16 Oct 2007 : Column 679

House of Commons

Tuesday 16 October 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

PRivate Business

Broads Authority Bill


Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Digital Switchover

1. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to raise awareness of digital switchover in Scotland; and when he last discussed this matter with Ofcom and Digital UK. [156888]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): The Secretary of State recently met Ofcom and I met Paul Hughes, Digital UK’s national manager for Scotland, over the summer. In addition, I will address a conference in Scotland next month on the opportunities presented by digital switchover. Book early to avoid disappointment.

John Robertson: The Minister knows that there are currently teething problems in Whitehaven, especially with people not knowing about the switchover. My constituency has an above average number of elderly people, whose television is not a luxury but a necessity. What contact has my hon. Friend made with, for example, Glasgow city council, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Citizens Advice Scotland and the electricity boards to ensure that information is issued especially to the elderly about the changeover?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend mentioned Whitehaven, which is the first part of the UK to switch over. That will happen tomorrow. I was not aware of the teething problems that he mentioned. When I last examined the matter, I was told that awareness in Whitehaven was 100 per cent., which sounded suspiciously North Korean, but I am prepared to believe that the percentage is high. He is right that the key to it all is public awareness. No single
16 Oct 2007 : Column 680
organisation—be it Digital UK or the BBC—will achieve that on its own. We need to work together—the councils, the Scottish Executive and the registered social landlords, who also have a role to play—so that, when the scheme is extended throughout Scotland, beginning in Borders in 2008 and in the rest of Scotland in 2010, there is awareness of it, ensuring that people know that switchover will happen and know the steps that they have to take. In addition, a help scheme will be in place for the elderly and vulnerable people to whom my hon. Friend referred, so that they do not lose out on that opportunity.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The help scheme will not kick in until close to switchover. What is happening now to develop new handsets for the visually impaired, those with disabilities who have difficulty accessing digital TV, and those, mainly the elderly, who may need to buy a new TV before the help scheme kicks in in their area but also need access to digital advice now so that they do not miss out when the switchover happens?

David Cairns: That is precisely why Digital UK appointed a national manager for Scotland, Paul Hughes, and why I met him earlier. I pay tribute to him for raising the issue of the handset for people with disabilities. After he prompted me, I spoke to Vicki Nash of Ofcom Scotland about the matter. I also discussed it with the Scottish Consumer Council because it is a genuine concern. Ofcom Scotland has conducted some research on how useable the handsets are, the results of which are being fed back into the former Department of Trade and Industry—now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—taskforce on the matter. As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), it is important that no one loses out, especially those who have visual or other disabilities.

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that digital television provides opportunities, especially for my constituents through North Lanarkshire local authority, which provides information and tremendous services? Will he encourage other local authorities to conduct a similar exercise?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is right. Indeed, she pre-empts excerpts of my keynote speech next month. North Lanarkshire has proposed a creative and imaginative scheme, which is a way to disseminate information throughout the area so that everybody knows the services to which they are entitled and that they can access. It is an excellent programme, which I thoroughly recommend to other local authority areas, not only in Scotland but throughout the UK.

Ministerial Meetings

2. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Whether the frequency and format of his meetings with the First Minister have changed since May. [156889]

16 Oct 2007 : Column 681

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne): I understand that the frequency and format of my meetings with the First Minister are consistent with those of our predecessors. I have also had a series of informal meetings with the First Minister. For example, I met him as recently as this Saturday when we watched Scotland’s magnificent victory over Ukraine at Hampden Park.

Mr. Hands: What recent discussions has the Secretary of State held with the First Minister about Glasgow’s Commonwealth games bid? What advice has he given the First Minister, who will shortly lead a delegation of 46 members to Sri Lanka to hear the announcement? Does he agree with Glasgow city councillor John Mason, who says that the size of the delegation is “very excessive”? Will the right hon. Gentleman join the delegation?

Des Browne: I have no plans to join the delegation. The appropriateness of the size of the delegation will be determined by the outcome of the lobbying. If Glasgow—as I expect that it will—wins the Commonwealth games, we will look back at the size of the delegation, and if every member has made a contribution to that appropriate outcome, we will celebrate them. It is not in my gift to determine who goes—I have no expertise in such lobbying; perhaps the hon. Gentleman does. If so, he should let Glasgow have the benefit of it. We all look forward to a successful bid. I am sure that he will cheer as loudly as the rest of us when Glasgow makes a successful bid for the Commonwealth games.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will take the opportunity, next time he meets the First Minister, to remind him that my constituents in Ochil and South Perthshire expect to see him working co-operatively and constructively in Scotland’s interests, not using the opportunity for party political grandstanding.

