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House of Commons

Tuesday 28 March 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


The unavoidable absence of Mr. Speaker having been announced, The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.


HBOS Group Reorganisation Bill

Order for Third Reading read. To be read the Third time on Wednesday 19 April.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Royal Mail/Post Office

1. Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the future of the Royal Mail and Post Office in Scotland. [60656]

5. Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the future of the post office network in Scotland. [60660]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet ministerial colleagues and we discuss a range of issues.

Mr. Reid: The Government's plan to abolish the Post Office card account in four years time will, according to Post Office management, lead to the closure of 10,000 of the country's 14,000 post offices, which will mean that hardly a rural post office will be left in Scotland. Surely that cannot be allowed to happen. Will the Minister back those Scottish pensioners who have chosen to collect their pension at a post office, and will he urge the Department for Work and Pensions to retain the post office option for pensioners after 2010?

David Cairns: I have completely given up hope that when the Liberal Democrats raise the issue of post offices, they might pause for a moment to reflect on the £2 billion of investment that this Government have put in to help sustain the post office network. Hundreds of millions of pounds of investment will enable people to access universal banking. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the commitment on the Post Office card account runs out in 2010; moreover, more than 70 per cent. of people who have such accounts also have bank
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accounts. It is this Government's investment in the Post Office that is giving it a fighting chance, and I fail to see how the hon. Gentleman's party's policy of privatising it would help.

Mr. Weir: Is the Minister not being a little complacent about the future of the Post Office? Does he not know, for example, that Citibank, which runs the Post Office card account, has transferred such accounts to another provider without even telling those who have them? Does he not feel that the Government's card account policy, which is undermining the situation prior to 2010 and also the future of post offices, is in utter confusion? Will he get the Department for Work and Pensions to look again at this ridiculous decision?

David Cairns: As I just said, no decision has been taken on how the situation will work out after 2010. I point out again that it is thanks to this Government putting thousands of millions of pounds into the Post Office—including an additional £300 million into sustaining the rural network—that it has any kind of future at all. The hon. Gentleman's policies would allow the post office network to wither on the vine, but we are not prepared to do that.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that when the Post Office decides to sell premises—it decided, for example, to sell the post office in Coatbridge town centre to Spar—it would be appropriate for consultations to take place, but not during the Christmas and new year period? Moreover, when applications for drink licences are part of the project, it might be courteous to inform the Member of Parliament concerned and, indeed, the Member of the Scottish Parliament.

David Cairns: Obviously, the Post Office's commercial arrangements for disposing of its assets are primarily a matter for it, but I would of course hope that it could extend to my right hon. Friend—who is well known in this House as a diligent and hard-working MP who represents his constituents' best interests—the courtesy of informing him of such decisions. Of course, he is talking primarily about the Crown post office network, which represents less than 4 per cent. of the total network and loses more than £70 million a year. The Post Office has some tough commercial decisions to take, but that should not short-circuit the normal planning application process, or the courtesies to which my right hon. Friend refers.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): Last week, the Department for Work and Pensions said that the new products and services available from the Post Office from 2010 would    be based on customers actual behaviour and requirements. How will the requirements of customers in Scotland, particularly those in rural areas, be factored into those products and services?

David Cairns: This is precisely the point: it is because people's shopping habits are changing that we have to take these difficult decisions. More and more people are choosing to have their benefits paid directly into bank and building society accounts, which is why we invested
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money to make sure that the Post Office is part of the universal banking network. Had we not done so, it would have had absolutely no chance whatsoever. The hon. Gentleman mentions rural post offices, but he would do well to remember that when his party was in power, 3,500 rural post offices closed, so he is in no position to lecture anyone on this issue.

Employment Statistics

3. Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of trends in unemployment in Scotland. [60658]

7. Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the latest rate of employment in Scotland. [60662]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Scottish labour market is in its strongest position in decades, with more people in work and fewer unemployed than ever before.

Ann McKechin: My right hon. Friend may be aware of the article in Monday's edition of The Herald, showing that Glasgow's and Edinburgh's economic performance outstripped that of every other city in the United Kingdom, with the exception of London. Does he agree that that represents a success for the employment policies of this Government, who are spending much more time and money on ensuring that more people in Scotland enter the employment market?

Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend that it is good that both Edinburgh and Glasgow are doing extremely well in terms of economic performance. It is good to see so many people in work today, whereas a decade ago many were out of work. There is still more to do, particularly in Glasgow, where there are still many people who could, with appropriate help, get back to work. What has happened shows that those who opposed the new deal almost 10 years ago were wrong to do so.

Mr. Devine: My right hon. Friend will be aware that when the Conservative party was in power, unemployment in my constituency was in excess of 20 per cent. When I was working in a health centre, I saw doctors prescribe anti-depressants, but if they could have prescribed a job people would not have needed to come to the health centre. Today's figures are only a tenth of what they were. Does my right hon. Friend agree that "caring, compassionate conservatism" is a contradiction in terms?

Mr. Darling: Anyone who visited West Lothian during the Tory years will have seen exactly what happened to thousands of people who were out of work and left with no prospects whatever. Livingston now has one of the highest employment rates in the country. The constituency is doing well precisely because we have built a strong and stable economy with good job prospects. Scotland is now a place where people want to come and do business.
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Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I am sure that we all welcome the employment figures overall, but there are still 285,000 people in Scotland on incapacity benefit, many of whom would like to find work. Will the Secretary of State explain how the loss of 1,500 staff from the Department for Work and Pensions in Scotland over the next two years—on top of the 1,500 jobs already axed—will help claimants with the support that they need to find work?

