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Volume 497: debated on Wednesday 14 October 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Torpedo Testing

There are eight test and evaluation ranges in Scotland. Last month, I visited the firing range in the Uists. I have no current plans to visit the maritime range in the inner sound of Raasay.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. He is obviously aware of the concern about the future consultation planned on the maintenance of the Rona torpedo and submarine facilities, which have played such a huge role since the days of the Heath Government in underpinning that part of the Kyle and Applecross peninsula and Skye economy. Will he give us an assurance that what happened in the Western Isles will be repeated when any consultation process kicks in and that ministerial visits, as well as full consultation with all elected levels for these areas, will be the order of the day?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is assiduous in raising this issue in the House and elsewhere, and I am certain that he will continue to do so. He is right to say that a consultation process in the Western Isles led to a rejection of the initial proposals. I can reassure him that our proposals for the Kyle of Lochalsh are at a very early stage. If any changes in the configuration at Kyle of Lochalsh were proposed, there would be an open consultation and all interested parties would be involved. I am absolutely certain that the right hon. Gentleman would be foremost among those interested parties, so I look forward to continuing our conversation.

Given that these torpedoes are being tested for the Royal Navy, does the Minister agree that if Scotland withdraws from it, there would be no need to have a torpedo testing range in Scotland?

In the world we live in, it is a fact that we need these weapons and that they have to be tested safely. It is in the nature of the modern world that, sadly, we need these sorts of ranges. The fact is that the only real threat to defence jobs in Scotland would be Scotland breaking away from the rest of Britain. [Interruption.] If Scotland left Britain, thousands of British jobs would leave Scotland, including the Western Isles, and that also means shipbuilding jobs on the Clyde and across the whole of Scotland. That also includes RAF bases—[Interruption.]

Order. The group leader of the Scottish National party must behave with due decorum in the Chamber—certainly if he wishes to be called.

Thank you for that intervention, Mr. Speaker.

The leader of the SNP in the UK Parliament must be the only MP in it who is campaigning for fewer jobs in his constituency. His unilateralist position would lead to the loss of hundreds of RAF jobs in his very own constituency.

The Secretary of State’s announcement, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, about the Uists was very welcome. Does he know why, since his visit, there has been renewed speculation in the press about jobs there?

I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman’s belated interest in this issue. Of course, the initial plans have now been abandoned. There is no plan B whatsoever. Concern has been expressed by some workers, which is why I am delighted that the management and the unions are meeting a little later this week. We are very clear that the initial proposals were abandoned, that there is no plan B and that the jobs will stay. I repeat that it is very clear that the only danger to jobs on the firing ranges in the Uists in the Western Isles will come if the hon. Gentleman has his way and Scotland leaves the United Kingdom.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the work he did to safeguard the base on the Western Isles. May I ask how important the strong community and local authority involvement was in the discussions that he and colleagues in the Ministry of Defence had?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments. It is important to put on record the excellent work of council leader Angus Campbell and others such as Donald John Macsween who did such a remarkable job in the Western Isles. The fact is that it was a community effort and a persuasive case was made. Ultimately, the Ministry of Defence would have made savings, but the costs to the fragile economy in the Western Isles would have been so dramatic that the UK Government took the view that we should not progress with the proposals.

Despite the Secretary of State’s comments about the ranges, they need modernising if they are to keep pace with the next generation of weapons systems, without which our forces will not get the weapons they need to do the jobs we send them on. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment today that his Department and the Ministry of Defence will continue to invest in those ranges while at the same time doing all they can to protect local jobs in that area? Will he also agree with me that—

Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but I must establish the precedent once and for all that we have one question, and not more than one question.

On that basis, Mr. Speaker, I shall try to give one answer.

The hon. Gentleman has made the fair point that now that the ranges have been established and secured, they must diversify. It is important that they try to attract additional business, particularly from our NATO allies. But the economy of the Western Isles, especially on the Uists, cannot rely solely on MOD ranges in the long term; there must be more diversity, and renewable energy opportunities in particular must be taken up.

Oil and Gas Fields

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on the effects of investment in offshore oil and gas fields on levels of employment in Scotland. (292279)

I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change about the North sea oil and gas industry.

