05/02/2014 Scottish Questions


05/02/2014

Highlights of Scottish Questions from Westminster.


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Hello and a very warm welcome to Westminster for February 's Scottish

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Questions. We may still be seven months away from the independence

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referendum, but as far as Scottish politics is concerned, everything is

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being put through a referendum prism. Proceedings here began with a

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question related to independence. Thank you. I speak to businesses

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from across Scotland regularly and frequently. We highlight the

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importance of the decision the Scottish people will make on the

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18th of September and encourage them to get involved in this important

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debate. As my right honourable friend the

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Secretary of State seen the recent intervention of Bob Dudley, the

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chief executive of British Petroleum which has a major stake in Scotland

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and whose view should be taken seriously. Does he agree that other

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business leaders with a big interest in Scotland's future should follow

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his example and set out clearly the implications and consequences of

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independence for their employees, shareholders and suppliers?

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Thank you. I have, indeed, seen and studied the intervention from Bob

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Dudley yesterday. The terms of that intervention do not surprise me.

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It's very much reflects the concerns I hear expressed to me when I speak

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to businessmen and businesswomen across Scotland in representing

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businesses of all sizes. They tell me the same thing. They see

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independence as being bad for business. It brings -- brings

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uncertainty and that is risk and bad for their business in the future.

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As the Secretary of State had any meetings with Sir Tom Hunter who has

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been pretty vocal on the whole question? If not, will he have?

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I recently met Sir Tom Hunter at a business breakfast organised by the

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Prime Minister in ten Downing St. The honourable gentleman will have

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seen the recent initiative taken by Sir Tom which is an invaluable part

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and it sits very well with the efforts of Her Majesty 's government

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in ensuing there is a solid piece of information to inform the electorate

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in relation to the decision they are being asked to take.

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Can the Secretary of State assure the house he is aware of business

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concerns about the uncertainty posed by an independent Scotland, not only

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in terms of cut this -- currency, but that borrowing costs and

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interest rates can be set outside of Scotland?

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The honourable lady makes the point that was made very eloquently and in

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a very measured way, I thought, by the Governor of the Bank of England

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last week in Edinburgh. He made the point that a currency union such as

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that proposed inevitably involves ceding some degree of national

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sovereignty. The very opposite of what independence is supposed to be

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about. You wonder why any nationalist would, in all sincerity,

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genuinely want one. This week, the Financial Times

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reported that an independent Scotland should have healthier state

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finances than the rest of the UK. So far, more than 1200 business owners

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and directors have declared their support for a yes vote by joining

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the pro-independence business group. Does the Secretary of State

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recognise their role in the Scottish economy and welcome their

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contribution to the referendum debate?

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I speak to businessmen and businesswomen of all views at any

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time. The difficulty is, however, that the recent polling exercise

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taken in the polling -- business community shows that three quarters

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of people were intending to vote no and that is because they know

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independence would be bad for their business.

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All the evidence in recent weeks show there has been a substantial

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swing to" yes". The polls also show that the public by a majority of 4-1

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wish to see a debate between the Prime Minister and the First

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Minister Alex Salmond. How long can the Prime Minister continue

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supporting everyone else becoming part of the debate but ran away from

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one himself? Make no mistake, we know exactly why

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the Nationalists want to see this debate between Alex Salmond and

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David Cameron and it is because they are trying to set the decision up as

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being one of a contest between Scotland and England, which it

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absolutely is not. It is about Scotland's constitutional future and

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it is to be decided by Scots in Scotland.

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If my right honourable friend aware that the First Minister dismissed Mr

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Dudley 's remarks as being a personal opinion? In the light of

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that, maybe take it that all of those who apparently have subscribed

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to independence on the business sector can have their opinion

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dismissed in the same way? I would dismiss nobody 's opinion

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and I would engage with people of all shades of opinion across this

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debate. The fact is that Bob Dudley is not a lone voice. He is part of a

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growing corn -- chorus in the business community in Scotland who

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highlight the dangers of independence and they say the same

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thing. It is the risk that comes from the uncertainty regarding the

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future. Also currency position and membership of the EU. On those two

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key issues, the Nationalists have got no comfort for business.

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It is, indeed, welcome as this Secretary of State has said that the

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chief executive of BP and the outgoing chief executive of

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Sainsbury's have spelt out concerns about independence. Does the

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Secretary of State agree that what ever side of the debate you are on,

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all businesses, voluntary organisations and trade unions have

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a right to be heard without insult, intimidation or fear of the

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consequences? I do, absolutely. In that regard, I

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would commend the efforts of the Scottish Daily Mail who, in recent

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days and weeks, have sought to highlight the poison that is coming

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into this debate from some of these cyber interventions. Others in this

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House have also raised this issue. The truth is, whatever the outcome,

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we all will have to work together in Scotland for the best future of

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Scotland and that is not going to be possible if we allow the well to be

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poisoned in the way that some seem determined to do.

