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House of Commons

Wednesday 1 March 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Business Premises (Valuations)

1. Mr. Worthington : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he intends to make a statement on the progress being made by the Scottish assessors in their talks with the Inland Revenue valuers about harmonisation of valuation practices for business premises.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Ian Lang) : Good progress is being made in the discussions between the Scottish Assessors Association and the Inland Revenue valuation office on harmonisation of valuation practice. These discussions are expected to result in significant progress towards harmonisation for the vast majority of subjects in 1990.

Mr. Worthington : That is the sort of waffle that we have had for months on end when we ought to have a statement about the progress being made. Does the Minister agree that there will be a widening difference in business rates between Scotland and northern England after 1990 and that we shall continue to have a situation in which a marina at Largs pays five times as much as a similar marina in Hampshire? Does the Minister agree that the uniform business rate for Great Britain, which includes Scotland, will not be implemented until 1996 or after?

Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman calls it waffle because he does not like the fact that we are making progress on this. The Labour party contributed to the situation through high local government spending and when the Labour Government were in office they did nothing to put it right. We are making progress step by step. I have already said that a large measure of harmonisation will be introduced in 1990. Further progress will be achieved thereafter and we expect to achieve close harmony within a short time.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith : Can my hon. Friend offer any comfort to those with business premises, including farmers, food processors and other small businesses in relation to water charges in the coming financial year? Is he aware that in Grampian the charges are increasing by nearly 100 per cent. and are a heavy burden on industry in the area?

Mr. Lang : As my right hon. Friend knows, these are matters for the regional councils, which have decided on the formula to apply. We have sought to ensure that the

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cost of water is borne more directly by users in relation to the cost of its delivery. That has meant substantial savings to many small businesses around the country.

Mr. Lambie : Is the Minister now able to make a positive response to the recent representations that he received from the Chemical Industries Association about industrial valuations?

Mr. Lang : As the hon. Gentleman knows, most of the plants are valued on the contractor's principle. As a result of an appeal, the decapitalisation rate has been reduced for many such subjects. In addition, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment have taken powers to prescribe a common decapitalisation rate if they so wish. If that is done, it will also be an advantage to the chemical industry.

Sir Hector Monro : Does my hon. Friend agree that, because of indexation, the business rates for the coming year will be substantially less than they would have been in normal circumstances, bearing in mind that local authorities have increased expenditure by vast amounts--perhaps up to 30 per cent.--which would have made business rates exorbitantly high this year?

Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend is right. The average increase in spending planned by regional councils is 14 per cent. for next year and it is much higher for district councils. We have given the business community the protection that it needs from the depredations of high-spending local authorities. It would have been a considerable advantage if it had had that protection over the past five or six years.

Rating Reform

2. Mr. McTaggart : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what further representations he has had concerning persons with Alzheimer's disease paying the poll tax.

Mr. Lang : I have received a number of representations about this issue, including a letter from the director of Alzheimer's Scotland.

Mr. McTaggart : I note what the Minister says, but does he agree that people suffering from Alzheimer's disease who wish to rebuild their lives in the community should be given every encouragement to do so? The additional pressure to find extra money to pay the poll tax from their already meagre and stretched resources will mean that many of them will end up returning in desperation to the hospitals that they recently left. Would it not be a small price to pay for that already vulnerable group to be exempt from this immoral and unfair tax?

Mr. Lang : Because of the gradual onset of the disease, many people suffering from degenerative disorders seek to play a full part in the community, which includes contributing to the cost of local government. If they are entitled to a rebate on financial grounds, they will be eligible to claim that rebate and I expect that many of them will do so.

Mr. Robert Hughes : As the Minister defends his decision not to grant exemption on the ground that there are difficult medical choices to make, is he aware that there

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are two principal benefits for which medical and clinical judgments are the only criteria? I refer to mobility and attendance allowance. If such criteria are good enough there, why cannot the Minister show at least some compassion for people suffering from Alzheimer's disease?

