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House of Commons

Wednesday 3 May 1989


[M r. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Motion made and Question proposed,

That the Speaker do issue his warrant for the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the borough constituency of Glasgow, Central in the room of Mr. Robert McTaggart, deceased.-- [Mr. Sillars.]

Hon. Members : Object.

Mr. Speaker : Objection taken. The motion will stand over until the commencement of Public Business ; that is, immediately after the ten-minute Bill.


Penzance Albert Pier Extension Bill

Wesleyan Assurance Society Bill

Read the Third time, and passed.

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Oral Answers to Questions


Beef Production

1. Mr. Wallace : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received from the farming industry regarding the future of beef production in Scotland.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Ian Lang) : My right hon. and learned Friend received a number of representations recently about that matter from the National Farmers Union of Scotland and other interested bodies.

Mr. Wallace : Although last week's price agreement brought some welcome relief to the beef industry, interest rate increases over recent months more than cancels it out. The Minister may be aware that beef producers in my own constituency are concerned that the new beef premium should be paid on farm ; that in specialist beef herds it should be extended to include heifers ; and that the suckler cow premium should be increased--which is something that the United Kingdom Government can do off their own back, because it does not have to be negotiated. What progress has been made with each of those three measures?

Mr. Lang : I welcome the hon. Gentleman's remark that the scheme has been well received by beef farmers. The green pound devaluation and the phasing out of monetary compensatory amounts will certainly be beneficial. As to the headage payment, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that the 90 limit is an improvement on the proposed limit of 75 and on the limit of 50 that previously applied in other countries. I understand the problems of farmers in Orkney. My right hon. and learned Friend and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have undertaken to review the practicability and cost-effectiveness of moving to an on-farm basis for slaughter. Meanwhile, prices are holding up well, including those for heifers.

Sir Hector Monro : In view of the overall fall in hill farmers' income in recent years, will my hon. Friend particularly bear in mind the headage payment on beef? It would be much better if the 90 limit, which we welcome, were paid for cows on farm rather than at slaughter. Will my hon. Friend do everything possible through the proper channels to ensure that the suckler cow premium is raised to the maximum limit?

Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend will have heard my reply to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). I particularly note his comment about the suckler cow premium. I, like him, think that it is a good deal for farmers, adding about £15 million to £20 million to farm incomes in Scotland at low cost to the taxpayer and at negligible expense, in terms of prices, to the consumer.

Midlothian Constituency

2. Mr. Eadie : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last visited the parliamentary constituency of Midlothian.

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Mr. Lang : My right hon. and learned Friend visits the hon. Member's constituency from time to time, both officially and privately.

Mr. Eadie : Is it not strange that when the Secretary of State for Scotland has a question put to him, he is not prepared to answer it at the Dispatch Box? I put it to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that since he decided it was politic to visit Longannet, and since Bilston Glen and Monktonhall collieries are in very close proximity to his constituency, would it not have been equally politic to have visited them? As the men at Bilston Glen and Monktonhall decided by a majority to resist the closure of those collieries, will the Secretary of State consider visiting them, especially since, on the basis of the article that was published in the Edinburgh Evening News on Monday, the right hon. and learned Gentleman regards himself as the representative and defender of Scottish interests in the Cabinet. It is disgraceful that the Secretary of State did not answer my question.

Mr. Lang : My right hon. and learned Friend will have heard the hon. Gentleman's comments. As is the normal practice, he shares his responsibilities fairly, evenly and sensibly with his ministerial colleagues.

The proposed closure of Bilston Glen is a matter of regret for us all. However it is a matter for the commercial judgment of British Coal. The review procedure is now under way and that is the appropriate place in which various aspects of the proposed closure can be fully considered.

Mr. Home Robertson : It is not that long since Ministers were bending the law to get miners through the gates of Bilston Glen colliery. Now they are standing back and allowing those gates to be closed for ever, if British Coal has its way. Is it not sheer, wanton vandalism to allow the Lothian coalfield to be closed down, with more than 100 million tonnes of low sulphur, high quality coal in its reserves, when any sensible appraisal of the world energy scene must confirm that those reserves will be required?

Mr. Lang : It is, of course, a source of regret when such a mine is closed. However the hon. Gentleman must be aware that the financial losses at Bilston Glen last year were £20 million and have been £50 million in past years. Production is averaging less than two thirds of target, and in those circumstances British Coal has had to take a commercial decision. It is now subject to the review procedure, and I am glad that, in the event of closure, miners at the pit will be offered enhanced redundancy terms.

