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House of Commons

Tuesday 6 June 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

New WritS



Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Scottish Executive on tackling sectarianism in Scotland. [74952]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I have regular discussions with the First Minister on a range of issues.

Mr. Devine: As I am sure my right hon. Friend knows, sadly, a small number of football fans bring sectarianism on to the football ground. Will he join me in congratulating the fans of Celtic and Rangers, who at the last old firm game unfurled a banner condemning sectarianism? What can we do, as Members of Parliament, to assist the Scottish Labour party’s anti-sectarianism campaign?

Mr. Alexander: I wholeheartedly endorse my hon. Friend’s sentiments. The First Minister has rightly addressed the issue of sectarianism in recent years. He has shown real political courage in raising it and ensuring that it has been discussed throughout Scottish society. I believe that, along with all other members of Scottish society, Members of Parliament have a role to play in ensuring that sectarianism has no place in modern Scotland.

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Identity Cards

2. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Whether the introduction of identity cards in Scotland will differ from that in the rest of the UK. [74953]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): The introduction of identity cards is a reserved matter. The procedures for issuing them will be the same in Scotland as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Harper: What discussions has the Minister had with the First Minister and the Scottish Executive about the extent to which the Scottish Executive will have access to the national identity register?

David Cairns: It may help if I explain the constitutional position. Because the legislation involves an issue of identity and nationality, it is an entirely reserved issue, and has been introduced as such. Decisions much further down the line—as and when the cards become compulsory following a further Act of Parliament—on what services can be accessed will be for the House of Commons in respect of reserved matters and for the Scottish Executive in respect of matters that are devolved to them.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the people of Scotland deserve the same level of protection against terrorism and identity fraud as their fellow citizens in England and Wales?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend goes to the heart of the matter. It often amuses me when others seek to represent the people of Scotland as being wholly opposed to identity cards. I have never seen any evidence of that. Identity cards have been introduced because there has been a big increase in identity theft and fraud, because 30 per cent. of terrorist suspects have been using false identities, and because of ongoing problems of illegal immigration. That move will be welcomed in Scotland, as it will be throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): The Secretary of State’s predecessor told the House on 28 March that most people in Scotland supported identity cards because they would be linked to social security payments in Scotland. Can he confirm that that will be the case?

David Cairns: Any introduction of identity cards, as and when they are made compulsory and as and when it is necessary to use them to gain access to social security benefits, will apply uniformly throughout the United Kingdom, because issues relating to social security payments are reserved.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Will the Minister join me in congratulating our colleagues in the Scottish Executive on doing their bit to resist the creeping Big Brother state by declaring that identity cards will not be required for access to devolved services in Scotland?

David Cairns: It is entirely within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament to make
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whatever arrangements it sees fit for access to services that the House of Commons has devolved to it. On the issue of identity cards, I note that the hon. Lady did not mention anything to do with terrorism, illegal immigration or fighting crime—which is hardly surprising, coming from a Liberal Democrat.

Nuclear Waste Disposal

3. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the First Minister on the disposal of nuclear waste in Scotland. [74955]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I continue to discuss a wide range of matters with Scotland’s First Minister.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that expansive answer. The lack of solutions on the disposal of nuclear waste has been used by opponents for as long as I can remember. He will be aware that CORWM is to publish an extensive report at the end of July. Will he ensure that the findings are published in full and that the issues raised by the report will be debated in an adult and sensible way and not for short-term politics? Some parties seem to spout off without knowing what they are talking about.

Mr. Alexander: I thank my hon. Friend for his gracious thanks for my earlier answer. I make it clear that the CORWM process, which has been marked by an open and consultative approach, will continue in that vein. CORWM will publish the final report in full in due course. However, I cannot take responsibility for how other parties choose to respond to what I believe will be a substantial and significant work.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The west of Ireland is protected from being used as a nuclear dump, as Ireland is a successful nation and independent from Westminster. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that the west coast of Scotland and, indeed, the rest of Scotland are similarly protected?