Des Browne: I say to my hon. Friend, and I have said in the past, that my interest as the Secretary of State for Scotland is primarily in making devolution work for the people of Scotland. I am in absolutely no doubt that it will work in the interests of the people of Scotland only if I personally have a constructive relationship with the First Minister, which I believe I do, and if he and his Ministers develop constructive relationships with my colleagues. Some of the activity of the past week suggests that, in order for us to do that, they might need to resist the temptation to develop confrontation out of what appeared to be co-operation.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): With that good spirit in mind, will the Secretary of State endeavour in his next meeting with the First Minister to join him, the National Farmers Union Scotland and the Scottish Government in battling for Scottish farmers and Scottish crofters? Will he lend his weight to the campaign for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to live up to its responsibility and fully cover all welfare and compensation payments arising from foot and mouth?

16 Oct 2007 : Column 682

Des Browne: Like everyone else in the House—and everyone else in Scotland—I have enormous sympathy for farmers and the plight that they face. I am among the many hon. Members who have constituents who are directly affected by those circumstances. Our concern for them is heightened by the fact that the events that generated those circumstances were well beyond their control. They were the victims. The hon. Gentleman will know from his colleagues in Scotland that Scotland Office Ministers have been working closely with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues that arose out of the outbreak of foot and mouth, from hours for haulage drivers all the way to support for farmers. Indeed, I met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this morning to discuss that very issue.

I commend the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) for leading a genuinely cross-party initiative and for engaging constructively. I understand that he will be meeting farmers later today with the Secretary of State. He is to be commended for that. Perhaps the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) and some of the members of his party could take a leaf out of that book, by working in co-operation and not in confrontation.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Next time my right hon. Friend meets the First Minister, will he raise the question of our armed forces returning to the UK? If our service personnel return to an English local authority, they receive priority treatment through the health service, but in Scotland they do not. Will my right hon. Friend raise with the First Minister the important question of how our service personnel are treated in Scotland?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend may well have uncovered an application of what I thought was a cross-UK policy to give veterans priority in relation to health service treatment. I suspect that that is not the only area where there are differences between the rest of the United Kingdom and Scotland in relation to veterans’ access to public services. For example, he will know from the work that he has been doing on the Select Committee on Defence that we are making quite significant progress here in England, through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government among others, on removing some of the impediments that armed forces personnel face in accessing social housing. Those are of course challenges that the Scottish Executive face, too. I am sure that, with the encouragement of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and others, they will be up to those challenges, but there are still gaps in their provision of service.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I impress upon the Secretary of State the importance of making communication work between London and Edinburgh? If communication between his Department and the Scottish Government in Edinburgh does not work, the devolutionary settlement will not work, and that can lead in only one direction. The people who will suffer in the meantime are those whom we are supposed to represent here, such as those in the Scottish livestock industry, to which he has referred. I am having to take representatives of the industry, along with people from other parties, to meet
16 Oct 2007 : Column 683
the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this evening, simply because relations between the two Departments have broken down.

Des Browne: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the parties to a successful devolutionary settlement, at Government level, must be able to work with each other openly and with confidence. Undoubtedly, some of those currently in that partnership appear to have something to learn about such work, and about the degree of trust necessary; I am certain that they will learn. On support for the livestock industry, I have commended the hon. Gentleman on his action, and I assure him that he will find support from Ministers in the Scotland Office. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that the issue is resolved, not only in the best interests of the farming community but in those of the welfare of animals.

John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): Instead of constantly picking a fight with Westminster, the policy-light and heavily aggressive Scottish National party Administration in Edinburgh should provide solutions to the everyday problems faced by our constituents, whether in health or education, and help to make Scotland a better place. Does the Secretary of State agree that the £30 billion comprehensive spending review settlement for Scotland—which, incidentally, is double what Scotland received in 1999—is a good deal for Scotland, and that enough policy measures can be implemented with that generous budget?

Des Browne: I agree with my right hon. Friend that the Scottish Executive have at their disposal a budget that, on any measure, is twice what Donald Dewar had when devolved Government took responsibility for areas of public policy delivery. More immediately, the Scottish people are watching exactly what the minority Administration in Scotland deliver. They promise announcements: by my calculation, they have told us that about 60 of their policy promises have been delayed pending the generous settlement that they have received. Their manifesto made several very important promises, and they ought to know that the people of Scotland are watching. Those who were voted in to keep an eye on them in government will bring to the attention of the Scottish people their failure to deliver, I suspect, on every single one of those promises.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): We heard today, and in the last Scottish questions on 10 July, the Secretary of State’s commitment to co-operate. At the beginning of this term of the Scottish Parliament, the new First Minister said that under his stewardship the Scottish Parliament would be about compromise, concession, intelligent debate and mature discussion. The Secretary of State will accept, however, that the people of Scotland have not seen that over the past two weeks, and that they expect and deserve better from both their Governments. Does he now accept that the memorandum of understanding on managing the relationships between the UK Government and devolved Administrations is no longer fit for purpose? Does he agree that the Secretary of State for Justice should review it as soon as possible?

