I beg to move,
That this House has considered the use of devolved powers in Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to lead my first debate as a Member of Parliament.
Twenty years ago, I was in the minority. At the referendum in 1997, I campaigned against the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, not from party loyalty but from the starting point that any dilution of the Union could lead to its ending. I urged the people of Scotland to think twice and vote no. They did not; instead, they voted yes to a future with a devolved Parliament in Edinburgh.
However, I now realise that I was wrong. With the zeal of the convert, I have trodden my own road to Damascus and now I stand here today to extol the virtues of the Scottish Parliament and devolution. The Scottish Parliament has helped and is helping to create a better Scotland, and a more comfortable and confident Union, too; but more than that, I firmly believe that devolution is a principle worth arguing for. I am not talking about devolution in the sense of the establishment of a Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly, but about the concept of devolution. It is core to my credo that politics should be and is local. It is personal to communities that decisions that impact on people’s lives should be made as near to them as possible. Edinburgh is not the end of the road; Holyrood should just be the beginning. Politics should be local and we should seek to localise decision making.
Order. This is an hour-long debate. Lots of Back Benchers have put in to speak. The time limit is already looking like it will be three minutes; that time limit will go down if there are interventions. I say now that if a Member intervenes, they will not catch my eye to be called to make a speech.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. As he might know, we have a problem on the west coast of Scotland, because we need fishermen from non-European economic area countries. Westminster is stopping that, in contrast to Switzerland, for example, where half the visas are controlled by Bern and the other half by the 26 cantons. Does he not think that it is time for Westminster to loosen its iron grip and allow fishing boats on the west of Scotland, and indeed in Northern Ireland, to fish?
I do not necessarily recognise the nature of the problem that the hon. Gentleman is describing and I will come on to talk about the relationship that should exist between the Parliaments of this island.
As I was saying, Edinburgh is not the end of the road; Holyrood should just be the beginning. Politics, indeed, should be local. However, that is not Scotland’s story, nor has it been for the last 20 years of our Scottish Parliament. Instead of treating devolution as a process of bringing power to the people, first the Scottish Executive and then the Scottish Government have consolidated power in their offices in Edinburgh.
There has been a power grab in Scotland, sucking power from communities and taking power from the many into the hands of the few. Decisions taken around the Cabinet table in Bute House are remote and removed from the daily lives of the people of Scotland. They often run roughshod over the views of the public, and are apparently unheeding to and uncaring about the difficulties that communities face.
I am, however, full of hope that that situation can be addressed by the simple adoption of the principles of devolution by the Scottish Nationalist Government in Edinburgh. Since the passage of the Scotland Act 2016, we now have a powerhouse Parliament. It should not be forgotten that it was a Conservative Government who delivered those powers, in fulfilment of the vow made by David Cameron and, as Scottish Conservatives, we are proud to have done that. It is David Cameron’s proud legacy. Powers over equalities, gaming machines, income tax, railway policing, welfare, quarrying, air passenger duty, consumer advocacy and advice, the Crown Estate, elections and employment programmes—all these are in addition to the powers of general competence that the Scottish Government already enjoy, and there are more powers on their way.
The powers at the disposal of the Scottish Parliament have the potential to make a real difference to the lives of the people of Scotland. The Scottish Parliament can develop the economy, create specific help for people who need welfare and choose to vary taxation. I am by no means a fan of the idea of raising taxes, but I believe that services must be paid for and it should be for local councils and the Scottish Government to set an appropriate level of tax to pay for those services. With all those powers and the ability to tax and borrow more than ever before, the Scottish Parliament is well placed to get to work to solve our country’s problems and to work for Scotland’s betterment. What a shame that we still have so much confusion and grievance being shown.
Let me give an example of that. One of the Members of the Scottish Parliament made a statement just last month calling on Westminster to do something about the number of fixed odds betting machines, with the grievance about the lack of power hanging in the air, but of course that power was devolved in May 2016. It is possible that that statement was a simple mistake brought about by the confusing nature of the legislation, but it also misled members of the public about who is responsible. Instead of using such an important issue as a political ping-pong ball batted over Hadrian’s Wall, would it not be better if we approached such issues as a way of creating partnerships between different levels of Government, in order to achieve something?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for giving us the opportunity to talk a bit about why the Scottish National party Government are still polling very highly and why the Tories have moved back into third place in Scotland. However, on the subject of fixed odds betting terminals, I represent a constituency that is littered with betting shops, as a result of the liberalisation of the Gambling Act 2005. Does he recognise that most of those shops are covered by previous legislation and that only new terminals are dealt with differently?
The reality is that the power to legislate in this area belongs with the Scottish Parliament.
