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House of Commons

Tuesday 7 September 2004

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Renewable Energy

1. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What discussions he has had with the (a) First Minister and (b) Energy Minister on the Government's policies for renewable energy. [187626]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling): I have discussed renewable energy over recent months with both the First Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Promotion of renewables is, of course, a devolved responsibility in Scotland.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. He will be aware that renewable energy is unreliable and in most instances requires back-up from other sources, so the Government have asked the oil companies to take a special lead in that regard. Against that background, how can he justify parts of Scotland, such as the west of Scotland and the Isle of Skye, being blighted?

Mr. Darling: It is the case that it is best for energy to come from several different sources, but if we are to meet our environmental obligations, it is important to increase the amount of electricity that comes from renewable sources. There are parts of Scotland in which the development of renewable energy has been welcomed for such reasons as job creation. I accept the hon. Lady's general point that if electricity is generated and transmission lines then have to be built or upgraded, it can be controversial. However, there is no getting away from the fact that in an economy such as ours, in which every single one of us depends on electricity, we need to generate the stuff as efficiently and effectively as possible, and that means having the right mix of supply.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I am sure that the Secretary of State is already aware that a week last Thursday at an anniversary celebration for 10 years of Talisman in the North sea, both the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services and the First Minister made announcements. The First Minister
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made an announcement on the development of the Beatrice platform, which has huge wind turbines and has received investment from the Government, and the Energy Minister announced new developments for the Tweedsmuir field. Does the Secretary of State agree that that shows how Scotland and the UK working together will ensure that the energy needs of the north-east of Scotland and the rest of the country will come from a mix of oil and gas developments and renewable sources?

Mr. Darling: That is a very good point. Both the Scottish Executive and the UK Government—as well as industry—are working together so that we may increase the amount of energy generated from renewable sources. It is also worth bearing it in mind that over the summer the Conservatives came out against a lot of renewable energy generation. Most people who want to ensure that we have supply in the future will want us to have the right mix and, especially, to increase the amount of renewable-generated electricity because that must be good for the environment. As I said earlier, all such applications can be controversial, but most people, especially those in the north-east of Scotland who listened to last week's announcement, would have been pleased that the Scottish Executive and the UK Government were working closely together.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Is the Secretary of State aware of the recommended transmission charge by National Grid Company of some £22 per kilowatt for electricity generated in my constituency, which Scottish Renewables estimates will create a burden of some £75 million above that on similar producers in England? What can the Government do to ensure that that unfair burden is not levied on the nascent Scottish renewables industry?

Mr. Darling: I am aware of the proposals. There is provision in the Energy Act 2004 to provide relief from charges, which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome. On electricity generation and the new scheme, it is important to bear it in mind that, as a result of the changes, the interconnnector charges that Scottish generators would otherwise have to pay when selling electricity to England and Wales will be removed. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is important to ensure that there is a level playing field for generators throughout the country, although account must be taken of the inevitable costs incurred when electricity is transmitted. I am aware of his point and anxious to ensure that Scottish renewable energy generation is encouraged.

Quality of Life

2. Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): What factors are taken into account when assessing the quality of life in Scotland's communities. [187627]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): There is no single indicator that can be used to measure quality of life. Indicators covering economic, social and environmental issues taken together can, however, reflect important factors affecting quality of life.
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Jim Sheridan: I thank my hon. Friend for her response, but does she agree that good quality, accessible health services are equally important to the quality of life of all our constituents? Will she use her good offices to remind local health boards such as Argyll and Clyde, which is reducing health services in Inverclyde, that the money that the Government are investing in health services is meant to serve all our communities?

Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend is right that the Government regard health as a priority for investment. I am aware that Argyll and Clyde health board is undertaking a major consultation on proposals on the future configuration of health services in the area, and I am sure that he will welcome its decision to extend the consultation period to 15 October, although, as he will understand, the provision of NHS services in Scotland is a devolved issue for the Scottish Executive.

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD): Does the Minister accept that the indices of deprivation recently produced by Oxford university are being increasingly used to assess the quality of life in Scottish communities? Those indices are an improvement on what was used before, but from her constituency experience she will know that rural districts include areas of bad deprivation and severe poverty, with fragile economies and low wages. While I acknowledge the difficulties on the west coast of Scotland, can she give the House an assurance that rural areas will not suffer from the mindless application of indices of deprivation in future?

Mrs. McGuire: The new indices are an improvement on what was used before and take into account current income, employment, health, education, housing and access to services. The geographical areas studied each cover 500 to 1,000 people, and that approach is helpful to rural communities. The hon. Gentleman and I have met to discuss the subject, and if he would find it helpful I should be delighted to meet him again to see whether more refinement is needed to reflect the issues affecting rural communities.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): While health policy is devolved, many drivers for change in the health services in Scotland apply across the United Kingdom, and include the European working time directive, the reduction in junior doctors' hours, the operation of the royal colleges, GPs' and consultants' contracts, and so on. Does she therefore agree first, that the House has a locus in the debate on the future of the health service in Scotland, and secondly, that we cannot solve the problems in the Scottish health service one hospital at a time? These are national problems affecting the national health service in Scotland and they need a national solution.

Mrs. McGuire: The reconfiguration of health services, particularly the acute services review in Scotland, has attracted a great deal of energetic and robust debate. However, it is a matter for the Scottish Executive, and it would be utterly inappropriate for me to comment on the way in which health boards carry out their functions.
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Industrial Policies

3. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab): What conclusions he has drawn in relation to Government policies for industry from his visit to Sun Microsystems at Linlithgow on Tuesday 31 August. [187628]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling): I was very pleased that my hon. Friend was able to join me to visit Sun Microsystems last week. Sun's investment in the Linlithgow plant demonstrates that the Government's policies and our management of the economy, allied to the Scottish Executive's enterprise strategy, are making Scotland the right place for such companies to do business.

Mr. Dalyell: How about expeditious freight links?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend makes a very good—and very short—point. He is right, and that is why the development at Edinburgh airport, which is now a major freight airport in the UK, is important. Companies such as Sun are anxious, however, to have further freight connections, perhaps at Prestwick or in other countries, where heavier goods could be transported to different parts of the world. However, we want to do everything that we possibly can to encourage companies such as Sun, which makes goods that are exported throughout the world, to thrive in Scotland, and we shall continue to do so.

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