but of that of the Army and Navy, too, we will see an increased footprint in Scotland as a whole. In the hon. Gentleman’s own area, we will see additional Army resources going into Kinloss in particular. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that discussions on how to support the communities through the next few years are at an early stage, but I am looking forward to them continuing in the constructive manner in which they have started.

Everyone will have noted that the Secretary of State was not able to confirm that there has been any specific financial support—because there has not been. It has been nearly a year since the announcement of RAF Kinloss’s closure as an airbase and more than two months since confirmation about the Army deployment. Agencies supported by the Scottish Government have been active in support of economic diversification. In contrast, the UK Government have provided little or no details to these local agencies to assist in the transition. Why is that?

I have discussed the matter with the Scottish Finance Secretary on a couple of occasions. The Scotland Office continues to be engaged with the taskforces, both in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world and in Fife. We are working hard to ensure that the detail and all the other aspects of the plan are in place, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the announcements when they are made.

Order. Far too many noisy private conversations are taking place in the Chamber. I want to hear Fiona Bruce.

Public Disorder (England)

6. What assistance police forces in Scotland provided during the public disorder in England in August 2011; and if he will make a statement. (70965)

7. What assistance police forces in Scotland provided during the public disorder in England in August 2011; and if he will make a statement. (70966)

Scottish forces gave assistance to forces in England through the provision of police support units. During the debate in the House on 11 August, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:

“I am aware of the excellent role that Scottish police officers played, particularly helping the West Midlands force. I saw for myself their impact when they arrived in Birmingham, and it is very good that our forces can co-operate in that way.”—[Official Report, 11 August 2011; Vol. 531, c. 1081.]

Does the Minister agree that the excellent cross-border support provided by Scottish police has exemplified to everyone in Britain the advantages of a flexible, devolved United Kingdom?

I entirely agree. There are many examples of Scottish forces’ playing an important role in incidents elsewhere in the United Kingdom, not least in dealing with the shootings that took place in Cumbria in 2010.

Londoners welcomed the robust standard of policing brought from Scotland during the recent riots. What plans are there for closer co-operation, joint operations and further training, so that we can learn the lessons of the past?

As the Prime Minister made clear on 11 August, Strathclyde police have achieved significant success—particularly in Glasgow—in pursuing gang-related initiatives, including a community initiative to reduce violence. They are committed to working with the Metropolitan police and other forces in England to share best practice in that regard.

During the recess, I spent six days with Lothian and Borders police as part of the parliamentary police scheme. The people with whom I worked were concerned about the possibility that the call on Scottish forces would deny them, for example, any holidays in August next year during the Olympics, and also about the possible impact on the budget of Scottish forces. Is the Secretary of State lobbying to secure adequate recompense for the Scottish forces for the contribution that they have made, and will make in the future, to English policing?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there are arrangements with the Home Office for occasions when police forces are deployed from other parts of the United Kingdom. However, I am sure that the Home Secretary has heard the specific points made by the hon. Gentleman, and I will raise them directly with the Scottish Government.

West Lothian Question

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on establishing a commission on the West Lothian question. (70967)

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on establishing a commission on the West Lothian question. (70968)

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on establishing a commission on the West Lothian question. (70970)

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on establishing a commission on the West Lothian question. (70971)

I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on a range of issues, and last week the Government announced the steps that we are taking to establish a commission on the West Lothian question.

Will the Secretary of State give the House what is the time scale for the commission, and will he reassure every one of us that the present unfair voting system will be resolved by the end of this Parliament?

The details of the commission’s remit and the time scale will be announced by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)—the Minister responsible for constitutional reform—at the appropriate moment, as he indicated last week. As for all the issues to be considered by the commission, I am sure that its members have heard the hon. Gentleman’s opening bid.

Will the Secretary of State make representations to the Deputy Prime Minister to ensure that the issue of Barnett consequentials is taken into consideration as part of the commission’s terms of reference?

The commission will not give specific consideration to the Barnett formula, or to funding arrangements around the United Kingdom. We have made a separate commitment within the coalition agreement to look at all those matters when we have achieved our primary objective of sorting out the public finances.

Will the Minister confirm that the commission will consider the issue with regard not just to Scotland, but to the other devolved Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland? [Interruption.]

