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Volume 639: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2018

The Secretary of State was asked—

Ties with the Rest of the UK

The United Kingdom is the vital Union for Scotland, and this Government will always work to strengthen the integrity of the UK. That includes working closely and constructively with the Scottish Government. But I was disappointed that, unlike the Welsh Government, Nicola Sturgeon has been unwilling to agree our proposed amendments to clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. The Welsh Government have said that this is a deal that respects devolution. They have said:

“This is a deal we can work with which has required compromise on both sides.”

I absolutely agree, and I continue to hope that the Scottish Government will join us.

I share my right hon. Friend’s disappointment and surprise that the SNP Administration in Edinburgh have been unable to reach agreement with the Government. I ask him to work with those people in the devolved Government in Edinburgh who are willing to reach agreement to ensure that we put the politics of division behind us and work together so that we can move the conversation on for our constituents.

I absolutely agree. I was certainly very disappointed that the Scottish Government, despite sharing the same concerns as the Welsh Government, decided not to agree with this approach. We will of course continue to have a constructive dialogue with the Scottish Government, and I want to put it on the record that Mike Russell, the Scottish Minister, has put a lot of personal effort and commitment into getting this over the line, and I still hope that his Government will join him in reaching that agreement in the coming weeks.

In the interests of facilitating negotiations, will the Secretary of State confirm whether the Lords will be asked to agree to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill on Third Reading before the Scottish Parliament has had time to consider a legislative consent memorandum?

What will happen is that today the UK Government will table an amendment to clause 11 of the withdrawal Bill in the House of Lords, on the basis agreed with the Welsh Government, and on the basis offered to the Scottish Government. The intergovernmental agreement accompanying the clause will also be published.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has taken a close interest in this matter. Is he aware that we will be travelling to Edinburgh on Sunday, for hearings on Monday on the matter? I invite him to feel less disappointment and more hope, because the SNP Government have always insisted that their interests are aligned with those of the Welsh Government. Can we give the Scottish Government time to reflect on the fact that the Welsh Government now support the UK Government’s position, and that they might wish to do so in future?

I am sure that the Committee will be made very welcome in Edinburgh. Anything that it can do to focus Nicola Sturgeon’s mind on what has been offered, and what the Welsh Government have been able to sign up to, given that it protects the devolution settlement, will be very welcome. I hope that Nicola Sturgeon will think again.

May I first place on the record my congratulations to the Scottish Commonwealth games team on their success in Melbourne?

Coming back to the task in hand, it has been widely reported that Mike Russell was happy with the amendment and agreed to the deal, before being overruled by Nicola Sturgeon. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether there was an agreement on this issue from the Scottish Government at any point during the process?

What I can confirm is that there were extensive negotiations on the proposal, which has ultimately been agreed with the Welsh Government, and the Scottish Government were actively involved in those discussions. To be fair to Mike Russell, he has never led us to believe that there was any decision maker in the Scottish Government other than Nicola Sturgeon.

Order. These exchanges are rather ponderous. I am sorry, but we really need to speed up, because we have a lot of questions to get through. Let us get on with it.

I thank the Secretary of State for that non-response. The Labour party anticipated that political games would be played with the constitution. It is time for the people of Scotland to know exactly what has been going on behind closed doors, so will he tell me the truth and shame the devil, and agree to publish the minutes of all meetings and conversations between the Scottish and UK Governments and any member of the Conservative party or the SNP on clause 11?

What we will publish is the clause and the intergovernmental agreement that goes along with it, which is what the Welsh Government have signed up to. That is what was on the table for the Scottish Government to agree. It remains on the table.

The SNP’s Brexit Minister, Mike Russell, said that he could not envisage a situation in which Scotland would be content and Wales would not be, or vice versa. Those words ring hollow today. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Nicola Sturgeon’s belligerence in snubbing an agreement on clause 11 reminds us that the SNP believes in independence, manufactured grievance and a narrow nationalist agenda, which will always come before the good of the country?

Some people might conclude, given that Mike Russell did say that the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government were in exactly the same position, that there might be just one issue where there is a difference. That difference is that the Welsh Government believe in devolution and the Scottish Government believe in independence.

