Scotland’s rural economy remains a key focus for the Government. In addition to our support for the economy as a whole, we have, among other things, abolished the fuel duty escalator, provided funds for rural broadband and set up the coastal communities fund.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Many of my constituents are expressing concern that a privatised Royal Mail will try to wriggle out of its universal service obligation to deliver mail to every house and collect from every postbox in the country every day at a fair, affordable price. Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that the Government will never abandon the universal service obligation or allow a privatised Royal Mail to water it down in any way?
The legislation is clear. We have legislated for a six-day universal service obligation and only an affirmative resolution of the House could change that. I highlight to my hon. Friend the fact that the Government have ended the rural post office closure programme. We have introduced a groceries code adjudicator and cut income tax bills for low and middle-income families throughout rural Scotland and the rest of the country. No Government have ever done more for the rural economy in Scotland. We are committed to a stronger economy and fairer society in all parts of the UK.
The Minister of State is well aware that rural east Ayrshire has been devastated, with hundreds of job losses and up to £160 million of restoration work required in respect of the open-cast mines. Only this week, a Scottish Government Minister said that he was not prepared to prioritise funding for the issue. Does the Secretary of State agree that funding will be required for the work and that the Scottish Government have to put their money where their mouth is? Furthermore, do we not need some form of enterprise area for east Ayrshire, to compensate for this national devastation?
I sympathise with the hon. Lady and her constituents about the devastating blow for her and other hon. Members, including the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), some of whose constituents are affected. He will meet representatives of East Ayrshire council later this week. We have to make sure that, when levers are available to the Scottish Government, they use them to help the hon. Lady’s constituents and others.
As one of my hon. Friend’s neighbouring MPs, I recognise the importance of Hexham and north Northumberland. As he knows, in a farming context and in so many other ways, any kind of legal border between Scotland and England would be an absolute disaster—not just for our constituents, but for all the United Kingdom.
Is the Secretary of State aware of the recent report on the effect of the Irish Government’s reduction of VAT on tourism-related businesses to 9%, creating around 10,000 jobs and a €40 million boost to the Exchequer? As 24 other EU countries already charge less VAT on hotel accommodation than the UK, will he press the Chancellor to take similar action and give a real boost to the rural economy?
The hon. Gentleman always makes serious points on behalf of his constituents. I appreciate that what he has asked about is a consistent theme of the tourism sector, and the Chancellor will no doubt regard it as an early bid for next year’s Budget measures. However, the hon. Gentleman would be more convincing if he brought along a costed example of how an independent Scotland would do such a thing.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that a major contributor to the rural economy is the ability to send goods around the country. In the north highlands, sending packages by courier services comes at extreme cost; the companies charge more than for the rest of the mainland. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) will present his excellent private Member’s Bill on Friday. What more can the Secretary of State do to ensure that courier charges for remote areas are in line with those for the rest of the mainland?
My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) have been campaigning sensibly on the issue and raising important points. We certainly want to engage with my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine on his private Member’s Bill, which addresses a serious issue. We support the principles that underpin the Bill and want to see how we can use existing arrangements, through trading standards and other facilities, to make sure that nobody in remote or rural areas suffers from those excess delivery charges.
The average wage in my local authority area is 24% beneath the national average. Figures out this week show that 23.8% of households there are workless, almost 3% above the Scottish average. Does the Secretary of State believe that the Government, perhaps in conjunction with the Scottish Government, should be doing much more for rural economies?
I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that these are structural problems that have persisted for a very long time, including when his party’s Government were in power. I share his desire to ensure that low-wage economies, particularly in rural areas, get the support they need. The very heart of our economic policy is to rebalance the country as a whole and move from the rescue to recovery phase. As we do that, the measures we are taking to support the economy as a whole by keeping interest rates and corporation tax down and investing in infrastructure will help rural and urban Scotland alike.