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Scotland

Volume 170: debated on Wednesday 28 March 1990

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Drugs

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what extra resources he is making available to Strathclyde police to enable them to fight against the significant increase in drug abuse and drug-related crime; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland
(Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

The provision of resources for Strathclyde police is a matter for Strathclyde regional council as police authority. My right hon. and learned Friend stands ready to pay police grant on the council's net approved expenditure on the police service.

I am disappointed by the Minister's reply. Is he aware of the concern felt by thousands of parents in my constituency about the increase in drug and alcohol abuse and in related crimes there? This year, Glasgow is meant to be the city of culture, but it is becoming better known in Europe as the city of drugs. I am saddened by the Minister's response. Is he further aware of the increased use of firearms in drugs offences? Will he take on board early-day motion 771, which deals with the need for gun control, and support Strathclyde police force in calling for stricter firearms laws and controls over those licensed to use guns?

Last year, we tightened up the law on firearms ownership—and I voted through the night for that legislation. As to the number of police officers working on the extremely serious problem to which the hon. Gentleman refers, Strathclyde drugs squad now has 34 officers in comparison with only 18 in 1979. The Glasgow drugs wing of the Scottish crime squad has 10 officers, and another will be added later this year. Uniformed and CID officers also co-operate in dealing with the problem. Strathclyde police are under establishment by 130 officers, and the hon. Gentleman would be well advised to make representations to his colleagues on the police authority, as to the need to bring that force up to strength.

Is the Minister aware that Strathclyde police officers also work in Argyll and Bute on drug-related crime, not least because of the length of the coastline there? Does he agree that they would undertake those duties more happily if they were not seriously disadvantaged in comparison with colleagues outwith that area? Eighty per cent. of police in Argyll and Bute live in tied houses. Although I agree with the provision of such accommodation, police are not permitted to buy those houses, and have been disadvantaged since the rates relief portion of their rent allowance was abolished. Will the Minister examine that anomaly?

We recognised that police officers in provided accommodation were at a disadvantage in comparison with colleagues owning their own houses, which is why we made provision in the regulations that come into effect on 1 April for an allowance of £300 per annum for officers in provided accommodation, which will continue for three years. The right to buy obviously depends on whether the property is surplus to requirements, which is a matter for consideration by the chief constable in each authority.

Will my hon. Friend encourage police forces in Strathclyde and elsewhere in Scotland to use referral schemes, so that people suffering from drug misuse, and falling within the ambit of police forces, can be referred to voluntary organisations for help with treatment—as well as being brought within the law?

There are Home Office plans for the deployment of local drug prevention teams, but they are still at an early stage. We shall be monitoring developments in the first small group of local teams in England. The new central drug prevention unit, as an executive arm of the ministerial group on the misuse of drugs, will have a British role and we are conscious of the need for rehabilitation and education, on which we are spending substantial sums.

Fishing Industry

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he next intends to meet the executive members of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation to discuss the current state of the fishing industry.

My noble Friend the Minister of State and I last met representatives of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation on 7 February, and my noble Friend did so on 8 March; in addition, my officials are in regular contact with the federation. It has not asked for a further meeting.

Does the Secretary of State understand the deep sense of apprehension felt in the fishing community, in the fish processing sector and by all those who derive their living from the fishing industry in Scotland? Will he now undertake to consider a package of measures to alleviate that concern, and in particular give serious consideration to the introduction of a decomissioning scheme?

I understand that concern. I have had some extremely valuable discussions with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. I am aware of the concern that a reduction in quotas might have implications for fishermen's income. That is why we have been monitoring carefully what has been happening in the fishing industry since the beginning of the year. So far, it is encouraging that the value of fish landed in Scotland is slightly higher over the first two months of this year than the value of fish landed a year ago. There is no proof that that will continue, but it is encouraging at this stage that the increased prices will help to offset the reduced amount of fish being caught.

Why does the Secretary of State persist with his irrationally vindictive policy of driving the Scottish fleet into bankruptcy? Why does not he take into account the fact that European Community money is available and consider having a proper decommissioning scheme and a proper lay-up scheme? It is no use his saying that prices can take care of the problems when he knows that with boats being allowed to go to sea only 92 days a year, it is quite impossible for the price of fish to rise that much and still produce income without causing great hardship to the owners of vessels and to all those employed in the fishing industry in Scotland.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will listen carefully: the value of fish landed in Scotland this year is slightly higher than the value of fish landed last year. As we are only in the early part of the year, that will not necessarily continue, but it is important that we bear it in mind. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the decommissioning scheme was the subject of an extremely critical report by the Public Accounts Committee, and the House and the industry must take into account the critical remarks that were made about previous decommissioning schemes.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend analyse carefully the financial returns to the industry in the first part of the year? Admittedly, the returns have been good, but they relate to a very small proportion of the fleet. The rest of the fleet has not been able to go to sea on account of bad weather. Because they are restricted to 92 days, they cannot recoup the losses incurred in the early part of the year as they would in a normal year. Will my right hon. and learned Friend please understand the deep apprehension that still exists in the industry, to the extent that fishermen are now considering legal action against him? I ask him in particular to reconsider a decommissioning scheme.

