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House of Commons

Wednesday 5 March 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Electricity Generation

1. Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the electricity generation capacity in Scotland. [190393]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): The most recent estimate is that Scotland has about 10.5 GW of generating capacity.

Mr. Marshall: Generating capacity has an effect on prices. As my hon. Friend is aware, Ofgem has launched a welcome investigation into the electricity and gas markets. In view of the similarities between the price increases imposed on consumers by energy companies, will the Minister ask Ofgem specifically to look into the possibility that the companies are operating a nice, cosy cartel against the public interest and are a major cause of fuel poverty?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend has reflected the concerns of many by talking about fuel poverty. As he is aware, given that in today’s climate the cost of a barrel of oil is now in excess of $100, the issue affects not only the UK but countries right around the world. My hon. Friend is right to point out that Ofgem’s role is to ensure that no cosy cartel exists, and I am sure that that will be part of the review that it is undertaking.

As a Government, we can ensure that those discussions can take place. My hon. Friends in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions have been talking with Ofgem representatives about those matters, too. In the meantime, we will continue our attack on fuel poverty through measures such as the winter fuel payment—now worth up to £300 in households where somebody is aged 80 or more—and by ensuring that the great inroads that we have made to reduce fuel poverty are not undone by rising fuel prices.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Does the Minister agree that it is important to ensure Scotland’s future generating capacity? In that regard, is he aware that the Pentland firth is estimated to have 31 GW of potential? People
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on both sides of the firth are working to exploit that potential. The last Scottish Executive helped, and the current one is helping; on the other hand, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is being somewhat slow. What can the Minister do to help that UK Department ensure that there is a UK supply of electricity from the far north?

David Cairns: I commend the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is, of course, a distinguished former Liberal Democrat Scottish spokesperson, and if press reports are to be believed, he may be back in that job tomorrow. I look forward to welcoming him back to the post, following the outcome of this evening’s vote.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am well aware of the potential of Solway firth; I have been to look at it twice in the past couple of months, and the Minister for Energy has been to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency as well.

I do not accept that DBERR is dragging its heels. We have ensured the correct levels of subsidy at the correct time in the development of technology. Because we have international targets to meet and the threat of climate change is real, those have been designed predominantly to meet the needs of onshore wind technology. However, the next generation of tidal and wave power will have a part to play and the Government stand ready to assist it.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that nuclear power generates more electricity than any other form of power in Scotland, and that the Scottish Executive are irresponsible and short-sighted to rule out building any new nuclear power stations?

David Cairns: Factually, my hon. Friend is entirely correct. Nuclear power is responsible for producing about 40 per cent. of Scotland’s electricity. It should be part of a balanced portfolio of energy that includes renewables, which have a very important part to play, as well as clean coal technology and carbon capture and storage. I also agree with my hon. Friend’s criticism of the Scottish Executive.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister is, of course, quite wrong. The last figures from DBERR itself show that nuclear power made up only 26 per cent. of generation and was falling as renewables rise. Is the future not with renewable energy, such as that to be produced by the Glendoe hydro-station, which, when it comes on line, will produce enough energy to cover the whole of Glasgow?

David Cairns: I support the Glendoe hydro-scheme, which the previous Labour-led Scottish Executive consented to. The fact is that, even if we accept the hon. Gentleman’s figures—which are only the case because of temporary outages at Hunterston—historically speaking, nuclear power has been responsible for 40 per cent. of Scotland’s electricity. How would the hon. Gentleman replace that? He could not replace it with intermittent renewables, and he is attempting to con the Scottish people if he says that he can.

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2. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of powers and functions which might be transferred between the UK Parliament and the Scottish Parliament. [190394]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne): As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, the time has come to assess how we can strengthen devolution. The cross-border, cross-party Scottish parliamentary review is the right place for that assessment to be made and I am not in a position to prejudge its outcome.

Mr. Prentice: We have another review, but I remind my friend that Joel Barnett called for a review of the Barnett settlement, which gives to Scotland £1,500 more in public spending per head than it does to England. My question is this: should Holyrood have additional tax or revenue-raising powers, and if so, what are the implications for the Barnett formula?

