The Secretary of State was asked—
Ministry of Defence Police
We have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on defence matters relating to Scotland. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), last spoke about the issue to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) —who is responsible for defence personnel, welfare and veterans—earlier this week.
As recently as November last year, the Prime Minister said that
“there are no current plans to reduce the number of Ministry of Defence police at the Faslane or Coulport naval bases.”—[Official Report, 23 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 295.]
Since then, however, the Government have confirmed plans to cut the MOD police budget by 50%. I am curious to know whether the Prime Minister’s assurances hold water. May I ask the Secretary of State what proportion of that cut will fall in Scotland, and whether he believes that the threats to our national security have diminished sufficiently in recent months to justify a 50% cut?
What the Prime Minister said stands. There are no current plans for the MOD to reduce the core police role relating to the security of our national institutions, such as nuclear safety at Coulport or Faslane. National security, including the security of our defence installations, is our highest priority. The reason we have so many MOD police in Scotland in the first place is our huge defence imprint, which would be put at risk immediately if the country were to become independent.
I am delighted by what the Secretary of State says about the importance of security at Faslane and Coulport, and by his assurance that there are no current plans to reduce the number of MOD police. I hope he will also be able to assure the House that the Government will never adopt any plans to reduce security at Faslane and Coulport, given the importance of the nuclear installations there.
Child Tax Credits
The welfare system must remain fair and affordable, while protecting the most vulnerable. Most working-age benefits, benefits for disabled people and the basic state pension will increase by 5.2% in April. In order to remain on course with the debt consolidation plan and meet their fiscal mandate, the Government will increase the child element of child tax credit by the rate of inflation.
According to the House of Commons Library, the Government’s decision not to proceed with the £110 increase in the child element of child tax credit will take £41 million away from nearly 400,000 children in Scotland alone. Worst hit in Scotland will be Glasgow city, where 44,000 children are set to miss out on £4.8 million. When will the Secretary of State stand up for the children of Scotland?
The Government are standing up for the children of Scotland. That is why our priority is sorting out the mess that the Labour Government made of our economy. The hon. Gentleman would do well to heed the words of the former Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy):
“The truth is the Labour party would have to make cuts if we were in power.”
After another week that has been dominated by political debate and headlines relating to Scotland’s constitution, we must not ignore a report by End Child Poverty showing that 50% of local authority areas in Scotland contain wards in which 30% of children are living in poverty, and that in some wards in my constituency the figure is 50%. What action is the Secretary of State taking, along with the Scottish Government, to ensure that every child in Scotland is given the best start and opportunities in life?
The hon. Gentleman raises important issues, such as the fact that many of the levers relating to child poverty rest with the Scottish Government. As a result of the autumn statement, the Scottish Government received more than £500 million in additional revenue. I should have thought it would be better if they focused on how to deploy that revenue to deal with such problems as child poverty than to obsess about the constitution.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I firmly believe that Scotland is the ideal destination for international inward investment, and we have taken a range of actions to promote such investment. My right hon. Friend recently led the largest ever Scottish trade delegation to Brazil to promote closer business links with a key emerging market for the Scottish economy.
In contrast to the previous intervention, will the Minister acknowledge that international companies investing in Scotland since the re-election of the Scottish National party Scottish Government include INEOS, PetroChina, Dell, Gamesa, Amazon, Hewlett Packard and Mitsubishi Power Systems? Does he acknowledge that and welcome the investment?
That is the usual mantra that we hear from Government Members. Will the Minister respond to Scotland’s leading entrepreneur, Jim McColl, who said on this very subject that business is “not concerned” about the
“independence referendum…What many of us in business are convinced about is that a productive and prosperous future for this country depends on securing real economic powers for the Parliament through constitutional change”?
Will the UK Government drop their foolish conditions, so that we can secure that change in the autumn of 2014?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that Mr McColl is entitled to his opinion, as is any other citizen of Scotland. I am sure you will encourage them, as your own party’s Scottish Government already have, to contribute to our consultation on the independence referendum.
Does my right hon. Friend believe that were Scotland to become separate from the United Kingdom, and were it to be forced to join the eurozone as a condition of re-entry into the European Union, that would hinder or help inward investment into Scotland?
The annual population survey of 2010 estimates that 36,000 18 to 19-year-olds in Scotland were not in education, employment or training between 2009 and 2010.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but it does not really answer the question of what is happening between the ages of 16 and 18, which is as important, if not more important. What is he doing to encourage youngsters to enter industry and to enable them to take up apprenticeships as joiners, electricians and plumbers, because this Government have failed to attract people into those industries? Does he agree that the idea, which I suggested to him at a meeting, of setting up schools-industry liaison committees is worth supporting?
