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Volume 697: debated on Wednesday 23 June 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

What discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations on the effectiveness of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. (901450)

May I start by saying that the dream is over, and my commiserations go to Steve Clarke and the Scottish team now that they are out of the Euros? Us Scots will now turn our attention to Wimbledon, where we have won the men’s singles twice in the last eight years. I also congratulate Wales and England on proceeding to the knockout stages of the tournament, and I wish them well in that.

In answer to the question, it is a tragedy that drug deaths in Scotland are the worst in Europe and about four times those of England and Wales. The majority of the levers to tackle drugs misuse are delivered and devolved to the Scottish Government, including health, education, housing and the criminal justice system, but as the First Minister has admitted, they have taken their eye off the ball. The United Kingdom Government are keen to work with the Scottish Government to tackle this scourge, and the Minister for Crime and Policing, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), held a UK-wide summit in Glasgow. He also invited the Scottish Government to be part of a new scheme, Project ADDER, which aims to protect communities from the harm caused by drugs. The Scottish Government have, sadly, so far declined.

The Scottish Government intend to open an overdose prevention centre in Glasgow to tackle drug deaths and HIV infection rates. They are prevented from doing so by this Government’s reliance on the out-of-date, ill-fitting drugs legislation, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Ahead of Saturday’s “Support. Don’t Punish” day of action, will the Minister speak with his Cabinet colleagues about the need to reform the Act and support the Scottish Government’s call for an urgent four nations summit on this issue?

As I said, all home nations have the same tools at their disposal, yet the drug death rate in Scotland is four times higher. There are no plans to introduce drug consumption rooms. The current evidence does not support their use. We do support, however, needle and syringe programmes to prevent blood-borne diseases, and the widening of the availability of naloxone to help prevent overdose deaths.

Covid-19: Public Inquiry

Whether he has had discussions with the Scottish Government on a public inquiry on the (a) Scottish and (b) UK Government’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. (901451)

Whether he has had discussions with the Scottish Government on a public inquiry on the (a) Scottish and (b) UK Government’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. (901468)

I draw the House’s attention to the words of the Prime Minister when he announced the Government’s plans for a public inquiry. He said that we should learn the lessons “as one Team UK” and that the Government

“will consult the devolved Administrations”—[Official Report, 12 May 2021; Vol. 695, c. 137.]

about the scope and remit of the public inquiry. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has started the conversations with his devolved counterparts.

The Scottish Government revealed earlier this month that they underspent their budget last year by hundreds of millions of pounds. That is a slap in the face to businesses across Scotland that are struggling without the financial support they need. Does the Minister agree that any future covid inquiry must examine whether the financial support offered to businesses by both Governments was sufficient and whether it actually reached those who needed it?

The hon. Lady raises a very fair point. This Government have provided unprecedented levels of support to people and businesses in Scotland. Some of that comes through UK-wide schemes such as furlough, but other money goes as a fund to the Scottish Government for them to distribute, and there are serious questions about whether that money has been used in the most effective way and gone to the people for whom it was intended. I very much hope that will be part of the remit of this inquiry.

One of the greatest tragedies in the coronavirus crisis has been the scale of the outbreak in care homes. I know from personal experience that that has caused untold misery and robbed families across the UK of our loved ones. The brutal reality is that that loss was multiplied because of Scottish Government and UK Government decisions to discharge hundreds of patients into care homes even after they had tested positive for covid-19. Does the Minister agree that any future pandemic inquiry must investigate how the discharge of those patients was ever allowed to happen?

I recall that, in a previous exchange, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that he had suffered some personal family losses as a result of the pandemic, and I again extend my sympathy to him. He raises an important question. I am pretty certain that those matters will be covered by the inquiry. As I say, the discussions to establish its remit and processes are under way. The issue of care homes in Scotland is, of course, a devolved matter for the Scottish Government, but we want this inquiry to be as wide-ranging as possible so that we learn the lessons from the pandemic.

