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Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 2 February 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Connectivity: Scotland and the Rest of the UK

1. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving connectivity between Scotland and the rest of the UK. (905311)

Stirling has today submitted its bid to be the UK’s city of culture 2025. Winning the bid would bring investment and international attention to the town, and I am sure that every Scottish MP will join me in wishing Stirling the very best for the competition. As I am sure you are aware, Mr Speaker, today—2 February—is also Groundhog day. Of course, in Scotland, every day feels like Groundhog day with the SNP’s incessant calls for another independence referendum.

Turning to question No. 1, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), and I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues about improving cross-border connectivity. The UK Government are currently considering the recommendations from the Union connectivity review and a formal response will be published shortly.

Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that the Scottish Government refused to engage with the Union connectivity review, and does he share my hope that these party political games will stop and that the Scottish Government will work with the UK Government to improve transport links for the people of Scotland, such as vital improvements to the A1 and the construction of the Borders railway to Carlisle?

I do share the disappointment that the Scottish Government did not engage in the Union connectivity review. In fact, the Cabinet Secretary for transport, Michael Matheson, instructed his civil servants not to engage with Sir Peter Hendy, the author of the review. But the UK Government have invited the Scottish Government to work closely in partnership to consider the recommendations and identify solutions that work best for all people in the United Kingdom.

There is no doubt that the UK Government speak a lot about improving connectivity with Scotland, but what is the Secretary of State specifically doing to improve connectivity between the UK Conservative Cabinet and what they refer to as the political lightweights of the Scottish Conservative party?

I am not quite sure how that is linked to connectivity, but as the hon. Member knows, not only do I support the Prime Minister in the role that he is carrying out, but I support our leader in Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross).

Rail links between England and Scotland are crucial in promoting regional interconnectivity not just to London, but to premier resorts such as mine of Southport. Would my right hon. Friend commit to meeting me so we can discuss putting the link back in through the Burscough curves to connect Southport better with Scotland?

Yes, I will meet my hon. Friend. I know that he has six beautiful golf courses in his area, so connectivity would be wonderful for us Scots, because we do enjoy a game of golf.

With the pandemic leading to more and more people looking to holiday in the UK, what discussions—notwithstanding the comments about the refusal of the Scottish Government—has the Secretary of State endeavoured to have with the Scottish Government about harnessing that new-found demand and supporting important transport hubs such as Edinburgh airport and Haymarket station in my constituency to facilitate improved connectivity?

As the hon. Lady will know, connectivity is important. It is not just about air; it is also about rail and road. We are very keen to improve connectivity because we realise that that leads to economic growth and improves people’s livelihoods. We are engaging with the Scottish Government in a spirit of good will with a view to improving connectivity for all parts of the United Kingdom.

Growth Deals

The Moray full deal and the Falkirk heads of terms were signed in December. We now have nine deals in implementation and three in negotiation covering all of Scotland. The Government have committed over £1.5 billion for the deal programme in Scotland.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the Scottish Government’s strategic transport review, and no doubt he will share my disappointment at the very lukewarm support for the extension of the Borders railway to Hawick, Newcastleton and on to Carlisle. Does he agree that this Government should show their full support for the project and tell us when the feasibility study for the Borders railway extension will be started?

I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s disappointment. When we signed the Borderlands growth deal, I was determined that the feasibility study for reopening the full Borders line should be in there. I am keen to see that work starting as soon as possible, and we will soon respond to the Union connectivity review, which also references that line. This is a classic example of where the Scottish Government should stop obsessing and spending their time, resources and money on yet more independence preparations and instead deliver on projects that really matter to the people of Scotland.

The Borderlands region will see £20 million less investment in its city region deal from the UK Government than from the Scottish Government. Why is that?

If the hon. Lady looks at the full package of investment that is going into the Borderlands deal, she will see that this Government are full square behind that area. It really is disappointing that it comes down to this petty point scoring when the whole point of the city region and growth deal is that all parts of government—local, Scottish and UK—work together on delivering the priorities that are determined by local people.

Talking about the Borderlands growth initiative and the growth deal, does the Minister agree that it is extremely important and beneficial to the whole region, and that Carlisle has become the regional capital of parts not just of England, but of Scotland? Does he also agree that south Scotland recognises the importance of Carlisle’s economic performance to the whole region? Does he further agree that that helps to support the Union?

I absolutely agree that the Borderlands growth deal is unique in that it straddles the border. The economic footprint of the region is incredibly important. Last year I held a meeting in Carlisle with local authority leaders and other stakeholders to discuss not just the growth deal, but how it can be the starting point for a proper economic partnership that straddles the border and delivers for my hon. Friend and his neighbouring constituencies.

