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Volume 700: debated on Wednesday 8 September 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Ferry Services: Scotland to Europe

1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of creating direct ferry services from Scotland to mainland Europe. [R] (903220)

Let me start by saying that the Scottish athletes of Team GB have returned triumphant from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games with a record total of 14 medals, surpassing the 13 medals won by Scottish athletes at both the London and Rio Olympics. At the Paralympic games, the Scots of ParalympicsGB won an impressive 21 medals. I congratulate every athlete who competed. I also congratulate the Scottish football team on their victory in Vienna last night.

I regularly discuss a wide range of topics with Cabinet colleagues, including transport and the Union connectivity review. There are of course merits to any direct ferry services from Scotland. I understand that discussions for a new service to mainland Europe have been taking place for some time.

I endorse the comments of the Secretary of State on the Olympic and Paralympic teams, and the tartan army result last night; I am absolutely delighted with second place in the group at the moment, but let us go on to be first and get qualification.

The Secretary of State will be aware of recent dismal export figures in the wake of Brexit, the need to reduce lorry miles to help us get to net zero and the current HGV driver crisis that make up the hat-trick of events that would seem to make the need for a ferry service from Scotland to mainland Europe almost self-evident. However, there are barriers, including the commitment of Border Force to provide the resources and personnel to support that new route. Next week, we celebrate London International Shipping Week—

Order. I am sorry, but we have to get through the list of questions. The Secretary of State is going to have to answer the hon. Gentleman as best he can. [Interruption.]

I think the hon. Gentleman is requesting a meeting, and I would be happy to meet him. As he knows, the ferry service between Rosyth and Zeebrugge ran from 2002 to 2018, but from 2010 was not a passenger service. We would want any service that comes forward to be economically viable.

Misuse of Drugs Act and Health Outcomes

2. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 on health outcomes in Scotland. (903221)

9. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 on health outcomes in Scotland. (903228)

The recent drug deaths in Scotland are an absolute tragedy. The majority of the levers to tackle drug misuse are devolved to the Scottish Government, including health, education, housing and the criminal justice system. We are keen to work with the Scottish Government to tackle this tragic issue and to share lessons throughout the United Kingdom.

I wonder why the Minister and the Government refuse to base their policy on evidence such as that from Portugal, Canada and Switzerland, where drug consumption rooms save lives. We cannot help people when they are dead; DCRs save lives.

There is not a unanimous view on the efficacy of drug consumption rooms. The Minister for Crime and Policing, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), recently had discussions with his counterpart in the Scottish Government and it was made clear that we are open to any new evidence about drug consumption rooms, but they are not the single solution to the problem. This requires a holistic approach. We are very happy to work with the Scottish Government to explore all the different options.

There is plenty of evidence on the efficacy of drug consumption rooms. I am sure that my colleagues who have worked on the issue would be happy to discuss it with the Minister. Portugal faced some of the highest rates of drug deaths in Europe at the turn of the century, but it radically reversed the situation through decriminalisation and a public health approach. The Scottish Government have used their powers to commit to the public health approach. The question for the Minister is whether his Government will use their reserved powers to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act and enable the measures that worked in Portugal, such as drug consumption rooms, to happen. The Scottish Government have done their bit. Will his Government do theirs?

I have discussed the specific matter of drug consumption rooms at some length with the hon. and learned Lady’s colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), so I am well aware of the arguments for them, but there are arguments against them. As I said in response to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), we are happy to look at new evidence. In England and Wales, we have Project ADDER, which is showing some promising early signs of being effective in combating drug misuse. I strongly urge the hon. and learned Lady’s colleagues in the Scottish Government to take up our offer to extend that to Scotland.

In the last year for which figures are available, 1,339 lives were lost in Scotland as a result of drug misuse, the worst number since records began in 1996, yet we got no solutions from the SNP or from Nicola Sturgeon in her programme for government yesterday. Scottish Conservatives have put forward plans for a right to recovery Bill. Does the Minister agree that the Scottish Government should engage with us to bring forward these proposals?

I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend and his colleagues have come up with an excellent policy in this area, and it would be to the great advantage of people in Scotland that the Scottish Government take up the proposals that it contains.

The Scottish Affairs Committee conducted the most extensive inquiry ever undertaken into drug use in Scotland, taking evidence from practically everybody with an interest and a stake in this issue. We concluded that we need every tool in the kitbag to address the scale of this problem, from an increased resources position to adopting evidence-based solutions with best practice from international examples that have worked, such as drug consumption facilities and decriminalisation. Why did the UK Government reject nearly all of our conclusions and recommendations?

