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Commons Chamber

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 17 March 2021

House of Commons

Wednesday 17 March 2021

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Liverpool City Region Freeport

What discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) Ministers of the Welsh Government on maximising the potential economic benefit to north Wales of the proposed Liverpool city region freeport. (913409)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and Welsh Government Ministers about freeports. North Wales and the Liverpool city region are interdependent, and Liverpool freeport can bring significant economic benefits for the whole region.

As my right hon. Friend has said, Liverpool freeport is potentially of huge benefit not only to the city itself, but to north Wales, which is part of the same economic region. Does he agree that there is considerable potential synergy to be found, for example, between the Deeside enterprise zone and the new freeport, and will he urge the Welsh Government to grasp the opportunity and work with Westminster to maximise that synergy?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the situation. Local authorities and port authorities are keen on this initiative, and these schemes can produce up to 15,000 jobs each. It is therefore disappointing that the Welsh Government seem to be still dragging their feet and allowing the initiative to flourish everywhere other than Wales, which is costing jobs and livelihoods.

A freeport at Liverpool will sap and displace trade, investment and jobs from Holyhead in north Wales. Liverpool will get £26 million of investment, whereas we are only being offered £8 million for one UK freeport in either north or south Wales. How will the Secretary of State ensure that Wales gets its fair share of £26 million for its one UK freeport, and how will he prevent jobs being lost and moving from north Wales to Liverpool?

The best way of avoiding that outcome is for the Welsh Government to get behind the scheme and support a project that is endorsed by local authorities and port authorities in Wales, and to encourage jobs and livelihoods in that way. Every single day that they leave it—on the basis of the “not invented here” syndrome—will cost jobs and livelihoods. My message to the hon. Gentleman is get hold of the Welsh Government and encourage them to come to the party.

The Union

What recent assessment his Department has made of the strength of the Union between Wales and the rest of the UK. (913410)

As the vaccine roll-out has shown, our four nations are safer, stronger and more prosperous together, and I look forward to the people of Wales giving a resounding endorsement of the Union at the Senedd elections in May.

I find that very interesting, because the Labour First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, told the Welsh Affairs Committee a few weeks ago that devolution is under aggressive attack by a Tory Government who have “outright hostility” at the heart of their governance. With independence currently polling as high as 40% in Wales without an official campaign, will the Secretary of State respect the democratic rights of people in Wales and Scotland to have a post-pandemic independence referendum in the event of pro-independence majorities in May?

I think the First Minister has been pretty reckless in trying to inject an air of uncertainty into these discussions, and most of us realise that he is only doing so because his only chance of remaining as First Minister post May is to do some kind of a deal with Plaid Cymru; and we know what the price of that would be.

Will my right hon. Friend explain what benefits to Wales being a member of our United Kingdom brings?

We could spend the rest of the morning listing the benefits, but I refer my hon. Friend to the Budget only a few days ago, with £4.8 million for the Holyhead hydrogen hub, £30 million for the global centre of rail excellence, the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund and £450 million community ownership fund. I could go on and on, but the benefits are numerous.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llefarydd—agus beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh! Pob bendith arnoch chi heddiw, ar ddydd gŵyl Padrig.

Asylum seekers will—

Order. Can I just say to the right hon. Lady, let us just stop; I do not mind the beginning, but to start extending the sentence in Welsh goes against the rules of the House.

The first part was in Irish, the second was in Welsh and it was wishing everybody a happy St Patrick’s—

Order. I have no arguments with it whatsoever, but unfortunately the House makes the rules; I am only here to ensure that the rules are kept.

Thank you; diolch yn fawr.

Asylum seekers will leave the squalid Penally camp this weekend, thanks to months of campaigning by Plaid Cymru police and crime commissioner Dafydd Llywelyn, and others. The camp is in the Secretary of State’s constituency, but he only became aware of the Home Office plans on 12 September last year, days before people moved in. Despite months of resistance from his own Government, I am afraid to say that he now scrabbles to change the narrative, and he recently dismissed the Welsh Government’s “little status”—those are his own words. Given the “little status” of the Wales Office, how does he continue to justify its existence?

As brass neck goes, that is quite an exceptional example of it, as far as Penally is concerned. It seems that Plaid’s commitment to a nation of sanctuary extends only as far as its not being in its patch, as we have discovered from the reactions of the right hon. Lady’s party colleagues. The fact of the matter is that this has been a difficult situation for a number of people involved. It is being resolved, thanks to collaborative efforts between the Home Office and the Wales Office, demonstrating the value of both.

On Wales as a nation of sanctuary, Penally is closing while Napier remains open.

Today, work begins on reducing Wales’s voice in Westminster from 40 MPs to 32. At the same time, the levelling-up fund will make local authorities’ ability to bid for funding dependent on—wait for it—the number of MPs in their areas. The Secretary of State has been gifted a role in overseeing all this, while our Senedd —the Parliament with competence over economic development—is sidelined. How does he condone taking such power away from the people of Wales in the name of pork barrel politics?

The right hon. Lady needs to read up on the notes on the subject. What she has described is nothing resembling the truth. The levelling-up fund is a fantastic opportunity for Wales, as is the community renewal fund. It involves local authorities and local stakeholders in a way that she should welcome. It is the true definition of devolution. It does not get wedged in Cardiff; it goes to local authorities and local communities across Wales, and she should welcome that. The fact is that we have extended the hand of friendship to the Welsh Government. We want this to be a collaborative approach, and we very much welcome that being the case. This will involve local communities in a way that they have never been involved before, and she, of all people, should welcome that.

Vale of Glamorgan received a tiny amount of European aid over the past 20 years despite having areas of significant deprivation. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund will apply to Vale of Glamorgan—we have been ignored up until now—and that exciting projects such as Barry marina, St Athan train station and the Dinas Powys bypass could now become possible because of Union support?

Who would ever dare ignore the efforts of my right hon. Friend? He is absolutely right that the local authority in his area will now have a chance to bid in a way that it never could before, and to bid with the strong and vigorous support that he provides. I think this is going to be a golden age for the vale.

UK Community Renewal Fund

Wales will be better off as a result of the UK community renewal fund. Compared with its European predecessor, the new fund will be better targeted and better aligned with our domestic priorities, and will put decision making squarely into the hands of local authorities.

According to the community renewal fund’s prospectus, the devolved Administrations will have a place within the governing structures, but when the Scottish Affairs Committee took evidence from academics a fortnight ago, we heard of confusion as to what role they would realistically play. So will the Minister set out exactly how the devolved Governments will be involved in the decision-making structures for how funds are released?

Devolved Governments will be involved in the decisions, but so will the local Members of Parliament and local authorities, and I would have thought that the hon. Lady would support that. Only this morning, I read a fascinating article on that well-known website Liberal Democrat Voice, in which the leader of her council—a Liberal Democrat himself—called on the UK Government to step up and empower local authorities. That is exactly what we have done, so I look forward to being praised in the next edition of Lib Dem Voice.

The Tories have repeatedly claimed that Wales would not be worse off when EU structural funds come to an end, but the community renewal fund of which the Minister spoke is a shocking betrayal of that commitment. The fund’s value—£220 million for the whole of the UK—is a just a fraction of the £375 million a year that Wales was promised. Why are communities in Wales once again having to foot the bill for the Tories’ broken promises?

I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman, whom I greatly like and respect, perhaps has not been told that not only will the fund be there to enable access to the shared prosperity fund, but we will continue to receive European structural funding for the next three financial years at least. I looked this morning at the figures for European structural funds for Wales, and we will receive more on average next year than we have received previously, so there will actually be no loss of funding whatsoever as a result of coming out of the European Union.

Manufacturing Industry

We have provided £2.75 billion in direct support for businesses in Wales during covid. The job retention scheme has been extended until September, and we are introducing a new super deduction to cut companies’ tax bills by 25p for every £1 they invest in new equipment.

A recent report by Grant Thornton stated that Brexit could cost Flintshire and Wrexham as much as £300 million a year. Manufacturing is vital to the future of north Wales, but numerous companies are telling me of the difficulties they are having exporting. Instead of saying that everything will be fine, when are this Government going to sort these problems out and get this moving?

I draw the right hon. Gentleman’s attention to the additional £5.2 billion we have provided to the Welsh Government and the £2.75 billion to businesses in Wales, with £1.5 billion in bounce bank loans and £503 million in coronavirus business interruption loans. This is all about jobs and livelihoods in the part of Wales that he represents so vigorously, and he should welcome that, as he should welcome the £20 million announcement this morning for the south Wales industrial cluster. There is good news, and he cannot dwell on the past in order to make political capital.

On 10 February, the Prime Minister said from the Dispatch Box that there would be a world-leading battery plant in Bridgend, but I think he meant the Vale of Glamorgan. It has been moved to Blyth because of investment from the Tory Government. The Secretary of State then decided to take to Twitter to praise the Prime Minister for announcing that the mythical battery plant was going to be in Bridgend. Could the Secretary of State set out when he will deliver a world-leading battery plant for the Bridgend county borough or, indeed, for the neighbouring Vale of Glamorgan, and when he will start bringing inward investment into the Bridgend borough? That would all be very welcome, because my constituents deserve a lot better than what the Secretary of State is currently not delivering.

I think that the hon. Gentleman’s question was probably intended for the First Minister in Cardiff, but I will do my best to answer it anyway. As he well knows from the Prime Minister’s statement, there is considerable investment going into Wales. There are some really encouraging job prospects, particularly around gigafactories and the like.

The hon. Gentleman can shake his head as much as he likes, but he fails to grasp that there are many millions and billions of pounds going into exactly these kinds of technology improvement in Wales.

Bridgend has lost the Ford factory, and we did not get the investment from Ineos that we were hoping for. For Bridgend and the wider area to move forward, the town needs regeneration in order to increase the attractiveness of the overall area for investment. Can my right hon. Friend outline what the Government are doing to help towns such as Bridgend?

Absolutely. I start by reminding my hon. Friend—not that I need to—that Bridgend is a priority 1 area for the levelling-up fund, which means that it has potential access, with his assistance, to significant sums. Each local authority will get £125,000 of capacity funding to make those bids to the central fund. I hope he will recognise that there is a real focus on exactly the kind of town and area that he represents as part of the levelling-up project, which will produce jobs and livelihoods in a way that has perhaps been difficult in the past.

Highly skilled workers in the aerospace industry across Wales, such as those at AIM Altitude, are now facing redundancy or even factory closure, as this sector will take years, not months, to recover. While overseas competitors are giving their companies support so that they can up production when the sector recovers, the UK Government still have not brought forward a specific aerospace package some 12 months after the pandemic started. Is the Secretary of State just going to sit there and watch these industries fold, or can he persuade his Cabinet colleagues to put in the long-term support that these high-value industries need?

The hon. Lady’s comments are not reflected by large companies, such as Airbus, whose judgment I trust in these particular circumstances. I simply repeat what I said in answer to an earlier question: the UK Government have provided £5.2 billion for the Welsh Government; £2.75 billion for businesses in Wales; another £1.5 billion in bounce back loans and £500 million in CBILS loans. If that is not an indication of how committed we are to this particular sector, which I absolutely recognise is going through an especially difficult time, I do not know what is.

But if we are going to retain these industries and rebuild for the future, then we need a comprehensive UK-wide plan. However, this Government have just shelved their industrial strategy, scrapped their advisory council and are now preparing to rip up their industrial policy, so when will the Secretary of State and his Cabinet colleagues develop a forward-looking, far-reaching UK industrial policy that will build on our fantastic skill base to guarantee the new green jobs of the future?

I disagree with the hon. Lady’s comments. She has referred to some process issues. We want to get process and bureaucratic issues out of the way and actually deliver money and prospects, jobs and investments to the places that need them the most. That is what the Government are committed to doing, and we have widespread support from industry in that ambition. As I said in answer to an earlier question, only this morning a further £20 million has been announced for the South Wales industrial cluster. Rather than talk about process, bodies and bureaucracy, we are actually doing real things.

