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Petrol Prices (Highlands and Islands)

2. Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute): What recent representations he has made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the economic impact of petrol prices in the highlands and islands. [114009]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and discuss various matters.

Mrs. Michie: Has the Minister made the Chancellor aware of the damage done to the highlands and islands by the high cost of fuel and the constant hike in petrol duty without the proper compensatory measures which the Liberal Democrats have long advocated? Can he explain the contradiction between the Government's policy to develop the area and to encourage tourism and social inclusion and the persistently high fuel costs which undermine and work against those laudable aims? It looks as though the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. What happened to joined-up government?

Mr. Wilson: I recall very well from my time as a Back Bencher that there is a real problem in tabling questions two weeks before they are answered. I fully understand that when the hon. Lady tabled her question, she did not know that last Thursday the Liberal Democrats would announce that they did not think that fuel tax was too high, but that it was too low. Therefore, in their alternative Budget, they have proposed increasing tax on petrol by 5p a litre. I think that the hon. Lady has some sorting out to do between her left hand and her right hand.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles): Does my hon. Friend agree that the real problem with fuel prices is the policy of the major oil companies in imposing higher prices in the highlands than in the rest of Scotland? When

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does he expect the Office of Fair Trading to report on that policy, and will he undertake to implement in full the findings of that report when it is delivered?

Mr. Wilson: As my hon. Friend suggests, the structure of fuel prices in the highlands--and indeed everywhere else--is extremely complex and various elements within it produce the final total. He is quite right to say that the OFT is investigating the matter. I look forward to receiving the report in the very near future. In the meantime, I have been having discussions with the oil companies about tackling the problem of differentials in order to give an advantage in terms of the wholesale price to rural outlets which sell small volumes of petrol. If the oil companies gave them such an advantage, the problem of differentials would be largely eroded.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): As the Minister says, the price of petrol in the highlands is indeed a complicated matter. Will he therefore answer two simple factual questions? First, in pounds and pence per gallon, what is the price of petrol in the highlands; and secondly, how does it compare with the prices in England and the continent of Europe?

Mr. Wilson: There is no simple comparison because there is no uniform price in England, Scotland or the highlands and islands. I am trying to erode the differential so that no part of the country is discriminated against significantly in terms of petrol prices any more than they are discriminated against in terms of postage charges, for instance, which are within the public sector.

Parliament Building

3. Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): What requests he has received for the provision of extra funds from the United Kingdom central Government in relation to the Scottish Parliament building; and if he will make a statement. [114010]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. John Reid): I have received no requests for additional UK funds for the Scottish Parliament. The construction project for the new Scottish Parliament building is the responsibility of the all party corporate body of the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Evans: It would appear that the Secretary of State has no control over the costs of the new Scottish Parliament building and that the Scottish Parliament appears to have lost control over those costs. Does the Secretary of State feel no embarrassment at all in his discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer over the block grant--at a time when the number of police officers in Scotland has fallen by 375, crime is on the increase and three prisons have closed under the present Administration--in asking for more money for those services when so much money is being flagrantly wasted on what has been called "Donald's Dome"?

Dr. Reid: I am inclined to ask who the author of that comment is. I know that the hon. Gentleman neither supports nor understands devolution, but it is actually quite a simple principle: when we transferred power to the Scottish Parliament, responsibility went with it. This

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is a matter for the Scottish Parliament, which must take the decisions and the responsibility, over this and other matters that have been devolved to it.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): As the Minister is aware, I tabled question 9, which will never be reached. Would he be willing to say, first, what is his latest estimate of the cost of the new building? Secondly, would he say precisely who will pay for it? The impression that some people south of the border have is that there is a major scandal here, and that it is time that the facts were told to Parliament.

Dr. Reid: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity. However, the matter of the cost of the Scottish Parliament is squarely for the Scottish Parliament itself and for the corporate body. As for who will pay, the Scottish Parliament will pay for that. That is as clear as I can be to the hon. Gentleman. I do not see the arrangement as in any way a scandal. It is in the nature of devolution: we pass over power on a whole range of topics, including the cost of the Scottish Parliament, and the Scottish Parliament takes not only the power, but the responsibility for them. The Scottish Parliament will have to make that decision.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Is it not clear from the breath of fresh air that we had last week that there are very many people in Scotland--a vast majority--who believe in the integrity of the United Kingdom? Does it not follow from that that it is entirely reasonable for all Members of the United Kingdom Parliament to take an interest in the location and cost of the Scottish Parliament? Cannot the right hon. Gentleman be a little more forthcoming and tell us precisely what the cost is now envisaged to be?

Dr. Reid: A great many issues arise in the Welsh Assembly and in the Scottish Parliament in which we might take an interest, just as they might take an interest in what we are doing in this place. That is an entirely different matter from intervening in an issue that is the responsibility of a devolved institution. As I told the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) and repeat, the costs of the Scottish Parliament are a matter for the corporate body of that Parliament. That is an all-party corporate body on which--I think, although I stand to be corrected--the Scottish Conservatives sit. That is a constant item of explanation that we have to give to Conservative Members, who neither supported devolution, nor seem to understand its nature.

Winter Fuel Payments

4. Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): How many pensioners in Scotland will benefit from the United Kingdom Government's winter fuel payment scheme. [114011]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (

Dr. John Reid): About 900,000 eligible people in Scotland have benefited this winter from the winter fuel payment scheme. Payments are £100 per eligible household.

Miss Begg: I am very glad to see that the winter fuel payment has resulted in well over £1 million being paid to pensioners in my constituency of Aberdeen, South.

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However, will my right hon. Friend confirm that those payments are only one of the things that the Government have done for pensioners?

Dr. Reid: First, I congratulate and welcome back my hon. Friend to Scottish Question Time. I confirm that almost 14,000 payments were made, totalling more than £1 million, to pensioners in her own constituency of Aberdeen, South to help them to meet fuel costs. It is part of the extra £4 billion that the Government have already pledged in this Parliament to assist pensioners. Of course we have cut VAT on fuel, as we promised. Of course we have restored free eye tests for pensioners, as we promised. Of course we have introduced the guaranteed income for the poorest and free television licences for those over 75. Under this Government, the average pensioner is more than £5 a week better off, and the oldest and the poorest are already more than £10 a week better off.

I do not claim that we have done everything, but--certainly when one considers that all those actions would be reversed by Conservative Members--pensioners are better off under a Labour Government than they were under almost 20 years of the previous, Conservative Government.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): One of the principal and welcome advantages of the winter fuel payment scheme is that the payment is universal and automatic. However, will the Secretary of State confirm that, for some time now, the Government have been advertising the fact that they will introduce a take-up campaign for elderly people on pensions who are not claiming their entitlement, particularly under the minimum income guarantee? When will the Government clarify the exact terms of the take-up campaign, and when will that campaign start to take effect, providing much needed income to pensioner households in Scotland?

Dr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman is right that we do not regard these measures as hand-outs, but as entitlements on the part of our senior citizens. We will launch a campaign on 29 March to further explain the entitlements of our senior citizens to one of the many benefits that the Government are gradually introducing for them. In the same way, we have established a hotline for the 145,000 families in Scotland who might benefit from the working families tax credit. We are committed not only to introducing measures to increase social justice, but to making sure that potential recipients are aware of them and claim what is rightfully theirs.

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