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Scotland

Volume 501: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Broadband

Scotland and the UK are ahead of most of Europe on broadband availability. However, we recognise that some people still have problems accessing broadband, and that is being addressed through the “Digital Britain” White Paper.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Is he aware of the particular difficulties in rural areas? I carried out a survey in my constituency recently, and on average 11 per cent. of those who responded said that they had difficulty receiving broadband. In Millport, the figure was 30 per cent. What can the Government do to intervene and ensure that the problem is addressed quickly?

My hon. Friend has raised these issues regularly and campaigned on them, and she is right to draw out the point about people who are locked out of digital broadband for reasons of geography or income—whether in Millport, which I regularly enjoy visiting, or anywhere else throughout Scotland. We are determined that at least 90 per cent. of the country should have access to super-fast broadband, and I am happy to have more discussions with my hon. Friend about how we can ensure that that target is hit in her constituency.

Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that Ofcom is perceived as a toothless tiger that requires more powers? I have campaigned on this issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark). In a letter I received from Ofcom, the regulator states:

“Ofcom does not have the power to mandate ISPs”—

internet service providers. Surely that power is overdue, because otherwise, many of my constituents, along with those of my colleagues, will continue to receive a poor broadband service.

My hon. Friend makes some very important points about the decision-making powers and architecture that will ensure we achieve 90 per cent. broadband penetration. We are trying to ensure that the market provides most of that, and we expect that up to two thirds—60 to 70 per cent.—of homes will be able to access super-fast broadband through the market. However, the Government will have to do additional things, and my hon. Friend can make the case for giving Ofcom additional powers; but, again, we are absolutely determined that no one be excluded for reasons of geography or income.

Is the Secretary of State aware of The Press and Journal report today that, according to the Top 10 Broadband website, broadband speeds in Aberdeen and Inverness are running at about half the rate of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and that BT does not know why? Will he undertake to find out why, and recognise that high-tech global industries operate out of Aberdeen and need to have the same access as the best in the UK?

The right hon. Gentleman, also, makes a really important point, and the issue of access to broadband for business and domestic users is crucial. The figures that I have show, however, that despite that worrying report in the newspaper, Aberdeen is ahead of most Scottish cities. The fact is that less than half of people in Dundee and Edinburgh have access to super-fast broadband, and less than one third have access in Glasgow. Aberdeen is in a much stronger position, but we are determined to ensure that there is universal access in Aberdeen and beyond.

What can the Government do to help or compel BT to upgrade exchanges, especially in rural areas, to ensure greater broadband penetration for the islands of Scotland in particular?

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, and the people there raised those issues with me. It is important that there be an upgrade for copper and wire networks, but the Government are also committed to a 50 per cent. levy on those with BT lines—[Interruption.] I mean a 50p levy. [Interruption.] That is the tax at some point in the future. There will be a 50p levy on those throughout the United Kingdom with a BT fixed line, and rural areas and island communities will benefit from that.

I wish to take the positive message from the Secretary of State today. I had an open meeting in Lanark last week with voluntary organisations and small businesses in my constituency, particularly those in the Clyde valley, so his statement today will be good news, but we should roll out the programme as quickly as we can.

My hon. Friend makes the point that, for many people throughout Scotland and the UK, access to super-fast broadband is about a way of life. A decade or so ago, such infrastructure and technology was a luxury; today, it is increasingly a necessity. It is crucial that no one, for reasons of geography or income, be locked out of those changes.

People Trafficking

2. What recent assessment he has made of the extent to which people are trafficked between Scotland and England. (300125)

That is rather disappointing. The Barnardo’s report, published last week, highlights the number of young people who are trafficked within the United Kingdom for sexual exploitation. Will the Minister urge a further review, so that more can be done to protect those vulnerable people?

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises a subject of great concern across the United Kingdom. I can assure him that there is close co-operation between all the police forces, including those in Scotland; of course, this is a devolved function of the Scottish Government. There is a national referral mechanism that is tracking child trafficking. Glasgow is one of the 13 pilot areas that have been taking part in that project, and we will have further information on its success later next year. The Government give the highest priority to tackling this invidious crime and to ensuring that we arrest the perpetrators as soon as we possibly can.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the TARA—trafficking awareness-raising alliance—project in Glasgow, which so far this year has taken 44 women trafficked for prostitution into care and is looking after them with the support of the Government and the Scottish Administration? Will she ask the police forces of Scotland to act on the Bill passed just two weeks ago, which makes it a crime to demand, ask for or seek to pay for sex with any woman who has been trafficked or coerced? In other words, it is now the male punters who are responsible, and they must be brought before the courts and named and shamed to slow down this disgraceful traffic.