Mr. Dewar : Does the Minister accept that another important matter for the coal industry in Lothian is the agreement on coal-burn between British Coal and the South of Scotland Electricity Board? He will remember that such an agreement must include agreement on all the essentials of the contract. Does he accept that there is nothing more essential than price, which still appears to be a stumbling block? Does the Minister recall that the Secretary of State said that he was as confident as he possibly could be that an agreement would be reached? Is the Scottish Office still confident that the five-year agreement will be delivered? Given its importance to the Scottish economy, and the 3,000 jobs at stake, will he ensure that the agreement is concluded and that it sticks?

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Mr. Lang : The bulk of Bilston Glen's output goes to industrial and domestic users, but we hope that agreement will be reached on coal-burn between British Coal and the SSEB. However, it must be a matter for commercial negotiation between those parties.

Mr. Eadie : In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply, I propose to raise it on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity. It is disgraceful that the Secretary of State is here but not--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman can raise the matter on the Adjournment.

Skye Bridge

3. Mr. Kennedy : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he is yet in a position to make a statement on the construction of a bridge to the Isle of Skye.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) : The two firms which suggested that a bridge mighbe built as a private sector project have provided the information requested. The Scottish Development Department is now considering it and will be consulting the Highland regional council.

Mr. Kennedy : Can the Minister give some further indication of Scottish Office thinking on the vexed question of tolls being used to finance any possible private sector project, given the great concern on the island about the level of tolls, and the principle that if such a fixed link is established, as I hope it will, it should be part of the ongoing trunk route which will require the upgrading to trunk road status of the Kyleakin to Uig road? What is the present status of the application from Caledonian MacBrayne in regard to the replacement of the existing ferries used in the Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin route, which is clearly of great relevance to the consideration of the bridge?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : CalMac is carrying out an investment appraisal on replacing the existing ferries and is considering a number of options, including refurbishing the existing vessels or replacing them with newer, larger ones. Obviously the possibility of a bridge has to be taken into account. The decision will involve the Highland regional council and the Secretary of State and I hope that it will be forthcoming in the relatively near future. No decision has been made as yet on a bridge or tolls, but a tolled private crossing in place of a ferry might provide a permanent crossing sooner than would otherwise be possible. Although no decision on tolls has been made, and I cannot speculate, I presume that travellers will prefer to pay to cross without delay at any time of the day or night than to continue with the ferries.

Mr. Wilson : I wish to question the Minister on precisely that latter assumption. Does he agree that the Eilean a'Cheo--the misty isle-- should not be used as a front to slip in the precedent of privatising the public highway system in Scotland? Will he give an assurance that local communities' views will be binding and that a high-toll bridge will not be imposed? Will he give an assurance that improvements in the public highway and bridge system will continue to be funded from general taxation and that there will be no more nonsense of private enterprise roads and bridges?

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Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The amount of toll will depend on proposals made by the private sector. Public spending on trunk roads has risen to £162 million this year. There are precedents for private expenditure in other parts of Britain, such as the Dartford bridge across the River Thames, which is a private sector project.

European Regional Development Fund

4. Mr. Knox : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what is the total value of grants that Scotland has received from the European regional development fund since its inception.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : Scotland has received awards of just over £800 million since the regional fund's inception.

Mr. Knox : Is my right hon. and learned Friend satisfied that the Scottish people are aware of the size of assistance that the Scottish economy receives? If not, what is he doing further to publicise it?

Mr. Rifkind : Over the years, the Scottish Office, local authorities and others, have succeeded in winning for Scotland a substantial share of the regional fund. The money is used for a series of crucial projects affecting Scottish infrastructure. I believe that the benefits of the support are well understood.

Mr. Steel : How much more would have been spent in Scotland if European regional fund grants had been additional to and not in place of Scottish Office money?

Mr. Rifkind : The right hon. Gentleman should appreciate that whatever funding is given to the United Kingdom, the contribution that the United Kingdom taxpayer makes to the Commission must be taken into account. These are not new resources invented from air ; they are taxpayers' funds, whatever the source may be.

Mr. Dalyell : Is the Secretary of State aware that Bruce Millan disagrees fundamentally and basically? What response has the Scottish Office given to Bruce Millan on additionality?

Mr. Rifkind : I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that when Mr. Bruce Millan was Secretary of State for Scotland, the rules on additionality were exactly the same as they are now. It is odd for him to change his mind because he has become a Commissioner in Brussels.