The hon. Gentleman rightly continues to focus on this issue. We are all deeply concerned about youth unemployment. I have visited his constituency, and I have also had other meetings in Ayrshire and elsewhere, and it is right that we should join the Scottish Government, employers and all the agencies to help young people—aged between 16 and 18 and of any age—to find work or support. The youth contract that we announced before Christmas will bring £1 billion of extra investment into supporting the young unemployed, whether through wage incentives, additional work experience and opportunities or money to the Scottish Government. That money could also be used to create the school-industry liaison groups the hon. Gentleman wants.
As the Secretary of State says, youth unemployment is a huge concern for Members of all parties and for people across Scotland. The youth contract will help by providing 40,000 opportunities for young people in Scotland, but this problem will not be solved easily, so what will my right hon. Friend do to bring together people from the UK Government, the jobcentres and the Scottish Government, as well as business employers and education representatives, to offer the opportunities that young people in Scotland need?
Over many months now, I have been bringing together exactly those groups in different parts of Scotland—including Ayrshire, Falkirk and the borders. At the end of March, I, along with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Scottish Finance Secretary, will bring everybody together so we can focus as two Governments and as all the interested parties on tackling this scourge that we must get rid of.
The problem with the Secretary of State’s complacent answers is that he simply does not grasp the scale of the crisis of slumping demand, employment and confidence that grips Scotland’s economy due to the crushing austerity being imposed by this Government. Does he not share the real fears of young people that, with youth unemployment at over 21% and seven people chasing every vacancy in Scotland, there simply are not enough jobs to go around, and is it not time to change course by boosting demand through a cut in VAT now, before this Government’s failing economic plan plunges Scotland into the misery of another downturn?
I think it is wrong for the Labour party to be complacent about its record on the economy, which landed us in this mess in the first place. The shadow Defence Secretary, one of my predecessors as Scottish Secretary, said this week that Labour has to face up to the realities of the economy and the deficit, and the hon. Gentleman should do that, too. We want to work with everybody so that we can reduce youth unemployment, and I invite him to look at the youth contract in more detail.
5. What assessment he has made of the effect of the autumn statement on levels of poverty in Scotland. (88256)
The Government took action at the autumn statement to build a stronger and more balanced economy. As a result, more than £500 million has been added to the existing Scottish budget by the UK Government, which provides the Scottish Government with additional resources in these uncertain times.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that one of the most important ways of tackling poverty is ensuring full employment? Does he therefore share my concern that Mahle Engine Systems in my constituency seems set to remove jobs from an area hit by high unemployment, taking those jobs out of Scotland and out of the UK?
I would be very disappointed if that were the case. I know that the hon. Lady is a doughty campaigner for employment in her constituency. We must continue to stress the benefits of employers remaining in Scotland, which is why the current constitutional uncertainty is so damaging.
On Monday, when 700 of my constituents employed by WJ Harte Construction returned to work, they were told that the company had gone into administration, without any consultation whatsoever. I am told that Scottish Enterprise and the trade unions were not even aware of this. The MSP was not aware of it, and the MP certainly was not. The company was taken over by a venture capitalist more than two years ago, when it had a turnover of £100 million. It has now been run into the ground and the executives have run away with the money. Will the Minister meet me to discuss what we can do to save as many of these 700 jobs as possible? This is a disgraceful situation.
Work Capability Assessment
6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the work capability assessment in Scotland. (88257)
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions on a range of issues concerning welfare reform. We also recently met Professor Malcolm Harrington to discuss his second review of the work capability assessment.
I thank the Minister for that answer. I am sure he will be aware of a report published today by Citizens Advice entitled “Right First Time?”, which examines the high level of incorrect and inaccurate decisions made in the work capability assessment. Given the amount of money that Atos Healthcare receives from the public purse for undertaking these assessments, is it not now time for the Government to consider the report’s recommendation that financial penalties be imposed on Atos for a number of those incorrect assessments? [Interruption.]
Now that the move from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance is well under way, anecdotally, it would appear that Atos is finding it very difficult to carry out the necessary work capability assessments, so there could be extra delays. Will the Minister please engage with his fellow Ministers in the DWP to make sure that Atos can deliver on the contract?
Yesterday, I made a statement announcing a consultation to seek views on how any referendum can be made legal, fair and decisive. I discussed this yesterday with the First Minister, and I hope to have further discussions with the Scottish Government, along with other politicians and people from across Scottish civic society, during the consultation.
The House of Commons Library has given me strong evidence to show that the economies of Quebec and Canada as a whole suffered in the 1990s due to constitutional uncertainty. For the sake of jobs in Scotland and England, does my right hon. Friend agree that the last thing we need is a prolonged period of constitutional uncertainty, and that the First Minister should stop playing politics and get on with it?
My hon. Friend is correct to point to that independent analysis and the experience of Quebec and the rest of Canada. It is vital that the economic uncertainty we now face because of the referendum is resolved, which is why we have brought forward proposals to make the referendum legal, fair and decisive. I want it to happen as soon as possible.