My right hon. Friend rightly refers to the very good work carried out by the TARA project over several years. The law on prostitution is different in Scotland, but that does not mean that colleagues in Scotland are not deeply concerned about the issues surrounding prostitution, particularly trafficking. I can assure him that local authorities and the police in Scotland are working very hard on that matter.

TARA in Scotland has seen a dramatic rise in the number of sex-trafficked women seeking its help. Sadly, the experience of large sporting events shows that the 2014 Commonwealth games could bring many more. Will the Minister ensure that her Government work closely with the Holyrood Government to share the experiences of and lessons from tackling this problem at the Olympics, to ensure that we minimise this horrible crime during the Commonwealth games?

The hon. Lady raises a genuine issue of concern which I share. There is already close co-operation between those organising the Commonwealth games to be held in Glasgow and the Olympic games to be held in London, and I am sure that the lessons learned about how we tackle this problem will be followed by colleagues in Scotland.

Nuclear Waste

4. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister and Ministry of Defence officials on the storage of nuclear waste from the decommissioned nuclear submarines moored at Rosyth; and if he will make a statement. (300127)

Our Office is in frequent contact with the Ministry of Defence, and the MOD is in regular contact with Scottish Government officials regarding this issue. No decisions on siting have yet been taken either for submarine dismantling or for waste storage.

The hazardous life of some forms of plutonium exceeds a quarter of a million years, so thousands of generations of people in Ayrshire, Fife and Caithness may have to live with the presence of a toxic nuclear dump on their doorstep. Do these intolerable risks not show that the Trident programme should be abandoned, not salami-sliced, and the £100 billion saved invested in more socially useful projects in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the MOD is committed to a safe, secure and cost-effective solution regarding dismantling submarines. The radiological risk to the general public is assessed as extremely low and it will remain so—but we are committed to ensuring that there is a full public consultation at national level with all areas that may be identified as potential sites.

The patience of people in West Fife is wearing thin, because we have had these submarines for 25 years and we lost the Trident refuelling contract in the ’90s. We want rid of these submarines, and we want rid of them now. Will the Minister tell the Defence Secretary that when she next meets him?

I think it important to say to the hon. Gentleman that we must take care to have a full assessment of and full consultation on the various options for dismantling and storage. We are committed to carrying this out during 2010, and the MOD will take notice of any concerns raised by local communities.

In advance of the Scottish National party’s publication of its independence White Paper next week, we should acknowledge the contribution to the Scottish economy made by the British submarine base at Faslane. Does the Minister agree that an independent Scotland would have a minimal defence capability and that the 3,000 jobs linked to that base would be put immediately at risk?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have heard the recent comments of Mr. Jim Sillars regarding current SNP defence policy. It is clear that the cost of independence to Scotland in jobs would be extremely high, and that many skills would be lost as a result.

Employment

5. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the level of employment in Scotland. (300128)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about employment in Scotland and will be co-hosting Scotland’s first ever jobs summit on 11 January in Easterhouse in Glasgow.

What proportion of those in employment in Scotland are paid out of the public purse, either through local, devolved or national Government? Are there any implications in that for a vibrant and dynamic Scottish economy?

The hon. Gentleman is of course welcome to attend the jobs summit in Easterhouse in Glasgow. I am sure he would be like a fish in water there.

The Scottish and UK Governments employ a substantial number of the work force in Scotland, who do a remarkable job, particularly at a time of recession, when they provide support to those who are vulnerable. I pay particular tribute to the staff of Jobcentre Plus, who at a very difficult time are providing real support to those who need it during the recession.

When my right hon. Friend speaks to his ministerial colleagues, will he ask them whether they will apply to the European Union globalisation fund, which is now being provided just to respond to the current economic downturn? For example, Ireland has just had £36 million, and it is about to move 500 jobs at Bausch and Lomb from West Lothian to Waterford in Ireland. Surely when we are losing jobs, we can also apply to that fund for money for Scotland to support employment there in the face of the economic recession.

Order. We really must have questions that are questions rather than the pursuit of Adjournment debates.

My hon. Friend raises some big issues. Of course it is essential that we do all we can to support people through this recession, and our tax system remains internationally competitive. Although we can learn individual lessons from other countries, I do not think the UK or Scotland would be well suited to following exactly the economic model of Ireland—or Iceland.

My right hon. Friend might be aware that Prudential has regrettably announced this week 60 job losses at its site in Stirling. However, Capita and Prudential still contribute approximately 2,500 private sector financial jobs to the Stirling area. In his discussions at Scottish, UK and international level, will he highlight the fact that the city of Stirling has a lot to offer the financial services industry, as we seek to re-establish credibility in that marketplace?

