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Volume 647: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2018

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: Devolution

1. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament upon the UK leaving the EU. (907020)

3. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament upon the UK leaving the EU. (907022)

6. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament upon the UK leaving the EU. (907025)

9. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament upon the UK leaving the EU. (907028)

12. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament upon the UK leaving the EU. (907031)

13. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament upon the UK leaving the EU. (907032)

The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 confirmed that, where EU law intersects with devolved competence, those powers will flow directly to the devolved Administrations on exit day. This means that over 100 powers will go directly to the Scottish Parliament. We are also continuing to make progress in establishing common frameworks, which the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) discussed last week.

The Secretary of State is turning a blind eye to the depopulation crisis facing rural Scotland. His Government’s refusal even to consider devolving immigration powers to the Scottish Parliament will cause further damage to these fragile communities. Will he explain to the people and businesses in my constituency how ending freedom of movement will help to solve that depopulation crisis?

The Smith commission, which was supported by the Scottish National party at the time, determined that immigration would not be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I am acutely aware of issues surrounding depopulation and the demographic challenges. Indeed, I heard them mentioned directly in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Migration is one part of the issue but, as I heard in his constituency, matters such as transport and housing are another part.

Is it not in fact the case that, by reappropriating powers to this Parliament without them going to Holyrood, he is the Secretary of State presiding over the biggest power grab since devolution began—not further devolution? Was his colleague Adam Tomkins correct this morning when he said that

“Scottish Tories are unionists first and Conservatives second”?

They never wanted the Scottish Parliament to succeed and now they are using Brexit to undermine it.

It is very clear that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues want to break up our United Kingdom. I will defend our United Kingdom until my last breath.

Not only have the Government taken the Scottish Government to court for trying to protect their own devolved powers; the Secretary of State is now saying that any measures offered to Scotland to reflect the overwhelming remain vote would cause him to consider his own position—a position confirmed this morning by Adam Tomkins as no idle threat made in the heat of the moment. Is he really surprised, therefore, that the Scottish people see this blatant Tory power grab for what it is, and will he follow through on his threat to go, and go now?

I make no apology for making it absolutely clear that the integrity of the United Kingdom is a red line for me and my Scottish Conservative colleagues in any deal on leaving the EU, and the position is exactly the same for our Prime Minister. I know that the preference of SNP Members would be a Brexit of the most disruptive kind, which they see as best able to take forward their cause.

The Migration Advisory Committee accepts the dangers to Scotland’s labour force and economy under the current UK system. Sixty-four per cent. of Scottish voters now want to see immigration policy devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Given that we have seen the reality of the cruel system that the UK Government have implemented, why not give the Scottish Parliament the right to do things differently?

I made it clear in my earlier response that, when these matters were considered in depth by the Smith commission, it was agreed that immigration would not be devolved. At the recent Confederation of British Industry Scotland dinner, which was attended by the First Minister of Scotland, the director general of CBI Scotland made it clear that business did not support the devolution of immigration and having a separate immigration policy in Scotland.

If the Secretary of State really believes that he is “fighting Scotland’s corner”, as he said in Holyrood Magazine, why is he supporting an Agriculture Bill that will remove powers from the Scottish Parliament, and simultaneously failing to honour Tory promises on funding made to Scottish farmers?

Obviously, the hon. Lady did not see yesterday’s announcement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that there is going to be a review of convergence funding. No powers on agriculture are being removed from the Scottish Parliament, but there is a complete and utter lack of policy from the Scottish Government in relation to Scottish agriculture. They have brought forward no proposals for post-Brexit agriculture in Scotland.

Given the non-answers so far, can the Secretary of State tell us whether there are any circumstances in which he would support the devolution of powers to protect Scotland’s interests after Brexit—or is it the case, given his threats to resign, that he would rather resign his own position than support any measure aimed at ensuring that Scotland is protected from a hard, right-wing Tory Brexit?

As far as I am aware, there is only one party in this Parliament that has so far declared that it will support a no-deal Brexit, and that is the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon was very clear on Monday—[Interruption.]

