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House of Commons

Tuesday 7 November 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—

Digital Broadcasting

1. Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with broadcasters on digital switchover in Scotland. [98825]

2. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with broadcasters in Scotland on digital switchover. [98826]

8. Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on digital switchover in Scotland. [98832]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and I also meet representatives from the broadcasting sector from time to time. In addition, on Friday 27 October, I gave the keynote address at a major conference on digital switchover in Scotland.

Mr. Hamilton: I have supported the BBC all through my life and I still support it and the licence fee system. However, in my constituency, which is a semi-rural area, the biggest single town in Midlothian, which has some 20,000 people, still cannot get digital transfer. It is not good enough to be told that they will get it in 2010, with whatever problems come at that time. Does my hon. Friend agree that the BBC should be looking at the possibility of a rebate for people who cannot get digital transfer? They are getting a bit fed up with the advertisements, when digital is not available to them.

David Cairns: I well understand the frustrations of my hon. Friend’s constituents. As he knows, a number of people in my constituency cannot even get an analogue signal, let alone a digital one, and it is frustrating for them. I well understand how they feel. At the moment, more than 80 per cent. of Scottish homes are able to receive a digital signal through their aerial. That figure will rise to about 98.5 per cent. at the
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time of digital switchover. We need to switch off the analogue transmitters in order for that number to rise to 98.5 per cent. I am afraid that I am not able to offer him the comfort that he seeks. Having raised this issue with the BBC on a number of occasions, I know that it feels that it has a duty to get to about 98.5 per cent. I hope that when coverage increases from 80 per cent. to 98.5 per cent., many of his constituents will be able to get that signal.

Rosemary McKenna: Although it is good news that all those people will be able to get digital coverage, my hon. Friend will be aware that there is grave concern about the ability of people to understand the system—particularly our elderly population. Does he agree that, come digital switchover, voluntary sector organisations, such as CACE—Cumbernauld action for care of the elderly—which works closely with the elderly, will be key in assisting the elderly population to operate and receive the system properly?

David Cairns: Yes, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I know that she has raised it during the deliberations of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. It is important that we provide a package of help for vulnerable people and older people. It will not just be older people who might need some support and technical assistance in switching over, but, particularly for those people, we need a help package that will give the assistance that they need. Digital UK is taking the lead on that. I know that it will want to work closely with the voluntary sector to ensure that those who are used to visiting older people in their homes, and have their trust and confidence, will be able to take the message on digital switchover to those vulnerable groups.

Mr. Doran: My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) makes an important point about the condition of analogue systems at the moment. For example, people in a large part of the city of Aberdeen cannot get Channel 5. I was one of them. I recently bought a digital television. I have 20-odd other channels, but I still have not got Channel 5. If the Minister is going to make it worth while for people to invest in digital technology, we need to think about how we are going to get an improved service.

David Cairns: I am sure that, as long as my hon. Friend’s constituents can access the Parliament Channel, they will sleep safely in their beds. He makes an important and valid point: people have chosen to switch to digital because of the opportunities that it gives them, the multi-channel service, and the availability of interactivity on the services. He will know from his time on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee that there is a major engineering exercise involved in turning off all the various transmitters that need to be fixed and so on. We need to make sure that that is done in a way that does not disadvantage people, that helps them to make the change over to the digital future, and that allows them to get rather more channels, including Channel 5, than he currently gets.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): The Minister is, of course, aware that parts of Scotland will be the first in the United
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Kingdom to be part of the digital switchover. Will he make it clear to Digital UK that awareness of the switchover is, in itself, not sufficient and that the work with voluntary groups and community groups is vital? For many of those groups, face-to-face contact will be the only way to ensure that there is understanding and, more importantly, no fear of the changeover.

David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Awareness is key. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and I, he will have seen a lot of the adverts that are running to make people aware of the switchover. Awareness has risen from about 66 per cent. to 70 per cent. in just the last few months, as a result of the campaign. However, it is vital—particularly in borders, which will be the first region of the UK to switch over entirely at the end of 2008—that there is as high a level of awareness as possible. That is why Digital UK has taken a special interest in what is happening in borders. It is also paying close attention to what is happening in Scotland. It has dedicated staff working in Scotlandto raise awareness and achieve the result that he is looking for.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): I attended the conference that the Minister addressed and I pay tribute to the fact that he is taking a close personal interest in the subject. He will be aware that huge numbers of people in rural areas depend for their television signal on relay transmitters, rather than main transmitters. Under the current plans, many of them thus stand to get a second-tier service after switchover because they will receive only a fraction of the available channels. Does the Minister think that that is unfair? Will he ensure that Ofcom rethinks the proposals so that everyone can get an equal and fair service?