Train Services

5. Mr. Wray : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last discussed with representatives of British Rail the case for improvement of train services (a) in Scotland and (b) between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : My right hon. and learned Friend met the chairman of the British Rail (Scottish) board, Mr. John Cameron, on 26 April 1989 and discussed various matters concerned with rail services in Scotland and between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Wray : Will the Minister assure the House that he will not allow British Rail's plans for Scotland to go ahead unless it applies stricter safety measures? Does the Minister

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realise that since 1973 there has been a 126 per cent. increase in fires? Is this because of unmanned railway stations?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of the chairman of British Rail. Safety is an extremely high priority, as it should be. We shall take seriously into account the results of the inquiry into the accident at Belgrove.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith : Has the electrification of the line between Edinburgh and Aberdeen been discussed with senior representatives of British Rail? If not, will my hon. Friend impress on the chairman of British Rail the importance of electrification, especially given the huge sums of money being spent south of London on the Channel tunnel?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Since 1979, £3.7 billion has been invested on railways throughout the United Kingdom, £300 million of which was spent on the electrification of the east coast route. British Rail takes the view that electrification of the route to Aberdeen is not justified because north of Edinburgh passenger volume is much less than in other parts of the country. It is proceeding with the £300 million east coast main line project and substantial parts of the network in the west of Scotland have been electrified.

Mr. Michael J. Martin : The Minister will know that to achieve better safety on the railways skilled engineers must be employed to carry out the work. Will he speak to British Rail about the lack of apprentices being taken on? It is shameful, when we have such high unemployment, that we are not planning for the future. Will he ensure that more apprentices are trained in the skills that the industry needs?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I shall certainly mention those points to the chairman of British Rail. I stress that Scotland will be a major beneficiary of electrification of the east coast main line. In addition, the Scottish Office has agreed to provide a 75 per cent. grant to Strathclyde regional council towards the £40 million of new rolling stock. I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman's point about apprentices.

Mr. Bill Walker : Will my hon. Friend bear carefully and closely in mind what my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) said about the Edinburgh to Aberdeen section? It must be electrified if the north-east of Scotland is to compete effectively and efficiently with the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe after 1992. Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that the rail lines to Prestwick must be upgraded and a station and high-speed link provided so that people in the east of Scotland as well as Glasgow can get to Prestwick quickly?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. British Rail will co-operate in the provision of information to groups interested in the electrification of the railway line to the north, although it has formed another view, which I have mentioned. Obviously, we should have excellent communications with the Channel tunnel. There are plans to ensure that there are excellent arrangements for bypassing London through the west to ensure that trains get through speedily.

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On Prestwick, investment in railways and associated developments is a matter for British Rail, but we shall welcome any proposals to improve infrastructure communications in Scotland.

Community Charge

6. Mrs. Fyfe : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what discussions he has had about the collection of unpaid poll tax ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Lang : None. It is clear from their own budget proposals that regional and islands councils do not expect non-payment to be a significant problem.

Mrs. Fyfe : Does the Minister realise that people are on income support because they do not have enough money to survive without it? Will he discuss with his colleagues in the DSS the standard of living that is likely to be endured by people on income support whose benefit is deducted, leaving only 10p of income support? Clearly, such a standard of living is extremely poor. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his policies are harsh and oppressive and will he repeal the statutory instrument that creates this problem?

Mr. Lang : As the hon. Lady knows, people on income support will be eligible for a maximum rebate. In addition, income support has been increased to help meet the remaining 20 per cent. of the charge.

Mr. Allan Stewart : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the campaign of mass resistance, which was constantly predicted by the Opposition, has failed to materialise? Is it not the height of irresponsibility for certain Labour councillors in Edinburgh to announce the highest community charge rate in Scotland and subsequently declare that they will not pay it?

Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend is right. Campaigns of non-payment are futile and irresponsible. It is shameful that people in elected offices should encourage others to break the law.

Mr. Sillars : How does the Minister justify a case which has been publicised of a schizophrenic woman with a mental age of seven who is just recovering from a cervical cancer operation and who has no capacity to earn? How does he justify applying a poll tax to her, and how will he get the money out of her?

Mr. Lang : If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me about that case and if the person is his constituent, I shall look into it. The Scottish National party's campaign to generate a phantom army of 100,000 non-payers is futile and irresponsible. It may interest the hon. Gentleman to know that, even if the SNP succeeded in finding 100,000 such non-payers, local authority revenue would be reduced by less than 0.5 per cent.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : Assuming that the lady who has been described by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) previously lived alone, how would she have paid her rates?

Mr. Lang : My hon. and learned Friend has made a fair point. I have offered to look into the case if it concerns a constituent of the hon. Member for Govan. Perhaps I may leave the matter there.

