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House of Commons

Tuesday 28 October 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston): When he next intends to meet the Scottish Trades Union Congress to discuss the economy in Scotland. [133806]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling): I met representatives of the STUC on 21 August to discuss a wide range of issues.

Mr. Marshall : In this era of the knowledge economy, does the Secretary of State agree that the proposal by British Energy to move 150 top-quality engineering graduate jobs—and possibly another 150 indirect jobs—from Scotland to England is totally unacceptable? Does he further agree that a possible consequence of that proposal is the closure of a nuclear power station with another 500 jobs at risk? Will he assure us that he will do everything that he can, along with his Cabinet colleagues, the Scottish Executive and the STUC, to keep as many of those jobs in Scotland as possible?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that discussions between British Energy and its unions about those proposals are continuing. The headquarters will remain in Scotland; it is proposed that there will be about 85 redundancies, and following British Energy's taking responsibility for nuclear power stations both north and south of the border, it wants to bring together all the engineers and technicians who are responsible for the maintenance of those power stations. Hunterston and Torness power stations have a long time still to run, and, between them, they employ nearly 1,000 people in highly skilled jobs that are an essential part of the Scottish economy.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Obviously one of the industries that will dominate such discussions is fishing, which employs 42,000 people around Scotland's coastline. Has the Secretary of State had time to look at the scientific advice published last Friday by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea which shows North sea haddock stocks at 500,000

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tonnes, the highest level since 1971? Why, in those circumstances, are fishing communities still suffering doubt and uncertainty about their prospects, instead of looking forward to a booming fishery?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to one of a number of reports about fishing stocks.

Mr. Salmond: This is the official ICES report.

Mr. Darling: There have been other reports. The important point is to make sure that we put in place a regime that will ensure the sustainability of fish stocks. The fisheries strategy unit, which the Government will attend, meets tomorrow. I have never yet heard the hon. Gentleman face up to the fact that we need to take steps to ensure that fishing stocks are preserved so that the industry has a long-term future. Instead, we constantly get the impression from him that there is no reason to conserve stocks at all. That cannot be right.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr): Does the Secretary of State agree that his recent announcement giving the go-ahead to the new Scottish air traffic control centre will make an excellent contribution to the Scottish economy, contributing as it will over £25 million a year to the Ayrshire economy?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right and she deserves a great deal of credit for fighting to get the UK's second air traffic control centre at Prestwick. That centre will control air traffic movements across the north Atlantic and the northern part of the UK, right down to Amsterdam. When it is completed, it will be the sixth largest air traffic control centre in Europe and will play an important part in the single skies air traffic control system. My hon. Friend is right to say that it will play a significant part in ensuring the future success of the Ayrshire economy.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): When the Secretary of State next meets the STUC to discuss the economy in Scotland, what will he say about the rapid growth of the Scottish consumer debt mountain, which now stands at £26.5 billion? What measures will the Government take to ensure that the economic recovery will be sustainable, rather than a consumer debt-led boom?

Mr. Darling: The Government have put in place a range of measures to ensure a strong, stable economy. One reason that we have the highest levels of employment and the lowest levels of unemployment for a generation is that we have that stable economy. As the Chancellor has made clear, all our economic policies are geared towards ensuring that this country has sustainable long-term growth. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that it is a tribute to my right hon. Friend's stewardship that we have such a strong economy—one that is still growing when most of our major competitors have faced recession, have been in recession or, in some cases, are in recession.

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Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): Will my right hon. Friend raise with the STUC the importance to the Scottish economy of shipbuilding, ship repair and ship refit work? Does he agree that the future aircraft carrier will, whatever its final size, be the biggest warship ever produced and holds the key to a long-term future for Rosyth dockyard? Will he work with the STUC to retain some of Scotland's top engineering skills and ensure that the aircraft carrier work begins on time?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right that the order from the Ministry of Defence for the aircraft carrier is of great significance to Scotland. Indeed, it shows the benefit of Scotland being part of the United Kingdom, as defence is a crucial part of our economy. The MOD continues to work on the specification of the new aircraft carrier, but she is right to emphasise its importance. She can rest assured that all my colleagues and I will do everything that we can to make sure that the work is carried out as quickly as possible.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Behind all the spin, is the Secretary of State proud of his Government's record since Labour came to office in 1997, under which economic growth in Scotland has been lower than in the UK? In fact, Scotland's gross domestic product, as he knows, has been lower in each successive quarter since 1998. Is he proud of that record?

