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Electoral System

4. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What plans he has to make changes to the electoral system in Scotland. [140955]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): The Government have no current plans to make changes to the electoral system in Scotland.

Mr. Robathan: We have just heard the Secretary of State say that notwithstanding the fact that two out of three voters voted to continue the Union, we face a perverse situation in which the party in government in Scotland is determined to push for independence. The Under-Secretary of State will recently have heard many of his Labour colleagues call for a return to the first past the post system, so will he instigate a review and consider returning to a simple, clear method of electing Members of the Scottish Parliament, namely the system that we have here—first past the post?

David Cairns: We set up an independent commission, led by Sir John Arbuthnott, to consider the consequences of having different electoral systems in Scotland. He and his commission looked into the matter and came back with the recommendation that we should not move back to first past the post, or move to the single transferable vote system right across Scotland, but that we should keep the current system as it is. It is a reflection of the fact that during the Scottish Constitutional Convention, there was an attempt to reach consensus. Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman’s party had taken part in the Constitutional Convention, it might have been able to make the hon. Gentleman’s comment at the time. We have a system and it has produced a result that we openly acknowledge: it has given the Scottish National party a one-seat advantage, but it should not think that it has any mandate whatever to break up the United Kingdom. That would be going against the clear wishes of the vast majority of the people of Scotland.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): But will the Minister accept that the voting system for this place should remain as it is—that is, that it should be first past the post?

David Cairns: Yes.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): As the newly elected Scottish Executive have a good Gaelic song, doubtless the SNP could have looked forward to election victories regardless of the voting system used. However, is it not the case that Scotland’s electoral system should be a matter for Scotland’s Parliament and all the parties within its Parliament?

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David Cairns: The Scotland Act 1998 is very clear: issues relating to the constitution are reserved to this place, and that includes the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament. We have no plans to change that.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): When looking at the Scotland Act, will Ministers consider the position that it is completely wrong that someone should be able to stand under first past the post, under the list system and for a local authority, and so may fail in the first, fail in the second and fail in the third? There are parties in which people are able to do that, whereas in our party we stand for only one position. Surely that is right.

David Cairns: I think that it is probably best to leave the issue to the individual parties concerned; it is up to them to make a decision on whether they should have people who are on the list, who stand under first past the post and who stand for the council, too. My hon. Friend will be aware, of course, that the Arbuthnott commission looked into that, and rather explicitly ruled it out.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I am sure that all Members want trust in our electoral system to be restored after the mess of last month’s elections, and a full and comprehensive inquiry is clearly vital to that. However, we now face the ludicrous situation in which the inquiry investigating the thousands of spoiled ballot papers will not be able to see a single one. Will the Minister tell me why he has not yet brought forward the necessary legislative changes to ensure that the inquiry is able to examine the spoiled ballot papers, and will he do so now?

David Cairns: We have been absolutely and consistently clear: the inquiry is independent of Government, and an independent international expert has been brought in to lead that inquiry. If I were to start second-guessing what those carrying out the inquiry might ask for, or how they should go about their inquiry, I would rightly be accused of interfering with it. We have said that we stand ready to co-operate with Mr. Gould, and so we do.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): The Minister will be aware that the subject of the elections was raised at First Minister’s questions in the Scottish Parliament on 31 May, when the First Minister referred to his telephone discussions with the Secretary of State. Although I am pleased to learn that they were cordial, the First Minister also indicated his intention to push for

into the Scottish election debacle. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister accede to that request?

David Cairns: The First Minister has not actually made the request, so it is difficult for me to accede to a request that has not been made. I have not had a telephone conversation with the First Minister, but I had the unalloyed joy of spending three hours with him over a curry in Renfrew a week last Sunday, and he did not raise the matter with me then, either. If he says one thing to the Scottish Parliament and does not say it in
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this place, that highlights the fact that he has a seat here and if he came and took his seat and served his constituents in Banff and Buchan, he could make that point to us at Scottish questions.

Energy White Paper

5. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): What assessment he has made of the impact of the proposals in the Energy White Paper on energy production in Scotland. [140956]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): Scotland has the potential to benefit significantly from the Government’s energy policy, as set out in the White Paper.

Sir Robert Smith: But as we have seen, the White Paper may lead to a loss of investor confidence. We have lost the carbon capture and storage project in Peterhead. We need clarity from the Government for investors. To that end, will the Minister rule out entirely any liability for nuclear waste or nuclear decommissioning from new generation plant falling on the public sector?