Naturally, we shall continue carefully to monitor what is happening in the industry. I know that my right hon. Friend will be the first to agree that the financial implications of the reduced quotas must be examined. The value of the fish landed is a factor that determines fishermen's incomes and we cannot ignore the fact that it is marginally higher this year. Obviously, legal challenges are a matter for the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and ultimately, if the matter is considered by the courts we shall all respect the outcome of the judgment, if it goes that far.

Public Housing (Dampness)

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what recent representations he has received from local authorities and other organisations about the need to direct further investment to tackling dampness in public sector housing.

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what recent representations he has received from local authorities and other organisations about the need to direct further investment to tackling dampness in public sector housing.

No such representations have been received. I am pleased to say that I am today announcing the final housing capital allocations to local authorities for 1990–91. The final gross allocations have been increased by £46·5 million compared with the provisional allocations that I announced last December. That will benefit all housing authorities in Scotland. Of the increase, £41·1 million is in respect of expenditure on local authorities' own stock. Full details of the final allocations have been placed in the Library and the Vote Office.

Does the Minister recall that the Scottish Development Department's own house conditions survey showed that more than 500,000 houses in Scotland were suffering from dampness, of which 370,000 were in the public sector, and that that dampness was creating major health problems, particularly for youngsters and children with chest problems such as bronchitis? As last week the Secretary of State reshuffled some £4 million to save his political skin and the skin of his party, will a substantial proportion of the allocation that he has announced be spent specifically on the eradication of dampness?

I visited 39 district councils, none of which pressed me to make specific allocations because they want the discretion to choose their own priorities. What the hon. Lady says about the seriousness of dampness is true. Moray district council has today been given an extra allocation of £676,000, and on the non-housing revenue account an extra allocation of £50,000. Every authority in Scotland will benefit from the extra allocation of £41·1 million to the housing revenue account, except West Lothian, which has been allocated everything that it asked for. It also benefits on the non-HRA.

Given that over 520,000 houses in Scotland suffer from dampness, which affects the lives and health of many Scottish people, the amount of money that has been allocated is inadequate to meet the problem. Even to recycle money within the Scottish Office budget, Ministers must go cap in hand to the Secretary of State, who must go cap in hand to the Prime Minister. If the Prime Minister dominates the Scottish Office, she should be answerable, because Ministers certainly are not. When will we get action to solve major health and housing problems, which are nothing less than a national disgrace?

The extra allocation of £46·5 million is being made not as a result of recycling within the Scottish Office but on the basic assumption that it is possible to process council house sales within seven and a half months. Some authorities in Scotland have taken well over a year to do that, but we know that, in two years, processing has been completed within less than eight months. Last Sunday, the Sunday Mail said:

"It's not a shortage of cash that's causing chaos, but massive delays by some district councils' house selling operations."

The Government have created a national housing agency, Scottish Homes, which owns more than 70,000 houses in the public sector. How can it possibly tackle dampness when, according to its strategic investment plan, investment in those 70,000 houses has been placed at the bottom of six different spending priorities? Is not that an obscene order of priorities and does not it represent a sell-out of Scottish Homes' tenants and Scottish Homes' stock?

The Scottish Special Housing Association and Scottish Homes have a good reputation among their tenants for spending sufficient funds on management and maintenance of council house stock. Most of their houses are in relatively good condition. It is for them to choose their priorities, and obviously they will do so. If the hon. Gentleman has any particular problems in his constituency, I should be glad if he drew them to the attention of Scottish Homes and myself.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that 74 per cent. of houses that suffer from dampness are in the public sector is a condemnation of the policies of Scottish local housing authorities?

It is important that housing authorities have the discretion to choose priorities within their areas. These problems are found not only in the public sector but in the private sector, and today we have made an additional allocation to the non-HRA as well.

Is the Minister aware how blindly complacent he sounds when he speaks on the subject of dampness? Does not he understand the enormous human misery caused to thousands of Scots through their having to live in damp houses? Does he accept the overwhelming scientific evidence that dampness in housing causes ill health? If he does, will he stop mouthing meaningless statistics that no one in Scotland believes and invest the massive amount of money necessary to eradicate that unacceptable and unnecessary scourge for ever?

