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Volume 593: debated on Wednesday 25 February 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy Supply

1. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the supply of energy in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (907627)

I have regular discussions with colleagues on issues affecting the energy sector in Scotland, including with the Scottish Government on energy supply issues.

People in north Yorkshire have noted with great interest that the Scottish Government have banned fracking for the moment. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on progress towards a debate on energy supply not only for Scotland, but for the whole of the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend’s key words were “for the moment”. The Scottish Government have come forward with a moratorium, and I am sure that we shall all watch the debate with keen interest. I remind her and the House that we removed the Scottish provisions from the Infrastructure Bill, and that the power to license onshore exploration for oil and gas will be devolved under the Scotland Act that will come after the next election.

When the Secretary of State meets the First Minister, will he get information—this is not in the public arena—on how much compensation is being paid to wind farms in Scotland from his and my electricity bills as a consequence of the fact that they are, in my view, inefficient?

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman seeks that information from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, it will be forthcoming.

I am sure that the Secretary of State, as a highlands and islands MP, will share the sense of anger and injustice at SSE’s 2p surcharge on electricity costs, given that it made a profit of £1.5 billion last year. Will he do everything possible at the UK level to ameliorate this state of affairs, not least by endorsing the excellent campaign by The Press and Journal?

I rarely have any difficulty in endorsing a campaign run by The Press and Journal. The question of the price being paid by electricity consumers across the highlands and islands is complex, but I know that we all benefit from being part of the wider UK energy market.

Scottish generators, including Longannet, provide 12% of the electricity going into the British network, but pay 35% of the transmission charges. The Secretary of State has been in government for five years. What has he done to end that discrimination?

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that transmission charging is the responsibility of Ofgem, the energy market regulator. He will also be aware of the work that Ofgem has been doing with other parts of the energy industry in relation to Project TransmiT.

Last week, the First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister about this very subject, asking

“the UK Government to initiate a dedicated capacity assessment for Scotland, informed by stakeholder views, and take steps to transfer to the Scottish Parliament the authority to set our own national reliability standard for electricity.”

Having failed to end the discriminatory transmission charges, will the UK Government agree to those reasonable suggestions?

The hon. Gentleman and the First Minister must both be aware that National Grid has a constant process of reviewing energy supply. The system operators in Scotland have stress-tested 140 scenarios in which Longannet and other Scottish fossil fuel generators were closed, and National Grid has the tools to keep the lights on in every one of those scenarios, including by being resilient against one-in-600-year risks. Those are the facts, and they are preferable to the sort of scaremongering that we hear from the nationalists.

But is the Secretary of State satisfied that the capacity of the electricity interconnector between Scotland and England is sufficient and will not act as a brake on competition in the supply and generating markets?

I have raised many times the devastation caused by abandoned coal mines in my constituency. The Secretary of State will be aware of the proposal for an exemption from carbon price support, which would greatly help their restoration and create 1,000 jobs. Can we expect good news on this in the Budget, and does he agree that the Scottish Government should step up to the plate with some of their £500 million surplus to help the restoration?

First, I am happy to pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who has been a doughty fighter for her constituents’ interests in this regard. As for what will be in the Budget, I am afraid that, like the rest of us, she will have to wait and see, although I can assure her that my Department remains engaged on this issue. We continue to work closely with the Scottish Government on their joint taskforce, which will next meet in March. My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will represent the UK Government on that occasion.

Cross-border Trade

2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on cross-border trade between the north of England and the border region of Scotland of the proposals of the Smith commission. (907628)

As a result of the clear no vote in the referendum, there remain no barriers to trade across the whole of the UK. Nothing in the draft clauses changes that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that all political parties need to come together to ensure that airports such as Newcastle in the north-east have air passenger duty support so that they are not unfairly disadvantaged by the proposals of the Smith commission?

I assure my hon. Friend that the basic principle of the Smith commission proposals is that there should be no detriment to any part of the UK—that was very much what the people of Scotland voted for on 18 September. Of course, it remains to be seen what will happen to levels of APD, once it is devolved, but he should take comfort from the fact that the principle is already well established that variable rates within the UK are possible, and he would be well advised to speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in that regard.

