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Volume 598: debated on Wednesday 15 July 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

Tax Credits

1. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effect on claimants in Scotland of changes in entitlement to working tax credits and child tax credits. (900931)

The Chancellor has regular discussions with Treasury colleagues, as well as with the rest of the Cabinet, on a wide range of topics. The changes to tax credits are at the centre of the Government’s intention to move to a higher wage, lower tax and lower welfare society.

The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that the poorest 20% of the population will lose proportionately more than any other income group as a result of the benefit and tax changes. Given that International Monetary Fund analysis has shown that an increase in income to the poorest 20% stimulates growth, what is the Minister’s assessment not just of the increase in poverty in Scotland but of the stifling of growth?

The point I would make to the hon. Lady is that if we want to have a strong economy, we have to move to a higher wage, lower tax and lower benefits system. That is what the Government have been elected to do; that is what we are delivering.

Does my hon. Friend agree that part and parcel of changing the system is to encourage the Scottish people to live on the wages they earn from the jobs that will be created under the long-term economic plan?

The key to prosperity is to ensure that we have a dynamic economy. That is why we are cutting business taxes so we have higher wages and higher productivity; that is why we are improving our skills and investment in the United Kingdom; and that is the way we can ensure we have higher living standards for the people of Scotland and all parts of the United Kingdom.

The UK Government are planning to restrict child benefit to two children for new parents. The Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have in the Budget been asked to

“develop protections for women who have a third child as a result of rape, or other exceptional circumstances.”

Can the Minister explain how that will work?

The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that we think it is right that all families face the same situation, having to make choices bearing in mind the financial consequences of the number of children they have. It is right that a regime is put in place for exceptional circumstances. If the hon. Gentleman does not want to restrict tax credits to two children per family in future, he will be able to bring in top-ups paid for by the Scottish taxpayer under the powers provided in the Scotland Bill.

Rape is one of the most serious crimes and has one of the poorest clear-up rates. It is thought that 85% of women who are raped do not confirm that they have been raped. May I urge the Secretary of State and his colleagues to look very, very closely at this issue? I have already asked the Minister the question once and he did not give an answer as to how the Government are going to manage this very, very sensitive issue. May I ask him again how the Government plan to make this work?

We will set out the details in due course, but it is perfectly reasonable to limit in future—this is prospective; this is for future births—the support that is provided to families to two children under the tax credits system, so that all households face the same consequences of decisions about how many children they have. That is what most families have to live with.

Benefit Sanctions

2. If he will make an assessment of the effect of benefit sanctions on (a) levels of poverty and (b) social cohesion in Scotland. (900932)

All evidence shows that work is the best route out of poverty. This Government have taken action to reform the welfare system to support people to come off benefits and get into work.

May I ask the Secretary of State for Scotland for an urgent review, as recommended by Citizens Advice Scotland, of the 323% increase in requests for food parcels in the past four years owing to the main triggers of benefit sanctions and benefit administration?

I return to the comments I have just made. The best route out of poverty is to increase work incentives and to support employment opportunities—having a job. To do that, we need a Government with a long-term economic plan that secures employment prospects for the country as a whole.

Since the question about having a review will not be answered, is it not time that the powers were transferred to the Scottish Parliament to carry out this pressing and urgent review of the increase in the use of food banks in Scotland?

Welfare powers will, of course, be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, so it will be up to it to use them effectively as it sees fit.

I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), because yesterday I also met Citizens Advice Scotland, which told us that more than 200 people a day were being sanctioned by the Department for Work and Pensions and that 100,000 children were being affected. Will the Minister please answer the question? Why will she not instigate a full review of the sanctions regime, as recommended by the Church of Scotland?

When it comes to sanctions in particular, individuals are asked to meet reasonable requirements to take into account their circumstances, which is right and proper when people are looking for work and employment. [Interruption.] I see SNP colleagues laughing at the prospect, but we are all about supporting individuals into the employment market. As we have seen, 70% of jobseeker’s allowance recipients say that the system of sanctions and conditionality leads them to engage positively with the support on offer to help them into employment.