Can I wish everybody celebrating a happy St Patrick’s Day today?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) has said, the Secretary of State will be more than aware of the complex challenges that coronavirus has presented to the aviation sector and the entire manufacturing supply chain. I hear what the Secretary of State says about Airbus, but sadly, General Electric and British Airways in my constituency of Pontypridd have had to make significant staffing cuts. This sector is crying out for financial support, but its pleas are falling on deaf ears, so will the Secretary of State therefore please update the House on his recent conversations, specifically with the Chancellor, on a sector-specific support package for Wales’s aviation industry?

The Chancellor has, I think, made it very clear how he is supporting every sector that has been so adversely affected by the coronavirus. In fact, I do not think there is a Government in the world who have done as much in financial support either for this sector or, indeed, other sectors or individual families. That has been to the huge credit of the Treasury and all those who have been part of the team that has been able to do that. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast for economic recovery next year and the year after is a testament to that, and that should benefit this sector just as much as it does everything else.

Levelling-up Fund

What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the levelling up fund. (913426)

The levelling-up fund is unquestionably good news for Wales. It will ensure that millions of pounds is invested in Welsh local authorities, providing much-needed local infrastructure and driving up regeneration in left-behind places.

Would the Minister meet me about, and visit when possible, exciting projects in Clwyd South that fulfil the requirements of the levelling-up fund, such as Wrexham Council’s bold regeneration plans and the reopening of Corwen station in Denbighshire on the Llangollen steam railway?

I assure my hon. Friend that it is always a pleasure to meet him and hear about the enormous amount of hard work he is undertaking in his constituency. Unfortunately, I have been advised that it would not be appropriate for me to visit any specific project site, but I of course look forward to supporting him and other Members of Parliament who continue the work of using the funds being made available by the UK Government to drive forward regeneration in their constituencies.

I was delighted to see so much in the Budget for Brecon and Radnorshire. The levelling-up fund is extremely welcome, as is the commitment to the global centre for rail excellence in Coelbren in my constituency. However, parts of Brecon and Radnorshire are plagued by substandard broadband and mobile coverage. Could the Minister confirm that the levelling-up fund will make a genuine difference to structural problems like this that hold back rural areas such as mine?

We expect that the levelling-up fund can be used to invest in community infrastructure right the way across the board. Of course, the UK gigabit programme will invest in broadband and the hardest-to-connect areas of the United Kingdom. I was also delighted, of course, with the news about the global centre for rail excellence—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pushed very hard for it—which is also going to be good news for the economy in that part of Wales.

Given that the Welsh Government have worked with Welsh local authorities and other stakeholders to produce a framework for regional investment, can the Minister tell the House why Ministers at England’s Housing Department, with no history of delivering within Wales and no record of working with communities in Wales or understanding their priorities, are the right people to be administering this so-called levelling-up fund in Wales? Is this the result of this Government’s fixation with undermining democratic devolution?

That was a rather disappointing question from the hon. Lady. The Chancellor has made £800 million available for the devolved Administrations across the United Kingdom and wants the UK Government to be able to work directly with local authorities and to hear about what their priorities are. I think it is absolutely fantastic that the Chancellor, as well as being able to deliver that £800 million, has found £740 million for the Welsh Government and has continued the support for businesses and individuals in Wales affected by the covid crisis. Perhaps I can pass the hon. Lady’s congratulations on to the Government for a fantastic Budget for Wales.

Green Industries

Earlier this month, the Chancellor committed £4.8 million to the Holyhead hydrogen hub project. Offshore wind in Wales is going from strength to strength, with the potential for a 1.5 gigawatt project in north Wales and growing interest in floating wind off the south-west Wales coast.

Green issues affect the whole of this Union; does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important not only that Wales capitalises on new and innovative green industries, but that it continues to decarbonise the heavy industry it already has given that over 10 megatons of carbon emissions were generated by businesses and industries in Wales alone last year?

As I mentioned in answer to an earlier question, only today there has been an announcement of a further £20 million for the South Wales industrial cluster to develop an industrial decarbonisation plan. The 10-point plan and our net zero ambitions will create 250,000 jobs across the UK, and I am absolutely determined to ensure Wales gets more than its fair share of them.

Drug Crime

Cutting crime is an absolute priority for the UK Government. We are working cross-Government with local partners to address the drivers behind drug-related crime, to help prevent further substance misuse and offending.

From the village of Wales in Rother Valley to the great country of Wales, drug usage, including in the form of nitrous oxide capsules, is a huge blight on our communities. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the law is rigorously enforced, and even tightened, in regard to nitrous oxide so that everyone, particularly young people, is protected from this noxious substance?

My hon. Friend points to a crucial approach, and it is worth pointing out that these awful crimes do not respect political or geographical borders; they are international problems and UK problems. Therefore, one way of approaching this is to make sure UK police forces can collaborate effectively cross-border, and that is what they are doing. My hon. Friend might have heard of Project Adder, the trial in Swansea bay, and of course seen some of the benefits from the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.

UK Shared Prosperity Fund

What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Wales on the UK shared prosperity fund. (913424)

I have regular discussions with the First Minister of Wales and his ministerial team on a range of issues, including the UK shared prosperity fund. The Government will continue to engage with the Welsh Government as we develop the fund’s investment framework, which will be published later this year.

Absolutely; that underpins the entire thrust of a number of these funds. We are attempting to prioritise areas with greatest need and where there is opportunity and challenges so that we get the money to the right places at the right time as fast as we can. One of the bits of feedback we get from local communities is that there seems to be a lot of money talked about but it never quite gets to the right place; this new initiative provides a much quicker and better way, involving local authorities, to get over that problem.

Budget 2021: Effect on Economy

On top of the new UK-wide funds, £4.8 million has been committed to the Holyhead hydrogen hub, up to £30 million to the global centre of rail excellence, and we are accelerating funding for the growth deals in Wales.

In north Wales, just as in Burnley, there is a strong and proud aerospace manufacturing sector. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Chancellor’s super deduction, announced at the Budget, could be transformational for that sector, allowing it to invest in equipment and machinery that will create jobs and boost productivity?

My hon. Friend does not have to take it from me; he makes a very good point and I have to tell him, from the number of stakeholder engagements we have had in the Wales Office, including with that sector, that the reception to this particular recommendation has been fantastic. It is transformational. This is the first time this has ever been done—probably the biggest tax cut in history. That is the sort of thing that will regenerate jobs and livelihoods at a time when they are most needed, and I congratulate the Chancellor on his efforts.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure colleagues across the House will want to join me in wishing everyone a very happy St Patrick’s day. I was delighted to visit Northern Ireland last week, where I was able to thank military and emergency response teams for their brilliant work throughout the covid-19 pandemic.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

A decade ago, GlaxoSmithKline announced a £350 million investment in my constituency, which would have led to 1,000 jobs. In 2017, it reneged on that, and a few weeks ago it announced that it is closing its business altogether. We have gone from the very real prospect of having 1,000 high-paying, high-skilled pharma jobs in my constituency to the risk of having none by 2025. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and throw the weight of the Government behind efforts to ensure that GSK does the right thing by my constituents and delivers for some very worried people?

I thank my hon. Friend very much, and I express my deepest sympathy to all those in Ulverston affected by these job losses. I will certainly meet him. I believe that bioscience is one of the great growth areas for this country in the future, and I am determined that Barrow and Furness should take part in that boom along with everywhere else, as well as other high technologies.

May I join the Prime Minister in his comments about St Patrick’s day?

My thoughts, and I am sure those across the whole House, are with the family and friends of Sarah Everard, who will be suffering unspeakable grief. There are five words that will stick with us for a very long time: she was just walking home.

Sometimes, a tragedy is so shocking that it demands both justice and change. The Stephen Lawrence case showed the poison of structural and institutional racism. The James Bulger case made us question the nature of our society and the safety of our children. Now the awful events of the last week have lifted a veil on the epidemic of violence against women and girls. This must also be a watershed moment, to change how we as a society treat women and girls, and how we prevent and end sexual violence and harassment.

I believe that, if we work together, we can achieve that, and the questions I ask today are in that spirit. First, does the Prime Minister agree that this must be a turning point in how we tackle violence against women and girls?

Yes I do, and I associate myself fully with the remarks that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has made about the appalling murder of Sarah Everard. I am sure that those emotions are shared in this House and around the country.

That event has triggered a reaction that I believe is wholly justified and understandable, and of course we in government are doing everything that we can. We are investing in the Crown Prosecution Service, trying to speed up the law; we are changing the law on domestic violence, and many, many other things. But the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right, frankly, that unless and until we have a change in our culture that acknowledges and understands that women currently do not feel they are being heard, we will not fix this problem. That is what we must do. We need a cultural and social change in attitudes to redress the balance. That is what I believe all politicians must now work together to achieve.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. In that spirit, can I turn to the practical challenges we face if we are collectively to rise to this moment? The first challenge is that many, many women and girls feel unsafe on our streets, particularly at night. What is needed is legal protection. That is why we have called for a specific new law on street harassment and for toughening the law on stalking. Both, I think, are absolutely vital if we are going to make meaningful change in the everyday experiences of women and girls. So can the Prime Minister commit to taking both of those measures forward?

We are always happy to look at new proposals. What we are already doing is introducing tougher sanctions on stalkers. That is already being brought in and we are bringing in new measures to make the streets safer. Of course that is the right thing to do. Last night there was a Bill before the House on police, crime and sentencing, which did a lot to protect women and girls. It would have been good, in a cross-party way, to have had the support of the Opposition.

I will come to last night’s Bill later, but it did say a lot more about protecting statues than it did about protecting women.

Let me, if I may, given the gravity of the situation, continue in the spirit so far. I thank the Prime Minister for his answer. The next practical challenge is that many, many women and girls who are subjected to sexual violence do not feel confident to come forward and report what has happened to them. Nine out of 10 do not do so. We have to improve the support that is provided for victims.

The Victims’ Commissioner published a report last month with 32 recommendations about this. This week, Labour produced a detailed survivor support plan, and five years ago I introduced a private Member’s Bill, with cross-party support, for a victims’ law to give legally enforceable rights to victims. The shadow victims Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), has tabled a similar victims’ Bill that is before Parliament now. It is ready to go. All it needs is the political will to act. So will the Prime Minister commit now not just to the idea of a victims’ law, which I think he supports, but to a tight timetable, of ideally six months or so, to actually implement such a law?

As I say, I would be very happy to look at new proposals from all sides of the House on this issue. That is why we are conducting an end-to-end review of the law on rape and how it works, and investing in the criminal justice system to speed up cases and give women and girls the confidence they need. The point the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes about victims and their need to feel confident in coming forward is absolutely right. That is why we have put £100 million so far into services for dealing with violence against women and girls, particularly independent domestic violence advisers and independent sexual violence advisers. I do not pretend that these are the entire solution; they are part of the solution. It is also vital that we have long- term cultural, societal change to deal with this issue.

I agree with the Prime Minister on that last point. Can I gently remind him that for 10 years this Government have been promising a victims’ law? I think it has been in his party’s last three manifestos. It still has not materialised. We do not need more reviews, consultations, strategies. The conversations our shadow Minister is having with Government—constructive conversations—are exactly the same conversations that I had five years ago: constructive conversations. We just need now to get on with it.

Let me press on with the practical challenges. The next challenge is this. For many, many women and girls who do come forward to report sexual violence, no criminal charges are brought. Only 1.5% of rapes reported to the police lead to a prosecution. Put the other way, 98.5% of reported rapes do not lead to a prosecution. That is a shocking statistic. I appreciate that efforts are being made to improve the situation, but can the Prime Minister tell us: what is he going to do about this not in a few years’ time, not next year, but now?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely right. I agree with him; one of the first things I said when I became Prime Minister was that I believed that the prosecution rates for rape were a disgrace in this country. We need to sort it out. That is why we are investing in confidence-building measures, such as ISVAs and IDVAs, and investing in the Crown Prosecution Service in trying to speed up the process of the law to give people confidence that their cases will be heard in due time. We are also doing what we can to toughen the penalties for those men—I am afraid it is overwhelmingly men—who commit these crimes. I think it would have been a good thing if, last night, the whole House could have voted for tougher sentences for those who commit sexual and violent offences and to stop people from being released early. In that collegiate spirit, I ask him to work together with us.

I was Director of Public Prosecutions for five years and spent every day prosecuting serious crime, including terrorism, sexual violence and rape, so I really do not need lectures about how to enforce the criminal law.

