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Kincardine Bridge

6. Ms Squire: What representations he has received on the replacement of the Kincardine bridge. [21717]

The Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution, Scottish Office (Mr. Henry McLeish): Since taking office, we have received 11 letters on issues related to the replacement of the Kincardine bridge. I am also aware of the meeting in July between my hon. Friend, supported by members and officials of Fife council, and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm), during his period as Minister responsible for local government and transport at the Scottish Office.

Ms Squire: Does my hon. Friend agree that replacement of the Kincardine bridge has widespread support, and that replacing it is a matter of urgent priority in assisting inward investment, in easing traffic congestion and in reducing pollution at Kincardine? Given the years of delay and indecision by the previous Government, is the Minister able to announce any early action that he intends to take to secure the bridge's early replacement?

Mr. McLeish: I am very conscious of my hon. Friend's active pursuit of the matter, which is a very important transport issue. A review of the options at Kincardine is now being finalised by officials--whose advice I expect to receive shortly--and a decision will be taken as soon as is reasonably practicable. Because of the matter's importance, we have accelerated the options review.

Consideration of Kincardine must also be set against some very important strategic transport issues in the central belt. I will therefore be seeking at an early stage to have a meeting with all the councils around the Forth estuary, to examine not only the matter of the Kincardine bridge but other matters. I intend to create a more comprehensive, strategic and important forum for pursuing those important matters, and I look forward to an early meeting with my hon. Friend to go over some of the issues, including that of Kincardine bridge.

Scottish Parliament Elections

7. Mr. McAllion: What assessment he has made of the advantages of holding the first elections to a Scottish Parliament in 1999 on the same day as local government elections in Scotland. [21718]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Donald Dewar): I believe that a joint poll will increase interest in the local government elections and lead to a higher turnout with lower overall costs. It also avoids voters having to go to the polls three times in quick succession.

Mr. McAllion: First, may I wish my right hon. Friend every success in his bid to become a candidate at one of those elections? I hope that we are given the stamp of approval by what has already been called the people's panel. Is not the real link between the two elections that the outcome of both will have a huge impact on the future structure and financing of the water and sewerage industry in Scotland? Therefore, may I have my right hon. Friend's assurance that between now and the elections he will prevent the unelected water quangos from entering into

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any private finance initiative contracts which will effectively tie the hands of Members of the Scottish Parliament and prevent local councillors from fulfilling their manifesto commitment to bring the water and sewerage industry back under local democratic control?

Mr. Dewar: I can give my hon. Friend two assurances. First, I shall not be shopping in Dundee with regard to any of the elections and secondly, I congratulate him on his ingenuity in referring to unelected water boards. I must also disappoint him by saying that I cannot give him the assurance that he seeks. I expect the water boards to address the problem of getting much-needed investment into the industry and achieving the standards that people in Scotland deserve.

Mrs. Laing: Can the Secretary of State please explain why he considers it important to achieve a so-called gender balance in the elections to the new Scottish Parliament and how he intends to do so?

Mr. Dewar: That again is ingenious. I hope that the hon. Lady does not imagine that by standing in her place she is convincing me that there are arguments against women in Parliament. We are all anxious--including, I am sure, the hon. Lady--that we have a fair representation of women so that the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament and local government look a little more like the community that they seek to represent.

Mr. David Stewart: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to have the widest possible pool of talented candidates for the Scottish Parliament? Does he further agree that it is important to allow local government staff--who number more than 25,000 and are currently restricted from standing--the opportunity to stand for the Scottish Parliament?

Mr. Dewar: Of course I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making and we are keeping the matter under review. However, very recently the Nolan committee stressed how important it is that councils and the public can rely on a politically impartial service from senior local government officials. That also has to be weighed in the balance. The number who are currently excluded under the rules is around 2 per cent. of those who work in local government in Scotland, but I recognise that there are strong feelings on the issue and we try to keep it under review.

Mr. Salmond: But one substantial difference between the two elections is that the elections to the Scottish Parliament will be carried out by proportional representation, while the local elections are still planned to be decided by the first-past-the-post system. Does the Secretary of State not agree that it would be a splendid opportunity to introduce proportional representation in local government elections in Scotland? Would not such action be the strongest single step towards ending one-party domination and the various problems that beset the Labour party in councils in central Scotland?

