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Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—


For decades, Border Television has successfully provided news and other regional services to thousands of communities across thousands of square miles north and south of the border. Will the Minister join MPs from different parties, north and south of the border, who oppose ITV’s plans to dismember the news and other services at Border Television? When he next gets the chance, will he impress on Ofcom that it must not be allowed to wriggle out of the very tight licence conditions originally imposed on ITV Border?

I am aware of the considerable concern about this proposal. I know that the hon. Gentleman has met Ofcom and Digital UK, and with others, including the shadow Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), directly lobbied Michael Grade. I have to say that I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. He will know that it is not, of course, for Ministers to tell private companies where they should or should not have their bases, but it is for Ofcom to do so. As the independent regulator, it has a duty to look into these issues very seriously. It is undertaking a public service review of ITV, and I am pretty certain that this will figure very prominently in it.

I fully support the comments of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) and I would like to reinforce the strength of feeling among viewers on both sides of the border and among politicians of all parties for the retention of Border news, which provides a unique and fiercely local service to this primarily rural area. Anything that the Scotland Office can do to influence Ofcom and support local campaigners who oppose Michael Grade’s ill-thought-out merger with the Tyne Tees newsroom in Newcastle would be much appreciated. Does the Minister agree that Border TV is important not just as a local news provider, but as a demonstration that people in the south of Scotland and the north of England, who have common interests and common concerns, are best served by a cross-border United Kingdom approach to broadcasting rather than the separatist broadcasting agenda promoted by the Scottish Government?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I agree with much of what he says and cannot add much to what I said to the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) about the responsibility of Ofcom, which I hope it will take seriously. On the second point, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it makes no sense to take Scottish broadcasters out of a UK market and make them foreigners in the English and Welsh media market. It makes no sense to take Scottish regulation of broadcasting, telephony and the internet away from Ofcom at a time when they are converging everywhere else. It makes no sense to embark on a course of action that would inevitably lead to the break-up of the BBC, and to the balkanisation of Channel 4, to be replaced by a Scottish broadcasting corporation that would be parochial, inward-looking and not what the people of Scotland want.

With the absorption of Grampian TV into Scottish TV, I hope that the Minister will continue to make the case to Ofcom that the two separate licences covering the old Grampian and STV areas remain separate. As with the borders, the north-east of Scotland has its own news agenda and its own identity. There are certainly some fears that the separate identity of the old Grampian service could be lost in the bigger STV.

My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that Scotland is a nation of regions. What I believe the Scottish people want to see on the news is not the hoary old chestnut of the Scottish six, but more news that is truly local to where they live—whether it be in the north-east, the west or the south-west of Scotland. If there is money to be invested in news and current affairs—I sincerely hope that the BBC, and, indeed, ITV, will increase investment in news and current affairs in Scotland—it should be invested in local news gathering in the north-east, the south-west and the other regions of Scotland. That is preferable to pursuing some narrow agenda to break up British broadcasting, which would lower the quality of TV that our constituents get to watch.


2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the acceptance of Scottish banknotes outside Scotland. (179988)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues.

May I suggest that the Secretary of State impress on the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England that it is high time Scottish banknotes were fully legally acceptable throughout the UK? They are authorised by the Bank of England and should have exactly the same status. If dollars and euros are acceptable to traders in England, surely Scottish notes can and should be, too. Will the Secretary of State endeavour to ensure that this anomaly is brought to an end?

I am delighted to have the opportunity to expand a little on the status of Scottish banknotes.

And, indeed, banknotes from Northern Ireland. One of the great successes of the very successful financial services sector in Scotland is the privilege enjoyed by commercial banks to publish banknotes when other banks, including commercial banks in England, do not. The fact is that under the law Scottish banknotes enjoy exactly the same status as all other methods of payment throughout the United Kingdom, although that is not widely known. They are perfectly legal, and people should know and respect that. I know that on occasion some of my countrymen have had their banknotes refused, but I have been in London a great deal over the past 11 years, and in connection with my ministerial responsibilities have periodically had Northern Ireland banknotes in my wallet. No one has ever refused to accept one of them.

