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Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Digital Switchover

1. What steps the Government are taking to raise awareness of digital switchover in Scotland; and when he last discussed this matter with Ofcom and Digital UK. (156888)

The Secretary of State recently met Ofcom and I met Paul Hughes, Digital UK’s national manager for Scotland, over the summer. In addition, I will address a conference in Scotland next month on the opportunities presented by digital switchover. Book early to avoid disappointment.

The Minister knows that there are currently teething problems in Whitehaven, especially with people not knowing about the switchover. My constituency has an above average number of elderly people, whose television is not a luxury but a necessity. What contact has my hon. Friend made with, for example, Glasgow city council, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Citizens Advice Scotland and the electricity boards to ensure that information is issued especially to the elderly about the changeover?

My hon. Friend mentioned Whitehaven, which is the first part of the UK to switch over. That will happen tomorrow. I was not aware of the teething problems that he mentioned. When I last examined the matter, I was told that awareness in Whitehaven was 100 per cent., which sounded suspiciously North Korean, but I am prepared to believe that the percentage is high. He is right that the key to it all is public awareness. No single organisation—be it Digital UK or the BBC—will achieve that on its own. We need to work together—the councils, the Scottish Executive and the registered social landlords, who also have a role to play—so that, when the scheme is extended throughout Scotland, beginning in Borders in 2008 and in the rest of Scotland in 2010, there is awareness of it, ensuring that people know that switchover will happen and know the steps that they have to take. In addition, a help scheme will be in place for the elderly and vulnerable people to whom my hon. Friend referred, so that they do not lose out on that opportunity.

The help scheme will not kick in until close to switchover. What is happening now to develop new handsets for the visually impaired, those with disabilities who have difficulty accessing digital TV, and those, mainly the elderly, who may need to buy a new TV before the help scheme kicks in in their area but also need access to digital advice now so that they do not miss out when the switchover happens?

That is precisely why Digital UK appointed a national manager for Scotland, Paul Hughes, and why I met him earlier. I pay tribute to him for raising the issue of the handset for people with disabilities. After he prompted me, I spoke to Vicki Nash of Ofcom Scotland about the matter. I also discussed it with the Scottish Consumer Council because it is a genuine concern. Ofcom Scotland has conducted some research on how useable the handsets are, the results of which are being fed back into the former Department of Trade and Industry—now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—taskforce on the matter. As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), it is important that no one loses out, especially those who have visual or other disabilities.

Does my hon. Friend agree that digital television provides opportunities, especially for my constituents through North Lanarkshire local authority, which provides information and tremendous services? Will he encourage other local authorities to conduct a similar exercise?

My hon. Friend is right. Indeed, she pre-empts excerpts of my keynote speech next month. North Lanarkshire has proposed a creative and imaginative scheme, which is a way to disseminate information throughout the area so that everybody knows the services to which they are entitled and that they can access. It is an excellent programme, which I thoroughly recommend to other local authority areas, not only in Scotland but throughout the UK.

Ministerial Meetings

I understand that the frequency and format of my meetings with the First Minister are consistent with those of our predecessors. I have also had a series of informal meetings with the First Minister. For example, I met him as recently as this Saturday when we watched Scotland’s magnificent victory over Ukraine at Hampden Park.

What recent discussions has the Secretary of State held with the First Minister about Glasgow’s Commonwealth games bid? What advice has he given the First Minister, who will shortly lead a delegation of 46 members to Sri Lanka to hear the announcement? Does he agree with Glasgow city councillor John Mason, who says that the size of the delegation is “very excessive”? Will the right hon. Gentleman join the delegation?

I have no plans to join the delegation. The appropriateness of the size of the delegation will be determined by the outcome of the lobbying. If Glasgow—as I expect that it will—wins the Commonwealth games, we will look back at the size of the delegation, and if every member has made a contribution to that appropriate outcome, we will celebrate them. It is not in my gift to determine who goes—I have no expertise in such lobbying; perhaps the hon. Gentleman does. If so, he should let Glasgow have the benefit of it. We all look forward to a successful bid. I am sure that he will cheer as loudly as the rest of us when Glasgow makes a successful bid for the Commonwealth games.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will take the opportunity, next time he meets the First Minister, to remind him that my constituents in Ochil and South Perthshire expect to see him working co-operatively and constructively in Scotland’s interests, not using the opportunity for party political grandstanding.