The hon. Gentleman seems to think that £46·5 million is to be sniffed at. His authority in Glasgow has today been allocated more than £9 million extra on the housing revenue account and £2 million on the non-HRA. He should address his comments to his district council which, no doubt, will take them seriously. The average increase throughout Scotland is 9·8 per cent., and that should not be underestimated.

Community Care

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what extra provision he has planned for the community care of mentally ill citizens and those people who are mentally handicapped in 1990–91.

Government support to local authorities in 1990–91 through revenue support grant will take account of likely additional costs arising from the introduction of the new community care arrangements, including services to those with a mental illness or a mental handicap.

Does the Minister agree that one important aspect of community care is the provision of sheltered employment? Is not one of the finest examples of that the sheltered placement scheme, which provides some 350 permanent jobs for those with mental handicaps? As there are about 14,000 mentally handicapped people in Strathclyde region alone, will the Government give an assurance that they will increase their share of that scheme's budget, as Strathclyde regional council has done? When will the Government provide proper community care for those with mental handicap and illness?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the success of the sheltered placement scheme, which has received strong Government support. Our commitment to the needs of those with mental illness or handicap is reflected in the fact that the social work budget has planned provision increasing over 11 years by 75 per cent. in real terms. That is a substantial increase.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the difference between Labour and Conservative health care policies is the difference between talk and action? The Labour party talks whereas the Conservative party has spent more than three times as much on health care in Scotland over the past 10 years.

My hon. Friend is right. It is not insignificant that the title of our White Paper was "Caring for People". The interests of those in especially vulnerable groups have been brought to the forefront in the provision for community care.

When will the Minister bring together the social work services group and the Scottish Home and Health Department to achieve proper planning and co-ordinated policies for Scotland? One of the advantages of the Scottish Office is supposed to be a corporate approach, but it does not exist. There are twice as many mentally ill people and one and a half times as many mentally handicapped people in hospital in Scotland as there are in England and Wales. When will the Minister and the Scottish Office show some leadership in this matter?

The figures show a dramatic improvement in our provision compared with that of the previous Labour Government. Residential places for the mentally ill have increased by 88 per cent. since we took office; there has been a 73 per cent. increase for the mentally handicapped; and the community health services budget generally is up by 57 per cent. in real terms over the decade. That is a dramatic increase. We have found the resources to follow up our care in this important area.

Water Authorities (Debts)

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if Her Majesty's Government intend to write off any of the current outstanding debts of Scottish water authorities.

Debt was written off in connection with water privatisation in England and Wales. As we have no proposals to privatise the Scottish water authorities, the issue does not arise.

The Secretary of State might say that the issue does not arise, but, as the Treasury gave £5 billion to the water authorities in England and Wales in this financial year, does not that mean that nothing equivalent has been given to Scottish authorities, with the result that every poll tax payer is paying a higher element of community charge than would otherwise be the case? Should not the right hon. and learned Gentleman have another of his cosy chats with the Prime Minister and point out the injustice of that as well?

The right hon. Gentleman is uncharacteristically misinformed. First, he is unaware that expenditure on water and sewerage in Scotland will be more than £500 million over the next three years—a major increase which we announced recently. Secondly, he is unaware that Scottish water consumers actually pay significantly less than consumers south of the border. The average cost per Scottish water consumer is £40·62 compared with an English average of £55·12. For metered water users, there is a similar difference of which he should have been aware.

I acknowledge the extra money for investment that my right hon. and learned Friend has allocated for water and sewerage, but will he also recognise the problem facing regional councils such as Grampian? In recent years, Grampian has had to invest large sums in water and sewerage services because of the service that the council gives to the development of North sea oil. As a result, traditional industries in Grampian such as fish processing, food processing in general and the paper industry must bear charges out of all proportion to those of similar industries elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

I am very familiar with the point that my right hon. Friend has raised. He will be aware that water charges in Grampian are much the same as those in England. In addition, Grampian regional council, which has received advice from the Scottish Office about the council's discretion to vary water costs for certain classess of its consumers, has—if I am not mistaken—reduced some of its water charges this year as a result of that discretion.

When the Secretary of State says that he has no plans to privatise the water industry in Scotland, is he aware of the speech made by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), to what he described as the new Right in Scotland, in which he said that the Conservative party had not yet run out of things to privatise in Scotland? Will the Secretary of State give us an absolute assurance that water is not included in the speech made by his hon. Friend, or is he still afraid of him?

I can give the hon. Gentleman a categorical assurance that we have not run out of things to privatise in Scotland, and water is not one of them.

Fishing Industry

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what discussions he has had with representatives of the Scottish fishing industry since the announcement on 8 March of measures to restrict fishing activity.

My noble Friend the Minister of State met representatives of the Scottish fishing industry on the day of the announcement.

