(1 week, 6 days ago)Commons Chamber
[Relevant Documents: First Report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Unfettered Access: Customs Arrangements In Northern Ireland After Brexit, HC 161, and the Government Response, HC 783.]
[2nd Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee
[Dame Eleanor Laing in the Chair]
I should explain that, in these exceptional circumstances, although the Chair of the Committee would normally sit in the Clerk’s chair during Committee stage, in order to comply with social distancing requirements, I will remain in the Speaker’s Chair, although I will be carrying out the role not of Deputy Speaker but of Chairman of the Committee. We should be addressed as Chairs of the Committee, rather than as Deputy Speakers.
Power to provide financial assistance for economic development etc
I beg to move amendment 33, page 36, line 34, after “Crown” insert
“, after obtaining the agreement of the relevant devolved Minister,”.
This amendment is intended to ensure that Ministers of the Crown obtain the agreement of the relevant devolved minister before operating within devolved competencies..
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 11, page 36, line 34, after “Parliament” insert
“upon the approval of the relevant devolved authorities”.
Amendment 19, page 37, line 3, at end insert—
“(1A) If provision to be made by a Minister of the Crown under subsection (1) would relate to any matter for which a relevant body has legislative competence, the provision may only be made after that body has approved a motion consenting to that provision.
(1B) In this section, a “relevant body” is—
(a) the Scottish Parliament,
(b) Senedd Cymru, or
(c) the Northern Ireland Assembly.
(1C) A matter is within the devolved competence of a relevant body if it would be within the legislative competence of that body if it were contained in an Act of that body.”
Amendment 20, page 37, line 4, at end insert—
‘(1A) Any financial assistance provided under this section must be consistent with the achievement of any climate and environmental goals and targets applicable in the relevant part or parts of the United Kingdom.”
The intention of this amendment is to ensure that financial assistance for economic development, etc under this Act is consistent with the achievement of applicable climate and environmental goals and targets.
Clause 46 stand part.
Amendment 23, in clause 47, page 37, line 23, leave out “take the form” and insert “be provided by way”.
This amendment, together with Amendment 24, would allow financial assistance under Clause 46 to take any form.
Amendment 24, page 37, line 23, after “indemnities” insert “or in any other form”.
This amendment, together with Amendment 23, would allow financial assistance under Clause 46 to take any form.
Amendment 25, page 37, line 25, after “interest” insert “or other return”.
This amendment would ensure that the Minister could provide financial assistance in a way that generates a return other than interest - which might be the case for investment in investment funds.
Amendment 26, page 37, line 26, at end insert—
“(d) may be provided to an investment fund for onward investment or administrative costs relating to onward investment.”
This amendment would enable the Minister to provide financial assistance to investment funds for onward investment.
Amendment 12, page 37, line 26, at end insert—
“(1A) In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, powers over the administration and management of financial assistance under section 46 shall be fully devolved to Senedd Cymru, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly respectively.
(1B) The total amounts made available for financial assistance under section 46 must be pre-allocated based on each nation’s relative wealth expressed as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita.
(1C) The total amounts made available for financial assistance under section 46 must take the form of a multi-annual funding programme to allow long-term planning and funding security.”
This amendment is intended to ensure that the administration and management of funding for financial assistance shall be entirely devolved to the devolved legislatures, that funding levels shall be pre-allocated according to need, and that there shall be a multi-annual funding programme for funding financial assistance under this Act.
Amendment 14, page 37, line 29, at end, insert—
“(3A) Financial assistance under section 46 must be the subject of a framework agreement to be agreed by resolution of each House of Parliament.”
The intention of this amendment is to provide a policy framework for the allocation of financial assistance.
Amendment 15, page 37, line 29, at end, insert—
“(3B) The Treasury must include in the Estimates presented to the House of Commons proposals for funding each of the devolved administrations to provide financial assistance for the purposes set out in section 46 in relation to the areas of the United Kingdom covered by that devolved administration.”
The intention of this amendment is to ensure that devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are funded to provide financial assistance under this Act.
Amendment 16, page 37, line 29, at end, insert—
“(3C) Any financial assistance provided under section 46 in relation to areas of the United Kingdom covered by a devolved administration must be subject to allocation by the relevant devolved administration.”
The intention of this amendment is to ensure that devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland retain current powers over devolved matters.
Amendment 22, page 37, line 29, at end insert—
“(3) No enactment or rule of law prior to the passing of this Act prevents financial assistance being provided under section 46 to any person in Northern Ireland.”
This amendment is intended to ensure that Part 6 of the Act will apply to Northern Ireland in the same way as to the other parts of the United Kingdom.
Clause 47 stand part.
I am delighted to move amendment 33 in my name and that of my colleagues. Before anybody asks why we would even bother to try to amend the Bill, which is quite clearly not fit for purpose and absolutely beyond the pale, I would say that the amendment is a probing amendment. I am seeking to draw out the Minister on some of the issues in clauses 46 and 47.
I have huge sympathy with the amendments tabled by my colleagues in Plaid Cymru and the SDLP, and with the climate change amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), because climate change is something the Scottish Government have tried very hard to push on and have made much progress on—ahead of the UK Government.
Amendments 14 and 15, in the name of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) and his colleagues, reflect the issues set out yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry). These frameworks exist, but the UK Government wish to ride roughshod over those mechanisms—to tear them up and to impose their will upon Scotland. These amendments from the official Opposition do nothing to address this truth.
If we were to take them at their word, we might think that the UK Government were doing Scotland some kind of kindness. Who would object to something called financial assistance after all? However, we on these Benches know what that assistance is apt to look like and the strings that come with it. We already know that they are prepared to lie to the Queen and break international law, so what is this Government’s word really worth?
The Prime Minister has made clear his intention to stamp a Union flag on projects in Scotland, out of some kind of petulant jealousy of how well EU-flagged projects in Scotland are regarded, but there is a fundamental difference with those projects. They were done in collaboration and co-operation with the Scottish Government and they are projects that would never have happened if it were up to the UK Government.
A quick look through the Scotland-EU funding programme highlights projects large and small—infrastructure, research, inclusive growth and employability, low-carbon initiatives—but there is still no plan and still no budget from the UK Government to replace these. Their shared prosperity fund is still, astonishingly, after all these years, yet to be unveiled. In contrast, the EU is a trusted partner with a track record to be proud of. We also stand to lose the valuable international aspects of the links this funding can bring with cross-European collaboration, which stands with the founding principles of the EU and takes Scotland out into that wider world.
In the vein of building bridges rather than walls, I would like to mention a few bridges to illustrate my point. The stunning Queensferry crossing—toll free and built by the Scottish Government in response to the corrosion of the Forth road bridge—is a project that was mooted in the 1990s, prior to devolution, before being shut down by the UK Government of the time, a Labour Government I should say. This bridge was delivered by the Scottish National party—not a penny piece from the UK Government towards its construction.
The Kessock bridge, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey is rightly proud, was built with European funds. Money in the region of £90 million for projects in the Outer Hebrides over the past 25 years has transformed transportation through ferry terminals, bridges and causeways, the bulk of which came from European Union funds.
What bridges does the current Prime Minister have to speak of? The £53 million he chucked at the Garden bridge in London, which does not even exist, or the bridge that might also be a euphemism for a tunnel, as described by the Secretary of State for Scotland—that £20 billion bridge over the second world war munitions dump at Beaufort’s dyke in the Irish sea? These last two fantasy projects tell us something of what we need to know about the UK Government’s approach to infrastructure projects.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about the huge flaws in the propositions of clause 46 to give the UK Government power to spend money on issues that are not the priority in Scotland, and she is right to draw a contrast with EU funding. The road I cycled on to get to school, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), was built with EU funding, and if it had been up to Thatcher’s Government, that road would still be a dirt track. There are examples of that all over Scotland, where the Scottish Parliament and the European Union work together, in contrast to the attitude of this UK Government.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. It is also a point to note that the Major Government were known to divert EU funding from projects in Scotland to pet projects trying to shore up marginal seats in England, so they have form on this issue.
I will give way in some time. I would make some progress because I know lots of people wish to speak.
This also tells us that the Prime Minister was absolutely wrong when he said:
“A pound spent in Croydon is of far more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde”
because the opposite is true. A pound spent in the south-east of England is barely noticeable, but think again of that £90 million investment in the Western Isles—noticed by all, transformational in its impact and of real value to the people who live and work there. Subsidiarity, EU style.
The power to provide financial assistance for economic development and so on is as wide-ranging as it is dangerous. Much of the power rests entirely with a Minister of the Crown, a kind of benevolent dictator doling out riches. But these are not a Minister’s riches; they are the money of the people of these islands, and these choices are not the choices of a Minister of the Crown. They are decisions best made by a Parliament over 300 miles from here, democratically elected by the people of Scotland.
If the hon. Gentleman would like to tell me why the Scottish Government should not be overseeing these projects, I would be glad to hear.
The hon. Lady is giving a typically bitter speech around the role of the UK Government into Scotland. Does she not accept that the UK Government and the Scottish Government have worked very closely together on the growth deals and city deals in Scotland? They are very good examples of what can be achieved in Scotland with both Governments working together, rather than the attitude that she takes of opposing everything that this place does.
I am very interested that the hon. Gentleman raises growth deals, because every single growth deal in Scotland has been short-changed by the UK Government. The Scottish Government have put in more than the UK Government to those growth deals and we are still waiting for the money for some of those growth deals to be realised.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a disgrace that hon. Members are raising that point when in Inverness, the UK Government spent £83 million less than the Scottish Government? When will the UK Government make up that shortfall?
This UK Government appear to have no intention of making up the shortfalls on any of those growth deals. The growth deal in Aberdeen was huge and ambitious in setting out to change and challenge the economy in Aberdeen, the end of oil and moving towards that just transition—
If the hon. Member for Aberdeen has some more money from the UK Government for the growth deal, I would be happy to take his intervention.
Aberdeenshire—but I will forgive the hon. Lady for that mistake. I want to take her back to her point about bridges. On investment in bridges, will she join my campaign to get the Scottish Government to release much-needed funds to replace Park bridge, Abbeyton bridge and Oatyhill bridge, which cannot be reopened or replaced because the Scottish Government are starving Scottish local authorities and their ability to maintain vital infrastructure? We might be able to give money to that if the Bill is passed next week.
I would like to find out how much money the UK Government would like to put to that, because they have not put money to anything very much so far. I am sure the Scottish Government will hear his plea on that issue, and I hope to hear more about that.
Does not the previous intervention show the risks that are associated with clause 46, in that it allows Tory MPs to lobby for wee pet projects to get funded from Westminster, bypassing the Scottish Parliament, which is democratically elected by the electorate of Scotland? While bypassing Scotland, they are also at liberty to cut Scotland’s budget.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because none of this is in Scotland’s hands. The budget purse strings are still controlled from Westminster, so if the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) would like more money for those projects, perhaps he should speak to his colleague the Chancellor. [Interruption.] Absolutely; the budget continues to be cut and put under pressure by the actions of the UK Government.
To return to the Bill, clause 46(1) states:
“A Minister of the Crown may, out of money provided by Parliament, provide financial assistance to any person for, or in connection with, any of the following purposes”.
Let me stop there. It states “to any person”. I very much hope that that person is not the former Transport Minister, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), or we may be in deeper bother than we think. After all, just shy of 20 major UK Government failings can be traced to him, including handing £40 million to a ferry firm with no ferries. But back to my list.
“(a) promoting economic development in the United Kingdom or any area of the United Kingdom”.