Order. The Secretary of State has been asked a question. He is answering the question. In that context, a lot of finger pointing is, at the very least, discourteous to the Secretary of State.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As you may be aware, on Monday, Nicola Sturgeon made it clear that she will order SNP MPs in this Parliament to vote for a no-deal Brexit. What they have to decide between now and then is whether they will blindly follow her through the Lobby or truly stand up for Scotland.

With reference to the fairy tale of a power grab, more than 100 powers that are currently held in Brussels are to be transferred to Holyrood after breakfast—after Brexit, I mean. The sooner the better! Does my right hon. Friend agree that, far from removing powers from Scotland, leaving the EU will actually give the Scottish Parliament far more powers?

I will certainly use my best endeavours to ensure that those powers are transferred as soon after breakfast on the day we leave the EU as possible. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Only the SNP would complain that the Scottish Parliament will have significantly more powers after we leave the EU than it does today.

There is an opportunity for the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) to come in on this question if he wants, because his question will not be reached. It is up to him.

14. Thank you, Mr Speaker. The devolution of significant amounts of welfare powers will represent a step change in the maturity of devolution in Scotland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in order for this to work for my constituents and his, it is absolutely vital that Scotland’s two Governments work together properly? (907033)

Welfare is an area where there is a very good track record of the two Governments working together. We recently met in the joint ministerial group on welfare, which I co-chair, and we will do so again in the coming weeks. People in Scotland clearly want to see that, where the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government are given additional powers, they use those powers.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that north-east Scotland, the heartland of the UK fishing industry, received just 15% of grants made by the Scottish Government under the European maritime and fisheries fund? Can he assure me that, as we leave the EU, he will work with the Scottish Government to ensure that the fishing communities in the north-east get the funding they need to make the most of the sea of opportunity?

I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s concern. As he has set out many times, as a champion of the fishing industry, it is of course the policy of the SNP Scottish Government to take Scotland right back into the common fisheries policy. It is our policy to leave the common fisheries policy but also to support the industry to take advantage of that sea of opportunity.

We will leave the hated common fisheries policy, so does my right hon. Friend agree with me and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation that Brexit can lead to a fishing boom worth up to £2.7 billion to the economy? Does he share my concern that the Scottish Government’s proposal to keep us locked into the CFP, with decisions being made in Brussels, will betray our fishermen and our coastal communities?

It is incomprehensible to me and to the nearly half a million SNP voters who voted to leave the EU that the SNP Scottish Government still propose taking Scotland back into the common fisheries policy.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that one potential devolution that the Government will never allow is for SNP Members to drag Scotland out of the UK against the will of the people, without even holding another referendum?

Mr Speaker, you have heard me say many times at the Dispatch Box that I want a second independence referendum taken off the table. What I did not mean was the solution of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), which is that independence could somehow be declared without a referendum.

Holyrood will gain powers over agriculture after Brexit, but the Scottish Government have decided not to put a schedule into the Agriculture Bill. That is offensive and disrespectful to not only Scottish farmers, but my farmers in Northumberland who have cross-border farms. It will be incredibly difficult for them. Will my right hon. Friend support me in trying to encourage the Scottish Government to put a schedule into the Bill?

I think everybody outwith the SNP agrees that it would be preferable to proceed with such a schedule to the Bill, but Scottish farmers who speak to me have one clear question: what is the Scottish Government’s policy for agriculture post Brexit? The answer is that we just do not know.

Over the weekend, the Secretary of State threatened to resign and almost typically managed to make a pig’s ear out of it. Apparently he was so concerned that Scotland might join Northern Ireland in an outcome that would spare us the worst Brexit excesses that he would show them and go. Surely if anything requires his resignation, it is his inability to look after and protect the devolution settlement.

The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have to look the people of Scotland in the eye and tell them why they are voting for a no-deal Brexit. Day after day, we hear from them how damaging that would be for the economy of Scotland, but on Monday Nicola Sturgeon ordered the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to vote for it. He needs to show some backbone and stand up against her.

The Smith commission was signed up to by all five parties in the Scottish Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend believe that, instead of debating powers, the SNP Government should get on and make use of the powers they already have?

It is clear that the people of Scotland want to see the extensive powers that were devolved in the Scotland Act and the powers coming forward in relation to leaving the EU used, and agriculture, as we have just discussed, is a good example. The Scottish Parliament will have those powers, but we have no idea how the Scottish Government will use them.

