The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Ian Lang) : I have received the report by PIEDA--Planning, Industrial and Economic Development Advisers--on prospects for the Caithness economy. The report will be published by the Highlands and Islands Development Board next week.
Mr. Maclennan : As the severe economic disruption faced by Caithness and Sutherland is the direct result of the Government's decision last July, in which the Secretary of State for Scotland participated directly, does the Minister accept that the Scottish Office has a particular responsibility to identify and promote suitable Government office relocation in Caithness, which has shown itself to be suitable through the Atomic Energy Authority superannuation office? When does the Minister hope to announce special investment measures to offset the economic losses that have resulted from the Government's decision? Will he also recognise that that is needed to help the infrastructure and local efforts-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Lang : The Government certainly accept our responsibility to help the economy of the area to flourish. The closure of the fast reactor has been delayed until 1994 and that will enable measures to be taken. The hon. Gentleman will know that the HIDB, with a very substantial budget of more than £45 million, has set up a local project team and the Caithness steering group is looking at the area to see what can be done to assist the economy to recover and to flourish generally, as it is doing.
Mr. Dewar : Does the Minister accept that the Nirex proposals for a nuclear waste deep depository will provide no answer to the economic problems which might result from the phasing out of Dounreay? Will he note that the Labour party and the vast majority of Scots are implacably opposed to such a development by Nirex in Caithness?
Mr. Lang : I note the hon. Gentleman's and the Labour party's position. Nirex has proposed the Dounreay site as a possible area for geological investigation partly because there is a measure of local support in that area. If it were to go ahead, a number of jobs would certainly be created locally. However, the matter will proceed through the normal planning application procedure, as one would expect.
Mr. Salmond : The Nirex proposal for nuclear dumping is fiercely resisted throughout Scotland. If it is dependent on the measure of local support, will the Minister of State give a commitment that the Government will abide by the results of a local referendum on the proposal?
2. Mr. Nicholas Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the sale of council properties and any further measures he proposes to introduce to encourage tenants to buy their council properties.
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : Since April 1979 nearly 150,000 public sector houses in Scotland have been sold to sitting tenants. The Government keep under review the possibility of improving the opportunities for tenants to own their own homes.
Mr. Bennett : I welcome the increase in the number of owner-occupied houses in Scotland, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the fact that only 44 per cent. of the population of Scotland own their own homes means that fewer people in Scotland have real financial independence? Will he do all that he can to increase the level to that in England and Wales?
Mr. Rifkind : The proportion in Scotland has increased from 31 per cent. to about 44 per cent. I am pleased to say that the level of interest in acquiring public sector homes is higher than ever, so Scotland is likely to approach a level comparable with the rest of the United Kingdom and other parts of western Europe in the not too distant future.
Mr. Lambie : If the right hon. and learned Gentleman really wishes to encourage tenants to purchase council property, why does he not take the advice of the Adam Smith Institute and increase the percentage rebate from 70 per cent. to 100 per cent?
Mr. Rifkind : I am as fascinated as I am sure the Adam Smith Institute will be to welcome the hon. Gentleman as a recruit to its cause. I sometimes find myself unable to be as enthusiastic as the hon. Gentleman clearly is about giving tenants extra rights to purchase their homes, which makes me slightly embarrassed about my position. In all seriousness, a concept of 100 per cent. rebates, which in practice means giving the houses away, has certain fundamental objections. Home ownership should be not only a right but a responsibility. [Hon. Members :-- "Ah!"] It has never been part of the Government's objective to impose home ownership upon those who could not afford to maintain their homes. The fact that many tenants make
Column 177no contribution to their rent due to housing benefit should be taken into account. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing otherwise, I may have to think again.
Mr. Ernie Ross : What concern does the Secretary of State feel about the spate of panic buying that has broken out as a result of the changes in the forms of tenancy for council tenants--the "pick a landlord" scheme? Is he not concerned that many council house tenants are taking on a burden that they will be unable to bear in future, particularly with the massive increase in mortgage interest rates for which his Government are responsible?
Mr. Marlow : Would there not be some advantage in these matters being decided totally in Scotland in accordance with an amended version of the Scotland Bill proposed by Opposition Members--the amendment being that if Scotland were to decide its own housing policy, we would need no Scottish Members in this House to decide housing policy in England?