Does the Secretary of State agree that Scottish banknotes, collected by the Treasury in the form of taxes, could be used to pay for aircraft carriers from the Clyde shipyards? Did he see the headline in Monday’s Glasgow Evening Times? It read “We’re Sunk”, and below that, “Delays set to kill off Clyde yards in 2 years”. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is simply dangerous nonsense, deliberately designed to undermine the position of the yards, and that those engaging in it are being unhelpful?

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman should engage in a letter to the Secretary of State, who can then reply to it. His supplementary is far too wide of the main question.

During his recent discussions with the Chancellor, did the Secretary of State discuss fiscal autonomy for the Scottish Parliament? Does he agree that handing over greater fiscal powers to Holyrood reeks of appeasement of the SNP, and that just one more devolutionary heave will not serve the Union or Scotland well?

The Secretary of State says it is a matter of fact that Scottish banknotes can be accepted throughout the United Kingdom, and he is right, but it is also a matter of fact that often they are not. That was highlighted in an excellent article in the Sunday Mail on 6 January. The paper conducted a random sample, and found that it was difficult to get notes accepted in Liverpool, Tadcaster, Coventry, Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne and London, where even the railway ticket vending machines would not accept them. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that although this may not be a massive problem, it is a source of embarrassment and irritation to many of our constituents every year, and will he use his office to address the problem?

I welcome the opportunity to repeat what I have already said. Scottish banknotes are legal, and enjoy exactly the same status as any other method of payment. The fundamental problem is that the law of contract throughout the United Kingdom allows people not to engage in a transaction at the point of payment if they do not wish to do so. I should be happy to join the hon. Gentleman and his party in a discussion about reforming the law of contract if that is what he wishes to do, although I suspect that we would find it difficult to obtain the necessary legislative time or the necessary support. But he is right: in the 21st century, this irritation should not exist for people who are tendering legal notes in payment. I think the best thing for us all to do is to take every opportunity to tell people that those notes are as good as anyone else’s, and should be accepted.

Post Office Network Change Programme

3. If he will make a statement on the progress of the Post Office network change programme in Scotland. (179989)

The Post Office launched the first of Scotland’s area plans in October last year, and expects to complete the consultation process by September. Let me add, for the sake of completeness, that I understand that the plan for the Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire area, in which the hon. Gentleman’s constituency falls, is due to launch a consultation next month.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, which ranged much more widely than Scotland. Is it not the case, indeed, that the consultation process in all parts of the United Kingdom, including my constituency—and, indeed, Scotland—is divisive, because it effectively pits one community against another? It has become clear that if a community saves one post office, another will have to close in its place. This is all about numbers, not about communities and their vital services.

No, I do not accept that. There are criteria laid down under which such decisions are taken, but we are not leaving this to market forces. If we were, only about 170 of the 1,200 post offices in Scotland would be left open. We are intervening with enormous amounts of taxpayer subsidy because we recognise the value of post offices in the communities they serve. However, we also recognise that people’s shopping patterns have changed: people access services over the internet, which they did not do previously. To do nothing was not an option, but we are not leaving this to market forces; we are intervening, because we recognise that the post office plays a valuable role in many communities, particularly, but not exclusively, rural communities.

Is my hon. Friend content with the performance of Royal Mail deliveries in Scotland? I understand that there are various problems—one of which is that there have been only a handful of replies to the Scottish National party’s “national conversation”. The reason for that problem might not lie with the Royal Mail, but does my hon. Friend have a view on this question?

I was shocked to see that despite spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of Scottish—or rather, UK—taxpayers’ money on its so-called national conversation, the SNP has had only a couple of dozen replies. The problem might reside in the Post Office, or it might reside in the fact that the people of Scotland repeatedly, in election after election, reject the option of breaking up Britain and the narrow nationalist approach of the SNP.

I think that people in communities the length and breadth of Scotland will note the fact that instead of standing up for post offices facing closure, the Minister engages in petty political posturing. Does he not agree that the consultation on closures is a complete sham? It offers the chimera of reprieve in one community, yet will close post offices in another. One community is pitted against another community; one village is pitted against another village. Why does the Minister not stand up for those post offices, instead of posturing?

