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Volume 407: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2003

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If he will make a statement about his discussions with Scottish business leaders about preparations for the euro. [120209]


What discussions he has had with the First Minister on the establishment of the Scottish committee for euro preparations. [120215]

I will chair the Scottish committee that will help to provide focus for euro preparations in Scotland. The Scottish Executive will be closely involved and will support the work of the committee. The First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Minister for Finance and Public Services will be members. The committee will also include representatives from business, the voluntary sector, consumers and local government. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury and I will be members of both the Chancellor's standing committee and the Scottish committee.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and welcome him to his new duties. Will he tell the House how he intends to involve Scottish business in the committee that is being set up? Does he accept that if the initiative is to be really successful it must be accompanied by local as well as national initiatives? Does he support such initiatives, especially the one that is being set up in Edinburgh?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The committee's membership must have a sufficiently wide brace to enable the Government to be properly informed as we prepare for the euro, if we decide that it would be in the country's national economic interest to join. It is also important generally that as we raise awareness of the implications and advantages of the euro we should encourage local initiatives. I am sure that many hon. Members would want to be involved in that.

When my right hon. Friend is involved in deliberations as the chair of the committee, I hope that he will remember the sixth test that was coined by his predecessor: the actual cost to Scotland in jobs and wages if the delay before joining the euro is protracted. Will he ensure that his committee deliberates with a lot of speed and gets us to join the euro as quickly as possible?

As the Chancellor made clear in his statement on 9 June, five tests need to be met, and they were set out in 1997. The two most important are ensuring that there is convergence and that our economy is sufficiently flexible to deal with any shocks that might arise. The Chancellor also referred in his statement to the fact that if it were in our national economic interest to join the euro, we should do so. He also drew attention to the fact that some hon. Members must face the fact that if we did not join after meeting the tests, there would be a price to pay. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that one of the things that we must consider in this country, provided that the five tests are met and we believe that it is in the national economic interest to join, is the fact that we might pay a heavy price for our failure to join.

It is clear from that answer that the part-time Secretary of State has binned the sixth euro test as fast as he binned Friends of Scotland. He came up with an impressive list of meetings that he will chair, so will he tell us how much time per year they will take out of his busy diary?

I would not expect the hon. Lady to know that it is not uncommon for a member of the Cabinet to sit on a variety of Cabinet committees on the euro and other matters—it is perfectly normal. I would have thought that rather than reflecting on my work load she might want to reflect on her party's position: no matter whether it was in the interests of this country to join the euro, she would be against it as a matter of principle, even if it would be advantageous for jobs and trade. Until she can respond to that point, she has little credibility on this or any other matter.

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State to his jobs. Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke), the Secretary of State's predecessor made a speech last month in which she argued that continuing to be outside the euro area would be deeply damaging to Scottish economic interests. Does he agree with that assessment, does he intend to make a specific assessment of Scottish convergence with the euro area, and can he really find the time to pursue his chairmanship of the euro preparations committee, given his many other responsibilities?

I am grateful, as always, for the hon. Gentleman's unqualified welcome. I, like many of my hon. Friends, welcome the fact that he chose to give up his other job in the Parliament in Holyrood and come back to his job here. We greatly appreciate that.

The Chancellor set out our position on the euro, which is very clear: if we are to join, we must be satisfied that the five tests that he set out in 1997 have been met. He reported earlier this month that considerable progress had been made, but that there was still more to do on sustained convergence and flexibility. What matters at the end of the day is whether it is in the United Kingdom's national economic interest to join. Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, as the voters of Scotland graphically reminded the party that the hon. Gentleman represents at the beginning of May.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new responsibilities and wish him well. I commend to him the officials of the Scotland Office, who for the past four years have carried out their jobs with great professionalism and commitment, often in very difficult circumstances. The whole House should be indebted to them.

Turning to the euro, the Chancellor identified the housing market as a significant inhibitor to convergence. The housing market in Scotland is significantly different from that in south-east England—with the exception, perhaps, of my right hon. Friend's constituency, where the market is similar. Housing and planning are devolved matters. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to take account of Scotland's unique housing issues?

Staff at the Scotland Office are, of course, experiencing dramatic changes as the constitution develops in this country. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: they are extremely loyal and dedicated, and will cope with all the changes that we have to face.

My right hon. Friend is right that, in the main, the Scottish housing market is different from the market in south-east England, although, as she says, my Edinburgh constituency in south-east Scotland is remarkably similar in many respects. The Chancellor is fully aware of those differences. Indeed, much of what he said on 9 June concerned the need for us to make the necessary changes to ensure greater stability in the housing market throughout the country. That means that we have to take into account the variations in the regions and nations of the country.

During his discussions with the Scottish business community, has the Secretary of State identified any damage that has been done to Scotland by it remaining outside the euro?

Scottish business relies to a large extent on its ability to trade not just with the rest of the UK but with Europe. Most people in Scotland believe that if the conditions were met—certainly from a business point of view—there would be huge benefits to Scottish business. Of course, there are some people who take a slightly different view, just as there are in the rest of the country, but it is our view, which I believe is right for this country's future, that if it is in our economic interests to join in terms of jobs, trade and a series of other considerations, we should do so. What I find incredible is the Conservative party's position—that even if it were in our economic interests to join, it would still say no because of its visceral dislike of all things European.