The central issue arising from the consultation that I launched yesterday is that, as things stand, the Scottish Parliament does not have the legal power to hold a referendum, regardless of how that is described, and we need to provide that power by working with it. I am committed to working with the Scottish Government, and with people from across the country, so that we can get the power devolved to Scotland, the Scottish Government can then develop the question and we can get on with the referendum, which will be made in Scotland, for the people of Scotland.
My hon. Friend is focusing on some of the central issues that we need to be able to get on to debate in the decision about whether Scotland should go its own way or continue to be part of the most successful multi-nation state in the history of the world, as I think it is vital it does. So let us get on and devolve the power to make it a legal referendum. Let us have a fair referendum and let us make sure it is decisive.
The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs has already embarked on an inquiry to identify those issues, such as defence, which need to be resolved before a referendum is held. Does the Secretary of State plan to contribute to that debate with the Select Committee?
I certainly do. What is really important is not just our debate now about the future of Scotland, but ensuring that everybody in the country gets the opportunity to participate in the consultation on the shape of the referendum, and I hope that people will respond to that. I hope that everybody across the country—not just politicians—will get involved in debating defence, welfare and the state of our economy, all of which, I believe, are much safer within the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]
We now know that there will be an independence referendum in the autumn of 1914—[Laughter.] That, of course, was the year that the great war started. There will be an independence referendum in 2014, designed and decided by the people of Scotland. If the Secretary of State is so concerned about the legal powers for the referendum, why does he not just devolve the powers, through section 30, without condition? I see that the Prime Minister has walked into this debate. I really hope that the Secretary of State can encourage the Prime Minister to come to Scotland as much as possible in the next two weeks, because the Prime Minister is the best recruiting sergeant for a “yes” to independence vote that we have.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be a full participant in the debate, as will all people across the United Kingdom. For us, it is important that we have a referendum that is made in Scotland for the people of Scotland about our future in Scotland. The First Minister and now the hon. Gentleman —who gave a slightly different date—have put forward their preference for when that referendum should be, but before we can get anywhere near it we must ensure that it is legal. I hope that the Scottish Government will work with us to ensure that that is the case.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that following this week’s important developments, the referendum campaign on Scotland’s future is now effectively under way and it is time to get on to the substance of the issue? What is more, given that the Scottish Government have said that they have been involved for some time in considering the details of the prospects for Scotland, will the Secretary of State tell the House whether any UK Government officials have been involved in any discussions on the future of the Scottish economy and, in particular, on whether a separate Scotland will keep the pound, join the euro or have a separate currency?
The hon. Lady is right to focus on those key issues about the future of Scotland. I believe that Scotland is best served by continuing to be part of the United Kingdom, where our economy is stronger and our defence more secure, where we have much greater clout internationally and where our welfare system will be more generous and better. I hope that the Scottish Government will publish their plans about what they think should happen in an independent Scotland and in the meantime, as the hon. Lady says, let the debate commence.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he agree that one of Britain’s greatest achievements was the creation of the welfare state? Have any discussions taken place about the implications of separation for welfare spend in Scotland, particularly as recent figures reveal that it was three times greater than oil revenues in 2010?
The hon. Lady makes an important point about the contrast between the level of spending to support some of the most vulnerable in our society in Scotland and, indeed, the rest of the country and the volatility of oil revenues. I believe that we can have a more secure and generous welfare system by sharing the risks and resources across the whole of the United Kingdom, which has helped Scotland through difficult times in the past and at present.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that all Scots should be entitled to vote in any referendum on independence, whether or not they live in Scotland, including my dad, who is a proud Scotsman who happens to live in England and thinks of himself first and foremost as British?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s dad’s sense of patriotism and I am sure that he, like many other Scots around the country and around the world, will wish to contribute to our consultation. Like me, they will want to see this referendum on the most historic decision we will ever take in Scotland carried out legally and fairly, on a straightforward and decisive basis. Let us get that sorted and let us get on with the debate.
The Government have committed £1 billion over the next three years to implement the youth contract. Our package of support includes wage incentives for employers to recruit 18 to 24-year-olds from the Work programme and increased work experience opportunities for that age group. Other support is also available.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He is well aware of the rising levels of youth unemployment in North Ayrshire and I know that he has received strong representations about it from all the Ayrshire MPs. What more does he think that this Government can do at Westminster to increase public and private investment in North Ayrshire?
I acknowledge the work that the hon. Lady has done and the fact that we recently met to discuss this very serious issue. It is important that the youth contract, which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister visited Scotland to discuss on Friday, is taken advantage of by people across the country. I look forward to coming to the hon. Lady’s constituency in the near future to meet those very people so that we can discuss how to implement it most effectively.
Health and large aspects of transport are devolved areas, and it is for the Parliament in Scotland to decide how to allocate its budget. The Government have provided an annual subsidy to Post Office Ltd of £150 million for the last financial year and £180 million for this financial year. The subsidy is not distributed by country or region.