Des Browne: I say to my hon. Friend that, as he is well aware, the Scottish Parliament has tax-raising powers under the Scotland Act 1998, but it has chosen not to exercise them. Members of the Scottish Parliament, in a motion that they overwhelmingly passed, accepted that proper financial accountability must be looked at in the context of the review, and we shall have to wait and see what comes out of that process. The Barnett formula has delivered stable and transparent settlements for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales for about 30 years. Despite the lurid headlines in some of the newspapers this morning, there are no plans for any review of the Barnett formula.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Last August, the First Minister called for the reconvening of the Joint Ministerial Committees, and we have heard today that that will happen, which my colleagues and I welcome. We also learned today that when Scottish voters last year were deciding in favour of change, there was an embarrassing secret meeting between the Prime Minister and the leader of the Liberal Democrats to stop that change. Still going against public opinion, the Prime Minister says that he wants to take away democratic powers that the Scottish Parliament holds as part of the devolution settlement. Which powers would those be?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman sometimes gets slightly over-excited in these circumstances. We saw there a fine example of the Scottish National party’s attitude to Scotland. His question was not, “another day, another grievance”, but “another day, another three grievances”. As I recollect—I was not party to any of the discussions—in the aftermath of the Scottish Parliament elections, discussions took place between all sorts of people about the formation of a Government in Scotland. I am absolutely certain that the man who is currently the First Minister in Scotland took part in such discussions. If the hon. Gentleman wants to reveal which discussions took place with various other parties, I would be delighted to hear about them.

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As far as the powers of the Scottish Parliament are concerned, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, the settlement for that Parliament includes a degree of flexibility that has, over the years, allowed powers to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament and, on occasions, from it. The test that we will apply as to which powers go and which powers come will be what is in the best interest of the people of Scotland and the Union. If he wants to join me in those discussions, he is welcome to do so.

Mr. Jim Hood (Lanark and Hamilton, East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are going to discuss the powers of Westminster and the Scottish Parliament, one of the best places to do so is not in the media or commissions, but on the Floor of this House or within parliamentary structures? Would it not be a good idea, as I have suggested to my right hon. Friend in the past, for the Grand Committee to discuss all matters concerning Scotland— [ Interruption. ] My right hon. Friend will note that the Liberals and the SNP do not want to discuss Westminster issues in Scotland in this Parliament. I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees with me.

Des Browne: My hon. Friend has raised a point that he has been raising consistently for some time. He is to be commended for his consistent championing of that agenda, but it is a matter for the House rather than the Executive. However, he has made a good point. Those issues are alive, and they ought to be discussed in this Parliament and in the Scottish Parliament. The democratic deficit in Scotland is that, allegedly, a conversation is going on, although it is a pretty muted one, instigated by the Scottish Executive and paid for with public money, but without the authority of the Scottish Parliament. The democratic deficit in Scotland is that the SNP has been unwilling—dare I say it, afraid—to bring the national conversation to the Scottish Parliament to get it endorsed.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for his input so far into discussions leading to the setting up of the Scottish Constitutional Commission. He has always been very positive and engaged. However, he will need to explain to the Prime Minister that there is no appetite in Scotland for the transfer of powers between here and Edinburgh to be a two-way street. Unless that can be explained to the Prime Minister, the prospects for the commission’s success will be diminished.

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of my contribution. For my part, I reciprocate that and look forward to building the same sort of relationship with his successor. Our discussions have been constructive, because all the people at the heart of those discussions have the best interests of the Scottish people at heart and reflect the overwhelming view of the Scottish people that devolution must be made to work. Currently, we see a significant reduction in support for independence in Scotland, but that is no wonder, given that we have an Executive running Scotland who are more interested in powers that they do not have than in using those that they do for the people of Scotland. As for the point that the hon. Gentleman has made, I well understand his party’s
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position, but the reality is that the transfer of powers under the 1998 Act has been a two-way street, and we should not deny it.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I understand that the Secretary of State does not want to pre-empt the outcome of the commission, but does he agree that it is a matter of principle that where a Government have responsibility for spending money, they should also have responsibility for raising it and not just have tax-raising powers as an option?

Des Browne: It is interesting that the current Scottish Executive aspire to that position but are taking such powers away from local government in Scotland. There is no question but that financial accountability is an important part of democracy, and I am sure that the review consideration will come up with an answer to that.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I have heard what the Secretary of State has said about reviewing the Barnett formula, but is he really telling the House that no one on the Government Benches believes that such a review should take place? Specifically, will he confirm the position of the Justice Secretary on the Barnett formula, as he appears to be playing an increasingly shadowy role in Scottish devolution?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman knows what I have said at the Dispatch Box, but I cannot speak for everybody who sits on the Government Benches, any more than he can speak for everybody who sits on the Conservative Benches behind him. If he wants to know what each person believes, he should ask them. To describe the Secretary of State for Justice, who has responsibility for devolution in departmental terms, as a shadowy figure is a distortion of the truth. The fact of the matter is that no review of the Barnett formula is planned, and I understand from the Leader of the Opposition’s comments yesterday that he does not plan one, either.