I say to my hon. Friend, and I have said in the past, that my interest as the Secretary of State for Scotland is primarily in making devolution work for the people of Scotland. I am in absolutely no doubt that it will work in the interests of the people of Scotland only if I personally have a constructive relationship with the First Minister, which I believe I do, and if he and his Ministers develop constructive relationships with my colleagues. Some of the activity of the past week suggests that, in order for us to do that, they might need to resist the temptation to develop confrontation out of what appeared to be co-operation.

With that good spirit in mind, will the Secretary of State endeavour in his next meeting with the First Minister to join him, the National Farmers Union Scotland and the Scottish Government in battling for Scottish farmers and Scottish crofters? Will he lend his weight to the campaign for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to live up to its responsibility and fully cover all welfare and compensation payments arising from foot and mouth?

Like everyone else in the House—and everyone else in Scotland—I have enormous sympathy for farmers and the plight that they face. I am among the many hon. Members who have constituents who are directly affected by those circumstances. Our concern for them is heightened by the fact that the events that generated those circumstances were well beyond their control. They were the victims. The hon. Gentleman will know from his colleagues in Scotland that Scotland Office Ministers have been working closely with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues that arose out of the outbreak of foot and mouth, from hours for haulage drivers all the way to support for farmers. Indeed, I met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this morning to discuss that very issue.

I commend the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) for leading a genuinely cross-party initiative and for engaging constructively. I understand that he will be meeting farmers later today with the Secretary of State. He is to be commended for that. Perhaps the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) and some of the members of his party could take a leaf out of that book, by working in co-operation and not in confrontation.

Next time my right hon. Friend meets the First Minister, will he raise the question of our armed forces returning to the UK? If our service personnel return to an English local authority, they receive priority treatment through the health service, but in Scotland they do not. Will my right hon. Friend raise with the First Minister the important question of how our service personnel are treated in Scotland?

My hon. Friend may well have uncovered an application of what I thought was a cross-UK policy to give veterans priority in relation to health service treatment. I suspect that that is not the only area where there are differences between the rest of the United Kingdom and Scotland in relation to veterans’ access to public services. For example, he will know from the work that he has been doing on the Select Committee on Defence that we are making quite significant progress here in England, through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government among others, on removing some of the impediments that armed forces personnel face in accessing social housing. Those are of course challenges that the Scottish Executive face, too. I am sure that, with the encouragement of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and others, they will be up to those challenges, but there are still gaps in their provision of service.

May I impress upon the Secretary of State the importance of making communication work between London and Edinburgh? If communication between his Department and the Scottish Government in Edinburgh does not work, the devolutionary settlement will not work, and that can lead in only one direction. The people who will suffer in the meantime are those whom we are supposed to represent here, such as those in the Scottish livestock industry, to which he has referred. I am having to take representatives of the industry, along with people from other parties, to meet the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this evening, simply because relations between the two Departments have broken down.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the parties to a successful devolutionary settlement, at Government level, must be able to work with each other openly and with confidence. Undoubtedly, some of those currently in that partnership appear to have something to learn about such work, and about the degree of trust necessary; I am certain that they will learn. On support for the livestock industry, I have commended the hon. Gentleman on his action, and I assure him that he will find support from Ministers in the Scotland Office. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that the issue is resolved, not only in the best interests of the farming community but in those of the welfare of animals.

Instead of constantly picking a fight with Westminster, the policy-light and heavily aggressive Scottish National party Administration in Edinburgh should provide solutions to the everyday problems faced by our constituents, whether in health or education, and help to make Scotland a better place. Does the Secretary of State agree that the £30 billion comprehensive spending review settlement for Scotland—which, incidentally, is double what Scotland received in 1999—is a good deal for Scotland, and that enough policy measures can be implemented with that generous budget?

I agree with my right hon. Friend that the Scottish Executive have at their disposal a budget that, on any measure, is twice what Donald Dewar had when devolved Government took responsibility for areas of public policy delivery. More immediately, the Scottish people are watching exactly what the minority Administration in Scotland deliver. They promise announcements: by my calculation, they have told us that about 60 of their policy promises have been delayed pending the generous settlement that they have received. Their manifesto made several very important promises, and they ought to know that the people of Scotland are watching. Those who were voted in to keep an eye on them in government will bring to the attention of the Scottish people their failure to deliver, I suspect, on every single one of those promises.

We heard today, and in the last Scottish questions on 10 July, the Secretary of State’s commitment to co-operate. At the beginning of this term of the Scottish Parliament, the new First Minister said that under his stewardship the Scottish Parliament would be about compromise, concession, intelligent debate and mature discussion. The Secretary of State will accept, however, that the people of Scotland have not seen that over the past two weeks, and that they expect and deserve better from both their Governments. Does he now accept that the memorandum of understanding on managing the relationships between the UK Government and devolved Administrations is no longer fit for purpose? Does he agree that the Secretary of State for Justice should review it as soon as possible?