Had the Smith commission been faithful to the famous vow and had the Better Together parties not watered down the tepid Smith commission, does the Secretary of State think that the benefits to the north of England, as well as to Scotland, would have been greater?

I know that it hurts the hon. Gentleman and causes him genuine pain, but the truth of the matter—he will have to accept this sooner or later, so he might as well get on and accept it now—is that the Smith commission has delivered on the vow. That was why his party signed up to it, even if, having done so, the Scottish National party could not run away from its commitments fast enough.

The single market of the United Kingdom is vital to the fish processors and agricultural producers of Berwickshire, the coat hanger manufacturers of Jedburgh and the world-class knitwear manufacturers of Hawick, among others, so does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the major achievements of the Smith commission was to bring more powers to Scotland, but preserve that single market?

Yes, absolutely. I particularly enjoyed joining my right hon. Friend recently in his constituency and learning from him about not only the challenges but the opportunities facing the knitwear industry. I know that that industry is of great importance to the economy in his area, and he has been a remarkable champion of it over the years.

There is obvious eagerness within local authorities in the south of Scotland to have closer trade links with their counterparts in the north of England, as evidence from the work of the Scottish Affairs Committee suggests. Does the Secretary of State intend to engage with the Scottish Government to ensure that the borderland areas are able to exploit their full potential?

Indeed. I am well aware of the work of the borderlands initiative and am more than happy to engage with it in any way it considers would be helpful. That has been very much the approach that I have taken in dealing with Scotland’s island communities—the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland—on their “Our Islands Our Future” campaign. I suggest that this Government’s willingness to hand power back to communities in Scotland bears very favourable contrast with the SNP Government in Edinburgh, who seem determined to centralise everything.

Living Wage

3. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on practical steps to encourage employers to pay the living wage. (907629)

I have regular discussions with the Scottish Government on a range of employment issues. The UK Government support businesses that choose to pay the living wage, where that is affordable and does not cost jobs.

I thank the Minister for that response, which seems somewhat aspirational rather than ambitious. He will be aware that the Scottish Government at Holyrood refused to support the call for a living wage that was put forward by Labour in Scotland. Will he follow the example set by my local Labour-controlled Renfrewshire council, which has not only introduced a living wage, but used the procurement process to encourage its suppliers to pay the living wage?

There are excellent examples of local authorities taking forward initiatives with the living wage, and South Lanarkshire council is one. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman heard the speech that my colleague, Ruth Davidson, made to the Scottish Conservative conference on Friday in which she called for help and support for businesses that promoted the living wage. I hope Scottish Labour and the Scottish Government will support her in that regard.

A Labour Government will ban the use of exploitative zero-hours contracts, which leave people not only not making the living wage, but unable to make a living on the minimum wage. Why will this Government not do the same?

The hon. Lady forgets that there was actually a Labour Government up until five years ago who took no action whatever on zero-hours contracts. This Government have banned exclusivity in zero-hours contracts, which is what leads to exploitation.

This Government are constantly making claims about new jobs that have been created in Scotland since the last election. Of those new jobs, what proportion have been in low-paying industries?

Since this Government came to power, 107 jobs a day have been created in Scotland. I am afraid that the hon. Lady has had a memory lapse, because she cannot remember the position on employment when this Government came to power and she cannot accept the good news of the creation of new jobs.

What I do remember is that the Labour Government implemented the minimum wage in the face of opposition from the Conservative party. According to new research from the House of Commons Library, 82% of these new jobs are in the low-paying sectors. That news comes days after the TUC revealed that one in five workers in Scotland is paid below the minimum wage. Just this morning, the Office for National Statistics revealed that 28% of workers are on zero-hours contracts. This Government stand up for the wrong people: they help out their friends who have been avoiding their taxes, yet they do not help those who work hard and play by the rules, but do not even get a decent wage in return. Will the Minister take any action in what remains of the last days of this Government to help ordinary working people to get a decent wage, or is the only hope is that in 71 days’ time, we get rid of this out of touch Government and get a Labour Government who will put working people first?