That is a clear responsibility of the Scottish Government, in co-operation with local government or enterprise agencies, business and the third sector. They know best the landscape of Scotland and what would work best for her people and her communities, and we have a quite different idea of economic development from the UK Government’s race to the bottom. Who are the UK Government to say that, all of a sudden, factory X must drop from the sky? We may be lured in by a sweetheart deal, but would prefer sustainability for the long term. We have seen too much of that in Scotland in the past. We seek quality, sustainable jobs for our people, now and in the future.
Clearly, we cannot trust the Tories to be strategic or impartial, because they have recent form in their towns fund, which funnelled money to Tory marginal seats. As the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee said,
“Ministers relied on flimsy, cherry-picked evidence to choose the lucky towns”.
To add insult to injury, we have still not got to the bottom of the Barnett consequentials for the towns fund.
Paragraph (b) states:
“providing infrastructure at places in the United Kingdom (including infrastructure in connection with any of the other purposes mentioned in this section)”.
Let us take a quick look at the UK Government’s woeful record on infrastructure. HS2 is beset by delays, cost increases and a lack of strategic vision. Originally supposed to make it to Scotland, it has not even got to Birmingham yet. Crossrail is late and receiving a further half-billion pound bail-out. So-called smart motorways put the lives of motorists at risk. In energy, Hinkley has become a byword for UK Government incompetence and profligacy to the detriment of renewables.
I am not sure if my hon. Friend is aware of this, but just today it was announced by Horizon that it is pulling out of the Wylfa nuclear power station and Oldbury, so half the proposed nuclear power stations the UK Government are trying to progress are now dead and buried in the water. Is it not time that they accept their failure and move back to renewables?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that. I was about to mention the proposed power station on Anglesey, which has apparently been scrapped because the company could not get the assurances it needed from the UK Government.
We might also mention the Scottish Government having to use planning permission to stop the UK Government bringing in fracking in our country by issuing licences that we did not want to have. We are having to use planning permission to block fracking—this is something that is fundamental to the health and wellbeing of our country. Some £186 million has been spent on two carbon capture and storage competitions, and we still have exactly zero carbon capture and storage facilities, despite David Cameron promising £1 billion to the north-east at the “indyref”. Renewable projects that the Scottish Government would love to see promoted further are hampered by lack of interest and by constantly switching energy Ministers. Those are just the physical projects; UK Government IT projects are notorious for their capacity to waste money and fail to deliver.
Paragraph (c) states:
“supporting cultural activities, projects and events that the Minister considers directly or indirectly benefit the United Kingdom or particular areas of the United Kingdom”.
I wonder if this will bring us more joys such as the millennium dome or the festival of Brexit, which is still limping on despite coronavirus: £120 million to tell us all how lucky we are to be stuck in this island and thumbing our nose to the world. Haud me back! Is it perhaps a sign of panic, as Ewan McGregor has joined the chorus of creatives backing independence?
Paragraph (d) states:
“supporting activities, projects and events relating to sport that the Minister considers directly or indirectly benefit the United Kingdom or particular areas of the United Kingdom”.
That is the vaguest of the vague, again with Ministers deciding they know what best would benefit particular areas. I say this from a point where Glasgow has a very strong track record in bidding for, paying for and hosting international sporting events—the best Commonwealth games ever in 2014, European championships in 2018 and the UEFA Euro 2020—now Euro 2021—which is sadly not taking place this year due to covid.
Paragraph (e) states:
“supporting international educational and training activities and exchanges”.
This one, I must say, is a real kick in the teeth. The UK Government cannot yet say what will happen with our membership of Erasmus+, a project that we do not even need to be members of the EU to participate in. Children from Pollokshields Primary, students at colleges and universities, and people in community youth groups have all felt the benefit of Erasmus+ over the years, and they do not need this all-powerful Minister of State to reinvent the wheel and put a Union flag on these activities. They need to have continuing membership of Erasmus+ confirmed to allow for seamless participation in this horizon-widening programme.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely important point about Erasmus. In the highlands, we have benefited from the University of the Highlands and Islands, which has only been able to grow and develop over the years and to provide quality education across the highlands because of Erasmus. This is being whipped away from us.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct to point this out. Erasmus is a fantastic programme, and it opens the eyes of young people who would not otherwise be able to participate. It is very cruel for the UK Government not yet to have given any certainty to that programme. I know that there are people who work in international education in Glasgow who are still waiting for answers from this Government about whether their programme will be able to go ahead and whether they will have a job in the future.
Paragraph (f) states:
“supporting educational and training activities and exchanges within the United Kingdom.”
This is a clear area where the UK Government are stepping into devolved areas, because Scottish education is protected not only by the Scotland Act 1998, but by the Act of Union itself, along with the judiciary and the Church. The UK Government must be clear what exactly they intend by this particular provision.
I was quite taken aback by the statement on Monday by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster stating that there is no risk to water or the NHS. I believe he may be referring to clause 17 on mutual recognition and clauses 18 and 19 on non-discrimination, and to the related schedules, but the difficulty is that these clauses are not set in stone and can be changed further down the line. Subsection (2) tells a further story, because the definition of “infrastructure”—what that autocratic Minister of the Crown can directly fund on a whim—includes
“water, electricity, gas, telecommunications, sewerage or other services (for example, the provision of heat)…railway facilities (including rolling stock), roads or other transport facilities…health, educational, cultural or sports facilities…court or prison facilities, and…housing”.
In areas that are devolved, no UK Government Minister of the Crown has any business acquiring, designing, constructing, converting, improving, operating or repairing our infrastructure. Under this measure, the UK Government could propose to build in Scotland a court or a prison where they have no oversight of the justice system, a school where they have no remit over education, a road where they have no remit over transport, and, yes, a water treatment works where we already have the most successful, publicly owned water company in these islands.
The hon. Lady is making an interesting speech about the appropriate level of government for making decisions about projects and what projects constitute value for money, but at the heart of her argument is a serious proposition, which I think every Unionist in this House should find objectionable, which is that this elected UK Government should never have the ability to spend money in all corners of the United Kingdom for the benefit of their citizens.
It is called devolution, which this Parliament voted for and which the Scottish people, the Welsh people and the Northern Irish people have voted for. It is the settled will of our people and it is democracy.
The hon. Lady knows I do not support independence—I support the Union—but I agree with what she says about devolution. We have a devolution settlement that was voted for by the peoples of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and we need to respect that. Perhaps that is why, in the past few minutes, the Advocate General for Scotland has resigned, stating that he cannot take the Bill further. He is the former chair of the Scottish Conservatives, and perhaps that reflects that he is not willing to front these arguments any longer either.
I agree 100% with the hon. Gentleman’s point. I was going to mention the Advocate General later on, because it turns out he is Lord not-so-Keen in terms of the Government’s proposals, and neither are we.
What the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) fails to realise is that at the heart of the Bill is an attack on devolution. It is not about who spends what where; it is an attack on the Scotland Act 1998, an attack on the will of the Scottish people and an attack on the sovereignty of the Scottish people.
My hon. Friend is correct. These matters are clearly for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to decide, and the Bill is overreach at a ridiculous level. Either this legislation is very poorly drafted, which from the Government amendments it would certainly appear to be, or they do not understand devolution, which seems perfectly clear from the interventions we have had. Are they intent on dismantling 20 years of devolved decision-making on these islands, just so they can stick a flag on something? It is pathetic.
Then we get to clause 47, titled “Financial assistance: supplementary”. Subsection (1) states:
“Financial assistance under section 46…may take the form of grants, loans, guarantees or indemnities…may be provided subject to conditions (which may include conditions about repayment with or without interest)…may be provided under a contract.”
This nefarious Minister of the Crown not only has the power under the Bill to build some infrastructure in our country that the democratically elected Parliament of Scotland has not voted for, but it also gives them the power to stick Scotland with the bill and charge us interest. Gee, thanks guys. What can I say? So generous. It is the Skye bridge all over again. That was the first PFI project in the UK. It opened in 1995 and was notorious for its tolls. The then Scottish Executive had to buy the bridge back a decade later in order to abolish the tolls, which raised more money than the bridge cost in the first place. Do we really want to return to that level of generous investment in Scotland?
Six years ago today, I was pounding the streets of Glasgow with hundreds of other activists, knocking on doors, delivering leaflets and having animated discussions about what a new country could look like. We are a couple of days out from the anniversary of the 2014 independence referendum, which was a watershed moment for so many of us in Scotland. I cannot begin to describe the feelings of hope and excitement there were in the city of Glasgow, where my own constituency voted for Scotland to be an independent country.
I could not have imagined that six years later, I would be standing here, a Member of this Parliament. I could not have imagined that I would have had to fight three elections in five years, and I could not have imagined that Scotland would have been dragged out of the EU against our will. In my worst dreams, I could not have imagined that I would be standing here today, defending the very fabric of devolution from a full-scale attack.
If the hon. Member wants to tell me why he supports this attack, I will bring him in.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. I wanted more to go back to a point about Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will. It is obviously still the SNP’s position to rejoin the EU, and she speaks eloquently and powerfully about this autocratic Minister taking decisions over spending and restricting the powers of Scotland’s devolved Parliament. She is aware of the restrictions and powers of the unelected and autocratic European Commission regarding spending and powers in Scotland. All the powers that are coming back from Brussels to Edinburgh would then be given straight back with all the restrictions that applied before, and then some.
Those powers are not being given straight back. If we look at the provisions of the Bill, it is perfectly clear that, as the explanatory notes state:
“This creates a means for the UK Government to provide funding across a range of largely devolved areas that would sit alongside any funding provided by the devolved administrations.”
It is perfectly clear that this as an attack and an undermining of devolution. That is not just my opinion, but an opinion shared by legal experts around the world. The hon. Member is ignoring the truth of the situation. He must know that that is the case. When even senior figures in his party are saying that this is an attack on devolution and are resigning, he should see that that is the case. He knows that it is true.
Clauses 46 and 47 grant sweeping authority to Ministers to spend money in areas that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, allowing discretionary funding of any activities that UK Ministers judge directly or indirectly to benefit the United Kingdom. There is a big assumption that what benefits the UK benefits Scotland, but there is precious little evidence for saying that that is true. The Bill allows Ministers of the UK Government to bypass the democratically elected devolved Parliaments of our country without the consent or support of the Scottish people.
The people of Scotland are not daft. They see what is going on. The Bill short-changes us and rides roughshod over hard-fought devolution powers. We were promised near-federalism. We were promised the strongest devolved legislature in the world. What we have got is Dominic Cummings and co. stomping all over the devolution settlement in their great big tackety boots.
It is established that we on the SNP Benches would not trust the UK Government with a bag of old pennies, but it has now become increasingly clear that a majority of Scots agree. The UK Government’s ultimate failed infrastructure project is the Union itself. It cannot exist without consent. Poll after poll now shows a majority of support for independent Scotland, and who can be surprised, when it is fast looking like the only option to preserve the gains of devolution? This tawdry Bill disrespects the Scottish Parliament and the people who elect it, and it will serve only to ensure that when we have our chance to vote again, Scotland will be an independent country.
I rise to support clauses 46 and 47 and to disagree with the Opposition amendments. It is a great pity that the SNP wishes to turn every debate in this House into a debate on independence when they lost the referendum, because, as a great democrat, I have only ever wanted willing volunteers in our Union. I was delighted to support a referendum to leave it to the Scottish people, and I trust their judgment—it is a pity others do not as well.