Mr. Rifkind : That is as may be, though some of us might not agree with my hon. Friend. This is proving to be a fascinating day. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) is apparently in favour of Scotland's independence while the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Lambie) seems to be in favour of council house sales.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth) : This project has been held in abeyance by GreaterGlasgow health board pending the outcome of its current strategy review of services for the elderly. I understand that the review is due to be completed within two months. Thereafter it will be considered by the board's policy and planning committee before a consultative document is issued.
Mr. McAvoy : I thank the Minister for his answer. He will recall that some time ago he gave me an assurance that the health board had said that it expected the review to be completed by spring this year. The Minister has now announced that the health board intends to delay for a further two months. Will he ensure that the health board completes the review and starts the process of building the unit in Rutherglen? The Minister understands the circumstances and appreciates the fact that all those living in Cambuslang and half of Rutherglen within my constituency have to go to Lanarkshire health board for geriatric services. That is intolerable and there should be no delay in attacking such circumstances.
Mr. Forsyth : I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the position in his constituency is unacceptable. He has a reasonable basis for complaint about the delays experienced and I am happy to give the undertaking that he seeks.
Mr. Foulkes : Does the Minister agree that an extra reason for pressing ahead with the geriatric unit in Rutherglen is to reduce the unplanned growth of nursing homes in Ayrshire? Is he aware that that is resulting in the migration of elderly people to those nursing homes and is contrary to all the best policy put forward by the Health Service, Age Concern and other organisations which believe that old people should be cared for in institutions, sheltered housing and other such facilities near their own homes? The unplanned growth of nursing homes in Ayrshire means that many buildings which were previously hotels are being--[ Hon. Members :-- "Give way."] There seems to be some barracking. I am having trouble with my own side.
Mr. Forsyth : I do not share the hon. Gentleman's prejudice against private nursing homes. They are able to attract people to Ayrshire because that is where people want to go. Conservative Members believe that facilities should reflect the priorities of patients, not of planners. In reply to the hon. Gentleman's recommendation about matters in Rutherglen, I must say that if the private sector is able to play a role in meeting needs there, I would be the first to welcome that.
4. Mr. Tom Clarke : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he next expects to meet the Scottish Development Agency to discuss job prospects for Scotland arising from the Channel tunnel project.
Mr. Rifkind : I will be meeting the agency board on 22 May to discuss a range of issues of mutual interest. If the agency wishes to discuss job prospects arising from the Channel tunnel at this meeting, or otherwise, I shall be glad to do so.
Mr. Clarke : Does the Secretary of State agree that if Scots are to experience a fair share of the jobs which may be available from 1992 and the Channel tunnel, investment in rail and road is absolutely essential? In particular, does he agree with the Freightliner working party about the enormous potential of the Coatbridge-Gartcosh location for the superfreight terminal, provided that there is adequate infrastructure--including a new junction from the M73 motorway--to make the project a success?
Mr. Rifkind : I am interested by what the hon. Gentleman says. British Rail is already considering sites, including Gartcosh, as part of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 section 40 consultations and its plans will be published towards the end of this year. On roads, the Government are committed to improving the A74 to
Column 179motorway standard. That will make a crucial difference because it will integrate Scotland's motorway network with that of the rest of the United Kingdom.
Sir Russell Johnston : Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be in his own interests to respond positively to the question that has just been addressed to him and that if he did it might increase the number of Scottish Back Bench Tory Members present from one?
Mr. Rifkind : I am not certain of the relevance of the hon. Gentleman's question. Scottish Conservative Members have a considerably better voting record in the House than the hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friends.
Mr. Stern : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there will be no job prospects in Scotland from the Channel tunnel so long as the railway unions are unable to control their old-fashioned Socialist members, as was the case on the London Underground this morning?
Mr. Rifkind : The encouraging sign for job prospects is that Scottish companies have already been extremely successful. More than 20 Scottish companies have been successful in winning contracts for the Channel tunnel, which represents orders of £65 million and 14 per cent. of all orders so far. Clearly, Scottish companies have been doing well in winning such a high proportion of overall orders in open competition.
Mr. Wilson : Does the Secretary of State recognise that there will be considerable disappointment at the blandness of his replies to the pertinent questions asked by my hon. Friends? Can he give any indication of Scottish Office involvement in planning for the Channel tunnel, including the crucial questions about the routes to be followed by rail links in the south? Is it not time that the Scottish Office broke its slumber on this and showed some recognition of the potentially enormous adverse consequences if there are not fast, direct links between the tunnel and Scotland?