I am sure that, from his contacts with fishermen and the fishing industry, the Minister will know that one of the great weaknesses in the present conservation regime is the number of fish that are discarded into the sea. Does he agree that the measures announced on 8 March will do nothing to stop that fault in the regime? The problem will not be tackled properly until the Government are prepared to come forward with measures that bring the catching capacity of the fleet into line with fishing opportunities. Is it not the case that any efforts on the part of the Scottish Office to do that are being frustrated by its English counterparts?

No, that is not the case. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises that conservation is vital, which is also recognised by our colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as well as by the Scottish Office. With regard to the announcement about haddock, there was an option to move to nets with a wider mesh of 110 mm, but the vast majority of fishermen opted instead for the more restricted number of days' fishing.

The restriction of fishing activities off the west coast of Scotland must have as its aim the protection of the west coast fishermen, who fear—rightly and understandably—an incursion into their traditional fishing grounds by the bigger vessels from elsewhere in Scotland. With regard to discards, mentioned by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), what consultation have the Government been involved in on the harsh measures threatened by the Norwegian Government and the banning of discards on catches in their waters? That ban will affect some north-east Scottish fishermen.

I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about the interests of west coast fishermen. We are looking closely at that point with a view to bringing forward a consultation paper at an early date, which may, for example, canvass the possibility of a weekend ban on fishing in west coast inshore waters.

School Assemblies

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has any legislative proposals relating to the conduct of school assemblies; and if he will make a statement.

All education authority schools in Scotland are required by law to practise religious observance. My right hon. and learned Friend intends to issue shortly draft guidance on how this and other aspects of religious education might be strengthened.

Does my hon. Friend agree that all pupils should have a sound knowledge of the Christian religion and that that can be substantially achieved through well-conducted school assemblies? Does he think that those assemblies would be enriched by the regular singing of "I vow to thee my country", meaning Great Britain of course? Perhaps the singing of that great hymn would enrich our prayers in the House.

Yes, or perhaps the singing of "Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom." It is certainly our intention in bringing forward the consultation paper to find ways of strengthening religious observance and religious education in schools. That is part of our purpose.

Does the Minister agree that the Scots do not require advice on religious education or practices in schools or anywhere else, and certainly not from sources in England where the average attendance in church on Sundays is less than 2 per cent? Does he further agree that perhaps school assemblies could join in observing the Church of Scotland's day of prayer against the poll tax? Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), could advise the education authorities and the school chaplains to do just that.

I am only a Minister of the Crown and I cannot aspire to those greater insights to which ministers of the Kirk aspire. There is a need for improved religious observance in schools, and the characteristics of that should be more frequent. It should be more regular and of high quality.

Ayrshire And Arran Health Board

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last met the chairman of Ayrshire and Arran health board; and what was discussed.

I regularly meet health board chairmen to discuss a variety of topics.

No doubt when the hon. Gentleman met the health board chairman in Ayrshire he discussed the question of opting out. I wish that I had been a fly on the wall at the time. Is the Minister aware that in the Glasgow Herald of 19 March, Bill Fyfe, the chairman of the health board, made it clear that in his opinion only doctors could decide the question of hospitals opting out, that it could not be decided otherwise, and that opting-out cannot be rammed down their threats? Will the Minister therefore refrain from ramming the idea of opting-out down the throats of doctors and consultants in Ayrshire and elsewhere? Will he give an undertaking to abandon opting-out since little interest in it has been shown by doctors, or will he at least allow opting-out only where a majority of those working in hospitals have agreed to accept it?

I am very much aware that Mr. Bill Fyfe, the chairman of the health board, rejected the view expressed by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), in his role as paid columnist for the GlasgowHerald, to the effect that the proposals that are being discussed in Ayrshire and Arran for self-governing status for that hospital were in in no way linked to any possibility of development of phase two of that hospital. Whether a proposal comes forward will depend entirely on the discussions that are taking place and on whether the consultants believe that it is in the interests of patient care.

Will the Minister take time to visit the chairman of the Greater Glasgow health board? He will know from correspondence that he has received from me that some patients in Springburn are not shown on the records of the Greater Glasgow health board as being with their doctors. As a result, some patients who have been with their doctors since 1935 are not recorded as being on their GP's list. That means that the general practitioner is not being paid for those patients. It is ridiculous that Greater Glasgow health board does not have proper records.

I take that as support by the hon. Gentleman for the proposals by Greater Glasgow health board to privatise its medical records in order to improve the service.

Can the Minister answer the simple question that was put to him initially and say when he met the chairman of the Ayrshire and Arran health board? Does he recall that the working paper on self-governing hospitals that was produced by his Department stated:

"It will be for boards to give all proposals … local publicity. They will seek the views of those with an interest," including
"staff affected, general practitioners, local health councils and the local community"?
Has that working paper become waste paper? Or, if the Minister still believes in an element of democratic consent, how will the promise to consult the staff of hospitals that may opt out be implemented?

