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Volume 674: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Strengthening the Union

Before I respond to my hon. Friend’s question, I would like, on behalf of myself, the Scottish Secretary and the Scotland Office, to express our gratitude and appreciation to everyone across Scotland and the United Kingdom who is helping to fight this virus. Under extraordinary pressure, our NHS is again demonstrating why we cherish it so dearly. So to our nurses, our doctors and all the staff at the frontline in the NHS right now, thank you. To the other emergency services, to carers and to teachers, thank you. To those providing childcare or working in our supermarkets, our farmers, and other food producers and processors, thank you. And to everyone who is following the Government advice to keep themselves safe and, in turn, saving lives, thank you. We are fighting a battle like never before, but it is a battle we will win, and win together. In these bleak times, I know our spirits will be lifted by the way we respond to this emergency as one. We will not let coronavirus define us; instead, let our legacy of this pandemic be one where our choices reflected our hopes rather than our fears.

This Government’s No. 1 priority is to ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom are supported throughout the current crisis. It is evident how valuable the Union is to our collective ability to respond. I have regular engagement with the Scottish Government, and I am confident that through continued collaboration we will beat covid-19.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer and for his thanks to all our NHS and key workers, and all our communities and volunteer groups, in Scotland and throughout our one nation, for all the work they are doing together to combat this virus.

Does my hon. Friend agree that leaving the EU has provided many opportunities for Scotland, including becoming an independent coastal state with control over its own fishing waters?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. For the first time in 40 years, we have the chance to control who manages our own waters. Before we get to that stage, however, we have to address the current crisis. In stakeholder discussions with the Scottish Seafood Association, the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, I have been listening to their concerns on behalf of the Government and responding to how we, as the UK Government, can address their needs and concerns at this time.

I very much associate myself with the Minister’s comments commending our public services. I commend in particular our NHS staff in Scotland, who are performing a job that is second to none. They truly are heroes every day.

I want to take the Minister back to the original question about steps to strengthen the Union. For two and a half years, the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) served on the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill Committee, fighting against the Government’s attempt to reduce the number of seats in this House from 650 to 600. I welcome their screeching U-turn on that, but will the Minister tell me if there are any plans to guarantee 59 seats in Scotland going forward?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that yesterday’s written statement by the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), guarantees that the seats across the United Kingdom will remain at 650. I am sure his question has been heard by those in the Cabinet Office. I am in regular discussion with the Minister and we will be discussing that going forward.

Budget 2020: Scottish Block Grant

2. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effect of Budget 2020 on the Scottish Government’s block grant. (901664)

I would like to start by endorsing the words of my fellow Minister.

I have regular discussions with the Chancellor, and all my Cabinet colleagues, on how the Government can help Scotland, and the rest of the UK, through these unprecedented challenges. That includes the extra £1.9 billion cash boost for Scotland, on top of that already announced in the Budget, bringing the covid-19 funding to nearly £2.7 billion for Scotland. That is on top of a raft of UK-wide measures, such as mortgage holidays and loan guarantees.

The four-nations approach to the response to covid-19 demonstrates again the strength of the Union. Does the Secretary of State agree that the bonds run so deep and the relationship is so strong that it cannot be summarised as a simple division of responsibilities or a simple transfer of funds?

I absolutely agree. I would add that the British economy is the sixth-strongest economy in the world, and it is that that is seeing us through these difficult times. We are sending funds to the devolved nations with complete respect for the devolution settlement, and I am pleased that Scotland’s two Governments are working very well together.

I would also like to put on record my support and appreciation for the military assistance of the Ministry of Defence, particularly at the weekend when a plane flew from RAF Brize Norton to Lerwick in Shetland to collect a man who needed to be put on a ventilator and take him to hospital in Aberdeen. It is a wonderful thing that we can all pull together in these difficult times. I am also grateful for the work of all those who are working tirelessly and selflessly to help the emergency services.

Quite rightly, our present time is gripped with, and all our energies are focused on, meeting the challenge of the covid-19 virus. Beyond that, however, important and urgent actions need to be taken on climate. For the United Kingdom to realise its world-leading ambition to be carbon neutral by 2050, will my right hon. Friend outline what steps the Government are taking to make sure every industry is playing its part, most notably the Scottish whisky sector?

I think everyone in the House agrees about the climate challenge. In particular, on the Scotch whisky sector, we announced in the Budget £10 million of green funding to help distilleries, and coming to Glasgow in November, covid-19 willing, we will have COP26, which will be not only a showcase for Britain’s commitment to climate change, but a wonderful opportunity for the world to come together, when hopefully we have defeated this terrible virus.

