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House of Commons

Tuesday 23 January 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Scottish Elections

1. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the First Minister on the measures required to ensure maximum voter participation in the Scottish Parliamentary and local council elections in May 2007; and if he will make a statement. [116340]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): The Government and the Scottish Executive are working closely together to ensure maximum participation in the combined elections on 3 May.

John Robertson: As my hon. Friend knows, leaders of all the major political parties have urged a high turnout in the May elections. Will he redouble his efforts and, in particular, seek the help of the media to explain to their readers and viewers why it is so important that they turn out on 3 May to ensure that they get the Government they deserve?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend raises an important matter. The upcoming elections are vital for Scotland’s future, and I hope that in the run-up to the elections the key issues at stake will be given a good airing in the media. At stake are two different visions of Scotland. One is of a confident Scotland playing a full role in the United Kingdom, continuing to invest in schools and in skills, and continuing to address the big challenges that face our country in the 21st century. The other vision of Scotland’s future is one mired in years of constitutional wrangling, with uncertainty about what our currency will be and who will set the monetary framework, with Scotland isolated from our key allies, out of the European Union and completely irrelevant. It is a big election and there are big issues at stake.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The Minister knows that in normal democracies, debates play a major part in encouraging turnout of voters. The Secretary of State for Scotland regularly appears on television debates instead of the First Minister, who seems unwilling or
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unable to take part. Will he encourage Jack McConnell to stop running away and take part, at least between police interviews?

David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman’s leader had the opportunity to be in the Scottish Parliament and debate with Jack McConnell every day of the year, but he chose to run away from the Scottish Parliament to come here to lead a rump group. Now he wants to go back, but he wants to stay as an MP here. He wants to be a Member of the Scottish Parliament for a constituency and he wants to be on the list. The elections are not just about debates on television. They are about real, substantive issues, a vision of a Scotland that would be isolated under him, which would not have its own currency, which would not set its own monetary policy framework, and which would be isolated in Europe because his party would take us out of the European Union. His party has no clue how to address the great big challenges facing Scotland today. That is why, once again, as in every single election, it will be rejected by the Scottish voters.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): One of my concerns about the upcoming Scottish elections is that many of the migrants from various parts of the European Union working in Scotland may not be aware of their right to vote and the need to register to vote. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the Scottish Executive to ensure full participation for all those legally living, working and paying taxes in Scotland?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend raises an important issue. When we passed the Electoral Administration Act 2006, there was great concern about how we would make sure that the new migrants in the country from Poland and elsewhere in the EU who are entitled to vote in these elections would be made aware of the fact that they could vote and would be encouraged to be put on the electoral register. That is why we have given additional financial support to electoral registration officers to drive up registration and to put out information in other languages, including Polish, so that all those who are living in Scotland and making a financial contribution to Scotland, and who are entitled to vote in the elections, get the opportunity to do so.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): The Scottish Executive and the Scotland Office published their response to the Arbuthnott Commission today. I find both responses disappointing. Does the Minister share my consternation that the Scottish Executive should dismiss the Arbuthnott Commission’s recommendation to split the Scottish parliamentary and local government elections, without presenting any evidence that that would increase turnout, whereas all the evidence shows that it will increase confusion? Does he agree that the Scottish Executive and his Government are showing contempt for the people of Scotland by bringing about two major electoral changes on one day?

David Cairns: I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman is disappointed. We have taken one of the key recommendations from the Arbuthnott report to combine
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the ballot papers in the Scottish Parliament elections, so that Scottish voters are not presented with one ballot paper for the first-past-the-post constituency and another for the regional list, which did generate some confusion. We have worked hard with the Electoral Commission and others to produce a design that would be colour coded and make things as simple as possible when people cast their vote. The decision on the date of the local elections is entirely a matter for the Scottish Executive, but I share their view that combining the elections on the same day will help turnout.

David Mundell: Does the Minister accept that voter participation is not just about the number of people who turn up at the polling station but the number of validly cast votes? What level of improperly cast ballots is unacceptable? Will he and the Scottish Executive move away from the system that they, along with their Liberal Democrat chums, foisted on the people of Scotland?

