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Volume 590: debated on Wednesday 14 January 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

Shale Gas

1. If he will make it his policy that responsibility for licensing shale gas extraction should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. (906918)

That is already Government policy. As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Smith commission heads of agreement stated that the licensing of onshore oil and gas extraction should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Government are committed to publishing draft clauses in that respect by 25 January.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to that part of the Smith agreement, to which my party is also committed, not least because it will put an end to the attempts by some people to suggest that without the devolution of licensing, the Scottish Government are powerless to stop fracking if they want to. They already have powers over planning and regulation, but I hope that this change will close that argument down, to everybody’s benefit.

The hon. Lady is right to say that the Scottish Government have planning and environmental regulation powers that would enable them to block any fracking project they wanted to block. It is sensible, in the circumstances, that they should be given responsibility for the licensing of such activities as well. That will be done as part of the Smith process.

The Scottish Government and the Scottish National party have been pressing for the devolution of all powers over fracking for some time. Why have the UK Government ruled out devolving power over fracking licences until after the general election?

That is part of the timetable to which we are all committed. Until I heard the Deputy First Minister speak at the National museum, I had thought that the hon. Gentleman’s party was committed to it as well. We are proceeding with that speedy and tight process. I will publish the draft clauses before 25 August—sorry, I mean 25 January, which is, incidentally, before 25 August. With 25 January being a Sunday, we might even meet the deadline with a few days to spare.

Until now, the UK Government’s position has been to remove the right of Scottish householders to object to unconventional gas or oil drilling underneath their homes. What will the position be between now and the full devolution of powers over fracking? Will the Department of Energy and Climate Change give an undertaking that it will not issue any fresh licences?

The position will be as it is at the moment, which is that if there is any fracking project in Scotland, the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in the Scottish Government will have the power, using planning or environmental regulations, to block it. They should not seek to push the blame on to anyone else.

11. I welcome what the Secretary of State has said. Recently, I wrote to the Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism in the Scottish Government to ask whether it was their policy to block such developments. He wrote back to say that he endorsed the principle of robust regulation, but gave no answer on what their policy was. Will the Secretary of State enlighten us as to whether he has heard anything from the Scottish Government on this matter? (906928)

No, I am afraid that I cannot assist the hon. Lady in that regard. All I can do is point to the fact that the Scottish Government seem to be desperate to speak about the powers that are held by others, rather than about the way in which they will exercise the powers that they already have. Her constituents and others will doubtless draw their own conclusions.

The Secretary of State will be aware that, following the amendments that I moved in the Committee stage of the Infrastructure Bill yesterday, there has been movement from the Government, which we should all welcome. Will he help the House by clarifying the fact that having a licence does not enable somebody to undertake any extraction or exploration activity? It has been suggested that it does, but that is absolutely not the case.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his efforts on this matter and, in particular, for tabling his amendments. As was made clear to him yesterday in Committee, the Government will return to the matter on Report. We will table an amendment that we believe will achieve the same end, which is the carving out of Scotland from those provisions in the Infrastructure Bill. He is absolutely right that licensing is just one element—it provides no overall entitlement. For fracking to go ahead, the Scottish Government have to give consent on planning and environmental grounds.

Labour recently called for immediate devolution in this area, and we welcome the Government’s response, which as the Secretary of State has said is part of the ongoing commitment to the Smith agreement. Where appropriate, the Government should move immediately to devolve the powers agreed by the Smith commission.

Today, the leaders of Scotland’s three largest cities, home to a quarter of Scotland’s population, have joined us in calling for job-creating powers to be devolved too. Will the Secretary of State bring forward a section 106 order so that those powers can go to Scotland as soon as possible and we can start the work to reverse the failure of this Government’s Work programme?

The hon. Lady and I discussed a section 106 order when we met recently, but I have to tell her that the route that she has identified—a section 106 order followed by a section 63 order—is not, in our view, the appropriate one to honour the commitments in the Smith programme. That would devolve competence to the Government in Scotland, not the Parliament, which would need a section 30 order. I just do not see how we will achieve that end in the time available to us in this Parliament, but we are determined that where there is a need for joint working between the two Governments to achieve a better transfer of power, my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I will be engaged in that process.