Onshore Wind Farms

3. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Scotland on the Government’s decision to end new subsidies for onshore wind farms by April 2016. (900933)

I have regular discussions with the Scottish Government on issues affecting the energy sector, including on our manifesto commitment to end new subsidies for onshore wind. I have also listened to organisations and communities across Scotland who support our policy of an affordable energy mix that also protects Scotland’s natural landscapes.

According to the UK Government’s own report, 5,400 jobs depend on onshore wind. Surely the decision to end the subsidies prematurely puts many of these jobs at risk. Why are the Government so complacent about putting 5,400 jobs at risk?

The Conservative position on this issue was clear heading into the election. Of course the interests of the industry are important, but so are the interests of taxpayers and local communities, and I believe that the policy we have set out gets it right in Scotland and across the United Kingdom.

13. On “Sunday Politics Scotland”, the Secretary of State, following the early closure of the renewables obligation for onshore wind, stated that projects with the prospect of a grid connection would be eligible under the grace period. Will he stick to that commitment? (900944)

I have repeatedly made clear my support for this policy; I believe it is the right thing to do. It is clear in Scotland that the UK Government are on the side of local communities, but the SNP is on the side of developers.

Niall Stuart, the chief executive of Scottish Renewables, says of this decision that it is

“bad for jobs, bad for investment and can only hinder Scotland and the UK’s efforts to meet binding climate change targets”.

Why does the Secretary of State think he knows better than Niall Stuart?

I certainly think I know better than the Liberal Democrats, who have been complicit in covering Scotland with wind farm developments. It is clear that ours is a popular policy among communities right across Scotland who do not want to see our landscape covered with unnecessary wind farm developments. I stand behind our policy.

Income Tax

4. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers of the Scottish Government on progress on implementing the Scottish rate of income tax. (900934)

The UK and Scottish Governments continue to work closely with each other on the implementation of the Scottish rate of income tax. The question now is how the Scottish Government will use the new power when it comes into effect in April 2016.

Transferring control of income tax to Scotland requires Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to identify who Scottish taxpayers are, but over the last year we have seen an increase in the risk rating by HMRC in terms of its ability to identify those taxpayers. Has that risk increased or decreased recently?

I can tell the House that the UK Government and the Scottish Government work closely together on this issue. Despite the bluster that we often see here, the reality is that the UK and Scottish Governments are working closely on many important issues for the people of Scotland. I am absolutely confident that the Scottish rate of income tax will be capable of being introduced next April. HMRC has done the necessary work; what we need now is to hear from the SNP what it intends to do with those tax powers.

In discussions with Scottish Ministers on the implementation of the Scottish rate of income tax, has the Secretary of State considered the benefits of devolving national insurance? Has he ruled out the devolution of additional tax powers or the full devolution of income tax to the Scottish Parliament—despite what was said before the “indyref”?

I would have given the proposal to devolve national insurance contributions a lot more credibility if a single SNP Member had stood up and spoken in favour of it during the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill. Instead, we had the spectacle of putting the issue to a vote without one Member setting out why the measure would benefit the people of Scotland.

Scotland Bill

5. If he will make it his policy to table substantive Government amendments to the Scotland Bill in the House of Commons rather than in the House of Lords. (900935)

The Secretary of State knows that not a single amendment from the Opposition parties—not even amendments backed by 58 out of 59 Scottish MPs—has been accepted by his Government. Does he understand the anger people will feel if changes are brought through in the House of Lords rather than here in the Commons where they can be fully scrutinised by democratically elected Members? Will the Secretary of State make a commitment today to bring forward substantive changes to the Bill on Report to deliver on the Smith commission in full and implement the additional powers people voted for in the election?

What I know angers people in Scotland are stunts, soundbites and press releases aimed solely at taking opportunistic positions on issues. The Scotland Bill is a matter of substance, which will transfer significant powers to the Scottish Parliament, and it should be treated seriously. Some of the amendments, not least those for full fiscal autonomy, have not been serious. I am looking at all the amendments, sorting the wheat from the chaff, and will bring forward Government amendments on Report.

In welcoming my right hon. Friend’s statement, may I ask him how much notice he is going to ensure will be given of these forthcoming amendments?