My right hon. Friend is right to remind the House that amidst all the understandable talk about an impending recovery, the recession is just starting for many people who have perhaps lost their jobs over recent weeks, or for small businesses that continue to struggle. That is why we are determined to do more. I know she is a doughty fighter for the city of Stirling, and there is a huge amount to be optimistic about there, as there is across the whole of Scotland. Although of course Scotland faces real difficulties at the moment, I remain entirely optimistic that we will get through this recession strongly.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the recent Fraser of Allander Institute report that estimates that over the course of this year there will be 130,000 net job losses in Scotland, and which warns that the Scottish economy may not even come out of recession in the final quarter of this year? In those circumstances, does he believe that his colleague the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was right to describe last month’s job figures as “welcome news”?

It is always welcome news when people get back into work, and that is the point my colleague the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has made. As people in Scotland and across the UK look towards Christmas and are increasingly concerned about how they will pay their bills or afford a good Christmas for their family, it is essential that we continue to do everything we can, aside from party politics, to get those folk back into work. That is what the Labour Government are determined to do.

Complacency is bad enough from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; from the Secretary of State for Scotland it is unforgivable. That same report points to the role of the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS in bringing Scotland’s economy out of recession and states that as taxpayer-funded banks, they have to be prepared to lend more to small and medium-sized enterprises. What is the Secretary of State’s Department doing to ensure that the taxpayer, having paid the piper, is now going to get to call the tune?

I suspect that that supplementary question sounded better in front of the mirror this morning than it did in the Chamber.

We are doing everything we possibly can to get Scotland and the United Kingdom through this global recession. We want to ensure that the newly unemployed do not become the long-term unemployed, which is why the new investment in Jobcentre Plus, the support for the long-term unemployed and the targeted measures in the parts of Scotland that are suffering most are the right things to do.

May I be the first to congratulate the Secretary of State on being named best Scot at Westminster? I am sure the Prime Minister is delighted.

Month after month, Scottish unemployment rises; month after month, the Scotland Office issues a statement distancing the Government from responsibility, invoking global factors; and month after month, that looks less credible. If the Government’s economic policies have been right for Scotland, can the Secretary of State explain to us why the US, France and Germany have all returned to growth, but over the same period Scottish gross domestic product has continued to fall? Given that unemployment lags behind growth, are we to assume that Scotland will suffer further from Labour’s legacy of rising unemployment for many months to come?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his best wishes on my award. It was a very long shortlist, but I noticed he was not on it. I would nevertheless like to welcome the newest Member to the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-East (Mr. Bain).

On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point, there are a quarter of a million more people in work in Scotland today than when his party left power, but we are determined to do an awful lot more. The worst thing we could do is follow the prognosis of Conservative economics in the midst of this recession.

The Secretary of State’s monologues about history are almost as predictable as those press releases on unemployment from the Scotland Office. We want to talk about the present. There are 270,000 people in Scotland on incapacity benefit under this Government. That cannot be justified—when will he take steps to get these people re-tested? All those found to be either ready to work or ready to prepare for work should be given support by specialist organisations; instead, they are ignored by his Government. When will he put that right?

We introduced the Welfare Reform Act 2007, which ensures that we provide new support to those on incapacity benefit, particularly those who experience fluctuating mental health conditions, and especially women in their 30s and 40s, in respect of whom there is an additional trend that is worrying for us all.

However, it is nauseating to listen to the hon. Gentleman lecture us on incapacity benefit. We are doing everything we can to support those people in getting off that benefit. The fact is that when his Government were in power, they manufactured the unemployment figures by deliberately taking people off unemployment and sticking them on to a life of dependency on incapacity benefit, for which they will never be forgiven.

Future Jobs Fund

Future jobs fund vacancies are available in every local authority area in Scotland. To date, 44 bids have been approved in Scotland, offering almost 7,000 jobs.

Between them, North Ayrshire and East Ayrshire councils have secured more than 500 jobs for young people over the next 18 months through the future jobs fund. The Tory-nationalist coalition in South Ayrshire council, on the other hand, has secured none at all. What can the Secretary of State do to put the maximum pressure on councils such as South Ayrshire to allow young people to participate?

My hon. Friend raises a really important point, because we need to support young people who have recently lost their jobs so that they do not spend six months or a year out of work. It would be unforgivable if local authorities did not provide that degree of support, so I will find ways to raise her concerns with South Ayrshire council. However, it is important that we provide that support for the long-term young unemployed and those who are middle-aged in particular problem areas across Scotland.

