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Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 15 December 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Renewable Energy Generation

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on supporting renewable energy generation in Scotland. (904684)

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on supporting renewable energy generation in Scotland. (904685)

I regularly discuss issues of importance to Scotland with Ministers, including support for Scotland’s renewable energy sector. Our recently published net zero strategy will leverage up to £90 billion of private investment by 2030 across the entire UK.

Edinburgh based Nova Innovation is a success story in the tidal energy sector. There are plans for tidal energy schemes across the UK, including in the Liverpool city region, with the Mersey tidal barrage. Thanks in large part to the Labour party and the industry, £20 million is now available in the contracts for difference scheme, after years when there was nothing. Will the Minister commit to long-term support for the tidal energy industry, which has so much potential in Scotland, for my constituents in Merseyside and across the UK?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point to contracts for difference, the fourth round of which was announced at the beginning of this week and is bigger than the other three rounds put together. Scotland has punched above her weight, securing 21% of the capacity in the previous rounds, and stands well placed—not just in tidal, but right across the spectrum of renewable energy. We are funding this in the short and long term.

The British Government have not backed the Acorn carbon capture and storage cluster, which is vital to Scotland’s path to net zero, but are maintaining support for the Cambo oilfield, which would dig up more fossil fuels for years to come. Does the Minister agree that the priority should always be supporting renewable energy generation, not fossil fuels?

The hon. Gentleman paints a misleading picture of the support that we are giving. I have just outlined to the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) the long-term support that we are providing to the renewables sector. It is wrong to say that we are not backing Acorn. There was a competitive round for two carbon capture and storage schemes. Acorn was a good project; it is a reserved project. We continue to work with it to ensure that it has a fighting chance of securing the next tranche of the carbon capture and storage schemes.

I welcome the remarks made by my hon. Friend with regard to Acorn in my constituency, which is still very much on the table, despite protestations from Opposition Members. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government also provide the oil and gas industry with vital support for the energy transition through the North sea transition deal?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I pay tribute to the tireless work that he does to champion the energy sector, both as a Minister and as a local Member. He is absolutely right; yes, we need to transition to renewable, but we have to be aware of the fact that we will need oil and gas during that transition period—not just for energy, but for the all the other purposes for which fossil fuels are required, such as the production of medicine.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The post-COP26 message is that Governments have little time to act on climate change. As the Secretary of State is aware, the Acorn carbon capture and storage project has not been given the go-ahead by the UK Government, but it could create 15,000 highly skilled jobs in Scotland and demonstrate that a just transition is feasible. The shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), wrote to the First Minister to encourage her to find a joint solution, but the reply contained more reasons not to work together and grievances than finding a solution for the project. Rather than the UK and Scottish Governments trading insults, will the Secretary of State back the Acorn project by finding a joint funding solution with the Scottish Government?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position. I look forward to our debates in the weeks and months ahead. I can advise her that she should probably not be too surprised when letters from the Scottish Government are full of grievances—that is par for the course. On Acorn, we do support the scheme. There was a competitive bidding round, where it placed third. It is a reserved project, and we are working with it to ensure that it stands a good chance in the next tranche of the carbon capture and storage scheme.

Alongside renewable energy, we need to accept our current energy mix with the energy transition. Does the Minister therefore share my anger at the Scottish Government’s complete dismissal of the Cambo oilfield, at the expense of oil and gas workers in Scotland and across the country?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said a minute ago, we cannot just switch off oil and gas immediately. We want a transition, and this Government are investing significantly, with £160 million in floating wind farms, £20 million for tidal stream and the £285 million next round of contracts for difference, but it is important that we do not lose our domestic oil and gas supply not only for energy, but for the whole range of purposes, including medicine and other vital products.

Standards Impropriety: The Union

3. What recent assessment he has made of the implications of allegations of standards impropriety for his Department’s work on strengthening the Union. (904686)

We remain focused on delivering for Scotland within a strong United Kingdom. This can be seen by the scale of our investment, with more than £191 million of UK Government funding being invested directly in community projects across Scotland. This is real devolution in action.

