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House of Commons

Wednesday 13 January 2010

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

London Local Authorities Bill [ Lords] (By Order)

Motion made, That the Bill be read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Wednesday 20 January.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Armed Forces (Morale)

1. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the morale of members of the armed forces based in Scotland returning from active service. [309549]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Jim Murphy): Good morning, Mr. Speaker. The men and women of our armed forces are remarkable people and I have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues about support for our armed forces and their families.

Bob Spink: I thank the Secretary of State for that response, with which I totally agree, and for his good work in Scotland. Does he agree that people in Scotland want to see our returning heroes-and particularly those with families-treated with dignity? That means that they should be given priority in housing and should not be made homeless, which is what happens at the moment in Castle Point.

Mr. Murphy: I agree with the sentiment behind the hon. Gentleman's question. Although I do not know the details, I am sure that he understands that when it comes to situations such as that in Castle Point, whether they arise north or south of the border, we need to handle our returning heroes with great care and sensitivity, including when it comes to issues relating to housing. Local connections to local areas should be properly taken into account, and if that is not happening in Castle Point, I think that most of the hon. Gentleman's constituents would consider that to be shabby.

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Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend raise the question of psychological and psychiatric services in particular, because cases that have come to me recently have highlighted serious deficiencies? Although I commend the work of Combat Stress in Hollybush House in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), it is a voluntary charitable organisation that is taking up much of the strain that is sadly not being taken up by the psychiatric services offered to our troops on their return from combat.

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right to talk about the need for continuing support as people prepare to return from theatre and at the point at which they arrive. I had the great honour of meeting some of our soldiers as they returned from theatre in Afghanistan and they talked about the need for continued and ongoing support. That includes support not just with housing but with dental care and health care, including mental health treatment, both in-patient and out-patient. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and the veterans Minister have considered this matter very carefully and if my hon. Friend has any specific suggestions about how the situation could be improved, I am sure that they will listen with great care.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): Does the Secretary of State understand the contribution that is made to morale by the knowledge that outstanding medical services are available in Selly Oak hospital and, of course, at the rehabilitation centre at Headley Court? If he has not yet visited either the hospital or the rehabilitation centre, may I urge him to do so? He will see at first hand the courage of the patients and the skill of the staff.

Mr. Murphy: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right about the remarkable dedication of the staff, of which we have all heard. I have not yet had the honour of visiting; I do not know whether that was an invitation-it was an invitation by proxy, I think-but I would happily accept it. We all know by repute of the remarkable conviction of those men and women who care for our heroes on their return, which is why we have increased the investment in those medical facilities. We are determined to do more whenever we possibly can.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): Good morning, Mr. Speaker. Many veterans returning from active service suffer from mental problems and, unfortunately, some of them end up in custody. Recently, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence have started a process of identifying veterans in custody in England and Wales in order to ensure that they are matched with the appropriate support agency, such as the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress. Given that prisons are a devolved issue but defence and looking after veterans are not, will the Secretary of State seek to use his offices to ensure that the Scottish Government play their part in trying to ensure that our veterans in custody are looked after and given the support that they deserve?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman served with distinction in the armed forces, in the Scots Guards, so he will know that it is always important that we should look to see what more we can do. That is why we have specific programmes to help those ex-servicemen and women
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who are unemployed and it is also why we are developing Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Justice-specific programmes to help those who are coming out of prison. If there is a gap-I do not want to make that assertion-and if there are lessons to be learned north and south of the border, I will happily convene conversations and meetings between the Royal British Legion north and south of the border, ourselves and Scottish Government officials to ensure that we can learn lessons from one another and to ensure that those ex-service personnel who have unfortunately found themselves in prison get the proper support to which they are entitled.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Will the Secretary of State join me in commending the work of the Royal British Legion Scotland, the Army Benevolent Fund in Scotland, Poppyscotland and others for the work that they do in supporting those who have served our country in the armed forces? Those organisations bring to our attention time and again the fact that many ex-servicemen fall through the net in Scotland. Will the Secretary of State, using his offices as a clearing house for communications between the Governments here and in Edinburgh, see whether he can do more to ensure that that situation improves?