Mr. Darling: I should have thought that, today of all days, the hon. Gentleman would have confined his predictions of gloom and doom to the party to which he belongs. We all look forward to the publication of many political diaries, but I strongly urge him to publish his quickly because it may become time-expired in the not-too-distant future.

Britain has a very strong economy, and the Scottish economy, too, has done well. There are extremely high levels of employment and unemployment is at its lowest level for a generation—something that could never have been dreamt of under the Conservative Government. We have low interest and mortgage rates, and the prospects for the Scottish economy are good. If the hon. Gentleman takes time off from scribbling in his diary and looks at what commentators say about the Scottish economy—

Mr. Duncan: I am full-time—the right hon. Gentleman is the part-timer.

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman says that he is working full-time on his diary, which speaks volumes about where the principal Opposition party is today. Its members are writing diaries about their own downfall rather than concentrating on the real issues affecting Scotland.

Fireworks Act

2. Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): What discussions he has had with the Scottish Executive with regard to the use of powers granted by the Fireworks Act 2003. [133807]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): May I echo the Prime Minister's congratulations last week to my hon. Friend on his excellent work in piloting that important measure through Parliament? I recently met the Minister for Finance and Public Services in the Scottish Executive to discuss a range of issues, including the Fireworks Act 2003.

Mr. Tynan : I thank my hon. Friend for her response. Is she aware of the excellent educational drama "Toast", which South Lanarkshire community safety partnership is piloting in schools throughout Lanarkshire? Margaret Brunton, the council's home safety officer, said:

Will the Minister, in discussions with the Scottish Executive, make sure that funding is available so that pupils throughout Scotland can see the play so that misbehaviour involving fireworks is recognised as dangerous?

Mrs. McGuire: The issue of funding projects in Scotland is very much one for the Scottish Executive, and it would be presumptuous of me to attempt to tell them what to do. However, I am delighted to echo my hon. Friend's comments about that production's dramatic approach to firework safety, which I think is the ethic that underpins it. Not only have I heard of the company and its productions but I can tell hon. Members that it is going to Cathkin high school on 31 October, John Ogilvie high school in Hamilton on 3 and 4 November and Earnock high school in Hamilton on 5 November.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): The Fireworks Act has been passed, but one of the biggest problems is controlling legislation and making sure that offenders are pursued. In today's papers there is a report of someone who launched a gerbil on the end of a rocket, which shows the mentality of some people in this country. Will the Minister assure the House that, whether they are members of the public or manufacturers, people who break the code will be pursued to the full extent of the law?

Mrs. McGuire: The Government are very much aware of the importance of making sure that firework legislation operates effectively. Like many hon. Members, I read reports of that sickening incident in today's newspapers. Legislation has been in place for a long time to deal with issues relating to the protection of animals. Indeed, as far back as 1912 it was an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to domestic or captive animals through the use of fireworks. I certainly hope that in this and other instances the authorities use the legal protection that is in place to ensure that people are not disadvantaged or discomfited and do not suffer fear or terror because of the abuse of fireworks.

Mrs. Helen Liddell (Airdrie and Shotts): My hon. Friend will be aware that there are proposals for the opening of a fireworks factory in my constituency. Yesterday that was the subject of some disturbing allegations in The Herald. Will she raise with the

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Scottish Executive the concern of my constituents, which predates yesterday's newspaper report? They fear for public safety and public order, and I ask my hon. Friend to take such action as is available to her so that my constituents can rest easy in their beds at night.

Mrs. McGuire: I read the article in yesterday's newspaper, and I understand my right hon. Friend's concerns. Planning and health and safety issues are involved. I assure her that I will raise the matters that she highlighted with the Health and Safety Executive in Scotland.

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