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House of Commons

Wednesday 21 December 1988

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Bus Companies (Takeover)

1. Dr. Reid : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what safeguards he intends to introduce to protect Scottish Bus Group companies against predatory takeover.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) : The best way of promoting local control is to have strong, viable companies in which there is a significant stake by the employees or established locally based companies.

Dr. Reid : Is the Minister not ashamed of that vacuous answer? Does he not realise that the real dangers of predatory takeovers are monopolisation and, perhaps, bus firms being run by cowboy outfits? What steps does the Minister propose to ensure that there are some safeguards for the travelling public and for the workers in the industry? In the absence of any safeguards, what kind of competition policy is it that allows even the possibility of a vital public service being transformed into a private monopoly, perhaps controlled by people who are resident thousands of miles away from the customers whom they serve?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : It will be open to any company to put in a bid. I make it clear that, while no guarantees as to future ownership can be given, we want as much as possible to encourage management-employee buy-outs. The price offered will not be the only factor in assessing bids. Competition and the extent of employee participation will also be important. Preference will be given to management-employee buy-out schemes, but the scale of the preference has yet to be determined.

Mrs. Ray Michie : Does the Minister have any plans to consider putting in the remit of the Scottish Transport Users Consultative Committee a provision to include buses, in view of the imminent privatisation proposals?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : It is a Department of Trade and Industry Committee, but I shall certainly pass on the hon. Lady's comment concerning the remit.

Mr. Roger King : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is only right and proper commercially that businesses with a common interest should work together in providing the services that the community needs, either in partnership or in a form of ownership of the companies?

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Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Most certainly. I believe that our thinking has developed considerably since the National Bus Company privatisation. At that time there were a large number of management buyouts, but I believe there were only two management-employee buyouts. We are anxious to encourage management-employee buyouts. A recent poll of people working in the industry in Scotland shows that more than 70 per cent. are in favour of them.

Mr. Wilson : The Minister has again paid lip-service to the encouragement of management-employee buyouts, without announcing any initiatives which would give them a reasonble prospect of success. Will the Minister show his sincerity by guaranteeing that those involved in buy-out initiatives will have the opportunity to acquire those companies before bids are invited from the open market? Does he acknowledge that that is what has happened in Grampian? Will he admit that, without the legislation being thus weighted towards employee buyouts, they will be involved in an unequal struggle with the giants of the bus industry?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to Grampian. My right hon. and learned Friend has made it clear in a letter to Grampian that that approval has been given. He will be glad to hear that Strathclyde has come out in favour of management-employee buyouts. Councillor Malcolm Waugh said : "I am quite confident we will go ahead."

While there is no guarantee, we are anxious to encourage management- employee buyouts. We shall give financial assistance that amounts to an indemnity of 75 per cent. of fees, up to a maximum of £60,000, which means maximum assistance of £48,750. Hon. Members have heard, too that we shall be arranging video presentations and seminars.

A Claim of Right for Scotland"

2. Mr. Galloway : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has received a copy of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly document, "Claim of Right for Scotland" ; and if he will make a statement on his policy towards the matters raised in the document.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : I have received a copy of the document. The Government are deeply committed to the unity of the United Kingdom, and we do not believe that Scotland would benefit from an additional layer of government. The purpose of the meeting proposed by the campaign is simply to discuss how to carry forward certain conclusions which have already been reached by the organisers. Since it is not intended as a genuine debate on the merits and demerits of the constitutional changes which they have in mind I consider that it would not be appropriate for the Government to be represented.

Mr. Galloway : Is the Secretary of State aware of the dismay and disappointment with which his reply will be met in Scotland? In the light of last evening's events and his undoubted scrutiny of the media this morning, is the Secretary of State aware of just how isolated he and his Government are becoming on this question? With all the respect to which his great office is entitled, I ask him whether he will begin to put his country before his party?

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Mr. Rifkind : If the hon. Gentleman believes that the Conservative party is isolated, it appears that he also believes that his Front Bench is isolated because on 12 November this year he was quoted as saying :

"It is the leadership that chose the Front Bench. They dictate the key policies and the strategy. We tried it their way--and it has gone devastatingly wrong."

Mr. Bill Walker : The question refers to rights, but it makes no mention of duties, responsibilities or accountability. It is important that any measure that any Government in this Chamber thinks that they can get through Parliament takes into acount the fact that more than nine of 10 of the people living in the United Kingdom live outside of Scotland. Ministers on every Front Bench who are responsible to this unitary Parliament must take that into account before they bring forward measures to change the unitary system.

Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is certainly correct. I believe that any constitutional reform within the United Kingdom must be of a type that would strengthen the United Kingdom as a whole. The proposals for unilateral devolution are unlikely to achieve that result.

Mr. Sillars : May I refer the Governor-General to his earlier reply- -

An Hon. Member : You should regard him as a friend.

Mr. Sillars : On a personal level, but not politically. He said that the reason the Tory party will not be represented at the potential convention organised by the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly is that the Government believe that the outcome is pre-determined. Why will he not give an affirmative answer to the request for the Government to support an elected constitutional convention that would be open to every point of view and would not have a pre-determined outcome? Why are the Government afraid to give the Scottish people the opportunity to decide their own future?

Mr. Rifkind : We have a continuing debate on these matters and there is no need for pressure groups to organise meetings to which they give grandiose titles. It is possible for such debates to take place in this Chamber and in Scotland as they have for many years. The idea that some new meeting is required to achieve a purpose that has already been identified by the organisers of the meeting shows how bogus the exercise is.

Mr. Barry Field : My right hon. and learned Friend should answer the sterile arguments that we are hearing from the Opposition about English Members being involved in Scottish Questions by pointing out that only two offshore islands are administered by the English Civil Service--I represent one and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) represents the other. We want to know why it is that the Scottish Highlands and Islands Development Board has such a main line into the pockets of the British taxpayer and why it does so well through the generosity of the Government?

Mr. Rifkind : The Highlands and Islands Development Board--

Mr. Sillars : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. Does the point of order arise out of the question?

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Mr. Sillars : Yes. If you, Mr. Speaker, are to call English Members of Parliament, could we have an interpreter because, quite frequently, I cannot understand them.

Mr. Speaker : The hon. Gentleman's question was in order.

Mr. Buchan : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been in this House for more than 20 years and I have attempted, on occasions, to raise a point of order during Question Time. This is the first time that I have known you to allow a point of order at this time. Is this now the custom of the House.

Mr. Speaker : If the hon. Gentleman had been hear earlier this week he would have heard my ruling when I said that matters needing immediate attention should always be raised at once.

Mr. Buchan rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. That has always been the position and, as the House well knows, that is the position in debates as well. Mr. Buchan rose --

Mr. Rifkind rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Rifkind : If I may respond to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field), the Highlands and Islands Development Board has received generous treatment from the Government because we have always recognised that the needs of the north of Scotland are specific to that area and that the area has a fragile economy. It is a matter of great pleasure that over the past 20 years the population of the Highlands and Islands has for the first time for a century begun to increase.

Mr. Dewar : May I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I thought that his initial response was a series of rather arrogant assumptions about the motives of those involved in the constitutional convention. That response did him little credit. Is it not the duty of responsible politicians in Scotland to examine the possibilities and argue their corner in the very lively and important debate on the future Government of this country? While I recognise that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has a personal difficulty in that he is trapped by the policies of his party, does he accept that it is time that he broke out of the trap and recognised the very strong wish of Scots to have a greater say in their own affairs and in the framework of the United Kingdom? Can I take it from his earlier reply--and I would be sorry if this were so--that he has departed from the position that he has outlined in the past, that his main objection to some form of devolution of power is simply that he is unconvinced that the majority of the people of Scotland want it?

Mr. Rifkind : The duty of hon. Members in this House is to take part in the debates of this House and not, like the grand old Duke of York, lead their hon. Friends out and then lead them back in again--

Mr. Canavan : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : Order. No. We are in the middle of the answer.

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Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman supports the so-called convention organised by the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly and the document which it produced. As a Unionist is he not occasionally uncomfortable associating himself with the campaign document which refers to the Union in the following terms :

"The United Kingdom has been an anomaly from its inception and is a glaring anomaly now."

I can understand why Nationalist hon. Members support that analysis. However, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) is playing with fire if he associates with that kind of analysis.

Council House Sales

3. Mr. Devlin : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how many public sector houses have been sold under the right to buy ; what is the current level of applications ; and if he will make a statement.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Between April 1979 and September 1988, about 133,000 public sector houses in Scotland have been sold to sitting tenants under the right-to-buy legislation and voluntary sales. Some 4,500 applications per month have been received on average during 1988. This sustained high level of applications is clear evidence of the continuing success of the Government's right-to-buy policy.

