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Scotland: Meeting with New First Minister

Volume 829: debated on Wednesday 29 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when the Secretary of State for Scotland expects to meet with the new First Minister of Scotland.

First, I offer my congratulations to Humza Yousaf on his appointment as First Minister of Scotland, having won the SNP leadership contest on a very close 52%-48% result with Kate Forbes.

On the Question, I know that the Secretary of State for Scotland and Prime Minister will be pleased to meet the First Minister in due course. Indeed, the UK Government remain committed to working constructively with the Scottish Government to handle the challenges that we both face. The Secretary of State for Scotland has been on record as saying that this is an excellent opportunity to press the reset button and make devolution work in Scotland, by the Scottish Government focusing on devolved matters and allowing the UK Government to focus on reserved matters. Perhaps I may make so bold as to ask the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, what his first agenda item would be in that first meeting with the new First Minister.

I will. I also send my congratulations to Humza Yousaf on taking over what I am afraid he is going to find is a poisoned chalice. When the Secretary of State meets the First Minister, will he say quite clearly to him that, if he is genuine and sincere in wanting to co-operate constructively with the UK Government, they should get round the table and find an agreed way forward on gender reform and container recycling that is applicable for the whole United Kingdom? Those are my first two priorities—instead of expensive legal action paid for by the UK taxpayer, which will benefit only the lawyers and extreme separatists.

I thank the noble Lord for that very succinct agenda item, and that is exactly what is going to be addressed. The people of Scotland have two Governments, the UK Government and the Scottish Government, and there is very clear demarcation between the two as to how to make lives better. We have some very good examples of where we work very well together—in delivering freeports, city deals and investment zones—but there are some areas where we are in conflict, because we need the Scottish Government to recognise the unitary nature of the United Kingdom. We have come out of Europe and have a single market—they understand the single market very well—in the UK. That means that certain things are done on a unitary basis, whether it is that we drive on the left-hand side of the road or keep the same currency. But we also want common gender—we want to protect our trans community. People should not be designated a male in one country and a female in another. On trade that crosses borders, we do not want to have any borders for our trade, so a deposit return scheme that results in English craft beer manufacturers putting on their labels “Not for sale in Scotland” is not exactly the way forward for the United Kingdom. I would suggest that that would be the first topic on the agenda.

I extend my congratulations to Humza Yousaf. Can my noble friend confirm that the Secretary of State for Scotland in early discussions with the new First Minister will discuss the expansion and refurbishment of the nuclear fleet? Will he confirm that that will entail added jobs and the expansion of Faslane in Scotland?

I thank my noble friend for bringing attention to one of the key reserved areas that makes the United Kingdom strong—that is, defence. That is another situation where we are stronger together; that covers 68 million citizens. I was born on the Clyde and know it very well, and grew up opposite Faslane, which is a beacon of excellence in this country and of security around the world. It is absolutely central to the defence of the United Kingdom, and we will be at pains to put that to the First Minister in any meeting.

My Lords, on the point of “stronger together”, does the Minister see irony in the fact that, in the middle of the last century, the UK partitioned the subcontinent and, today, someone of subcontinent heritage is seeking to partition the United Kingdom, with equally problematic results?

It is an interesting quirk of history brought up by the noble Lord, but it demonstrates the diversity of this country and the great strength that we have. We must again congratulate Humza Yousaf on being the first Muslim First Minister of Scotland.

I think everybody would hope that the relationship between the UK and Scottish Government could be constructive and I congratulate Humza Yousaf. I understand that there has been a courteous exchange between him and the Prime Minister. Would not it be helpful if both the UK and Scottish Governments acknowledged that their nationalist ideologies have proved deeply divisive in the UK and Scotland respectively, and that what people actually want are Governments who will focus on the crisis that they have created in the cost of living, energy, the health service and education? What we want is government for the people and no more nationalist ideology.

