Social Inclusion

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Annabelle Ewing: The Under-Secretary has raised a number of matters. I shall deal with them briefly and ask some questions. On the issue—

The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Lady that interventions should be brief and should constitute a question to the Under-Secretary.

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Annabelle Ewing: I thank you for that direction, Miss Begg. I intend to keep my intervention brief. The Under-Secretary referred to my constituency, so it is appropriate of her to allow me an opportunity to respond. I had said that the unemployment rate in Perth was low. The important point was that, according to a table produced by Perth and Kinross council—on which the Labour party sits with the Tories in coalition—the level of pay is at the bottom end of the scale.

Mrs. McGuire: A question must be asked about the double standards of the SNP, and the political chameleons that operate within it. If the hon. Lady is so worried about low pay, she should ask the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) about the fact that, when he was leader of the SNP, not a single member of the party could stay through the night in this House to vote for the national minimum wage.

The hon. Lady also made quite disparaging comments about Dungavel. Indeed, I was astounded that my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) managed to continue making his speech during those comments. There has been much misleading information about the conditions in Dungavel. The people who were there last Friday, including my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy), can tell anyone that the conditions in Dungavel are nothing like the picture painted by the hon. Lady and her party.

When it comes to debates about Scotland in this House, the SNP has nothing to say. It has nothing to say on welfare reform. The party promises even higher benefits, but never says how it would fund them. As I said, I am not at all surprised that the party has lost 16 general elections since 1945. Lest we forget, it was not only the national minimum wage that its members forgot to turn up to vote for; they also forgot to vote for the legislation on the financing of the new deal programme, which has helped so many people in Scotland. [Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Lady thinks that the new deal is boring.

Some hon. Members have suggested that the household below-average income statistics show that the Government strategy is not working. I utterly refute that. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling)—now Secretary of State for Transport—said, the statistics show that

    ''for the first time in a generation poorer households are sharing equally in the nation's rising prosperity''.

The proportion of Scottish children in low-income households, using the absolute measure, fell to 21 per cent. in 2000–01, 13 percentage points lower than in 1996–97. It is still too high and we will work further to reduce it. Using the absolute measure, the percentage of pensioners in low-income households has dropped by 15 percentage points from 1996–97 to 13 per cent. The figures show that the incomes of people at the lower end of the income distribution have grown substantially since the Government took office in 1997.

Let me be frank with the Grand Committee. The Government are not scared of seeing our policy results

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being measured. Our ''Opportunity For All'' annual report on poverty has a set of indicators for monitoring progress year on year. I commend the Scottish Executive's excellent annual report on social inclusion, which has its own set of indicators. Hon. Members may be aware that the Government recently issued a consultation paper on measuring child poverty, seeking views on the best way to do that. Officials from the Department for Work and Pensions recently came to Scotland to hold a consultation seminar on the proposals. We plan to engage with the various organisations, the voluntary sector and local authorities to look for a measurement of poverty on which to agree. These proposals are radical. They suggest for the first time that all aspects of poverty should be measured so that we do not just have a simple headline indicator.

I turn now to the impact that some of our policies have had on women. Most of the people in Scotland who have benefited from the new deal for lone parents are women. Some 70 per cent. of the people who benefit from the national minimum wage are women, helping to close the pay gap. Together with the working families tax credit, the minimum wage currently guarantees every family with a child and at least one person working 35 hours per week a minimum income of £230 per week, or nearly £12,000 per year.

We are also taking other action on equal pay. We are funding the Equal Opportunities Commission to prepare a voluntary model for employers on pay reviews to check that employers' own internal systems are fair. We are reforming employment tribunals to simplify equal pay cases. We should not forget—I hope that the hon. Member for Perth will remember this when she talks to the pensioners in Perth—that two thirds of the people entitled to the new pension credit will be women. I take on board the comments of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross about how we need to work carefully with the Post Office to ensure that the new system for claiming benefits and getting cash works efficiently from the beginning. The worst thing that could happen would be that pensioners do not get the money on the day that they expect to get it.