Mr. Rifkind : For once, the hon. Gentleman seems to have written his supplementary questions before hearing the exchanges. He referred to the way in which I responded to questions from his hon. Friends, but there has been only one such question and I responded positively to it. We attach great importance to the link with the Channel tunnel being suitable for the requirements of Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom. My hon. Friends and I have had several meetings with the chairman and other officials of British Rail and we are in close contact not only with British Rail but with the Department of Transport. I entirely endorse the view that it is crucial that the opportunities offered by the Channel tunnel should be available not just in the south of England, but to the rest of England, Scotland, Wales and the United Kingdom as a whole.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Since April 1979 nearly 150,000 public sector houses in Scotland have been sold to sitting tenants. Included in that figure are more than 102,000 sales by local authorities.
Mr. Knox : What percentage of the council housing stock in Scotland has been sold to sitting tenants and if that figure is still significantly below that for England, what steps is my hon. Friend taking to increase the number of council houses in Scotland that are sold to tenants?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Approximately 14.7 per cent. of the public sector housing stock has been sold since 1979. In England the figure is 19.5 per cent., but the figures for Scotland are escalating rapidly. In the third quarter of 1988 such sales were running at about 4,150 per month, which is 43 per cent. higher than the figures for the corresponding quarter of 1987. My hon. Friend will be encouraged to hear that the demand is constantly growing.
Mrs. Ray Michie : For those tenants who do not choose to buy their own house, will Scottish Homes guarantee their rights if they choose a new landlord and that landlord does not carry out his managerial responsibilities?
Dr. Reid : Instead of striding to the Dispatch Box to boast about the number of council houses that he has sold off, would not the Minister do better to give us an abject apology for his shameful record on building them in the first place? Why does the Minister think that we have 30,000 homeless families in Scotland? Why are 192, 000 families on waiting lists, on which they wait for an average of three years? Why have 40,000 families waited more than four or five years for a council house? Is it not because the Government's record shows a drop in council house building from 18,500 council houses in 1979 to 8,500 council house start-ups now? Is that not a shameful record for any Government?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The hon. Gentleman anticipates the next question. His first comments were based on a fundamental misconception. I have not sold any council houses. All that the Government did was to provide a right to tenants under the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Act 1980 which included security of tenure. To their eternal shame, the Labour Opposition opposed that measure.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Returns submitted by local authorities indicate that 9,000 households which applied under the homelessness legislation in 1987-88 were assessed by local authorities as being homeless. In 1986-87, the figure was 10,500.
Column 181levels in Edinburgh and Scotland? If he does not do something about the problem soon, Edinburgh will get a reputation to match the worst of downtown New York.
"a row blew up during Scottish Questions in the Commons". I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I must advise him that the statutory responsibility for the homeless rests with local authorities. They are under a duty to ensure that accommodation is made available for those in priority need. The code of guidance issued by the Government makes it clear that where possible local authorities should secure accommodation for homeless young people at risk of exploitation. I am sure that the city from which we both come is doing that job and is taking its responsibilities seriously.
Mr. Norman Hogg : Is the Minister aware of the reply that I received from his hon. Friend the Minister of State about the number of council houses sold in the new towns and about the impact that that is having on homelessness in the five new towns? Will the Minister undertake, with the Minister of State, to initiate an inquiry into the fact that public sector building in the new towns is inadequate to meet the needs of the homeless persons there?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Research has shown that when houses are sold to tenants the vast majority of tenants continue to live in them as owners, so it does not have a marked effect on the problems of waiting lists or homelessness. We are conducting research into homelessness and waiting lists which, though related, are separate subjects. We hope that the results of research into homelessness will be ready towards the end of this year, and that those in respect of waiting lists will be ready early next year.
Mr. Maxton : Among all the self-congratulation in which the Minister and his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State have been indulging today, perhaps he will take some time to answer the question that was put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) and explain why homelessness in Scotland as a whole has risen by 77 per cent., in Aberdeen district council area by 200 per cent., and in Renfrew by 355 per cent. since 1983. Council house starts last June were only 11 per cent. of what they were in 1979 and mortgage repossessions in Scotland have risen by a staggering 686 per cent. since 1980. How does the Minister justify that in terms of the Government's housing policy in Scotland?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : If the hon. Gentleman wants to know the reasons for homelessness, there are a vast variety of them, including marital break-up, the incidence of single-parent families, and the many young people who leave home at an early stage. We have greatly increased resources to local authorities in Scotland this year. Their housing revenue account is no less than £474 million gross, which is £29 million more than it was last year, and 6.5 per cent. up on last year's figures. That will undoubtedly be of assistance to local authorities.
7. Mr. David Marshall : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has had from general practitioners in Scotland about the Government's plans to restructure the National Health Service.