Walking on through the system, as many women and girls have to do, and facing up to the challenges that we need to face as a House, the next challenge is the point that the Prime Minister just referenced—the sentences for rape and sexual violence, because they need to be toughened. Let me give the House three examples. John Patrick, convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl, received a seven-year sentence. Orlando and Costanzo, who were convicted of raping a woman in a nightclub, received a seven-and-a-half-year sentence. James Reeve, convicted of raping a seven-year-old girl, received a nine-year sentence. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need urgently to look at this and to toughen sentences for rape and serious sexual violence?

Would it not be a wonderful thing if there was a Bill going through the House of Commons that did exactly that? Would it not be a wonderful thing if there were measures to defend women and girls from violent and sex criminals? Would it not be a wonderful thing if there was a Bill before the House to have tougher sentences for child murderers and tougher punishments for sex offenders? That would be a fine thing. As it happens, there is such a Bill before the House. I think it would be a great thing if the right hon. and learned Gentleman had actually voted for it. He still has time. This Bill is still before the House. He can lift his opposition. They actually voted against it on a three-line Whip and I think that was crazy.

The Prime Minister mentions the Bill last night. That provided for longer maximum sentences for damaging a memorial than the sentences imposed in the three cases of rape I have referred the House to, which were all less than 10 years. I thank the Prime Minister for providing me with the best examples of why the priorities in his Bill were so wrong. Nothing in that Bill would have increased the length of sentence in any of those rape cases—nothing in that Bill.

Let me try to return to the constructive spirit, because I think that is demanded of all of us. If this House came together on the points raised today, and there has been agreement across the Dispatch Boxes, it would make a real difference to victims of crime. This week, Labour published a 10-point plan. We published a victims’ law. In coming days, we are going to publish amendments in relation to the criminal justice system to make it work better. I do not expect the Prime Minister to agree with all of this and, frankly, I do not care if this becomes a Government Bill or Conservative legislation. All I care about is whether we make progress, so will the Prime Minister meet me, the shadow Home Secretary—my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds)—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and victims’ groups, who have spent many years campaigning on this, so that we can really and truly make this a turning point?

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the collegiate way in which he is addressing this and the way in which he is reaching out across the Chamber. I think that is entirely right in the circumstances, but I do think that he should not misrepresent what the Bill was trying to do. The average sentence for rape is already nine years and nine months, as he knows full well, and the maximum sentence is already life. What we are trying to do is stiffen the sentences for a variety of offences to protect women and girls and others, and that is entirely the right thing to do.

We will go on with our agenda to deliver on the people’s priorities, rolling out more police—7,000 we have already—investing in ISVAs and IDVAs and doing our utmost to accelerate the grinding processes of the criminal justice system, which, as he rightly says, are such a deterrent to women coming forward to complain as they rightly should. Until we sort out that fundamental problem, and until women feel that their voices are being heard and their complaints are being addressed by society, we will not fix this problem. I warmly welcome what he suggests about wanting to fix it together, and I hope that, in that spirit, he can bring himself to vote for the tougher sentences that we have set out.

I thank the Prime Minister for bringing the G7 leaders’ summit to Cornwall this summer. This will put Cornwall front and centre on the world stage as we emerge from the pandemic and give us a great opportunity to showcase all that Cornwall has to offer. It is a great place to visit not just for its amazing food and drink sector, but for the technologies of the future in space and in renewable energy.I know the Prime Minister shares my ambition for the G7 to leave a lasting economic legacy for the people of Cornwall, so to that end, and in the light of the recent progress on lithium extraction, will he work with me to secure a gigafactory for Cornwall so that we can produce the batteries, leave that lasting economic legacy and provide the well-paid jobs for the future that Cornwall needs? (913640)

I think Cornwall is the Klondike of lithium, as far as I understand the matter, and I would be delighted to assist my hon. Friend in locating a gigafactory somewhere near Cornwall—I do not want to promise too much at this stage.

May I wish everyone a happy St Patrick’s day?

Across Scotland this week, a tale of two Governments with two very different sets of values has again been exposed. Yesterday, the Scottish National party Government passed landmark legislation that will put the UN convention on the rights of the child into Scots law, putting children at the vanguard of children’s rights. In contrast, we have a UK Government who have to be shamed into providing free school meals, who will clap for nurses but will not give them a fair wage, and who plough billions into a nuclear arsenal that sits redundant on the Clyde. Does the Prime Minister understand that the Scottish people are best served by a Government who live up to their values—a Government who prioritise bairns not bombs?

I think what the people of Scotland need and deserve is a Government who tackle the problems of education in Scotland, a Government who address themselves to fighting crime and drug addiction in Scotland, and a Government who can wean themselves off their addiction to constitutional change and constitutional argument, because they seem, in the middle of a pandemic when the country is trying to move forward together, to be obsessed with nothing else—nothing else—but breaking up the country and a reckless referendum.

Of course, this is Prime Minister’s questions, and maybe the Prime Minister might, just once, try to answer the question that is put to him. We are talking about a Tory plan to impose a 40% increase in nuclear warheads. Our children have the right to a future that no longer lives under the shadow of these weapons of mass destruction. As the Irish President said on this St Patrick’s day, we need to find ways to make peace, not war. Every single one of those weapons will be based on the Clyde, so can the Prime Minister tell us exactly when the Scottish people gave him the moral or democratic authority to impose those weapons of mass destruction on our soil in Scotland?

The people of Scotland contribute enormously to the health, happiness, wellbeing and security of the entire country, not least through their contribution to our science, our defences, our international aid and in many other ways. I am very proud that this Government are investing record sums in defence, including maintaining our nuclear defence, which is absolutely vital for our long-term security, and helping, thereby, to drive jobs not just in Scotland, but across the UK.

Back in July last year, I informed the Prime Minister of the need for a new hospital in Doncaster. Sadly, Doncaster was not mentioned among the first 40 hospitals promised in the manifesto, but the building of a further eight specialist hospitals was. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a new hospital will prove to the people of Doncaster that this Government are committed to building back better and levelling up their town? (913642)

My hon. Friend is a fantastic advocate for Doncaster, and he is right to campaign in the way he does. I wish I could give him a cut-and-dried yes or no answer today, but I can tell him that his local trust is very much in the running in the current open competition for the next eight hospitals, on top of the 40 that we are already building.

The creation of a no-protest zone around Parliament, a 266% increase from a maximum of three months to 11 months’ imprisonment for protest organisers, a direct attack on the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community, up to 10 years in prison for any offence committed by destroying or damaging a memorial, and criminalising people for taking part in protests where they ought to have known police conditions were in place. Does the Prime Minister agree that if the UK is to be a force for good in a world where democracy is “in retreat”, as the Foreign Secretary is saying today, it needs to start at home with the protection of the long-standing, precious and fundamental right to peaceful protest, which is a cornerstone of liberal democracy?

The hon. Lady is quite right to stick up for peaceful protest, and I understand and sympathise with that, but there are a couple of points. First, we are facing a pandemic in which, alas, we have to restrict human contact—[Interruption.] Although the hon. Lady shakes her head, I think the people of this country do understand that and do understand the restrictions we are now under.

I think we also have to strike a balance between the need to allow peaceful protests to go ahead, and we do on a huge scale in this country, and the need to protect free speech and vital parts of the UK economy.

I want to see the fundamental right to protest protected, so that events such as the powerful vigil last Saturday on Clapham Common can proceed safely, including covid safely, but I also want to see measures so that people can go about their lives, get to work and get to hospital without being hindered. Can the Prime Minister reassure me that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which we have been discussing today and which was before the House yesterday, strikes that balance while also taking action against the perpetrators of some of the worst crimes? (913643)

My hon. Friend perfectly sums up the balance that we are trying to strike between allowing people, in a reasonable way, to go about their daily lives and bringing in tougher sentences for child murderers, tougher punishments for sex offenders, and stopping the continuing practice of allowing people out early. I think that is what the people of this country want to see. That is what they voted for in 2019, and I hope the Opposition can bring themselves, one day, to support it.

With the Government’s end-to-end rape review remaining unpublished, two years after it was promised, rape conviction rates having fallen to their lowest point on record and almost 90% of sexual harassment complaints not even reported to the police, women are increasingly being left without legal recourse against sexual violence. I have parliamentary privilege and can name the men who have hurt me, but millions of women in this country do not have that. Women are stuck between a criminal justice system in which only 1.4% of reported offences result in charges being laid and too many survivors who speak out being pursued through the civil courts by their abusers to silence them. Can the Prime Minister advise how they are meant to get justice? (913641)

I am afraid that the hon. Lady is completely right, and I know that she speaks for many women up and down the country. We can do all the things we have talked about, two men arguing over the Dispatch Box. We can bring in more laws and tougher sentences, which I hope she will support. We can support independent domestic violence and sexual violence advisers. We can do all that kind of thing, but we have to address the fundamental issue of the casual everyday sexism and apathy that fail to address the concerns of women. That is the underlying issue.

Two years ago, the Bishop of Truro produced an interim report outlining the global phenomenon of the persecution of Christians. As we make progress on our manifesto commitment fully to implement the Truro review recommendations, will the Prime Minister join me in looking forward to our hosting the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief next year, and to the UK demonstrating its global leadership in defending and promoting this universal right for all? (913645)

I thank my hon. Friend very much for everything she is doing to campaign for freedom of religion and belief. I am very pleased that we are going to be holding an international conference on this issue. That is exactly what global Britain is all about: promoting freedom of expression, and freedom of belief and religion.

The Prime Minister refused point blank to answer the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), so I will ask him again: what gives any British Prime Minister the moral and democratic right to impose the obscenity of an even bigger arsenal of weapons of mass murder on the people of Scotland, against their express will? (913644)

I think that was a veiled attempt, again, by the SNP to ask for another referendum, which is its habitual refrain. That is all it seems able to talk about: wrangling about democracy and its desire to be separated and to break up the country. I do not think that is the right way forward. I think we need strong defences. That is what the people of this country voted for and that is what we are going to deliver.

From gloom to joy, with news from Winchester for the Prime Minister that the vaccination programme is going really, really well. There are now fewer than 200,000 people in the whole of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight left to do in cohorts 1 to 9, and we have the plan, plus the supply to cover them comfortably by the end of March. Will my right hon. Friend please thank the NHS and its volunteers here for this amazing effort? As he does that, will he share his view on what led to the disinformation and the apparent abandonment of scientific evidence in certain EU member states around the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab? (913648)

Of course, I thank the NHS in Hampshire, and indeed around the country, for the amazing job it is doing in rolling out the vaccination programme—it has been truly stunning. Perhaps the best thing I can say about the Oxford-AstraZeneca programme is that I have finally got news that I am going to have my own jab very shortly; I am pleased to discover that. I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) has had his. [Interruption.] He has had his. It will certainly be the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab that I will be having.

There have now been more than 600 cases of coronavirus infection at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea since September, yet Ministers still refuse to meet the Public and Commercial Services Union to discuss ways in which more workers could work from home in safety before they are vaccinated. Workers have now resorted to voting for strike action, as a last resort, to protect their families and communities. I ask the Prime Minister again: will he now instruct Ministers to engage in talks with the union to help shield vulnerable workers before vaccination, or will he force a needless strike? (913646)

I think “needless” is the right word, and the hon. Gentleman should bear it in mind that any strike is likely to be bad news for motorists. We are at the stage now where we are advancing down our road map out of lockdown, and at the DVLA any staff who can work from home are doing so. Out of a workforce of 6,000, only five cases of covid have currently been found, and I understand that those individuals are all working from home. Frankly, I see no need for industrial action.

My Kensington constituents and I have been deeply troubled by what is coming out of the Grenfell inquiry with regard to the building products industry. Does my right hon. Friend agree that contractors who have behaved improperly should not be used, going forward, for Government contracts? Will my right hon. Friend consider imposing a tax on the building products industry, in the same way as we have done on the residential property sector, as a way of partly paying for cladding remediation? (913649)

I know how much my hon. Friend cares about this issue and how deeply her constituents have been affected by the Grenfell fire. I will study her proposal for a new tax on building materials, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will want to think about that kind of idea. We are looking at new rules to exclude contractors from Government business where gross professional negligence has been shown.