David Cairns: It is important to distinguish between a genuine mistake when filling in a ballot paper and voter fraud, to which I believe that the hon. Gentleman refers. There is no evidence of significant voter fraud in Scotland. If he has any, he should present it. We included provisions in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 to combat voter fraud. I remind him that he spent a large part of his career as a member of the Social Democratic party, which promoted the single transferable vote system.

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the new electoral system for the local government elections in Scotland, we should do everything we can to ensure that it is publicised as widely as possible so that we get the maximum possible turnout?

David Cairns: I agree. The Electoral Commission has a key role to play in that. It recently made three significant grants available to: the Leonard Cheshire foundation, which helps ensure that people with disabilities can vote; Outside the Box, which helps those with learning disabilities, and the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Sector Organisations. We want to ensure that everyone in Scotland, regardless of creed, colour and disability, can participate in the elections. It is also important that Members of Parliament do our bit to ensure that as many people as possible are registered to vote. We must encourage our councils and electoral registration officers to undertake that. We have a clear vision: everyone who is entitled to vote must be allowed to do so, and there must be minimum fraud and the highest possible turnout.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): There is concern in all parties about low turnout among young people in elections. Next May, for the first time in Scotland, 18-year-old candidates, including the Liberal Democrat challenger in the First Minister’s constituency, will stand for election. I hope that the Minister and the First Minister welcome the implementation of that new law. When will the Government take the next step and encourage more young people to play an active part in the political process by introducing voting at 16?

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David Cairns: First, the hon. Lady could have said that it is a reform introduced by the Government that allows 18-year-olds to stand as candidates. That provision did not fall out of a clear blue sky. It underlines our commitment to engaging with young people and ensuring that they play a full part.

The Electoral Commission has done a great deal of work on voting at 16. Opinion is evenly divided about whether that is a good idea even among 16 and 17-year-olds. I am not especially attracted to the proposal, but we can keep an open mind on it. I stress that, for young people, the vision of Scotland that invests in them, their future and education and skills will contrast with a vision of Scotland that mires us in years of constitutional argument so that, in the meantime, any business thinking of investing in the United Kingdom will not choose Scotland. That is not a good future for young people.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way in which to encourage people to get involved in the democratic process is to demonstrate the importance of politics and how it enhances the quality of their lives? I am sure that he will take every opportunity to remind the electorate of what the Scottish Labour Government have done for the people of Scotland.

David Cairns: I certainly will. I shall specifically consider the performance of the Scottish education system, which has long been acknowledged to be excellent. Thanks to our additional investment in schools, and the strength of the UK economy, which has allowed the Scottish Executive to increase investment in schools massively, we have even better results. We now need to move forward to consider, for example, skills and skills academies, which will be to the fore on Labour’s agenda for the future of Scotland. We have an optimistic vision for that future, in which young people will be encouraged to stay and play a full part.


2. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What average length of time it has taken for a reply to be received to correspondence from him to the First Minister. [116341]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): On average, correspondence from the First Minister to the Secretary of State for Scotland has been sent within the 20-day target time scale set by the Scottish Executive.

Mr. Bone: That is a most illuminating answer. On 6 November 2006, I wrote to the First Minister to ask how many people waited more than six months for a national health service operation, in breach of the Government’s guarantee. I appreciate that the question might be embarrassing for the First Minister, but, despite a chasing letter, I have yet to receive a reply. Is not that shameful?

David Cairns: I understand that the Health Minister in the Scottish Executive has written a reply to the hon. Gentleman, in which he apologises for the delay in responding to him. He also points out that waiting
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times and waiting lists in Scotland are falling, that the number of patients with a guarantee waiting more than 18 weeks is the lowest ever recorded, and that deaths from cardiac disease, cancer and stroke are all falling after years of increasing. Those things have not happened by accident. They have happened because the UK Government made available to the Scottish Executive record sums of money to invest in the health service, yet the hon. Gentleman voted against every penny—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Is it not the case that the Scotland Office has sent a pitiful 350 official letters since 2005, while receiving, on average, seven letters a day from a concerned and anxious public? Does the Minister think that that represents good value for money? Will he explain what exactly is the point of the Scotland Office, given this overwhelmingly burdensome activity?

