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Volume 683: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the extension of the coronavirus job retention scheme in Scotland. (908449)

Today, on the 11th day of the 11th month, I am sure the whole House will join me in remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country.

I have regular discussions with my Cabinet colleagues on all aspects of how we support the entire country, including Scotland, through the covid crisis. The coronavirus job retention scheme has always been a UK-wide scheme, and it has now been extended until the end of March 2021, with employees across the UK receiving 80% of their current salary for hours not worked.

May I associate myself and those on the SNP Benches with the comments of the Secretary of State?

At the last Scottish questions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) raised a very serious concern about levels of poverty when the job retention scheme ended. The Minister at the Dispatch Box said that November would be the right time to look at a targeted scheme, as if he had some magical powers of poverty prediction. Imagine our surprise, Mr Speaker, when the south of England went into full lockdown and the full force of furlough came back into force. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the notion of “targeted” is really targeted at the south of England, with a huge disrespect to Scotland and the rest of the devolved nations?

Absolutely not. The Prime Minister was clear from the get-go, following Cabinet on the Saturday when we discussed the new economic situation in England, that it was a UK-wide scheme. It is 80% for the whole of the United Kingdom. It is a simple scheme and it is for our whole country and he has been absolutely clear about that from the start.

The UK Treasury has provided an up-front guarantee of £8.2 billion to the Scottish Government to help protect jobs and to help the Scottish Government tackle coronavirus, yet we are still to hear from the Scottish Government about where more than £2 billion of that funding is to be spent. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Scottish Government need to provide details urgently about how they will use that funding to support Scots?

I agree with my hon. Friend. There has been substantial extra funding, guaranteed funding, to the Scottish Government—£8.2 billion, as he correctly identified. That is money received through the Barnett formula. The Scottish Government must not shirk their responsibility to be open and transparent about how that money is being spent. We need accountability so that the people of Scotland can judge whether it is being spent wisely.

The Minister has recently said that the job retention scheme will last into next year, but he has also said that there will be no referendums on Scotland’s future for a generation. The Edinburgh agreement, signed by a Tory Prime Minister, provided the legal framework for the 2014 referendum, so can the Minister tell where it says in that agreement that there cannot be another referendum?

I commend the hon. Lady for trying to get a referendum into questions about the job retention scheme. While we are all fighting this pandemic and trying to secure and support people’s jobs, it beggars belief that the SNP carries on talking about independence referendums and about separation. I find it really quite disappointing. The answer to her question is that it was mentioned many times in the White Paper that the SNP Government produced in advance of that referendum. The words “once in a generation” were mentioned on a number of pages.

I thank the Minister for confirming that there is no legal basis for his assertion on the timing of a future referendum. Given that it was also agreed cross-party that nothing in the Smith commission prevents Scotland from becoming an independent country in the future, can he tell us whose decision is it whether Scotland has another referendum?

Order. The question must have some relevance. The first question got through, but you were trying to push your luck the second time. We cannot do that. The question must be relevant. Sorry about that. We had better move on.

The extension of the furlough scheme demonstrated again how the UK Government continue to support jobs in all four nations of the United Kingdom, and we need that support and joint working to continue following the positive news about a potential covid-19 vaccine. Will the Secretary of State outline the work done between the Scottish Government and the UK Government to ensure that there is a seamless roll-out of this vaccine that has given us so much hope here in Scotland and across the UK?

We have invested more than £230 million in manufacturing any successful vaccine. The vaccines have been procured and paid for by the UK Government on behalf of everyone in the United Kingdom. Doses will be distributed fairly and across all parts of the United Kingdom according to population share.

A business operator in my constituency contacted me four days before furlough was supposed to end. He operates two bars in my constituency. As a responsible employer, he had kept on his 44 staff and taken on the debt from bounce back loans, but he was absolutely at the end of his tether with this Government and their last-minute decisions. Will the Secretary of State apologise to that business operator in my constituency for the severe stress that the Government’s dithering has caused him and for the distress that it has caused his employees, as well as to the many people who could not keep on their staff or who lost their jobs due to this Government’s incompetence?

