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David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con):
Let me make it clear: this party will take no lectures from the Labour party on our unflinching commitment to the Union. The Ministers complacency on this issue is astounding. It is the fact that Labour will do nothing about the so-called West Lothian question that puts the Union in question.
Although there are many different views about the answer to the West Lothian question, the Minister cannot deny that there is now cross-party support for the view that the present arrangements are unsustainableapart from the Scottish Affairs Committee, the Father of the House, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Members for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) and for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). Will the Minister, for once, agree with Jack McConnell that there should be a mature debate on this important constitutional issue, not the usual yah-boo politics?
David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct to say that there is a multitude of opinions on the matter. That is why his colleague the shadow Defence Secretary, not to mention his colleague the former Foreign Secretary, have legged it in the opposite direction of his proposal to create a multitude of types of MP in this House. Not only that, but Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who successfully torpedoed the last daft proposal that emerged from the Benches oppositethe Bill of Rightshas said that the in-out solution that the Conservatives are putting forward would be the worst of all possible worlds. When will the hon. Gentleman accept that his proposal to have a multitude of different MPs in this House is a massive step along the road to breaking up the United Kingdom?
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The macro-economic stability delivered by this Government continues to benefit the whole of the United Kingdom, including Scotland. Scottish employment has hit a new record high with the private sector driving the expansion. There are 124,200 more people working in the private sector than there were in 1999, and every significant business survey suggests that private sector output and employment continued to grow over the year to date.
Mark Lazarowicz: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for pointing out how Scotland gains from its Union with the rest of the UK. Does he agree that those figures show how Scottish business would be put at risk if it were forced to endure four years with a destabilising referendum on breaking up the UK hanging over its head?
Mr. Alexander: I find myself in complete agreement with my hon. Friend and, indeed, with the Fraser of Allander Institutes study on exactly that question, which made clear the profound risks that other parties would choose to run with the very stability that has been the foundation of our sustained economic success under Labour since 1997.
Sandra Osborne: Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment at last weeks announcement by Jabil that it will close production at Ayr by the end of 2007, with a loss of 217 jobs? Given his positive assessment of the Scottish economy, how optimistic is he that those who lose their job will be able to find alternative employment? What will the Government do to assist them in that matter?
Mr. Alexander: Any job loss affecting any family, not just in Scotland but across the United Kingdom, is a tragedy, and we want to work effectively with the relevant agencies, particularly the Scottish Executive, to make sure that the requisite support is provided to anyone who finds themselves in those unfortunate circumstances. I am certainly happy to write to my hon. Friend about the specific instance that she cited, but she is right to acknowledge that that unfortunate loss of employment has taken place against a backdrop of sustained employment in recent years. The Royal Bank of Scotland, in its most recent study, on 12 June 2006, stated:
On its own terms May was another strong month for Scotland...Employment growth continues apace on the back of the stable expansion, with net jobs growth for the 15th consecutive month.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): But sadly, the most discussed job creation scheme in the Labour party is not designed to tackle the problems raised by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), as it concerns the job prospects of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his efforts to become the Prime Minister. Why are Scotlands employment rates lower than those in Iceland, Denmark and Norway? Why is Scotlands economic growth only a third of growth in Iceland, and half that in Ireland and Norway? On independence day, instead of aping old Tory arguments, can the Government explain why our neighbours are performing better with independence than Scotland, which is run from London under Labour?
Mr. Alexander: I hardly know where to begin in responding to the political points that are notionally wrapped up in that question. First, I remind the hon. Gentleman that there has been sustained economic growth under Labour, which far exceeds anything that was achieved in 18 years of Conservative government, when two recessions were visited on Scotland. Secondly, we have a record of sustained economic growth in Scotland, which was not achieved to the same extent by previous Administrations. Finally, to respond to the hon. Gentlemans point about the Chancellors record of economic stability, I direct him to any of the recent international studies that observe that the macro-economic framework established by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997 is the foundation on which Scotland and the whole United Kingdom continue to enjoy such prosperity and jobs growth.
