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Scotland

Volume 407: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked

Euro

1.

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

7.

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.

Pension Credit

2.

What discussions he has had with senior citizen organisations regarding the take-up of the pension credit in Scotland. [120210]

I discussed the pension credit yesterday at the older people's consultative forum in Edinburgh. The Department for Work and Pensions, through its new Pension Service and a forthcoming media campaign, is active in ensuring that pensioners receive full information about the pension credit.

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. She will be aware that the benefit is valuable and will help many thousands of people in Scotland. Many elderly people are, unfortunately, unable to look after their own affairs, so has she discussed with the voluntary sector, local authorities and the Scottish Executive how we can ensure that such people benefit from this valuable new incentive?

My hon. Friend is correct. We need to ensure that those who are in receipt of care or who are looked after by family or carers are included. The most vulnerable pensioners have been specifically targeted since April this year with a specially designed direct mail pack, which is issued to carers or pensioners, and the campaign will continue until June 2004. As part of my ongoing discussions with the Scottish Executive, I will ensure that her points are fully taken on board in Scotland.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, may I welcome the Secretary of State to his new duties? Is the Minister aware of the recent admission by the chair of the Inland Revenue to the Treasury Select Committee that the computers had serious problems with the tax credits, which had come as a bolt out of the blue? Given the complexity of the pension credit, what assurance can she give Scottish pensioners that the computers will work and the helplines will cope, bearing in mind that on 12 March 2002 the Secretary of State himself described the Department of Work and Pensions' computers as "decrepit"?

First, may I advise the hon. Gentleman that the decrepit computers have been replaced? Secondly, I assure him that the Pension Service has extensive experience of working with the complexity, as he put it, of the pension credit. Every effort will be made to ensure that pensioners who are eligible for the pension credit take it up. As he is well aware, the new pension credit will give people with small occupational pensions the benefit of savings that they accumulated throughout their working lives, so it is to be welcomed.

May I follow up the point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso)? Sir Nicholas Montagu, chairman of the Inland Revenue, was called before my Committee last week. He said that the dress rehearsal went well, but that when the curtain went up on day one it was a shambles. We do not want a shambles on day one, as the pension credit is good news for many elderly people in Scotland. Given that EDS is the IT company responsible, can the utmost pressure be put on it to ensure that the first day of a rollout is good news, not bad news?

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the relevant Ministers are, of course, aware of the importance of getting the new pension credit right, and I am sure that the lessons of our experience and the situation that we inherited from the previous Government will be learned. My hon. Friend is correct—the pension credit is good news for pensioners across Scotland, and we should not lose sight of that core fact.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that pension credit take-up is dependent on pensioners' and senior citizens' organisations believing that it will make a difference to them and will not be negated by the action of other Departments? When will she resolve the dispute between the DWP and the Scottish Executive over the non-payment of attendance allowance, and thus allow pensioners in self-funded care to benefit? Does not that long-running conflict, which originated under the Secretary of State when he was at the DWP, not require the full-time input of a part-time Secretary of State for Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware—in fact, he is aware—that what he calls a long-running conflict was resolved some years ago. I understand that Age Concern Scotland has raised a legal issue, which it is intent on pursuing but, as far as the UK Government and the Scottish Executive are concerned, this matter has been resolved.

After the trivia of the previous question, may I return to the important matter of support for pensioners? The minimum income guarantee was a great success for those who got it, but 20 per cent. of pensioners did not get it, either because they could not fill out the forms or because they could not get access to them. The difference with the pension credit is that we already have records of people with employment-based pensions through the Inland Revenue system. Is it not time that that system was used to seek out people with those extra pensions so that they can automatically be passported to the pension credit?

I take my hon. Friend's point, but I am not sure whether we can read across from the pension credit to the minimum income guarantee. This issue has been raised before at Scottish questions, and I can assure the House that the Department for Work and Pensions is trying every conceivable means of ensuring that pensioners who are eligible for the minimum income guarantee are advised of that fact. I again appeal to Scottish Members of Parliament, who are leaders in their own communities, not to miss the opportunity to highlight the importance of the minimum income guarantee to their pensioner constituents.

