House of Commons
Wednesday 23 November 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Cost of Living: Support for Households
We are delivering unprecedented support to protect households across Wales from the cost of living. We understand that people across the UK are worried about the cost of living, and this winter we will stick with the plan to spend £55 billion to help households and businesses with their energy bills—one of the largest support plans in the whole of Europe.
I welcome the right hon. Member to his role as Secretary of State for Wales. As he will be aware, off-grid households and businesses have experienced quite rapid increases in the price of their heating. That is a big concern in areas such as Ceredigion, where 74% of properties are not connected to the mains gas grid. Quite simply, when does he expect those households and businesses to receive support for their off-grid heating costs?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the issue of off-grid domestic premises. The Government have heard the issue being raised by Members, including him, and we have increased the support available from £100 to £200. I would be happy to come back to him with details of exactly when that payment will be made. It was because of calls from people such as him that that increase was made.
This is my first opportunity to congratulate the Secretary of State on his promotion, and I wish him well in his new role. Serving in government under his third Prime Minister since September means that he has the dubious honour of collective responsibility for all the decisions made. Of the highest tax burden in 70 years, the biggest forecasted drop in living standards since records began and the longest pay squeeze for more than 150 years, which does he think is doing the most damage to households in Wales?
I am delighted to take full collective responsibility for all the excellent decisions that the last three Prime Ministers have made. May I remind the hon. Lady that we are committing ourselves to spending £55 billion to support the least well-off households across the United Kingdom? Yes, we have had to raise taxes because we have had to pay for a covid crisis that has cost £400 billion; we have had to deal with the effect of the disgraceful invasion of Ukraine, which has pushed up energy bills and pushed up inflation across the United Kingdom; and we have raised taxes to support the most vulnerable. I am yet to hear what she would do to raise money to help people.
I am quite happy to support a tax rise to make sure that the living wage goes up. I will support tax rises to make sure that pensions and benefits can go up in line with inflation. What I still have not heard from the hon. Lady, or indeed from the many Labour Members whom I hear on the radio talking about taxation and borrowing, is where exactly they would find the extra money that they want to use to increase spending on public services.
I too welcome the Secretary of State to his place. I am sure that he will join me in expressing llongyfarchiadau—congratulations—to the Wales football team on their performance. If there had only been a third half, we would have been the winners.
The Chancellor told us last week that his financial statement was based on British values. The Wales Governance Centre calculates that, because of failed economic strategies—mostly by his Government—average Welsh incomes will, by 2027, be £10,300 lower than if pre-financial crisis growth levels had been sustained. As the Conservatives prepare to squander another decade, should the people of Wales take it that the British values of the Secretary of State’s Government stand for relentless grinding poverty?
In the first instance, I thank the right hon. Lady for her kind words. Of course, I will be happy to say llongyfarchiadau i’r wal goch—congratulations to the red wall—in a few days’ time.
As far as the Government’s economic policies are concerned, I remind her that the Government have had to deal with the after-effects of a financial collapse partly caused by the previous Labour Government, the effects of a covid crisis that has cost £400 billion, and the effect of a land war in Europe. Despite all that, this Government have quite rightly prioritised the least well off in our society, and I am very proud of our economic record.
Today of all days, we must look forward to how the democracy of these isles will best serve our people, particularly the people of Wales. In June, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister whether his so-called Bill of Rights would include the right to self-determination. He did not give me a direct answer, so I will ask the Secretary of State. Will he support the inclusion in the Bill of Rights of the right to self-determination for the peoples of the devolved nations, or does he not believe that Wales should have the right to decide our own destiny?
Wales has decided its own destiny in several referenda recently. It decided that it would like a devolved Administration, which is something that this Conservative Government will fully support. Wales voted to leave the European Union, which I fully supported, but I am not sure the right hon. Lady or her party did. I fully respect the self-determination of the Welsh people to leave the EU, and I look forward to her support on that one in the future.
Channel 4 Privatisation: Television Production Industry
The Government are carefully considering the business case for the sale of Channel 4. Whatever the outcome—as I heard from the chair of Teledwyr Annibynnol Cymru at the recent S4C 40th anniversary event, the quality of Wales’s independent television production sector is unparalleled—I am sure it will continue to thrive.
I welcome the Minister to his place and wish him well. He will know that Channel 4 spends more in the nations and regions than any other production company that works in the United Kingdom. Does he not agree that it would be absolute madness to reduce that funding to the Welsh broadcast and television sectors and privatise Channel 4, and does he welcome what it appears will soon be the Prime Minister’s U-turn on that rather strange decision?
The hon. Member will know that the independent television production sector in Wales is thriving, with at least 50 organisations. That needs to continue into the future. The important thing is that Channel 4 can survive in a new landscape, with streaming and competition from abroad.
I too welcome the Minister to his place. Channel 4’s training, apprenticeship and digital skills programme, 4Skills, has reached more than 100,000 people since 2015. How will the Government ensure that this door for young people into the industry is not slammed shut?
Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to praise the work of production companies, not only in Cardiff but Aberystwyth and elsewhere in Wales? Is he aware that some of those companies are frustrated with Channel 4 and feel that they cannot get a look in? Some of them would welcome a change of management.
I welcome the appointment of my hon. Friend, who is surely one of the ablest Ministers in His Majesty’s Government. I would be interested to know of his recent assessments of the television production industry in Wales and the ever-expanding Media City in Greater Manchester.
Bill of Rights: Self-determination for Wales
The Bill of Rights will continue to protect the same rights and freedoms currently in place, but will restore a common-sense approach to human rights, safeguarding the public interest and respecting the will of Parliament.
Secretaries of State, previously and just now, have failed to answer the question from the Plaid Cymru leader, the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), on this, so I will have another go. The right to self-determination is set out in article 1 of the international covenant on civil and political rights. Will the proposed British Bill of Rights uphold that by enshrining the right to self-determination for the peoples of Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland?
The Bill of Rights is clearly a reserved matter for the UK Government. The UK Government will always respect the right of devolved Administrations to legislate in areas for which they are responsible, and we would assume that the devolved Administrations will respect the right of the UK Government to legislate in areas for which they are responsible. That is what respect and self-determination are all about.
Again, I do not think that got to the point. The Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended in its report last year that the UK Government should “not pursue reform” of the Human Rights Act
“without the consent of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Senedd and the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
As the UK Government have failed to get that consent, does the Minister not see the vital need for devolved nations to have a right to self-determination enshrined in law?