Exactly one year ago today we were told that 20,000 coronavirus deaths would be a “good outcome”. Yet our death toll is now six times higher: over 100,000 more people have lost their lives than that initial estimate. In March last year, the Prime Minister pontificated about taking it “on the chin”. Others acted decisively with lockdowns, but the Prime Minister dithered and delayed, with deadly consequences. With the worst hopefully now behind us, is it not time for the Prime Minister to hold up his hands and come clean with the British public and say, “Those deaths are on me, and for that I apologise”? (913647)

I certainly take full responsibility for everything the Government did, and of course we mourn the loss of every single coronavirus victim, and we sympathise deeply with their families and their loved ones. Am I sorry for what has happened to our country? Yes of course I am deeply, deeply sorry, and of course there will be a time for a full inquiry to enable us all to understand what we need to do better when we face these problems in the future, and that is something I think the whole House shares.

Five years on from Storm Desmond and a year on from Storm Ciara, sadly Penrith and The Border and Cumbria remain in the frontline for severe flooding events. With climate change, these catastrophes are becoming increasingly frequent and severe, and the effects on communities are serious and long term. Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that at-risk communities will be supported by Government in terms of both flood protection and longer-term support, including in the important area of help for the mental health impacts of flooding? (913650)

My hon. Friend makes a really good point about the mental health impacts of flooding. Anybody who has been a victim of flooding or who visits a family that has been hit by flooding will know the immense distress that flooding causes. That is why the NHS will get an extra £500 million to address those issues and to give more support for the mental health needs.

Prime Minister, in December 2019’s election campaign you visited Samantha Parker at her home in Darlington. Samantha has the rare genetic condition PKU—phenylketonuria. You vowed to do your utmost to get her access to the life-changing drug Kuvan on the NHS. (913653)

Order. The hon. Lady just said “you.” We cannot use “you.” I am not responsible for this.

Apologies. The Prime Minister vowed to do his utmost to get Samantha access to life-changing drug Kuvan. Last month NICE published draft guidance, which would make Kuvan available to children but not to adults like Samantha—great for children, but devastating and discriminatory for adults like Samantha. Prime Minister, speaking as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on PKU, I now ask, what action will you take to deliver on your commitment to Samantha Parker, and make Kuvan available for her and for other adults with PKU?

I thank the hon. Lady very much for raising the case, which I well remember. I am glad that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has now extended the treatment’s availability to children with PKU. Clearly, we need to do more, and I am very happy to take it up.

Has my right hon. Friend noted that the integrated review has been widely and rightly welcomed as a bold British vision for our role in the world, but not in Scotland, of course, where the nationalist Administration think that it is more important to put indyref2 on the ballot paper at the Scottish elections? Does he realise that they are rejecting the jobs and security that the review guarantees for Scotland, because they hate the UK more than they want jobs for their own people? (913651)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the integrated review. It is hard to know what motivates our friends in the Scottish national party, but I think that they are mistaken in their approach. We are better as one United Kingdom; we are stronger together as one United Kingdom; and the contribution of the people of Scotland to the defence of our United Kingdom is absolutely incredible, and has been for centuries. That is what I want to maintain—I think it is a fine thing, and they should champion it.

Throughout the past year, NHS staff have been working tirelessly to keep our communities healthy and safe during the pandemic. I would like to ask the Prime Minister why he has been economical with the truth, when he says that a 1% pay increase is all that the Government can afford.

May I just say that no hon. Member on any side would actually mislead or lie to the House? But I am sure that the Prime Minister can answer something.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. No—I am grateful for your clarification—because what we are doing is saying that we so value the incredible contribution of nurses to our country over the past year or more that we want them, exceptionally of all the public services, to be looked at for a pay increase at a time of real difficulty in the public finances, which I think people understand. That is on top of the 12.8% increase in starting salary for nurses, plus the £5,000 bursary and the £3,000 that we have given for special help for childcare and other training needs.

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the figures, he will see that they are leading to a big increase in the number of nurses in the NHS—10,600 more this year than last year; more nurses in the NHS—and 60,000 more in training. When I talk to nurses—of course everyone wants better pay and conditions; I totally understand that—they say what they also want is an extra pair of hands next to them to give them the help and reassurance that they need. That is what we are recruiting for.

Recent horrific events have brought the important debate on women’s and girls’ rights into the spotlight, specifically their right to be safe and feel safe as they go about their daily lives. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such issues need to be treated sensitively, and false claims made by the Labour party last night on social media about the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are misleading and certainly not helpful? (913652)

It was certainly a mistake, and a regrettable mistake, for anybody to suggest that rape had been decriminalised in this country, because we must do everything we can to reassure victims of rape and sexual violence and get them to come forward. That is what we are doing. I also think it would be a good thing if, together, we could vote for some of the tougher sentences that we have put forward in the Bill. I liked the collegiate spirit that we had earlier on, and I hope it can be extended to voting for the tougher sentences that we have put forward.

Today the Welsh Labour Government have announced a special bonus payment for NHS and social care staff in Wales, with the Government covering the basic tax and national insurance so that most people will receive around £500. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming that payment in recognition of the dedication and commitment of our NHS and social care staff?

I do indeed recognise the amazing dedication and commitment of NHS and social care staff who have been at the forefront of this pandemic and who have borne the brunt of it, personally in many cases. That is why I will repeat the point I made a little while ago about what we are doing to recognise the contribution of the public sector, and nurses in particular, in these very difficult times, and say how relieved and glad I am to see the number of nurses now in training. I think there has been a 34% increase in applications to be nurses this year in this country. That is great, but we are going to drive things forward. We have a target of 50,000 more nurses, as well as 20,000 more police.

I am suspending the House to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.

Education Employment (Accompaniment To Hearings)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that teachers and other education staff may choose to be accompanied to disciplinary or grievance hearings by a person other than a trade union representative or colleague; and for connected purposes.

For anyone in any profession, a disciplinary or grievance hearing is daunting, but for teachers these hearings can be acutely so. False allegations of misconduct are all too common within the teaching profession, but their ramifications can be uniquely damaging, often shattering careers and tarnishing respectable reputations.

As a Member of Parliament, I have spoken to many teachers who have found themselves subject to false allegations. One teacher, who must remain anonymous, was suspended from teaching for 12 months when their school, under pressure from some parents, was deemed to have inadequately followed safeguarding procedures. That teacher was not just suspended for more than 12 months, unable to teach, but dismissed from their role at the school and referred to the Teaching Regulation Agency for serious misconduct. However, with significant support—accompaniment at hearings and representation at tribunals—the teacher was found not to have committed any such misconduct and their dismissal was, thankfully, successfully challenged. Without such support, this excellent teacher may never have taught again.

I regret to say that such cases are not uncommon. For teachers, third party accompaniment at a disciplinary or grievance hearing is crucial. Third parties can help to codify situations, provide objective guidance and offer reassurance in what can often be fractious, distressing and highly charged situations. To that extent, all employees and workers should have equal employment status under the law, regardless of their trade union membership status, but as it stands, section 10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999 does not offer fair accompaniment to the 77% of workers who are not members of a trade union.

At present, section 10 dictates that workers are legally entitled to accompaniment to disciplinary or grievance hearings only by a trade union representative or colleague. That means that a trade union member can be accompanied by almost anyone, from a local union rep to a QC, as long as they are employed by a school or the trade union. But what about those teachers who are not members of a trade union either by choice or by accident? It seems unlikely that a colleague would be trained and experienced to the same extent as a union representative, but that is the only option for the 77% of workers who are not members of a trade union. Although employers can agree to alternative accompaniment, it is at their exclusive discretion, so, right out of the blocks, many workers are left to their own devices, with the chances of a positive outcome stacked against them. Put simply, they are legally disadvantaged by the constraints of the Employment Relations Act, which deprives them of a right to fair accompaniment by a reasonably qualified companion.

It does not have to be like this. Accompaniment is a positive action: it is positive for workers; positive for trade unions; and positive for employers. It is widely accepted that trained and experienced companions are beneficial to both parties at disciplinary or grievance hearings. To that extent, the Bill seeks a simple change to the law to allow accompaniment for teachers at disciplinary or grievance hearings by someone other than a work colleague or union representative. It is likely that the companion might be somebody appropriately trained and experienced and, in some cases, legally qualified. I would endorse a system of accreditation to protect the integrity of the process. What I cannot endorse is the current situation whereby teachers’ statutory rights are dependent on their membership of a trade union.

This Bill is about levelling up the teaching profession. It is about strengthening the role of teachers. It is about the promotion of equal rights in the workplace, and it is about closing a gap in the law. It is a pro-worker move that costs nothing and hurts no one. It is not even a proposal without precedent. In 2008, the fifth report of the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee called on the Government to enshrine in law teachers’

“right to have legal representation or to be accompanied by a trade union representative, whichever they prefer, in all disciplinary hearings.”

Despite that, over a decade has passed, and the gap remains wide open.

This Bill is also about creating greater parity between employers and employees. As it stands, employers are free to have whoever they choose present to support, including legally qualified individuals, yet teachers’ accompaniment rights are much more limited, damaging their prospects and creating an asymmetrical relationship from the outset.

Fundamentally, these proposals are about choice. No one should feel pressurised into joining a trade union for the legal protections alone, but sadly, that seems to be the case, with polls showing that teachers join trade unions largely for legal support in the face of allegations. In fact, a survey of 6,900 teachers just last year showed that one in four teachers would leave their union if they could benefit from alternative legal support in employment disputes. Take Amy Forrester, a secondary school English teacher and director of pastoral care. Amy is not a union member but told me that, even as a Labour voter, none of the unions represents her current views as a teacher. Amy subscribes to one of the alternatives, Edapt, but like me, she strongly believes that her accompaniment rights should be dictated by personal choice rather than by the status of her union membership.

I want to make one point clear: this Bill is not an attack on trade unions. It does not seek to diminish their power or influence. It does not seek to undermine the valuable work they do, the accompaniment they provide or the legal representation that they can offer. Rather, it seeks to enhance and protect workers’ rights for teachers. It seeks to modernise existing legislation, and it seeks to recognise that all teachers deserve full legal protection against damaging and often false allegations.

For me, the core principle of this Bill is fairness. As a former teacher and headteacher, I want members of my former profession to feel confident in their position. I want them to feel secure, and I want them to feel protected. Teachers have given so much throughout this pandemic. They have adapted quickly to new ways of working, and they have provided a safe haven for many children during this immensely difficult time. In proposing this Bill, I hope to make it clear that all—not some—teachers deserve robust protection in disciplinary or grievance hearings. As we know, allegations of misconduct can be more damaging for teachers than virtually any other profession, so it makes no sense that the law discriminates in this way.

It is time for change, and it is time to align the rights of those who are not trade union members with the rights of those who are. As I said earlier, this Bill costs nothing and hurts no one. It simply closes a gap in the law—a gap that for too long has prohibited fairness and choice. I hope that the Government will support this Bill, to bring an end to the inequitable and selective nature of existing legislation. I commend this measure to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Brendan Clarke-Smith, Andrew Lewer, Andrew Percy, Caroline Ansell, Damian Hinds, Jim Shannon, Jonathan Gullis, Robert Halfon, Scott Benton, Selaine Saxby, Tim Loughton and Virginia Crosbie present the Bill.

Brendan Clarke-Smith accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 276).

Opposition Day

[18th Allotted Day]

Scotland: General Election and Constitutional Future

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the upcoming Scottish Parliamentary general election and Scotland’s right to choose its constitutional future.

We have been waiting a while for a third party Opposition day, so I am delighted that we get to set the agenda today. The timing of this debate could not be more apposite. On 6 May, Scotland goes to the polls for a general election to the Scottish Parliament. The consequences of the outcome of that election could be profound, both for Scotland and for the rest of the United Kingdom, so it is fitting that this Parliament gets an opportunity—perhaps its last opportunity—to debate what it thinks of that before the campaign starts and before the election takes place. I hope we can have a thoughtful and considered discussion about the political principles that will infuse that campaign, and perhaps leave behind some of the more intemperate remarks that are often a hallmark of the campaign itself.