As I have said, instead of treating such issues as political ping-pong balls, where there are elements reserved for Westminster, elements that are at Holyrood level and elements that require the intervention of a local authority, would it not be better if we worked together? Problems can be passed between Holyrood and Westminster without resolution, or we can take responsibility as lawmakers to work together for a solution. I believe in creating partnerships to achieve things, rather than issuing press releases as a display of political virility. Activity and achievement are not the same thing in politics. There is much to do in Scotland.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing his first debate in this Chamber and on his election. He talks about working together, so was he as astonished as I was when the Scottish Nationalist Government in Edinburgh voted against lifting the public sector pay cap in Scotland while SNP Members here voted to lift it in Westminster? If so, could the UK and Scottish Governments work together to lift the public sector pay cap?
Contradictions between what the SNP does in the Scottish Parliament and what it says here are quite common.
The Scottish Parliament has powers to do so much good, but some of those powers remain unused. The tax-raising powers that the Scottish Parliament has had since its inception, which were agreed to at the referendum in 1997, remain in their box, unused. I do not believe in higher taxes, but there have been a few parties that might have some small representation in the Scottish Parliament that do. The SNP has the full right to use those powers, so when we hear talk decrying the funding settlement, we should remember that the Scottish Government have the power to vary the tax rate and to raise their own money.
Newer powers, on speed limits and air passenger duty, also remain unused, but we will see what the future holds in respect of those powers. All these powers are weapons in the arsenal, and let us not forget that they were brought forward by a Conservative Government looking out for the interests of the people of Scotland.
Just because we have our own powerhouse Parliament in Edinburgh does not mean that our Parliament in London should be less of a force for good in Scotland. The UK Parliament is still as much of a Scottish Parliament as it has been since the Act of Union in 1707. Scotland is one land with two Parliaments. We deserve our voice to be heard here and we deserve our Government—the UK Government—to work in our interests. Action taken by the Exchequer to work with the oil industry, to ensure that the full force of the UK economy can come to the assistance of the regional economy of Aberdeen, is an example of our working together as a United Kingdom.
On 3 October the Scottish Government announced an absolute ban on fracking in Scotland. In 1969—the year I was born—the main discovery of oil was made in the North sea. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Scottish National party were in power now, it would ban the exploration of oil in the North sea, based on quasi-science?
Indeed, the SNP is more defined by what it is against than what it is for, in most instances.
I say to the Minister that it is vital that the UK Government do not devolve and forget. Betterment will come—in so many ways—only when different levels of government work together in co-operation. That is why a positive relationship between all levels of government—Edinburgh, Westminster and local government—is imperative. Such a relationship should be built on respect, and it should not matter whether someone is a local councillor, a Member of the Scottish Parliament or a Member of this Parliament. We are all unified in our goal of making Scotland a better place. We might have different approaches, but I believe that people who enter politics do so out of a genuine belief, either in a cause or in the value of public service or, as is often the case, in both. That respect must run both ways, and political parties have a fundamental responsibility to embody the principle of respect, as we all know what happens when it breaks down.
In Stirling we have a city deal, which, to work, requires the agreement of the local authority, the Scottish Government and the UK Government. The UK Government have made a significant commitment to the city region deal and the local authority is already spending money on projects. The Scottish Government are coming to the table, but there is a nagging feeling that Edinburgh is reticent about getting involved. I hope that changes soon and that we see movement, but it is part of a worrying trend. I will work with all levels—politicians, officials and businesses—to make the deal happen and to make it work.
On the other side, the UK Government are responsible for broadband policy in Scotland. [Interruption.] Listen, listen. That policy is being delivered through the Scottish Government. There is a contract set by the Scottish Government, targets set by the Scottish Government and a delivery body, within the Scottish Government. When new areas are released as being covered by broadband, SNP Ministers will be there getting their photos taken. Who can blame them? All politicians love to have their pictures taken. But then when questions are raised or there are negative stories, it all somehow, as if by magic, becomes a problem caused by Westminster neglect.
The Scottish Government—the SNP Government—tends towards grievance instead of fixing the issues. With fixed odds betting terminals, welfare rights or broadband, they prefer to focus on process. The reason the SNP exists is to build support for independence. Despite its being an overwhelmingly negative way of doing things, grievance is clearly how it likes to do them and, frankly, Scotland suffers because of that.
While the Scottish Government are distracted, education is slipping. The fact that international scoring puts us behind England should be a source of national embarrassment, yet the Scottish Government prefer to focus on independence. Business growth in Scotland in 2016 was the lowest for any part of the United Kingdom. The business community are crying out for a more joined-up approach to business support and reform of the business rates system. Despite that, the Scottish Government want to focus their time on fighting for more economic power, when they will not use the powers they already have at their disposal. Instead of focusing on the crime rate and the leadership crisis in the police force, the SNP Scottish Government choose to put their time and attention into scrapping the British Transport police.
