The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Helen Liddell): I have regular discussions with theFirst Minister on a wide range of matters, including employment, especially given that we in Scotland now have the lowest unemployment since 1976 and the highest employment since 1960. Since the 1997 election employment is up by 105,000, long-term unemployment is down by 60 per cent. and youth unemployment is down by 2,000. The First Minister and I therefore have very fruitful and positive conversations.
Mrs. Liddell: Whenever my hon. Friend comes to the House, I am filled with trepidation about what he might ask me. I can tell him, however, that much has been done and there is much to do, but there is also much to lose.I agree with him that it is time for a general election.
I note my hon. Friend's point about a jobcentre in Pollok; I have already raised it with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities. The Ministry of Defence has gone to considerable lengths to secure MOD orders for Govan. I know that the work force are still troubled about the possibility of difficulties during the spill-over period. I have met them, and I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence intends to do so shortly.
Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute): The Secretary of State will know that the unemployment figures in Campbeltown in my constituency are twice the Scottish average. Following the recent announcement of the closure of the Jaeger factory--which was a terrible blow to the town, as Jaeger was its last major employer--can the right hon. Lady confirm that the Campbeltown- Ballycastle ferry will be reinstated, and, in particular, that the Ministry of Defence is no longer dragging its feet with regard to the turbine factory at Machrihanish?
Mrs. Liddell: First, let me wish the hon. Lady well as she approaches her retirement. Indeed, some 18 Scottish Members in all parties are not seeking re-election, and I take this opportunity to commend them for the distinguished service that they have given. That applies particularly to the hon. Lady, who comes from a very distinguished political background. She has served her party and her country with distinction.
The hon. Lady and I share a great love of Argyll, and I look forward to meeting her in the future--perhaps when we watch the shinty, although I suspect that on that occasion I shall be supporting Kyles of Bute while she will be supporting Oban Camanachd. Undoubtedly, she will have an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of her constituency.
The hon. Lady spoke of problems in Campbeltown and the Mull of Kintyre. I have been very conscious of the difficulties that could be created as a result of the closure of the Jaeger factory, and prior to that my colleagues and I have looked closely at activities on the Mull of Kintyre. I am delighted to be able to announce that discussions have taken place between the Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Executive and my own Scotland Office about the Ballycastle to Campbeltown ferry, and that we will now test the market with a view to making concrete progress by the summer--assuming that the market conditions are right. I know that that will give a considerable boost not just to the Mull of Kintyre, but to all that part of Argyll.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State has had discussions with colleagues in the MOD about Vesta, and I understand that considerable progress is being made. I think that there are positive signs, and I hope the hon. Lady will be reassured by that.
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill): Has my right hon. Friend noted that no Conservative Member has even tried to speak of unemployment? Could that be because the Conservatives are embarrassed by the fact that the last time the unemployment figures were as low as this, Labour was in government?
As I leave the House after 14 years representing Maryhill, let me say that I came here hoping that something could be done about the appalling levels of unemployment in my constituency. It took a Labour Government to bring those figures down. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) said, a great deal has been done and there is more to do.
Mrs. Liddell: I also wish my hon. Friend well as she approaches her retirement; the warmth of the response to her is very well known. She is also right to remind us of how much we have to lose if this Labour Government are not re-elected. All of us who lived through those bleak Tory years remember what happened to unemployment in cities such as Glasgow and in my own constituency in Lanarkshire.
Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): Would the Secretary of State--who has been boasting so much of the success of the Government's action in Scotland--like to assure my constituents in Devon that Scotland will no longer be wanting the £861-odd extra per head of population that it receives, unlike my constituents; that the levels of benefit that it receives will come down to those received by the whole of the nation; and that it will not continue to receive much more money than is available to the rest of the United Kingdom including England?
Mrs. Liddell: That was a very interesting exposition of Tory policy. Labour Members, however, believe in governing for the many and not for the few. We have achieved much in this Parliament, but we still have much to do. On unemployment, though, we now have the prospect of full employment for all of the United Kingdom, which is something that I have wanted to achieve in my political lifetime. It could be snatched away if Conservative Members were ever again to be elected to government. It is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman is taking the same line as the Scottish National party, whose members will be Hague's little helpers in the forthcoming general election as they seek to ensure the election of a Tory Government.
Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): Like my right hon. Friend and all Labour Members, I will never forget the devastation caused to mining communities by the actions of the previous Government and how, for many thousands of redundant miners, the only jobs on offer were as £2 an hour security guards. I pay tribute to her and to the previous First Minister, Donald Dewar, for securing the future for the only deep mine left in Scotland. Does she agree that the best future for that deep mine rests with the return of a Labour Government?
Mr. Speaker: Order. I appeal for shorter questions and, of course, for shorter answers. I also remind the House that we are on Scottish questions. The general election campaign will be fought elsewhere.
Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) is aware that the coal industry faced very significant difficulties when we were first elected to government and that the introduction of a stricter gas consents policy allowed a breathing space for the coal industry to find its place in a competitive market. I am very glad that we have been able to make real progress on Longannet deep mine, which is the last deep mine in Scotland. I am also pleased that we have been able to make progress on delivering compensation to those miners who, over very many years, gave their health so that we could have a coal industry--an industry that was treated with contempt by Conservative Members.
The fact is that people in Scotland know perfectly well that the reason for the present strength of the Scottish economy is not the policies of this Government, but the policies of the previous Conservative Government which have not yet been destroyed. Indeed, 67 per cent. of people in Scotland think that taxes there are too high. They are right and they know what to do about it. On unemployment, as on other matters, the Government are very good at spin, but not good at delivery. Some of us believe in delivery and--
Mrs. Liddell: I was getting quite worried about the hon. Lady, given her forthcoming happy event, which I understand is to be in July. I wish her well for that. Her loyalty to her party is very well known, but I hope that it does not mean that she has to call the child Orinoco. We are well aware of what the previous Government did to Scotland. Those of us who represent constituencies in Scotland saw long-term unemployment rocket and a dearth of hope for young people in our communities.
The hon. Lady talks about taxation. The general election is coming up and one of the anxieties that I have for my constituents is to ensure that the working families tax credit continues for those families who have been given a ladder out of poverty and that the children's tax credit continues delivering £520 to families with children. Those are the policies that this Government have pursued. We are asking for a further opportunity to advance those policies and we have a lot to lose if the Conservatives win the general election.