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House of Commons

Tuesday 26 November 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Scottish Parliament

1. Mr. John Baron (Billericay): When she will publish the results of her consultation on the size of the Scottish Parliament. [81439]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Helen Liddell): I hope to be able to make a decision before the end of the year.

Mr. Baron : I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but given that at present there are 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament, each representing on average 25,000 constituents, whereas, on average, the figure south of the border is closer to 70,000, and given that politicians can often be the problem rather than the solution, does the right hon. Lady agree that the pleas of most MSPs should be ignored and that the interests of the Scottish people would be better served by a smaller, more effective and less expensive Parliament, as envisaged by the Scotland Act 1998?

Mrs. Liddell: I really wish that when Members pick up hand-out questions from the Tory Whips they would do a wee bit of homework before they come into the Chamber. There are 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament, 73 of whom are elected under the first-past-the-post system and the rest of whom are elected under the list system. Indeed, it is the list system that has allowed the Scottish Conservatives some life after death in Scotland.

There has been a lengthy consultation exercise and people who have a genuine interest in the success of devolution have given a range of responses to it. I shall take those responses fully into account, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have reached this stage because of a consensus built up across civic Scotland, of which the Scottish Conservative party is not a part. I shall seek a conclusion that builds on that consensus.

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Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): As someone who was involved in the project from day one, I never saw the Conservatives express any interest whatever. All they did was to tell us how useless it would be and that the Scottish people would reject it. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Scottish Conservatives have refused to make the—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State cannot answer for the Conservative party. That is not what she is here for.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Has the Secretary of State had time to consider our proposals for a leaner, fitter, more focused Parliament, with fewer MSPs, which would go a long way towards restoring public confidence in the Parliament as a whole? Given that the Deputy Minister for Justice in Scotland was reported as calling firefighters Xfascists", does she agree that far too many MSPs and far too many Ministers in Scotland are undeserving of public support?

Mrs. Liddell: I take this opportunity to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities on the Front Bench. It is an historic day to see at the Dispatch Box an elected Conservative representing a Scottish constituency, and I wish him well in his deliberations.

On the Government Benches, we know that the Scottish Conservative party does not wish the Scottish Parliament well. The 18 years of Conservative Government helped to focus people's attention on the need for a Scottish Parliament. I shall take into account all the representations made to me, including those from the Scottish Conservative party. They will be taken into account when I make my decision, which will, I hope, be shortly.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): Given that the Secretary of State is the only person to have seen the consultation document, she will have had plenty of time to come to a view about the future size of the Scottish Parliament. Does she agree with the unholy alliance of Labour Back Benchers and Conservatives who believe that the numbers must be reduced, or does she agree with me, the rest of the Scottish National party and the overwhelming majority of MSPs that 129 should be retained? The question is straightforward and simple: does the Secretary of State believe that 129 should be retained? Yes or no?

Mrs. Liddell: I have to respect the traditions of the House. I entered into a consultation exercise, and I am not the only person who has seen the consultation document: 800 copies have been distributed, 1,300 hits have been made on the Scotland Office website, and there have been 230 replies. I shall deliberate on them. I have to point out to the hon. Gentleman that the reason that there is a Scottish Tory at the Dispatch Box is the failure of the Scottish National party in Galloway.

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Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): It ill behoves the SNP to make any comment about the size of the Scottish Parliament, given that neither the SNP nor the Conservative party were part of the process in the first place.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure us that her response to the document will be based on the constitutional convention consensus, and that it will take everyone's views on board?

Mrs. Liddell: I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I congratulate her on the work that she did in the Scottish constitutional convention. There has been a wide range of responses from people, and I have asked for some additional work to be done on those responses because I am anxious to reach a conclusion that meets the needs of the broad spectrum of people who have responded to the consultation exercise.

Scottish Fishing Industry

2. Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): What assessment she has made of prospects for employment in the Scottish fishing industry. [81440]

4. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): What assessment she has made of employment prospects in the Scottish fishing industry. [81442]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Helen Liddell): Future employment in the Scottish fishing industry will depend on the size of fish stocks and on the regulation of fish catches. The Government and the Scottish Executive are examining those issues with a view to securing a sustainable future for the industry.

Chris Grayling: I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that all of us in the United Kingdom will be losers if jobs and hence the communities in the remote parts of Scotland that depend on fishing are weakened and disappear. She will also be aware that the North sea suffers badly from industrial effluent from northern Europe and factory fishing from Denmark, which have as much of an effect on fish stocks as over-fishing. What can she and the Government do about those problems?

Mrs. Liddell: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about how serious the issue is, particularly for the fishing communities around the coast of Scotland. We are now fully engaged in discussions with the Commission and, indeed, our colleagues in the Scottish Executive. It is our intention to have a common fisheries policy that not only delivers value for money, protects fish stocks and secures a future for the industry, but takes into account environmental issues. This is a time for cool heads, and we should all work together to secure the livelihoods of fishermen and their families in Scotland and the United Kingdom.

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Andrew Selous: Given that haddock stocks are at their highest level since 1971, why is Scotland contemplating the end of fishing for that fish? Does the Secretary of State agree that fishing will return to its long-term viable status only when the communities are able to manage the fish stocks on which their employment depends?

Mrs. Liddell: Again, I return to the issue of people doing their homework; Scotland is not contemplating the end of fishing. Indeed, Scotland is determined to fight for the continuation of fishing, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that haddock and whiting stocks are being caught in the trap of the depletion in cod stocks in the North sea and that the by-catch is the difficulty for us. We would welcome the hon. Gentleman's support in ensuring sustainability for the fishing communities around Scotland. These are serious issues, and they require serious consideration.

