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House of Commons

Tuesday 23 March 1999

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


City of Westminster Bill [Lords]

Read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

University College London Bill

Considered; to be read the Third time.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Food Standards Bill

1. Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute): What discussions he has had with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food regarding the impact on Scottish retailers of the levy proposed under the draft food standards Bill. [76305]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Sam Galbraith): My right hon. Friend has had a number of discussions with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food regarding the nature and possible impact of the levy-raising powers proposed under the food standards Bill.

From 1 July, that will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament.

Mrs. Michie: Has the Minister's right hon. Friend made it clear that in Scotland we cannot agree to a flat-rate levy? Why should a little shop on the island of Lismore or Gigha in my constituency pay the same as a large, wealthy supermarket? Will the Minister confirm that the Scottish Parliament will be able to reject that "poll tax on the plate" and agree that the Food Standards Agency should be paid for out of general taxation?

Mr. Galbraith: The current levy scheme proposals are part of genuine consultation, and I have been touring the country having open meetings with interested parties. We shall certainly be happy to consider alternatives, provided they are administratively simple, cost-effective and fair, and we are actively encouraging such alternative proposals.

Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber): My hon. Friend will be aware that we inherited

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a crisis of confidence in food, following the E. coli outbreak in central Scotland in 1996 and 1997, when 21 people tragically died. What reassurance can my hon. Friend give the Scottish people that such tragedies will not occur in future?

Mr. Galbraith: As my hon. Friend will know, we have made considerable progress on food safety over the past two years. We have implemented almost all Professor Pennington's recommendations, with significant objective improvements so far. I have no doubt that, although the agency will not absolutely guarantee that there will be no more problems, it will significantly reduce them and reassure people throughout the United Kingdom of the safety and wholesomeness of our food.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Will the Minister accept that there is a strong, indeed unanswerable, case for locating the Scottish arm of the Food Standards Agency in the north-east of Scotland, given the unique combination of its research base and agricultural production areas? Should that not be part of a widespread plan for civil service dispersal across Scotland?

Did I detect from the Minister's earlier answer that the Government are moving away from the ridiculous argument that a branch of Sainsbury's should pay the same as a corner shop, and that they would consider a banded system that would be fair to all retailers?

Mr. Galbraith: As I toured the country, discussing this matter with interested parties, I noticed that, everywhere I went, everyone asked for the Scottish arm of the agency to be based in their area. I shall take the hon. Gentleman's presentation as a plea for his area, and duly note it.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): Further to the Minister's answer, will the Scottish Parliament have the power, under the Scotland Act 1998, to overrule, compensate for or alter any levy that is set by the Treasury, or will the Treasury dictate policy in Scotland?

Mr. Galbraith: Detailed effects of devolution on that policy area are still being considered, although we intend the levy to apply consistently in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Dr. Fox: If the levy is to apply consistently in all parts of the United Kingdom, that makes nonsense of the Minister's earlier answer to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie). Is it not clear that the Treasury will still dictate policy on that matter and that the measure will be another part of the Government's stealth tax programme which will be imposed on Scottish retailers? Are the Government not therefore hypocritical to criticise other parties for wanting to use the tax-raising powers that the Government campaigned for and included in the Scotland Act, when they are raising taxes by stealth from Scottish retailers at every turn?

Mr. Galbraith: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman clearly does not understand the matter, as he made obvious by trying to draw false conclusions from my response to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. As I said, we aim to ensure that the levy is uniform across

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the United Kingdom because it is correct and proper for a UK agency to be concerned with food throughout the country.

Literacy and Numeracy

3. Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): If he will make a statement on the Government's strategy to improve literacy and numeracy in Scottish schools. [76307]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Donald Dewar): The Government have a comprehensive strategy for improving literacy and numeracy. That includes the early intervention programme for which £60 million is being provided, family literacy schemes supported by £15 million over three years, and £7.8 million of additional resources made available this year alone to allow every school in Scotland to buy books for its library. Those initiatives are being underpinned by action to improve teaching standards and by setting targets for raising attainment in literacy and numeracy.

