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Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31 (2)), That the proposed words be there added.

Question agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).


Business without Debate

Delegated legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Constitutional Law

Question agreed to.


Ordered ,

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Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Will hon. Members leave quickly and quietly, as there is still some business to be completed?


HIV and the G8

10.18 pm

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I present a petition on behalf of Rebecca Rust, Andy Au and 31 members of the City Gate church in Brighton.

The petition states:


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River Forth Crossing

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Mr. Blizzard.)

10.21 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): It is a pleasure to open this debate. I have been seeking a debate on this subject for about five months, and I am delighted to have finally secured it, but it is disappointing that the issue has not moved on in those five months. We are still debating the funding of the crossing over the River Forth. This time five months ago, I was deeply concerned about the arrangements that were in place, and the worry that the issue was causing within the community in Fife. The slow pace of progress on this important issue is matched only by the increasing concern in the local community. The longer the process takes, the more that concern grows.

The Forth bridge was opened by the Queen in 1964, replacing the ferry from north to south. At the time, there were about 4 million crossings a year. Now the figure is about 21 million, which is much more than was expected when the bridge was constructed. That fivefold increase has put a huge strain on the bridge, leading to deterioration that means it cannot support the current volume of traffic for more than a further decade. If action is not taken to build a new crossing, we may be asking the Queen to return to launch a new set of ferries to secure the lifeline link between Fife and Edinburgh.

The bridge is a crucial part of the east coast transport artery. A blockage at Queensferry would have major consequences for the economy of the whole of Scotland. Many businesses locate in Fife because of the transport links to Edinburgh, Glasgow and the north, and because it has easy access to the east coast main line and the airport. Thousands of commuters have moved from Edinburgh to Fife to enjoy the benefits of living in Fife while maintaining their jobs in the capital. There is no doubt that the bridge is essential, no matter what some protesters say. We cannot do without the bridge at Queensferry.

The technical problem is that the hundreds of little cables that hold the bridge up are snapping. The deterioration is considerable, but the rate of decline is unknown, as the snapping was discovered only about four years ago. Current estimates are that the bridge has only another decade of life in it. Those estimates may change, however, as we get a better assessment of how the deterioration is advancing. If the deterioration is discovered to have slowed, the length of the life of the bridge will be longer. However, by the time that we know for sure how long the bridge has, it will be too late, so we need to construct the bridge as soon as possible.

Despite the need to start building the bridge in 2011, there remains considerable uncertainty about the funding package. I simply do not buy the assurances of the Scottish Government that they have the funding in place. Some may say that we do not need to have the funding in place until about 2011, but businesses crave certainty, especially in these difficult economic times. We need absolute certainty so that we can give businesses in Fife the confidence that they need.

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On my tours of firms in Fife just after the new year and at Easter, I came across business after business that was deeply concerned about the crossing. They want an assurance that a bridge will be built, but they have not received one. Two years ago, John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, agreed:

of 2007—

Those were eminently sensible comments from the Cabinet Secretary, but he has not followed through.

In 2006, before the Scottish parliamentary elections, the leader of the Scottish National party, the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), told the Edinburgh Evening News:

I can just imagine the right hon. Gentleman saying that—

That is the so-called patriotic bonds speech. I can almost hear the pipes and drums battering away as the right hon. Gentleman made those remarks. Two years on, not one patriotic Scot has paid a single penny for those bonds. It is not because we lack patriotic Scots, but because there is a lack of sensible thinking in the SNP. As a result, the SNP has not built one school, one road, one railway or one hospital since it came to power, through that method—absolutely nothing.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I obviously want to stick to the narrow remit of the debate, but the hon. Gentleman will understand that the ability to take money for bonds is not permitted at the moment by the UK Government. I am sure he will confirm that the First Minister has since made the position clear, and has described the project as

The commitments to deliver the bridge on time are definitely there.

Willie Rennie: I am highly sceptical about those remarks, because of the First Minister’s hyperbole in 2006: he knew the rules—he knew the game—but he made those overblown, overcommitted comments, giving people confidence that things would happen. The hon. Gentleman should not be surprised that I do not have a great deal of confidence in the First Minister’s remarks or in the Cabinet Secretary’s comments that it would be through capital spending that the bridge would be constructed. The First Minister must give us a greater assurance, and must spell out the sacrifices required, which he has so far refused to do. If, over three years, we spend £700 million a year, there will be massive consequences for infrastructure projects—hospitals and schools—throughout Scotland during that period. Almost nothing else will be built. The First Minister, however, has refused to spell that out, and will not name the projects that will be cancelled.
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The hon. Gentleman will therefore understand why I do not have a great deal of confidence in the First Minister’s remarks in that regard.