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Perhaps I will press him further. In fact, business leaders have told me

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of intimidating the tactics used in an attempt to stop them intervening

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in the independence debate. One leader of a Footsie company told

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Robert Preston of the BBC that the Scottish Government, " became very

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aggressive" when he tried to raise concerns regarding independence. But

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Dudley of BP was dismissed yesterday by the yes campaign as "a British

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nationalist" is. Will the Secretary of State join with me in condemning

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this pattern of behaviour we are beginning to see in Scotland and say

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in the strongest possible terms that it has no place for us Scots as we

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debate our future? I can, indeed, agree with that in

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the strongest terms. She knows as well as I do that these incidents

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are by no means isolated and we hear them and it totally all the time. I

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would encourage anybody who finds themselves bullied or intimidated in

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that way to follow the example of an academic from Dundee University who

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appeared at a Better Together event and found a Scottish minister on the

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phone to his employers saying he should be silenced. That is no way

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to conduct this debate on Scotland's future and it is deplorable.

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In recent months I met with every local authority in Scotland as part

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of an ongoing dialogue with local authorities and other stakeholders

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in Scotland on what the impact of welfare reforms have for them, their

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services and their tenants. The Minister will know that 80% of

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households in Scotland affected by the bedroom tax in a home with

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someone with a bid -- disability, he will know of the mismatch. People

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voted overwhelmingly against this policy, including his own

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backbenchers. Will his own government now live legal

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restrictions on discretionary housing payments to allow the

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Scottish Government to mitigate the impact of this nonsense of a policy?

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The honourable lady has a brass neck. She is a member of the

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Scottish affairs select committee yet fails to take up her place. This

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issue was debated in detailed yesterday and if she had been

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present she would know the Scottish Government already have the power to

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take measures if they genuinely believe there are concerns with

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welfare policies. I believe the government listens

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when I point out problems over the withdrawal of the spare room subsidy

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and what it would cause for tenants. I'm delighted the

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government has given over for thousand pounds to one council to

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help affected tenants -- 400,000 pounds.

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I can commend the honourable gentleman in pointing out the

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specific issues made on island issues and rural issues. That is why

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we have come forward with a discretionary housing payment for

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rural areas. We are in regular dialogue with

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institutions with regard to funding for Scotland. People are living

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longer and we all need to save for retirement. Councils are struggling

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to protect local services because the SNP government is not funding

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Council Cats fees. Will the Minister stand up for Scottish councils and

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make representations to met -- relevant ministries to protect

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councils from this budgetary problem? I note what the honourable

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lady says. I will ensure her comments on the agenda for our

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forthcoming meeting. It would be useful if the minister

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in those discussions would push forward statutory overrides which

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would help companies manage to a single tier pension because it will

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have an effect when they are not able to opt out of Serps. The

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honourable lady is chairman of the relevant select committee and we

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take her comments very seriously and I will ensure they are part of that

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discussion. Rising energy bills are a serious

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concerns for consumers in Scotland and across the rest of the UK. We

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are sustaining vitals financial support for the most vulnerable

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consumers and reforms are opening up the market to competition. We are

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working to ensure suppliers put customers on the cheapest tariff

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possible. Energy prices have risen

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dramatically since the coalition came to power and, in rule and

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island communities, people pay a greater proportion of their income

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on fuel prices. There was a sevenfold increase last year in

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people approaching them for advice about mis-selling in the energy

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sector. Is it now time for manic -- a radical reform of the energy

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sector and a price freeze until we put the reforming place?

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I know the honourable lady has taken a long term interest in this and has

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a notable record on it. The phenomenon of energy price increases

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is not something that just started in 2010. It was a feature of the

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years of the Labour government as well and it was a consequence of the

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reduction of the number of companies operating in the market. That would

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be a problem that was recreated if we were to undertake her policy of a

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price freeze. We have already seen the number of energy companies rise

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from six to 14 but a price freeze would be a real threat to that.