The House will have noticed the hon. Gentleman referring to the national conversation as petty politics. I agree: it is petty, partisan, posturing politics of the worst sort. On the serious business of the Post Office, this Government have already committed £2,000 million to sustaining a post office network, and we have also committed a further £1.7 thousand million to that. That speaks of a Government who are passionately committed to seeing a post office network exist in Scotland and throughout the rest of the UK, in contrast to the hon. Gentleman’s “do nothing” option, which would see the Post Office wither on the vine.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to the Post Office code of practice, particularly regarding temporary closures? There have been 12 such temporary closures in my area in the past three years, with a varying degree of outcomes; five of them are still outstanding. Does the Minister agree that it would be quite against both the spirit and the substance of the code of practice if the Post Office were to include such outstanding temporary closures in the current consultation, thereby denying local communities their say? Will he make that point in any discussions he has?

I shall be happy to make that point. It is important that there is a transparent process with objective criteria, so that local communities can see why a particular post office has been closed and why others have been kept open. I understand that in the highlands of Scotland there are 18 proposed closures out of a total of 198. If we were taking a purely commercial decision, that figure would not be anywhere near 198; it would be massively reduced. We are committed to providing the subsidy to make sure that the Post Office remains viable, but it is important that this is done in an objective way—that there is transparency, and criteria that are adhered to.

DARA (Almondbank)

4. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on preserving the skills base at the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, Almondbank. (179990)

If I may say so, I find my discussions with Ministers in the Ministry of Defence among the most fruitful discussions that I have across Government. On a more serious note, any decision about the long-term future of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency will be based on what offers best value for defence and the best chance of longevity of employment for the work force. Accordingly, preserving the skills base at both Almondbank and Fleetlands is at the forefront of Ministers’ minds in this process.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the future ownership of Almondbank has been uncertain for some time. I seek an assurance that he will take into account all appropriate considerations about the skills of Almondbank’s work force during the decision-making process, with a view to preserving those vital skills for the Scottish economy.

I do not think I can make it any clearer to the House that the shared priority focus of this decision is ensuring that the skill base is protected and preserved, and that the longevity of employment is at the heart of the decision. For very good reasons, which have been explained to my hon. Friend, the trade unions and others who are interested, it is the Ministry of Defence’s view that the prospect of investment and additional work coming in to both Almondbank and Fleetlands is in the interests of work force longevity and the retention of the skills base. I am happy to tell him that Baroness Taylor of Bolton, the Minister with responsibility for this area, will be visiting DARA on Friday, and I am sure he will be able to have further discussions with her then.

Although Almondbank is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), most of the people who work there are my constituents. They have great concern about the proposed privatisations. Will the Secretary of State take full account of the joint trade unions’ proposals to keep DARA Almondbank within the public sector and reject a further privatisation, this time of this first-class facility?

I will not accede to the hon. Gentleman’s request to make a decision on that basis. I shall make the decision on the basis of what best serves defence. That is my first priority and I am sure that it is his, particularly when young men and women from this country are risking their lives in operational theatres. That is my priority as far as public spending is concerned, and I am sure that it is his. Secondly, I shall ensure that we do our best to retain the very skilled work force at the facility, and give them an opportunity beyond what the prospective work programme offers them at the moment. I will take into account all suggestions that they make, but I will make the decision based on those two criteria. I would be happy to join the hon. Gentleman in discussions about this if he wants to have them, but he will not change my mind about those priorities.


5. What recent discussions he has had on the quality of television reception in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (179991)

My hon. Friend will be aware that problems remain with television reception in parts of Ayrshire. Will he outline what steps are being taken to ensure good television reception in as many households as possible, both before and after digital switchover?

My hon. Friend is right. The whole point of digital switchover is to give people better television: better reception, more choice and more interactivity. I know her constituency well, because it borders mine, and I know that many people in north Ayrshire have difficulty accessing a decent signal. It is difficult to say with any degree of exactness what will happen before switchover, but I sincerely hope that they will see an improvement in the quality of their television reception and in the range and number of channels that they receive once we reach digital switchover.

As the Minister knows, the other advantage of digital television is that audio description will enable those with poor sight to enjoy the experience of television far more effectively. The Government have set a very low threshold for what broadcasters have to provide. What are the Government doing to encourage greater take-up of audio description and to improve ease of access to the handsets for those with disabilities?

