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9 July 2008 : Column 1397

National Minimum Wage

4. Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on ensuring that businesses in Scotland comply with the national minimum wage. [216427]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): In the 2006 pre-Budget report, the Chancellor announced an additional £2.9 million in each of the next four years for monitoring and enforcing the national minimum wage.

Mr. Devine: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. The introduction of the minimum wage is another great achievement of this Labour Government, but an anomaly has been pointed out by Labour Members. If someone pays a bill in a restaurant with a credit card, including the tip, that tip becomes part of the minimum wage. Will my hon. Friend ensure that we solve that anomaly as quickly as possible?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct: the introduction of the national minimum wage is one of this Government’s greatest achievements. In October, when the increases take effect, it will be 37 per cent. higher in real terms than when it was introduced.

I am aware of the anomaly that my hon. Friend has mentioned, and I know that other Labour Members have been campaigning on the issue. Since I became aware of it I have tended to pay in cash, because I think the problem arises when people pay with credit cards. It is an anomaly, and I shall draw it to the attention of the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), who has responsibility for consumer affairs.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Given the importance of agriculture to the Scottish economy and the case that is being made for expanding Scottish agricultural production, is it not unacceptable that the SNP Administration are consulting on a proposal to abolish the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board? Surely our industry needs more skilled and motivated workers, and they certainly need protection at least as good as that which agricultural workers in England and Wales have.

David Cairns: My right hon. Friend is right about the importance of agriculture and the agricultural industry to the Scottish economy. Just as we introduced a minimum wage for all workers, agricultural workers deserve to be paid the minimum wage. Of course, the SNP has form on this, because when we voted to introduce the minimum wage, its Members did not even bother to turn up to vote.


5. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect of the availability of credit on the economy in Scotland. [216428]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): The turbulence in global financial markets has had some effect on credit availability, and therefore economic
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prospects have become more uncertain. However, the Scottish economy demonstrates continuing economic growth, with a strong labour market.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Many people are reluctant to take credit, quite understandably, because of the history of Northern Rock and, most recently, Bradford and Bingley. What reassurance can he give Scottish consumers that Farepak and its like will not happen again in the run-up to Christmas?

David Cairns: The hon. Lady is right to mention the issue, which caused a lot of pain in constituencies around the country. I know that the Government are taking steps to address it. We will also bring forward measures in the legislative programme later this year to provide increased protection for people who have deposits in banks, learning the lessons of Northern Rock.

It is worth mentioning that we have some fantastic credit unions in Scotland that help people who are on the very lowest incomes. Indeed, the two largest credit unions in the entire UK are both in Glasgow. It is important that people understand that credit unions have copper-bottomed guarantees when people invest and save money with them, and I am very happy to promote their work.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): The Minister will know that I have written to the Secretary of State about the closure of London Scottish bank, or so-called bank, which is really an organisation giving unsecured loans—what one might call sub-prime loans—to people in Scotland. It has now closed its offices in a number of constituencies, and has told people that they do not have the right to 90 days’ consultation, because it treats each office closure as a single redundancy. Can he assure me that he and the Secretary of State will intervene to make sure that those people get their rights, and that customers who are abandoned by such organisations are given proper security for their credit?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend has campaigned vigorously on this issue, and I have received correspondence from him, as has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and, I believe, the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The Government have introduced protection and rights for employees, and we expect all companies to comply with the letter and spirit of that legislation. I would be very concerned if any company, including the one mentioned by my hon. Friend, is breaking those rights.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Of course, the credit of the Scottish economy would be greatly improved by the use of the bonanza highlighted on the front page of The Herald today of £6 billion from Scotland’s oil. Will the Minister support the Scottish Government’s attempts to introduce an oil fund, similar to Norway’s, that would benefit the highlands and islands and all of Scotland, particularly Glasgow, East?

David Cairns: Had the hon. Gentleman been listening to any of the earlier exchanges, he would know that while there is an increased tax take at a time of high oil prices, it is offset by a decreased tax take in other parts
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of the economy, so there is no great windfall for the Treasury, and he is flat out wrong. I would love to debate the issue of an oil fund with the First Minister, and how we should spend the revenues that are coming into Scotland, but he is the one who is running scared of that debate, not me.

Cross-border Policing

6. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): What recent representations he has received from the First Minister on cross-border policing. [216429]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): There are regular and ongoing discussions at both ministerial and official level on a range of cross-border policing issues.

Nigel Griffiths: Are my hon. Friend’s efforts not hampered by the empty promise of 1,000 extra police? After 14 months, not one single extra police officer has been provided. Is that not the most cynical betrayal of our communities by the SNP Administration?

David Cairns: We all remember the clear promise that was made: 1,000 extra policemen. In the Strathclyde police area alone, there are 200 fewer policemen today than there were 12 months ago. Taken with the latest plan to let half of Scotland’s prisoners out on to the streets, that goes to show that the SNP is weak on crime.

Fuel Prices

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister will be aware that rising prices—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask a numbered question.

7. Mr. Weir: What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the cost of fuel oil and propane gas in Scotland. [216430]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): They are so keen to debate with me that they are leaping straight in.

My right hon. Friend and I have regular discussions with our colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on a range of issues.

Mr. Weir: I will get it right this time, Mr. Speaker.

The Minister will be aware that rising fuel prices have caused increased fuel poverty in all parts of Scotland, but people on the national gas grid at least have access to social tariffs. Many people, particularly in rural Scotland, who rely on home fuel oil and propane gas do not have that option. Will he press DBERR and other colleagues in government to include those markets in Ofgem’s regulation regime, to give them the option of social tariffs and some protection from spiralling prices?

