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Scotland

Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked—

Scotland Act

1.

When she intends to propose amendments to the Scotland Act 1998 in order to reduce the number of Scottish hon. Members. [106713]

Section 86 of the Scotland Act sets out the procedures. I have no intention of changing that.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that reply. I know that the issue presents a problem for her and for many Labour Back Benchers, but I am trying to be helpful. Has she considered using the league table of parliamentary contributions to determine which of her colleagues should stay, given that so many of them languish at the bottom of the table? Does she believe that those who will eventually face the chop will be in good company, because so many Labour MSPs will face the chop at the hands of the Scottish National party on 1 May?

I am delighted to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) would receive the wooden spoon for his attendance record. The question is a bit rich, given that the leader of the SNP has said that Scotland will be independent by 2007. That would mean that prior to 2006 and the completion of the boundary commission's review, we would have to introduce legislation for an independent Scotland without any consideration of the costs and consequences of that. At the same time, the consequences of an SNP vote on 1 May would be cuts to public services, with all the disruption that that would entail.

My right hon. Friend will probably not be surprised to find out that the Scottish nationalists yet again did not up for a major debate—this time a Westminster Hall debate on health and safety. They never seem to turn up for Scotland these days. One of the consequences of the Scotland Act is the list system, and the deplorable way in which nationalist list Members do their work. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we do away with the nationalist-type list Member and that we have list Members who do their work properly?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He and other Labour Members know that when we considered the Proceeds of Crime Bill—one of the most significant post-devolution measures in this House that was introduced to get rid of drug dealers in our communities—the SNP could not even be bothered to participate in Committee.

My hon. Friend makes a point about the list system. I am sure that the electors of Scotland will vote Labour, Labour, Labour on 1 May to ensure that there will be precious few SNP list Members in the new Scottish Parliament.

I commend the Secretary of State for making sense of the question asked by the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart). As the hon. Gentleman may or may not know, no amendment is required to the Scotland Act to reduce the number of Scotland Members. It seems that the SNP's questions are just as confused as its policies.

Ordinary Scots want fewer Members of Parliament, fewer Ministers and fewer MSPs, but still the Secretary of State refuses to move quickly. Is she worried about her own seat? Does she accept that an abstention rate higher than 50 per cent. on 1 May will be a damning indictment of those who seek ever more Scots politicians and big government? Scotland needs fewer MPs and smaller, much better government.

I was being kind to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) when I answered his question because, after all, he has been in the House for only about two years, and one must be understanding. It is rather rich for a Conservative Member to talk about fewer MPs and MSPs given that the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) is the "Westminster one". He should look at his party in Scotland, because the number of defections from the Scottish Tories is increasing by the day. I believe that the Scottish Parliament elections will be well represented because the people of Scotland are now absolutely clear that devolution works, that partnership between the United Kingdom Government and a Labour-led Scottish Executive works, and that the stability of our economy and the prudence of its running is so significant that more people in Scotland are now in employment than in 1997.

Airport Infrastructure

2.

What estimate she has made of the capacity of Scotland's airport infrastructure to keep up with projected growth in passenger numbers. [106714]

As my hon. Friend is aware, the Government are currently involved in a consultation exercise on the development of air transport in the United Kingdom. The closing date for representations is 30 June.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I give a warm welcome to the Scottish Executive's plans to build rail links to Glasgow and Edinburgh airports and to the BAA's announcement of a £200 million investment plan to double the capacity of Glasgow airport over the next 10 to 12 years. However, does she agree that, in the longer term—20 to 30 years from now—the interests of Scotland as a whole would be best served by one major hub airport that would provide more jobs and services than would otherwise be the case?

I commend my hon. Friend's question and recognise his considerable interest in transport matters, not least when he was a member of the Transport Committee. He is one of the experts on transport policy in the House.

I recall that many years ago, when I was the economist for the Scottish TUC and my hon. Friend was a trade union official, there was a significant debate on a central Scotland airport. At the time, it was found to be unviable. The current consultation exercise offers the opportunity to explore that further, but it seems that the viability of a central Scotland airport has not yet been proved.

I know that my hon. Friend is proud of the success of Glasgow airport and that he has contributed to that. It is going from strength to strength in terms of passenger numbers. The Scottish Executive are committing considerable resources to a rail link not just to Glasgow airport but to Edinburgh airport as well. I am delighted that there has been a 40 per cent. increase in passenger numbers over the past five years and that the number of direct flights from Scotland has grown from 18 to 25. A large part of that success can be put down to the campaigning undertaken by my hon. Friend.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that when I was at the Scottish Office in the '70s we ruled out the central airport because of fog, and that nothing has changed since then? Does she agree that Scotland needs many budget airlines that operate from all airports, including Prestwick and Inverness? What action is she taking, in conjunction with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Scottish Executive, to attract such services to Scotland?

