The Secretary of State was asked—
Covid-19 Vaccine Roll-out
The Government are procuring vaccines on behalf of all parts of the United Kingdom and supplying them to the devolved Administrations. It is for the Scottish Government to manage the roll-out of the vaccines in Scotland. However, our British armed forces are supporting the NHS in Scotland in this vital task.
The vaccine roll-out has been excellent, with the United Kingdom again having among the strongest responses in the world. As there are varying degrees of success in the four different parts of the Union, will my right hon. Friend confirm what discussions he has had with the vaccines Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi)—in order to guarantee that the four constituent parts of the UK will receive sufficient vaccinations to hit their targets of the first four groups by the middle of February?
The devolved Administrations are receiving their shares of vaccine based on population, and the schedule of deliveries will fully support vaccinations of the first four priority cohorts by 15 February. All parts of the United Kingdom therefore have an equal chance of meeting that mid-February target.
Throughout this pandemic, we have seen the incredible work done by the armed forces to support us up and down the country, and in my constituency and across Lancashire, that has been help with testing. We know that in Scotland, the armed forces are now supporting vaccination centres, ensuring that life-saving treatment can get to those who need it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this shows the strength of the United Kingdom family, with help and assistance ready to be sent to any corner of it?
I am absolutely delighted to echo my hon. Friend’s comments. Our British armed forces have played a number of essential roles in Scotland during the pandemic. They have airlifted patients to mainland hospitals from islands. They have delivered personal protective equipment. They have run mobile testing centres in rural areas and, at present, as he alluded to, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards are setting up 80 vaccination centres across Scotland.
The most recent statistics for the number of covid-19 vaccination doses administered per 100 people stand at 11.4 for England, 9.8 for Northern Ireland, 9.2 for Wales and 8.1 for Scotland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that directly comparable statistics across the UK can be incredibly helpful to drive up performance in the NHS, and will he outline the plans that he has to pursue this agenda further?
Government Ministers in both the UK and the devolved Administrations are committed to transparency around the numbers of people who have been vaccinated. There are also a number of mechanisms for sharing best practice between Ministers and officials of all Administrations. The faster we can vaccinate, the more lives we can protect and the quicker we can return to normal.
May I start by thanking the GPs and other NHS staff across the Scottish borders, who have been working incredibly hard over the last few weeks to get vaccines into people’s arms? I have been speaking to GP practices across my constituency. One of them said:
“Our English counterparts over the border seem to have access to a lot more vaccines than us and that is causing a lot of unrest within the community.”
She went on to say that
“if we could have a guarantee of a definite amount of vaccines”
from the Scottish Government, it would make it a much easier job to plan and administer. What assistance can the UK Government provide to ensure that vaccines are delivered to GPs more quickly and efficiently across Scotland?
The UK Government are ensuring that NHS Scotland gets an equitable share of those vaccines. How it is distributed is a matter for NHS Scotland and, rightly, as health is devolved, that is a matter for the Scottish Government. If my hon. Friend’s constituents are concerned about any aspects of distribution, the best thing for them would be to take up their concerns with the Scottish Government.
Strength of the Union
Scotland benefits greatly from being part of a strong United Kingdom. The most obvious recent examples are the unprecedented economic support offered to people and businesses in Scotland and the rapid supply of vaccinations to all parts of the United Kingdom currently taking place. Neither of these would have been possible if Scotland was not part of the United Kingdom.
Finland, a small independent country in the EU with a population comparable to Scotland, right throughout the pandemic has been paying workers’ benefits equivalent to their full pay if they are required to self-isolate. If tiny little Finland can pay people their full wage, what does it say about the strength of the Union that we pay Scots a measly £95 a week?
