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House of Commons

Tuesday 30 November 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Sessional Returns


Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): If he will ask the Electoral Commission to submit evidence to the inquiry into voting systems and electoral boundaries in Scotland. [199378]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Electoral Commission is independent, but I very much hope that it will contribute to the Arbuthnott commission inquiry. Indeed, I understand that Sir Neil McIntosh, who is one of the commission's members, attended a meeting of the Arbuthnott commission on 1 November, when he discussed the Electoral Commission's work and role.

Mr. Lazarowicz: As my right hon. Friend will be aware, from May 2007, as things presently stand, the Scottish electorate will on the same day vote for constituency MSPs under the first-past-the-post system, for regional MSPs under the regional list system and for local councillors under the single transferable vote
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system of proportional representation, with different boundaries for Scottish and Westminster parliamentary constituencies. Does he agree that it would be particularly valuable to get the Electoral Commission's views on the effects of that complexity on voter turnout and voter understanding of the political process? On boundaries, can he tell us when we can expect to hear an announcement on whether we will fight the next general election in Scotland on the old or the new boundaries?

Mr. Darling: On the first point, my hon. Friend is right, which is why I set up the commission in the first place; these issues need to be looked at.

On the second point, I can tell the House that, at long last, I received the boundary commission's report just half an hour ago, and I thought that the House would want to be the first to know that happy news, in which I have a very keen personal interest. Under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, I will lay a report before the House as soon as I have had the opportunity to consider that, and I expect to do so very shortly indeed.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale) (Con): I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for that timeous reply, but will he give a more specific indication? He will appreciate that there is genuine concern that the Government are seeking to evade their responsibilities. How long does he expect it to take before the order is laid before the House?

Mr. Darling: I can understand the hon. Gentleman's irritation that his prepared question has now been overtaken by very recent events—that is very hard, but it happens to the best of us.

I have the report and I need to consider it. I understand that it comprises some 17 chapters, which I will have to look at, but I intend to lay the order before the House as quickly as possible. All being well, assuming that it gets the approval of both Houses, I hope that it will be in force in February, in ample time for any election that may take place next year, or indeed the year after.

Mr. Duncan: I thank the Secretary of State for that, but he will also be aware that local authorities have an important role in adapting to any boundary change. What discussions has he had with local authorities about how long they need to react to the order when it is laid? In particular, what request has he had from them about the time delay that they need to adapt to those changes?

Mr. Darling: I have had no such request at all. I think that most of those in Scotland who concern themselves with these things have been well aware that this change has been coming—certainly, all the political parties are proceeding on the basis of the new constituencies—and the local authorities are also aware of it. The boundary commission report took longer than we expected to be prepared, but it has now been produced. As I have told the House, I intend to proceed as quickly as possible because that is in everyone's best interests, so that we can get on with the new constituency boundaries. As I said a few moments ago in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith
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(Mr. Lazarowicz), I also hope that the Electoral Commission will turn its attention to some of the complications that will arise from having different constituencies and different voting systems in Scotland.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): I am really pleased that my right hon. Friend has got the report. I was a bit worried that I would be forced to stand again. I think of the implications of that. Seriously, though, with no disrespect to Professor Arbuthnott, I am afraid that his activities and those of his commission in Scotland are about as well-known at the moment as the activities of the Secret Intelligence Service. Will my right hon. Friend have a word with Professor Arbuthnott about some kind of public relations strategy, so that people who have a genuine interest in this issue and the wider public know about the commission's work and can submit evidence to it?

Mr. Darling: No doubt, the prospect of my right hon. Friend standing again was one of the many things that spurred the commissioners to produce their report. Although I will be personally very sorry to see the Edinburgh, Central constituency disappear as a result of these changes, I am none the less sure that we are all prepared for the new world that we are about to enter.

On the point that my right hon. Friend makes about the Arbuthnott commission, clearly it is for that commission to decide how to conduct its operations, but I know that its members intend to go around Scotland to satisfy themselves that they are getting Scottish opinion on this issue. It has to be said, in fairness to the commission, that this subject probably exercises a small number of people, but it is important that we get it right so that we do not end up with an electoral system that is so complicated that people cannot understand it. I feel strongly about that, which is why the Electoral Commission, which is independent of us all, should be encouraged to become actively involved in the debate.

Nuclear Power

2. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future of nuclear power generation in Scotland. [199379]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling): Nuclear generation contributes about a third of the electricity used in Scotland at present and it will continue to make a substantial contribution over the next 20 years.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does the Secretary of State think that the Scottish Executive's target of 40 per cent. of electricity from renewable generation by 2020 is realistic? Is he aware that 3,000 jobs throughout Scotland are generated by the nuclear industry and that £80 million is put into the fragile highlands economy? Is it not time that we looked again at the proportion of nuclear power generation in the electricity mix?

Mr. Darling: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was here at the last Scottish questions, but I am sure that he takes a keen interest in these matters. I made the point then that we should remember that
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nuclear energy is very important to Scotland, not just because it generates of lot of electricity but because the industry employs many people. Some of the jobs are very skilled and much valued. The Scottish Executive are right to have a stretching and demanding target for renewable energy, because it is important that we have a mix of electricity sources.

On nuclear power, the Government published a White Paper last year in which we made it clear that if we were going to build new stations there would have to be further discussion, because of the obvious difficulties of nuclear waste that are still to be resolved. There is plenty of working life left in the two principal nuclear generators in Scotland, and I understand that it may be possible to extend their lives if that is thought necessary.

I make the point to Conservative Members that we need to do more to encourage more renewable energy. They find themselves in a difficult position, because they are in favour of renewable energy but against the means of generating it.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Do the Government understand that energy transmission charges discriminate against projects north of the border? With a significant renewable energy scheme set for development in the Moray firth, is the Secretary of State concerned that the current exorbitant charges would, as the company has said, threaten the viability of the project?

Mr. Darling: No, I do not think that is right. A couple of issues are involved. First, the hon. Gentleman may not be aware that, this morning, Ofgem announced—[Interruption.] It has been very busy this morning. By sheer coincidence, Ofgem announced that it would not reach a decision on the charging regime at the moment. Instead, it will take further consultation on a different option from the one that it was considering. It still says that it will be enforced by 1 April next year, and it is very conscious of the arguments that have been made from a number of quarters that we must have a fair system of charging.

I also remind the hon. Gentleman, as I reminded the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who is sadly not here, that because the interconnector charge will go, that will remove a significant barrier that faces Scottish generators. We have to look at the charges in the round, and it is important to ensure that Scottish generators are treated fairly. However, he should not overlook the fact that the interconnector charges will go under the new regime. That will help those companies.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that, once the costs of decommissioning are taken into account, nuclear power is a very expensive option? He recently visited Islay in my constituency, and does he agree that the Government should devote more to the research and development of wave and tidal power, which has the benefit of bringing jobs to remote parts of the west of Scotland?

Mr. Darling: All forms of generation have their difficulties, and the hon. Gentleman is right, as I said a moment ago, to suggest that nuclear waste and
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decommissioning are one of the considerations that have to be taken into account, but he must accept that nearly a third of Scotland's generation comes from nuclear power. Were that to be diminished, it would have to be replaced.

The hon. Gentleman is right: I visited Islay recently and was very impressed by the wave power pilot that is being put in place and also by the geothermal heating that is being installed in new housing. It seems to be a remarkably cheap and good way of heating houses. I shall look in my back garden to see whether I can do the same thing there. Much good work is being done on Islay on that front, and on a lot of others as well. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

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