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5. Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on economic trends in Scotland. [67711]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Scotland continues to benefit from the macroeconomic stability delivered by this Labour Government. Employment in Scotland is around the
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highest on record, unemployment is lower than it has been for a generation, and Scottish economic growth in 2005 was, at 1.8 per cent., on trend and equal to that of the UK.

Mr. Crabb: The Secretary of State will appreciate the huge importance to the economy in Scotland and the UK in general of the oil and gas industry in the Aberdeen and Grampian region. Does he not think it strange, therefore, that the Chancellor should choose to reward the success of the Aberdeen economy by doubling the North sea supplementary tax, thereby eroding the long-term competitiveness of UK oil exploration and production—

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): It says here.

Mr. Crabb:—and eroding local business confidence?

Mr. Alexander: It is always dangerous for an hon. Member to read a question prepared for him as though it represented his own thoughts. In recent years, and certainly since I first came to the House, the return on capital investment in North sea oil and that area’s fiscal position have been matters of concern. I am delighted to say that the changes that have been made have enabled exploration there to continue and the wealth generated thereby to grow. However, we should not forget that the oil and gas industries are not the only ones generating economic prosperity and growth, in the north-east of Scotland and across the country as a whole. The present record levels of employment are a direct consequence of the macroeconomic stability that this Government have achieved, and they stand in stark contrast to the employment levels that afflicted Scotland in the years when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power.

Mr. John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): Is the Secretary of State aware that in the domestic field the Bank of Scotland index reports that new housing starts are strong, with house prices in Scotland increasing 7 per cent. in the past year, and that in the manufacturing field the CBI indicates that jobs have increased at the fastest rate for 20 years? Does not that augur very well for economic trends in Scotland?

Mr. Alexander: I find myself in complete agreement with my right hon. Friend, who has real economic expertise given his role on the Treasury Committee. We should bear in mind that the survey to which he referred was not an isolated one, but that it reflects the strength and confidence of the Scottish economy in the eighth year of a Labour Government. For reference, I quote comments made about the recently published CBI Scotland industrial trends survey. On 25 April, Iain McMillan, the director of CBI Scotland, stated:

Independent verification that the Scottish economy is strong and getting stronger.

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David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I am glad that the new Secretary of State places so much weight on what CBI Scotland says. Perhaps he could answer the question that his predecessor failed to answer at last month’s Scotland questions, when I asked whether the fact that 51 per cent. of Scotland’s gross domestic product was in the public sector was too high, too low or just about right.

Mr. Alexander: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman asked me that question, because it reflects once again the Conservative party’s prejudice against doctors, nurses, teachers and hospital cleaners. He has learned little in the years in opposition if he thinks that the Scottish people feel that the answer to the challenges of the Scottish economy is a reduction in the services that we have been building up in recent years, as a direct consequence of chronic under-investment for 18 years under the Conservatives.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): May I, too, take this opportunity to welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position? May I refer him back to the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Mr. McFall) about the CBI survey and draw his attention to an independent survey by KPMG, which showed a high level of confidence and optimism in Scotland? Does my right hon. Friend agree that such reports are excellent news for Scotland and that scaremongering from Opposition politicians does nothing but talk Scotland down?

Mr. Alexander: I could not agree more, although the scaremongering is rather half-hearted and unconvincing at present, given the plethora of statistics and reports that vindicate the view on the Labour Benches that the Scottish economy is strong and getting stronger. Let us take engineering, for example: Dr. Peter Hughes, the chief executive of Scottish Engineering, stated recently:

There is absolutely no doubt, whether in relation to engineering, manufacturing or the general health of the Scottish economy, that we have reason to feel proud but not complacent. We will continue to invest in education, to maintain macro-economic stability and to ensure that the drivers are in place for modern economic prosperity in the years to come.

Universal Service Obligation

6. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): What discussions he has had with the Department for Trade and Industry on the number of post offices required by Royal Mail to meet its universal service obligation for postal services in Scotland. [67712]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): My right hon. Friend and I regularly meet ministerial colleagues and discuss a range of issues. The universal service obligation for postal services in Scotland is a matter for the postal services regulator, Postcomm.

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Sir Robert Smith: I am concerned that the Minister has not looked further into the figures; he would then have realised that if we are to maintain a post office network to serve our constituents in rural Scotland it cannot be done on the back of the Royal Mail’s universal service obligation, which has only a minimal base. It will be crucial for the Government to ensure both that business can still be done over the counter for the collection of benefits and pensions and the survival of the Post Office card account.