I join the Secretary of State in congratulating Stevie Clarke and the whole Scotland team on cheering up a nation over the past 10 days or so. As we said in the 1970s, we had a dream. That dream died, unfortunately, last night, and it will now have to wait until Qatar next year for the World cup.

In recent weeks we have heard scathing criticisms from the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser about the UK Government’s covid response, which has no doubt cost many lives. We have even learned that the PM described his Health Secretary as “hopeless”. Most recently, their dither and delay in securing the borders of the UK has resulted in restrictions continuing beyond the initial date. Sadly, the people of Scotland have also been failed by the choices of the Scottish Government. We know from a recent freedom of information reply that the Scottish chief medical officer advised the Scottish Government to say nothing at all in response to the Edinburgh Nike conference outbreak last March. The Scottish public were kept in the dark. These are just some of the major issues, which include the two we have heard about from my hon. Friends this morning. Will the Government agree with calls for an urgent separate Scottish judge-led public inquiry into both Governments’ management of covid-19 in Scotland so that we can learn the lessons of covid and the grieving families can get the answers they so deserve?

In response to the hon. Gentleman’s first point about the tartan army, my experience is that while the spirit is often tested it is never broken, and I am sure it will sustain.

I do not think that, at this stage certainly, there is a need for a separate inquiry. We are still at the very early stages of establishing the remit of the UK-wide inquiry, which will cover both reserved and devolved matters. It is important that that inquiry looks at all aspects of the situation. We should also remind ourselves that this is an unprecedented challenge that Governments right across the world have faced. Inevitably, with the benefit of hindsight, different decisions would have been made. We are learning all the time. I do not necessarily accept some of the charges that the hon. Gentleman has made—on borders, for example—but lessons are being learned all the time, and the right place for permanent lessons is from the wide-ranging inquiry that the Prime Minister has promised to set up.

I am tempted to ask the Minister if he has ever filled any of London’s fountains with Fairy liquid, but that can maybe be kept for private discussion. [Interruption.] Exactly—only for cleansing purposes.

One of the most frustrating elements for many people is the inconsistency of the decisions that have been made. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has rightly criticised the First Minister both for mimicking the arrogance of the Prime Minister by failing to contact the Manchester authorities before announcing a travel ban and for its inconsistencies. Cases remain lower than they are in Dundee, yet Dundonians can travel all over Scotland while those living in Bolton, for example, are effectively banned from travelling to Scotland at all.

These varying decisions are having a devastating impact on key sectors. Take the wedding sector, for example. Yesterday I was contacted by a constituent whose wedding in Edinburgh is limited to 50 guests but will travel to London the following week to a wedding where guests are unlimited, and she was at the Glasgow fan zone last week with 3,000 other supporters. She is deeply frustrated, and I am sure the Minister can understand her anger. So does he agree that any covid inquiry should examine the consequences that have resulted from the refusal of both Governments to work together?

I am happy to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that to the best of my knowledge I have never filled any fountain anywhere with any domestic cleaning product.

Turning to the important points that the hon. Gentleman has raised, the issue between the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the First Minister is clearly not satisfactory, and I would urge them both to come to a very sensible arrangement to allow travel to resume between Scotland and Greater Manchester. The two Governments do work closely together. There are several meetings a week, whether between the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the First Minister or the Health Secretary and his counterparts, to discuss all these arrangements. At the end of the day, the Scottish Government have the ability to make their own decisions, but a lot of them are co-ordinated—particularly, at the moment, on the travel corridors. Of course we constantly look at all these decisions and have to make often snap judgments in the face of new evidence, but we do so in a way of co-operation as far as is possible.

Child Poverty

What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on efforts to reduce child poverty in Scotland. (901452)

Let me first take this opportunity to thank Department for Work and Pensions staff in Scotland and across the UK who have provided unprecedented levels of support to families during the pandemic. It is a mark of their dedication that the system has coped well with the extra demand that we placed on it.

We take child poverty very seriously. Through the joint ministerial working group on welfare, I regularly discuss welfare matters with Ministers from the Scottish Government and the Department for Work and Pensions. Our most recent meeting included a discussion of the new Scottish child payment, which was delivered through the powers in the Scotland Act 2016.