Does the Secretary of State think that taking the Scottish Parliament to court to overturn the democratic decision of that Parliament will help to strengthen the ties between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

For the first time ever, I probably agree with the Secretary of State. It comes as no surprise to us that Welsh Labour has so easily capitulated to the Tories on this issue. We will never stop defending the integrity of our Parliament, and we will never allow the Tories to diminish our Parliament’s powers. We will not allow that to happen. Is it the case with these amendments that, if the Scottish Parliament does not give its consent in these devolved areas within its responsibilities, the UK Government will simply overrule our democratic Parliament again? Is that what is going to happen?

I read recently on the hon. Gentleman’s blog that the SNP should stop talking nonsense. He needs to take his own advice. Our position is still clear: we want to secure the agreement of the Scottish Government to our proposals in relation to clause 11. We have been very clear. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office has been clear. Our door is open. We hope that we will have direct discussions with the Scottish Government next week, and we hope that they will change their position and sign up, as the Welsh Government have, to proposals that protect the devolution settlement.

Leaving the EU: Scottish Exports

From funding UK Export Finance support to re-establishing the Board of Trade, the UK Government are working to support all Scottish businesses that are looking to export or expand their operations abroad.

The Scottish borders have a number of industries with international reach, including the textiles industry, which is a global player in fashion. There is also an international market for food and drink from the borders, and indeed from across Scotland. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that producers of textiles and of food and drink in the borders and across Scotland will be taken account of as part of the Brexit negotiations so that they can take advantage of the opportunities that Brexit presents?

My hon. Friend is always a champion for the businesses in the borders, and I can of course give him that reassurance. We are talking to producers in the borders, across Scotland and indeed across the UK to ensure that they can make the most of the opportunities around the world as we leave the EU.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his response. Will he encourage the Secretary of State for International Trade to meet seafood processors during his visit to Aberdeen next month?

Scottish seafood is rightly famous around the world. I was pleased that my hon. Friend could join me earlier this month when I met the Scottish Seafood Association to discuss the impact of the EU exit. As I said then, there are growing opportunities for the sector in Scotland, and I would of course be happy both to meet the fish processing industry myself and to encourage my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade to do so.

Consistently, reports have said that Aberdeen is set to be hit the worst by Brexit, not least because of the number of incredibly successful exporting businesses we have. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that we stay in the single market and the customs union to protect businesses in Aberdeen?

The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that the Secretary of State for International Trade is visiting Aberdeen. We recognise Aberdeen’s great exporting tradition, which is why we want to ensure that there are opportunities for Aberdeen’s businesses around the world. This Government will not sign up to a customs union so that we can negotiate free trade agreements that allow businesses to take advantage of those opportunities.

The Netherlands has overtaken the USA as Scotland’s biggest export market, which demonstrates the increasing importance of EU trade to the Scottish economy. The Secretary of State should be representing the voices and interests of Scotland in the Cabinet. With respect, he did not answer the question of the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) about the single market, because representing Scotland’s interests can only mean arguing for continued membership of the single market.

I respect the Liberal Democrats’ position that they want to stay in the EU and, indeed, to stop the UK and Scotland leaving the EU, but a decision has been made across the United Kingdom that it will leave the EU. It is now incumbent on this Government to negotiate the best possible terms for that departure. The Government have made it absolutely clear that we will not be part of a customs union and will look to negotiate our own bespoke free trade agreement with the EU.

Renewable Energy Sector

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on supporting the renewable energy sector in Scotland. (904846)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has regular discussions with colleagues on a range of issues, including the renewable energy sector in Scotland. The Government remain committed to a thriving renewables industry across the UK, and Scotland is a central part of that, with up to £557 million of support being made available for new generation projects.

Given that we are an island, wave and tidal energy should be a priority for this Government. However, due to the allocation of funding through the contracts for difference scheme, wave and tidal energy have never secured funding, as they cannot compete financially with more established technologies. Will the Secretary of State undertake to review the way those allocations are carried out and consider allocating a specific pot to less established technologies?

In previous rounds of contracts for difference, Scottish projects won 11 of the 25 contracts. On the specific point the hon. Lady makes, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has committed to raise the issue with the Minister responsible and will come back to her on that.

Recently, I visited the community hydro scheme in Callander, which is a first-class project that makes the best of our Scottish rain—there will be no shortage of that in the short term or the long term. What encouragement can the Department give to Scotland’s hydro energy businesses?

The next round of contracts for difference is expected in the spring of next year. That is an opportunity for new and innovative schemes to come forward for grants, and I suggest that an application be made.

Social Media Consultancies

The Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland does not currently use social media consultancies and has not done so in the past.