David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman is aware that no decisions have been taken about the size and shape of the post office network, following either the 2006-08 period or the end of the Post Office card account in 2010. The track record of the Government, investing thousands of millions pounds in the Post Office, speaks to our genuine belief that the Post Office has a role to play, and we will continue to support it.

I fail to see, once again, how the Liberal Democrat policy of privatising the Post Office and abolishing it—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I shall certainly not be arguing for the Liberals’ privatisation policies, which were set out at their last conference, but I am concerned, as are pensioners and sub-postmasters and postmistresses in Scotland, that the proposal to get rid of the Post Office card account will damage the post office infrastructure in rural areas and in schemes in urban areas, where there are no banks to substitute for it. When my hon. Friend meets colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry, will he discuss seriously the withdrawal of that proposal? It will save some money for the Department for Work and Pensions, but will cause deep offence and concern to the pensioners in our society.

David Cairns: The facts of the matter are that more than 70 per cent. of those who have a Post Office card account also have a bank account and that all the Scottish banks offer basic bank accounts through the Post Office. If individuals still wish to receive their benefits at the Post Office using some form of basic bank account after POCA, there is absolutely no reason why they cannot do so; but of course, the shape and future of the Post Office will be driven largely by the approach of consumers to such things. We must reflect the change in the way that consumers do their shopping and gain access to services, but we have invested massively in the post office network, and we will continue to do so, because we believe in the value of it.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister continues to show incredible complacency in respect of the Post Office, when he says that no decision has been made. Decisions are being made daily: the removal of benefits, the ending of support for POCA and the removal of TV licence and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency business from the Post Office are causing post offices to close now, because their business is disappearing. It is no good saying that there is a universal service obligation if there is nothing to sustain it. Will he make sure that the
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Government take action to stop business going from post offices and that sub-post offices remain to ensure that that service obligation can continue?

David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman is confusing the universal service obligation on postal services with services that are available across the counter. We are not withdrawing benefits or ending people’s ability to pay their road tax at post offices. What we are doing is giving people the choice. We are allowing people to exercise that choice. If he had his way, the Post Office would wither on the vine, because he would not make the investment that we have made in sustaining it and allowing it to gain access to universal banking. I am afraid that his solution would simply consign the Post Office to history.

Constitutional Affairs

The Minister of State was asked—

Judiciary (Women)

15. Barbara Follett (Stevenage) (Lab): What measures are being taken to increase the number of women working in the judiciary. [68815]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): The steps that we have taken to increase the number of women judges include changing the application rules, so that women who would make excellent judges but are newer into the legal profession can apply; allowing judges to sit part time, to attract into the judiciary women with family responsibilities; and allowing career breaks, again, to help women with family responsibilities. We have appointed two women judges to a job share, as district judges in Essex.

Barbara Follett (Stevenage) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s response: it is exactly what we need, because the Equal Opportunities Commission has said that, unless we introduce part-time and flexible working to the sector, it will take 40 years to achieve equality between men and women in the senior judiciary. Will she please continue to press on those subjects? Perhaps we can then have the sort of representation that we have for Department for Constitutional Affairs Ministers in the Commons, where it is 100 per cent. women.

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. She is absolutely right to suggest that, although we have taken some steps, we have a long way to go, but we will be supported in that work by the Judicial Appointments Commission, under Baroness Usha Prashar, who I am delighted to say is the first chair of the commission, and by the Lord Chancellor. Although we have taken a lot of action, there is a long way to go. The Crown court, where all the serious criminal cases are heard, is 90 per cent. men. The Queen’s bench division has 93 per cent. male judges, and the chancery division of the High Court is 100 per cent. men. We want to have judges that reflect modern Britain—not just an old boys’ network.

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Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that 59 per cent. of law graduates are women, yet we end up with the figures that she has just cited? What can we do during that process to stop that drain of women law graduates, so that they can reach the highest positions?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. More women are going into the legal profession, but they do not necessary rise up the profession, partly because the way the Bar works is very difficult to combine with family responsibilities. The solicitors’ profession has the same problem with women going into the profession but not necessarily rising to partnership. It is not just a question of the numbers, but of where women are in the system and ensuring that they can contribute at all levels of the legal profession.

Postal Voting

16. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): If the Government will take further steps to ensure postal voting is not vulnerable to fraud. [68816]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): We have already taken steps through regulations for local authorities. We are taking further steps to secure postal voting through provisions in the Electoral Administration Bill, which is going through Parliament.

