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Volume 693: debated on Wednesday 28 April 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

The Union

We can assess the strength of the Union every day, as we see the number of people vaccinated across the country continue to rise, as we see the number of jobs we have protected and as we see our vital, ambitious plans to rebuild our economy. I am surprised the hon. Gentleman is asking about recent assessments, because the one thing we learned this week is that his boss, Nicola Sturgeon, has made no recent assessment of her plan to rip Scotland out of the United Kingdom and the damage that would cause.

If the Secretary of State is so confident in the Union, why is he stopping the Prime Minister coming to Scotland to campaign for it? Have the dubious donations for renovations made that impossible? The contracts for contacts? The disgraceful comments about bodies piling high? Or is it simply that the Prime Minister represents a fundamental problem for Scotland being in the Union, with year after year of Prime Ministers, parties and policies that Scotland would not vote for in a million years?

In all the conversations I have had with the Prime Minister—and I have them on a weekly basis, in person, one to one, by telephone—his passion for the United Kingdom and the strength of the United Kingdom burns brightly.

As of yesterday, 61.3% of Scots aged 16 or over have received at least one dose of covid vaccine, compared with just 24.3% of people aged 18 or over who have received a vaccine in the European Union. Does the Secretary of State agree that the outstanding efforts of our NHS staff, our British armed forces and our vaccination volunteers have been possible here in Scotland only because of the success of the UK vaccination programme, and that Nicola Sturgeon’s claims that, somehow, an independent Scotland within the EU would have done it differently are complete rubbish?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Just once, on something as important as live-saving vaccines, it would be nice to see the First Minister congratulate the Prime Minister and the United Kingdom Government on our highly successful UK-wide vaccine procurement programme.

Mr Speaker, I hope you will allow me to pay tribute to everyone who is commemorating on International Workers’ Memorial Day today, and also to wish the Secretary of State a very happy Ed Balls Day, which is also today.

On “The Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday, the First Minister admitted that there has been no analysis done on the impact of separation on incomes—that is wages, livelihoods and, of course, pensions. It follows a long list during this election campaign where the SNP has avoided answering questions on currency, EU accession, jobs, deficit, debt, public spending, the parallels with Brexit and, of course, the spectacle of senior SNP MSPs saying last week that a border with England would be “desirable” because it would create jobs—a rare honest admission about a border with our largest trading partner. For two days in a row, respected think-tanks have warned that leaving the UK and giving up our share of UK resources means supercharged austerity.

Surely one of the strongest positive cases for the Union is the reality of separation. If proponents of separation continue to refuse to answer critical questions that fundamentally impact on people’s livelihoods, incomes and futures, what can be done to inject some much-needed honesty, integrity and truth into this debate, for the benefit of all Scots?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that independence would have a whole series of negative consequences for the people of Scotland, not just on their pensions and benefits but on currency, border issues and armed services. The list is endless. There has been no assessment of those things, as I said earlier.

This is the time when we should be coming together for covid recovery and to rebuild our economy, not even considering an irresponsible independence referendum. I would very much welcome it if the Labour party, and the other political parties, showed a willingness to come together to work on how we can strengthen our Union.

Anas Sarwar has said throughout this campaign that we need to unite the country to deal with this global pandemic.

Talking of honesty, integrity and truth, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to apologise on behalf of the Prime Minister for his “let the bodies pile high” comment, when so many have lost loved ones due to covid? There have been more than 800 deaths in my city of Edinburgh alone. While he is apologising, perhaps he can tell us, if the Prime Minister has nothing to hide, who funded the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat. Does he think the endemic sleaze in his Government, with continual questions about the personal conduct and integrity of the PM, strengthens or weakens the Union?

What I would say on the bodies remark is that in every conversation I have had with the Prime Minister in the past year his desire, at all levels, has been to save lives and protect the NHS; we have had many conversations, in Cabinet Committees, in Cabinet and in private, and I have no recollection of him being anything other than totally focused on saving lives and protecting the NHS. He has been entirely focused on this pandemic all the way through. He has not been distracted, as others have, for example, the nationalists, with Nicola Sturgeon admitting that she took her eye off the ball. He has not taken his eye off the ball. He has been focused on the pandemic. He has tackled vaccines and the programme, and he now wants to lead our economic recovery. Those are the things we should hold him to account for; those are the things that strengthen the United Kingdom.

