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House of Commons

Wednesday 23 April 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

St. Austell Market Bill

Considered; to be read the Third time.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Identity Cards

1. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What discussions he has had with the First Minister on the implementation of the identity card scheme in Scotland. [199789]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, may I take the opportunity before I answer the question to wish all hon. Members a happy St. George’s day? I know that I am here to answer questions, but may I ask my English colleagues why they do not make more of William Shakespeare’s birthday?

With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s question, although I have had no such discussions, I have regular discussions with the First Minister on a range of issues. I look forward to further constructive discussions in the interests of the people of Scotland.

Mr. Hands: May I echo the Secretary of State’s sentiments on St. George’s day?

The Secretary of State will know that the next Conservative Government are pledged to abolish identity cards anyway, so any discussion held now might become rather academic. He knows that the Scottish Executive are pledged to obstruct the implementation of ID cards in Scotland. Does he not realise that non-implementation in Scotland would fatally undermine any identity cards system throughout the UK?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman aspires to a Government with a policy to abandon the scheme. However, I venture to suggest that the necessity for secure and reliable proof of identity, which will continue, requires the Government to respond to the desire of the people of the United Kingdom. As presently measured,
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the idea attracts support from more than 60 per cent. of the population. The Scottish Executive will not be able to obstruct the introduction of the identity cards scheme throughout the United Kingdom. If they, as providers of devolved services, choose not to avail themselves of the opportunities that the scheme allows to assert the identity of those who seek public services, that is entirely a matter for them. That is what devolution is all about.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): When it comes to tackling terrorism and providing security in this country, does my right hon. Friend agree that ID cards have a part to play? Such things should be dealt with at the UK level, contrary to what that bunch diametrically opposite suggest. Their suggestion that they should be dealt with in Scotland is, at best, a dangerous distraction.

Des Browne: My hon. Friend is quite right. The evidence is overwhelming that those who have been convicted of terrorism—during the past year, a significant number have been convicted beyond reasonable doubt in our courts—almost invariably use multiple identities to advance their horrific objectives. There is no question but that a secure and reliable system of identity that fixes the identity of a person through biometrics will assist in dealing with terrorism, and everyone involved in policing terrorism confirms that that is the case. Many quotations from those charged with that responsibility express the idea that one of the most important things we could do to assist in that task is set up an identity card scheme underpinned by biometric identity. Moreover, 71 per cent. of the people of the UK agree with that, because they understand its importance in our fight against terrorists.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): When the right hon. Gentleman does have that discussion with the First Minister, he will clearly learn that the people of Scotland do not want ID cards. The Scottish Parliament has voted against the introduction of ID cards, and they will not be required for Scottish Government services. Will he assure me that there will be no attempt to introduce ID cards in Scotland through the back door—by targeting students’ bank accounts and loans, for example?

Des Browne: For the bulk of the things that matter to the people of Scotland, this House is the front door. As far as security of their identity is concerned, the people of Scotland are in no different a position from the rest of the United Kingdom, or indeed, I venture to suggest, no different a position from the hon. Gentleman. If he were to open his wallet today, I suspect he would find many proofs of his identity. If that identity were underpinned by a biometric database, he would be secured against others seizing that identity and abusing it. We will deliver that for the people of Scotland. We will roll it out incrementally, and they will welcome it and use it voluntarily much more than he would wish them to.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the genuine concerns that the public have expressed about the increasing amount of fraud. When he meets the First Minister to discuss the implementation of identity cards, will he explain its benefits for reducing fraud?

