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Volume 268: debated on Wednesday 20 December 1995

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Agricultural Subsidy


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what is the current level of agricultural subsidy in Scotland. [5195]

Agriculture grants and subsidies in Scotland amounted to around £330 million in 1994.

Is my hon. Friend yet aware of the findings of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, which, I understand, recently went to New Zealand? From what I have read in the newspapers, I believe that it has done away with its farmers subsidy system. At first, of course, that was greeted with consternation, but now it is being welcomed by farmers, who are doing very nicely without having to do all that dreadful paperwork. If he has been informed about that event, will he tell us a little about its outcome?

The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs did go to New Zealand to consider a country that had abolished all agricultural subsidy under, I must add, a Labour Government, but we have no plans to follow suit. The Committee has still to report and I am sure that the Committee's Chairman will ensure that my hon. Friend has a copy of the report once it is published.

I declare an interest, Madam Speaker. After years of half measures, will the Government now introduce a subsidised scheme, if necessary, for the eradication of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, both for the sake of better animal welfare and to restore confidence in Scottish beef? Meanwhile, will the Minister advise people that it might be risky to inject tissue from infected cattle into their brains, but that the more conventional practice of eating prime Scottish beef is much more enjoyable and perfectly safe?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, two weeks ago in the Scottish Grand Committee, we had a useful Adjournment debate, initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), on that matter. I told the Committee on that occasion, and I repeat it now, that our measures to eradicate bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle are working. In Scotland, out of a total of more than 2 million cattle, the number of confirmed BSE cases in 1995 is expected to be around 600, some 27 per cent. below the 1993 level. We are fully aware of the problem and our measures are working.

Does my hon. Friend agree that our support through the beef special premium and the suckler cow subsidy helps to provide the best prime Scots beef? Will he say yet again that prime Scots beef is safe to eat and that the education authorities and others who are depriving children of good Scots beef are wrong?

I agree completely with my right hon. Friend. I know that, at this time of year, our thoughts turn to eating white meat, but, perhaps after Christmas day's turkey, hon. Members on both sides of the House will decide to have a good, big, juicy steak, preferably from an Aberdeen Angus.

Will the Government reverse their disgraceful decision to discontinue taking up the European Union milk subsidy, which will mean that many school children will be deprived of free school milk, with detrimental consequences for their health and nutrition? Is it not ironic that the Government are proposing that measure when, earlier this week, the Scottish Office Minister with responsibility for health was complaining that 62 per cent. of Scottish five-year-old children suffered from tooth decay and that Scottish school children were near the bottom of the dental health league table?

The hon. Gentleman should direct his comments to local authorities all over the country, and I hope that he will take the opportunity to raise the matter with his own Labour-controlled authority.

Student Loans Scheme


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the operation of the student loans scheme in Scotland. [5196]

That is not what the Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment said on Thursday in Committee when he announced that the whole scheme had had to be postponed until October 1997 because the banks had difficulties over mergers and because of difficulties with information technology. That is in spite of the whole thing being hustled through in the Queen's Speech at great speed. Will the Minister extricate himself from this mess or will he be tied into his hon. Friend's shambles and share the blame for the mess that no one in Scotland needs or wants?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her consistency. She disagrees with the Government's approach and with that of her Front-Bench spokesmen to student support. We announced a postponement of the scheme after discussions with the banks and building societies to ensure a proper and smooth transition a year later. As always, the hon. Lady is scaremongering on student numbers and on student support. She cannot accept, and will not admit, that there are more students in higher and further education in Scotland than ever before in our nation's history.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that parity between grants and loans will be achieved in 1996–97? Secondly, does he agree that parity will be maintained thereafter? Thirdly, does he agree that recent debates in the House have shown that the Opposition have no policy whatever?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and I can give him the assurances that he seeks. As I have said, we have more students than ever before in higher education and the last survey showed that for the first time students from less well-off backgrounds are now in the majority in our universities and colleges.

The Government have been forced to walk away from the student loan privatisation proposals. They would earn my respect and that of my hon. Friends if they would also walk away from the ill-conceived plans for nursery vouchers. Make no mistake about it, Labour is opposed to nursery vouchers. We will get rid of them when we are elected and will make sure that all three and four-year-olds get nursery education when their parents wish it. However, we have said—

Order. I have to bring two points to the hon. Lady's attention. First, I have not yet heard a question from her: that is most important. Secondly, we are dealing with student loan schemes and not with nursery vouchers.