As many hon. Members have clearly identified, social inclusion is multi-dimensional; it is not a single issue at which we can point. Years ago we just talked about poverty and thought that it was to do with lack of money. It is not, although that is important. That is why the Government have put such emphasis on getting people into work. That is the biggest lift that people can get in income terms. Social exclusion is about low expectations. It is about children not understanding that education is a great liberator for them. When our parents told us in the 1950s, 60s and 70s that we had to get educated, we realised that it was the one thing that stayed with us for the rest of our lives and granted us access to all sorts of other things. Many Labour Members appreciated that and I suspect that many Opposition Members did too.

Social exclusion is also about poor health, poor housing and the lack of access to educational opportunities. We should celebrate the fact that

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nearly 50 per cent. of young people in Scotland are now going to university. When I went to university, the figure was around 6 per cent. of the population. Tackling those inequalities is at the core of the Government's policy. Our strategy for Scotland is to work in partnership with the Scottish Executive to tackle those problems.

I will leave the Grand Committee with one or two final points. Since we came to power, the poorest 20 per cent. of Scottish households have an extra £1,300 in their pockets; the poorest 20 per cent. of Scottish households with children are £2,200 a year better off; and the poorest 20 cent. of Scottish single-parent families are £1,800 a year better off. We are not complacent, but we have achieved a great deal in a short time.

It being One o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the Committee lapsed, without Question put.

BNFL (Chapelcross)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Committee do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

1 pm

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I welcome you to the Chair, Miss Begg. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important subject. A quick look at Hansard will show that nuclear power is a subject that is debated all too rarely. There was a Scottish National party Opposition day debate on 5 March under the heading ''Nuclear power.'' Regrettably, in practice, we were subject to an attempt by the nationalists to indulge in constitutional navel-gazing. An opportunity seriously to consider nuclear power and Scotland's contribution to energy production was wasted.

Fortunately, energy—and nuclear power—is back on the political agenda. The renewed interest has been stimulated both by the Cabinet Office's publication of the Performance and Innovation Unit's energy review and the consultation on future energy policy that stemmed from it. Reponses to that consultation will help to formulate the forthcoming White Paper on energy, which is eagerly anticipated by many people in my constituency; particularly the 400 workers who are employed at Chapelcross nuclear power station near my hometown of Annan.

Chapelcross, which is owned and operated by BNFL, is one of the oldest nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom. It was the first in Scotland, being commissioned in 1959. From that day until now, it has played a significant part in the community, proving to be one of the better employers locally; it has also served the national grid well.

Despite over-capacity in electricity generation in Scotland, an incident at Chapelcross last summer showed how important the plant's capacity is to the local area. The incident centred on the dropping of a fuel rod basket during the re-fuelling process at a reactor shutdown, and led to an instruction to shut down the other reactors in order to recover the situation. I hasten to add that at no time was there any danger to the work force, the environment or the wider community. However, when it looked as if all

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four reactors might shut down, Scottish Power expressed anxiety that there might be power reductions in the area. Thankfully, one reactor remained operational.

Another recent incident brought home the importance of the site as an electricity provider. As my hon. friend the Under-Secretary will be aware, since April 2000, Ofgem has been conducting a public consultation exercise about the principles on which access to, and charging for, the Anglo-Scottish electricity interconnector should be based, and has issued a series of consultation papers on the subject. The last of those, in December last year, was the final stage of that consultation process. It set out for agreement a system of allocating access that proposed a reduction for Chapelcross.

Faced with genuine fears that that would have an adverse impact on the economic viability of the Chapelcross site, the work force and the local community rallied round superbly. Within weeks, petitions signed by more than 6,000 people were being presented to Ofgem. The Scotland Office—particularly my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—also gave its support to Chapelcross, and that was appreciated by the work force.

With such an outcry, but also the realisation that the early closure of Chapelcross would have an impact on the security of the transmission network in the local area, Ofgem helped to accommodate a deal to allow the sale of Chapelcross's electricity within Scotland, which again emphasised the importance of the site.

Chapelcross, with the 14 other operational nuclear power stations in Britain, continues to play a vital role in electricity generation, contributing a quarter of all electricity in the United Kingdom.

 
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Prepared 10 July 2002