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Business Growth

Volume 522: debated on Wednesday 26 January 2011

1. What recent steps he has taken to promote business growth and inward investment in Scotland. (35124)

Before I answer the question, may I pay tribute to Mr Phil Gallie, whose passing has sadly been announced this week? He served this House and his party well while he was here, and he went on to serve his party and his constituents with distinction in the Scottish Parliament. He did that rare but important thing—while a feisty defender of his party’s positions on all sorts of things, he became popular across party lines. Our condolences go to his family.

Economic growth is at the centre of the Government’s agenda for this Parliament, and I promote that agenda in my regular engagements with the business community in Scotland and the UK and with international partners.

May I join the Secretary of State in his condolences to the family of Phil Gallie, a fellow Ayrshireman and someone I knew well?

The Secretary of State mentioned the efforts to promote jobs. Will he update the House on what he has done to follow up on the visit of the vice-premier of China, in particular on the trade links between Scotland and China?

A very significant part of the vice-premier’s visit, which of course we welcomed enthusiastically here in the United Kingdom, was that he started it in Scotland. I had the great privilege of welcoming him to the UK on behalf of the Government. In the course of that visit, we in Scotland and the rest of the UK were able to see very clearly the opportunities for us to develop our plan to be partners for growth, whether in renewable energy or in many other spheres.

May I add my condolences to those expressed to the family of Phil Gallie? He and I came into this place on the same day, and I have to say that he was more working-class than most Labour MPs are today, and a feisty fighter as well.

Does the Secretary of State think that inward investment to Scotland would be helped if Glasgow Prestwick airport were renamed Robert Burns airport?

From one great defender of Ayrshire to another. The family will be pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman’s tributes to Phil Gallie. As far as the hon. Gentleman’s idea for the renaming of the airport is concerned, I am sure that those who make such decisions will have heard him.

As the Secretary of State will know, the north-east of Scotland and Aberdeen is a powerhouse of the UK economy, providing much-needed tax revenues and inward investment. Crucial to the future of attracting inward investment is good communications technology. Will he meet me to discuss the barriers that mean that we have not yet seen the next generation of broadband reach Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland?

First, I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of Aberdeen and the regional economy not just for Scotland but for the UK as a whole. He is right to emphasise that. I met senior business leaders in Aberdeen only a few weeks ago, and we discussed how they could develop growth. Broadband is an important part of that, and he will be aware of our plans to speed up the introduction of superfast broadband. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss the matter further.

I associate myself and my colleagues with the condolences in relation to Phil Gallie’s death.

Does the Secretary of State understand that thousands of individuals and businesses the length and breadth of Scotland are suffering because of rocketing fuel prices?

I recognise that the increase in fuel prices is a real challenge for individuals and businesses, which is why the Government are looking carefully at ways in which we can tackle that issue, including proposals for a fuel duty stabiliser.

Two years ago the Liberal Democrats promised a rural fuel duty derogation. What specific action have the UK Government taken with the European authorities to secure that? Specifically, has a formal request been made to the European Commission to make it possible?

Referring to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point, it is important for Scotland and the whole UK to get a fuel duty regime that reflects the challenges that exist, particularly in rural parts of the country. On the derogation specifically, he will be aware that the Government are working very hard to ensure that we can get the right processes in place in Europe, so that we get the pilot up and running as quickly as possible.

I welcome the Government’s moves towards a lower rate of fuel duty for the islands, but under the plans that they inherited from the Labour Government, fuel duty is due to go up by more than 4p a litre in the Budget. The rural economy could not stand such an increase, so I hope that the Secretary of State will tell the Chancellor not to go ahead with Labour’s 4p increase.

I know the particular challenges in my hon. Friend’s area, where some of the highest fuel prices in the whole country can be found. His representations to me and to the Chancellor are carefully noted, and of course the decision on the future of fuel duty will come in the Budget.

Good transport links to other parts of the UK are vital for the Scottish economy. As the Secretary of State is aware, I wrote to him and to the Secretary of State for Transport on Monday last week to express my concerns about reports that bmi is about to axe its Glasgow-Heathrow service, which will put more than 100 jobs at risk. To date, I have had no reply from either him or his colleague. Will he inform the House today what steps he and his Government are taking to persuade both bmi and BAA to save that vital transport connection?

I recognise the hon. Lady’s concerns, which are shared by people not just in Glasgow, but across Scotland. I have spoken to senior managers both at bmi and BAA, and it is clear that they have some very difficult contractual arrangements as a result of the review of landing charges at Heathrow. I am keen that they recognise—I impressed this upon them—the importance of those links to Glasgow and to Scotland.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s response, but given that there is increasing evidence that domestic air links between Scotland’s major airports and the UK’s largest airport might be substantially diminished, and the inevitable worries that increased fares will result if there is only one remaining carrier, will he undertake today to make contact with the EU, which is responsible for regulation, and ask it to consider possible changes better to protect strategically important domestic air links, and to ensure better competitive practices to protect Scotland’s economy and our customers?

If I may be forgiven, I am not sure that I remember the previous Labour Government doing that. I do not want us to lose sight of the fact that Glasgow, Edinburgh and other major Scottish cities have a range of links to different London airports—substantial links that we want to be enhanced and to grow. The issue that the hon. Lady raises is obviously one of concern, and the Government will continue to discuss it with the parties involved.