Strength of the Union

This Government are committed to upholding and strengthening the United Kingdom. My Department works closely with our partners across Government and with Scottish stakeholders. This Government are delivering record investment in Scotland and are ensuring that the many benefits of the Union are shared across the United Kingdom.

The Leader of the House recently described the leader of the Scottish Conservatives as “a lightweight figure”. Does the Secretary of State believe that that comment helped to strengthen the Union?

I have made my position very clear: I do not think that Douglas Ross—[Interruption.] Well, I made it very clear in the Scottish media, which hon. Members may not have noticed, but that is fair enough. He is the leader of the Scottish Conservatives and was put there by the membership, and we are a constitutionally devolved organisation. He is doing a very good job and holds Nicola Sturgeon to account, and he has my full backing.

On the Union, this Government are committed to delivering freeports across the United Kingdom, including at least one in Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the creation of at least one freeport in Scotland will result in investment and thousands of jobs and demonstrates why our Union is so effective at delivering for our communities?

I am pleased to say that, after a lot of initial opposition and resistance, we are close to agreeing two freeports with the Scottish Government. My hon. Friend is a great champion for Wales, and I hope that the Welsh Government will also accept a freeport.

The Sue Gray report released on Monday was utterly damning about the Prime Minister’s conduct, yet the Secretary of State continues to back him against the wishes of his own Scottish Conservative leader, who I notice is not in the Chamber for Scottish questions. We now know that the Metropolitan police are investigating no fewer than 12 incidents in Downing Street, with more allegations every day. It is little wonder then that a recent poll found that the Prime Minister is as unpopular in Scotland as Alex Salmond. Does the Secretary of State think that the Prime Minister, in refusing to do the decent thing and resign, is good for the Union or helps those who want to break it up?

The Prime Minister is resolute in opposing a second Scottish independence referendum and therefore very good for the Union.

What is Groundhog day, Mr Speaker, is the Secretary of State’s defence of this broken Prime Minister.

Tomorrow, the Bank of England is projected to raise interest rates, and inflation is running at a 30-year high. There will be much anxiety in Scottish households that Ofgem will announce the raising of the energy price cap, leading to a massive hike in bills. Last night, my colleagues and I voted to give every single Scottish household support towards the cost of their spiralling energy bills. Under Labour’s fully costed plans, we would save every Scottish household £200 and save £600 for over 800,000 Scottish households hardest hit by the cost of living crisis. That is proper action on this crisis for those both on and off the grid, like many thousands in the Secretary of State’s constituency. Given that the SNP did not back these plans in the vote last night either, why are Scotland’s two Governments refusing to take any action whatsoever to help Scots with spiralling energy costs?

The UK Government are taking action. The energy price cap is being maintained and will be renegotiated—that is ongoing work for the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We are providing a £140 rebate on energy bills for 2.2 million households with the lowest incomes, and we have the £300 winter fuel payment for pensioners.

The strength of any Union rests upon the confidence people have in those who are running things. I know that I disagree with the Minister’s political judgment, so let me appeal to his business judgment. Hypothetically, if he were handed evidence that the man running his company had been incompetent and dishonest, and was subject to a police investigation, bringing the entire company into disrepute, would he let him carry on in the role, or would he expect him to step back?

As has been said many times at this Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister is very sorry for what happened—he has apologised. He has said that if he could have done things differently, with hindsight, he would have done. It is also the case that no one has said that he is the subject of a police investigation. The police are looking into the events that have been passed on to them by Sue Gray, and we will wait for the outcome of that inquiry.

I find it quite incredible. Many of the public believe that this Prime Minister has a long history of racism, homophobia and misogyny. He has lost numerous jobs due to his level of dishonesty. He has presided over 150,000 deaths and the loss of nearly £5 billion of public money to fraudsters. Eighty per cent. of people in Scotland want him to resign, and the leader of the Scottish Tories wants him to resign. Let me ask the Minister this: as Scotland’s only representative in Cabinet, what would it take for him to ask for the Prime Minister’s resignation?

The Prime Minister is doing a fantastic job. He is focusing on the things that matter: delivering on the recovery from this pandemic, the vaccine programme that he backed early on, the booster programme that he led before Christmas, trade deals that will improve outcomes for Scottish food and drink, and many other things. He is a very good leader. The hon. Lady is absolutely prejudging the outcome of the police inquiry.

Following the reference to confidence by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), I welcome the publication of the levelling-up White Paper, and the Government’s commitment to decentralising the UK shared prosperity fund to local areas in Scotland and Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an example of confidence in local decision-making, of real devolution and of good Union working?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—I know that he is a great champion of the Union. The levelling-up paper, which will be launched today, will contain a lot of initiatives and show that we are using structural funds to practise real devolution by giving that money directly to local authorities.