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I was just coming to my substantive question. We have put a number of questions on education to the Minister and have failed to get replies. Why are we not getting a response to our request for an independent assessment board in relation to nursery vouchers?[Interruption.] Why is the Minister not prepared to respond to detailed questions about student loans and student accommodation and about other aspects of education policy? Will he give us a substantive reply rather than the bluster that we are used to when he is flummoxed?

What does the hon. Lady have against those from less well-off backgrounds? Yesterday she was at every media outlet criticising our scheme for assisted places, which helps children from less well-off backgrounds. Today she is ranting about student loans and nursery vouchers, which are designed to help everyone in society but particularly those from less well-off backgrounds. Over the recess she should take a long hard look at what she has been saying since she joined the Front Bench because some of it has been quite shameful.

Health Board Boundaries


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement about health board boundaries in Scotland. [5197]

We continue to consider the impact of local government reform on Scottish health board boundaries.

When I recently met people from Argyll and Clyde who were trying to persuade Clydebank to join Argyll and Clyde health board, they told me that the Secretary of State had said that there would be no changes to health board boundaries unless they were uncontroversial. If Clydebank joined Argyll and Clyde and lost its links with Gartnavel, the Western, Queen Mother's and Yorkhill hospitals, and had to manage with the appalling transport links with the Vale of Leven, that would be very controversial. Will the Minister assure me that plans to move Clydebank into Argyll and Clyde do not exist and will not exist?

We certainly have no plans to change Scottish health board boundaries in the immediate future.

While I welcome the ever-increasing amount of money that the Government are prepared to spend on health services in Scotland, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fact that he has almost managed to achieve parity in funding in the Ayrshire and Arran health board area? The redistribution of health service money around Scotland certainly benefits my constituents, and each and every one of them should say thank you to the Scottish Office.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have provided substantial expenditure of £4.2 billion this year. That is an additional £121.3 million, which provides real terms growth of 0.2 per cent. There is much higher spending per head in Scotland on health than there is south of the border. In Scotland £820 a head will be spent, which is 23 per cent. higher than in England. So very high priority is being given to that area.

Will the Minister review the boundaries in Edinburgh and use that as a pretext for getting rid of his Conservative-appointed health board, which has presided over the shambles in the Royal Edinburgh hospital in my constituency, as evidenced in a secret report which shows that cleaning levels are "abysmal" and that staff shortages are chronic?

The answer is no. We are, however, considering a bid from the Royal Edinburgh hospital and I shall let the hon. Gentleman know the outcome in due course.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the quality of health services provided by the health authorities is even more important than the delineation of boundaries? Does he agree that, despite all the knocking copy from Opposition Members, the quality of the health service in Scotland is very much better than it was in 1979?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At all times we will give top priority to the interests of patients.

When the Minister is looking at the boundaries of health boards, will he consider in particular Grampian—especially Grampian healthcare trust, whose plans for a new hospital in Stonehaven break new boundaries in the Government's push towards privatising the health service? Will he perhaps look up the pamphlet co-authored by the Secretary of State for Scotland in 1985, in which the Secretary of State wrote:

"The rise of private medicine is an excellent thing and should be encouraged even more"?
The Secretary of State has never repudiated that, and indeed claims authorship of the pamphlet in "Who's Who". Is it not a fact that the Stonehaven project is but a Trojan horse for the mission of the whole Government—not just the Thatcherite rump over there—to go ahead with the ultimate privatisation of the national health service?

The hon. Gentleman is engaging in scaremongering. The proposals for Stonehaven will result very much more quickly in the provision of a purpose-built, modern hospital than would otherwise have been possible any other way. Services will of course remain free at the point of delivery.



To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what has been the change in average weekly earnings for (a) males and (b) females in Scotland over the last 15 years. [5198]

In 1995, full-time male earnings were almost three times more and female earnings were almost three and a half times more than the 1980 level.