The hon. Gentleman is right. I mentioned the interactivity that comes with digital TV, and things such as audio description are a key part of that. I have had discussions with the Royal National Institute of Blind People Scotland, which has been campaigning on this for some while. Just as there is now complete acceptance of subtitles for the hard of hearing, audio description for people with visual impairment must become standard. That will happen, to any meaningful degree, only when we switch off the analogue signal and boost the digital signal. The hon. Gentleman is right to keep campaigning on the issue, and I shall ensure that Ofcom is aware of his concerns.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, Tarbolton, in my constituency, is closely associated with Robert Burns—but none of my constituents could be called a

“Wee, sleekit, cow’rin’, tim’rous beastie”.

They are not slow at coming forward to tell me that the TV reception is appalling. What will the Minister do for the good people of Tarbolton?

In a week when we celebrate the great Ayrshire poet, Robert Burns, I am sure that the people of Tarbolton will be enjoying those celebrations. Of course, the first ever Burns supper was in Greenock, in my constituency, so we lay claim to having set the tradition. The people of Tarbolton, along with those throughout Ayrshire and the rest of Scotland and the UK, will benefit when digital switchover happens. It will provide more channels, more services, more interactivity and more choice.

Ministerial Meetings

6. If he will make it his policy to make a regular report to the House on his discussions with the First Minister of Scotland. (179992)

I regularly report to the House on matters relating to the interests of the people of Scotland, and shall continue to do so.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. It is important that those of us who are not members of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, if we have an interest in Scotland, be kept abreast of the Secretary of State’s important meetings with the important First Minister. Will he ensure that we receive those regular reports?

Perhaps the business managers and others in the hon. Gentleman’s party will consider that to be a bid to join the Scottish Affairs Committee. I know that his party has had difficulty recruiting people to that Committee in the past, so he may well shortly find himself on an elite list. He is right to say that Ministers should be accountable. I believe in that—and I know that he knows that. I have given an undertaking to the House that I will ensure that it is aware of such discussions when they take place, and I will do so.

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity, when he meets the First Minister, to explain that the Government have doubled the budget of the Scottish Executive since devolution—with a real-terms increase this year—and to remind him that it is time to start delivering for the people of Scotland?

I agree wholeheartedly. I noticed a headline in the Scottish media this morning on the subject of Budget considerations in the Scottish Parliament. It stated that the Scottish Parliament would decide how to spend a £30 billion budget. I recollect that that is exactly double the amount that Donald Dewar had to spend as First Minister when devolution first started in Scotland. That is a measure of the scale of the investment that the Government have made in Scotland and of the opportunities to build Scotland’s infrastructure. The people of Scotland will not forgive the minority Administration if they do not spend that money wisely on the priorities of the people of Scotland, rather than on what the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) called a petty bit of political posturing. [Interruption.]

When the Secretary of State next has a discussion with the First Minister, will he convey to him in the strongest terms the anger and disappointment felt in constituencies such as mine because of the SNP Government’s petty political posturing on nuclear power and their ill-thought-out approach to waste, which have already led to Scotland being written off by prospective investors in next-generation power stations? Will the Secretary of State make it clear to the First Minister that his policies will lead not only to questions about whether Scotland can be self-sufficient in meeting its fuel requirements, but to economic consequences through the loss of the skills and expertise that have been built up by the nuclear industry in Scotland over many years?

I am sure that the First Minister reads Hansard—he will certainly read Scottish questions. I shall refer him to the hon. Gentleman’s question, among other things, when I meet him on Friday. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We know that 40 per cent. of the electricity generated must come from nuclear. We know that the future of our energy and climate change policies depends on energy conservation, but it also depends on the sustainable production of energy. Those who have thought the matter through and understand that a balance is needed know that nuclear energy will have to contribute to that. We have to ensure that the people of Scotland do not rue the day that the nationalists tried to deny them the opportunity of that sustainable future.

When my right hon. Friend meets the First Minister, will he remind him that full employment is this Labour Government’s priority, and refer him to the report produced at the weekend, which was endorsed by Dr. Ewan Macdonald of Glasgow university? The report states that the impact of unemployment on a person’s health is the equivalent of smoking 200 cigarettes a day.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Decades ago, the Black report said that there was a correlation between ill health and poverty, and there is an obvious link between poverty and employment opportunities. That is why we are so proud that the Government’s economic policies and the stability that they have generated across the UK have made such a significant difference to employment, and consequently to unemployment.