David Cairns: As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said at the Dispatch Box on Thursday, in response to a question from the hon. Gentleman, I think, we are sorry that BP is not going to continue with the competition, but there are seven other important players in that competition. It was never the case that the Government could simply hand out the necessary awards to one particular company. Even if BP had stayed in with the Peterhead project, there is no guarantee that it would have won the competition in any event. However, the Government’s position on new nuclear build was set out comprehensively in the White Paper. It is not for the Government to build nuclear power stations. It is for industry to come forward to Government and say that it would like to build a new nuclear power station. At that point, the discussions can take place.

Mr. Jim Hood (Lanark and Hamilton, East) (Lab): I too pay my tributes to Lord Ewing, who was a good friend and colleague and a great parliamentarian. He will be a loss to both Parliament and Scotland. I send my best wishes to his wife Margaret and his family.

May I press the Minister to accept that, in view of the utterances from the new leadership in the Scottish Parliament, an important issue such as the energy White Paper would be better discussed by the Scottish representatives at Westminster in the Scottish Grand Committee? I cannot think of anything more important to discuss in the Scottish Grand Committee than the energy White Paper.

David Cairns: My hon. Friend’s tenacious advocacy of the Scottish Grand Committee reflects well on him. It is a matter for the usual channels and the House authorities to instigate Grand Committees. I point out that since the Grand Committee stopped meeting regularly, it is possible to hold one and a half hour debates on important issues in Westminster Hall, and it is open to my hon. Friend to apply for such a debate.

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Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Following on from the discussion of nuclear power in an earlier question, if a company wished to build a new nuclear plant in Scotland, would it be up to the Scottish Executive to make that decision or would it be up to the Department of Trade and Industry?

David Cairns: The situation is crystal clear. The Scottish Executive would have the final say on any application for a new nuclear power station in Scotland or even for any non-nuclear significantly large power generator, both under the Electricity Act 1989 and under planning legislation.

Economic Activity

6. Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): What assessment he has made of recent trends in macro-economic activity in central Scotland. [140957]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): Central Scotland has benefited from the stability generated by the Government’s management of the economy, which has delivered above trend economic growth and the strongest labour market for decades.

Mr. Joyce: May I associate myself with the remarks about Lord Ewing, who represented Falkirk in this place and will be sadly missed here?

My hon. Friend will be aware of the remarkable and historically high levels of employment in the Falkirk area. Does he agree that the future success of the economy of central Scotland, and particularly the Falkirk economy, will be based in large part on our unrivalled communication links and the intelligent use of land?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is right. Unemployment in his constituency stands at 2.5 per cent., which is below the Scottish average. I am sure that Lord Ewing would have liked to be able to say that during his time representing that constituency, when throughout long periods of the last Conservative Government places such as Falkirk were severely blighted by high unemployment. Falkirk now has a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of the thriving economy in central Scotland, including the thriving financial services sector and the great improvements that are being made in the manufacturing sector. At the heart of that lie the key transport links. I know that for as long as my hon. Friend is a tireless advocate, the future will be very bright for Falkirk.

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Affordable Housing

14. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): What plans she has to increase mobility among tenants of affordable rented housing. [141601]

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The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): John Hills’ review of social housing underlined the importance of promoting mobility and tackling worklessness. The report has provoked a wide-ranging debate on the role of social housing in the 21st century. We are carrying out a programme of work to address the issues raised.

Mr. Love: My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Hills report says that of 4 million tenants nation wide, only about 5,000 to 6,000 move in any one year owing to employment-related factors, so existing mobility schemes simply do not work. Yet the number of homeless of people who live in socially rented housing is significantly higher than in any other tenures. That means that something must be done. What indications can she give us that she is considering this, and that action will be taken to help those people to get into employment?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. More than half of all social tenants of working age are not in work of any form, and enabling mobility to allow them to take up work must be an important part of our response. Of course, increasing the supply of social housing will be vital, and we plan to continue that, but we must also think about how, within our choice-based lettings schemes, at a local authority level and more broadly, we can enable people to move both within their area and across boundaries. I will say more about that later.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): But following the collapse of Move UK earlier this year, when will social housing tenants in my constituency be able to move to another part of the country using something like the national mobility scheme, which the Government inherited in 1997?

