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Volume 558: debated on Wednesday 13 February 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Nuclear Power

1. What recent assessment he has made of the contribution of the nuclear power industry to the Scottish economy. (142160)

There is currently just over 2 GW of installed and operational nuclear capacity in Scotland, split between Torness and Hunterston B. In 2011, 33% of electricity generated in Scotland came from these two nuclear power stations.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Wylfa and Anglesey are about to benefit from a massive investment in a new nuclear power station? Does he share my disappointment in the attitude shown by the Scottish Government, who reject any new nuclear investment?

Clearly, there is a significant contribution to our current energy mix from nuclear. My hon. Friend will be aware that planning on these matters is devolved to Scotland. It is a matter, rightly, for the Scottish Parliament to determine. For my part, I am delighted that we are seeing an increase in the proportion of renewables in our energy mix as part of a sustainable, affordable energy supply in the UK.

EDF Group’s nuclear power stations, including Torness in my constituency, produced their highest output for seven years in 2012. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a continuing long-term role for nuclear in keeping the lights on in Scotland?

I do not think that anybody can ignore the significant contribution that nuclear makes. Like the hon. Lady, I have many constituents who are employed at Torness. Nuclear power stations play an important role in our local economies, but I want to see a sustainable mix across the energy supplies and generation sector, and with renewables and others in the mix, that is a good thing too.

Why are this Government determined to throw money at an industry that has never been economically viable, while refusing to set a decarbonisation target to boost the renewables industry, which is already creating thousands of new jobs in Scotland?

Through energy market reform, we are underpinning the renewables sector for a very long time to come. What I do not understand is how the Scottish National party can propose independence, when Scottish Renewables would end up losing the biggest source of consumers who underpin the economics of that very important sector.

Under-occupancy Penalty

2. What estimate he has made of the number of households in Scotland affected by the under-occupancy penalty. (142161)

In its impact assessment, published on 28 June 2012, the Department for Work and Pensions estimates that 80,000 claimants of housing benefit in the social rented sector in Scotland will be affected by the under-occupation measure.

The Minister knows as well as I do that thousands of people in low-income households in Scotland who are going to lose out because of the bedroom tax have no realistic prospect of moving to a smaller house. According to that impact assessment, claimants in Scotland will be disproportionately hit because of the mismatch between the available housing stock and the needs of tenants, so will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to distance himself from the shameful attempt of this Government to stigmatise and penalise people who live in council houses and need help with their rent?

What is shameful is the way that the Scottish National party plays party politics with vulnerable people, pretending that there can be no welfare changes, yet putting forward nothing in their place and not indicating how welfare would be paid for in an independent Scotland.

12. The bedroom tax and other changes to housing benefit mean that millions of pounds will be removed from the Scottish economy and hundreds of jobs will be lost across the country, according to the Fraser of Allander Institute. Can the Minister tell the House what discussions he has had with the Chancellor about how to mitigate these losses to the Scottish economy? (142171)

The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues fail ever to mention the discretionary housing payments fund, which will support people in difficult situations. He and his colleagues should be urging councils in Scotland to make use of that money. Scotland will get a very good share of the £155 million being provided.

Does the Minister not recognise the fact that there are people crying as a result of being given notices right now that tell them that they will have to get out of their house, or lose housing benefit as a result, come 1 April? That is the reality of the situation. Can the Minister not waken up to that fact?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman and others are not working with their local councils and housing associations to draw attention to the availability of the discretionary payments funds and the fact that there will be an opportunity to support the most vulnerable.

As well as the bedroom tax, the Government are preparing to tighten further the worst squeeze on ordinary people’s living standards in decades by cutting most benefits and tax credits by 4% in real terms over the next three years in plans that hurt the poorest 40% in Scotland three and a half times harder than the wealthiest. Does the Minister not accept that, with 800,000 working-age couples and single people in Scotland losing up to £5 a week, those cuts are not just socially brutal, but disastrous for the Scottish economy?

What I accept is that the Labour party put this country into the financial circumstances we found after the 2010 election. It says it wanted to reform welfare. It is quite happy to criticise individual measures, but it comes up with no proposals at all on how to fund them and puts forward no alternative proposals.

Transport Links

I welcome the recent announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on the planned extension of HS2 to Manchester and Leeds. Journey times between Scotland and London will be significantly reduced as a result.