Child Poverty

2. What change there has been in the level of child poverty in Scotland since 2010; and if he will make a statement. (906919)

Estimates of the number and proportion of children in relative low income are published in the National Statistics households below average income series. Those estimates are available for each financial year up to 2012-13, and they show that since 2010 the number and percentage of children in relative low income in Scotland have remained at 200,000 and 17% respectively.

It is incredible how complacent the Government are about the fact that child poverty in Scotland is increasing. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is set to increase by a further 100,000 by 2020 if the current Government’s policies are followed. Is it not about time that both the UK and Scottish Governments, who seem to be relaxed about that increase in poverty, got together and worked out how we can effectively use policy on distribution so that the poorest can benefit?

I am somewhat surprised at the hon. Lady taking the nationalist line on the IFS figures. I completely reject those figures about prospective increases in child poverty in Scotland. This Government are not complacent, but what our policies have achieved are a reduction in unemployment, an increase in employment and wage increases outstripping inflation. Work is the best way out of poverty, and that is what this Government’s policy is.

Does the Minister agree that with the number of workless households at its lowest level for a generation across the UK as a whole, the best way to help tackle child poverty is to get people back into work?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and a key figure that demonstrates our ability to deal with the issue is the record number of women in work in Scotland. I would have thought that politicians in all parts of the House would welcome that.

The Child Poverty Action Group says that more than one in five children in Scotland are living in poverty, which is far higher than in many other European countries, and that the number is increasing as the days pass. Can the Minister explain why child poverty is continuing to increase under his Government?

I do not accept the premise of an increase. The Scottish Government’s most recent report stated that we should not take a snapshot and should instead look at indications over a longer period. I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) on one point, however: we have to see closer working together by the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government, local authorities and the third sector. That is the best way to achieve a reduction in child poverty.

National Insurance Contributions

3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on businesses in Scotland of the removal of the requirement for employers to pay national insurance contributions in respect of employees under the age of 21 and apprentices under the age of 25. (906920)

Abolishing employer national insurance contributions for under-21s is expected to help Scottish businesses save £45 million and support jobs for 138,000 young people. Extending that to apprentices under 25 will help about 31,000 apprentices in Scotland, and it will be more than £1,000 a year cheaper to employ an apprentice earning £16,000.

Is it correct that the employment level in Scotland rose to a record level in the last financial quarter—even higher than the UK average? Does that not demonstrate that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working across the United Kingdom and especially in Scotland?

Indeed, my hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is especially true in areas that are hardest to move, such as youth unemployment, which is down by 5.1% over the past 12 months. Of course it is still too high and of course there is still a great deal to do, but those figures and the ones that she has just mentioned demonstrate that the Government’s plan is right, that it is working and that we should not put it at risk by handing power to those who would just borrow, spend and play games for political ends.

When my right hon. Friend next travels down the A9, may I commend to him a stop in Brora to visit Highland Bespoke Furniture? It now employs six people as a direct result of the reduction in national insurance that has helped it to recruit further skilled work. Will the Government consider extending the scheme to workers over 25 who are coming back to work, as that would help further to expand that business and employment in that area?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. I look forward to joining him in the not-too-distant future, and if Brora is a place in his constituency that he thinks I should see, I will be more than happy to go there with him. He is right to mention the opportunities that have been created as a result of this measure, and businesses the length and breadth of Scotland will tell a story similar to the one he has just related. On his proposal to extend the scheme, he will be aware that a Budget is coming up in March, and he or any hon. Member from across the House who wants to make representations can do so through the Scotland Office.

East Coast Main Line

4. What steps the Government are taking to maintain existing Scottish rail services on and connected to the east coast main line. (906921)

The new deal the Government have signed for the east coast main line franchise with Virgin and Stagecoach will provide new services, new state-of-the-art trains with more capacity, and reductions in journey times.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He will know that the east coast main line is an important link through my constituency, but it has been reported that the new franchisee intends to drop one station south of Edinburgh from the line, raising fears that other stations may be dropped from the new service. Will he give an absolute assurance that, after the change of franchisee, services on the east coast main line will continue to stop at all the stations currently used?

I hoped that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues would welcome the new franchise with its services to Falkirk and Stirling. There is no suggestion that there will be any reduction in services, but I am happy to make further inquiries for him on that point.