Given the Secretary of State’s recent decision to reject the QinetiQ proposals for upgrading the Ministry of Defence ranges on Benbecula, is he confident that there will be no job losses on the Hebrides ranges for the next three years? [Interruption.] If he cannot be confident of that, will he ensure that the future jobs fund will be applied to the islanders of North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist? [Interruption.]

Order. Just before the Secretary of State answers that question, may I reiterate the appeal that I make every week for a decline in the number of private conversations? I say this to the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns): every week he indulges in these conversations, every week it is very tedious and every week it is not necessary. Let us have an end to it.

I am aware that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) does not have much interest in Scotland or Scottish questions, but the decision that was taken about saving the ranges on the Uists was very important. Again, it shows the benefit of Scotland being part of the United Kingdom. We remain committed to those firing ranges on the Uists, but we have to ensure that they attract new business and that we achieve diversity in the economy in the Western Isles, which is important to their future.

Tourism

7. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the effect on the tourism industry in Scotland of proposed changes to the furnished holiday lettings rules. (300130)

The Minister will be aware that many groups, including the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers and the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland, have raised concern about the impact of the proposed abolition of furnished holiday letting relief. Alternative solutions have been proposed that would be tax-neutral and support the industry. Will she urge the Treasury to look again at this matter to avoid serious damage to the economy in many areas of rural Scotland, including mine?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the current rules were understood not to comply with EU law, nor were they fair to other residential landlords. It is also likely that if we had kept the rules as they stood, it would have had a negative impact on tourism, both in Scotland and the UK. There are only 60,000 individuals in the UK claiming this benefit, but there were 15 million overnight tourist visits in Scotland last year, so we consider that the change will not have any major impact on tourism.

The biggest barrier to tourists visiting holiday homes in Scotland is the lack of a proper transport infrastructure. Will my hon. Friend join the Scottish trade unions and business leaders in calling on the SNP Administration at Holyrood to reverse the decision to cancel the Glasgow airport rail link?

As my hon. Friend might suspect, there is only one Glasgow MP who does not support the rail link to the airport, the creation of 1,300 jobs or the ambitions of the city for the future. I deeply regret the decision and I hope that it will now be reconsidered.

Economic Inactivity

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the level of economic inactivity in Scotland. (300131)

I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the level of economic inactivity in Scotland.

Office for National Statistics figures show that the number of people in Scotland becoming economically inactive rose by 20 per cent. more than the UK average. Why is Scotland so much worse?

Scotland is better off because it is part of the United Kingdom. The four nations of the UK are stronger together during this recession than would otherwise be the case, and most people in Scotland now accept that. There are 250,000 more people in work in Scotland than when the hon. Gentleman’s party left power, and his party has not been listened to on this recession in Scotland because of how it behaved while in government during the last recession in Scotland.

Does my right hon. Friend share my anger at the Opposition for refusing to vote for any support that we give to the unemployed in Scotland, and for the abandonment of people in the 1980s and 1990s that this Government reversed in 1997?

It is clear that the Labour Government are doing everything that we can to get people through this recession. It is also clear that we cannot stop every job being lost—that is the unavoidable and harsh reality of the world economy these days—but we can do everything possible to get people back into work so that they never suffer from long-term unemployment. That is why the measures we have taken are so important, and the blocking of those measures by the Opposition has been so unforgivable.

Rail Services (Economic Impact)

9. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the effect on the Glasgow and Lanarkshire economy of future provision of rail services to the west of Scotland operated by East Coast. (300133)

Does the Minister agree that the airport rail link, while desirable, is a luxury at present, but the East Coast link is essential to Glasgow’s economy?

The hon. Gentleman might wish to follow the example of the newest Member of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-East (Mr. Bain), in agreeing with the business community in Scotland that the Glasgow airport rail link project is not only desirable but affordable and will create 1,300 jobs. The hon. Gentleman seems to have no interest in that whatsoever.

Devolution

10. What discussions he intends to have with ministerial colleagues on the recommendations of the Commission on Scottish Devolution. (300134)

I have had many discussions with Cabinet colleagues during preparation for the Government’s proposals for the future of Scotland within the United Kingdom, and with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on that this afternoon.

My right hon. Friend is about to make a statement to the House and I do not wish to steal his thunder, so I merely ask whether the commission’s report is the outcome of diverse national conversations.

The commission’s report is the work of months of research and evidence and is based on the support of the Scottish Parliament. The process is supported by the Labour party, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats. Only one party stands outside the consensus, and unfortunately the Scottish National party Government continue to boycott the entire process.