Mr. Michael Forsyth : Following the publication of the Government's White Papers, "Promoting Better Health" and "Working For Patients--Caring for the 1990s", I wrote to all general medical practitioners in Scotland on 16 March asking for their views on a new contract. Those views are currently being received and studied.
Mr. Marshall : Is the Minister aware of the great health problems in the east end of Glasgow, with its high numbers of sick, poor, unemployed and elderly people? GPs there have worked hard for years to reduce the size of their lists. Why is the Minister forcing GPs back into the bad old days? Why is he forcing GPs to provide the cheapest treatment rather than the best treatment for patients? Can he guarantee that that will not happen and that he will alter his proposals accordingly?
Mr. Forsyth : I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman the guarantee that he seeks. It is certainly no part of our policy or of our proposals that the standards of primary care and service offered by general practitioners should in any way be reduced. There is much in our proposals to which doctors in inner-city areas, particularly deprived areas, should look forward with optimism. Doctors who continue to have the same list size but offer additional services concerned with preventive medicine, day surgery, and so on, will be able to maintain and enhance their incomes.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing : No doubt the Minister would find it embarrassing to give even an initial assessment of the negative responses that he has received. Members of Parliament are receiving copies of letters that were sent by GPs. I have not received one letter from GPs in my area showing broad support for the Government's proposals. Does the Minister accept that the general thrust of the GPs' responses shows that they predict a reversal of 40 years of service by the emphasis on capitation lists? It will be particularly difficult for women doctors, who are often employed on a part-time basis and have an important role to play in preventive medicine. Will the Minister give a commitment that he will not follow the Secretary of State for Health's example but will try to take the medical profession with him on any changes that are implemented?
Mr. Forsyth : With regard to the proposals to make the Health Service more responsive to the needs of the patients, the provisions in Scotland will be exactly the same as elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We have already given an undertaking that the contract for general practitioners will reflect the particular circumstances in Scotland. It is slightly surprising to find a Scottish nationalist Member arguing that the contract proposed for England will apply in Scotland. We hope to make an announcement shortly on our proposals for general practitioners in Scotland.
Mr. McKelvey : Does the Secretary of State agree that to date at least 191 medical practitioners in Ayrshire alone have written to him indicating their complete opposition to the plans in the White Paper "Working for Patients"? They state categorically that, instead of working for
Column 183patients, it will work against patients and that it is the beginning of the end of the National Health Service as we know it in Scotland.
Mr. Forsyth : I find it difficult to understand how the hon. Gentleman can argue that changes in the doctors' contract and in the method of delivery of service within the National Health Service that will result in an attack on waiting lists, in doctors being encouraged to give more emphasis to preventive medicine and to provide wider services should be seen as an attack on the National Health Service. Proposals that enable patients to change their doctor more easily or to ensure that their doctor is available to visit them at weekends and at night will be widely welcomed by patients and most doctors. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that doctors have expressed alarm, but doctors in Scotland would be wise to wait to see what is on offer before criticising proposals that they have not yet seen.
Mr. Galbraith : The problem is that doctors are aware of some of the proposals and they do not like them. Is the Minister aware that I have received copies of the hundreds of letters that he has received and that not one supports his proposals? Does he agree that one of the concerns in those representations is the list size, which is particular to Scotland? Has the Minister had any success in discussions with his counterparts in England and Wales to ensure that any proposals will take into account the special considerations of the list size in Scotland? Is he aware that we will not be dragged along on the coat tail of a huge list size forced on us to the detriment of doctors, patients and the community?
Mr. Forsyth : As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have had discussions with the Scottish General Medical Services Committee. As the doctors are organised and negotiate on a United Kingdom basis, they are not able to discuss the particular position in Scotland, but the Scottish Office and Ministers have been addressing that problem. The hon. Gentleman is mistaken about the letters that I have received. There is widespread support among doctors-- [Interruption.] Almost all doctors, whether in general practice or in hospitals, support our proposals for medical audit and for putting more emphasis on preventive medicine. The hon. Gentleman said that there was no support at all. As usual, he is using simplistic slogans to attack a policy, when he and his party have no alternative other than to commit themselves to undo everything that the Government achieve.
Mr. Steel : Is the Minister aware that the general practitioners in my part of Scotland have written to him opposing those parts of the proposals that relate to general practice? They especially object to his blandishments to increase list sizes to the point where there would need to be group practices covering more than one town and thereby cutting the essential link between a community and its general practice. Will the Minister reconsider that proposal?
