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House of Commons

Wednesday 28 November 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]



Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Gould Report

1. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): If he will make a statement on the Gould report on the recent Scottish elections. [167456]

8. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the Gould report on the Scottish elections. [167463]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne): On 23 October, I made a full statement on the Gould report in the House, in which I committed to taking forward five important recommendations. Recently, when my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scotland Office, gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, he set out our intention to consult very soon on other issues that Mr. Gould raised. I shall have discussions with colleagues before finalising the Government’s response.

Mr. Robathan: Gould particularly found that

in the planning and organisation of the May 2007 elections in Scotland. The Government introduced incomprehensible ballot papers in Scotland, e-counting—particularly discredited by Gould—and postal voting throughout the United Kingdom, which has led to numerous cases of corruption, and which the Electoral Commission warned against. The Government are also introducing pilots on e-voting. This country used to have an enviable reputation for its democratic electoral processes, which have been reduced to the status of those of a banana republic. Is the Secretary of State proud of being associated with that?

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Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman is right to base his question on the words of Mr. Gould. The problem, of course, is that he edited them. Not only did he select just one sentence out of Mr. Gould’s report, subsequent letter, press release and evidence to a Scottish Committee, but he edited the sentence. The words that he missed out are:

Those stakeholders included the Conservative party—[Hon. Members: “No.”] Mr. Gould has made it perfectly clear that, in his view, all those in the political classes share responsibility for the situation in Scotland; we all ought to be big enough to take that responsibility and to start to address the issues through the processes that I have just announced.

Mr. Amess: Having listened to the Secretary of State’s answer, I think that he and the Labour party have absolutely no idea of the damage that the situation did to the integrity of the democratic process in this country. He said that consultation would start soon. Will he tell the House what exactly he means by “soon”?

Des Browne: It will be on or about a date in the first half of December.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it really is time to move beyond the allocation of blame and party political point-scoring? Surely it behoves everyone, from all the political parties, to get together constructively and put in place arrangements to ensure that we never have a repeat of what happened last May.

Des Browne: That exactly summarises Mr. Gould’s position when he recently gave evidence to a Committee in the Scottish Parliament. He expressed significant disappointment about what politicians had sought to do by picking on his report— [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Those are his words, not mine. Given that my right hon. Friend has in the past been unstinting in his criticism when it was appropriate, we ought to listen to the lesson that he sets out for all of us in the House and in the political classes.

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Gould report suggests that we move away from overnight counts. Does he agree that there is no evidence to suggest that counting overnight caused the problem in May, and that we should stick with the tradition where practicable?

Des Browne: My personal view is that the overnight count is part of the recognised tradition of the electoral system in this country. Many people, whether or not they are otherwise engaged or interested in politics, expect to wake the morning after a general election able to know who their Government are to be. That is a big prize to give away. That having been said, in his report Mr. Gould sets out arguments on why asking people to take responsibility for such an important process after they have done a day’s work may not be the best way to deal with things. That is exactly why we decided that it is one of the recommendations that ought to be consulted
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on, so that the difference of views across the country can inform the eventual decision on whether we make that significant change.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The Gould report focused on the organisational issues raised by the Scottish Parliament elections rather than on financial matters, but since the publication of the report, it has emerged that £326,955 of illegal donations were made by David Abrahams between the 2003 and 2007 Scottish Parliament campaigns. Can the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that none of those illegal laundered donations funded the Labour campaign in Scotland—yes or no?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman knows that that issue is not part of my responsibility as the Secretary of State for Scotland, but I can give him a categorical assurance that, in terms of my state of knowledge, none of the donations to the Labour party that have figured in the media over the past couple of days went to fund any part of the Scottish election campaign.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that the Gould report is extremely important and demands the closest possible consideration. How much time has the Secretary of State been able to devote to it?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scotland Office, has devoted a significant amount of his time to it. As the hon. Gentleman would expect, I have provided strategic supervision. He and the House can be satisfied that I have sufficient knowledge of the report and the matters relating to it to be able to carry out my responsibilities, which is partly why I am answering questions about it. I am sure that he will not be disappointed.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman could give a categorical assurance to the House that there were no unlawful or completely unacceptable donations to the Scottish Labour party campaign for the Scottish elections—but does not this very issue highlight the reason why his predecessor the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), who is now Secretary of State for International Development, should not have administered the elections and at the same time run the Labour party campaign?

Des Browne: I do not think that there was any conflict of interest in the role that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development played as the Secretary of State for Scotland. Everything that he did was completely transparent and above board; none of it was done in party interests, nor was the subsequent role that he played as a politician in the conduct of Scottish parliamentary elections.

David Mundell: But does the Secretary of State not agree that his predecessor, who was also Transport Secretary, has a lot of explaining to do to the House, not least about the Scottish election debacle? Does he not agree that rather than hide behind pre-recorded television interviews, his right hon. Friend should face scrutiny in the House and appear before the Scottish Affairs Committee?

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Des Browne: Who appears before the Scottish Affair Committee is a matter for the Committee, not for me—or, indeed, for the hon. Gentleman, other than in his capacity as a member of that Committee.

Commonwealth Games

2. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Scotland on the award to Glasgow of the Commonwealth games in 2014. [167457]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne): My hon. Friend the Minister of State wrote to the First Minister on 21 September offering our full support for the bid, and I was delighted to hear that Glasgow had won the 2014 Commonwealth games. Officials in the Scotland Office are continuing to work closely with the Scottish Executive on a number of issues relating to the games.