People in Scotland have rejected the Tories for the past 50 years. We decisively rejected the Prime Minister’s Brexit projects, and we rejected them once again at the last election. Some 65% of people in Scotland say that the Prime Minister is totally corrupt and 65% of people in Scotland also believe he should resign. Given that this coincides with a surge in independence, with more than half of the population in Scotland now supporting independence and the Scottish National party, does the Secretary of State agree that the corruption of the UK Government is driving Scots away from the Union? If he were truly interested in saving the Union, should he not be joining the rest of us in calling for the PM’s resignation?

I will stick to the question, which is what we are doing to deliver for the people of Scotland, and I am delighted to answer that question. I will give the hon. Gentleman one example: with the Union connectivity review, there are huge opportunities to improve transport links between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and I am dismayed that Members on the Opposition Benches refuse to support that.

May I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who has left the shadow Scotland team and been significantly demoted in my view to the ministry of fun? I thank him for everything he did in that role. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). I do not know what she did in her previous life to deserve it, but she will, as the House has already seen this morning, be wonderful in her new role on the shadow Scotland team, and we welcome her very much.

Every day, there are more and more revelations about the Prime Minister and this Government breaking their own lockdown rules. It truly is one rule for them and one for the rest of us. As the country cancelled Christmas last year, the Prime Minister had a party or three. The Government have lost all moral authority to lead this country, with scandal, sleaze and cronyism writ large. The Scottish Conservative leader was asked three times in the media at the weekend whether he could think of any positive attribute for the PM, and even he could not answer. Can the Secretary of State think of any positive attribute for the Prime Minister? Can he tell me any reason why this morally bankrupt Prime Minister is not a bigger threat to the Union than any nationalist?

Absolutely, without any difficulty, I can. The Prime Minister is a man of optimism, he is a man of vision and he is a man who delivered the trade deal running up to Christmas last year when no one said he could. He showed courage. He showed foresight in investing in the vaccine development, and he has gone on to deliver the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his reading ability, and I notice that he did not use the word “honesty”—there’s a surprise. I know the Secretary of State has cancelled his own Christmas party this year, so I look forward to seeing the photographs from it in the press shortly.

A major strength of the Union is of course the pooling and sharing of resources. The First Minister has announced a raft of new covid guidance this week that has devastated the hospitality trade. At the same time, she has offered pitiful financial support and criticised the UK Government for not providing funds. Such sectors want our two Governments to work together: they need our help. A hospitality business in my constituency sent me an email last night, saying:

“my customers have been driven away so we won’t survive these latest restrictions without government support. We always need a good festive season to see us through the winter. Where is the financial support?”

Why can the UK and Scottish Governments not work together to provide the financial support that these hospitality businesses deserve and need?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very serious point. Hospitality is under a lot of pressure across the United Kingdom, not least in Scotland. The Treasury announced yesterday afternoon, just ahead of the First Minister’s statement, that we were giving the Scottish Government certainty over their finances, and that is the first point I would make. What the Scottish Government have failed to do is set out what measures they believe are right for Scotland and how much these would cost, and that is an important thing to understand. They have also failed to explain how they cannot afford to act on their own, given that they have a record settlement this year of over £41 billion of block grant—the highest block grant settlement in real terms since devolution began.

Following on from the shadow Secretary of State, could I ask the Secretary of State whether he was invited to any of these parties in Downing Street and whether he had any knowledge of these parties?

If the hon. Lady had been at the Scottish Affairs Committee last Monday, when I was one of the witnesses—or if she had read the briefing from that—she would know that I was asked that question by the Chairman, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), and I answered very clearly that, first, I had no knowledge of the parties, and secondly, I was not at any of them.

I am sorry for the floundering social life of the Secretary of State, but if I could, I will move on to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) made. We talk about the Prime Minister’s vision, but does that vision not go against what the majority of people in Scotland voted for, given that they are against Brexit, the majority are against the Prime Minister and they are against the Conservatives? So is it not the case that the best chance this Prime Minister has of saving the Union and rebuilding trust in our covid response is by resigning?

Order. I am going to allow that, but we really need to be within the scope of the question. It is party politics, and I do not want us to get into that, but it is Christmas, so I am sure the Secretary of State will want to answer.

You are right, Mr Speaker. I would say again to the hon. Lady, if we are talking about majorities, that the First Minister failed to get a majority in May. Let us be clear that less than a third of Scots voted for her in May. Our focus, and the Prime Minister’s focus, is on fighting this pandemic and then recovery from this pandemic, and on bringing forward great things for Scotland, such as the Union connectivity review, freeports and investing directly with local authorities structural funds.