Freedom of information requests published by The Ferret show that one advertising campaign from the Scotland Office targeted small business owners solely in the Secretary of State’s Dumfriesshire constituency. Did he direct his officials in the Department to target his own constituency specifically?

There are very clear rules in relation to such matters. If the hon. Gentleman has any specific suggestion to make, he should take them up through that process.

It must be more than a coincidence that the Scotland Office did a very targeted Facebook campaign in the Secretary of State’s own constituency, excluding cohorts such as those with an interest in Scottish independence, so can he tell the House when he knew that his Department was using social media to target his constituents only?

I have clearly answered the point that the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), raised, and if he has specific suggestions that the very clear rules under which the Government operate have been breached, I would like to hear them. But it is very clear, for example, that the Scottish Government target specific audiences, and if he is saying that they do not, I would be very surprised to hear that.

We have been told that the Scotland Office published numerous Facebook posts to coincide with Government visits, but it appears that only the posts relating to the Secretary of State’s constituency received a financial boost. If that is the case and the Scotland Office is seen to be micro-targeting tailored Facebook adverts only on voters in his constituency, does he consider that a misuse of taxpayers’ money and an abuse of power?

The hon. Gentleman does have a track record of asking questions when he does not know what the answer is going to be. I return very clearly to the point that, if there are specific suggestions that the code under which the Government operate has been breached, they should be made and taken forward in the proper way. But if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the Scottish Government do not target specific individuals with their material, he is misleading this House.

Well, if the hon. Gentleman were suggesting it, he would be, but he is not, so he is not. I am sure that the SNP is not accusing the Secretary of State of impropriety, as that would be the wrong thing to do on the Floor of the Chamber, but equally, I am sure that the Secretary of State is not making any accusation of impropriety.

Cambridge Analytica claimed yesterday that the SNP’s involvement with it was far more than Nicola Sturgeon has previously claimed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the SNP should be far more open and honest about its involvement with Cambridge Analytica, particularly with its own MPs?

Mr Speaker, I might well agree, but as I am sure you would tell me, I am not responsible for the SNP.

Did my right hon. Friend share my interest in the answers provided to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) by Cambridge Analytica yesterday, in the most recent hearing, and does he agree that it is important that the separatists are equally open about how they have used these consultancies?

What I agree with, and this is not necessarily the forum, is that the SNP has a very great many questions to answer about its involvement with Cambridge Analytica. Perhaps Mr Peter Murrell, when he deigns to speak to the MP group, will answer some of those questions for them.

It is rather ironic that the SNP submitted this question en masse, given its subsequent unwillingness to offer basic transparency over the party’s dealings with Cambridge Analytica, but I hope that today the Secretary of State can be more transparent than the SNP has been. While his Government decimate public services, his Department is spending £50,000 on targeted social media, so can he tell us what data the Scotland Office gathered on the public and whether he believes that this was an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money?

The Scotland Office did not gather data on the public. We used established methods of advertising effectively on Facebook. If the hon. Gentleman pays attention to some of the debates and discussions in this House, he will know that many people now gain information through social media, so in terms of the Scotland Office fulfilling its obligation to the people of Scotland about what the Government and the Scotland Office are doing, social media is a perfectly appropriate channel to do it through.

Leaving the EU: Effect on Scotland

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Prime Minister on the effect of the UK leaving the EU on Scotland. (904850)

13. What recent discussions he has had with the Prime Minister on the effect of the UK leaving the EU on Scotland. (904858)

I have regular discussions with the Prime Minister and Cabinet colleagues. The UK is committed to securing a deal that works for all parts of the UK, including Scotland.

The Home Office cap on tier 2 visas has been reached in each of the last four months, meaning that applications are now being prioritised according to the salary offered. As a result, the average salary now needed has risen from £30,000 to £55,000, meaning that the majority of such visas are likely to end up in high-income areas such as London, as companies in Scotland, and indeed the NHS, cannot simply double their salaries. Does the Secretary of State not accept that we in Scotland need our own immigration system so that we can recruit high-skilled professionals for our industries and NHS?

I do not accept that Scotland needs its own immigration system, and it was clear at the time of the Smith Commission agreement that immigration would not be devolved, but I will look into the specific issue the hon. Lady has raised.

The Secretary of State’s Government have repeatedly talked the talk about a partnership of equals, so will he explain where on earth is the equity and partnership in proposals that the Westminster Parliament be able to restrict the Scottish Parliament’s powers for up to seven years without its consent?