Mr. Murphy: In the spirit of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, I am happy to do whatever I can to assist. He is absolutely right about the work of the British Legion and of other charities across Scotland and the UK. There is enormous public affection in Scotland and across the UK, and immeasurable public respect, for our heroic men and women returning from this and previous wars, and public collections on Remembrance day continue to grow the further we get from the second world war. However, it is incumbent on us all to bear in mind that remembrance is not a one-day event, but an every-day-of-the-year event, and I am happy to see what can be done to take up his suggestion.

Mr. Carmichael: In that spirit, may I bring to the attention of the Secretary of State the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) will introduce a Bill later today to establish a veterans covenant similar to the military covenant for serving members of the armed forces? Will the Secretary of State undertake to argue the case in Government for my hon. Friend's Bill to be given time, so that a proposal on which there is a clear consensus can become law?

Mr. Murphy: We will, of course, consider the detail of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. The sentiment behind the comments of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) is correct. This is about trying to find additional ways of supporting men and women returning from war, whether they are injured or have returned safe and well. It is not just about that, however; it is also about supporting the extended service families-the husbands of the women who serve, the wives and girlfriends of the men who serve, and their children-which is why we are looking at making commitments on matters such as the provision of housing, health and dental care, and support for children of those in the armed services with special educational needs. We are doing a huge amount, but I am sure that we could do more.

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Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The Royal United Services Institute today said that there is likely to be a 20 per cent. cut in service personnel in the years ahead. That would mean fewer service personnel in Scotland than in the Irish Republic. Is that good for morale, given that there have been more than 10,000 defence job cuts in Scotland since Labour came to power and a defence underspend of more than £4.3 billion in recent years?

Mr. Murphy: There are currently 12,000 members of, and 6,000 civilians working in, the armed forces in Scotland. I do not agree with today's assessment on the percentage reductions in the armed forces, but what is absolutely clear is that were the hon. Gentleman's party in power and were it to have its way and have Scotland separated from the United Kingdom, there would be a 100 per cent. cut in the armed forces, because there would be no Royal Navy, no Royal Air Force, no British Army and no shipbuilding for aircraft carriers on the Clyde. We have enormous respect for our armed forces, north and south of the border, and we laugh with contempt at his ludicrous arguments.

Cross-Border Transport

2. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with Scottish Executive Ministers on the resilience of cross-border transport links to extreme weather conditions. [309550]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Jim Murphy): The Department for Transport and the devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Government, have been regularly monitoring salt supplies and stock levels across Great Britain with the help of agencies, local authorities and companies that supply salt. There has been very good co-operation across the UK.

Jo Swinson: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. However, airport closures, train delays and hazardous driving conditions made it very difficult for Scots travelling to see friends and family over Christmas and returning to work in the new year. There is particular concern about salt supplies, with the Scottish Government saying that the stocks are steady and well managed, but local authorities crying that they do not have enough. Does he think that Scotland has learned the lessons well enough from England's big freeze last February?

Mr. Murphy: Remarkable efforts have been made, again north and south of the border, by gritters, by all those involved in the emergency services and home help, and others to keep Scotland moving, and largely that has met with some success. However, there are lessons to learn. Some local authorities have not had enough supplies, and early in the deep freeze, there was not enough co-ordination or co-operation. We can learn lessons from what has happened during this cold spell in Scotland.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): On the issue of extreme weather, may I offer my thanks to the Government for the introduction of a new weather monitoring station for cold weather payments in Strathallan in my constituency? Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State urge on his ministerial colleagues the
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need for even more local monitoring stations so that those payments can be made appropriately to the people who need them?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend raises an important point about the improvements that we have made to monitoring stations. I can confirm to the House that in Scotland cold weather payments have accounted for £39 million of additional support across Scotland, helping 400,000 Scots who otherwise would find it difficult to heat their homes and cook their food during the deep freeze experienced there.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the staff of cross-border rail services, particularly on the west coast main line, who kept the trains running even when every other form of transport had ground to a halt and who managed to provide information and care to passengers whose journeys were inevitably delayed?

