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Council of Ministers

3. Mr. Cash: If he will make a statement on his functions within the Council of Ministers. [12040]

Mr. Dewar: My functions within the Council of Ministers are those of any other Minister of the Crown--to discuss, negotiate and conclude agreements on behalf of the UK Government.

Mr. Cash: At the moment, the devolution proposals in the White Paper set out a series of devolved functions and reserved functions will be proposed by the devolution Bill. We also have a Human Rights Bill before the House of Lords and the European Communities (Amendment) Bill will come before the House of Commons next week. If there is a contradiction between the policy to be

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pursued by Her Majesty's Government in the Council of Ministers and the proposals that may be made by the Scottish Parliament, which will prevail? Will the irreconcilability between these two positions be resolved by the three Bills to which I have referred?

Mr. Dewar: I say with some sorrow that the hon. Gentleman is becoming more gloomy about the state of human nature almost by the year. I do not see that irreconcilability built into the system. As he well knows, there is a United Kingdom delegation. No doubt differing points of view can on occasion be discussed, but common ground is reached and everyone joins to put the United Kingdom's case. Exactly the same process will occur. The United Kingdom remains the member state of the EU and the Scottish Executive will have an input in the formulation of policy. When an agreed policy position has been reached, it will be the job of the whole delegation to ensure that it is successfully pursued. I look forward to the opportunities that this process presents.

Mr. Home Robertson: I suppose that my right hon. Friend has a certain advantage in the Council of Ministers in that he shares the commitment of the rest of the Government to achieving the benefits that will flow from a successful single European currency. Will he convey the views of businesses in Scotland on that subject to all the factions in the Opposition?

Mr. Dewar: I am anxious to reflect properly the views of the business and commercial community in Scotland. I take the view--it may be thought to be partisan, but it is well founded--that it is easier to defend our position on Europe than the negative and, I would have thought, untenable position on which the Opposition are determined to stand.

Mrs. Ewing: Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the most critical industries dealt with by the Council of Ministers is the fisheries industry, which is important to the whole of the Scottish economy as well as to coastal communities?

Is the Secretary of State aware that a campaign has been launched today to raise the Sapphire from its known resting place in the North sea and that £100,000 has already been raised by the families' appeal? Will he, through the Council of Ministers, consider the possibility of matching funds if those funds will not come directly from Westminster?

Mr. Dewar: I accept the importance of the United Kingdom fishing industry and that of its Scottish component in particular. My noble Friend Lord Sewel was recently in Europe at a Fisheries Council meeting and will no doubt recognise and press that point.

I understand the hon. Lady's depth of concern about the Sapphire, as she represents a fishing community. I know from personal experience the deep distress of the families concerned. No one in the House, irrespective of our different political positions, would not feel for them and for their cause. The matter is being considered by my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, whose responsibility it is. They are considering a document--a report with which the hon. Lady will be very familiar--and it would not be for me to prejudge the outcome.

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I am not sure of the practicalities of the European matter, so it would be very wrong of me to comment either way, but if the hon. Lady thinks that the proposition is practical and wants to make representations to other Departments, either directly or through me, I am sure that people would be prepared to listen.

Dr. Fox: When the Secretary of State meets his European colleagues, will he explain why the Scottish Office will have to pay for the fourth year of education for Greeks and the southern Irish but not for the English or the Northern Irish? Will he use the argument of his Minister for Education and Industry--that the English are rich and can afford it? If so, how would he categorise the Germans?

Mr. Dewar: I do not think that I will have to explain that point to my European colleagues because they will know that the matter is founded on the European agreements and is a responsibility that we accept as a member of the European Union. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want us to recognise our obligations. We are anxious to ensure that there is opportunity in Scottish higher education. That is the point of the changes that are being introduced--to finance and make possible the expansion that we all favour so that this nation can remain competitive and flourish through the depth of its talent and its innovation.

Local Government Finance

4. Mr. Gorrie: What representations he has received about the resources required by councils to provide their statutory services. [12041]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Chisholm): My right hon. Friend and I have met a number of councils to discuss their financial positions. We have also received letters on the subject from hon. Members, local councillors and members of the public.

Mr. Gorrie: Does the Minister agree that the Government's insistence on keeping to Conservative spending plans will cause severe cuts in essential services in almost all councils, as they follow year after year of cuts, and that it will be even worse if the Government require some councils to help to bail out others, such as Glasgow, which have a funding deficit?

Mr. Chisholm: Neither the media nor the hon. Gentleman have understood the issue perfectly. Our proposals have nothing whatever to do with helping Glasgow, with the effectiveness of service delivery in any one authority, or with taking existing resources away from any authority.