There is a clear pattern: the SNP puts process and stoking up grievance ahead of the good of the people of Scotland, and that is not what the powers of the Scottish Parliament are for, nor what people pay their taxes to support the Scottish Government for—nor is it to pay for ministerial limos, by the way, but that is a different story. And there are more process issues being stoked up by Brexit. Scotland’s most important markets are in England, Wales and Northern Ireland—one could call that the United Kingdom single market. We have been in a social union with those countries for 310 years. There is freedom of movement and a customs union, but the SNP would prefer powers to be handled by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels than by a Government elected by the people of the United Kingdom. I have always found that position to be confusing at best and disingenuous at worst.
We need a regulated, open market within the UK, so it remains vital that some of the regulations and frameworks are set at Westminster level. Equally, some of the powers that Europe now holds should sit logically in the devolved Governments of Cardiff and Edinburgh. Beyond that, the devolved Assemblies have a responsibility to consider which of those powers can be reasonably held at local authority level. Again, if we approach this in partnership for Scotland, the UK and Scottish Governments can really deliver on the benefits of Brexit, but if we focus on the process and on fomenting grievance, Scotland will be let down again.
I am going to close. Our Scottish Government have a wide range of powers that they can use for the good of Scotland—more powers delivered by a Conservative Government. Devolution, however, should be a process and the Scottish people are best served when decisions are made closest to where they live. We must push for more power to be delivered to town halls across Scotland. Clarity over where power sits and honesty about that is essential. Politicians should be problem solvers, working across government levels to achieve for their constituents, rather than throwing their hands up in the air and decrying their lack of power.
Throughout all this is my fundamental belief that by working together we can achieve so much more for Scotland. We need to stop arguing—[Interruption.] Sorry, I correct myself: we need to keep arguing—[Laughter]—about policy and ideas. That is part of our nature as Scots. If we get away from the grievances and use the powers of devolution, we can all be winners. That is the promise of the use of power by government, whether local, devolved or national. Scotland is a land with two Parliaments, but it is one land and it deserves to be governed not in conflict but in partnership.
The debate ends at 5.30 pm. Mr Kerr has three minutes to sum up at the end. The guideline limits for the Front-Bench speeches are five minutes for Mr Sheppard and the SNP, five minutes for Mr Sweeney and Her Majesty’s official Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. That means that I have to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at seven minutes past five. There are 19 minutes between now and then, and there are nine Members seeking to speak, so to get you all in there will have to be a two-minute limit, starting from now. If there is a two-minute limit, all those Members will get to speak; if there are interventions, someone or some people will lose out.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I must confess that when I saw the debate on the Order Paper I had very low expectations, and the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) matched every single one of them.
The hon. Member for Stirling talks about politics being local. What about the Trade Union Act 2016? In that Act, local authorities and the Scottish Parliament were denied an opportunity to deal with their workforces in the way they wanted to because a Westminster Government imposed restrictions on them. That is not grievance, it is a simple fact. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that politics should be local, the Government should devolve the Trade Union Act to the Scottish Parliament.
As for the public sector pay cap, it was very strange that not one Scottish Conservative contributed to, or was in, the debate on that a couple of weeks ago. They were absent. They boycotted the debate, and they were local. The treatment of workers is one of the key powers that we need to debate—whether it should be a power for the Scottish Parliament or for Westminster. The Scottish Parliament would not be treating workers in the way that the Westminster Parliament is by not taking action against companies exploiting employees.
The hon. Gentleman did not speak in the public sector pay cap debate, and Hansard will show that. He asked a question during the ministerial statement. He was not there for the debate.
I think there should be an honest debate about powers being devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and I hope we will see that in the rest of the debate.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for bringing this incredibly important debate to Westminster Hall, and to you, Mr Hollobone, for kindly allowing me to speak.
In my constituency of Angus, one of the biggest challenges is delivering effective and efficient healthcare in such a rural community. While the Scottish Parliament should in theory have the ability to better understand local needs, with this SNP Government, that unfortunately applies only to the central belt. For example, in my home town of Brechin—part of it falls into the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland—the health centre was staffed by six full-time GPs back in 2007. After 10 years of an SNP Government, that service has halved. In addition to the difficulty now faced by residents in simply securing a GP appointment—never mind continuity with the same GP—other services that should be delivered locally to reduce demand on Dundee’s A&E department are being withdrawn or reviewed with no guarantees about their replacement.
No, I am going to make some progress. Speaking on behalf of my constituents, I say quite simply that we are fed up of being hoodwinked by this SNP Government. They should stop pulling the wool over our eyes. We deserve honesty, clarity and an open dialogue on such vital services—not back-room discussions that the service users have no ability to influence effectively. As a result of the fall in the number of doctors, out-of-hours care services that should be delivered in the community have all but disappeared. Rural residents are being forced to travel up to 40 miles to Dundee or wait until the daytime services re-open.