Ann Winterton: Does the Minister agree with the Electoral Commission that individual voter registration, as exists in Northern Ireland, is vital to assist in eradicating electoral fraud, which, once again, may have been to the fore in the recent local elections?

Bridget Prentice: No, I do not agree that we should reinvent the system in Northern Ireland in mainland Britain because the situation in Northern Ireland is quite different from that in the rest of Britain. The hon. Lady will be aware that when the system was first introduced in Northern Ireland, we lost something in the region of 100,000 voters from the register. As we have said on many occasions, we want to ensure that the register is accurate. It required changes to ensure that the register in Northern Ireland actually reflected the community there.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the strength of opposition to compulsory postal voting? Does she accept that the right of each individual to go to the polling station on his or her own and cast his or her vote in complete secrecy is sacrosanct to our electoral process?

Bridget Prentice: We want to ensure that all opportunities for people to vote—secretly, of course—are made available to them. The opportunity to vote by post has been popular and its uptake has been widespread, and we want to continue to encourage that. However, many people like the idea of going to the polling station, standing in the polling booth and using the little stubby pencil to cast their vote appropriately, so we will, of course, ensure that they will still have the opportunity to do so.

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Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): With postal voting fraud being investigated in Tower Hamlets, Birmingham, Woking and Bradford, how many thousands of voters are to have their ballots stolen before the Government introduce proper individual voter registration safeguards, as were suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton)?

Bridget Prentice: The measures that were put in place to change the system for these elections were welcomed by both the electoral returning officers and the Electoral Commission. Indeed, they are the very reason why the police were able to investigate the possibility of postal voting fraud at an early stage. I will not make any comment on those investigations now—they are police matters. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Electoral Administration Bill adds a number of other offences and restrictions to ensure that postal voting fraud does not take place and that if it does take place, we will deal with people very seriously indeed.

Asylum and Immigration Tribunal

17. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): What the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal’s work load of immigration appeals was at the latest date for which figures are available. [68817]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): At the end of March 2006, the number of outstanding immigration and family visitor appeals, at either the immigration judge or the reconsideration stage of the process, stood at 82,000.

Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend is aware that when Sir Henry Hodge gave evidence to the Select Committee on 21 March, he said that the number of unprocessed appeals had gone up from 22,000 to 82,000 when 60,000 files were found because the cupboards had been cleared out. He blamed the entry clearance officers and the Home Office, but they hold the Department for Constitutional Affairs responsible because they say that the cases were sent over in December, but left unopened in bags in the Department. The delay for our constituents is intolerable. Who is responsible for this appalling lack of co-ordination?

Bridget Prentice: I simply refute any suggestion that bags lay unopened in the Department or at the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal. I commend the staff and officials there who have worked exceptionally hard to overcome a backlog that was not of their making. There is still some way to go, and, as my hon. Friend knows, I have held forums with hon. Members to determine whether there are other ways in which we can improve the system. We have an agreement with entry clearance officers that next month there will be a streamlining of the process and another seven weeks will be taken off the current time scales.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Does the Minister accept that this continuing delay is causing hardship to the many thousands of people who, reasonably, just
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want to visit their family? What will the hon. Lady do about it if she will not admit responsibility?

Bridget Prentice: We are working closely with UKvisas and with the entry clearance officers in posts with the commissions abroad to try to speed up the system. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is distressing for families when they are waiting for relatives to visit them, particularly for big family occasions. We are doing all that we can to work co-operatively to ensure that visits can take place. It is important that we make it clear that the initial decision is one of high quality so that there are not so many appeals. I hope, if possible, to go to some of the posts abroad to see exactly how they go about making these decisions.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), to her ministerial post. Her appointment is well deserved. There are some who are calling the team “Charlie’s Angels”, but not me. [Interruption.] I am a new man and my remark was not mean to be patronising. [Interruption.] Well, perhaps not that new.

What effect will the Prime Minister’s proposals for deportation of foreign convicted offenders have on the backlog of asylum cases before the tribunal? We know that about half the cases are more than six months old, and there is much concern about the suffering of individuals. Will not the effect of the Prime Minister’s proposals be that the backlog gets ever longer?

Bridget Prentice: No, that will not be the effect of the proposals. The hon. Gentleman will know that discussions are ongoing about how we deal with foreign criminals who are awaiting deportation. I am not able to give the hon. Gentleman details now but I will ensure that he receives them as soon as they are available.

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