I understand that the report from that Committee, which I think was done in 2018, was not a unanimous one and the Committee divided on it, which illustrates the fact that there is not the unanimity of view on the proposals to which the hon. Gentleman refers. As I say, we keep an open mind on this as regards fresh evidence that shows that policies work. My colleagues in the Home Office have discussed this with their counterparts in the Scottish Government and those discussions will continue.

My hon. Friend may be aware of the sterling work done by my friend—albeit not an hon. Friend—the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, on the misuse of drugs and controlling it. To what degree does the Scottish Office liaise with the regions of England to communicate with Scotland about best practice?

I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that I discuss matters throughout the United Kingdom, and if there are good, innovative practices in a particular area it is of course wise to share that and encourage other parts of the United Kingdom to follow suit.

The Minister says that there is no consensus as to drug consumption rooms, but, as has already been said, every country that has trialled safe consumption rooms has a positive story to tell about them. The other thing that he failed to mention is that the legislation that makes drug use a crime often traps vulnerable people in a vicious cycle of poverty and crime. With that in mind, will this Government finally commit to reviewing the 50-year-old legislation that is the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971?

As I said to the hon. Lady’s colleagues, we constantly discuss these matters with our counterparts in Scotland. We have made very serious offers, as I say, to extend Project ADDER, which looks at drugs misuse in a holistic way. There is evidence to show that that is working. I strongly urge the Scottish Government to take up that offer. Particularly on drug consumption rooms, as I say, if there is new evidence there, we will consider it.

In what world do you get to claim to be taking an issue seriously while in the same breath commit to change absolutely nothing? If the logical arguments will not convince, then maybe the financial ones will. Crimes linked to drugs in Scotland cost £750 million a year to investigate and prosecute. Experts tell us that that money could be better spent. If the experts, the Scottish Government and even the Scottish Conservatives can now agree that health needs to be the main approach, why not the Minister?

I think the hon. Lady takes a very partisan view on this. We have put forward some very concrete suggestions. I remind her that the vast majority of powers in this area lie with the Scottish Government, and her Government have been in power for 14 years, so perhaps they should spend a little bit more effort focusing on tackling some of these social issues rather than obsessing about independence, which no one wants.

Strength of the Union

My assessment continues to be that the United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union that the world has ever seen. It is the foundation on which all our citizens and businesses are able to thrive. The United Kingdom Government are committed to protecting and promoting the strengths of our United Kingdom.

The helping hand of the Union has left Scotland with no oil fund. It sees our renewables projects pay the highest grid charging levies in the entirety of Europe. In 2015, we saw the scrapping of plans for a carbon capture and underground storage plant in Peterhead, so I am simply seeking reassurance from the Secretary of State that the Acorn project will be one of two clusters to receive backing from his Government next month.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is under review. We want Acorn to be one of the tier 1 projects, and we are pressing for that. I think he should press for his colleagues and his Government in Scotland to support the oil and gas industry.

How is the Union strengthened by the increasingly divergent franchises on these islands? Scotland’s Parliament was elected in May with an electorate including 16 and 17-year-olds, refugees and EU nationals, while his Government’s Trumpian Elections Bill wants to suppress and restrict voter turnout. Surely that only increases the legitimacy and mandate of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, and makes this place even more detached from voters in Scotland.

I think the coalition with the Greens shows very clearly to everyone that one thing that the SNP failed to achieve in May was an outright majority.

“Shameful” and “disgrace” are words that Nicola Sturgeon likes to bandy at her opponents, but they truly apply to her announcement yesterday that while Scotland continues to have some of the worst covid rates in Europe, she is diverting resources into another divisive independence referendum. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the focus of this Government will be to work constructively across the United Kingdom to defeat covid, save jobs and restore our economy?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our focus is on rebuilding our economy. Our focus is on restoring our NHS. I think most right-minded Scots would agree that using civil service resources to design a prospectus for independence is the wrong thing to be doing at this time.

Over the summer, new data published by the SNP Scottish Government showed the Union dividend to be worth £2,210 a person in Scotland. Does the Minister agree that those figures simply confirm the benefit of Scotland remaining at the heart of a strong United Kingdom?

I absolutely would agree with my hon. Friend. I would add that the recent “Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland” reports in August showed that the deficit last year for the Scottish budget was £36.3 billion. That is more than the Scottish Government spend on education, housing, transport, culture and health.

