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House of Commons

Wednesday 4 February 2009

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Barnett Formula

1. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on potential changes to the Barnett formula. [253059]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Jim Murphy): I have regular discussions concerning a range of topics with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Bone: I am not entirely sure that that answers my question. My constituents pay the same taxes as the people of Scotland, yet receive £2,243 a year less public expenditure. Why should every man, woman and child in my constituency pay an extra £2,200 to subsidise the Scottish Government?

Mr. Murphy: That is not the case at all. The four nations of the United Kingdom are, of course, stronger together. We gain great strength from the cohesiveness of that unique union of the United Kingdom. I think the hon. Gentleman would do well to reflect on the fact that there is higher spending on policing in England, that the rate of growth in health spending is 7 per cent. in England while in Scotland it is 4 per cent. and that Sure Start is available in England and not in Scotland, and so much else besides. Of course, it is an issue for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament how they allocate the specific funding available to them.

Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): One of the areas to benefit under the Barnett formula is education, yet colleges of education, including those run by South Lanarkshire council in my constituency, are turning away thousands of potential trainees. Following his meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and if he has plans to meet the First Minister, will the Secretary of State raise the importance of further education and ensure that those people who are demanding training and retraining are not denied it under the Administration in Edinburgh?

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Mr. Murphy: My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I plan to meet the First Minister, the CBI and the Scottish Trades Union Congress in Scotland next month to discuss those and other issues. Further education colleges in Scotland support about half a million Scots every year, including in Lanarkshire. It is essential that those who are unemployed in Scotland, those who need retraining and those who need apprenticeships can gain from those apprenticeships, and that the necessary Government investment is put in place. At the moment, the proposals brought forward by the Scottish SNP Government do not meet that ambition.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): It is clear from the Conservative question that the Conservatives want to continue to cut the Scottish budget. Of course, the UK Labour Government’s position is also to cut £1 billion from the Scottish budget. Does the Secretary of State agree with Rhodri Morgan, the leader of the Labour party in Wales, that now is the wrong time to be cutting public expenditure? Will he stand up to the Treasury, demand that the £1 billion cut be frozen or reversed and that Scotland have the opportunity—

Mr. Speaker: Order. This is not an opportunity to make a speech. The hon. Gentleman is asking a supplementary question.

Mr. Murphy: I was in Dundee recently and met business representatives and trade unions. They welcomed the proposals being made by the UK Government. The hon. Gentleman invites me to agree with the comments of a fellow politician; I invite him to agree with the comments of Mr. Swinney, who is from his party. He said:

The Scottish Government now have more than double the budget that Donald Dewar had about a decade ago. They should put it to good use and invest in Scotland to get us through this economic storm. I am determined to do what I can and will work with anyone in the interests of Scotland to ensure that that happens.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): How can a nationalist-Tory alliance complain about a lack of money in Scotland if they can find £12.5 million to buy a single painting for Edinburgh at a time when galleries in Glasgow have rain coming through the roof and when spending on arts and culture in Glasgow is being cut? Does that not show gross incompetence?

Mr. Murphy: My criticism of the SNP Government is not that they have invested in a single painting, but that they are not investing in thousands of Scots or in Scottish apprenticeships so that young Scots, in particular, have the chance to get the skills and confidence to compete in the labour market. We are joined in that criticism by the Scottish trade unions.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I remind the House that the criticism of the Scottish Government refers to a devolved Parliament? The Scottish Parliament is a creation of this House—we devolved the power—and prolonged criticism of the Scottish Parliament will give the impression that that is all we have to talk about.

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Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Does the Secretary of State— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Robertson, I expect better. Your behaviour is terrible, absolutely terrible. You are a bad example.

Mr. Carmichael: I join you in that expectation, Mr. Speaker, but fear that we may be disappointed.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, for those of us who believe in the continuation of the United Kingdom, reform of the Barnett formula is necessary as part of a process that gives the Scottish Parliament more control over how it raises its budget, as well as how it spends it? In that regard, does he agree that the work of the Calman commission is crucial? It has been reported this morning that the Scottish Government are to start engaging with Calman. If so, does he agree that that will be welcome news indeed?

Mr. Murphy: The Calman commission looking at the future of devolution in Scotland is undoubtedly an important piece of work. Ken Calman also initiated the work of the Muscatelli report on the future funding of devolution in Scotland. I shall not pre-empt the outcome of the Calman report today, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is an essential and important piece of work and we look forward to co-operating on it very closely.