Mr. Calum MacDonald (Western Isles): Does the Secretary of State agree that there are several different kinds of fishing industry in Scotland, some of which are hitting very serious problems while others are very successful? In particular, the west coast fishing industry, which largely catches shellfish, has had one of its best years for two decades. Will she join me in commending those fishermen on the responsible way in which they have conducted their fishery and seek to ensure that the Commission's fishing policy fully takes into account the different needs of the various industries in Scotland?

Mrs. Liddell: I congratulate my hon. Friend on that question. Indeed, I congratulate the fishermen in his community and elsewhere on their work. The nephrops fishery is an interesting case because by-catches of cod from the nephrops stock was an issue. There has been some success in relation to that, but fishing communities throughout Scotland must bear in mind that we are in very difficult times, and we need to co-operate to find a way forward. As I said earlier, this is a time for very cool heads in a very serious situation.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Can my right hon. Friend assure us that the Government will sign up to an agreement in Europe only if they are convinced that it is based on accurate scientific evidence and provides a solution that will sustain fishing stocks and the long-term future of our fishing industry in both its elements—catching and processing?

Mrs. Liddell: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. He and I were present during the fisheries debate last Thursday when the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), made that point. I understand that, as recently as this morning, representatives from fishing communities met scientists from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I hope that that meeting was useful. There

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is no doubt that the science issue has to be taken into account seriously, but we also have to question in great detail the conclusions reached as a result of analysing the science. We have to take into account the measures that have been previously introduced to preserve cod stocks in the North sea in reaching our final conclusions.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I welcome what the Secretary of State has just said about taking into account the substantial reductions in fishing effort over the last year. When haddock stocks biomass figures are the highest that they have been in the North sea for 30 years, when saith is at its highest for 20 years, and when whiting is at its highest for 10 years—and even cod, which is at very low levels, is improving—why on earth are we talking about a management plan for next year that might involve the loss of thousands of jobs around the coastline of Scotland? What personal involvement has she had in securing those jobs and the livelihoods of thousands of people in the communities of Scotland?

Mrs. Liddell: The hon. Gentleman asks an important question, and I agree with him about the inequity of haddock and other stocks being caught in this trap. He asks about my personal involvement. I have taken a considerable interest in this matter, and yesterday I met the Scottish Minister for Environment and Rural Affairs who has responsibility for fisheries. I am going to Brussels this afternoon, and I hope to meet representatives of the UK permanent representation to get a handle from them on how the discussions are likely to go. Like him, however, I am determined to see a future for the Scottish fishing industry.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): I am sure that the Secretary of State is well aware of the grave concern for the Scottish fishing fleet on both sides of the House. Given the considerable concern regarding the interpretation of the science that the Commission has produced, will she, in her meetings, impress on the Commission and her colleagues the real contribution that the Scottish fishing fleet made to reduce effort last year, particularly with regard to increasing mesh sizes and other measures?

Mrs. Liddell: I shall certainly make those points, and the hon. Gentleman does well to draw them to the attention of the House. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary pointed out on Thursday night, these are areas in which we have strength on our side in challenging the conclusions of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, and in taking on the position of the Fisheries Commissioner, who seems to think that closing down the fishing industry in Scotland would be a price worth paying. It is not a price worth paying for this Government.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I hope that at the forthcoming European Fisheries Council my right hon. Friend will give an undertaking that the Government will argue strongly for maximum possible protection for

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Scotland's fishing industry. Does she agree, however, that it is vital that effective enforcement measures apply consistently across each and every member state?

Mrs. Liddell: That is an important point with which I agree. It is difficult to have unregulated fishing and excessive factory fishing as well as sustainable fishing stocks. Indeed, we signed up to the international plan of action in Rome in 1991, which is a good way forward. It is vital that we constantly take into account the whole issue of sustainability. However, some of the issues concerned with sustainability are difficult. We must engage across the House in a proper debate on these matters, along with those who know most about it, the fishing industry, so that we ensure the future of the industry, not just for those who are in the industry today, but for those in the industry in the future.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): As hon. Members have referred to nearly 44,000 jobs in Scotland in the fishing industry being at potential risk, will the right hon. Lady tell us who in her team is going to Brussels this afternoon, what subjects they plan to discuss and what outcomes she expects?

Mrs. Liddell: I am going to Brussels this afternoon. I have other engagements, but part of my visit is to give me an opportunity to talk to the UK permanent representation about the nature of the negotiations going on in relation to this matter. These are critical times, as the run-up to the Fisheries Council is, in many respects, even more important than the Fisheries Council itself. I know that the Scottish Fisheries Minister will be in Brussels at the end of this week, and we must work together across the House and with the Scottish Parliament to ensure that a balanced case is put, and that we have a sound and coherent argument that sustains the fishing industry for the future.

Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that information, and I am glad that she is taking unilateral action on the fishing industry. From her website, nobody in the Scotland Office appears to be doing anything much. As the Prime Minister, last Wednesday, tacitly accepted the European Commission's questionable science, and condemned, in effect, the Scots fishing boats to tie up, can she tell us what action she is preparing to support the industry by the use of structural funds? What thought has she given to the long-term future of those communities, given that the funds will run out in 2006?

Mrs. Liddell: I get the impression that the hon. Lady is selling out the fishing industry already. We have a way to go in the negotiations and a coherent case will be significant. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to the science. The science is important and we have to come to a mutually agreed decision about the robustness of the science, because the future and sustainability of the fishing industry are important. If the Government whom she supported had taken action in the 18 years that they were in power, we might not face these difficulties now.

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