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Mr. Douglas : Does the Minister accept that many people will not pay the poll tax because they cannot understand the rebate system? What steps has he taken to prolong the period during which they may apply for rebates? On the question of non-payment on principle, is not there an honourable tradition in democratic countries of resisting unjust and unfair taxes and withholding what is felt necessary?

Mr. Lang : Many people who thought domestic rates grossly unfair continued to pay them. We have now replaced them with an infinitely fairer tax that spreads the burden more evenly.

We wish everyone eligible for a rebate to apply for it and we are advertising extensively to achieve that. We have also enabled people to backdate their application by extending the period for such applications, exceptionally, to 56 days.

Mr. Stanbrook : Is my hon. Friend aware that a young constituent of mine who is attending a Scottish university has been informed that he is not eligible for a community charge rebate because his parental home is not in Scotland? Will all British students be entitled to rebate regardless of where they happen to live in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Lang : Students are not eligible for rebate ; they are entitled to an exemption from 80 per cent. of the community charge. If my hon. Friend writes to me about his constituent, I shall certainly be happy to clarify the precise position.

Mr. Buchan : Is it not clear already that the rebate system is in such a mess and so complicated and difficult that the 56-day period is quite insufficient and should be extended? Will the Minister confirm that the most chicken-hearted leaders of all are the leaders of a political party who will not suffer themselves if they do not pay the poll tax but who are calling upon others who cannot afford to do so not to pay it?

Mr. Lang : I think that the talk of "chicken-hearted leadership" was used by the Scottish National party about the Labour party. It is not my purpose to intrude in a family squabble between Socialists. We are certainly keen to encourage people to apply for rebates. More than 750,000 applications have been accepted by local authorities for processing. They are coming in in their thousands every day and are being processed very quickly.

Mr. John Marshall : Does my hon. Friend agree that those who recommend selective obedience to the law are producing a recipe for anarchy? Does he also agree that it is scandalous that hon. Members should threaten not to pay a tax duly authorised by the House? Does he further agree that if the policy of non-payment succeeded, it would serve only to reduce local authorities' cash flow and restrict the services that they can provide, thus hitting those on the lowest incomes rather than somewhat self -satisfied Labour Back Benchers?

Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes his point extremely well. Fortunately most local authorities have not only assumed that at least 95 per cent. of those liable to pay will pay but the anecdotal evidence suggests that payments are flowing in well, although it is a matter for them.

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Mr. Dewar : Does the Minister accept that, with income support set at bare subsistence level, there is genuine cause for concern about the indefensible principle of deduction of benefit without the consent of the individual involved? Will the Minister explain why that system has been introduced? Does he also accept that there is genuine concern--I suspect on both sides of the House--about the impact of a raft of changes affecting those on low incomes, on fixed incomes and on benefit? That includes the housing benefit changes and rent increases as well as the poll tax. Will the Minister commission an independent survey to assess the impact on those people? I ask that in the hope that the evidence which I think it will produce will persuade even him to think again.

Mr. Lang : The deduction from benefits is a well-established precedent which has been used by previous Governments. Income support has been increased by up to £2.30 a week for a couple, which, in many parts of Scotland, is more than enough to meet the 20 per cent. level of community charge. It would be more than enough in even more parts of Scotland if some local authorities had not levied such a high rate of community charge.

Mrs. Ray Michie : Is the Minister aware of the anger and concern being voiced by many people in rural parts of Scotland, particularly in Easdale in my constituency, at the fact that they must pay a flat-rate poll tax for unequal services? People in Glasgow pay the same amount, but the people of Easdale have no pavements, lighting, roads or libraries.

Mr. Lang : By implication, the hon. Lady is suggesting that people should pay only for what they get. The vast majority of local authority costs fall on the education budget, yet a great many people have no children. The important point is that local authority costs should be spread around the adult population of a region and district. Apart from anything else, it will encourage them to take a closer interest in the work of their local authorities and demand better, more relevant and efficiently delivered services.

National Dock Labour Scheme

7. Mr. Riddick : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what assessment he has made of the effect the abolition of the national dock labour scheme will have on employment prospects in Scotland ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Lang : I believe that the abolition of the dock labour scheme and the lifting of its restrictions will attract new investment and jobs to scheme ports and port areas in Scotland.

Mr. Riddick : Does my hon. Friend agree that the abolition of the dock labour scheme is extremely good news for Scotland? More investment will go to Scottish ports and, as a direct result, along with the ending of restrictive practices in the ports, increased job opportunities will be created. Will not the abolition of the dock labour scheme make a significant contribution to the increasing regeneration of the Scottish economy?

Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A study recently commissioned by the National Association of

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Port Employers estimated that abolition would create up to 50,000 new jobs in scheme port areas. I should like to be confident that Scotland will share in the 50,000 new jobs.

Mr. Ernie Ross : The Minister will know that, at 3 o'clock this morning, during the deliberations of the Standing Committee on the Dock Work Bill, the Secretary of State for Employment said that he decided to abolish the Training Agency. Following the abolition of the dock labour scheme, Mr. Bill Hughes will have sole responsibility for training in our docks in Scotland. Exactly what experience has Mr. Bill Hughes had of loading and unloading ships?

Mr. Lang : Mr. Bill Hughes is an experienced man of many parts. I have considerable confidence in a great deal of what he says. One need only look at the contrasting records of Aberdeen and Peterhead to see the benefit that the abolition of the dock labour scheme will have.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Is my hon. Friend aware that, in Grangemouth, where the docks are being fully automated and no dockers are required, a registered dock worker is provided with a Portakabin, a colour television and a microwave oven so that he might overcome boredom? Does my hon. Friend agree that Opposition Members who think that there is nothing wrong with ghosting are only defending the indefensible and leaving Scottish industry to fall behind the rest of Europe?

Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is significant that business has fallen sharply at dock labour scheme ports. It is interesting also that non-scheme ports have good conditions of employment which compare favourably with those of registered dock workers.

Mr. Robert Hughes : When the Minister considers Aberdeen and Peterhead, will he compare like with like? He is not speaking of a major fishing port in Aberdeen. Will he accept that Aberdeen port has had a record year in terms of throughput, profit and investment and is looking forward to future progress, and that that progress will be damaged because of the Minister's activities?

Mr. Lang : On the contrary. Aberdeen will benefit considerably from the abolition of the dock labour scheme. The hon. Gentleman might like to know that, between 1977 and 1987, business through Aberdeen fell by 20 per cent. Over the same period, the number of fish landings at Peterhead rose by 84 per cent.

Ferry Subsidies

8. Mr. Barry Field : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what progress he is making in the reduction of ferry subsidies.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Shipping subsidies in total are falling. Lower oil prices and higher carryings have reduced the deficit subsidy of Caledonian MacBrayne in recent years. P and O's fare subsidy has been increasing with increasing traffic, but for the current year has been limited in real terms.

Mr. Field : My hon. Friend will be aware that the Isle of Wight has some of the highest unsubsidised ferry fares, if not in the EEC certainly in the United Kingdom. Having visited St. Kilda and read the sad history of that Scottish

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island, may I ask whether my hon. Friend agrees that the British taxpayer is subsidising the Scottish Highlands and Islands to ensure that that sad history is never repeated? Will he drive home that point to the petty Opposition parties which are intent on destroying the Act of Union?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for acknowledging that there are approxi-mately 100,000 persons living on 75 Scottish islands, which is considerably fewer than the number of people who live in his constituency.

The ferries are very much regarded as a lifeline service. We are doing all that we can to ensure that there should be value for money. The new CalMac board will include people with commercial and shipping experience, as well as first-hand knowledge of the islands. The board will be asked to look for more efficient and cost-effective ways of delivering the same standard of service. As I have said, CalMac's subsidies have been falling, but P and O's have been marginally increasing.

GPs' Contracts

9. Sir Hector Monro : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what consultations he has had with Scottish general practitioners with regard to the new Scottish contract of service.

Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary wrote on 16 March to all general practitioners in Scotland inviting their views. He, I and officials have met representatives of the profession in Scotland on several occasions to discuss the new contract.

Sir Hector Monro : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the proposed contract is very good for rural doctors? Will he also agree that doctors will maintain their income without increasing their lists, and will have adequate time to deal with patients both at home and in surgeries? Will he try to remove the misunderstanding between the general practitioners and the community, perhaps caused by publicity provided by the BMA, and try to reduce the alarm unnecessarily caused to constituents?

Mr. Rifkind : The specific proposals for rural doctors in Scotland have been warmly welcomed by the medical profession and, indeed, by many individual doctors. Of course, there are matters affecting the United Kingdom as a whole that are part of the BMA's negotiations, which are continuing. I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that these matters can best be dealt with on the basis of what is in the White Paper and not by misrepresentation of the White Paper.

Mr. Norman Hogg : How does the Secretary of State explain away the fact that everything that he and his hon. Friend do in the Health Service is greeted with complete disapproval by the Health Service professionals, and the latest episode is just another example? Does he not think that the time has come for him and his hon. Friend to pause and reconsider the Government's actions in the light of opinion being expressed within the medical profession?

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