I have already said to the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee in the Scottish Parliament that I will share our amendments with it—and I will, of course, share them with Members here and encourage a full debate. However, I want a debate on substance; I do not want stunts, soundbites and press releases. I want the best for the people of Scotland.

That will not do, Secretary of State. You have been asked a very straight and clear question: will you now rule out bringing significant and substantial changes to the Scotland Bill in the unelected House of Lords? The House of Lords has never been held in such contempt by the Scottish people, who see it as nothing but a repository for the cronies of, and donors, to the UK parties. Will you rule out making significant changes through the House of Lords and do it in front of the elected Members of the House of Commons?

Order. I say very gently to the hon. Gentleman that I will rule out nothing, but I will leave it to the Secretary of State to do so. The debate runs through the Chair, and the hon. Gentleman, who is an experienced denizen of this House, should know that.

The hon. Gentleman does not listen. It was made clear repeatedly during the Committee stage of the Bill that amendments would come forward on Report and be debated in this House. The hon. Gentleman has been rumbled. He does not want to participate in a proper debate about the issues of concern to the people of Scotland; he is interested in press releases and stunts.

My party has submitted more than 80 amendments to the Scotland Bill, more than all the other parties in the House combined. The Secretary of State has said today that he will listen, and will return to the House with amendments to the Bill. May I ask which of Labour’s amendments he will be accepting?

I will be reflecting on the amendments that Labour has tabled. Some were tabled in a constructive way, while others were obviously tabled in a partisan way. I will reflect on amendments to the Bill that are in the interests of the people of Scotland.

New research conducted by the House of Commons Library, which I am releasing today, shows that the average family in Scotland working full time on the so-called national living wage will be more than £1,800 a year worse off after the Budget. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has said that the Budget has

“the potential to be just as damaging as the ‘bedroom tax’.”

Will the Government therefore accept Labour’s amendment to the Scotland Bill that would give the Scottish Government the power to design a welfare system fit for the Scottish people?

I believe that the substantial welfare powers in the Bill, which constitute responsibilities worth £2.5 billion, will give the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament a significant say in welfare arrangements in Scotland. What we need to hear from the SNP is exactly what sort of welfare system it intends to introduce, and, most important, who is going to pay for it.

Gaming Machines

6. What assessment he has made of the potential effects in Scotland of the devolution of decisions on varying the number of applications for new gaming machines where the maximum stake is above £10. (900936)

The Scotland Bill will give Scottish Ministers the power to vary the number of high-stakes gaming machines for new betting premises in Scotland. It is now for those Minsters to set out their policy intent.

Fixed odds betting terminals are a plague on poor communities—they are known as the crack cocaine of gambling. Why is it acceptable for the Government to devolve that power to Scotland but not to local authorities like mine, which, along with 93 other authorities, has tabled a request for action from the Department for Communities and Local Government?

I know that the hon. Gentleman feels very strongly abut this issue, and I know that he and, indeed, others tabled amendments relating to it during the Committee stage of the Bill. I am definitely reflecting on it.

Horseracing depends on its income from betting shops—that is, the money that they pay for picture rights. Has the Secretary of State made any assessment of the impact that this decision will have on funding for horseracing?

The view of the all-party Smith commission was that the proliferation of betting terminals was not good for Scotland, that it needed to be dealt with, and that the Scottish Government were best placed to deal with it. That is the measure that we are implementing.

The draft clause would provide a power to restrict the number of FOBTs only when a new betting premise licence was being sought. The Law Society of Scotland has proposed that the clause should be amended to include existing and new premises. Will the Minister at least concede that to the Scottish Parliament?

I think I said in my earlier answer that we had not reached those amendments on that day of the Committee stage, but I am reflecting seriously on them.

Public Expenditure

7. What estimate he has made of the level of public expenditure per person in Scotland in each of the last three years. (900937)

The latest edition of the Country and Regional Analysis calculates that in 2013-14 total identifiable expenditure on services in Scotland was 15% higher than the UK average. Once the Smith agreement has been implemented, changes in Scottish Government funding will increasingly come from changes in Scottish taxes rather than as a result of the Barnett formula.