Mr. Dewar: I take that remark as a rather touching tribute to the speed with which we have addressed problems of constitutional change in Scotland. However, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that his suggestion is

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somewhat impractical. He will know, however, that an independent commission will be set up shortly on which his party is likely to be represented to look at the relationship between the Scottish Parliament and local government and the ways in which we can strengthen local democracy in Scotland. Obviously, the matter has to be considered carefully, but there may well be people who will try to argue that case, if not in the commission, more generally.

Mrs. Fyfe: Does my righ hon. Friend agree that it is somewhat unfortunate that some Opposition Members show such total ignorance of the workings of the Scottish Constitutional Convention which for many years now has been committed to equal representation of men and women in the Scottish Parliament and which represents Scottish views somewhat more successfully than the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing)?

Mr. Dewar: I would not want to pass judgment on the capacity of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) as a representative. That is a matter for her electorate and I congratulate her on having survived and being here, which may be some sort of tribute. So far as I am concerned, the Government and many hon. Members across the range of parties in the House are committed to positive ways of encouraging women into public life.

Mr. Ancram: Given that so few of the Secretary of State's hon. Friends are prepared to give up the comforts of Westminster to stand for the Scottish Parliament and that, consequently, if Millbank tower and the Minister without Portfolio permit, most of the Labour candidates will be drawn from the tired old ranks of Scottish Labour councillors, would it not be fairer if the elections were held on separate days so that they could at least remember which they were standing for?

Mr. Dewar: The right hon. Gentleman should not be proud of that question as an example of his intellectual rigour. He may be consumed with envy. The Conservative party in Scotland does not have ranks of any sort--tired, old, young or innovative--to draw on.

National Health Service Beds

8. Mr. Laurence Robertson: What is the number of NHS beds per head of population in Scotland; and what assessment he has made of the per capita provision of NHS beds in Scotland relative to the United Kingdom average. [21719]

Mr. Galbraith: There were 3.3 national health service beds available in the acute sector in Scotland per 1,000 population in 1996-97. The equivalent number for the United Kingdom was 2.5 beds.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Does he accept that that favourable percentage is due to the financial arrangements that Scotland has had in the United Kingdom? Will those arrangements be sustainable when Scotland has its own Parliament?

Mr. Galbraith: As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the financial arrangements are supported by those on the Conservative Front Bench. The figures reflect the

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differences between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, including the greater prevalence of disease and the geographical differences. It is proper that such matters should be taken into account anywhere in the country.

Mr. David Marshall: Does the Minister agree that, far from trying to claim credit for the figures, the Opposition should be blamed for the fact that they are necessary? After 18 years of Tory government, the health of the people of Scotland is in a much worse state than before because of the Tories' harsh economic policies and their failure to deal with the damp housing conditions that have resulted in Glasgow having the poorest health statistics in the United Kingdom. If anything, there is a need for more NHS beds, not fewer.

Mr. Galbraith: The problem of the past 18 years was that the previous Government failed to recognise the link between deprivation and ill health, because they found it politically difficult to do so. We recognise that link, we shall tackle it and we shall significantly improve the health of the nation.

Mr. Charles Kennedy: In his reply to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), the Minister underscored his understanding of the fact that the per capita provision of hospital beds has to take account of geographical factors as well as other social and economic factors. Will he bear in mind the assurance that he gave me by letter about the continuing provision of full-time surgical services at Broadford hospital on the Isle of Skye? Only this morning, the Highland health board announced its intention to withdraw full-time surgical provision for the Isle of Skye and to replace it with a locum service operating out of, I think, Fort William and Inverness. Given the climate and--as the Minister knows better than most--the number of people who visit the Isle of Skye for climbing and other outdoor pursuits, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue needs to be considered very carefully before any precipitate decisions are taken?

Mr. Galbraith: I certainly do. I know the hospital very well, not just from climbing on Skye, but because I was one of the locum surgeons there for some time. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the review is all about having the highest-quality services for patients. That is what I demand from any changes and that will be the only motivating factor in our decisions.

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