To understand what is happening currently in Scotland, we need to start with two facts. The first is that Scotland is not a region of a unitary state seeking secession from it; it is a country that has been in existence for many centuries. Indeed, it is a nation that is, by voluntary association, part of a multinational state that we call the United Kingdom. The second fact is that in determining how consent to that voluntary association should be given, the people of Scotland are ultimately sovereign in making the decision.

The claim to be sovereign has been around for at least eight centuries, but in the modern era it was codified in 1989 by the Scottish constitutional convention in a document called “A Claim of Right for Scotland”, which asserted that the people of Scotland have the right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs. For a while that claim, which underpinned the 20 years of policy and argument that was to follow, was relatively uncontroversial. In fact, even in 2014 the Scottish Conservative party issued a statement saying that although it did not think that the people of Scotland should vote for independence, it very much endorsed and agreed with their right to do so.

On 18 September 2014, the claim was put into practice and there was a living experience of that right being exercised in the referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country. Even after the referendum, the Smith commission noted in 2016 that nothing in its report would preclude the people of Scotland voting to become an independent country in the future. As late as 2018, which seems only a blink of an eye away, we discussed the claim of right in this Chamber, and this Parliament and this House reaffirmed their commitment to the principle.

I remember that debate, and particularly the contribution of the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray). He felt frustrated and aggrieved; although he agreed with and supported the claim of right, he thought that my party was acting in bad faith, because the claim of right had been exercised at the referendum and we did not respect the result and the judgment of the people of Scotland in exercising their self-determination to remain in the United Kingdom. In fact, that is not true. We very much respect the decision that was taken on 18 December 2014. Indeed, had it not been for the will of the people to do otherwise, that might have been the end of the matter for a very considerable period of time. But the fact is that it was not.

A claim of right is not something that can exist on the day of the referendum and then cease to exist the day after. If it is a right, it must exist for all time. It does not have a self-destruct mechanism within it. It cannot be invalidated simply by its exercising.

I have an embarrassment of riches. I give way first to the hon. Member for Redcar (Jacob Young).

The hon. Gentleman is recalling all these different examples of when people have discussed the claim of right; does he remember when the leader of his party said of the 2014 referendum that it was a “once-in-a-generation” referendum?

All good things come to those who wait, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will be dealing with the “once in a generation” tagline later in my speech.

On referendums and whether they should take place, the question will arise as to who should make the decision. If we believe in the will of the Scottish people to choose their own destiny, then the answer can only be that the people of Scotland should decide whether to have another referendum. I accept that there needs to be a debate about how we gauge their opinion and what democratic mechanism is used for them to express their view. Well, democratic societies will quite often do that by using the electoral process and the process of voting, and in 2016 that is exactly what happened. My party did not go into the election in 2016 saying, “There must be another referendum and, 18 months forward, we disrespect the decision that was taken.” We went to the polls saying: “It looks like things are beginning to happen in the UK that will change the whole nature of the options available to people, and there may be circumstances in which it would be legitimate and proper to go forward and reconsider the question again in a second referendum.” That was the mandate that we were given by the people of Scotland in 2016.

That was six weeks before the Brexit vote in the UK, and no one could have anticipated what would unfold in the years after the May 2016 general election in Scotland. People in England voted by a small majority to leave the European Union and people in Scotland voted, by a much larger majority, to stay in the European Union. Overall, the vote was such that there was a narrow majority to leave, and the British Government began the tortuous process of extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union. That process was made all the more difficult and painful by the Government’s decision not to try to accommodate any of the wishes of the people on the losing side of the argument and to seek the maximum possible dissociation from the European Union. That is what happened, and we remember the agonising twists and turns in that process.

As 2018 moved into 2019 and we watched the process unfold, two things became clear. First, the opinion of the people of Scotland in the matter was to be completely disregarded. Unlike in other parts of the United Kingdom where there was an attempt to try to make the decision that was being implemented fit the aspirations of people who lived there, there was no such attempt in Scotland.

But the fact remains that Brexit has happened, so an independent Scotland would have to apply to rejoin the EU. Leaving aside whether it would be wise for Scotland to replace union with a country that is right next door to it with one with a body that is hundreds of miles away, why does the hon. Gentleman think that Spain, with its problems of Catalonia, would ever facilitate Scotland rejoining the EU?

That is not the subject of today’s debate, but it only takes a cursory reading of statements from European premiers to see that their mood has completely changed and they would welcome, many of them with open arms, a self-governing Scotland into the European Union. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, because we have not yet had the ability to take that decision.

As the Brexit process unfolded, two things became clear. One was that Scotland’s views were to be completely disregarded, but even more worryingly, we saw the British Government begin to put in place mechanisms to replace the jurisdiction of the European Union that would centralise political power in this country and reduce the capacity and competence of the devolved Administrations in Holyrood and, indeed, Cardiff.

By the end of 2019 it became clear that those two things were creating a fundamentally different terrain on which the future of the United Kingdom and the future of Scotland should be judged. It was the determination of the Scottish Parliament by resolution at that time that the conditions set in the mandate of 2016 had been met and that that mandate should now be discharged. Therefore, the Scottish Parliament voted and applied to the British Government for a section 30 order to begin the process of having a further referendum. The response by the Prime Minister was fast and furious, and he dismissed it out of hand.

We were about to get into an argument about that when the world literally turned upside down and a small microbe brought humanity almost to its knees. As covid-19 raced across the globe, and as our economy and society ground to a halt, the Scottish Government—rightly, in my view—decided to shelve any preparations or plans for a further referendum until that matter was dealt with. Had the pandemic not happened, we might well be having a very different discussion today. But we are where we are, and we are 51 days away from the Scottish general election, at which the existing mandate will expire. At that election, my party and others will be seeking a new, fresh mandate from the Scottish people to assert their right to choose whether they wish to remain in a post-Brexit Britain, or whether Scotland’s fortunes are better served by having a choice and becoming a self-governing independent European country. That is what will be at stake in the 2021 election.

Unlike 2016, the mandate we seek will not be conditional, have qualifications or be reliant on things that may or may not happen. It will be unconditional and without qualification, and it will be front and centre on page 1 of our manifesto. I think it is a racing certainty—Government Members can tell me if I am wrong—that the inverse proposition will be front and centre of the Conservative manifesto as well. We can be sure of one thing, which is that there will be a full and frank debate about this question, and a vote will be taken on 6 May 2021.

The hon. Gentleman said that page 1 will obviously refer to independence. I wonder whether page 2 will go back to what Nicola Sturgeon referred to as the focal point of her premiership: education. Perhaps we could have the OECD’s review of the curriculum for excellence before the May elections, rather than after, so that the people of Scotland can see the Scottish National party’s record on education since it took over in 2007.

I am more than happy for the record of the Scottish Government to be judged by the people on 6 May as well; independence and the referendum is not the only thing we shall be voting on. This SNP Government have been in power for 14 years, and what they do seems to go down rather well with the people of Scotland; I very much look forward to their judgment on that question on 6 May.

The hon. Gentleman’s party is seeking a new mandate on 6 May. If it does not get the majority it is seeking, will he therefore rule out the SNP trying again to seek a divisive second referendum?

Everything we do is subject to the will of an endorsement by the people of Scotland; so, obviously, if they do not want to take a particular course of action that we are recommending, that will not happen. If the Conservatives win on 6 May, I accept that there will not be a referendum. I hope they will accept that if we win, there will be, and that it will be legitimate for that to happen.

If the hon. Member does not mind, I am going to make some progress.

We need to consider what this Chamber’s response would be to that likely outcome. I do not take anything for granted. The campaign has not started; not a single vote has been cast, and I do not take anyone’s vote for granted. We will be arguing for this right until 10 o’clock on polling day. But I think people will want to know what the reaction of this Parliament here in Westminster would be if they were to take a decision saying that they wanted to have that choice again. That is why we need to be very careful about the language that is used by different opponents in this campaign. The way in which it is described will, in itself, condition how people vote on 6 May.

The only legitimate, proper and democratic response would be to say, “We disagree with the decision you’ve taken, but we respect your right to take it, and the British Government will therefore co-operate with the Scottish Government in trying to deliver on the wishes of the people freely and democratically expressed at the ballot box.” That is the reaction that I would hope to see. There are only two other possible responses. The first would be to say, “That process of election is not a sufficient democratic event to allow the choice of the people to be gauged, and therefore we won’t accept it”, in which case, those making that argument have to say by which mechanism people can resolve to go forward in this matter. The second other possible response would be, “Well, it doesn’t matter what the result was, because we do not respect that it is a decision for you to make.” That would be rejecting the claim of right, it would be rejecting the right of people in Scotland to make a choice, and it would take us into uncharted territory, because it would move the United Kingdom from being a multinational state built on the co-operation and consent of the people who live in its component parts, to being a state based on coercion of people throughout its borders to comply with things even if they disagree with them. That would be a completely different territory.

I am quite surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned independence polls, because he used to like to do that—especially when today’s shows that 57% of people would vote against separation. Will he elaborate on what he attributes the Scottish people’s change of mind to?

I did not mention polls because I would have thought it is too obvious, is it not? We had 22 polls in a row that showed majority support for independence, so I think—[Interruption.] Well, the poll that matters is the one that takes place on 6 May. I think all of us can agree on that.

In moving on, I want to deal with some of the themes that will come up in this campaign. This is where I will rejoin some of the comments and questions that were made in earlier interventions. First, let me deal with this question—this mantra—of “once in a generation”. The Prime Minister has repeated it ad nauseam over the last 12 months. Sometimes, in some of the iterations in which he speaks, we would think that those words were on the ballot paper on 18 September 2014.

I accept that the phrase “once in a generation” was part of the debate, but let us at least be honest with each other about the context in which it was said. It was said, invariably, by those who were proposing a yes vote for independence as a caution to their supporters that they might not get another chance. It was not made as a promise or a qualification to those who opposed independence that it would go away forever.

We have dealt with who should decide whether there is another referendum, but the truth—and I fully accept it—is that, had the result on 18 September 2014 been decisive and had circumstances not changed, that might well have been the end of it, but things did change, opinion did change, and it is for the people of Scotland now to make this determination.

I am sorry; I think I have to move on. I am not sure—[Interruption.] Am I okay taking some more interventions, Mr Speaker?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he took his time deciding, but nevertheless. It is all well and good his trying to explain away this phrase “once in a generation”, but here is the point: it was not us who said it; it was not even the Tories who said it; it was the SNP who said it.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will do me the courtesy of listening to what I say. I made plain the context in which that was said. It was said as a warning to those who supported independence, not as a promise to those who did not. But it is a moot question, because it is not for the Prime Minister or the First Minister or me or the hon. Gentleman to decide this question; it is for the people of Scotland to make the determination whether there should be another referendum, and to do that through the democratic mechanism of electing a Parliament on a manifesto. That is the process with which we are engaged.

I have already heard the word “separatist” raised in interventions, so I also want to deal with that. Much of what we hear in the coming months will be about the long arms of the Union and how we must not turn our back. This word “separatist” is used as a dysphemism to suggest that people like me are somehow insular or self-serving, want to turn our backs on the people of England, are not interested in co-operation, and are not interested in working together across Britain. It is a lie. It is simply a lie. Nothing could be further from the truth. Getting independence for Scotland is about Scotland having the political capacity to engage with others. It will be the means not of the separation of the Scottish people, but of their involvement across this island, across this continent and across the world.

Let me turn, in my final few moments, to the substance of the amendment, because the amendment is quite interesting, is it not? I talked earlier about there appearing to be a consensus around the idea of the claim of right, so a better amendment might have been to leave the existing text, which was drafted in an attempt not to divide the House, and then insert the words “However, we believe that now is not the time,” or whatever. It does not do that. Instead, it deletes all of it, including the assertion of the claim or right. I invite the Conservatives in this debate to make it clear whether or not they still believe that in the final resolve it should be for the people of Scotland to determine their own constitutional future. [Interruption.] I will not take an intervention, because other hon. Members will be speaking very shortly.

The whole premise of the amendment is to say that it is impossible to consider these matters now because of the pandemic we are all facing, because of the misery and concern that that has caused, and because it would be a distraction. Well, let us be entirely clear about this: no one—I mean no one—is suggesting that we have a referendum campaign during the pandemic. We will have to have it—[Interruption.] I tell you now, no one is suggesting that. We will have to have that put behind us and be moving into a recovery phase before that can happen.