Mr. Alexander: The first thing that I should make clear is that I will not indulge in ill-informed scare tactics. People in the Western Isles and the west of Scotland deserve better from some of their elected representatives. The establishment of CORWM was a joint initiative by Scottish Executive Ministers and the UK Government, and it is clear that there has been a serious and substantial attempt by both the Scottish Executive and the UK Government to address the important issue of legacy nuclear waste. In terms of the prospect of further steps being taken in the future, let us be categorically clear that planning restrictions and the treatment of nuclear waste are both devolved matters, which are appropriately dealt with by the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the chief executive of the Met Office warned yesterday that the UK’s nuclear power stations, many of which are on the coast, could be in particular danger if climate
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change leads to more severe storms and increased coastal flooding. Will he assure the House that we can have an adult and mature debate on what that means for the cost of dealing with nuclear waste and the cost of eventual decommissioning of existing and perhaps future nuclear power stations?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend makes my case that it is important that this matter is dealt with in a serious fashion. That is why we have brought together leading academics and a range of voices in the CORWM process. It is why it is important that the Scottish Executive and the UK Government have worked together effectively to access the best knowledge and learning on what is a huge challenge, not just for one part of the UK but, given the legacy of nuclear waste that has accumulated, the whole of the UK.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): It would be helpful if the Secretary of State confirmed what he said earlier—that the final decision on the burial of nuclear waste in Scotland will lie with the Scottish Executive. Is that correct?

Mr. Alexander: I confirm that, post devolution, both the disposal of radioactive waste and the planning that would be required in order for such a disposal site to be established lies within the list of competences of the Scottish Parliament, rather than the UK Government.

David Mundell: That is a helpful answer and puts into context some of the activity in the Scottish political climate at the moment. Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning those politicians who run around Scotland claiming that it will be turned into a nuclear dump, when it is the case that, whatever the final decision on new nuclear power stations, we will still have to deal with legacy nuclear waste? Those who fail to face up to that reality or who pretend otherwise are unfit to govern Scotland.

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman makes clear the risk of prewritten questions in Scottish questions. I made it clear just a few seconds ago that I condemn those politicians who choose opportunistically to raise fears rather than deal with facts on this issue. I am happy to confirm that. However, in light of the rather desperate attempts by the Scottish Conservatives in recent days to find coalition partners in the Scottish Parliament, I am not very keen to join the hon. Gentleman in any invitation that is extended to me.

New Deal

4. Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): What the most recent figures are for the number of young people in Scotland who have found employment through the New Deal. [74956]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The latest figures published at the end of April show that 77,580 young people in Scotland have found employment through the new deal.

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Mr. Doran: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The new deal has been important to thousands of youngsters in Scotland and it is important that it continues. We are lucky in the city of Aberdeen because we have relatively low unemployment, but we do have an employment problem at the moment. We have young people who are still looking for jobs. Many of them have had problems in their lives and are getting special assistance from voluntary organisations such as Aberdeen Foyer in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg). At the other end of the spectrum, we have a boom in the oil industry and an ageing work force. We need additional resources to assist with training and to achieve synergy between the young people who are looking for jobs and an industry that is desperate to employ people. Is that an area that he will discuss with his colleagues in the Cabinet to see what can be done?

Mr. Alexander: I am certainly happy to raise with colleagues the points that my hon. Friend has made, but it is important to keep in context the challenge that he describes. Long-term youth unemployment in Scotland has been virtually eradicated—it is 90 per cent. lower than in 1997. Secondly, 1,120 young people in his own Aberdeen, North constituency have been helped into work by the new deal. On his first assertion—that the new deal has been hugely significant—I am afraid that that is not a consensual view in all parts of the House. The Conservatives opposed the new deal and would abolish it, the Liberal Democrats never supported it, and the Scottish National party did not bother to turn up to vote in favour of it.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Secretary of State will be aware that many young people who find work through the new deal or otherwise are on relatively low wages. Does he therefore agree that it is absurd that the Department of Trade and Industry has withdrawn support for the minimum wage helpline run by the Scottish Low Pay Unit, which has helped thousands of Scots on low wages? As a result, the helpline is due to close at the end of the month. Will he demand that the DTI reverse its decision and continue to provide the relatively small amount of finance needed to keep this valuable service in operation?

