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Volume 565: debated on Wednesday 26 June 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Scottish Government on blacklisting in Scotland. (160884)

I regularly meet Scottish Government Ministers to discuss a wide range of issues. I commend the work of the Scottish Affairs Committee on investigating the deplorable activity of blacklisting. The Committee’s final report will be given careful consideration by the Government when it is published.

I thank the Minister for his response. Perhaps the most ridiculous case of blacklisting that I am aware of is that of the late great Dundonian, Mr Syd Scroggie. He lost a leg and the sight in both his eyes serving his country during the second world war. He found himself on a blacklist. What was his crime? He had written to The Scotsman newspaper to commend the then Dundee district council for buying a portrait of Nelson Mandela. Will the Minister liaise with the Scottish Government to ensure that the odious practice of blacklisting is wiped out?

When the Scottish Affairs Committee report is published, I will undertake to discuss its recommendations with the appropriate Scottish Government Ministers.

As someone who has been blacklisted three times in the past, I can tell the Minister that it is an obnoxious way of going about business. Will he ensure that legislation is put in place to ensure that people like me and many others in Scotland do not have to face such a practice in future?

The Government take this matter very seriously. As the hon. Gentleman will know, legislation is already in place in the form of the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010. We await the Scottish Affairs Committee report to see whether it proposes any further measures.

The practice has clearly been going on for decades, and the law is not working. Has the Minister looked at the legislation to see whether further action is required to ensure that we bring the practice to an end?

We have looked at the regulations, which were brought in by the previous Government. We very much respect the work of the Scottish Affairs Committee and if it finds that the current legislation is not working, we will of course look at the matter.

Referendum Campaign

2. What steps the Government have taken to fulfil their pledge to campaign to keep Scotland as part of the UK. (160885)

The United Kingdom Government are providing evidence and analysis to allow voters to make an informed choice about Scotland within the United Kingdom. We are publishing analysis papers on all the key issues throughout this year and next.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Scotland analysis programme is already highlighting the clear benefits of Scotland being part of the UK, and of the UK having Scotland within it?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend on that. It demonstrates that Scotland enjoys the best of both worlds, with a strong Scottish Parliament and a strong voice here in Westminster. Our economy is able to benefit from the scale and support of the whole UK. Our place in the world is all the stronger, and our voice in the world all the louder, for being part of the United Kingdom.

Yesterday, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce highlighted what it called information gaps, which are a result of Scotland not yet knowing how it would handle business and income taxes and not yet knowing what its currency, its status in the EU or its relationship with international organisations would be. What will this Government do to ensure that all voters in Scotland have the facts, rather than the assertions being made by the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government?

I commend the Scottish Chambers of Commerce for the work that it is doing, along with others. This week, the Scotland Institute has also highlighted some important deficiencies in the nationalists’ arguments on defence. Our papers on devolution, on the currency and on financial services are setting out the arguments and analysis so that Scotland can make an informed choice. I remain confident that we will decide to stay part of the United Kingdom.

May I commend my right hon. Friend on the positive case that he is making? As he has just been joined on the Treasury Bench by the Secretary of State for Defence, will he ensure that all Government Departments including the Ministry of Defence take every opportunity to examine critically the defence proposals of the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government, which have yet again been the subject of strong criticism in an independent report this week?

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very important point. I can assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is very much engaged in this entire debate. Central to that debate will be the SNP’s attempt to have it both ways by reluctantly and belatedly signing up for NATO—three quarters of Scots support it, so that was perhaps inevitable—while not being willing to accept the obligations and rules that go with it, including a nuclear umbrella as part of the strategic concept.

It emerged at the weekend that insiders of the no campaign against Scottish independence secretly call the campaign “project fear”. This is a campaign based on scaremongering and negativity. Is the Secretary of State embarrassed?

I think people on the pro-UK side of the campaign could show their Twitter feeds to anyone to show what negativity and scaremongering are all about. I think, too, that hon. Gentleman should be a little careful about casting aspersions and should concentrate on getting on with the proper arguments. From his side of the debate, we have so far seen no arguments and no detail.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the thought that a possible independent Scotland would have an army? Would that independent Scotland be able to employ the same number of Scottish soldiers as the British Army employs at the moment?

My hon. Friend, whose distinguished track record in these matters is well known to people across the House, makes a very important point. This week, the report of the Scotland Institute—an independent body—has put real and serious questions to the SNP and the yes campaign that they cannot answer.

