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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 974: debated on Wednesday 21 November 1979

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I remind the House that there has been at good response from hon. Members to my request that they ask only one supplementary question. That enables us to make better progress.

Scotland

School Transport

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland how many parents are in receipt of assistance for school transport in the constituency of Inverness, the Highland region, and in Scotland as a whole; and what is the lowest, average and highest cost per family in each case.

Figures are not available on a constituency basis. My information is that about 10,500 pupils in the Highland region, and 175,000 in Scotland, were receiving free school transport or assistance with travelling expenses at the beginning of the current school session. Information about the cost in individual cases is not held centrally.

Will the Government think again about their proposals virtually to oblige local authorities to charge for school transport? Does not the hon. Gentleman's answer show that the Government have not yet worked out the impact of their proposals?

As I have said, information is not held centrally. However, many families living in urban and rural areas already pay their children's travel costs. The imposition of a small flat-rate charge would spread those costs more evenly.

Is it not an unfair anomaly of the present system that two pupils who live only 100 yards apart may stand at the same bus stop, yet one of those pupils may get free transport whilst the other has to pay? Would it not be better if the local authority sorted the matter out?

There are different ways of clearing up an anomaly. Has the hon. Gentleman seen the estimate of that well-known revolutionary organisation, the Scottish National Farmers Union, which suggests that a family with two children, living in a rural area, will probably have to pay an additional £270 a year? Is not the Government's proposition mostrous?

Many estimates were made in advance of the announcement about public expenditure in Scotland, made by the Secretary of State last Friday. Most of those estimates, including that mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, have proved to be out of line.

Will my hon. Friend quantify the charges that the authorities may make at a flat rate for either a day or a journey? Will he compare them with the charges paid by children who live just under the three-mile limit and who travel by public transport to school?

Many families already have to pay their children's travelling costs. What the future holds is a matter for the local authorities. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities welcomed the extra discretion offered by my right hon. Friend.

Is the Minister aware that it is wrong to mislead the House by saying that COSLA is in favour of the proposals? COSLA bitterly opposed the proposals. Does the Minister know that, apart from his hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat), the Government's proposals do not have a friend in the country? The hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) said publicly last weekend that he would not support the proposals. When will the Minister announce the withdrawal of the proposals? Will he come to the Committee where we discuss such issues on Tuesday afternoons and do his own dirty work instead of hiving it off to his innocent friend who is not—

Order. That is not fair, because the same rules must apply to the Front Benches as to the Back Benches. The hon. Gentleman should ask only one supplementary question.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) is perfectly capable of speaking for himself. I did not mislead the House, because COSLA welcomed being given additional discretion, although it did not welcome the public expenditure restraints.

Rural Areas

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland how people in rural areas in Scotland will be affected by the changes in education and public expenditure which have been announced by the Government.

Will the Secretary of State give his estimate of the increased cost of school bus fares and school meals that will be imposed on rural families in Scotland? How many village schools does he expect to close?

It is not for me to impose any charges. All we are doing is opening the way to local authorities so that they can use their discretion. I envisage that many local authorities will opt to impose a flat-rate charge that would approximate to that already paid in respect of children living within urban areas who have to pay for their transport to school.

Will my right hon. Friend ignore the earlier summary of the statement that I made on the provision of school transport in rural areas? Does he accept that the present legislation is utterly riddled with anomalies? Is he aware, for example, that a single-parent family with three children, living just inside the three-mile walking distance has no entitlement to free transport, and the DHSS will give that family no contribution towards those costs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I would always prefer his advice to that of Opposition Members.

How can the Secretary of State say that he is giving discretion to local authorities when, in the rate support grant settlement announced last Friday, he has reduced the provision for school meals, milk and transport by no less than 36 per cent.?

I say that I am giving discretion to local authorities because that is exactly what I am doing. Local authorities will now be able to make the arrangements that they think—

—most suitable for the areas which they serve, in view, of course, of the public expenditure constraints which I have discussed with them.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people in rural areas were deeply incensed when the Labour Party, when in government, rigged the rate support grant against rural areas, in favour of Glasgow? Will he accept that it is widely welcomed that he has put away this piece of rigging in the present RSG?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have stopped this trend from continuing and we have made some modest advances in the other direction this time. That will be welcomed in all rural areas.