I think the devolved nations, such as Wales, will be very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary is bringing in legislation that will stop the ridiculous time-wasting of people taking endless appeals, at public expense, to the courts to challenge judicial decisions. The Bill of Rights will not take away fundamental freedoms, such as the right to wear the suffragette colours in the national Parliament, which Members of the hon. Gentleman’s party should support in their own Chamber.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Bill of Rights places the Supreme Court at the top of the decision-making tree for rights, and so does our constitutional settlement as regards the devolved nations? Does he agree that we would look to the Supreme Court for correct, rightful decisions in this area, as we have just seen in another context?
Welsh Lamb Exports to the USA
I was delighted to hear that the first shipment of British lamb left Wales for the USA last month. The USA lamb market is estimated to be worth £37 million over the next five years, with over 300 million consumers who can now access and enjoy our world-renowned Welsh lamb.
It is great that Welsh lamb has now been exported to the United States for the first time in 20 years. The National Farmers Union has set out a detailed strategy outlining its ambition to grow the UK’s food, drink and agricultural exports by 30% by 2030. Will the Minister work with the NFU to realise this laudable ambition to drive the total value of British agrifoods exports to more than £30 billion by that date?
I certainly will. I look forward to attending the royal Welsh winter fair next week, when I will be meeting the NFU. Wales has a major role in achieving increased exports and, when it comes to lamb, trade deals with the Gulf Co-operation Council, among others, could be key.
I too welcome the Minister to his new role. He will know how important lamb exports are to Welsh farmers and the Welsh economy. Exports to the US are a drop in the ocean compared to the damage his Government have done with the Australian and New Zealand trade deals. We know his colleague the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) said:
“I no longer have to put such a positive gloss on what was agreed…the Australia trade deal is not actually a very good deal…We did not need to give Australia or New Zealand full liberalisation in beef and sheep—it was not in our economic interest to do so”.—[Official Report, 14 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 424.]
Will the Minister now admit his Government have sold out Welsh farmers?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that we import more from Ireland than from Australia. In fact, the Australian and New Zealand markets are very much in the rapidly expanding markets of south-east Asia. We need to look at the pros and cons of trade deals, and there are certainly many pros to the trade deals for the British economy.
Wales plays a critical role, with two of the UK’s three liquefied natural gas terminals supplying gas through Pembrokeshire to the grid. Wales is well placed to build on that record, with prime sites for new nuclear projects in north Wales and floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea. We will continue to champion these opportunities across Government.
Off-grid households in Wales, including many in my constituency, are still waiting for an announcement on how they will receive support with rising costs. The ongoing cost of living crisis is not the only issue. People who rely on off-grid energy are hostages to what has become an increasingly unstable market, and it is only set to get worse. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, does the Minister believe that, where the previous Government have failed, it is finally time for this Government to back new renewable energy, such as Swansea Council’s Blue Eden lagoon project that will get a grip on a tidal lagoon in Swansea?
At the Welsh Affairs Committee this morning, we heard from the Minister for Energy and Climate on the enormous potential of floating offshore wind to contribute to UK energy security. On a day when Port Talbot and Milford Haven are launching their joint freeport bid to deliver this new industry, I urge my hon. Friend to throw his weight behind unleashing the potential of floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the question. I had a meeting yesterday with a developer who is interested in floating offshore wind, which has the potential to contribute massively to the renewable energy requirements of this country, and south-west Wales is key to that.
Cost of Living: Support for Households
I have frequent discussions with my ministerial colleagues on a range of matters, including the cost of living. I am pleased to say that this year, as a result of the autumn statement, the Government will be spending £55 billion to help households and businesses with their energy bills. We have also announced further support for 2023-24 so that the most vulnerable households will continue to be supported.
Swansea East-based charity Faith in Families supports 500 households a week who are struggling to pay for food, energy and living costs. Currently, it raises money to provide vouchers for toys so that children will be able to open a gift on Christmas morning. The Everyone Deserves a Christmas campaign, which is also based in Swansea, is desperately trying to raise funds to provide festive hampers for those families. Community organisations are doing their bit to ensure that nobody goes without this Christmas. What will the Government do?
First, I commend the hon. Lady for her support for the hamper campaign. I believe that my office has sent out hampers, possibly as part of the same campaign that she has championed, and I am sure other hon. Members may want to do so. On the wider issue, we all accept that a Christmas hamper is not going to solve economic problems, so I refer her back to my earlier answer, which was that the Government have done absolutely everything possible to target help at the least well-off in society. That is why in addition to the inflation-linked increases to pensions and benefits, and to the living wage, the Government have made sure that those on benefits will receive a payment of £900, pensioners will get £300, and households where there are people with disabilities will get £150. We are proud of our record on doing our best for those with the least.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his position. He just highlighted the range of generous support that has been made available to households facing the energy crisis, but park home residents are still waiting for clarification about how they will receive their support. The Government have clearly made strong, warm commitments to park home residents. When will they be in a position to explain, technically, how the money will be paid to those households?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind words. I note that he has raised the issue on a number of occasions. I am told that details are forthcoming imminently on that particular point, and I am sure that other colleagues on the Front Bench, who are more directly involved in that, have heard his question and will respond to him shortly.
High Speed 2: Welsh Economy
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a wide range of transport measures, including High Speed 2. HS2 will enable quicker and more train services to north Wales via the Crewe northern connection, and will improve connections from north Wales to the HS2 network, potentially bringing passengers within two hours 15 minutes of London.
The Secretary of State must recognise, though, that north Wales in particular can obtain the benefit of HS2 only with proper connectivity, which means electrification of the north Wales line. Will he guarantee that that will take place? If not, will he accept that that is a betrayal of the interests of the people of north Wales?
I do not necessarily think that it would require electrification of the north Wales line. With respect, there are proposals at the moment to make improvements to the north Wales line that are based more around changes to signalling, which will allow more trains to run on the track. I do not pretend to be a rail engineer, but the proposals I have seen do not include electrification. They would decrease journey times across the north Wales line and, feeding into Crewe, would therefore decrease journey times between north Wales and London and bring benefits to all passengers.
Deposit Return Schemes: Drinks Containers
My right hon. Friend has long championed a deposit return scheme since her time as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs regularly discusses co-ordination of the implementation of the scheme with the Welsh Government, and it was an agenda item at the recent EFRA inter-ministerial group, which I attended.
This is a really important scheme that will help tackle plastic waste and litter. People want it to be introduced, and it will be much more successful if it is co-ordinated between Cardiff, Edinburgh and London. Please can the Government make progress on delivering it right across the United Kingdom?
I could not agree more. Non-aligned deposit return schemes across the UK risk creating barriers to trade, breaking up supply chains, increasing costs to business, and reducing the choice and availability of products in Wales. In recent days, I have met the Society of Independent Brewers, British Glass, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association and UKHospitality to discuss these issues, and I will be doing all I can to encourage UK-wide co-ordination.