I join the Minister in paying tribute to DWP staff. Perhaps the Government could respond by giving them a decent pay rise this year. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, over two thirds of children growing up in poverty in Scotland live in a household where someone is actually working. That is a damning indictment of the economy under both the Tories and the SNP—low pay, insecure work and children growing up in poverty. Does the Minister accept that both Governments need a fundamental rethink of their strategy to tackle child poverty?

We are putting in considerable support in a whole range of ways, such as through increases in the living wage. One of the challenges of the pandemic is to ensure that new employment opportunities are there, and this Government and the Scottish Government do work well on co-ordinating our various schemes, such as the kickstart process, to make sure that those jobs are secure and sustainable for the future. It is not just about jobs, of course; it is also about issues such as the quality of education. I know there are significant issues with the stewardship of the Scottish education system under the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Government recently spoke of making the eradication of child poverty a “national mission”. Those are welcome words, but statistics released last month show that child poverty has risen in every single local authority in Scotland since the Scottish First Minister took office. Indeed, the last national mission for the SNP—there have been plenty—was closing the attainment gap, which the OECD has said will not be possible with the levels of poverty that exist in Scotland.

Of course, it is not just the SNP; the UK Government’s record is appalling, too. More than a decade of Tory government has created a society of low pay, insecure work and pushing families into in-work poverty. Both Governments are failing Scotland’s children. Can the Minister explain now what he is doing to try to resolve the shocking levels of child poverty in Scotland to show that this Tory Government really do care and to actually try to deal with some of the SNP’s failings in Holyrood?

The hon. Gentleman rightly refers to the OECD report, which came out this week and which I have read. It does contain some very worrying findings. It is yet another reason why the Scottish Government should be focusing on the day job of improving services for people in Scotland, rather than obsessing about constitutional matters. On the wider point he makes about child poverty, throughout this Government’s period in office we have done a huge amount of reform to increase the take-home pay of people at the lower end of the income scale. For example, we have massively increased the personal tax allowance, which allows people to keep more money in their pocket. However, that is just one example; there is much more work to do, and I work regularly with ministerial colleagues across Government looking at the cost of living and what steps we might take to improve matters.

UK Shared Prosperity Fund

The UK shared prosperity fund will be the successor to EU structural funds, with decisions about how taxpayers’ money is spent being taken in the United Kingdom, rather than in Brussels. The £220 million community renewal fund, for which applications closed last week, will lead us up to publishing the shared prosperity fund prospectus later this year. We look forward to working directly with local authorities in Scotland on applications for the new UK shared prosperity fund. They know best what their communities need. This is real devolution in practice.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Can he assure me that Scotland and all the other coastal and rural areas of the United Kingdom, including all the way to my constituency in Cornwall, will get their fair share of shared prosperity funding, and will he ensure that the money is distributed in a fairer way, better tailored for our economy?

The Prime Minister has previously provided assurances that our plans to replace structural funds will at least match the figures of the EU funding. We are confident that will start with the community renewal fund this year, and will lead next year into the UK shared prosperity fund, as I mentioned earlier, in April 2022. That will reach £1.5 billion in total, and I can assure my hon. Friend that her area will be receiving its fair share.

Under the EU structural funding arrangement, the Scottish Government played a role in determining the allocation of that funding. This ensured that funding was allocated based on the democratic choices of the people of Scotland, reflecting the priorities that they voted for. Will the Secretary of State now commit the UK Government to give the devolved Governments a formal say in the delivery of the SPF to ensure that democratic working continues?

What we are doing is working with all responsible delivery partners in Scotland, as I have said, and the community renewal fund will be an example of real devolution at work. We will be working with local communities and local authorities in ensuring that the projects respond to local wishes and meet local needs.