The noble Lord is right to call on the Scottish Government to focus on the people’s priorities. That came across very strongly in the SNP election, where it turned out that, as far as audiences are concerned, independence is way down their list of priorities. In fact, Kate Forbes, who had 48% of the vote, made it clear that continuity would not cut it. She acknowledged that the UK position is that there is no sustained majority for independence in Scotland. It was therefore rather disappointing, I have to say, to hear that in the first exchange between the First Minister and the Prime Minister yet again Section 30 was brought up. It is old tapes that we do not need to hear again. The Supreme Court has already opined on it and the UK Government’s position will not change.

My Lords, will my noble friend advise the Secretary of State that, in congratulating Mr Yousaf on his election, he should urge a fresh start and, therefore, it is very important that the current inquiries by the police that have been going on for rather a long time into the finances of the SNP should be concluded? There are far too many rumours, which are greatly damaging to our public life.

I thank my noble friend for raising this topic, which is talked about a lot north of the border. It is a running saga that needs to be concluded. My understanding is that investigations are under way and that the process will continue as soon as possible.

My Lords, the imprecision of the replies that we have heard indicates how poorly prepared the Government are to implicitly embrace devolution in the processes of government. We would have heard similar remarks if we had been hearing about the Secretary of State for Wales in his connection with the British Government. Are we not in danger of the Conservative and Unionist Party turning into the “English National Party”?

I thank the noble Lord, but I violently disagree with that—or maybe not violently, but I certainly disagree with it. Devolution gives Scotland the most amount of government anywhere in the world. It is a unique system of governance that allows it to have the benefit of two Governments: the UK Government for reserved matters and the Scottish Government for devolved matters. It is very simple—it is one piece of paper, with “reserved” on the left-hand side and “devolved” on the right-hand side. We must have a Government in Scotland who are prepared to work within that and to make devolution work, instead of straying into areas of reserved matters and trying to find conflict with the UK Government. If we work together, we can turbocharge Scotland.

Does the Minister accept that the biggest trade that the Scots have is with England? There are some circumstances in which co-operation can be of greater benefit than competition.

I thank my noble friend for that. Some 60% of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the United Kingdom, 20% is with the EU and 20% is international. We talk to businesses regularly, which say that they do not recognise borders. The last thing that they want is a hard border on this island. Scottish businesses want access to that market, and we would encourage the Scottish Government to respect that.

My Lords, may I caution the Minister and the Government against any triumphalism? The case against independence must continue to be made on its merits and not for the embarrassment of the SNP.

That is exactly the point that Kate Forbes was putting across. To take the nationalist movement so far, Alex Salmond moved it from 30% to 45%, and he was entitled to say that his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, might have moved it from 45% to 60% but singularly failed in eight years. The point that Kate Forbes was making is that if it takes longer then so be it, but if you make the case for a prosperous Scotland then you can perhaps have that more fully answered.

My Lords, it is clear from the questions and answers today that this House is committed to the United Kingdom, with Scotland remaining a central part of it. May I bring the Minister back to the answer that he gave to my noble friend Lord Foulkes? The Minister was clear about how important the two issues of gender reform and container recycling were to the integrity of the UK. However, when he was asked when discussions would take place, he was a bit “Yes Minister” about it, I have to say. It was “in due course”, which sounds a bit like “in the fullness of time” and “as resources allow”. Does he recognise how important these issues are and can he give any timescale for when the First Minister will have meetings with the Prime Minister and Secretary of State? These issues cannot be allowed to fester any longer.

I thank the noble Baroness for that. The issue we have is that those are both Scottish Bills. The great thing about devolution is that the Scottish Government are empowered to make their own Bills and send them for assent here. It is not for the UK Government to interfere in Scottish Government decision-making, so if their Bills do not meet competency or cannot achieve Royal Assent, it is up to the Scottish Government to amend them. We have said that we will be very happy to consult them on that process, but these are their Bills that they must amend.