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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): The Government and the Scottish Executive continue to support expanding use of renewable energy in Scotland through the renewables obligation and other forms of assistance.
John Barrett: The Minister will be aware of the recent announcement by the Deputy First Minister of £20 million to be spent in Scotland over the next two years on renewable energy. Does he agree that that points to a marked contrast between the Administration in Holyrood, where the Liberal Democrats have an influence, and down here in Westminster, where the Labour Government seem to have abandoned all hope of green electricity?
David Cairns: I am happy to welcome the £20 million of assistance announced by the Scottish Executive, but I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that in the current five-year period this Government are investing £500 million in renewable and other low-carbon technologies. Much of that investment is being spent in Scotland, including at the maritime centre in Orkney, which I am sure is welcomed by the local Member of Parliament. This is far too important an issue to play such party politics with. This Government have put massive amounts of additional resources into promoting renewable energy, which is why we are on target to meet our Kyoto obligations six years early, when many other countries either did notregrettablysign up to Kyoto or are miles behind their targets. We have a very proud record on the issue.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does the Minister agree that there are many similarities between Shropshire and Scotland, not least in the scores of farmers who want to help the Government to reach their climate change targets through biomass and biofuels? However, there are no tax incentives, capital grants or other carrots offered to farmersjust stick and punishment. When will the Government get serious about incentivising farmers and people in rural industries, in Scotland and in Shropshire, to help to reach their climate change targets?
David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point [ Interruption. ] Yes, he does. That was hardly a vote of confidence from his Front-Bench colleague. The simple question is how we can provide the energy that our country needs without wrecking the planet in the process, and biofuels will play an important part in answering it. I suspect that when we bring forward the results of the energy review next month, they will include a considerable amount on that issue, including what we can do to encourage biodiversity.
Mr. Salmond: Does the Secretary of State recall the last time that he was in charge of the Labour party campaign in Scotland, when he said that he wanted to engender fear in the Scottish population? Is he aware that the leading Labour economist, Mr. John McLaren, recently published an index of success for the Federation of Small Businesses? It gives Scotland a middle ranking among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, but places it only 10th out of the 10 small countries to which it refers. Can the right hon. Gentleman supply any reason why Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark and Austria should all be above Scotland in the index, save that they are independent countries where it would be difficult to engender fear?
Mr. Alexander: I am fascinated that, today of all days, the hon. Gentleman should choose to raise the issue of the leadership of campaigns for the Scottish Parliament, given that his party has just announced that its 2007 campaign will be led by a Westminster MP. That seems to be the criterion for leadership in the Scottish National party.
The hon. Gentleman asked a substantive question about Scotlands economic performance. He mentioned the OECD, and I refer him to that organisations economic survey of the UK. It described the UK as a paragon of stability and stated that that was
a testament to the strength of the institutional arrangements for setting monetary and fiscal policy.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk seriously about the state of the Scottish economy, I suggest that he looks at the report published this month in Scottish Engineerings quarterly review. In his statement accompanying that report, Dr. Peter Hughes, Scottish Engineerings respected chief executive, said:
It is particularly gratifying to see our industry performing well in so many areas. Our home markets remain healthy and exports continue to grow.
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been a remarkable transformation of the economy in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill under this Chancellor of the Exchequer? Does he rejoice with me that we have the lowest unemployment, the highest employment and the lowest youth unemployment in a generation? Inflation is at its lowest level that many of us can remember, and mortgages are at their lowest level for a very long time. That gives our young people unprecedented prosperity, with new homes and new opportunity
Mr. Alexander: Of course, the Scottish economy is in a strong position. Economic growth in Scotland last year exceeded that of the major European economies, and our employment rate is higher than in the rest of the UK and almost all other European countries. My right hon. Friend raises a specific constituency point, and I know that he has been a tireless campaigner for the interests of Lanarkshire and his community for many years. Representing Paisley as I do, I am fully aware that it is exactly the maintenance of economic growth over so many years that means that prosperity is reaching even those parts of Scotland that were left behind by the temporary economic booms of past decades. That is why I am unyielding in my admiration for the work of this Government in securing economic prosperity for all parts of Scotland.
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that when it comes to measuring the Scottish economy, one problem is the disparity between statistics for Scotland, the UK as a whole and for England? When he next meets the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Scottish Executive, will he see what can be done to bring into harmony the statistics for the UK provided by the Office for National Statistics and by the chief statistician for Scotland?
Mr. Alexander: I am not convinced of the hon. Gentlemans case. If one looks across the range of indicators, it is clear that the Scottish economy is strong. There is no doubt that we have had sustained economic growth for a number of years, and that levels of employment have risen as a consequence.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): I have met the leader of Glasgow city council on many occasions and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be delighted to meet him formally, as the occasion arises.
Ann McKechin: My hon. Friend will be aware of the substantial progress achieved by Glasgow city council in regenerating the city and increasing employment. However, does he agree that we need the closest possible partnership between the council, the Scottish Executive and Whitehall, as well as a Government who are fully committed to providing the additional extra resources needed to continue the good progress and achieve full employment for the city?
Anyone who has visited Glasgow in recent years will have seen the remarkable renaissance that Glasgow has been through. It is absolutely booming. A lot of that has to do with the tremendous leadership that has been shown by successive leaders of Glasgow city council, including Councillor Purcell. What must now happen is that the wealth that has been generated in the centre of Glasgow be spread out to the outlying districts. That work is being taken forward through such initiatives as the welfare-to-work forum. The council plays a large part in making such initiatives relevant to all parts of Glasgow.
10. Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effect on people in Scotland of the recent Law Lords decision on compensation payments to those affected by asbestos. 