There has been unprecedented support. The sort of support that the United Kingdom has delivered through the furlough scheme, the self-employment income support scheme, the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, business grants and the £8.6 billion delivered to the Scottish Government to help with the pandemic has not been delivered anywhere else within the European Union.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, at a time when my constituency has its highest ever level of coronavirus infections, rather than focusing solely on beating this pandemic and planning for a recovery, Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government are prioritising another independence referendum and breaking up the United Kingdom?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. People in Scotland want to see politicians across the United Kingdom working in partnership to focus on defeating the coronavirus. That remains the top priority of the UK Government, who have supported jobs and businesses across the United Kingdom through the pandemic —as I say, there has been unprecedented support—and now more than ever, we should be pulling together to strengthen our country, instead of trying to separate it.
On this Holocaust Memorial Day, let us remember those who were persecuted and those who are persecuted now, and never forget the horrors that can happen when bigotry goes unchallenged.
I do not remember that same sense of responsibility when Brexit was being bulldozed through during the same pandemic that the Secretary of State has just mentioned. If he is so sure of the strength of the Union, why is he so afraid to test that strength in another independence referendum?
First, I align myself with the remarks that the hon. Lady made about the holocaust.
The referendum took place in 2014. We respect that; it was a democratic outcome. The hon. Lady mentioned Brexit: that referendum took place in 2016, and again, it was a democratic outcome. We are the party that respects democracy.
I know the Secretary of State is aware that a lot has changed since 2014. Scotland has been taken out of the EU against its will; we have had three Tory Prime Ministers we never voted for; and now, 20 consecutive polls have shown that a majority of people in Scotland now support independence. Given that he is the defender of democracy, I ask him how, with that in mind, can the people of Scotland secure that preferred choice of independence?
Scotland receives over £1,600 more in support per man, woman and child than the UK average—that is incredibly important. Added to that is the £8.6 billion of extra coronavirus support, and on top of that, the furlough support. An independent Scotland would have the largest deficit in the European Union, and it would break member state rules. I remind the hon. Lady of what the SNP’s own economic adviser, Andrew Wilson, said: that an independent Scotland would face austerity like it had never been seen before, with increases in taxation and cuts in public spending. I believe that as we focus on coming out of the pandemic, all being in the rowing boat together and pulling on the oars in these choppy waters is the best place for Scotland and for the United Kingdom.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; I will share it with you when we come back to Westminster.
As we have just heard from the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), the SNP would rather obsess over another independence referendum than focus on Scotland’s recovery from covid-19. Does the Secretary of State agree that this once again demonstrates that the nationalists’ priorities are all wrong, because right now, people want us to focus on vaccine roll-out, defeating covid-19 and rebuilding our economy?
I wish my hon. Friend many happy returns, and my birthday present to him is to say that I could not agree with him more. Rather than waste time on a divisive separatist agenda, the Scottish Government should be working with us to defeat the pandemic and to recover our economy.
I did not quite detect an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) when she asked how the Scottish people could now secure a referendum on independence. We can dispute the merits of that, and I am sure we will, but does the Secretary of State accept that this is now what the Scottish people want? Twenty opinion polls in a row indicate that, so how do the Scottish people democratically acquire the right to have what they want in a referendum?
I say again: now is not the time. Now is the time for us to focus on rebuilding our economy and protecting jobs. I see the hon. Gentleman up there with his gold disc behind him, and I have to say that, from Scottish questions to Scottish questions, he is beginning to sound like a broken record.
The UK now officially has the highest covid mortality rate anywhere in the world, and we know from the in-field accuracy of lateral flow tests that they have a 50% chance of being wrong. As the Prime Minister and his entourage are relying on such inaccurate test results, and given the PM’s disastrous handling of the pandemic, why is the Secretary of State risking lives by backing his futile Union-Jackery trip to Scotland against public health advice when he knows that the PM has the ability to insult our intelligence from London?
Seed Potato Industry
Ministers and officials from my Department are in regular contact with counterparts from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The UK has applied for third country equivalency to overcome the ban on the export of seed potatoes to the European Union. We believe we have a strong case as British standards currently match the EU’s, and Scotland in particular has world-leading plant health provenance.