The hon. Gentleman seems somewhat confused. If he has read that working paper he will know the process whereby hospitals become NHS trusts. The first stage is an expression of interest; the hospital in Ayr has not even reached that stage yet. The second stage is that, if the Secretary of State considers it appropriate that the expression of interest should be followed up, a plan will be prepared. At that stage there will be full consultation, not only with the doctors but with the wider community, as spelt out in the document to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Investment

10.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how much inward investment has taken place in Scotland over the last five years; and what steps he is taking to encourage further such investment.

Over the five years to the end of March 1989, Locate in Scotland recorded planned investment by companies of about £2·4 billion, associated with the intended creation or safeguarding of more than 40,000 jobs. Locate in Scotland is continuing to promote Scotland vigorously as a location for inward investment, and I have recently increased its staffing.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, since 1981, a total of 60,000 jobs have been attracted to Scotland as a result of the Government's policies, and that they almost certainly would not have been attracted in those numbers had a Labour Government been in power, because the Opposition are anti-business? Does he also agree that the Government's inward investment programme is being maintained, as is evidenced by the 2,000 jobs that have just been attracted to Scotland as a result of Motorola coming there? Will my hon. Friend kindly leave some jobs for the rest of the United Kingdom?

I would not argue with my hon. Friend about the exact number of jobs that have been created, but certainly a number of indirect jobs follow from the direct jobs that have been created, and they are substantial in number. Over the past five years about 300 projects have been attracted to Scotland, which is an average of one a week every week for five years. That is a dramatic advertisement of the qualities that Scotland has to offer.

If the hon. Member for Beverley (Mr. Cran), who has joined us, is looking for a safe seat in Scotland, following the resignation of his Tory councillors, he is wasting his time.

Perhaps the Minister will ask his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State a question. In "The Thatcher Interview", talking about the effect that high business rates are having on the closure rate of business in Scotland, the Prime Minister said that closures might be the result of bad management or too much borrowing. Does the Secretary of State fall into line with her judgment on this issue?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should raise the subject of business rates, because the Labour party has been responsible for substantially increased business rates in Scotland over the years, to the great detriment of business. The Government have stepped in with new resources and a progressive plan to reduce business rates in Scotland steadily over a five or six-year period to bring them into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Does my hon. Friend agree that nothing could do more harm to Scotland's prospects for inward investment than a combination of the roof tax and the setting up of a Scottish assembly as the only European haven of socialism apart from Albania—a comparison which is perhaps unfair to Albania?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The reason why we have been so successful in attracting inward investment to Scotland is that we have established an enterprise economy there based on low taxation rates. The high taxes that would result from a Labour Government would drive investment away not only from Scotland but from the whole United Kingdom.

I congratulate the Minister on the success in attracting new industry to Scotland—

But does he agree that Dumfries and Galloway, Stranraer and Cairnryan are as peripheral to the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland is? Is there likely to be inward investment in that region of Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman will know of my enthusiasm to attract inward investment to Dumfries and Galloway. As for infrastructure, we have substantially increased investment in the A75—about £50 million has been spent on it in the past decade, and more is to follow. That is of advantage not only to my constituents but to the hon. Gentleman's in Northern Ireland.

Does my hon. Friend believe that the European Community may soon find that the special measures given to Scotland, over and above those given to England, are going to an area which is no longer one of low income and low economic growth, and that it will not allow them in a free-trade Europe?

My hon. Friend may be assured that the selective assistance that operates in Scotland is part of the United Kingdom scheme which is applied on even-handed criteria and meets the rules and regulations of the European Commission.

Police (Court Work)

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the report made to him by the chief constable of Central Scotland police about the amount of police time spent in courts.

Efforts will continue to be made, in consultation with my noble and learned Friend the Lord Advocate, to reduce the amount of police time spent in court, so far as that is consistent with the administration of justice.

I do not know what efforts continue to be made because it is now two years since I came to see the Minister about the absolutely disgraceful situation, particularly in the sheriff courts in Scotland, and nothing but nothing has happened. If anything, it is worse than it was two years ago. Is the Minister aware that the situation in the sheriff courts is nothing short of a national scandal? If anybody should be charged with wasting police time, it is the Scottish Courts Administration and the Minister.