Scottish Parliament: Legislative Remit

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the legislative remit of the Scottish Parliament. (905314)

The UK Government remain focused on the issues that really matter to people in Scotland, including recovery from the pandemic. My Department continues to work closely with both the Scottish Government and UK Government Departments on the ongoing implementation of the Scotland Act 2016.

Yesterday, Holyrood backed a motion rejecting voter ID measures in the Elections Bill because they would disenfranchise Scottish voters. That is an indication of the strength of feeling for people across Scotland, and in my constituency, that the UK Government are not giving them due consideration through the legislative process. Can the Secretary of State confirm what plans the Government have to extend Holyrood’s legislative powers?

We are respecting devolution with the Elections Bill: we are bringing in voter ID only for UK elections. We believe that stealing someone’s vote is stealing someone’s voice.

Coastal Communities

Communities across Scotland have benefited and will continue to benefit from our focus on levelling up. Particularly for coastal communities we are investing a further £100 million over the next three years for transformative seafood projects that will help to rejuvenate our coastal communities.

The petrochemical and oil and gas industries are vital to coastal communities across our United Kingdom, in Teesside and in Scotland. Will the Minister confirm that this Government are committed to supporting our petchem sector and further oil and gas exploration in the North sea, which will inevitably help us achieve net zero, not hinder it?

Yes, I can. The Government are committed to delivering a North sea transition deal, which will be a global exemplar of how a Government can work with the offshore oil and gas industry in partnership to achieve a managed energy transition. This deal between the UK Government and the oil and gas industry will support workers, businesses and the supply chain through this transition by harnessing the industry’s existing capabilities, infrastructure and private investment potential.

This Government’s multimillion-pound investment in the fishing industry will benefit coastal communities right across the UK, from Cornwall to Scotland. Does my hon. Friend agree that only by boosting coastal communities and spreading opportunity to every corner of our country can we succeed in our mission to improve the lives of everybody in our great nation?

Indeed I do. The Government have gone well beyond their manifesto commitment to replace European Union funding, by investing an additional £100 million over the next three years for these transformative seafood projects that will rejuvenate the industry and our coastal communities. Levelling up is about helping communities across the UK, and that means building back better, spreading opportunity, improving public services and helping to restore and celebrate pride in our coastal communities.

The world-leading European Marine Energy Centre in Stromness was developed as a consequence of access to EU Interreg funding, money to which we no longer have access. Does the Minister agree that the UK’s shared prosperity fund should be the source of replacement funding for organisations such as EMEC that no longer have access to Interreg funding? What is the Scotland Office doing to make that case within government?

I had the pleasure of visiting Stromness last summer, when I saw for myself the huge potential that Orkney has to lead the country in renewable energy. I continue to speak to the leader of Orkney Islands Council to explore all the ways in which we can help to fund these exciting projects.

Many coastal communities, including in my constituency, benefit from improved coastal shipping. What actions has the Secretary of State taken to assist in introducing a direct ferry service from Scotland to critically important export markets in Europe?

I was pleased to reply to a debate that the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues spoke in a couple of weeks ago on exploring the potential for restoring the Rosyth to Zeebrugge link, which, for commercial reasons, ceased operating a few years ago. There are lots of potentials for reopening that. It is primarily a matter for the Scottish Government, but I am happy to work with him and his colleagues to explore all these opportunities.

The ScotWind allocation announced last week has the opportunity to create thousands of jobs in Scotland. The reality is that in its time in office the Scottish National party has created lots of highly-skilled jobs, but they are not in Scotland—they are in China, Poland, Portugal and elsewhere. The Scottish Government failed to put in place sufficient demands for local procurement as part of awarding the contract; it is particularly disappointing for coastal communities, who can see offshore wind turbines being installed but cannot see the jobs. What discussion has the Minister had with the Scottish Government about ensuring that the supply chain for ScotWind creates jobs in Scotland and across the UK?

I agree with the basic point the hon. Lady is making. Referring back to the answer I gave the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), may I say that if we look at renewable energy as a whole, we see that there are enormous opportunities to develop that technology in Scotland, through our contracts for difference round, which is as big as all the other rounds put together? Huge investment is going in, in offshore wind and in tidal, and I will continue to explore every avenue to make sure that this country is able to secure the lion’s share of that industrial capacity.

Levelling-up Fund: Benefits to Scotland

6. What assessment he has made of the potential economic benefits to Scotland of the Levelling Up Fund. (905316)

Eight projects in Scotland have received a share of more than £170 million from round 1 of the levelling-up fund. Those projects will create new jobs, boost training, grow productivity and deliver tremendous economic benefit to Scotland.