Air Transport

4.

How many responses the Government has received to the "Future of Air Transport—Scotland" consultation document. [120212]

As of 23 June, we had received 1,097 responses to the questionnaire and 520 letters and e-mails.

I thank the new Secretary of State for that answer. Is he aware that figures he has just released to the House show that less than 3 per cent. of the 61,000 consultation documents were returned? Does he agree that in view of the importance of air transport to the economy, transport and the environment, in the remaining six days before the deadline for responses he ought to do everything he can to ensure an increased response?

It is important that everyone who wants to respond to the consultation does so, but for various reasons many people probably do not want to respond, and the Government cannot dragoon them into doing so. With regard to Edinburgh airport, in which the hon. Gentleman, like me, has an immediate interest, and other airports in Scotland, it is important that we get a wide range of views about the projected growth and that we plan accordingly. So far, as I said, we have had a large number of responses. It is a matter of live interest, as the hon. Gentleman knows, not just in Edinburgh but in Glasgow.

In relation to the questionnaire, it is not surprising that many people who do not have any immediate views on the subject may choose not to respond. That does not weaken the strength of the consultation. We are giving people as much opportunity as possible to make their contribution, if they wish to do so.

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his new duties. He knows how anxious I am to see building work recommence on the new Scottish centre, which is so vital for the future of air transport in the UK. Can he tell the House when we are likely to receive an announcement in that regard?

In the not too distant future, I hope. My hon. Friend knows that I visited the Prestwick control centre last summer, and I am well aware of the fact that people in Prestwick and the surrounding area want the second centre to be built as soon as possible. May I reassure my hon. Friend and the House that a second centre is an essential part of the National Air Traffic Services strategy? It is necessary for operational reasons and for back-up. It is a great pity that it has taken such a time to get a decision, but I am optimistic that we will be able to say something in the not too distant future.

Will the right hon. Gentleman have a long discussion with himself about landing charges at BAA airports? He knows that Glasgow airport recently lost a BMI service from Cardiff, and easyJet has branded Scotland's airports as far too expensive. What will he say to himself in order to address the problem?

In relation to the charges, if there is any suggestion that BAA is not acting properly, there is provision in competition law for that to be investigated. One of the reasons that low-cost airlines have been able to cut their prices so significantly is that they have driven hard bargains with airports in order to reduce landing charges—in some cases down to pretty negligible amounts.

The hon. Gentleman speaks from time to time about the need for a sustainable transport policy. There comes a point when someone somewhere must pay to renew airport infrastructure. I know, because I have spoken to just about everyone involved in the airline industry, that it is the view of some low-cost operators that that is someone else's problem. They want to drive a hard deal, and in some cases they are not interested in an airport being done up, because they are not willing to pay for the cost of that. For the long-term sustainability of air transport, we need to make sure that infrastructure is replaced and upgraded, and that must be paid for.

If the hon. Gentleman has a specific complaint about BAA airports in Scotland, I am sure the competition authorities will be happy to hear from him.

lf the consultation on the right hon. Gentleman's airport strategy should suggest that increased capacity requires a northern hub at either Manchester or Edinburgh-Glasgow, how will he speak up for Scotland's airports and advise his fellow Cabinet members as Secretary of State for Transport?

When I set up the consultation exercise in July last year, the question was not Manchester versus Edinburgh or Glasgow; the question was whether it would be possible or desirable to have a Scottish hub airport. The hon. Lady may know, although perhaps the view from Beckenham is rather different, that that has been a long-running argument in Scotland. [Interruption.] The argument in central Scotland is between Edinburgh and Glasgow, both of which are in Scotland. I do not think there is a problem there.

What I will have to decide during the course of this year, prior to publishing the White Paper at the end of it, is whether there is an argument for trying to build a hub airport in central Scotland or whether Edinburgh and Glasgow can carry on working in tandem, as they do at the moment. Frankly, that is the argument. Manchester is competing increasingly with airports in south-east England rather than Scotland, although people from Scotland use that airport because it is a very good one.