The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Ian Lang) : My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for the highlands discussed objective 1 arrangements with Highlands and Islands Enterprise when he met the board in Stornoway last September. Representatives of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, along with other organisations, have frequent contact with Scottish Office officials to discuss objective 1 funding.
Mrs. Michie : Is the Secretary of State aware of the considerable concern and suspicion that objective 1 funding will be used for projects and programmes already earmarked to be undertaken by the Government and local authorities ? What assurances can he give Argyll and Bute and the whole Highlands and Islands Enterprise area, and what evidence will he provide to show strict adherence to the principle of additionality ?
Mr. Lang : I am happy to assure the hon. Lady that there will be strict adherence to the principle of additionality. The basis for making that clear was established with the European Commission. It is for the partnership management committee to decide project priorities, but I assure the hon. Lady that the £240 million over six years that we won under objective 1 status will be most useful to the highlands and islands.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) : I was very pleased to launch on 25 February the Shelter (Scotland) housing law service, for which the Scottish Office is providing grant aid of £95,000 in 1994-95 to assist homeless people, among others.
Mr. McAllion : Shelter has warned that the Government's proposals to remove the right of the homeless in England and Wales to permanent housing will mean a return to the "Cathy Come Home" era of appalling neglect of the homeless. Will the Minister give a clear and definite commitment that in his forthcoming consultation document on Scottish homelessness, there will be no reduction in the rights of the homeless but a positive agenda for tackling the root cause of homelessness in Scotland--the dramatic decline under this Government of quality, secure and affordable housing for rent in the public sector ?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : There will be wide-ranging consultation, and we expect the paper to pose questions on all the main points relating to homelessness legislation. At this stage, I do not rule anything out or anything in, but we give top priority to homelessness. It is a key strategic priority and we have an extensive drive to bring empty housing in Scotland back into use.
Mr. Dunnachie : My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) referred to Shelter (Scotland), but I draw the Minister's attention to the other side of the problem--the homeless who live rough, about whom this Government have forgotten. The Government do nothing for them. Every year in winter, we read newspaper reports about homeless people who have been frozen to the ground and have to be scraped off to be buried. That is a sign of the Government's commitment to the unfortunate people of Scotland who have only cardboard homes and papier-ma che dreams.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : We made it clear that statutory responsibility lies with district authorities, and the hon. Gentleman should make strong representations to his own district council. The number of people living rough is quite different from the number applying for housing as homeless or who are homeless. Only a relatively small number-- well below 1,000--live rough, but nobody should live rough ; everybody should have a house, to which they are entitled. It is the duty of a local authority to make that provision. In Scotland, £426 million is being provided to local authorities through the housing revenue grant allocation.
Lady Olga Maitland : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government have a housing record of which they can be proud, having built 20,000 housing units every year since 1979 ? Is not it outrageous that local authorities in Scotland--particularly those that are socialist-controlled-- have thousands of empty housing units ? Should not they be urged to rectify that ridiculous anomaly ?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Since 1979, no fewer than 257,000 new houses have been built ; a proportion of those have been in the public sector. Local authorities have built no fewer than 30,000 houses. We have given guidance to local authorities urging them strongly to bring their empty houses back into use. There is a wide variation between different authorities in Scotland. Some of them undoubtedly can do a great deal more.
Mr. Michael J. Martin : Does the Minister recognise that many elderly people are now under-occupying their four and five-apartment homes and that homelessness could be helped if the Government embarked on a system
Column 265of building sheltered housing for the elderly, with wardens and security so that they are not worried ? That would help the homeless problem in many ways, one of them being that young couples could use the four or five-apartment homes which are under-occupied at the moment.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I strongly support the building of more sheltered housing in Scotland by local authorities, housing associations or the private sector. I agree that they have a major role to play. But this year Scottish Homes will be expected to do much more and it will have a lead tenancy arrangement under which empty private property is leased to housing associations for letting to homeless families. The hon. Gentleman's points are valid.
Mrs. Fyfe : Does the Minister realise that, since 1979, there has been a loss of 273,000 houses available for rent and that his record compares unfavourably with that of Hermann Goering, who was responsible for a considerably smaller reduction in houses available for rent ?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The hon. Lady is referring to the nearly 300,000 houses that have been bought by sitting tenants. Of course, if those tenants had not bought them, they would have continued to live in those particular houses. I have already said that 257,000 houses have been built since 1979, and a great many more will be built in the future.
