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Volume 679: debated on Wednesday 9 September 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Armed Forces Personnel

British armed forces personnel in Scotland play a crucial role in defending the whole UK, and my Department meets regularly with the Ministry of Defence to help raise concerns that are specific to Scotland. I feel particularly indebted to the armed forces in Scotland, who keep us safe at home and abroad and who assisted with such dedication at the height of this covid pandemic.

The SNP Government’s decision to make Scotland the highest taxed part of the UK has threatened to put the many brave troops based there out of pocket through no fault of their own. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, because our armed forces serve the whole UK, it is only right that they are treated equally and fairly wherever they are based?

I absolutely agree. Our armed forces perform a hugely important task in their service of the United Kingdom, and it is unacceptable that any member of them should be subject to discriminatory taxation. That is why the United Kingdom Government took the decision to make an annual payment to protect them from the Scottish Government’s decision to make Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom.

British armed forces have contributed enormously to the national response to the covid-19 outbreak, supporting the distribution of personal protective equipment, assisting with testing facilities and transporting patients, for which Cumbria and my constituency of Workington are grateful. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the armed forces for all their work during the pandemic, and can he confirm that every part of our United Kingdom will continue to benefit from their hard work?

Our armed forces have been instrumental in the Government’s response to the pandemic, and I give my deep thanks to them for that work. In Scotland, that has included military planning personnel for the Scottish Government’s emergency co-ordination centre, Puma helicopters deployed to Kinloss to support the NHS in medical transport and airlift critically ill patients from the Scottish highlands, and the operating of pop-up mobile testing sites across Scotland.

Strengthening the Union

The Government and this Prime Minister are passionate about the Union, and the strength of the Union has never been more important or more evident. The UK has the economic strength to support jobs and businesses with generous financial packages, and it is the strength of the Union that will enable us to rebuild our economy and swiftly respond to any emerging threats to our prosperity.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Figures released by the Scottish Government demonstrate that the cost to Scotland of leaving the United Kingdom and becoming independent would be £15.1 billion a year. We know that those figures must be true, because they were released by the SNP Government. Does he agree that, far from creating an economic case for leaving the United Kingdom, that demonstrates the strength of the Union and why Scotland is far better off being in the United Kingdom?

Yes, absolutely. The Scottish Government’s own figures show clearly how much Scotland benefits from being part of a strong United Kingdom, with the pooling and sharing of resources. Year after year, people in Scotland benefit from levels of public spending substantially above the United Kingdom’s average, and that Union dividend is worth almost £2,000 per person to everyone in Scotland.

Last month’s figures from the Scottish Government confirmed that our Union is worth nearly £2,000 a year for every man, woman and child in Scotland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we not only benefit from being one Union and one happy family together, but that the economic benefits for Scotland from the Union are huge?

Yes, my hon. Friend is right. The benefits of the Union go way beyond public spending. The strength and size of the UK economy creates opportunities for Scottish businesses, and around 60% of Scotland’s exports currently go to the rest of the UK. That is more than she trades with the rest of the world.

The Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and for Health and Social Care have confirmed that the Government will break the law by overriding the Northern Ireland protocol. That would mean reneging on the withdrawal agreement—an agreement that the Prime Minister himself negotiated, brought to this House, voted for, ratified and campaigned on at the general election. This reckless move reignites the prospect of us crashing out of the European Union with no deal. The Prime Minister promised the British people an oven-ready deal. It now looks like an oven-ready no-deal. The Secretary of State himself has said previously that a no-deal outcome would “create damaging uncertainty” for the country and that he would never vote for anything that threatened or undermined the integrity of our United Kingdom. Does he think that reneging on an international treaty, breaking their promise on a deal and putting no-deal firmly back on the table strengthens or weakens the Union?

First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his partner on the birth of their baby daughter, Zola, which is why he is currently on paternity leave.

I hope that I face even questions such as that from the hon. Gentleman for some time to come, because he is honourable, which is a lot more than can be said for many in his party—the hard left of his party—who have sought to smear and undermine him in recent days. In answer to his question, we absolutely do want a deal. We are in serious negotiations again this week because we want to get a deal, and that is our intention, but the withdrawal agreement was written on the basis that subsequent agreements could be reached through the Joint Committee, and that Joint Committee process is ongoing and we are committed to it. None the less, in the event that it cannot deal with any adverse implications for the Good Friday agreement, it is important that we have a position that creates a safety net to uphold our commitments to the members of Northern Ireland.

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for his kind words about Zola, and if his Government could legislate for a minimum of six hours’ sleep for new parents, I certainly would be the first person in the Aye Lobby to support them.