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Des Browne: On a day when we probably all woke to the announcement of the publication of yet another report that shows the amount of identity fraud through credit cards and the cost to the United Kingdom, there is no question but that we need to move to the same position as 24 out of 27 of the countries in the European Union and have identity cards. Those countries do not have oppressive regimes. Indeed, in many respects, the current Administration in Scotland look to them with envy. They are social democratic regimes that have moved to identity cards because they help people to protect their identity, especially against the sort of fraud that is perpetrated daily.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): One aspect of the Government’s identity card scheme is that everyone, of any age, will have to travel to one of only 11 biometric centres in Scotland. For some people who do not live close to the centres, that means long and expensive journeys to get their identity protected. Of course, the Secretary of State knows all about identity theft, having stolen one from the Secretary of State for Defence. Is not it absurd that the Government solution to counter-terrorism is that 80-year-olds in Pitlochry will have make 100 mile round trips to get their data scanned, while people in England have to have an identity card to get the services that they need?

Des Browne: I will speak to the hon. Gentleman afterwards so that he can explain the joke, because I do not believe that any of us got it.

The hon. Gentleman and his party support a passport system, which is underpinned by biometrics. That is his party’s policy. Eventually, every adult who has a passport in this country—that is a significant number of adults of all ages—will have to go through exactly that process. That is why we have developed a network of offices, which will be expanded if necessary. There currently are nine throughout Scotland. The journeys that people must make to have their biometrics secured are no different from those that he would continue to impose on them through supporting the policy on biometric passports. The criticism is nonsense and he knows it.

Glaxo SmithKline

2. Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): What representations he has received on assisting staff made redundant at Glaxo SmithKline’s operation in Central Ayrshire constituency. [199790]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne): I have received no representations on assisting staff that may be made redundant at Glaxo SmithKline’s operation in Irvine. However, I expect at least some of my constituents to be in that category, so I also expect representations to be made to me as a constituency Member of Parliament, if for no other reason. Clearly, it is a worrying time for those concerned and I extend my sympathies to them.

Mr. Donohoe: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I am the local Member of Parliament, and as my neighbouring Member of Parliament he will remember the redundancies at a nearby company called Simclar. Jobcentre Plus had enormous success in getting almost every employee a job. Since some of my right hon.
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Friend’s constituents are affected, will he consider approaching Jobcentre Plus and asking it to become involved in the current case?

Des Browne: As I know the detail of what my hon. Friend consistently does for his constituents, I pay tribute to him for his support. The closure to which he referred had a devastating effect on several people, and they were ably assisted by his involvement. He will be pleased to know that Jobcentre Plus is slightly ahead of him. It leads on what is called Partnership Action for Continuing Employment—PACE—in Central Ayrshire. Indeed, it was in touch with Glaxo SmithKline on 2 April—the day after the announcement of the consultation. I understand that Glaxo SmithKline will meet the PACE manager shortly—in the next two or three weeks—and I am sure that Jobcentre Plus and the PACE scheme, which goes beyond it, will have success similar to that that they have consistently had in the past in placing people in training or new jobs.

Electoral Administration

3. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the organisation of elections in Scotland. [199791]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): The Secretary of State met the First Minister on 25 January, when they discussed several issues, including the organisation of elections in Scotland.

Chris Ruane: I thank the Minister for that reply. I also congratulate him on the work that he did on electoral administration as a Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Progress has been made on registration; indeed, there are an extra 500,000 people on the electoral register. Progress has been mixed across the UK. In my constituency we have an extra 5,000 people on the register. What actions can the Minister take in Scotland against recalcitrant EROs—electoral registration officers—who do not take their work seriously, do not think that people should be registered to vote and have not taken up the powers that he has given them to do the job?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend has done more than any other Member of the House to raise the issue of under-registration of voters. The progress made in the past couple of years is in no small measure due to his efforts. Following the passage of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, I wrote to registration officers in Scotland, in February 2007 and again in August 2007, pointing out their new duties under the Act and asking what progress had been made. I tell my hon. Friend in all candour that I am disappointed with the progress that has been made. We might have to revisit the issue in the light of any reforms that follow the recommendations of the Gould report.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): Would the organisation of elections in Scotland not be made much simpler if we adopted the same voting system for all elections in Scotland and throughout the UK? Would the best system not be the single transferable vote by proportional representation, which was agreed by the Minister’s party and mine when we were friends together in the Scottish Executive?