Home Repossessions

3. Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): What steps to minimise home repossession he discussed with Scottish representatives of the Council of Mortgage Lenders at their meeting on 30 October 2008. [253061]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Ann McKechin): My right hon. Friend discussed a number of issues, including seeking reassurance that the new industry guidance on mortgage arrears and possessions applied throughout the UK.

Mr. Sarwar: I thank the Minister for her reply. The credit crunch continues to affect the lives of many people, in Scotland and all over the world. My constituents welcome the decisions that the British Government have taken to help home owners in Scotland, but unfortunately the Scottish Administration have not given the same guarantees— [ Interruption. ] I understand, but the problem affects thousands of my constituents in Glasgow. Will the Minister reassure me that she will do everything in her power to ensure that as few people as possible face the nightmare of home repossession?

Ann McKechin: My hon. Friend raises a very important matter. The UK Government are deeply concerned that as few people as possible should face the threat of repossession, and that is exactly why we have strengthened the level of income support for mortgage interest payments. That support is now available after 13 weeks rather than 39, and will cover mortgages of up to £200,000. In addition, we are working very closely with all major lenders on the new home owners mortgage support scheme, which will apply to people who may face
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redundancy or a drastic loss of income on a temporary basis and allow them to defer their mortgage payments for up to two years.

As my hon. Friend knows, it is also important that the court protocols are in place to make sure that people unfortunate enough to face repossession get protection and good advice when they enter the court process. I am pleased to note that, following representations in the later part of last year, the Scottish Government have agreed to set up a repossessions advice group to see how the law can be strengthened. I very much hope that it can follow the example introduced last year in England.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): The Council of Mortgage Lenders was one of the participants in November’s housing summit in Inverness that was organised by the Highland council. One of the summit’s major conclusions was that much more needed to be done, especially at the Scottish Government level, to free up funding for housing associations. The lack of funding is restricting and slowing down housing associations’ ability to build more affordable housing, whereas what should be happening is that that activity should be accelerating. Did the Council of Mortgage Lenders mention that to the Minister, and what action is being taken to apply pressure on the Scottish Government to release the funds needed to get house building going in the highlands?

Ann McKechin: It is something that we have discussed and will continue to discuss. It is clearly important to stimulate the housing market, especially social housing, throughout the UK, and that is why we have introduced packages to that effect in England and Wales already. It is important to increase the amount of social housing available in Scotland to meet the very high demand that exists already and to stimulate the housing market in general.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend has mentioned that a working party has been established to look at repossession protocols in Scotland, but that has happened four months after the UK Government took action. The process is much too slow, and home owners in Scotland do not have the same protection in the courts as their counterparts in England and Wales. Will my hon. Friend call in Nicola Sturgeon, the relevant Scottish Minister, and make sure that she addresses the issue as urgently as the UK Government are doing, so that the UK and Scottish Governments can work together in a joined-up manner?

Ann McKechin: My hon. Friend has a long history of providing support and advice for people with personal debt problems, but the momentum in Scotland for repossessions has been growing. For example, Mike Dailly of the Govan law centre has drawn to our attention the fact that the number of repossession proceedings in Scotland has increased rapidly. It is important appropriate protocols to put in place at the earliest opportunity and without delay, and extend the network of sheriff court advice centres. At present, there are advice centres in only seven of Scotland’s 49 sheriff courts, but it is important for people to be able to get advice as soon as they face the threat of repossession.

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Defence Policy

4. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): If he will hold discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence to draw up a contingency plan for defence policy in the event of Scottish independence. [253062]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Jim Murphy): I have no plans to have such discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Pelling: Is that not a rather irresponsible position to take, bearing in mind the fact that it is clearly within the rights of the Scottish nation to decide to leave the United Kingdom, and bearing in mind the significant role that the Scottish nation has played over the years in the defence of the British isles? Surely it would be responsible of the Government to have such contingency plans in place.

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the defence footprint is significant in Scotland, where 17,000 service personnel and civilians are employed by the Ministry of Defence. The defence industry in Scotland generates about £2.3 billion. All I would say is that there has never been majority support for independence for Scotland. The fact is that the longer the Scottish National party Government are in power in Scotland, the greater the deficit in support for independence becomes. Support for independence in Scotland is, in percentage terms, in the mid-20s. There is not a mandate for independence, and it would not be appropriate to have such conversations.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): I agree with my right hon. Friend. On the defence industrial strategy, will he take every opportunity to remind his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence of the huge Scottish and British asset right at the sharp end—the forefront—of manufacturing, namely Selex, owned by Finmeccanica? Aerospace and avionics are engineering sectors in which Britain still leads. Will he take every opportunity to remind his colleagues of the importance of that facility to our defence, our industry and all military procurement, including Eurofighter?