I am very interested by what the hon. Gentleman says, because his leader, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), has said that an independence referendum could be held this year. The Scottish National party has put aside £600,000 of party funds to fight a referendum campaign this year. Is it wrong, or is the hon. Gentleman wrong?

If it is possible to have it later this year because the pandemic is over and we have moved beyond it, then I would welcome that. I do not speculate on whether it is the end of this year or the beginning of next year. The principle I am advocating is that we will not be launching or fighting a referendum campaign while the pandemic is still extant and while we have the social restrictions on people that are mandated by the public health emergency. That is a fact. I tell you this, if for no other reason than I do not want to ask people in Scotland about their future through the medium of a computer screen. I want people to be engaged in this debate as friends and as strangers in workplaces, in pubs, in parks. I want them talking about this, energised in the way that they were in 2014, and that is not possible by having some sort of mega-Zoom meeting to try to conduct this debate. So yes, we will be having a referendum campaign once we have dealt with the pandemic and are moving into the recovery phase.

Here is the final point. As we go into the recovery phase—everyone should understand this—far from the debate about a referendum or independence being a diversion from dealing with the pandemic and recovering from it, the process by which we are governed and the type of country we build and develop post covid are intimately linked. They are two sides of the same coin. If we want to see in Scotland a sustainable, green resilient economy that delivers for the communities of Scotland, then we will need the powers and capacity of independence to be able to marshal and direct the country’s capital to that end. If we want to have a better society with a system of obligation and reward that is rooted in human decency, and to see the eradication of poverty in Scotland, then the agency that comes with independence will be critical in delivering that end. If we want to see Scotland play its full role in the world and take a seat at the top table of nations where we can argue enlightened opinions, whether on how we treat refugees in the world or how we eradicate nuclear weapons from our shores, then that will require the political capacity of independence.

Sorry, I am finishing.

These things are intimately linked. It is not a matter of whether we postpone a discussion on whether to have an independence referendum until we get to a recovery phase. We know the mood music from the UK Government: the Chancellor does not have a detailed plan yet, but we already know that he thinks those who should pay for covid are the public services of the United Kingdom and the people who work in them, and we are anticipating another austerity programme coming in the autumn. The people of Scotland do not have to follow that lead; they have the opportunity on 6 May to vote for the right to choose a better future, and after this long, tragic, miserable year of dealing with covid-19, I think that provides hope on the horizon that people will respond to and vote for, and this House will need to get used to the idea.

I beg to move amendment (b), to leave out from “House” to end and add

“believes the priority of the Scottish people is to recover from the effects of the covid-19 pandemic, and that it would be irresponsible to hold a referendum at this time.”.

I am grateful to be able to speak in this Opposition day debate. My ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), will be closing the debate for the Government and I look forward to hearing his response to the many Back-Bench contributions today. I am pleased to be able to respond to this motion, as it is important to set out why the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) and his party’s focus on divisive debates about separation is irresponsible. We are currently recovering from the worst public health crisis in a century and the deepest recession in our history, and the people of Scotland voted decisively in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom. That is the context of this debate.

The people of our United Kingdom want and expect us to focus on fighting covid-19. They rightly expect us to focus on protecting jobs with furlough payments, ensuring our children catch up on their missed education, and finding jobs for our young people. They expect us to focus on building back better and building back greener. The people of Scotland rightly expect their two Governments to work together to deliver these priorities. Yet in the middle of this, the Scottish National party has tabled this motion for an Opposition day debate, not to discuss what more we can do to work constructively together and drive our recovery from covid-19, but instead to promote separation and the pursuit of another divisive and damaging referendum on independence.

The motion does not focus on anything practical or suggest solutions to the real challenges facing people at the moment. It does not propose ideas for how we can work together to deliver better outcomes for all citizens and businesses across Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, but we have already seen that, with the UK pulling together, we can progress quickly on the road to recovery. For example, in our vaccine programme, which is our path out of lockdown and to more normal times and lives, we have vaccines pioneered in the UK, trialled in the UK and made across the UK, including in Scotland, to protect the people of the UK and the world. In this team effort, the UK Government have bought the vaccines and are making sure every part of the UK gets its fair share, and the British armed forces are helping to establish new vaccine centres right across Scotland and to vaccinate people. As a result of our collaboration around 2 million people have already been vaccinated in Scotland.

We are collaborating on testing, too. We are providing sites across Scotland, including seven drive-through testing centres, 33 walk-in centres, over 20 mobile testing units, and the Lighthouse laboratory in Glasgow. Overall, the United Kingdom Government have provided around 60% of all tests in Scotland and, alongside that, the UK Government continue to drive forward our ambitious programme for economic growth.

The Chancellor’s Budget earlier this month demonstrated the Government’s commitment to operating on a truly UK-wide basis, from extending the furlough and self-employment schemes to the levelling-up fund, benefiting citizens and businesses right across the country. We are boosting funding for all communities and all parts of the UK, with a £200 million fund to invest in local areas ahead of launching the UK shared prosperity fund in 2022. This fund will help to level up and create opportunities across the UK in places most in need, such as former industrial areas, deprived towns, and rural and coastal communities, as well as help people who face labour market barriers.

Our ability to do this is underpinned by the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, passed in this place at the end of last year. The Act guarantees that UK companies can trade unhindered in every part of the UK, protecting jobs and livelihoods across the country. The financial assistance power taken through the Act covers infrastructure, economic development, culture and sport, and will support educational and training activities and exchanges both within the UK and internationally. As well as allowing the UK Government to deliver the UK shared prosperity fund, the power will also be used to deliver the new Turing scheme for students across the UK to study and work not just in Europe, but around the world.

There are numerous examples of where our interconnectedness, shared bonds and the value of all parts of the UK working together are clearly evident. The Union connectivity review, for example, is looking at how we better connect the different parts of the UK to boost our economy. We will be bringing at least one freeport to Scotland, and that is on top of the £1.5 billion that we are currently investing in city and region growth deals all across Scotland, in every region.

Just yesterday, the integrated review was published. This sets out the Prime Minister’s vision for the UK in 2030: a stronger, more secure, prosperous and resilient United Kingdom; a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective. Scottish capabilities in defence, space, cyber, maritime industries and many others contribute immensely to the security of our shared nation.

Furthermore, the Prime Minister recently set out his ambitious 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution —an innovative and ambitious programme of job creation that will support levelling up and up to 250,000 jobs. The plan will mobilise £12 billion of UK Government investment across green energy, nature and innovation technologies across the country in areas such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage, hydrogen and offshore wind. I personally expect Scotland to benefit hugely from this, becoming a global centre of excellence for energy transition.

Across the whole United Kingdom, there is far more that unites than divides us, so we should be here today using the time constructively to debate how we can best lead the recovery of our economy and our communities. We should be talking about building up, not breaking up our country. People across the United Kingdom want to see us working in partnership to tackle the pandemic and drive the recovery that we all need. That remains the top priority of the United Kingdom Government. It should be the SNP’s and the Scottish Government’s top priority, too.

A very happy St Patrick’s Day to you and everyone in the House, Mr Speaker.

I am sure that you will have been as astonished as I was, Mr Speaker, to hear that the SNP was using one of its irregular Opposition day debates to talk about independence. Indeed, even the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) said that this was a very rare debate for the SNP. You could have knocked me over with a feather, Mr Speaker, and that is no mean task with my extra 10 lockdown kilos. It is not as though there is not anything for us to debate today. You would not think that we were in the worst health and economic crisis since world war two.

Why does the SNP want to turn the Scottish election in May into a referendum on whether or not we have another referendum? Because it cannot defend its atrocious record in government for the last 14 years. SNP Members have no defence at all and nothing to offer. In 25 minutes of opening speech, there was not one positive policy about how to deal with the problems in Scotland. We have had the sheer arrogance of the SNP making assumptions about the election result without a single cross being put in a single ballot box anywhere in Scotland. However, we no longer hear the cry of “22 polls in a row in favour of separation” when it is now four in a row in favour of staying part of the United Kingdom, the one today being 57% to 43%. They are being found out.

We could have been debating all sorts of major issues today. We could have debated our democratic institutions in Scotland, whether the Scottish Government legislative settlement needs to be improved, and telling MSPs to properly hold the Scottish Government to account. The Minister made those points yesterday.

The poll today shows that only 46% of the Scottish electorate support independence. A few months ago, it was 58%, so it is down 12%. I say very gently to my brothers and sisters around me, my Gaelic friends: the poll that really matters is the last one. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the reason this has happened is in part due the covid vaccine roll-out? To everyone, it has expressed across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that together, we are better. Does he agree?

I am sorry that I did not quite hear the hon. Gentleman—the intervention king—so I apologise, but he is right. I think the reason why the polls have moved is that the SNP has arrogantly assumed that the Scottish people want independence, so people have started to ask the big questions, to which no answers have been forthcoming. People realise, with the vaccine roll-out and the covid support, that we are much better and much stronger as a nation working with our partners and friends as part of the family of four nations of the UK.

The Member from Edinburgh said that the independence referendum will be on page 1 of the SNP’s manifesto and that “no independence referendum” will be on page 1 of the Conservative manifesto. What is Labour’s position on a referendum and on what page will it be in its manifesto?

It will not be in our manifesto because our manifesto will be a covid recovery plan for the nation.

Order. We are not here to debate what referendums might be in parties’ manifestos. Otherwise, we will be here a long time, and which election would we start with?

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Just for the record, there are Members for Edinburgh East and for Edinburgh South. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East does not represent the whole city, despite the fact that the SNP thinks that it represents the whole of Scotland.

Let me go back to what we could be debating today. We could have debated the dreadful picture that everyone will have seen on social media from George Square in Glasgow last month, where 220 people were queuing up in sub-zero temperatures in the snow to get food from the soup kitchen. A photo says a thousand words, and those words were that both the UK and Scottish Governments are failing the people of Scotland who need their Governments the most. But, no, we are not debating that.

We could have debated universal credit and the £20 uplift becoming permanent, extending it to legacy benefits, removing the rape clause and helping those most in need.

I will come back to the hon. Gentleman in a second.

We could have debated the First Minister’s so-called top priority: education. But the SNP cannot defend the widening educational attainment gap, thousands fewer teachers, a lower spend per pupil than in 2007, Scotland plummeting down the international rankings, or Scotland’s education system being behind England for the first time ever—behind Tory England for the first time ever. They will not even publish the OECD report into Scottish education before the election—I wonder why. We could have debated education and our children’s future, but no.

We could have debated why, even before covid, the SNP Scottish Government had not met their own legal NHS waiting times targets since 2012. They have broken their own law 360,000 times in the process, but no.

How about international issues? We could have debated Myanmar and the atrocities in the coup, Yemen and the worst humanitarian disaster the world has ever seen, or Scotland’s wonderful partnership with Malawi, but no.

We could have debated how Scottish businesses recover from covid and how we can support those sectors in hospitality, tourism and culture that will take longer to recover and have been hardest hit. What about the 3 million excluded from any Government support? We could have debated that, but no.

We could have debated how Scottish taxpayers are on the hook for over half a billion pounds to fund a 25-year guarantee for a failing business that owned an aluminium smelter and a hydropower plant in Scotland, but no.

We could have debated last month’s Audit Scotland report, which says that billions of pounds of covid support funds are unspent by the Scottish Government and audited what they are spending them on, but no.

We could have been having a debate about COP26 and climate change, but no.

We could have celebrated the success of the vaccine roll-out—all the nations of the UK working together with our wonderful science and research and development sectors—but no.

We could have even debated how the Tories are a bigger threat to the Union than any nationalist. They got us into this mess by playing fast and loose with the UK constitution in the first place, bringing us Brexit, English votes for English laws, cronyism, wasting £37 billion on Test and Trace. We could have debated how they have nothing to offer Scotland but waving their own flag, but no.