Mr. Devlin : Given that in England about 62 per cent. of the population own their own homes as against a measly 42 per cent. in Scotland, does my hon. Friend agree that it is a most welcome development to see recent house sales under the right-to-buy policy and so many Scottish people following the example of the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and buying their houses under the right-to-buy scheme?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Many Scots now believe that the best landlord that they can have is themselves. However, while 18 per cent. of the stock has been sold south of the border, 13.6 per cent. has been sold in Scotland. If sales continue at that rate, we will reach the 150,000 mark around May 1989.

Mr. Michael J. Martin : The Minister will be aware that in communities such as mine where people exercised the right-to-buy three or four years ago, "for sale" signs are now up in the council house windows and many of those houses are going to the highest bidder-- [Interruption.] It is all very well for Conservative Members to claim that they are trading up. There are 8,000 people unemployed in my constituency who cannot trade up. Is it not time that the Government built houses and decent homes for those people to live in?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I was glad to be in the hon. Gentleman's constituency a few days ago, when I learnt that the Housing Corporation is building a number of shared-ownership houses, which is proving very successful. Research has shown that once tenants have purchased their houses, most remain living there. In fact, they wish to remain whether or not they purchase them.

Nurses (Regrading)

4. Mr. David Marshall : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what instructions he gave to the Greater Glasgow health board regarding regrading of nurses

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following the recent meeting of his junior Minister with the Royal College of Nurses and the Royal College of Midwives.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth) : Officials of the board were informed of concerns which had been expressed by the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives.

Mr. Marshall : Does the Minister realise that he and the Greater Glasgow health board are making an absolute mess of nurses' regrading? Will he ensure that Greater Glasgow health board comes into line with all the others in Scotland and gives Glasgow nurses the regrading that they deserve?

Mr. Forsyth : The hon. Gentleman has his facts wrong, and he will find that the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives disagree with him. Following discussions with the board, the problems associated with grading in wards where there is only one nursing sister on duty was resolved. I understand that after restructuring is implemented, Glasgow's grading profile will be in line with the rest of Scotland.

Mr. McKelvey : Does the Minister realise that this morning the alternative select committee on Scottish affairs was launched, and that its first subject for investigation is the Health Service in Scotland? In the interests of the Scottish people, will he give an undertaking that he will gladly appear before that committee if required, and will allow his civil servants and health boards to give the evidence that, obviously, they so desperately want to give to that committee?

Mr. Forsyth : In view of the question that was asked a few minutes ago, I welcome any attempts by Opposition Members to make themselves better informed on what is happening within the National Health Service. I am only too delighted to meet any right hon. or hon. Member wishing to raise Health Service issues.

Mr. John Marshall : Will my hon. Friend remind the House of the average percentage increase paid to nurses in Scotland? Will he remind the House also how their pay compares in real terms with that prevailing in 1979? Does he agree that it is irresponsible of COHSE and NUPE members to indulge in industrial action, which merely prevents patients from undergoing the operations that they need?

Mr. Forsyth : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. COHSE and NUPE signed up for the regrading proposals and were party to them. They did not inform their members of the consequences of the agreement that they reached, and when the going got rough they ratted on the agreement to which they were a party. The majority of nurses have benefited considerably, not only in terms of increased pay, which was recommended by the independent review body, but from the new structure enabling nurses continuing to be involved in clinical work to be rewarded. My hon. Friend is right to point to the irresponsible behaviour of COHSE and NUPE. Fortunately, the Royal College of Nursing behaved responsibly and delivered the best possible deal for its members.

Under the last Labour Government, nurses' pay was cut by 21 per cent., but under the present Government it has increased by 45 per cent.

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Mr. Galbraith : I will not let the Minister get away with that. He ought to be condemning those responsible for the shambles in the Greater Glasgow health board, not the trade unions. I shall assist the Minister to be better informed. Greater Glasgow health board was totally out of line with every other health board in the country, and it backed down only because of pressure brought by my hon. Friends. That was the reason.

Mr. Speaker : Order. Question, please.

Mr. Galbraith : Does the Minister admit that he knew Greater Glasgow health board would be totally out of line and that he should have done something earlier? Is he not culpable for the shambles in Greater Glasgow health board?