Lasting prosperity requires successful business people and, sadly, my constituency in Scotland lost one of our finest examples on Monday, when Alasdair Houston, the entrepreneurial chairman of the Gretna Green Group and a leading figure in Scottish tourism and agriculture, lost his long battle with cancer at the age of only 59. Alasdair will be remembered not just for his own zest for life and the transformational impact he had on his own businesses in the Gretna area, but for his passion for the Star of Caledonia, an iconic environmental structure being built on the Scotland-England border that will surely be his lasting legacy. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to our friend Alasdair’s many achievements, but will he also agree that, whatever form the shared prosperity fund takes, it should reflect his spirit and support inspirational projects such as the Star?

I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to my close friend Alasdair Houston, and I send my deep sympathies to his family. Ali was a proud Scot, a lover of Dumfries and Galloway, and a formidable champion for Gretna, his home town, and the Star of Caledonia would be a very fitting tribute to him. He will be missed by many.

Covid-19: Guidance on International Travel

What discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on harmonisation of covid-19 guidance on international travel. (901455)

I and other UK Government Ministers are in regular contact with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations to try to secure the harmonisation particularly of covid-19 guidance when it comes to regulations on international travel, while at the same time of course respecting devolved competence in matters such as public health.

Golf tourism plays a major part in the local economy of North East Fife, particularly as St Andrews is the home of golf. There is a whole ecosystem built up around golf tourism, including accommodation, hospitality and inbound tour operators. The majority of these tourists come from north America and then travel to other golf courses around the UK, and there are concerns about the incoherent travel rules between the four nations and restrictions within the four nations deterring those visitors. Can I therefore ask the Minister to outline what steps he is taking to reach consensus, particularly in relation to the US?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which is pertinent not just for golf tourism but for whisky tourism and tourism in general across Scotland. The UK Government are committed to full alignment with the devolved Administrations, because we recognise the importance of such alignment for public compliance, as well as for business confidence and for tourism. We share the data, and we have created the structures to make that happen. However, we also respect the right of the devolved Administrations to make their own decisions on devolved matters. Thankfully, the differences in the exemptions, particularly for international travel, are not currently that material and can be justified as legitimate differences, but I do take on board the comments she made about golf tourism specifically.

This morning we heard that as a direct result of the baffling and inconsistent travel ban placed on Scots going to Greater Manchester, easyJet has cancelled its newly announced route from Aberdeen to Manchester, putting at risk many jobs in north-east Scotland. What work is being done, and may I beg the Minister and the Scotland Office to ensure that in the reopening of international travel, the same rules and regulations will apply around the entirety of the UK, instead of leaving the Scottish aviation sector and the thousands of people it employs at the mercy of a Scottish Government who have completely abandoned them?

My hon. Friend and I share a lot in common, not least the regular use of Aberdeen airport, to which he refers, and the fact that we both have wives who were not born in this country and unfortunately have not been able to visit their families for the last year and a half. That aside, on the specific issue about easyJet and the flight to Manchester, it has made a commercial decision, announced today, in response to the Scottish Government’s decision to regulate to prohibit travel to Manchester. The Scottish Government decision has been widely criticised as disproportionate; clearly Scottish Government Ministers will be keeping travel regulations under constant review, and there are calls for this regulation in particular to be reviewed in closer consultation with all interested parties. The Scotland Office would be happy to facilitate that, if helpful.

UK Government Ministers talk about a single approach, but, if we cast our minds back just a couple of months ago, travellers from India into Scotland faced managed hotel quarantine whereas the same travellers into England did not, and the consequences of that inaction are clear for all to see with the delta variant now dominant right across the UK. So I ask the Minister, does he regret the damage caused to Scotland’s covid-19 recovery as a result of his Government’s failure to follow Scotland’s lead?

What I regret, particularly considering the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, is that the Scottish Government did not, despite the repeated calls from the oil and gas industry, from MSPs, and from MPs who, like him, represent constituencies in the north-east of Scotland, give the same allowance for oil and gas workers from amber list countries that was allowed to them by the rest of the UK.