The Secretary of State’s Conservative colleague and prominent constitutional expert, Adam Tomkins MSP, his own—now resigned—most senior Government lawyer and many on his own Back Benches disagree with him. He must surely realise that the UK Government’s recklessness only benefits those who want to break up the UK and the consequences of breaking up the UK would be dire for all of our constituents. As has already been mentioned, the Scottish Government’s own figures last week showed that the UK dividend to Scotland is an extra £15 billion a year—the entire budget of the Scottish NHS. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that the focus of both the Scottish and UK Governments must be to protect public health, invest in our economy, and secure jobs and not to continue with this endless paralysing constitutional division?

Well, Mr Speaker, as you have asked me to be brief, I shall answer that question with a firm yes.

I echo the congratulations to the shadow Secretary of State. However, I will not echo the congratulations to the Union. Today, the UK Government have published their United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. I want to ask specifically about clause 46, which states that any UK Minister of the Crown may promote and directly provide economic development, effectively allowing the UK Government the powers to legislate in the following devolved areas: health; education; water; electricity; courts and pension facilities; housing; and the list goes on. Am I correct in my understanding that when the Government says that they are strengthening the Union, what they really mean is dismantling devolution?

Absolutely not. We are strengthening devolution. We are bringing a power surge to Scotland—more than 100 new powers. We are not taking a single power away, and I invite the hon. Lady to name one that we are. I say that we are the party that backs devolution. The SNP is the party that wants to destroy devolution by leaving the United Kingdom.

Will the Secretary of State tell me, if he is not dismantling devolution, specifically where in the Bill does it say that the UK Government must acquire the consent of the devolved Administrations?

The UK Government would like to get a legislative consent motion from the devolved Administrations, but we are quite clear that we need to bring forward this UK legislation to protect jobs, to protect producers, to protect manufacturers and to protect consumers. This is a piece of legislation that, through mutual recognition and non-discrimination, strengthens our United Kingdom economy. That is important to Scotland because over £50 billion of trade is done with the rest of the UK—more than Scotland does with the rest of the world.

Further talk of constitutional wrangling is deeply unhelpful at a time when we continue to fight the coronavirus pandemic in Scotland and across much of the world. Does the Secretary of State therefore agree that the SNP has got its priorities completely wrong by finding time to bring forward another referendum Bill as we have seen spikes in coronavirus in Scotland and across the UK?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment as leader of the Scottish Conservatives. I was sorry to lose him as a Minister, but I got to know him well, and I know very well that he will do an excellent job. He does make a very good point. It is important that we come together to fight this virus and not go back into division and constitutional wrangling. That just basically creates uncertainty and is bad for the Scottish economy and bad for Scottish jobs.

May I just say ever so gently and candidly to the right hon. Gentleman that he is not presiding over the strengthening of the Union—he is presiding over its demise? Support for independence is now at an all-time high at 55%—but after today it is going to get a lot, lot worse for him. If there was ever any doubt that this Government were determined to override the authority of the Scottish Parliament, it is clause 46 of this disgraceful Bill today. Why does he not man up? Why does he not confess and be honest with the Scottish people and tell them that this is an unadulterated power grab?

For the very simple reason that it is not—and still the SNP cannot tell us one power that is being grabbed, not one single power. It is quite the contrary—more powers are being delivered to the Scottish Parliament, strengthening devolution. SNP Members do not like that. They do not like the UKIM legislation because it strengthens the United Kingdom economy, and that does not fit into their plans either.

In response to the fact that a majority of people in Scotland, in all recent polls, want Scotland to be independent, the Secretary of State’s Government will today set out steps that betray the fact that they want to fatally undermine devolution, while declaring that they will break international law with malice aforethought. Does he believe that in being an accomplice to this, he will strengthen the Union?

We have been very clear about our position. These are contingent powers that will be exercised only in cases where the Joint Committee cannot be formed or operate, or cannot come to a view at a particular time, to prevent—it is important to understand this—adverse implications for the Good Friday agreement. Our responsibility, first and foremost, is to the people of Northern Ireland. For the SNP, it is always, “Britain second, Brussels first.”

Historically, the role of Secretary of State for Scotland has been to argue for more decisions to be made in Scotland. Does the current Secretary of State not feel ashamed and embarrassed to be the first incumbent of this office to actually argue for things to happen the other way around? Does he not realise that by so doing, he will make the argument for political independence for Scotland far better that those of us on the SNP Benches can?

I utterly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. This legislation strengthens the United Kingdom. Scotland does 60% of her trade with the rest of the UK—over £50 billion. We want to protect that trade. We want to improve the Scottish economy. In no way is a single power being removed from the Scottish Government. It is quite the contrary: powers are being increased.