Will the Minister acknowledge that to increase the reliability, speed and efficiency of the service between Edinburgh and Aberdeen on the east coast main line, we need an upgrade of that line, not least the ending of the single track south of Montrose? What steps can he and/or the Scottish Government, or the two together, take to ensure that investment?

My right hon. Friend will be aware that we actively engage in discussions with the Scottish Government on important strategic transport projects that impact the whole United Kingdom, such as the Forth crossing. I am sure that colleagues in the Scottish Government will have heard his points, and I will certainly raise them further with them.

The Minister said that my constituents can have confidence that there will be no reduction in the service on the east coast main line, but can he explain why the Minister at the Department for Transport who has responsibility for rail franchises said that the service at Dunbar was to be reduced?

I think the hon. Lady was not listening to my previous answer. I undertook, on behalf of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), to investigate what has been said previously about the rail link north of Edinburgh, and I will also take up her point.

It is important that the train services that are meant to run actually do so. The Minister will know that services on the east coast main line were severely disrupted on 27 December and two days later as well. Will he meet colleagues to try to ensure that when there are disruptions on the line—they were no fault of East Coast, by the way—they are dealt with more effectively, passengers are given real alternative information, and the system is made more resilient to such disruption?

As a Member who represents a significant stop on the west coast main line at Lockerbie, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about such disruption. I would be happy to meet him and any other colleagues who share those concerns.

Broadband and Mobile Phone Coverage

5. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision of broadband and mobile phone coverage in rural Scotland. (906922)

The Government’s superfast broadband rollout programme has provided over £120 million to the Scottish Government to improve broadband services. More than 160,000 additional Scottish homes and businesses now have access to broadband as a result. The Government have recently achieved a deal with the mobile network operators that will reduce complete not spots in Scotland by about two thirds, and partial not spots by one half.

I very much welcome that investment, but the money to bring superfast broadband to my constituency was handed over to the Scottish Government, who are supposed to be organising the delivery work. However, many of my constituents complain to me that neither the Scottish Government nor BT are able to tell them when, or even if, they will benefit from this project. Will my right hon. Friend please get on to the Scottish Government and tell them to publish a clear timetable for the delivery of this important work?

Unfortunately, this is a tale I hear as I travel around Scotland, especially in the highlands and islands. The communities my hon. Friend is talking to—I am sure he represents many of them—are not unreasonable, but they do want to know what to expect, so that they can plan for their services and their businesses. One would not think that it was that difficult.

Mobile coverage is an important social utility, as we have seen quite recently. Because of storms and lightning, BT lines have been down for weeks in parts of Lewis and Harris. Special thanks are due to BT and hydro engineers, who have been working hard in very bad weather to repair utilities. What are the right hon. Gentleman’s Government doing to ensure that island and rural areas are not left behind with 90% 4G telephone coverage, especially considering that 2G and 3G have been bad and that, with its high data speeds, 4G coverage is an excellent system for accessing broadband?

May I first join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the hydro engineers and telecoms engineers, who are working throughout the highlands and islands even as we speak? They provide an excellent service to our local communities and we should place on record our gratitude towards them. They work in very difficult circumstances.

On 4G coverage, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware of the deal my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made recently with mobile network operators. That offers the opportunity for greater coverage of 3G and 4G. We will need to see, when they come forward with the actual proposals, what that will mean for our communities, but I can assure him that I am keeping an eye on it.

In echoing and endorsing entirely the points made by my immediate highland constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), may I encourage the Secretary of State to stress to the Scottish Government the need in particular to draw BT’s attention to Openreach? It is ironically entitled, as constituents and consumers cannot reach it openly and cannot contact it directly, which is why they cannot get an answer to the legitimate question: when is last year’s £10 million investment of UK Government money actually going to meet their needs and be delivered?

It is clear, beyond any doubt, that a substantial amount of money is going in from this Government, the Scottish Government, local authorities and European funds to this most important area of economic development. Responsibility for delivery, at the end of that money, rests with the Scottish Government. I take it, from the comments of my right hon. Friend and others in the House, that the Scottish Government need to be telling our communities more.

Someone once said:

“We have got to stop thinking of broadband and other connectivity issues as being some sort of luxury. It is as important to the future sustainability of our communities as having a supply of water or electricity.”