Will the Secretary of State admit that, not only are the Government cutting education expenditure, but the Education (No. 2) Bill is actually shifting expenditure away from areas most in need, such as rural areas? In order to give more money to fee-paying schools, the right hon. Gentleman is actually taking meals, milk and free school transport away from children in State schools. Is he proud to be a member of a Government who rob the poor to give to the rich?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give more study to the figures. If he does that, he will discover that the reduction in expenditure on education is less than the reduction in pupil numbers, and that the new arrangements will show a slight improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio. The whole design of the assisted places scheme is to give greater help to those on low incomes. I should have thought that the hon. Member, as a Socialist, would approve of that.

Optical Charges

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland when he will be taking action to exempt people with severe visual handicap from payment of optical charges; and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. Friend has no plans to take such action at present.

Is not that a shame? Surely the people who have suffered the greatest cut of all, the virtual loss of their eyesight, should receive greater consideration. Will the Minister believe me when I say that the nature of the gadgets that they use is both inordinate and costly, and that they are required regularly? If we are a caring Parliament, surely we should meet the need free of charge.

The position remains as it has been since 1951. Hon. Members in all parts of the House appreciate the disabilities caused by blindness and partial blindness. At the same time, there are many other groups that would like special treatment for their problems. If we moved in one direction, we would have to move in many others. That is the Government's position.

Do the Government have any plans to introduce in the near future a blind allowance?

Is the Under-Secretary aware that the previous Government had made provision for enabling legislation on the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey), and that if the present Government saw themselves as being able to introduce such legislation, for which there is serious need, the Opposition would help in any way possible to get that legislation through?

Under the previous Administration, the Secretary of State for Social Services, in 1975, and the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, in 1978, both said that they would bring in this type of allowance but they did not do so.

Western Isles (Development Programme)

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what progress has been made in implementing the European Communities proposals for an integrated development programme for the Western Isles.

This proposal, which is part of a complex agricultural structures package, is still being considered by a Council working party. Progress has been slow because all member States have reservations about some parts of the package.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Will he give an assurance that there will be no delay in the implementation of the scheme through lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Government to accept the initial contribution which they are required to make under it?

I can certainly assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are playing a full part in the discussions and that, if the scheme is agreed generally by our partners in the Community, there will be no delay on our part in carrying out whatever is agreed.

Town And Country Planning Act 1972

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he proposes to introduce legislation to repeal sections 44 to 48 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1972.

We have no plans to repeal sections 44 to 47, which make provision for references to a planning inquiry commission. Section 48 empowers my right hon. Friend to make provision for appeals against planning authority decisions on matters of design to be heard by an independent tribunal. As part of the relaxation of controls over local authorities we propose to repeal this section.

In view of the failure of previous administrations at the Scottish Office to allow planning inquiry commissions for such matters as oil platform sites, nuclear power stations, airports and petrochemical developments in Scotland, will my hon. Friend at least give an undertaking that he will give serious consideration to setting up such a commission if further developments of national importance and significance, such as further petrochemical developments at Barry Buddon or elsewhere up the East Coast of Scotland, come before him?

We accept that there might be circumstances which would justify the use of these powers. Where the actual planning permission sought by an applicant relates to matters of national or regional importance or unfamiliar technical aspects, which make it impossible for a proper evaluation through a public local inquiry, these powers could very well be appropriate.

Since the Government have no plans to repeal this part of the Act and since the two points which the Minister has just mentioned are matters of a national or regional importance or where the subject is of a particular technical nature—and since both of those apply very much in the case of the Loch Doon inquiry—why did the Secretary of State see fit not to set up a planning inquiry commission in that case but, instead, decide to resort to the entirely inappropriate arrangement of a public inquiry for dealing with local planning matters, which clearly the Loch Doon case is certainly not?

In the case to which the hon. Member refers the planning permission sought relates to the siting of six small portable buildings or caravans and permission for test boring. Therefore, it is not considered appropriate for this procedure to be applied. However, I assure the hon. Member that there will be no restrictions at all on the sort of evidence that can be put before the reporter in that inquiry as long as the reporter feels that it is relevant to the matters on which he has been asked to report.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the purposes of holding a public inquiry is to allay public disquiet, and that sections 44 to 47 of the Act would allow such a planning inquiry commission to take place, which could have precisely this effect? Will he not take account of the fact that the appeal by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority against the original rejection of the planning application by Kyle and Carrick district council included a number of grounds which had everything to do with nuclear waste disposal and nothing at all to do with environmental matters?

The matter which will be the subject of the inquiry in respect of Loch Doon will not by itself determine the very important and controversial issue of waste disposal. Irrespective of the outcome of that inquiry, there will be many steps to be taken and many years will pass before that matter can be resolved. I have not the slightest doubt that there will be a need for further inquiries before any decision can be made on that subject.