Home Buyers

3. Which Department is responsible for promoting in Scotland the UK Government’s policies on supporting home buyers; and if he will make a statement. (160886)

The Government are providing wide-ranging support to help people buy their homes. That support includes the UK-wide Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme, which is led by the Treasury and opens in January 2014. The Treasury has also worked with the Bank of England to implement the funding for lending scheme.

Next year, home buyers in Scotland will have the opportunity to access the Scottish Government’s shared equity scheme, the Scottish Government’s mortgage guarantee scheme and the UK Government’s mortgage guarantee scheme. That may sound like a surfeit of riches, but it is leading to confusion, even now, about the best way to access these schemes. Why do the Government not take more action to ensure that there is a close relationship between what the Scottish Government are doing and what the UK Government are doing to make sure that the benefits of these schemes do not go to second home buyers, buying houses of up to £600,000 a year, as the people who need them are first home buyers and people on modest incomes?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we are working closely with the Scottish Government in relation to their equity scheme, which is equivalent to, but not the same as, the equity loan scheme available in England. The Home to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme will be available in Scotland, and we are working with the Scottish Government to ensure that there is a communications plan so that potential home buyers in Scotland fully understand how all the schemes work and how they relate to each other.

As my hon. Friend has just pointed out, the capital limit on the mortgage guarantee scheme of the UK Government is £600,000. This is hardly designed for those on low and modest incomes. Would the money not be better spent on providing social housing, which is badly needed across Scotland?

I would have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome the 10% increase in loans to first-time buyers in Scotland in the first quarter of 2012. The limit of the scheme reflects house prices across the United Kingdom, and I believe that it is fair and equitable.

Common Agricultural Policy

4. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on Scotland of the outcome of the recent negotiations on reform of the common agricultural policy. (160887)

Negotiations have been making real progress in the last few hours. We aim to deliver a strong outcome for farmers in Scotland, securing full regionalisation of the common agricultural policy to take account of the particular circumstances of Scottish producers.

Notwithstanding the proven need for environmental schemes, does the Secretary of State agree that it is important to enable the farmers to make decisions about their own production mechanisms, so that they can improve production and provide more sustainable food for this country’s future?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I spoke to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the last couple of hours after his all-night negotiations in Luxembourg. He remains committed to a scheme that will ensure that farmers get as productive as possible. He wants a scheme that is regionalised for Scotland, and he is delivering that. We have an arrangement that, I hope, will be fair to farmers, fair to consumers and fair to taxpayers.

Obviously the most important issue for my constituents is the future of the shipyards, which are threatened by separation, but they are also concerned about the fact that the common agricultural policy supplies public money to landlords who have surplus acres, while the Government fine tenants who are deemed to have surplus bedrooms. Is that fair?

Let me first pay tribute to the Chairman of the Select Committee, and welcome his evident return to robust good health. I agree with him about the importance of the shipyards in the context of the debate about independence. As for the agricultural issue, I hope that the hon. Gentleman—who is a long-time campaigner for reform of the CAP—will see an outcome from what is still an ongoing process that is fair to his constituents as well as to farmers.

I know that regionalisation is just as important to the delivery of the common agricultural policy as it is to the delivery of the common fisheries policy, but is my right hon. Friend aware of the possible cross-border impact of the way in which the reforms are implemented in Scotland on constituencies that are very close to Scotland?

Obviously I defer to the hon. Lady’s expertise in this area, but as one who represents what I believe is the longest section of the land border between Scotland and England, I am well aware of the issues that she has raised. What the Secretary of State has been negotiating in Luxembourg is an arrangement that introduces regionalisation for the whole United Kingdom, and allows us to design a common agricultural policy that is fit for local circumstances and fair to farmers throughout the UK.

I am disappointed that the United Kingdom Government are set to negotiate a CAP deal that will leave Scotland with the lowest rural development budget not just in the UK, but anywhere in Europe. Had Scotland been negotiating on its own behalf, it would have benefited from the rule that no member state should receive less than €196 per hectare by 2020. Does the Secretary of State accept that being tied to the UK in these negotiations will cost Scottish farming £300 million a year for the next seven years?

I am disappointed by the churlish tone adopted by the hon. Lady. I hoped that she might just have studied the tweets from the Scottish agriculture Minister, which have welcomed the major breakthroughs that we have achieved. We have done that as member of the United Kingdom, sitting at the top table and with the clout to deliver a regionalised CAP. It is now for Richard Lochhead and others to get on with designing a common agricultural policy that suits Scotland’s needs, and Mr Lochhead has the ability to do that.