Mr. Forsyth : The Greater Glasgow health board has more multi-sister wards than others in Scotland but has particular difficulties. As I have said already, its profile, following restructuring, will be similar to that of other boards in Scotland. As a Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Gentleman would do well to take a little care in some of his accusations against the Greater Glasgow health board, which will subsequently turn out to be unsubstantiated. In the circumstances it will have to wait a long time for an apology from the hon. Gentleman.

Fisheries Ministers

5. Mr. Wallace : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last personally attended a meeting of the European Council of Fisheries Ministers.

Mr. Rifkind : My noble Friend the Minister of State has attended meetings of the Council of Fisheries Ministers as a member of the United Kingdom delegation and was present at the most recent one on 9-11 December.

Mr. Wallace : The Secretary of State, significantly did not answer the question. Many of our European partners must have questioned how seriously the Government took the threat to the Scottish fishing industry at the last round. Unlike his predecessor during the negotiations for the common fisheries policy, he was conspicuous by his absence. Will he do something to mitigate that dereliction of duty by convening a meeting of EEC and non-EEC fishery Ministers to consider a package of conservation measures--other than using total allowable catches as a means of enforcing conservation? That would give some hope to the Scottish fishing industry.

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman seems totally unaware of the great success of my noble Friend the Minister of State and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in these negotiations. They have led to the United Kingdom's quota going up from 78 per cent. to 87 per cent. of the total and have involved serious sacrifices by other member states. It was a splendid result for them and I noted that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation were quoted as saying that given the scientific evidence, it was the best possible result that the United Kingdom and Scottish fishermen could have hoped to achieve.

Mr. Foulkes : Why are the Government able to fork out £17 million to compensate egg producers, whereas they give nothing to help the fishermen who will lose substantial amounts of money because of a Government decision?

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Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that quotas for fishermen change each year and that scientific evidence on the basis of the conservation of stocks is an important consideration. He will also be aware that--

Mr. Foulkes : Answer the question.

Mr. Rifkind : If the hon. Gentleman will be silent for a moment, I might be able to answer his question. He will also be aware that, for several years, Scottish fishermen have had a healthy share of quotas and have experienced a substantial improvement in their share of stocks and in their standard of living. The fact that it has been necessary to reduce stocks to preserve the species in one year is not in itself an argument for compensation--indeed, the Scottish Fishermen's Federation has not argued that.

Sir Hector Monro : In view of the decimation of herring stocks in the 1970s through overfishing, was it not right, in terms of conservation, too look after haddock fishing this time? Was it not a triumph for the government to obtain 87 per cent. of the catch in those circumstances?

Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is right. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the Scottish fish processors congratulated the Government on their achievement. They showed more perspicacity than certain Opposition Members about the long-term interests of the Scottish fishing industry.

Education Bill

6. Dr. Moonie : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has received any representations from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, teaching unions or parents' organisations regarding the opting -out provisions in the forthcoming Education Bill.

Mr. Michael Forsyth : A paper describing the expected basis for legislation on self-governing schools was issued to a wide range of interested bodies on 7 December. I look forward to receiving constructive comment.

Dr. Moonie : The Minister is well aware that he, his colleagues, his party and his policies are as popular in Scotland now as a raw egg. Will he, therefore, undertake to listen to the results of the consultation and the views of the Scottish people? Will he act on those, rather than on his own political prejudices, or is his sense of honour and decency as deficient as his sense of rhyme?

Mr. Forsyth : We have heard the Opposition saying that our policy on school boards was not supported by the majority of people in Scotland, yet a System 3 poll showed a 2 : 1 majority in favour of our school board proposals. I note that the Opposition have now changed their position to one of supporting the school boards. On the proposals for self-governing schools, a recent MORI poll in The Scotsman showed that one third of the Scottish people thought that parents should have that right. Once again, it is this Government who are extending the rights of parents and the Opposition who are seeking to undermine the rights of parents.

Mr. Allan Stewart : Is my hon. Friend aware that I have received a huge number of letters over a considerable period from constituents who wish the Government to give parents the opportunity to opt out? May I congratulate my

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hon. Friend on his television appearance when he rightly mentioned that many parents at Neilston primary school are considering opting out because of dissatisfaction with Strathclyde region's refusal to give them a much-needed extension instead of bussing the pupils to Barrhead? Is my hon. Friend aware that shortly after his television appearance mentioning opting out, Strathclyde regional council promptly did a complete U-turn? Is not that the first victory for opting out?