I thank the Secretary of State for that optimism. Even businesses in my constituency of North Norfolk are affected by the ban on exporting seed potatoes into the EU. It is wonderful to have a deal, but in my part of the world agriculture is an enormous way of life, so can he assure me that everything is being done to obtain an agreement on seed potatoes for Scotland and all of the UK, to give food security and flexibility to the sector and to protect our farmers and growers?
We regularly discuss opportunities for Scotland arising from the signing of trade deals. This Government have already struck deals worth £217 billion a year with more than 63 countries around the world, including Canada, Japan and Singapore, and with many more to come. This will create new markets for Scotland’s exporters.
For the first time in my life, we will be in control of our trade policy, which will allow us to strike ambitious trade deals, allowing us to level up all of our United Kingdom. Does the Minister agree that this will help to benefit exporters, particularly in the Scottish food and drink industries, who will be able to take advantage of new markets?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. The new free trade agreements we strike, such as those we are currently negotiating with the US, Australia and New Zealand, on top of the ones we have already done, will grow our GDP, increase our trade with the rest of the world and create new opportunities for our exporters. This is particularly true for the Scottish food and drink sector.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, as we have heard, and we should use this day to remember the horrors of the holocaust by lighting a candle in our windows at 8 pm tonight, as the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has asked us to do. I am sure that the Secretary of State will join us in that. Also, I wonder if I may just wish my fellow shadow Scotland Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), all the best, as his wife is due to have a baby in the next seven days.
One of the jewels in the crown of the Scottish economy is the Scotch whisky industry, and distillers are deeply angry that they continue to pay the price for a trade dispute with the United States that is not of their making. They are losing £30 million a month in trade with the imposition of tariffs, and that is on top of the collapse of their markets due to covid. No progress has been made, so can the Minister guarantee that the Government are fully singing from the same hymn sheet to end tariffs on Scotch whisky?
First, may I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on the holocaust?
On whisky, I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is a vital industry for Scotland’s economy and the tariffs are hurting. Britain unilaterally made a bold and generous offer to the US to try to break its impasse with the EU. Unfortunately, we were not able to secure a deal with President Trump before he left office, but I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade yesterday, and she reassured me that it will be her top priority in engaging with the new Biden Administration.
The UK has taken all the tariffs off US products but there are still tariffs on Scottish products, so I hope they are able to resolve this soon. Of course, trade deals with other countries will not make up for what we have lost by leaving the EU. Day after day, we see chaos at our ports, exporters being overwhelmed by paperwork and, as a result, Scottish businesses being damaged. This Government’s lack of planning and no provision for services, matched with growing bureaucracy at our borders, is severely hampering our industries. The Prime Minister said on Christmas eve that the EU Brexit deal would mean
“no non-tariff barriers to trade”.
That is demonstrably false. Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise to Scottish exporters, who are completely hampered by the very non-tariff barriers to trade that the Prime Minister said would not exist? What are the Government doing to resolve these issues today?
First, on the US point, there was an impasse with the EU, and we decided it was the right move to make a unilateral offer to try to break that impasse. I hope the new Biden Administration will engage positively with us on that.
Secondly, I do not think it is fair to paint a picture of chaos and tailbacks at the ports. The traffic is flowing freely at most ports. There have been some short-term issues with paperwork, and any new system has some short-term bumps, but we are engaging directly with the exporters affected. We are providing compensation, where necessary, and what we need is some confidence across all sectors.
Covid-19 Vaccination Programme
I was sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman had contracted coronavirus at Christmas, and I hope he is making a full and speedy recovery.
I and other UK Government Ministers are in frequent contact with Scottish Ministers on all aspects of the response to covid, including the vaccination programme. The virus will be combated most effectively by the UK Government and all the devolved Administrations working together as closely as possible.
I thank the Minister for his kind words, and I assure him that I am in rude health.