Cross-border Transport Connectivity

4. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving transport connections between Scotland and the rest of the UK. (904688)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about cross-border connectivity. Sir Peter Hendy’s report, published last month, covers a wide range of solutions spanning all transport modes across the United Kingdom. We will take time to consider carefully all the recommendations in the report, and we will publish our response in the new year.

Investing in zero-emission technologies is essential for future public transport connections. Scotland, as well as other parts of the country, is of course an important manufacturing base for buses. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Government are working hard to ensure that British manufacturing leads the way in fulfilling our world-leading commitments to introduce zero-emission buses?

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. We remain committed to supporting the introduction of 4,000 zero-emission buses and to achieving a zero-emission bus fleet. I think I am right in saying that transport is now the biggest single contributor in this country to carbon emissions, so it is absolutely right that we back our domestic industry to help deliver these zero-emission buses.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can I ask the Minister this question? Now that the bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland has been laid to bed at long last, can the Minister indicate what will be done to improve the roads from Larne to Stranraer and further on, because it is important for us in Northern Ireland, where we have tourism and we have business, that the roads are up to a certain standard? What has been done to improve those?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important question. The thinking behind the connectivity review is that we look at transport connections right across the UK. The A75 from Stranraer and Cairnryan to the motorway network is in desperate need of an upgrade, and that was one of the central recommendations of Sir Peter’s report. We absolutely see that as an important corridor.

Oil and Gas Sector

My ministerial colleagues and I regularly discuss oil and gas with fellow Government Ministers and stakeholders. The oil and gas industry is hugely important to north-east Scotland, and most recently the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my noble Friend Lord Offord attended the North Sea Transition Forum, alongside the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, regulators, and representatives from the oil and gas industry.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. In the transition period to our net-zero future, we will still need oil and gas for domestic use. What role does the Secretary of State see for UK domestic production to meet that need, because the Scottish economy is well poised to deliver it?

My hon. Friend is right: we will continue to need oil and gas as we transition to net zero. Developing our own supplies reduces reliance on imports that are produced to less rigorous environmental standards. It will also protect jobs in our oil and gas sector during our transition. Comments by the Scottish Government on this have been, by turn, disgraceful and depressing. As Sir Ian Wood, one of the most respected authorities in the industry said, those Scottish Government Ministers are creating an “adverse investment environment”, to which I would add only this: careless talk costs livelihoods.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the evidence given to the Scottish Parliament’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee by Professor Stuart Haszeldine, who said that there was no advantage to the Acorn project having been given reserve bidder status, as that merely means “a lot of meetings”, and requires companies to

“run on the spot with very little or no funding”?

Is the professor wrong in his assessment, and if so, would the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to tell us why?

Acorn is the reserve for this round, and we would like it to be expedited in the next wave. We have met many of the stakeholders involved in the project, and they have agreed that if we can accelerate it to 2023, they can improve the bid and the Government can include it in the next wave. That is very much our focus.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the complete abandonment of north-east oil and gas workers by the First Minister of Scotland is an absolute disgrace? She did not call for an end just to Cambo; it was to all further exploration in the North sea. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this Government stand full square behind the industry and workers in the north-east, unlike the Scottish Government?

I would add that the remark of the First Minister’s Minister, the Green party MSP, who said that only “hard-right extremists” want to explore oil, was also disgraceful. Even when we get to 2050, we will need oil for 20% of our power, and we will need gas for 15%, and for producing blue hydrogen. We will need that oil not just for power, but for important things such as the petrochemicals industry and for making instruments for the NHS. It is ridiculous to think that we can just turn off the taps and not destroy our economy.

This is not just about what we extract from the North sea; it is also about what we put back in. That is why the Acorn project is fundamental. The Secretary of State mentioned Sir Ian Wood and his views on the oil and gas sector, but he will also be cognisant of Sir Ian Wood’s views about his Government’s decision to turn their back on Acorn. Will the Secretary of State finally admit to regretting the decision of his colleagues?

I have discussed this matter with Sir Ian Wood, and I do not think the hon. Gentleman reflects his views fairly. Sir Ian Wood understands and agrees with us that the bid can be improved. To be clear, the difference between Acorn and Humberside, Teesside and Merseyside, was that Humberside, Teesside and Merseyside have a huge hinterland of industrial carbon. Acorn was bringing the carbon from all parts of the UK and/or Europe to make the bid work. We are working on how to get more industrial carbon into the project, to make it more viable and to expedite it for 2023.