The hon. Lady will recognise that this is a dynamic and unprecedented situation, and we have to take decisions as we see what is in front of us. The employers of those who lost their jobs after 23 September, but were in employment and furlough up until 23 September, are allowed to bring those employees back and put them on furlough.

Co-ordinated Response to Covid-19: Devolved Administrations

What recent steps he has taken to ensure effective co-operation between the Government and the devolved Administrations. (908450)

What recent steps his Department has taken to help ensure co-ordination between Scotland and the other nations of the UK in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (908452)

What recent steps his Department has taken to help ensure co-ordination between Scotland and the other nations of the UK in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (908458)

An effective response to covid-19 does indeed need to be a co-ordinated response across the UK. On 25 September, the UK Government and the three devolved Administrations published a joint statement on our collective approach to responding to covid-19. There are very regular meetings at both ministerial and official levels.

What is the Minister’s understanding of the application of the furlough scheme in Scotland and the other nations of the UK, given that Scotland is operating under a different tier system and different lockdown restrictions?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has not vaporised into thin air. The lockdown scheme extends across the UK and is available whether a part of the UK—or a part of each nation within the UK—is in lock- down or not. It is there for everyone.

The Scottish Affairs Committee described a deteriorating relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments on joined-up covid-19 policy making, with the main issue being trust. What work has the Secretary of State undertaken to improve awareness and understanding of devolution among Whitehall officials, so that policy makers have mutual understanding of the impact of decisions on each nation of the UK?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. As I said in my initial answer, there are very regular discussions between all Government Departments and devolved Administrations at many levels—be that in Health, Transport or Education. I think that there is a widespread understanding of the need to balance UK-wide interventions with allowing local flexibilities where circumstances dictate.

Will the Minister confirm or deny that taxpayers’ money is being used to employ consultants with the sole purpose of producing and promoting negative propaganda to encounter the increasingly successful campaign for Scottish independence? Is that not to the detriment of co-operation between the nations?

Forgive me, Mr Speaker, but I am not quite sure what that has got to do with the response to coronavirus.

I join the Secretary of State in recognising that it is the 11th day of the 11th month, lest we forget those who gave their lives so that we could live freely today. We will always remember them.

I am disappointed that the Secretary of State did not congratulate President-elect Joe Biden on his wonderful election in America. Given that in a recent poll 75% of Scots said that they would vote for Joe Biden, they have eventually got the Government they would have voted for.

The announcement this week of a potential covid vaccine is incredibly positive. While it certainly does not mean, of course, that we have reached the end of this crisis, it does perhaps signal some hope for the public. If the vaccine is approved, the country will face an unprecedented logistical challenge. If mass vaccination is to be done successfully, we will need all levels of government working together. However, a poll just yesterday found that two thirds of Scots were dissatisfied that the Scottish and UK Governments do not work together and a majority wanted closer co-operation. Can the Minister inform the House what work the UK and Scottish Governments are undertaking together to build an infrastructure that will be able to distribute and administer any future vaccines to everyone?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. Referring to his initial comments, I was delighted that President-elect Biden spoke to our Prime Minister ahead of any other European country, contrary to what some of the naysayers in the media were predicting.

The hon. Gentleman’s substantial question is a very important one and it illustrates the extent to which the UK Government and the devolved Administrations can and should work together. The vaccine—as he said, we are not quite there yet, but it gives very strong hope—is purchased by the UK Government on behalf of the whole UK. The distribution, the prioritisation, of the vaccine will be a matter for the devolved Administrations. However, we are in regular contact and stand ready to assist with any logistics that will be required to make sure that it is distributed on the basis of clinical priority and not any other needs.

I appreciate what the Minister said, but I think the public would look on it very unfavourably if both Governments did not work together to ensure that this vaccine is distributed.