Clauses 46 and 47 take important powers to honour one of the pledges made by the Vote Leave campaign, and believed by many voters in that important referendum, that the United Kingdom Government should replace the moneys for projects and investments that would otherwise have been supplied through the European Union. Taking this power illustrates that there is serious intent, that the Government will honour that promise of the referendum campaign, and that the United Kingdom will not lose—indeed, it will gain—as a result of changes in the arrangements for funding large projects and suitable investments.
I always thought that there were three problems with relying on the European Union to fund some of these projects. The first and biggest was that we had to send far more money to Brussels than we got back. One of the great advantages of this power is that every penny that taxpayers pay in the United Kingdom for these purposes will come straight back. There will not be a huge levy on top.
Taking away the semantics about money and all the rest of it, I am sure that the right hon. Member understands that when it comes to structural funds, the EU disburses it to managing authorities—so in Scotland, the Scottish Parliament gets the money from the EU to administer and carry out projects. Clause 46 allows the UK Government to bypass the Scottish Government completely. The EU has not forced one single infrastructure project on England, Wales or Scotland against the wishes of the sovereign Parliaments, but this measure allows the UK Government to bypass the Scottish Parliament and not to recognise the sovereign will of the Scottish people. Surely that is the problem.
I do not see any problem at all. I cannot for one moment believe that the United Kingdom Government would want to force on Scotland a project that Scottish people did not wish. Nor do I recognise this idea of the sovereign Scottish Parliament; it is completely under the power of the European Union until we have properly left. The hon. Gentleman never seems to recognise the ultimate power of the European Court of Justice and of the money-awarding procedures that we had to go through to extract back some of the United Kingdom money that we had to send in very large quantities to the union.
Of course, the right hon. Gentleman has never supported devolution. I think he described it in his own words as “appeasement” and said that we had had too much of it. I know he would love to go back to those days when he was Secretary of State for Wales and was treating Wales like a branch office. Is it not the truth that he has never supported devolution, that he does not support it now, and that he wants to ride roughshod over it?
No, most certainly that is not the point, and that is not my position. I am a democrat, and I have accepted completely the results of the referendums on devolution. It is quite true that I and my party were on the other side in the referendum on devolution. I believed that it would to lead to a big insurgence in unsuccessful Scottish nationalism, which is exactly what it did, and I do not think that that has enriched our public life any. However, I am a democrat and I fully accept the devolution settlement. I am very happy for the devolved authorities and Parliaments to exercise their powers. I also believe that we should co-operate fully with them, and I urge my Friends on the Front Bench to do so. Of course it is as much in our interests as it is in the interests of the Scottish Parliament to define the projects that Scotland most wants and that are most necessary to promote its prosperity.
The right hon. Gentleman says he is a democrat. In view of that, does he acknowledge that the Sewel convention says that this Parliament will not normally legislate on areas or matters that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament? We also know that what is not reserved is automatically devolved, so does he think it appropriate to override the Sewel convention and threaten the powers and sovereignty of the Scottish Parliament without the consent of the Scottish Parliament, which is sovereign?
I do not accept that it does any of those things. I think we are legislating in a perfectly legal and sensible manner.
I shall go back to the remarks I wish to make as to why it is better that we pay for our own projects rather than doing so with the big discounts on our money through the European Union. The second reason for that is that some of the European schemes required the project to be a marginal one. Part of the terms of giving the money was that it was not a project we would finance for ourselves or not a core, essential project. That did not make a lot of sense. Once that is under United Kingdom control, we will obviously jointly wish to finance the best projects, and of course that will be in full consultation with the devolved Governments around the country.
The third reason that I think we will do better without European Union intrusion is the flagging of these projects. There has been deep resentment in the United Kingdom that whenever a small amount of money came from Europe into a project, it had to show the EU flag but we were not allowed to put a British flag on it to say that all the so-called EU money had actually come from United Kingdom taxpayers. Even worse, we were not even allowed to put a British flag on it to show that a larger proportion of the funding for the scheme had often come directly from the United Kingdom Government. It will be much better when we do not have to false-flag projects in the interest of misleading people about who is actually paying for something.
In this debate on the Bill generally, I know that the Opposition are still very exercised in thinking that these and other powers are illegal because they in some way violate the rules of international law set out in the EU withdrawal agreement. State aid is part of that argument, and these are the two central clauses on state aid. I would like to say that I disagree strongly with my right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary. I do not think there is any way in which this legislation violates international law. It clearly asserts and upholds United Kingdom law, most notably the sovereignty clause in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. That Act was a compromise agreement and a halfway house. It was attached to a political agreement to complete a proper negotiation in due course over our future relationship, so it was always rather problematic; because it was like that, it was ambiguous and contradictory. There are perfectly strong clauses in the EU withdrawal agreement and the EU (Withdrawal) Act stating that it is a duty that the single market and customs union of the whole United Kingdom, which expressly includes Northern Ireland, is upheld. That is exactly what this Bill is seeking to do.
The Government and many others hope that there will be a last-minute agreement, because it is quite easy to deal with all the outstanding legal issues in a comprehensive agreement. I am a bit sceptical that that is going to happen, because I see no evidence of good faith in negotiations by the European Union, and I think that, were there to be a breakdown, there would be a second legal argument that there had not been good faith. That is another reason why there is no sense in which we are seeking to break an international agreement, let alone the law.
I am very pleased that the Government are taking crystal clear powers to provide state aid and investment in projects. I hope the Government will also, ere long, issue a very strong statement of the United Kingdom’s state aid policy that should cover this and other matters. We owe it to the international community to have a strong, clear and independent state aid policy that is perfectly compliant with the World Trade Organisation rules on this matter, because we wish to be a global trader with more free trade agreements outside the European Union space. In that respect, we can probably do better than the European Union, because there have been a number of important cases where the European Union has been found to be in violation of state aid rules by the World Trade Organisation, and perhaps an independent Britain can do a bit better.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the comments emerging from Speaker Pelosi and others in the United States stressing that if there is any breach of the protocol in the withdrawal agreement—a threat to the Good Friday agreement—there will be no prospect of a trade deal with the United States? Is that not the fundamental flaw in the analysis of those pursuing a hard Brexit?
I am not pursuing a hard Brexit; I am pursuing the independence of our country which was voted on all too many years ago and which this Parliament, in a previous guise, deliberately blocked, delayed and diluted. I am very proud to belong to a Parliament that is now clearly charged, yet again, by the electorate of the United Kingdom to get on with it and deliver Brexit. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that Mrs Pelosi is not the President of the United States of America. It is the President who leads the negotiating teams for trade deals, and, as I understand it, President Trump and his International Trade Administration are very keen on a trade agreement with the United Kingdom and still negotiating on it. I suspect that the Democrats in the House of Representatives, who will have their own political reasons for what they are doing at the moment, have not quite understood just how important this Bill is for the future of the United Kingdom single market and customs union—because who would want to do a trade deal with the United Kingdom if we did not have this Bill and could not guarantee that we were pledging the whole of our market in the market opening that such a free trade agreement would require? This Bill is fundamental to any success in negotiations that we have with Japan, the United States, maybe the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in due course, and so forth.
This is a vital piece of legislation to implement the independence of our country in a true Brexit. It is an entirely legal piece of legislation that reflects important statements in the withdrawal agreement and, above all, reflects a sovereignty clause in the EU (Withdrawal) Act that some of us supported and put in with the express purpose in mind that if there was no good faith from the EU we would need to make unilateral arrangements for our future trading. It is crucial for a country that wishes to have much more positive trade relations than the EU has had with a wide range of countries outside the European Union space.
I look forward to the state aid regime and investment regime being used in the interests of the whole country, with the United Kingdom being able to spend more of its own money on its own priorities, with good guidance and advice from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as we go along, but not forgetting the importance of England and the need for us to have good English projects as well. I hope that it will be twinned with an exemplar state aid policy for world trade purposes that may indeed be different from that of the European Union.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) and, in particular, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), whose assessment of the Bill’s deficiencies was exemplary—I very much agree with it. I am conscious that a great many Members wish to contribute to this debate, so I shall keep remarks brief, confining them to clause 46, which extends the powers of UK Ministers to act in policy areas that have been devolved to Wales.
In recent days, it has been argued that it is necessary to add to the powers of UK Ministers in that way because devolution has, allegedly, hindered their ability to support Welsh businesses and communities. There is no dispute that there are policy areas in Wales in which the UK Government and Ministers cannot act, but the suggestion that they have been prevented from supporting Welsh businesses and communities by the devolution settlement is a laughable excuse for the UK Government’s lacklustre record of investment in Wales.
I should not have to remind this House that UK Ministers still enjoy significant powers over key policy areas, despite devolution, and can initiate large infrastructure projects in Wales that could boost its economy. If Conservative Members doubt that fact, let me point them to their party’s manifestos since 2010, which have all reflected the reality that in key areas of infrastructure and economic investment, the UK Government already have significant powers to support Welsh businesses and communities.
This Government are keen on investing in rail infrastructure, as we see from HS2 and Crossrail, and they also have the responsibility over the railways in Wales. Wales was promised boldly in 2010 that a Conservative Government would electrify the great western main line to Swansea and in 2015 that the valleys lines and the north Wales main line would also be electrified. Despite those lofty promises, the north Wales main line and the valleys line are still not electrified, and after 10 years the promise to electrify the line all the way to Swansea has materialised as a partial electrification to Cardiff Central only. In that key area of infrastructure, there are no limitations on the power of UK Ministers to invest in Wales, and although Wales has about 11% of the railway track, it has received only 1.5% of the money that UK Ministers have spent on rail improvements in recent years. Why, therefore, should UK Ministers be afforded additional powers to act in devolved competences, given that they have failed to make the most of the powers they already have?
Members might also recall the exciting promise to build the tidal lagoon project in Swansea and the commitment to the Wylfa Newydd power plant in Ynys Môn. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of those projects, UK Ministers could have initiated them, unhindered by the supposed shackles of a devolution settlement. However, those projects have amounted to yet more unfulfilled promises.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman followed the debate surrounding the valleys and the Vale of Glamorgan line. A settlement had been reached between the Department for Transport, the Wales Office and the Welsh Government, where an additional sum over and above the Barnett block grant was presented to the Welsh Government to deliver that purpose. No progress has been made, so I think his argument makes a point that is very helpful to the clauses in place.
Unsurprisingly, I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. These are competences and responsibilities of the UK Government and the Department for Transport, and they have not fulfilled them. We might also think of the powers that UK Ministers have over Welsh agricultural exports and question whether they are being exercised effectively. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently failed to submit an application to the World Organisation for Animal Health for Welsh beef—and English beef, I should add—to be listed as a negligible bovine spongiform encephalopathy risk, so that status will now not be possible for our exports before May 2022 at the earliest, along with all the benefits that that status would bring.
In conclusion, in opposing clause 46, I simply say to UK Ministers who bemoan devolution and Wales’s Parliament: stop scrambling for pitiful excuses for your own failures, take your responsibilities to Wales seriously and start using the powers that you already have.
I rise to speak to amendment 19, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) and for North Down (Stephen Farry). Before I get into the meat of it, I wish to pick up on something the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) addressed, as I think that he is confused about how the American political system works. As much as he would like to be, Donald Trump is not a dictator; he does not get to make all the decisions. If there is to be a proposed trade deal between the US and the UK, Congress will have to approve it. I can tell Members, as I did the other day, that we have lots of very good friends on Capitol hill—I have been speaking to them this week—and I am shocked at how angry they are about what this British Government are proposing to do to the protocol and the withdrawal agreement. They will not have any violence done to the Good Friday agreement or this protocol.