The problem is that many changes in distribution are in the pipeline because of the mismatch and the changes to the formula for distributing social work grant. We are determined to act for two reasons. First, distribution is an imperfect science and it is therefore right in principle that changes should be phased in. Secondly, and more important, distributional changes primarily affect not service levels, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but council

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tax levels. We are determined to protect council tax payers from massive increases flowing purely from distributional changes.

Mr. Russell Brown: Will my hon. Friend give the House an update on the current discussions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on the recent study of social work allocations? Will he recognise the need for stability for local authorities? Will he bear that principle in mind when looking to future years?

Mr. Chisholm: The social work changes to which my hon. Friend refers are an important component of the distributional changes. It is right to recognise that there has been controversy about that, but the consensus view is that the changes should be introduced, but further reviewed. We will continue to review and monitor the social work changes and we will continue to review distributional formulas across the board. [Hon. Members: "Who loses?"] There will be some losers and some gainers in terms of distribution. That will affect not service levels, but council tax levels--and it is council tax payers whom we are determined to protect.

Mr. Ancram: Does the Minister agree that concern about resourcing local councils is balanced by concern about the way in which some of them, including Renfrew and Glasgow, use those resources to conduct their affairs? Does he agree that allegations of sleaze against those councils are rightly matters of public concern? In that context, could he explain why the Secretary of State has not responded to my calls to set up public and independent investigations into the allegations? Does he not realise that in these days of Labour spin doctoring, internal party investigations will carry no credibility? Will he set up a public investigation, or is he frightened of what that public investigation might reveal?

Mr. Chisholm: There are no grounds for setting up a public investigation because there has been no breach of statutory duty. The Labour party, however, is taking firm and decisive action as a party on all these matters. Moreover, the Government have responded positively to the Nolan committee report on aspects of local government conduct. Following consultation, we will introduce and announce measures that flow from that. In terms of delivery of service, the best-value regime instituted by the Government will result in the continuing better use of resources in local government.

Prison Places

5. Mrs. Ann Winterton: What estimate he has made of the number of extra prison places he expects to create in the next five years. [12042]

Mr. Dewar: On present plans, some 700 extra prisoner places will be created over the next five years.

Mrs. Winterton: Bearing in mind the Government's pledge to be tough on crime and the recent statement by the right hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Robertson) that sentences should mean what they say, will the Secretary of State confirm whether it is the Government's policy to follow their predecessors' policy

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and end automatic early release from prison, or have they gone soft on that as well? What are the implications for extra prison places in future?

Mr. Dewar: We are, of course, looking carefully at the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Act 1997 and we have implemented some of the important provisions we felt were justified and could be implemented immediately. The hon. Lady has referred particularly to parole. I am not in favour of implementation of the changes at this stage because I have respect for the Prison Service and because we need to ensure that inmates have an incentive to behave well and to obey the rules. We had very unfortunate experiences in the past--the hon. Lady is, like me, enough of a veteran to remember them--when that incentive was destroyed and I would not like to revisit that experience. We will use our judgment and consider what is right for the criminal justice system of Scotland, for the public and for those working in the system.

Mr. Browne: A new prison is to be built in my constituency. Welcome as the job opportunities it brings are, I believe that it is about time we moved on from the Tory obsession with prison building and longer sentences. Is it not about time that we started looking at law and order in a much wider context? Is it not a sad reality that the consumption of alcohol is closely related to crime and criminal behaviour? Is it not important, and probably more effective, to have proper public health programmes and social programmes to tackle the causes rather than to concentrate only on prison building and sentencing?

Mr. Dewar: I have some sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. As the daily prison population in Scotland has risen very substantially, causing considerable problems for the Prison Service, it is important that we should examine sensibly the alternatives to custodial care. That is not a soft option, as Conservative barrackers will shout, but a matter of prevention and of dealing with matters such as alcohol abuse properly; hence the new powers on drinking in public places that we have introduced and our attempts to improve facilities for treating the alcohol problem both in and out of the prison system. We are also considering other measures, such as the tagging system. That was once controversial, but I believe that it is right to have pilot tests in Scotland.

Sir Robert Smith: On the expansion of prison places, does the Secretary of State yet have an estimate of the date by which he will have tackled the problem of overcrowding in Scottish prisons?

Mr. Dewar: As the hon. Gentleman recognises, we face a problem in that respect, although it is perhaps not as acute as in other parts of the United Kingdom. That is not an excuse for ignoring or not attempting to tackle it, but I am chary of setting arbitrary dates because I am aware of the increase in the prison population. While the Bowhouse project and the 700 places in the next five years to which I referred should take much of the strain, it may be that the impact on time cannot be exactly judged for the reasons that I have given. I spent some time yesterday with the Parole Board, which brought me sharply face to face with the problems that it encounters and the stress of its increasing work load. I pay tribute to its work, which is largely unsung and often unappreciated by the wider public.

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