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SCOTLAND

Volume 450: debated on Tuesday 10 October 2006

The Secretary of State was asked—

Post Office Network

1. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers on the future of the post office network in Scotland. (92535)

I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that he will acknowledge the concerns across the country about the future of the Post Office, but is he aware of the growing dismay about those politicians who claim to support postal services while actually wanting to privatise them? That is, of course, the policy of the Liberal Democrats.

I entirely agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman—whom I almost called my right hon. Friend—makes. However, the problem is worse than he says, as the Government have made available thousands of millions of pounds through the budget of the Department of Trade and Industry to help support and sustain the post office network. Of course, it is also Liberal Democrat policy to abolish the DTI and spend its budget elsewhere.

When my hon. Friend discusses the future of post offices with his ministerial colleagues, will he ensure that their importance in urban areas—and especially poorer urban areas—is fully taken into consideration? What support are the Government giving to such post offices to enable them to compete?

My hon. Friend makes an exceptionally important point. Post offices have a key role to play in deprived urban communities, just as they do in rural communities. The urban post office network has benefited from the £2,000 million that has been invested in recent years. That money has enabled the Post Office to become part of a global banking network and to compete in the modern age. The reality is that customers will determine the Post Office’s future—we cannot expect that the post office network in 10 or 20 years’ time will be like the one that existed 10 or 20 years ago.

It is appropriate today that the House should mark the passing during the recess of Hector Monro, who represented the Dumfries constituency for some 33 years and held several ministerial offices. Hector was a great servant of this House, of his constituents and of Scotland—and never more so than in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing. He will be sorely missed.

Does the Minister agree with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, and the many Scots who have signed its petition, that the post office network in Scotland has an important social value? If so, why have the Government systematically removed business from that network?

First, may I associate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and colleagues on this side of the House with the warm tribute that the hon. Gentleman paid to Hector Monro? My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) has spoken of the warmth with which Hector is still remembered in the constituency for the work that he did for the south of Scotland.

The hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) asked about the nature of the post office network, but I remind him that the Government have provided financial assistance, in the form of the investment of taxpayers’ money, that amounts to well over £2,000 million. That speaks not of a Government who are withdrawing support from the Post Office, but of one who continue to support it. I contrast that with the fact that 3,500 post offices throughout the UK closed in the 18 years of Conservative Government.

May I draw my hon. Friend the Minister’s attention to Auchterarder sub-post office? When the VisitScotland tourist office there closed, Donald Ramsay, the sub-postmaster, had the foresight to enter into negotiations and secure 90 per cent. of its business in his post office. Does my hon. Friend agree that local post offices might be able to take advantage of similar opportunities when tourist offices and the like are placed under threat? Will he join me in congratulating Mr. Ramsay on his foresight in embarking on that new business venture?

I am more than happy to pay tribute to Mr. Ramsay and to my hon. Friend, who I know played a part in negotiating the arrangement that has brought the tourist office into the post office. I look forward to VisitScotland opening an office in Port Glasgow so that the same synergy can be established there. My hon. Friend has given the House an example of how the Post Office can enter into new entrepreneurial ventures that will help sustain it. That stands in sharp contrast to those hon. Members who go around collecting petitions about the future of post offices, while supporting policies that would see them close.

State Aid Rules

2. What recent discussions he has had with Government Departments and EU member states on the effect of future state aid rules on Scotland. (92536)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues, although as Secretary of State for Scotland, I have not discussed future state aid rules with representatives from other member states.

The Secretary of State is aware of the great anxiety in Shetland because of the complaints being investigated against various economic development projects that are claimed to have breached state aid rules. I hope that he and his Department will do all they can to work with the Scottish Executive and others to allow a satisfactory resolution of those complaints. Looking to the future, does he agree that what is needed is a system that allows for clarity in the prior approval of schemes and that recognises the economic fragility and peripherality of communities such as Shetland?

The hon. Gentleman is right—I am aware of the concerns on the islands at the moment, given the ongoing disputed state aid issues, and I know that as the local representative he has taken a close interest in those matters. Indeed, I understand that I even featured in The Shetland Times this week, such is the level of his concern. As he said, those matters are being explored in detail with Shetland Islands council, the public body concerned, the Scottish Executive and our Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Discussions are ongoing with the Commission to try to resolve the outstanding issue, but I should be clear that the principal responsibility lies with the public body in question—in this case Shetland Islands council, which is why I hope that we can find a resolution to these matters.

Does the Minister agree that the Chancellor is to be commended for many things, one of which is his view that EU state aid rules and regional aid rules are best repatriated, and that this is a classic example of where very little is added by having state aid rules and regional aid handled by Brussels? Far better to have it returned to member states.