David Cairns: Given that some of those letters are from the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, he is adding to the enormous burden of work that the Scotland Office has to do. All appearances to the contrary, the Scotland Office is a remarkably slim and lean organisation. If the hon. Gentleman looks across Whitehall and across the devolved Administrations, he will see in the Scotland Office a highly efficient organisation that carries out its activities in a very efficient way.

Gas Production

3. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the benefits to Scotland of encouraging gas production west of Shetland. [116342]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry confirmed to the hon. Gentleman last week, the lack of gas infrastructure west of Shetland is a key constraint on present development. We have established a group from industry and Government to work together on that. In addition, we have changed the licensing scheme to encourage development. About 60 blocks have been licensed, and activity is under way.

Sir Robert Smith: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The whole country benefits from developments in the North sea, and the Scotland Office should be well placed to impress upon the Government just how much high-tech industry and how many manufacturing jobs are developed on the back of such activity, and exactly what the export potential is. It is crucial to find new provinces and to open up new fields before we decommission the old ones. In his answer to me last week, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry spoke a lot about the problems of getting the oil out, but the crucial factor in the west of Shetland basin is the need to get the gas fields together. It is the cost of bringing together the small gas fields that is inhibiting production.

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Mr. Alexander: I am certainly happy to reiterate the hon. Gentleman’s points to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The hon. Gentleman is right to acknowledge the significant potential west of Shetland. It represents about 17 per cent. of the UK’s remaining oil and gas reserves, and presents a considerable challenge, on which the Government are working with industry.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): While such exploration is important, does my right hon. Friend agree that an economy built solely on the success or failure of fossil fuels is likely to result in an overall reduction in spending and economic activity?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend is right to say that oil in the North sea and elsewhere is a finite commodity. North sea production passed its peak in the first year of the Scottish Parliament back in 1999.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Ask the Norweigans.

Mr. Alexander: I hear the claim that Norway should be a lodestar for us in using that finite commodity more effectively. Norway has about twice the UK’s oil reserves, yet Norwegians pay a higher top rate of tax, a higher basic rate of income tax, higher VAT, higher employers’ national insurance contributions and higher duties. That is something that the whole House should consider.


4. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with European commissioners on immigration into Scotland. [116345]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions regarding immigration matters, but we have had no discussions on those issues with the European Commissioners.

Mr. Hollobone: How many immigrants from the new EU entrant states have arrived in Scotland since the accession of those countries, and how many work permits does the Secretary of State expect to issue to immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania?

David Cairns: I do not have those figures here, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with them. Scotland and the Scottish economy have benefited from the inward migration of people from the accession states. Scotland has near record low levels of unemployment and near record high levels of economic activity. That situation never occurred during the 18 years when the hon. Gentleman’s party was responsible for the economy.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): When my hon. Friend does meet the Commissioners to discuss immigration, will he emphasise the tremendous benefits that we have gained from the immigrants who have come to work in Scotland from the EU accession states? Will he also raise with them the need for a speedy implementation of the temporary workers directive,
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because it is clear that, in some parts of Scotland and elsewhere, the people who are coming in are being forced to work under certain conditions because they are in gangs? They are not getting proper holiday pay, sickness pay or pension benefits. The only way to ensure that such people are not exploited is to have the same rules for everyone, so that every temporary worker and everyone coming in from elsewhere in the EU works under the same conditions as UK employees.

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is right to point out the economic contribution that individuals from the A8 countries are making in Scotland. They are entitled to the same employment protection as everyone else, including rights to the minimum wage. It is important that those workers receive the minimum wage and are not used to undercut wage rates throughout Scotland. He mentioned the issue of gangs, and he is sitting beside our hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) who, through his gangmaster legislation, has done more than anyone else to highlight the issue, for which I pay tribute to him. It is absolutely right that people coming into this country are treated fairly and on a level playing field with everyone else.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): How would the Secretary of State find time to meet European Commissioners when he is so busy standing in for the First Minister in debates on Scotland. Has not the reality of Scotland’s European representation been laid bare by the leaked memo from the head of the European office of the Scottish Executive, which says that UK Departments ignore Scottish representations, that Scottish Ministers have to wait outside the Council of Ministers while decisions are made and that,

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