David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I have noticed that the Secretary of State is always keen to agree with the CBI when it supports his argument, but does he agree with the new head of the CBI, Richard Lambert, who said that the fact that the public sector in Scotland
is noticeably larger than for the UK as a whole...is a constraint
Mr. Alexander: Candidly, I do not agree with that observation, for the following reasons. First, there is no direct correlation between the size of the public sector and the level of economic growth not just in Scotland but, indeed, in other European countries. For decades, Scandinavian countries, for example, have had a large public sector, along with high and sustained employment. Secondly, it is time that the Opposition left behind the rather tired and familiar argument of Private sector, good; public sector, bad. The recipe for modern economic success relies on effective research and development, along with effective vocational skills and education, all of which is contingent on the sustained economic investment in the public sector achieved under the Labour Government.
8. Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, Boosting Jobs and Incomes, in respect of economic activity levels in Scotland. 
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I have discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of subjects. The OECDs Boosting Jobs and Incomes report shows that, for the first time in 50 years, the UK has a higher employment rate and a better combination of unemployment and inactivity rates than any other major industrialised country. The latest labour market statistics show that economic activity in Scotland is at the highest level ever recorded.
Mr. Clarke: Does my right hon. Friend recall that in the not too distant past unemployment was twice its present level, and youth unemployment three times what it is now? Will he and his colleagues continue to do their utmost to ensure that we never ever return to those days?
Mr. Alexander: I am certainly happy to give that assurance. May I pay tribute to my right hon. Friends endeavours to tackle poverty and unemployment in his constituency for many years? He is right to point out that our labour market position is better than it has been in decades. According to the International Labour Organisation unemployment count, unemployment has been cut by a third since 1997, and more than 160,000 people have been helped into jobs in Scotland since 1997 through the new deal, notwithstanding the opposition of Opposition parties.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply to my question. With the upcoming energy review, there is a massive potential for biofuels. INEOS,
which took over the BP refinery and chemical plant at Grangemouth, wishes to establish a massive new biochemical production plant, which may be located at Grangemouth if we all work together. Will my right hon. Friend pledge to join the local council, local management and myself to win that huge investment for Scotland, which is good for energy production, good for the environment and good for the Scottish economy?
Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend makes a number of important points. Of course I am happy to meet him to discuss the economic proposition that he describes for Grangemouth. He is right to recognise the important contributions that biofuels can make to the energy review, which will be published in due course. In the Department for Transport we have also championed the renewable transport fuels obligation, which will see a biofuels mix being added to the petrol served at the pump in the years to come. I believe that in the years ahead of the target that has been set by the Government, there is further scope for biofuels, but we need to recognise that there are continuing challenges in relation to biofuels, one of which is to be able to secure biodiversity at the same time as addressing the environmental challenges that my hon. Friend describes.
9. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What discussions he has had with Ministers in the Home Office about the deportation from Scotland of foreign nationals who have served sentences of imprisonment. 
Mr. Carmichael: When the Secretary of State next meets officials from the Home Office, will he raise with them the question of the bail policy operated by the immigration and nationality directorate? It has become apparent to me while I have been pursuing the case of my constituent Sakchai Makao that the Home Office operates a presumption against bail. Can the Minister tell the House how that can possibly be compatible with the European convention on human rights, under which there is supposed to be a presumption in favour of bail?
David Cairns: I recognise the concern that there has been in the hon. Gentlemans constituency about the case he mentions. He is experienced enough a parliamentarian to know that I cannot comment on the particular case, especially as a judgment is due to be made soon. Everything that the Government do in that regard is consistent with our obligations under the ECHR, and the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity, should he wish, to raise the matter directly with the Home Secretary at the next Home Office Question Time.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): Planning policy guidance note 15, which deals with planning and the historic environment, sets out the Governments planning policy in regard to conservation areas. Conservation areas represent a key part of the Governments desire to preserve and enhance areas of historic importance, and planning policies reflect this.
Ben Chapman: Does my hon. Friend agree that since they were introduced in the 1960s, the now more than 8,000 conservation areas have greatly enhanced our environment and preserved and maintained local areas? Will she encourage in councils the rejection of the notion that because some historic buildings have gone in particular areas, they should not be accepted for conservation area status? Will she in particular encourage the acceptance of Bebington village as a conservation area and seek to protect the conservation area of Port Sunlight?
