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Highlands and Islands Enterprise

Volume 454: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2006

I met the chairman and chief executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise on 29 November and, among other matters, discussed the strong economic performance of the region.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s wholehearted commitment to seeing university status granted to the university of the Highlands and Islands Millennium institute? Will he also confirm that he and his colleagues are taking each and every opportunity to stress to all the UK bodies involved, especially the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the need to make as rapid and realistic progress as is achievable, according to the set timetable, given the overwhelming social, economic and cultural importance of such a development to not only the highlands and islands, but Scotland and, indeed, the UK as a whole?

I am well aware of the importance of the establishment of the university of the highlands and islands. The matter has been raised in discussions that I have had with Highlands and Islands Enterprise and conversations that I had when I visited the highlands and islands. I am aware of the exciting prospects for the university that were raised at the dinner that the right hon. Gentleman kindly hosted with the chief executive and chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise—[Interruption.] I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman paid for the dinner; he just hosted it—another failed Lib Dem spending promise.

I am aware that the various institutions in the proposed university have received a good report on the quality of education that they are providing, although some governance matters need to be sorted out. I am convinced that they can be sorted and that we will see the establishment of a university in the highlands and islands that will not only play a tremendous part in the economic regeneration of the area, but encourage people to move to the area to study and then stay there.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that the Scottish Affairs Committee is in the highlands and islands as part of our inquiry into poverty. Yesterday, I met representatives of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, other stakeholders and members of the public. The overriding concern expressed by local communities is about the Government’s plans to butcher the rural post office network. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State, at this late hour, make representations to the Department of Trade and Industry to save this valued and essential service?

I am aware that the Scottish Affairs Committee is in the highlands and islands today, although I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman had mastered the art of bilocation by managing to be here at the same time. As I have said at the Dispatch Box almost every month for the past 18 months, the Government accept the need to continue to sustain a viable post office network throughout the country. That is why we are investing £2 billion to ensure that the post office can compete in the modern world. However, there are problems. When the rural network loses £150 million a year and there are 800 post offices throughout the UK with four or fewer customers a day, with each transaction costing the taxpayer £17, that is an unsustainable state of affairs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will make a statement in due course and set out the way forward. We want to continue to have a viable and sustainable post office network, but some difficult decisions will have to be taken.

The Minister will doubtless be aware of the great commitment that Highlands and Islands Enterprise has demonstrated towards the development of marine renewables. In that regard, however, will the Minister speak to his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry about the way in which its marine renewable fund operates? The creation of the fund was welcome, but those who are involved in research and development tell me that because of the way in which it was set up, it is virtually impossible to get money out of it. Will the Minister take up that point in his discussions with his DTI colleagues?

I am happy to look into the matter on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf, although I do not accept the assertion that it is virtually impossible to get money out of the fund. However, it is important that organisations with good proposals are able to access that funding. I am sure that he would want to pay tribute to the funding that the UK has given to the maritime research centre that is based in his constituency, which has done a lot of work to ensure that we will be in a position very soon to get more of our energy from wave and tidal sources. We are not there yet, which is why the investment is needed, but I will examine the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.