That rather reinforces my point that there is far too much noise in the Chamber, which is very discourteous. The hon. Gentleman should repeat his question.

Will the Minister confirm that the commission will consider the issue with regard not just to Scotland, but to the other devolved Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland?

I am happy to confirm that although it is called the West Lothian commission, it will look at all the relevant issues regarding all parts of the United Kingdom.

Does the Secretary of State share my view that resolving the West Lothian question would not, in fact, damage the Union?

We now have an opportunity to consider carefully the issues that were first so famously posed back in 1977. As devolution has developed over recent years, the need to address these issues has become more urgent. We are keen for that to be done, which is why we are the first Government to set up a commission to look at the issues, and we look forward to its getting on with its work.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is an elegant solution to the West Lothian question: Scotland having the normal powers of a normal nation, which is called independence?

Nobody could ever doubt the hon. Gentleman’s confidence in, and commitment to, this issue, but what he says only serves to raise the question of why the Scottish Government are delaying holding the referendum on independence.

May I invite the Secretary of State to ignore the little Englanders behind him and the little Scotlanders behind me, and tell us that we are going to allow Scottish MPs to discuss Scotland in a Scottish Grand Committee? Will he reconvene that Committee as soon as possible?

The hon. Gentleman frequently made that plea to the previous Government. We are, of course, keen to ensure that all Scottish matters continue to be debated in the appropriate way in this House, and we will ensure that.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is embarrassed by the four grouped questions, which were obviously planted by his Front-Bench colleagues. When he is looking into all the matters under discussion, will he remember London, and perhaps treat Scotland in the same way as London has been treated?

I have no idea what the hon. Gentleman is saying about these questions, but perhaps he would like to look to the way in which the previous Government behaved; indeed, perhaps he is trying to give us an insight into that. All I will say to him is that, unlike the previous Government, we are determined to recognise that there is an issue that needs to be discussed and considered. It is complex, as there are lots of issues that we will have to consider, but then the House can get on with doing all the work it needs to do.

Does the Minister agree with me as a West Lothian Member of Parliament that it is deeply unsatisfactory that a commission on a constitutional issue affecting Scotland has been set up with no opportunity for any consultation on its terms of reference or any involvement by Parliament until the commission presents its findings?

I am sorry that that is the hon. Gentleman’s attitude. I thought he would welcome the fact that we are setting up the commission. I am sure that when it is set up, he will want to contribute to it. He raised some issues, including on the terms of reference, and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary in the Cabinet Office has made it absolutely clear that we will listen to all the points that are made to us. [Interruption.]

Order. The House is in a very excitable state, and it is not even lunchtime yet. Members must calm down and compose themselves.

Employer National Insurance Holiday

12. What assessment he has made of the effects on job creation in Scotland of the employer’s national insurance holiday scheme. (70972)

As of 7 September 2011, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has received 922 successful applications for the national insurance holiday scheme from new businesses located in Scotland. Of the 396 applications received for the 2010-11 financial year, 386 claimed the national insurance contributions holiday, supporting approximately 1,300 new jobs.

Should not the Minister be lobbying the Chancellor to create a proper strategy for growth for Scottish manufacturing and construction, instead of offering such complacent support for a scheme that has created less than 10% of the jobs that were forecast and that has been described by the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland as badly designed and failing to deliver at a time when the country needs the creation of new jobs?

We will certainly not be taking any lectures on national insurance from Labour, a party that sought to introduce a jobs tax in 2009. [Interruption.] I had the benefit of visiting the hon. Gentleman’s constituency last week, and I would have thought that he welcomed the fact that these jobs that did not exist before and that they have a better chance of becoming permanent with the NIC holiday—[Interruption.]

It seems you are not alone, Mr Speaker.

Job creation is majorly affected by fuel costs. In my constituency in Stornoway fuel is £1.50 a litre and in Uist it is £1.57. A huge component of those prices is the cost of distribution from the refineries. A few months ago, the Secretary of State gave me assurances that he would look into this. Can the Minister update me on any progress that has been made regarding fuel distribution from refineries?

I can update the hon. Gentleman on the progress on receiving the derogation from the EU to allow fuel prices in his constituency and other remote parts to be lower than they currently are. I should have thought that he welcomed this coalition Government’s delivering that commitment.