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House of Commons

Tuesday 4 December 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Aviation Summit

1. Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw): If she will make a statement on her aviation summit, held on 3 December. [17487]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Helen Liddell): The meeting that took place yesterday was a useful forum. It was perhaps the first opportunity for such a wide range of participants, including the Government, the Scottish Executive, the airline industry and the broader business community to get together. The discussion was useful, notwithstanding the events of 11 September. I plan to take matters forward in conjunction with the Scottish Executive, industry representatives and business interests to ensure that the key strategic issues for Scotland are included in the Government's forthcoming air services consultation paper.

Mr. Roy: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. Yesterday, did she get a chance to tell the airline industry that the biggest barrier to ordinary Scottish families using Scottish airports to go on holiday is the rip-off prices and fuel supplements that people are charged, not only in Scotland but in Northern Ireland?

Mrs. Liddell: I know of my hon. Friend's interest in the matter and am aware that he has raised it with the Department of Trade and Industry, which has now referred it to the Office of Fair Trading, which is looking at the issues involved. I wholly accept the point about the additional costs imposed on people flying to and from Scotland on holiday. There has been a marked increase in the number of no-frills airlines operating from Scotland, which is a significant benefit for Scottish leisure travellers. It is also a great benefit to inbound tourism because every flight that goes out to places like Brussels, Paris and Frankfurt et al comes back with foreign inbound tourists. I accept my hon. Friend's point about additional costs, but there has been a marked decrease in fares from

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Scotland and, as a result of the European Union's liberalisation of air traffic, there has been a significant decrease in airline fares.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): Does the Secretary of State agree that while good air links are vital to commerce and industry throughout Scotland, they are particularly important in the highlands and islands? May I ask two questions about that? First, is the right hon. Lady aware that a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have been pushing the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), to designate a public service obligation on the Inverness-Gatwick route? What representations has she received on that?

Secondly, is the right hon. Lady aware of the immense shortage of air traffic controllers throughout the highlands and islands airport area? Given the National Air Traffic Services' decision not to go ahead with an investment in Scotland and the report in today's Financial Times on NATS' precarious finances, what representations will she make to ensure that that vital area—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That was about four questions; the right hon. Lady only has to answer one.

Mrs. Liddell: I shall try to be as all-embracing as possible, Mr. Speaker.

First, I have been lobbied extensively on Inverness airport, and I appreciate the seriousness of that long-running issue. Indeed, just a few minutes ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) pointed out to me that, next year, demand will far outstrip supply on the Inverness-Gatwick route. The Scottish Executive are looking at a public service obligation, and I hope that they will reach a quick conclusion.

I am aware of the difficulties that have been caused, especially recently, because of the shortage of air traffic controllers. The decision to delay the NATS centre is not directly related to that, but it is disappointing. However, NATS is committed to going ahead with the Prestwick centre and I have asked to meet its representatives on 15 January; I shall report to the House thereafter.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): I welcome the initiative of my right hon. Friend in pulling together some of the major players in the airline industry. However, will she consider including in any future consultations the trade unions, which are extremely concerned about the potential for job losses in the industry? I am sure that they would welcome the opportunity to make a constructive contribution to any debate.

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is my intention to set up, together with the Deputy Minister for Transport and Planning in the Scottish Executive, a series of working groups to look at specific issues, especially as we approach the aviation review, which will chart a 30-year future for Scottish aviation. I shall certainly make sure that trade union representatives are included in those deliberations.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): I am sure that the whole House accepts that the aviation industry has been

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badly hit by the tragic events of 11 September. But does the Secretary of State not realise that matters have been made worse by Labour's higher taxes and extra regulations on business? Would it not greatly assist the industry and help to secure jobs in Scotland if she announced a package of measures to reduce business rates, scrap the climate change levy and drop the Chancellor's plans to increase national insurance contributions?

Mrs. Liddell: As usual, we hear from the Opposition a cavalier disregard for the state of the environment. The business community in Scotland supports the Government.

Mr. Knight: What about jobs?

Mrs. Liddell: The right hon. Gentleman fails to take into account the fact that we have the lowest unemployment for 25 years, and the highest number of people in employment for 40 years. We will continue to work closely with the business community in Scotland. Because of that close working, there has been an increase in passenger traffic at Glasgow, Edinburgh and Prestwick airports since the events of 11 September. That is much to be appreciated.

Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): Since the court judgment under the human rights legislation that people who live near airports have the right to a good night's sleep, I have received from Clydebank and Milngavie a significant number of letters asking that people there should have that. Can my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that when decisions are made about how to progress after that judgment, against which there may well be an appeal, the interests of such people will be taken into account, particularly in respect of the insidious growth of night flights at Glasgow airport?

Mrs. Liddell: I recognise my hon. Friend's point. As someone who lives under the flight path, I appreciate the force of that point. We will certainly take those factors into account. Planning matters are dealt with by the Scottish Executive, but everyone is aware of the need to minimise noise disruption to people who live under flight paths.

United Kingdom Delegations

2. Annabelle Ewing (Perth): What the Government policy is on Scottish Executive requests to participate in United Kingdom delegations to the EU and other international forums; and if she will make a statement. [17488]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. George Foulkes): Government policy in this matter follows the memorandum of understanding and the concordats on international relations and co-ordination of European policy issues between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. I commend them to the hon. Lady as excellent bedtime reading.

Annabelle Ewing: I thank the Minister for his answer. Taking the European Union as an example, can he clarify whether the pitiful 12 per cent. participation rate on the part of Scottish Executive Ministers in EU Councils

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since devolution, which is about the same rate as pre-devolution, represents a 12 per cent. limit on the number of meetings that Scottish Executive Ministers have sought to attend, or whether any requests have been turned down by the UK Government?

Mr. Foulkes: I am not sure what the hon. Lady and her friends are getting at. If she thinks that the British Government are unwilling for Scottish Ministers to participate, that is entirely wrong. If she is suggesting that Scottish Executive Ministers are not attending when they have the right to do so, that, too, is entirely wrong. When they are unable to attend, they contribute to the formulation of the United Kingdom line put forward by the Ministers who do attend. In 1999, Scottish Ministers attended six meetings; in 2000, nine; in 2001, 11 meetings to date. They have attended meetings on education, the environment, agriculture, fisheries, health, transport, justice and home affairs, and regional policy. As well as in the European Union, Scottish voices are heard at the G8, where the Chancellor speaks, at the United Nations Security Council and at NATO. If the hon. Lady and her friends had their way, Scottish and British voices would not be heard in all those forums.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Is the Minister aware that recent opinion polls demonstrate that opposition to the euro is stronger in Scotland than elsewhere? Can he clarify whether the Government intend to have the results of any future referendum counted separately by country?

Mr. Foulkes: No.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Will the Minister take the opportunity—unusually, perhaps—to agree with me that the best way for south-west Scotland and Scotland as a whole to be represented is within the United Kingdom? Will he once and for all condemn the rump of the Scottish national party at Westminster for its narrow and self-centred attempt to break up the United Kingdom? [Interruption.]

Mr. Foulkes: Given the reaction from those on the Government Back Benches, I must agree with the hon. Gentleman. He will remember that there are more Scots in the British Cabinet than there are representing the Scottish national party in this Parliament, and they have a much louder, more effective voice. Imagine an independent Scotland with Alasdair Morgan as the Finance Minister trying to speak up—shout up—for Scotland. No, we are much better represented with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor speaking up for Scotland.

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