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Volume 607: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2016

The Secretary of State was asked—

Golf (Economic Contribution)

1. If he will estimate the contribution of golf to the economy in Scotland in the last 12 months. (904200)

May I begin by expressing the solidarity of the people of Scotland with the people of Belgium at this difficult time? Our thoughts, prayers and condolences go to the families and friends of all those who were killed and, indeed, everyone caught up in yesterday’s horrific events.

Golf makes a huge contribution to Scotland’s economy. Independent analysis in 2013 showed that the game contributes more than £1 billion in revenues and supports some 20,000 jobs. There are almost 600 golf courses across the country, generating annual revenues of £582 million.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, and I very much share his sentiments of solidarity towards the people of Belgium at this very difficult time.

Given the success that my right hon. Friend talks about in relation to golf in Scotland, what steps is he taking to try to secure further investment in this very important industry for Scotland?

One new opportunity to support golf and young people in golf arose in last week’s Budget: the sugar tax element of the Budget will see investment in sport in schools in the wider UK. I hope the Scottish Government will follow through on that and use those funds to develop sport in schools, including golf—a very popular sport, as I have said. This year, we also have the opportunity to present Scotland’s golfing merits to the wider world during the British Open at Royal Troon. It will be a showcase for the world of Scotland’s golfing opportunities.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for mentioning my local golf course; I am the MP for Royal Troon, and we look forward to welcoming people in July.

Will the Secretary of State discuss with Front-Bench colleagues a regional strategy for smaller airports—at Prestwick, people fly in over Royal Troon—and, while the Chancellor is in a listening mood, will they consider a VAT reduction for rural tourism, which would help many constituencies across the UK?

I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss those issues further. I am also very interested in pursuing the proposed Ayrshire regional growth deal, which, in promoting tourism in that part of Scotland, will have golf at its heart.

May I add my contribution on this topic by saying that it was with pleasure, last week, that I saw the Secretary of State sharing a platform with the First Minister, who I am sure raised the topic we are discussing? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that is an example of the two Governments working together in the interests of the people of Scotland?

Mr Speaker, you will be pleased to hear that the First Minister and I met and shared a platform in St Andrews, which is of course the world home of golf. On sport, as on any matter, Scotland of course does best when Scotland’s two Governments work together.

This is the first opportunity in Parliament to put on the record our total revulsion at and condemnation of the terrorist atrocities in Brussels, as well as our solidarity with everybody affected. We join the Secretary of State for Scotland in that.

The promotion of the Ryder cup in Scotland was a huge achievement for the Scottish Government and the then First Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond). Today is the last sitting day of the Scottish Parliament. Given that he is standing down from Holyrood, may I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his remarkable tenure as an MSP and as First Minister, and pay tribute to all other MSPs from all parties who are retiring? Does the Secretary of State agree that there is much that can be built on following the success of the Ryder cup? How does he plan to contribute to that?

I am sure that that was a courteous tribute, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not object if I say that the first part of his question was way off the fairway.

Securing the Ryder cup to be held in Scotland was a significant event. I agree that the former First Minister of Scotland has made a remarkable contribution to Scottish politics, although the right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) and I will probably differ on the detail of that. What the former First Minister and many MSPs who are standing down—I also pay tribute to them—have done, and what we all need to do, is promote Scotland together, because that is when we get the best results for Scotland.

I will try to remain on the fairway, Mr Speaker.

Tourism is one of Scotland’s most important industries, and golf and whisky are key drivers for people visiting the country. Does the Secretary of State welcome local initiatives better to promote iconic Scottish regions and locations, such as Speyside? What encouragement would he give to public and private sector partners in making the most of Scotland’s world-class potential as a tourism draw?

I am aware of the initiatives to promote Speyside, having recently visited the right hon. Gentleman’s picturesque constituency, and I wish them well. Such opportunities reach their full potential only with significant public and private sector partners playing a full part, and I look forward to hearing about progress from Speyside and other regions of Scotland that are making the most of that potential.