Will the Minister explain the difference between the applications that have now been made on behalf of the area of Loch Doon and the applications that were made before the election, to which the Secretary of State objected? Why has the Secretary of State now changed his mind on the position?

There is no question of anyone changing his mind. What we are concerned with is a particular application that is before the Secretary of State. What the Secretary of State has to decide is the most appropriate procedure for determining the very limited question that is the subject of the planning permission that was refused by the local planning authority in this case.

Geriatric Beds

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland how many geriatric beds are presently occupied in the Kirkcaldy constituency area; and how many additional beds for geriatric patients will become available for the same area by 30 November 1980.

The average number of occupied geriatric beds in the Kirkcaldy constituency area for the year ended 31 March 1979 was 127. An additional 14 geriatric beds will be provided in the area on the completion of the upgrading scheme at Forth Park hospital expected in 1980.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware of the tragic circumstances in which many old and infirm people are at present living, and in many cases dying? Will the Minister press the Treasury to give the necessary finance in order to remedy the acute shortage of geriatric beds in my area? At the same time, will he also ask for a fairly large increase in the death grant?

The hon. Gentleman knows that over the past 10 years hon. Members on both sides of the House have been putting questions about the shortage of geriatric beds in the Fife area. The health board has in recent years been making considerable moves to alter the balance here. I entirely appreciate the hon. Gentleman's views on the position of the old and infirm. In respect of that, may I remind the hon. Gentleman, and hon. Members generally, that, in spite of what they may have thought, in the forthcoming year we intend to spend in Scotland £24 million more than is being spent this year on the health services. That is some proof of what the Government feel about the type of person to whom the lion. Member refers.

Education (Expenditure Cuts)

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has made any estimate of the number of primary and secondary schools that will be closed as a result of his decision to reduce expenditure on education.

No, Sir. It is for regional and Islands councils to consider which schools they wish to propose for closure. The major factor which is likely to influence them is the substantial decline in pupil numbers, not the Government's expenditure plans.

Is the Minister aware that over the years, when primary and secondary schools were closed as a result of reorganisation, a solemn promise was given to parents that, as a consequence of the closures, their children would be transported to school? Are the Government giving the message to the country that families in semi-rural or rural areas will be faced with an additional burden of taxation?

The Government's proposals will ensure, as I have already said, that the burden of cost will be more evenly spread. They also ensure that low income families will be safeguarded.

Does my hon. Friend agree that far more harm is being done by way of the depopulation of rural areas through the exaggerated and hysterical scaremongering from the Opposition rather than as a result of the effects of the Education (No. 2) Bill?

It is obvious that both the local authorities and the inhabitants of rural areas have much more sense in these matters than the Opposition.

Will the Minister comment on the announcement that 1,000 school teachers will be shed in Scotland? Will he please accept that the Opposition think it is absolutely tragic that the reduction in the school population is not being used as an opportunity to improve greatly the pupil-teacher ratio? Will he specifically say whether this involves the closure of colleges of education and how many people coming out of the colleges of education will be unable to find a job as a result?

The estimated decline in school numbers for next year is 26,300. The pupil-teacher ratio will improve next year. However, it cannot be surprising, taking both of those factors into account, that there will still be a considerable reduction in the numbers of teachers in employment.

School Meals, Milk And Transport

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will indicate the names of those organisations which have advised him of their support for his proposals on school meals, milk and transport.

None, Sir. The only organisation that has written to me since the Bill was published, however, is one Church of Scotland presbytery, which is concerned about school transport.

In the light of those remarks, would the Minister like to come clean and say just how many people have indicated their horror at these proposals, including the National Farmers Union? Is the Minister aware that one of my rural constituents—recently made redundant by Massey-Ferguson—is faced with having to pay transport fares and increased meal charges for his four children amounting to £27 a week?

With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, there is no way whereby he can know what the cost to his constituent will be until the local authority decides what plans it is going to put forward.

On the subject of the opposition in Scotland to these proposals, does not my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely outrageous that certain Labour councils are giving employees a day's leave with full pay next Wednesday so that they may come down and join a Rentamob crowd lobbying this House?

The Government expect local authorities to act in the best interests of the ratepayers, not in the best interests of trade union popularity.

Does the Under-Secretary of State remember the election press conference given by the leader of the Conservative Party on 23 April when she denied absolutely the suggestion that a Tory Government would put up the charge for school meals by 10p? What estimate has he made of the likely increase in school meals charges? Does he accept that the most regrettable nature of these cuts is that the Government are making the local authorities do their dirty work?

