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House of Commons

Wednesday 14 October 2009

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before questions

City of Westminster Bill [ Lords]

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Tuesday 2 0 October.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Torpedo Testing

1. Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): When he next plans to visit the torpedo testing range at the inner sound of Raasay. [292278]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Jim Murphy): There are eight test and evaluation ranges in Scotland. Last month, I visited the firing range in the Uists. I have no current plans to visit the maritime range in the inner sound of Raasay.

Mr. Kennedy: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. He is obviously aware of the concern about the future consultation planned on the maintenance of the Rona torpedo and submarine facilities, which have played such a huge role since the days of the Heath Government in underpinning that part of the Kyle and Applecross peninsula and Skye economy. Will he give us an assurance that what happened in the Western Isles will be repeated when any consultation process kicks in and that ministerial visits, as well as full consultation with all elected levels for these areas, will be the order of the day?

Mr. Murphy: I know that the right hon. Gentleman is assiduous in raising this issue in the House and elsewhere, and I am certain that he will continue to do so. He is right to say that a consultation process in the Western Isles led to a rejection of the initial proposals. I can reassure him that our proposals for the Kyle of Lochalsh are at a very early stage. If any changes in the configuration
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at Kyle of Lochalsh were proposed, there would be an open consultation and all interested parties would be involved. I am absolutely certain that the right hon. Gentleman would be foremost among those interested parties, so I look forward to continuing our conversation.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Given that these torpedoes are being tested for the Royal Navy, does the Minister agree that if Scotland withdraws from it, there would be no need to have a torpedo testing range in Scotland?

Mr. Murphy: In the world we live in, it is a fact that we need these weapons and that they have to be tested safely. It is in the nature of the modern world that, sadly, we need these sorts of ranges. The fact is that the only real threat to defence jobs in Scotland would be Scotland breaking away from the rest of Britain. [Interruption.] If Scotland left Britain, thousands of British jobs would leave Scotland, including the Western Isles, and that also means shipbuilding jobs on the Clyde and across the whole of Scotland. That also includes RAF bases- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The group leader of the Scottish National party must behave with due decorum in the Chamber-certainly if he wishes to be called.

Mr. Murphy: Thank you for that intervention, Mr. Speaker.

The leader of the SNP in the UK Parliament must be the only MP in it who is campaigning for fewer jobs in his constituency. His unilateralist position would lead to the loss of hundreds of RAF jobs in his very own constituency.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The Secretary of State's announcement, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, about the Uists was very welcome. Does he know why, since his visit, there has been renewed speculation in the press about jobs there?

Mr. Murphy: I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman's belated interest in this issue. Of course, the initial plans have now been abandoned. There is no plan B whatsoever. Concern has been expressed by some workers, which is why I am delighted that the management and the unions are meeting a little later this week. We are very clear that the initial proposals were abandoned, that there is no plan B and that the jobs will stay. I repeat that it is very clear that the only danger to jobs on the firing ranges in the Uists in the Western Isles will come if the hon. Gentleman has his way and Scotland leaves the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State on the work he did to safeguard the base on the Western Isles. May I ask how important the strong community and local authority involvement was in the discussions that he and colleagues in the Ministry of Defence had?

Mr. Murphy: I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments. It is important to put on record the excellent work of council leader Angus Campbell and others such as Donald John Macsween who did such a remarkable job in the Western Isles. The fact is that it was a community effort and a persuasive case was made. Ultimately, the Ministry of Defence would have made
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savings, but the costs to the fragile economy in the Western Isles would have been so dramatic that the UK Government took the view that we should not progress with the proposals.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): Despite the Secretary of State's comments about the ranges, they need modernising if they are to keep pace with the next generation of weapons systems, without which our forces will not get the weapons they need to do the jobs we send them on. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment today that his Department and the Ministry of Defence will continue to invest in those ranges while at the same time doing all they can to protect local jobs in that area? Will he also agree with me that-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but I must establish the precedent once and for all that we have one question, and not more than one question.