Mr. Murphy: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In Scotland, about 16,000 people are directly employed in the defence and aerospace industries, including in the areas to which he alluded. It is an enormous, important part of the Scottish economy, and it is a part of the Scottish economy that can continue to grow in the current economic downturn. It can fuel Scotland’s continued success in future years.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): But in the past 12 years there has been a cut in service personnel, bases have been closed, regiments have been axed, and less than our share, in terms of population and tax contribution, is spent on procurement in Scotland. Those are the facts. Why should we put up with that? There is also the fact that Scottish service personnel were committed to illegal wars opposed by the people, and the fact that Trident was based in Scotland—a decision that was also opposed by the people.

Mr. Murphy: I recently had the great honour of meeting the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in Germany, and the whole House—certainly those on the Labour Benches, and almost everyone in the Opposition parties—
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would talk with great pride of the work that they did, in a remarkable, brave way, to defend democracy in Iraq. The fact is that if the hon. Gentleman had his way, there would be no Royal Navy, no Royal Navy aircraft carriers, and no Royal Navy jobs on the Clyde, in Rosyth or anywhere else. He and his policies are putting in jeopardy thousands of Scottish jobs in the manufacturing base, so it is no wonder that support for independence for Scotland continues to fall.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I speak as someone who gained from an apprenticeship in a shipyard in the west of Scotland. On shipbuilding, orders are being placed on the Clyde as a consequence of our having a United Kingdom, and that is resulting in more apprenticeships on the Clyde. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a good thing?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. There have been recent announcements about recruiting more people to shipbuilding apprenticeships on the Clyde. If it were not for Royal Navy orders for the Clyde area and other parts of Scotland, there would be no ships on which apprentices could learn their skills. I could not put the matter any better than BAE Systems did when it gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee: it said that without Royal Navy orders,

If the Scottish National party had its way, there would be no Royal Navy orders because there would be no Royal Navy.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): The Secretary of State clearly knows the contribution that RAF Leuchars in my constituency has made to British defence for a very long time. He has told the House of the total contribution of defence expenditure to the Scottish economy. Will he consider a study of the contribution that individual defence installations make to their local economy, to include RAF Leuchars and also, perhaps, Faslane?

Mr. Murphy: The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises an important point about the specific contributions made by RAF Leuchars and Faslane. I am aware that, for example, in Argyll and Clyde about 6,500 defence jobs are reliant on MOD work. On Leuchars, I am happy to discuss with him what specifically we could do to raise the profile of the work of the personnel there and across Scotland, but it is a matter that I would have to discuss in more detail with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend and our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence for all the thousands of jobs for people in my constituency on the Clyde working on the Type 45 and, hopefully, soon on the carrier. Will he not listen to Opposition parties, one of which would have closed the Clyde down before the last election, and the other which supported it in order to try to get rid of a Labour Government? They offer nothing to help the workers in Scotland or the workers in the defence industry.

Mr. Murphy: Again, my hon. Friend is typically correct when he talks about the importance of the shipbuilding on the Clyde that he and other Glasgow
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Members have championed for some years. Our armed forces are part of our shared heritage—that of Scotland and the United Kingdom—and the Government will do all we can to protect and preserve that for many years to come.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): It is perhaps tempting to remind the House of the Scottish National party’s military adviser, Colonel Crawford, who once proposed chemical weapons as a cheaper alternative to the nuclear deterrent in Scotland. May I urge the Minister not to waste any time or money on making unlikely and unnecessary plans for Scottish independence, which would see the demise of the defence industry in Scotland, and may I remind the House that our Army is better because of Scottish soldiers, and Scotland is safer because of the British Union?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is correct: Scotland is stronger because of the Union and the United Kingdom. There is remarkable pride and passion across Scotland about the enormous contribution made by Scots as part of the United Kingdom armed forces. We will continue to oppose plans by the SNP, of course. Much more important is the fact that the vast majority of Scots refute the suggestions from the SNP that we should break up Britain and destroy the UK armed forces.

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