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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 735: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2023


The Secretary of State was asked—

Labour Market

I pay tribute to two great Scots who have sadly died in recent days. Winnie Ewing blazed a trail for women in politics. She was admired by colleagues from all Scotland’s parties as one of the most important politicians of her generation. Our thoughts are with her friends and family, particularly her children Fergus and Annabelle. And with Craig Brown’s passing on Monday, Scottish football lost a true legend who was held in high regard by players and fans across the country. Again, our thoughts are with his loved ones.

I am encouraged by the resilience that the Scottish labour market has shown, despite global issues still causing significant economic challenges. The latest official figures show that Scottish unemployment is close to a record low at 3.1%. I welcome that fact.

If we are to grow the Scottish economy as well as the national one, it is vital that we have a skilled workforce and the right level of investment. It is also important for areas such as the Borders, between Scotland and England, to have the least friction in trade and labour market conditions. Does the Secretary of State agree that politicians of all persuasions have a responsibility to ensure maximum opportunities on whichever side of the border, to ensure the least amount of friction, particularly for those looking for employment?

I agree. That is exactly why this Government introduced the United Kingdom Internal Market Act (2020): to protect frictionless trade across the UK. On maximising opportunities on whichever side of the border, it is a matter of some regret that Scotland is the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State and I represent large, rural constituencies with large hospitality and tourism sectors. Will he therefore name one benefit that ending freedom of movement has brought to the labour market in either sector?

The Scottish National party likes to blame everything on Brexit, but for the past two years we have had record immigration into the United Kingdom. That is a simple fact—record numbers since immigration figures began.

I had the pleasure and privilege of being elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 alongside Winnie Ewing. She was undoubtedly an iconic figure of modern Scottish politics, from the Hamilton by-election to Madame Écosse and the opening of the Scottish Parliament. I always found her to be kind and sympathetic to new Members, and she always had the best stories. May she rest in peace.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the one thing that will reduce confidence in the Scottish labour market is the prospect of another independence referendum—real or de facto?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Business does not like uncertainty, and the constant harping on about independence is causing uncertainty among business. The devolved Administration in Scotland should focus on the things that they were set up to do: education standards, the health service, drug deaths and getting some ferries rather than trying to create the island clearances.

Cost of Living

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the impact of cost of living increases on households in Scotland. (905584)

5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the impact of cost of living increases on households in Scotland. (905585)

7. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the impact of cost of living increases on households in Scotland. (905587)

11. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the impact of cost of living increases on households in Scotland. (905591)

These questions show the originality of thought among the Opposition parties. The United Kingdom Government recognise the challenges facing households due to elevated costs of living and so have taken action to protect struggling families with the largest support package in Europe. UK-wide, support to households to help with higher bills is worth £94 billion, or £3,300 per household on average.

Over the winter, too many have had to make the decision whether to heat or eat—in fact, too many could not afford to do either. With food inflation well in excess of 15%, and much higher on specific staple items, people simply cannot afford to eat. What advice does the Minister have for households in Scotland, and those in Sunderland who I represent, who are worried about being able to provide food for their families?

Inflation is a problem affecting many western economies, particularly those in Europe, and it is right that this Government continue to provide cost of living support while sticking to our plan to avoid adding unnecessary inflationary pressures. The average household in Scotland receives £1,850 from the UK Government, with the poorest households receiving £2,445. About £5.2 billion was spent in 2022-23, which is more than the Scottish Government’s entire annual welfare budget.

After 13 consecutive hikes in interest rates, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that 1.4 million more householders could face a 20% fall in disposable income. This mortgage crisis started with a disastrous Tory mini-Budget last September and is adding to the cost of living crisis. Will the Minister please explain what the hell his party is doing to clean up the mess it created?

We do not accept that analysis. We recognise that this is a worrying time for homeowners and mortgage holders, but we cannot ignore the fact that interest rates have risen across western economies as a result of the pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine. The Government remain committed to responsible economic management to bring inflation back under control, which is the only way to achieve sustainably lower interest rates and mortgage rates.

It is not just homeowners who are affected by spiralling interest rates; they also contribute to an average rent increase of over 8%. The Scottish Government are doing their bit, using the limited powers they have. They have extended the rent cap and extended the evictions freeze into March, so that nobody in Scotland will be thrown out of their house because they are poor; and of course in Scotland, thanks to the Scottish National party, we are not selling off council houses but building more of them. What exactly are his Government doing to protect tenants in Scotland and to prevent an increase in homelessness?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know he recently announced that he will be standing down at the next election, and while he and I clearly do not agree politically, his eight years of service to the people of Glenrothes is worthy of recognition.