Mr. Murphy: On that basis, Mr. Speaker, I shall try to give one answer.

The hon. Gentleman has made the fair point that now that the ranges have been established and secured, they must diversify. It is important that they try to attract additional business, particularly from our NATO allies. But the economy of the Western Isles, especially on the Uists, cannot rely solely on MOD ranges in the long term; there must be more diversity, and renewable energy opportunities in particular must be taken up.

Oil and Gas Fields

2. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on the effects of investment in offshore oil and gas fields on levels of employment in Scotland. [292279]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Jim Murphy): I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change about the North sea oil and gas industry.

Sir Robert Smith: I hope that, during those discussions, the Secretary of State will begin to realise how important it is for the Government to get their strategy right now, given the thousands of jobs that depend on the North sea oil and gas industry. The pipelines and platforms are ageing. If they do not benefit from new investment soon they will be decommissioned, and we will miss out on the thousands of jobs still to come. Will the Secretary of State emphasise to the Treasury that while the car industry and the banks receive rescue packages, it is vital for the right tax regime to be established for the North sea to encourage the maximum investment to protect those future jobs and our security of supply?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The new field allowance announced in the Budget was welcomed by the chief executive of Oil and Gas UK. Those Budget measures will help to unlock about 2 billion barrels of oil in the North sea. There are, of course, additional opportunities, particularly in and around the area west of Shetland, which constitutes a remarkable untapped resource in particularly inhospitable terrain. We always keep the fiscal regime in mind, and continue to keep fiscal measures under review.

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Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Given all the emphasis on climate change, it is not surprising that renewable energy receives a great deal of publicity, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that we do not forget about the oil and gas industry offshore, which will be needed in the short to medium term-if not, indeed, the long term-to fill the energy gap that would otherwise exist? It is important not just to the economy of north-east Scotland but to that of the whole United Kingdom, because there are jobs in the industry throughout the UK.

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend raises the importance of the North sea oil and gas industry with me probably every week. About 20 billion barrel-of-oil equivalents are still untapped in the North sea, and we will do what we can to help the industry to exploit that resource. The fact is, however, that while oil and gas will be with us for the foreseeable future, we will have to make the transition to renewable energy. Oil and gas are a temporary source of energy, and Scotland's energy and economic needs are permanent. That is why we must get the balance right between fossil fuel and renewables, and we will continue to do so.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the major opportunities for companies that are currently engaged sub-sea in oil and gas is to work sub-sea on tidal and offshore wind? Does he share my disappointment that the Crown Estate has yet again delayed its announcement of licences to February, and what can he do to encourage it to be more expeditious?

Mr. Murphy: I had the privilege of being in the hon. Gentleman's constituency during the summer recess, and he made those very points then. On the same day I visited an offshore wind turbine in the Beatrice field in the North sea, which represents a remarkable feat of modern manufacturing and ingenuity.

It may be helpful if I confirm to the hon. Gentleman again that I am happy to facilitate meetings with him and the Crown Estate to discuss the issue, so that we can unblock it once and for all.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend give any idea of the stage that the new licensing has reached? At one time there was drilling in the Clyde estuary. Is there any update on that? It would bring a number of jobs to the Ayrshire area. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity of congratulating all agencies in Ayrshire-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think we have had one question, and we will stick at that.

Mr. Murphy: I am not able to update my hon. Friend today on the number of licences, although the Department of Energy and Climate Change has engaged in a rigorous process in that regard. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is a jobs boon not just for the North sea, Aberdeen and surrounding areas, but for the whole of Scotland. Almost 200,000 jobs in Scotland rely on related industries in oil and gas.