I hope that, during those discussions, the Secretary of State will begin to realise how important it is for the Government to get their strategy right now, given the thousands of jobs that depend on the North sea oil and gas industry. The pipelines and platforms are ageing. If they do not benefit from new investment soon they will be decommissioned, and we will miss out on the thousands of jobs still to come. Will the Secretary of State emphasise to the Treasury that while the car industry and the banks receive rescue packages, it is vital for the right tax regime to be established for the North sea to encourage the maximum investment to protect those future jobs and our security of supply?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The new field allowance announced in the Budget was welcomed by the chief executive of Oil and Gas UK. Those Budget measures will help to unlock about 2 billion barrels of oil in the North sea. There are, of course, additional opportunities, particularly in and around the area west of Shetland, which constitutes a remarkable untapped resource in particularly inhospitable terrain. We always keep the fiscal regime in mind, and continue to keep fiscal measures under review.

Given all the emphasis on climate change, it is not surprising that renewable energy receives a great deal of publicity, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that we do not forget about the oil and gas industry offshore, which will be needed in the short to medium term—if not, indeed, the long term—to fill the energy gap that would otherwise exist? It is important not just to the economy of north-east Scotland but to that of the whole United Kingdom, because there are jobs in the industry throughout the UK.

My hon. Friend raises the importance of the North sea oil and gas industry with me probably every week. About 20 billion barrel-of-oil equivalents are still untapped in the North sea, and we will do what we can to help the industry to exploit that resource. The fact is, however, that while oil and gas will be with us for the foreseeable future, we will have to make the transition to renewable energy. Oil and gas are a temporary source of energy, and Scotland’s energy and economic needs are permanent. That is why we must get the balance right between fossil fuel and renewables, and we will continue to do so.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the major opportunities for companies that are currently engaged sub-sea in oil and gas is to work sub-sea on tidal and offshore wind? Does he share my disappointment that the Crown Estate has yet again delayed its announcement of licences to February, and what can he do to encourage it to be more expeditious?

I had the privilege of being in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency during the summer recess, and he made those very points then. On the same day I visited an offshore wind turbine in the Beatrice field in the North sea, which represents a remarkable feat of modern manufacturing and ingenuity.

It may be helpful if I confirm to the hon. Gentleman again that I am happy to facilitate meetings with him and the Crown Estate to discuss the issue, so that we can unblock it once and for all.

Can my right hon. Friend give any idea of the stage that the new licensing has reached? At one time there was drilling in the Clyde estuary. Is there any update on that? It would bring a number of jobs to the Ayrshire area. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity of congratulating all agencies in Ayrshire—

I am not able to update my hon. Friend today on the number of licences, although the Department of Energy and Climate Change has engaged in a rigorous process in that regard. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is a jobs boon not just for the North sea, Aberdeen and surrounding areas, but for the whole of Scotland. Almost 200,000 jobs in Scotland rely on related industries in oil and gas.

Devolution Settlement

3. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the relationship between the Scottish Executive and the UK Government under the devolution settlement. (292280)

The saga of confusion and miscommunication over Lockerbie has demonstrated that Scotland needs to put more thought into how its Executive decisions play out in the eyes of other Governments. What procedural steps will the Secretary of State and his Government put in place to prevent such public embarrassment in the future?

During the year that I have been Secretary of State I have tried to strike a different tone in Scottish politics. The public expect politicians to agree where possible; I have tried to uphold that and I will continue to do so despite invitations to the contrary. Of course the Lockerbie and al-Megrahi issue was badly handled. The decision to visit al-Megrahi in prison was a mistake, but ultimately it was a mistake that the Scottish Government were entitled to make. It is a decision that is entirely, 100 per cent., their responsibility; they have the constitutional responsibility to take that decision.

It is obviously beneficial for the First Minister and my right hon. Friend to have discussions, but does my right hon. Friend think there is any mileage in some of these discussions being held in public?

I have asked the First Minister to have a public debate with me. The First Minister is, of course, not everyone’s idea of an athlete, but he has certainly tried to run away from these debates in Scotland in recent weeks. I do not know if he can run, but I do know that he cannot hide and that this debate will have to take place at some point over the next few weeks.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had about the higher Scottish Parliament standards of transparency in respect of allowances and expenses? Does he agree that it would be an act of leadership and transparency for all Westminster MPs to publish their Legg recommendations, including himself?

It is of course important that we change the system of expenses in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister has been very clear about that, and he is now in the process of doing it. As the Prime Minister has also made clear, there is a process that we are now going through. If Legg has requested that repayments be made, whether to comply is up to individual Members, but that is certainly the inclination of the majority of Members of this House.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the Hansard for 16 July? In answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) as to when he would be given an opportunity to vote for a Scottish Grand Committee to be held, the Leader of the House answered that

“there needs to be an opportunity for the Scottish Grand Committee to meet, and I will look for an opportunity.”—[Official Report, 16 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 457.]