If agreement is reached this week on a common agricultural policy that will benefit farmers throughout Scotland, will it not constitute more evidence that Scotland speaks with a louder voice in EU negotiations as part of the United Kingdom?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the model of the negotiations reinforces his point. It should be noted that the Scottish farming Minister, Richard Lochhead, who has been involved in discussions with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs throughout the process, was in Luxembourg overnight, and has seen the United Kingdom deliver for Scotland.

Employment Figures

The most recent labour statistics show that between February and April 2013 employment in Scotland has increased by 47,000, while unemployment has fallen by 6,000 and the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants by 900. The Government will continue to take the necessary steps to build a stronger economy in a fairer society.

Unemployment in Scotland has fallen for seven months in a row. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that could be put at risk should Scotland vote to become independent?

I believe that Scotland as part of the United Kingdom has the most appropriate opportunities, and that not only its businesses but its consumers benefit from the great strength of the UK economy. They have more choice and more security as part of the United Kingdom, and when times get tough—as we saw at the time of the banking crisis—the United Kingdom is there to help out. That is a good deal, and we should stick with it.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson), I represent a constituency in which the shipyards are the main employer. Scotstoun shipyard employs 2,000 people. What will happen to them if Scotland votes for independence next year?

Once again, from the other side of the Clyde, the hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. That question is directed to the SNP routinely and it is one for which it has no answer. The arrangement we have with the shipyards and with construction at Rosyth and elsewhere is very good for Scotland, and we should long continue to be part of the UK.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that many of the jobs are in the offshore oil and gas industry, and we must not forget that that is a very dangerous environment to operate in, especially as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, when 167 lives were lost? Will he study the outcome of the conference Piper 25 held last week, to see the redoubled efforts of the industry to make conditions as safe as possible for those who work for us offshore?

My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to the tragic events of 25 years ago. The loss of 167 lives is something that the families, communities and area are still dealing with a quarter of a century later. We all remember that tragedy and remain committed to ensuring that we have the highest possible standards of health and safety in the North sea. As a Government, we remain committed to working with the sector, the trade unions and others to ensure that is the case, and of course we will study the recommendations from the conference to which my hon. Friend referred.

Order. It has suddenly gone quiet, which is very encouraging, but there was excessive noise in the Chamber. I know, however, that Members will want to be quiet for Margaret Curran.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

For those who are in employment, will the Secretary of State for Scotland tell the House whether average wages have gone up or gone down in Scotland since the last election?

I would have hoped the hon. Lady would welcome the fact that more people are in employment as a result of the measures we are taking, and that we have created nearly 150,000 private sector jobs in Scotland. Of course there are still challenges facing the economy, but the hon. Lady will remember the legacy she left us, and she can see for herself the crisis in the eurozone. We remain committed to taking the steps that will continue our progress on the road to recovery.

Once again the Secretary of State does not let the facts get in the way of the same old answer. Average wages in Scotland have, in fact, gone down by £1,100 since he took office. That is the equivalent of 14 tanks of petrol, 15 weekly shops, or over nine months of gas and electricity bills. The Secretary of State has said in the past

“the horrible truth is…everyone is going to have to make a contribution”.

Is this what he had in mind?

Despite the changes from the shadow Chancellor in recent days, the hon. Lady does not seem to have caught up with the new script—the recognition that the Labour party left the decks burning when it went out of office three years ago. She is not going to be credible until she faces up to that. What I have said to her is, “Yes, these are tough times, and they continue to be challenging,” but what we are doing, by raising the tax threshold so that 224,000 Scots are out of tax all together and 2 million Scots are enjoying a £600 per annum reduction in their income tax bill, is very important. We continue to work for fairness and for a successful economy.

Discretionary Housing Payments

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the allocation of additional funds to local authorities in Scotland for discretionary housing payments. (160889)

Earlier this month my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I met the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Lord Freud, the Minister for welfare reform, to discuss information received from local authorities in Scotland on this matter.

The Minister will of course know that some 80% of affected households in Scotland contain a disabled adult, yet they get only a paltry 6.5% of the total budget. Instead of concentrating on his pathetic scaremongering “project fear”, will he concentrate on the real fears of real Scots under this Tory-led Government?