North Sea Oil and Gas

2. What discussions he has had with representatives of the North Sea oil and gas industry on UK Government support for that sector. (904201)

Ministers and officials have meetings with a wide variety of organisations in the public and private sectors, including the oil and gas industry. Last week, the Chancellor announced a further package of reforms to support jobs and investment in the oil and gas sector. That will help the industry respond to the challenging commercial conditions caused by the steep fall in oil prices.

The excellent Budget package for the oil and gas industry has certainly been welcomed by that industry. Is that another example showing that when Scotland’s two Governments work together they can get the best outcome for Scotland in the United Kingdom—something that an independent Scotland could never have achieved?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. The United Kingdom is able to absorb the shocks of the volatile oil price, and take steps to ensure that our oil and gas sector is as strong as it can be, given the low oil prices.

Will the Minister and his Front-Bench colleagues commit to taking action to ensure that companies in the oil and gas sector have appropriate access to finance at this time?

The Government do all they can to support businesses the length and breadth of the United Kingdom in all sectors. My point is that we are able to take action and support the oil and gas sector because we are the United Kingdom. Had Scotland become independent, it would be facing a very substantial loss of revenue and have great difficulties absorbing that.

Government’s Welfare Programme

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effects of the Government’s welfare programme on social and economic inequalities in Scotland. (904202)

I meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and counterpart Ministers in the Scottish Government on a regular basis to discuss devolution of welfare programmes to the Scottish Government.

Last week’s Budget saw one of the most iniquitous measures proposed by this Government, which was to cut the personal independence payment for 40,000 disabled people in Scotland. When did the Secretary of State for Scotland, and Ministers, first realise that that was the wrong thing to do? Was it around the Cabinet table, during the Budget statement or on Sunday when the Prime Minister was forced to backtrack?

The Government’s position on PIP and disability reforms is clear, and was announced by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House and the people of Scotland when he realised that those cuts were wrong, or was he planning a resignation over the weekend?

As I have said, the Government’s position has been made abundantly clear. If the hon. Gentleman missed the statement by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on Monday, I will be more than happy to share it with him again.

I start by echoing the comments of the Secretary of State and the leader of the Scottish National party, and pass on my heartfelt condolences to all those involved in the events in Brussels. We will defeat terrorism, but, as the Secretary of State said, it will take solidarity and resolve.

Last night, the House passed a Budget that was unprecedented. It contained a £4.4 billion black hole after the Chancellor was forced to reverse his decision to cut personal independence payments. The Government’s long-term economic plan is turning into a long-term economic scam. These savage cuts, following the £1,500 a year reduction in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group, affect over 60,000 Scots. Those cuts would have gone through had it not been for the resignation of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). Will the Minister guarantee that, when the Chancellor returns with revised public spending, no cuts will fall on the disabled and the most vulnerable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I welcome his comments with regard to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). The Government have been very clear that we are not proceeding with the changes and we will not be seeking an alternative offset in savings.

It is clear from that answer, and from the previous answer, that the Government now have absolutely no idea what to do. They are creating untold anxiety for the people in Scotland who are affected. Let me remind the House what the former Secretary of State said: that the cuts in the Budget risked dividing society, put pounds ahead of people and were distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest. Does the Minister agree with her former Cabinet colleague, and many on her own side, that the cuts to disabled people in Scotland are not defensible? Does she want to take this opportunity to apologise, on behalf of the Scottish Conservative party, to the tens of thousands of vulnerable and disabled Scots affected by this shambles?

I reiterate that the Government’s position is fundamentally clear: there will be no further changes to disability payments. The hon. Gentleman will have realised that last night the Budget was passed by the House. That was right and proper. He, of all people, should recognise that the Government are delivering on the Smith commission and devolving powers to the Scottish Government. We look forward to working with the Scottish Government on welfare reform and the delivery of employment and support programmes for the benefit and the betterment of the Scottish people.

Economic Trends

I regularly meet a wide range of business organisations to discuss economic issues in Scotland. As I alluded to, last week I shared a platform with the First Minister of Scotland at the annual forum of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, where we discussed the important issue of productivity.