David Cairns: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the borders digital forum that he has set up to help to raise awareness. He was fortunate enough to hear my keynote speech at the major conference on digital switchover a week or two ago. I accept the point that he makes. As I understand it, there is essentially an engineering constraint—this is a major engineering project. However, Ofcom will have to keep the matter under consideration as we move through the process.

Act of Union

3. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What plans his Department has to mark the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union in 2007. [98827]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): We have already indicated our intention to mark this important anniversary. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announcedon 15 June 2006, the Royal Mint will issue a commemorative coin. The Chancellor and I will launch the coin at a special event in January. Among other commemorative activities, I am pleased to know that
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plans are also being made to mount an exhibition in both the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

Angela Watkinson: The Union of England and Scotland is one of the great success stories of modern European history and it has given us three centuries of stability. The £2 coin is welcome and I am pleased that there will be an exhibition. In a recent written response, the Secretary of State alluded to the fact that other events will be held. Will he elaborate on what local authorities and other institutions might be doing?

Mr. Alexander: Of course, it is up to local authorities to make judgments on such matters. We are in discussion with the Scottish Executive and I discussed the Westminster Parliament’s response with the Leader of the House only yesterday. I rarely find myself in agreement with the views expressed by Conservative Members, but the Union is Scotland’s mature choice. It has brought huge benefits not only to Scotland, but to England, so I am sure that we will both join in celebrating the success of, and future prospects for,the Union.

Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): Would not next year’s anniversary be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate our Britishness and the shared values of democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance that bind this united country together? Given that people from all parts of the United Kingdom have worked and fought together for centuries, would not the anniversary be a great opportunity to reject once and for all divisive, anti-British and unpatriotic proposals to ban some MPs from voting in the House, which would tear up the British constitution and lead—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Alexander: I think that I got my hon. Friend’s point. He speaks common sense when he recognises that a United Kingdom needs a united Parliament. Notwithstanding the sentiments expressed by some Opposition Members, now is not the time to play fast and loose with the British constitution in terms of maintaining the integrity of the House of Commons. I have some sympathy with the point made by my hon. Friend. This Sunday, I will take my place at the Cenotaph to recognise the extent to which Scottish and English soldiers, together with soldiers from right across the United Kingdom, fought together to defeat fascism and then came back home and worked together to build a national health service. Those are huge achievements from the past century of the United Kingdom and I believe that we will have equally great successes in the coming century.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): There will also be representatives of some 30 independent countries at the Cenotaph on Sunday.

Amid all the street parties and mass celebrations that the Secretary of State expects for the Treaty of Union, will he ensure that there is a key role for the First Minister of Scotland, who appears to have been sidelined as a mere cipher by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s taking charge of the campaign? Has the
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Secretary of State noticed that since the Chancellor of the Exchequer assumed control of the pro-Union campaign, support for Scottish independence has soared to an all-time high, while support for the Labour party has plummeted to an all-time low? Will the Secretary of State promise to keep on doing what he is doing?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I remind the House that we are talking about an anniversary. Hon. Members’ contributions are rather wide of the question.

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman’s talk of street parties reminds me of the image of him with the tartan army on top of a bus in Toulouse in 1998, which was the last time he claimed that Scotland was heading towards independence. The combined force of the Labour party in the Scottish Parliament and Labour at Westminster saw off that challenge. As we look ahead to the celebration of the Union, I am confident that the question that will dominate Scottish politics in the years to come will no longer be, “What is the point of Britain?”, but, “What is the point of the Scottish National party?”

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): I welcome the commemorative events for such a significant milestone. Does the Secretary of State agree that, given that it took almost three centuries to re-establish a Scottish Parliament, the time is ripe for mature evolution of our constitutional arrangements, but not pulling up the plant simply to see how the roots are developing? In that respect, what is his take on the suggestion that Jim Wallace floated in his Glasgow university lecture last week, reflecting on his time as Deputy First Minister in the coalition and on occasions as First Minister, that—leaving aside the argument about reform of the House of Lords—there could be an argument for the First Minister having a guaranteed place in the Lords to strengthen the links between the two Parliaments?