Strengthening the Union

The value and strength of the Union has never been more important or more apparent. The United Kingdom Government have supported all parts of the UK during the pandemic; that includes the furlough scheme, which at its peak supported nearly 1 million jobs in Scotland, the help of our fantastic military, and the UK-wide vaccination programme which means we can now see light at the end of the tunnel. The UK Government will lead our recovery from the pandemic, investing in communities right across the United Kingdom, getting young people into jobs and improving connectivity between all parts of our country.

The UK Government have been unwavering in supporting Scotland through the pandemic, from providing £14.5 billion in additional Barnett funding to protecting nearly 900,000 jobs through our furlough scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this shows how the UK Government and the Treasury have protected lives and livelihoods across every part of this country?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The support provided by the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom Treasury is staggering and simply unprecedented in peacetime. As he said, there are jobs being supported by furlough and an extra £14.5 billion provided to the Scottish Government through Barnett funding, and I would point out that 530,000 claims have been made in Scotland under the self-employment income support scheme, so far totalling around £1.5 billion.

Is it not the case that the success of our vaccine programme, which was a combination of successful UK Government procurement and then an NHS roll-out in the individual nations of the United Kingdom, is a fantastic example of the two Governments in Scotland—the UK Government and the Scottish Government—working together, which is exactly what we should see in the future? That demonstrates the strength of our Union, and we should fight to keep it in place.

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. The vaccine programme has been a huge success, and it was UK-wide procurement delivering vaccines on a UK-wide basis.

The A68 links Darlington with Edinburgh and serves as an economic and cultural link between England and Scotland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should be celebrating and strengthening connections between our two nations, and will he lend his support to the proposed improvements to the artery in my constituency as a means of strengthening our precious Union?

Yes, and Darlington has also been supporting the Scottish football team over the last few weeks. It is vital that we have good connectivity between all parts of the United Kingdom. Sir Peter Hendy, in his review, is looking at how we can improve that, and he will publish his report later this year, but I must say—I put it on the record again—that I was disappointed that the Scottish Government told their civil service not to engage in this work because, as ever, they want to put a grievance ahead of improving Scotland’s economy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) successfully pursued a two-year campaign calling on this Government to publish the results of the secret polling that they commissioned, using public funds, to ask people in Scotland how they feel about the Union. Can the Secretary of State confirm that that information will be published in the next three weeks, as the tribunal has ordered the UK Government to do?

The hon. Lady makes a point that is one for the Cabinet Office to answer, but the Cabinet Office is very clear that it does not spend money on political polling or research.

I will move on from that rather bizarre answer. Today, we learned that the UK Government have used emergency covid funds to publicly fund further polls on the Union, in a contract given to close associates of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Would the Secretary of State say that that is an appropriate use of emergency funds, and will he back the SNP’s calls for an inquiry into this misuse of funds?

Again, I say that the hon. Lady should be at Cabinet Office questions asking the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to answer for his Department. Again, I have spoken to the Cabinet Office about this. It does not engage in political polling, and it is very clear about that.

It seems to me that this Government’s plan to strengthen the Union is to first sell out the fishing industry and then betray Scotland’s farmers. Can the Secretary of State explain how the Australia trade deal, which allows the UK market to be flooded with thousands of tonnes of cheap, factory- farmed, inferior-quality beef and lamb, is the golden opportunity the Prime Minister promised? How will it help Scottish farmers’ business?

I am going to answer the question very clearly. The SNP voted against or abstained on all trade deals in the European Parliament and the one we have just done with the European Union. It is an isolationist party. The reality on the Australia trade deal is that it is upholding animal welfare standards. Under the World Organisation for Animal Health, Australia gets five out of five. We have safeguards in place to stop the market being flooded with beef or any collapse in price. We are very clear that we will protect our farmers, and this leads us into the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, worth £9 trillion. That will be a huge win for our farmers, and all the members of the farming community I have spoken to understand that. The SNP should see the big picture and understand that we are not going to reduce our animal welfare standards, that we are not going to flood the market, and that it will be seen very clearly in a few years’ time to have cried wolf.