A considerable number of budget airlines operate out of Scotland. We only have to look to the success of Prestwick airport in attracting Ryanair, greatly assisted by my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr (Sandra Osborne), for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) and for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), to know that. Indeed, there are more and more every week.

I am delighted by the success of the easyJet flights from Inverness to Gatwick. I am also delighted by the improved services to charter destinations from Inverness. I met representatives of British Airways last autumn to get their commitment to continue services from Inverness to London. It is a success story, which the hon. Lady would know if she visited Scotland more often.

I thank the Secretary of State for her unstinting support for Glasgow Prestwick international airport. Will she acknowledge, however, that in spite of its great success as Scotland's fastest growing passenger airport, it has a great deal of spare capacity? Does she agree that that should be utilised before we talk about expansion elsewhere?

There is scope to expand all Scotland's airports and we want more international airlinks as our economy continues to prosper. It is encouraging to note that there are proposals for even more direct airlinks from Glasgow international airport at Prestwick. Much of that is down to my hon. Friend's campaigning. I know that my constituents greatly appreciate the opportunity to take their holidays and to pursue their business interests from an airport that is so close to home.

Broadband

3.

What percentage of Scottish residents have access to broadband services. [106715]

Almost all of Scotland's population can access broadband services, either through a terrestrial link or by means of satellite connection, if they choose to do so. The need to bring affordable services to businesses and individuals across Scotland is what underpins the Government and the Scottish Executive's work on broadband.

I thank the Minister for her reply. How soon can rural communities and small towns expect to have the same access to broadband technology as the rest of Scotland? Does she agree that it is important to look after not just the central belt but the whole of Scotland?

I am delighted to advise the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) that that is exactly what is happening in Scotland. Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Executive are rolling out a broadband expansion programme and are considering ways to solve some of the very difficult geographical challenges that we have in parts of Scotland. He will be delighted to know that that project will eventually roll out to the 250 communities across the highlands and islands, including some communities that are as small as 20 inhabitants.

Does the Minister agree that the £4.4 million earmarked to introduce broadband in Scotland is not quite enough, and will she use her good offices to try to get more money for broadband? Access to broadband for people with businesses is crucial. For example, my constituent, Mr. Glenn Watson, who has four veterinary surgeries, must pay £24,000 per annum to link up his computer services, whereas other businesses that have access to broadband can do that at a much cheaper rate.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise, however, that the £4.4 million allocation to Scotland comes out of a £30 million UK broadband fund managed by the Department of Trade and Industry. She will also be delighted to have heard the news from BT late last week that it is looking to slash its broadband rates to encourage the take-up of broadband in Scotland.

Would the Minister like to reconsider her first complacent reply suggesting that everyone can have access if they have access to satellite technology? Is not the reality that, of the 1,000 exchanges in Scotland, only 68 are asymmetric digital subscriber line-enabled? That is unsatisfactory: it is a lower level than in England, and lower than in just about any other European country. When will the Government snap out of their complacency and allow rural Scotland to have the same access to this technology as just about every other country in Europe?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman took my factual comment as complacent. I said that access can be made available. Cost is an issue, which is why I would have thought that he would support the Scottish Executive, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise projects to roll out broadband, recognising that we have major geographical difficulties. I suspect, however, that the question that he and his colleagues must answer, given that they would slash our enterprise budgets, is how on earth broadband would be rolled out and the necessary investment be made.

Would my hon. Friend mind if I were untypically nice to the Liberal Democrats, and particularly to their Scottish spokesman, for his excellent research published yesterday in The Press and Journal? It showed that, merely by accessing broadband in the House of Commons Library, SNP Members would have got all the answers to their questions, which cost the taxpayer £258,000.

As usual, my right hon. Friend crystallises the issue succinctly. I would encourage more Members of this House to use our excellent facilities, including access to broadband, to elicit information without having to table parliamentary questions, if that route is available.

Family Tax Credit

4.

How many Scots will benefit from the family tax credit. [106716]

The estimated number of families in Scotland expected to benefit from the child tax credit in 2003–04 is 430,000. The number of families in Scotland expected to receive the working tax credit in 2003–04 is 90,000.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the staff of the Inland Revenue accounts office in Cumbernauld on working so hard to implement that, and in welcoming the 200 additional jobs in my constituency in that regard? Is she aware that nine out of 10 families in Scotland are eligible for tax credits? What will she do to encourage all of them to claim their entitlement?