Mr. Murphy: I visited my hon. Friend's constituency over the weekend to see how local people were coping with the deep freeze. As a former transport Minister, he has enormous experience of rail services. He also has a detailed knowledge of the huge efforts made to keep the west coast main line fully operational and on time. Difficulties were experienced in other parts of Scotland-train services between Glasgow and Edinburgh were disrupted, as were many other services, but remarkable efforts were made to keep that line open. I pay tribute to the way in which the company workers stayed longer and worked harder to maintain the tracks, making a huge commitment to keep Scotland moving.

Employment (Ayrshire)

3. Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): When he next expects to visit Ayrshire to discuss levels of employment in the area. [309551]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Ann McKechin): Good morning, Mr. Speaker. I visited a number of organisations in Ayrshire last week, including the coalfield community transport initiative, where I met people who are now in work thanks to the future jobs fund.

Mr. Donohoe: I am grateful that my hon. Friend has made time to come to Ayrshire. However, she may not recall that in 1997 one of her predecessors, Brian Wilson, the Minister at the time, set up a taskforce because of high unemployment in the Prestwick area. The taskforce has proved to be highly successful. I wonder whether she can arrange a meeting between herself and Ayrshire Members of Parliament, along with Scottish Executive Ministers.

Ann McKechin: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Following the national jobs summit, which was successfully held in Glasgow on Monday and at which more than 120 delegates were present, I can confirm that I shall be pleased to hold a similar, local summit in the Ayrshire area. I am also pleased to note the good work that has been done by local authorities and the voluntary sector in Ayrshire. To date, that work has created almost 500 jobs, from the future jobs fund, for young unemployed people. That is a magnificent contribution to overcoming the problem affecting every community in Scotland.

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David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I am sure that the Minister's summit will be welcome, but in Ayrshire alone a further 3,419 people have been forced on to the dole in the past 12 months. Can the Minister tell all those people, as well as the hundreds of thousands of other jobseekers in Scotland, where exactly they will find the signs that Scotland is coming out of recession that the Secretary of State claimed were there on Monday? He claims that those signs exist, but is it not the case that the evidence in Ayrshire and elsewhere in Scotland simply does not back him up?

Ann McKechin: There are clear indications from a number of independent experts that we are moving out of the recession, but we are certainly not complacent. We are well aware that there are hot spots of unemployment-in Ayrshire and Lanarkshire-but unlike in the 1980s and 1990s, when the hon. Gentleman's Government ignored those areas, we are determined to protect the most vulnerable. That is why we are investing £1.2 billion throughout the United Kingdom to help young people into work. It is also why we have changed the young person's guarantee, from 10 months to six months, so that we can get young people into paid work at the earliest moment, providing them with the opportunities to become well placed to get into the job market.

David Mundell: The Minister and the Secretary of State are good at talking the language of the 1980s, but sadly not so good at dealing with the issues of the present. On the very day that the Secretary of State claimed that there were signs that Scotland was emerging from the recession, the latest purchasing managers index showed that manufacturing was still contracting and that the flow of new orders in Scotland was considerably weaker than elsewhere in the UK. The Minister and the Secretary of State refer to the future jobs fund, which has brought some benefits, but is it not the case that the fund is increasingly focused on public sector employment, rather than on our hard-pressed private sector? So other than warm words-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think we have got it.

Ann McKechin: Today there are 250,000 more people in work in Scotland than in 1997. That shows the credit of our policies, under which we do not allow people to be left behind. We are strongly committed to maintaining our support for the most vulnerable in our community. That is why the future jobs fund will be creating 15,000 jobs in Scotland and why we have managed to assist thousands of people in the past year in getting back into work if they have faced the prospect of redundancy. We are certainly not complacent, unlike the previous Government, as their record shows.

Scottish Culture

5. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): If he will hold discussions with ministerial colleagues to develop policy on promotion of Scottish culture throughout the UK. [309553]

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