May I follow that happy answer by wishing you, Madam Speaker, a very happy Christmas? Is it not a fact that the enterprise culture promoted by the Government's policies, which has driven up wages by such a great degree, would be damaged, if not destroyed entirely, by a tartan tax as proposed by the Opposition, which would destroy jobs and put a 3p premium on the suggested 10p minimum tax level? That would be a 30 per cent. subsidy for working in Scotland at the lowest level of the economy. How could that be just or fair?

I am sure that all hon. Members wish you a happy Christmas, Madam Speaker and since it is Scottish Question Time, would want you to have good Christmas spirit. My hon. Friend's point is absolutely right. Clearly, the Opposition have not worked out the damage that they are intending to do to Scotland and to Scotland's business by the imposition of a tartan tax that is bound to force earnings up. I have not heard any detail from the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) in explaining what extra the tax will provide. It will simply force earnings up and provide absolutely nothing for the people concerned except fewer jobs in Scotland.

Some people in Scotland object to paying taxes, tartan or otherwise, for the purpose of moving jobs from Keith to the south of England. But that is another story.

Does the Minister recognise the effect that the firm, Burger King, is having on minimum earnings in Scotland? Does he have it in him to condemn unequivocally Grand Metropolitan, a Tory party funder, for paying its employees as little as 20p an hour? Is not that a Tory national minimum wage policy in action?

The hon. Gentleman's question is no better than usual. He does not realise the damage that his party's minimum wage policy would do to Scotland and the whole United Kingdom. Labour Front-Bench Members will not even say at what level they propose to set a minimum wage; they simply say that they want one. If they want the same level as the unions want, £4.15, it is estimated that, if only half the differentials were restored, some 950,000 jobs would go.

The question of average weekly earnings is of no interest to people who are out of work. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to contrast the fact that unemployment in Scotland is falling steadily under this Government whereas it would undoubtedly rise as a result of the Labour party's minimum wage policy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That would be the effect not only of a minium wage but of a tartan tax, which Labour wants to apply through a Scottish tax-raising Parliament and the imposition of the social chapter. Its policies would badly damage Scotland and the Scottish people.

Have not the Government imposed 22 tax rises in Scotland over the past three years? For the population at large, Christmas comes but once a year, but for the Government since 1992, Christmas has come on average every seven weeks. What Christmas cheer will there be for the women who constitute 80 per cent. of the low-paid in Scotland and are paid less than the European decency threshold, or for the 107,000 people in Scotland who work for the miserably low rate of less than £2.50 an hour?

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will say what minimum wage he proposes. Will he confirm that Labour's tax-raising Parliament would not put a 3p tax on the Scottish people? Under this Government, taxation is UK-wide; unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman represents policies that would tax Scottish people higher than people in the rest of the United Kingdom and put people out of work.

Council Of Ministers


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what recent meeting of the EC Council of Ministers he has attended. [5199]

I attended a meeting of the Council of Fisheries Ministers on 26 October 1995. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), will leave today to attend a Fisheries Council. It is expected to be concluded on Christmas eve, although I assume that that depends on my hon. Friend achieving a good settlement for Scotland's fishermen.

In the conscientious preparation that my right hon. Friend does before he goes to Council meetings, has he ever calculated the costs that would be imposed on Scottish businesses if Labour's policy of imposing the social chapter on Scotland became Government policy? Would not the Labour party's policies grind the Scottish economy between the nether millstone of Brussels burdens and the upper millstone of tartan taxes?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Labour party's policies would destroy jobs in Scotland through the imposition of a minimum wage, the social chapter and a tartan tax. I assume that the minimum wage in Scotland would be higher than in England to compensate for the fact that the Scots will pay a tartan tax, so their take-home pay on the same wage would he less than that of people in England and Wales.

Compliments of the season to you, Madam Speaker. The Minister mentioned his attendance at the Council of Fisheries Ministers. Did he discuss the construction of the new fisheries research vessel for his Department? Could I remind him that Ferguson's in Port Glasgow has bid for that ship? Were he to announce that it was successful, it would be a very pleasant Christmas present for the men and women who work in that excellent yard in Port Glasgow.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the determination with which he has pursued the case for Ferguson's. We hope to be able to make an announcement shortly and I am delighted to be able to tell the House that it is not a matter on which I require the agreement of the European Community, so the hon. Gentleman can expect us to move fairly speedily. We will certainly do our best to look out for Scotland's interests.