Can I associate myself with the comments of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and the Secretary of State? The shadow Scottish Secretary—my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who is unable to be here today—and I pass on our sincere thanks to all those frontline service workers, our food producers and our shopworkers, who are facing unprecedented pressures to protect and look after the most vulnerable in society. Of course, we thank all those people who are staying at home and following both Scottish and UK Government advice, because staying at home really can save lives.

Coronavirus has shown that local services have been decimated by the Scottish Government, as they passed on to local councils four times the austerity that they have received. Does the Secretary of State agree that any additional budget resourcing should be passed to Scottish local councils to help to bolster local services that are already under pressure?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have given an extra £2.7 billion in funding for covid-19, over and above the Budget measures announced this year. The Budget measures brought, first, an extra £1.3 billion in the comprehensive spending review, and then another £640 million followed on from that. He is absolutely right, but I have to stress that that matter is for the Scottish Government under the devolution settlement.

I associate myself with the comments in support of our emergency services, but we also need to recognise that exceptional effort has been put in by our local government workforce. Any additional funding to the Scottish Government is welcome, but in this current climate of unprecedented challenge, does the Secretary of State agree that more steps need to be taken, and will he continue to press Cabinet colleagues for additional support for self-employed workers and to move forward with the argument for a universal basic income?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The self-employed and freelancers are still waiting to hear about a package for them. We have been encouraging the Treasury to push forward with that, and I hope that it will come very soon. Members of the Scottish Government have been doing the same—it is an effort across the devolved Administrations—and we need to find a solution. It is a complicated problem, because if someone is a self-employed van driver, they are probably doing very well on deliveries at the moment, but other self-employed people and freelancers are really struggling. We need to recognise that this has to be tailored to those in need.

Transport Connections: North-East England and Scotland

3. What steps the Government is taking to improve transport connections between the north-east of England and Scotland. (901665)

The UK Government are committed to ambitious infrastructure improvements across the United Kingdom, as highlighted in the recent Budget announcement to improve connectivity and level up all parts of the United Kingdom. I reassure my hon. Friend that I have regular engagement with the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity in the Scottish Government on this and other matters.

The A68 is the third major road link between the north of England and Scotland. It runs through many constituencies, including Darlington, Sedgefield, Bishop Auckland and Hexham, as well as Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk on the Scottish side, going up to Midlothian. Given the importance of the road link and the fact that Transport for the North has recommended that it joins the major roads network, will the Minister raise the issue of the A68 with his colleagues at the Department for Transport to help the north-east and the Scottish borders to thrive after the coronavirus outbreak has finished?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question, because the A68 is an extremely important road in the United Kingdom, running from Darlington and connecting to the A720 in Edinburgh, and therefore it is vital in strengthening the links between England and Scotland. As he asked, I would be delighted to discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and Transport Scotland how we can improve this critical network in the United Kingdom.

Cross-border connections are vital to both the north-east of England and Scotland. I know that the letter from the Chancellor to the aviation industry will have shocked and disappointed Newcastle airport just as much as it did Scottish airports, Scottish airlines and all the vital aviation support services in and around Scottish airports. What representations has the Scotland Office made to both the DFT and the Chancellor on the importance of support for this vital industry in Scotland?

Clearly, the airline industry and airports across Scotland are crucial hubs, and we need to continue to have them operating as much as possible during these troubling and exceptional times. The Secretary of State and I regularly attend Cobra meetings, which discuss a range of issues, along with the Secretary of State for Transport, so this has been raised as a UK-wide issue but with Scotland’s input at the heart of the discussions as well.

Trade: Scotland and the Rest of the UK

Scottish exports to the rest of the UK increased in 2018 by £1.2 billion to £51.2 billion. The official Scottish Government figures show that more than 60% of all Scotland’s trade is with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. As a result, the rest of the UK continues to be Scotland’s largest market for exports, accounting for three times the value of exports to EU countries.

When it comes to trade, does my right hon. Friend agree that in these challenging times, regions across the country, from my constituency of Stock-on-Trent South all the way to the Scottish highlands, are stronger and more secure working together as a strong Union?

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I do agree with him. I emphasise that Scotland does more than three times the trade with England, Northern Ireland and Wales as it does with the EU27 countries.

First Minister: Meetings

I am committed to a constructive relationship with the First Minister of Scotland and other Scottish Government Ministers. Now is not the time to be planning face-to-face meetings; rather, we should be enhancing our virtual relationship and communications. The people of Scotland benefit the most when Scotland’s two Governments work collaboratively, and that is essential in these difficult times.

Will the Secretary of State discuss with the First Minister and the Foreign Secretary the plight of those of our constituents who are trapped abroad and feel badly let down? For some reason, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office seems to be struggling greatly with this. Perhaps it is time for other Government Departments to get involved and to help to ensure that our constituents can come home.