As I said previously, tackling inflation is this Government’s priority. It is the best way to support mortgage holders and the people who rent accommodation.

Is the Minister aware of the recent YouGov survey commissioned by Feeding Britain, which shows that, in May, almost one in six adults in Scotland reported that they or someone in their household had accessed food aid in the previous three months? Does he agree that it is now time for the Government to launch a food poverty strategy? Will he support the principles outlined in my private Member’s Bill to end food bank use by 2030?

This United Kingdom Government remain absolutely committed to supporting the most vulnerable in society during these difficult times. That is evidenced by our providing support to people who need it the most: for example, over £137.5 billion to pensioners on benefits, £67.9 billion on benefits to support disabled people and people living with health conditions, and a further £114.3 billion on welfare benefits for working-age adults and children. In addition, since April, benefits and state pensions have been uprated by 10.1%. This Government are taking the action that is most required to support the people in most need, and we reject the hon. Gentleman’s analysis that we are doing nothing.

Under the last Labour Government, absolute child poverty levels in Scotland fell from 40% in 1997 to 20% in 2007, but that has been all but reversed. The SNP Government are not on track to meet their own goal of lowering child poverty to less than 10% by 2030—[Interruption.] SNP Members shout, but there is a reason why they do so. What steps are the UK Government taking to ensure that child poverty returns to the low levels last seen under the last Labour Government?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the failures of the Scottish Government, and SNP Members’ reaction shows that they do not like being challenged. They shout, heckle and try to shut down any contrary argument.

As I said, this Government are absolutely committed to supporting the most vulnerable in society. We will continue to support all parts of our society—children, householders and anyone else who needs support during these cost of living pressures.

Last year, £4.2 billion in balancing costs was added to our energy bills. That means paying wind farm operators to turn off their turbines and at the same time paying gas operators to fire theirs up owing to grid constraints and a lack of storage. However, pumped-storage hydro schemes in Scotland could create 15,000 jobs and lower bills, so why are this Government not fighting tooth and nail to put in place contractual arrangements that would get these schemes up and running?

In relation to the cost of living—the theme of these questions—the energy price guarantee will save households £160 for the period until July, bringing the total Government support for energy bills to £1,500 for a typical household since October 2022. We are also ending the premium paid by more than 4 million UK households for prepayment meters, bringing their charges into line with those paid by comparable customers using direct debit. This Government are absolutely committed to supporting people who face cost of living pressures.

I know that the Prime Minister and the Government are entirely focused on helping people to deal with those pressures. However, the focus of the SNP Government seems to be elsewhere, as we saw last weekend when the First Minister announced that the next election would be entirely focused on yet another independence referendum. Does the Minister agree that that is the wrong priority for Scotland, and that Scotland’s two Governments should be working together to improve the delivery of public services and help people with the cost of living?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Both of Scotland’s Governments—the UK Government and the Scottish Government—should be focused on delivering better public services and supporting people with the cost of living, but instead we hear the SNP cheering about another independence referendum. This Government remain focused on delivering for the people of Scotland; I am just sad that the SNP Government in Edinburgh fail to do so.

Let me join the Secretary of State in his earlier tributes to Winnie Ewing and Craig Brown, both of whom passed away last week, and both of whom will be sadly missed. I hold Craig Brown personally responsible for moments of completely unbridled joy and total heartbreak.

Let me also wish the Secretary of State a happy birthday—a significant birthday—for next week. [Interruption.] Whoever shouted “80” from the Back Benchers is not far away from his age, so happy birthday to him.

Nearly five months ago, the Secretary of State promised to arrange a meeting for David Williamson, a Scottish terminal cancer patient, but neither his Department nor the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has been able to do so. I wonder whether that could be sorted out as soon as possible.

Millions of people across the country are facing spiralling mortgage rates and rents. Statistics released by Citizens Advice Scotland this week show that the number of Scottish mortgage holders searching for advice on repossession is up by 341%. Does the Minister agree with the insightful advice from the Prime Minister that worried mortgage payers hit by a Tory mortgage premium should just “hold their nerve”?

I can confirm that the Scotland Office did write to the Department for Health and Social Care about the case of David Williamson, and I will undertake to ensure that we pursue that.

