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House of Commons

Tuesday 4 July 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—

Sporting Events

1. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What steps he is taking to bring more national and international sporting events to Scotland. [80906]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are backing Glasgow’s excellent bid to bring the 2014 Commonwealth games to the city. I recently hosted a reception with the Scottish Executive Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport to encourage support and raise awareness. Scotland’s strategy for attracting, organising and delivering major events is, of course, the responsibility of Scottish Executive Ministers.

Mr. Hands: I thank the Minister for that response. I also support the Commonwealth games bid, but I also welcome the Government’s intention to host the 2018 World cup. At the moment, the Chancellor seems to be going out of the way to downplay his Scottishness, and when making the World cup announcement, he seemed specifically to exclude Scotland from co-hosting the bid, yet Scotland has some excellent stadiums and some great fans. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Chancellor to make the case for a joint bid between both England and Scotland for the 2018 World cup?

David Cairns: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for Glasgow’s bid. It will be a great boost not just to the city but to the whole of Scotland, bringing in many additional tourists and, of course, raising the profile of sport, and it will also allow those games to take place in other locations in Scotland—such as the excellent proposal to hold the sailing competitions in Inverclyde.

On the World cup bid for 2018, the hon. Gentleman is quite right: the Government launched a study last year into the feasibility of holding the FIFA World cup in England in 2018. The study is being conducted jointly by the Treasury and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and we await its outcome.

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Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): Does the Minister recognise that a successful Commonwealth games bid by Glasgow will also bring long-term benefits to housing and regeneration in Dalmarnock in my constituency—the best site for the athletes’ village—and, overall, bring benefits to Scotland?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is entirely correct. Of course the most important part of the games is not so much the event itself—although, of course, that will be the centrepiece—but the legacy of sport infrastructure, plus new community infrastructure, that will remain in some of the most deprived parts of Glasgow. So, taken as a whole, this is very exciting prospect for Scotland, to which I am sure every hon. Member will give their support.

TV Licences

2. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): What discussions he has had with the BBC about rural residents in Scotland using the Post Office to renew their television licence. [80907]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): The contract decision is a commercial matter for the BBC, as the television licensing authority. Of course the corporation has a duty to licence holders to achieve value for money in collecting licence fee revenue.

Sir Robert Smith: I thank the Minister for that answer, as far as it goes, but does he not recognise that the Scotland Office has a duty to speak up for the needs of Scottish residents, particularly rural residents? In my constituency, there were 41 sub-post offices where licences could have been renewed; now there are only 16 pay points where the BBC will allow that to happen. Should the Minister not remind the BBC that it has a duty to serve rural Scotland, as well as urban Scotland, and that is crucial that the BBC go back to the Post Office and look again at whether they can negotiate a contract to allow rural residents to renew their licences at post offices.

David Cairns: No, I regret that I am not able to interfere in the commercial contracts between the licensing authority and the Post Office. The Government’s role is to ensure that the Post Office receives the investment that it needs to compete in the modern world. That is why we put in £2 billion of additional support so that it can be part of the universal banking network, for example, and a lot of that support is ongoing. That is the proper role of government; I am afraid that to interfere in those commercial negotiations is not the proper role.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend not agree that, given the proposal to change the terms of the Crown post office in Irvine, the service will not be as good as under the old system? The post offices in the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friend the Member
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for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) have also been changed from Crown post offices to franchises, reducing the possibility of buying licences in those new post offices.

David Cairns: I understand the concern that has been expressed, particularly on the proposal to move the post office from 165 High street to 130 High street, where it will become part of a Spar franchise. My hon. Friend will, of course, understand that the Crown post office network represents some 4 per cent. of the entire network, yet it loses £70 million annually. So there are some tough commercial decisions for the Post Office in managing the Crown network, but I hope that his constituents will not suffer any diminution in service of the type that he mentions, because the Post Office has an important role to play, not just in rural Scotland, where, of course, it has a central role, but in urban Scotland, too.


3. Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): What recent meetings he has held with ministerial colleagues to discuss energy issues in Scotland. [80908]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I have meetings and discussions with ministerial colleagues on a wide range of energy matters affecting Scotland.