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Devolution Settlement

3. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the relationship between the Scottish Executive and the UK Government under the devolution settlement. [292280]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Jim Murphy): I met the First Minister most recently on 16 September.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: The saga of confusion and miscommunication over Lockerbie has demonstrated that Scotland needs to put more thought into how its Executive decisions play out in the eyes of other Governments. What procedural steps will the Secretary of State and his Government put in place to prevent such public embarrassment in the future?

Mr. Murphy: During the year that I have been Secretary of State I have tried to strike a different tone in Scottish politics. The public expect politicians to agree where possible; I have tried to uphold that and I will continue to do so despite invitations to the contrary. Of course the Lockerbie and al-Megrahi issue was badly handled. The decision to visit al-Megrahi in prison was a mistake, but ultimately it was a mistake that the Scottish Government were entitled to make. It is a decision that is entirely, 100 per cent., their responsibility; they have the constitutional responsibility to take that decision.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): It is obviously beneficial for the First Minister and my right hon. Friend to have discussions, but does my right hon. Friend think there is any mileage in some of these discussions being held in public?

Mr. Murphy: I have asked the First Minister to have a public debate with me. The First Minister is, of course, not everyone's idea of an athlete, but he has certainly tried to run away from these debates in Scotland in recent weeks. I do not know if he can run, but I do know that he cannot hide and that this debate will have to take place at some point over the next few weeks.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): What discussions has the Secretary of State had about the higher Scottish Parliament standards of transparency in respect of allowances and expenses? Does he agree that it would be an act of leadership and transparency for all Westminster MPs to publish their Legg recommendations, including himself?

Mr. Murphy: It is of course important that we change the system of expenses in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister has been very clear about that, and he is now in the process of doing it. As the Prime Minister has also made clear, there is a process that we are now going through. If Legg has requested that repayments be made, whether to comply is up to individual Members, but that is certainly the inclination of the majority of Members of this House.

Mr. Jim Hood (Lanark and Hamilton, East) (Lab): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the Hansard for 16 July? In answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) as to when he would be given an opportunity to vote for a Scottish Grand Committee to be held, the Leader of the House answered that

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The best way to have a live debate that includes those who are running away from it is to invite them all to the Scottish Grand Committee to have that debate.

Mr. Murphy: I am stumped for an answer. Because of the many solutions for dealing with the remarkable economic crisis that Scotland and the United Kingdom faces, I am not yet convinced that a meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee is the silver bullet. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood) will continue to make the case, however, and if that meeting does take place, I can think of no better Chair of the proceedings than him.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Rather than reconvening the Scottish Grand Committee, may I suggest that the Secretary of State's time might be better spent in giving his attention to the report of the Calman commission? There is growing impatience that months after that report was published, there is still a lack of progress on it. Scotland looks to the Government to deliver on Calman come the Queen's Speech, and if they do not do so, they will pay a heavy price.

Mr. Murphy: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman and myself, as well as others, had the opportunity to meet over the summer recess to discuss the important proposals in respect of Calman. We simply believe that Scotland is bigger and stronger because it is part of the United Kingdom, but the devolution settlement does have to be modernised. The Calman commission proposals are substantial. I want to maintain consensus and momentum, and we will respond before the end of this year on details of the Calman proposals.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): During my right hon. Friend's discussions with the First Minister, will he ask him to reconsider his party's decision to abandon the investment in the Glasgow airport rail link, as that would be seriously damaging for the people of Glasgow and the west of Scotland in terms of tourism and employment?

Mr. Murphy: It is clear that that is a real blow to the city of Glasgow, but that city has never given up on itself and, regardless of the Scottish Government's decision, it will not do so now. I will be meeting the leader of Glasgow city council later this afternoon, when I will go with him to the Olympic site. I will have the opportunity to discuss these very issues with him then.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): Perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us what role he actually played in the deliberations on the Megrahi case within the Government. He surely had an obligation to ensure that both Scotland's interests and the devolution settlement were fully understood. Currently, our only source of information is Channel 4, whose website says, rather bluntly:

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