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We have two governments choosing to side with energy companies. Is it

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now clear that the only families across the UK can see some relief in

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their cost of living is a freezing of their bills and a break up of the

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monopoly of the six energy companies and to vote no in the referendum. I

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agree with the first part of the prescription. A no vote in September

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is important. I have to remind him, there was one year in the Labour

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years where there was an increase of 20% in energy prices and there was

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no suggestion of a price freeze then. When they were in government

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they knew the reality. A price freeze would see prices going up

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before the freeze on going up again afterwards. We are delivering help

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to vulnerable people in the here and now.

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Whatever the headline of the average increase, it hides a multitude of

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sins. A constituent approached me this week who is a low electricity

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user and is facing a 50% increase in his unit cost. Others find they are

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being handed by high standing charges -- hammered. Isn't it about

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time these practices were stopped? These are real reasons why it is

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important that there is transparency within the market and the range of

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tariffs is improved. That is a result of the action we have been

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taking. Under the last government, there were 400 different tariffs

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available and there was no surprise that people were getting confused.

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Simplicity is the way ahead and that is something that the government

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works on -- with the regulator. We know that energy bills have

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rocketed, and as my right honourable friend said this morning, one third

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of Jewish investment in renewables comes to Scotland but Scots

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contribute less than a 10th of this. -- British investment. Does the

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Secretary of State agree that the best future for renewables in

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Scotland and the best way to keep costs down. Lund is by Scotland

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saying part of the UK? That is absolutely the case. Scotland has a

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tremendous opportunity to contribute to the growth of renewable energy as

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part of the UK. That is going to take subsidies that come from

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consumers bills. That is a cost which is spread across the whole

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nation, not simply the household of an independent Scotland. It would

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emerge is for the renewable energy industry to support independence for

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Scotland in the future. Question five, but the minimum wage and the

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nonpayment of it. They have been no persecutions or naming and shaming

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since at least 2007. A revised scheme came into place

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which makes it simpler to name and shame any such employers. I would

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urge anyone with information about such an employer to use that scheme.

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I know he cannot tell us of any instances, but it is a scandal at a

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time of economic difficulty that people are being exploited by being

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paid less than the national minimum wage. The policing of this act or to

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be strengthened, then there ought to be vigorous persecutions and they're

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certainly ought to be a question of naming and shaming. Will the

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government can't write with any investigation of the Scottish

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affairs committee, conducted into this matter? Are recognised the

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Scottish affairs committee has done much valuable work on this area, and

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of course we will continue to work with them. In Scotland, prosecutions

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are a matter for the Lord Advocate and I'm sure he will have heard the

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honourable member's contribution. What representations has the

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Scottish office made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer but

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increasing the national minimum wage disempowered an hour and what effect

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does he think they would be on living standards in Scotland would

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that come about? I can say that I agree with the Chancellor Willy said

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that I believe England can afford and above inflation increase in the

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minimum wage, so to restore its real value and make sure that work always

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pays. The Conservative MP for Central Devon, the. Near-record

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highs of least 2.5 million. These figures reflect how well

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Scotland is doing as part of the UK under the government's long-term

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economic plan I thank him for that positive

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response. Would he agree with me that the biggest threat to Scottish

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job is the promise of the SNP and its plan to remove Scotland from the

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UK labour market? That is indeed the case. We talk about business people

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having concerned, that means there is a threat, not just to business,

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but jobs as a result. The UK is now the fastest growing economy in the

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G7 and unemployment in Scotland is at 6.4%, significantly lower than

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the average across the UK, which is 7.1%. That is something we have

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achieved because we are part of the UK, not despite it. It is a result

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of Scotland, with our own Parliament, being represented here,

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having the best of both worlds. Unfortunately within my own

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constituency, unemployment levels appear to have stagnated. Does the

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Secretary of State agree with me that the Scottish Government needs

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to be doing more for people even living in the capital city of

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Scotland, who are still without jobs? There remains a great deal

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still to do. I share, I suspect, many concerned she would have about

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the continuing high level of youth unemployment, the number of people

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who have been unemployed for a longer period of time. I see

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encouraging signs of growth in these areas but they are by no means to be

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taken for granted. There are tremendous opportunities for the two

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governments in Scotland, along with councils in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and

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elsewhere, to work together to get the best possible arrangements for

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the unemployed. When the Secretary of State visits the Highlands at the

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end of the week and addresses people in Inverness, I'm sure he will be

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hearing a lot from those present about one of the most exciting

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potential job prospect is for the Highlands and the Scotland as a

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whole, which is the potential of a site in my own constituency for

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offshore wind development. Can I courage him and his colleagues to

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continue to work with Edinburgh to promote the interests of this

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exciting project, and I wanted to get my plug in now because due to a

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previous long-standing engagement, I won't be there on Friday night

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myself! I shall in fact be carrying out other engagement although I do

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understand that gets for that supper are still available and are

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reasonably priced! -- tickets. The honourable gentleman raises an

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important local concerns his constituents, he has a long and

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proud record of doing so, I would suggest to him that this is sorted

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development we're now seeing growing across the whole of the UK,

:22:35.:22:39.

particularly in Scotland, and it is happening because our plan worked.

