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Mr. Sykes : The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) used the phrase "empty words". Will my hon. Friend comment on the vast number of empty council houses in

Labour-controlled councils throughout Scotland?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We want to bring empty houses back into use wherever they exist. Several study groups are looking into the matter and are considering not only local authority housing, but housing in the charge of Government Departments. We will take every possible measure to ensure that empty property is brought back into use.

Mr. Graham : Is the Minister aware that the extra money that was allocated to the homeless in Renfrew district will give us three houses? Is he aware that Scottish Homes has thousands of houses in Renfrew district and in Scotland generally? It is not playing a meaningful role in helping the district council to alleviate homelessness because it continues to sell houses that should be allocated to people who live in the local area.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Scottish Homes has taken action with local authorities on nomination agreements, which many local authorities have, and it has said that 7,000 units will be made available for waiting list applicants. I shall check on the position in Renfrew district. However, it has a good record overall and the many strategic agreements formed with local authorities take that factor into account.

Bank Charges

11. Mr. Eric Clarke : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what meetings he has held with banks in Scotland about bank charges and the effect of changes in the charges on the viability of Scottish businesses, jobs and individuals with low fixed incomes.

Mr. Stewart : My right hon. Friend and I have frequent contacts with the Scottish banks which enable matters of this kind to be discussed as necessary. The levels of charges that the banks apply for particular services are, however, a matter for their commercial judgment.

Mr. Clarke : Is the Minister aware that thousands of people are suffering from high bank charges? I give him one example, that of Mrs. Margaret Reid who lives at Easthouses in my constituency. A miner's widow, she is being charged £3 by the Royal Bank of Scotland for every

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transaction, for which she must pay out of her small pension. When she told the bank that she wanted to withdraw her account, she was told that she would be charged £10 to do that. Does he believe that people on such low incomes should be fleeced by the greedy banks?

Mr. Stewart : I cannot comment on the case which the hon. Gentleman raises. I am surprised that, as the lady's constituency hon. Member, he has not taken the opportunity to raise the matter with the Royal Bank. In general terms, I refer him to a recent survey by the Forum of Private Business, which concluded :

"In almost every aspect, the Scottish banks were perceived in a superior light to the English banks, including bank charges, interest rates, collateral, indices of quality and banking relationships." I should have thought that, in the light of that, hon. Members might praise the Scottish financial community.


12. Mr. David Marshall : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received regarding Operation Blade carried out by Strathclyde police ; and if he will make a statement.

19. Mr. Gallie : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will introduce proposals to amend the law relating to sentences available to sheriffs for those convicted of carrying knives or other such instruments.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : My right hon. Friend has received no representations concerning Operation Blade, but we strongly welcome the steps that have been taken by Strathclyde police to deal with the serious and growing problem of the carrying of knives. Operation Blade is an innovative strategy by the force and the first of its kind in Scotland. More than 4,500 weapons have already been surrendered. The Government will be supporting the Bill introduced yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) to strengthen the law on the carrying of knives in public.

Mr. Marshall : Will the Minister confirm that I have been raising with him the issue of crimes of violence for the past five years? Will he further confirm that last year I asked him to declare an amnesty and that he refused, on the basis that to do so, so soon after 1988, would debase its value? Is not it a fact that as Operation Blade has resulted in nearly 5,000 weapons being removed from the streets of Strathclyde, it is the Government who are debased? Why has it taken campaigns by the Glasgow Evening Times and the Scottish Daily Record to get the Government to act? Is the Minister aware that horrific weapons of war are widely available in shops in our towns and cities? Will he now introduce legislation to ban the importation and sale of weapons such as the one I hold in my hand-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. Before we proceed further, I must remind the hon. Gentleman that he is not allowed to bring such an implement into the Chamber, or indeed into the House.

Mr. Marshall : I apologise, Madam Speaker.

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Madam Speaker : The hon. Member has been here long enough to be aware of such matters. [Interruption.] I am sure that, at my request, he will remove it from the Chamber. I should be most grateful if he would.