Should not the question he, at how many Council meetings has the Secretary of State actually spoken? The reports were that he went to the Fisheries Council playing second fiddle to the English Fisheries Minister and never uttered a word. Given that last night he totally failed to convince his former colleagues and Euro-sceptics to bail out his Cabinet colleagues to save their discredited fishing policy, why is he not going to the Fisheries Council tomorrow? Where will Scotland be tomorrow without the Secretary of State for Scotland going to the Council to represent our interests—with him saying nothing?

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the Member for Aberdeen, South, is attending that Council and will be speaking at it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have the grace to welcome that, given his complaints. As for my attendance at meetings of the Council of Ministers, I think that I have attended more such meetings than the hon. Gentleman and I have spoken at a number of them, including the Justice and Home Affairs Councils and the Social Affairs Council, where I saw at first hand how disastrous the policies on the social chapter that the hon. Gentleman and the Scottish National party advocate would be for Scotland's work force. In the margins of those meetings, many of the Ministers whose countries have the social chapter say privately that they recognise that, because we have an opt-out from it, we are a magnet for inward investment. That is why Scotland has benefited from so much inward investment in jobs, which the Scottish National party would destroy.

The Secretary of State will be aware that we still have a Scottish steel industry. In that context, can he tell us what representations he has ensured will be made at the Council of Ministers that is dealing with the application by Irish Steel for a European Union subsidy? Will he rest assured that he has the full support of Labour Members in opposing such a subsidy to an Irish steel company—unlike the Scottish National party, which voted against Scotland's interests last week?

Halleluiah! Labour Members are denouncing subsidies to the steel industry and distinguishing themselves from the nationalists on the basis that they no longer believe in subsidies. We really have achieved a lot since 1979.

If the Secretary of State is ever allowed to attend another European Council of Ministers meeting, will he bear in mind and perhaps learn the lesson of the stinging humiliation that he and the Government suffered last night? Is not it a fact that, even though they put up the last two Thatcherites in the Government to try to appeal to the rebels, they could not stave off defeat, or the exposed chasm that exists in the Tory party on Europe? Just as he cannot speak for the people of Scotland, with 87 per cent. of them opposed to him and his Government, is it not true that the Government cannot speak for this country in Europe? The sooner we have a general election and get a Government who can speak for the whole country the better it will be for us in Europe and in Britain.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was able to follow the debate last night, but I should have thought that he would have recognised that the Labour party amendment was defeated by eight votes and did not reflect a policy that enjoyed unanimity on his Benches. Several of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues argued against the common fisheries policy, while the Opposition Front Bench argued in favour, so he should not present the idea that the Labour party is united on anything in Europe save in one respect; it is the party that would sell out our veto in Europe, hand power to Brussels, ensure that our veto was replaced by qualified majority voting in respect of the social chapter and the rest and which, on fishing, has nothing whatsoever in its manifesto because it has nothing to say to the fishermen of Scotland or of Britain.



To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what plans he has to accelerate the deregulatory process, with special reference to small businesses in Scotland. [5200]

The Scottish Office is playing its full part in the deregulation initiative and is particularly alert to the concerns of small firms.

As the Secretary of State has not referred one regulation to the Deregulation Committee to deregulate, and as his commitment to deregulation and his support for keeping enforcement of European directives from Europe to the minimum are well known, will he say something about how we can reduce the burdens on small businesses so that they can become more effective and do not have to bear the burdens of officialdom?

My hon. Friend is aware that Conservatives are totally committed to deregulation; the Deregulation Committee has been bombarded with proposals and the Scottish Office has a number of proposals in the queue waiting to go to the Committee. I can assure my hon. Friend that my officials are well aware of the need not to hassle small businesses—the life-blood of this country. If my hon. Friend has any concrete evidence of firms being hassled, he should give it to me.

The Minister will be aware that many small businesses are in rural areas and he will know from the rural White Paper published last week that, in one decade, employment in Cumnock and Doon valley fell by 27 per cent.—the largest fall in a rural area in Scotland. Is it not crazy to cut the grant to Scottish Enterprise by £33 million and reduce the help to those small businesses in rural areas? Is it not equally crazy for the Secretary of State to cut capital consents to local authorities and restrict their capital borrowing, thus ensuring that some of the money that was to come from the European Community will no longer be forthcoming? My constituents who are unemployed will not have a happy Christmas.