Mr. Lang : I confidently anticipate that the recovery in the economy that is now strongly evident will continue, based on low inflation, competitive exchange rates and low interest rates. All forecasters are contemplating expansion this year--including the estimates from the CBI and chambers of commerce. I do not think that the situation that the hon. Gentleman anticipates will arise.
Mr. Bill Walker : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the reason why the Scottish economy today is much better than it was in the 1978-79 winter of discontent, and why the Scotch whisky industry is exporting at massive levels is that, as a result of trade union legislation passed by the Government, Scotland's unit labour costs have made us the most competitive country in the European Union ?
Mr. Donohoe : The Secretary of State will no doubt have been well briefed on the report just issued by the Select Committee on Transport in connection with bilateral agreements and in particular the way in which they affect
Column 266air freight. Does the Scottish Office intend to make any representations to improve the business of Prestwick airport ?
Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government responds to Select Committee reports in the conventional way. I welcome the commitment of the private sector to help Prestwick airport grow. The importance that the Government attach to infrastructural projects of all kinds is evidenced by the allocation of resources under the Scottish Office spending programme.
Mr. Raymond S. Robertson : Has my right hon. Friend had time to read Monday's report, which predicts that up to 5 billion barrels of oil are still to be discovered and exploited off the west coast of Shetland ? Does he agree that, with the expertise that we have in Aberdeen and throughout Scotland, that presents a tremendous opportunity for the entire Scottish economy ?
Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The sympathetic tax regime and licensing system that the Government have applied to the offshore industry have stood us in good stead for many years now, and I expect that they will continue to do so as those exciting new projects are developed.
Mr. George Robertson : Does the Secretary of State accept that as the Government move from deceit to defeat, their broken tax promises will do immense damage to the Scottish economy ? Does he accept that the price of their economic failure will be paid by Scottish families, who will have to pay an extra £10 a week in new taxes after April, and probably a further £8 a week as the price of butchering Scottish councils ? Will the Government ever be trusted on tax again ?
Mr. Lang : If the Labour party understood anything, it would realise that it is occasionally necessary to have temporary increases in taxation in order to maintain confidence in the continuing recovery of the economy-- a recovery which will continue the trend of rising employment and falling unemployment in Scotland. Scotland now has the lowest unemployment of all the countries in the United Kingdom--almost two points below the European average. I have confidence that that recovery will be sustained and that in 1997 Scotland will say no to the Labour party.
Mr. Gallie : May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the 4.3 per cent. reduction in Scotland's jobless over the past 12 months ? Is he aware that, in my constituency, in the Ayr travel-to-work area, the figure is 8 per cent ? Will he say what he can do to sustain such progress, given the current difficult world situation ?
Mr. Lang : I assure my hon. Friend that we shall stick to the policies that have delivered that success--policies that have increased employment in Scotland over the past decade by 183,000 jobs, with self- employment now at its highest ever recorded level.
Mr. Lang : I hope to visit the highlands and islands again soon, and no doubt while I am there I shall discuss their successful economy. The highlands and islands are well placed to participate in the economic growth that it is Government policy to sustain.
Mr. Macdonald : The Secretary of State will know that the salmon farming industry in the highlands has been under severe pressure over the past year because of Norwegian dumping. What are the Government doing to prod the Commission into launching an anti-dumping investigation on the basis of the Ernst and Young report handed to the Commission by the industry last week ?
Mr. Lang : We have had continuing contacts with the industry about that matter, and we have emphasised to its representatives that they must pursue the matter with the Commission. We have encouraged them to do that, and have given them some assistance in that direction. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State responsible for fisheries visited Norway recently to meet the Norwegian Fisheries Minister, and my officials have engineered a meeting between Scottish and Norwegian salmon growers. In those and in other ways, we are keen to help with the problem, which I recognise is a difficult one.
Mr. John Marshall : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that one of the most important industries in the highlands is the Scotch whisky industry, whose exports are growing, so Scotch whisky can be mixed with privatised water in countries other than Scotland ? When my right hon. Friend speaks to the Highlands and Islands development board will he ask it what estimate it would make of the impact on unemployment in the highlands of a national minimum wage and the adoption of the social chapter ?
Mr. Lang : I assure my hon. Friend that the mixture of whisky and water that he mentioned is something which I look forward to seeing for some considerable time to come. The sensitivity with which successive Chancellors of the Exchequer have recently treated the issue of whisky taxation has contributed in no small part to the improved export figures, as has the progress made in persuading countries round the world to readdress the issue of their taxation of whisky.