Clearly, the whole House is minded to pay tribute to the work of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

A review of EU state aid is under way. I am glad to say that the thinking not just of the Treasury, but of the whole British Government—and, indeed, the Lisbon agenda—figures prominently in the ongoing review by the Commission. We want to see less but better targeted state aid and I believe we are making real progress in Europe towards that end.

As state aid was the given excuse for the restructuring of Caledonian MacBrayne, does the Minister feel that the £16 million currently being wasted on restructuring would have been better spent on fare reductions, especially considering that some articulated lorries spend £1,000 on a return fare to the outer Hebrides? Should not every opportunity be taken during the restructuring to relocate Caledonian MacBrayne’s headquarters to Stornoway, Tarbet, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale or Castlebay, or all those ports? [Interruption.]

A very strong case for Gourock has just been put by my hon. Friend the Minister. Whenever I buy tickets for the MV Isle of Mull, I tend to buy them from Gourock and not from Lochmaddy, so I have a certain sympathy with his view.

On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point, this is of course primarily a matter for the Scottish Executive, who are aware of the strength of feeling both on the outer and the inner isles on the future of Caledonian MacBrayne.

Given that the UK is the member state, is the Secretary of State satisfied with the existing arrangements with the Scottish Executive in relation to state aid rules, in particular their compliance? Is not this yet another example of a failure to have clear working arrangements in place between London and Edinburgh?

I feel that the hon. Gentleman is stretching the point to return to a familiar theme at Scottish questions. As I sought delicately to suggest, responsibility lies primarily with Shetland Islands council, but of course we stand ready to work both through DEFRA and Scottish Executive Ministers to find a resolution to the dispute.

Wind Turbines

3. If he will assess the effects of Government policy on wind turbines on migrating bird populations in Scotland. (92537)

Planning consent to site wind turbines is devolved to Scottish Executive Ministers for larger projects and to local authorities for others. In all cases, the relevant authority must comply with European obligations, including those arising under the birds and habitats directives.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Although I welcome the progress—albeit slow progress—that the Government are making on renewables, may I express concern that often bird life and habitats are overlooked in the planning and decision-making processes? Does the Minister share my concern that the proposal by British Energy and AMEC on the Isle of Lewis does not fully explore the whole issue of the impact on migrating bird life, about which the Scottish population—a bird-loving population—have real concerns?

When the hon. Gentleman started to talk about endangered species in Scotland, I thought for a moment that he was talking about the Scottish Tory party. If the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) wants to debate that, he is very welcome to join us at Scotland Office questions.

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point—there is often tension between the global environmental gains to be made from renewable energy sources such as wind farms, and local environmental considerations, and it is important that they are balanced. That is why the European habitats directive must be taken into consideration before planning consent is given, and I am sure that he welcomes that EU regulation, as he welcomes all EU regulations. However, that highlights the need to take these decisions on a case-by-case basis based on the evidence, and not to adopt a strategy of calling for a moratorium on all wind- farm developments in Scotland. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may say that no one is saying that, but the Scottish Tory party is saying it.

I certainly hope that bird habitats will be taken into account in the very exciting development on the Beatrice platform, which is run by Talisman, whose headquarters is in my constituency. People there are working out how to maximise the use of offshore wind—in fact, the turbines will be very large and one of them will be extremely large—but does my hon. Friend agree that such developments should not be jeopardised by any over-concern for wildlife, which, obviously, has to deal with the existing offshore platforms in the North sea in any case?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the potential of deep-water offshore wind farms to get us beyond some of the tensions that occur when the local environmental impacts stop the global benefits of renewable energy. Of course, the trial on the Beatrice field is just beginning and we must consider its results with very great care.

While it is obviously right that the interests of migrating bird populations should be taken into account, does the Minister agree that the siting of wind farms can provide a useful stream of revenue for farmers and landowners in respect of their properties, which might otherwise be financially unviable?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an excellent point. Of course, wind farms have many possible benefits, not just the global benefits of reducing our carbon emissions and helping us to meet our targets. However, people in more and more farming communities recognise that if their farms are to be viable and sustainable, they must diversify from agriculture into other forms of income generation, and this is one of them.

Age Discrimination

4. What steps the Government plan to take to ensure the enforcement of anti-age discrimination measures in Scotland. (92538)

This is an important and enlightened measure, which came into effect earlier this month, and whose enforcement will be, as in other strands of discrimination legislation, mainly through employment tribunals and sheriff courts.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, but does he share my disappointment that some sections of the business community have used the opportunity of the introduction of this legislation to complain about burdens on business? Does he agree that they would do far better to welcome this legislation as a real opportunity to ensure that all sections of the community get a fair deal?