The hon. Gentleman is making a crucial point. Of course, it is not just Speaker Pelosi making these points. Legislators on both sides of the US Congress—Republican and Democrat—are making clear what will happen.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The consensus across Congress is behind the Good Friday agreement. They have been our friends for many a decade. They have supported us through all the difficult times, and they are supporting us today. They are saying that there will not be a trade deal between the United States and this country if we do any damage to the protocol or the Good Friday agreement. That is what they have said, and people should listen.
I am amazed at the hon. Gentleman’s comments. He will know that our biggest trading partner outside GB is the United States of America, so any trade deal with America is bound to have a beneficial impact on the people of Northern Ireland and the economy of Northern Ireland. Is he telling us that his party will actively campaign against a trade deal with America that would benefit his constituents, my constituents and the Northern Ireland economy?
We want a trade deal. We want to be able to trade right around the world, but the warning is clear: if people mess about with the Good Friday agreement and all our political progress, there will be no trade deal. The people who proposed and campaigned for Brexit and who do not understand that we cannot square all these circles need to wake up. There will not be a trade deal if they continue on the track that they are on. There is still time to go backwards and realise that our peace process, our political progress and having no border in Ireland are paramount and will not be messed with—that will not be accepted by anybody at the height of political power in the United States.
The Bill is an affront to international law, as has been said many times this week. It rips up an agreement that was made between this Government and the European Commission. It threatens a hard border in Ireland, and in clauses 46 and 47, it rides a coach and horses through the devolutionary settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. If that was done on its own, there would be an outcry. Our amendment 19 is there to give consent—the much-used word—to those legislative Assemblies and Parliaments. No Whitehall Minister should be allowed to override, deny or undermine the interests and opinions of elected representatives in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. If Members agree with that, they should support amendment 19.
Where I come from, we value democracy, because people had to actually march for democracy there. In 1968, my own grandfather and hundreds of other people were beaten off the streets by a corrupt and unjust police force sent there by a corrupt, sectarian and unjust Government. The civil rights movement got rid of that Government, but it took 30 years of democratic struggle against the men of violence, against the state and against intransigence, sectarianism and division to bring about an end to that and make sure that our own people could be represented by local politicians, making local decisions on their behalf. That was not easy; it was very difficult. They created a delicate agreement called the Good Friday agreement.
The Good Friday agreement has been bandied about this House and on the airwaves over the past couple of weeks. I can tell Members that it is fragile and delicate. Even the Members from Northern Ireland who disagree with me will be able to agree with me on this point. We are in a very delicate and fragile place. Please do not mess with it. Please do not ride a coach and horses through it. There is no way, in my view, that we can hand power to Whitehall Ministers to make decisions over the heads of locally elected people in Northern Ireland and not upset that delicate, painstakingly negotiated balance. Nationalists, Unionists and others are working together in the common interest. Is it difficult? It is very difficult. Is it delicate? Yes, it absolutely is. Is it fragile? Well, we have had three years of no Government, so that should tell us all about the fragility of those institutions. We are not prepared to wreck or hinder that progress.
I am amazed at the hon. Gentleman’s defence—[Interruption.] Yes, I am amazed at everything he is saying. First, he is quite happy not to have a trade deal with America—that will damage the economy of Northern Ireland—and now he is defending the Northern Ireland Assembly’s ability to make decisions about the economy of Northern Ireland, when this withdrawal agreement leaves 60% of the laws in Northern Ireland in the hands of Brussels. The Bill seeks at least to free us from Brussels’s ability to take what support we can give to our industry.
This withdrawal agreement took a long time to negotiate. The British Government and this Prime Minister signed up to it, and it was called a fantastic deal. It was to protect us from a hard border in Ireland. We spent 30 years trying to get rid of hard borders and division and trying to bring people together to allow local people to work together to make decisions on behalf of local communities.
I cannot understand how anybody who is supposed to be a devolutionist and whose party is in government—even though the right hon. Gentleman is sometimes at odds with the leadership of his party—would want any Minister based in Whitehall to make decisions over the heads of the Democratic Unionist party, Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Alliance party or the Ulster Unionist party. This Bill would allow a Whitehall Minister to override the wishes and very strong views of people in Northern Ireland on issues such as fracking and water charges. Who wants to see that happen in our devolved areas?
More than any policy risk, the Bill creates even more instability in our system, and we cannot afford that. Just look at what has happened over the past number of years. Alongside the attack on the protocol and the risk of a hard border in Ireland, the Bill rides a coach and horses through the Good Friday agreement in so many ways. If this Government, as they profess, support the Good Friday agreement and devolution and want local people to work together, spilling their sweat and not their blood, to bring about economic progress and change how society works, they will take away the risk of the Bill, because causes 46 and 47 would override, undercut and undermine all that progress.
At the heart of the purpose of politics is a marriage between the common good and the national interest, and trade is at the heart of both. This Bill—in particular, clauses 46 and 47—makes that principle real, yet the supporters of these amendments seem either unaware or unwilling to accept that trade is a national policy and has to be determined in the interests of the whole kingdom. Of course, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) said, co-operation and collaboration are necessary with the constituent parts of that kingdom, but in the end trade deals are negotiated by the Government as a whole.
The idea vested in the amendments in this group—notably, amendment 33—that Ministers should act only with the permission of people in those constituent parts is preposterous, as anyone on either side of the House who has served as a Minister knows. Of course, collaboration requires a relationship between those in the devolved Assemblies and Ministers here, but that relationship is one in which the devolved Minister knows that the buck starts and stops with the national Government.
I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman has read clause 46 or the amendment correctly. Clause 46 says:
“A Minister of the Crown may…provide financial assistance”
in respect of matters of devolved interest. It is not about trade; it is about the UK Government being able to take decisions on behalf of the devolved nations on matters that are otherwise devolved. Why is it so objectionable to seek the consent of the devolved Administrations on matters that should be devolved anyway?
The problem at the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s proposition—this was reflected in the opening speech by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central—is that the Scottish National party, the Scottish separatists, believe that the relationship between the United Kingdom Government and the people of Scotland should be devised and delivered only through the prism of them and their friends. The truth of the matter is that the United Kingdom Government have a relationship with Scotland irrespective of the SNP and its friends.
No. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I am conscious of your strictures, Dame Eleanor, that we should not stray into the realms of loquaciousness. Many other Members on both sides of the Chamber wish to contribute, so I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have shared many arguments and, indeed, many agreements over a considerable period of time. I suspect that we are not going to agree about this.
I am not going to give way. I have made that clear.
Although it is true that the vast majority of the people of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland may not be gripped every waking moment by the minutiae of British politics, millions of patriotic Britons across all parts of our kingdom, in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—small business owners, farmers, fishermen, employers, workers; everyone from trade unionists to tree surgeons—expect this Government to get Brexit done and to strike trade deals in the national interest and for the common good. It is as straightforward as that. Anything that provides an impediment to that desire is not only unacceptable but directly contradicts the will of the people. This sovereign Parliament’s mission—its duty—is to embody the will of the people, to respect it and to deliver on it. I am afraid the amendments before us would impede that process, whether that is their intent or not. I will be generous and make it clear that I am not alleging that that is their intent, but it would certainly be their effect.
Perhaps saddest of all are the amendments in the group tabled in the name of the official Opposition. I see sat at the Dispatch Box the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), an old friend, looking as sorrowful as I am when I have to make that charge. The official Opposition is a Unionist party, yet it is clear from the amendments in their name that they have gone along with the idea that Ministers of the Crown should be required—yes, required—to seek and gain the consent of devolved Ministers before proceeding with what they believe is in the national interest. I have to say, I am disappointed about that, and it is another reason why we should vote against the amendments in the entire group and support the Bill unamended.
The shared interest of the people of Britain—the common good, as I described it—has been endangered; indeed, it has been diluted, year after year, through our relationship with the European Union, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) set out earlier in his excellent speech. Taking back control is in the people’s interest, because it will allow us to develop policies that are pertinent to that interest in every part of the United Kingdom.
The debate we are having about the Bill is to some degree rather recherché. It reminds me of the debates we have had in recent times between those who wanted to honour the people’s will, expressed in the referendum, and those who were unreconstructed remainers. Many who campaigned to stay in the European Union have accepted the result and gone along with it, because they believe it was a once-and-for-all decision that should be honoured, but there are those—we have seen them persistently in recent times—who did not accept it. Perhaps, tied to their kind of bourgeois, liberal, doubt-filled, guilt-ridden perspective on world affairs, they were unwilling to recognise that that is a world apart from the view of working-class Britons, as the referendum and the general election showed. That is, in large part, an explanation for why my party seized power in constituencies across the country, particularly in the midlands and north, that it had never represented before. Those people in those places have woken up to the fact that that elite had no understanding and no care for their sentiments or their interests and could not really grasp why they believed that it was right that our trade policies, our policies on migration and other matters should be determined by this sovereign Parliament speaking for those very people.
I will give way one more time. As I have given way to a Scottish separatist already, I will give way to the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) as a matter of courtesy.
Can I ask the right hon. Gentleman a simple question? How many seats did his party win in Northern Ireland?
The right hon. Gentleman spoke a lot about the last election and about how many seats the Conservative party won. Can I just ask him how many seats the Conservative party won in Northern Ireland?
The Northern Irish political dynamic is a subject that I will not stray into, Dame Eleanor, because you would not permit me to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct: I will not permit it. This is Committee stage of the Bill and not a general debate, and we will stick to the point, which he was doing admirably.
I am very grateful, Dame Eleanor. Any time the hon. Gentleman wants to debate Northern Irish psephology with me over a glass of Irish whiskey, I would be happy to do so.
The essence of the debate this evening—I mean this afternoon, but I am anticipating a long debate, as you can tell—is really not about whether the devolution settlement is as the SNP would want it to be or as it actually is, which is a productive relationship, I think, between those in the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Ministers with the United Kingdom Government. Certainly, that was how it was when I was a Minister—I had a very positive relationship with my friends in Scotland and Wales and throughout our kingdom. It is not really about that. It is about whether we believe that the Government’s hands should be tied in the negotiations as they go forward and try to strike the best possible deal with the European Union. No responsible Member of this Parliament should want to dilute the strength of our position in those negotiations in what is, inevitably, a challenging process with a very wily European Union. Whatever one thinks about the faults and frailties of the EU, and I could speak at great length about them, no one would deny that it is experienced, determined and wily in its attempts to defend the EU’s interests. We must be as united and strong as we can be in backing those who are fighting for Britain, as our Prime Minister is, has and will continue to do.
In drawing my remarks to a conclusion, Dame Eleanor —I know that you will be pleased that I am about to, although disappointed simultaneously—let me say this. It is absolutely true that, in gauging both trade policy and infrastructural investment, we need to be mindful of the particularities of the needs and wants of people across the kingdom, and of course different circumstances prevail in different parts of the UK. Good Governments and good Ministers have always done so, but, in the end, it is for the national Government—it is for the Queen’s Ministers—to make decisions on these matters, and however much that may trouble those who have moved the bulk of these amendments, I have to tell them that it is how it is and how it is going to be. We will back Britain. We will back Boris and in doing so we will get the best possible deal.
I stand here after three of the most bizarre years of constitutional contortions, when parliamentary conventions were stretched to their very limits. However, on Monday we topped them all when Government Members voted to breach the very same withdrawal agreement they voted for just months ago. We have to wonder what the point is of making law and entering international agreement when just months later the Government seek to overturn it. The same Members who voted to breach the withdrawal agreement had hailed the Prime Minister’s renegotiation of it as a masterstroke and then campaigned for it and voted to enact it.
