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House of Commons

Tuesday 3 April 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Medway Council Bill [Lords]

Lords Reason for disagreeing to a Commons amendment, considered.

Lords Reason:


Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--


1. Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): When she last met representatives of business and trade unions to discuss the implications of the Budget for Scotland. [155169]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Helen Liddell): I have regular meeting with members of the business community and trade unions in Scotland to discuss a wide range of issues, including the positive impact that this Budget has had in Scotland.

Mr. Browne: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, immediately after the Budget, in my local newspaper, the Kilmarnock Standard, local business men welcomed the measures announced in the Budget for the regeneration of areas of high deprivation? What consultations has she had with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about the implementation of those measures in Scotland? As they are to be applied from a £1 billion budget on a ward- by-ward basis, will she tell us what criteria will be applied to determine which wards will receive funds from this substantial investment?

Mrs. Liddell: As my hon. Friend is aware, I recently visited his constituency and was much impressed by the

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job action teams and the incentives that exist to target help towards specific areas. These matters have been discussed with the Chancellor, and in relation to the targeting, we will take as our example much of the useful work being done in East Ayrshire and in my hon. Friend's constituency. We shall also consult widely.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): In the Secretary of State's discussions with businesses and the trade unions, does she explain to the businesses why the Chancellor insists on making the tax system more complex every year, adding more burdens on the businesses that have to try to administer it? At the same time, does she have an explanation for them as to why vital spending on public services such as hospitals and education was cut in the first two years of her Government? Even by their third year, the block grant was still some £200 million less in real terms than that left for spending in Scotland by the outgoing Conservative Government.

Mrs. Liddell: The hon. Gentleman should be aware that we said before we were elected that, for the first two years, we would stick with Tory spending limits so that we could correct the mess that the economy was in. As a result of the economic policies pursued by this Government, we have been able to secure £3.4 billion extra in public spending in Scotland, and in his recent Budget my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was able to put an additional £200 million to good use in Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman fails to realise that corporation tax in this country is now at an historically low level and if we take all employer taxation in the United Kingdom together and compare it with that of our European partners, we have a lower rate even than Germany or France. Sound economic policies on the part of the Government mean that we are moving away from the boom and bust of the previous Administration and avoiding the fantasy economics of some other parties that serve in this House.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Glasgow nautical college is now recruiting more than 1,000 cadets a year for training as officer cadets in the Merchant Navy? That is in large part due to the incentives provided by the Government in successive Budgets. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming that big increase in recruitment and in encouraging young people all over Scotland to look to the British Merchant Navy for a worthwhile living?

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I know how important it is for his constituency that there should be so many new recruits to the Merchant Navy, and, indeed, to the Royal Navy. It is a sign of the well-rounded nature of our policies that we can point to successes in every part of the economy. I am sure that there will be great rejoicing in my hon. Friend's constituency that the merchant fleet is now expanding.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): In the Secretary of State's discussions, were the badly designed climate change levy and the ill-conceived aggregates tax mentioned? Will she attempt to quantify the job losses in manufacturing and quarrying resulting from those taxes? As the aggregates tax is

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designed to be a flat-rate UK tax, and Scottish quarrying products tend to be of lower value than those elsewhere, is it not, in effect, a poll tax on Scottish quarrying?

Mrs. Liddell: It is good to see the hon. Gentleman in his place. It must be that time of year again. We shall be expecting to see the Loch Ness monster soon. The only difference is that the Loch Ness monster is around rather more frequently than the hon. Gentleman.

I have watched with interest recent statements on the environment from the hon. Gentleman's party. The Scottish National party seems to be turning its back on the environment--indeed, there seems to be an international trend in that direction. The Government's economic policies strike a balance that takes into account the needs of the environment, as was shown in my right hon. Friend's Budget a month ago. The hon. Gentleman's party cannot have its cake and eat it. It cannot say that it wishes to reduce fuel taxes, for example, while claiming to be the friend of the environment.

Mrs. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): Notwithstanding the excellent Budget and its importance to all in Scotland, my right hon. Friend will agree that there are grave concerns about the tourism industry in Scotland because of the impact of the foot and mouth outbreak. Will she repeat the Government's message that Scotland is very much open for business and a safe travel destination, as that is vital to the tourism industry? Will she confirm that we are considering initiatives in Scotland, Europe and north America in particular to promote tourism in Scotland?