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. I think we have all received in our parliamentary inboxes cases of people who are trapped abroad. Only yesterday, I heard about five or six cases of people in New Zealand and Australia, and I raised them with the Foreign Secretary. The Foreign Secretary has made a statement on the issue. We are hoping to bring people back and keep some airline hubs open—the Prime Minister of Singapore has kindly agreed to keep Singapore open for that purpose—and the Foreign Office is coming up with a plan. I encourage all British nationals to register with the high commission or the embassy in the country concerned and get their name on a list, ready for when we are able to organise flights.

On behalf of all of us in the Scottish National party, I endorse the comments made by the Under-Secretary of State in extending thanks to everyone who is helping us to get through this crisis. Many of the people in the NHS and the care sector, delivery drivers and people stacking supermarket shelves are European nationals, and it turns out that these are not low-skilled, poorly paid people; they are essential people who are helping us to get through the crisis. I hope the Secretary of State will reflect on that.

There are many in Scotland who came to our country seeking asylum and refuge, and many of them have medical expertise and other skills that could help their adopted communities get through the coronavirus crisis. Will the Secretary of State discuss with the First Minister and the Home Secretary how and when the right to work can be granted to asylum seekers who want to make a difference to our society, not just during this crisis but permanently?

I think it is fair to say that that is a UK-wide issue. Normally, asylum seekers cannot work while their case is being considered; however, they can volunteer. NHS England announced a volunteering scheme yesterday, and I hope the Scottish Government will do the same.

I hope that anyone who volunteers under those schemes, whether or not they are seeking asylum, feels supported. Many asylum seekers are left destitute, without recourse to public funds. To be asking them to give their time and labour without recognition would not be appropriate.

On another matter, when the Secretary of State speaks with the First Minister, will they discuss the challenge faced by many of our distilleries, particularly craft distilleries, that are keen to switch production from products that we all enjoy consuming to products that could help the health sector—hand sanitiser and cleansing products? Many of them face duty payments in advance, which means that they literally cannot give this stuff away. Will he speak urgently to the Treasury and the Scottish Government about how we can help our distilleries rise to the challenge?

Yes, and we have done so. We want Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to speed up the registration process for those companies, because the tax treatment of alcohol used in hand sanitiser is no different from the tax treatment of alcohol used in the production of food, chemicals or many other things: as it is denatured, it is duty-free once the company is registered.

Oil and Gas Industry

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the Government’s role in supporting the oil and gas industry. (901673)

I regularly discuss with the ministerial team from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy matters of importance to Scotland, including the significant support that the UK Government provide to the oil and gas industry. As I said earlier, I have been communicating with stakeholders across Scotland, one of which is Oil & Gas UK. I spoke to it last week to ensure that the industry is informed of current arrangements, and to ensure that the Government understand the impact of those arrangements on the industry and can support it wherever possible.

Clearly the future of the oil and gas industry in the North sea is of the utmost importance to the UK economy, and the industry will need a long-term view. What measures can my hon. Friend introduce to ensure that the industry is protected and enhanced as we move towards a carbon neutral future?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend’s assessment. It is crucial to continue to support the oil and gas industry in the transition to net zero. That is reflected in our manifesto commitment to working with the sector on a transformational sector deal. The oil and gas sector is already assessing what could form part of this deal through its “Roadmap 2035”, which addresses how the industry can be part of the solution to the challenges that the transition to a net zero economy will bring.

I ask the Minister to speak with some urgency to Oil & Gas UK about the situation of offshore workers. In the last week or so, I have received representations from constituents who are offshore, who have had their crew change delayed and so have to work extra weeks. Some are concerned that going offshore may take them into an environment in which they are not properly protected. Can he assure us that while offshore workers may well be out of sight, they will not be out of mind?

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Offshore workers may be out of sight, but they are not out of mind for him as a constituency Member, for me as a Minister in the Scotland Office, or for the Secretary of State. This issue has been raised with me by others in the Aberdeen area. Last week, I discussed this and other matters with Oil & Gas UK, and we have a call later this week to discuss this further. I will reference the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks to them, and will perhaps get back to him after that further discussion.

Will my hon. Friend update the House on what discussions he has had with the Business Secretary regarding the latter’s role as president of COP26 in Glasgow? Does my hon. Friend believe that this vital conference will promote the UK as a world leader in tackling climate change, and that we must ensure that it goes ahead after coronavirus ends?

Understandably, all the efforts of this Government, and Governments around the world, are focused on tackling the coronavirus outbreak, but we look forward to welcoming leaders from around the globe—in November, hopefully—to discuss this emergency, and to hear the concerns and solutions of Governments across the world. Glasgow will be a hub for these discussions, not just in the 11 days of COP26 in November, but in the period leading up to it, and after it.