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David Cairns: I agree with the hon. Gentleman to the extent that things would be much easier if there were one system for all elections, and if that system were first past the post.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Having the privilege of representing the constituency that, sadly, had the highest number of spoilt ballot papers last May, can I urge my hon. Friend to continue working constructively on the follow-through to the Gould report? In particular, does he agree that it is vital to decouple the Scottish Parliament elections from the Scottish local government elections? That would completely eliminate the need for a joint ballot paper. Obviously these are matters for the Scottish Administration, too, but may I also suggest that he give careful consideration to the recommendation of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities that the Scottish local government elections be held a year after the Scottish Parliament elections?

David Cairns: As my right hon. Friend knows, that issue is currently out to consultation by the Administration in Scotland. Their preferred option would be to decouple the elections and to have the local council elections a year later, as he suggested, which is one of the options in the consultation. It is important to send the people of Scotland a clear signal today that what occurred on 3 May last year will not happen again, that we will not see a repeat of the confusion that led to the unacceptable number of spoilt papers again, and that steps have been taken by the Government and will be taken in due course by the Scottish Administration to restore people’s confidence in the integrity of the electoral system.

Mr. Speaker: I call Angus MacNeil.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and happy St. George’s day. Is the Electoral Reform Society right or wrong when it says that it would be an “affront to democracy” if Westminster controlled the Scottish elections?

David Cairns: No, I do not agree. One of the most disappointing aspects of the debate has been the consistent misrepresentation of what Mr. Gould actually believes. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what Mr. Gould told him about devolution when he gave evidence in this place:

That is what Mr. Gould said, and the hon. Gentleman’s party should stop misrepresenting him.

Electricity Generation

4. Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the proportion of electricity generation capacity in Scotland that is (a) renewable, (b) fossil fuel and (c) nuclear. [199792]

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The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s “Inquiry into Energy Issues for Scotland” found that, over time, 8 to 10 per cent. of Scotland’s electricity comes from distributed hydroelectric stations, 33 to 35 per cent. comes from coal, 16 to 18 per cent. comes from gas and 38 to 40 per cent. comes from nuclear. Those proportions will, of course, vary owing to factors such as increased development of onshore wind and planned maintenance closures of power stations.

Anne Moffat: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he share my concern, and that of the Scottish TUC and the Unite union, about a balanced energy policy? We must live in the real world, not in the world of the nationalists, who think that they can run the energy supply only on renewables—laudable though those renewables are. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need a mix that includes nuclear power that is home grown and not bought in from other countries?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is right to focus the debate on the issue of Scotland’s base load—in other words, the electricity that we need seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, irrespective of whether the wind is blowing or the waves are crashing. We know that the Scottish National party is against nuclear; we also know that it is against wind farms in its own constituencies. What we do not know is how it is going to provide Scotland’s base load electricity and keep the lights on. It is time that we were told.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): Regardless of how Scotland’s electricity supply is produced, people across the country are facing massively increased fuel bills. That is particularly true in rural areas. Will the Minister therefore explain how the abolition of the 10p rate of income tax is going to help with the Government’s stated aim of abolishing fuel poverty?

David Cairns: I first welcome the hon. Gentleman to his promotion to shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. I can see looks of great relief on the faces of some of those sitting behind him that he has accepted the post. What has happened to fuel costs is a global phenomenon. A few years ago, the price of a barrel of oil was $10; today it is $117. Of course that puts pressure on the tremendous inroads that we have made in reducing fuel poverty. That is why the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Treasury Ministers met the fuel companies to discuss the extension of social tariffs, and why we have increased the winter fuel payment, which is now worth considerably more than any previous scheme. We have done that precisely to help people who are facing rising fuel bills, and we will continue to take action because we believe that fuel poverty is a genuine social evil that has to be combated.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): May I merely make the point to my hon. Friend that we are sitting on millions of tonnes of coal in Scotland? If we are talking about increasing oil and gas prices, surely we should also be talking about an expansion of the coal industry and clean coal technology. We should be exploiting and pushing that in Scotland.

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