I met officials from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities last week to discuss this very subject, and I feel confident that there are going to be several high-quality bids from Wales. The bidding process closes tomorrow at 6 pm, and I look forward to the announcement being made early in 2023.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his place—croeso. Will he join me in thanking all those who support Anglesey’s bid to become a freeport, and does he agree that a freeport in Wales delivers on our Conservative manifesto commitment and will strengthen Wales’s bond with the UK Government and our important Union?
I am absolutely delighted to agree with my hon. Friend, and indeed to thank all those who have been involved in freeport bids across the whole of Wales. Freeports have the potential to spread wealth across the areas in which they are established, they deliver on the Government’s commitment to level up and they are an example of the benefits of Wales being a part of the Union. I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend, who has spoken on this issue on 26 occasions, and I look forward to that announcement being made in February.
We have seen many claims about the number of jobs that will be created in Holyhead. Can the Secretary of State give me a precise assessment or even a wild guess as to how many jobs will be created, how many of them will be new and how many will be merely transferred from other areas?
I have certain powers as Secretary of State, but the powers of absolute clairvoyance are not among them. Therefore, I find it rather difficult to give an exact figure for the number of jobs that would be created as a result of any one of the many projects that the Government are doing to level up across the United Kingdom. What I can tell the hon. Member is that, where freeports have been trialled in Humber and Teesside, they have created thousands of new jobs, and I look forward to seeing something similar happen no matter where a freeport is established in Wales.
Access to Grassroots Sports
As a keen sportsman, I was absolutely delighted to visit the new 3G pitch at Baglan field. It received funds from the UK Government’s multi-sport grassroots facilities programme, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister championed when Chancellor. I look forward to meeting Welsh Government Ministers next week to discuss this and other issues around sports, as we cheer on our heroes in tîm Cymru a’r wal goch—team Wales and the red wall.
UK Government funding for grassroots football facilities in Clwyd South this year has included £57,000 for upgrading the pitch at Ysgol y Grango for the community hub, and £20,000 for Penycae football club, which is helping re-establish a girls team. Does my right hon. Friend agree that grassroots sport is vital for the health, wellbeing and quality of life of all our communities?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and that is why we have allocated £1.3 million to 17 projects in Wales to make vital improvements to changing room facilities and artificial grass surfaces. Sports clubs are at the heart of every community in Wales, and Wales is at the heart of every decision taken by this Government and this Prime Minister.
As people up and down Wales celebrate Wales’s success and wish them the best for the next couple of matches, this is an ideal and unparalleled opportunity to galvanise that enthusiasm and develop grassroots football in Wales. The Football Association of Wales tells me that £12 million has been earmarked by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for the development of the sport over the next few years, but it could be threatened by the cuts announced last week by the Chancellor. Will the Secretary of State please speak to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and beg her to safeguard that money for the development of grassroots football in Wales?
The Government have already shown their commitment to sport—not just football but many other sports—through the funds disbursed by DCMS across the United Kingdom. I am sure that right hon. colleagues will have heard the hon. Lady’s comments, but I assure her of our commitment to grassroots sports across Wales and the United Kingdom. I look forward to joining her to support tîm Cymru a’r wal goch wythnos nesaf. Diolch. (Translation: I look forward to joining her to support team Wales and the red wall next week. Thank you.)
The Prime Minister was asked—
I know that Members across the House will want to join me in wishing both England and Wales the best of luck in the World cup.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
People in places such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke are not getting the help that they need quickly enough when it comes to mental health. Fellow campaigner James Starkie and I were delighted when the Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor, said he would back our campaign every step of the way to get mental health nurses into GP surgeries. Will the Prime Minister deliver on his promise, back our “No Time to Wait” pilot scheme developed by the Royal College of Nursing and help get people the support that they need?
May I thank my hon. Friend for his continued campaigning on this important issue? I am pleased to tell him that all 1,250 primary care networks in England are entitled to recruit up to two mental health practitioners to work in surgeries. I know that the British Medical Association and the NHS are looking at expanding that, and I look forward to working with him to ensure that his constituents in Stoke get the mental health support and care that they need.
Congratulations to England and Wales on their start to the World cup, and good luck for the rest of the tournament. The World cup does not belong to FIFA, and it does not belong to the host nation; it belongs to everyone who loves football. It is totally unacceptable that, during this tournament, gay football fans are unable to acknowledge who they love, and players have been threatened with suspension if they show solidarity with those fans. Shame on FIFA.
Britain faces the lowest growth of any OECD nation over the next two years. Why?
Since 2010, this country has experienced the third highest growth in the G7; this year, the fastest growth in the G7, and unemployment at a multi-decade low. We are getting on to deliver more growth. We are delivering freeports. We are investing in apprenticeships. We are protecting research and development. If the Labour party is serious about supporting growth, maybe it should get on the phone with its union paymasters and tell them to call off the strikes.
The Prime Minister is in total denial. We are bottom of the 38 OECD countries, which are all in the same boat when it comes to covid and Ukraine, and he wants a pat on the back. It is like a football manager, bottom of the league at Christmas, celebrating an away draw three months ago—it will not wash. [Interruption.] Conservative Members do not like their record—that is the problem. So, let us try another way. Why is Britain set to be the first country into recession and the last country out?
I am pleased that the right hon. and learned Gentleman brought up the OECD report, because it contained three very important points. First, it made the point that in the years following the pandemic we are projected to have almost the highest growth among our peer countries. It also made the point that it was crystal clear that the challenges we face are completely international in nature. Thirdly, it supported our fiscal plan because it is credible and ensures sustainability. The right hon. and learned Gentleman would have known all that if he had actually read the whole report, but he is not interested in substance. He is an opportunist.
In four weeks, I have strengthened the economy, we have put more money into the NHS and schools, and we have delivered a deal to tackle illegal migration. In the same four weeks, all we have—
There is only one party that crashed on the economy and it is sitting there on the Government Benches. And I noticed this, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister will not say why Britain is set to be the first into a recession and the last out, so I will: 12 years of Tory failure, followed by 12 weeks of Tory chaos. For a decade, they let our economy drift aimlessly, before suddenly cutting the parachute ropes and slamming it to the ground. And because of the changes he has made, a typical household will end up with tax increases of £1,400. [Interruption.] Tory Members do not want to hear about the tax increases of £1,400. Contrast that with a super wealthy non-dom living here but holding their income overseas. How much more—
Mr Speaker, I do not think Tory Members want to hear this. Because of the changes the Prime Minister has made, a typical household will end up paying tax increases of £1,400. Contrast that with a super wealthy non-dom living here but holding their income overseas. How much more has he asked them to pay?