Mr. Alexander: What I will demand is an explanation from a party that failed to turn up to vote not only for the new deal, but for the minimum wage.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): Given the enormous success of the new deal for young people, despite opposition from Opposition Members, will my right hon. Friend consult the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to see how best the new deal can be extended to include other groups of unemployed people in areas of high unemployment such as, sadly, many parts of the city of Glasgow?

Mr. Alexander: I am of course happy to give an undertaking to consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Although more than 200,000 people have found work in Scotland since 1997, I fully recognise that in the great city of Glasgow, and particularly in its east end, considerable challenges are being faced. I pay particular tribute to the work undertaken recently at the Forge, where young people have been
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taken on, training has been provided and a very effective public-private partnership has been established to address the urban regeneration issues that my hon. Friend is seeking to deal with in his constituency. The new deal has not only been successful in tackling the first tranche of unemployment that we encountered—since then, it has become an innovative and imaginative tool in our efforts to ensure that we further extend the number of people in work in our economy.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the youth unemployment figures were on a downward trend before 1997, and that that has continued subsequently? Will he also confirm that whereas the new deal for young people is available at the very early stages of unemployment, the new deal for the over-50s is not available for the first six months? Will he review that arrangement and ensure that that age group, among whom unemployment is growing, benefits from the new deal at the earliest possible stage?

Mr. Alexander: I am glad that the question that has been asked seems to reflect a continuation of Conservative policy, which is an instinctive knee-jerk hostility to effective measures to address some of the challenges that we face in the labour market. If it is as easy as the hon. Lady suggests to drive down unemployment, there are genuine questions to be asked about why we now have the highest level of employment in many decades, contrary to the position during the boom-bust years of the Conservatives.

Mr. John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will know that unemployment is the single most important determinant of policy. Although we have made great advances through the new deal for young people in each of our Scottish constituencies, there are still 7,000 people on benefit in my constituency, which makes it the joint 41st highest in the United Kingdom in that regard. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that pathways to work and other innovative projects are maintained in constituencies such as mine, so that we can get young people who are unemployed for six months for more, in particular, into work?

Mr. Alexander: I have taken a very close interest in this issue in my constituency. Renfrewshire was one of the first pathfinders for pathways to work, and by meeting Jobcentre Plus staff I saw for myself the innovative approaches that are being taken to ensure that genuine assistance is provided to people who may have issues such as drug dependency, literacy or numeracy difficulties that have inhibited them from entering the labour market. I believe that pathways to work represents the way forward in terms of innovative labour market strategies, which is why I am glad that it is being extended to my right hon. Friend’s constituency.

Pension Credit

5. Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Department for Work and Pensions on how to increase awareness of pension credit in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. [74957]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): My right hon. Friend discusses a wide range of issues with ministerial colleagues. As my hon. Friend will be aware, tackling pensioner poverty is one of our key priorities and some 280,000 households in Scotland are in receipt of pension credit.

Ms Clark: My hon. Friend has already said how many people in Scotland receive pension credit and, in my constituency, 5,650 people are in receipt of that benefit, which has been a huge help in providing many of my constituents with a route out of poverty. It has been a very effective policy from this Government, although some people have still not applied for it. Will he join me in encouraging those who are entitled to the credit to apply for it? Pensions are one of the big challenges that we face, and although the White Paper that has just been published is part of the long-term solution, pension credit is essential now to help pensioners.

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is right and I pay tribute to what she has done in her constituency to publicise the pension credit, which has led to the great take-up levels that she has mentioned. People talk a lot about the pensions crisis, but there was a genuine pensions crisis when we came to office—the crisis of pensioner poverty, which was at unprecedented levels and grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Pension credit has helped to tackle the appalling level of pensioner poverty that we inherited and we will continue to combat it.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): When we consider the reasons why people do not take up pension credit, can we look at how Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is operating? From my recent constituency correspondence, especially in relation to overpayment of other tax credits, that department is rapidly becoming as dysfunctional as the Child Support Agency.

David Cairns: Pension credit is not paid by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, but by the Pension Service.

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