The Minister will be aware that Scotland’s over-80s population has been left more vulnerable than those in England due to far fewer being vaccinated. If the rate of over-80s vaccination in Scotland were equivalent to that in England, 28,875 of the most elderly people in Scotland would now have been vaccinated. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that the Scottish Government get on with protecting the most vulnerable?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is very much on the path to recovery. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said a few moments ago, the supply of vaccines is done equitably across all parts of the UK, but the administration is a matter for the Scottish Government. We have already provided many practical measures to help combat covid in Scotland, and we stand ready to supply any additional help that the Scottish Government may require.
UK-EU Agreement: Scottish Exports
We regularly speak to ministerial colleagues and industry leaders on this matter. We are beginning a new chapter in our national story, one of great opportunity. This is an unparalleled chance for us to do things differently and better, increasing businesses’ access to new markets and boosting our national prosperity.
Scottish exporters need clarity and certainty on how long it will take the UK Government to resolve the calamitous situation that has been created at the UK-EU border, so my question to the Minister is: has anyone in the Scotland Office worked out how long a piece of string is yet?
I repeat to the hon. Gentleman the reply I gave a few moments ago: we are engaging directly and providing very practical support to exporters who have encountered some short-term difficulties as they adjust to the new system. In the case of the fish and seafood sector, we have provided them with compensation for any losses that they encountered.
The Minister will be fully aware of the chaos that Scottish fishing exports have been thrown into over the past few weeks because of his Government’s broken promises on Brexit to the industry. I understand he has already said that the Department has announced an injection of funding for the hardest hit, but this is about timing and reputation as well, so how is he working with potential buyers of these world-class fishing exports to promote the sector? How is he ensuring that extra support reaches those hardest hit as quickly as possible, given the absolute devastation that these businesses have faced in this year so far?
First, may I wish the hon. Gentleman and his family every success and good fortune in the arrival of the new addition to their family?
As I have said, we are providing very practical support. This is not affecting the whole industry. The industry faces many challenges at the moment, not least the loss of some of its markets because top-end restaurants, at home and abroad, are having to close because of covid. In addition to that short-term compensation, we are providing a £100 million fund to grow and boost the capacity of our seafood sector. We have not broken promises to it. We were taking back control of our waters. We are out of the common fisheries policy and British fishermen will land more stocks year on year.
The EU is still our closest and most important trading partner, but Scottish businesses are suffering because of this disastrous Brexit we did not vote for, and the inability and unwillingness of the Minister’s Government to effectively use the transition period. Will he now push for the grace period that businesses are urgently calling for? If not, why not? What is his answer to them?
As I have said repeatedly, we are engaging with all sectors to help them prepare for this transition. I respectfully point out to the hon. Lady that she voted for a no-deal Brexit, and she and her fellow separatists want to impose additional trade barriers within Britain.
UK-EU Agreement: Scottish Economy
We have agreed a deal with the EU that fully delivers for Scotland and the rest of the UK. Our deal provides Scottish businesses with exceptional access to the EU’s market: it is the first time the EU has ever agreed a zero-tariffs, zero-quota deal. But of course we also now have the freedom to strike new deals with the fastest-growing parts of the global economy.
But almost one in six jobs in Scotland is based in the financial and business services sector, which is dependent on the UK Government negotiating a trade in services agreement with the EU, having failed to do so before the end of last year. What progress have the Secretary of State and his Cabinet colleagues made since leaving the transition arrangements in this area? What further steps is he taking to ensure that these jobs are secure for the future?
I have frequent discussions with colleagues about the opportunities that COP26 offers for Scotland and the whole of the UK. The Government are committed to delivering an all-UK COP26 event in Glasgow. This will bring significant economic benefits to the community in Glasgow and those across Britain.
My constituents in Guildford take a keen interest in environmental concerns and, along with me, are delighted that Glasgow is hosting COP26 this year. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are better placed to tackle climate change as a strong Union of nations?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I should also point out that it is disgraceful that, while we will be showcasing our global leadership on climate change and the world’s gaze will be on Glasgow, the SNP would rather be pitting community against community in another divisive referendum.