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Strengthening the Union

Volume 679: debated on Wednesday 9 September 2020

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.