Mr. Weir: In the course of his busy schedule of meetings with Ministers, has the Secretary of State has the opportunity to discuss with them the findings of the Energywatch report, “Are fuel poverty targets out of range”, which notes that, mainly owing to rocketing energy prices, fuel poverty levels in Scotland are worryingly close to where they were in 1996? Has he pressed the Treasury and Department for Work and Pensions to end the scandal that, in energy-rich Scotland, pensioners are worried about fuel bills, and to increase the winter fuel allowance, which is now nowhere near sufficient to meet our pensioners’ escalating energy bills?

Mr. Alexander: Of course the hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that fuel bills have been rising. That phenomenon is not unique to Scotland or indeed the United Kingdom, but reflects general changes that have taken place in energy prices around the globe, because we are now dealing in global markets. He is also right to recognise that, in addressing fuel poverty, there is a contribution to be made by the winter fuel payment. It was a Labour Government who introduced the winter fuel payment and a Labour Government who increased that payment. The winter fuel payment has made a significant contribution to addressing the challenge, but we continue to look at the matter in the light of changing circumstances.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the discussion about the Government’s energy review has been rather focused on electricity generation? Given that electricity accounts for less than 20 per cent. of our final energy
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consumption, will he ensure that his right hon. Friends at Westminster and Holyrood properly address the issue of improving the energy intensity of our economy?

Mr. Alexander: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Although there has been, perhaps understandably, a continued focus in the media on energy production, we also face further challenges—in particular, in relation to energy efficiency. That has a major contribution to make in addressing the challenge of fuel poverty. I know from my experience as a constituency MP the effect of the warm deal initiative by the Scottish Executive in many communities. It affects pensioners right across Scotland. When the energy review is published, there will be recognition not just of some of the challenges that we face with energy production, but of the wider issue of energy conservation.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the work force of Dounreay, by whose excellent efforts in decommissioning the legacy cost of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority has been substantially reduced? Will he further support the local initiative to provide alternative employment for those who are so effectively working themselves out of employment, with an alternative energy park at Dounreay?

Mr. Alexander: I am still struggling to establish whether that contribution was pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear—[Hon. Members: “Both”]—which, in a nutshell, is a challenge not unique to the hon. Gentleman, but which applies to his whole party. Of course we welcome and congratulate people on the work that is being done effectively at Dounreay. There will be challenges in terms of how the work force can use the skills that have been developed over a number of decades. I would be happy to receive representations on that matter from him.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend make it perfectly clear—and does he agree with me—that nuclear power has to be part of a balanced energy policy, and that if no nuclear power stations are to be built in Scotland, future Scottish consumers will be at risk of more massive hikes in the price of gas and electricity, and of blackouts and power cuts, and will also face considerable problems with security of supply?

Mr. Alexander: The energy review reflects not simply challenges relating to diversity and security of supply, as my hon. Friend makes clear, but the energy mix that is appropriate to a modern advanced economy. That energy mix varies north and south of the border. Both Hunterston and Torness operate in Scotland, which accounts for a higher proportion of the energy mix being produced by nuclear power plants in Scotland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

It is important to reiterate the point that I made at the last Scottish questions: when it comes to judgments on new-build nuclear facilities, those matters rightfully
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rest with the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament, given the terms of the Electricity Act 1989 and the devolved nature of planning laws in Scotland.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): Dr. Elaine Murray MSP has said that Labour policy at the Scottish Parliament elections will be not to veto new nuclear power stations in Scotland, yet the First Minister appears to take a very different line. What is the Labour position in Scotland?

Mr. Alexander: I had the opportunity to discuss the energy review only a couple of days ago with the First Minister. It is not for me today, on behalf of the Scotland Office, to anticipate the terms of the manifesto that will be produced by the Labour party. That will be devised in Scotland, as has been the case in the past.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Regardless of what our future energy needs may be, does my right hon. Friend agree that we will need a strong manufacturing base to build the future power plants? Will he reassure manufacturing companies such as Mitsui Babcock that, if they hang on in there, work will come their way?

