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House of Commons

Tuesday 9 May 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): If he will visit the Scottish Parliament to discuss cross-border health issues. [67707]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I have no plans at present to visit the Scottish Parliament to discuss cross-border health issues. Such matters are primarily for the Department of Health and the Scottish Executive.

Mr. Steen: I congratulate the Secretary of State on his elevation, or whatever it is. When he does visit the Parliament, could he find out—by means of a bit of detective work, perhaps—why all Scots get free eye tests, whereas in England that applies only to the elderly, the very young and those on benefits? Is it because the Scots have worse eyes?

Could the Secretary of State also explain why Scots opticians receive £28.50 from the national health service for every test that they give, while opticians in England receive only £18.30? Where does the money come from?

Mr. Alexander: The money comes from the budget. I have been doing a little detective work in the days since my appointment, and have discovered that over 2,200 more nurses, 379 more consultants and 220 more general practitioners have been appointed in the hon. Gentleman’s area alone since 1997.

I have been doing some further detective work on the Conservative and Unionist party, but I still cannot find an explanation for its change of policy in recent years.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment, and at the same time congratulate the Scottish Parliament on introducing a ban on smoking north of the border? That is, of course, something that we shall do down here at a later stage.

Has my right hon. Friend made any assessment of the differences between Scotland and England in respect of the smoking ban, given that people are, I am told, now crossing the border to smoke in England?

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Mr. Alexander: I thank my hon. Friend for his generous words welcoming me to the Dispatch Box. I share his pride in the decision to ban smoking in public places north of the border. As he knows, I recently had an opportunity to visit his constituency, and to see the excellent hotel facilities in Irvine. That hotel struck me as a classic example of the type of hostelry that will benefit from the change that the Scottish Executive have announced.

My hon. Friend made the serious point that one of the biggest public policy challenges that we face in Scotland, and indeed throughout the United Kingdom, is the challenge of public health. We have huge problems in Scotland, not least in relation to cancer, stroke and heart disease. I believe that the Scottish Executive’s decisive and bold step—endorsed by the Scottish Parliament—in introducing a smoking ban was definitively a step in the right direction.

Disabled Children

2. Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): If he will meet the Disability Rights Commission to discuss the rights of disabled children in Scotland. [67708]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly engage with a wide range of organisations in Scotland, including the Disability Rights Commission, whose members I expect to meet again in the near future.

Mr. Clarke: Is my hon. Friend aware of the recent statement by the Disability Rights Commission that it costs three times as much to bring up a disabled child as it does to bring up a non-disabled child, and that 84 per cent. of the mothers of disabled children are unemployed? Will he continue to promote, with the DRC and others, the Government’s view that employment is pivotal to dealing with the problem of child poverty—including poverty among disabled children—as one of the most positive aspects of the Government’s achievements?

David Cairns: I am happy to endorse what my right hon. Friend has said. It is, of course, owing in no small measure to his campaigning work over many years that we have a Disability Discrimination Act—the 1995 Act—and the Disability Rights Commission, which has done tremendous things in promoting the basic human and civil rights of disabled people.

My right hon. Friend is right to point out that work is the best route out of poverty for everyone. We should concentrate less on people’s disability or incapacity, and more on the capacity that they have. When we are trying to reform incapacity benefit, it is important for us not to write off disabled people, but to work with them to find out what meaningful work they can do.

My right hon. Friend is also right to refer to the higher costs incurred by families bringing up disabled children. The Scottish Executive have an excellent scheme involving relatively modest but very helpful grants for families. The overall budget for the scheme is about £2 million, which I think constitutes recognition of the facts mentioned by my right hon. Friend.

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Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Will the Minister reflect on the fact that last week was deaf awareness week? Finland, whose population is comparable to Scotland’s, has more than 600 sign language interpreters, whereas Scotland has fewer than 30. What will the Minister do to promote training in and greater use of sign language, so that those for whom it is the primary language—a minority British language—will be able to use it much more frequently?