Mr. Forsyth : I had a very useful and helpful meeting with a number of doctors in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, who welcomed the broad thrust of the proposals.-- [Interruption.] Yes, they did. They expressed reservations about certain aspects of the contract that are currently under discussion. I do not believe that it is right for Opposition Members, who have obviously made no
Column 184attempt to study the details of the proposals, to argue that there is not considerable agreement with what we are seeking to achieve. However, there is certainly argument about whether the methods that we are using are the most appropriate. That is why we have issued working papers and have entered into discussions with the medical profession.
Mr. Rifkind : As at 4 April 85 representations had been received on the descriptive paper "Self-Governing Schools", which we published in December 1988. These have been made available on a public file.
Mr. Macdonald : Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the major objections to the concept of opt-out schools has come from parents and from groups who are concerned that such schools will no longer cater for children with special educational needs? Does he acknowledge the grounds for such concern and will he undertake, before the opting-out Bill leaves this House, to come forward with amendments that will ensure that opt-out schools will be unable, at any time in the future, to shift the responsibility for such children?
Mr. Rifkind : We all agree that schools that provide for special needs have a particular role in the community. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) has given assurances in Committee with regard to those schools that provide for special needs.
Mr. Allan Stewart : In the past there has been a great deal of interest in the question of Catholic single-sex schools. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, recently, there have been positive expressions of interest from the Church of Scotland and from the Islamic community about using the new legislation? Would my right hon. and learned Friend or my hon. Friend the Minister be favourably disposed in principle, to a meeting with some of those interested at an appropriate time? On an equally positive note will my right hon. and learned Friend congratulate the Labour party on its recent conversion to the principle of parental majority?
The basic principle to which the Government attach importance is the need to respond to the wishes of parents in the community and the right of parents to influence the kind of education that their children receive. That is a fundamental aspect of any democratic society and it is on that basis that we respond to initiatives that are occasionally brought before us.
Mr. McLeish : Is the Secretary of State aware of the comments by Mrs. Julie Collis of the Scottish Parent Teachers Council who said, in a recent edition of The Times Educational Supplement that the Government's handling of the Self-Governing Schools Etc. (Scotland) Bill had left parents breathless and that she found it
Column 185disgusting? Why is it that an organisation funded by the Government should feel so aggrieved about a major piece of legislation?
Mr. Rifkind : I read that extract from The Times Educational Supplement. I think that Mrs. Collis was concerned as to the pace of the consideration of the Bill in Committee. At the moment we are on clause 7 of the Bill, but according to the hon. Gentleman's press release issued earlier today, it appears that it is the desire of the Labour party that we should be on clauses 13 and 14 shortly. It looks as though the Labour party is anxious to make even quicker progress on this Bill than we are.
Mr. Welsh : Whatever organisational structures are chosen for Scottish Enterprise, will the Minister assure us that its strategic investment role will neither be diminished nor diluted? In the meantime, is it true that the Scottish Development Agency has lost between 15 and 20 per cent. of its staff and that the uncertainty regarding its future is causing a loss of morale and a loss of staff? That is bad for Scotland. When will the Minister take action on those matters?
Mr. Lang : We have given consideration to such matters as the strategic investment role of the Scottish Development Agency in the context of the submissions that we have received during the consultation period on Scottish Enterprise. Whatever the staff of the SDA may be doing in some parts of Scotland, they must be extremely busy in the hon. Gentleman's constituency because they have to consider the Arbroath project, the Carnoustie golf-related initiatives, the Perth area partnership, work in Brechin converting the Denburn works, the north Angus economic review and the Dundee waterfront project.
Mr. Robert Hughes : As the Secretary of State accepts the great importance of communications so that different parts of Scotland can benefit from the Channel tunnel, will he join me in deploring British Rail's resistance to the electrification of the east coast line between Aberdeen and Edinburgh? Will he encourage his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State to put as much pressure on British Rail about this as did the Prime Minister about Kent, to make it change its mind as fast as possible?
Mr. Lang : That must be a commercial decision for British Rail, although I note the interest and concern felt in that part of Scotland about this matter. This is not a matter for the Scottish Development Agency.
Mr. Andy Stewart : Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the two recent reports which lavished praise on the Scottish economy? The Westminster bank said that it was the best in the United Kingdom, and the Fraser of Allander Institute said that it was performing in line with Tory philosophy.
Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will have seen the recent index of production and construction, which showed that in the manufacturing, production and construction sectors, the Scottish economy is performing better than the rest of the United Kingdom.