There has been much reckless chat from Scottish National party politicians about creating a hard border between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. My constituents in the Scottish Borders want to see the threat of a border—and the threat of another referendum—removed. Does the Minister agree that the voters of Scotland have an opportunity to remove that threat next week in the Scottish elections by depriving the SNP of a majority and that the best way of doing that is by voting Scottish Conservative?

You will not be surprised to hear, Mr Speaker, that I do agree with my hon. Friend. I note with astonishment the comments of the South Scotland MSP Emma Harper that a border would be a good way of creating jobs, despite the fact that 60% of our trade is with the rest of the UK. All I would say is that if the SNP thinks that a border is such a good idea for jobs, I am surprised it does not want to go the whole hog and propose building a wall.

Particularly as we rebuild after covid, we have an opportunity and a need to make radically different economic choices. After a week of troublesome allegations about the Government and the Prime Minister, it should be no surprise that many in Scotland want to take a different, independent path to that of this Government. If that request is reflected in the upcoming Scottish Government elections and a majority of pro-independence MSPs are elected, will the Minister and his Government respect that as a mandate for a second independence referendum?

First, let us not take the outcome of the election for granted at this stage. Let us recognise that the focus for Scotland must be on pandemic recovery. We have saved lives through the vaccine procurement, and it is now time to save livelihoods and to rebuild as one United Kingdom.

I did not hear an answer to my question there. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives was asked multiple times on recent media, “What would be the democratic path for Scotland to an independence referendum?” He could not answer the question, so can the Minister tell us what the path is?

I say to the hon. Lady that in 2014 there was a referendum; it had been many years since the question had been asked, and that was with the consent of both Scotland’s Governments and all the main political parties. I am glad to say that in Scotland people shared my opinion in 2014 and consented to continue being members of the UK.

There is only one sure-fire way for the Union to be strengthened in the next week and that is to get the Prime Minister to Scotland and on the campaign trail. The Secretary of State surely knows that there will be throngs of happy Scots rejoicing in the Prime Minister’s sleaze-free presence, helping the Electoral Commission with its inquiries and sharing anecdotes about bodies piled high on the streets—what could possibly go wrong for the Scottish Tories? Can the Secretary of State and I start working on the itinerary? Surely Scotland deserves to see its Prime Minister before he inevitably has to resign.

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the Prime Minister’s diary is not my concern, and he certainly will not be resigning. I come back to the point I made earlier: in all my discussions with him, his passion for strengthening the UK burns very bright indeed.

Universal Basic Income

What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential merits of trialling a universal basic income in Scotland. (914670)

The UK Government’s approach to welfare is to recognise the value and importance of work, make work pay and support people into work, while giving extra help to the most vulnerable in society. On that basis, we consider that a universal basic income is fundamentally the wrong approach.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I know that he is committed to devolution and the respect agenda and would want to take very seriously the outcome of the election result in Scotland. Given that all the main parties in Scotland—representing 80% of Scottish voters—except the Conservatives have indicated support for trialling the concept of UBI, does the Minister accept that if indeed those parties are elected in the next Parliament, there will be a mandate and going ahead with trials would just be a matter of respecting devolution?

I make two points in response to the hon. Gentleman. First, if he looks around the world at where UBI has been trialled—in Finland and Canada, for example—it has not been a success. Indeed, the Finance Minister in Finland has scrapped it and is instead looking at something along the lines of our universal credit system. Secondly, the Scottish Government already have substantial powers over welfare.

Although I share the determination of the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for a universal basic income as the way ahead and his disappointment that it is not being trialled in Scotland, does the Minister share my disappointment that the SNP Government at Holyrood were not able to get their processes in shape in time to adopt the powers over welfare in the Scotland Act 2016 that might have given them more influence over the situation?

I certainly agree with the hon. Lady’s point that the Scottish Government still have much to do to unlock the full potential of the powers devolved to them in the Scotland Act 2016. We are committed to working closely with them to allow them to implement those powers. It strikes me that the separatists are always quick to demand more powers or more money to shift the blame away from their failures in office on delivering on the issues that matter to the people of Scotland.


