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Health Service

6. Mr. Garnier: What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health about the use of the private finance initiative to finance new capital projects in the Scottish health service. [12043]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Sam Galbraith): I meet my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health regularly. We have on occasion discussed the use of the private finance initiative for financing capital projects in the NHS in Scotland.

Mr. Garnier: Until 1 May, the Labour party opposed the PFI. What has made it change its mind?

Mr. Galbraith: The hon. and learned Gentleman's memory is vague; he is mistaken. The Labour party originated the PFI, and we are developing it. We consider it a useful way to increase capital in parts of the health service. In the health service in Scotland, we have three substantial projects nearing financial completion.

Skye Bridge

7. Mr. Charles Kennedy: If he will make a statement on progress in reducing the Skye bridge tolls. [12044]

Mr. Dewar: Since my announcement on 4 July, which was widely welcomed, negotiations have been in progress about the changes to the very complex agreement that we inherited. The principle of reducing tolls is accepted by the parties, but the matters of detail are taking longer to finalise than I had hoped. I am, however, confident that I shall be able to announce the introduction of discounted tolls at an early date.

Mr. Kennedy: I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful reply and, through him, wish to express my thanks for the helpful and constructive response of the Lord Advocate in dealing with some of the local implications of the matter. I underscore that there is anxiety that the contract--I appreciate that it does not have the signature of the Secretary of State on it and that the problem is not of his making but was inherited from his predecessor--gives stalling powers to the private company, which I suspect is instinctively none too happy about any toll reduction package and its consequent commercial impact. Does he agree that the matter needs to be re-examined? I hope that the Public Accounts Committee will consider it in more detail in due course. The more we see of the matter, the more it commercially and politically stinks.

Mr. Dewar: I offer this consolation to the hon. Gentleman. Although the details have been difficult and the negotiations have taken longer than I would have liked and are not yet complete, it is fair to say that they were entered into in good faith after an agreement in principle about what we are trying to achieve. I hope that we will not have too long to wait before I can report success in the matter. The important thing is to ensure that we get the discounts, which will be a considerable advantage to regular users, in place as soon as possible. The Public Accounts Committee will consider the technicalities of the contract and the National Audit Office report, but as

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the hon. Gentleman knows this was an early PFI project right at the beginning of the process--and perhaps at the start of the learning curve.

Local Government Finance

8. Mr. McAllion: What recent discussions he has held with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities relating to the financing of Scottish local government. [12045]

Mr. Chisholm: My right hon. Friend and I have discussed the financing of Scottish local government with the convention on a number of occasions. The most recent meetings were held on 13 October and 3 November. We next meet the convention on Friday 7 November.

Mr. McAllion: My hon. Friend will know that the funding mismatch imposed on Scottish local government by Tory reorganisation, allied to the middle-class drift away from cities such as Dundee and Glasgow to adjoining areas with lower council taxes, has left city councils trying to provide what is effectively a regional level of service from a greatly reduced council tax base. Therefore, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on facing those hard realities by trying to broker with COSLA a financial settlement that is fair to all of Scotland? Will he take the opportunity to denounce the simplistic, divisive and dishonest spouting of those who claim that spendthrift councils are being bailed out by penny-wise councils?

Mr. Chisholm: I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the position of Dundee council. As I said in a previous answer, there will be losers and gainers from the changes to the social work formula that are in the pipeline and the phasing out of the mismatch. Without those changes, quite apart from other factors, Dundee council tax payers would face an increased band E tax of £85 next year, council tax payers in Aberdeen would face an increase of £75 and those in the Western Isles would face an increase of £200--far more than in Glasgow. We have taken action because we believe that council tax payers must be protected from the extreme changes in council tax that flow from distributional changes. We support that, as do COSLA and the vast majority of council tax payers across Scotland.

Mr. Welsh: The Labour policy of underfunding local services is increasing council taxes and massively cutting services, with more cuts to come, quite apart from the massive increases in water service charges. What sort of financial deal is that for Scottish consumers and tax payers?