Does the Minister agree that there is a strange irony in the fact that HS2 will bring our two nations closer together yet the Scottish Government are intent on driving a wedge between them and pushing them further apart?

My hon. Friend is quite right to point out the irony. Most policies pursued by the Scottish National party are about breaking up Britain, but on this issue it appears to want to bring Britain closer together.

The Minister’s answers simply will not do. If he was serious about improving transport links between Scotland and England, HS2, which is a massive investment, would not start in London and grind to a halt halfway through England in Manchester or Leeds; it would carry on to Glasgow and Edinburgh along the west and east coasts of Scotland. I ask him to go one better than the Department for Transport and tell us whether the Government have even a time scale for developing a plan for completing HS2 to Scotland.

What this Government are doing is engaging with the Scottish Government in a discussion, and at the moment we are waiting to hear from them.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise the importance to transport links of dualling the A1, and will he continue to press the case with Scottish Ministers and colleagues in the UK Government?

I welcome the Chancellor’s announcement that the A1 will become a motorway to Newcastle. He made it clear, I think in response to my right hon. Friend, that the Department for Transport would look at the case for dualling the A1 to the Scottish border.

As chair of the all-party west coast main line group, I wrote to a Scottish Government Minister to ask what they were prepared to do with regard to investment for the HS2 route starting from the north. Is it not irresponsible that the Scottish Government will not answer that question on HS2, even though two city councils—Edinburgh and Glasgow—will discuss it?

I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman, particularly in his capacity as chair of the all-party west coast main line group, has not had a response from the Scottish Government. As I indicated in my earlier answer, the UK Government are waiting for a response from the Scottish Government. We have made it absolutely clear that we want to work with them to ensure that the people of Scotland and the United Kingdom benefit from HS2.

I agree with earlier questioners and the Minister that HS2, if it is to go ahead, will be exceedingly important to both the north of England and transport links between Scotland and England. Can I therefore have his assurance that he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will argue formidably for that in Cabinet and encourage the Government to start HS2, if it goes ahead, in the north?

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s question. As always, she has taken a keen interest in Scotland, but she knows as well as I do that the Government’s position is that HS2 will start in the south.

Connectivity between Scotland and London is crucial to Scotland’s economic future. Can the Minister explain why, despite ongoing conversations between the UK and Scottish Governments, Scots are still in the dark about whether we will actually see a new line in Scotland?

I do not accept that Scots are in the dark with regard to a new line to Scotland. The UK Government have made it perfectly clear that their aspiration is to achieve high-speed rail to Scotland. We want to work very closely with the Scottish Government and we look forward to their making specific proposals.

Budget 2013

I am in close contact with the Scottish business community and Treasury colleagues in the run-up to Budget 2013, and I have discussed with them a range of measures to support economic growth and fairness.

The Secretary of State is well respected across this House, but surely he, as a Liberal Democrat, can see the unfairness in giving millionaires a massive tax cut in April while introducing the bedroom tax. Could he make urgent representations to the Chancellor to reverse both of those policies before the draconian bedroom tax does untold damage not only to the vulnerable and disabled, but to our councils and housing associations?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind opening comments. I point out to him that, as a result of measures that we have already taken and which, as a Liberal Democrat, I am very happy to champion, 183,000 Scots will be taken out of tax altogether from this April; 2 million people in low and middle-income families will pay less tax; and people on the minimum wage are paying half the tax that they were under the previous Government. Our 45p tax rate in April will be higher than that which prevailed under Labour for 12 years and 11 months. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is proud of that record.

Twenty-seven one-bedroom houses were available for let in the social sector in Edinburgh last week. Bids for them ranged from 30-odd to 300. New-build affordable starts in Scotland have fallen in the past two years from 7,900 to 3,400 because of cuts by the Scottish Government. Will the Secretary of State go to his Government in advance of the Budget and argue for a U-turn? His Government saved the trees; why not save the people?

I say politely to the hon. Lady that, like many of her colleagues, she routinely forgets the terrible financial backdrop against which we have had to make some very difficult decisions. We want a sustainable welfare system and will continue to emphasise and develop the fairness agenda, which is what we have achieved through cuts in tax and by introducing change, through universal credit, to get a much stronger and better welfare system.