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The Government have profound sympathy for people suffering from asbestos-related illness and their families. However, we need to consider carefully whether, in order to ensure fair compensation, we should respond to this judgment. I can assure the House that Ministers are studying the reasons for the decision very carefully, with this in mind.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He will be aware that literally thousands of former shipyard workers, particularly on the Clyde, will be deeply disappointed with the Law Lords decision. Does he agree that Clydeside Action on Asbestos is
doing a wonderful job in supporting those people? I hope that the Government can support them by adding something to the compensation Bill that will reverse the decision taken by the Law Lords.
Mr. Alexander: I know from my experience of the neighbouring constituency just how many people are afflicted by this series of terrible conditions. I know that many families in the west of Scotland have direct concerns about these issues. Equally, I know of the efforts of the Clydebank group to raise the profile of the issue. That is why Ministers are studying carefully the reasons for the decision.
Let me add, in no way diminishing the significance of my answer, my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on the announcement only today of 300 new jobs in Erskine, which I am sure will continue the economic development of that part of Scotland.
Mr. Vaizey: I am grateful for that answer. In November 2004, the Government promised to road-test home information packs in a specific geographical area in England and Wales to see how effective they were. Can the Minister let us know when that road test will take place and in which geographical area?
Yvette Cooper: What we said during the passage of the Housing Act 2004, when the packs were extensively discussed both in this and the other place, was that we would properly test the components of the home information pack. We shall do so. Already, many providers are starting to supply home information packs and will do so on a more extensive basis from the autumn, when the certification schemes are in place. We will set in place detailed testing and research arrangements to monitor progress. The industry was clear with us that it did not want a geographically isolated pilot, but wanted a scheme that tested the programme more widely across the country.
Surely not enough testing has taken place. What was promised as a dry run has really been just a sham. Which independent body will audit the testing? How will it be judged whether the packs are a
success or a failure? It seems to me that the Government just wanted to railroad this ahead without serious consideration of how it would operate.
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. One hundred and fifty organisations keen to be involved in the dry run have now approached the Department. They wish to work with us on testing the various elements of home information packs. We will set out an independent testing and research process to ensure that we properly monitor the dry run as it unfolds. It is important to remember that we are introducing reforms that are strongly backed by the Consumers Association, and it is right that we should introduce them to make big improvements for people buying and selling their homes.
Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): There appears to be some discrepancy between estimates of the cost of HIPs. They range from £1,000 recently cited in an early-day motion to £700 cited by HIP providers. Will my hon. Friend assure the House, especially the sceptics, that the cost is more likely to be at the £700 end, and that the cost will not be duplicated further up the chain? Does she agree that encouragement of those fears is irresponsible?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. The cost and price of the home information packs will be set by the market. There is huge potential for considerable competition to bring down costs in various areas of home buying and selling. She may be interested to know that some providers have already said that they intend to reduce the price of home information packs. One has even said that it would offer them to consumers for free. We assess that the current average costs of the component parts of the home information pack under the current process amount to somewhere between £600 and £700most of those are costs that are already paid in the current process. We will transfer the cost from buyers to sellers. Most of us are sellers and buyers so it will not make any odds to us, but it will make a really big difference to first-time buyers, because they will get home information packs for free.
Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that mixed messages are coming from the Conservative party? The Conservatives say that they support first-time buyers, but they will not support a measure that will reduce the cost to first-time buyers [ Interruption. ]
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): There is a significant mismatch in Upminster between relatively low local income levels and very high property prices. Does the Minister share my concern that sellers are likely to add the cost of the home information pack to the asking price, making the cost of properties even higher and less affordable for local people?
No, but the hon. Lady is right to say that there are pressures on affordability. In particular, there are pressures on first-time buyers in terms of
getting into the housing market. That is why there are strong benefits from transferring the costs from buyer to sellers because that gives first-time buyers the chance to get into the housing market in the first place. Many of the providers have said that they would not charge for the home information packs up front. We think that this is a huge opportunity to improve the efficiency of the market and cut wastesomething that the Consumers Association has long argued for.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As the Minister will know, there are large numbers of last-ditch opponents to home information packsand not just on the Conservative Benches. Two of the points that lawyers and estate agents who are trying to protect their privileged position make is that there will not be enough home inspectors and that HIPs will have a negative effect on the housing market. Will she reassure us that neither criticism is valid?
Yvette Cooper: On home inspectors, more than 4,000 people are already in training to become home inspectors. Their work will begin in the autumn and we expect that, therefore, the process of people completing their training will accelerate around that time. My hon. Friend spoke about the impact on the market. In Denmark, where a version of home information packs has been introduced, the Danish chief executive of the estate agents organisation believes that home information packs did not have any negative impact on the market at all and that they have been extremely good for buyers and sellers in Denmark.
Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Minister is all too well aware that every industry expert insists on the need for an appropriate dry run before we press ahead with this intervention in the marketplace. However, so far only 200 of the 4,000 promised home inspectors have actually qualified; no specific geographical areas have yet been earmarked for dry runs, despite what her predecessor as the Minister for Housing and Planning promised in 2004; and we have no clear, unambiguous and independently audited criteria for judging the success of those dry runs. Can the Minister tell us what the benchmark for success in the dry runs will be, or will Ministers simply award themselves a pass mark irrespective of the results?
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman has long been an advocate for those in the property industry who are opposed to the introduction of home information packs because, frankly, they make money out of the existing system. The advocate on behalf of buyers and sellers, the Consumers Association, is strongly in favour of home information packs. I caution the hon. Gentleman against becoming the parliamentary spokesperson for the National Association of Estate Agents, which might have its own interests in the process.
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