Jo Swinson: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in congratulating the people of Glasgow and the bid team. The bid received support from all political sides, and now that the games have been secured for Glasgow they will provide a fabulous opportunity to inspire young athletes, such as 16-year-old Matthew Graham in my constituency, the Scottish 1,500 m steeplechase champion. As lottery funding has halved since 1997, and there is uncertainty about grass-roots sports funding because of the lottery and the Olympics, what has the Secretary of State done to ensure that Scotland receives increased funding both for elite and grass-roots sport in the run-up to 2014, so that we can spot the talents of athletes such as Matthew?

Des Browne: Given the hon. Lady’s obvious interest in the issue and her specific constituency interest—I congratulate the young person in her constituency who has that talent, which I am sure will be nurtured to allow the best to be made of it—she will know that in the time that we have been responsible for this area of policy, the amount invested in the development of athletics and elite athletes has more than doubled. She asked what I would do. I will ensure that we in Government continue to invest at world-record levels in nurturing and supporting our athletes.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the leader of Glasgow city council, Steven Purcell, and the city councillors on all the work that they did? Will he also thank and pass on our good wishes to Jack McConnell, who did a great deal of work to make sure that Glasgow won the 2014 bid and did not, like some people, jump on the bandwagon at the end of the day?

Des Browne: This success, which is a success for Glasgow, for Scotland and for the United Kingdom, ought to be distinguished by our ability across all political parties not to turn it into some sort of partisan Olympic competition, as it were. Because of that, and because the city of Glasgow was the bidder, I contacted the leader of Glasgow city council immediately after the award and expressed my congratulations to him and my support for all those who had been involved in
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securing the award—those who were present when the bidding process and the voting took place, and those who had been involved in the past. Everybody who has been involved is entitled to credit— [Interruption]—including the present Scottish Executive, and the previous Scottish Executive under the leadership of Jack McConnell.

Electricity Generation

3. Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): What recent discussions he has had with Scottish Ministers on electricity generation in Scotland. [167458]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): There have been no such recent discussions, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently met Ofgem to discuss a range of issues.

Mr. Weir: I note with interest that the Secretary of State recently met Ofgem. The Minister will know that there has been a great deal of concern in Scotland about the discriminatory transmission regime that Ofgem imposed on generators. It is now proposing a double whammy for Scottish generators by also proposing a locational distribution charge for energy generated in Scotland by whatever means it is generated. Will he urge his colleagues at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and other Cabinet colleagues to reject this latest bout of madness from Ofgem?

David Cairns: The current transmission arrangements ensure that Scottish consumers are paying lower utility bills than they were paying previously, but of course transmission charges are irrelevant if the generating capacity is not being built. The Scottish Executive had four planning decisions to make about onshore renewable wind farms, and they rejected three of them. If they turn down three wind farms, they will not have the capacity to transmit energy. Until they can come up with an explanation of how they will plug the gap that will be left when they do away with nuclear power, they have no credibility whatever on the issue.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that a huge percentage of electricity generated in Scotland at present is nuclear? Does he agree that it is naive and populist for the Scottish Executive to rule out nuclear as part of the energy mix?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is right. Across the UK as a whole about 20 per cent. of electricity is generated from nuclear. In Scotland the figure is nearer 40 per cent., so it is incumbent on those who think that there will be no nuclear in future to explain how we will get the base load, how we will keep the lights on, and how we will make sure that Scotland has a sufficient supply of electricity. Only this week a new proposal for a wind farm is being made in my constituency. Guess who is leading the campaign against it? The local Scottish National party.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): The Minister will be aware of the immense potential for renewable energy in the Pentland firth. He will also be aware, because I have told him about it, of the work— [Interruption.]

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Mr. Speaker: Order. This noise is unfair to hon. Members who are here for Scottish questions.

John Thurso: The Minister will be aware of the work being done by the project team. The Minister will also know that the responsibilities to enable that to happen fall between the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Scottish Government. How can he use his best offices to ensure the best outcome for renewable energy in the Pentland firth?

David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is tremendous potential in the Pentland firth, as I saw for myself not once but twice during the past few months. Here at Westminster, the Government are advancing on three fronts at once with the Planning Bill, an energy Bill and the Climate Change Bill to ensure that we can supply the energy that our country needs without wrecking the planet in the process. Many planning issues are the responsibility of the Scottish Executive. We will work closely with them to guarantee that the best advances can be made in ensuring that the potential of the Pentland firth comes on stream, although onshore wind capacity is far more advanced. They have turned down three out of four planning applications in that area, so how on earth do they hope to plug the gap?

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): Yesterday, British Energy announced an interest in two sites in Scotland for the next generation of nuclear power stations. Why should both the United Kingdom’s energy policy and its ambition to reduce carbon emissions be held hostage by Scottish nationalists using planning technicalities in a Scottish Parliament? What will the Secretary of State and his colleague do to ensure that the First Minister does not gamble with Britain’s environment on constitutional politics?

David Cairns: The Government are entirely clear that it is for the private sector to come forward with proposals for nuclear power stations and to decide where it would like them located. In terms of consents under the Electricity Act 1989 and planning, these matters have been devolved. The Scottish National party is turning down three quarters of applications for new wind farms, but the Conservative party wants a moratorium on all new wind farms, so it would not be able to plug the gap either.

Pensioners (Heating Costs)

4. Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the provision of assistance to pensioners in Scotland with the cost of heating. [167459]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne): I speak regularly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I am pleased to report that more than 1 million winter fuel payments are made in Scotland, and that the payments represent about 34 per cent. of a pensioner’s average annual fuel bill.

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