What I am concentrating on is the real concerns of local authorities in Scotland. That is why the Secretary of State and I have met every single local authority in Scotland to discuss the specific concerns they have in relation to welfare reform, and we will meet the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities at the end of July to discuss the outcome of those discussions.

Economic Performance

Against a tough economic backdrop of the deficit we inherited from the previous Government and the crisis in the eurozone, we are taking the measures necessary to create a rebalanced economy with sustainable public finances.

The Scottish economy needs people in work, but last year the Government supported the closure of the Remploy factor in Wishaw, and since then, nearly a year later, very few of those disabled workers have found a full-time job. How does that help the economy?

I recognise the issue the hon. Gentleman raises on his constituents’ behalf, and others have done similar. I am very happy to meet him to discuss it further if he wishes. However, we want to ensure that we have an arrangement that helps those with disabilities, and others, to get into the workplace in a sustainable manner. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. The House must and will hear Mr Alan Reid.

Superfast broadband is very important for the economy of rural areas. The Government’s target is 90% coverage by 2015, but in the highlands and islands, Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s target is only 75% coverage in each local authority area by December 2016. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can get this target up to something comparable to the rest of the country?

My hon. Friend is right to champion this cause, and it is very important indeed that we get superfast broadband as far across the UK as possible, and particularly in the highlands and islands. However, he might wish to wait for further announcements from the Government in the next day or so.

As part of the “project fear” tactics, there has been a ridiculous level of scaremongering in relation to inward investment, whereas in fact, Scottish Development International and the Scottish Government have helped to deliver a 15-year high in investment levels. Will the Secretary of State apologise for the scaremongering tactics of “project fear” that he is a part of?

The hon. Gentleman needs to relax a bit and address this issue sensibly. He surely recognises that that record investment comes on the back of a United Kingdom economic framework that is supportive to businesses wherever they locate in the United Kingdom, and through which businesses can get access to the whole of the United Kingdom economy, without any false barriers created by him and his friends.

But the failing austerity policies of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government are not delivering the growth we require in Scotland or in the UK. However, will he take the opportunity to welcome the help and support he is getting as part of the “project fear” campaign by those who agree with the austerity course, who will agree with the Conservative spending caps that have been announced, and who now agree with bedroom tax: namely—

That is another neat diversion by the hon. Gentleman, but he cannot avoid the fact that he and his colleagues have no answers on the central questions of Scotland’s economy: what currency it will have, how the banks and others will be regulated, how trade will work across the United Kingdom. On every single important question, there are no answers from the SNP. It will not be listened to until those answers come.

Later today, the House will debate the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this project will assist Scotland’s long-term economic growth?

My hon. Friend is right: this is absolutely key to the whole of the UK’s economy, and I look forward to the benefits being enjoyed by all parts of Britain—north and south.

This Government have delivered just one fifth of the promised growth since 2010. Is the Secretary of State also aware that the working-age employment rate in Scotland has fallen by 2% from five years ago, leaving a jobs gap for Scotland of more than 71,000? Does that not make the case for a jobs guarantee now to get Scotland’s young and long-term jobless people back into work, generate more tax revenues and help cut the deficit, which rose, not fell, last year under this incompetent Government?

The hon. Gentleman should perhaps practise his questions a little more. Yet again, there is denial from him and his colleagues of the good progress we have been making on unemployment, and I hope he recognises that. It is absolutely essential that we take the measures to support people into work, which we are doing with the Work programme and the Youth Contract, and we will be making work pay with universal credit. He can shake his head, but he needs to get with the reality.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that connectivity through regional air hubs to international hubs is vital to the performance of the Scottish economy? What can the Government do to assist in maintaining those links, particularly at Inverness and to the highlands?

My hon. Friend is a real champion of those vital air links to the north and to the far north, which he represents. I know that he has been making strong representations recently, and we would be happy to have further meetings with him to discuss these issues.

The Office for Budget Responsibility states that real wages in Scotland will be lower in 2015 than they were when Labour left office. Why is the Secretary of State not standing up for hard-working Scots and protecting tax credits, and is instead giving a tax break to millionaires?

There we go again. The hon. Lady, once again, chooses to ignore the absolute crisis that the Labour party left for the incoming Government three years ago. She forgets the measures we have taken to take low-paid Scots—224,000 of them—out of tax altogether. She forgets all those things. Without the firm measures we have taken in the past three years we would not be moving from rescue to recovery, as we are.