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House of Commons

Tuesday 14 December 1999

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill (By Order)

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Tuesday 21 December.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Rail Services

2. Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): When he last met representatives of train operating companies running rail services between Scotland and England. [101220]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. John Reid): I last met representatives of Great North Eastern Railway Ltd. on 19 November.

Mr. Brown: I thank the Secretary of State for that short reply to a short question. Will he give me an undertaking that the much-needed modernisation of the west coast main line is a priority that will be stressed to Railtrack in Scotland? Will he also stress to Railtrack the need to ensure that there is adequate investment at railway stations, such as the one in Lockerbie, to meet the needs of disabled people?

Dr. Reid: Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government are taking robust action, through the Rail Regulator, to deal with the situation to which he refers. The Rail Regulator announced on 5 November that he was taking enforcement action and demanding that Railtrack produce plans to meet its commitments for additional capacity as part of the upgrade and improvement of the west coast main line. The modernisation of that line will include remodelling schemes, resignalling, track and structure work and electrification, and is expected to cost some £2.2 billion.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that when the Strategic Rail Authority is established, it acknowledges that the east coast main line goes from London to Aberdeen, and not

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from London to Edinburgh and then to Aberdeen? Will he undertake to support the campaign for full electrification of the entire length of the line?

Dr. Reid: I use the east coast line--not only the part that goes to Glasgow and Edinburgh, but occasionally the part that goes to Aberdeen--so I certainly hope that the hon. Gentleman's views are taken into account. He will be pleased to know that when the Strategic Rail Authority is formed, it will, as promised by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, have a representative from Scotland, and I am sure that he or she will bear in mind the point that the hon. Gentleman is making.

Poverty Alleviation

3. Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston): What discussions he has held with the Scottish Executive on UK-wide initiatives for the alleviation of poverty; and if he will make a statement. [101221]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. John Reid): Along with my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretaries of State for Social Security and for Wales and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), I met Scottish Ministers and Ministers from the other devolved Administrations on 9 December to discuss the alleviation of poverty. That meeting, the first of its kind, is a real example of partnership in action.

Mr. Marshall: I appreciate the Government's efforts in that respect, and I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. Will he disregard the north-south divide and consider instead the east-west divide? Does he agree that statistics prove that most of the prosperity and well-being in Scotland is in the east of the country, and most of the poverty and poor health is in the west, especially in the city of Glasgow?

Does my right hon. Friend further agree that while Glasgow may be a great place for tourists and for people who live outside the city, thus avoiding paying the city's council tax yet using all its amenities, it is now high time to make Glasgow once again great for all the good people who live in the city? Will he therefore do his utmost to ensure that the joint action Committee of both Parliaments gives a high priority to tackling the problems faced by the people of Glasgow?

Dr. Reid: I thank my hon. Friend. I have always considered Glasgow to be a great city, which of course does not mean that there are not areas of poverty--especially, as recent reports have pointed out, in my hon. Friend's constituency--that blight the city. Those areas are not exclusive to Glasgow; there are areas of poverty throughout Scotland and the United Kingdom. I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that Ministers will make every effort, particularly by working with Scottish Ministers, to deliver a better life.

My hon. Friend will probably be aware that the report that produced the damning figures on Glasgow is some years old and it is a measure of the challenge that the Labour Government faced when we came to power. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that, under present projections for the working families tax credit, the minimum wage and the

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biggest ever increase in child benefit, we can expect that by 2002 some 60,000 children in Scotland will be lifted out of poverty, and many of those will be in Glasgow. That is the beginning of what will be a very long but vital effort by the Government and the Scottish Executive's working partnership to remove the scar of poverty from the face of Scotland.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): The Secretary of State will know from his surgeries, as will all hon. Members, how many people in poverty have difficulty accessing the benefits system and coping with its complexity, particularly because of recent cuts in the provision of advice centres. What discussions did he have at the ministerial meeting about how better advice and provision could be given to people, at a UK level and a Scotland level, to ensure that those in the worst poverty have access to all the benefits available to them?