Over the past 18 months the average delay period for summary criminal trials has been reduced from 17·6 to 14·9 weeks. The hon. Gentleman has correctly identified a pressing problem which we have been looking at hard. The main problem is caused by late changes of plea, and no solution has emerged which protects the interests of justice. If someone were required to plead guilty or not guilty 48 hours earlier, many accused would plead not guilty, causing even longer delays, because they wait to see how many witnesses appear in court to see what chances they have of getting off. I am sorry that that should be so. The hon. Member, who once had responsibility for the problem, has identified it correctly. The joint report of the chief police officers and the Crown Office made several important recommendations on the quality and timeliness of police reports and statements, the availability and citation of witnesses and the use of procedures to reduce inconvenience. Some findings may well be put into effect by the summer. I shall keep in close touch with the Lord Advocate on this point.

Although I welcome the reduction in time that it takes for cases to come to trial, may I enjoin my hon. Friend to reconsider the perfectly simple scheme which I devised for both sheriff courts and High Courts, under which there would be a mandatory meeting of both parties to arrange pleas in time to dismiss the witnesses? It is not only policemen who spend a ludicrous part of their working time hanging round the courts, but witnesses who are reluctant to co-operate in the prosecution of crime.

I will certainly discuss my hon. and learned Friend's point with the Lord Advocate as soon as possible and draw those comments to his attention.

Employment Strategy

12.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he next expects to meet the Scottish Trades Union Congress to discuss employment strategy in Scotland.

I met the general council of the Scottish Trades Union Congress on 10 November 1989 for a general discussion on the Scottish economy. There are no plans for further meetings at present.

Does the Secretary of State intend to raise with the STUC and British Steel the crucial importance of investment at Clydesdale and Imperial mills? Will he discuss with them the recent gossip, rumours and speculation about foreign deals? Will he tell the House whether he considers the Scottish capacity for producing seamless tubes to be important, especially for the North sea?

When I last met the STUC we discussed those matters and agreed that it would be highly desirable if British Steel could be persuaded to consider further investment in the steel industry in Scotland. That industry has different components, including the category to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The Scottish Office intends to ensure that its views on the future plate mill strategy for Scotland are taken into account by British Steel when it comes to develop its future strategy. At the end of the day these are matters for British Steel, but it is important that it should be aware of the good case that exists for investment in Scotland.

The Secretary of State is only too well aware of the thousands of livelihoods in Scotland that depend on the steel industry. How can it possibly be right for Ministers to abdicate responsibility for all those people and simply to hand over the final decision for this vital industry to the board of directors of British Steel plc?

The employment opportunities that exist because of the steel industry are important, as are the employment opportunities presented by Yarrow, Ferranti, IBM or any large employer in Scotland. The Government do not directly provide employment. Their responsibility is obviously to encourage an atmosphere and a quality in the economy that encourage job creation. The hon. Gentleman will join me in feeling great pleasure because unemployment in Scotland has fallen by 150,000 over the past two or three years.

When my right hon. and learned Friend next meets the STUC, will he inquire whether it has changed its policy of opposing job-creating investment, such as that which was to take place at Ford of Dundee, and whether it is still its policy to support Scotland as a museum of industrial archaeology by public sector subsidies rather than supporting the Government's policy to attract private sector investment from abroad, thereby securing the jobs of the Scottish people indefinitely?

I am glad to say that, unlike the Labour party, the STUC supports the Government's Scottish Enterprise proposals and the way in which training is to be developed to local enterprise companies throughout Scotland. We welcome that support. It is a pity that, so far, the Labour party has felt unable to support us.

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that, given the serious employment problems in Scotland, it is far too long—four months—since he last met the STUC? Is he aware that the serious position in Midlothian is causing great concern? Recently, Sneddons went into receivership, with the loss of 200 or 300 jobs? Crystal Glass has threatened to close. The coal mining and engineering industries have contracted. I am worried about employment prospects in Midlothian. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman consider giving Midlothian special regional status to tackle the employment problem?

The hon. Gentleman has rightly drawn attention to the various closures in his constituency, but I think that he would wish to point out fairly that many more jobs have been created in Midlothian over the past few months and years than have been lost.

If that had not happened, it would have been impossible for me to say, as I can, that unemployment has fallen greatly in Midlothian over the past two or three years.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend remind the STUC leaders that there are more people in work in Scotland than ever before, but that that is no thanks to certain trade union leaders who put the interests of their members at Dagenham above those of the jobless in Dundee?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the number of people in employment in Scotland is at its highest ever recorded level.

A month ago at Scottish questions, when replying to me, the right hon. and learned Gentleman agreed that it was important that British Steel was aware of the Scottish Office view that there was a strong case for investing in the Scottish steel industry. Despite the statements of Conservative Back Benchers, that has nothing to do with industrial archaeology. What steps have been taken to get this message across? Have there been meetings at a senior level with British Steel and involving Ministers? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that it is essential that he personally takes up the cudgels on behalf of the Scottish steel industry?

