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2. Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): If she will make a statement on unemployment levels in Scotland. [73573]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Claimant count unemployment in Scotland is at its lowest level since 1975 and has fallen by more than 57,000 since the spring of 1997—a reduction of 38.8 per cent.

Mr. Simmonds : I am grateful to the Minister for her response to my question, but it would be interesting if she could explain to the House how she squares comments made in August by her colleague, the Secretary of State, with the latest figures to emanate from the Scottish Executive. Her colleague said:

However, the Scottish Executive says that Scottish gross domestic product has reduced by 0.7 per cent. in the first quarter of this year, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, where it rose by 0.2 per cent. Will not the problems of the contracting Scottish economy be

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further exacerbated by the introduction of the North sea oil and gas tax, which could cost up to 18,000 jobs in certain areas of Scotland?

Mrs. McGuire: I am always fascinated when colleagues who represent parts of the United Kingdom other than Scotland seek to talk Scotland down. Data for the past two quarters have, of course, been disappointing, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the glitch is temporary and is nothing like the downturns that we saw over the previous 20 years. Underpinning the Scottish economy there is health, vibrancy and energy.

I use the opportunity to allow the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that the Government's economic policies have created stability and brought many benefits to his constituency, where more than 720 people have benefited from our new deal policy.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): My hon. Friend will be aware of the problems that arose in my constituency last year as a result of the foot and mouth outbreak. At that time, many people were forecasting significant job losses, but unemployment in my constituency is 3 per cent., which is 14.8 per cent. down on last year and about 34.9 per cent. down on 1997. However, I ask my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to impress on our colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry the need to revitalise the manufacturing sector.

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The area that he represents suffered terribly from foot and mouth disease. I know that he has been leading the campaign to reinvigorate the agricultural industry in his constituency, and I am delighted to hear that there has been a reduction in unemployment. Interestingly, the figures that he highlighted reflect the reduction in unemployment throughout all rural communities in Scotland. When the Government come under pressure about their attitude to rural communities, we should reflect on the fact that, on average, rural communities in Scotland have seen a reduction in unemployment of more than 45 per cent. I will take up my hon. Friend's specific point about discussions with the Department of Trade and Industry.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): Is the Minister aware of the many reported job losses in the oil and gas supply industry, which particularly affect constituencies such as mine, where they have contributed significantly to unemployment? Many would attribute these factors, at least in part, to the changes set out in the Budget. What consultations has the Minister had with the Treasury on royalty? When might we expect a result from the recent consultation?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We must be careful about the figures that have been bandied around about job losses in the North sea. There are job gains—in the new Ardmore field, for

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example. The hon. Gentleman knows that there is ongoing consultation. A report will be made available soon.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): My hon. Friend will be aware—unlike those in Skegness, perhaps—that since 1997 unemployment in my constituency has dropped by 30 per cent., and long-term unemployment by 70 per cent. Does she agree that it is important to focus on providing additional support through the new deal to those who are still unemployed?

Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend is correct. The new deal has been one of the Government's success stories. Wherever Members go, they will come across people who have been long-term unemployed, who were thrown on the scrapheap because they have disabilities or because they are lone parents. It was rich of the Conservatives to say at their conference that the war on lone parents has been ended. The reality is that they left many vulnerable people on the unemployment scrapheap.

Michael Weir (Angus): The Minister will be aware that Scotland has the second highest unemployment of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom and that the Scottish economy is in technical recession. Would she like to revise the statement that the Secretary of State made last November that the Scottish economy is performing well? Does she agree that Scotland is under-employed, rather like the Secretary of State?

Mrs. McGuire: No.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I am sure that my hon. Friend accepts that Opposition Members talk a lot of nonsense purely for the sake of publicity—they are always talking down Scotland. As one who is deeply involved in the oil industry, does she accept that analysts say that the Scottish economy, and the oil industry in particular, are riding out the world recession very well? That is seen in the chemicals industry in her own area, where Avecia is applying for a biotechnology research park. The future is there and the companies are going towards it—unlike Opposition parties, who are running away from it.

Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend is right, and, knowing that he represents Grangemouth, I bow to his superior knowledge of the petrochemicals industry. I recently held discussions with senior oil industry people and I know that they are extremely optimistic about what can still be produced from the North sea by introducing new technology and finding different ways of accessing North sea resources. Like my hon. Friend, I am really weary of hon. Members trying every month to talk Scotland down.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): What message is sent to the unemployed when the PA to a Scottish Minister is put up for two nights in a five-star hotel, paid for from a fund that is supposed to benefit the people of Lanarkshire?

Mrs. McGuire: That is not a matter for the Government; it is a matter for the Labour party.

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The hon. Lady should not have gone down that path at a Question Time that is intended to highlight the issues that affect Scotland—jobs, education and employment, in which the Government are scoring a great success.


3. Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston): What plans she has to help combat poverty arising from debt in Scotland; and if she will make a statement. [73574]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): We are consulting on a major overhaul of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 to provide better safeguards for individuals taking on borrowing commitments. We are determined to tackle abuses by unscrupulous lenders head on.

Mr. Marshall : Is the Minister aware that last year the citizens advice bureaux service in Scotland dealt with more than 160,000 cases involving some #70 million of debt, an increase of #10 million on the previous year? Credit unions and money advice centres also deal with several thousand similar cases each year. Given that responsibility for dealing with debt lies with both the United Kingdom and the Scottish Parliaments, does she agree that the best way to deal with that serious problem might be to draw up a joint parliamentary strategy between Westminster and Holyrood, as suggested by Citizens Advice Scotland; and will she take steps to ensure that that is done as soon as possible?

Mrs. McGuire: Like my hon. Friend, I am a great admirer of the work of citizens advice bureaux, and I was especially pleased to be able to speak at their annual conference in Scotland in August. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was a volunteer in a citizens advice bureau during a recent volunteers week. CABs do significant and valuable work on debt and with people who find themselves in debt. I agree that the Government and the Scottish Executive should look for ways in which to work together, so I am sure that my hon. Friend will be delighted to learn that the Government, the Scottish Executive and the financial sector are piloting three debt telephone helplines, one of which is in Fife, and seeking ways in which they can provide additional advice and support for those who find themselves in difficulties.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): Will the Minister acknowledge the important role that LETS—local exchange trading schemes—and credit unions play in helping people not only to manage debt, but to avoid it? I am thinking in particular of the Strathbogie credit union in my constituency, which I believe covers the largest rural area of any credit union in Britain. Does she acknowledge that credit unions have a good record of protecting their customers' interests as well as giving them advice, and will she make representations to ensure that the Financial Services Authority does not regulate them in a way that creates excessive charges and means that they cannot operate effectively?

Mrs. McGuire: I agree about credit unions' valuable work. The credit union in the Raploch area of Stirling provides a very valuable resource. However, we have to

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recognise that if credit unions in Scotland are to come of age, they need robust financial regulation around them. Work is being done with the FSA and volunteers and staff at credit unions to make sure that they have a robust regime that has the confidence of both creditors and those who want to borrow.

Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): Does my hon. Friend agree that credit unions have come of age in Scotland, and none more so than Dalmuir credit union, which now has 7,000 members? It has grown since the Secretary of State opened the new building and it lets out #4 million a year. Scotland leads the way in that, and the biggest credit union in Scotland and in Great Britain is the Scotwest credit union, with more than 16,000 members. That is truly coming of age.

Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend is correct. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State helped launch the Dalmuir credit union a few months ago. Yes, both the Government and the Scottish Executive have shown their support for credit unions. They are coming of age. All of us in the House have a duty not just to highlight the advantages of credit unions to some of our more disadvantaged areas, but to encourage people in our more advantaged areas to see the credit union as a valuable way of supporting their local communities.

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