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House of Commons

Tuesday 7 January 2003

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 Boundary Commission

1. Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): When she expects to announce the results of the Scottish boundary commission. [89136]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Helen Liddell): The commission is required to submit its report on the current parliamentary constituencies review before December 2006. It is a matter for the commission when, within that time scale, it does so.

Mr. Donohoe : May I take this opportunity, Mr. Speaker, to wish you and the whole House a peaceful and good new year? I have a specific, simple question for my right hon. Friend: does she expect to fight the next general election on the new boundaries?

Mrs. Liddell: The boundary commission has a long period in which to prepare its report—December 2006 is

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quite a long way off. That is largely because the old way of working meant that its task was a scissors-and-paste job, and putting together all the maps took considerable time, but nowadays, with modern software, that need not be the case. My guess is as good as my hon. Friend's. I anticipate that the commission could report much sooner than December 2006, but it may find that it needs longer to conclude its deliberations.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): The suspicion persists that the Secretary of State plans to delay implementation of the new constituencies, thus not only securing her own precarious position but offering a shady deal to silence the siren voices of those Members behind her who are furious about her decision with regard to the Scottish Parliament. Perhaps it is not only the First Minister who has been stitched up during the Christmas recess. Will the commission's report and the orders necessary to implement it be laid before the House in time for any general election in 2005 or 2006—yes or no?

Mrs. Liddell: The hon. Gentleman should listen; I just explained that the boundary commission does not have to report until 2006. He may choose to address his questions to that independent body. I should have thought that anyone on the Conservative Benches should be wary of talking about people being in a precarious position.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): I am sure that the Secretary of State's colleagues were looking for a great deal more comfort than she was able to provide in her reply. It sounds the death knell for many of her hon. Friends. Let me put the question a different way: does she believe that we will be contesting the next election on the new boundaries? Does she agree that the Scottish public will be appalled by her colleagues' cynical

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behaviour and the naked self-interest that they are prepared to demonstrate to try to preserve their seats? The scramble for seats begins ahead of the next election.

Mrs. Liddell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and especially for his remarks during the recess, when he expressed anxiety that I may be campaigning for the return of a Labour-led Scottish Executive in Edinburgh. I confirm that I will be doing so.

In response to the hon. Gentleman's question, the boundary commission is completely independent, and it is up to the commission to decide when it reports. However, I make the point to the hon. Gentleman and other Members that at present the average size of a Scottish constituency is 55,000 electors, and the average size of an English constituency is 70,000, so there is clearly an imbalance.

National Minimum Wage

2. Mrs. Irene Adams (Paisley, North): How many people in Scotland benefit from the national minimum wage. [89137]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Some 110,000 people in Scotland have benefited from the national minimum wage since it was introduced in 1999.

Mrs. Adams : What further action is being taken by the Government to ensure that there is high awareness of the national minimum wage among employers and employees? Will my hon. Friend undertake to meet the Scottish Low Pay Unit, Citizens Advice Scotland and the Inland Revenue to ensure that all that can be done is being done?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I know that the Scottish Affairs Committee, which she chairs, is looking to investigate home working and the minimum wage. Both the Department for Trade and Industry and the Inland Revenue are being evangelical about the minimum wage. My hon. Friend will be delighted, as I hope will the House, to hear that at the end of this month a pilot project will be launched in Scotland, in partnership with Citizens Advice Scotland, the Scottish Low Pay Unit and the Inland Revenue, to make sure not only that there is compliance but that individual workers know what their rights are.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): Is the Minister aware that one in 15 Scots workers who benefit from the minimum wage are under 21 and consequently on a lower rate? Given the success of the minimum wage, is it not now time to end that discrimination and give those 7,000 young Scots workers equal pay for an equal job?

Mrs. McGuire: If I recollect the Liberal Democrats' position on the national minimum wage correctly, they were not particularly in favour of it at the time. I welcome their conversion. On younger workers, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, there is a clear direction that they should be looking at training and educational opportunities. We have gone along with the widely held

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view that to introduce an adult rate before the age of 21 would be counter-productive, given the other priorities that young people have to pursue.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw): While I recognise that the national minimum wage has done enormous good for Scottish workers, is the Minister aware that a report published this week says that those same workers have faced assaults and threats in a third of Scottish work places? When she next meets trade unions and employers, will she undertake to bring up that very serious subject? Surely it is not right that people should feel threatened and intimidated while they strive to earn a living.

