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House of Commons

Tuesday 10 October 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—

Post Office Network

1. Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): What recent discussions he has had with Ministers on the future of the post office network in Scotland. [92535]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): I meet regularly with ministerial colleagues to discuss a wide range of issues.

Angus Robertson: I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that he will acknowledge the concerns across the country about the future of the Post Office, but is he aware of the growing dismay about those politicians who claim to support postal services while actually wanting to privatise them? That is, of course, the policy of the Liberal Democrats.

David Cairns: I entirely agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman—whom I almost called my right hon. Friend—makes. However, the problem is worse than he says, as the Government have made available thousands of millions of pounds through the budget of the Department of Trade and Industry to help support and sustain the post office network. Of course, it is also Liberal Democrat policy to abolish the DTI and spend its budget elsewhere.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): When my hon. Friend discusses the future of post offices with his ministerial colleagues, will he ensure that their importance in urban areas—and especially poorer urban areas—is fully taken into consideration? What support are the Government giving to such post offices to enable them to compete?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend makes an exceptionally important point. Post offices have a key role to play in deprived urban communities, just as they do in rural communities. The urban post office network has benefited from the £2,000 million that has been invested in recent years. That money has enabled the Post Office to become part of a global banking network and to compete in the modern age. The reality is that customers will determine the Post Office’s
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future—we cannot expect that the post office network in 10 or 20 years’ time will be like the one that existed 10 or 20 years ago.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): It is appropriate today that the House should mark the passing during the recess of Hector Monro, who represented the Dumfries constituency for some 33 years and held several ministerial offices. Hector was a great servant of this House, of his constituents and of Scotland—and never more so than in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing. He will be sorely missed.

Does the Minister agree with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, and the many Scots who have signed its petition, that the post office network in Scotland has an important social value? If so, why have the Government systematically removed business from that network?

David Cairns: First, may I associate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and colleagues on this side of the House with the warm tribute that the hon. Gentleman paid to Hector Monro? My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) has spoken of the warmth with which Hector is still remembered in the constituency for the work that he did for the south of Scotland.

The hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) asked about the nature of the post office network, but I remind him that the Government have provided financial assistance, in the form of the investment of taxpayers’ money, that amounts to well over £2,000 million. That speaks not of a Government who are withdrawing support from the Post Office, but of one who continue to support it. I contrast that with the fact that 3,500 post offices throughout the UK closed in the 18 years of Conservative Government.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): May I draw my hon. Friend the Minister’s attention to Auchterarder sub-post office? When the VisitScotland tourist office there closed, Donald Ramsay, the sub-postmaster, had the foresight to enter into negotiations and secure 90 per cent. of its business in his post office. Does my hon. Friend agree that local post offices might be able to take advantage of similar opportunities when tourist offices and the like are placed under threat? Will he join me in congratulating Mr. Ramsay on his foresight in embarking on that new business venture?

David Cairns: I am more than happy to pay tribute to Mr. Ramsay and to my hon. Friend, who I know played a part in negotiating the arrangement that has brought the tourist office into the post office. I look forward to VisitScotland opening an office in Port Glasgow so that the same synergy can be established there. My hon. Friend has given the House an example of how the Post Office can enter into new entrepreneurial ventures that will help sustain it. That stands in sharp contrast to those hon. Members who go around collecting petitions about the future of post offices, while supporting policies that would see them close.

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State Aid Rules

2. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with Government Departments and EU member states on the effect of future state aid rules on Scotland. [92536]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues, although as Secretary of State for Scotland, I have not discussed future state aid rules with representatives from other member states.

Mr. Carmichael: The Secretary of State is aware of the great anxiety in Shetland because of the complaints being investigated against various economic development projects that are claimed to have breached state aid rules. I hope that he and his Department will do all they can to work with the Scottish Executive and others to allow a satisfactory resolution of those complaints. Looking to the future, does he agree that what is needed is a system that allows for clarity in the prior approval of schemes and that recognises the economic fragility and peripherality of communities such as Shetland?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is right—I am aware of the concerns on the islands at the moment, given the ongoing disputed state aid issues, and I know that as the local representative he has taken a close interest in those matters. Indeed, I understand that I even featured in The Shetland Times this week, such is the level of his concern. As he said, those matters are being explored in detail with Shetland Islands council, the public body concerned, the Scottish Executive and our Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Discussions are ongoing with the Commission to try to resolve the outstanding issue, but I should be clear that the principal responsibility lies with the public body in question—in this case Shetland Islands council, which is why I hope that we can find a resolution to these matters.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister agree that the Chancellor is to be commended for many things, one of which is his view that EU state aid rules and regional aid rules are best repatriated, and that this is a classic example of where very little is added by having state aid rules and regional aid handled by Brussels? Far better to have it returned to member states.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Alexander: Clearly, the whole House is minded to pay tribute to the work of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

A review of EU state aid is under way. I am glad to say that the thinking not just of the Treasury, but of the whole British Government—and, indeed, the Lisbon agenda—figures prominently in the ongoing review by the Commission. We want to see less but better targeted state aid and I believe we are making real progress in Europe towards that end.

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Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): As state aid was the given excuse for the restructuring of Caledonian MacBrayne, does the Minister feel that the £16 million currently being wasted on restructuring would have been better spent on fare reductions, especially considering that some articulated lorries spend £1,000 on a return fare to the outer Hebrides? Should not every opportunity be taken during the restructuring to relocate Caledonian MacBrayne’s headquarters to Stornoway, Tarbet, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale or Castlebay, or all those ports? [ Interruption.]

Mr. Alexander: A very strong case for Gourock has just been put by my hon. Friend the Minister. Whenever I buy tickets for the MV Isle of Mull, I tend to buy them from Gourock and not from Lochmaddy, so I have a certain sympathy with his view.

