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House of Commons

Tuesday 12 December 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—

Climate Change

1. Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on climate change issues relating to Scotland. [104866]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on a range of issues.

Ann McKechin: My right hon. Friend will be aware of the comments made this week by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on climate change, explaining that it is the major challenge facing the world today and that the United Kingdom has to play its part both domestically and internationally. Does he agree that, rather than pulling up the drawbridge and cold-shouldering the European Union, as the Conservatives wish to do, or spending many months fruitlessly renegotiating its way back into the European Union, as would happen if the Scottish National party were to lead us, Scotland should play its full part as an integral part of the United Kingdom in leading change in Europe that will make a real difference to climate change for our citizens?

Mr. Alexander: I find myself in complete agreement with my hon. Friend. The European Union—now 25, soon to be 27, members—can make a significant contribution to tackling climate change. The Kyoto protocol and the process that was taken forward evidences the leadership role by the European Union. It is therefore incongruous that the principal Opposition party spends its time trying to disentangle itself from a principal party in the European Parliament, and that one of the main Opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament is so confused that it seems to support independence in the European Union, but wants to secede from the one Union that has been more successful than any other over the last 300 years: the United Kingdom.

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Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Scotland is leading the way for the UK in tackling climate change: for example, by means of more ambitious targets for renewable energy generation of 40 per cent. by 2020, which we are on course to exceed. Does the Minister agree that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and other Departments, can learn from the Scottish example and that, in Scotland, we can and should go further and meet 100 per cent. of Scotland’s electricity needs from renewable sources by 2050?

Mr. Alexander: The starting point is somewhat different. The foresight shown by predecessors in my office as Secretary of State for Scotland has resulted in a far greater element of hydro power being generated in Scotland than south of the border. I am proud that, historically, the Labour party has been supportive of those kinds of environmentally friendly power-generating initiatives in Scotland, and I am glad to say that the Scottish Executive, led by the Labour party, have once again shown a leadership role in showing that we can be a world centre for renewables in years to come.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Both England and Scotland should work together on the issue. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposal for a zero-carbon building target for new buildings within 10 years in England and Wales could usefully be adopted by the Scottish Executive, as well, and will he urge his colleagues in the Executive to follow that example?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we are stronger together and weaker apart when confronting the challenge of climate change and he is also right to recognise the visionary statement that was made last week about carbon-free homes. I am sure that the Scottish Executive will give the matter consideration, given their continued determination to lead on the issue in Scotland.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Is the Secretary of State aware of the report from the Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership, which concludes that cod has moved northwards in the North sea as a result of sea warming changing the distribution of plankton, a point made by Scottish fishermen over several years? Given that the Fisheries Council is due to meet next week, will he for once stand up for this important Scottish industry and press his colleagues in DEFRA to oppose any further quota cuts until that new evidence is fully taken into account?

Mr. Alexander: I am aware of the review of the cod recovery plan, but the approach taken by the hon. Gentleman’s party would prejudice the ability to get the outcome that is in the interests of Scottish fishermen. The nationalists simply cannot answer the question of how they would get into the European Union after independence, given their position on the common fisheries policy. That would leave Scottish fishermen high and dry.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Caledonian Paper in my constituency on the announcement that it made last
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week of an investment of some £58 million for a new power generation plant? Will he urge other industries in my constituency and elsewhere to do likewise so that what is happening with its carbon tonnage, which will be reduced from 90,000 tonnes per annum to 15,000 tonnes once the new plant is on stream, will be repeated elsewhere?

Mr. Alexander: I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Caledonian Paper, which has shown real foresight with that innovative investment. I know from having visited his constituency with him that he takes a close interest not just in environmental issues, but in the economic development needs of that part of Scotland. I pay tribute to him for his tireless efforts on behalf of his constituents and local companies.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise

2. Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): When he last met the Chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise; and what matters were discussed. [104869]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): I met the chairman and chief executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise on 29 November and, among other matters, discussed the strong economic performance of the region.

Mr. Kennedy: I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s wholehearted commitment to seeing university status granted to the university of the Highlands and Islands Millennium institute? Will he also confirm that he and his colleagues are taking each and every opportunity to stress to all the UK bodies involved, especially the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the need to make as rapid and realistic progress as is achievable, according to the set timetable, given the overwhelming social, economic and cultural importance of such a development to not only the highlands and islands, but Scotland and, indeed, the UK as a whole?

David Cairns: I am well aware of the importance of the establishment of the university of the highlands and islands. The matter has been raised in discussions that I have had with Highlands and Islands Enterprise and conversations that I had when I visited the highlands and islands. I am aware of the exciting prospects for the university that were raised at the dinner that the right hon. Gentleman kindly hosted with the chief executive and chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise —[ Interruption. ] I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman paid for the dinner; he just hosted it—another failed Lib Dem spending promise.

I am aware that the various institutions in the proposed university have received a good report on the quality of education that they are providing, although some governance matters need to be sorted out. I am convinced that they can be sorted and that we will see the establishment of a university in the highlands and
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islands that will not only play a tremendous part in the economic regeneration of the area, but encourage people to move to the area to study and then stay there.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I am sure that the Minister is aware that the Scottish Affairs Committee is in the highlands and islands as part of our inquiry into poverty. Yesterday, I met representatives of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, other stakeholders and members of the public. The overriding concern expressed by local communities is about the Government’s plans to butcher the rural post office network. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State, at this late hour, make representations to the Department of Trade and Industry to save this valued and essential service?

