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Economic Trends

Volume 98: debated on Wednesday 4 June 1986

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1.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland when he will next meet the general secretary and general council of the Scottish Trades Union Congress to discuss economic trends in Scotland.

I am to meet a delegation from the General Council of the Scottish Trades Union Congress on 20 June 1986.

When the Secretary of State meets the general council, will he concede that, from the evidence of the local election results and the results of the System 3 opinion poll that have been made available to us today, the people of Scotland want no part of this Government's policies? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman align himself with members of the Cabinet and some of the senior Conservative Back Benchers who are asking for a change in policy? Is he aware that in Motherwell there is 22 per cent. unemployment? Will he show some compassion for the unemployed in Scotland, and in Motherwell in particular?

I doubt whether the STUC will wish to discuss local elections or the System 3 opinion polls. As to unemployment, since the Conservative Government came into office the regional seletive assistance provided by the Government has helped to create 2,977 new jobs in Motherwell, and the Motherwell project, to which the Government-funded Scottish Development Agency contributes, has helped to create a further 2,000 new jobs. The hon. Gentleman will be fair enough to acknowledge that the Government, both directly and indirectly, have made an important contribution towards job creation in his constituency.

In his discussions with the STUC, will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind the problems facing the oil rig construction yards in Scotland? In particular, will he do what he can to ensure an even and fair distribution of work among the yards in Scotland at this anxious time?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the concern that we feel about the possible implications for oil rig construction of the oil companies' plans. I use every opportunity to press on them the fact that any investment made now will be for a return over the next 10 to 15 years, and so they should base their plans on what is likely to happen to oil prices over that time and not indulge in a panic reaction to current short-term fluctuations in the price of oil.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Moray (Mr. Pollock), when the Secretary of State meets the STUC, will he, thinking of my constituency interest and that of the hon. Member's, pay attention to the responsible and constructive efforts that the STUC has been making? Will he ensure that whichever yard, be it Ardersier of Nigg, wins the. Shell Eider contract, the Government will do everything humanly possible to ensure that as much as possible of the subcontracted work associated with the contract goes to the unsuccessful yard? Is he aware that the social impact for the yard that loses will be devastating, given the levels of unemployment in our respective constituencies?

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern to ensure the maximum work for both yards, and the whole House would wish to see that. There are major constraints on any Government in terms of directing individual items of work to a particular yard, but one hopes that the end result will involve a suitable work load for both yards.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the most significant economic trends is that Scotland has moved from being one of the lowest paid to one of the wealthiest areas in the United Kingdom, during which period the United Kingdom has enjoyed five years of continuous economic growth?

My hon. Friend is correct. Outside the south-east of England and East Anglia, Scotland has a higher income and gross domestic product per capita than almost any other part of the United Kingdom, and that is not a claim that could have been made in 1979.

When the right hon. and learned Gentleman meets the STUC, the general council will be able to tell him that coal production at some Scottish pits will cease. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us when his Department authorised the South of Scotland Electricity Board to place the Scottish mining industry in this peril?

At no time. The South of Scotland Electricity Board acts under statutory powers and determines what is appropriate in the interests of the consumers whom it is designed to serve. At no time does it either seek or require authorisation from the Scottish Office for any such decisions.

When my right hon. and learned Friend next meets the STUC, will he draw to its attention the fact that inflation is now at its lowest level for many decades and that with inflation standing at 3 per cent. wage increases and demands in excess of that are likely to put more jobs at risk and in peril if we are to remain competitive? Will my right hon. and learned Friend also draw its attention to how popular he personally is north Tayside and to the fact that we are looking forward to his visit on 21 June and that his popularity was probably reflected in the good results that we had in the regional elections?

I am certainly looking forward to my visit to my hon. Friend's constituency on 21 June. I can think of no better way of spending my birthday than in my hon. Friend's constituency. With regard to my forthcoming meeting with the STUC, one of the points that I shall certainly be mentioning to them, in addition to the comments made by my hon. Friend, is that over 50,000 more people are in employment in Scotland today than there were in 1983 at the time of the last general election.

If the Minister is so confident about employment, what does he intend to do about Springburn? The railway works have suffered a terrible blow during the last week. To add insult to injury, there is an apprentice training school on those premises which has machinery and equipment to cater for 110 apprentices. Not one apprentice has been trained there during the past 18 months. The padlock has been put on the door. That is a ridiculous situation in the engineering capital of Scotland. The west of Scotland should be training young engineers if the economy is to take a turn for the better.

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the implications for the Springburn employees. He will be aware that that arises out of decisions that affected a number of similar establishments in various parts of the United Kingdom. With regard to his particular question about the training of the young, he will be aware of the enormous resources that the Government are pouring into youth training. Over £1 billion is being spent on youth training. This is helping to provide very appropriate training, which is enabling more than 60 per cent. of the youngsters who get this training to go immediately into full-time employment at the end of their training period. That is something which no previous Government have done.

Will the Secretary of State say what prospects for long-term economic advance can be expected in Scotland when Scottish universities are faced with closure and redundancies? What action does he intend to take with his right hon. Friend and the English controlled University Grants Commission——

Order. Does this question relate to the general council of the Scottish Trades Union Congress?

It relates to the economic aspects and to the need for improved technology. Will the Minister answer that question?

On the wider economic aspects, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no question of any university facing closure. My right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Education and Science made it clear that the Government were prepared to consider further resources for the university sector. That is a matter that the universities will wish to take into account.

When my right hon. and learned Friend meets the STUC, will he take the opportunity to ask it to condemn the unilateral action taken by the new Socialist administration on the Lothian regional council in reducing dramatically expenditure on Scottish infrastructure by cancelling the Lothian relief road and thus destroying jobs in Scotland?

It is certainly of interest that the first significant decision of the new controlling group on the Lothian regional council was to announce a major cut in public expenditure, which therefore removed the prospect of many jobs being created.

If the Secretary of State is so concerned about levels of public spending, is he in a position to give the STUC a guarantee that the Scottish Office budget will not be affected by the rather primitive and much advertised approach to housing finance of the new Secretary of State for the Environment? Will he also recognise that, despite the somewhat comic opera loyalty of those on the Benches behind him, there is a growing fear in Scotland about the level of unemployment and that the Scottish economy has reached a point of no return? Will he recall that he has had an approach from the Strathclyde regional council, and I think also from the STUC, which supports the initiative, arguing the case for an economic summit where all parts of Scottish life—academic, industrial, and, no doubt, political—can discuss the need for a change of direction to recover the situation? May we have a positive response to that appeal and, if so, when will it come?

I frankly doubt whether proposals for a summit are likely to prove a sensible way forward, but I am always interested to hear any constructive suggestions either from the regional council or the STUC, which will be coming to see me on 20 June, or any other bodies. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the allocation of resources to the Scottish Office stems directly from a formula system. Indeed, if I recall correctly, that formula system was introduced under the previous Labour Government.