Mr. Forsyth : I am delighted to hear that Strathclyde has changed its position on Neilston primary school. It could be said that that is due less to the power of the media and more to the power of the idea of self- governing schools. Opposition Front Bench spokesmen may laugh, but they should consider what councillor Malcolm Green, the convener of Strathclyde education committee, said about our proposals for allowing schools to opt out. He is on the record as saying that the impact of opting out will be that local authorities will have to look at their provision of education and try to be more responsive to parents' needs. It seems that Neilston is the first positive fruit and that even the threat of opting out will benefit parents throughout Scotland.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing : As the Minister claims that there is such widespread interest in Scotland in opting out, why has this centrepiece of legislation from the Scottish Office not yet been published? Is it that the Minister has opened his mouth and the parliamentary draftsmen are desperately trying to catch up?

Mr. Forsyth : No, on the contrary, we have stated the basis on which we expect self-governing schools to operate and have invited constructive comments. The Bill has not been published because it is being drafted and we mean to take account of the comments that we receive. I know that that position will appear odd to the hon. Lady who is content to carp on the sidelines and make no constructive contribution towards increasing choice for parents in Scotland.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is difficult to understand the views of Opposition Members who oppose parental opting out, because if parents' views are as Opposition Members say, no schools will opt out? Perhaps Opposition Members take that view because they do not speak for parents and because they know that parents will vote for opting out.

Mr. Forsyth : My hon. Friend points to the paradox of the Opposition's position. On the one hand, Opposition Members say that no schools in Scotland are interested in self-governing status but on the other hand they argue that opting out will have a profound impact on the Scottish education system, which implies that they believe that many parents in Scotland will wish to take the opportunity with which we are presenting them. Once again, the Labour party seeks to remove opportunities for choice and to concentrate power in the hands of local authorities and bureaucracy.

Mr. McLeish : Is the Minister aware that people who take a serious interest in education in Scotland believe opting out to be profoundly damaging, divisive, potentially inefficient and irrelevant and, more important, that we believe that it is a betrayal of the real needs of pupils, parents, and teachers in Scotland?

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Does the Minister recall his comments in the Scottish Grand Committee on 21 March when he said that evidence of real and substantial demand for opting out would be necessary before he would consider it? Why was that not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto or in the proper consultative document? Why has there been no requests from parents, teaching organisations or from the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities-- [Interruption] Will the Minister tell us whether this form of nationalisation of education is based on real and substantial demand or is merely the political ideology upon which much of Scottish education seems to be based?

Mr. Forsyth : Thirty-three per cent. of the Scottish people seems to me to be fairly substantial demand. I contrast the hon. Gentleman's stance with that of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) who, I believe, speaks for the Opposition on education matters. He was quoted in The Daily Telegraph last month announcing the new consumerist approach to education. He said that the Labour party wanted the creation of flagship schools which would be "paradigms of excellence". He said that they would be measured by objective standards of examination results, truancy rates and the quality of teaching.

Mr. McLeish : This is Scotland.

Mr. Forsyth : The hon. Gentleman argues that that does not apply to Scottish education. Why does the Labour party in Scotland wish to prevent parents in Scotland from having access to schools which are "paradigms of excellence"?

Scottish Special Housing Association

7. Mr. McAvoy : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last met the chairman of the Scottish Special Housing Association, to discuss its housing disposal policy.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I am in regular contact with the chairman about the association's activities and saw him on 18 November.

Mr. McAvoy : Will the Minister acknowledge that the Government's housing policies have created great insecurity among SSHA tenants in my constituency? Will he give a commitment that disposals will be subject to majority voting of those who actually vote in a ballot?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : If the hon. Member was referring indirectly to Torbay, I can say that that matter is with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who is considering it but has not made a decision. I can give a guarantee that, before there is any voluntary disposal of SSHA property, tenants will be consulted. The statutory rights that we have given local authority tenants will also apply to SSHA tenants. No proposals will be put before them before 1 April. The top priority now is setting up Scottish Homes and the re-employment of staff.

Mr. Harry Ewing : In regard to the disposal of public assets such as SSHA housing, will the Minister and the Secretary of State take advice from my good friend, Wallace Mercer, who has just been added to the brains department of the Tory party in Scotland? He sold one of his best assets for £600,000 and had to get a banana seller

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