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for making that particularly important point. He is quite right—no worker should feel threatened and intimidated either going to work or while at work. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will seek to raise the matter when we next meet the Scottish Trades Union Congress and employers' organisations.

Scotland Act

3. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): When she proposes to bring forward legislation to amend the Scotland Act 1998 in respect of the size of the Scottish Parliament. [89138]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Helen Liddell): I shall seek agreement to introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Mr. Swayne : How many indications of support has the Secretary of State had for her proposals from Labour Back Benchers?

Mrs. Liddell: Of the replies to the consultation exercise that I undertook, there were 18 responses from hon. Members, six of which opposed the proposals—it was basically 2:1. Indeed, let me point out that the Labour party, the Co-operative party and the Scottish trade union movement all agree with my position. Only the Scottish Conservative party has stood against the proposals.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): Does the Secretary of State agree that it is ludicrous that the House should determine the size of the Scottish Parliament? Will she undertake that, in the Bill on the matter, there will be provision to transfer that power to the Scottish Parliament so that in future it can determine its appropriate size?

Mrs. Liddell: No.

Fishing Industry

4. Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): What plans she has to provide financial support for coastal communities affected by the reduction of fishing effort in the North sea. [89139]

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8. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): If she will make a statement on the Scottish fishing industry. [89143]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Helen Liddell): The Government are committed to protecting the interests of the UK fishing industry. A large part of the industry has depended on fish species whose stocks have been in decline, and this has necessitated some difficult decisions on future fishing effort. The decisions taken by the European Union's Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels last month will be reported to the House shortly by the fisheries Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley).

The Government and the Scottish Executive are considering what help the industry may need to adjust to the new limits on fishing effort, and what additional help may be needed by fishing-dependent communities. As the hon. Gentlemen know, such decisions in Scotland are for the Scottish Executive.

Sir Archy Kirkwood: I am grateful for that important answer. Will the Secretary of State personally support an approach to Treasury Ministers to try to secure a new emergency package of short-term relief on the grounds that, over the next three to six months—the cuts will be introduced in February—trying to maintain some kind of stability in the fishing industry will be difficult until a package of decommissioning can be negotiated with it?

Mrs. Liddell: Before I reply to the hon. Gentleman, may I take the opportunity on behalf, I am sure, of the whole House, to congratulate him on his recent knighthood. All of us who have benefited from his interest in parliamentary matters have much to be grateful for. He has also comprehensively upstaged everybody who had a 30th wedding anniversary last year.

To return to the substantive point, the hon. Gentleman should be aware that at the highest levels of Government there is considerable discussion about the kind of assistance that can be given to fishing communities and how we should deal with the next six months. The new arrangements will be introduced on 1 February, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares my view that it is essential that there is no posturing on these matters. There must be a serious effort to address the fishing communties' difficulties to ensure their long-term viability and to safeguard the industry for the future.

Mr. Carmichael: May I welcome everything that the right hon. Lady said about Government support for the fishing industry? I hope that she will impress on her right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer the need to put money where the Government's mouth is. That money needs to go from the UK Treasury to the Scottish Executive, who can spend it in conjunction with the Scottish fishing industry not just on decommissioning, if that is considered necessary, but on other options including funded tie-up schemes.

Mrs. Liddell: On the final point, there is considerable debate about funded tie-up schemes. It is anticipated that restoring stocks to the North sea will take a considerable time. There must be serious analysis of

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decommissioning v. funded tie-ups, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that at the highest levels of government, considerable attention is being devoted to those matters. The situation is serious and there are no simple answers. The Government are determined to do what we can to assist the fishing communities.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): Does my right hon. Friend agree with the statement in The Scotsman today by George MacRae, secretary of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association? He said:

Does my hon. Friend also agree that the finger-pointing and name-calling must stop? The only way that we will achieve a future for Scottish fishermen and the fish processors in my constituency is if the Government, the industry and the Scottish Executive all work together to make sure that there is a future for fishermen in Scotland.

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I read with great interest the comments of Mr. George MacRae this morning. He also said that while arguments about blame are inevitable to enable politicians to score points off each other, particularly in the lead-up to the 2003 elections, they will achieve nothing to help the industry. That is an extremely important point. There is a real need for people to work together to protect the fishing communities. I draw to my hon. Friend's attention the comments of Hamish Morrison, who said:

for the fishing industry.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): My right hon. Friend is well aware of the deep concern in the fishing industry, among both catchers and processors, and in their dependent communities. Will she seek urgent talks with the Prime Minister and the First Minister to consider what practical assistance can be given?