There is no question of the local authorities having to do the Government's dirty work. They are carrying out their responsibilities. As I have already indicated this afternoon, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has welcomed the extra discretion which these measures give to local authorities.

Is the Minister aware that in recent years there has not been a word of criticism from the Conservative Party about the provision of milk, meals and school transport, which would suggest that even the Conservative Party accepted that these were rational, essential and fair provisions all round? What will the Scottish Office do now to reverse this reactionary policy?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will wish to bear in mind the fact that fewer than half of the children in Scottish schools actually take up school meals. Clearly there is something wrong with the system when that is the result. Clearly it is better that the local authorities should be able to provide a service that is more in keeping with the desires of the children.

Have we not heard enough of this hysterical outburst about imposing charges for school meals and rural transport? Will the Minister say quite categorically to the House, once and for all, that there is no obligation whatsoever on any local authority to impose charges for school meals or rural transport and that this matter is purely for the local authority?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. We have in mind the need to contain public expenditure, which is in the interests of reducing the high levels of inflation that we inherited from the Labour Party.

Is it not a fact that to make the savings the Government are proposing that the price of school meals, which is at present 30p, will have to go up next year to between 50p and 60p?

The problem with the school meals service, as I have already said, is that fewer than half of the children actually take up school meals. This means that there is a considerable amount of wastage in the school meals service. It also means that local authorities are in the best position to make improvements and to produce economies.

Fishing Industry

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what recent meetings he has had with representatives of the fishing industry.

I met representatives of the fishing industry in Luxembourg at the time of the Council of Fisheries Miniters on 29 October 1979. My noble Friend the Minister of State attended on my behalf a meeting with representatives of the industry on 25 October in advance of that Council.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he realise that the economic crisis now hitting the fishing industry in general has brought Aberdeen in particular almost to its knees? Can he say when he now intends to give Aberdeen port the same kind of aid that has already been given to Hull, Fleetwood and Grimsby? When can the fishing industry expect a fuel subsidy in the light of the forthcoming fuel rises, in the same way as the French Government give a subsidy to the French fishing industry?

I share my hon. Friend's concern about what is happening in the port of Aberdeen at the moment. I am considering the case which was put to the previous Administration, and which is still before me, about assistance for the port. As to fuel subsidies, as my hon. Friend will know, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is looking into the question whether other countries are taking an unfair advantage by granting a fuel subsidy. I look forward to seeing the results of his investigations.

Has the Secretary of State had any further discussions with the industry over the quota system which, as he knows, has aroused considerable misgivings?

This is one of the aspects that we are continually discussing with our partners in relation to a common fisheries policy. Though we have not reached substantive discussions on that point yet, it is one of the subjects that should form part of our discussion.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that we welcome the sudden support of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) of subsidy for private industry? It is very welcome indeed. Will the Minister go further and make it clear that it is the Government's intention to protect the British fishing industry against all challenges from outside? Will he once again repeat an assurance he gave previously, that it would be quite impossible for his Government to trade off the fishing industry against other aspects of EEC policy?

I am glad to repeat that assurance. We have no intention of considering a common fisheries policy in any context other than that of fisheries policy generally. It is the Government's intention to make sure that our negotiations are based on the essential interests of our own fishing industry. My right hon. Friend and I shall work on that basis.

Will my right hon. Friend say whether he has had any recent discussions on the proposed increase in the White Fish Authority general levy? Is he aware that the processors face difficult times? Has he been able to offer them any comfort?

I am well aware of the difficulties that the processors are experiencing. We are in continual touch with them and other fisheries interests about this. However—and this applies to processors as well as to the rest of the industry—the essential and crying need is to move as fast as we can towards an acceptable common fisheries policy. That is what the Government are concentrating upon.

In view of the continuing uncertainty over the future of the fishing industry, is the Secretary of State ready to inform the House of any progress in the talks that were conducted by the previous Administration on the restructuring of the industry? What financial provision will the Government make for aid for that restructuring if and when it arrives?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern, but I think that he will probably agree that all matters regarding the future of the fishing industry are dominated by the need for a common fisheries policy. That is what prevents us from having detailed discussions on individual aspects at present. A common fisheries policy is the real key to the secure future of the industry which we all seek.

School Transport

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has had with regard to changes he proposes in the statutory requirement on local education authorities to provide free school transport to children who live beyond walking distance to school.

The representations I have received relate mainly to possible charges falling on families in rural areas and families with children attending denominational schools.