The hon. Lady could start by endorsing Ruth Davidson’s proposal to incentivise the paying of the minimum wage, and that is actually a fact, not rhetoric. As I have told the hon. Lady on numerous occasions, if she has evidence of people not being paid the minimum wage, she should bring that forward. Yesterday, the Government did something the Labour Government never did: we named and shamed 70 companies, including some in Scotland, that do not pay the minimum wage. What she should be celebrating is the fact that this Government have delivered 107 jobs a day in Scotland, 1,645 of which are in her constituency, as can be seen from the drop in jobseeker’s allowance claimants.

Property Taxes

4. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers of the Scottish Government on property taxes in Scotland. (907630)

As part of the Scotland Act 2012 implementation process, UK Government Ministers have been in contact with Scottish Government Ministers to discuss devolved taxes, including property taxes, since the beginning of this year.

May I encourage the Secretary of State to be a little more forthcoming and share with the House his view on whether Revenue Scotland is ready for the transfer of property taxes in April?

The right hon. Lady will understand my hesitation when I say that we have to take the Scottish Government at their word. They assure us that they are ready and we have done everything within our power to assist them. If it should transpire that there are further difficulties that have not yet been foreseen or disclosed, we will do everything that we can to ensure that the system operates.

Does the Secretary of State see the SNP Government’s U-turn on the land and buildings transaction tax as a cause for concern or the sincerest form of flattery—#TartanTories?

I think that is quite remarkable. The whole point of devolution is to allow the Scottish Government to do things differently. We devolved stamp duty land tax under the 2012 Act. They came forward with something that was different until this Government introduced a new system, when before we knew it they had changed to follow what was happening in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Work Programme (Job Outcome Payments)

6. For what proportion of participants in the Work programme in Scotland job outcome payments have been made to providers of that programme. (907632)

Work programme participants are some of the hardest to help and can experience multiple barriers to finding work. There are two providers in Scotland: Ingeus has supported 21.2% of all claimants into a job outcome; and Working Links has supported 20.4% of claimants into a job outcome.

The Work programme has performed worse in Scotland than in any English region. In the meantime, successful local projects such as the Engine Shed in my constituency have had to close. Does the Minister agree that powers over this should be devolved as quickly as possible—and not just to the Scottish Parliament, but to local authorities?

I certainly agree that the Engine Shed was a great project. I have made it clear to the Deputy First Minister that if proposals are brought forward after the election for the devolution of the Work programme, separate from other items to be devolved, I would have an open mind about that.

Thanks to this Government, those helped into employment though the Work programme do not have to pay income tax on the first £10,000 they earn. Does the Minister agree that that represents progress towards economic growth in Scotland and opportunities for its young people?

Absolutely. Some 32,620 people in Scotland have found work through the Work programme, which means they can bring home a wage, support their family and play a part in their wider community.

By any measure the Work programme has been a failure. It has wasted public money and let down the people depending on it. When will the Government listen to not only the Smith commission, but the dozens of civil society organisations in Scotland that have called for employment support to be devolved so that we can develop an integrated system in Scotland that actually works?

I do not think that the 32,620 people who have found work through the Work programme would agree with the hon. Lady’s assessment. It is now time for her party to come forward with its proposals for an alternative to the Work programme, rather than just criticising the Government and calling for more powers. This Government have given a commitment to effect a transition to such a programme, but first we need to know what it will be.

11. The Work programme is obviously failing in my constituency and in the city of Dundee as a whole, where only one in seven participants actually get a job. What will the Minister do to address that problem? (907637)

I fully acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman has been a fervent campaigner on this issue—and, indeed, on employment—in his constituency, but I am sure that he welcomes the fact that over the past five years, under this Government, the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in his constituency has gone down by 842—some 27%.

9. Unemployment in the Motherwell, Wishaw and Bellshill area rose again last month, with more than 500 young people now unemployed. Why has the Tory Work programme failed them? (907635)

I absolutely dispute the claim that the Work programme has failed them. The Work programme looks to help the most vulnerable people into work, and people have moved into work over the past five years in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, where the JSA claimant count has come down by 1,403—some 39%. I am sure that even he welcomes that.