The best way to have a live debate that includes those who are running away from it is to invite them all to the Scottish Grand Committee to have that debate.

I am stumped for an answer. Because of the many solutions for dealing with the remarkable economic crisis that Scotland and the United Kingdom faces, I am not yet convinced that a meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee is the silver bullet. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood) will continue to make the case, however, and if that meeting does take place, I can think of no better Chair of the proceedings than him.

Rather than reconvening the Scottish Grand Committee, may I suggest that the Secretary of State’s time might be better spent in giving his attention to the report of the Calman commission? There is growing impatience that months after that report was published, there is still a lack of progress on it. Scotland looks to the Government to deliver on Calman come the Queen’s Speech, and if they do not do so, they will pay a heavy price.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman and myself, as well as others, had the opportunity to meet over the summer recess to discuss the important proposals in respect of Calman. We simply believe that Scotland is bigger and stronger because it is part of the United Kingdom, but the devolution settlement does have to be modernised. The Calman commission proposals are substantial. I want to maintain consensus and momentum, and we will respond before the end of this year on details of the Calman proposals.

During my right hon. Friend’s discussions with the First Minister, will he ask him to reconsider his party’s decision to abandon the investment in the Glasgow airport rail link, as that would be seriously damaging for the people of Glasgow and the west of Scotland in terms of tourism and employment?

It is clear that that is a real blow to the city of Glasgow, but that city has never given up on itself and, regardless of the Scottish Government’s decision, it will not do so now. I will be meeting the leader of Glasgow city council later this afternoon, when I will go with him to the Olympic site. I will have the opportunity to discuss these very issues with him then.

Perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us what role he actually played in the deliberations on the Megrahi case within the Government. He surely had an obligation to ensure that both Scotland’s interests and the devolution settlement were fully understood. Currently, our only source of information is Channel 4, whose website says, rather bluntly:

“There has been a lively discussion behind the scenes in government about whether to attack the SNP… I hear that the Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy in particular has been chomping at the bit to go for the SNP administration but has been reined in by the PM and others.”

Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, may I remind the Chamber that far too many private conversations are taking place? That is very unfair on the Member asking the question and on the Minister answering it.

The Foreign Secretary made a statement yesterday and I have nothing further to add to it. I was here for his statement—not all hon. Members were.

I do not regard that as an answer. Given the Secretary of State’s self-proclaimed role as filter between the UK Government and the Scottish Government, can he tell the House why the UK Government refused to give the Scottish Justice Secretary, Mr. MacAskill, the facts and representations that he says he requested when making his decision to release Mr. al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds? Conservative Members do not believe that that decision could have been made on any reasonable basis. Perhaps the Secretary of State regrets ensuring that Mr. MacAskill did not have every piece of information that he needed. [Interruption.]

I have nothing further to add to what the Foreign Secretary offered in a very long and detailed statement yesterday. The fact is that this was 100 per cent. the responsibility of the Scottish Government—it was 100 per cent. their decision and their responsibility—and they made their decision on their merits. However, I think that the issue was very badly mishandled and those scenes in Tripoli were a national disgrace. The St. Andrew’s flag was trailed out on to the tarmac to celebrate that man’s return; that image will haunt Scotland across the world. Some damage was done to Scotland’s reputation, although I do not wish to overstate it. It is now the responsibility of all of us to work together to rebuild Scotland’s reputation across the world.

Electricity Transmission Network

4. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of levels of funding for the electricity transmission network in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (292281)

The regulation and funding of networks in the UK is a matter first and foremost for the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Ofgem. Delivering the necessary reinforcements by 2015 will require up to an estimated £4.7 billion of new investment onshore, in addition to current refurbishment and expansion plans requiring some £4 billion to £5 billion, which have already been approved by Ofgem.

I thank the Minister for her answer. She will be aware that £1.4 billion is required to upgrade the transmission system. In addition, new renewables and technology are coming on line. Is she confident that this target can be reached by 2015, given that the Beauly-Denny transmission link is still outstanding from 2000 and has been held up by the current Scottish Government?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his long-standing interest in energy issues for the benefit of Scotland. He is right to say that the decision on the Beauly-Denny line is still to be made. That is a responsibility of the Scottish Government, but I hope and expect that a decision will be made this year. The time for dithering is over; it is time for real decisions. That is why Ofgem has already approved £43 million of pre-construction contracts, as part of the £4.7 billion investment, and is working seriously with the industry to ensure that we have the right environment to encourage that investment.

Has the Minister had discussions with the Energy Secretary about the punitive charging regime for the construction—the upgrade—during that period of the Scottish-English interconnector? I ask that because there is great concern that the regime will be punitive for Scottish generators.