We could even have debated how to eradicate child poverty, but no. The SNP uses its precious parliamentary time to debate another referendum—quelle surprise. Surely if SNP Members want to turn May’s election into a referendum on having another referendum, they could at least put their cards on the table and be straight with the Scottish people. Even the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said on several occasions during his speech, “Let us be honest with each other,” so let us make this a great opportunity for them to use their speeches to tell us what their separation proposition means. Let us be honest with each other.

On EU accession, how, when, why? How will they meet the criteria? On borders, will this be determined by the trade and co-operation agreement that has just been signed between the UK and the EU? The Health Secretary said on “Question Time” two weeks ago that it would not.

All these questions will be discussed and decided upon if and when we get to a referendum campaign and a referendum vote. What is at stake on 6 May is who should make the decision on whether that process happens—whether people in Scotland have a right to even choose to make that consideration. That is a different matter. What is the hon. Gentleman’s view on that?

When I pose the challenge to the hon. Gentleman, “Let’s be honest with each other” the answer comes back, “No”. What is at stake at the elections on 6 May is how Scotland recovers from the worst health and economic crisis since the second world war. To plunge the country into another divisive independence referendum debate, while people are more worried about their lives, their livelihoods and the health of their friends and their family, is absolutely deplorable.

My hon. Friend is making a characteristically excellent speech. What he says about the timing of the referendum is something that polling is clear about. While the polling has moved up and down on the subject of whether there should be independence, it is absolutely clear that even the majority of those who are in favour of independence do not think that we should have a referendum right now. What are those people supposed to do when they go to vote in May? If they vote for the Scottish National party, they will be seen as having endorsed a referendum that they themselves do not think should happen right now.

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head because the priorities of the Scottish people are health, education, covid recovery, the economy, jobs and livelihoods. That is what is important to the Scottish people and poll after poll after poll shows that.

Let us be honest with each other. On the oil price, $114 a barrel was underpinning the entire Scottish economy; it has been less than half of that since the last referendum. On deficits and debt, how will they be dealt with? On pensions, SNP candidates in constituencies up and down Scotland are delivering leaflets promising pensioners that they will double the state pension. Let us be honest with each other. And how would the SNP work with the rest of the UK with regards to the EU?

For a start, if we are going to be honest, it is quite clear that, due to the covid restrictions, we do not have people out delivering leaflets right now. If we are talking about honesty, will the hon. Gentleman answer this question: if the voters vote for parties that have a referendum in their manifesto, should that referendum happen to reflect the will of the Scottish people? Will he give us an honest answer?

I will be honest with the hon. Gentleman. The leaflet was delivered in Dumbarton and was posted on social media by the person who delivered it, so that is being honest with each other. Let me just say to him that I am very much in the same place as Sir John Curtice —we cannot extrapolate a single issue from a general election. It is disingenuous to suggest that we should turn this major election, the most important I think in Scotland’s devolution history, into whether or not we should have a referendum on another referendum.

Let me make a little progress.

Let me go to the biggest issue of all—currency. We have heard the same old arguments from the SNP time and again, so perhaps they can tell us something new. Let us be honest with each other. What on earth would the people be voting for? Let us take this issue of currency. If any SNP Members want to intervene on me and tell me what the answer is, I will give them the Floor for as long as they like.

The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), the Leader of the SNP in this House, promotes sterlingisation. He says that people should not worry—we will keep using the pound until such time as six tests are met, however long that would be. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) tells us that they will only keep the pound for a few months. The SNP’s Deputy Leader, Keith Brown, says that they will keep the pound for less than five years. Andrew Wilson, the head of the SNP’s Growth Commission and a former SNP Finance Minister, says that it could be decade before we give up the pound. Does any SNP Member want to tell us exactly how long we will keep the pound? Is it a few months? Is it five years? Is it 10 years? Is it indefinitely? Will we keep it at all? Let us just be honest with each other if the SNP wants to turn this debate into a referendum on whether or not we have a referendum.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent case on the lack of clarity from the Scottish National party. But what he needs to be clear on to the Scottish people when he goes to the polls on 6 May is whether his party backs a referendum or not. We have been honest. SNP Members have been honest about what they want. Will he now be honest and say what his position is?

The answer to the question is no.

On interest rates—[Interruption.] The Conservatives do this all the time. They deliberately misinterpret the Scottish Labour party’s policy in order to feather their own electoral nest. That is why they are putting the Union at risk and why they are a bigger threat to the UK than any nationalist.

Let me turn to the interest rate question. For as long as we do not have our own currency, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who is in the Chamber, thinks that we will still have a monetary and interest rate policy, but his own SNP Minister for Energy, Paul Wheelhouse MSP, said that, without a central bank or lender of last resort, we would have to take whatever interest rates were set. Can any SNP Member intervene and tell us who is right—the hon. Member for Glasgow East or the Scottish Government Minister?

That leads us to exchange rates. Let us try another one. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber said that

“when we do have our own currency it has to be pegged against the pound sterling”,

but the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) suggests that will not be the case because we would need to meet the exchange rate mechanism rules to enter the EU. Again, what is it? Is it that we would have to take our own exchange rate mechanism to qualify for the EU, or would we be pegged to sterling? Maybe the answer is none of the above. Could it be the euro, as the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) said, or maybe Bitcoin, as the former SNP Member for East Lothian, George Kerevan, said—or, worse yet, our flexible friend? Will we all use our credit cards as if we were on holiday, as the SNP MSP Emma Harper suggested in a TV debate, when she said that we did not need a currency at all because we all used plastic anyway?

The position of SNP parliamentarians on these matters would be hilarious, were it not so serious. They want to take us out of the UK, regardless of the economic and social chaos that this would cause. This is about people’s jobs, mortgages and livelihoods. It is about our communities.

If SNP Members insist on focusing on separation instead of on how we get people back to work, how we lift families and children out of poverty, how we restart and properly value our NHS and how we lead a national effort to recover from this pandemic, they should at least be straight with the Scottish people about how separation will affect their jobs, livelihoods, health, education and opportunities for the future. They refuse to put forward the details of the separation proposition because the answers to these big questions are either unpalatable to the public or they actually do not know the answers.

I will carry on, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because I have taken longer than I expected to.

Let us go back to the question that was debated earlier: when would that referendum be held? The hon. Member for Edinburgh East said—let us check Hansard—that no one is saying it would be this year—no one except the First Minister when she set out an 11-point plan to potentially deliver even an illegal referendum this year.

I will when I have finished this point.

Mike Russell, the SNP Constitutional Minister and President of the SNP, said before Christmas, and the SNP leader in this place, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, said just a few weeks ago, that the referendum could happen this year. Does anyone honestly believe, whether they are yes or no, that it would be in Scotland’s interests to have a referendum on separation instead of a laser-like focus on covid recovery? But that is SNP Members’ only priority. If it were not their priority, they would not put it on the ballot paper. If it were not their priority, they would not be using the valuable four days until the Scottish Parliament goes into recess for the election to bring forward another referendum Bill. The First Minister says she wants to be judged on her covid record, so which one is it? While most Scots are worried about their jobs and livelihoods, about their health and that of their family and friends, about the future for their children’s education, and about how the NHS will catch up with cancer and other treatments that have been paused during covid, the SNP goes on about the constitution.

We cannot rely on the UK Government to deliver a recovery that works for everyone. We have seen that already. They just want business as usual, looking after their neighbours and friends rather than the country. They want to defend a broken status quo, rather than trying to fix it for the future. That is why the Scottish election must be about what the new Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, is proposing: delivering a national recovery plan that at its heart is about creating jobs, catching up on education and rebuilding our NHS, so that we never again have to choose between treating a virus and treating cancer. That is what we will be putting forward: a jobs and economic recovery plan; an NHS recovery plan; an education recovery plan; a climate recovery plan; and a communities recovery plan. These are the priorities of the Scottish people, far and above all else.

I sit on the Back Benches, watch the hon. Gentleman, the lonely Scottish Labour MP at Westminster, and find myself reflecting every now and again about his once great party. I was party campaigning in a Labour seat in 2001, when it took 65% of the vote. Has he ever reflected on why his party is represented as it is at Westminster, given its intransigent policy against independence and against Scotland having the right to choose?

It is called having principles. The hon. Gentleman ought to try it sometime. We are against independence because it would be bad for the Scottish people, and that is why SNP Members have to answer these questions. They cannot just decide that they are going to move their principles and damage the Scottish economy, Scottish society and Scottish culture on the basis of what the hon. Gentleman has just said. Anas Sarwar will get Scottish Labour back on track with his optimism and his positivity.

As we come out of this pandemic, we must focus on solutions that ensure that Scotland comes back a better, stronger and fairer nation than the one that went into lockdown last year. The SNP wants to go back to the same old divisive discussions, while Labour in Scotland is looking to the future, not separation and not defending the broken status quo. In just a few short weeks, Anas Sarwar, together with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), has shown that we can be a credible alternative. Scots do not have to choose between the divisive politics of the SNP—[Interruption.]the divisive, arrogant politics of the SNP that I hear behind me and the Scottish Tories’ status quo.

Not one vote has been cast yet. Now more than ever, Scotland needs its powerful Parliament to deliver a strong NHS, take action on the jobs crisis, deliver a national care service and treat poverty as the health and economic emergency that it is. Scotland needs a Government who do not just say that education is a priority but really show our children and young people that we are committed to giving them the future they deserve.

The House will be aware that a great many people wish to take part in this important debate. Members will be accustomed to a time limit of three minutes, but in this very important debate, we will begin with a time limit of four minutes.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who was as witty and articulate as ever, but I still have no idea where Anas Sarwar and the Scottish Labour party stand on having another independence referendum.

I was very proud to be part of the process that led to the Edinburgh agreement, which facilitated the 2014 referendum. At the time, Alex Salmond—who is now heavily criticised by some of the same people who portrayed him as father of the nation on whose word everybody in Scotland could rely—said that that was a gold standard agreement and the basis on which such a referendum could and should be held in order that it be fair, legal and decisive. And yet, from the moment that referendum was held—not in 2016, 2018 or 2019, but from 19 September 2014—the SNP has agitated for another referendum. It did not even wait for the dust to settle on the result, and it completely disrespected the outcome, having said that it would respect it.

In each of the elections we have had since 2014, the SNP has sought to downplay independence. In a television debate before the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, Nicola Sturgeon said that there was no prospect of a referendum. In the 2019 general election, my SNP opponent said, “This isn’t about independence at all. It’s nothing to do with independence. It’s about Brexit; that’s what it’s about,” yet each time, from the moment the polls close, every vote cast is portrayed as a vote for independence.

I welcome the fact that the SNP has registered with the Electoral Commission the slogans “Both votes SNP for indyref2” and “Vote SNP for indyref2”, because people will understand, I hope—and I hope it will be on page 1 of the manifesto in big writing, not hidden away on page 16 as some sub-clause, as the “changing circumstances” caveat was.

I have listened carefully, and I have heard a number of Members say this about every vote cast being a vote for independence. Would the right hon. Gentleman not accept that, in the literature produced and distributed by his party in any given election at any level of government in Scotland, “Vote Conservative to say no to indyref” is doing exactly the same thing—it is suggesting that every vote for the Conservative party is a vote against a referendum?

What we are suggesting as we go into this election under the leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) is that there is an alternative to this obsession with independence. It does not all have to be about independence. Despite what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) said, Scottish Parliament time has been devoted to an independence referendum. There has been a Bill in the Parliament during the period of covid. There has not been a focus entirely on covid, because the independence issue has always been there.

We hear today that the “once in a generation” claim was only for SNP supporters, to make sure that they got down to the polling station, and it could not be relied on. We hear that Mike Russell’s pronouncements that we will have a referendum by Christmas and those of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) about having a referendum this year cannot be relied on. Well, what cannot be relied on by the people of Scotland is that the SNP will not press ahead with a referendum regardless. We have heard that they are the people who will determine what people in Scotland think. What arrogance—it is not about elections; the SNP will decide what the people of Scotland think, and if it determines that the people of Scotland are in favour of a referendum it is willing to press ahead with one regardless. Several leading members of the SNP have said that, and I look forward to the contribution of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who is a proponent of this.

I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh South that this election is very important. It is important on 6 May that we get Scotland to focus on coming out of the pandemic with a plan for recovery—none currently exists in Scotland. There is a plan for an independence referendum, but there is no plan for recovery. The only realistic way in which people can achieve that is to use both votes on 6 May for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. We want to end division. No referendum—let us rebuild Scotland.