Labour had 13 years to address this issue and did nothing. It was a Conservative Government who took action and tightened the rules. The problem with the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s idea is that it would end up “costing Britain money”—not my words, but the words of a former Labour shadow Chancellor. Rather than peddling fairy tales and gesture politics, let us tell him what we are doing to deliver for this country: a record increase in the national living wage; protecting millions from energy bills; and protecting the pensioners’ triple lock. That is what we are doing for this country.
If the Conservatives had grown the economy at the same rate as the last Labour Government, we would have tens of billions of pounds more to spend. It was not a trick question. The answer is that the Prime Minister has not asked non-doms to pay a penny more. He talks about the money. Every year that is £3.6 billion thrown away because he will not make them pay their taxes here. How many extra doctors could Britain afford with that money?
I am pleased that the right hon. and learned Gentleman brought up doctors, because last week we delivered record increases in funding for the NHS—not just more doctors, but more nurses, more scans, more operations. That shows our
“commitment to prioritise to NHS”—
not my words, but the words of the NHS chief executive.
Scrapping the non-dom status would allow us to train 15,000 doctors every year—that is what Labour would do. We can carry on handing out tax breaks to the super-rich, or we can live in a society where people do not have to go private to get a doctor’s appointment. It is that simple.
The Prime Minister also hands Shell 90p for every £1 that it spends on drilling, so it has not paid a penny in windfall tax. You may have seen this week, Mr Speaker, that somebody shredded £10,000 in protest at those propping up an oil and gas giant, but the Prime Minister shreds £10,000 every other minute propping them up. Which does he think is the more absurd?
This is the Government who have actually put in place an economic plan that will deliver confidence and stability to our economy. All I have heard from the right hon. and learned Gentleman today is that he has no answers and no substance, because there is no plan. He talks about the NHS; we are delivering record funding for the NHS, but we can only do that on the foundations of a strong economy. You cannot deliver for the NHS unless you have a plan for the economy, and he does not have either.
Every time the Prime Minister opens his mouth, another powerful business voice says that he has not got a plan on growth. The failure of the last 12 years and the chaos of the last 12 weeks are compounded by the decisions he is taking now. He will not follow Labour’s plan to scrap non-dom status—instead, we have an NHS staffing crisis. He will not follow Labour’s plan to make oil and gas giants pay their fair share—instead, he hammers working people. And he will not push through planning reform—instead, he kills off the dream of home ownership. He is too weak to take on his party, too weak to take on vested interest. Twelve long years of Tory Government, five Prime Ministers, seven Chancellors—why do they always clobber working people?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about leadership. This summer, I stood on my principles and told the country what they needed to hear, even though it was difficult. When he ran for leader, he told his party what it wanted to hear, and even now, he says one thing and does the other. He says that he cares for working people, but he will not stand up to the unions. He said that he would honour Brexit, but he tried to have a second referendum. And now he tries to talk tough about immigration, but he promised to defend free movement. You can trust him to deliver for his party; you can trust me to deliver for the country.
I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that I spent time discussing that with President Zelensky at the weekend and talking to Ukrainian families about the impact that these awful strikes are having on them. I know that the whole House will be proud to know that we are providing millions of pounds of immediate support, with generators, shelter and water repairs, on top of the 570 mobile power generators that we are donating to power facilities across Ukraine. We are also working with the Government to repair critical infrastructure, with eight projects identified by UK Export Finance to be delivered in the near future.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in welcoming the Moderator of the Church of Scotland to our proceedings this afternoon and in thanking him for his sermon at St Margaret’s this morning.
This morning, the Supreme Court clarified a point of law, but the very point of democracy in this Union is now at stake. And democracy will not be denied, because whether Westminster likes it or not, last year the people of Scotland voted for a Scottish Parliament with the majority and the mandate to deliver an independence referendum. The Prime Minister has every right to oppose independence; he has no right to deny democracy to the people of Scotland. If the Prime Minister keeps blocking that referendum, will he at least be honest and confirm that the very idea that the United Kingdom is a voluntary Union of nations is now dead and buried?
Let me start by saying that we respect the clear and definitive ruling of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and that I am looking forward to seeing the Moderator of the Church of Scotland tomorrow. I think that the people of Scotland want us working on fixing the major challenges that collectively we face, whether that is the economy, supporting the NHS or indeed supporting Ukraine. Now is the time for politicians to work together, and that is what this Government will do.
It is right that we respect the decision of the Court, but the Prime Minister cannot claim to respect the rule of law and then deny democracy in the very same breath. If democracy is to matter, if elections matter, then mandates matter. Since 2014, the Scottish National party has won eight elections in a row. Last year, we won a landslide. The Scottish Parliament now has the biggest majority for an independence referendum in the history of devolution. The Prime Minister does not even have a personal mandate to sit in 10 Downing Street. What right does a man with no mandate have to deny Scottish democracy?
When it comes to Scottish democracy, I am pleased that the Scottish Government have one of the most powerful devolved assemblies anywhere in the world. I was pleased, very shortly after becoming Prime Minister, to be the first Prime Minister in over a decade to attend the British-Irish Council and sit down with the First Minister to explore ways in which we can work together with the Scottish Government to deliver for the people of Scotland, whether that is delivering our growth deals, delivering freeports or ensuring that the £1.5 billion of extra Barnett money can go towards supporting public services. That is what we are committed to doing in Scotland.
The kinds of demonstrations that we have seen recently disrupt people’s daily lives, cause mass misery for the public and put people in danger. The police have our full support in their efforts to minimise this disruption and tackle reckless and illegal activity. The Public Order Bill will give them the powers they need. I look forward to seeing the support that the Bill receives from every part of this House.
My constituent Vanessa has contacted me in floods of tears. Her mortgage payments have risen by £500 a month. She and her husband were already struggling with high energy bills and high food bills; now, like one in four mortgage holders across the country, they fear losing their home. “We are out of options and heartbroken,” says Vanessa. Will the Prime Minister introduce a new mortgage protection fund, paid for by reversing his tax cuts for the banks? Will he help Vanessa to keep her home?
I am deeply sorry to hear about Vanessa’s circumstances. I want her to know that the plan that the Chancellor announced last week will help families like hers up and down the country, because it is the right plan to tackle inflation, limit the increase in mortgage rates and ensure confidence in our economy. There is specific help that the Chancellor announced, offering low-interest loans to homeowners on benefits to cover interest on mortgages of up to £250,000. The Chancellor is also meeting mortgage lenders in the coming weeks. We will continue to do all we can to support those homeowners who are struggling with their payments.[Official Report, 1 December 2022, Vol. 723, c. 10MC.]