Ruth Kelly: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I know that he used the opportunity of an Adjournment debate to raise this issue recently. Indeed, national mobility schemes are probably an important part of our response, although I point out to him that there have traditionally been far more mutually arranged exchanges than have ever taken place through a national mobility scheme. One way in which we can make this happen more quickly and easily than by resurrecting any of the old schemes—it was right that we took action when we did to correct a contract failure—is to ensure that choice-based lettings work thoroughly and appropriately to enable choice within the local authority area and, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), to enable people to move on a sub-regional basis across local authority areas or more widely.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): According to a recent parliamentary answer to me, mobility has been falling for some time. Last night, I spoke to two tenants in my constituency. One was a single person living in a three double-bedroom flat and seeking to downsize; the other was a family of six living in a one-bedroom flat and hoping to get out of a desperately overcrowded situation. While the match is not exact, as we know, mobility can clearly make a real impact on overcrowding and on
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homelessness. Will my right hon. Friend commit to a major injection of energy and resources to try to get internal and external mobility back up even to the level that it was at a few years ago?

Ruth Kelly: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is working with the Greater London authority to ensure, especially in London, that incentives are given for people who want to change home, particularly to downgrade. I understand that so far about £20 million has been invested to that end. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that it is a priority. We must do more, and we are thinking about all the measures that we can take to make it easier for people to move home.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): As the Secretary of State knows, in 1981, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), in a Conservative Government, introduced a scheme that allowed social housing tenants to move to new homes anywhere in the United Kingdom and retain their secure tenure. This year, under a Labour Government, the scheme has collapsed, scores of people have lost their jobs and tens of thousands of tenants have been left in the lurch, with no new homes to which to move and no scheme in place to offer support. After the incompetent introduction of home information packs and penal stamp duty, which have made it much more difficult for home owners to move, the Government have now made it much more difficult for social tenants to move. May we have a word of apology?

Ruth Kelly: I clearly regret the failure of Move UK. It was set up to replace an already failing scheme, which did not deliver appropriate moves for tenants throughout the country. As I have already said to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), far more moves took place under mutually agreed exchanges than any national mobility scheme ever produced. Clearly, the performance of the new scheme was unsatisfactory and I regret that. We must now work urgently to try to develop a choice-based lettings scheme, which is a preferable method of encouraging mobility, especially because most local authority tenants want to move in their area and fairly close to home—perhaps for child care support or employment reasons—and we must then work quickly to expand that scheme so that people have the opportunity to move across the country.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend also address the issue of enforced mobility in the social housing sector whereby people who live in terribly overcrowded conditions are forced to move away, as she says, from their jobs and homes to find satisfactory accommodation? Will she examine the Housing Corporation-funded scheme that was piloted by Luton community housing association, which enabled social housing to be extended in the same way as we have loft and other extensions in our homes, to enable families to retain their jobs, places at schools and all the links with their communities rather than being forced to move?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is right that social tenants have choice just as it is right for people who own their homes to choose
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whether to move, build an extension or convert their loft. That is precisely why we are working with the Greater London authority and others in London to give people the opportunity to convert their social homes so that they have more choice about whether to move or stay where they are.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Does the Secretary of State recognise that, if the Government’s policies push an extra 500,000 families on to the council house waiting list—as they have done—the pressure will reduce mobility, not increase it? Is not the cure to build more social housing? On balance, does she believe that mobility will be improved or worsened if the housing allocation policy of the Minister for Industry and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), were adopted nationally?

Ruth Kelly: Of course the answer is to build more homes. That is why I am proud that the Labour Government are building more private sector homes as well as increasing the number of homes that are built in the social sector. The hon. Gentleman knows that the number of social sector homes has increased by 50 per cent. in the past two years. It is my priority and that of my Department in the comprehensive spending review to put new-build social housing at the top of our list. We must do more—he is right to acknowledge that. However, as he rightly says, it is a matter of increasing the supply of new housing, affordable housing and social homes.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State aware that 80 per cent. of the population in my constituency have no chance of buying into the private sector and that the only hope of those who are in overcrowded council accommodation is mobility within the borough or nearby? Yet in London, the chronic shortage of council housing means that it is impossible for many families who live in grossly overcrowded accommodation, with teenagers growing up three or four to a room, to have any chance of getting somewhere decent to live. Will the Government please invest a lot of money quickly in building council houses for rent for people in desperate housing need?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to a real issue. I hope that he supports the additional investment that the Government have made in increasing the number of homes available at affordable rent. We must continue to make progress on that. We are now building at a rate of around 30,000 homes a year. We must increase that further to tackle the pressures that he rightly outlines.

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