But we also must not lose sight of today’s challenges. While the Chancellor’s latest plan to extend furlough until March is very welcome, there remain millions of people across the UK and in Scotland who have not received any support as lockdowns continue. The 3 million taxpayers excluded from Government support include countless self-employed people, pay-as-you-earn freelancers, and many, many others. It is understandable that there may have been some cracks in hastily designed schemes announced in March, but not to fix those and to continue to exclude millions from any support is inexcusable. I raised this with the Secretary of State in the House on 1 July and 7 October, so, for the third time: will the Scotland Office demand that the Chancellor reconsiders and provides support to those taxpayers left without any help from this Government?

The hon. Gentleman’s question would have greater potency if furlough were indeed the only scheme that was available, but a wide range of support is available for businesses and individuals across the UK, including bounce back loans, tax deferrals, mortgage holidays and the like. In addition, the Chancellor has provided the Scottish Government with unprecedented levels of support, going up by an additional £1 billion. It is up to the Scottish Government, if they wish to provide additional support over and above the UK-wide schemes, to ensure that they have the resources to do so.

Order. Can I just say that I am very concerned that the question was a substantive question that was within this grouping? The problem is that the grouping is not good, but it was the Government who put the grouping together. So I think the Minister ought to try to see if he could answer the question from Allan Dorans, because it is within that section.

If I remember the question correctly, it was, “Are we spending taxpayers’ money on fighting the independence referendum?” My answer to that is that we do not wish another independence referendum. The last thing that the people of Scotland need, and businesses and jobs in Scotland need, is the uncertainty that another independence referendum would create.

Voluntary and Community Organisations: Funding

What recent discussions he has had with Scottish Government Ministers on the adequacy of funding for voluntary and community organisations in Scotland. (908451)

I regularly meet Scottish Ministers to discuss matters of importance to Scotland. Funding for the voluntary sector and community organisations in Scotland is a matter for the Scottish Government. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the enormous work that charities and voluntary organisations do, in Scotland and the UK, to support our communities through this very challenging period.

Charities and social enterprises have never been more needed across the UK, but may I correct the Minister? The Government put forward a fund of £60 million for charities within the devolved authorities, so I would like to know how much the Scottish charities have received from that fund and what representations he has made for its extension, because charities have never have been in more need.

The funding that is given to the Scottish Government does not necessarily have to be used exactly for those purposes. They can supplement that as well out of the general funds that are transferred—the £8.2 billion. I am very happy to look into how that money is being spent, and I refer back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) made about the questions over how the £2 billion has been spent.

I join the Minister on behalf of those on this side of the House in praising the voluntary sector and charities across Scotland, which have stepped up to support so many people right across the nation. At the same time, however, charities face an existential financial crisis. The Minister will be aware that a report earlier this year from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator found that a fifth of Scottish charities were facing uncertainty because of poor finances over the next 12 months. With new restrictions now coming in across Scotland in different phases, will the Minister commit to working with the Secretary of State, with Scottish Ministers and, importantly, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that these voluntary sector organisations get any additional funding that they may need to support the people of Scotland during the pandemic?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is right. I have had a number of meetings with the Association of Chief Officers of Scottish Voluntary Organisations and they have an unprecedented leadership challenge. One of them put to me the analogy that they are trying to fix the wings of an aircraft when it is in flight. There is an enormous challenge for all of us, whether in government, in the charities themselves or in the private sector, to work closely together, for us to help them through this and for them to help us to rebuild our economy and society better than when we went into this period.

Economic Support: Covid-19

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the economic support available for Scottish businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. (908454)

This question, No. 16, has been withdrawn, so the substantive question will be from David Mundell. Secretary of State to answer.

Let us carry on then. If the Secretary of State does not have the answer, it is easy—I call David Mundell.

There are many different ways in which the Government can provide economic support to Scottish businesses during covid-19. For the Scotch whisky industry, the biggest help in retaining jobs and supporting its businesses would be for the Government to resolve the US tariffs dispute, rather than escalate it by applying further retaliatory tariffs. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on progress on this vital issue for Scottish businesses and jobs?

From memory, question 16—it has been withdrawn altogether from the papers I was given this morning—was about transport, and I will say on that—

Order. Secretary of State, the question is on the Order Paper, and I can assure you it is not about transport. Answer the question from David Mundell.