UK Internal Market

What discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on legislative proposals for a UK internal market. (905551)

What discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on legislative proposals for a UK internal market. (905557)

I have frequent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of matters relating to the UK internal market. The UK internal market is vitally important for our economy. As I have said a number of times over the past five minutes, sales produced in Scotland to the rest of the UK are £51.2 billion per year and over 60% of our exports.

By contrast to the Secretary of State’s power surge, the European single market’s principles, for example, are based on equality, co-operation and consent, with agreed standards for all member states. If he claims that the policy on the UK internal market is not a power grab, will he guarantee a mechanism for negotiation, agreement and consent between the four nations of the UK?

The hon. Lady points towards frameworks, which is exactly what we are doing. For standards, frameworks will be by consent across the United Kingdom. There is the opportunity for parties to opt out. As a safety net for business, we are introducing mutual recognition, which underpins the European single market, and we are introducing non-discrimination.

The gravity analysis published in the internal market Command Paper suggests that a border effected between Scotland and the rest of the UK would have an impact of about 1.1% of Scottish GDP. Brexit will have an impact seven times greater—a loss of GDP growth in Scotland of about 8%. When the Secretary of State has discussions with the Scottish Government, will he commit to bring forward another Command Paper insisting that Scotland remains part of the European Union single market?

We are leaving the EU—I do not know if that point has been wasted on the hon. Gentleman. When we were on the Treasury Committee, we saw many projections about what would happen if the UK voted for Brexit, and all those projections had one thing in common: they were wrong. I do not recognise his figures. I believe that with good trade deals and this UK legislation, we will strengthen the Scottish economy.

Like many people in Newport West, I was astonished by the comments of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the Dispatch Box yesterday in relation to the Government’s willingness to break international law. Legislation is important and so is the Government’s ability to obey it, so will the Secretary of State commit to a UK-wide framework that protects workers’ rights and environmental standards within the internal market, and will he pledge to stick to it?

There are over 42 frameworks—I have not studied them all in detail, but I am sure that those subjects will be covered. When we have frameworks, it is by consensus. It is up to each member state of the United Kingdom—the four nations—to adhere to those. They do have an opt-out and, as I say, the UKIM legislation underpins that and protects producers, suppliers, manufacturers and consumers alike.

Covid-19: Support for Businesses

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on economic support available for Scottish businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. (905552)

I have regular discussions with my Cabinet colleagues, including the Chancellor, on all aspects of the impact of coronavirus in Scotland. The unprecedented actions we have taken have supported over 930,000 jobs and more than 65,000 businesses in Scotland. Over £2.3 billion of support for business is being given through the Government-supported loan schemes.

With its abundant renewable resources, Scotland has the opportunity to be a world leader in hydrogen technology, a $2.5 trillion global market. Will the Minister inform the House what conversations are taking place between the Government and Scotland to ensure that we seize this opportunity together as a Union?

The Government are absolutely committed to the development of hydrogen as part of our decarbonisation strategy. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that in July, the Government launched the Hydrogen Advisory Council, where Government and UK industry will work together to identify and promote the supply of low-carbon hydrogen at scale across the energy system. Scottish companies are members of this council.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) and Mariam on the birth of their baby daughter, Zola. The House will be pleased to hear that she has very robust lungs and her father’s cheeks—that is how it has been put to me. [Interruption.] These cheeks, Mr Speaker!

The Minister knows that businesses across Scotland are in desperate need of additional support specifically in relation to the furlough scheme. The UK Government have in place one of the shortest furlough schemes of any country in Europe. Will he please today, ahead of the Opposition day debate, announce that we will extend the furlough scheme for those businesses that need it most, and particularly in Scotland for the hospitality and accommodation sectors, because they need help from this Government?

I should also add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on the birth of his daughter. I am delighted to hear that her vocal contributions will be as strong as his.

The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) highlights the furlough scheme, which has been a very valuable tool in our economic response to coronavirus, but I point out to him that it is about giving the right support at the right time. The Chancellor is correct to move us towards supporting people returning to work through schemes such as the job retention scheme and many of the other packages that we are putting in place to support all sectors of the economy.

Many local newspapers in Scotland were pleased to get UK Government advertising business at the start of lockdown and agreed heavily discounted rates for it. Many of them were surprised then, after invoices had been issued, to get requests from the UK Government for further discounts. Is the Minister content that his Government should be treating Scotland’s local newspapers in that way?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. This is a unique partnership to support the newspaper industry. It was agreed by Newsworks on behalf of all publications and the terms of the agreement are commercially confidential. I can tell him that at least 60% of the funding is supporting smaller local titles. If he has any specific issues with titles in his constituency, I am more than happy to explore them with him and raise them with my colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Covid-19: UK-wide Response

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordinating a UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. (905554)

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordinating a UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. (905564)

We can respond effectively to covid-19 only if we have a UK-wide approach. Pooling resources and using the strength of the UK economy enables the Government to support jobs and business and to provide the extra funding and other resources to the devolved Administrations to help them combat the virus.