In the Secretary of State’s first answer, he referred to progress at the JMC on the common frameworks, which will constrain the operation of devolved powers after Brexit. Can he update the House by saying in how many areas frameworks have been agreed, which they are and by which date he expects the remainder to be completed?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, the Government are obliged to inform Parliament on those matters, and a report will be brought forward in the very near future.

It sounds as if the Secretary of State does not know. The truth is that in only four of the 24 areas have frameworks been agreed, and it is now practically impossible for the exercise to be completed by 29 March. He has threatened to resign. This is something he should resign over but, if he does not resign, will he give an assurance today to rule out the use of section 12 orders to impose frameworks against the consent of a devolved Administration?

I am seeking to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman and respectful to Parliament. The Government are obliged to bring forward a report to Parliament—that is what it wishes—in which both his first and second questions will be answered.

I ask for a moment of indulgence while I congratulate Kirkcaldy High School, which this week received the president’s award from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities as a rights-respecting UNICEF school. Well done to everyone there.

The Secretary of State claims that protecting the integrity of the UK is the most important thing to him. The invisible man in the Cabinet got a few headlines for himself this week by flip-flopping over his threat to resign: sources close to him claimed that he would resign, but he denied it yesterday. Let us be clear—is it yes or no? If there is a deal that creates a border in the Irish sea and undermines the Union, will the Secretary of State resign?

I am very surprised that the hon. Lady should touch on the issue of resignation, since her resignation from Fife Council was such an unmitigated disaster for the Scottish Labour party. Her colleagues on the Benches opposite may not be aware, but the Scottish Conservatives won her seat.

On the issue of a border down the Irish sea, it would not be acceptable to me or my Scottish Conservative colleagues.

It may have escaped the Secretary of State’s notice, but that still leaves Labour in joint control of Fife Council.

The Secretary of State and his Government have just run out of ideas when it comes to Brexit, so let me give him a bit of advice: take a step further and support Labour’s suggestion for a customs union. He says that protecting the Union is his top priority, but he was silent on English votes for English laws and he has made a mess of Brexit powers coming back to Scotland from Brussels. If he really wants to protect Scotland’s place in the UK and stop a border in the Irish sea, he should back Labour’s plan for a customs union—so will he?

What I am absolutely clear on is that, whatever kind of Brexit might be achieved, the worst possible alternative would be a Labour Government for this country.

RBS Branch Closures

2. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) on the potential effect on local communities of the proposed closure of RBS branches in Scotland. (907021)

11. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) on the potential effect on local communities of the proposed closure of RBS branches in Scotland. (907030)

With permission, I will answer Questions 2 and 11 together. Our position on branch closures is clear. These should be commercial decisions, not those for the interference of politicians, but equally, we do recognise some of the difficulties that constituents face when this occurs. That is why we support the access to banking standard, which takes a number of steps both to support and to inform customers in that situation.

RBS often says that, to make up for its pulling out of a town, the local post office will carry out the services. However, in Bonnyrigg in my constituency, the post office has shut as well, and now many businesses fear that they are going to have to close. What is the Secretary of State doing to stand up for local communities in Scotland?

The hon. Lady raises a specific case of a closure of a post office in her constituency. I believe the Post Office is engaged in that particular matter but, on the general matter of post offices, they do provide a number of financial services, supported by the banking framework agreement, such that 99% of individual customers will have access for their financial needs and 95% of businesses likewise.

The hon. Lady’s question has been grouped with Question 2, as the Minister advised, so we look forward to hearing from the hon. Lady on these important matters—she has now had time to think about it—now.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Sorry for the confusion.

Given that RBS is 63%-owned by the taxpayer and the majority of branch closures are in Scotland or the north-west of England, could the Minister tell us: what does the taxpayer get for their money if not banks and banking services?