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that these changes are savage and discriminatory—discriminatory against children attending denominational schools, discriminatory against the families of farm workers and farmers living in remote areas, and, indeed, discriminatory against Scotland because of the high proportion of people living in rural areas? Will he put an end to these proposals, or do we have to wait until the Tory Members representing rural areas in England do so?

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right. Discrimination in this matter is nothing to do with rural areas. If there was discrimination at present, it would be against those in the urban population who have to pay for the transportation of their children to school while many of those in many rural areas get it free. If local authorities exercise their discretion to impose a flat-rate charge the distance travelled will have no effect whatever on what is paid.

Is the Secretary of State aware that it is wholly specious for him to say, as he did earlier to the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie), that the responsibility for these cuts will lie upon the local authorities and not upon the Government, when the Government are presenting the local authorities with an option to raise the rates or make the cuts?

The point here is that we are at least giving local authorities freedom to decide what is most suitable for their own areas. Some local authorities will decide on one solution and others will decide on quite different solutions. What is essential is that the money we spend from the public purse should be within what the nation can afford and that the resultant expenditure by local authorities should be fair to all concerned. I see no reason whatever why it should not be.

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that those whom he' mentioned in city areas who do not benefit from this particular provision for school transport nevertheless have to pay for it through their rates and taxes? Does he not see that as a great unfairness?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Over many years my own constituents have repeatedly complained at the unfairness of urban children having to pay their fares when others do not have to pay anything.

Does the Secretary of State not concede that some local authorities are already prepared to exercise discretion and provide reasonable support for school transport? Is he aware that this discretion will be jeopardised by a decision to make—in the case of the Central region—one of the denominational schools close and therefore force that local authority to bus children some considerable distance? The likely effect of the closure of St. Mungo's school, Alloa will be that parents will be unable to send their children to that school and that the local authority will be unable to meet the requirements of the 1918 Act.

The hon. Gentleman has failed to appreciate what is likely to happen. If there is a flat-rate charge there will be absolutely no difference in what people pay, irrespective of the distance they travel. Therefore, in a way, one could say that the further they have to travel the greater subsidy they will receive. The flat-rate charge seems to me to be fairer to everyone.

Planning Controls

11.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what progress has been made in relaxing planning controls.

We are discussing with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities widening of the range of developments which automatically obtain planning permission and hope to introduce the necessary legislative changes early next year. We also published on 4 September a list of Government controls over local authorities which we propose to relax.

I thank my hon. Friend for that information. In those discussions may I ask him to take particular care to look at the difficulties presently experienced by small and medium-sized building firms which make up the bulk of the industry? Is he aware that they face difficulties in planning where the areas already designated have been taken up by the much larger firms, leaving the smaller firms in the difficult position of being unable to obtain land to carry out any future project?

I assure my hon. Friend that we agree that the businesses of the type that he has described need help. One of the proposals that we have made for relaxation of planning permission is that industrialists who wish to extend their factories by up to one-fifth or 1,000 square metres shall no longer require planning permission. This is just one way in which we can help people of the kind mentioned by my hon. Friend.

What pressure is the Minister exerting behind closed doors on local authorities to introduce free economic zones within inner urban areas?

This matter has been raised in other quarters, though not simply in relation to planning matters. Obviously the Government are anxious to consider any set of new proposals which will enable jobs and other forms of industry to be attracted to areas that might not otherwise be able to receive the benefit of them.

Colleges Of Education

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland when he intends to meet the principals of the colleges of education.

I have at present no plans for such a meeting, but my Department is in regular contact with all the principals.

Will my hon. Friend consider having such a meeting and drawing to the attention of the principals of the training college the remoteness of many of the training staff from the actual work on the chalk face? Perhaps it is time to suggest to the principals that their staff should take in-service courses back at school in the day-to-day work of the classroom.

From time to time college lecturers are given the opportunity to rediscover the practical problems of the classroom. I understand that this practice is increasing along the lines recommended in the Sneddon report.

Does the hon. Gentleman remember that when we were in government he and his colleagues, aided and abetted by their English counterparts, packed the Scottish Grand Committee to outvote us on this issue? Will he now give us a categoric assurance that the tenacity which they are reputed to have shown on that occasion means that there will be no closures of training colleges and that there will not be a weakening of the intake into these colleges?

The hon. Gentleman is turning a blind eye to the decline in the number of pupils in Scotland. No Government could give a categoric assurance that there will be absolutely no closures, particularly when the number of school pupils is declining.

Will my hon. Friend go a little further and discuss with the principals of the education colleges the possibilities of a scheme for introducing secondment of practical teachers to the education colleges, which would be greatly assisted if their career prospects could be safeguarded?