As for mortgage rates, the Government recognise that this is a very concerning time for homeowners and mortgage holders, but we cannot ignore the fact that interest rates have risen across western economies as a result of the pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine. Of course, the Bank of England sets the base rate, which has an effect on mortgage pricing—as the hon. Member will recall, it was the Labour Government who made the Bank independent of Government. As he will also know, last week the Chancellor agreed with mortgage lenders a brand-new mortgage charter, which will hopefully provide some protection and reassurance for mortgage holders.

The Scotland Office is saying that Scottish mortgage holders should just “hold their nerve”. What the Minister did not include in his list of excuses was the fact that the Tories actually crashed the economy, which has resulted in some of these mortgage interest rates. Is it not incredible that during the worst cost of living crisis in living memory the Prime Minister’s entire approach is to tell people to hold their nerve, while the approach of the First Minister in Scotland is to launch proposals for a de facto referendum and a written constitution—something that he himself admits Scottish voters do not want? Scotland has two Governments so out of touch with the priorities of the Scottish people that polling shows that 70% think they are doing little to help with the cost of living. Does the Minister agree that what Scots need and deserve is a UK Labour Government focused solely on delivering the priorities of Scottish voters?

This UK Government are very clear that now is not the time for another independence referendum, but the Labour party so often ends up backing SNP policy after SNP policy in Scotland. As we are approaching the summer holidays, perhaps the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) should take his flip-flops and see whether there is space in the SNP’s camper van.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words about Winnie Ewing and Craig Brown. Let me pay my own personal tribute to Winnie Ewing, who was such an icon for our party and, almost uniquely, served in three Parliaments—our own Madame Écosse.

At over 19%, food inflation in the UK is 50% higher than among our EU neighbours, yet both the Government and the Labour party seem to be in complete denial about Brexit’s contribution to this cost of eating crisis. With 28% of the UK’s food coming from Europe, how will the UK Government prevent a new surge in food prices next winter, when extra post-Brexit checks are introduced at the border?

As the Chancellor has said, food price inflation has been a problem in many parts of Europe. In Germany, Sweden, Portugal and Poland, food price inflation is around 20%, so this is not a UK-only problem. The Government are doing everything they can to deal with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the aftermath of the pandemic. We have one central focus, which is bringing inflation down. We are ensuring that is this Government’s one priority.

The London School of Economics has shown that a third of food inflation in the UK is due to Brexit. With the loss of freedom of movement and European workers, Brexit has also caused £60 million of Scottish fruit and veg to rot in the fields, threatening farms and further increasing the cost even of domestic produce. As a Brexiteer, should the Secretary of State not apologise to the Scottish public, including his own constituents, for driving up food prices, and maybe explain why he still supports the proven liar who was one of its main architects?

We do not accept the SNP’s analysis. As I have already explained, food inflation is an issue in many parts of Europe. It is a bit rich for an SNP Member to bring up food price inflation and rising costs, especially when leaked papers this morning revealed that SNP Ministers in Edinburgh are discussing raising council tax by up to 22.5%, meaning that some people will end up paying £751 more per year. Under the SNP in Scotland, local government funding has been gutted, forcing councils to slash local services and impose large tax hikes. I will take no lessons from the hon. Member about bringing prices down for households in Scotland.

Allegations of Impropriety in Public Life

3. What assessment he has made of the potential implications for his Department’s policies on strengthening the Union of allegations of standards of impropriety in public life. (905583)

The United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union in the world—the foundation on which all our businesses and citizens are able to thrive. When we work collaboratively as one United Kingdom, we are safer, stronger and more prosperous; we are better able to draw on the institutions that unite us, such as the health service, the armed forces and our world-class education system; and we are better able to respond to challenges, such as supporting families with the cost of living and leading the international response to Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine.

Does the Secretary of State think that the former Prime Minister, who was fined by the police and subsequently found to have knowingly lied to the late Queen, this House and therefore the public, strengthened or weakened the Union?

The Union has never been stronger, and this Prime Minister has said that those in public life should aspire to the highest standards of propriety.

I think we can all agree about the importance of politicians telling the truth. In that context, has my right hon. Friend seen the video released by the Scottish Government in which Cabinet Secretary Angus Robertson makes a range of spurious claims about devolution being under attack by the UK Government? If so, what does he think of it?

I did see Angus Robertson’s video clip, and I think I counted 16 false claims in the space of one minute and 40 seconds. That is a false claim every six seconds—pretty impressive, even by his standards. As usual, the nationalists are desperate to invent a grievance, but the reality is that the UK Government respect devolution, support it and strengthen it. The only people who want to destroy devolution are the ones who want to rip us out of the United Kingdom.