Does the Minister agree that having the lowest corporation tax of all the G7 countries makes Scotland an incredibly attractive place to invest, and that that would be endangered in the unlikely event, I hope, of Scotland becoming independent?

I absolutely agree that it is essential that we have a competitive business environment, and our corporation tax proposals go right to the heart of that. We want to continue to rebalance and strengthen the economy and take it away from the terrible cliff that we came to under the previous Government.

10. I thank the Under-Secretary for organising the fuel summit in Glasgow, at which it was revealed that the island fuel duty discount could go up to 7p or 8p a litre while remaining in the Treasury budget of £5 million. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State lobby the Chancellor to increase the discount to 7p or 8p in the Budget, so that the full budget is spent to the benefit of island motorists? (142169)

It was important to have that summit to discuss all the key issues and to emphasise how that fuel discount has provided for people in island and remote communities. My hon. Friend has made a strong case for the Budget and I am sure that the Chancellor will have heard it.

Has the Secretary of State raised the unfairness of the bedroom tax with the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Will he not tell him that it is one of the most rancid pieces of legislation to have been rammed through since the poll tax? Will he remind us how many Scottish Members of this House voted for it?

For as long as the hon. Gentleman’s party makes lots of promises but with no way of paying for them, folk will not listen terribly carefully to what he has to say.

Anybody watching this debate will have noticed that the Secretary of State was not prepared to confirm that 82% of Scottish Members of this House voted against the bedroom tax. Just as with the poll tax, an unpopular, regressive measure is being imposed on the people in Scotland when the overwhelming majority of their public representatives are totally opposed to it. Could the Secretary of State explain how, in a modern, 21st-centruy democracy, it is possible to impose something just like the poll tax—the bedroom tax—on Scotland?

I want a sustainable welfare system that protects the most vulnerable and supports people into work and makes it pay. The reforms under universal credit will help to ensure that happens—backed up by our fair tax delivery, which has meant that more than 180,000 Scots have been taken out of tax altogether and that 2 million Scottish families on low and middle incomes are paying less tax.

Will the Secretary of State make a representation on behalf of my constituent, Mrs Frances Connor? Treatment for her cancer has left her with no feeling in her feet or hands. Her only help comes from her son, who stays with her three nights a week. The bedroom tax means that she cannot afford the room where her son stays. Why is the Secretary of State making it impossible for a son to care for his mother?

Like the hon. Lady, I express my deepest sympathy to her constituent and her family and recognise the challenging personal circumstances in which they live. We are looking to support some of the most vulnerable in these circumstances with transitional arrangements, and I would be happy to discuss that further with the hon. Lady.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Perhaps in that discussion we could talk about the thousands of others who are hit by this bedroom tax, because the transitional protections do not help those people. I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman ever imagined that he would be signing off such policies with the Tories. Last year he said:

“judge us by our record.”

Is making a son’s care for his mother unaffordable what he had in mind?

May I, as I did in response to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), remind the hon. Lady of the scale of the financial challenge that faced this Government when they came into office and the need to tackle those serious problems? She should also remember that we have introduced huge extra measures to help families across Scotland. I have to say to her, as I said to the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), that we are not hearing credible solutions coming forward from her and her colleagues. Until such time as we do, we will not take any lessons on fairness from her.


6. What consideration his Department has given to the recommendations of the Electoral Commission’s report on the Scottish referendum. (142165)

The United Kingdom Government welcome the reports from the Electoral Commission. We agree with the commission’s advice on the question, on the funding levels for the referendum, and on the clarity of the process.

When in opposition the Secretary of State wanted to extinguish his office; now he is in government he is publishing papers that talk about extinguishing Scotland—yes, extinguishing Scotland. As an act of repentance, will he ensure that his Tory-Liberal Government play fair with the Electoral Commission, as the Scottish National party Government are doing, and, as the Electoral Commission referee has asked, enter into dialogue together on Scotland’s future?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the publication earlier this week of this major contribution to the debate by the UK Government. We agree with the Electoral Commission’s recommendations. The document fleshes out the issues on the legal status of Scotland within the UK. Of course, over time, as these issues are discussed further, we will, as appropriate, meet the Scottish Government, as I have already said on many occasions. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I am delighted that that is good news for the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

We all want the referendum campaign to be fair. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is essential that all parties taking part in the referendum campaign must adhere to what the Electoral Commission has said about spending limits?