The Civil Engineering Contractors Association confirmed my belief and is deeply concerned about the situation:

So CECA understands the consequences of the First Minister’s commitment.

I do not wish this contribution to be dominated by Scottish Executive powers, so I shall move on to the reasons why we need to reach some kind of resolution. If the SNP refuses point blank to use the powers it has within its grasp, we must seek alternative methods. After two years in power, during which the SNP Government pondered their Scottish future strategy and eventually decided that that would not be possible, they have come cap in hand to the Westminster Government for additional support. That is a humiliating U-turn on which, unsurprisingly, the SNP has gone silent.

I give credit to Gavin Brown, a Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament, for this analogy—there seems to be a dangerous game of chicken going on between the Westminster Government and the Scottish Government. Who blinks first? Who ducks out of the road of the oncoming juggernauts? Meanwhile, uncertainty in Fife and the east of Scotland grows. Because the stakes are so high, it is essential that we achieve a resolution to the problem as soon as possible.

Stewart Hosie: When the hon. Gentleman describes a humiliating U-turn, I take it that he is describing the rather sensible proposal to go to the UK Government and ask to pay for a major capital project over a longer period than the two or three years for which the UK Government have allowed. I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is not humiliating. It is a rather sensible way to repay the cost of a major capital project.

Willie Rennie: Spreading payment over 20 years is not the way the Westminster Government usually work. I do not think most Governments would commit future Governments to such spending, so it is not particularly sensible. It is humiliating, because of the First Minister’s overblown hyperbole in 2006 and 2007. That is why the SNP Administration should reflect on their ideological obsession with opposing public-private partnership. I am not a strong advocate of PPP, but I recognise that it is the only game in town. It is a way of delivering projects for our communities.

Rather than maintaining their ideological opposition, and their support for alternative methods, the SNP Administration should recognise that the bridge is more important than their ideology. Patriotic bonds sound great in opposition, but in practice they have turned out to be patriotic tosh. We need an alternative way forward.

I am almost pleading with the Westminster Government, who I believe have a significant responsibility. By offering £1 billion, they have accepted the principle that in the
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present circumstance they should help the Scottish Government out of their difficulties. The trouble is that that was not new money. About £500 million was from Crossrail, which was coming anyway, and other moneys were always designated as Scottish Government funds. So the Westminster Government were not assisting with the difficulty. None the less, I welcome the fact that they have accepted in principle that they should help the Scottish Government out of their obvious difficulties.

I plead with the Minister to come up with a new package of support so that we can get this essential bridge built across the Forth—some real new money that would resolve the difficulty. The Westminster Government have accepted in principle. Now it would be nice to see some real cash that could get us out of the present difficulties.

However, there is a second option that the Minister could consider. If the Government were to legislate quickly, we could introduce new borrowing powers. They have been considered by the Calman commission which has been set up by the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Government. We are considering all the options—all the funding mechanisms—that could be given to the Scottish Parliament so that it might have the real powers of a real Parliament. If the Scottish Parliament did have them, the Scottish Government would be able to use the borrowing powers to spread the cost of building that massive bridge—about £1.7 billion to £2.3 billion—over quite a long period. There would be a benefit in giving the Scottish Government the necessary powers to deliver the bridge on time, because building it on time is the absolute priority.

On behalf of the east coast of Scotland, I am therefore pleading—almost begging—with the Westminster Government to help the Scottish Government out of their difficulties, either by coming up with real money that will make a difference to the construction and the costs, or by considering, through the Calman commission, the possibility of new powers for the Scottish Parliament, so that it might spread the cost of borrowing over a long period. Such an offer would bring certainty to the businesses and commuters of Fife, who need it, and avoid the childish game of chicken that seems to be taking place between the Westminster and Scottish Governments.

I hope that the Minister will consider those recommendations. The final points are really important to the east coast of Scotland, because we need that bridge and we need it soon.

10.36 pm

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Angela Eagle): I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) on securing this important debate about funding for the new crossing over the Forth. I should clarify at the outset, however, that the Forth bridge is a devolved project, so its funding, as I think those listening to the debate will have worked out by now, is also a devolved matter. That said, everybody recognises the importance of the project and is keen to see it move forward.

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