Mr. Lang : I have great compassion for people suffering from that disease. That is why I do not seek to make political capital out of it. The disease has a gradual onset, leading to a progressive decline in all aspects of mental functioning. The difficulty is one of diagnosis to establish precisely at which point any exemption should be made. During their last five years in office, the Labour Government made no attempt to exempt people in that condition from domestic rates.

Mr. Dewar : Does the Minister accept that many people such as those in the Alzheimer's Disease Society regard it as offensive that an arbitrary distinction is being made between patients who, in practical terms, present the same level of disability, some of whom are being excluded simply because in their case the root cause is Alzheimer's disease? If the Minister is arguing, as I understand that he is, that general practitioners cannot be expected to assess the degree of impairment in patients with Alzheimer's disease, will he at least consult general practitioners or their representatives before slamming and locking the door in such an inhuman way?

Mr. Lang : Our attitude is not just to Alzheimer's disease but to all degenerative brain disorders of that kind. We have given careful consideration to representations from several sources, including medical interests. The balance of medical advice that we have received is that it is impossible to establish a method of assessing precisely at which point an exemption could be granted without creating more anomalies than would be removed.


3. Mr. Andrew Welsh To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he will next meet the president of the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities ; and what matters he intends to discuss.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : I hope next to meet representatives of COSLA on Friday 28 April, to start consultations on the revenue support grant settlement for 1990-91.

Mr. Welsh : Given that today is the tenth anniversary of the referendum on devolution, will the Minister, through COSLA, organise a genuine referendum giving people a choice between the status quo, devolution, or independence within Europe? Why is he afraid to offer the Scottish people any real choice in their constitutional future?

Mr. Rifkind : One thing that COSLA has not wished to discuss with me or with my hon. Friend the Minister of State at any previous meeting has been the subject to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Mr. Robertson : When the Secretary of State next meets the president of COSLA, will he ask Councillor Milligan about the recent trip to Brussels and the European Community institutions and what was the reaction to the idea of an independent Scotland? Is he aware that the temporary attractiveness of that deluded scenario has been caused only by the Government damaging the real needs

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of Scotland and that credence for that pantomime will continue only if the Government continue their high-handed indifference to the real needs of the people of Scotland?

Mr. Rifkind : I agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I am indifferent to the second, and I disagree with the third.

Mr. John Marshall : When my right hon. and learned Friend next meets representatives of COSLA, will he talk to them about the benefits of competitive tendering in local government services? Will he remind them that that process offers the opportunity to provide better local government services at less cost to the community charge payer, and that it is an opportunity that they should grasp firmly?

Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is correct. The whole point of competitive tendering, whether in local authorities or in the National Health Service, is that it enables the same quality of service to be provided to the public and releases resources for other services. I believe that that is why people are increasingly seeing the validity of that approach.

Mr. Maxton : When the Secretary of State meets the president of COSLA, will he explain why he has failed to ensure a debate in the House on the order that he laid some weeks ago about exemptions from poll tax, or is he afraid to allow us to discuss it in view of his uncaring and unfeeling attitude to people suffering from Alzheimer's disease?

Mr. Rifkind : As the hon. Gentleman well knows, debates in this House are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and for the usual channels to discuss.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is unwilling to accept this, but the Government's position on Alzheimer's disease is based on the medical advice that we have received. Had the medical advice been that it would be a straightforward matter to create a specific exemption, as the Opposition have suggested, we should not have been insensitive to such an approach.

Forestry (Conservation)

4. Mr. Soames : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how many conservation projects are currently being promoted by the Forestry Commission.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) : The Forestry Commission is currently promoting more than 170 major conservation projects on its own land. In addition, each of the 65 forest districts has a conservation plan which tyically indentifies a wide range of sites where smaller conservation projects are in hand.

Mr. Soames : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Forestry Commission plays a vital role in the conservation of our wildlife and should be wholeheartedly encouraged in that role?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. He may be interested to know that projects which the Forestry Commission is currently supporting include regenerating native pine woods,

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constructing ponds, erecting bat boxes, managing rides for butterflies, creating clearings for lizards, planting broad-leaves for diversification and even building homes for otters.