Given that businesses in Redditch have welcomed the devolution deal for Birmingham, what representations have business groups in Scotland made to my right hon. Friend about city deals there?

I have been particularly delighted at the welcome from business groups in Scotland for the announcement yesterday of the Inverness and Highland city deal. The Scottish Government, UK Government and Highland Council will deliver a £315 million package. I welcome in particular the early-day motion from the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) and his colleagues. I pay tribute to him for his part in bringing the deal about.

The Secretary of State will be aware that about 400,000 workers in Scotland earn less than the living wage. The Government claim to be on the side of working people, so why have his Scottish Tory colleagues voted repeatedly alongside the SNP Government to thwart Scottish Labour proposals to extend the living wage?

I will resist the temptation to give the hon. Lady a lecture on the Scottish Labour party’s woes and the fact that it has not been a credible opposition to the SNP in Scotland. This Government are very, very clear on our proposals to increase the wages of the poorest in society by the introduction of the national living wage.

13. Local government clearly has a role to play in economic development. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that the Scottish Parliament also devolves power to local government? Might it look to England for a lead—on elected mayors, for example? (904213)

I very much take my hon. Friend’s comments. When I spoke with the First Minister of Scotland at the Scottish Council for Development and Industry forum last week, I was particularly encouraged by what she said about her support for city deals. I hope that the city deals we see emerging in Scotland will not just include financial packages but go on to include greater devolution within Scotland.

People in my constituency are extremely concerned about the perceived impact on the local economy and local jobs of the proposed closure of HMRC sites. What impact assessment is being made of these closures on the local economy and jobs?

Initial proposals have been set out for the future shape of HMRC. We hear repeatedly in the House about the wish to make HMRC more efficient and effective, but no steps will be taken in the hon. Lady’s constituency or elsewhere without full consultation with all those involved.

EU Membership

5. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers of the Scottish Government on UK membership of the EU. (904204)

As the First Minister and I both confirmed last week when we shared a platform in St Andrews, in the hon. Gentleman’s own constituency, the official position of both the UK and Scottish Governments is that the UK is better off in a reformed EU.

First, may I associate myself with the remarks about Brussels, having spent many happy years in that wonderful city? Secondly, the Secretary of State will be aware of the benefits that EU membership has brought us, such as paternal rights and holiday entitlement. Does he agree that we should focus on those benefits, not a rerun of “Project Fear”?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman saw the details of my speech yesterday, in which I made a positive case setting out the benefits to Scotland of our remaining in the EU, but I look forward to sharing platforms over the coming weeks with him and his colleagues to make that case.

Given that we have a £62 billion a year trade deficit with the EU, does the Secretary of State think that, were we to leave the EU, the Prime Minister would have the ability to negotiate a free trade deal with the EU?

My position is clear: I believe that Scotland and the UK are better off in the EU under the reformed arrangement that the Prime Minister has already negotiated.

14. Will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that a recent survey confirmed that the Scottish Government were one of the most trusted Governments in Europe? Does he look forward to the re-election of Nicola Sturgeon and her team so that we can continue being the most trusted Government in Europe, including beyond 23 June? (904214)

I want to ensure that Nicola Sturgeon and her team are held properly to account in the Scottish Parliament, which is why I am encouraging people to vote for Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives.

CCS Funding (Peterhead)

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and Ministers of the Scottish Government on withdrawal of funding for the carbon capture and storage scheme at Peterhead. (904205)

I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and Ministers of the Scottish Government on a number of important energy issues affecting Scotland. The most recent was last night.

The Government’s own advisers on energy and climate change have warned that the cost of meeting our climate change targets could double without Peterhead and CCS. Given that the Government are having a good run on U-turns when it comes to saving the Chancellor, perhaps they would also like to make a U-turn when it comes to saving the planet—something that people feel is far more worth while.

We are looking carefully at all options in developing our approach to CCS, informed by Lord Oxburgh’s CCS advisory group. In parallel, the Government continue to engage with the CCS industry—including Shell, which is leading the proposed Peterhead project.