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He may think that everything is rosy but isn't it the fact that we are

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seeing the most sustained fall in real wages since records began 50

:22:50.:22:52.

years ago? Isn't it the fact that the jobs market is not working for

:22:53.:22:57.

ordinary Scots and both governments are failing the people we represent?

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I really wish that they could find it within themselves to recognise

:23:03.:23:07.

the substantial progress we are making in relation to the improving

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employment situation in Scotland. There is significant progress and

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that makes a real difference for her constituents and mine. Wage levels

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will doubtless need to see some improvement to catch up, that as a

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consequence of the steps we had to take clear up the mess she made.

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Questionable seven. The White Paper shows that the case

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for independence is unravelling. They promised answers but fail to

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key -- address key issues such as currency and the EU membership.

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Can the Secretary of State explain why there are issues about the

:23:57.:24:07.

funding of pensions in Scotland? Indeed, the most pertinent

:24:08.:24:12.

intervention was that which came from the Institute of chartered

:24:13.:24:15.

accountants of Scotland. Not a political party, not a body that has

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any axe to grind, the people who know what they are talking about,

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and they told us what we already know, that our substantial questions

:24:23.:24:27.

on pensions and other areas have not been answered. Surely one of the

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great weaknesses of the White Paper is when it comes to the future of

:24:35.:24:38.

the pound in Scotland. Surely the simplest way the people of Scotland

:24:39.:24:42.

can be guaranteed to keep the pound is to vote no in the referendum.

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That is indeed the case and I'm confident they will do so because

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the people of Scotland value having the ? their currency. They value

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having the Bank of England as a lender of last resort and the value

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that the risks and opportunities are spread across the whole UK. The

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Tories and Labour are worried but still the Prime Minister is afraid

:25:13.:25:15.

to debate with Alex Salmond, the First Minister. In this week the FT

:25:16.:25:19.

tells us an independent Scotland could expect to start with healthier

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state finances than the rest of the UK, our GDP per head is higher than

:25:25.:25:29.

France and Italy. Will he make sure that people know these facts and

:25:30.:25:35.

stop people making the best decision for Scotland? Indeed I will, these

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are all things we have achieved as part of the United Kingdom, it

:25:43.:25:46.

ultimate streets what is possible for Scotland as part of the United

:25:47.:25:51.

Kingdom. As for any question of debate, we have dealt with that

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already. Isn't it remarkable that when they could be answering

:25:55.:25:57.

questions, all they want to do is have a debate about the debate? A

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question about pensions. Despite publishing a paper

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specifically on pensions in September and a much vaunted White

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Paper in November, the Scottish Government has left many questions

:26:20.:26:23.

on pensions unanswered. The honourable member will be aware that

:26:24.:26:27.

the UK and Scottish governments have agreed there will be no pay

:26:28.:26:32.

negotiation ahead of the independence referendum in

:26:33.:26:32.

September. The Institute of chartered

:26:33.:26:40.

accountants in Scotland published a report for the White Paper and we

:26:41.:26:45.

are told by the SNP that the answers would be in the White Paper. This

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week the Institute of chartered accountants gave their response,

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there are not the answers in the White Paper to give Scots certainty

:26:54.:26:57.

about their pensions. This is the Secretary of State aware of any

:26:58.:27:03.

intention to answer the crucial questions on Scottish pensions? I am

:27:04.:27:09.

pretty certain that any answers that would come from the Nationalists

:27:10.:27:13.

would be ones that would not find favour with the people of Scotland,

:27:14.:27:17.

so I am pretty sure we will not be hearing much by way of answers in

:27:18.:27:20.

the future. The people of Scotland will hear what the Institute of

:27:21.:27:25.

chartered accountants have to say, they will want to hear from the

:27:26.:27:28.

Scottish Government but their answer is.

:27:29.:27:33.

That is all we have time for. The next Scottish Questions will be on

:27:34.:27:38.

Wednesday 19th of March, which also happens to be a get day down here at

:27:39.:27:46.

Westminster. -- I get a. Join us then if you can. From all of us,

:27:47.:27:48.

goodbye.

:27:49.:27:50.

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