Mr. Alexander: I am aware of that debate and of the discussions that continue in Government and across both Houses on the reform of the House of Lords. I am sure consideration will be given to that suggestion, and to others. I place on record my admiration for the work of the right hon. Gentleman, in the constitutional convention that led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and as we move towards the 300th anniversary of the Union, and his close interest in constitutional matters. I know not whether it is to be transmitted by digital signal or analogue signal, but I understand that there will be an influential documentary on the history of the Union with which the right hon. Gentleman may have more than a passing familiarity, owing to his authorship and editorship of the programme in due course.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State accept that my constituency shipyards have huge orders as a result of Scotland being part of the United Kingdom? Will he prevail on his colleague the Chancellor to make large numbers of the £2 coin available to me to distribute to my constituents in order to demonstrate the value of the British dividend?

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Mr. Alexander: I fear that I must disappoint my hon. Friend by assuring him that prudence continues to have influence in the Treasury. On the substantive point that he makes about the significance of defence contracts to Scottish employment, that was of course one of the decisive arguments in Glasgow, Govan and elsewhere back in 1998. Since then, when one sees not only the frigates that have been built at Scotstoun, but the prospect of the Royal Navy securing aircraft carriers, it would be economic madness for any party to suggest that Scotland’s interests were advanced by tearing itself out of the Union, when the manifest benefits of the Union are so clear to my hon. Friend’s constituents.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union presents an excellent opportunity to look afresh at our constitutional settlement, and that a calm, considered and well informed debate is needed to set a framework for further powers to be devolvedto Holyrood and to explore greater devolution in England?

Mr. Alexander: I have already acknowledged the constructive role that the Liberal Democrats played in the constitutional convention, which made proposals that the late, great John Smith described as

the determination to see devolution in the United Kingdom. Echoing the sentiments of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy), given that we are only eight years into a strong Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom, there is a case for continuing the progress that devolution has made. It provides the perfect balance between stability through the United Kingdom and the flexibility to address the challenges we have heard about during these questions—for example, the highest ever level of employment secured in Scotland.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I welcome much of what the Secretary of State said, and what the Prime Minister said yesterday about the enormous benefits to Scotland of being in the Union—similar comments to those that the Leader of the Opposition made when he was in Glasgow recently. Will the Secretary of State make sure that the celebrations focus not just on 300 years of success together, but on the future of the Union in the 21st century, working together?

Mr. Alexander: I sense that a sinner repents by endorsing devolution in the United Kingdom. I welcome at least the recognition by the Conservatives that devolution is now the settled will of the Scottish people, as well as the determination to take forward the debate about Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom. I have little doubt that, over the months to come, whether on the basis of the anniversary of the Union or of the historic choice that Scotland faces next May, there will be a continued and vital discussion about the important contribution that Scotland can make to the Union over the next 300 years.

David Mundell: Conservative Members are clear on our commitment to make the devolved settlement
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work. Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that support for the Union remains very strong in Scotland, and that the alleged rise in support for independence has nothing to do with a desire for further constitutional change but is the result of disillusionment with the Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive?

Mr. Alexander: It will come as no surprise that I am not convinced by the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Polls come and go, but the truth is that at every opportunity the Scottish people have rejected the politics of grudge and grievance and of separation and have recognised that Scotland’s mature choice is to remain within the United Kingdom, which is why Scotland has sustained economic growth, high levels of employment, low interest rates and the prospect of further prosperity within the UK.

Local Income Tax

4. Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): When he last met the Chancellor to discuss the effects on the Scottish economy of an introduction of a local income tax. [98828]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet Treasury colleagues to discuss a range of issues as they affect Scotland. As my hon. Friend knows, however, local taxes to fund local authority expenditure are devolved to the Scottish Executive.

Miss Begg: In his discussions with the Chancellor, will my hon. Friend stress that a large number of hard-working, two-income families in my constituency will be particularly badly hit by any move from a property-based tax to a local income tax, which is, surprisingly, the policy of the Scottish National party and of the Liberal Democrats?

David Cairns: I will certainly ensure that my hon. Friend’s point is made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in any discussions. The list of council tax band D figures in Scotland shows that her local authority in Aberdeen and mine in Inverclyde are well above the Scottish average; both, of course, are run by the Liberal Democrats, who have not only failed to keep the council tax under control but now want to clobber hard-working families with a huge hike in their income tax. It is no surprise that that policy is shared by the SNP, which simply would not be able to make the figures add up.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Will the Minister promise to remind the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) of her words in a few years’ time when she is complaining about the disastrous effect, especially on people of low and fixed income, of the revaluation that is inevitably coming? When he has his discussions with the Chancellor, will he discuss the effects on the Scottish housing market and, consequently, on the Scottish economy, of that revaluation when it comes?

David Cairns: When the hon. Gentleman got to his feet, I thought that he was going to take the opportunity to apologise for the comments made by his colleague who said:

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