The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of the taxpayer supporting the Royal Bank of Scotland to the tune of some tens of billions of pounds. It is right that the Government therefore expect the bank to show profitability and to come back into economic health. Our overarching principle is that the best way of achieving that is to leave commercial organisations such as the Royal Bank of Scotland to be in charge of their own affairs, rather than subject to political interference from Ministers.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was wrong of the Royal Bank of Scotland to turn its back on rural areas such as Angus, specifically when online banking is simply not viable because the SNP Government in Edinburgh have not been fast enough at rolling out broadband?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the speed of broadband roll-out. Of course, on the broadband issue, the Government in Westminster have recently made available £1 billion across the UK to stimulate market delivery of fibre and mobile coverage.

Like rural Scotland, rural Cheshire has suffered from a number of branch closures that have left constituents without access to services that can be provided only by banks. What can the Minister do to ensure that my constituents can access those services?

As I have outlined, we support the access to banking standard, but post offices have also received considerable support from this Government and are able to provide a lot of the financial services that individuals and businesses require. In rural areas, for example, 99% of residents are within three miles of the nearest post office.

PIP Reassessment Cost

4. If he will meet the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss the potential cost to the public purse of the Government’s reassessment of people who may be eligible for personal independence payments in Scotland. (907023)

The Labour party and the people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, and of Scotland, all want PIP reassessments to be scrapped immediately. They are cruel, callous and entirely inhumane. Will the Secretary of State therefore agree that they should be scrapped?

I can advise the hon. Gentleman that the Scottish Government have had legislative competence over PIP since May 2017, as part of this Government’s continued commitment to implement the Smith commission in full. At the Scottish Government’s request, the UK Government will continue to be responsible for PIP until the Scottish Government are ready.

On top of the misery that PIP reassessments are causing, by the end of the year the number of people on universal credit across Scotland will jump from 91,000 to almost half a million. The 13 Scottish Tory Members represent 82,000 people still to be moved on to universal credit, and even the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions now admits that many will find themselves worse off. Will the Secretary of State continue to let the poorest people in Scotland down, or will he have the gumption to resign unless this cliff-edge roll-out is sorted out?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman and others will have the opportunity to debate universal credit later today, but I am satisfied, in relation to my constituents in Scotland, that universal credit is the right approach that allows people to move into work, which is the best way out of poverty.

Every week, I am approached by constituents who have been threatened with having their PIP either taken away completely or reduced, which results in stress and has serious mental health impacts. Does the Secretary of State agree that the interviews are simply not fit for purpose and should be scrapped?

If the hon. Lady has specific cases, I know that the Department for Work and Pensions, which is always seeking to improve the process, will listen to what she has to say.

Scotch Whisky Industry

5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on helping to develop the Scotch whisky industry. (907024)

The Government are entirely committed to the Scottish whisky industry, which exported over 1.2 billion bottles in 2017, raising £4.3 billion for the UK economy. We have provided cuts and freezes in duty since 2013, with the result that the average bottle of Scottish whisky is now £1.19 cheaper than it would otherwise have been.

Until Brexit, the biggest threat to the growth of the Scotch whisky industry was the right hon. Gentleman’s Department using it as a cash cow. It is absolutely imperative that there is another freeze on whisky duty in the Budget. Can he confirm whether the Secretary of State for Scotland has made representations to Cabinet colleagues to call for a duty freeze?

The hon. Gentleman has entirely overlooked the considerable support that we have already provided in duty cuts and freezes since 2013—a total of £4 billion. We will continue to support that vital sector, recognising its contribution to both the economy of Scotland and that of the wider United Kingdom.

Over the past five years, the Scotch whisky industry has invested over £500 million in capital projects in Moray and across the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that shows how important a good Budget for Scotch whisky is for Scotland and the UK economy?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is another example of why we should support the Scottish whisky industry. I have received many representations, not least from Conservative Members who represent Scottish constituencies, standing up for Scottish whisky and making sure that we make the investments we need going forward.

The financial services sector is also critical for the Scottish economy and for my constituents in Edinburgh, but none of the Government’s Brexit plans mention this service sector. What can the Minister say to the financial services sector in Edinburgh, and to my constituents whose jobs depend on it, about the Government’s strategy for the service sector post Brexit?

If I interpret the question as relating to financial services specifically around whisky, Mr Speaker, the answer will be the same as for financial services generally. The Government are committed to achieving a Brexit deal with the EU27 that is in the interests of this country, that keeps trade flowing and that ensures we have an implementation period that will provide the opportunity for consistency and certainty going forward.