Several Hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker : Order. Before we proceed, I am sure that the hon. Member will agree to do as I say.

Mr. Marshall : Yes, Madam Speaker. I will do that immediately.

Madam Speaker : Will he do it quickly, so that he can then hear the Minister's reply to his supplementary question?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I welcome the fact that Opposition Members are coming round to the Government's way of thinking on the need for a really strong law and order policy in this country. Only a short time ago they opposed the police having powers of search. The importance of the Bill is that it alters the onus of proof, which will make prosecutions easier. The existing provisions under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 relate to the carrying of weapons and require the Crown to prove intent to injure. Under the Bill, it will not be necessary to prove that intent and that will take the policy much further forward. If the hon. Gentleman feels passionately about the issue, however, will he please make representations to Strathclyde regional council's Labour group and ask it to strengthen the police force, which is some 200 under strength at present?

Mr. Gallie : Will my hon. Friend accept my thanks for the time given by Scottish Office officials in preparing the Bill that will make the carrying of knives in public an offence? Will he welcome the support given by Opposition Members and does he agree that this is only one small step to redress an unacceptable position?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Yes, I can confirm that there is no stronger supporter of law and order in the House than my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr. I have no doubt that, with a general consensus of support for tightening the measures in relation to knives, we will strengthen law and order.

In 1992 there were 201 attempted murders in Strathclyde in which knives were used, compared with 126 the year before. The number of knife assaults has increased considerably. We have to take further measures and my hon. Friend's Bill will assist in that process.

Mr. McFall : In January we had the planted question ; now we have the planted Bill. Despite enormous public concern in Scotland at the ever- increasing incidence of violence involving knives, the Minister of State only last week stated that the Government were unwilling to make parliamentary time available to fulfil the Conservative party's election manifesto commitment on knives. Eight days after that statement and one day after I presented my Bill to ban the carrying of knives, the hon. Member for Ayr was furnished by the Government with a Bill to do just that.

We accept, however, that the main issue is the carrying of knives in public places. Given the serious nature of the issue to the Scottish people, will the Minister agree to meet

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me and a small number of my hon. Friends to discuss aspects of the Bill, thereby ensuring the swiftest progress in its passage through Parliament?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is yes, of course I will meet him. May I add that maximum penalties are now available. For example, if someone were to use a knife, he could be sentenced to life imprisonment on indictment. The Bill ensures that those who carry knives where no intent is proved can be proceeded against. That strengthens the powers of the police and also makes it easier to prosecute. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports the measure.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : Before my hon. Friend jumps on the bandwagon of Mr. Boutros Boutros's Bill, may I remind the House what the law is? It is more than adequate. Under section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953, it is an offence punishable by two years' imprisonment-- more than is sought in the Bill--to carry any offensive weapon in any public or private place, the proof of the carrier's intention, being neutral, being upon him. Furthermore, the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1961 provides for the prevention of sale of offensive weapons. If the Government do not know what the law is, it is time that they did.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : My hon. and learned Friend is a brilliant man, but he is not always right. The Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr changes the burden of proof by requiring the accused to demonstrate lawful authority or reasonable excuse for carrying the implement. That undoubtedly takes us further forward.

Economy and Employment

13. Dr. Godman : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last met the chief executive of Scottish Enterprise to discuss the economy and employment.

Mr. Lang : I have frequent meetings with the chairman and chief executive of Scottish Enterprise to discuss a range of economic, employment and training issues in Scotland.

Dr. Godman : Leaving aside for the moment the intense local speculation concerning Mimtec and Faulds Farm, Gourock, may I remind the Secretary of State that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), told me just 13 days ago that more than 48,000 people in Strathclyde, 2,000 of whom live in Inverclyde, have been unemployed for more than 12 months? Will the Secretary of State ensure that Scottish Enterprise involves itself in the sale of Scott Lithgow so that more employment may be provided in the area? Does he agree that if Scott Lithgow were brought into the enterprise zone it would be very attractive to a potential inward investor in shipbuilding or shiprepairing?

Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman must know that I cannot hold out any hope that it will be possible to change the boundaries of the enterprise zone. However, the very existence of the enterprise zone, together with the other benefits, schemes and initiatives that the Government and Scottish Enterprise bring to Inverclyde and other parts of Scotland, has helped to sustain the area's economy quite effectively during the period of recession. The hon.

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Gentleman mentioned unemployment. He should not overlook the brighter signs. Unemployment in his constituency, far from rising in the past year, has fallen. Although the level is still too high, it is more than 4,000 lower than it was six years ago.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, under the rules governing assisted area status and enterprise zones and the European Commission's rules, only 15 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom may have assisted area status? In view of the great success of Scottish Enterprise in bringing jobs to Scotland, is not it now time for the assisted area status of some Scottish areas to be given up to other parts of the United Kingdom? It is clear that those parts of Scotland no longer need assistance.

Mr. Lang : As my hon. Friend knows, the assisted areas map is drawn on an even-handed basis across the United Kingdom, taking account of objective criteria that have been agreed. In this respect, Scotland is no different from Northern Ireland, Wales or England. However, the assisted areas map is under review. The issue is being carefully considered to ensure that we get the right structure and the right map for the future.

Mr. Donohoe : What progress has the Secretary of State made in pursuing companies that came to Irvine, were given massive grants and have now left without repaying any money to Scottish Enterprise? What progress has been made towards recovering this money?

Mr. Lang : Regional assistance is carefully controlled. Resources have to be repaid if the investment to which they relate is not undertaken within a certain time limit. That happens on rare occasions. If the hon. Gentleman knows of any cases in his constituency, I shall certainly follow them up and give him a detailed and specific reply.

Scottish Charities (Eastern Europe)

14. Mr. Thurnham : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received about the work of Scottish charities in eastern Europe ; and if he will make a statement.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : My right hon. Friend has received no specific representations and while the Scottish Office has no responsibility for the work of Scottish charities in eastern Europe, he associates himself with the widespread appreciation of their efforts.

Mr. Thurnham : Will my hon. Friend congratulate Scottish European Aid--formerly Romania Project UK--on the excellence of its work at Ionaseni orphanage and Podriga hospital? Will he support Scottish European Aid's appeal for a mobile medical camp for Bosnia's stricken refugees?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I will consider my hon. Friend's request for assistance for the Edinburgh headquarters and I will write to him as soon as possible with regard to ways forward. On the question of training schemes, we should need detailed information, but we will consider the situation sympathetically. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work, not only in founding the all-party campaign for inter-country adoption but for the orphanage in Ionaseni, Romania, and the psychiatric hospital at Podriga. I understand that rehabilitation of

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buildings at Tuzla, too, is proceeding. We warmly welcome the work of Scottish European Aid and wish it every success.

Stobhill Hospital

15. Mr. Michael J. Martin : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has yet received the health board's recommendations regarding the future of Stobhill hospital.

Mr. Stewart : The Greater Glasgow health board has yet to conclude its review of acute and maternity services. Stobhill hospital features as part of that review. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State looks forward to receiving the health board's

recommendations in due course.

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Mr. Martin : Will the Minister tell the health board and its new chairman that Stobhill is an excellent facility at the north end of the city? It serves not only my constituency but many other constituencies in Glagow--and, indeed, Strathkelvin and further afield as far as Kilsyth and Torrance. To lose the facility will mean a lot of harm to the health of many thousands of people. I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that we have a first-class team in Stobhill from the doctors down to the domestics. I hope that the hospital has a good future.

Mr. Stewart : I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says. The review to which I referred is about putting patients first and providing patients with important services. I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that, once the recommendations of the board are with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or the Minister of State, they will be happy to meet him to discuss the matter in detail.

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