A happy St Patrick’s Day to you too, Madam Deputy Speaker.

May I begin with this point? It is roughly the same distance from Greater Manchester to London as it is to Edinburgh or Glasgow, yet the travel time is considerably more—almost half as much again—to those great Scottish cities than it is to London. That is indicative of a problem facing the north of England and Scotland: the failure of Governments of different descriptions, but particularly the Conservative-led Government, over the past 10 years to address the needs of every part of this island of ours, its nations and regions. I empathise with the sense of resentment in Scotland about a Government who ignore the needs of many people, because that is exactly how many people in the north of England feel as well.

We have more in common than empathy. There was a time when northern MPs worked hard with Scottish Labour MPs to challenge a Conservative Government and a Labour Government to work together to bring about solutions that both Scotland and the north needed, but we do not see that now. The motive of SNP MPs is to talk up independence at the expense of major issues such as universal credit, job creation, and investment, both in industries and services and in our children’s education and training.

We had those things in common, but we have more in common than that. I grew up in a city region where the influence of Scots was not romantic but real. As a young man, I was at school with people from Scottish families. During my early working life in industry, I met engineers and printers from Scotland. I met people in the teaching profession who had come down from Scotland and worked in our universities as academics. People worked together in different areas. I worked closely with many Scots in our trade union movement, and they made an important and valuable contribution. Their attitude was similar to ours, and in politics my party has always benefited, in Greater Manchester and across the north of Scotland, from many Scots who played a role.

I cannot think of a time when there was not a Scottish Member of Parliament in the region—we now have the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). There have always been Scottish Members of Parliament, including the late Jim Dobbin, who was MP for Heywood and Middleton. That mattered, because they had similar values to us, unlike one home counties-based Conservative —I will not name them—who, many years ago, travelled up to the north and said, “I love coming to the north, Tony. It’s so terribly real up there.” Well, it was very real for me, because I grew up there and have lived most of my life there. The Scots understood that; they were our partners because they shared those values. That matters, because it is why, even now, 60% of Scotland’s trade is with England. That matters enormously because, in the end, taking away the importance of London, the north of England and Scotland trade with each other. If we were to see Scotland in the European Union, that would devastate the trade between Scotland and the north of England; it would be crippling for both sides. That does matter because it is jobs, it is the future, and that matters.

There is an answer. It is to work together essentially for the devolved Britain that I want to see—power, yes, for the Scottish Parliament, but power too for the north of England, the north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and Humberside. That different constitutional settlement can allow us to work together. It is the real answer to the problems of Scotland and the north-west of England.

Debating time in the House of Commons is a precious commodity. It is an opportunity to raise important matters for our nation—important matters of international concern and, crucially, for the people that we all represent. As one of the political parties in this place, the Scottish National party is in the privileged position of having debating time—time when it decides what to debate and the issues that it wants to promote. I know that my constituents in the Scottish borders will be baffled, given the huge challenges that we are facing in Scotland, that the nationalists have decided to use this debating time to promote their obsession with independence referendums.

Scots are worried about the coronavirus. We are worried about the economy. People are worried about their jobs. Families are worried about their health and the wellbeing of loved ones. And yet here we are, debating the SNP’s obsession—independence and referendums. Scots are rightly asking why the SNP’s priorities are so out of step with those of most people in Scotland.

The SNP has announced that it will hold another independence referendum as early as this year, if it wins a majority in the upcoming elections. At this uncertain time, the only priority I would suggest that we should have is working together to manage the crisis and rebuild our country. Our focus needs to be on defeating the spread of the coronavirus and on the economic recovery plan.

The SNP is trying to distract people today, I believe, with its new independence referendum road map as a shield to hide a catalogue of targets not met, priorities not delivered and promises broken. Time and again we have heard SNP politicians request that their performance be judged on education. The SNP promised to reduce class sizes for primaries 1 to 3, but for 13 years the SNP has failed to deliver on that promise. The recent OECD report slammed the shameful attainment gap that exists between poor and wealthier children, but I am sure it comes as no surprise to Members that the SNP in Edinburgh has refused to publish the latest OECD report until after the elections in May. Under the SNP, Scotland’s science and maths scores have dropped below those of England and Wales, and are at an all-time low since rankings were introduced.

The SNP shows complete contempt for the future prospects of Scotland’s children. In health, too, it has failed. It has failed to deliver on its promises of tackling the chronic shortage of GPs. It has failed on the children’s hospital in Edinburgh which only just opened, four years behind schedule.

Does my hon. Friend share my amazement that, when confronted with any of these issues—the real issues that people face in health and education—the only answer the SNP can put forward is independence, despite having had 14 years to resolve these issues?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; independence is the SNP’s only answer to everything, yet it has failed to deliver for my constituents and most people in Scotland.

Similarly, the SNP has failed Scotland’s economy, having presided over the lowest rate of job creation in the entirety of the UK over the past decade. The SNP has continuously failed rural Scotland too, whether it be its failure to deliver rural broadband or the lack of engagement with the Union transport connectivity review, which would have been an opportunity to improve transport links. Whether it be the A1, the A75 or extending the Borders Railway, the SNP has simply refused to engage.

And of course we have the Salmond/Sturgeon affair, which is perhaps the ultimate failure—this time with a woman at its heart. Misleading the Scottish Parliament on multiple occasions, withholding legal documents and not fully co-operating with the Scottish Parliament’s inquiry, the First Minister and her deputy have shown a blatant disregard for the people of Scotland they claim to serve. The handling of this affair is symptomatic of the SNP’s failure to deliver for the Scottish people across all areas of public life. With such a corrupt, sleazy and tired Government in Edinburgh, it is little surprise that the SNP has picked its obsession of separation to debate today, rather than defend its colleagues’ record in Government in Holyrood.

I guess if this was a drinking game, we would probably be having our stomachs pumped every time the hon. Gentleman mentioned the word “SNP”, but I want to ask him about the fact that he reflects a lot on the SNP talking about independence, although the leaflets I have received from the Scottish Conservatives talk only about independence. He talks about party leaders. Will he be inviting the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) to come and campaign in the upcoming election?

The last time I checked, the SNP is your party name and it is your party ticket. If you are telling us now that you do not want to associate with that, perhaps you should think about changing your party’s name. The last time I checked it is also your party, as we heard from your party spokesman this morning—

Order. I let the hon. Gentleman get away with it at first, but every time he says “your party”, he is referring to me, and I think everybody knows that the party of the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) is not mine.

I am very grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I did not want to cause you deep offence, possibly, which clearly was not my intention.

I am very clear what my party believes in: Scotland’s place is at the heart of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) clearly does not share my view on that, and he can put that to the electorate in May. The Scottish National party’s priorities, choices and decisions reflect the reality of a party that does not care about Scotland’s children, Scotland’s businesses, our frontline workers and our rural communities, nor is it one that believes it can be held accountable for its actions. The SNP—the Scottish National party—is failing Scotland. The SNP is failing Scots when our focus should be on the pandemic, vaccinations and the economic recovery. Now is not the time for another divisive referendum.

I am not here to debate whether we can have a referendum; that will not be decided in this place. Today, I am focused on sharing a positive vision of an independent Scotland.

The ongoing pandemic continues to present us all with completely new challenges, demanding responses that have no precedent. However, the pandemic should not be used as an excuse for the response and actions of this Government towards those seeking sanctuary here in the nations of the UK. Current UK immigration policy and the decisions made by the Government are confusing, complex and callous. That policy is heavily influenced by conditions in the south-east of England and it does not reflect the demands across other countries and regions of this Union.

Successive UK Governments have attempted to fool us all into thinking that a hostile environment for immigrants was a societal necessity. The aggressive approach to immigration and, in particular, asylum cases lacks dignity and respect, and the offer of any form of protection. The crisis caused by the pandemic only magnifies the absurdities of this inhumane approach and illustrates why, for Scotland or our Government to have any real chance to affect such matters positively, there is only one real solution available to us—an independent Scotland.

We can appreciate that there are pressures on the Government to provide accommodation for those awaiting determination of status, but that does not mean that undignified mechanisms of accommodation should be utilised. What is required is the long-term sustainable action of compassion to establish, secure and dignify dispersal options and reasonable waiting times for outcomes. In an independent Scotland, we will establish a small separate asylum agency to deal with status applications. That dedicated agency would be tailored to the needs of both our nation and applicants, and it would avoid and mitigate the barriers and complexities of the callous Home Office system. Employment and housing opportunities would be provided in different regions of Scotland to help people seeking to live in and contribute to Scotland to make an informed choice and ensure integration happened from day one of arrival. That would benefit both any host community and the individual or family.

We will build a system that reflects the outlook of our nation. Migrants have played an important part in shaping Scotland, and have enriched and enhanced our culture throughout the generations. Many modern Scots simply would not be if it were not for migration to our shores. On that note, I wish everybody a very happy St Patrick’s day.

A new and independent Scotland would have an inclusive approach to citizenship and a humane approach to asylum and refuge, one that was sensitive and respectful of the needs of those with a desire to call Scotland home. An independent Scotland would work constructively with other nations, local authorities and support agencies to secure appropriate means of sustainable and integrated residence within local communities.

An independent Scotland would in no circumstance use crammed, unhygienic military barracks as accommodation for those fleeing persecution. In 2018, the Court of Appeal judge Sir Stephen Irwin said in a speech that the UK’s immigration rules were “something of a disgrace”. Three years on, nothing has changed. The UK should be protecting those who have arrived seeking safety from violence or persecution. That it does not is wrong, insensitive and not in our name. There is another way, and an independent Scotland will lead that way.

Devolution is about giving as much power to local communities across Britain as possible. From the Northern Ireland Assembly to the Welsh Assembly and to the Mayors of London, the west midlands and Manchester, devolution works best when local communities decide on local democratic representation while comforted by the protection given by the enormous strength of the peoples of the UK acting as one. But something has gone wrong. After 14 long years of government by nationalists, focused exclusively on their narrow separatist agenda and the break-up of Britain, anything that stands in its way and anyone who stands in their way, including what is in the best interests of the people of Scotland, is crushed.

The separatists had a golden opportunity today to highlight the real issues that affect the people of Scotland and the whole UK. Today, they could have talked about the welcome strength of working together in the production and roll-out of the vaccination programme—the biggest health task this country has ever undertaken. Today, they could have talked about the strength of the Scottish people, the English people, the Welsh people and the Northern Irish people pooling their taxes to benefit us all, including those who receive the supportive furlough payments, which is possible only because of the size and strength of Britain.

Today, the separatists could have talked about the new integrated review announced by the Prime Minister only yesterday on how Scotland can best work with countries across the world in trade and commerce. Today, they could have talked about the importance of the defence sector in Scotland, which has built the UK’s largest flagships, which will help to defend and protect fragile democracies around the world. But no, they did not do that. Instead, they bang the tired drum of separatism; “division”, “anger”, “gripe” and “divorce” are the words that best describe the nationalists.

However, I want to look at the performance of the Nats in Holyrood. They promised they would reduce class sizes in primaries 1, 2 and 3 to 18 pupils or fewer, but they have failed to deliver. Scotland’s maths and science scores are at record lows, and its reading score is lower than levels seen in 2000. Overall, Scotland is performing worse than Portugal, the Czech Republic and even Slovenia. Those are not my findings; they are the findings of reputable organisations, including the PISA—programme for international student assessment—results, which show that Scottish education under a Nat Government has gone backwards.

The Nats have dismantled local frontline policing, and crime is on the rise. Police officers felt “abandoned” by the Nats at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Those are not my words; they are the words of the Scottish Police Federation chair, Calum Steele, who said:

“There is an increasing sense among members that the Government have abandoned the police service in the midst of this crisis.”

The Nats promised to expand testing capacity to 65,000 people per day, but they have only managed to test about half that number on a single occasion. Compare the record of the Nats with the UK-wide vaccination effort —the strength of the peoples of the UK is best seen in the tremendous efforts being made by our hard-working healthcare staff. They have put their shoulders to the wheel and are the ones getting us out of this awful pandemic. It is time that Nicola Sturgeon worked with the UK.