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Volume 741: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Food Supply Chains

This Government want to ensure that farmers and food producers get a fair price for their products by tackling unfairness that exists in food supply chains. We are currently pursuing contractual reform in the dairy and pork sectors and we have a new review of the egg sector. This will ensure resilience and fair supply chains across the country.

My constituents in Edinburgh West, like so many others across the country, are finding it increasingly difficult to source affordable nutritious food. The situation has been made worse by flooding in Scotland and by international pressures such as the war in Ukraine, energy prices and Brexit. There are enterprises such as Lauriston Farm in my community that can provide good local food. What are the Government doing to support projects such as those and to offset the impact on our food producers of the recent flooding?

I recognise the points that the hon. Lady makes about the pressures on the food supply chain. The UK Government are closely monitoring the impact on the agricultural sector of the flooding caused by storms and we are working with the Environment Agency to resolve that. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs can provide financial assistance to the farming sector to cover uninsurable losses incurred as a result of exceptional flooding by activating the farming recovery fund. I would encourage the hon. Lady to contact the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), the excellent new water Minister at DEFRA, for more information.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to be here, although I have to say that there was not particularly stiff competition for the role from Scotland.

Inflation might be slowly coming down, but food inflation in Scotland still stands at more than 10%, forcing families to choose between being able to eat or heat their home, or, given the increasing levels of destitution, neither. Thousands of people in Scotland are turning to food banks not as a one-off last resort but as a means of getting by week after week. It is clear that both our Governments should be working together much better to tackle this, so what specific steps will the Minister take to work with the Scottish Government and the food industry to ensure that food prices do not continue to rise at unaffordable rates? Does he really believe that the autumn statement will give families any confidence that the Government understand how difficult it is for people in Scotland right now?

I welcome the hon. Member to his new position. I recognise the points he makes about stiff competition, but nonetheless I very much welcome him.

This Government are absolutely committed to tackling the rising prices that households are facing, which is why the Prime Minister has an absolute focus on reducing the levels of inflation, but the hon. Member is right to say that both Governments should be working together to alleviate pressures on household budgets. This Government have demonstrated that through the huge support that has been put in place to support households with energy prices, and through other measures to ensure that financial help is in place to support hard-pressed households.

Post Office Branch Closures

2. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of post office branch closures on the delivery of Government services in Scotland. (900318)

12. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of post office branch closures on the delivery of Government services in Scotland. (900328)

The United Kingdom Government continue to provide significant support to the national post office network, adding up to more than £2.4 billion over the last 10 years. This funding enabled 98% of individuals in rural areas to live within three miles of their nearest post office in 2022, with the overall network as large today as it has been for five years.

Our rural branches of the post office are at the very core, the very heart, of our rural communities. At present, His Majesty’s Government provide certain services to the public via the post office network. Does the Minister agree that it would be a good notion to encourage the Scottish Government to go down the same route and provide as many services as possible in that way, thus ensuring the future of those branches?

I agree with the hon. Member. I recognise the vital importance of post offices for constituents in rural communities such as his own and also in my own constituency in the Scottish Borders. It is of course for the Scottish Government to assess how to make their services available to people across Scotland, considering accessibility as well as value for money for the taxpayer. However, I would be happy to facilitate a meeting with my colleagues in the Department for Business and Trade to see what further encouragement we could give the Scottish Government to use the post office network for the delivery of their services.

Scotland has seen the closure of 40 post offices in the past two years, yet as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) pointed out, the communities that still have post offices are losing access to Government services, particularly in rural areas. Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency services are due to cease being available at post offices from the end of next March. What conversations has the Minister had with the Department for Business and Trade about keeping DVLA services available from post offices?

I should start by correcting the hon. Gentleman in that the post office network is not in decline. More post offices have been opened than closed over the past year. We do see fluctuations in different parts of the country, with many postmasters running a franchise business in their own right. Many face the same challenges as other high street businesses. The DVLA and the Post Office extended their contract until 31 March 2024. The post office network operates commercially at arm’s length from the Government and is responsible for taking decisions on commercial matters such as the DVLA contract.

Devolution in Scotland

With devolved powers, the Scottish Government can tailor policy in areas such as health, education and justice, as well as in tax and welfare through additional powers in the Scotland Act 2016. The UK Government are working with local government and local partners to deliver on their needs and wishes. That is real devolution in action.

Climate change talks at COP28 begin tomorrow, and one of the most important issues to be agreed is the climate loss and damage fund. The Secretary of State will know that Scotland has led the way on that, becoming the first country in the global north to pledge financial support to address loss and damage, but he and his Conservative colleagues are intent on limiting the Scottish Government’s international engagement. Can he tell me why he wants to silence Scotland’s voice and prevent us from providing that global leadership?

