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Scottish Government: Expenditure

Volume 830: debated on Tuesday 6 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they intend to take further action on expenditure by the Scottish Government in relation to reserved matters.

My Lords, as the Prime Minister has made clear, we will continue to work constructively with the Scottish Government in tackling all the shared challenges that we face. However, in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling, I am concerned at the decision to appoint a Minister for Independence. The Secretary of State for Scotland’s view is that taxpayers’ money could be spent more wisely on delivery for the people of Scotland and on devolved services.

My Lords, since it is absolutely clear that the Minister agrees with me, and I think with this whole House, that the Scottish Government should not be spending UK taxpayers’ money on reserved areas, is it not quite outrageous that they are spending £100,000 on a so-called Minister for Independence to go around the country in a party-political campaign to break up Britain? Even worse, there are 20 United Kingdom civil servants supporting him. Since there is only one body that can do anything about it—that is the UK Government, the Minister and his Secretary of State—when is he going to take some action?

I thank the noble Lord for his tenacity on this subject, because I have now been in post for 18 months and this is the sixth Question I have answered for the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on pretty much the same theme. It is a good theme: what do the UK Government do when they believe that the Scottish Government stray from devolved into reserved matters? We made some progress the last time we spoke in this Chamber; the previous Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, confirmed that he had taken away the £20 million that was going to be spent on the referendum on independence. But then, last week, we had the new head of the Scottish Civil Service, JP Marks, defending the appointment of the Minister for Independence, so we have sort of gone up a ladder and down a snake.

The issue here is that devolution, as devised by the noble Lord’s party, was conceived to be a construct in which the UK and Scottish Governments would work together in unity. It was not envisaged that we would have a situation in which the Scottish Government would seek every opportunity to find division and diversion away from Westminster, and therefore there are no practical levers or mechanics built into the devolution architecture for the UK Government to directly intervene in devolved matters, except through the courts. We already had the ruling in the Supreme Court. The UK Government’s position is to continue to ask the Scottish Government to focus on the real priorities of the people of Scotland and stop this obsession with independence.

My Lords, I acknowledge the death of Lord Morris KG, who was a remarkable Member of this House. Could it be that we are getting to the time when there is a need to revisit the demarcations as laid down in the devolution legislation? There seem to be constant disputes going on, particularly in the area of trade treaties, as well as foreign policy generally and memoranda of understanding, as to what is and is not reserved in rapidly changing industrial and economic circumstances. Can my noble friend consider that?

I thank my noble friend for that question. In the Scotland Act, the devolution settlement is actually very simple. You can put it on one piece of A4; on the left you have devolved matters, and on the right reserved matters. The issue here is that since we have come out of the EU, in effect we have had to create a single market for the UK. The SNP loves the EU; it wants to be in a single market with 27 or 28 states, and agrees that there should be no divergence within that system. Post devolution, we now have a scenario in which we have four assemblies making laws in the UK but we want to keep the UK together. So now they are promoting a whole series of legislative moves that create divergence, which the people of Scotland do not want, especially in trade, not least as 60% of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the United Kingdom and does not recognise borders.

My Lords, the Scottish Government have squandered hundreds of millions of pounds on mismanaged projects. They had a £2 billion underspend last year, have squeezed local government savagely and have made Scotland the highest-taxed area of the United Kingdom. Is it not clear that the current Scottish Parliament has neither the will nor the capacity to hold its Executive to account, and does not a wider consideration therefore need to be taken into account?

I thank my noble friend for his helpful contribution there.

The reality is that Scotland is the best-funded part of the United Kingdom; for every £100 spent in England, £125 is spent in Scotland. That is not a subsidy; it is an equalisation payment, because the whole idea of the UK is that you get the same services whether you live in Streatham or Stornoway. It costs a lot more to deliver them in Stornoway than in Streatham, so we have to pay more for that. There has been no austerity put on the Scottish Government by the UK Government; in the last six years, Scottish spending on public services has gone up by 8%, against 6% for the UK, so that is not austerity. If the Scottish Government decide to choose to increase their welfare spend by 15% and their education spend only by 3%, that is a choice for the Scottish Government and they should be held to account at the ballot box.

My Lords, does the Minister not understand what is happening here? The SNP Government are spending public money on issues they do not have a legal mandate for. Why is this Government, a unionist Government, not using their powers to put a stop to public money being used to divide our country? Action is required now.

The Scottish Government will argue that every area of legislation they are putting forward is within the devolution settlement. We sometimes disagree with that, and where we disagree with it vehemently, as we did on GRR, we invoke Section 35. That was the first time in 237 Bills that received Royal Assent and was not done lightly; that was done in a case where they strayed across the line and were making legislation for Scotland that had a negative impact on England. We will continue to monitor this. Fergus Ewing, who is part of SNP royalty, would blame the Bute House agreement with the Green Party—which he describes as wine bar revolutionaries—for putting forward “progressive” legislation designed to diverge from the UK, and that is what we must put an end to.

My Lords, does my noble friend think it reasonable that the Scottish Government, who cannot run ferry services to the Western Isles, where the roads are full of holes and the health service and education are in crisis, should have an office in Beijing? Why on earth should my taxes support an office in Beijing for the Scottish Government?

Again, this is an issue of there being no SNP representative in this House. It is a bit like playing “Hamlet” without the prince; there is nobody here to put the Scottish Government’s case. They would say that under the devolution settlement they are allowed to promote Scotland overseas, in particular in relation to trade, and that they have eight embassies that they are using to promote trade across the UK. It came to our attention that it was not entirely the case that it was only in trade matters, and the Foreign Secretary has taken steps to pull that back into line.

My Lords, the questions asked by my noble friends Lord Foulkes and Lord McAvoy related specifically to the Minister for Independence. There are two issues here. One is the cost, particularly in times of constrained public finances, and what budget the money comes from. There is also a practical point. The Minister has spoken previously in this House about the independence of the Civil Service. Concerns have been raised in regular discussions between the Cabinet Secretary and the Scottish Government’s Permanent Secretary. Is the Minister aware of whether such concerns continue to be raised? If so, how does the Cabinet Office ensure that individual civil servants are not put in an invidious position regarding supporting political campaigns?

The response to that question given by the head of the Civil Service in Scotland, JP Marks, was that he is entirely impartial and is there to do the bidding of the party in power, elected at the ballot box. It is in the manifesto of the SNP that it wants to break up the United Kingdom and hold an independence referendum, even though only a third of Scots want that. It has been in power for 15 years and has not been able to move it forward from a third, which means that the project has effectively failed and which is why we say: please get back to the day job of running the country more efficiently.

My Lords, I am happy to put the case for the progressive force of the Greens in the Scottish Parliament in your Lordships’ House. The Minister mentioned the deposit return scheme. I am sure he would want to take this opportunity to correct a misstatement by the Secretary of State for Scotland on BBC Scotland’s “Sunday Show”, which suggested that the glass recycled under the scheme was going to be crushed into aggregates. The head of Circularity Scotland has said that threatened £10 million of investment, when the figures are that on launching the scheme 90% of the glass is to be reused, and 95% as the scheme goes ahead. Do the Government understand those facts and are they dealing with their consideration of this case on those facts?

The chief executive of Circularity Scotland said that the Scotland DRS could work very well without glass. We recommend that we all work together to put in a unitary scheme, reminding ourselves that we still have one United Kingdom.