It is not just general practice that has been badly hit by the SNP’s mismanagement of Scotland’s NHS; every aspect of healthcare is being threatened by a Government set on centralisation. Whether it is the sham consultation on the Mulberry mental health unit—the SNP MSP who claims to be fighting the case refused to turn up to the regional NHS meeting where that exact issue was at the top of the agenda—or whether it is the closure of Brechin Infirmary—
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for securing this debate. To have power and not use it is a crime. For a Government to have power and to let it lie in abeyance for so long is to mistrust and ill-serve the people who voted for them.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, and I thank him for the extra time. Devolution under the Scotland Act 1998 created the Parliament that sat on 12 May 1999. The first Act passed was the Mental Health (Public Safety and Appeals) (Scotland) Act 1999, and it is interesting that we still talk about the need and desires for mental health services to this day.
From the formation of the Scottish Parliament we are now in a position where in a recent poll, 19% of people in Scotland seemed to indicate that they want devolved powers returned to Westminster. That is an appalling state of affairs. After this length of time, instead of an increasing number finding confidence and security in our Parliament in Scotland, one fifth of the population wants to go back to what they had.
I want to look at the powers in relation to one industry that concerns my constituency greatly, which is timber. Businesses north of the border can draw down from the apprenticeship levy if and only if they have an approved training provider. Businesses south of the border can draw down for the individual apprentices they have. In my constituency, we have a forestry business that can produce 10 million trees a year, but the number of apprentices within the industry is so small that there is no provider, so the businesses cannot draw down on the levy and they get no financial support.
Other industries in my constituency have apprenticeships that cross the border. The nuclear power station wants to send its apprentices around the whole fleet, and that causes problems, because it can draw down on the apprenticeship levy south of the border, but not north of the border. This debate is very timely, and the discussion needs to be across the border so as to facilitate the best interests of those in Scotland and of the United Kingdom and its economy across the board. Maybe it is time we stop screaming and shouting at each other and sit down and talk and act in the best interests of both Scotland and the United Kingdom.
I am delighted to take part in today’s debate, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) on initiating it. Devolution should have been a good thing for Scotland, bringing power and decision-making closer to the people. Holyrood has evolved to be one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world, and I for one welcome that process, but it does mean that the Scottish Government must face the reality of spending within their means. Every time the SNP objects to a reduction in public spending, they have a simple solution: increase taxes to pay for what it is promising.
Devolution does not and should not stop at Holyrood. What we have seen, particularly over the past 10 years, is an increasingly powerful Scottish Parliament refusing to hand over any powers to local authorities. In fact, the reverse has often been the case. The current SNP Administration in Holyrood have been one of the most centralising Governments in recent years. Most people in Scotland do not feel that decision making has been brought any closer to them.
No, I have got only a short amount of time left. In many cases, decision making has moved from Westminster to Holyrood. Scotland has become one of the most centralised countries in the western world. The vast majority of economic decision-making powers are kept by the Scottish Government, and councils have been relegated to little more than service providers. Council oversight of policing has been all but destroyed by the creation of Police Scotland. Local sheriff courts have been shut in Duns and Peebles, as have local police station counters. The Scottish Government meddle in hundreds of planning decisions each year, overturning council decisions half the time.
My final point is this: the Scottish Government constantly say that they want more devolution, but it is interesting to see what they do with that devolution when they get it. The answer is nothing. The Scottish Government have had the power to raise or lower income tax, but have chosen not to use that power. They have the power to compensate women who have been affected by the changes to pension age, but they choose to do nothing apart from complain about it. Most recently, after years of demanding control over welfare, what did the SNP do when it actually got those powers? It asked the Department for Work and Pensions to remain in charge of payments for three more years because they were not ready for the responsibility. Time and time again, the SNP is failing Scotland because it fails to use the powers it has available.
I thank my comrade the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for calling this debate. I will be as brief as possible. I want to talk about where Scotland is today and about our future. Most importantly, I want to talk about how we can use our significant powers to make the lives of the people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and all those across Scotland better, healthier and happier.
My commitment to the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is not a secret. I proudly campaigned for a no vote across Scotland during the referendum because I believed that the powers in the Scottish Parliament were sufficient to ensure that Scotland and her people were adequately and effectively represented and served while still being part of the United Kingdom. Our issue is about the use of the powers. Some people in Scotland, many of them on the Conservative side, say that Holyrood has too many powers. Those in the SNP, who have been in government for more than 10 years, say there are not enough. To both sides, I say, “Rubbish.” We have enough powers to do it, so please let us start focusing on the issues that affect our young people in their schools, on our hospital wards that are at breaking point, and on our transport system that needs investment and focus.
I apologise for not giving way; I have only got two minutes.