I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that I have had discussions with the Energy Minister regarding transmission charging in Scotland. We do not believe that the transmission charging regime in any way discriminates against Scotland. I welcome the fact that Scottish Power has recently announced proposals for up to five new wind farms in Scotland—that is a good indication that a lot of people want to invest in Scotland. We are reviewing transmission access, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, and we want to ensure that renewable energy gets the proper priority that it deserves.

The Minister will be aware that there is a proposal for a new coal power station at Hunterston. Will that be allowed to go ahead without carbon capture being in place?

I can confirm that any new plant will be required to incorporate carbon capture. As my hon. Friend will be aware, any planning consents in relation to new power plants in Scotland are a matter for the Scottish Government.

Roma Children

5. What information he holds on the number of Roma children from other EU member states who attend school in Scotland. (292282)

The UK Government do not hold information on the number of Roma children in Scottish schools. The pupil census in Scotland is a devolved matter for the Scottish Government.

Wilberforce banished slavery 200 years ago. We have new slavery now both in Scotland and in England. We have thousands of eastern European children on the streets involved in criminal activity organised by trafficking gangs. They do not go to school. What are the Secretary of State and his counterparts doing to rid our streets of this Fagin-like situation? It is quite disgraceful and it needs to be dealt with.

The hon. Gentleman has a proud track record in campaigning on this serious issue. I welcome his concern today. Many of these matters are devolved to Scotland, but I can confirm that the UK Government and the Scottish Government are working closely together to tackle the problem. That is one reason why we ratified the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings last year and why we have set up a national centre for trafficking in Sheffield, with which the Scottish authorities—including the police—are fully co-operating. They are providing us with important intelligence so that we can track these criminal networks across the whole of the UK.

Barnett Formula

6. What his most recent assessment is of the effectiveness of the Barnett formula in allocating funding to Scotland. (292283)

The Barnett formula is simple, efficient and effective. It means that every £1 extra public expenditure per person in England is matched exactly for each man, woman and child elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but does he agree with what Lord Barnett has said? He said:

“I do not consider it is successful. I do not think it is fair”.

If Lord Barnett thinks that, why do not the Government think that?

We have considered this very carefully. Recently, the Calman commission—an independent expert group—considered it and said very clearly that the formula is

“a pragmatic solution to the funding question and is near costless”

to operate. We have no plans to change the Barnett formula; I know that many of those who sit on the Conservative Benches do. That is one reason why so many people in Scotland distrust the modern Conservative party.

The Scottish Government will have more money next year than they have this year. That is a remarkable benefit of the economics of the United Kingdom. The fact is that the SNP Scottish Government today have double the budget that Donald Dewar had when he was First Minister. However, the SNP Scottish Government will have to tighten their belt and make some savings in the same way as every family and company in Scotland is doing.

Broadband (Highlands)

7. What recent discussions he has had with Scottish Executive Ministers on the provision of next-generation broadband in the Highlands. (292284)

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. She will know from the recent Highlands and Islands Enterprise report that access to broadband technology in the highlands lags far behind that in the rest of the country. If we were to get the next generation of broadband in the highlands, that would make more difference to our area than to almost anywhere else in the country. Will the Minister use the power of her office and her Department to support local moves to ensure that the highlands, which the “Digital Britain” report relegated to the final third when it came to access to next-generation broadband, can be first in line instead?

I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will fully support the proposal contained in the “Digital Britain” White Paper to establish a tax levy of 50p per month on fixed landlines so that we can create next-generation funding for exactly that one-third of the network that we believe requires additional investment and incentive. We want to ensure that there is no digital divide anywhere in the UK.

Copenhagen Summit

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on the representation of Scottish interests at the forthcoming Copenhagen summit on climate change. (292285)

The Copenhagen summit provides the opportunity for a vital step forward in securing a binding global agreement on climate change action. The Prime Minister has confirmed that he will be attending the Copenhagen summit.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Scotland has much to contribute to tackling climate change, as it has a strong renewables record and an ambitious target of reducing carbon emissions by 42 per cent. by 2020. Can the right hon. Gentleman not put party politics aside and accept that Scottish Ministers should also be part of the UK delegation to Copenhagen?

We have put party politics aside, and the SNP Scottish Government will be treated in exactly the same way that their Labour predecessors were treated. The best way to get Scotland’s climate change interests represented at Copenhagen is through the attendance of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. As far as I am concerned—and the same goes for the majority of Members of this House, and of people across Scotland—the UK will, of course and for the foreseeable future, include Scotland as an equal, full and strong part.