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Union in Scotland: Public Opinion Polling

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 8 July 2021

What public opinion polling his Department has collected since 2017 on attitudes to the Union in Scotland. (902385)

What public opinion polling his Department has collected since 2017 on attitudes to the Union in Scotland. (902397)

As you quite rightly point out, Mr Speaker, football is indeed coming home. I cannot possibly understand why attendance is so scant on the Government Benches this morning.

The Government regularly commission research across the United Kingdom to understand public attitudes in order to inform and help to deliver relevant policies, and to ensure that we have strong, UK-wide, cross-Government communications campaigns.

Last month, the first-tier tribunal on information rights ruled that the Cabinet Office must release polling information that it has gathered on attitudes to the Union in Scotland within a month. Will the Minister confirm that he will be releasing that information, as he has been ordered to do, and whether he will also release the details on how much that information cost to collect?

The hon. Gentleman refers to a case that was brought to the first-tier tribunal by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). We are reviewing how we can comply with the first-tier tribunal’s judgment.

In the Chamber last month, the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) astutely summarised, speaking of his own Tory UK Government:

“When the Government do not publish something, it is normally because it is bad news and they are trying to hide it away.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 761.]

Will the Minister say whether that holds true for his Department’s intended-to-be-secret polling on the Union? If it does not and the Union is indeed as strong as he and his ministerial colleagues agree, what reason do the Government have for fighting the release of this information for years?

The hon. Lady refers to my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). He is a former Chief Whip, and, as a member of that broederbond, I know that there can sometimes be a tendency to prefer discretion rather than transparency, but in my current role I am all in favour of transparency. Indeed, we do not need to look anywhere other than the current public opinion polls, which show that support for independence is declining and support for the United Kingdom is increasing.

The High Court ruling by Justice O’Farrell concluded that the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster acted with “apparent bias” in the “unlawful” action when he awarded contracts to his chums at Public First, who had previously worked as advisers to him, to the Prime Minister and, of course, for Dominic Cummings. How can the Minister justify siphoning off many tens of thousands of pounds from covid recovery work to fund this highly political research, which is obviously designed to inform the no campaign in the next independence referendum?

I hesitate to correct the hon. Gentleman, but Lady Justice O’Farrell did not find that I had operated with any form of bias—apparent, actual or otherwise. That is a misreading of the court judgment.

The Scottish Government have received more than £180 million from the UK Government in covid recovery funds and it is not yet the case that the Scottish Government have published how a penny of that money is being spent, so before asking for greater transparency from this Government, I think it would be appropriate if the hon. Gentleman were to ask his colleagues in the Scottish Government to publish accounts for every single penny that has been received and how it has been spent so that we can be assured—as I am sure will be the case—that the Scottish Government have used their resources appropriately to fight covid.

The question was about the Minister’s actions, not about anyone else. It would be better if he paid attention to his own work. Given that we already know attitudes, and that, over time, support for independence has risen considerably and support for the Union has declined, is it not more than passing strange that the Minister was so desperate to hand Public First these contracts without competitive tender, were there not to be a second independence referendum? But, more importantly, given that the contract was not restricted to immediately required work, is it not hugely suspicious that such subterfuge was used to funnel taxpayers’ money so quickly to Public First, effectively using taxpayers’ cash as a bottomless Unionist slush fund?

A bottomless Unionist slush fund sounds like a great thing, but unfortunately it does not exist. I am afraid that I refer the hon. Gentleman again to the judgment. The contract was not awarded by me and it is not the case that I was found to have acted with any actual or apparent bias, because I did not award the contract. I recommend that he has a close look at what Lady Justice O’Farrell actually concluded.