Does the Secretary of State still agree with his own words? If so, can he tell communities in Ochil and South Perthshire and elsewhere in Scotland why, when we have running water and electricity, we still do not have superfast broadband?

I absolutely stand by my own words. I recognised them as soon as the hon. Gentleman started to quote them. It is a view that I still hold and it is why this Government have made a substantial investment. If he has particular cases relating to delivery, which unfortunately we have passed to the Scottish Government, I am more than happy to help him in any way I can.

City Link

6. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on job losses in Scotland resulting from City Link entering administration. (906923)

It was deeply regrettable that City Link went into administration over the festive period, particularly for its employees and contractors. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary spoke regularly with the unions to discuss the situation, and our focus now is on supporting those made redundant. The Department for Work and Pensions has been liaising with its counterparts in the Partnership Action for Continuing Employment service to ensure that support is available to those made redundant in Scotland.

Many people lost their jobs at City Link’s Eurocentral depot in my constituency. I have been struck by the fact that not only direct employees but many so-called self-employed subcontractors lost their jobs. In reality, the latter were solely employed by City Link and had worked there for decades. They have been left not just without redundancy payments but with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. What are the Government doing to ensure that bogus self-employment is tackled and that this never happens again?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, the administrators will provide a report to the Insolvency Service on what happened at City Link during the period immediately before the redundancies and administration were announced, and we will obviously reflect on that. I take on board her point about self-employed contractors, and I will raise that directly with DWP colleagues.

When I met workers from City Link this week, they told me they found out from the media on Christmas eve that their company was closing, and the redundancies were confirmed on Hogmanay. This is an appalling situation, and no worker should be treated in such a way. It is too late for those workers, but will the Minister ensure that his Government conduct a full and proper inquiry into the circumstances that led to the failure at City Link, so that workers can never be treated in that way again?

As the hon. Lady will have heard me say, the administrators will provide a report to the Insolvency Service. The Government have demonstrated, in their action over Comet, that if such a report highlights practices that should be investigated, they will be.

Smith Commission

The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have made it clear that the Government are committed to delivering draft clauses by 25 January.

Following the Prime Minister’s meeting with the new First Minister, does the Secretary of State expect full support from the Scottish Government in ensuring a speedy delivery of the proposals in the draft Bill?

I have learned over the years not to expect too much when working with the Scottish Government, but I am hopeful that that will be the case. One way or the other, however, we shall deliver on the undertakings that were given.

12. The Smith commission agreement contained a strong desire to see devolution extend to local government. Will the Secretary of State impress upon the SNP Government the need to embrace that desire, release their iron grip on power and devolve to local government? (906929)

Indeed. This is something we hear from communities across the country in Scotland. Power in Scotland has been sucked up, particularly from local councils, and exercised at the centre by the Scottish Government. That was not how devolution was ever intended to work, and they need to change their approach.

The Smith commission is not the only example of parties working together. Yesterday, we saw a fantastic example, when Scottish Labour walked through the Lobby with the Conservatives to support Conservative austerity. Does the Secretary of State envisage any other such “better together” moments coming before the next general election?

The only remarkable thing about that is that it tells us absolutely nothing about what the SNP would do to tackle the deficit, if—heaven help us—they were ever in a position to influence it.

Nuisance Calls

8. What discussions he has had with the Minister for culture, communications and creative industries on how effectively the Government are protecting vulnerable consumers in Scotland from nuisance calls. (906925)

I commend my hon. Friend on his work in recent years on this serious issue. Tackling this problem is a priority for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and I understand that the Minister with responsibility for culture, communications and creative industries will meet him later today to discuss the matter.

Over the last two years, trials run by councils and trading standards officers have installed call blockers in the homes of 400 older and vulnerable Scots, blocking more than 100,000 nuisance calls, improving their quality of life and protecting them from becoming the victims of scams. Does the Minister agree that the time for pilots is over, as the technology is proven, and that we need to establish a national scheme to protect 300,000 Scots rather than just 300?

I agree with my hon. Friend that this is an important issue. The pilots have been necessary to test the technology involved. I am sure he will be able to make that very point to the Minister from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport when he meets him later today.