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in praising all his local teams. He makes an excellent point that volunteers have a vital role to play in community sport and the delivery of major events. I join him in thanking them for everything that they do. Sport accounts for over half of volunteering in the UK, and every one volunteer generates the capacity for at least eight more people to participate in sport. I know that the whole House will join me in praising their efforts.
Again, we respect the decision of the Court today with regard to the referendum and we are getting on with the business of working constructively, collaboratively and in partnership with the Scottish Government to deliver for the hon. Member’s constituents. Indeed, the Ayrshire growth deal is investing over £100 million to make use of his region’s strong industrial heritage, potentially making more use of renewable energy. That is the kind of positive project that we should be focused on, and that is what we will keep on delivering.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comprehensive and thoughtful suggestions. As he acknowledged, I have committed to appointing an independent adviser on ministerial interests, and I very much look forward to studying his other proposals in proper time.
At a time such as this, the Scottish people want to see their Governments working together on the things that matter to them. I believe that that is possible. The hon. Member should know that in his own constituency we have been able to support culture and tourism, working together to bring the V&A to Dundee. That is an example of a positive project. It demonstrates the benefits of the Union, and that is what we will keep on delivering.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Hopefully he was heartened to hear what the Chancellor said last week: that we want to crack on with our overall nuclear programme. My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge that small modular and advanced nuclear reactors have the potential to play a key role in that nuclear programme, alongside projects such as Hinckley and Sizewell. That is why we have allocated £385 million to support them. Like him, I am keen to see progress as soon as possible.
The UK is a collaborative and constructive Union that is delivering for the people of Scotland, even in Ayrshire itself, where we are working collaboratively with the Scottish Government to invest in aerospace, advanced manufacturing and space. Those are the types of activities that will bring tangible benefits to the people in the hon. Lady’s region, and that is the right focus for the Government.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He knows that I share exactly the same challenge in our rural areas of making sure that our constituents have access to the bus services they need. I am pleased that the Chancellor has allocated funding for extra bus services across the country, and I look forward to working with him to ensure that that money finds its way to rural areas such as North Yorkshire to provide the connectivity that is so important for people to have opportunity and get access to public services.
Every life that is lost in the channel is a tragedy, but that is why it is so vital that we break the cycle of criminal gangs that are exploiting people and trafficking them, and that is what the Home Secretary is focused on. We have accepted more than 380,000 people over the past few years, because this is a place where people can seek refuge and sanctuary, but we must be able to do that in a sustainable way, and that is why it is right that we tackle illegal migration.
Rising energy bills are a challenge for all of us. My constituents are grateful for the support that has been given by the Government, but with temperatures this week falling below freezing in Lincolnshire, those living in park homes are particularly concerned about when they will receive their support. Can my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister tell me when and how people living in park homes will receive the £400 to which they are entitled?
My hon. Friend has consistently and rightly championed her rural constituents, making sure they get access to the energy support that we are providing. This is something that the Chancellor prioritised in last week’s autumn statement, and I will ensure that we get the money out as quickly as possible. My hon. Friend should also be reassured that the cold weather payment system provides extra financial support to those vulnerable constituents when temperatures drop below a certain point.
The challenges we face right now are those that require co-operation between our Governments: tackling the economy and supporting the NHS. I am pleased that last week’s autumn statement means that the Scottish Government will receive £1.5 billion in extra funding to deliver for public services in Scotland, and that is what we will continue doing.
Scotland is a proud nation with a unique heritage. It is a valued member of our family of nations—a Union of people bound through the generations by shared interests. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this morning’s Supreme Court decision gives the Scottish nationalists—the SNP—the opportunity, for once, to put the people of Scotland first and end their obsession with breaking us apart?
Last week’s autumn statement announced £55 billion to support families and businesses across the United Kingdom with their energy bills. The Chancellor paid particular attention to off-grid customers in rural areas by doubling their support to £200, which will help many people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and across the United Kingdom.
Mr Speaker, I am sure that this weekend we will both be celebrating what we consider to be one of the best days of the year: Lancashire Day. May I thank you personally for hosting the event in Parliament? Will the Prime Minister, although he represents a Yorkshire constituency, join me in welcoming our Lancastrian local leaders and businesses to Parliament today, and will he join us in supporting our proud history and bright future by levelling up what we consider to be the best county?
I offer my best wishes to my hon. Friend, and indeed to you, Mr Speaker, for Lancashire Day. I can put local rivalry aside on this occasion to join my hon. Friend in thanking Lancastrians for their contribution to our country, and I wish her the very best for today’s event.
We are focused not on the SNP but on the people of Scotland; that is who we are delivering for. I am happy to meet the First Minister, as I continue to do, to deliver for the people of Scotland, including in the hon. Lady’s constituency through the growth deal, and also by moving civil service jobs, creating freeports and providing extra funding for public services. This is a Government who will deliver for the people of Scotland, and we will do it constructively and collaboratively.
On 20 October, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee published a special report on answers given to it by the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) when she was Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) subsequently wrote to me asking for precedence for a complaint of a breach of privilege, as was his right. I declined to do so since the bar for such a complaint is high. The House should take action only when essential in order to provide reasonable protection for the House, its Members or its officers from improper obstruction. I note that the Committee itself, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, has said:
“Had Ms Dorries remained Secretary of State, driving a policy of selling the channel, we may have sought a referral to the Privileges Committee but, as her claims have not inhibited the work of the Committee and she no longer has a position of power over the future of Channel 4, we are, instead, publishing this Report to enable the House, and its Members, to draw their own conclusions.”
So I considered it appropriate to respect the Committee’s assessment of the situation.
Correspondence on matters of privilege is private. Indeed, I go to great lengths to ensure that Members can write to me in confidence on any matter, knowing that their communication will remain private. I expect the same courtesy with my replies. The hon. Member has seen fit to give a partial and biased account of my letter on Twitter, and I await his apology. I gave the hon. Member notice that I would be raising this matter at this time, but I do stress that it is not the way we should be doing business in this House.
As you have just explained, Mr Speaker, the DCMS Committee, on which I sit, published a unanimous cross-party report about the testimony given to us by the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), and there is now considerable public interest in what should happen next. I want to put on record that I deplore social media pile-ons against you, or indeed anyone else—I have been on the receiving end of them, and they are exceedingly unpleasant. But could I ask for guidance on what I and other Members should tell our constituents about integrity in politics in this context? If someone misleads a Committee, what should happen next?
