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9.22 pm

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): It is a real pleasure to be the first fellow Scot in this debate to congratulate the new hon. Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) on his maiden speech, following his probably seminal victory—it was certainly a seminal by-election—of some time ago. Like everybody else in the House, I found his engaging contribution excellent and stimulating. The sense of balance in his temperament, which he brought to bear in the by-election, was with him in this debate and will be with him in the House generally.

I liked the hon. Gentleman’s self-deprecating description of himself in the first few days here as “a lost soul around the parliamentary estate.” Let us cast our minds back to those fevered times over the summer recess in the parliamentary Labour party. Had the result of the by-election been different, as it was widely anticipated at the outset, the lost soul wandering around the parliamentary estate might well have been the gentleman who is now his neighbouring constituency MP, the Prime Minister himself. There was a lot riding on that by-election, and it was a famous victory for the hon. Gentleman personally and for his party.

In congratulating the hon. Gentleman, as one Scot to another, let me say that one thing about the by-election that pleased me. The debate during the campaign and the outcome of the by-election, as well as his presence
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here this evening, as the new MP, and the presence of those of us from other political parties in Scottish and UK politics, demonstrate that one can certainly be a 100 per cent. nationalistic Scot without having to be a political nationalist. The voters of Glenrothes well understood that distinction and voted accordingly.

As has been quite widely remarked, this Queen’s Speech is fairly thin in content, but I am one of those who have no great argument with that either philosophically or practically. I think that Governments and Oppositions consistently want to do too much and to interfere too much, so a Queen’s Speech that does a little less is to be welcomed on principle alone.

Like others, I take the view that the Queen’s Speech is lighter in content not least because of the general election calculations. This Parliament’s legislative programme may have to be foreshortened if the Prime Minister decides at some point in the next calendar year that he can risk an early, or earlier than is absolutely necessary, general election. Who knows what will happen? It is idle speculation.

I am thoroughly of the view—and it is a view that the former Labour Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) expressed quite recently—that when one looks at the great advantage that is supposed to accrue to incumbent Prime Ministers from choosing the dates of general elections, one needs to remember that the history books tend to get written by the winners, so it is a great advantage when the incumbent benefits from it. It was not a great advantage for James Callaghan, for example, and it has not so far proved to be a great advantage for the present incumbent. If I were in his shoes, I would say that there will be no general election next year and that the Parliament will go through to the first week in May 2010 to coincide with the already scheduled local elections. Irrespective of the intervening consequences, that would settle the issue—at least in that respect—once and for all, so politics could conduct itself accordingly and much of the second half of the Parliament would not be so distracted by idle talk and idle general election speculation.

The Queen’s Speech is lighter in content, but given the overwhelming financial and economic circumstances, which will determine the political content of this Parliament, I want to deal with it to a greater extent than any other time since my maiden speech 25 years ago by focusing on employment issues. When I was first elected 25 years ago, unemployment in my constituency was absolutely through the roof as a result of closures. For some streets and communities, adult male long-term unemployment was at more than 50 per cent—so thank God those days are behind us, we hope. What is back in focus, however, is the looming prospect—indeed, we are seeing it already right across the country—of very significant job losses becoming the order of the day once again. A big challenge for the Government, not just in respect of the Queen’s Speech but for political conduct more generally, is how they respond to and cope with that prospect.

Let me begin by referring to an unemployment issue that has arisen in my own constituency. I make no apology for the fact that the number of jobs is very small or that the size of the community is very small, because everything is relative. The number of jobs available
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for this size of community is a highly significant issue. Like so many in my area, this community is remote, rural and heavily dependent on long-term employment prospects, some of which have been there for many decades. I am referring to the future of the silica sand mine in Lochaline in the Morvern peninsula in the Lochaber part of my constituency.

Lochaline has a population of 202 and we are talking about 11 full-time jobs, which Tarmac is likely to axe immediately before Christmas. The mine has a 60-year history in the community and its products have been associated throughout that time with many household names on both the national and international markets. A great deal of work is under way at all levels—in the community, at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, in my representations to Tarmac, and in the Scottish Executive in Edinburgh—and it would be assist if those efforts were reinforced by the Scotland Office and other Ministers making appropriate supportive noises. A further meeting in Fort William is scheduled for next Monday, and a report is due back from Highlands and Islands Enterprise on the current prospects for maintaining the mine. Given the company’s premature announcement, which had scant regard for consultation or the sensitivity or interests of the community, we are looking for a stay of execution, a more careful and sensible consideration of the feedback—which will have been achieved in a short time scale, which is currently less than two weeks—and further discussion into the new year. Any help from the Government at a UK or Scotland Office level would be much appreciated.

Mr. Timpson: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the consultation and need for a stay of execution that he describes should also apply to the 90 offices of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that are earmarked for closure by the Treasury? Does he also agree that those jobs on the front line of public services should be kept at a time when experienced and dedicated local staff are required for local services, including in my constituency of Crewe and Nantwich?

