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Water Services

9. Mr. Canavan: If he will return Scotland's water services to local authority control. [21720]

Mr. Macdonald: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a statement to the House on Tuesday 16 December 1997 on the future of the Scottish water industry. It dealt with the issue of local authority control and provided for stronger and better links between local authorities and water boards under the overall democratic supervision of the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Canavan: When will the Government deliver the Labour party manifesto commitment to return Scotland's water services to local democratic control, instead of

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playing musical chairs with the quangos left to us by the Tory Government? In the Falkirk area, for example, when water services were in the ownership and management of local government, we had good, forward-looking investment programmes, combined with the lowest water charges in western Europe. Will the Government intervene to prevent the East of Scotland water quango from imposing a 58 per cent. increase in domestic water charges, which would mean an even more exorbitant increase of 144 per cent. over two years?

Mr. Macdonald: As my hon. Friend will appreciate, the existence of 32 local authorities after the previous Government's reorganisation means that it is simply not possible or practical to have the kind of direct local authority control that he would like. However, we have increased accountability to local authorities through better links between them and water boards. As for possible price increases, they are a matter for negotiation between the water boards and the customer councils. If there is no agreement, the matter will go to the Secretary of State for arbitration, so I cannot comment further.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham: Consumers in Tayside face a 38 per cent. increase in water charges in the near future. That is a swingeing increase--the highest in the whole of the North of Scotland area. In view of the Government's pre-election promises, can the Minister not understand the disenchantment of people in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies with both the North of Scotland Water Authority and the Government on that matter?

Mr. Macdonald: For the reason that I have just explained, I cannot comment on particular price rises. However, speaking generally, we have always said that water services will cost more. There are many years of underfunding and under-investment to make up for; that will have to be done through a combination of public and private investment, but also through price increases.

Ferry Services

10. Mr. Godman: What recent representations he has received concerning the ferry services operated by Caledonian MacBrayne. [21721]

Mr. McLeish: My right hon. Friend has received a number of recent representations concerning ferry services operated by Caledonian MacBrayne. The main subject of representations received recently from my hon. Friend's constituents has been the future of Caledonian MacBrayne's ferry service between Gourock and Dunoon.

Mr. Godman: May I tell the Minister that it is hugely important that Caledonian MacBrayne run an efficient and reliable service, an integral part of which is a well- motivated work force? I do not believe that there would be any problems hanging over the Ballycastle to Campbeltown service had not that odd-job lot on the Opposition Benches, when they were in office, given it to Caledonian MacBrayne to run.

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Mr. McLeish: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his involvement in the issue, and for the discussions that we have already had on those matters. As he is probably aware, the Scottish Office, together with CalMac and Western Ferries, commissioned the consultants Deloitte and Touche to examine future options for the provision of ferry services between Gourock and Dunoon. The consultants are finalising their work in discussion with CalMac and Western Ferries, and the study is expected to be completed in February. As my hon. Friend will appreciate, a meeting was set up recently, but we had to postpone it. I look forward to an early meeting with him and his trade union colleagues to discuss the matter, and others relating to the ferry services in that area.

Mrs. Ray Michie: I thank the Minister for his swift response to my queries about the Portavadie to Tarbert ferry, which was much appreciated by all the bodies involved. I congratulate him on managing to understand the Caledonian brief fairly quickly, considering that he was dropped in at the deep end. Can he say today whether a decision has been made about the connection between Mull, Coll and Tiree--a subject that we discussed recently at St. Andrew's house?

Mr. McLeish: I certainly welcomed the meeting with the hon. Lady; it was part of my fast learning curve on the brief. As I promised her at that time, we are finalising a response to that issue, and I shall have an early meeting with her before any decision is finally arrived at.

School Standards

11. Miss Begg: What plans he has for raising standards in Scottish schools. [21722]

Mr. Dewar: All our policies on school education are designed to raise standards. I attach particular importance to the action group on standards in Scottish schools which I established last July and which is developing a framework of targets for improvement in schools.

Miss Begg: I welcome that reply. Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the keys to improving standards in schools is encouraging young people to learn to read, write and count at an early age? If they can crack the codes of numeracy and literacy at an early age, they can take advantage of the rest of their school careers. Are there any plans to encourage, develop, improve or extend early intervention schemes of the kind piloted in Lothian?

Mr. Dewar: I am grateful to my hon. Friend; we are extremely interested in the idea. There is a consensus in the House and in the education world to the effect that early intervention is extremely valuable, and that action taken in the early stages of a school career can bring great rewards later. That is why we have provided more than £20 million for early intervention in respect of numeracy and literacy, and why we have launched a number of other initiatives, such as alternatives to school exclusion. I hope that they will help and support children who might otherwise fail at school and thus find themselves ill equipped to compete later in life.

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The Leader of the House was asked--

Modernisation Plans

30. Dr. Tony Wright: What plans she has to implement the recommendations of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons on legislative procedures in respect of Bills in the current session. [21742]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor): The House has agreed the first programme motions on Government Bills in relation to the Scotland Bill and the Government of Wales Bill. These reflect the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee. A number of Bills are also to be published in draft form, and I hope that some of them will be examined by Select Committees.

Dr. Wright: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I congratulate her on the leadership that she is showing in modernising our procedures. Until we get some serious Bills exposed to the sort of scrutiny that the Modernisation Committee has recommended, however, we shall not be sure that the process is working. I know that my right hon. Friend wants that to happen, but I suspect that there may be Ministers, civil servants and possibly even party managers who do not look kindly on the idea of better scrutiny. But the country wants it and the House wants it, and I urge the Leader of the House to make sure that we get it.

Mrs. Taylor: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. The Scotland Bill and the Government of Wales Bill are important. Significantly, we managed to get agreement on dealing with them in this way. Everyone who serves on the Modernisation Committee is aware that there are differing opinions in the House on how best to go about the scrutiny of other legislation, but we are making progress. I hope that, by publishing several Bills in draft form and allowing Select Committees or some new Committee to examine them, we shall improve the quality of legislation.

Mr. Ian Bruce: When it comes to publishing Bills, the right hon. Lady will know that the Government receive a lot of correspondence to which Departments are supposed to respond within, at most, 20 working days. On 23 October, a constituent of mine wrote to the Government about nursery education; I opened the very simple answer from the Minister today, 20 January. What can the Leader of the House do to ensure that Departments respond to hon. Members' letters in good time--in other words, while the legislation in question is still going through the House?

Mrs. Taylor: I admire the hon. Gentleman's ingenuity in getting in that question as a supplementary at this point.

I acknowledge that there has been a problem with some Departments--it has been raised with me during business questions. I have invited hon. Members to give me precise details, and on a few occasions I have been given them and have been able to try to get things moving. I am

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embarking on a survey in respect of the time taken to answer parliamentary questions and to answer correspondence.

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