I am in sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point. I think that any modern business would want to be able to recruit and retain staff on the basis of competence and skills, rather than their age. This is a classic example of the sort of measure that will undoubtedly benefit the United Kingdom’s businesses in the long term. There is no contradiction between running a business efficiently and running a business fairly.

I very much welcome the legislation. However, an estimated 56,000 Scots between the ages of 16 and 21 earn less than their older colleagues, solely on the basis of their age. Does the Secretary of State agree that such age discrimination is probably illegal and certainly unacceptable, and that it is time for the lower minimum wage rates for younger workers to go?

Mr. Speaker, forgive my concern for the crocodile tears expressed about youth unemployment and the minimum wage. We considered the matter very carefully in government after 1997. Of course, the Conservative party then claimed that 1 million jobs would be lost as a consequence of what they judged would be a dangerous and reckless policy. In fact, the only people who ended up losing their jobs because of the manner in which we introduced the minimum wages were the Conservative MPs who opposed it. The serious point behind the measures that we took and the fact that we introduced a different rate for young workers was our profound concern to avoid significant youth unemployment, which is still too common in continental Europe. The virtual eradication of long-term youth unemployment has been one of the Government’s most significant achievements. I believe that our measured and sensible approach to the introduction of the minimum wage has played a significant role in that success.

The Opposition fully support the new regulations. However, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there has been a failure to convey to businesses, particularly small businesses in Scotland, the detail of the regulations? What proposals does he have to remedy that?

I do not accept that suggestion. The Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which will come into force next year, will of course have a key role in education about and promotion of the regulation, but in the meantime sources of information are available to both small and large businesses to make sure that there is effective implementation of the regulation henceforth.

Immigration

I thank the Minister for that answer, but he will be aware that the population of Scotland has now risen for three consecutive years, that the population of Glasgow has risen for two years and that last year the population of Dundee rose for the first time in a generation. Will he and the Secretary of State make representations to the Home Secretary that, no matter what he does in managed migration from the new EU-accession states, he should do nothing that will jeopardise the fragile recovery of Scotland’s population?

The hon. Gentleman mentions the increase in Scotland’s population as though the figures fell out of a clear blue sky without any effort by the Government and the Scottish Executive to bring them about. He should pay tribute to the First Minister for the fresh talent initiative that has helped to attract some of the brightest and best young people to come to study in Scotland and to stay in Scotland. The strength of the Scottish economy, which is benefiting from the strength of the United Kingdom economy, makes Scotland a very attractive place. What would happen if Scotland broke away from the rest of the UK? Can we imagine anybody wanting to come to a Scotland governed by the Scottish National party, as the country would be economically unviable and would not attract any—

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend discuss immigration with their colleagues, will they seek to ensure that asylum decisions are taken much more quickly? A great deal of distress is caused to families who have put down roots once a decision goes against them. The quicker that asylum decisions are taken, the better.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and the new asylum model is designed to make sure that the initial decision is taken much more quickly and that any appeals that subsequently follow also happen more quickly.

May I make a point that I have made on previous occasions? Our immigration policies will have to be about the economic needs of Scotland as the host country and the UK in general, but asylum policy must never be about that. Asylum policy has to be about whether an individual has a well-founded fear of persecution and we must make that judgment, and make it quickly. If the person meets the criteria, we will welcome them and integrate them into Scottish society. If they do not, they will have to return to the country from which they came.

Does the Minister acknowledge that immigration into Scotland has been very beneficial right across the economy? Does he accept that those who have come in under the skills initiative and who were given the indication that they would have a right to permanent residence after four years, but who are now being told that they will have to wait five years, have effectively been misled? Will he make representations to the Home Office to make sure that those who applied for a four-year time limit will be allowed to qualify for it?

I do not know the answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, but I will certainly look into it on his behalf.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very serious point. While we welcome immigrants to Scotland, we have the right to specify the particular skills that we wish to come to the UK in general. That is what the managed migration policy and a points-based migration policy are about, so that we can have an independent body that recommends what the skills needs of the UK are and then respond to that. I will get back to him on the particular point he mentions.

Scottish Airports (Security)

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but does he accept that there is a need for an assessment to be made following the new regulations that seem to be in force across airports in Scotland? As part of that assessment, will he look at the position at Prestwick, which seems to have a far more efficient service than those that operate in other airports in Scotland?