Smith Commission

7. What public consultation his Department is carrying out in Scotland on the draft clauses published following the recommendations of the Smith commission. (907633)

The Scotland Office is holding a series of events across Scotland to enable stakeholders to provide feedback on the draft clauses and how the new powers might be used. I can announce to the House today that the Government will now begin a public information campaign to enable people in Scotland to learn more about the devolution settlement and how it is changing. [Interruption.] This campaign will use social media, local media and an information booklet for every house in Scotland. [Interruption.]

Order. There is a lot of noise in the Chamber. The House and perhaps the nation should hear Mr Christopher Chope.

The nation would be interested to know that draft clause 1 has been widely condemned as legally vacuous. What is the Secretary of State going to do to ensure that the people of Scotland realise that it is legally vacuous and that if they support it, they will be supporting a meaningless constitutional proposal?

I absolutely refute that suggestion and the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of that analysis as being widespread.

13. Has the Secretary of State specifically discussed the question of varying tax bands under the Smith agreement, which seems a marvellous opportunity for Scotland to decide how it treats people with differing levels of income? It might be different from the way they are treated in the rest of the UK. (907639)

The hon. Gentleman is right and he takes the debate in a direction in which it has to go. Surely the time has come when we should no longer be discussing where powers lie, but discussing what can be done with the substantial powers that the third most powerful devolved legislature anywhere in the world will have as a result of these proposals.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The out of touch House of Lords Constitution Committee has said that not enough thought has been given to the impact of giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. I hope the Government will reject this recommendation and give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to have their say on who represents them in the Scottish Parliament.

I confess that I always hold their lordships’ views in very high regard, but they would not normally be the first port of call that I would make when I was looking for advice either on democratic elections or on young people. The order will be before their lordships’ House tomorrow night. I am confident that it will be passed, as it was passed in this House, without Division.

Given the powers that the Scottish Government already have, has the Secretary of State ever received an apology from them for their failure to spend £34 million on disabled children and their families and instead using it for the gimmick of keeping council tax static?

There are many, many things for which the Scottish Government should apologise and I suspect that in the event that these apologies ever start coming, the right hon. Gentleman and I will not be at the top of the list to receive them. He is right, though, to point out that the freeze on council tax has caused real difficulties for many local authorities in Scotland, which will be outraged to see the size of the Scottish Government’s underspend this year.

A1 Dualling

8. What discussions he has had with Scottish Government Ministers on the co-ordination of programmes to dual the A1. (907634)

The provision of road transport in Scotland is a devolved matter. Department for Transport Ministers did, however, offer to work with Transport Scotland on a joint feasibility study on dualling the A1. The Scottish Government chose not to take up that offer.

Now that this coalition Government have committed £290 million to dualling the A1 on the English side of the border, should not the SNP Government in Scotland bring forward plans to dual remaining single carriageway sections on the Scottish side of the border?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. He may be aware that my colleague John Lamont MSP has been making exactly that call.

As we await the dualling of the A1, has the Minister heard of the success of the average speed cameras on the A9? Accidents have been cut by 97%, speeding is down by 90% and the road experience has been totally transformed. Will he now get his right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to abandon his reckless and irresponsible campaign to take those cameras down and put my constituents at risk once again?

Order. I think I was very generous. The hon. Gentleman started banging on about the A9, rather than the A1, but we will let him off on this occasion.

It is worse than that, Mr Speaker. We constantly hear complaints from the hon. Gentleman about this place intruding into the affairs of the Scottish Parliament, and yet he raises an issue that is solely the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament.

English Votes for English Laws

10. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on the potential implications for Scotland of English votes for English laws. (907636)

There is clear consensus that change is needed to address the anomalies in our constitutional arrangements, but no consensus on what form this change should take. The solution must be fair to all parts of the United Kingdom and strengthen the links between our family of nations so recently reaffirmed in the referendum in Scotland.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that most Scots, unlike Labour Members, recognise the unfairness of their MPs at Westminster intervening to affect English schools, English health and English councils now that those matters have been devolved from England to Scotland?

I think I have already acknowledged that there are substantial anomalies within our constitutional arrangements. I caution the hon. Gentleman, however, about being too enthusiastic about replacing these anomalies with ones that could be even bigger.