Mr. Darling: First, let me welcome the hon. Lady to her new position as the Liberal Democrat shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. The fact that she welcomes the low levels of unemployment is good, but it is a pity that when we introduced the new deal the Liberals opposed it—[Interruption.] They were in favour of the concept, but against providing the money to pay for it.

As for the hon. Lady's question about the DWP and Jobcentre Plus, at one point the DWP employed more than 100,000 people. However, unlike many banks and insurance companies, which have automated their payment procedures and changed the way they work, the DWP has not done so. What is happening in the DWP and Jobcentre Plus now is the result of having to take account of new IT systems and different ways of working, which will help to provide a better service. If the hon. Lady has visited one of the new Jobcentre Plus offices, she would know that they are a world apart from what they used to be 10 or 15 years ago. They provide effective help, so that people who lose their jobs can have the support that they need to get them back into work as quickly as possible. I suspect that none of the difficult decisions would have been taken by the Liberal Democrats.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Scottish Coal, which operates surface mines in my constituency and elsewhere in Scotland, is currently consulting on making up to 150 redundancies, largely as a result of consecutive rises in gasoil duty? The straw that broke the camel's back was last week's Budget announcement. Will my right hon. Friend meet me urgently to discuss the problem and will he ask the Chancellor to examine the practical implications of his policy in that regard?

Mr. Darling: I am aware of the Scottish Coal announcement that was made last week. I or my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): What does it tell us about employment prospects in the fishing industry when Banff and Buchan colleges have been forced through financial pressure to discontinue all training courses relating to that industry? Does the Secretary of State realise that this is the only such training provision on the mainland of Scotland, which educates through mates and skippers tickets the vast majority of people across the UK? How does that square with what the Chancellor said last Wednesday about a rosy future for further education colleges? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that those courses represent training in a strategic industry and should be protected for the future of employment in that industry?
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Mr. Darling: As the hon. Gentleman will know, the funding of further education colleges in Scotland is a matter for the Scottish Executive. Because we are increasing the amount of money spent on education more generally, Scotland has benefited, but what courses are appropriate is a matter for the Scottish Executive and further education colleges.

Mr. John MacDougall (Glenrothes) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is no coincidence that one of the longest periods of stability in the economy in our history has resulted in the remarkable reduction of unemployment that we have seen since 1997?

Mr. Darling: That is right. One of the main reasons for such high unemployment in the 1980s and 1990s was the fact that, under the previous Conservative Government, we saw two of the deepest recessions of the last century. Many individuals and their families suffered in consequence. Now that we have a strong economy, we have had growth in each consecutive quarter since we came to power—and we have had very low levels of unemployment, with record numbers of people going into work. We have also been able, crucially, to increase the amount of money given to families, particularly those with children, in order to   help them do well for themselves and to adapt to changing labour market conditions.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): Is it not complacent of the Secretary of State to base his view of Scotland's economy on only one set of employment figures? Is he not aware of the growing concern among the business community and economists in Scotland that recent growth was due to expansion of the public not the private sector—an unsustainable trend in the long run?

Mr. Darling: No, I think the hon. Gentleman is wrong on all three counts. First, I did not base what I said on one recent set of employment statistics. If he looks at the employment statistics issued over the past few months and the past few years, he will see that unemployment is at an historically low level and that employment is at an historically high level.

The size of the public sector in Scotland has not changed much over the past few years but, yes, there are more doctors, more nurses, more teachers and more police. We are in favour of that, but the Conservatives are pledged to reduce public expenditure, which inevitably would result in less resources being available for it.

The hon. Gentleman referred to surveys. The last few business surveys have actually been extremely optimistic about Scotland's prospects. Indeed, Scotland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, continues to be a very good place to do business, which is why so many people are in work. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make comparisons, why does not he cast his mind back to 10 or 20 years ago when the position was completely different?

David Mundell: I know that the right hon. Gentleman, like his right hon. Friend the Chancellor, prefers to talk about the past rather than the present and the future, but he cannot dispute the fact that 51 per cent. of Scotland's gross domestic product is in the public sector,
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compared with 40 per cent. in the UK as a whole. Does he think that the proportion in Scotland is too high, too low or just about right?

Mr. Darling: I refer the hon. Gentleman to what I said a few moments ago. The size of the public sector has not changed that much, but I make no apology for the fact that we are employing more teachers, more doctors and more nurses. I would have thought that most people in Scotland would think that that is a good thing. At the same time, despite what the hon. Gentleman says, employment prospects in Scotland are good—as is the number of people in work—but we are not complacent, as there will be changes and constant challenges from different parts of the world.

I am happy to talk not just about the present but the future too, because as long as we maintain our present policies and maintain stability—taking the right decisions about public expenditure, instead of being locked into a wholly dogmatic rule that there must be public expenditure cuts regardless of what is required—and stick to the course we have set, the prospects for Scotland and the United Kingdom are good. If the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues were to get into power, many of the things to which people are becoming accustomed would be lost.

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the latest figures are far from a one-off? In my constituency, there has been an increase of more than 25 per cent. in employment since 1997, although the constituency has still not fully recovered from 18 years of Tory rule, when industry after industry was closed. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the recent initiative to create an Irvine bay regeneration company to bring investment to my area and create jobs, because our goal of full employment is vital in ensuring that we spread prosperity throughout the whole community?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. She is right, too, to stress the importance of regeneration, not just in her constituency but in certain other parts of Scotland. Most of us can remember what Ayrshire was like 10 or 15 years ago, when thousands of people were not only out of work, but had no prospect of ever getting any work. A second generation of people was growing up with no prospect of getting work. The position is different now, but we cannot be complacent—we must constantly be aware of the fact that there are still people we need to help to get into work, but the strong economy and background created by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has benefited my hon. Friend's constituency as well as every other constituency in Scotland.

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