On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point, this is of course primarily a matter for the Scottish Executive, who are aware of the strength of feeling both on the outer and the inner isles on the future of Caledonian MacBrayne.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): Given that the UK is the member state, is the Secretary of State satisfied with the existing arrangements with the Scottish Executive in relation to state aid rules, in particular their compliance? Is not this yet another example of a failure to have clear working arrangements in place between London and Edinburgh?

Mr. Alexander: I feel that the hon. Gentleman is stretching the point to return to a familiar theme at Scottish questions. As I sought delicately to suggest, responsibility lies primarily with Shetland Islands council, but of course we stand ready to work both through DEFRA and Scottish Executive Ministers to find a resolution to the dispute.

Wind Turbines

3. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): If he will assess the effects of Government policy on wind turbines on migrating bird populations in Scotland. [92537]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): Planning consent to site wind turbines is devolved to Scottish Executive Ministers for larger projects and to local authorities for others. In all cases, the relevant authority must comply with European obligations, including those arising under the birds and habitats directives.

Mark Pritchard: I thank the Minister for that reply. Although I welcome the progress—albeit slow progress—that the Government are making on renewables, may I express concern that often bird life and habitats are overlooked in the planning and decision-making processes? Does the Minister share my concern that the proposal by British Energy and AMEC on the Isle of Lewis does not fully explore the whole issue of the impact on migrating bird life, about which the Scottish population—a bird-loving population—have real concerns?

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David Cairns: When the hon. Gentleman started to talk about endangered species in Scotland, I thought for a moment that he was talking about the Scottish Tory party. If the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) wants to debate that, he is very welcome to join us at Scotland Office questions.

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point—there is often tension between the global environmental gains to be made from renewable energy sources such as wind farms, and local environmental considerations, and it is important that they are balanced. That is why the European habitats directive must be taken into consideration before planning consent is given, and I am sure that he welcomes that EU regulation, as he welcomes all EU regulations. However, that highlights the need to take these decisions on a case-by-case basis based on the evidence, and not to adopt a strategy of calling for a moratorium on all wind- farm developments in Scotland . [ Interruption. ] Conservative Members may say that no one is saying that, but the Scottish Tory party is saying it.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I certainly hope that bird habitats will be taken into account in the very exciting development on the Beatrice platform, which is run by Talisman, whose headquarters is in my constituency. People there are working out how to maximise the use of offshore wind—in fact, the turbines will be very large and one of them will be extremely large—but does my hon. Friend agree that such developments should not be jeopardised by any over-concern for wildlife, which, obviously, has to deal with the existing offshore platforms in the North sea in any case?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the potential of deep-water offshore wind farms to get us beyond some of the tensions that occur when the local environmental impacts stop the global benefits of renewable energy. Of course, the trial on the Beatrice field is just beginning and we must consider its results with very great care.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): While it is obviously right that the interests of migrating bird populations should be taken into account, does the Minister agree that the siting of wind farms can provide a useful stream of revenue for farmers and landowners in respect of their properties, which might otherwise be financially unviable?

David Cairns: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an excellent point. Of course, wind farms have many possible benefits, not just the global benefits of reducing our carbon emissions and helping us to meet our targets. However, people in more and more farming communities recognise that if their farms are to be viable and sustainable, they must diversify from agriculture into other forms of income generation, and this is one of them.

Age Discrimination

4. Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): What steps the Government plan to take to ensure the enforcement of anti-age discrimination measures in Scotland. [92538]

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The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): This is an important and enlightened measure, which came into effect earlier this month, and whose enforcement will be, as in other strands of discrimination legislation, mainly through employment tribunals and sheriff courts.

Ms Clark: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, but does he share my disappointment that some sections of the business community have used the opportunity of the introduction of this legislation to complain about burdens on business? Does he agree that they would do far better to welcome this legislation as a real opportunity to ensure that all sections of the community get a fair deal?

Mr. Alexander: I am in sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point. I think that any modern business would want to be able to recruit and retain staff on the basis of competence and skills, rather than their age. This is a classic example of the sort of measure that will undoubtedly benefit the United Kingdom’s businesses in the long term. There is no contradiction between running a business efficiently and running a business fairly.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I very much welcome the legislation. However, an estimated 56,000 Scots between the ages of 16 and 21 earn less than their older colleagues, solely on the basis of their age. Does the Secretary of State agree that such age discrimination is probably illegal and certainly unacceptable, and that it is time for the lower minimum wage rates for younger workers to go?

Mr. Alexander: Mr. Speaker, forgive my concern for the crocodile tears expressed about youth unemployment and the minimum wage. We considered the matter very carefully in government after 1997. Of course, the Conservative party then claimed that 1 million jobs would be lost as a consequence of what they judged would be a dangerous and reckless policy. In fact, the only people who ended up losing their jobs because of the manner in which we introduced the minimum wages were the Conservative MPs who opposed it. The serious point behind the measures that we took and the fact that we introduced a different rate for young workers was our profound concern to avoid significant youth unemployment, which is still too common in continental Europe. The virtual eradication of long-term youth unemployment has been one of the Government’s most significant achievements. I believe that our measured and sensible approach to the introduction of the minimum wage has played a significant role in that success.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): The Opposition fully support the new regulations. However, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there has been a failure to convey to businesses, particularly small businesses in Scotland, the detail of the regulations? What proposals does he have to remedy that?

Mr. Alexander: I do not accept that suggestion. The Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which will come into force next year, will of course have a key
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role in education about and promotion of the regulation, but in the meantime sources of information are available to both small and large businesses to make sure that there is effective implementation of the regulation henceforth.

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