I must ask the hon. Gentleman to await my answer to the next question on the Order Paper, which deals with that very matter.

British Steel

13.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he next expects to meet the chairman or chief executive of British Steel.

I expect to see the chairman of British Steel in the relatively near future.

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that there is a different dimension in relationships between the Scottish Office and IBM and the Scottish Office and British Steel, because he deliberately privatised British Steel? When the right hon. and learned Gentleman meets British Steel senior executives, will he discuss the fact that there are lying at Leith docks mile upon mile of welded pipe which will be used to extract Scottish oil from the Scottish waters of the North sea, and not a single mile of it has been produced in Scottish steel mills?

When will the right hon. and learned Gentleman press British Steel to accept—and will he accept unequivocally—the call by shop stewards at Dalziel today that the welded steel mill that British Steel is earmarking for Teesside should go to Dalziel in Lanarkshire, which would increase its take from Ravenscraig and ensure that Scottish steel jobs are created from the massively expanding demand for steel products in the Scottish waters of the North sea?

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that there are imports of steel into the United Kingdom in categories that are simply not manufactured in this country, in Scotland or elsewhere. It is obviously a matter for British Steel to decide whether that makes sense or whether it should start manufacturing in the United Kingdom steel that it currently imports. That is a matter for British Steel to decide and, naturally, we hope that if it comes to that judgment, it will choose a Scottish location for the manufacture of products of that kind.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the shutdown at Ravenscraig, however unwelcome, is being handled with the customary responsibility and competence of the managers and steel workers there so as not to prejudice the long-term future of the plant? Will he make sure that the chairman of British Steel fully understands the implications of the plate review for the future of Dalziel and Ravenscraig up to and beyond 1994?

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the responsible attitude of shop stewards and work force at Ravenscraig, and I agree with him that it is important for all in Scotland who attach importance to these matters to ensure that British Steel is aware of the attractions of Scotland as a location for investment, either at Dalziel or in respect of its other steel activities north of the border.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there would be considerable resentment on Teesside if he were to use, or seek to use, undue influence on British Steel? The people of England are just as entitled to produce steel—on Teesside—as the Scots are; let the board of management make that decision. I am sorry that there are no socialists from Teesside here today to fight for jobs on Teesside, as I am doing, and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend has got the message.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The decision must be based on the good commercial case that can be put in regard to where investment should go. All parts of the United Kingdom would welcome steel investment, and it is the responsibility of us who live in Scotland to put such arguments as point towards investment in Scotland. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will be making similar representations on behalf of his constituency and his part of the United Kingdom.

I am genuinely grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me again. I welcome the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is soon to meet the chairman of British Steel. May I press on him the urgency of doing that in a short time scale, given the imminence of decisions that may affect the Scottish industry? Will he bear very much in mind the fact that British Steel is not just another private sector company but that it has a wider responsibility, given its history and the vulnerability and importance of the industry in Scotland? Its special status is reflected by the existence of the golden share.

The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the golden share applies only in regard to any attempt by any outside interest to acquire more than 15 per cent. of the shares in British Steel, and I am not aware of any suggestion that that is about to happen or is likely to happen.

As for the overall responsibilities of British Steel, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the assurance that was given at the time of privatisation, and which has since been repeated—that if at any time British Steel did not wish to continue with its assets at Ravenscraig, it would consider any private sector bid for those assets to ensure the continuation of steel activity north of the border. That is a matter to which I attach importance and to which the Prime Minister referred when questioned about it at this Dispatch Box.

Council House Sales

14.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how many council houses have been sold to sitting tenants in Scotland since May 1979.

Since April 1979, over 184,500 public sector houses in Scotland have been sold to sitting tenants. Included in that figure are over 132,000 sales by local authorities.

What percentage of the council house stock in Scotland has been sold to sitting tenants? If the figure is still significantly below that in England, what further steps does my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State intend to take to increase the number of sales in Scotland?

The figure is now 18·6 per cent., and south of the border it is 22·2 per cent. The gap has narrowed. On the previous occasion that I reported to my hon. Friend, it had narrowed by 0·1 per cent., and it has closed by at least as much again. We have taken steps, by way of a right-to-buy publicity campaign, to ensure that tenants know of changes in the law. It should not be forgotten that the average rent in Scotland is approximately £20 and the average weekly cost of a mortgage is approximately £23. That is within the reach of thousands of families throughout Scotland.

Does the Minister appreciate that, notwithstanding the discounts on these council houses, many people in Scotland who bought their houses are now in arrears with building societies because they cannot afford the high interest rates? Does he appreciate that the Government's policy of cutting public support for council housing, and thus forcing rents up, led many people to buy houses when they would probably have been better advised not to do so? When will the Government reconsider their whole approach to this issue? When will they start to provide decent support for public sector housing? When will they allow local authorities to avoid increasing rents excessively and start building some of the council houses that are needed?