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend makes an important point: we must say again and again that Scotland is open for business. Those of us who were in Scotland yesterday know that it is looking particularly beautiful. My right hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife (Mr. McLeish), the First Minister, is in the United States promoting the Scottish tourism industry and we have worked with the Scottish Executive who have put together a package to assist the tourism industry, especially in Dumfries and Galloway.

I call on all hon. Members who are looking forward to the Easter recess to bear it in mind that Scotland has a great deal to offer and is open for business. We support the "Come back to the countryside" campaign and it is important for the health and well-being of our tourism industry that we have a good season. All hon. Members can do their bit to help.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): The Secretary of State's complacency is both unwarranted and stomach turning. Why does not she simply own up to the fact that nothing in the 2001 Budget remotely atones for the facts that the Government introduced no fewer than 3,865 regulations in 2000, adversely impacting on Scottish business; that small business owners are, on average, spending an extra six hours a week complying with red tape; and that the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce concludes that the Government are dramatically increasing the regulatory burdens that threaten small business?

Mrs. Liddell: We have a Tory getting to his feet in the House at Scottish questions to talk about atonement. The Conservative party was responsible for the rape of our

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industrial heartlands, but the hon. Gentleman comes to the House to talk about atonement. I regularly meet Scottish businesses and I know the extent to which they recognise what the Government have achieved for Scotland in terms of stability after the boom and bust of the Conservative party and our competence in the face of the incompetence of the Conservative party.

The hon. Gentleman should use his Easter recess to come to Scotland where he will see the lowest levels of unemployment, the highest levels of employment and a business community that works in partnership with the Government and the Scottish Executive to build a Scotland for the 21st century and to get over the disgrace of the policies of the previous Administration.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw): May I tell my right hon. Friend that pensioners in my constituency are happy with the results of the Budget: a free TV licence and a £200 winter fuel allowance? When does she intend to discuss with the Scottish Conservative party its plans to abolish those much-needed gains?

Mrs. Liddell: That is a good point. My constituency is adjacent to my hon. Friend's and the £200 winter fuel allowance was greatly welcomed by my constituents. It is interesting that the Scottish National party was talking about a cold weather allowance in 1997--one of £9.20. The £200 that has gone to many pensioners in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend is probably the biggest sum that many of them have had in their hand at any one time. It is safe under this Government; it certainly would not be safe under the Opposition in either guise, be it Conservative or Scottish nationalist.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Talking of budgets, which represent the season of the year that brings the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) to the House, and the block grant, which is spent in Scotland after a vote by the House, when will the Government publish the guidelines for the coming general election in respect of how the Scottish Executive and other devolved bodies will deal with announcements about local expenditure during the campaign? We understand that such guidance is being prepared. When will it be produced?

Mrs. Liddell: My initial response is to ask what the hon. Gentleman is frightened of. I have the impression that he is frightened of the competence of the Scottish Executive, working in partnership with the Government here at Westminster.

We have shown the strength of partnership, and its value to the whole Scottish economy. At any forthcoming general election--and we have from now until May 2002 to prepare for one that may come at any time--I shall be happy to put before the Scottish people this Government's record of improving economic conditions in Scotland, and bringing social justice to Scotland. I should be more than happy to contrast that with the social division represented by the hon. Gentleman's policies.

Mr. Grieve: That answer was profoundly unsatisfactory. The question was very simple. When elections to the Scottish Parliament were held, guidelines were issued about how the Government here should react and how the civil service should conduct itself. When shall we see such

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guidelines for the general election--or are we to assume that the current attitude is not what we would expect of a Government and a civil service, but what we would expect of a Maxwell corporation?

This is a serious issue. I ask the right hon. Lady to assure the House that the guidelines will be issued, and issued in sufficient time for the matter to be properly considered.

Mrs. Liddell: The hon. Gentleman is obviously not aware that we have until 2002 before a general election need be called in Scotland. We are getting on with the business of building a better Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the late Robert Maxwell. Perhaps he and his hon. Friends will tell the House about the role played by prominent Conservatives such as the late Michael Havers, whose desk I inherited when I went to try and sort out the mess, and the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who could have done much to help the Maxwell pensioners but whose heels we could not see for dust.

Labour has delivered for pensioners. Indeed, 900,000 pensioners in Scotland will benefit directly as a consequence of the Chancellor's Budget.

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