What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential opportunities for Scotland arising from COP26. (914671)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential opportunities for Scotland arising from COP26. (914674)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues, as well as industry stakeholders, on the opportunities that COP26 offers across Scotland. The COP26 devolved Administration ministerial group brings together the COP26 President, territorial Secretaries of State and devolved Administration Ministers to support the delivery of an inclusive and welcoming COP26 summit that is representative of the whole United Kingdom.

Last year, the SNP Government missed their own legal emissions targets, with source emissions in Scotland actually increasing by 1.5% in 2017-18. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as we approach the crucial COP26 summit in Glasgow later this year, the Scottish people deserve a Government who are 100% focused on a green recovery, not on another divisive independence referendum?

I am sure you will agree, Mr Speaker, that it is not for me to answer for the failings of the Scottish Government. However, I assure my hon. Friend that the UK Government are absolutely focused on achieving a green recovery, as set out by the Prime Minister in his 10-point plan last year. This Government are also focused on safeguarding the Union, and I agree with my hon. Friend that a divisive referendum on Scotland’s separation from the UK at this time would be an irresponsible distraction from the necessary work required towards that green recovery.

I welcome the ambitious new target that the Government set last week to cut the UK’s carbon emissions by 78% by 2035. Does my hon. Friend agree that in the run-up to the crucial COP26 summit later this year, it is more important than ever for all parts of the UK to work together so that we can meet that target and build back better and greener from the pandemic?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Our proposed world-leading target marks a decisive step towards net zero by 2050 and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035, compared with 1990 levels. Through this year’s COP26 summit, we will urge countries and companies around the world to join us in delivering net zero globally. We continue to work together throughout all parts of the UK to achieve our net zero ambitions and a green recovery from the covid-19 pandemic.

The Minister should be embarrassed that renewables generators in Scotland face the highest locational grid charges in the whole of Europe. Ahead of COP26, we need to see a route to market for pumped-storage hydro and for wave and tidal, the go-ahead given for Acorn carbon capture and storage and a contract for difference for hydrogen. What capability does the Scottish Office, working with Cabinet colleagues, have to get those matters resolved?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I share his enthusiasm for all things related to energy renewables, but he will know as well as I do that, by law, transmission charging is a matter for Ofgem as the independent regulator. I imagine that he will also be aware that Ofgem is currently considering some aspects of transmission charging arrangements through its access and forward-looking charges review.

The SNP Scottish Government have committed to doubling their climate change justice fund if re-elected next week. This £21 million fund is used to help combat the effects of climate change in the global south while we tackle carbon emissions at home. In the year of COP26, will the UK Government follow Scotland’s lead and commit to a comparable climate justice fund to help those affected by climate change?

Not only will we commit to a comparable financial commitment, but the recent spending review committed to spending £12 billion on green measures to support the 10-point plan and boost the UK’s global leadership on green infrastructure and technologies, not just ahead of COP26 this year, but beyond as well.

Research and Innovation Funding: Scottish Universities

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the recent reduction in official development assistance funding to UK Research and Innovation on Scottish universities. (914675)

The United Kingdom is and will remain a research superpower, with research and development spending at the highest level for four decades. The Government have committed to investing nearly £15 billion in R&D in 2021-22, much of which will be used to fund the work being led by our world-class universities.

Both Aberdeen and St Andrews universities stand to lose £2.5 million each as a result of official development assistance cuts. Among the ongoing projects at risk at Aberdeen is a £1.8 million research initiative into the spread of infectious diseases between rodents and humans. Given that we have recently been reminded of the importance of long-term, well-funded research in responding to a global crisis, what steps are being taken to ensure that these cuts do not impair Scotland’s ability to respond to future crises?

The first point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that I am always willing to discuss individual programmes with specific universities and I have done that through the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) in the case of St Andrews. The second point is that all the universities that he has listed have benefited from significant investments either directly through UK Research and Innovation or through our city and regional growth deal programmes, looking at R&D initiatives such as clean energy and sustainable farming.

It is strange, because Universities Scotland says that the ODA funding cut is unprecedented and egregious, yet the Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and says that it is okay because the universities get funding from other sources. Universities Scotland says that it amounts to a 70% cut in overseas funding for the development of projects across universities in Scotland. Can the Minister explain how these cuts are reconciled with the Conservative Government’s idea of their post-Brexit ambition to build a global Britain?

As I said in response to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), I am more than happy to discuss individual programmes with the universities concerned, but if we look at R&D investment from this Government in the round, it is significantly up, and Scottish universities are punching above their weight in securing a share of that.