First of all, printing the letter, and only half the letter, is not integrity; in fact, it is far from it. It misled the people of this country, and it certainly put me in a bad light with the people of this country, and I do not expect that to happen, as an impartial Speaker. If that was an apology, I do not think it was very good.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Further to that, hon. Members of this House have certain strict duties on them. First, there is a duty to uphold the institutions of this House. Clearly, in breaching the confidentiality of the Speaker’s private correspondence, the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) has knowingly broken that rule. If that was an apology, it was not sufficient for that alone, frankly.
We also have a duty to tell the truth. In the hon. Gentleman’s public pronouncements, he implicitly criticised you, Mr Speaker, for not referring the Secretary of State to the Privileges Committee, but you were simply following the convention of agreeing with the Select Committee, of which he is a member. When the Committee decided not to refer, there was no minority report from him. There was not even a vote against from him; it was a unanimous vote. What he was trying to do was blame you, through his partial release of the letter, and lead the public to believe that somehow you made this decision against the wishes of the Committee.
The rules of this House do not allow me to assert whether I view the misleading of the public as deliberate, so the House can make its own judgment on that, but this miserable half-apology was completely inadequate for this breach.
Scottish Referendum Legislation: Supreme Court Decision
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for providing me with the opportunity to address the House on this important ruling of the Supreme Court on the issue of the competence of the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a referendum on independence.
The UK Supreme Court has today determined that it is outside the powers of the Scottish Parliament to hold an independence referendum, and I respect the Court’s clear and definitive ruling on this matter. The Scottish Government’s Lord Advocate referred this question to the Supreme Court, which has today given its judgment, and the UK Government’s position has always been clear: that it would be outside the Scottish Parliament’s competence to legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence because it is a matter wholly reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament.
We welcome the Court’s unanimous and unequivocal ruling, which supports the United Kingdom Government’s long-standing position on this matter. People want to see the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government focus on issues that matter to them, not on constitutional division. People across Scotland rightly want and expect to see both their Governments—the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government—working together with a relentless focus on the issues that matter to them, their families and their communities.
The Prime Minister has been very clear, and has demonstrated since day one, that it is our duty to work constructively with the Scottish Government. We fully respect the devolution settlement and we want to work together with the Scottish Government on vital areas such as tackling the cost of living, growing our economy and leading the international response to Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine.
At this time of unprecedented challenges, the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom have never been more apparent. The United Kingdom Government are providing the Scottish Government with a record block grant settlement of £41 billion per year over the next three years, and the people in Scotland are benefiting from unprecedented cost of living support announced by this Prime Minister and our Chancellor. It is important now that we move on from constitutional issues, to focus on tackling our shared challenges. I therefore welcome the Supreme Court’s judgment, and I call on the Scottish Government to set aside these divisive constitutional issues so that we can work together, focusing all of our attention and resources on the key issues that matter to the people of Scotland.
The United Kingdom Government are proud of their role as the custodian of the devolution settlement. The United Kingdom is one of the most successful political and economic unions in the world. By promoting and protecting its combined strengths, we are building on hundreds of years of partnership and shared history. I will conclude by saying that when we work together as one United Kingdom, we are safer, stronger and more prosperous.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.
It is right that the UK Government answer questions today, and answer them quickly, because this morning the Supreme Court dealt with a question of law; there is now a massive question of democracy. Some of the Westminster parties are already wildly celebrating this morning’s decision, but I think it is safe to say that their thoughtless triumphalism will not last very long, because this judgment raises profound and deeply uncomfortable questions about the basis of the future of the United Kingdom.
The biggest question of all is how the Prime Minister can ever again repeat the myth that the United Kingdom is a voluntary union of nations. In 2014, the Smith Commission made it clear that
“nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose.”
If that is true and if the Secretary of State’s Government are still committed to that promise, will he urgently amend the Scotland Act 1998 to ensure that the Scottish people have the right to choose our own future? If he fails to do that, is he deliberately choosing to deny democracy, because a so-called partnership in which one partner is denied the right to choose a different future, or even to ask itself the question, cannot be described in any way as a voluntary partnership, or even a partnership at all?
Today’s decision casts focus on the democratic decisions of the Scottish people. Since 2014, the Scottish National party has won eight elections in a row. We have secured multiple mandates. The question is: how many times do people in Scotland have to vote for a referendum before they get it?
The more contempt the Westminster establishment shows for Scottish democracy, the more certain it is that Scotland will vote yes when the choice comes to be made. Scotland did not vote for Brexit. We did not vote for a new age of Tory austerity. We did not vote for this Prime Minister, and we have not voted for the Tories in Scotland since 1955. What we did vote for was the choice of a different future. If Westminster keeps blocking our democratic decisions, lawfully and democratically Scotland will find a way out of this Union.
This idea that a mandate was delivered in 2021 in the Holyrood elections is completely misleading. As the First Minister herself said very clearly in an interview in The Herald—this is when she thought that the former First Minister, the previous SNP leader Alex Salmond, was gaming the system with his party Alba—that parties should stand on both the list and first-past-the-post constituency systems. The Greens did not fulfil that and neither did Alba. Let us be clear: in the 2021 Holyrood elections—the so-called mandate—less than one third of the Scottish electorate voted for the SNP.
I begin by thanking the Supreme Court for examining this case in detail, for reaching a unanimous decision and for doing so in a speedy manner. I also thank the Scottish Lord Advocate for referring this case to the Supreme Court. She was right not to allow it to be launched in the Scottish Parliament before seeking legal clarity on this matter, and we are all in a better place now for that clarity having been put forward. The Supreme Court’s ruling is absolutely clear and concise.
The Leader of the SNP has just accused those who are against independence of “triumphalism”. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are deeply disappointed and angry that the politics in Scotland is paralysed by this constitutional grievance. It is now time for all of us in Scottish politics to focus on the problems facing our country, from rocketing bills to the crisis in the NHS, and I wish the SNP had such passion for doing that. I fear that that will not happen after the First Minister announced that she will turn the next general election into a de facto referendum. As an example, the SNP has made such a mess of our NHS that, earlier this week, it was reported that NHS chiefs have been discussing plans to privatise our health service—Labour’s and perhaps our country’s greatest achievement.
There is not a majority in Scotland for a referendum or for independence, but neither is the majority for the status quo. There is a majority in Scotland, and across the UK, for change. This failing and incapable Tory Government are unfit to govern this country. They have crashed the economy and they are as big a threat to the Union as any nationalist. People in Scotland and across the UK are sick of watching their incompetence, our national standing falling in the world, and working people paying for their decisions, but change is coming. It is coming with a UK Labour Government that will bring economic growth, raise living standards and restore our nation’s place in the world.
Does the Secretary of State agree that change is indeed coming and that Scottish voters will lead the way by kicking his Government out of office and helping to elect a UK Labour Government?