Mr. Wray : Does the Secretary of State agree with the House that water is an important commodity to the economy in the highlands and islands ? Given that the overwhelming majority of the people of Strathclyde--97 per cent.--voted against the prospect in a referendum, will the right hon. Gentleman now abandon his plans for the privatisation of water, for setting up boards and for franchising of any kind ?
Mr. Lang : We do not have plans to privatise water and therefore we cannot abandon them. However, I am confident that the plans that we have for public water authorities will lead to the most efficient and the cheapest source of water and sewerage services under the new local authority structure.
Mr. Maclennan : Is the Secretary of State aware that, at the end of the month, when the prototype fast reactor at Dounreay is closed, 1, 500 jobs will be lost to the north of Scotland as a result of the misguided policies of the Government ? Is he aware that that has led to the ending of apprenticeships at the site and to a draining of scientific
Column 268skills, which must be the basis of the future of the economy of the north and that, notwithstanding the excellent work that has been done by development agencies, those skills are in short supply ? What plans does he have to use the site at Dounreay as a focus for skilled development of advanced industries ?
Mr. Lang : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that there would be no point in the Government sustaining employment or activities for which they could not see a recognised purpose and that, therefore, the decision about Dounreay was right. Nevertheless, substantial resources have been injected into the area to help the local economy to diversify and they are already beginning to yield considerable success.
6. Mr. Darling : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what was the cost of producing the document "Setting Forth" ; and what costs have been incurred since its publication in connection with the proposal to build a second road bridge at Queensferry.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The "Setting Forth" consultation document and the Government's response cost £54,000 to produce. Feasibility studies have since been conducted into proposals for a new bridge and link roads as part of the "Setting Forth" package, which have cost about £3.5 million.
Mr. Darling : As so much public money has been squandered, will the Minister hold a full public inquiry so that the need for that bridge, the rail-based alternative and the environmental impact of the bridge may be examined ? Does he accept that, just as 97 per cent. of people said no to water privatisation, 97 per cent. of people who live in his constituency, in my constituency and in Scotland would say no to that act of monumental stupidity ?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I do not accept that there is any point in prejudging an issue before the full facts are known. Reports on the feasibility studies will be with me in the next few weeks and thereafter will be made available publicly. The hon. Gentleman used the expression "squandered". I shall make it quite clear that the cost to date is less than 1 per cent. of the total potential investment under "Setting Forth". The Government's response document estimated costs of £382 million for proposals for a new bridge and roads, with rail improvements costing £9 million. Almost 50 per cent. of the package of proposals relates to projects other than the bridge--park-and-ride, a possible railway stop near the airport, new railway stops and countless other measures. The matter needs to be considered objectively as a whole, which it shall be as soon as the feasibility reports are available.
Mr. Menzies Campbell : When the Secretary of State for the Environment is telling us that we must place less reliance on the motor car, why is the Scottish Office persisting in this ludicrous project ? Is not the proper way in which to approach the difficulty of access to Lothian from Fife to make a massive investment in public transport, especially the rail network ?
Column 269of transport is accounted for by public transport across the Forth and that is the potential market. Obviously, we must get the balance right between public and private transport. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) asked about a local public inquiry. If the Secretary of State were minded to proceed, the normal statutory processes would obviously be involved, which would almost certainly result in a public inquiry.
7. Mr. Kynoch : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what studies are being carried out on behalf of his Department to assess the effect on game fish stocks in Scotland of predation by fish-eating birds.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Sir Hector Monro) : The Scottish Office undertakes long-term research into salmon stocks and has commissioned work on the diet of fish-eating birds to help assess the effects of predation.
Mr. Kynoch : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He will he aware of the importance to the economy of my constituency of salmon fishing on the River Dee and the River North Esk. Is he aware that there is significant concern about the low level of salmon stocks in the rivers, which is believed to be due partly to drift-netting in the north-east of England and also to predation by fish-eating birds such as goosander ? Will he accelerate the phasing out of north-east drift-netters and, if investigations show that goosander are a problem, will he increase the level of culling of those birds ?
Sir Hector Monro : I absolutely accept what my hon. Friend says about the importance of north-east rivers to tourism and rod fishing. We are careful about issuing licences and do so only after discussions with Scottish National Heritage. Where it is justified, licences will be issued. I am aware of the continuing contention surrounding the north-east drift- nets and I am glad that phasing out has begun ; 13 per cent. occurred in the first year, which is a step in the right direction.