It is very straightforward. We understand that there will be environmental engagement overseas by the Scottish Government, and that is a devolved matter. What we have tried get a grip on is the Scottish Government travelling overseas, meeting Ministers, discussing reserved areas such as constitutional affairs and foreign affairs, and straying away from the portfolio of matters that are devolved to them. That is our position.

It is obvious that in order to cement a sense of economic resilience Scotland requires a population growth strategy, but the devolution settlement, unfit as it is, will not come anywhere near that, and the Government continue to set their face against it. Can the Secretary of State explain why?

If the Scottish Government want more people to settle in Scotland—and immigration is at a record high—they need to build more housing, have lower taxes and better public services, and make Scotland more attractive to people.

Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that the SNP-Green Scottish Government continue to use the devolution settlement as a platform to pursue constitutional grievances? In reality, would not achieving the best outcome for the people of Scotland and our constituents mean the two Governments working together on a project, for example the A75? If the Governments work together, that will actually be delivered.

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. The A75, along with the A77, came up as a vital route in the Union connectivity review by Lord Hendy of Richmond Hill—Sir Peter Hendy as he was at the time. We are finally working with the Scottish Government, and the UK Government are funding a feasibility study for the upgrade of the A75. I am delighted that progress is being made.

Is it not the case that the Scottish Government have consistently strayed outside the limits of the devolution settlements, so it is very difficult to take the SNP seriously as a defender of devolution when it has so little respect for the current settlement?

My hon. Friend is right. Everyone forgets that the Scottish Government get up every day and go to work to destroy devolution and the United Kingdom. The defenders of devolution and the strengtheners of the United Kingdom are this Government.

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Michael Shanks) not only on his vast—and fast—promotion to the shadow Front Bench but on the 20.4% swing from the SNP that brought him the by-election victory.

The announcement of the closure of the refinery at Grangemouth is a hammer blow. Too many communities are still living with the devastation of being left behind after coalmine closures in the 1980s. That must not be allowed to happen again. Grangemouth’s owner is buying football clubs and investing in plants elsewhere, while the workers lose out. The Prime Minister has decided that a culture war on the environment trumps getting the UK into the global green energy race by backing Labour’s green energy superpower plans. The devolution settlement demands that both Governments work together, but they certainly do not. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Scottish Government to protect jobs at Grangemouth? What impact will the closure have on the Acorn carbon capture and storage project?

First of all, it is a very worrying time for those whose jobs are at risk at the Grangemouth refinery. This morning, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), and a Minister from the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero met Neil Gray from the Scottish Government, and yesterday my hon. Friend had a meeting with the local authority. Work is going on. It is ironic that the Scottish Government want to shut down oil and gas, because when that happens, people suddenly realise the need to manage a transition and take us gradually to net zero while protecting people’s livelihoods.

On Acorn and the Scottish cluster, I have spoken to the chief executive of Storegga, which is pulling the project together. He told me that the refinery closing has little impact on its project, because Grangemouth was supplying the blue hydrogen to the refinery and others, and the emissions from that were being put into the North sea.

It is the 25th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament next year—one of the Labour party’s proudest achievements. However, recently it has been riven by failure and scandal, from one in seven on NHS waiting lists to ferries, iPads and camper vans. Much has been made about the dual role of the Government-appointed Lord Advocate, who sits in the Scottish Cabinet while presiding over prosecutions in Scotland. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Scottish Government about Anas Sarwar’s idea to split the dual role of Scotland’s top law officer, to maintain the separation of powers between the Government and the judiciary?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Director of Public Prosecutions in England is appointed by a panel, which removes the risk of perceived interference by Government. Many learned friends have expressed their concerns to me about the structure in Scotland and the closeness between the judiciary and the Government, and I find their concerns understandable. It is vital that the public perception is that the prosecution service is very independent from Government.

I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that his mission to constrain and bypass the Scottish Parliament has been an absolute disaster for devolution. Relationships across the UK have never been as such a low level. Will he acknowledge that his version of aggressive Unionism has utterly failed? As he is leaving his office, will he pledge to abandon it entirely?

I am not entirely sure what I have done that has been a failure, to be honest. This Government protect devolution and the settlement. If he is referring to the section 35 order that I used, that was in the Scotland Act 1998 and was voted for at the time by SNP MPs. It is there to protect devolution when a devolved Administration legislates on Great Britain or UK matters.