Dr. Reid: That is a feature of regular discussion between UK Ministers, and between us and our Scottish colleagues. It is one of the reasons why we introduced the hotline for the working families tax credit. As the hon. Gentleman will know, that will make a considerable contribution to the alleviation of poverty by guaranteeing a minimum income wage of £200 for any family with one member working. The last time that I checked, that hotline had received almost 40,000 inquiries from Scotland. It is a measure of our commitment to combat poverty and to deliver--not in theory, but in practice--real help where it is needed.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill): Given that the statistics of deprivation in Glasgow are so well known, what does my right hon. Friend make of an article by George Kerevan, a prominent nationalist, which was published in The Scotsman yesterday, in which he accuses Glasgow of whingeing? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a typical example of nationalist hypocrisy, whereby in Glasgow nationalists present themselves as fighters for the poor, but in Edinburgh they accuse the poor of whingeing? How does that contrast with the Government's attempt to overcome poverty in Glasgow?

Dr. Reid: I have had an opportunity to see that article by a member of the Scottish National party. To suggest that Glasgow is whingeing about a deep and disturbing problem of poverty is to cast a disgraceful slur on the people of Glasgow. Wherever co-operation in the effort to improve people's daily life is sought, the nationalists create discord. That the nationalists are more interested in getting Scotland out of the UK than in getting poverty out of Scotland has been well marked by the Scottish people.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I am delighted to hear that the Secretary of State has met his Scottish counterparts to discuss the problem of poverty in Scotland, but I hope he will excuse my asking for clarification about what went on at that meeting. I assume that it was a meeting of the first joint ministerial committee: if so, what was its precise remit in respect of poverty? On the face of it, the allocation of funds from Scotland's block grant funding is a matter for the Scottish Executive--although representations made to the UK Government about changes to social security funding might be relevant. However, the impression that I derived

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from listening to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) was that he hoped that the Secretary of State would lecture the Scottish Executive on how to go about their business. What was going on at that meeting?

Dr. Reid: I know that it is difficult for the hon. Gentleman to understand the concept of working with others, even within his own party, but we are quite capable of co-operating with others. If his question is about how we bring together various efforts to combat poverty, my answer is simple. The UK Government can, for example, restore free eye tests for old-age pensioners, which were removed by the Conservative Government; we can provide the biggest ever increase in child benefit; we can introduce a minimum guaranteed income for pensioners; we can introduce the working families tax credit, which benefits 140,000 Scots; and we can introduce the long-awaited and much-needed minimum wage. By implementing their policies on social exclusion, the Scottish Executive can target resources on areas such as those mentioned by my hon. Friends and, through the national health service, redistribute funds to the areas of greatest need. That is called building a broad consensus backed by co-operative effort, but I understand that almost none of those words are understood, either in theory or in practice, by the Conservatives.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): My right hon. Friend is aware of, and has already referred to, the report published on Thursday 2 December by the Townsend centre for international poverty research at the university of Bristol. He will also be aware that the statistical base of that research dated from 1991 to 1995 and that--contrary to the spin put on the report by the Scottish National party--it reveals not the failure of our Government's policies, but the extent of the problem that we inherited. If we are to address the problems and, in particular, achieve the target that we set in the pre-Budget report for reducing child poverty, we need to integrate public services, both devolved and reserved. Instead of making public services report on how they are doing that, will my right hon. Friend ensure that they actually do it?

Dr. Reid: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is either incompetent or hypocritical of the Scottish National party to blame on a new Labour Government who have been in power for only two and a half years the poverty revealed in a report based on six-year-old statistics. Many areas of Scotland are deeply scarred by poverty, but I can confidently predict that, through the measures that I have described, 60,000 children will be lifted out of poverty and a major start will be made on a generation-long programme to end poverty in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

As for the second part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, I pledge that the efforts of both the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Executive will be harnessed to ensure that devolution is much more than a constitutional discussion, so that we get away from talking about processes and territorial claims over powers and move on to implementing what the Scottish people want, which is to deliver the means of them having a better life for themselves and their children.

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Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside): Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government's continuation of the previous Conservative Government's spending targets, not for the first year of their term in office but for the second, means that they are responsible for prolonging the agony of people whose plight was highlighted by the report to which the Secretary of State has referred?

Dr. Reid: If anyone on either side of the House thinks that the Conservative Government would have introduced the minimum wage, the working families tax credit, the huge increase in child benefit, the restoration of free eye tests or a £100 bonus at Christmas for our old people, he or she does not understand the nature of politics in Britain--or prefers, for his or her own purposes, to disregard them.

The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed the public expenditure figures issued yesterday, which were independently compiled. They show that people in Scotland receive, on average, 15 per cent. more per head than those in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is £120 per head as opposed to £104. The hon. Gentleman cannot stand Scotland playing a full part in the United Kingdom partnership, and the United Kingdom being shown to be fair and of benefit to the people of Scotland. Unfortunately for him and his party, both are true.

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