I cannot compete with my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) in making the Prime Minister look like a petulant child, so I will not try, but I will try to make Members opposite think about the damage they are doing to our international standing, to their individual reputations and to the fabric of our Union, and to a Bill which could render the Good Friday agreement asunder.
I have some interest in constitutional law; I know the power it has to create new opportunities, to spread power to the people, and to have decisions made closer to where people live, but this Bill is about putting the foot down on the accelerator and driving the constitutional settlement off a cliff with the Union as its trailer. Clause 46 breaks the settled will of the devolved nations, so allow me to outline some of the problems with this Bill.
First, there is the Executive power grab: the Bill has enabling clauses that enable a Minister to make unilateral regulations. Secondly, there is the breach of existing law: the enabling clauses allow a Minister to create regulations regardless of whether those regulations are in breach of domestic and international law. Let that sink in for a second before I carry on: we are giving Ministers the power to break the law.
Clause 46 allows pork barrelling, a US practice allowing for Government spending for local projects to help a politician in their constituency. It allows pork barrelling by ministerial diktat and over the heads of devolved bodies. The Bill not only creates a situation where the Government are in breach of the UK’s obligations under the withdrawal agreement, but it would provide the statutory basis for new regulations to be made by Ministers that are also in breach of UK and international law.
This does have recent precedent. The Coronavirus Act 2020 gave the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care similar powers, which we saw implemented this week when the new health regulations were published allegedly 28 minutes before they came into force. So 29 minutes later, a family of three meeting a family of four could have been in breach of the law, after a flick of the Secretary of State’s pen, with no warning. So, soon we will have two laws, covering coronavirus and Brexit, where Ministers can create law by diktat, and in the case of Brexit break already agreed international law. We must therefore ask whether Parliament’s only purpose will be to provide a body of personnel to fill the Executive and oversee some functions as a law-making body. This means that when it comes to devolved bodies having to make spending and funding decisions, clause 46 will take it over their heads, and they will be denuded of their powers.
Far from bringing sovereignty to our shores, this Government are stripping our sovereign Parliament of its powers piece by piece, and doing the same to the devolved bodies. The Government’s real purpose is a power grab: they are using a difficult situation as a subterfuge to hoodwink the public. The checks and balances are being eroded—[Interruption.] Yes, they are; Government Members are shaking their heads. Those who are meant to safeguard are brought into the pretence and belittle their own office: the Attorney General, the Solicitor General, and the Lord Chancellor. The Advocate General for Scotland has at least shown proper respect for the law by resigning—or at least attempting to resign by tendering his resignation—and the Northern Ireland Secretary himself admitted this Bill breaks the law
“in a very specific and limited way.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 509.]
However, a breach of the law is a breach the law, so any breaking of the law in a very specific and limited way is no defence in court: the law does not discriminate on specificity.
Even the need for this Bill has been ridiculed by more constitutional experts than I could possibly name. The Government argue that the powers are needed in case they need to rapidly implement safeguards under article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, but Professor Mark Elliott, chair of the Faculty of Law at Cambridge University, argues that clauses 42 and 43—I know that we are not debating those today; I will come to the point about those later—
“bear little relation to the matters with which Article 16 is concerned”.
The Government argue that the powers are needed in case they rapidly need to do what article 62 of the Vienna convention allows, but article 62 requires a “fundamental change of circumstances” and permits only withdrawal or termination, not repudiation, of individual obligations. That means that the clauses we are discussing today are not necessary, because those circumstances have not been met and will not be met, even in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
The Government further argue that the withdrawal agreement is a special form of treaty because it presupposes a future relationship agreement—the agreement that they are currently negotiating—so it is okay to breach the withdrawal agreement if no free trade agreement materialises. Not only is that news to the European Union, but Professor Elliott says categorically that no special form of treaty exists.
Then there is the Lord Chancellor’s argument that the Bill would amount to an acceptable, rather than unacceptable, breach of the law. Again, Professor Elliott argues that no such distinction in law exists. He concludes that there is no justification for the power grab in this Bill. I could quote 100 different constitutional experts on different clauses of the Bill, making the Government’s arguments look so much like chopped salami, but I need to make progress and allow colleagues to speak—much good that will do us after this power grab.
The hon. Gentleman is making a passionate speech and I am grateful to him for giving way. Could he please tell me which powers are being taken away from the Welsh Parliament?
There is a list of areas in clause 46 where the Government are taking powers for direct funding into the devolved nations.
The upshot is that passing the Bill intact would not provide a safety valve or insurance if the Government’s oven-ready deal threatened to burn down the house; if the house burned down, the tenants—our home nations—would rebuild it several feet apart, ending our historic Union. The Government never were honest that leaving the European Union would create an existential threat to our United Kingdom. They have never addressed the inherent tensions that they themselves created and that the Bill deepens rather than resolves.
Upending our international reputation as a nation that upholds the law, and creating the barriers to trade that no deal would create, will have severe consequences and threatens creating an unstoppable force that will cause our nation’s fabric to be permanently rent asunder. I cannot support that, and neither should Government Members. That is why I support the Labour Front-Bench amendments in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer).
It is a privilege to speak so early in the debate. I rise in support of clauses 46 and 47 and to put on the record my support for the general principles of the Bill.
The Bill is an essential building block of a successful and orderly Brexit and of a successful economy. People who say that they believe in those things need to back the Bill very strongly. People who say that they believe in getting on with Brexit should support the Bill. People who say that they support the Union and recognise the importance of a seamless internal market for the whole United Kingdom need to support the Bill.
The Labour party says that it is in favour of all those things, yet on Second Reading on Monday night, again yesterday and again today, they have found reasons not to give the Bill their support. That is very telling. Here we are in 2020 and it is just like 2017, 2018 and 2019, with the Labour party finding every excuse—using every trick in the book—to try to water down and get in the way of the successful delivery of Brexit and the successful safeguarding of the whole UK internal market.
At the heart of the Bill are borders and barriers. The Bill respects the borders that exist within our United Kingdom—it reflects the fact that we are a family of different nations within our United Kingdom—but it takes steps to avoid those borders becoming barriers to trade and prosperity for all parts of the United Kingdom. As a Unionist, I come at these issues from a position fundamentally different from that of, say, a nationalist such as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who eloquently started this debate. We come at these issues from fundamentally different perspectives. The problem I have this afternoon is with the Labour position, because it says that it is a Unionist party and in favour of getting on with Brexit, and yet the position this afternoon suggests something different.
I am a Member of Parliament in Wales, and I worry about Welsh politics when I see the Welsh Labour party continuing its slide towards becoming a branch of the nationalist movement. We are talking this afternoon, with the clauses and amendments that are on the table, about limits to UK authority and legitimacy in all parts of the United Kingdom. It is about putting up barriers to stop this Parliament and the elected UK Government having authority and legitimacy in every part of the United Kingdom. I completely respect the position of Plaid Cymru and SNP friends, because they see the world through a fundamentally different prism.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent point that is well illustrated by the official Opposition’s amendment 16, which says that any moneys spent in the devolved nations must be “subject to allocation” by those Parliaments. The preposterous idea proposed by the Labour party is that Ministers of the Crown—this Government—cannot spend money in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland without the devolved Assemblies allocating that money or choosing not to.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, but let me be absolutely clear: I believe in devolution. Other Conservative Members may have different views, but I believe in devolution. When I was Secretary of State for Wales, I was charged with translating the Silk commission into a workable plan to devolve whole suites of new powers to the Welsh Government in Cardiff Bay, and I did that happily, because I believe in seeing devolution become stronger for Wales. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) succeeded me as Welsh Secretary, he continued in that vein. We are part of a Government that have devolved powers to the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government.
However, the response from the Welsh Labour Government every step of the way—I had a running joke with the former First Minister Carwyn Jones about this in our Monday morning meetings in his office in Cardiff Bay—would be, “This is a rollback of the devolution settlement.” It does not matter what new powers we give to the Welsh Government, the response will always be, “This is a rollback. This is a power grab.”
I will not give way again, because lots of colleagues want to speak.
The Bill strikes the right pragmatic balance in how it goes about strengthening the devolution settlement in the context of bringing back powers from the EU to the Governments of our internal market and how we divide up those powers and share them among the legitimate elected bodies that now constitute our constitution across the United Kingdom.
I want to speak in some more detail about the expenditure powers, which I support, that we are really debating under this part of the Bill. I do not support UK Ministers wanting to become the default authority for spending in devolved areas, but that is not what this is all about. This is actually about recognising that the UK Government have a duty of care for their citizens in every part of the United Kingdom, and that should not be a controversial thing. It certainly should not be controversial to Unionists that the UK Government should be able to spend money in all parts of the United Kingdom. When did the vision of devolution ever become about stopping this place having any kind of writ of authority in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?
On that point, this Bill could not be better timed as people recover from covid-19. Investing in jobs and livelihoods and generating prosperity in all four corners of the United Kingdom is exactly what this Government should be doing.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a pragmatic purpose at the heart of the Bill, as well as a constitutional one. Again, I remember back to the days I was Secretary of State for Wales: there was no shortage of Opposition Members wanting to come to the Wales Office to discuss projects for which they were desperate to see funding. Time and again, we had to say to Labour colleagues, “I am so sorry, we do not have the ability to support that essential, important work with funding,” and they went away disappointed. I am so disappointed to see that Labour Members are actually falling into line behind the nationalist position today and saying that we should not have the ability to fund projects.
If hon. Members want specific examples, earlier this year we had devastating floods affecting Wales. Loads of rugby clubs in south Wales had infrastructure damaged.
Could we support the Welsh Rugby Union when we were asked for funding to support those rugby clubs in Wales|? No, because the devolution settlement said we had no right to be able to do that. I could give other examples. I could talk about the towns fund, which has previously been mentioned in this debate. Labour Members earlier this year stood up and said that they wanted to see their towns and their communities benefit from the towns fund. We could not do it: the devolution settlement said no.
Surely it is not right that the elected UK Government are forbidden, blocked and barred from being able to act in these areas—yes, acting in partnership, in concert, with the devolved Administrations. I strongly welcome the measures in the Bill and I am opposed to a devo-lock—a devolution barrier or block—against the UK Government acting.
The right hon. Member says that he believes in devolution and respects it. Does he not share my concerns that even the Tory Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee says that clause 46 creates new reservations, so by default that means disrespecting the devolution settlement? The Chair’s letter to the Minister for the Cabinet Office also said
“it would be preferable for legislative consent to be given by each of the devolved legislatures.”
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with that sentiment—that an LCM should be obtained before the Bill is imposed on the devolved Administrations?
It would be great—it would be perfectly neat—if LCMs were provided, but we are in a political context where, unfortunately, that looks very unlikely, because we are dealing with such big issues as Brexit and the future of our Union. We know that the representatives in government in Cardiff Bay and in Edinburgh have a fundamentally different view of the world from ours.
I shall end by saying something about the shared prosperity fund. I am the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee and we have been taking evidence on this. Even though I very strongly support the Bill, I want to register a concern with the those on the Front Bench about the progress of work in Whitehall on the shared prosperity fund. It is patently clear from the evidence that we have received that the pace of work is nowhere near fast enough, given the timescales involved for replacing the EU funds. There is a real need now for Ministers to step up the activity levels.
I also think that, again speaking to the Front Benchers, we need a bit more clarity and transparency on what the future of those funds will be. Even though I support the powers in the Bill this afternoon, in terms of building trust and good will with the devolved Administrations there is certainly a need for a much more detailed conversation about the future of the funds.
