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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Claimant count unemployment in Scotland is at its lowest level for a generation and has fallen by more than 68,000 since spring 1997. Both long-term unemployment and long-term youth unemployment have fallen by more than 80 per cent. In my hon. Friend's constituency, long-term unemployment has fallen by some 43 per cent. since 1997.
Jim Sheridan: Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite the Government's implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, far too many registered disabled people in Scotland are denied the opportunity to work? Will she use her good offices to encourage employers in both the private and public sectors to open their doors to disabled people, who have a tangible and valuable role to play in our society?
Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for his appropriate comments. Too many people who have disabilities have seen doors shut, but the Government can take great pride in the way in which they have tried to focus support on people with disabilities. For far too long in Britain and Scotland, we have judged people with disabilities by what they cannot do, but the Government are determined to ensure that such people are judged by what they can do. A great deal of work has been done and I hope that the House will appreciate that.
Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD): Does the Minister accept that sickness and disability are two of the biggest contributory factors to economic inactivity in Scotland? Will she assure us that the Government have no plans to restrict access to incapacity benefit in a time-limited way? Will she give a further assurance that organisations that deploy the new deal for the disabled will get proper financial arrangements so that they can do their work properly and do the scheme justice?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree, given his long history of involvement with benefits, that people on incapacity benefit should not be
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seen as necessarily at the end of their working lives. We have made a great effort to ensure that appropriate support is directed at people who could perhaps ease their way back to work. The pathways to work pilot in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) is focusing attention on aspects of that situation, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton) (Lab): We all welcome the dramatic fall in youth unemployment and long-term unemployment, especially since 1997 when youth unemployment was such a social blight in our constituencies. The Minister will be aware of the Chancellor's recent speech to the CBI in which he mentioned that there were levels of long-term unemployment of 50 per cent. or more in some areas. Does she recognise the need for further initiatives to ensure that such individuals and their families may play a fuller role in society and get the opportunities that the rest of us in the working world have?
Mrs. McGuire: My right hon. Friend is right to focus on families and communities that have been blighted by long-term unemployment. Although I mentioned the pathways to work pilot in Renfrewshire, other Scottish pilots in Inverclyde and Argyll and Bute are doing the kind of work for which he calls.
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Does it not worry the Minister that long-term unemployment in Scotland, as measured by those claiming jobseeker's allowance for more than 24 months, rose by 8 per cent. between October 2003 and October 2004? In towns such as Wick in my constituency, the reason for that is fairly clear: a fall in job opportunities, exacerbated by the Government running down the Department for Work and Pensions office in the town. Will the Government use their own resources to help boost employment and become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem?
Mrs. McGuire: I would hope that the hon. Gentleman also recognises that although we do not want to go down the specific road of restructuring the DWP in his constituency, which he has raised before, significant Government resources have been invested in his constituency and throughout Scotland through the new deal and various pilot schemes. I would have thought that he would recognise that there has been a drop in unemployment in his constituency of 54.8 per cent. since 1997, and of 10.1 per cent. since last year.
Mr. Brian H. Donohue (Cunninghame, South)
(Lab): Although I welcome the massive drop in unemployment, especially among the youth in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies, my hon. Friend will no doubt be aware of the campaign that I am leading to attract civil service jobs from London. What is she doing to attract jobs to Ayrshire, where for many years the significant unemployment level has been down to the fact that we do not have our fair share of public sector jobs in the Ayrshire conurbation?
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Mrs. McGuire: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the doughty campaign that he has mounted on the undoubted attractions of Ayrshire to encourage the dispersal of civil service jobs. Perhaps he has not been back to his office this morning and is not aware that I have agreed to meet him and representatives from his area early in the new year to discuss some of the issues.
Annabelle Ewing: Leaving aside the First Minister's dithering, will the Secretary of State undertake to the House todaySt. Andrew's dayto make an eleventh-hour plea to the Prime Minister, at whose door the final decision lies, to save the Black Watch and the other Scottish regiments? Will he give that undertaking, yes or no?
Mr. Darling: The hon. Lady knows that the Army needs to undergo restructuring, principally to ensure that the regiments on the front line have the support they need in logistics, engineering, communications and so on. One thing that she, her colleagues, and indeed the Conservatives have not faced up to is that we need to ensure that our front-line troops are properly supported, which means that the Army needs to look at the organisation of the support of those troops.
The second point is that no decision has been made on the regiments. It will be made fairly shortly. The third point is the British Army has many traditions, one of which is that the Scottish regiments are part of it. If the hon. Lady had her way and if she were in power, there would not be a British Army.
Pete Wishart: But does not the Secretary of State recognise the anger and resentment in Scotland that while regiments such as the Black Watch are serving the Government abroad, the Government are stabbing them in the back at home? Will he turn up to the rally in Edinburgh two weeks on Saturday to put the Government's case on why it is necessary to amalgamate these historic regiments?
Mr. Darling: When the hon. Gentleman goes to the march, I wonder whether he will have the straightforwardness to stand up and say that under the Scottish nationalists there would be no British Army, no Royal Navy and no Royal Air Force, because that is what they believe.
Mr. Darling: Then why does the hon. Lady not answer the question of how we can best support our front-line troops by ensuring that there are proper communications, engineering, logistical support and so on. I fully understand the strength of feeling in Scotland on the Black Watch and the regiments overall, but it is important that we take the right decision and the decision that is in the best interests of our soldiers, who are asked to do a difficult job and do it extremely well.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh) (Lab): As an Edinburgh Member, my right hon. Friend is well aware of the capability of the Royal Scots and that they may go back to Iraq next year. Will he consult the Secretary of State for Defence on the timing of any reduction in the number of battalions available to him? Surely the Government's vision of Britain as a force for good in the world is likely to keep the Army heavily committed in the years to come. Does he accept that this may not be the right time to ask our military chiefs to plan a cut in the number of infantry battle groups that are available to us?
Mr. Darling: I remind my right hon. Friend that defence spending is increasing. I think that I am right in saying that this is the longest single period of sustained increase in defence spending for many years, thanks to the Government's commitment. The Army wants to reduce the number of battalions because of the reduced commitment in Northern Irelandsomething that we should all welcome. At the same time, the Army is conscious of the fact that it is weak in logistical back-up support to the battalions and regiments deployed on the front line. The argument is being driven by what is necessary for operational reasons. It is not financial. That is why the Army wants to ensure that it gets the best possible solution to support regiments on the front line.
The answer to my right hon. Friend is that these decisions need to be taken. They affect the ability of the Army to be deployed in future. Putting off a difficult decision is not the right thing to do. We have to take these decisions. It is important that we take time to get them right. A decision has not yet been taken but it will be taken fairly shortly.
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