As I made clear earlier, the UK Government are committed to working with the Scottish Government, but we are not just partners; what the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues cannot accept is that Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, and that is the nature of the agreement we have reached, which the Welsh Government say protects the devolution settlement.

The SNP asked the Secretary of State countless times whether amendments to clause 11 of the EU withdrawal Bill would be tabled to protect devolution, and time and again he promised that they would. The Scottish Government have drafted amendments and provided proposals, but the Westminster Government have ignored all of them. Is this not just another broken Tory promise to Scotland?

I am sure that question looked better written down than it sounded. The Welsh Government, who Mike Russell only last week said were fully aligned with the Scottish Government’s purpose and requirements, have made it clear that the amendment we are lodging to the EU withdrawal Bill protects the devolution settlement.

East Renfrewshire has a vibrant business community, but only 75 of its businesses have more than 20 employees, and by far their most important market is the rest of the UK. What reassurances can my right hon. Friend give them that as the UK leaves the EU they will have seamless access to the rest of the UK?

The debate on clause 11 arose because of the importance to businesses in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland of retaining that UK market, which is why we place such importance on getting that right. I believe our amendment does just that.

The hon. Gentleman is in danger of setting a precedent against repetition in the House of Commons, but it is an isolated case. I am grateful to him.

Two thirds of the UK’s jobs in financial and professional services are outside London and many are in Scotland. Reuters estimates that 5,000 jobs in financial services might move because of Brexit. What advice has the Secretary of State been given about how this could affect jobs in Scotland?

The hon. Lady is right. It is very important that everyone is clear that financial services are not just in the City of London but are hugely important in Scotland and the other constituent parts of the UK. That is why we are fighting for a good deal from the EU on financial services.

Leaving the EU: Scottish Economy

7. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on the Scottish economy of the UK leaving the EU without an agreement in place. (904851)

We want our future relationship with the EU to be a deep and special partnership that takes in both economic and security co-operation. We are confident that this is in the interests of both sides, so we approach these negotiations anticipating success. We do not want or expect a no deal outcome.

In its year-end report, the Fraser of Allander Institute pointed to uncertainty over Brexit as one of the principal drags on the Scottish economy. The people of Scotland are fed up with the ongoing pantomime that is the relationship between the Scottish Tories and the SNP. What meetings has the Secretary of State had with the Scottish Government on clause 11, and how does he intend to bring this farce to a close?

I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it very clear that we want the Scottish Government to agree to the clause 11 amendment as the Welsh Government have. The Welsh Government have accepted that the UK Government have gone a long way, and I hope that the Scottish Government are listening and will take part.

Does the Minister agree that the most important way of mitigating the disastrous effects of Brexit in Scotland would be an agreement between the two Governments? Will he encourage the Scottish Government to stop their constitutional posturing and think about what the people actually want?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. She has made a very important point. The Welsh Government have accepted that this is a sensible way forward, and it is time that Scotland did exactly the same.

Universal Credit: Low-Income Families

10. What assessment he has made of the effect on low-income families of the roll-out of universal credit in Scotland. (904854)

Universal credit is transforming lives across the country. Research shows that universal credit claimants spend more time searching and applying for work than those on previous benefits. There are now more than 100,000 fewer workless households in Scotland than there were seven years ago.

The Trussell Trust reports that there was a 17% increase in food bank use in Scotland last year. Could that be linked in any way to universal credit?

I think it is widely accepted that there are many reasons why people use food banks, and many different issues. Even the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty has accepted that. We have rolled out universal credit slowly and made changes when we have considered them to be necessary, and we continue to do so.

Ayrshire Growth Deal

I am sure the hon. Lady will join me in welcoming the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when she visited Ayr and said that the UK Government were opening talks to deliver such a deal.

Given that the Secretary of State has told me on the Floor of the House that he shares my frustration at the lack of progress on the deal, and given that the Prime Minister has now committed herself to it publicly, will he finally, at long last, for the love of God, give us a timetable?

I think that somewhere in the hon. Lady’s question there was a note of positivity about the fact that the UK Government have committed themselves to taking the deal forward. We are working closely with the local authorities and other partners on a timetable.

The timing of the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) could be improved, as I tried to call him a few moments ago, but I am in a generous mood. Let us hear the fella.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the city and growth deals that cover the vast majority of Scotland are a great example of what can be achieved when Governments and authorities work closely together rather than picking a fight with one another?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Let me add that it is his disposition—his bonhomie—that takes deals and arrangements forward, rather than the negativity and hostility of some.