Mr. Chisholm: The Government are committed to creating a strong and stable economy. A fundamental way of doing that is to make sure that we put public finances into good order in the early stages of the Government. That is why we said at the election that we would keep within overall public expenditure planning totals during our first two years in office. Even within that, we have managed to find £89 million more for education in Scotland, an extra £26.7 million for capital spending on schools in each of the next four years, and an additional £12.5 million this year and £43.7 million next year for housing. That demonstrates the Government's commitment to local government.

Mr. Connarty: Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the topics that he mentioned, and one that is often

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mentioned by COSLA, is the financing of housing in Scotland? Does he agree that there are still major problems in respect of the quality of existing housing and the lack of housing for homeless people? Can he provide more figures to show that the Government are treating those difficulties seriously, in contrast to their derisory treatment by the previous Government?

Mr. Chisholm: Unlike the previous Government, we recognise the serious problems of Scottish housing, which were highlighted by the recent house condition survey. We have already taken action on a whole range of fronts to begin to tackle the problem. We announced the awards for the rough sleepers initiative to deal with the visible problem of people sleeping rough on the streets--an extra £16 million was provided for that purpose. We have already put £2 million into the empty homes initiative this year and there will be more next year to deal with the problem of empty homes. We have also earmarked £10 million this year for new housing partnerships and a much larger sum next year to lever in private money to complement the public resources that we are committed to putting into housing. That significant action has been warmly welcomed by the housing lobby across Scotland.

Mr. Fallon: Does the settlement with COSLA for next year make any provision for a minimum wage for council workers, and what is it?

Mr. Chisholm: Pay agreements are a matter for local authorities and their work forces. Local authorities know that we are committed to existing expenditure guidelines, apart from the extra money that I mentioned earlier. As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows, our general policy on a minimum wage is that the Low Pay Commission will advise on the rate for that in due course.

Scottish Parliament

9. Mr. Dalyell: What consultations he has had with (a) the Home Office, (b) the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and (c) the Department of Health on representation of the United Kingdom in the European Council by a Minister responsible to a Scottish Parliament. [12046]

The Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution, Scottish Office (Mr. Henry McLeish): The Government's policy on involvement by Scottish Executive Ministers in meetings of the EU Council of Ministers is set out in the White Paper "Scotland's Parliament". That reflects full collective discussion and agreement.

Mr. Dalyell: Will chapter 5, paragraph 6 therefore be modified?

Mr. McLeish: I reflect on the comments made by my hon. Friend. We are optimistic that our position vis-a-vis Europe will be enhanced, not diminished, by the advent of devolution and a Scottish Parliament. It will provide for participation in Council of Ministers meetings and in developmental policy; it will provide much more time in the Scottish Parliament to discuss European Union affairs and for more effective scrutiny; and, of course, it will give us the possibility of a representative office in Brussels to

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ensure that Scotland's voice reflects the excellent service that we already get from the United Kingdom permanent representation.

Mr. Swayne: The Secretary of State participates in the United Kingdom Government's EU decision making as of right. My reading of the White Paper is that the Scottish Parliament will do so by invitation. How will Scotland's voice be heard when the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Parliament disagree? Can the Minister avoid giving me the same answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash)--that we shall always agree?

Mr. McLeish: I shall set aside the cynical and pessimistic tone in respect of the future of a Scottish Parliament, and instead make it clear that the creation of a Scottish Parliament will enhance our participation in European Union activities. I made the point earlier that members of the Scottish Executive will participate in meetings of the Council of Ministers and in full discussions with the United Kingdom Parliament and Government on aspects of policy. The hon. Gentleman has simply got it wrong.

Mr. Swinney: Will the Minister speculate that, if the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis had occurred after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, a Minister for agriculture responsible to the Scottish Parliament would have had the power to negotiate a separate deal for the agricultural community within Scotland?

Mr. McLeish: It is not wise to speculate in the House. The current responsibilities of Scottish Office Ministers will be transferred to the new Parliament and to the new Executive. It is important to reinforce the Government's central message: that, in our judgment, doing that will enhance the activities of agricultural affairs in Scotland vis-a-vis Europe and in relation to the many pressing issues that we confront in our day-to-day activities in Scotland.

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