Covid-19: Economic Support

7. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on co-ordinating support for people affected economically by covid-19. (901675)

The UK Government are working in lockstep with the devolved Administrations, the World Health Organisation and our international partners to keep the whole UK safe. The UK Government will continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations as the situation develops to ensure they have the funding needed to tackle the impacts of covid- 19.

I add my thanks to the people of Scotland for the effort they are making, particularly those who are already volunteering and providing vital services to those in their communities who are vulnerable.

In the past 24 hours, I have been contacted by several different local businesses in the self-catered accommodation industry. They thought they would be eligible for covid-19 grants for small and medium-sized businesses in retail, leisure and hospitality, but yesterday they discovered that they had explicitly been listed by the Scottish Government as not being eligible. Anyone who operates a chalet, a caravan or a B&B is eligible, but self-catering accommodation is specifically excluded, alongside ATM sites, jetties and pigeon lofts, among others.

If my constituents operated elsewhere in the UK, they would be supported. The message from them is clear: without these grants, the self-catering accommodation industry in Scotland is in peril. We cannot let this happen. I appreciate that this is a really difficult and challenging time for Governments, but will the Secretary of State make representations to the Scottish Government to reconsider their exclusions, in order to ensure consistency of support and the future of this industry?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that really important point. The self-catering industry, including self-catering cottages, is a massive issue for rural Scotland, and not just in her beautiful constituency but in my more beautiful constituency. An emergency package of measures will be announced next week. Our colleagues in the Scottish Parliament are discussing that today. The Scotland Office has already raised the issue and we are very keen to see a support package for those rural businesses, particularly self-catering businesses and others, including caravan parks. If they only have residential caravan stayers, we want them all to be supported in whatever way necessary. As the Chancellor has said, we will do whatever it takes.

May I press the Secretary of State further on support for freelancers, the self-employed and sole traders? Will he, the Chancellor and First Minister speak urgently, this week, to ensure that a package of measures is put in place for those groups that need support? I understand what the Secretary of State is saying about these things taking time, but people are deeply worried about their futures, including paying their mortgages and feeding their families.

It was remiss of me not to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his role, albeit maybe a temporary one—a reshuffle is coming, so it may be a brief role. If he is invited back, that would be excellent news, obviously.

The answer is yes, absolutely: we have been discussing in ministerial meetings support for the self-employed and freelancers. We recognise that it is a very serious issue and the Government are giving it their full attention.

I thank the Secretary of State. There are 330,000 workers in Scotland who are categorised as self-employed. They need reassurance, quickly, from the UK Government. The Irish Government have announced a new flat-rate extra payment of €350 a week to those who are self-employed. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that that would be a start while a full support package is put in place. The reality is that while the self-employed in Scotland or anywhere else in the UK have no guarantees to protect their income, they will continue to work, putting themselves and others at risk. I urge the Secretary of State, most sincerely, to press the Chancellor to ensure that a package is delivered, and quickly.

As I said before, the Chancellor has been looking at many schemes across the European Union and around the world. It is absolutely about timing and I would hope that the Treasury will be making an announcement very soon.

May I associate myself with the remarks of my right hon. Friend and others recognising the health and emergency services and public services in general? I also note the volunteer and community groups that are active in Banff and Buchan and elsewhere in Scotland and around the United Kingdom.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s confirmation that the Scottish Government will receive at least £2.7 billion in new funding, following announcements made by the Chancellor during and after the Budget statement, to support people and businesses through the current crisis. What discussion has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had with the Scottish Government to use that funding to support the rural and coastal economy in Scotland, particularly businesses in the food supply chain?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the rural economy in Scotland is in desperate need of support. The money will flow from the strength of the British economy—from the huge £350 billion of guaranteed loans for businesses and the £2.7 billion of extra funding that comes through the Barnett consequentials. Also, now that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in his place, I will mention that, on agriculture, the first tranche of the £160 million convergence funding, which he rectified in discussions with me when he first came into office, was paid to farmers in Scotland only last week. We are right behind the rural economy in Scotland. This Government will do what it takes to support the economy and get us through this.

Will my right hon. Friend, the Prime Minister and the whole House join me in paying tribute to the former MP for Watford, Tristan Garel-Jones, who passed away yesterday?

The Secretary of State will be aware that some companies are operating at the moment that should not be—they are defying the advice from the Prime Minister. Will the Secretary of State therefore raise this issue with colleagues in the UK Government to ensure that these companies still trading at the moment will have closure orders put on them and will face heavy fines if they continue trading from today onwards?

As the Prime Minister and the First Minister of Scotland have said, it is essential businesses that must carry on trading. The Prime Minister is here and he will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.