The UK Government have delivered an extra £12.7 billion to the devolved Administrations throughout this pandemic, including £6.5 billion for the Scottish Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that the enormous level of financial support that has already been provided showcases the strength and value of this great and united Union?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend; the strength of the UK economy and the Treasury’s international standing means that we have been able to fund the covid-19 response across all parts of the UK. Given those facts, it is worth considering the point made last week by Alex Salmond’s former adviser:

“Thirteen years in government and the SNP have yet to show their workings”

on how a separate Scotland would manage financially.

There is no doubt that some confusion is caused when the different Administrations come to different conclusions based on our advice about quarantine, numbers of people who can gather together and so on. The Minister has just spoken about a UK-wide approach. Would it not be better if some of these regulations were decisions for the UK Government?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. We have already had examples of collaboration during this period. For example, on 23 August, the chief medical officers for all parts of the UK issued a joint statement on the current evidence of the risks and benefits to health from schools and childcare settings reopening. UK and devolved Administration Ministers meet regularly to explore and discuss these issues. Although it is right that across the UK different authorities should be able to respond to specific circumstances, I hope that political considerations do not lead to this being difference just for the sake of it.

Will my hon. Friend expand on the success and the effectiveness of the Joint Biosecurity Centre in informing decision makers around the UK on our best way to combat coronavirus?

My hon. Friend highlights just another example of where working together strengthens our response. I am delighted that legislation has been passed enabling the Scottish Government and the UK Government to allow the JBC to provide services to Ministers and officials in both Administrations.

Covid-19: Care Homes

If he will hold discussions with the Scottish Government on reports that hospital patients who tested positive for covid-19 were subsequently discharged into care homes in Scotland. (905555)

The UK Government and the devolved Administrations regularly discuss all aspects of the coronavirus response. Public health and social care are devolved matters for the Scottish Government, but we do provide support to the devolved Administrations where necessary, including increasing testing capacity.

My brother-in-law’s father somehow contracted covid in a care home and, sadly, passed away. Like us, many families will have had to bear the tragedy of not being able to comfort their loved ones as they grieved their loss. Scotland has the highest care home death rate in the UK, and last month it was revealed that at least 37 hospital patients who had tested positive for coronavirus were discharged into care homes, which helped to turn them into breeding grounds for the virus, resulting in the loss of invaluable lives. So what discussions has the Minister had with Scottish Ministers about why that was allowed to happen?

First, may I extend my sympathy to the hon. Gentleman for his family’s loss? There are so many examples where families are grieving because of the loss of loved ones. He raises a devolved matter, and I know that Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is looking at what caused this situation and that there will be an inquiry into it. This Government stand ready and we do help the Scottish Government in increasing testing capacity so that these instances are not repeated.

EU Exit: Scottish Economy

What steps his Department is taking to assess the effect on the Scottish economy in the event that the UK does not reach a deal with the EU by the end of the transition period. (905556)

We left the EU on 31 January, and negotiations for a future trade partnership are ongoing. Over time, the economic benefits of departing from EU law will clearly offset any short-run and often hypothetical problems, and those benefits will be felt both in Scotland and across the UK.

Yesterday’s admission by the Northern Ireland Secretary that the Internal Market Bill would be breaking international law will make many countries question the trustworthiness of the UK’s trade negotiations and the reliability of any deals. What impact does this Minister think that will have on the Scottish economy?

I simply point the hon. Gentleman to the development today that will help the UK join the trans-Pacific trade partnership, which will benefit companies in Scotland and across the whole UK.

Covid-19: Effect on Black Community in Scotland and England

If he will make a comparative assessment of the effect of covid-19 on the black community in Scotland and England. (905558)

It is clear that the black community has been disproportionately affected by covid-19, and action is under way to determine what is driving these disparities. We continue to work closely with the Scottish Government and the Department of Health and Social Care on a range of issues related to covid-19, and will continue to do so to address the impact on the black community across the whole of the UK.

Findings from three Edinburgh University surveys of Scottish ethnic minorities show that, from 2015 to 2019, between 18% and 20% of respondents said they experienced racial discrimination in using health services. Will the Minister’s Department commit to investigating this further and to taking steps to eliminate all kinds of racial discrimination in health services?

I recognise that the hon. Lady is an ardent campaigner for equality in the black community. The UK Government are keenly aware of the continuing discrimination ethnic minorities face in the United Kingdom today and take seriously their obligation to secure equality for all. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities on 16 June.