I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) because I want to disagree very strongly with many of the things he said, but one of the points that he made was that opposition to the Bill is about our views on Brexit. I want to say loudly and clearly that opposition to the Bill has actually got nothing to do with our views on Brexit and everything to do with our views on who we are as a country, on whether we want to uphold international law and on the most basic principles of liberal democracy. The Bill is a shameful, shabby, squalid Bill that will break international law, trash our reputation overseas, undermine the withdrawal agreement, destabilise Northern Ireland and wreck the devolution settlement.
I rise to speak to amendment 20 in my name. Let me say straightaway that I completely support the case that has been made so eloquently by Opposition Members about the importance of protecting devolution. I have enormous sympathy for those who, frankly, would start again and get rid of clause 46 entirely. I would support that, but for as long as it is part of the Bill, my case is that it needs strong amendment.
Amendment 20 would set out that
“Any financial assistance provided under this section must be consistent with the achievement of any climate and environmental goals and targets applicable”.
Financial assistance spending can have major environmental impacts, which can be negative. We have heard from the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for example, some of the most egregious examples of how money has been used in a negative, incompetent and environmentally damaging way. Examples include road building where the evidence suggests that it leads to more driving and more emissions. Or, of course, money can be spent in a positive way, kick-starting new, good-quality, innovative green industries and jobs, and supporting progressive climate and environmental policy.
Using financial assistance well is particularly important ahead of this year’s UN climate change conference, which as we know the UK is hosting. Yet without amendment 20, the powers in the Bill to provide assistance would be subject to very little direction and very few restrictions. That is a gross dereliction of duty in the face of the climate and nature emergency that we face. Take yesterday’s report by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, for example, which concluded:
“Humanity is at a crossroads and we have to take action now to make space for nature to recover and slow its ‘accelerating decline’.”
Ministers have been warned of this reality time and again. If they do not listen to that, perhaps they will heed the warnings in this week’s alarm-ringing, klaxon-sounding, deafening, heartbreaking, anger-stirring film from David Attenborough, whose documentary, “Extinction: The Facts”, laid the tragedy bare. With an eighth of the planet’s species at risk of dying out, he sets out the stark devastation that humans have wreaked, and are wreaking, on the natural world.
The evidence keeps rolling in. New analysis just this week from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has revealed a lost decade for nature, with the UK failing to reach 17 of its 20 biodiversity targets. Indeed, on six of them we are going backwards. Last year, the RSPB’s “State of Nature” report for the UK found that 41% of UK species are declining and one in 10 is threatened with extinction.
These things do not happen by accident. They happen as a direct result of public policy and where money is spent, so it is critical that if and when Ministers choose to exercise these powers to give direct financial assistance, they do so in a manner that is both consistent and compatible with any environmental and climate goals and targets in the relevant parts of the UK. That should cover existing goals and targets, and any future goals and targets that are applicable when the powers are exercised. Those goals and targets would include things such as countries’ respective targets on climate reduction and net zero, new targets to be set under the Environment Bill, recycling targets, and so on.
In short, the purpose of amendment 20 is to try to ensure that we tackle the nature and climate emergencies we face. Public money should not be used to support projects, companies or industries that threaten to undermine progress towards meeting stated and binding environmental goals and targets—something on which, unfortunately, the Government have form. We have seen them, in the aftermath of trying to cope with the worst of covid, giving money to aviation companies without any of the conditions that apply in, for example, France, where money is required to be used to research better, less damaging fuels, and not for flights that are in direct competition with rail routes.
Here, the UK Government have made absolutely no attempt whatsoever to be mindful of the environmental impacts of the money they are spending. That is in spite of all the rhetoric we hear about the importance of a green recovery. If Ministers are serious about a green recovery, they should regard my amendment as a helpful reminder rather than as any kind of threat. I hope the Minister will be able to stand up at the end of this debate and say that she entirely supports it.
As well as putting on record the importance of amendment 20, I would briefly like to put on record my support for the other Opposition amendments in this group that seek to protect devolved powers and ensure fair funding to all nations of the UK. They include provisions to require the Government to secure the agreement of devolved Ministers before enacting their priorities over those of the devolved Administrations. Doing otherwise would mean exactly the kind of power grab that my colleagues have been talking about. That is unacceptable. It seems sometimes that the other side do not quite understand what devolution means. Devolution is a permanent part of our constitution, and has been for 20 years; and it is wrong and reckless of this cavalier Prime Minister to seek to undermine it.
If the UK Government were asked to support an environmental scheme that was cross-border and would raise environmental standards in a devolved Administration, the logic of the hon. Lady’s argument is that she would oppose it.
I do not think that is the logic of what I am proposing. It is perfectly possible to uphold the principle of devolution and that of saying that standards should be high. I do not quite understand why the right hon. Member has a problem with that.
The Government have a huge opportunity to reset the economy to create a just transition, with good green jobs to safeguard livelihoods and our precious and irreplaceable natural environment. The aim of amendment 20 is to make that opportunity a reality. I hope that a separate decision on this vital amendment will be possible, as it would do something different from the other amendments in the group—we are in a climate emergency, as this very House has declared—but if that is not possible, I hope we can return to it on Report, as no doubt many colleagues in the other place support the aims of the amendment and share my concerns. The amendment matters to millions of people around the country who care deeply about nature and the climate and are deeply concerned about the use of public money undermining those aims.
In conclusion, other amendments in this group are indeed vital. My amendment makes a separate but complementary point. It is about outcomes, not just process. The Bill takes breathtakingly wide powers following our departure from the EU. This is about how those powers are implemented. No other amendment in the group deals with that.
It is an unusual pleasure to speak so early in a debate.
I am delighted to stand to support Government clauses 46 and 47 and to speak against the amendments in the name of the official Opposition and the Scottish national party and the other amendments. I have only been in the House for three years—it sometimes feels like 30, given what we have been through since 2017—but these amendments and the arguments, especially those from the SNP, against the clauses, are among the most remarkable things I have seen, despite what we have been through in the last three years. The governing party of one of the devolved nations in this country is tabling amendments and using arguments that would prevent more money being spent in that nation. It is frankly astounding.
I agree with the hon. Member about nationalism and separatism and all that, but we are a bit cynical and sceptical about offers from the Government at the moment. I have been trying to get £130 million outside the envelope for the flooding earlier this year in the Rhondda, but so far we have not seen a penny, not even for the coal tip that collapsed into the river at Tylorstown, which needs 60,000 tonnes removing. We still have not seen the £1.2 million. That is a Westminster responsibility.
I am reliably informed by a former Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), that that is a devolved responsibility, which is one reason why the hon. Member should vote for the Bill next week and against the Opposition amendments this evening.
Not only are these arguments incredible; they are also based on a complete falsehood: that the powers in the Bill, which will allow the UK Government to spend directly on specific projects in Scotland—I will contain my remarks to Scotland for obvious reasons—for the first time in 20 years, will somehow undermine devolution. This is not true.
As I said earlier, the Tory Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) has stated clearly that the Bill will create new powers of reservation. It is ripping up the devolution settlement. When will Conservative Members understand that there is a massive difference between protecting devolution and protecting the powers of the Scottish Parliament and what they see, which is an SNP Scottish Government? It is about respecting devolution and the Scottish Parliament.
I would have to see the details of what my hon. Friend the Chair of PACAC said. I would have to study it before responding, but I must stress that creating more powers is not ripping up the devolution settlement. That is not the case. The founding father of devolution, Donald Dewar, a Scottish Labour Member—there are not many left in this place these days—stated that devolution was a journey, not a one-way street. We need to have a discussion about where powers are best held, and that is what we are doing here today.
What is most remarkable about these arguments and the amendments that have been tabled by the SNP today is that they are drafted by parties that want to take Scotland and Wales back into the European Union. The SNP made much yesterday, and has again today, of the Competition and Markets Authority and the Office for the Internal Market, while the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) spoke about autocratic Ministers of the Crown spending in Scotland. The hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) yesterday decried the need for the Office for the Internal Market, claiming it was unnecessary, undemocratic and appointed, and complaining that it would
“decide whether a Bill met the test of the internal market, putting permanent constraints on the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and the Northern Irish Assembly.”—[Official Report, 15 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 248.]
That is quite remarkable from a party determined to take Scotland back into the European Union, but then maybe I missed the complaints from SNP Members when, in August 2015, the unelected and unaccountable European Commission suspended the payment of more than £45 million to the Scottish Government, under the European social fund, due to accounting “irregularities” and because it had not been given specific assurances from the Scottish Government as to how the money was being spent.
I must also, then, have missed hon. Members’ complaints to the—again—unelected and unaccountable European Commission when it threatened to fine the Scottish Government £125 million for botching up the farm payments system in 2015-16. I hate to break it to the SNP, but the restrictions placed on member states in order to preserve the internal market of the European Union are much—inordinately—more prohibitive than anything we are proposing here today.
After Brexit—indeed, because of Brexit—the Scottish Government will be free to spend, and indeed mis-spend, and free to exercise their expanded and increasing powers as they see fit. Nothing in the Bill threatens that in any way whatsoever—no powers to curb spending or cut revenue, no powers to fine for messing up payment systems, more money, more power, protecting jobs. What on earth is it in the Bill that the SNP could be objecting to so much? Why on earth is the SNP so happy to accept EU cash, with all the rules and regulations around spending and how it is spent, but will not allow the British Government to spend directly on specific projects that will benefit the lives of individual Scots?
I am spoiled for choice, but I will give way to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central.
I have a question for the hon. Gentleman. Why does he feel it is appropriate for the UK Government to spend money on courts and prison facilities in Scotland?
I think it is appropriate for the UK Government to be able to spend on projects that will benefit people in every corner of the United Kingdom, and that is why I am voting for the Bill next week and why I am going to oppose the amendments tabled by the hon. Lady. I will tell the Committee why the SNP is so against the Bill—because with the SNP, it is Brussels over Britain, any day of the week. SNP Members do not care that this Bill protects jobs. They do not care that it enshrines in statute the existence of Scotland’s most important market. They do not care that it could mean more money for Scotland’s starved local authorities.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is obviously passionate about Britain, and good luck to him, because he is not going to have that passion available to him for much longer once we are independent. Is he content with the idea that the Bill will gain Royal Assent without the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or indeed the Northern Ireland Assembly? Is not that the real power grab—the undermining of the Sewel convention? That is shaking devolution to the core. That is the power grab that is happening here. Is he really content with that?
To be honest with the hon. Gentleman, I would be trying to convince his colleagues in Edinburgh that this is a very good Bill and they should give it legislative consent and see it sail through the Scottish Parliament. But they have refused to give legislative consent to Bills that have become law in the past, and I am sure they will do so again.
I return to my point about Scotland’s cash-strapped local authorities. In north-east Scotland—I see the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) in his place—Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council are two of the lowest funded local authorities in the country, despite contributing more in revenue to the SNP Scottish Government than almost any other local authority. The idea that the Scottish National party would vote to deny them more funds to spend on specific projects truly is a kick in the gut.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the amount of money available to spend on frontline services in the Aberdeenshire Council area is only £11 below the Scottish average, which includes the high-spending island authorities? To help him with that, 11 is nearly twice six, which is double the number of chips that he had in his dinner the other night.
I will avoid commenting on the meagre amount of chips that you get in the House of Commons Dining Room. I was one of the loudest to complain about the state of my fish and chips. On the hon. Gentleman’s point, I cannot believe that a Member representing an Aberdeenshire seat is defending the fact that the Scottish Government give it one of the lowest amounts of funding for any local authority in the country. The people of Aberdeenshire will be listening to him, and I am sure they will explain to him their dissatisfaction with that comment.