Mr. Alexander: Having had the opportunity to visit Mitsui Babcock in Porterfield road in Renfrew on previous occasions, I know of the leading edge technology that it is developing, not least in relation to clean coal technology. When the energy review is published in due course, there will be significant opportunities not only as regards renewables but more generally as regards power generation. I hope that Mitsui Babcock, along with other Scottish companies, seizes the opportunities that that provides.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): It appears that there is still some confusion arising from the Secretary of State’s position on this matter. My party’s position is clear. Does the Secretary of State agree with Scotland’s First Minister, who appears to be suggesting that, with major investment in renewables, Scotland could be free of new nuclear power stations, or with his colleague Dr. Elaine Murray MSP, who says that Labour will not block any applications for nuclear build?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Lady comes close to offering a new definition of the term “brass neck”, given that her place on the Liberal Front Bench is a direct consequence of her predecessor’s opinions on nuclear power. We make no apology for the fact that there has been a significant and successful push for renewables in Scotland led by the Labour-led Scottish Executive. At the same time, the position of the Scottish Executive—that issues need to be resolved in relation to nuclear waste—has been made clear for several months. A process has been established by the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations to address that, and that work is ongoing.

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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): When the Secretary of State next has a meeting with the First Minister to discuss the nuclear review, will he bring the Prime Minister’s views to his notice? When the Prime Minister spoke to the Liaison Committee this morning, he made it perfectly plain that he personally is completely in favour of nuclear power and that he always had been before he commissioned the energy review. Surely that is an important matter of which the First Minister should be aware?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is one of a number of former shadow Scottish Secretaries speaking today. The Prime Minister has made it clear on several occasions that, along with considering nuclear power, he wants a big push on renewables and a step change in energy efficiency. Those concerns initiated the energy review, and they will all be addressed when the review is published.

Sewel Convention

5. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): When he expects to respond to the report of the Scottish Affairs Committee, “The Sewel Convention: the Westminster perspective”. [80910]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): As is customary, the Government’s response to the Scottish Affairs Committee will be submitted within two months of the report’s publication date.

Mr. Evennett: The Prime Minister has ruled out a ban on Scottish Members from voting on English-only issues on the grounds that

Does the Minister accept that there are already two classes of MP? For example, I speak for my constituents on matters such as education and health, but he does not do that for his. My constituents are rather fed up with the situation and want to know what the Government are going to do about it.

David Cairns: No, I do not accept that. I believe that the Conservative proposals would lead to multitude of different classes of Member of Parliament and, inevitably, the break-up of the United Kingdom. It is not just me saying that. I quote:

That was the voice of the Daily Mail this morning. If even the Daily Mail recognises that the Conservative plans are grossly irresponsible, it is time that Conservative Front Benchers did so too.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that under the Conservative proposals the shadow Secretary of State would not be allowed to vote on the future of health services in Carlisle—

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Mr. Speaker: Order. The Under-Secretary has enough trouble looking after his own affairs.

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East) (Lab): When my hon. Friend responds to the consultation document, will he ensure that the idiotic and dangerous Conservative proposals, the logic of which would lead to—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Wrong again. I hope that the next one is right. I call Angus MacNeil.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The West Lothian question was rightly flagged up as a problem in the report by the Scottish Affairs Committee. Apart from the radical idea of a penalty shoot-out suggested yesterday in a Scottish newspaper, which of the four suggestions does the Minister prefer? Given the success of independence for the United States, which is marked today, as well as for Norway, Ireland and Iceland, surely independence is the only serious solution, especially for the largest stateless nation in Europe—England?

David Cairns: At least the hon. Gentleman is entirely consistent in his view. It does not bother him in the slightest that there would be multiple categories of MP in this House or that some MPs would vote for some things and some for others, because his party is a separatist party. I understand why his party supports such a daft proposal, but what beggars belief is that the Conservative and Unionist party supports it.

Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): When people from all parts of our country have fought together for Britain, traded and worked together for centuries, and built an NHS established by a Welshman, will my hon. Friend rule out any suggestion that we should destroy centuries of successful partnership for short-term, party political reasons? Crossrail, a London Mayor and Northern Ireland are all examples of issues on which many MPs vote, even though the result will never affect many of their constituents. Will my hon. Friend join me—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has made the point.

David Cairns: And an excellent point it was, too. My hon. Friend correctly points out that the United Kingdom is one of the most successful countries in the history of the world. It is successful because it has brought together in a Union nations who stood together, fought together, traded together and built up a country that is the envy of the world. We put that at risk at our peril. It is a shame that the party that used to be a unionist party has abandoned that principle.

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