Obviously, in the case of the public sector housing stock, the level of rents is determined by what is considered to be an appropriate level of management and maintenance. Public sector sales—sales to sitting tenants—greatly benefit the remainder of the public sector housing stock. Fewer than 0·1 per cent. of houses sold to tenants are being repossessed. The overall number is very small. Also, building societies are prepared to discuss with those concerned suitable phasing arrangements to enable debts to be paid.

Can my hon. Friend tell me what progress is being made in respect of the rents-into-mortgages schemes in Scotland? This is a terrific idea, which I hope can be extrapolated to the new town corporation houses in my area. Changing a rent into a mortgage is a very simple idea.

I was present when the Prime Minister handed over the first deed of contract to a remedial teacher in Uphall, who was gaining her own house under this scheme. There have been more than 500 expressions of interest, and we expect the scheme to be highly successful. Of course, we shall review the success of the operation shortly.

Local Government Finance

16.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what information he has as to how many extra staff have been employed by local authorities for the administration of the poll tax system.

Local authority staffing levels are the responsibility of individual authorities. Information on numbers of staff employed for particular duties is not held centrally.

I find it remarkable that, on this question, the Secretary of State is not facing the music. The poll tax is surely one job-creation scheme that Scotland could have done without. Will the Minister take this opportunity to explain how his right hon. and learned Friend's £4 million poll tax panic package will be distributed, and where the money will come from? Can he explain why his right hon. and learned Friend failed to protest in Cabinet last Tuesday; why he required us, on Tuesday and Wednesday, to explain that such blatant discrimination against Scotland was an outrage; and why his right hon. and learned Friend was looking like a right idiot on Thursday? What kind of humiliation will it take to make the Secretary of State resign?

My right hon. and learned Friend will make a statement to the House on the details of the scheme. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] Shortly. The Budget is, of course, secret until it has been delivered. The meeting to which the hon. Gentleman referred was not a discussion session, but a relatively formal meeting. The matter has been taken up by my right hon. and learned Friend. As to the source of the funds, suggestions that the sum of £4 million will be taken from sensitive Scots programmes are incorrect. The sums involved are marginal in the context of the total resources of £9·5 billion. It is part of the normal good housekeeping practised by all Ministers within overall programmes to adjust resources in response to changed evidence of need. The £4 million for this purpose will be found as part of the normal process of good housekeeping, and not by deliberate cuts in any programme.

Does the Minister accept that, despite the increase in numbers employed, we have rightly had exemptions for Alzheimer's disease, transitional payments and now capital offsets? All those impinge on what Scots should have been paying since April 1989. Therefore, will the Minister instruct local authorities not to pursue poindings and warrant sales against costs that manifestly cannot be substantiated in law? Does he accept that it is not a matter just for the Budget but for the status of the Scottish Office, and that there is a clear indication that Scottish Office officials were not consulted and did not know what was happening in England and Wales?

I will not give any such guidance to local authorities. It is for them to choose the most appropriate measures to raise the revenue due to them from such persons as the hon. Gentleman. I will not give them any advice on that. Further exemptions, would breach the principle of accountability which underlies the whole concept of the community charge.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that on average about 90 per cent. of community charge payers are paying the community charge? Will he take time today to write to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), who is a lawyer, to ask him why he refuses to condemn those of his hon. Friends who wish to break the law?

We look forward to the remarks of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) and other Labour Front-Bench Members on their colleagues who are refusing to pay, which we believe to be wholly irresponsible because defying the law is a short-term policy which is unworthy of any hon. Members who espouse to be a future Government. I can indeed confirm what my hon. Friend said; on average 90 per cent. have paid the community charge in Scotland. I expect that figure to increase in coming months.

Will the Minister clear up the big remaining mystery of last week? Did he threaten to resign, and was that what really pulled the Prime Minister back into step? Is the Minister aware of the statistics that have come out about the change in the number of poll tax registrations in Scotland? Before the whole thing began, the official Government estimate was 800,000 registration changes in Scotland in the first year. The actual number has been 1·5 million, every single one of them generating bureaucracy, expense and confusion. Will local authorities be compensated for the wrongness of the Government's official estimate? Will the Minister assure the House that, whatever else the £4 million comes from, it will not come from local authority budgets within the Scottish Office?

It is ironical that the hon. Gentleman should express such concern about registration since he strongly opposed registration in the "Stop it" campaign. Those who have registered amount to 99 per cent. I believe that the system is working well. As to the hon. Gentleman's question about whether I or any of my colleagues threatened to resign, the answer is emphatically no.