The memorandum of understanding to which the hon. Gentleman refers says, in particular, that most contacts between the Government and devolved Administrations

“should be carried out on a bilateral or multi-lateral basis, between departments which deal on a day-to-day basis with the issues at stake”.

That is how the UK Government want things to work in practice. There is a long record of such arrangements working in practice, benefiting not only the people of Scotland but those of Northern Ireland, Wales and London. There is no reason why we cannot return to that basis, within the context of the existing memorandum of understanding. We ought to be able to get to a situation, within the existing memorandum of understanding, in which not only can the words of co-operation be used but the deeds of co-operation are manifest.

On foot and mouth compensation, surely the whole episode was entirely predictable as soon as the draft statement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was changed. Why did not the Secretary of State for Scotland move to manage that situation? Will he tell the House when he knew that foot and mouth compensation had been offered by DEFRA, and when he knew that the terms of that offer had been changed? Will he clarify newspaper reports that the Minister of State has been charged with running round Whitehall Departments to tell them now not to give information to Scotland?

The Minister of State has been charged with no such responsibility. The hon. Gentleman ought not to believe everything that he reads in the newspaper, even if he has briefed the newspaper himself—indeed, especially if he has briefed the newspaper himself: that might be a reason for not believing what is in it.

In relation to the issue—[Hon. Members: “When?”] Perhaps Conservative Front Benchers would have the good manners at least to wait until the question has been answered before deciding that it has not been answered.

At no point was I aware that an offer had been made and withdrawn, because no such offer was ever made and withdrawn. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made that absolutely clear. He has personally made it public that he played no part in the sort of behaviour in which he was accused of taking part, and in withdrawing an offer that had been made.

All of us who have been in government—and there are still some Members on the Conservative Benches who have experience in government—know fine well about discussions on access to the reserve. If the scale and nature of a bid is appropriate to a reserve that is held for particular purposes, there will be arguments about access to it, but all who have been in government know full well that that involves a debate with the Treasury. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, we shall be able to see whether it supports such a bid as the situation evolves.

Post Office Closures

 3. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on post office closures in Scotland. (156891)

I have regular such discussions with ministerial colleagues. The Minister of State for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr McFadden), recently visited Dumfries and Galloway, where he saw different methods of postal services provision working well in rural areas.

Under this Labour Government, a quarter of post offices in the west of Scotland have already closed. Next week, when the public consultation starts, we shall learn which of the remaining 300 will face the axe. Does the Minister think that the consultation will be meaningful? Does he expect that if the public voice strong opposition, a significant number of the post offices earmarked for closure will be granted a reprieve?

As I have told the hon. Lady in the past, the Government are firmly committed to maintaining a viable and sustainable post office network. That is why we have already invested £2 billion and are investing a further £1.7 billion. As the hon. Lady knows, however, the Post Office is subject to all sorts of pressures, and there are all sorts of reasons why individual post office branches must close. The hon. Lady found that out for herself recently when she campaigned to save a branch, only to discover that the reason for its being threatened with closure was that the local Liberal Democrat council was selling the building that housed it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if post offices are to serve communities across Scotland, it is imperative for account to be taken of the length of the journeys that people must undertake in order to visit them?

My hon. Friend is entirely right, but I would go further: the problem is not just the length of the journey but the impediments in the way of it. I have encountered examples in which a journey described as being only about half a mile involved a motorway which prevented people from travelling the half-mile. That is why the consultation will consider factors such as the placing of motorways, as well as bus routes, sea crossings, rivers, mountains and so forth. All those factors must be taken into consideration. We are committed to ensuring that people can still have access to postal services, because we believe in the value of the Post Office. That is why we are investing so heavily in maintaining a post office network.

The official consultation period shows that there are a mere 12 weeks between the announcement of the proposals to the public and their implementation. The Post Office seems reluctant to engage in public meetings throughout the process in the areas concerned. As the largest stakeholder, will the Government ensure that Post Office management face the public in those areas and answer their questions? Will they also ensure that the benchmark used in deciding which branches are closed relates to whether people view a post office as a necessity rather than a convenience?

The hon. Gentleman is right to this extent: there must be a proper and transparent process. People need to see the criteria against which decisions on individual post offices will be made. We are not adopting a purely commercial stance on this issue; if we were, the Post Office would be decimated not only in Scotland but throughout the UK. Instead, we are capping a maximum number of closures, and we are continuing with sustained investment. I must also say that this transparent, open and sustained programme of post office closures stands in stark contrast to the 3,500 post office closures when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power, when there was no proper management, no proper investment, no proper strategy and no proper help and support for the communities left bereft.