The Privileges Committee’s conclusions are crystal clear that the former Prime Minister knowingly misled this House and subsequently tried to intimidate the very Committee carrying out the inquiry he set up. Why did the Secretary of State not set an example and vote for the Privileges Committee’s report?

As I said to the media when this question was raised in an interview last week, it was simply because I felt the report was too excessive in its conclusions.

Support for the Energy Industry

6. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for the energy industry in Scotland. (905586)

Scotland’s energy industry is vital to supporting the UK’s energy security. This Government have listened to Scotland’s energy industry, and we understand the need to encourage industry investment. That is why we recently announced the energy security investment mechanism, which will remove the energy profits levy if oil and gas prices fall to normal levels for a sustained period prior to March 2028.

It is great to hear a cheer for the Secretary of State as he stood up. I am sure he agrees that hydrogen production will be vital to meeting both the UK’s energy needs and our net zero targets. Will he set out what the UK Government are doing to promote the development and production of hydrogen in Scotland?

Low-carbon hydrogen is critical to delivering energy security. It presents a significant growth opportunity and will help the UK to reach net zero. We have doubled our ambition to 10 GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030, and at least half of it will come from electrolytic hydrogen, drawing on the scale up of UK offshore wind, other renewables and, of course, new nuclear.

Will the discussions with the Scottish Government also include the problems with national grid transmission, which means National Grid is paying to turn off wind turbines because it cannot afford to get the electricity they generate to the south of the country?

By law, transmission network charging is a matter for Ofgem, which is an independent regulator. It has recently produced a report on charging reforms, and the Government are looking at that report.

Productive Forestry

9. Whether his Department has had recent discussions with the Scottish Government on supporting productive forestry planting in Scotland. (905589)

Although forestry is a devolved policy, we continue to work with the devolved Administrations to deliver a UK-wide step change in tree planting and establishment.

Last year, 50% of forestry planting was much-needed productive forestry for our construction and manufacturing industries. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there should now be a new UK-wide target that aims for 60% of new planting to be productive, allowing Scotland to lead the way for the rest of the UK?

My hon. Friend is a champion for this industry, and it is the UK Government’s ambition to increase planting across the United Kingdom. I know she is keen for productive forestry to be used to support the construction and manufacturing industries, which is also the Government’s ambition.

Scotland, as in so much else, leads the way on forestry and tree planting, at 10,000 hectares, fully three quarters of all tree planting across these islands. Can the Secretary of State instruct the House on how, around the Cabinet table, he has championed Scotland’s progress in this area, or is he too cowering?

Child Poverty

10. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on trends in the level of child poverty in Scotland. (905590)

14. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on trends in the level of child poverty in Scotland. (905595)

This Government are committed to tackling child poverty and protecting the most vulnerable in society. In the recent Budget, the Chancellor announced additional support measures for households and families across Scotland and, indeed, across all parts of the United Kingdom. A further example of support for families was announced earlier today, with the UK Government making childcare more affordable.

Almost 90,000 food parcels were given to children in Scotland last year, and the Trussell Trust’s “Hunger in Scotland” report shows that single parents make up only 2% of the population but 17% of those who have gone hungry. This is about insufficiency of income. The adult rate of benefits should be restored to single parents under the age of 25 on universal credit, which would be a practical way for the UK Government to support them. Does the Minister agree?

I recognise the work that the hon. Lady undertakes with the all-party group on food banks. The Government are protecting the most vulnerable, with a £94 billion support package for households, and we have helped nearly 2 million people out of absolute poverty, after housing costs, since 2010.

My constituency is not among the poorest in Scotland, but we already have one in 10 children there—in some areas, one in three—living in poverty, with two thirds of them in working families. With the soaring food prices, sky-high mortgage rates and Edinburgh having the highest increase in annual rents in the UK, families are struggling. We know that our Scottish Government are only interested in independence, so will the Minister tell me what the UK Government are going to do for those families?

The Government recognise the anxiety that people feel about rising mortgages, which is why the Prime Minister’s priority is to halve inflation this year. That is the single best way we can keep costs and interest rates down for people, and we have a clear plan to deliver that. The Chancellor also met mortgage lenders last week and has agreed a mortgage charter, covering 75% of the market. We hope that that will provide reassurance to mortgage holders and others affected by this.