Employment Law: Devolution

4. If he will have discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of devolving employment law to the Scottish Government. (900320)

The UK Government have no intention of devolving legislative competence for employment rights to the Scottish Parliament. Employers and employees benefit hugely from a single, simple system where employment rights are the same across Great Britain, whether in Derby or Dundee. We do not see any benefit from changing that arrangement.

Devolution of employment law is supported by the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Trades Union Congress, workers’ rights groups, a majority in the Scottish Parliament and the public. It would benefit workers by having their Governments compete to give them better rights and preventing a race to the bottom. What is not to like? Why will the Secretary of State’s Government not consider it?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my original answer. We believe it is right to have a simple system that works across the United Kingdom, whether one is in Derby or Dundee.

Does the Secretary of State agree that to have different employment laws either side of the border of the two nations would be a mistake, because it would increase the regulatory burden on companies and deprive British companies of our excellent tribunal system?

I completely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend, who absolutely makes the right arguments.

Scottish Work Visa Scheme

5. If he will make an assessment with Cabinet colleagues of the potential merits of devolving the power to introduce a Scottish work visa scheme to the Scottish Government. (900321)

11. If he will make an assessment with Cabinet colleagues of the potential merits of devolving the power to introduce a Scottish work visa scheme to the Scottish Government. (900327)

14. If he will make an assessment with Cabinet colleagues of the potential merits of devolving the power to introduce a Scottish work visa scheme to the Scottish Government. (900330)

The United Kingdom Government have introduced a single, flexible immigration system that works in the interest of the whole United Kingdom. A separate visa system would create an economic migration border between Scotland and the rest of the UK, which would be harmful for employers and far less attractive for workers.

Last week, the CBI conference raised the serious issue of a lack of people to do vital jobs that we need filling, especially in hospitality and food production. Both the Fraser of Allander Institute and the highlands MSP Kate Forbes have suggested localised worker visa solutions to boost the economy. Why is the Secretary of State not listening to those smart voices, and why is he not acting in the best interests of the Scottish economy?

Because we have a specific Scottish occupation list for shortages, which gives us flexibility. The salary rate is set at £20,960. We believe that the best way is for stakeholder bodies to make representations to the Home Office to add to the shortage occupation list.

Five years ago, the Migration Advisory Committee said that the current system was failing remote communities. Recently published figures show that my Argyll and Bute constituency is suffering further depopulation, with the town of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute particularly badly affected. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Government still insist that the current system delivers for all parts of the UK. Will the Secretary of State explain how a one-size-fits-all policy, simultaneous catering for the vastly different needs of densely populated urban areas and Argyll and Bute, can deliver equally for both?

Argyll and Bute is a beautiful part of the United Kingdom, but what it lacks is infrastructure, public services and affordable housing, because the Scottish Government have failed in all those areas. What it also has, with the rest of Scotland, is the problem of being the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom. That is the problem the Scottish Government have to address.

The UK Government said that post-Brexit domestic employment would fill labour gaps, but the executive director of UKHospitality Scotland has said that the gaps left by excluding EU workers have not been filled, leaving huge numbers of specialist vacancies, such as for chefs and managers. When will this Government accept reality and stop destroying Scotland’s economy in the name of a purist Brexit ideology?

I think the hon. Lady lives in a parallel universe. We have the highest net migration to the UK since records began, far higher than when we were in the EU. As I say, if we want to attract people to Scotland, we must stop making it the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State has correctly identified that there are some who want to use immigration policy to enforce a hard border between England and Scotland as part of their aim to break up the Union. Does he agree, and in his assessment did he identify, that we need to ensure that immigration policy is not used as an alternative to offering the rewarding packages that key workers deserve?

Absolutely. We are one United Kingdom. We have no physical border. It is important that we treat immigration equally across the whole United Kingdom and give everyone equal opportunity.

Let me be clear: we are talking about the administration of work permits for people from overseas who wish to work in Scotland on a temporary basis. Just about everyone thinks it would be better administered in Scotland, but the Secretary of State insists that it should be centralised by his Government in Westminster. His argument would be plausible if the UK demonstrated that it is managing the migration service well but, given the catastrophe that is the UK immigration system, when will he wake up and realise this would be better done in Scotland, by the people who live there?

I point the hon. Gentleman to the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. That is 45,000 people, with the ability to flex it up to 55,000. Those people come to work in a flexible system across the United Kingdom, and it has proved to be a huge success.

The Secretary of State is standing against everyone. He is standing against experts, against academics, against representatives of industry and even against the people of Scotland, only 28% of whom think immigration is too high. More than six in 10 think more immigration would benefit the country. When is he going to stop being the Secretary of State against Scotland and be the Secretary of State for Scotland?

It is good that the hon. Gentleman’s lines are written by Mike Russell. That is an old one, and not a very good one.