Meg Munn: I entirely agree that conservation areas are important for protecting and valuing our historic environment. Conservation areas and the wider historic environment should be recognised in the context of local authorities work, particularly in their local development frameworks. Whether a local area should be made a conservation area is, however, a matter for local decision, and I am sure my hon. Friend will continue to campaign vigorously and represent his constituents well on the matter.
Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): In accordance with Government planning policy, in 2004 100 per cent. of new homes in south Buckinghamshire were built on brownfield sites, but is the Minister aware that every one of those brownfield sites was, in fact, a garden? Does she accept that the definition of brownfield sites is not relevant in this case, and that gardens should be exempted from the definition to remove such a crazy anomaly?
Hon. Members are always entitled to raise the matter. It is important that we develop more homes and that those become available for people to
live in. We know that there are pressures in the south of England, so we need to continue to consider all options and all the issues that affect them.
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): The new Secretary of State challenged planning policy head-on in a conservation area in her own constituency when she opposed the building of a block of flats at Markland Hill. Now that the right hon. Lady is responsible for planning policy, will the Minister urge her to use the benefit of her own experience to reform planning law and restore powers to local people over where and how we get the additional housing stock that we need?
Meg Munn: Of course it is important that local authorities have appropriate decision-making powers in such situations, and of course we are always looking at and reviewing how these issues are dealt with and what needs to be taken into consideration. But any planning decision must have regard to what is appropriate in a particular environment, so the planning policies have to take those into account and give the local authorities the opportunity to make the right decisions in particular areas within a framework guidance.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): Part G of the building regulations, which relates to sanitation, bathrooms and hot water storage, already applies to refurbished homes. The Department is not currently reviewing part G, but is reviewing building regulations as a whole, including water efficiency and conservation, and will look at risks and standards including those under part G.
Mary Creagh: My hon. Friend will be aware that this year 600 people, three quarters of them children under five, will receive third degree burns to a significant percentage of their body as a result of bathwater scalds. In April this year, 10-year-old Holly Devonport from Wakefield came to this place to launch the hot water burns like fire campaign; she herself lost half of the skin on her body when she fell into a scalding bath as a five-year-old. I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that we achieve change in those building regulations, just as we have made changes to prevent death from electric shocks, gas and fires. Hot water is the last huge risk that is unregulated in the home.
Angela E. Smith: I congratulate my hon. Friend on her commitment and persistence on this issue. She will be aware that in care homes for vulnerable adults measures are already in place through building regulations. We need to consider who is at risk, the level of that risk and the best way to address it. The building regulations review provides an opportunity to do that. I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that we will look carefully at the matter to see what can be done.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): New cases of homelessness are at their lowest level since 1985 and the number of households in temporary accommodation is falling. We are achieving this by investing in homelessness prevention schemes, increasing the supply of new social housing and improving opportunities for moving from temporary accommodation into settled homes.
Ms Keeble: I welcome the progress set out by my right hon. Friend, but will she look at how local authorities interpret the preventing homelessness agenda and the Homelessness Act 2002, especially in Northampton where the local authority has refused to accept responsibility for a man who suffers from leprosy, and faces being turfed out of his home? Does she think that it is acceptable in this day and age that people with such illnesses are left homeless on the streets?
Ruth Kelly: No, I do not. I am not familiar with the case that my hon. Friend has brought to my attention today, but it is important that local authorities not only reduce homelessness but deal with individual cases in a sensitive and appropriate manner. If she would like me to look at the case that she has highlighted, I would be happy to do so.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that there is no adult homelessness provision in Shropshire, which leads to homeless people sleeping in cars, in derelict cars, on Ercall wood and on the Wrekin itself. Will the Secretary of State liaise with Labour-led Telford and Wrekin council to do something about this ongoing problem?
Ruth Kelly: It is very important that we have appropriate hostels so that rough sleepers can be properly accommodated, that we take action on bed-and-breakfast accommodation so that families do not have to bring up their children in cramped conditions, and that we encourage local authorities to move people from expensive temporary accommodation into more permanent settled homes. The Government, as the hon. Gentleman will know, have taken action across all those fronts, with rough sleeping falling by 75 per cent.; we are ending the number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and investing £19 million in hostel provision. There may well be individual areas where yet more needs to be done, and we as a Government, working with Labour local councils, are committed to making that happen.
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