David Cairns: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done in connection with this issue, and for raising what is a serious and important matter. I have no specific information about the number of sign language interpreters, although I do not quibble with what the hon. Gentleman said. Of course, such matters are primarily a matter for the Scottish Executive, but in creating the new commission for equality and human rights the Government intend to put them at the top of the political agenda, and to give disabled people and others a strong voice that will be heard much more clearly throughout society when they work in concert. I am sure that the commission will want to take up the issue of what help and support are available to deaf people.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): While I welcome the creation of the new commission for equality and human rights, there are considerable and legitimate fears in some quarters that it will dilute the voice and influence of disability rights campaigners. What reassurances can my hon. Friend give the House that the concerns of disabled people will be at the heart of the new commission’s work?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend raises an entirely genuine and perfectly valid issue. Of course, as I said a moment ago, the whole point of creating the new commission for equality and human rights was to raise the profile of the agenda for all the various bodies that will be part of the commission. In order to recognise the central importance of the rights of disabled people, the commission will have a specified disability committee, 50 per cent. of whom will be disabled people, and one of the commissioners will be a disabled person. So the work that the Disability Rights Commission has set out will be taken up by the new commission, and although I accept that the dilution to which my hon. Friend referred is a genuine fear, we do not expect it to occur.


3. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What devolution issues the Advocate-General has considered since 28 March 2006. [67709]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): Since 28 March, 102 devolution issues have been intimated to the Advocate-General.

Miss McIntosh: It would be helpful to know what issues the Advocate-General considered. Will the Minister confirm that foreign policy and extradition matters will remain the preserve of the UK Government, and that
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they will reject moves by the Justice 2 Committee of the Scottish Parliament to prevent a Scottish business man from being extradited to the USA to face charges under the extradition treaty, despite the fact that the person in question might be the son of a Labour MSP?

David Cairns: On the hon. Lady’s first point, of the 102 devolution issues intimated to the Advocate-General, 69 were civil proceedings and 33 were devolution minutes intimated in criminal proceedings. On her main question, this matter is before the courts and I am not going to comment on it.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post. Can the Minister say whether the Advocate-General is going to look at the flow of judicial information from the Home Office to the Scottish Executive? First, the Executive were kept in the dark about the “most wanted” list; then, we were told that Mr. Malkovs was one of the 79 most dangerous people in the country. Now, the sheriff at Peterhead has refused deportation on the ground that Mr. Malkovs has no serious criminal convictions. What on earth is going on, and will any Minister in the Home Office, the Scotland Office or the Scottish Executive—full-time or part-time—take charge of this shambles in order to restore public confidence?

David Cairns: I have said on more than one occasion that there should have been greater and better communication between the Home Office and the Scottish Executive. That was one of a number of things that went wrong in the Home Office in respect of this issue, and such communication is now taking place at official level and with the police. It should have taken place before any statement being made in this House, and I am not in any sense attempting to downplay that point. To restore confidence in the system, it is important that now and in future we ensure that foreign nationals who are convicted and sent to prison in this country expect to be deported at the end of their sentence. That does not happen at the moment, even if the system is being administered perfectly. I sincerely hope that the hon. Gentleman’s party will lend its support to any measures that have to be taken, to ensure that what the public expect to happen does happen: that foreign nationals who commit crimes and end up in prison are sent back to their home countries.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I, too, convey my best wishes to the new Secretary of State. I am in a unique position, having faced not only him in this House but his redoubtable sister in the Scottish Parliament. Do the Minister and the Secretary of State agree with me that the Advocate-General has a limited legal role to play in dealing with the apparently ever-increasing number of differences between Holyrood and Westminster? Will the Minister therefore agree to establish a review of intergovernmental arrangements, given the increasing likelihood of there being Governments of different persuasions at Holyrood and Westminster?

David Cairns: It might help if I remind the hon. Gentleman that the role of the Advocate-General is to
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advise the UK Government on issues relating to Scots law, so it does not come into play in the hypothetical case that he mentioned. Of course, what does more to undermine the Union that the hon. Gentleman professes to believe in is his party’s ludicrous call to create two grades of Members of Parliament in this House—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is not a matter for the Minister to discuss.

David Mundell: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am disappointed that even under the tutelage of the new Secretary of State, the Minister is sticking to the old tune and the complacency that such issues can be dealt with under Labour’s old boys’ network. Is he aware that the independent Social Science Research Council has identified the need to ensure that the general machinery of intergovernmental relationships works, along with the necessary transparency and accountability? When will he and the Secretary of State deliver that?

David Cairns: I believe that that is exactly what we have. This Government created the Scottish Parliament—a legitimate demand of the Scottish people that his party denied for many years—and he campaigned against its creation. We will not take any lessons from him on how the Parliaments should relate to each other, given his wholehearted lifelong opposition to the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. Doran.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): I add my congratulations and good wishes to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his appointment—

Mr. Speaker: Order. You need to wait for the reply.


4. Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential in Scotland for generation of electricity from renewable sources. [67710]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Such was my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm to welcome me to my new post that he slightly lost track. There is a wide recognition that Scotland has abundant resources of renewable energy. Detailed assessment and the promotion of renewables are devolved responsibilities.

Mr. Doran: I shall try to temper my enthusiasm in future, but I was so excited by my right hon. Friend’s appointment. Scotland is the world leader in sub-sea oil and gas technology, and the industry based in and around Aberdeen is making a massive contribution to extending the life of the North sea oil and gas industry. The technologies and expertise are easily transferable to marine renewables. Subsea UK, the industry body, has recognised that and intends to promote marine renewables at future oil and gas industry conferences,
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including the oil energy conference to be held later this month in Aberdeen. What support will the Government provide to ensure that our world lead in sub-sea oil and gas technology can develop into a world lead for Scotland and the UK in marine renewable technology?

Mr. Alexander: I assure my hon. Friend that Scotland Office officials are in contact with the sub-sea industry. I place on record today my appreciation and that of the Scotland Office of the outstanding technological innovations and capabilities centred on Aberdeen, and we are determined to do what we can to support and strengthen them in the years ahead.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): May I draw the Minister’s attention to the research that has been undertaken by the Environmental Research Institute of the North Highland college in Thurso on the energy that exists in the tidal flow in the Pentland firth? Is he aware that companies would like to exploit that; and what can he do to offer assistance, especially in conjunction with the Department for Trade and Industry, to further such projects, which represent a real opportunity to use the skills of the work force from the decommissioning at Dounreay?

Mr. Alexander: My predecessor as Secretary of State for Scotland is now at the Department for Trade and Industry and he is aware of the matter, not least because I understand that the hon. Gentleman has already met my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to discuss it. My recollection is that at that meeting an offer was made of further discussions, but if it would be helpful to facilitate a further discussion between my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman, I would be happy to do so.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): I share the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) for congratulating my right hon. Friend on his new responsibilities. I am sure that as Secretary of State for Scotland he will be a strong voice for the people of Scotland. He will be aware that the Scottish Affairs Committee has conducted an inquiry on meeting Scotland’s future energy needs and has made several recommendations. One of those is that the Government should underwrite the cost of providing and installing the equipment needed to capture carbon dioxide and sulphur at coal-burning power stations. Does my right hon. Friend support that recommendation, and can he assure me that he will work closely with the First Minister and the Scottish Executive to promote renewable energy in Scotland?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend makes several points. I am grateful for his kind and generous words, and I am determined to provide that voice for Scotland in the Cabinet. I will continue to ensure that Scottish concerns are brought to attention across government.

On the specific point about carbon capture, I have a close interest in the Mitsui Babcock facility in the Renfrew constituency of my hon. Friend and neighbour
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the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). I am fully aware of the importance of carbon capture technology, and believe that Scotland can play a leading role in that exciting and innovative area in the future. I therefore look forward with interest to the Select Committee’s report.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): First, I should like to add my congratulations and welcome the Secretary of State to his new role. I am sure that I shall enjoy our exchanges. Does he accept that maximising the potential of clean and safe renewable energy, including microgeneration, means that we will need to adopt a decentralised grid design that is incompatible with the centralised system demands of new nuclear power?

Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her generous words of welcome. When she was appointed the Liberal Democrat shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, she said that energy—and especially nuclear power—was going to be one of her priorities. That may explain why she was appointed: her predecessor had a rather more open mind on the nuclear issue, which is perhaps why he is sitting behind her this afternoon.

I cannot prejudge the outcome of the energy review that is under way at present, but I assure the House that the work continues. Since my appointment to my new post, I have made inquiries and been gratified to learn that individuals and companies based in Scotland have made a significant number of representations to the review.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to a project under way at Monktonhall in Midlothian, where geothermal heating 3,000 feet underground is being used to produce hot water. We have had discussions with the Department of Trade and Industry, and the project has received £3.5 million from Europe. May I invite him, as one of his first tasks, to visit the project and throw his full weight behind it?

Mr. Alexander: First, I pay tribute to the years of service, commitment and interest that my hon. Friend has put into the coal industry in Midlothian. His expertise stretches back a number of decades. The example that he offers is a genuine partnership that involves European funds—and we should remember that today is Europe day—and the genuinely collaborative approach with the DTI that is necessary to secure success for the technology that he describes. I shall be happy to consider his invitation to visit Midlothian in the weeks and months ahead.

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