I urge the hon. Gentleman to try explaining that to constituents next door in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, the people of Durris and Drumoak—a community divided due to Park bridge being closed, possibly never to reopen. [Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) groaning. The mask is slipping from the Scottish National party. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) underlined that when he earlier described these bridge closures as “wee pet projects”. These are communities divided because the Scottish Government are not funding Aberdeenshire Council to the requisite level to fix those bridges and reconnect those communities. The fact is that, unless it is in Glasgow or the central belt, the Scottish Government just do not care.
I was groaning in despair because all the hon. Gentleman’s remarks deny one fundamental principle: that the people of Scotland are sovereign. The people of Scotland are represented by a democratic Parliament in Edinburgh, and there are clearly defined devolved areas that are the responsibility of that sovereign Parliament. This Bill denies that. Why can he not just be honest enough to say so?
The hon. Lady is powerful and passionate in making her case, but this Bill does nothing of the sort. This Bill reinforces devolution, with over 100 powers coming from Brussels to Scotland, and it is for the Scottish Government to determine how they are acted on and how the money going to Edinburgh is spent.
The fact is that the SNP has been found out. They do not like this Bill because they know that it will demonstrate the relevance, the strength and the spending power of the British Government to the people of Scotland, and that endangers their grand plan: the separation of our country. For that, really, is all the SNP cares about—not people, not jobs, not the health service, not Scottish Water, as we heard earlier, and not powers over minimum unit pricing of alcohol. Those are all a front—a distraction. They do not like this Bill, despite the fact that it will benefit Scotland, because it promotes and unites our United Kingdom. That is the policy of the SNP, and it is clearer today due to these amendments than at any time before. The SNP would rather that Scotland was poorer if it meant that the United Kingdom Government had less power. That is the truth of it; it is clear from these amendments.
I am delighted that the British Government are enshrining the internal market in statute. I am delighted that we are voting to protect jobs in Scotland and around the rest of the United Kingdom, and I am delighted that, once again, this place will be able to directly spend money that will benefit the lives of my constituents. I am delighted that we are binding our country together, with no threat to the NHS, no threat to the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament and no threat to devolution. I will take great joy in voting down these amendments tonight. I will be voting to strengthen the Union, enrich Scotland and protect jobs. The SNP will be doing the opposite.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. It is also a pleasure to follow the excellent contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), who underlined the position in relation to Scotland. Most of my comments will relate to Wales, but they will relate equally to each of the nations of the United Kingdom.
Clauses 46 and 47—part 6 of the Bill—are fundamental to the future of the United Kingdom, particularly as we leave the European Union and after one of the most challenging times in terms of public health and the economic difficulties ahead of us. This is a time when the nation needs to come together and when the might of the UK Government to support every part of the United Kingdom will be extremely important. So these clauses are excellent news for all nations of the UK. They empower a UK Minister to support and contribute to the economic, social and cultural needs of every nation, whatever part of the country someone comes from. More importantly, at a time when our nation is at a greater risk of fragmentation, these provisions make the UK Government relevant to constituents in all nations. A UK Minister can at last respond to their calls if a devolved Administration choose to ignore their needs.
The devolved nations host some of the most deprived communities in the UK. West Wales and the Valleys has qualified for the highest levels of EU aid for 20 years, and gross value added there was about 70% of the UK average. I have long argued that a persistent wide wealth gap will create tensions in any nation, and since devolution the current legislation has prevented a UK Minister from acting in support of constituents and communities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in devolved policy areas, even in those areas where GVA is at the lowest levels.
I am not sure that the best argument is to talk about the poorer areas of the UK being in some of the devolved nations, as that is clearly, unfortunately, a Union dividend that the devolved Parliaments have inherited.
I will come on to explain in further detail specific cases as to why the UK Government need the power in these clauses to intervene to support those communities that I want to support; I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to want the UK Government to have the capacity to step in.
The current arrangements are confusing and messy, and could easily end up in the courts. Out of respect for devolution, Whitehall has been reluctant to be as assertive in pursuing some policies as the political and economic situations require. Constituents do not understand these arrangements, and businesses are often frustrated by the complexity and the perceived lack of interest in the issues and challenges they face. I said on Second Reading that for someone who is unemployed and living in one of the poorest communities, in a run-down town or village, perhaps with poor qualification levels or few training opportunities, UK Government Ministers’ answer to any call for help is, as it stands, simply to point them to the Welsh Assembly or to a Welsh Government Minister. Someone living in one of those communities in those circumstances does not care where the help comes from. They want the Government to be able to offer hope and opportunity, to play a part in bringing about change and to be relevant to those challenges that those individuals and communities face by helping to fix them.
I completely agree that my constituents in the Rhondda, which is one of the poorer communities in Wales, in the UK and in the whole of the European Union, would not care less where the money came from if they were seeking support, be it for a new youth service, more police officers, a new health centre or anything else. But for that to be effective, it has to be co-ordinated with other local services. A Government could not suddenly decide to build something in the Rhondda without planning permission from the local authority and without other permissions from the Assembly. This is why some of us are sceptical that the Government need these powers or that they are really serious about them. The Coal Authority is an agency of the Westminster Government, not of the Welsh Government, yet we are still waiting for our £1.2 million. If he can tell me a reason why the Government cannot give us the £1.2 million now, I would be delighted to hear it.
I am happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman. In relation to the Coal Authority, he is aware—this highlights the point that I made about the complexity of the current legislation—that land reclamation is a devolved function. Therefore, the Coal Authority is an agency of the UK Government, but the legislative responsibility falls to the Welsh Government. That highlights the complexity of the situation and may well be—I do not know because I have not looked at it in close enough detail—one of the root causes of why that community faces such a challenge.
The hon. Gentleman also highlighted flooding as a challenge. Flooding is a devolved responsibility. Therefore, when he calls on Environment Ministers to support funding projects in his constituency, he knows full well that the powers allowed by the current legislative framework to directly support such projects do not exist. Therefore, those calls, all too often, will fall on Ministers who do not have the power to act in those circumstances.
I think I am agreeing with the right hon. Gentleman in some small measure, which is obviously hurtful for me. He is of course right that flooding in Wales is the responsibility of the Welsh Government. However, there comes a time, if we want to reinforce the Union, when the Westminster Government have to accept that there have been specific events that fall outside the normal Barnett formula—outside the normal envelope. That is why I have repeatedly asked—and the Prime Minister promised this at the Dispatch Box—that we will get the money for the floods that happened excessively in Wales, and particularly in Rhondda, rather than anywhere else in the UK earlier this year.
I think the hon. Gentleman and I are in a spirit of agreement. I will come on to further examples where the UK Government need to step in, but, as it stands, do not have the powers or the capacity—the legislative framework—to do so in order to help his constituents and mine when a challenge or crisis is of a scale that clearly requires the might and strength of the Union.
It is fair to say that some politicians have capitalised on the lack of powers held by the UK Government with which to step in and to act. It is often said to someone or a community in such a situation, or to a business in need of support, that the UK Government are refusing to act—in the full knowledge that the UK Government do not have the powers to step in and to act in order to alleviate that situation. I have long called for these powers, having been frustrated by the devolution settlement in being able to step in. I am delighted that the Government are taking this positive step to support all UK nations.
I have long argued that the future of any nation would come under pressure if a wide wealth gap continued to persist between its regions and nations. The Prime Minister’s levelling-up agenda is much more difficult to achieve without the powers that are included within these clauses. Some challenges and policy initiatives are beyond the scale and capacity of any devolved Administration. Let me highlight a specific example that follows on from a point made by the hon. Member for Rhondda. In March 2016, Tata steelworks across the country were at risk of closure or sell-off. There were reports that Tata’s Port Talbot plant was losing £1 million a day. Clearly, this was a crisis that needed support and action. But the then First Minister was the first to highlight that the problem was far too big for the Welsh Government and the UK Government had to step in and help. According to the current legislation, in its purest form, this was a devolved matter and the Welsh Government had already received the business support funding through the Barnett formula. Therefore, it could have been legitimate to argue, “I’m sorry but this is a devolved function and the Welsh Government need to be able to respond.”
Clearly, the reality was very different. This was an industry of strategic importance and significance to the United Kingdom. The plant was also intertwined with steel operations right across England and Scotland, so the actions of one Administration had an impact on the actions of the rest of the country. Of course the UK Government had a responsibility to play a part, but their capacity to act in support in a wide-ranging way was limited. The Industrial Development Act 1982 offered an option, but it is highly restrictive and did not give the Minister the freedom in which to develop a cohesive policy in the way that the Minister would want to do.
Similarly, if the Port Talbot plant had closed, there would have been a need to reclaim the site, regenerate the community and develop a package on a much wider scale. There are other examples that I can highlight.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about levelling up and areas where the UK Government have competence, but can I ask him for his comments on the shared prosperity fund? We have waited since 2018 for a consultation on it, and for much of that time he was Secretary of State and in a position to do something about it. Two years on, we are still waiting for clarity on how that money will be spent to benefit Wales.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point: we need to bring forward much more detailed proposals about how the shared prosperity fund will work. I hope—this is a call to the Minister—that these clauses will change the nature of the discussion, because they will enable the UK Government to play a more prominent part in how the shared prosperity fund develops. That is not the Government’s position yet, as I understand it, but certainly I hope it will be, and I will be calling for that.
The devolved Administrations receive their funding through the Barnett formula, but that delivers a capacity limitation to the interventions that they can make. Although the Welsh Government receive £120 for every £100 spent in England, which is a very fair settlement as a result of the relative poverty that many of us highlight regularly, that broadly equates to about 5% or 6% of spending in devolved areas according to the population. As a consequence of that relatively small sum of money, large infrastructure projects are much more difficult to deliver. They demand such capital sums that they are difficult to justify in any one community. The nature of devolution has caused resources to be spread far more thinly, and they do not have the impact that they could have in any one area.
I would like to pick up that point. As an MP for the border constituency of Clwyd South, I know that the importance of infrastructure projects is significant, but they are extremely difficult to implement as things stand. This Bill will enable the financial assistance that will facilitate those projects, which are vital for improving the wellbeing and the lives of people in Wales.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he highlights, at a constituency level, the challenges because of the nature of the limitations of their funding the Welsh Government or any devolved Administration in any part of the UK face in having the greatest impact on constituencies. The might of the UK Government can support those large-scale projects.
The last major infrastructure project in Wales was in 1987, when the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was formed. There has not been a major infrastructure project since then. That demonstrates that the nature of devolution has led to money being spread much more thinly across all communities. There is a good argument for that, but it removes the ability to have an impact in one specific community.
My right hon. Friend is making an important point. He will remember the original devolution campaign in the late ’90s in Wales. One of the key arguments for creating a devolved body was that it would make it easier to invest in major infrastructure projects. That was an advert for devolution. Does he agree that the fact that the Welsh Government have failed spectacularly to deliver infrastructure projects over the past 20 years is a very poor advert for devolution?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I have a more practical, current example, relating to my constituency.
When attracting investment, the added complexity of dealing with two Administrations for very large projects detracts from the ease of landing those deals. Let me highlight an example. I have long had the plan and hope to develop what I call battery valley in Wales, akin to silicon valley in the US. I believe that Wales has the capacity to develop expertise in the manufacturing and storage of batteries for electric vehicles as we move from the internal combustion engine. I have had the privilege of travelling to manufacturers and meeting investors around the world to encourage them to consider Wales for that purpose. It is great news that Britishvolt is looking at making such an investment in my constituency. That investment could be well in excess of £1 billion. It could be between £1 billion and £2 billion. Naturally, it will expect some sort of Government support to invest in Wales and specifically—hopefully—in my constituency.