Defence Sector

The defence industry in Scotland is strong, thanks to sustained UK Government spending. My Department has a close, positive relationship with the industry and the UK armed forces in Scotland, including on the implementation of the recent integrated review: defence Command Paper and the defence and security industrial strategy.

Shared expertise and infrastructure are key to supporting jobs across our United Kingdom, such as at Warton in my constituency and those north of the border at the BAE Systems site at Clyde. What estimates does my right hon. Friend make of the positive impact the UK Government’s defence manufacturing has on job opportunities for the people of Scotland?

The Royal Navy shipbuilding programme will provide a pipeline of work and sustain valuable jobs and skills for shipyards around the United Kingdom, including those in Scotland, in Rosyth and the Clyde, which are currently constructing the new frigate fleets. The Ministry of Defence has spent £2.7 billion with Scottish industry in 2019 and 2020 alone, and that has supported 12,400 jobs.

The integrated review published last month made it clear that our strongest asset is the capabilities, expertise and skills we have across the United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the same expertise and skills, shared across the country, that has enabled us to spend billions of pounds over the next decade on shipbuilding in Scotland?

Yes; I wholeheartedly agree. We saw a fine example of Scotland’s contribution to the UK’s defences this week with the deployment of our new aircraft carrier strike group, which was built in yards around the United Kingdom, but was constructed in Scotland. Her Majesty’s Ship Queen Elizabeth will fly the flag for global Britain right around the world.

Support for Businesses: Covid-19

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of economic support for Scottish businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. (914678)

Last month’s Budget provides continued UK-wide support and security to manage the ongoing impacts of covid-19. One in three jobs in Scotland has been supported by the UK Government’s employment support package; Scottish businesses have benefited from more than £3.4 billion of loans and support; and we have provided a much needed boost to the Scottish tourism and hospitality sector with our UK-wide extension of the VAT reduction.

Scotland’s Auditor General recently said that the Scottish Government had received an extra £9.7 billion from the UK Government during 2020-21 to tackle covid, yet it only made £7 billion-worth of spending announcements in response to the pandemic up to the end of 2020. The Auditor General said that that left £2.7 billion unallocated. Does my hon. Friend agree that this highlights the need for transparency and scrutiny of Scottish Government spending, as people in Scotland have a right to know how much money is being spent to help Scotland to deal with the pandemic?

My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to this alarming finding. People in Scotland want to know that the money that this Government have provided is reaching them and their businesses, and it is of great concern that Audit Scotland has identified this shortfall. I absolutely agree that there must be maximum transparency on this matter.

Free Trade Agreements

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential opportunities for Scotland arising from new free trade agreements. (914680)

I regularly discuss with my Cabinet colleagues opportunities for Scotland arising from the signing of trade deals. This Government have already struck deals with 67 countries around the world worth £218 billion a year, including with Canada, Japan and Singapore—with many more to come. This will create new markets for Scotland’s exporters, including our world-leading food and drink sector.

A new free trade agreement with Australia is now in sight for the UK. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a tremendous opportunity for exporters of agricultural products, and food and drink producers, across Scotland and Wales?

My hon. Friend is right about that and he is right to welcome the breakthroughs over the past few days with the Australian Government. Businesses in Scotland exported goods worth over £352 million to Australia in 2019, and reducing tariff barriers for our world-class food and drink industry could bolster Scotch whisky exports to Australia. As the Secretary of State for International Trade made clear at the weekend, this deal will be based on fair competition, maintaining our high standards and providing excellent, exciting opportunities for British products.

Scotland’s Constitutional Future

The UK Government work with the Scottish Government on a daily basis on a range of constitutional matters, including delivering on our devolution commitments through the Scotland Act order programme. I would have thought that a more interesting question would have been to ask what discussions his new party has had with the First Minister on an unnecessary and divisive further referendum on separation.

When Scotland opens negotiations for independence following the election of a supermajority on 6 May, will those talks be led by the Secretary of State or the Minister for the Union—should, of course, he still be in post by that time?

The hon. Gentleman is being rather presumptuous about the outcome of the elections next week, so let us wait and see what the people of Scotland decide. I would have thought they would be more interested in keeping the protections of the pandemic in place, helping businesses to recover and helping children to catch up on the education that they have missed over the past year.