My hon. Friend's suggestion is worth while, but there are some difficulties at present in the colleges of education. There are staff problems and the numbers of teachers in training are declining. However, I shall consider his suggestion further.

Is the Minister aware that the principals of the colleges of education are baffled by his reluctance to meet them? Is he also aware that they remember with fond affection the days when he used to meet them, when he was only a shadow of his present self? He did so at the drop of a telephone call. He arranged these debates in the Scottish Grand Committee as well. Is he aware that we all wonder why he has suddenly gone so shy?

I have never on any occasion, as a shadow or otherwise, met the principals of the colleges. I have had no request from the principals to meet them during the past six months. I should be very happy to meet them if they wished to arrange such a meeting.

But, Mr. Speaker, I have a letter from the principal of the Callender Park college of education which was dated the beginning of last week and which says that the principals have been seeking a meeting with the Minister, but so far he has refused to see them. I shall give that letter to the Minister. He had better check his facts.

I checked my facts before I came to the House today, as I always do. I can assure the hon. Member that no request has been made to me. Obviously the officials of the Scottish Education Department are in regular contact with the principals. I repeat my offer that if the principals wish to have a meeting with me they have only to ask.

European Regional Development Fund

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what is the total value of grants made towards projects in Scotland by the European regional development fund since 1975.

Scotland has received grants totalling £74 million from the European regional development fund since its inception in 1975.

Will my hon. Friend agree that this represents a considerable benefit to Scotland, particularly in relation to the development of roads and the infrastructure? Will he also agree that this is yet another example of the many benefits that come to Scotland as a result of our membership of the EEC?

I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend. Scotland has received 25 per cent. of the total regional development fund grants that have been paid to the United Kingdom. The total of grants and loans allocated to Scotland from all EEC sources is now in excess of £600 million.

Does the Minister really mean what he said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing) in the Adjournment debate on Monday night when he said that, because of currency fluctuations, we should not, for public expenditure reasons, have long-term borrowing from the European Investment Bank?

That is a slightly different question. I repeat what I said on Monday evening. This is one of the factors under consideration in the review of the activities of the European Investment Bank in the United Kingdom.

Will my hon. Friend agree that the last Government completely failed to make any serious progress on the whole question of ensuring genuine additional funds from the European regional development fund for industrial projects? Will he confirm that this Government will now take that question seriously?

While £74 million seems a lot of income from the EEC, will the Minister try to give us some idea of the percentage of actual work done which this money represents? Will he assure us that the Treasury does not deduct EEC money from the grants given for the total project costs?

The hon. Member must know that we are in line with other countries in the EEC. The amounts received from the regional development fund are more evenly distributed as part of the overall contribution to regional policy. That is what the previous Government did and that is what we are doing.

Petrochemical Development

14.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will report progress on the nature and scope of the hazard audit relating to the planning application for a petrochemical complex at Braefoot Bay and Moss Morran.

The responsibility for carrying out the independent hazard and operability audit required by the conditions that my right hon. Friend attached to the planning permissions which he issued on 9 August rests on the developers, Shell and Esso. There are at present discussions going on between the developers, the planning authorities and the Health and Safety Executive on the nature and scope of the audit.

Will the Minister accept that that is not a satisfactory reply? His right hon. Friend just cannot adopt an arm's length relationship for this exercise. Will he take a specific opportunity to refute the assertions made in The Sunday Times that the Government intend to downgrade the environmental aspects of this project in order to get the benefits of substantial exports? It is very important to have the Goverment's position made clear on this matter.

If the reply was not satisfactory, it was because the question was not satisfactory either. I assure the hon. Member that the conditions imposed by the Secretary of State were stronger than those proposed by the previous Secretary of State in that the hazard analysis was not just to be to the satisfaction of the local planning authority, but to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State himself. This ensures not only that my right hon. Friend will not delegate or remove any responsibility that he may have for the matter, but that decisions will be taken and decided upon the light of all the evidence.

If the hon. Member makes his point of order now I shall be unable to call another hon. Member to ask a supplementary question.

Will my hon. Friend undertake to look into the question of jurisdiction, and who is responsible for the creation of contingency plans to deal with any emergency which might conceivably arise in the Forth estuary as a result of the developments taking place at Braefoot Bay?

I assure my hon. Friend that part of the purpose of the hazard analysis is to look very closely at the question of who should respond should any emergency arise. I would certainly assume that the local authority and the emergency services provided by that authority would be involved in any final services that were made available.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply I give notice that I shall ask leave to raise this matter on the Adjournment.