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Discussions are already planned not just with the Prime Minister and the First Minister, but with representatives of the fishing communities. We share Mr. MacRae's view that it is important that we all pull together to ensure the best possible outcome for the future.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I am glad that the Secretary of State supports the views of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, which just two days ago called for the resignation of the UK fisheries Minister. Can the Secretary of State explain how the fisheries Minister could have signed a deal that allows a fleet—the most conservation-minded fleet, fishing with 120mm mesh—nine days fishing, according to the Council regulation, while the Danish industrial fleet, fishing exactly the same waters, is allowed 23 days' fishing with hairnet mesh that destroys everything in its path? Will the proposed aid package try to protect and

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preserve the fishing fleet and the fishing communities that depend on it, or will it merely try to run down the industry even further than it has been run down already?

Mrs. Liddell: The hon. Gentleman does not help the cause of the fishermen. He is the man who called the European Fisheries Commissioner a thug and an ignoramus. Is that supposed to help us in our negotiations? The Danish fishing community has also been badly affected by the measures. We are well aware of the difficulties that all the North sea fishing communities face. [Interruption.] I wish the hon. Gentleman would stop posturing. It is important that we deal with the facts. All the decommissioning efforts being undertaken by the fishing communities in the north-east of Scotland have been taken into account in the negotiations. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we started off from a position where, come 1 January, we would have seen a total ban on fisheries in the North sea. [Interruption.] The proposal then was seven days of fishing per month—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman asked a question. The Secretary of State is entitled to reply.

Mrs. Liddell: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The initial proposals were that fishing in the North sea would have been stopped as of now. The next proposal was for seven days of fishing per month. Now we have managed to negotiate 15 days. All that is a considerable improvement, but all the posturing in the world from the hon. Gentleman will not put one more fish into the North sea.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recent announcement by Fullerton, a computer manufacturer in Inverclyde, of its intention to close its manufacturing base, with the loss of some 500 jobs and the consequential effect of that not only on my constituency, but on that of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns), who is at this moment speaking to the unions and the management at that plant. Can my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that those manufacturing communities that suffer job losses, such as those in Port Glasgow and Greenock, will receive the same financial support and resources afforded to those in the fishing communities?

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend makes an important point. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) is already meeting the management of another employer in the community. The Scottish Executive have announced that they will put in place the procedures that are normal in such circumstances. I share my hon. Friend's view that we should ensure that every community that is affected by unemployment is treated fairly and in a way that is sustainable for the long-term. I understand that another announcement is expected this afternoon. Commercial confidentiality prevents me from speaking about that, but I hope that the situation might prove much less bleak than people have been anticipating.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): May I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and

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Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) on his knighthood? We look forward to his continuing contribution in this House.

The fishing tie-up starts in approximately three weeks. Will the right hon. Lady give us some indication as to whether she believes that sufficient resources will be put into the fishing industry by the beginning of February to ensure minimum disruption to the communities? Are the Government backing the call made by Scottish Conservative MEP Struan Stevenson for compensation of #100 million from the European Community?

Mrs. Liddell: Since the conclusion of the discussions in Brussels, the Government have been very much engaged with the debate about what we can do to ensure the continuity of the fishing communities. The First Minister has met representatives of the fishing communities on a number of occasions and the Prime Minister is to meet representatives before the end of the month. I met the fisheries Minister this morning to discuss what sort of package can be made available to ensure the continuation of the fishing industry and to provide some help in the transition that is required because of these rather unfortunate times.

Mrs. Lait: There was clearly no guarantee in that answer that an arrangement will be in place by the beginning of February. However, at the end of March, there will be discussions on long-term proposals for the North sea. What part, if any, will the right hon. Lady play in those discussions? Will the Government advocate that the UK fishery should be managed nationally?

Mrs. Liddell: On the second point, no, there is no prospect of repatriating fisheries policy. Fish do not carry passports. The most important way forward for the fishing community is a common fisheries policy. Indeed, in all the debate about the fisheries industries, the successes that this Government have achieved in relation to the common fisheries policy have been completely overlooked. On the discussions that must take place in March in respect of the new system, and discussions post July, I have been in discussions with the fisheries Minister as recently as this morning on the line that the British Government should take.

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