From 1 July, that will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament.

Miss Begg: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. As a former English teacher, I know all too well the importance of early intervention schemes. As a secondary schoolteacher, I certainly found that it was often too late to help youngsters who could not read or write at age 11. Will my right hon. Friend break down those figures and tell the House how much is likely to be spent in Aberdeen--which obviously is my concern--in pursuing that valuable policy over the next few years?

Mr. Dewar: I can tell my hon. Friend that, of the £7.8 million for school books during this financial year, about £272,000 will go to schools in the Aberdeen city council area. To take her point a little more broadly, in the first two years of the early intervention programme, Aberdeen city council received more than £226,000 of Government funding, and in the three years to 2001-02 it will receive more than £455,000 annually; so, over that five-year period of the early intervention scheme, the programme for Aberdeen will amount to £1,820,000. That is part of a pattern, which will mean that, by the end of the comprehensive spending review period, for every family in Scotland about £14,000 will have been spent on health and education.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): We welcome the focus on the problems of literacy and numeracy. Given that almost £10 million have disappeared from school education in the north-east of Scotland--in Aberdeen city, Aberdeenshire and Moray--the figures cited by the Secretary of State will go some way towards repairing the damage. However, when people think about their children's education, they consider the overall education. Does the Secretary of State accept that considerable damage has been done by the past two years of cuts?

Mr. Dewar: No doubt that is something that the hon. Gentleman will want to discuss with his local authority. I may soon have an opportunity of doing so myself. I expect that the hon. Gentleman will want to welcome--although, strangely, he forgot to do so--the 4.7 per cent.

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increase in the settlement for local government in the coming year. It is the best for seven years, and it is part of an increasing programme which, step by step, will build up to the better standards to which I referred in my earlier answer.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): Does the Secretary of State not find it fantastic that Opposition Members do not seem to look seriously at the Government's spending, and do not seem to have spoken to their local authorities? I have a table supplied by my local authority, which shows that Falkirk is getting £187,000 in early intervention funding, and a total of £2,600,000 extra for nine projects that will develop literacy, numeracy and education. Next year, the figure will be £2 million, followed by a further £1.8 million. Does my right hon. Friend find, as I do, that, whenever he speaks to local authority members, they tell him that local authorities are awash with money and the schemes are making a real difference to the literacy, numeracy and educational opportunities of the people of Scotland?

Mr. Dewar: I certainly believe that anyone who listens to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and looks at the settlement for the coming year will recognise that the rather mean and penny-pinching approach of Opposition Members, who will always find something about which to carp and criticise, is totally unjustified. If hon. Members examine the education budget--the figures are well known to the House--and the increase in cash terms from 1997-98 to the end of the comprehensive spending review, they will see that, in the last year of that period, we will be spending £1 billion more on education than we were spending in the first year of this Labour Government. That is exactly the upward curve that people expect and want, and for which they voted in the past and, I expect, will vote again.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): In the light of that answer, will the Secretary of State tell us whether the total decrease of £219 million so far in real terms in the education budget is part of his comprehensive strategy to improve literacy, or merely an oversight?

Mr. Dewar: That is a bitter attack on the spending plans of the Conservative Government. We said before the election and during the election campaign that, for the first two years of our period in office, we would hold to the overall spending plans that we inherited from the hon. Gentleman's friends. That is what we did, and we never made any secret of it. Within that total, we reallocated in favour of schools and health--for schools, more than £100 million. We said that, after that two years, we would start building. We are now building, with substantial increases in real terms in health and education, and moving towards totals such as those that I mentioned earlier.

It does not matter to what extent the hon. Gentleman dances on the head of a pin--he will find it a very uncomfortable experience electorally. No matter how determinedly he does it, he is simply trying to misrepresent the situation.

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