Child Poverty (Glasgow)

5. What recent estimate he has made of the number of children in the City of Glasgow area living in poverty. (156893)

The Scottish measurement of poverty unfortunately does not provide numbers for households in each local authority. In Scotland, however, the number of children living in relative poverty, after housing costs, has fallen from 330,000 in 1998-99 to 250,000 in 2005-06—a drop of 80,000.

As a regular visitor to my constituency, does my right hon. Friend agree that the statistics should be measured by local authority area? Is he aware that almost 33,000 grants for clothes and shoes for schoolchildren were made to needy families in Glasgow last year? That is an unacceptably high figure in this day and age. Will he therefore agree as a matter of urgency to meet the leaders of Glasgow city council and the Scottish Executive to discuss what additional resources can be made available to lift many more Glasgow children out of poverty and to give them a better chance of a decent life in future?

As my hon. Friend points out, I have occasion to be in his constituency the odd time, and I also pass through it. I commend him on his campaigning work for decades against poverty among his constituents. I have over the past 10 years witnessed a transformation of his constituency. Housing has been generated in greater numbers than I have ever seen before in a lifetime of being in and around it. I can also think of at least two shopping centres that have been developed, and a significant number of employment opportunities have recently been developing there. However, my hon. Friend is right to point out that, despite all that improvement and all the support from this Government to help people out of poverty through a number of measures, there is still a hard core of poverty in his constituency. That is a result of decades of neglect, principally by the Conservatives.

I will be perfectly content to meet the leadership of Glasgow city council—I have done so on a number of occasions since I took up this post—and others, to ensure that resources and initiatives are appropriately directed into Glasgow, because it deserves the opportunity to continue to improve as it has done over the past decade.

Order. So that the House knows what I am doing, that was a closed question about the city of Glasgow. I call Mr. Mark Pritchard.

Trade Links (Scotland/Malawi)

6. What steps his Department is taking to foster trade links between Scotland and Malawi; and if he will make a statement. (156894)

The Scotland Office does not have a remit for developing international trade, but I am happy to report that UK Government spending on Malawi amounts to some £70 million. For the sake of completeness, I should add that the Scottish Executive’s contribution to international development in Malawi is £3 million.

Notwithstanding Scotland’s close links to Malawi dating back to Dr. Livingstone, does the Minister share my concern that when the new chief of Blantyre—also known as the British high commissioner—was in charge of Scotland, albeit briefly, he set up a Scottish international aid charity and that that charity might be competing with, rather than complementing, the excellent and important work of the Department for International Development, which is, of course, a reserved matter?

If that were the case there would be a concern, but there is not a concern because DFID officials are working closely with Scottish Executive officials on that. I should point out that some 560 DFID officials work in East Kilbride, where a large part of the Department is based, and that extends Scotland’s contribution to international aid and development. When I saw that this question had been tabled, I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would congratulate the Government on an 11 per cent. increase in international aid, reversing years of decline and cuts to the international aid budget under the last Tory Government, so that we are now well on the way to meeting our international obligations.

Employment Levels

The employment level in Scotland stands at 2.54 million, with the rate of employment at 76.7 per cent. The current employment level and rate are both at near historic levels.

The Secretary of State is well aware of the huge improvement in employment throughout Scotland, but particularly in my constituency, since 1997. Indeed, 25 per cent. more people are now in work than in 1997. However, unemployment and low pay remain major problems in many parts of Scotland, particularly Ayrshire. What does the Secretary of State believe can further be done to improve employment levels, so that we reach full employment—our manifesto commitment—in Scotland?

As a fellow Ayrshire MP, I am well aware of the challenges that the economy of Ayrshire faces in sustaining and increasing employment. Given the systemic difficulties that Ayrshire has faced over a long period, the level of improvement over the past decade is nothing short of miraculous. However, none of us are entitled to rest on our laurels, and we will not achieve our objective of full employment, whatever that measure might be—against the accepted standards of a few decades ago, we are well past the benchmark that was set for any Government by economists—unless we sustain and maintain a stable economy, as we have been able to do, and unless we address the issues of skills, resources and economic development, with the co-operation and help, of course, of the Scottish Executive, who have the major responsibility in that regard. I have absolutely no doubt that, if we do more of what we have been doing in making work pay and encouraging people into work, we will achieve the objective that my hon. Friend and I share.