David Mundell: Perhaps the Secretary of State will explain to the House how it is tenable for Labour to agree to review the financial powers of the Scottish Parliament on the one hand, as he and the Prime Minister have done, but on the other hand to declare the Barnett formula to be sacrosanct.

Des Browne: It is as tenable for the Government to be in that position as it is for the Conservative party, and that is exactly the position that the Conservative party is in.

Armed Forces (Health Care)

3. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): When he next plans to discuss health care for members of the armed forces with the First Minister. [190395]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne): I have had various discussions with the First Minister on a range of subjects, including armed forces personnel. The Scottish Executive have the duty to ensure that NHS boards in Scotland implement their responsibilities
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to the armed forces, service families and veterans. The Ministry of Defence has numerous regular discussions at various levels to assist the Executive and NHS Scotland in that respect.

Ann Winterton: Although I acknowledge the excellence of the medical facilities for our military personnel at Selly Oak, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the First Minister about providing an equally good range of facilities—a centre of excellence—for those serving who are based or living in Scotland, such as those in 52 Brigade, which is currently in Afghanistan? Most personnel will be based in Scotland, but there will be people from the north of England, too. Should they not receive equal treatment to that which people being looked after at Selly Oak receive?

Des Browne: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s recognition of the world-class clinical care that our troops receive at Selly Oak hospital. That has not always been recognised, but the Defence Committee has done the House, Selly Oak hospital and our troops a significant service by clearly confirming that a world-class service is provided there. The reason the service is world class is that there is a concentration of expertise at Selly Oak hospital that would be almost impossible to replicate anywhere else. I am aware of one occasion, for example, on which a soldier returning from Afghanistan required the attention of 16 trauma consultants. Only Selly Oak hospital can provide that. Any attempt to replicate that anywhere else in the United Kingdom would run the risk of diluting the care that we can give. Selly Oak should be built up.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the Defence Committee’s report, which highlights the fact that veterans in Scotland do not receive the same treatment as veterans in the rest of the United Kingdom? The Select Committee was highly critical of that. When my right hon. Friend meets the First Minister of the minority Government in Scotland, will he make it clear that our troops deserve to be treated in exactly the same way in Scotland as they are throughout the rest of the UK?

Des Browne: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is a member of the Defence Committee, and to the work of the Committee. It has done a service to our armed forces by identifying that one criticism among a small number of criticisms in a report that was otherwise substantially complimentary about medical care. The Scottish Executive—in particular, the Health Minister in Scotland—have responded immediately to that matter. They have suggested that their dealings with the Ministry of Defence are very good on that issue, and I can confirm that they are. We will work together to deal with that and sort it out.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Given that many veterans are now retired and elderly, does the Secretary of State agree with the report by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities that free health care for the elderly should now be subject to eligibility criteria?

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Des Browne: I am not aware of the individual report that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but I will consider the matter in the context in which the report is written and get in touch with him.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): If there have been any failings in the treatment of veterans in the past, the Secretary of State has only his Scottish colleagues in the previous Labour Executive to thank. Will he join me in congratulating the Scottish Government on putting an extra £500,000 into helping veterans with mental health issues, and on the priority treatment that veterans with service-related conditions are now about to receive from the Scottish Government? Does that not contrast vividly with the failings and shortcomings of the previous so-called Executive?

Des Browne: That is unworthy of the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): But not surprising.

Des Browne: Indeed. It is unworthy of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) to play party politics with the health and welfare of our troops, particularly those who are serving in Afghanistan or Iraq and who might come back injured. His party has responsibility for the delivery of that service. I have told the House that I am pleased with the response by the Health Minister in Scotland that she will engage with the issue now that it has been brought to her attention. The fact is, however, that it took her some months to find out that it was even an issue.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the treatment of our veterans is of the utmost importance to Members on both sides of this House—except, it would appear, to Members from one party, which happens to be in a minority Government in Scotland? Does he agree that, if we were to open up the Scotland Act 1998, the important function of looking after our veterans might be one of the powers that we should bring back to this House, so that we can look after the people who defend this country?

Des Browne: There is growing consensus across the House that, in regard to the delivery of our public services, we ought, as a country, to recognise our commitment to our veterans and our serving troops, and to the families and extended families of those who serve our country in that way. It is disagreeable and disappointing that the Scottish National party should choose to make party advantage in that matter. However, I have no doubt that, as it learns more about the responsibilities of Administration, it will learn that that does not help, and that it will not be forgotten by the people of Scotland in the long term.

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