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First Minister: Meetings

Volume 674: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2020

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.