An example of the sort of incentives that the German federal Government have offered for a similar investment to be made in Germany is close to €2 billion. The Welsh Government cannot compete with that sort of scale of spend, but clearly the UK Government have a part to play and can seek to jump-start the industry by making large-scale sums of money available that the Barnett formula could never deal with. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) highlighted, the clauses in the Bill fill a major hole in the current devolution settlement in terms of attracting major investment and major infrastructure projects.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) highlighted briefly the challenges around the shared prosperity fund. Nations and regions across the UK have long been frustrated by the European aid programmes. West Wales and the valleys has seen spend approach £5 billion since the year 2000. Owing to the complexity of the European Union arrangements, I certainly do not think we have had the best value from that. We can look to the Welsh Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, business groups statements and communities that have been frustrated by it, and we can all point to specific projects in areas across Wales that have not been what the community really wanted or needed, but that just happened to fit the rules that the European Union set.
Finally, I highlight that we are not a federal country. We are a Union of nations, but even in the most federal of constitutions, the central administration has the power to act and to support. It is absolutely right that the United Kingdom Government have the power to act in support of every part of every constituency wherever you are in this kingdom.
I rise to support my party’s amendments because I firmly believe that seeking the consent of devolved Ministers represents the absolute bare minimum to respect the devolution settlement in the provisions before us.
Although I am not new to politics, I am comparatively new to this place, and my views on politics and self-government for Scotland were forged in the 1980s and the devolution debates of the early 1990s, well before Scotland had a Parliament of its own. When I speak to young Scots of voting age now, very few of them have any memory of there not being a Scottish Government and Parliament. The idea that there ever would not have been seems alien and absurd—almost as absurd to them as it seemed to me that those institutions did not exist back in the 1990s.
Although I was supportive of devolution at that time, the arguments that I and others made at that time in favour of independence referred to devolution and its potential weaknesses. Those arguments did not find favour at that time. They were that devolution was going to create a subordinate Parliament to Westminster, that without a written constitution, its powers and status could not be guaranteed, and that power devolved is power retained—all those arguments, whatever their essential truth and accuracy, were lost in the assurances given at the time about permanence and respect.
The fact that those arguments about permanence and respect were made by politicians of the standing and character of Donald Dewar no doubt helped enormously. For the past 21 years, by and large, that is exactly how it has been. Disputes over money and policy aside, both Parliaments have co-existed. As Holyrood’s stature has grown, and Ministers have begun to act with the stature befitting a Government, rather than a regional subordinate Executive, so too has Scottish confidence grown. I think it is that, rather than any concern about the integrity of the UK internal market, that seems to be driving a large part of the motivation behind this part of the Bill.
A number of speakers have talked about the current settlement. One thing that the current settlement does give is clarity: if a matter is not explicitly reserved under schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, it is devolved. Unionists who proclaim the parliamentary sovereignty of this place should know that that is because this place legislated for that. Throughout devolution, the Sewel convention has operated, meaning that this Parliament will not ordinarily legislate in areas of devolved competence without the express consent of the Parliaments. It is precisely to protect that principle of consent that my party is putting forward this amendment today, to ensure that under that principle of consent, no action in respect of these powers will be taken without the agreement of the relevant devolved Ministers.
Turning to clauses 46 and 47, I think of the ancient proverb that one should beware Greeks bearing gifts. Scots, through long years of experience, have come to be suspicious of Westminster politicians pledging similar gifts. Scottish voters have long been wary of that. The proposed powers are so wide-ranging, covering promoting economic development, infrastructure, cultural activity, sport, education and training activities, that their motivation is quite clear. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), who was in earlier, gave the game away: this is nothing more sophisticated than sticking a great big flag on the side of something and saying, “We paid for that.”
There is no money element to these proposals, but I have to say that if they actually represented additional money, we might be having quite a different debate. However, I know from bitter experience that all that will happen is that the Scottish Government’s funding will inevitably find itself top-sliced—a bit like the Scotland Office having to pay for press officers or private polling—and it will be presented as the return of Scottish taxpayers’ money and UK borrowing, and as being somehow down to the largesse of the Treasury and we should all be grateful for it.
The ability that these measures will give UK Ministers of the Crown to bypass devolution and Scottish Ministers —who are also Ministers of the Crown—and to bypass the democratically elected Government of Scotland to make policy and allocate resources in devolved areas, whether that is in line with the priorities of those elected to lead in those devolved areas or not, represents the biggest single attack on devolution imaginable, short of the abolition of those institutions themselves.
Let us take infrastructure as an example. I find it hard to understand the argument that the Bill could improve that situation. Scottish Governments of all political stripes across many years—decades, indeed—have a record of ambitious investment, whether delivered or planned for the future. The magnificent Queensferry crossing was mentioned earlier. We also have the Aberdeen to Inverness rail improvements, involving more than £200 million of improvements that benefit my constituents to a remarkable extent. We have the central belt rail electrification. We have the Aberdeen bypass, and the Balmedie to Tipperty dualling. We also have the completion, after 50 years, of the central Scotland motorway network.
The hon. Gentleman has just given us a list of projects that he is putting great big flags on the side of and claiming credit for, when actually the Aberdeen bypass was signed off by the previous Administration. It had been planned for a very long time.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention, because it might have been signed off, but it was signed off in such a way that mired it in protracted legal disputes for years—[Interruption.] I am glad she finds that funny, but that was what delayed it more than anything else. It is only thanks to the diligence of the present Scottish Government that it got through at all. The dualling of the A96 and the A9, the Borders railway and the future rail decarbonisation are all major big-ticket investments that are happening under the current arrangements, which do not require any tinkering with the devolution settlement.
For me, these infrastructure projects say everything about the Union dividend. It is a fact that it has taken an SNP Government to complete the M8 motorway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, the two biggest cities in Scotland. Under the Westminster Government, we did not even have a motorway running east to west in Scotland, which was a disgrace. Does my hon. Friend agree that another problem with Scotland delivering infrastructure is the fiscal constraints on capital borrowing? Westminster will not allow us to borrow enough money to invest in the infrastructure we need.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I intend to deal with some of those points later in my speech.
The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) said on Second Reading:
“I want to see our two Governments working together as they do on city and growth deals the length and breadth of the country.”—[Official Report, 14 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 89.]
I absolutely agree with him: for as long as we have two Governments for Scotland, they should indeed work together.
However, citing that argument in support of the Bill is, I believe, fundamentally flawed because these deals already work and there is no need for a further encroachment on the devolution settlement to make similar deals work better.
Prior to being elected as the Member for Gordon, I spent some time as the co-leader of Aberdeenshire Council, and I was a signatory on behalf of the local authority to the Aberdeen city region deal. Within that deal, total investment by the Scottish Government is currently out- funding the commitment of the Westminster Government by a factor of 3:1. Under existing arrangements, the UK Government could—if they had the will, the means and the determination to do so—match that funding straightaway. There is nothing stopping them.
The UK Government could put in place the resources to fund a sector deal for the North sea. They could, if they wanted to, help local government defer—or, better still, write off—the interest on the Public Works Loan Board loans of local authorities right across Scotland, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) has called for. They could even, if they wanted to work in a genuine spirit of partnership, expand the financial powers of the Scottish Parliament to embrace borrowing powers.
The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) and I had an exchange earlier when he accepted my intervention, for which I thank him. May I recommend to him, for his bedtime reading tonight, the “Scottish Local Government Finance Statistics 2018-19”, particularly chart 2.2, where his eyes will feast on the general fund net revenue expenditure figures for Scotland? He will see that the Scottish average spend is £1,981 per head, and in Aberdeenshire it is £1,970, which is just immediately below the average. I commend it to him. Many criticisms can indeed be made of the funding formula. I will be glad to share that diagram with the press when his press release goes out later, and I will be glad to add some factual context to it.
The hon. Gentleman has been very generous with his time, and I am listening intently to what he is saying. I do take the point about the fiscal framework and local authorities, and I get his point regarding the per head spend, but that figure amounts to £50 million less that they can be spending on infrastructure projects and roads. I heard what he said about the growth deals, the sector deal and investing, and I would back him and join him in all those campaigns, as he fully knows—perhaps except for borrowing powers for the Scottish Government—but I stress that I hope that he would join me in my campaign to see Aberdeenshire Council being treated fairly and, given the revenue it has delivered to the Scottish Government, getting a fair share to spend in the north-east of Scotland.
As I was about to say—the hon. Member was doing so well until he said he would not back the borrowing powers, which is very disappointing because it could change so much—legitimate criticisms can be made of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities funding formula. I voiced them myself when I was the council co-leader in Aberdeenshire. However, the Bill will not resolve or change that. I hope that the hon. Member would agree that if we are to make changes to that, they should be based on factual analysis and evidence, rather than just recycling old tropes.
My hon. Friend has set out quite a considerable list of things the UK Government could do now to invest in infrastructure projects across Scotland. Does he share the concern my constituents will have about the UK Government’s willingness up to this point to make such investment? For example, the Tories first promised the Dalry bypass in North Ayrshire in my constituency in 1938, but it took an SNP Scottish Government to deliver it.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As I say, if this were backed up by additional resources, we might be having some different discussions, but it still would not make the case for this encroachment on devolved powers.
I am listening very intently to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, as I did to what the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, and I actually agree with a lot of what he has said, yet he has made no argument for not giving the Government more powers to spend. Yes, there are areas where the UK Government could be and, in my opinion, should be spending in Scotland, but there is no reason to vote against giving them more powers to do just that and support our local authorities to develop and deliver infrastructure projects in Scotland.
On the contrary, there is every reason to do that precisely because I have been making the argument—I do not know how carefully the hon. Member has been listening to it—that there is absolutely no need to encroach on the existing devolved settlement to deliver all the things that we are being told need to happen.
Frankly, this is nothing more than an arrogation, a usurpation and a trespassing on the principle that the decisions taken exclusively for Scotland should be made in Scotland by those who are directly accountable to the people of Scotland, taking us back to the bad old days prior to devolution, when Ministers of a party elected on a minority of the votes and seats could nevertheless rule the country without going to the trouble of winning an election beforehand.
Devolution was once described as
“the settled will of the Scottish people”—
as a way to accommodate legitimate desires for growing democratic aspirations within an old Union. That was certainly how it looked until 1997, and it is how it has looked for many in Scotland until recently, but the Union that Scots were invited to vote for in 2014—the balance that existed between Parliaments, Governments and institutions in London, Brussels and Edinburgh—has already gone. The failure to back an amendment of this nature shows that the very principles of autonomy, consent and respect that lay at the heart of the devolution settlement are also about to go.
People who voted in 2014 to be part of two Unions—the European Union and the British Union—can now see that they can only possibly be part of one. If this amendment falls and is not taken on board by the Government, it will show that the entire basis of devolution—that decisions should be taken for the people of the devolved nations and regions by those elected by and directly accountable to them—is being similarly trashed.
If the UK Government wish to depart from the EU and to deploy their majority to crush these principles, there is very little that I or my colleagues can do in practice to stop that, although there is plenty that can be done outside this place. For all that I used to make the argument that one day, the Scottish Parliament might have its wings clipped by a politically motivated activist Conservative Government, I never imagined for one day that a Government would come along so stuffed full of John Bull as to make it actually happen.
The polls across Scotland—I am sure that private polls in the Scotland Office confirm what the public polls say—show that increasing numbers of Scots know and understand that to re-attain EU membership, independence is required. If the Bill is passed unamended, it will become e