Now that we have cross-party agreement on accepting the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, will the Secretary of State say what information he is going to put into the public domain on the implications of separation from the UK for things such as pensions, the welfare system and the economy of Scotland, which people need to know before they cast their vote?

The hon. Lady is entirely right to focus on the need for us to move on from the process arguments to the issues of substance for families across Scotland. I am delighted that yesterday in the Privy Council the section 30 order was approved so that now we will have a legal, fair and decisive referendum. In that referendum, we have to discuss the big issues. As we have seen this week with the legal paper, which will be followed by others on the issues she mentions, there are some big questions that need to be debated—and so far no answers from the Scottish National party.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that if the outcome of the referendum is to engage the confidence of the Scottish people, the campaign must be conducted with candour and transparency? This week the Government published their view of the legal consequences of independence. Is it not time for those who argue for independence to do the same?

It has been a curious week, but my right hon. and learned Friend is right to highlight that at times the Scottish National party has not been clear whether to embrace the opinions of our legal experts or to lambast them. The great merit of this document is that we have now laid out all the key arguments, backed up by the most impressive legal opinions, and nothing has come forward from the Scottish Government.

Higher Education

7. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of universities in Scotland on the effects of UK Government policy on higher education in Scotland. (142166)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with representatives of universities in Scotland on a range of issues.

I thank the Minister for his response—so far, so good. He will know how important foreign students are to our economy. He will also know how unhappy our universities are with his Government, and they have every right to be. His Tory Government’s obsession with immigration is starting to really hurt us: a 26% reduction in students from India, a 25% reduction from Pakistan and a 14% reduction from Nigeria. Surely he can agree that we could obviously do this much better in Scotland if we had control over these issues.

Not for the first time I am confused by the SNP position. On some occasions, it states that it wants to have the same immigration rules as the rest of the UK so it can be in a common travel area; on other occasions, such as this, it says it wants uncontrolled mass immigration. Which is it?

13. Scotland’s proud history of research, innovation and discovery is inextricably bound up with the success of the United Kingdom. Does the Minister agree that the only sure and certain and the best way to ensure that Scotland remains a leader in world-class research is for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom? (142172)

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He will be aware that Scottish universities and research institutes receive £436 million from UK research councils—roughly 13% of the overall scientific research funding. [Interruption.]

Order. There are a lot of very noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. Let us have a bit of order so that we can hear Mr Michael Connarty.

Gambling Machines

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Ministers in the Scottish Government on the level of gambling machine usage in Scotland. (142167)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and with Scottish Ministers on a range of issues.

I am not sure whether to thank the Minister for that very unhelpful answer. Fixed-odds gambling terminals—[Interruption.]

Order. We will just have to extend the session. There is a point to having some courtesy towards the Member who is asking the question. I am sure that is something that Members learned at school.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I will take cheers from anywhere.

Fixed-odds gambling terminals have sucked up £122 million in profits in the betting shops in Scotland. They are called the crack cocaine of the gambling industry. Is it not time for the Secretary of State to join me in lobbying to have the gambling prevalence survey reinstated, considering how much addictive gambling there is in Scotland and other parts of the UK?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on the reintroduction of the prevalence survey, but I commend the Daily Record and the hon. Gentleman for highlighting issues relating to problem gambling. He may be aware that the Government are currently conducting a consultation on the links between problem gambling and B2 machines. I urge him, Daily Record readers and everyone with an interest in this matter to contribute to that consultation.

Local Government

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with representatives of local government in Scotland on a range of issues.

The truth is that the Secretary of State has not met the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities since 12 September last year. The consequences of the bedroom tax, which he voted for and which risks making 10,000 people in Scotland homeless, will be dealt with by local authorities. What will he do about that and when will he meet COSLA?

The hon. Lady should know that the Secretary of State has met COSLA within the past two weeks and is in regular contact with its leader. He will be making COSLA aware of the discretionary payments fund, which has been greatly increased in Scotland, and of how local authorities can utilise that.

What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the bedroom tax on the credit rating of local authorities and other social landlords, which is bound to go down, having an impact on house building and maintenance?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s assumption is wrong. At meetings with COSLA, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and my noble Friend Lord Freud, we have discussed that very issue and satisfied the concerns of housing associations and local authorities.