Mr. Foulkes : Is the Minister aware that there is a plentiful supply of game fish in Loch Bradan reservoir which provides fresh water to my constituents, 97 per cent. of whom voted against the Government's water proposals ? In view of that, how can the Government in all honesty still press ahead with the unwanted, unnecessary and unworkable proposals ?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The Scottish Office is taking a number of new initiatives in the fields of engineering, education and enforcement, which are designed to improve safety on trunk and other roads in Scotland. These include measures to reduce vehicle speeds to bring down the number and severity of accidents.
Mr. Bellingham : Is the Minister aware that, rather than taking holidays in some grotty, overpriced, lager-lout-infested continental resort, I prefer to spend my holidays hill walking in Scotland ? Is he aware that, to get to the hills and mountains, one must drive along many miles of dual carriageways and motorways, many of which do not have crash barriers along the central reservation--including the A74, along a number of miles of which there were no crash barriers until recently ? What progress has been made in that important safety area ?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : My hon. Friend is right to highlight the matter. We made a deliberate policy decision to install safety barriers between dual carriageways and motorways. That is being done through a rolling programme not only for new motorways but for all existing ones. I am encouraged that my hon. Friend spends his holidays in Scotland, as do many of my colleagues on the Conservative Benches. Although he may not be attracted to lager, the water of life--by which I mean whisky--is good when taken in moderation.
Dr. Godman : Does the Minister agree that as regards prevention and deterrence, the finest and most effective safety measure to be taken on our roads is the substantial presence of police patrol cars ? Why are there so few of them on our roads ? Why is the Scottish Office refusing to give the assistance that is needed to put more cars and more police officers on our roads ?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Some time ago, there was an additional allocation for more police vehicles in Scotland and, of course, capital allocations for the police have been increased. As well as cars, we are installing speed detection cameras. They have had a valuable deterrent effect in slowing down motorists who otherwise would be checked and brought to book.
Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : May I ask my hon. Friend--as I frequently have, although not in the House--to improve signposting in Scotland ? Nothing is more dangerous than a person who does not know where he is going ? [Interruption.] Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition. In a letter from the Department, I was told that a person who is distracted by signposts is more likely to be unsafe than someone who is not so distracted. I thought that someone who did not know where he was going was more likely to be a danger than someone who did know where he was going. I have frequently asked my hon. Friend to make signposts available, for instance, on the Stirling road ; a choice of Edinburgh or Glasgow is given, but the signposts do not tell people where the Kincardine Bridge is.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : We are putting in place more route action plans. It is important to have uniform signs and marking, as well as skid-resistant surfacing and safety fencing where appropriate. We will bear in mind my hon. and learned Friend's points. I am aware of his aesthetic objections to gantries, but they, too, serve a valuable purpose in giving information to motorists.
Mr. McFall : The Minister will know that, among other roads, the A82, A77 and A78 trunk roads have school buses travelling along them. Is not it beyond belief that the Government can find resources for national television and radio campaigns that encourage the use of seat belts in all minibuses and coaches, while they stonewall on calls to
Column 271legislate to make it mandatory for seat belts to be fitted in all minibuses and coaches ? Sanctimonious appeals by the Government for the public to act responsibly are insufficient. Does the Minister agree that every school pupil is entitled to a seat on a bus to himself ? Will the Government therefore amend the legislation to ensure that and to assist local authorities in their drive to get safety on school buses ?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I am aware of the deep-felt concern on that subject following the recent tragic accidents in Biggar and elsewhere. The matter is being urgently and actively considered, and I have met the Minister for Roads and Traffic at the Department of Transport. One of the problems is that of enforcement, as buses from other parts of Europe come here and the situation is governed by an EC regulation. I accept the urgency of the matter.
Rev. Martin Smyth : Does the Minister agree that while signposting and barriers are always helpful, the basic condition of the road is more important ? Will he give an assurance that, in the near future, the A75 to Carlisle will be upgraded ? Is not that vital both to the economies of south-west Scotland and of Northern Ireland and to the safety of those who travel on that road ?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : We have spent over £100 million on such trunk roads. Of course that is an important route for Northern Ireland and we will continue to give priority where we can to it and to other trunk roads, particularly the M74.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Allan Stewart) : My right hon. Friend and I met representatives of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on 28 January, and plan to meet them again on 17 June as part of the normal consultation with the convention on local government finance matters.