My constituents will not be celebrating this outcome, but they will be deeply relieved that, with all the other issues that they face, they are not going to be facing a hugely divisive independence referendum next October. In my constituency, people cannot access an NHS dentist. They cannot access a GP. They can hardly get an ambulance to come out, and our local hospital was overwhelmed two weeks ago. On that basis, does my right hon. Friend agree that this is the time to move on and focus on the issues that really matter to our constituents in Scotland?>
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right and I know he has put in a lot of work on this subject in the past. The Scottish Government must focus on the people’s priorities. Public services in Scotland are falling behind and failing in many areas and it is important that we now stop the constitutional wrangling and focus on the people’s priorities. That is what they want us to do.
Democracy denial is not a good look. We have had repeated non-answers and repeated assertions from those on the Tory Benches today that they somehow know better than the people of Scotland what they want. Now we have an extraordinary suggestion from the Secretary of State that we somehow do not have a mandate. None of those things is correct and none of those things deals with the crux of the issue. This is a fundamental issue of democracy and whether this really is a voluntary Union. Is the Secretary of State going to stand up for democracy or not?
Now that we have clarity from the Supreme Court, I urge my right hon. Friend to redouble his efforts to work with the Scottish Government and local authorities in Scotland to deliver on the issues that matter to people. My experience of two years in the Scotland Office is that there is an appetite to work together on welfare, where there is shared responsibility, on the city deals and on many other issues. That is what we should be focusing on, not more divisive referendums.
My hon. Friend is right. It is not just about what is in front of us, but what is behind us. Behind us is the furlough scheme, which supported 900,000 jobs during the pandemic, and the £1.5 billion of Barnett support that the Chancellor announced in his autumn statement; in front of us is not just the growth deals, but freeports and forthcoming cost of living support.
This ruling is bad for the Government, and I do not think they quite see that yet. This ruling confronts the Scottish people with the fact that there is no legal or democratic route to a referendum. All that will do is to infuriate the Scottish people and make sure that they have their demands for Scottish democracy in place. What we have not had is the how. How do we now get to a referendum if the legal and democratic means are closed? The Prime Minister was asked, and the Secretary of State has now been asked, so will he now please answer?
May I just point out to my right hon. Friend that it was in fact the United Kingdom Parliament that gave Scotland a referendum in 2014—[Interruption.] Oh yes! Does he recall that the SNP then said it was a once-in-a-generation decision? Has he ever known a generation to pass so quickly, in just eight years? Could it be that the SNP prefers campaigning for a referendum it cannot have because it wants to distract attention from the failures of the Scottish Government on schools, on health, on procurement of ferries and on many other issues?
The judgment today puts the point beyond any measure of doubt, and that is to be welcomed. I also welcome the announcement from the Scottish Government that they will respect the judgment of the court, because for Governments to respect the rule of law is very important. We shall hold them to that commitment in the future. Will the Secretary of State assure me that, while demanding respect for the rule of law from others, the Government of which he is part will do the same?
I, too, welcome the unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court and respect that judgment, as other Members have said. As my right hon. Friend has pointed out, current polling and past election results do not show a majority of voters in Scotland favouring independence-supporting parties. Does he agree that there is no evidence that the democratic mandate has changed since 2014?
The United Kingdom Supreme Court has answered a legal question this morning, not a political one. The lesson of history is that a nation’s exercise of its right to self-determination can be delayed, but not denied. Can the right hon. Gentleman answer the question that the Prime Minister could not or would not answer: if people living in Scotland continue to elect a majority of pro-independence Members of the Scottish Parliament and MPs who support a second independence referendum, what is the democratic route to realising that mandate?
I welcome the clarity of the judgment by the Supreme Court. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the constant political wrangling and doubts over Scotland’s constitutional status and the capacity for and prospect of holding a referendum will constantly undermine Scotland’s attractiveness to private investors, who would create the jobs, wealth and prosperity that people in Scotland rightly deserve?
Yes. Having been a businessman before I came into this place, I agree with my right hon. Friend. It is unattractive to investors when there is uncertainty and a cloud hanging over Scotland on this matter. Far better the Scottish Government put it behind them now—the ruling is very clear—and we move forward to building the Scottish economy for the benefit of all the people in Scotland.
We sit here in this House knowing that Scottish politicians will only ever make up a fraction of the seats. We have a UK Government that the people of Scotland did not vote for—indeed, a UK Prime Minister that nobody voted for. Bearing all that in mind, may I ask Westminster’s man in Scotland to name just one scenario under which he would agree to the people of Scotland being able to determine their own democratic future?
As I have said in my answers, the route to a referendum is when there is consensus between Governments, across political parties and across civic Scotland, as there was in 2014. That is not the case now: now, the UK Government want to focus on the Scottish economy, on creating freeports, on supporting people with the cost of living and on getting on with the day job, which is what I think the Scottish Government should do.
As someone of Scottish descent, may I say that there are many of us living in the United Kingdom, across the four separate territories, who have an enormous fondness and love for Scotland? When I have visited Scotland, for example, the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney—I notice, by the way, that the leader of the SNP in Westminster has never visited it himself—Nova Innovation outside Edinburgh or the Rosyth shipyards, it was to support great businesses, based in Scotland, doing exciting things that the United Kingdom can promote abroad for the benefit of us all. Surely that is the most important thing we could all focus on today?
The SNP mistakes its obsession with independence for the obsession of the people of Scotland. As we have already heard, that is simply not the case. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, rather than going down the rabbit hole of creating a constitutional crisis, all our constituents, north and south of the border, want us to focus on making our public services work? That is an area in which the SNP conspicuously fails.
The Tryweryn vote in 1957 taught people in Wales that Welsh MPs can always be overridden by the structural tyranny of the majority here in Westminster. The First Minister of Wales, himself a Unionist, is on record as saying that the UK can be sustained only
“as a voluntary association of four nations, in which we choose to pool our sovereignty for common purposes and for common benefits.”
Given that the Labour Front-Bench team has parroted the same lines as the Tories this afternoon, will the Secretary of State write to the First Minister of Wales to confirm whether we are voluntary partners in this Union or involuntary inmates?
No, I will not write to the First Minister of Wales. I will leave that to the Secretary of State of Wales or anyone else who feels that it is in their remit. I say to the right hon. Lady that polling shows that less than a third of Scots want another independence referendum.
The smug, patronising and cloth-eared response from the Prime Minister, the so-called Secretary of State for Scotland and Tory Members to the ripping away of democratic human rights from the Scottish people will be seen by many Scots today. Imagine the uproar if the European Parliament and European courts had denied this Parliament the right to legislate on the Brexit referendum. The Secretary of State was unwilling, or simply unable, to answer that question when asked by the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). How does any member country leave this so-called voluntary Union?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has read the Supreme Court judgment, but it makes it very clear that the matter is reserved to the Westminster Parliament. On the mandate argument, it is clear that less than a third of the Scottish electorate voted for the SNP last year.