David Cairns: I am aware that the Scottish Affairs Committee is in the highlands and islands today, although I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman had mastered the art of bilocation by managing to be here at the same time. As I have said at the Dispatch Box almost every month for the past 18 months, the Government accept the need to continue to sustain a viable post office network throughout the country. That is why we are investing £2 billion to ensure that the post office can compete in the modern world. However, there are problems. When the rural network loses £150 million a year and there are 800 post offices throughout the UK with four or fewer customers a day, with each transaction costing the taxpayer £17, that is an unsustainable state of affairs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will make a statement in due course and set out the way forward. We want to continue to have a viable and sustainable post office network, but some difficult decisions will have to be taken.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The Minister will doubtless be aware of the great commitment that Highlands and Islands Enterprise has demonstrated towards the development of marine renewables. In that regard, however, will the Minister speak to his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry about the way in which its marine renewable fund operates? The creation of the fund was welcome, but those who are involved in research and development tell me that because of the way in which it was set up, it is virtually impossible to get money out of it. Will the Minister take up that point in his discussions with his DTI colleagues?

David Cairns: I am happy to look into the matter on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf, although I do not accept the assertion that it is virtually impossible to get money out of the fund. However, it is important that organisations with good proposals are able to access that funding. I am sure that he would want to pay tribute to the funding that the UK has given to the maritime research centre that is based in his constituency, which has done a lot of work to ensure that we will be in a position very soon to get more of our energy from wave and tidal sources. We are not there yet, which is why the investment is needed, but I will examine the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.

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Cross-border Issues

3. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the effect of cross-border patient flows on hospital waiting times. [104870]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State regularly meets the First Minister to discuss a wide range of issues. As I advised the hon. Gentleman during Scottish questions last month, however, cross-border health issues are primarily for the Department of Health and the Scottish Executive.

Mr. Bone: Do Scottish patients waiting for an operation at an English hospital have the same priority at that hospital as English patients? Does the Minister know how many Scottish patients have been waiting more than six months for an NHS operation?

David Cairns: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to people waiting for operations who happen to be Scottish, but who live in England.

Mr. Bone indicated dissent.

David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman is talking about cross-patient waiting —[ Interruption. ] They were very cross patients under the Conservatives, but waiting times have come down under Labour. Agreements are made between the Scottish health service and health authorities in England and Wales, primarily in the border areas. However, in Scotland, as in England, waiting times and waiting lists for operations are falling. Thanks to the investment that the Government have put in, the number of deaths from cancer, heart attacks and strokes—the main killer diseases in Scotland’s history—has come down in recent times. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman’s party opposed all that investment.

4. Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on cross-border transport issues. [104871]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has just made clear, I discuss a wide range of matters with the First Minister on a regular basis.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that full response, but given his current sabbatical to run the increasingly desperate and hysterical Labour campaign for the Holyrood elections, I wonder that he has any time to touch on what is supposed to be his real brief. Does he agree that, given the stagnation of the rail and road network, both cross-border and, more particularly, in England, the House deserves and requires a full-time Secretary of State, not one giving his orders in Bute house to the Scottish First Minister?

Mr. Alexander: Where do I begin? First, on part-time attendance, I note the absence of the Scarlet Pimpernel from the Benches opposite. I resist absolutely any suggestion that I am obliged to make hysterical
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attacks—I simply tell the truth about the Scottish National party’s policies. I pointed out that the SNP leader was 51, but I supposed that if there was independence, under the SNP’s figures, he would be about 27. On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point about whether the rail industry is stagnating, it may have passed his notice that we have the fastest growing passenger railway in Europe, that more than 1 billion passengers a year now use the railways, and that we are committing record and sustained levels of investment. Once again, the SNP needs to do its homework.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the importance of the Glasgow airport rail link, not only to the local economy but to tourism. Has an assessment been carried out on what the effect would be of the SNP’s policy of opposing that investment?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should ask the Secretary of State about his responsibilities.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The reinstatement of the ferry service between Campeltown and Ballycastle would be a great encouragement to tourism and would improve business links between Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Scottish Executive are prepared to back the ferry with hard cash, but the Government here in Westminster are not. Will the Secretary of State please have a word with his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office, and convince them of the benefit that reinstating that ferry service would bring to both Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Mr. Alexander: I am certainly always happy to discuss with my colleagues any transport issues that are within the remit of the British Government, but may I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has a word with the Liberal Democrat Transport Minister in Scotland, too?

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Senior businessmen in my constituency are concerned about the possible currency in an independent Scotland. It will not be the pound, and it will not be the euro. If the SNP lost a referendum on the euro, it would have to introduce the Scottish bawbee. At what part of the cross-border road will we have to change currency?

Mr. Speaker: Order. These questions must be closely related, but they are not. I hope that Mr. Mundell will manage better.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that Sir Rod Eddington has effectively ruled out a high-speed rail link between Scotland and London, saying that a high-speed rail link


Does the Secretary of State agree with that statement?

Mr. Alexander: The Government have not yet reached a final view on high-speed rail links connecting the north and south of the country. We will of course give
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serious consideration to Sir Rod Eddington’s report. He has commented on the high-speed rail link, among other modes of transport, and that will inform my Department’s work as we move forward on the issue.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Can the Secretary of State comment on the absence of discussions between Northern Ireland Ministers, those in his Ministry, as Secretary of State for Scotland, and those in the Department for Transport, which is the other portfolio that he holds, to deal with the parlous state of the road between the English-Scottish border and the ports from which ferries go to Northern Ireland? Is it not important that there is discussion between the three Ministries about improving the road from Stranraer to Gretna, in the interests of the United Kingdom, and the important commercial life of Northern Ireland? May we have those discussions?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was just reminding me of the scale of investment in the roads network in Northern Ireland. Of course, we maintain a dialogue with the Scottish Executive looking at issues such as the one that my hon. Friend described, which impacts on the locality and more widely. Those discussions would be infinitely more difficult if we were dealing with foreign Governments.

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