With all the news on the levelling-up White Paper today, will my right hon. Friend update the House on progress towards the fund’s second round? There will be as many bidders in Scotland as there will be in my constituency, where we are keen to move forward with a bid to regenerate Lye.

Unsuccessful applicants who have passed the gateway stage will be offered feedback to support future bids. They will also be encouraged to reapply. Round 2 of the levelling-up fund is due to open in spring this year, and more information will be shared in due course.

I feel for the Secretary of State having to come to the Dispatch Box to defend his Government’s appalling record on spending for the devolved nations. Their broken promises on fully replacing EU funds look to set Wales back more than £1 billion over the next few years. Will he confirm exactly how the Government plan on plugging that gap? The shared prosperity fund will see all the devolved nations lose out on vital funding and is simply not good enough.

To be absolutely clear, regarding funding to the devolved Administrations, the first comment I would make to the hon. Lady is that the settlement for Scotland this year of £41.6 billion is an increase of £4 billion and is the highest settlement that the Scottish Government have received since 1998, so since devolution began. Regarding the UK shared prosperity fund, the European regional development fund and the European social fund are absolutely being replaced with no reduction whatever, as per our manifesto commitment.

Will my right hon. Friend inform the House of what engagement he has had—or other UK Departments have had—with the Scottish Government and, in particular, with local authorities in Scotland to ensure that levelling up is truly a levelling-up exercise across the whole of the United Kingdom?

As my hon. Friend knows from when he was in the Scotland Office with me, we have had a lot of engagement with Scottish local authorities. We have been very clear that we will deliver the levelling-up money and work with those local authorities to practice real devolution.

Transport Links: Scotland and the North-east of England

7. What steps he is taking to improve transport links between Scotland and the north-east of England to promote economic growth. (905317)

The Union connectivity review recognised the importance of the A1 and recommended that the UK Government should seek to work with the Scottish Government to develop an assessment of the east coast road and rail corridor. The Government will respond to the UCR and publish that response in due course.

On the day that the levelling-up agenda has been published, will the Secretary of State tell the House what steps he is taking to devolve powers and finance to the northern regions, so that we can strengthen ties with the Holyrood Government independently of Westminster, so increasing rail capacity, trade and opportunities for business?

I know how passionate the hon. Gentleman is about transport matters as I had the pleasure of serving with him on the Select Committee on Transport for a number of years. If he reads through the levelling-up White Paper, which came out today—I appreciate that it is quite a weighty tome, so he might not have had a chance to digest it all yet—he will see in that the measures to which he is referring. We can encourage better connectivity between the different economic centres of the UK. I would be absolutely delighted to see a strengthening of that corridor between Scotland and the north-east of England.

Defence Investment in Scotland

My office and I have regular discussions with the Ministry of Defence on all matters relating to defence in Scotland, including defence investment with industry and commerce in Scotland, which totalled almost £2 billion in 2020-21.

Scotland is home to the Royal Navy Submarine Service, including our essential independent nuclear deterrent, which protects the whole of the UK. As President Putin continues to escalate his military posture and the aggression on the Ukrainian border—let us be clear that it is President Putin escalating this and not the Russian people—does my right hon. Friend agree that our commitment to defence investment in Scotland, including in Trident, is important, indeed vital, to Scotland’s security as part of the UK and as part of NATO? [Interruption.]

Order. I need to finish these questions. It is in good order that you hear your own Secretary of State.

Mr Speaker, you will not be surprised to hear that I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, which is Trident, based at the HM Naval Base Clyde, exists to deter the most extreme threats not only to the United Kingdom but to our NATO allies. Our nuclear deterrent is the ultimate assurance against current and future threats and remains essential for as long as the global security situation demands.

Rise in the Cost of Living

10. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential effect of the rise in the cost of living on people in Scotland. (905321)

This Government have consistently said that the best way to support people’s living standards is through good work, better skills and higher wages. Our plan for jobs is working, the economy is growing and unemployment is low. The national living wage, the universal credit taper and allowance changes are putting more money in people’s pockets.

The UK energy market is demonstrably broken. Surely that is of concern to all of us in all parts of the House. I am particularly concerned about rural energy prices and disparities between urban and rural areas. Competition law and energy law are reserved to this place. Will the Minister support my call for an investigation into uncompetitive energy practices? If he will not, would he care to come to the city of Stirling and explain to the people of Stirling and Scotland how the UK energy market is working for them?

First, let me welcome the city of culture bid by the hon. Gentleman’s home city. I am always happy to visit Stirling—in fact, I believe that I am coming up to visit in the next couple of weeks. I am very happy to meet him to discuss the measures to which he refers, but energy prices are rising globally. That is a consequence of the coronavirus restrictions easing and demand coming back, together with other geopolitical factors, so I would put the points that he raises in that global context.