I will ask the Secretary of State the same question that I asked the Prime Minister just a short while ago, to which I am still waiting for an answer. What is the route for a nation to leave this so-called voluntary Union? He has answered three times now referring to a majority of votes, so would the Government respect the result of a general election as a de facto referendum?
A former Member of Parliament for Cork City once said:
“No man has the right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further’.”
Of course, this Parliament no longer has a Member for Cork City, because Charles Stewart Parnell was right. This United Kingdom is clearly not a partnership of equals—that has been made absolutely clear today—so when will the Government publish clear criteria for how the people of the north of Ireland can leave it?
Can the Secretary of State confirm that his view is that this is a voluntary Union? If so, by what mechanism can the Scottish people, in the future, have their choice about whether to remain within it?
Things have changed dramatically since 2014. I remind the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), that in 2019 he said:
“a democracy fails to be a democracy if the public are not allowed to change their mind.”—[Official Report, 8 April 2019; Vol. 658, c. 124.]
Back in 2012, Alistair Darling said:
“Today we are equal partners in the United Kingdom.”
Today, our First Minister noted that this ruling confirms that the notion of the UK as a voluntary partnership is no longer—if it ever was—a reality. Why will the Secretary of State not acknowledge that the only way for Scotland to be treated as an equal is with its independence?
Our Secretary of State for Scotland, who can go to the unelected House of Lords at a time of his choosing, is setting democratic tests on how Scotland can choose its own future. It is fanciful and absurd. If he is so confident in his view of what the Scottish people’s priorities are, why does he not call our bluff by calling a referendum?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we had a referendum in 2014, and we know what the agreement on that was between the Governments, political parties and civic Scotland. We feel now that the priorities for Scotland are for us all to pull together, work to bring back the economy after covid, tackle the cost of living crisis, and get in front of the issues that we believe are the priorities for the people of Scotland.
The legal position is now clear, but the political decision that needs to be made must also be clear. Under no circumstances should the power to hold referendums be devolved—be it to Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales—because we know that nationalism-obsessed politicians will use that power to call continual referendums until they get the result they want, to distort political debate, and to cover up their own governmental incompetence. I plead with the Government not to even contemplate going down that road. However, they also need to do far more, whether in the Northern Ireland, Welsh or Scottish context, to sell the benefits of the Union, which are apparent to everybody.
In 2014, the people of Glasgow voted for independence, and I am sure that if the question were put before them again, they would do so again. But we are not in 2014. Does the Secretary of State accept that democracy did not exist only on 18 September 2014? Democracy is a living thing. Does he accept that the people have the right to change their mind?
This important ruling settles the question for now—certainly on the legal matter. Does the Secretary of State think that it gives us ample time to investigate what else the Scottish Government are doing? The debate about the referendum has thrown up a lot of sand, but the Scottish Government are underachieving in so many areas of public service, and that needs to be shown.
We are supposed to be living in a parliamentary democracy. As such, last year the SNP won 62 out of 73 constituency seats—85% of the seats. That is equivalent to a party here winning 552 seats. There is a pro-independence majority in Holyrood, and in the last four elections, a majority of voters voted for parties that support independence and having a referendum. If the Secretary of State is going to ignore a parliamentary democracy and parliamentary votes of the people, what is the route for the people of Scotland to have a referendum and have their say?
A union, like a marriage, should be based upon equality and consent. It is clear when a marriage has run its course how a partner can extricate themselves from it, but we are yet to find out from the Secretary of State how we can extricate ourselves from this Union.
I believe what we have is a collaborative and constructive partnership, and I think history shows that. I have been very clear: the answer is when there is consensus between the two Governments, across all political parties and civic Scotland. Let us be honest, polling shows that less than a third of Scots want another referendum and, as I said earlier and repeat again, less than a third of the Scottish electorate voted for the Scottish National party last year. When we face all those things and look at people’s priorities in polling, independence is right down the rankings. It is not what they go to bed at night worrying about. They worry about the health system, the education system, crime, drug deaths and whether or not they can get a ferry to their island. That is what they worry about.
Given how many Prime Ministers previously defended the Union, I am surprised there are so few Unionists here to defend it today. I want to quote John Major, who said that
“no nation could be held irrevocably in a Union against its will.”
Does the future Baron agree with that statement?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the remarks I made earlier. Polling shows the Scottish people do not want another referendum. There is not massive dissatisfaction with the Union. It is very low on the Scottish people’s list of priorities. What they want is our two Governments to start working together to deliver their priorities. That is what they want us to do.
On the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, we have been meeting our parallel scrutiny committees in the devolved legislatures. Some 20 years on, it is clear that devolution, parliamentary scrutiny functions and the inter-Union functions are not working and need improving. Our Union was forced and often violently formed, but it has for centuries successfully built, through consent and citizen recognition that unity is strength. The hallmark of this Government is ignorance of our history, disrespect for those institutions across the devolution settlement and a failure to engage across all Departments with the committees and bodies that have been formed to enhance the political Union. What the Secretary of State needs to take from this ruling is a need to force the Government to treat those institutions with the respect they deserve to keep our Union.
The Secretary of State has referenced a number of times the suggestion that only a third of the electorate in Scotland voted for the SNP at the last Scottish election. In that same election, the Conservatives secured less than 15% of the electorate voting for them, so we need a bit of context. This all comes down to a basic question: if not through the route of a referendum through the Scottish Parliament, what is the democratic route for Scotland to determine our own future? Countless Members have asked. Where is the answer?
The Supreme Court today did not rule that Scotland should not be independent or that Scotland should not be able to have a referendum; it ruled that the existing legislation written by Unionist politicians does not allow the Scottish Government to make that decision, unless the UK Government are willing to amend it, as they did in 2014. That is the legal argument.
I want to know what the democratic argument is against Scotland being able to do that. In the Scottish Parliament elections—one of the eight elections we have won since 2014—not only did the SNP leaflets say, “Vote SNP for a referendum on independence”, but the Tory leaflets, the Labour leaflets and the Liberal Democrat leaflets all said it. What is the democratic argument against Scotland and the people of Scotland being able to simply answer that question?
It is important we get everyone in and they have their say. I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave earlier: less than a third of the Scottish electorate voted for the Scottish National party. It is entirely a matter of consensus, and at the moment we believe that the priorities should be elsewhere. The cost of living, supporting people through inflation, the energy price cap, getting on and delivering freeports, delivering on the growth deals—those are the things that we think the people of Scotland expect us to d