If we translate that into English, we find that more than £2,000 less per person is spent on people in the east midlands—including my constituents in Wellingborough—than is spent on people in Scotland, yet my constituents pay exactly the same taxes. Does the Minister think that that is fair and just?

There is no consensus on what the solution should be. The Barnett formula has been in place for some time. In future, however, more than 50% of funding will come from Scottish taxes rather than from the block grant, and the Barnett formula will therefore become less important over time.

The Government are very keen to focus on public spending, but not so keen to talk about tax contributions. People in Scotland have paid more, on average, for more than three decades. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the public expenditure cuts in Scotland, on top of the tax credit cuts for working people, will mean that the poorest in those communities will suffer the most? Given that Scotland has rejected the Secretary of State’s austerity programme, when will he give the Scottish Parliament powers to choose a different path?

We are giving the Scottish Parliament the powers to follow a different route. Perhaps it is time the SNP explained how it would use those powers, rather than constantly complaining about wanting more powers. On hurting the poorest, full fiscal autonomy, which would cost the Scottish people £10 billion a year, would hurt the poorest in Scotland.


8. How many young people aged between 16 and 24 in Scotland are not in employment, education or training; and if he will make a statement. (900939)

Latest figures show that the number of NEETs aged 16 to 19 in Scotland in 2014 is down by over 8,000 to its lowest level since comparable records began in 2004.

Figures from the Scottish Government show that 59,000 young people are unemployed in Scotland, the largest number for any age group, and many are not able to access either a job or training. What is being done to address that?

The hon. Lady raises a valid point, and the Department for Work and Pensions has helped young people in Scotland through a range of initiatives such as the new enterprise allowance and sector-based work academies as well as the Work programme. I am pleased to take further the Chancellor’s announcement in last week’s Budget that the Government are determined to support young people in Scotland and across the UK by introducing a youth obligation.

The Minister will be aware of Scottish Government plans to increase the number of modern apprenticeship places in Scotland to 30,000. How will the new apprenticeship levy announced in the Budget operate? Will it deliver additional resources to the Scottish Government to invest in apprenticeships, and does the Minister have an estimate of how much new money will be available?

The details of the policy will come forward in due course, but it is commendable that across the UK this Government are supporting the creation of 3 million new additional apprenticeships, which just goes to show that we are investing in our young people and supporting them as they get closer to the employment market.

Smith Commission

We are making good progress in implementing in full the all-party Smith commission agreement. The Scotland Bill, which will deliver significantly increased powers to the Scottish Parliament, was introduced on the first day of this parliamentary Session and has just completed four days of intense scrutiny on the Floor of this House.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the progress of the Smith commission recommendations shows that the three main Unionist parties are fulfilling their commitment to devolve further powers to Scotland, and that it is therefore unacceptable for others to seek baseless grievances to create the impression of some betrayal to further their own narrow political agenda?

I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. This week more than any other the narrow opportunism of the SNP has been exposed. The only issue on which that party is consistent is breaking up the United Kingdom, on which it will say or do anything.

At business questions on 2 July the Leader of the House stated:

“Independent assessments say we are implementing the Smith commission report”—[Official Report, 2 July 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1633.]

To date the Scottish Secretary has been unable to produce these. Will he now name those independent assessments or ask his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to correct his previous statement?

I am confident in the statements I have made throughout the passage of this Bill. I did not see the hon. Lady contributing in Committee or on Second Reading, but, if she had, she would have heard me say that I am absolutely confident that this Bill will deliver the Smith commission in full.

Trade Union Reform

As part of the trade union reform process, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Ministers will invite the Scottish Trades Union Congress to discuss the Bill. This Government are committed to modernising trade union law. The Trade Union Bill to be introduced later today will introduce a balanced package to ensure working people are not disrupted by strikes without sufficient mandates.

The Minister confirms that the largest part of Scottish civic society has not yet been consulted on the Bill. Is that perhaps characteristic of a Government with a casual approach to legislation, or is it simply an ideological attack on those who stand up against exploitation?

In contrast to the bluster, we are all about reforming and modernising trade union rules and, as I have just stated, BIS Ministers will invite the Scottish Trades Union Congress to discuss the Bill further.