I assure my hon. Friend that we keep the security regime at all the UK’s airports under constant review. It is determined on the basis of level of national threat, and clearly there have been changes both to the threat level and to the security regime implemented at our airports since the events of 10 August. However, it would be remiss of me both in relation to Prestwick and the operation of other major airports, including Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, not to take the opportunity to place on record my personal gratitude as Transport Secretary for the work that was done in Scottish airports during August. It is significant that the level of performance not just at Prestwick, but at other Scottish airports, was outstanding in what were very demanding circumstances.

When the right hon. Gentleman is having these discussions, will he make sure that his colleagues are aware of the excellent work done by the staff and management at Inverness airport, not just in security, but in developing new routes and services that are bringing substantial benefits to the economy of the highlands and islands?

I am not quite sure with whom I am due to be having conversations—perhaps with myself. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am fully aware of the level of service that was provided at Inverness, as well as at other airports. I know that he has been pursuing the matter of the route development out of Inverness airport for some time and that he continues to raise it with the Government.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to congratulate the management and staff at all UK airports—particularly those at Glasgow airport—on their work during the recent security threat. Will he also welcome the recent announcement by BAA of the significant investment at Glasgow airport, which will enhance the security at that airport and also make it easily accessible for people to travel from?

As a regular traveller through Glasgow airport, I am fully aware of the outstanding service that was provided, although the support for the new security regime has not been universal. When I was travelling with my four-year-old son a couple of weeks back, he had to take off his wellington boots at the security comb. He asked, “Why do I have to take off my wellies?” and the security guard replied, “Because your dad’s making everybody take off their wellingtons.” [Laughter.] Notwithstanding that one rather sceptical voice, I am happy to place on the record my admiration of the staff and management at Glasgow airport.

Devolution

Since 4 July, 161 devolution issues have been intimated to the Advocate-General. Of these, 102 related to civil proceedings and 59 related to criminal proceedings.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he join me in congratulating the new Lord Advocate on her appointment? Will he also confirm whether the Advocate-General was consulted on that appointment and whether there are plans to distinguish the office of chief legal adviser to the Cabinet in Scotland on Scottish legal affairs from that of chief prosecutor?

I am very happy to join the hon. Lady in welcoming the new Lord Advocate, who is the first ever woman to hold that post. The daughter of a coal merchant from Govan has risen to the top of the legal and political establishment in Scotland. That is a great tribute to her talents and abilities. As the hon. Lady knows, the role of the Lord Advocate as head of prosecutions is enshrined in the Scotland Act 1998. The independence as such is enshrined in that Act. Other arrangements, such as whether the Lord Advocate is a member of the Cabinet in the Scottish Executive, are matters for the First Minister.

Business Environment

This Government’s strong macro-economic policies have delivered the strongest Scottish labour market in decades, with record levels of employment. The Government's monetary policy framework has delivered the longest period of sustained low and stable inflation since the 1960s.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of recent research that shows that the success of the Nordic countries is, above all, due to their long-term political and economic stability. Does he agree that that is what Scotland needs as well, and will he ensure that he resists the calls of those who would jeopardise tens of thousands of Scottish jobs by plunging us into years of constitutional uncertainty and chaos?

I find myself in full agreement with the hon. Gentleman and I pray in support not simply the research carried out by the Government, but the most recent headlines in Scotland. Only yesterday, on 9 October, The Scotsman led with the headline:

“Scottish output growth fastest in 6 years”.

The Herald led with the headline: “Scotland’s economy going strong”. Of particular significance in that story was a quote from Andrew Wilson, the deputy chief economist of the Royal Bank of Scotland, who said:

“Solid result. Good news for manufacturers generally.”

Clearly, the consensus that the Scottish economy is strong and strengthening extends even to those who previously belonged to other parties.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the relative economic success of the Republic of Ireland, with its low corporate tax rates? Is that not a lesson that the Scottish economy would find hugely advantageous—if corporate tax rates in Scotland were cut to the level of those in the Republic of Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman may have forgotten that corporation tax has already been cut by this Government. His point about Ireland has to be taken somewhat cautiously. If we look, for example, at the competitiveness of western Europe in computing and IT, there was a time over the past 20 years when we could secure what is inherently mobile international capital investment by having reduced rates of corporation tax. That level of investment in Ireland preceded the rise of not just China, but India, Vietnam and other economies in the far east. The economic restructuring that has taken place in recent years suggests that there is no single silver magic bullet. The determination to provide the economic stability that we have provided, together with education and training, also has a key role to play.

Economic Policy

In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with the STUC, has he been able to offer it reassurance about his support for the manufacturing sector, which is so important for the Scottish economy?

Yes, just a few weeks ago I met with the STUC general council and we discussed at length the interests of Scottish manufacturing. Immediately preceding that meeting, I had held discussions with Scottish Engineering, and it again placed on record its determination to continue to support modern manufacturing strength for Scotland.