We have the powers to change and improve the lives of people in Scotland. The current Government in Scotland are a one-trick pony and do not seem to want to focus on the issues facing my constituents. If there is no appetite to use the powers, then we look forward to Scotland electing a Labour Government that will use the powers—a Labour Government that will empower, enrich and serve our people. Scotland will use the powers—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I will make it nice and brief. Devolution, as my colleagues rightly said, was meant to bring power closer to people and to ensure that our two levels of government worked better together.
I want to focus on spending choices in health and education. In health, we know that there is a gap. In England, spending has been increased by 50% in the last 10 years. In Scotland, spending has increased by 34% and, after 20 years of devolution and 10 years of SNP Government, Scottish people still have the lowest life expectancy in the whole United Kingdom. That is a problem.
My real focus today, however, is on education. To put it bluntly, the nation of the enlightenment is foundering under the yoke of nationalism. Despite substantially higher overall spending in Scotland—£37.9 billion, up from £34.2 billion—Scottish schools and colleges have suffered. Spending in further education has been squeezed by the decision to abolish the graduate endowment fee, increasing the burden on the public purse to pay for free tuition fees for Scottish and EU students, although not for our nearest neighbours from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That decision has actually led to a smaller percentage of deprived children going to university than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Just 12.5% of the poorest 20% in Scotland go to university, versus 20.2% in England. Since 2006, our reading score has dropped from 499 to 493; our mathematics score from 506 to 491; and our science score from 515 to 497.
That is unacceptable, but it is not just the SNP’s spending decisions in education and health that are harming Scotland; it is the deliberately divisive nature of the SNP Administration—from frustrating the relationship with the UK Government to the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, who is from my constituency, refusing to meet me about a city deal for four weeks and counting. That is neither good nor bad devolution; it is dysfunctional devolution, and we need to bring it to an end.
I have to say, in congratulating the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) on introducing the debate, that I think he just had a 15-minute argument with himself—not, perhaps, the best use of his time, but that is for his judgment.
I am slightly concerned that we are learning nothing new here. This debate is on more powers for Scotland, and not a single Conservative Member has argued for a single new power to come to Scotland. I understand why the Minister is looking so nervous as he sees this historic event happen in front of us—the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party transforming from caterpillars into butterflies of devo-max-olutionism.
Nobody is buying it, and I ask Members in all seriousness what they are adding to the debate. We can have a slagging match on my Government or the Conservative Government’s record. That is fine, but hon. Members should ask themselves what members of the public watching the debate will think. This is meant to be a serious debate about where power lies and—yes, I accept—how it is used, but what Members have come here for this afternoon is essentially a stairheid rammy.
If hon. Members want to have a serious debate about how powers are used to combat poverty or better the lives of the people of Scotland, let us have that discussion. As to all the accusations about not getting on with the day job—I really do not think so. When their own leader in Scotland is about to embark on a celebrity version of “The Great British Bake Off”, I will take no lectures in how to govern.
I also say this: there is a Minister here. Why not tear him apart on the half a trillion pounds that the Government have just lost—wiped off the UK’s wealth? There is not a single piece of holding to account. They were elected to send a message; well what a message it is.
The SNP has been in power for a decade now and throughout its time in office, the approach to dealing with any issue has been that control from Edinburgh is inherently better. The SNP Administration under Nicola Sturgeon have been characterised by illiberal reforms such as the named person scheme, where the Government did not trust parents to the extent that they wanted to assign a state guardian, because state officials know better than parents. The Supreme Court was unanimous in declaring that the Scottish Government had exceeded their powers in making a law that gave unprecedented powers to officials to share sensitive, private information about children without the consent of their parents.
Across Scotland, we have seen the Big Brother centralisation of power to an unprecedented degree and it is deeply disturbing. We have seen the Scottish Government’s illiberal control-freakery in the area of education, where the SNP’s top-down, authoritarian, one-size-fits-all approach is failing Scotland’s children. Schools are falling down international rankings and a smaller percentage of the most deprived children are going to university in Scotland than in any other part of the UK. Furthermore, the SNP has cut 152,000 college places.
In health, ministerial control has been tightened over health boards. Subsequently, NHS waiting times are being missed. We have seen widespread staffing crises right across Scotland, in every region. Turning to Police Scotland, eight regional police forces were merged into one, with accountability to a board appointed by Scottish Ministers, while right here, under the Prime Minister when she was Home Secretary, we saw local accountability with elected police and crime commissioners. The SNP has called for more devolution for Scotland, but is silent when it comes to devolution within Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Eighteen years since the opening of the Scottish Parliament, it is right that we in this place—the place that passed the original Scotland Act 1998—consider the use of devolved powers, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for introducing this debate.
It is a fact that thanks to the actions of this Government, the Scottish Parliament is one of the most powerful devolved legislative Assemblies in the world, with powers over justice, education, health, transport, the environment, and now taxation and elements of social security. That is a good thing. However, for the people of my constituency, and indeed for the people of the wider north-east of Scotland, far from the renewing or revitalising experience promised in 1999, the reality of devolution has been cuts, tax rises and the perception of a central-belt bias in all decision making.