We know that for the past two years, the Government have been spending taxpayers’ money researching public opinion in Scotland on the state of the Union. For two years, I have been trying to get answers as to what that research says. For two years, the Cabinet Office has refused, including appealing to the court of law and bringing in outside consultants to fund its case. Is it not time, if the Secretary of State believes so much that the Union is such a wonderful thing, for him to tell us what he has found out about what Scottish people think about the state of the Union and publish this research?

As I have said before at this Dispatch Box, that is a matter for the Cabinet Office, and I suggest the hon. Gentleman raises it at Cabinet Office questions.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on the scale of the additional financial resource that Scotland received as a result of the covid pandemic? Does he agree that it is the strength of the UK balance sheet that allows the UK Government to support every part of the United Kingdom in times of crisis?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. The strength of support was over £14 billion during the covid crisis, and the furlough support helped 900,000 jobs in Scotland at the height of the pandemic, which is nearly a third of the Scottish workforce.

May I join the Secretary of State in congratulating our Olympians and Paralympians on their wonderful medals haul in Tokyo? May I also congratulate the Scottish football team on a marvellous result last night? However, he knows, as all Scots do, that it is the hope that kills you, so let us not celebrate too much.

Our shared social security system is vital to underpinning our Union, but by the next Scotland questions the Government will have made the largest ever overnight cut to social security for those in work by removing the £20 from universal credit. Citizens Advice Scotland says that more than half those people are worried about being able to buy food. At the same time, the Government have broken another promise and want to increase national insurance with the highest tax rise in 40 years. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that about 150,000 working families on low incomes in Scotland will pay an average of £100 extra in tax while losing £1,000. What advice does the Secretary of State give those families on low incomes on where they should cut £1,100 from their family budgets?

The uplift in universal credit was always intended to be temporary—it was to help claimants through the economic shock and financial disruption of the pandemic—and we now have the kickstart programme and a multibillion-pound plan for jobs. I understand it is difficult to break a manifesto promise, and the Prime Minister was clear that he was doing that in raising national insurance, but he also had a manifesto promise to address social care, which, since Tony Blair said he would address it in 1997, has not been done.

There is no money going into social care, but we will leave that for a different time. Last week, Labour’s shadow team visited Orkney and its European Marine Energy Centre. It has facilities such as the most powerful tidal turbine in the world, which results in its having excess energy that it cannot get back to the mainland. At the same time, the Scottish and UK Governments are backing the Cambo oilfield. With COP26 coming to Scotland, should the Secretary of State not lead by example, refuse Cambo and reform the outdated transmission charge regime while providing funding for a new large-capacity interconnector between Orkney and Shetland and the mainland? That would bring huge benefits and innovation to the islands and power large parts of Scotland from renewable resources.

On Cambo, all our North sea oil licences are factored into the 2050 net zero plan. Discussions are ongoing on the interconnector. It is partly devolved, with Ofgem and others involved. However, leaving that to one side, I take the overall view that there will be multiple uses for oil and gas for years to come—people must understand that—and we may as well get oil domestically rather than import it.

Transport Connections: Scotland and Rest of UK

5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving transport connections between Scotland and the rest of the UK. (903224)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues who are as excited as I am to ensure that we strengthen transport connections across the United Kingdom. We recognise the importance of transport and how it is vital to economic growth, job creation and social cohesion. That is why the Union connectivity review was commissioned. I look forward to the publication of the final report later this year.

The family, business and cultural links between Harrogate and Knaresborough and Scotland are growing, but, for them to grow further, they will need better connectivity. The east coast main line is at the heart of that. Will my right hon. Friend therefore welcome the investments being made in that line and highlight its importance in the Union connectivity review that he just mentioned?

Yes. The Government are determined to level up every corner of the United Kingdom, bringing communities across the country closer together. We recognise that infrastructure projects are important to growing our economy, because wherever we create connectivity, we create economic growth.

Which high-speed rail line does the hon. Member have in mind—High Speed 2 going north or Galashiels coming south? He should wait for the outcome of the connectivity review—which I must say the SNP did not engage in. Not only that; the SNP Government’s Transport Minister, rather irresponsibly, told his civil servant officials that they could not engage with Sir Peter Hendy or give him any data. When we then offered £20 million for feasibility studies, they declined it.