At the time of the announcement of £1 billion of funding for the CCS scheme at Peterhead, the Energy Secretary was forced to deny that it was a bribe prior to the independence referendum. Now that the withdrawal of this supposedly ring-fenced capital investment exposes it as just that, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to apologise today to the people of Scotland?

If anybody should apologise to the people of Scotland, it is the hon. Lady and her friends for suggesting that oil tomorrow would have a price of $103 a barrel. What is clear in relation to CCS is that the costs are high and must come down. We have not ruled CCS out, and we are committed to working with the industry to bring forward innovative ideas for reducing the cost of this potentially important industry.

I am reluctant to refer to the Budget because we cannot be absolutely sure what is in and what is out. For example, the Chancellor’s support for the oil and gas industry is welcome, but it does not take us very far forward. Unfortunately, it appears that the Government here in London are taking their cue from the Government in Holyrood. There, the SNP Government recently axed £10 million of tax breaks for renewable firms, yet they like to see themselves as a green Administration. Are we not seeing two Governments who are confused, pursuing contradictory policies, and not knowing whether they are coming or going?

I can point out one distinct difference between this Government and any Labour Scottish Government, or indeed SNP Scottish Government—and that is that we are not putting up tax for ordinary people as both those parties propose. We have made it very clear that the door is not closed on CCS, but the costs must come down.

Scotland Bill (Fiscal Powers)

7. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on commencement of the fiscal powers in the Scotland Bill. (904206)

The UK and Scottish Governments have met 10 times under the Joint Exchequer Committee since the election last year. These discussions resulted last month in the agreement of a new fiscal framework for the Scottish Government. Agreement on the fiscal framework enables us to deliver on the vow we made to the Scottish people and delivers one of the most powerful and accountable devolved Parliaments in the world, with the economic and national security that comes from being part of the UK.

Does the Minister agree that it would be bad news for Scotland if it became the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom? Does he agree with Ruth Davidson MSP that Scottish taxpayers should not have to pay any more in tax than fellow Britons in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

The Scottish people have essentially three choices in their elections. Two of them—voting Labour or SNP—would involve paying more in income tax.

Does the Minister agree with me about the Chancellor’s reckless, last-minute intervention to tweak the fiscal framework after it had been agreed by the Treasury and the Scottish Government? Is the Minister aware that the Chancellor’s brinkmanship intentions endangered the framework at the very last moment?

The answer is no. An agreement has been reached. We are pleased that we have that agreement, and now it is for the Scottish Government to be held accountable by the Scottish people.

Budget Measures: Scotland

8. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effect on Scotland of measures announced in the Budget. (904207)

The Chancellor has delivered a budget that delivers for Scotland. This will be the last Budget where a UK Chancellor sets out income tax rates and thresholds for Scottish earners. The changes to the income tax personal allowance will benefit 2.6 million taxpayers in Scotland. The Budget delivers on our plans to build a stronger Scottish economy as part of the UK and put the next generation first.

I congratulate the Minister on finding the Chancellor to have those discussions—earlier this week, we thought he had gone walkabout! The Budget had £1 billion-worth of cuts to the Scottish budget and £650 million-worth of cuts to the English NHS. Given the volte-face on social security cuts, does he think he could persuade the Chancellor to reverse Scotland’s cuts and put in a good word for the English NHS as well?

Let me remind the House that there were three asks from the SNP: a freeze in whisky fuel duty, a freeze in fuel duty, and help for the oil and gas industry. That is exactly what the Chancellor delivered.

12. Did the Secretary of State discuss with the Chancellor the merits of an £8.5 billion corporation tax cut and a £6 billion giveaway in capital gains and inheritance tax versus those of a proposed £4 billion cut in payments to the disabled, and how that would affect people in Scotland, or did he sit there and do what he was telt yet again? (904212)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that 73,000 businesses in Scotland will benefit from the cut in corporation tax. Is he saying that he opposes that?