Let us just look at what has happened: sheriff courts closed; the Grampian police gone; motorway improvements in the central belt, but still no new junction at Laurencekirk; 120 teaching posts in Aberdeen still vacant; council tax up; income tax up; business rates up; the land and buildings transaction tax unfairly hitting the north-east; psychiatric wards closing; GP surgeries overstretched; planning decisions that were taken by Aberdeenshire Council overridden by the Scottish Government; and our farmers completely and utterly failed. It is quite clear that devolution and the use of devolved powers, as they are at the minute, have not delivered for the people of the north-east of Scotland, but I am an optimist and I think that they really could.
Now is the perfect time to begin a genuine, rational cross-party debate about the future of devolved powers, where they are held, and how they are used. For me, the biggest question has to be: must devolution stop at Edinburgh? Real, accountable local authorities; directly elected and accountable provosts for our cities; a return to local, accountable policing; and more democracy and devolution within Scotland—that is what we need.
It is customary, when I rise to make the third party submission, to thank the Member who has brought the debate. On this occasion, I will decline to do that. The Scottish Government are accountable to the elected Members of the Scottish Parliament, who are elected by and accountable to the Scottish people. It is not a matter for this Westminster Parliament—indeed there is an explicit constitutional convention that forbids it—to try to hold to account the Scottish Government, so I wonder why the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) has chosen, among all the things he could discuss that affect his constituents, to bring this motion here today.
I conclude that the only possible reason for this debate is not to try to advance or develop public policy but purely and simply political point scoring and to have a go at the SNP. It is a matter of some regret that the hon. Gentleman has been aided and abetted in that endeavour by Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition.
It seems that contributors to the debate cannot make up their mind about whether the problem is that the Scottish Government are not using the powers they have, or whether they are using their powers, as some speakers have complained. The truth is that the Scottish Parliament and Government use their powers every day and in every way to try to make things better for the people of Scotland, but they do so within considerable legislative and financial constraints, which have seen Scottish public funding cut by almost 10% in real terms in a decade.
Sit down, please. I have not got time.
Despite that adversity, there have been many achievements. Time is short, so let me list just 10. First, in Scotland, people get free medicine. Since that policy was introduced, 34,000 free prescriptions have been issued in Stirling.
In Scotland, we do what we can to make taxation progressive. Higher-rate taxpayers in Scotland today pay more than they do in England. People with larger houses pay more when they sell them than they do in England, and people who live in larger houses pay more council tax than they do in England.
No, I will not.
We use the powers we have got. Crime is at an all-time low. More than 1,000 extra police officers have been on the beat over the 10 years of the SNP Government.
Scottish school students’ highers results were a full third higher than they were 10 years ago—a better performance than in any other part of the United Kingdom.
I shall not be giving way at all, because I have not got the time.
Help for small businesses in Scotland is at an unprecedented level, and much higher than it is in the rest of the UK. In Stirling, 4,882 businesses benefit from the small business scheme.
In Scotland, we will ensure that fracking will not take place beneath the houses of people living in Stirling, in line with their publicly expressed wishes. We have done what we can to mitigate the effects of the Westminster Government. We have used the hardship fund to try to mitigate the bedroom tax—a pernicious attack on the poor. In Stirling, there are 1,021 recipients of that fund.
We have a better-performing national health service than any other part of the United Kingdom. There are still many challenges, but there is a higher spend per head, more staff, shorter waiting times and a better public perception.
We have built 60,000 affordable homes in Scotland in the last 10 years, including 3,085 in Stirling, of which 777 are social housing. Most of all, in Scotland, if someone wants to go to university, it is free and they do not have to cripple themselves with unnecessary debt to pursue their education.
Compare and contrast the Scottish Government’s record with that of the Tory Government here in Westminster—a Government who, after just four months in office, appear to be punch-drunk and adrift on a sea of uncertainty and chaos of their own making. I know which Government I would rather have in control of my life: the Scottish Government led by the SNP. No wonder the SNP is 17 points ahead in the opinion polls and the Conservative party is trailing in third place in Scotland. The wafer-thin majority of the hon. Member for Stirling is disappearing day by day.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I thank the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for securing this debate, and I congratulate him on his first speech in this Chamber. I also thank him for reminding us that this is the 20th anniversary of the historic referendum on devolution. It was generally accepted at the time that it was the settled will of the Scottish people to establish a Parliament in Edinburgh—they were clearly not in agreement with the hon. Gentleman. He reminds us that the Scottish Parliament was founded in the face of Tory intransigence—that must never be forgotten. I am heartened that he has changed his view since then. Perhaps the evidence of the Parliament’s credibility over its two decades of operation has made him see the light. I fear that we may be doomed to disappointment, because it is clear that there is continued intractable opposition from Conservative Members about how we progress the constitutional future of the United Kingdom sustainably.