Army Restructuring

6. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the implications for Scotland of plans to restructure the British Army. (904691)

13. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the implications for Scotland of plans to restructure the British Army. (904698)

My office and I have regular discussions with the Ministry of Defence on all matters relating to defence in Scotland, including the latest plans to modernise and restructure the Army. I was pleased that the review included plans for the Army to expand its footprint in Scotland; it is going from six to seven units, and Scotland will have a greater proportion of the Army than today.

While I have the opportunity, I would also like to thank our fantastic British armed forces who are currently supporting the booster programme in Scotland. The Secretary of State for Defence announced yesterday that a further 100 military personnel will support the vital booster campaign, and today the MOD has announced that another 80 medics are going to three NHS boards in Scotland. That means that over 400 military personnel are supporting Scotland’s health services.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the “Future Soldier” paper shows just how important defence is to Scotland and Scotland is to the defence of the UK and our allies, and does he share my enthusiasm that it delivers £355 million-worth of investment in the Army estate in Scotland?

Absolutely. Scotland plays a vital role in the defence of the UK. The Army’s future soldier restructuring programme is great news for Scotland. Not only will it deliver £355 million of investment in the Army’s Scottish estate, as my hon. Friend pointed out, but Scotland will gain a major unit and, as I said, we will see a greater proportion of the British Army in Scotland.

Soldiers from Scotland have had a central role in the armed forces over many centuries, from the charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo, to the western front, to helping roll out our vaccine programme. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that that proud central role will continue as strongly as ever in Scotland following any restructuring?

Under the future soldier review, the Army’s footprint in Scotland will be stronger than ever, recognising the immense contribution that Scottish servicemen and women make to the British Army. I am pleased that Scottish troops will continue the tradition, and they will lead the new Ranger Regiment, deploying alongside partner forces to counter extremist organisations and hostile state threats.

Scottish Economy: Support

The Budget and the spending review provide the largest annual block grant to the devolved Administration in Scotland since the Scotland Act 1998. Throughout the pandemic we have provided significant support, including through our furlough and self-employment schemes and additional support to businesses, on top of an extra £14.5 billion for the Scottish Government. We are also investing in new local infrastructure and regeneration projects through the levelling-up fund and community ownership fund, alongside the existing £1.5 billion investment in Scottish city and growth deals.

The Scottish Budget last week should have marked the start of an ambitious recovery plan for Scotland, but instead it is a missed opportunity that will not deliver the recovery Scotland needs. Similarly, the UK Government’s Budget offered tax cuts for bankers on business class flights but nowhere near enough for hard-working families across Scotland and the rest of the UK. Does the Secretary of State accept that both the Scottish and UK Governments must go further so we can get the economy firing on all cylinders?

I accept that both Governments need to work together—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about that—but the UK Government are doing their bit, with a block grant of £41.3 billion, £4.6 billion higher than last year and the highest since devolution began; £14.5 billion of covid funding since the pandemic began; a furlough scheme supporting over 900,000 jobs in Scotland, and grants and loans to businesses totalling over £4 billion. The UK Government are doing exactly what they need to do to support the Scottish economy.

Tidal Power

8. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of support for the Scottish tidal power sector. (904693)

I am delighted that the Government recently announced a new £20 million ringfenced allocation for tidal stream technology as part of the new contracts for difference round. That will enable Scotland to take advantage of the huge potential that exists to develop tidal stream technology.

The Scottish Affairs Committee visited Orkney a few months ago when collating evidence for its report on renewable energy. We were so impressed with the tidal stream technology, which is less expensive than tidal lagoon barrage technology. I am delighted that the renewable energy auction will include for the first time a ring fence for tidal stream power. How will that turbocharge the potential for this type of renewable energy in Scotland?

I am very glad that my hon. Friend and her colleagues on the Committee had the opportunity to visit Orkney. I also visited Orkney in August and was hugely impressed by the innovation that is going on there. The principle behind contracts for difference is that it gives the renewables sector the confidence to invest in these long-term technologies. I believe Scotland as a whole, and Orkney in particular, will be at the forefront of that.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on