Des Browne: The memorandum of understanding to which the hon. Gentleman refers says, in particular, that most contacts between the Government and devolved Administrations

16 Oct 2007 : Column 684

That is how the UK Government want things to work in practice. There is a long record of such arrangements working in practice, benefiting not only the people of Scotland but those of Northern Ireland, Wales and London. There is no reason why we cannot return to that basis, within the context of the existing memorandum of understanding. We ought to be able to get to a situation, within the existing memorandum of understanding, in which not only can the words of co-operation be used but the deeds of co-operation are manifest.

David Mundell: On foot and mouth compensation, surely the whole episode was entirely predictable as soon as the draft statement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was changed. Why did not the Secretary of State for Scotland move to manage that situation? Will he tell the House when he knew that foot and mouth compensation had been offered by DEFRA, and when he knew that the terms of that offer had been changed? Will he clarify newspaper reports that the Minister of State has been charged with running round Whitehall Departments to tell them now not to give information to Scotland?

Des Browne: The Minister of State has been charged with no such responsibility. The hon. Gentleman ought not to believe everything that he reads in the newspaper, even if he has briefed the newspaper himself—indeed, especially if he has briefed the newspaper himself: that might be a reason for not believing what is in it.

In relation to the issue—[Hon. Members: “When?”] Perhaps Conservative Front Benchers would have the good manners at least to wait until the question has been answered before deciding that it has not been answered.

At no point was I aware that an offer had been made and withdrawn, because no such offer was ever made and withdrawn. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made that absolutely clear. He has personally made it public that he played no part in the sort of behaviour in which he was accused of taking part, and in withdrawing an offer that had been made.

All of us who have been in government—and there are still some Members on the Conservative Benches who have experience in government—know fine well about discussions on access to the reserve. If the scale and nature of a bid is appropriate to a reserve that is held for particular purposes, there will be arguments about access to it, but all who have been in government know full well that that involves a debate with the Treasury. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, we shall be able to see whether it supports such a bid as the situation evolves.

Post Office Closures

3. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on post office closures in Scotland. [156891]

16 Oct 2007 : Column 685

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): I have regular such discussions with ministerial colleagues. The Minister of State for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr McFadden), recently visited Dumfries and Galloway, where he saw different methods of postal services provision working well in rural areas.

Jo Swinson: Under this Labour Government, a quarter of post offices in the west of Scotland have already closed. Next week, when the public consultation starts, we shall learn which of the remaining 300 will face the axe. Does the Minister think that the consultation will be meaningful? Does he expect that if the public voice strong opposition, a significant number of the post offices earmarked for closure will be granted a reprieve?

David Cairns: As I have told the hon. Lady in the past, the Government are firmly committed to maintaining a viable and sustainable post office network. That is why we have already invested £2 billion and are investing a further £1.7 billion. As the hon. Lady knows, however, the Post Office is subject to all sorts of pressures, and there are all sorts of reasons why individual post office branches must close. The hon. Lady found that out for herself recently when she campaigned to save a branch, only to discover that the reason for its being threatened with closure was that the local Liberal Democrat council was selling the building that housed it.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that if post offices are to serve communities across Scotland, it is imperative for account to be taken of the length of the journeys that people must undertake in order to visit them?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is entirely right, but I would go further: the problem is not just the length of the journey but the impediments in the way of it. I have encountered examples in which a journey described as being only about half a mile involved a motorway which prevented people from travelling the half-mile. That is why the consultation will consider factors such as the placing of motorways, as well as bus routes, sea crossings, rivers, mountains and so forth. All those factors must be taken into consideration. We are committed to ensuring that people can still have access to postal services, because we believe in the value of the Post Office. That is why we are investing so heavily in maintaining a post office network.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): The official consultation period shows that there are a mere 12 weeks between the announcement of the proposals to the public and their implementation. The Post Office seems reluctant to engage in public meetings throughout the process in the areas concerned. As the largest stakeholder, will the Government ensure that Post Office management face the public in those areas and answer their questions? Will they also ensure that the benchmark used in deciding which branches are closed relates to whether people view a post office as a necessity rather than a convenience?

Next Section Index Home Page