Mr. Kirkwood : If a mere commoner may be allowed to interpose himself in this somewhat aristocratic exchange, may I ask the Minister to give the House a categorical assurance that the Government have no plans to privatise the Forestry Commission during this Parliament?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The Government have no plans to privatise the Forestry Commission.

Mr. Adley : Is my hon. Friend aware that the Forestry Commission owns large tracts of land in my constituency, much of which is in an area constantly eyed by property developers who seem to have cash registers in place of eyes? Will my hon. Friend give an assurance that in future when the Forestry Commission is approached directly by property developers seeking to buy land he will instruct the Forestry Commission to make the relevant local authority aware of the approach and give it the opportunity to acquire the land in the first instance?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Sales of Forestry Commission land are governed by guidelines laid down by the Secretary of State in a letter to the chairman of the Forestry Commission on 28 May 1981. That letter was published in the Forestry Commission annual report, which is available in the Library. Planting must be carried out in an environmentally sensitive way. Contentious planning cases are ultimately referred to Ministers for decision.

Scottish Assembly

5. Dr. Bray : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he plans to introduce a Bill to create a Scottish assembly.

Mr. Rifkind : The Government believe that the present constitutional arrangements provide for Scotland's interests to be fully respected and recognised. The Government therefore have no plans to introduce legislation to create a Scottish assembly.

Dr. Bray : Is the Secretary of State aware that the Government cannot continue to introduce legislation which is plainly contrary to the wishes of the people of Scotland and that if he replies by saying that Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom he will be inviting dissolution?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his point of view, but he sits in the Parliament of the United Kingdom, in which there is a majority in support of the Government elected by the electorate of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Steel : Does the Secretary of State recall his excellent speech in the House in December 1976 in support of a Scottish assembly? What facts in that speech have altered since then?

Mr. Rifkind : I have always believed that any system of devolution or decentralised Government which does not apply throughout Great Britain is bound to weaken rather than strengthen the Union. What has changed in the past 10 years is that I and many others allowed ourselves to believe that there was an irresistible demand from the

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people of Scotland for a devolved system of government whereas the referendum showed that the people of Scotland were as divided on the issue as the House of Commons is and always has been.

Mr. Allan Stewart : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the long-standing farce surrounding the so-called

"constitutional convention" has been a joy and a delight to all those who like a good free laugh on a continuing basis? Does he further agree that those shenanigans have shown merely--and

overwhelmingly--that there is no consensus against the Government on constitutional reform?

Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is correct. We had always assumed that the so-called "constitutional convention" would end in tears, but we never expected that it would begin in tears.

Mr. Canavan : Given that in the referendum 10 years ago the proposals for a Scottish assembly were supported by a majority of those who voted--including, we are led to believe, the Secretary of State himself-- what has happened since then to buy him off?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman will recall that two thirds of the people in Scotland did not vote in favour of the Scotland Bill. I recall saying in public on the day after the referendum that I believed that there was not sufficient support in Scotland for devolution, given that two thirds of the people of Scotland had either voted against or abstained. That was my view the day after the referendum and it has remained my view ever since.

Mr. Sillars : Is the Secretary of State aware that what has changed in the past 10 years has been the Scottish people's 10-year experience of what "unionism" really means and of what the price of unionism really is? May I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the legal definition of Scotland independent within Europe that he gave in 1984 and refer him for legal reading to the 1978 Geneva convention on the succession of "states"--in the plural?

Mr. Rifkind : What has changed in the past 10 years is that the hon. Gentleman has moved from his second party to his third. The hon. Gentleman chose to refer to my remarks about Greenland's status some years ago. I am somewhat astonished at the comfort that the hon. Gentleman takes from that incident as on that occasion Greenland was involved in three years of difficult negotiations with the Community, and the end result was not independence in Europe but independence outside Europe. If that is of comfort to the hon. Gentleman, it shows that he is easily satisfied.

Mr. Gerald Howarth : Given the confusion between the Socialists in the Labour party and the Scottish National party on this issue, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that only the Conservative and Unionist party offers the people of Scotland a sensible and coherent policy and delivers the results?

Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is correct but it is not only the Conservative party that describes itself as "unionist". The Labour party, the Democrats and the Social Democrats are all unionist parties. The nationalist party is

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outside the Scottish consensus, which overwhelmingly believes that Scotland's interests are best served by full participation within the United Kingdom.

Mr. Dewar : May I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for his concern and assure him that my cheeks, at least, are not tear-stained?

Mr. Rifkind : I bet they are not.

Mr. Dewar : The Secretary of State will no doubt be aware that dinners have been arranged in London and Edinburgh to celebrate--if that is the right word--the fact that 10 years ago, despite a majority "yes" vote, the Scotland Bill was not implemented. May I congratulate him on not attending those functions, which is a welcome sign of grace on his part?

If it were established beyond reasonable doubt that public opinion in Scotland wanted a constitutional change and that there was an irresistible demand for that, is not ministerial opposition now so entrenched that, irrespective of what Scotland says, there would be no move towards an assembly so long as the present Government have an overall majority in the House?

Mr. Rifkind : I believe strongly that if those who are unionists, like the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, want constitutional change in the United Kingdom, that matter is of common interest to all parts of the United Kingdom. Such a decision cannot simply be based on a diktat from any one part of the kingdom, be it England, Scotland or Wales-- [Interruption.] I am sure that there are no tears on the hon. Gentleman's face as a result of the ending of the prospects for an all- party constitutional convention. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman could barely suppress his delight at that outcome. The hon. Gentleman was correct in saying that I shall not be attending tonight's dinners in London and Edinburgh, the main reason being that I have not been invited.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that throughout the United Kingdom--in the regions of England, in Wales and in Scotland--there is no demand for an additional tier of government? In fact the move is towards single-tier local government rather than regional government. It would be a disgrace if we spent even more money on even more levels of government which would end up being subsidised by the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Rifkind : Although some interest in constitutional change is evident in certain parts of the United Kingdom, my hon. Friend is right that it is impossible to point to any strength of opinion which would justify the constitutional upheaval implied by the proposals.

Scottish TUC

6. Mr. Eadie : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he plans to meet the Scottish Trades Union Congress to discuss employment prospects in Scotland.

Mr. Rifkind : I am due to meet the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress and a number of his colleagues on 13 March.

Mr. Eadie : When Scottish Labour Members met the Secretary of State this morning to discuss the coal-burn

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dispute and the South of Scotland Electricity Board, the right hon. and learned Gentleman made optimistic noises suggesting that the matter was likely to be resolved in the boardrooms rather than in the courts. As he is aware, the STUC is taking a lead in the issue because up to 6,000 jobs in Scotland could be lost if the deep-mining part of the coal industry were obliterated.

Is there any significance in the fact that the Secretary of State is meeting the STUC on 14 March, which is Budget day? Is there any significance in that? Shall we then hear an announcement of more employment prospects for the Scottish people?

Mr. Rifkind : There is no significance in the date, as it is on 13 March and not 14 March that I am meeting the STUC. The meeting is taking place at the request of Mr. Campbell Christie, general secretary of the STUC, and I look forward with interest to hearing the points that he wishes to raise.

Mr. Hind : When my right hon. and learned Friend meets the general secretary of the STUC, will he point out that 16 major Japanese firms now in Scotland plan to create 2,500 jobs there? It was interesting to note that in the last quarter of 1988 4,160 new jobs were planned by a large number of firms in Scotland. Will my right hon. and learned Friend tell the general secretary that the reason for those jobs being planned is that Scotland is part of the United Kingdom and a member state of the EEC, and that any withdrawal from the United Kingdom would put the jobs in danger?

Mr. Rifkind : There is no doubt that Scotland is seen as a prime location for inward investment by both the United States and Japan, and that that choice has been made because of the market that is available throughout the European Community for products manufactured in Scotland. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. I should point out to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas), who is shouting at me--which in any case is unmannerly--that he reserves the right to be called at Defence Question Time and on other questions as well.