The hon. Gentleman is aware that unemployment is falling significantly across Scotland. The hon. Gentleman does not recognise that the Government are committed to ensuring that taxpayers' funds are used wisely and sensibly. The hoard of Scottish Enterprise has assured us that, with its reduced budget, it can maintain and even improve output. The hon. Gentleman does not recognise that an important industry in rural areas such as ours is tourism, which employs about 8 per cent. of Scotland's work force. There has been a 20 per cent. increase in the budget to the Scottish tourist board—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that that is good news for tourism and rural economies.


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what estimate he has made of the total tourism revenues in Scotland. [5201]

Some £2.1 billion in 1994, and we expect 1995 to be even better.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's increased provision—to more than £18 million next year—to the Scottish tourist board. Will he confirm that that represents an increase of 20 per cent. over previous plans thanks to the reordering of priorities at Scottish Enterprise? Does he agree that that increase reflects the high priority that the Government give to the tourist industry in energising the Scottish economy?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The difference between Conservatives and hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) is that Conservative Members do not believe that organisations such as Scottish Enterprise exist for their own account. If organisations such as Scottish Enterprise are able to deliver their targets within reduced budgets and we deploy the money to help tourism, which is what we have done, that is a good deal for the taxpayer and represents the right way to use scarce resources to encourage the wealth-creating sector. Tourism has a vital role to play in rural Scotland and throughout Scotland, and I congratulate the Scottish tourist board on its magnificent work in increasing the numbers of people coming to Scotland. There is still great scope for improvement, and that is why, in a difficult public expenditure round, we were able to increase its budget by no less than 20 per cent.

The Secretary of State, in giving us that information, will know of the shambles that has resulted from the lack of funding for the celebrations next year of the bicentenary of the death of Burns. There is a severe lack of sponsorship from the private sector. In those circumstances, will he give a commitment to funding the celebrations directly from the Scottish Office to make up for the losses that are being incurred?

I cannot give that commitment, but I can tell the House that we propose to have celebrations of the bard's life, in both London and Scotland. On 31 January, we shall be holding a large function in London, to which a number of Opposition Members will receive invitations, to celebrate the life and works of Rabbie Burns. It is also our intention to mark the passing of Robert Burns's life with an event in Scotland, and it is appropriate that that should take place in the south-west of Scotland.

I can hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) saying, "Hear, hear." I am sure that the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) will welcome that information also.

The Secretary of State will recognise that tourism is an all-year industry, and that winter tourism plays an important part in the livelihoods of people in rural areas. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State's work in establishing the Scottish avalanche information service. Does he accept that there is now some concern about the future of that organisation? Can we expect an early report from the review group, because considered action will be needed to ensure that we continue and expand that important aspect of our tourist industry?

I agree with the hon. Lady. I established that avalanche warning service myself.

This is a serious subject and people's lives are at risk.

I established the service on the recommendation of the distinguished mountaineer, Hamish McInnes. I was aware that there was a question mark over the service, and I gave instructions that the service should continue to be supported. We have given the service an extra £ 6,000, and we have commissioned a study, costing about £5,000, to consider the scope for expanding the service. I hope that one of the issues that will be addressed is whether we could cover a wider area using telemetric equipment.

I thought that some of the press reports were very unfair. The Government have every intention, as long as I am Secretary of State, of ensuring that the service is encouraged and expanded as far as is practically possible. However, we must ensure that money is spent wisely and that resources are used effectively, so that we get the best benefit out of the service.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me an opportunity to make that statement.

I take this opportunity to wish the Secretary of State and all Scots Members a braw hogmanay. Has the Secretary of State taken into consideration the interest in tourism in Northern Ireland, following the visit by the President of the United States, and will he urge the Scottish tourist board to use the Scottish-Irish connection to build up the tourist routes and encourage the growth of overseas visitors?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his greetings for the new year. I wish him a happy Christmas and a happy new year, and you, too, Madam Speaker.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about tourism and Ulster, we Unionists must stick together on that and other matters. There is scope for encouraging tourism, and I am in discussion with the Scottish tourist board and others to improve the links between Ulster and Scotland. That will enable us to develop packages and tourism opportunities, and I shall raise the prospects for co-operation with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the light of the hon. Gentleman's helpful suggestion.