Rate Support Grant

15.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the rate support grant settlement.

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which I gave on 19 November to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat).

Is the Secretary of State aware that that answer, which people may read if they are able to obtain that particular copy of Hansard, will cause great concern to the ratepayers in Scotland? Is he also aware that the reduction of £103 million in expenditure next year compared with the current year, will mean a catastrophic drop in either services or jobs, or both?

Nobody enjoys reducing the amount of money available for public services. I certainly do not. The hon. Member must appreciate that the expenditure plans left by the previous Government were completely unrealistic and quite impossible for the country's finances to afford.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that it is generally recognised that it is a considerable achievement to maintain the rate support grant at 68½ per cent., which is 7½ per cent. higher than the English equivalent? He is thus recognising Scotland's needs.

I thank my hon. Friend. His comments are in sharp contrast to some of the scare stories that have been put out by the Labour Party. It is interesting to note that in spite of the difficulties about public expenditure, we have been able to maintain expenditure on certain services, such as law and order, the health service and the social services. The reductions in education are less than the reduction in the number of pupils, and there is an increase in pupil-teacher ratios.

In view of the fact that the RSG settlement will mean subsantial increases in local rates and serious cuts in services, will the Secretary of State consider asking the Leader of the House to give more time to debate the rate support grant order? We need more than the usual one and a half hours.

That is very much a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I shall draw his attention to the hon. Member's remarks.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that one of the aspects of the rate support grant that is most welcome to ratepayers is the fact that he is actually giving positive encouragement to efficient regional authorities, such as Grampian, and introducing a spur to spendthrift Socialist authorities which are wasting the ratepayers' money?

I thank my hon. Friend. It has been a matter of concern to me that the old system would have encouraged authorities that spend excessively and get more grants from doing so. The changes that I have made will make that more difficult.

Is the Secretary of State frightened to give an estimate of the rate increases next year? Will not the settlement last Friday mean increases of at least 20 per cent. and perhaps considerably more?

Nobody knows what the rate increases might be next year until local authorities make their decisions. If local authorities are prudent, and make the reductions in expenditure that I have suggested, there should be no increases in rates above what would have normally been the case.

Out-Patients (Ambulance Provision)

16.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he will make a statement on the provision of ambulances for out-patients attending hospitals in Scotland.

My right hon. Friend's statutory obligation is to make such provision as he thinks necessary to ensure that ambulance transport is available for all who reasonably require it. No change in that position is envisaged.

Is the Minister aware that the health boards in Scotland have received a circular from the Common Services Agency stating that no physiotherapy walking cases will be conveyed by ambulance or by hospital car; that no walking out-patients will be conveyed by ambulance or hospital car and that there will be limitations on the times at which out-patients can be picked up and taken back to their homes? Is that not a serious cut in the health services? Will the Minister now admit that this is taking place and that there has been a change in his policy?

I repeat what I said earlier. There is no cut in health services expenditure. There is an increase of £24 million and the ambulance services will benefit from that. A circular has been sent out from the ambulance service to health boards because of the trouble experienced with such things as hoaxes and also in the light of the Clegg award to the ambulance men. We have tried to have treatment carried out during the day rather than incur excessive overtime payments. With these and other economies we think that we shall be able to divert more attention to those in real need rather than to peripheral activities. That is why we are increasing the scope of the car service as a back-up to the ambulance service.

Lord Justice General

43.

asked the Solicitor-General for Scotland when next he plans to meet the Lord Justice General.

44.

asked the Solicitor-General for Scotland when he intends next to meet the Lord Justice General.

No date has been fixed for me to meet the Lord Justice General but my noble Friend the Lord Advocate has frequent informal meetings with the Lord Justice General from time to time whenever necessary.

When my hon. and learned Friend meets the Lord Justice General will he discuss with him the number of criminal legal aid cases where pleas of not guilty are adhered to either until just before the trial commences or until just after the start of the trial? Does he not consider this to be an abuse of the legal aid system?

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that question. This is a matter which is causing us very serious concern. Legal aid is limited in quantity and it is essential that the best use should be made of it. Furthermore, it puts a great strain on inconvenience on witnesses, juries and others who have to turn up, if trials are settled at the last minute. My noble Friend the Lord Advocate and myself are looking at every possible means of ensuring that pleas of guilty are tendered early. If my hon. Friend, or any other person, has any suggestions as to how that can be achieved, we shall be more than ready to consider them.