Mr. Norman Hogg : When the Secretary of State meets the general secretary of the STUC, will he discuss his concept of--


Mr. Speaker : Order. The whole House is interested in Scotland.

Mr. Douglas : This is a farce.

Mr. Speaker : Order. Will the hon. Gentleman contain himself, please?

Mr. Douglas : It is a farce, and you know it.

Mr. Hind : On a point of order Mr. Speaker. It is bad manners of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) to insult Conservative Members such as myself who are interested in Scotland and take the trouble to attend Scottish Question Time.

Mr. Speaker : Order. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman has been insulted; if anyone has been insulted it is me.

Mr. Hogg : I think that I have forgotten my question-- [Laughter.] When the Secretary of State meets the

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general council of the Scottish Trades Union Congress will he try to explain his concept of competition by comparison with the electricity supply industry? Does he believe that that council is likely to agree with me that that is as daft a concept as an independent Scotland in Europe?

Mr. Rifkind : I am rather sorry that the hon. Gentleman remembered his question. It is clearly desirable in any system of near monopoly that the industry in question should be exposed to comparisons, which enable the consumer and the regulator in the public interest to be satisfied that either the tariffs being levied or other practices of the industry are fair and acceptable in the circumstances.


7. Mr. Roger King : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last met the Confederation of British Industry in Scotland ; and what matters were discussed.

Mr. Rifkind : I am in frequent touch with the Confederation of British Industry in Scotland on a range of matters affecting the Scottish economy. I look forward to a continuing exchange of views.

Mr. King : I am grateful for that reply. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the state of the Scottish economy is such that, in the past two years, there has been a 84,000 reduction in unemployment and that, in the past 10 years, the rate of productivity in the Scottish economy has been the highest of seven major OECD countries? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, although it is pleasant for the Scottish people to bask in some kind of Socialist ideals, it is great to have the strength of Tory economics behind them?

Mr. Rifkind : That is so. It is interesting that the CBI's latest survey shows that business optimism in Scotland remains firm although it has diminished elsewhere in the United Kingdom. That is a mark of the growing strength of the Scottish economy.

Mr. Harry Ewing : The CBI may talk about business optimism, but will the Secretary of State discuss with it its attitude and his attitude to Shell's proposal to construct a pipeline from Grangemouth to the midlands of England to export the ethylene manufactured at Mossmorran? If Scottish jobs go down that pipeline are we not entitled to expect that the first Scottish job to go should be the Secretary of State's?

Mr. Rifkind : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful observation. As I understand it, there is a pipeline from Grangemouth to England already and the proposal is for a second pipeline. That proposal will involve a planning application and therefore it will be for the planning authorities to consider the merits of it.

Mr. Graham : When will the Secretary of State discuss with the CBI how many jobs it thinks will be lost as a result of the declared redundancies at the Bishopton Royal Ordnance factory? When will the Secretary of State offer a genuine lifeline to those folk who are desperate to work and who have sent letters to him asking for work? Will he ask the CBI to find out how many jobs will be lost as a spin-off from those redundancies?

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Mr. Rifkind : We all share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the loss of jobs in Bishopton. The Scottish Office stands ready to make available the normal support in an area of high unemployment to assist those who wish to create new employment or to seek alternative employment in that locality.

Mr. Andy Stewart : Has my right hon. and learned Friend discussed with the Scottish CBI what would happen were there ever to be another Labour Government who implemented their alternative to rates--that is, a property tax and a local income tax--and how damaging that would be to Scottish industry?

Mr. Rifkind : Only the Labour party would propose to replace domestic rates, which is one unpopular tax, with two unpopular taxes.

Mr. McLeish : Does the Secretary of State agree with Mr. Bill Hughes, chairman of the CBI in Scotland and one of the Government's industrial advisers, who said at a recent meeting of Conservative students in Edinburgh that the Scottish Development Agency had failed to do anything about Scottish business?

Mr. Rifkind : During the past few years I believe that the SDA has made an important contribution to the Scottish economy and I believe that it has a continuing role to play in line with the Government's proposals in the recent White Paper.

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