Mr. Kennedy: I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I congratulate him on his by-election victory of not that long ago. I must give credit where credit is due. With regard to the closures to which he refers, one was scheduled in another part of my constituency, Ullapool, but the Government have backed off. However, the alternative offices were, respectively, Wick, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), and one of the two centres in Inverness, in the constituency of my other neighbouring parliamentary colleague, so it would have been ridiculous to reduce the presence in Ullapool. I welcome that fact.

A lot of work that was under way, and in the pipeline at a governmental level, has now been overtaken by economic events. The example cited by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson) is one. The budget for Highlands and Islands Enterprise, although it comes within the purview of the Scottish Executive, has been cut by £50 million, and its purpose is to provide help in extremis. The budget decision was taken some time ago, but the financial situation has plummeted in the meantime, so some mechanisms of state support have been constrained just when they are needed.
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I therefore wish the hon. Gentleman luck with his ongoing campaign. The Government should listen to those in Crewe and Nantwich and constituencies across the country, where, sadly, such state support will be needed by citizens who already find themselves encountering hard economic circumstances. Alas, as we all know, they are liable to encounter even more of the same as 2009 progresses. I hope that the Government can take steps to assist with the problems of unemployment in Lochaline and in the wider community of Morvern.

On the Queen’s Speech as a whole and employment prospects, transport and infrastructure considerations are important for the entire economy, but for an area as peripheral and remote from markets as the highlands and islands of Scotland, such considerations, as well as the cost of fuel, are vital. I welcomed some of the Chancellor’s recent announcements in the pre-Budget statement—it has been renamed so many times that the correct nomenclature is difficult to remember—running in tandem with the Queen’s Speech. However, it must be said that the impact on jobs in the highlands of Scotland of the continuing difficulties generated by fuel prices and the way in which the Government have set about their revenue take remains crippling.

I have mentioned one remote community, Lochaline, but another such community is Applecross, on the west coast of Ross-shire. The weekend before last, I was fortunate enough to be there and to observe that, thanks to tremendous efforts in that small and isolated community, the local petrol pumps had just been reopened as a result of the activities of the community and the Applecross community company. The company was able to raise enough funds to ensure that, when people needed to fill their tanks, they need not face—would you believe?—a 40-mile round trip to and from what were the nearest petrol pumps, in the metropolis known as Lochcarron, over the Bealach na Ba. If nothing has done so already, the mention of those place names will guarantee me an envelope from the Hansard reporters at the end of my speech!

However, it is not just access to fuel that is vital to a community of that kind. The cost is such that it inhibits everything else to do with creating jobs and maintaining them. People face longer journeys and higher prices, along with few if any alternatives. The Government must bear it in mind that power companies in this country have received £9 billion from the carbon emission trading scheme that they have not passed on to domestic energy consumers: something should be done about that before Christmas. Meanwhile, the Government are continuing to rake a considerable amount into the national Exchequer through the fuel costs that people are paying for their transport. All those factors have a massive inhibiting effect on the employment prospects of areas such as mine.

The third and final issue that I wish to raise is related to employment, although it falls within the housing field, and the United Kingdom housing field. I refer to the level of housing debt. Because it remains a Treasury matter, Members of Parliament in the Highland council area have been lobbying the Treasury for some time on the extent of the council’s existing overhang in terms of housing debt.

The Treasury keeps citing the golden rule when it comes to trying to wipe out debt. For reasons that are well understood, the Government flaunted the golden
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rule in the context of the banking community; if they could do something similar in the context of a local authority such as Highland council, we might see the attainment of more Government objectives that are widely shared across the political spectrum.

The Government could invest in energy efficiency—in home insulation, for instance. They could bring about a welcome raising of social standards, and improve people’s general welfare. However, a potential triple gain in the form of trades and skills—which are good for employment, overall energy policy and improved living standards—is being threatened. The lack of employment opportunities is all the worse at a time when we are losing jobs and will continue to lose jobs, but I have identified an affordable and efficient way in which the Government could generate growth in an area such as mine.

There is another way of doing that—partly through the Scottish Executive, but also through the Chancellor’s welcome proposal in the pre-Budget report to front-load money over two years. Let me make a particular plea. In the context of geography and distance, the state of a main artery such as the A82, particularly between Glasgow and Fort William, remains an appalling indictment of present-day communications in a modern, developed country such as ours. Therefore, given that road’s strategic UK importance for tourism and for shipping products generated locally south and out to European markets, any encouragement that the Scotland Office can give would be welcome.

Over the coming year, we will face a very hard time indeed in our employment prospects and the social impact they will have. Let us hope that, beyond the fairly thin content of this Queen’s Speech, there is action that the Government can take.

9.40 pm

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I realise that many of the matters that we might address in this debate have been devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, but there are some points I would like to raise. In debating the matters before us, we could do worse than go all the way back to a previous Queen’s Speech, when Her Majesty said:

I will be generous to Labour Members by ignoring the obvious temptation to say that a stable economy is one that is not beset by boom and bust. However, although I will resist that temptation, I will point out that economic stability is foundational to almost everything else a Government might seek to do.