To answer my right hon. Friend’s question, the Secretary of State for International Trade last night had a Zoom call with MPs from across the House, and I know that she stressed that the UK Government are determined to settle this issue as soon as possible and to mitigate the effects for those who are impacted by it. In short, we continue to raise the issue with the highest levels of the US Administration.

Strengthening the Union

The good news is that I did bring this answer with me. This Government have always stressed the importance of the Union. The UK is a family of nations that shares social, cultural and economic ties that together make us far safer, more secure and more prosperous. As we have seen throughout the covid crisis, it is the economic strength of the Union and our commitment to the sharing and pooling of resources that have supported jobs and businesses throughout Scotland. It is the strength of our Union that will enable us to rebuild our economy following the crisis.

I am delighted to hear the Secretary of State support the Union. The Prime Minister’s review into boosting transport links across the country is very welcome. Does the Secretary of State agree that this review of quality transport links will go a long way to levelling up economic opportunity wherever we are in the UK?

There are no flies on my hon. Friend—he spotted that I am a Unionist, and he has been able to highlight the importance of improving transport links. That is why I am so disappointed that the Scottish Government are not engaging in Sir Peter Hendy’s review of connectivity across our United Kingdom. That attitude is letting down the people of Scotland, who would benefit from those improvements.

My great grandfather served in the infantry regiment of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commemorating all those Scottish servicemen who fought in the British Army for the freedom of the United Kingdom and the world, and in thanking servicemen and women in Scotland today who are engaged in our fight against the virus?

I am more than happy to join my hon. Friend in thanking today’s servicemen and women, and I am sure the whole House will join me in remembering all those who laid down their lives in defence of our country and the freedoms that we enjoy today.

I represent a constituency that is geographically distant from Scotland, but I know people from Scotland who have made East Devon their home. They, like me, believe we are stronger together and cherish our precious Union. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK Government’s efforts during the pandemic—not least the furlough scheme and the £8.2 billion to Scottish public services—show that we have a common drive to defeat the virus, whether in Edinburgh or Exeter, and the SNP needs to focus on delivery, not division?

What measures is the Department taking to strengthen economic ties and promote business opportunities between Scottish communities and English communities such as those in my constituency of Leigh?

The Union connectivity review that I referred to earlier and the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, will both promote the economic ties that my hon. Friend refers to. They will protect vital trading links and improve transport links.

The Secretary of State is doing such a fantastic job of strengthening the Union that support for independence is at a historic high and has been at a sustained majority all year. Saying no to a majority in Scotland is only going to drive support for independence even higher. Apparently, he was only joking when he said that there would be no indyref for 40 years, just after John Major said that there would be two referendums in the next few years. The Secretary of State is renowned for his legendary wit and humour, but the Scottish people are not finding this democracy denial funny any more. What is the difference between denying a majority in the Trump White House and denying a majority in the Scotland Office?

That is quite a tenuous link, but I will answer the question. To be quite simple, my belief is that we should stick to the referendum from 2014 and respect it. It was very clear—the SNP said it at the time —that it was a once-in-a-generation referendum. I do not believe that we should go into a process of neverendums, which are divisive, unsettling and bad for jobs in Scotland. We should respect democracy, and that is what I am doing—democracy that was handed out by the Scottish people in 2014.

The Prime Minister described last December’s general election as “once-in-a-generation”, but I hope the Secretary of State is not suggesting that there will not be another one for 40 years. He seems to think that the way to strengthen the Union is by forcing a hard Brexit on Scotland against our will, taking an axe to devolution with the internal market Bill and denying any democratic choice on Scotland’s future until adults like me are dead. On that basis, does he think that the best recipe for a happy marriage is to lock up the wife, take away her chequebook and just keep refusing a divorce?

No, I think that it is quite straightforward. I think that people should respect democracy, as I said in my previous answer to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). We are respecting democracy. We are acknowledging this is once in a generation; we do not believe Scotland should be thrown on to the uncertainty of neverendums. It is very straight- forward: a generation, by any calculation, is 25 years and, frankly, SNP Members just have to accept that and focus on what matters, which is recovering from this pandemic and us all pulling together.