Several Conservative Members referred to the need to move power closer to the people, yet the Strathclyde Regional Council was abolished because it dared to hold a referendum on maintaining a public-sector water supply company. How does that square with their position?
I have asked questions on two occasions—including to the Prime Minister—about the need to establish a constitutional convention to deal with the distribution of power and governance across the United Kingdom in the wake of Brexit, and I had a totally unsatisfactory response on both. It is clear that, when it comes to defending the integrity of the United Kingdom, the Tory party is utterly inept and totally incapable. That is unacceptable. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the only presence in this House that will fight for a sustainable future built on solidarity in the United Kingdom is the Labour party.
I recall John Smith’s comment that there are two forces sawing away at the legs that support the Union—the Scottish National party, whose primary mission is to destroy the United Kingdom, and the stupid Conservative party, which always fails to rise to the occasion when it comes to delivering deep, meaningful and fundamental reforms to the constitution of this country. That is unacceptable, and it must be called out in this Chamber today.
Although the hon. Member for Stirling lauds the Scotland Act 2016, which enhanced the Scottish Parliament’s powers, he failed to say that the devolution of welfare powers was due to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who tabled more than 120 amendments to the Bill, including on all of the welfare powers. Therefore, to suggest that it was all the initiative of the Conservative party is absolutely bogus and unacceptable.
They delivered it in the face of intransigence. They failed to rise to the occasion.
The hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) talked about NHS cuts, but did not propose to use the Scottish Parliament’s powers to deal with them meaningfully. Conservative Members talk about NHS cuts, but I have heard repeated claims that they have no interest in using the Scottish Parliament to deal with them meaningfully. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) said that 19% of Scots feel that the Scottish Parliament has not risen to the occasion; in fact, they wish to abolish it.
We have to raise our game. We have to look at what we can do to build a credible devolution settlement. We need to use the Scottish Parliament’s powers to maximise the benefit for the Scottish people.
No, I do not have time—sorry.
Why has the SNP ignored the will of the Scottish Parliament five times since 2016 on key issues pertaining to things such as the public sector pay cap and raising tax in Scotland to deliver a progressive outcome? The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) talked about workers’ rights, but why is it that only the Labour party has consistently voted to lift the public sector pay cap in both Houses? That is clearly the case, and yet the Scottish Parliament only responded as a result of Labour pressure. The SNP’s record in both Houses is clear. [Interruption.] Its record reflects that, I am afraid.
The only real, practical and progressive measure for tax reform in the Scottish Parliament has come at the behest of the Labour party. Proposals for progressive taxation—potentially raising up to £600 million extra a year in Scotland—would deliver real, meaningful reform, because it would end austerity in Scotland. We would also add £5 a week more to child benefit, which would raise 30,000 children a year out of poverty. That is the opportunity in front of us today.
I am a child of the devolution settlement—I was only seven years old when the vote took place. We have to remember Donald Dewar’s words: it was not an event, but a process—
On a point of order, Mr Hollobone. In a sedentary intervention, the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) claimed that he was at the last debate about the public sector pay cap. I have checked Hansard for 13 September, and he is not listed as having made a contribution in that debate. As an experienced Member of this House, Mr Hollobone, can you advise me what steps an hon. Member who makes an inaccurate claim in a sedentary intervention can take to correct the record?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As I understand it, Hansard is an almost verbatim record of verbal contributions in the House. It does not record attendance. Members may be in the Chamber without making a verbal contribution.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) on securing this debate, his first in this Chamber. Hearty congratulations are very much in order. The debate has provided an important opportunity for us to reflect on devolution within the United Kingdom and within Scotland, and to look ahead to a stronger Holyrood in the next few years as we exit the European Union.
As my hon. Friend highlighted in his speech, it has been just over 20 years since people in Scotland voted to support the creation of a Scottish Parliament with tax-varying powers on 11 September 1997. In just over a year from now we will celebrate a further anniversary, that of Royal Assent of the Scotland Bill in November 1998. The Scotland Act 1998 established the new Scottish Parliament and set out its powers as a legislature within the United Kingdom. Since the Scottish Parliament first sat in May 1999, it has truly come into its own. Devolution is clearly the right approach for Scotland. It is what the people in Scotland voted for and it ensures that decisions are taken at the right level.
The Scottish Government may choose their own path on key policy decisions. Of course, I cannot say that I agree with everything that the Scottish Governments do or have done since 1999. I do not agree, for example, with the SNP Government’s decision to make Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom, and I do not agree with how they chose to handle common agricultural policy payments in the past couple of years, but I do agree that it is their right to decide those things for themselves. It is up to the people of Scotland to make their own judgment of their Government in devolved matters.
