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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns):
While lifelong learning in Scotland, including a strategy for skills and training for
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employment, is a devolved matter for Scottish Executive Ministers, the Government continue to play a key role through our active labour market policies, the new deal programmes and the skills for business network among other initiatives.
Mr. Harris: I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend on his well deserved promotion to ministerial office. Is he aware of research by Futureskills Scotland, which has concluded that skills shortages in Scotland are not a big problemthey account for just over 0.5 per cent. of all jobs? Is that not testimony to the success of the Scottish economy and a warning to those wee Scotlanders who seek to make political capital out of talking down the Scottish economy?
David Cairns: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I have seen the extensive Futureskills Scotland report, which surveyed some 7,500 employers. The picture that emerges is of a very strong Scottish economy and a strong Scottish labour market. To reiterate the point that the Secretary of State made earlier, there are more people per capita in work in Scotland than in any other country bar Denmark, which is testimony to our active labour market policies and to the strength of the Scottish economy, which has been brought about by the Government. There are still issues around skills shortages and gaps. My hon. Friend is right that they are relatively small but they disproportionately affect small businesses. The Futureskills Scotland report has come up with recommendations. It is imperative that the Scottish Executive, the enterprise companies and businesses take those forward. We have a role to play in that through the macroeconomic policies that we pursue and through such schemes as the new deal, which has addressed individuals' skills shortages and helped 65,000 Scots back into work. It is astonishing that not every party in the House is united behind the new deal and that some parties wish to abolish it.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position on the Front Bench. Can he confirm that filling the skills gap is not merely about training for those with no skills but an ongoing process of retraining and upskilling for those who have skills? Can he confirm that the Government should take the lead in that? What endeavours are under way in the Scotland Office to encourage retraining and upskilling for Department staff? Can he advise of any initiatives to encourage non-financial staff in the Scotland Office to undertake financial training?
David Cairns: On the broader issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the Government have[Interruption.] I do indeed welcome the hon. Gentleman to his first Scotland Office questions. He has got off to a good start by asking a semi-decent question. Perhaps his colleague, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), might learn some lessons from that.
On the general issue that the hon. Gentleman raised, the Government have a role to play through the new deal, via the personal advisers who identify skills shortages in individuals and then help them back into the labour market. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman's party wholeheartedly supported the new
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deal, instead of moaning about it from the sidelines as it has done. In Scotland, we have seen a growing economy, low inflation, low interest rates, low unemployment and record levels of people in work, all of which have been created by an economy that has been run effectively from the Government side of the House.
Gordon Banks: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. As he knows, the G8 summit is taking place in my constituency of Ochil and South Perthshire. With the advent of Live 8 and Bob Geldof's encouragement for getting a million people to converge on Scotland during a week in which "T in the Park" and the world-famous Alva games are also going on in my constituency, is my right hon. Friend concerned that it will be a difficult week for our police, and that that might overshadow the main event? What further assurances can he give my constituents about the burden of police costs for the G8 summit?
Mr. Darling: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election victory. Labour Members are very pleased to see him in his place. My hon. Friend will no doubt take the opportunity to raise any concerns that he or his constituents have with the chief constable of Tayside, who is responsible for policing around Gleneagles. As I said a few moments ago, it is essential for people who want to demonstrate peacefully and make their point to talk to the police, if they have not already done so, and also to the local authorities, because we want the G8 summit to be remembered for making poverty history. That provides a good opportunity to see Scotland at its very best.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice):
It is Government policy that all polling stations should be accessible to all voters. Local councils have a duty to provide polling places that are, so far as is reasonable and practicable, accessible to disabled electors.
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Miss McIntosh: I congratulate the hon. Lady and welcome her to her new position. There are particular problems in rural parts of North Yorkshire, where long distances separate polling stations. I understand that not every polling station there is yet disabled-accessible for the purposes of a general election. What is her Department doing, in consultation with returning officers, to make the requisite facilities available to ensure that, as far as possible, those who have a disability and wish to vote in person can do so?
Bridget Prentice: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words. I know that she takes a keen interest in this aspect of Government policy. We are keen that all electors, whatever their ability or disability, should have the opportunity to vote. Since certain provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 came into effect last October, we have worked with local authorities to ensure that disabled access is available at every polling station. Indeed, local councils have been given grants of up to 50 per cent. to ensure that that happens. If there is a particular problem in the hon. Lady's constituency and if she sends me a note about it, I shall be pleased to respond and follow the matter up.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): It is good to see my hon. Friend in her new ministerial position. Will she make it clear to returning officers that, although enormous progress has been made in making polling stations wheelchair-accessibledealing with the biggest barrier to disabled peopleit is not enough to have a ramp on just one door, particularly if it is not the main door? Someone in a wheelchair who arrives to vote on their own then has to get into the polling station to tell someone to open the main door, so the ramp may be of little advantage in facilitating access. It is a fine point, but an important one, because too often in polling stations, the door that is made accessible to wheelchairs is not the main door and the one that is opened is not always easily accessible.
Bridget Prentice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for providing us with helpful information from her own experience; her advice is very welcome. She is quite right that if people with disabilities, particularly those in wheelchairs, can gain access to the building but further obstacles are put in their way, it amounts only to a halfway house. We shall certainly ensure that returning officers are reminded that they must look at this issue as a whole. Facilities will be made available to help them make sure that everyone has the opportunity to vote and that the process is easy. That is crucial.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Will the Minister speak to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about the problems that many disabled people in Northern Ireland experience with access to polling stations?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, because we can learn from the example of Northern Ireland in this respect. The chief electoral officer there has the right to review the accessibility of polling stations every four years and we intend to adopt that practice throughout the rest of the UK.
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