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Cross-border Issues

Volume 454: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2006

3. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the effect of cross-border patient flows on hospital waiting times. (104870)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State regularly meets the First Minister to discuss a wide range of issues. As I advised the hon. Gentleman during Scottish questions last month, however, cross-border health issues are primarily for the Department of Health and the Scottish Executive.

Do Scottish patients waiting for an operation at an English hospital have the same priority at that hospital as English patients? Does the Minister know how many Scottish patients have been waiting more than six months for an NHS operation?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to people waiting for operations who happen to be Scottish, but who live in England.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about cross-patient waiting—[Interruption.] They were very cross patients under the Conservatives, but waiting times have come down under Labour. Agreements are made between the Scottish health service and health authorities in England and Wales, primarily in the border areas. However, in Scotland, as in England, waiting times and waiting lists for operations are falling. Thanks to the investment that the Government have put in, the number of deaths from cancer, heart attacks and strokes—the main killer diseases in Scotland’s history—has come down in recent times. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman’s party opposed all that investment.

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has just made clear, I discuss a wide range of matters with the First Minister on a regular basis.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that full response, but given his current sabbatical to run the increasingly desperate and hysterical Labour campaign for the Holyrood elections, I wonder that he has any time to touch on what is supposed to be his real brief. Does he agree that, given the stagnation of the rail and road network, both cross-border and, more particularly, in England, the House deserves and requires a full-time Secretary of State, not one giving his orders in Bute house to the Scottish First Minister?

Where do I begin? First, on part-time attendance, I note the absence of the Scarlet Pimpernel from the Benches opposite. I resist absolutely any suggestion that I am obliged to make hysterical attacks—I simply tell the truth about the Scottish National party’s policies. I pointed out that the SNP leader was 51, but I supposed that if there was independence, under the SNP’s figures, he would be about 27. On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point about whether the rail industry is stagnating, it may have passed his notice that we have the fastest growing passenger railway in Europe, that more than 1 billion passengers a year now use the railways, and that we are committing record and sustained levels of investment. Once again, the SNP needs to do its homework.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the importance of the Glasgow airport rail link, not only to the local economy but to tourism. Has an assessment been carried out on what the effect would be of the SNP’s policy of opposing that investment?

The reinstatement of the ferry service between Campeltown and Ballycastle would be a great encouragement to tourism and would improve business links between Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Scottish Executive are prepared to back the ferry with hard cash, but the Government here in Westminster are not. Will the Secretary of State please have a word with his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office, and convince them of the benefit that reinstating that ferry service would bring to both Scotland and Northern Ireland?

I am certainly always happy to discuss with my colleagues any transport issues that are within the remit of the British Government, but may I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has a word with the Liberal Democrat Transport Minister in Scotland, too?

Senior businessmen in my constituency are concerned about the possible currency in an independent Scotland. It will not be the pound, and it will not be the euro. If the SNP lost a referendum on the euro, it would have to introduce the Scottish bawbee. At what part of the cross-border road will we have to change currency?

Order. These questions must be closely related, but they are not. I hope that Mr. Mundell will manage better.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that Sir Rod Eddington has effectively ruled out a high-speed rail link between Scotland and London, saying that a high-speed rail link

“between two cities would not offer the economy…new”

competitive

“or trading opportunities, if those cities were already a day-trip away from each other by existing rail…links”?

Does the Secretary of State agree with that statement?

The Government have not yet reached a final view on high-speed rail links connecting the north and south of the country. We will of course give serious consideration to Sir Rod Eddington’s report. He has commented on the high-speed rail link, among other modes of transport, and that will inform my Department’s work as we move forward on the issue.

Can the Secretary of State comment on the absence of discussions between Northern Ireland Ministers, those in his Ministry, as Secretary of State for Scotland, and those in the Department for Transport, which is the other portfolio that he holds, to deal with the parlous state of the road between the English-Scottish border and the ports from which ferries go to Northern Ireland? Is it not important that there is discussion between the three Ministries about improving the road from Stranraer to Gretna, in the interests of the United Kingdom, and the important commercial life of Northern Ireland? May we have those discussions?

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was just reminding me of the scale of investment in the roads network in Northern Ireland. Of course, we maintain a dialogue with the Scottish Executive looking at issues such as the one that my hon. Friend described, which impacts on the locality and more widely. Those discussions would be infinitely more difficult if we were dealing with foreign Governments.