That brings me on to the issues of employment and skills. I spent almost 30 years building up my own company before I entered full-time politics—and I suppose there are those in Northern Ireland who would say that I would have been safer if I had stayed in business and not gone into politics, but we shall not elaborate on that. I know what it is to struggle and to work long, hard and unsocial hours to make a business a success. It is a bit like being an MP; the roles have a lot in common.

I started the company when I was a young man of 19. I was what one would call wet behind the ears, and I admit there were times when others in the business
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world took advantage of me and my family within that business because of my lack of experience. That was 30-odd years ago in Northern Ireland, and things were different there then. We did not have innovations such as training to be a business individual or entrepreneur. It was difficult, because things were hard in Northern Ireland, as all Members will know.

I noted what the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) said about funding for science education. He is not in the Chamber at the moment, but I agree with what he said. More money needs to be invested in such skills; I will elaborate on that later.

Just last week, I met local business people in the Province, including representatives of a company that employs more than 40,000 people worldwide and has annual sales of about £5 billion. Many of their concerns are very similar to what I have encountered in a much smaller measure and are shared by business and employers across the United Kingdom. I am thinking, for example, of the sheer number of people who present themselves as potential employees without having even the most basic skills.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) mentioned science funding. A large pharmaceutical company called Almac, which is based in my constituency, is considering developing a new site to employ some 300 to 400 young people—technicians and young scientists. In my recent meeting with the company, I discovered that it honestly does not know where it is going to get those people from, unless it looks to eastern Europe or the United States. We need to support and fund science courses in order to fill the gaps that exist across the whole of the United Kingdom in this area.

Education must be tailored to the needs of the workplace. There is absolutely no point in someone’s going to university, getting an honours degree in karaoke singing or whatever, and then looking to get a job in the real world. Such an approach does not and cannot work, and those people will end up out of work. I hope that the proposed education and skills Bill and apprenticeship Bill will prove to be a step in the right direction—we shall wait and see. Apprenticeships should be embedded in the workplace and not left solely to the classroom.

This is not only about the skills of the prospective individual member of staff; it is about the skills of the company itself. Research and development uptake needs to be emphasised and prioritised. I have been struck by the absence of any recent mention of trade unions by those on the Government Benches and by the fact that trade unions were not mentioned in Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech. We are told on a daily basis that the country faces a global economic crisis and that every part of the world is suffering because of what began in the USA. If that really is the case, and if it is true that the UK is facing into the same wind and storm as the rest of the world, surely we should seek to give ourselves every possible advantage over the rest of the world. In such circumstances, do trade union leaders not have an important role to assume?

My own constituency recently faced the possible loss of 120 jobs as a result of the threatened closure of the local offices of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. I lobbied the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), when she was Financial Secretary to
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the Treasury, and her successor, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), and I am pleased to say that those jobs have been saved. One of the key elements in that was the very positive campaigning on the part of the unions, and I want to commend them for their efforts in securing those jobs and ensuring that those 120 homes will be much happier over the Christmas period than they would have been otherwise. But it is not always like that.

As I have said, if what the Government tell us about the economic crisis is correct, we should give ourselves every possible advantage and that surely means that at the very highest level there must be a coming together of government, employers and trade unionists to agree that the first priority is to get through the current situation successfully. That is especially so given the many billions of pounds that the Government have thrown at the problem.

The Chancellor has recently outlined proposals in relation to tax and VAT that he is going to use as a temporary measure, and he has told us that it may well be the case that we shall all pay a bit more down the line. Well, if that is to be the case and if there is to be a bit of additional financial relief over the next couple of years, should not that be matched by trade union leaders making it clear that for the same period of time they will exercise caution in wage demands? If on the one hand the Chancellor is trying to ease the pressure on the economy, employers and jobs by taking the action he took, would the potential benefits not be increased by a reciprocal move by the unions? Would that not greatly assist business needs and be a positive contribution to employment prospects over coming months? After all, with unemployment at almost the 2 million mark and projected to rise as high as 3 million, I would imagine that trade unions would want to see their members remain in jobs rather than end up on the scrapheap.

A few moments ago, I used the phrase “business needs”. In looking at the Government’s programme as outlined in Her Majesty’s Speech, I have to say that I am not convinced that business needs will necessarily be best served over the coming period. There are some positives, that is true. A female should be paid the same wage for doing the same job as a male. The gender pay gap needs to be closed and I hope that the equality proposals will achieve that end. But there are other measures that I fear will not have a positive effect. For example, the plan to further extend the right to request flexible working is fraught with negative potential. The fact of the matter is that while it will only be right to make the request, that right will come with a moral pressure on many small businesses. To me, it is simply not in the business needs to introduce this at this time.

Let us think, too, of the opportunities missed. While on the one hand the Government are intent on pushing through the flexible working proposals, they have failed to address the ongoing bureaucracy and regulation industry that has cost the country many billions of pounds over recent years—the very money that could have contributed to the Chancellor’s financial stimulus package.

We know that as recently as last year the Government said that they would deliver 3 million new homes by 2020. Speaking in July 2007, the Prime Minister said:

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