Will the Minister give way?
I am sorry, I do not have the time.
The SNP are failures—Ruth Davidson has the right ideas. Because of devolution, key decisions about Scotland can be taken in Scotland, while Scotland benefits from the pooling of risk and resources that comes from being part of a successful and historic Union. A powerful Scottish Parliament within a strong United Kingdom offers people in Scotland maximum security and opportunity, representing their interests in the world and allowing resources and risks to be shared effectively.
Devolution has also been shown to be flexible and responsive to changing needs and circumstances. Most recently, the Scotland Act 2016 ensured that the Scottish Parliament has a significantly greater say on matters including further taxation powers and welfare support in Scotland. The Scotland Act is now in the process of being implemented, with a number of its new powers already in force and the Scottish Parliament able to legislate and make choices on a range of new policy areas. The Scottish Parliament also has new powers, for example, to top up reserved welfare benefits or to create new benefits in devolved areas, should it decide to do so. Taken together with the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament, the Act creates an even more powerful and accountable Scottish Parliament within a strong United Kingdom.
That is what the people of Scotland voted for. The Scotland Act balances more decisions being taken in Scotland, closer to those they affect, with retaining the strength and security that comes from membership of the larger United Kingdom. The 2016 Act provides the Scottish Parliament with much greater tax-raising powers, which means that, from responsibility for raising around 10% of what it spends today, Holyrood will in future be responsible for raising more than 50% of what it spends. With new powers on welfare, the Scottish Government need to publish details of how they plan to support disabled people in Scotland, for example.
Enough of the grievance culture and the obsession with process; the SNP and the Scottish Government must use their powers to serve the people. The Scottish Parliament has unprecedented flexibilities on income tax—to set income tax rates and thresholds for earned income, including the ability to introduce new tax bands—so it is most unfortunate, and I suspect that many in the Chamber who represent seats in Scotland will be dismayed, that that power is being used to hike income tax on Scots in their constituencies and throughout Scotland. It is vital that the new powers are used to the greatest benefit in Scotland. I have heard much concern this afternoon about that not being the case from those on the Conservative Benches, who are rightly concerned that it is not the case.
The Minister mentioned income taxes. He is right that the First Minister, in conversation on her programme for government, not only mentioned increased taxes but spoke about her “cast-iron mandate” for independence. Yet she never once mentioned tax increases in her manifestos in 2016 or for the 2017 snap general election. If she is to talk about mandates, there is no mandate for increased taxes.
It is vital that the new powers are used to the greatest benefit in Scotland. I have heard much concern this afternoon about that not being the case, and I expect that we will see more of this debate in the coming months, as the Scottish Government outline their plans in their budget and beyond.
Of course, the question is not simply one of existing powers and how they are used. We are now engaged in a new discussion about devolution in the United Kingdom, because leaving the European Union gives us the opportunity to determine where powers that will return from Brussels will best sit.
The UK Government have clear objectives in mind. We want the UK after Brexit to work for the whole of the United Kingdom. It is right that we consider the big picture and ensure that our future constitutional arrangements support our new position in the world as we leave the EU. However, let me be clear that where there is no reason to keep a common framework, we will not, and where there is no reason to hold on to powers, we will not. No powers currently exercised by the Scottish Parliament will be taken away from the Scottish Parliament, and the Government expect that leaving the EU will mean more powers for the devolved Administrations. Only the SNP could turn no powers removed and more powers to come into an alleged power grab.
The time for divisive rhetoric is over, on Brexit and elsewhere across public policy. We have opportunities as we leave the EU to shape the UK and Scotland within the UK. We need to take those opportunities and to consider them properly. In doing so, both Governments have to continue to work together, as people in Scotland rightly expect us to do. It was my pleasure to respond to this debate, and I am sure that the debate on devolution will extend beyond the limited time we have had today.
I thank all my colleagues serving in the House of Commons who have come here today to participate in the debate in one form or another. I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. If nothing else, what we have displayed together in Westminster Hall this afternoon is the shared passion and love that we have for Scotland and its people. With that passion and all the arguments that go with it, I hope that there might be enough good will that we can occasionally stretch across the divide between nationalists and Unionists to work together to get the best possible deal for the United Kingdom.
For my part and that of those in my party who serve in the House of Commons, there is nothing but the utmost respect for the institution of the Scottish Parliament. We look forward to the increased powers to which the Minister referred coming to the Scottish Parliament. I note, however, that I found the speech of the SNP Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), to be totally graceless. I do not feel that he did himself any credit in how he conducted himself in this debate. On a personal level, I have always held the hon. Gentleman in a degree of respect, which has sadly been challenged this afternoon by the things he has said and the way in which he has spoken.
Once again, I thank everyone for supporting this debate and for the privilege of leading it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the use of devolved powers in Scotland.