When my hon. and learned Friend next meets the Lord Justice General, will he raise with him the unsatisfactory way in which many cases of incest are being reported in the press, leading to easy identification of the child or children involved? Does he not agree that this is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs and will he consider including a tightening-up of provisions in any future criminal justice Bill?

Yes. My noble Friend and I are concerned to protect the interests of children involved in incest proceedings and to prevent their identification. To that end, prior to bringing any case to court, procurators fiscal are instructed not to release information which might lead to the identification of a child or family. Once the case is in court—if it is a solemn matter in terms of section 169 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975—the court may direct that no report of the proceeding shall be made. In the absence of such a direction, it is a matter for the discretion of the press. I think that the press uses that discretion with great responsibility. However, in summary proceeding under section 374 of the Act the prohibition is absolute unless it is lifted. In any future criminal justice Bill we hope to tighten up procedures to ensure that children are not identified.

Will the Solicitor-General for Scotland revert to the abuse of the legal aid scheme? Does not he agree that the vast majority of members of the legal profession certainly do not abuse the scheme, which is an essential bulwark of individual liberty? Will the hon. and learned Gentleman take this opportunity of dissociating himself from the generalised smears of the profession which, sadly, have come, from among others, the retiring chief inspector of constabulary in Scotland who suggested that there is widespread abuse of the scheme by the legal profession?

I am not responsible for the remarks of the retiring chief inspector of constabulary in Scotland, but I know that the hon. Member is as keen as I am that the legal aid system should be properly used. In a way he is in a position to help, in ensuring that where a plea of guilty will be the proper and final resolution of a criminal matter, it is given earlier rather than later.

Will the Solicitor-General for Scotland make sure that his colleagues at the Scottish Office are informed of the inquiry which is to take place into the abuse of the legal aid scheme? This matter was debated extensively this morning in the Committee considering a statutory instrument, when the Under-Secretary did not seem to be aware that an inquiry was going on.

I think that what the hon. Gentleman says is somewhat unlikely. Legal aid is presently restricted and we are anxious that more people should be able to take advantage of it in litigation. Any abuse of it reduces the rights of other people. That is a deplorable situation.

When my hon. and learned Friend next meets the Lord Justice General will he be in a position to indicate to him that the long-awaited criminal procedure reforms recommended by the Committee sitting under the late Lord Thompson will be legislated upon in the near future?

The answer is that I shall be able to assure the Lord Justice General. I hope that he will be pleased.

When the Solicitor-General for Scotland meets the Lord Justice General, will he follow the excellent example of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in suspending an obnoxious law? Will he inform the Lord Justice General that he intends to suspend the forthcoming criminal justice Bill, with its obnoxious provisions for stop, search and arrest?

No, I will not make any such recommendation. When the forthcoming criminal justice Bill is available to the House and the public I think that it will get a warm welcome. I know very few people who would rather be stabbed than be searched for a weapon so as to ensure that they are not stabbed.

Criminal Cases (Statistics)

45.

asked the Solicitor-General for Scotland what was the average length of time from first appearance to final disposal in criminal cases in Scotland in 1978.

To give an average figure for the whole of Scotland in 1978 would be misleading because of regional fluctuations in the length of time between first appearance and final disposal. To give one overall average would also be misleading because of the differences between solemn and summary procedure. However, at present it appears that in summary cases where a person is detained in custody the average length of time between the first appearance and trial is two to three weeks. Where the person is not detained in custody, the average length of time concerned is between 14 and 18 weeks. In solemn proceedings cases the average length of time between full committal and disposal is approximately 19 weeks.

I thank the Solicitor-General for Scotland for that reply. Will he say whether the figures for 1978 are satisfactory and likely to be about the same in 1980? I leave out 1979 because of the clerks' strike which obviously affected the figures. Are the particular problems, for example in cases of fraud and embezzlement, causing cases to last an unusually long time?

We are always seeking to make improvements. I say, with respect, that the Scottish figures relating to the time between indictment and disposal of a case are extremely favourable when compared to those south of the Border. In cases of fraud, embezzlement and the like, the delays are inevitably distressingly long because of the multiplicity of complications. I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman and give him the figures, which are very encouraging, but which are subject to considerable fluctuation.

Will the Solicitor-General discuss with the Lord Advocate the possible withdrawal of Crown Office circular 1643 and its noisome aspect of compiling a secret national and local register of cases that are not necessarily brought before the courts?

I shall always discuss such matters with my noble Friend, but the document is not a secret document and the register is not a secret register. It is a confidential record. All I can say is that I am rather surprised that a Labour Member should again raise this matter as one of such importance, because when we offered to have a matter-day debate Labour Members declined to have one.