The reality is that Scotland is the most taxed part of the United Kingdom, which is not attractive for people to work there. We have the highest ever net migration. If the Scottish Government focus more on good public services, good infrastructure and lower taxation, hopefully those high net migration figures will see more people settle in Scotland.

Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on developing carbon capture, utilisation and storage in Scotland. (900323)

Carbon capture, utilisation and storage is a vital component of our journey to net zero. The Acorn project represents a huge opportunity for the north-east of Scotland. As would be expected for any multi-billion pound project, due diligence must now be followed.

Under Westminster rule, Bathgate, Linwood, Methil and Irvine are all no more. Grangemouth now risks being added to that sorry list, and with it the hope of its developing carbon technologies. The Minister is quick to attack a Scottish Government with limited powers, but responsibility for the robbery and ruination of Scotland’s energy sector, and the continued denial of substantial funding for carbon capture, rests squarely with the UK Government. What is his office doing to protect energy sector jobs and livelihoods in Scotland, and what is his Department’s excuse for utterly failing the people of Scotland?

I had the pleasure of meeting the Cabinet Secretary from the Scottish Government this morning, together with the leader of Falkirk Council, to discuss the situation at Grangemouth. The Scottish Government and the UK Government are working together, hand in hand, to protect as many jobs as possible. The Scottish cluster is expected to include at least one project located in Grangemouth, which is welcome news.

Productive Forestry Planting

8. Whether his Department has had recent discussions with the Scottish Government on supporting productive forestry planting in Scotland. (900324)

I very much welcome this question, which is timely in National Tree Week. Reforestation is a crucial way for us all to reduce carbon emissions and improve biodiversity across the country. Although this policy is devolved, the UK Government continue to work with the devolved Administrations to deliver UK-wide change in tree planting and establishment.

Conifers, which are the main species planted for productive forestry, account for just under half the area of UK woodland. Does my hon. Friend agree that there should now be a UK-wide target for 60% of new planting to be productive forestry, allowing Scotland to lead the way in delivering a secure supply of raw materials to support British manufacturing and construction?

I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent question. There are high ambitions across the United Kingdom to increase forestry planting. I agree that we must secure a steady supply of the raw materials needed to support Britain’s construction and manufacturing industries.

Last week—[Interruption.] I do not normally get such a cheer.

Last week, the Government announced that there will be a new national park and a new national forest in England. Do the Scottish Government, or the Minister, have any intention of doing something similar for Scotland?

There are great ambitions for an additional national park in Scotland, and my Scottish Conservative colleagues are pushing very hard for that. If the hon. Gentleman needs more information, he should please write to me. I will respond with the required detail.

Promoting Scotland's Interests Abroad

9. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on promoting Scotland’s interests abroad. (900325)

The UK Government work tirelessly to promote Scottish interests around the world through our extensive diplomatic network, forging business links, and generating trade and investment. Our response to the Scottish Affairs Committee’s recent inquiry on Scotland’s international promotion highlights the extensive efforts we undertake to achieve this.

As one of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys, it is always my pleasure to be championing British business overseas. From whisky to satellites, Scotland is home to some of the UK’s most important exports. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what work the Scotland Office is doing to support these important sectors in the international market?

First, I thank my hon. Friend for his service as a trade envoy, and tell him that last month I had the pleasure of travelling to Vietnam to boost Scotland’s trade interests and celebrate diplomatic links. Vietnam already offers huge opportunities for Scottish businesses and in the light of the UK’s recent joining of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership—that is easy for you to say, Mr Speaker— I am keen to highlight further trading opportunities for Scottish businesses in the Indo-Pacific region.

Will the Secretary of State clarify what he was saying earlier and whether he thinks it is legitimate for Scottish Government Ministers to be able to travel overseas to promote the work of the Scottish Government?

I have always been very clear that Scottish Government Ministers can go overseas to promote areas that are devolved, but the reserved areas, such as the constitution and foreign affairs, are a matter for the UK Government and those Ministers should not be using our embassies and consulates to promote their plans for separation, or their different views on the middle east or anything else.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, let me remind Members of an important courtesy that we should all observe: giving notice to colleagues if we are visiting their constituencies on official business. Colleagues in Lancashire ought to think about that when they are going to others’ constituencies and let people know when they are doing so—I believe that did not happen on this occasion. I have heard of a number of examples in other areas of this discourteous way of behaving towards colleagues, which is not acceptable. I would rather we did not have to deal with such matters by points of order, so please try to give notice before visiting each other’s constituencies.

I also say to everybody that temperate and moderate language is what I want in this Chamber. Let us now move on to PMQs.