Public Inquiry: Handling of Covid-19 in Scotland

6. What recent discussions he has had with Scottish Ministers on the public inquiry into the handling of covid-19 in Scotland. (903225)

An inquiry into the devolved aspects of the covid-19 response was an SNP manifesto commitment, and the Scottish Government have now set out their next steps. The UK Government have committed to a statutory inquiry into all key aspects of the UK’s response to the pandemic. As the Prime Minister has stated, we will consult the devolved Administrations before finalising the scope of that inquiry.

Throughout the pandemic, one of the most dangerous impacts has been not just that of the virus itself, but the impact it has had on our NHS in preventing life-saving operations from taking place. In Scotland, the situation has been made even worse through the Scottish SNP Government’s under-investment in the NHS, with over 450,000 people languishing on waiting lists prior to the pandemic, and that figure has now risen to more than 600,000. Will the Minister work to ensure that the covid public inquiry in Scotland will look into other aspects of the NHS?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that the impacts of the pandemic are felt in many areas and in other parts of the health service, and there is a need to catch up with that backlog of missed operations and treatments. I am absolutely delighted that, yesterday, the Prime Minister set out very real progress and steps to make that happen, with additional spending in the NHS right across the United Kingdom.

I am very sorry to tell the House that Scotland now has one of the highest covid rates in all of Europe, with eight out of 20 hotspots across Europe being in Scotland, according to the World Health Organisation. Instead of learning the lessons of the last year, the SNP Government have wasted the summer months with the virus spiralling out of control. While the covid rate soars, the First Minister announced this week that Scottish civil servants will be tasked with drawing up arguments for Scottish independence. In the Minister’s discussions with the Scottish Government, has he discussed the issue of Scottish civil servants being diverted from crucial covid-19 response work to plans for another independence referendum, and can he confirm that this will form part of the covid-19 inquiry into the Scottish Government’s failures?

I am very happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman. Whether it is on learning the lessons from covid and making sure that our public services can catch up or whether it is on tackling drug abuse and a whole range of other public service and social issues, that should be the primary focus of the Scottish Government, not obsessing with another divisive referendum.

Free Trade Agreements: Opportunities for Scotland

7. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of new free trade agreements on trading opportunities for Scotland. (903226)

10. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of new free trade agreements on trading opportunities for Scotland. (903229)

This Government have already struck trade deals with more than 68 countries as well as the EU worth £744 billion a year. This will create new markets for Scotland’s exporters, including our world-leading food and drinks sector. The Department for International Trade team based in Edinburgh is also helping Scottish businesses thrive and grow internationally. Last week, I was delighted to meet the new DIT director for Scotland heading up this team, and I look forward to planning further engagement with her and her team.

Scotland’s businesses will be among the main beneficiaries of the trade deals we have already secured around the world, with our historic agreement with Japan boosting trading opportunities for over 500 Scottish businesses alone. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that we will now be able to use our new status as an independent trading nation to promote the very best that Scottish industries have to offer to the world?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend: he is absolutely right. This Government are working hard to strike new trade deals around the world that will benefit key business sectors and consumers across Scotland and across the whole of the UK. We are opening new opportunities for iconic Scottish and British industries to thrive overseas.

As the Government negotiate new free trade deals around the world as global Britain, and the new agreement with Australia removes the 5% tariff on the export of whisky to Australia hot on the heels of the tariff-free period of five years with the United States, does my hon. Friend agree that the advantage to Scotland of negotiating together with the United Kingdom for free trade deals makes the case for the United Kingdom to be together as one country?

On that final point, I could not agree more. It is hugely welcome to see the removal of the 5% tariff on Scotch whisky in the agreement in principle between the UK and Australia. That will help Scottish whisky distillers to continue to expand exports to Australia, which have almost doubled over the last decade, making Australia our eighth largest market by value.

With all these free trade deals, I wonder whether the Minister can detail what the losses are to the seafood industry through Brexit, and what compensation it has received through the UK Government. What are the current losses to the hospitality industry because it cannot access EU labour, and what are the total losses to the Scottish Food and Drink Federation because of shortages caused by the HGV lorry driver crisis?

I did not quite catch all of that, but I did catch the words “fishing” and “HGV drivers”. On fishing, I would not be surprised if I talk to many more people in the fishing industry than the hon. Gentleman does, and I will take my advice on the situation in the fishing industry from them, rather than from Opposition Members, or indeed Twitter and the rest of social media. On HGV drivers, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said, we recognise this issue. This is not a Brexit issue, otherwise we would not be seeing the exact same problem right across Europe, and in fact right across the world. The UK Government have already put measures in place to help increase, improve and speed up the recruitment of HGV drivers in this country.

Order. Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on Parliament Live TV.