David Cairns: I shall certainly draw that proposal to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of social tariffs, and he will know that my right hon.
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Friend the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary have met the utility companies to discuss the expansion of the role of social tariffs to help people at this time.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD) rose— [ Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is not the hon. Gentleman’s fault: two oral questions have been withdrawn, because those who tabled them were called earlier.

Post Office Network

11. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the future of the post office network in Scotland. [216434]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): It is for Post Office Ltd to shape the future post office network according to the minimum access criteria outlined by the Government last year, and it has been consulting on local area plans. I understand that the hon. Gentleman’s area plan consultation closed on 8 July.

Sir Robert Smith: I thank the Minister for that answer, but what about the future of the Post Office? It is going through a programme of 2,500 closures, forced on it by the Government, and has the sword of Damocles hanging over it—the Government are to take away the Post Office card account by awarding it to rival competitors, meaning another 3,000 to 6,000 closures. Surely the Government should stand by the Post Office because it is the only organisation to provide proper rural access for pensioners to collect their pensions and benefits.

David Cairns: It is simply not the case that the Government are walking away from the Post Office. More than £2 billion of additional investment has already been put in, and £1.7 billion more additional investment has already been put in. We are extending universal banking so that people who live in rural areas can be part of the banking network.

People’s shopping habits have changed. People are choosing to access their services either directly from their bank or building society or online. If the hon. Gentleman wants to deprive people of that choice, that is his look out, but it is not very liberal. We are not going to deprive people of that choice, but we will continue to invest in a sustainable and viable post office network.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [217081] Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 9 July.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I have been asked to reply. As the House will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is today at the G8 summit in Japan.

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Norman Baker: We know that a third runway at Heathrow will be very damaging for the local environment and drive an aeroplane through the Government’s carbon reduction targets. Has the Leader of the House seen the comments of Bob Ayling, the former chief executive of British Airways, who said:

When are the Government going to put the public interest first and stop behaving like a wholly owned subsidiary of BAA?

Ms Harman: The Government are going to put both the economic interests of this country and the question of tackling climate change first. The hon. Gentleman will know that we are consulting on the question of Heathrow and considering a great deal of evidence. We will not make our decision until we have finalised and are satisfied by the question of the sustainability of the runway.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): The Government have a proud record of compensating miners who suffered as a result of their time in the pits. However, does my right hon. and learned Friend share my alarm that the vibration white finger group 3 scheme automatically assumes that claimants—often elderly miners—have exaggerated the time that they spent using vibratory tools, and cuts the hours in half and rejects the claims? Is that not an appalling abuse and age discrimination of the worst kind? What are the Government going to do to put it right?

Ms Harman: The Government have done a great deal to compensate those who, just by going to work, have suffered horrific injury and disease at their workplaces. We have made important steps forward on vibration white finger. I will look into the point that my right hon. Friend has raised, but I know that he will agree with me that it is very important that today the Government have issued their consultation paper on how we compensate those who have suffered from pleural plaques.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Given the turbulence in the financial sector, my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor proposed last year—the Chancellor has since agreed—that the amount of people’s bank savings protected by the Government should rise from £35,000 to £50,000, and also that the system for paying out should be simpler and faster. Can the Leader of the House confirm when the Government intend to legislate to give effect to that proposal?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Gentleman will have seen in the Queen’s Speech programme—the draft legislative programme—that there is a measure to ensure financial stability. At any time we are keeping under close review ensuring that we keep the economy on track. That is why although the economic situation is tough and threatens to get tougher, we will see the country through this difficult economic situation.

Mr. Hague: The Chancellor did say on 1 October last year:

that is, this Session—

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Given the approach of an 11-week recess, would it not be prudent and reassuring to expedite that particular aspect of the legislation specifically concerned with deposit insurance and pass it into law as soon as possible? As there is cross-party agreement on the need for the measure, would the Government respond positively to an offer of help from the Opposition to ensure that the measure passes through Parliament before the summer recess?

Ms Harman: Of course, all offers of help from the Opposition to get our legislation through are very welcome. The right hon. Gentleman was in the Cabinet under the previous Conservative Government, so perhaps he knows a bit about the economy. Perhaps he will remember that when he was in the Cabinet— [ Interruption . ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the right hon. and learned Lady speak.

Ms Harman: Since the right hon. Gentleman is offering Labour Members economic advice, perhaps I can remind him of the time when he was in the Cabinet. Was unemployment higher or lower than it is now? It was higher. Were interest rates higher or lower than they are now? [Hon. Members: “Higher!”] Was debt higher or lower than it is now? [Hon. Members: “Higher!”] I think that we will have help with our legislation from him, but we can manage without his advice.

Mr. Hague: It is a great pity that the right hon. and learned Lady cannot answer on this particular point. If she wants to be Prime Minister, she had better start acting like one. Since she says that the offer of support from the Opposition is welcome, will she at least undertake to consult her colleagues, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, when he comes back from the G8, and come back tomorrow with a full and considered response that takes into account the instability of the financial markets, the length of the recess, the widespread agreement that something needs to be done, and the duty of the Government to reassure and protect the public?

Ms Harman: Of course I will consult my colleagues, and of course the Government will bring forward the necessary legislation. When it comes to manoeuvring, I want to know why once again the right hon. Gentleman has manoeuvred the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) out of her job of answering the questions. Last time, I offered her some advice that clearly did not work. This time, my suggestion is that she should give up on the Tory party, go across Lambeth bridge to Lambeth palace, and apply to become a bishop.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in thanking the hard-working staff of Great Western hospital in Swindon, who have used extra funding from the Government to cut clostridium difficile cases to well below target? Will she ensure that matrons throughout the country have the resources to keep the NHS sparkling in its 60th anniversary year?

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