I share my hon. Friend's pleasure at the number of jobs created in her constituency and at her constituents' efficiency in processing applications for tax credits. Last weekend, like a number of Members—certainly Labour Members—I was out in my constituency encouraging people to take up the working tax credit and the child tax credit. People were astonished to discover that they would benefit even if they had an income of up to £50,000 a year, and that those with a child under one year old would be eligible for tax credits even if their income was £66,000. That is a significant move forward, not only in terms of taking people out of poverty but in terms of making sure that children throughout Scotland get the best possible start in life and families are given a huge boost to allow them to operate in a way that gives them pleasure as well as sustenance.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that, of a possible 5 million recipients of the new child tax credit, only 3 million have so far responded, so some 135,000 families in Scotland could lose out? I put it to her that a credit or benefit that has an application form 12 pages long with 47 pages of notes is bound to be a deterrent. I ask her to seek to have that simplified with her colleagues.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) was very kind to the hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that we now have to play good cop, bad cop. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that his party opposed this system of tax credits, but I take the point about the complexity of claiming. None of us likes filling in tax forms—they are always difficult, which is very painful—but hon. Members have a role, and my parliamentary colleagues have been taking up that role in ensuring that people are aware of the tax credit system and that they receive assistance to ensure that they can claim the tax credits. I commend that activity to all hon. Members.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the method of paying the child tax credit directly to the main carer, who is usually the mother, is indeed a more effective and efficient way to ensure that those resources are best spent in the right direction?

I accept what my hon. Friend says. I was in his constituency yesterday, where a number of people referred to the tax credit system, and I was very encouraged by the extent to which men, in particular, said that they feel that it is right that the money should move from the wallet to the purse because, by and large, the mother is the main carer. Indeed, that fact is replicated throughout the country, where more than two thirds of men acknowledge that the money should go directly to the main carer. That is a real way to move children out of poverty.

Many Members have tried to elicit from the right hon. Lady what percentage of families in Scotland are eligible to claim tax credits. I understand that such figures are not published regionally. What work is she doing with the Treasury and the Office for National Statistics to persuade them to publish regional eligibility figures?

I am surprised at the hon. Lady's question—the figures are actually quite clear. More than 90 per cent. of families with children in Scotland are eligible to claim the tax credits. She is not in a position to be around and about in Scotland, but if she were, she would find that there is considerable take-up and interest, and my hon. Friends are trying to ensure that there is even greater take-up. Of course, that is very different from the position of the Conservative party; it wants to cut public expenditure by 20 per cent., which would lead to a cut in the money available to families as well.

May I give a piece of advice to the Minister? One thing that does not happen—I do not understand why—is using the facilities available to us. Local authorities administer nurseries and primary and secondary schools. Surely a way can be found to use the education system to let people know about their entitlements?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Many Members have accessed their own databases to ensure that schools, community groups, the Churches, and so on, are aware of the tax credits, but it would be very useful if all local authorities in Scotland were to take that on board to ensure that everyone knows—I make the point again—that families are entitled to the tax credits even if they have an income of up to £50,000 a year, or £66,000 if there is a child under one in the family.

Will the Secretary of State investigate suggestions north of the border that people who are being passported from income support to the new working tax credit are losing out on free schools meals as a result of a deficiency in some secondary legislation that the Scottish Executive have not yet got round to implementing? Will she make it her business to ensure that that defect is remedied as soon as possible on the grounds that free school meals have a significant budgetary effect on weekly incomes, particularly for low-income families with many children?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, and I will certainly look into the issue as soon as possible and try to ensure that the necessary action is taken.

Poverty

5.

When she will next meet representatives of poverty support groups to discuss poverty in Scotland. [106717]

I met the Poverty Alliance in September 2002. I have no current plans to meet representatives of poverty support groups, but am happy to discuss at any time the Government's record in combating poverty.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does she agree that guaranteeing child care for all children aged two and under, day-care provision for three and four-year-olds and setting up additional after-school and breakfast clubs throughout Scotland would be a huge step towards combating the scourge of poverty throughout our country? Does she accept that setting up such things in areas of greatest need should be a priority for the Government and the new Scottish Executive?

I might be prepared to accept some of that if the hon. Gentleman were prepared to accept that the cost of independence would undermine all of it. Significant measures have been taken on poverty in Scotland, covering children, pensioners and low-income families. Dare I remind the House that when the national minimum wage was being enacted, the one party that failed to send a representative on lifting people out of poverty was the very party that the hon. Gentleman supports?

When my hon. Friend meets members of the Poverty Alliance in Scotland, will she ask them what effect they think that the increase in the national minimum wage to £4.50 this year and the further increase to £4.85 will have on poverty in Scotland?

I will indeed. Members on both sides of the House know that the national minimum wage is one of the most significant measures introduced by the Government to lift people out of poverty wages. Every Member should realise, from the experience of their constituents, that the national minimum wage was a centrepiece of the last Parliament. In this Parliament, it will continue to be a centrepiece of our policies to tackle poverty.