Mr. Maxton : Does the Minister agree that the cavalier dismissals from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State of the amazing referendum result on the future of water in Scotland are insulting to the intelligence of the people of Strathclyde ? Are not they particularly insulting to the 96 per cent. of the Minister's electorate who voted no in that referendum ? Are not they also a complete negation of all democratic principles in Scotland ? Will the Minister now take the opportunity to tell COSLA that he is withdrawing his proposals for water, or have we now reached the point where the views of the Scottish people do not mean a damn thing to the Government ?
In relation to local government finance, if Strathclyde can easily find £750,000 for a wholly misleading and meaningless exercise, it suggests that, if anything, my right hon. Friend's local government finance settlement verged towards the excessively generous in Scotland.
Mr. Bill Walker : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great challenges for local government finance during the next few years will be how we adequately fund the updating of the water and sewerage systems throughout Scotland ? That challenge can be met only if it is looked at objectively, sanely and in the light of where funds can be obtained from. The displaying of badges does nothing to help the debate, and it will certainly not help the Standing Committee when the Chairman is displaying his prejudice.
Madam Speaker : Order. I did not understand the last sentence of the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). I wonder whether he could make it clear because I am not sure whether what he said was acceptable.
Mr. Walker : By convention, in the Chamber, the Chairmen of Standing Committees do not speak or show their views on matters that are being discussed in a Committee. I believe that an error of judgment has been made today.
Madam Speaker : Order. I normally take points of order at the end of questions, but I have the impression that the hon. Gentleman who has just repeated his question did not repeat it in exactly the same terms. I believe that he said originally that the Chairman of a Standing Committee was prejudiced because he was wearing a badge. [Interruption.] Order. Let me deal with the matter. If that is the case, I require the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his remarks and to rephrase them.
Mr. Walker : I have no hesitation in obeying your instruction to withdraw remarks because I always accept the decisions of the Chair. I believe that an error of judgment has been made-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Walker : Thank you, Madam Speaker. I believe that an error of judgment has been made. I believe that I was in order to draw attention to it. If I did so wrongly, I apologise to you, Madam Speaker.
Mr. Stewart : My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North was right to refer to the need for new investment in water and sewerage services in Scotland. We have proposed an effective partnership between the public and private sectors to ensure that.
Mr. Wallace : Does the Minister expect that when he and the Secretary of State next meet the president of COSLA, Councillor Gray will remind them of a letter that he received from the Prime Minister shortly before Christmas on water and sewerage services, which said that the proper way to proceed was one that would allow
Column 273Scottish opinion to be given expression through Members of Parliament ? There can be no doubt that Scottish opinion is in favour of the removal of the Government's proposal for water and sewerage. The proper parliamentary response would be to remove the relevant clauses from the Bill and to make proposals that would allow for water and sewerage services to be in the hands of democratically accountable people. Will the Minister do that ?
Mr. Stewart : The Bill to reform local government in Scotland and change the structure of the delivery of water and sewerage services was presented to the House and received a Second Reading by a majority of 41.
Mr. Salmond : Does the Minister agree with COSLA that the results of the Strathclyde water ballot demonstrate the democratic bankruptcy of this Westminster Parliament ? Who will decide the future of Scotland's water ? Will it be the 1 million or more Scots who reject the Minister's plans or the five English Tory Members of Parliament in a House of Commons Committee who have dictated each and every vote against the Scottish public interest ?
Mr. Stewart : Given the reception that the hon. Gentleman's question received on the Labour Benches, it seems that, yet again, the united front against the Government has fallen apart. The Bill is in Committee. It is being considered line by line in great detail. It will come back to the House. The House will decide on the Bill and it will then go to another place. I must disagree with the hon. Gentleman fundamentally. This is the House of Commons of the United Kingdom.
Mr. George Robertson : I am not in the slightest surprised that the Secretary of State for Scotland has dodged the column on this issue today of all days and passed the buck to the junior Minister. After yesterday's historic 97 per cent. rejection of their water policy, the Government have to face the fact that they have decisively and humiliatingly lost the argument and that if they continue to lose arguments and to treat the people of Scotland and their views with contempt and arrogance, on 5 May they will get the punishment that they richly deserve. Surely even this Minister can now see that the message from the people of Scotland to the Government is loud and clear : scrap the plans for water and keep it under local democratic control.
Mr. Stewart : This is the first question I have answered during Question Time today--I thought for a moment that I might not be answering any. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has answered a considerable number of questions. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) knows perfectly well that I have never accepted the legitimacy of the so-called referendum in
Strathclyde--not beforehand, not during and not afterwards. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to argue his case in the Standing Committee on those occasions when he attends its sittings.