20 December 2001

(S1O-4341) HM Treasury (Meetings)

9. Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive when the Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning last met Her Majesty's Treasury ministers and what issues were discussed. (S1O-4341)

The Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning (Ms Wendy Alexander): I last met the Chancellor at the Labour Party conference in October; we discussed a variety of matters.

Stewart Stevenson: Did the minister make her Treasury colleagues aware that 1,400 jobs are currently at risk throughout Scotland? Those jobs are mainly in rural areas and, unlike the 1,200 jobs that are regrettably being lost at NEC, are threatened wholly as a result of Government action. The chancellor's aggregates tax is likely to cost the breakwater project in my constituency up to £2 million and, interestingly enough, in Gordon Brown's constituency—

The Presiding Officer (Sir David Steel): Order. We must have a question.

Stewart Stevenson: It is relevant, sir.

The Presiding Officer: It may be relevant, but it is not a question.

Stewart Stevenson: Is the minister aware that, in Gordon Brown's constituency, the much-welcomed Rosyth-Zeebrugge ferry project may also incur additional costs of £0.5 million? What economic assessment has been undertaken of the impact of the aggregates tax in Scotland? What representation has she made to the Treasury in London to obtain a derogation for Scotland, similar to the one that Northern Ireland has obtained, given the deleterious effects of the tax?

Ms Alexander: The Executive is in discussion with the Treasury and other parts of the UK Government about the implementation of the tax. The rules of collective responsibility preclude me from sharing any of those discussions here today. Of course, we are aware of the partial exemption for Northern Ireland.

Mr Mike Rumbles (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The minister will be aware of the problems of community economic development companies, such as Mid Deeside Ltd in my constituency, which have problems in accessing core funding as opposed to project funding. Does the minister have any plans to address that issue? She will be aware that I wrote to her recently on the matter.

Ms Alexander: It is important that the Parliament makes the appropriate resources available to local enterprise companies, and that those companies have the opportunity to decide priorities in their areas. A variety of local organisations contribute in important ways to economic development in their areas, but it is important that responsibility for that operates through the LEC network. It is not something that we try to second-guess in this Parliament. As Mr Rumbles is a good Liberal, I am sure that the principle of local accountability for spending decisions is one that commends itself to him.

Alex Neil (Central Scotland) (SNP): I thank the minister for giving me notice of the closure of the individual learning accounts scheme as of this afternoon. Will the minister indicate the concerns about fraud and corruption that led to the closure of the scheme? Can she confirm whether the scheme has been closed or suspended? Will she indicate the number of companies and organisations that are affected?

Ms Alexander: I seek the Presiding Officer's guidance. A parliamentary question has been lodged on individual learning accounts, I have written to Alex Neil in his capacity as convener of the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee, and I am aware that a question has been lodged for the First Minister. I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to answer any further questions, given that the original question concerned the aggregates tax.

The Presiding Officer: Actually, the original question was not about the aggregates tax; it was as set out under question 9. If the minister discussed with the Treasury the issue to which Alex Neil referred, she is welcome to answer the question, but if she did not, she cannot.

Alex Neil: On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The issue is well within the minister's responsibilities, and it is well within the remit of the question. Given that there has not been time for a ministerial statement, the chamber is entitled to know the facts.

The Presiding Officer: If the minister does not want to answer, that is the end of the matter.

Ms Alexander: I am happy to answer on individual learning accounts if it is appropriate to do so, but the Treasury has no locus of any kind in the matter. I seek your guidance, Presiding Officer.

29 November 2001

(S1O-4160) Prison Service

10. Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive what plans it has to ensure provision of a world-class prison service. (S1O-4160)

The Deputy First Minister and Minister for Justice (Mr Jim Wallace): At the end of last year the Scottish Prison Service launched a new, five-year vision committing itself to the pursuit of correctional excellence, thereby contributing to the Executive's commitment to a safer Scotland.

Stewart Stevenson: Has the Minister for Justice noted that on 22 November the First Minister said:

"We will build a better Scotland when we build the best services that we can".—[Official Report, 22 November 2001; c 4154.]

In light of that, does the minister accept, as Dr Richard Simpson did when he signed a motion supporting HM Prison Peterhead earlier this year, that Peterhead prison is a success story in the public services and that it leads the way in excellence, value for money and quality outcomes, and not just in the Scottish Prison Service?

Mr Jim Wallace: I visited Peterhead prison in February, and I give proper credit to the work that is done there and to the commitment of the staff.

Indeed, I am surprised that in the long list of things that Stewart Stevenson read out he omitted to mention that Peterhead prison has been awarded beacon site status. That is welcome. It is a tribute to the efforts of the staff in the pursuit of excellence at Peterhead prison.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Prison Service staff in other prisons in Scotland, where there is a considerable amount of effort in circumstances that are often very difficult.

Roseanna Cunningham (Perth) (SNP): Is the Minister for Justice aware that the number of prisoners in Scotland has increased sharply in 2001? That applies particularly to women prisoners in Cornton Vale prison, which is still overcrowded, despite the reopening of Skye hall. On Friday 23 November, 250 women were in that prison. Is he also aware of the concerns about the situation, particularly the recent suicides, in Cornton Vale? Will he say when Labour will fulfil its 1998 commitment to

"limit the female population at Cornton Vale ... to 100 or less on a daily basis by the end of the year 2000"

Mr Wallace: As an eminent member of the Scottish bar, Roseanna Cunningham will know that the number of people in prisons is not entirely within the Executive's remit, given that the sheriffs who sentence them are not ministers. However, the Executive has made considerable efforts to ensure that alternatives to custody are available to sheriffs in the courts. The drug courts, which started this month, can make a contribution to that and the ministerial working group on women offenders, which has been under the chairmanship of my colleague Iain Gray over recent months, will make its final report in December.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Lothians) (Con): Will the Minister for Justice say when the prison estates review, which is eagerly awaited throughout Scotland, will be published?

Mr Wallace: I had hoped that the prison estates review would be published by now. However, as Lord James Douglas-Hamilton has perhaps noticed, there has been a change of First Minister so it is only right that the proposals and the detail that goes with them should be brought to the new cabinet.

22 November 2001

(S1F-1404) Voluntary Sector

4. Cathy Peattie (Falkirk East) (Lab): To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Executive will ensure that the voluntary sector is adequately resourced. (S1F-1404)

The Deputy First Minister and Minister for Justice (Mr Jim Wallace): Scottish Executive support for the voluntary sector stands at record levels. Direct support of £39 million has been provided for 2001-02, which is an increase of 70 per cent since 1998-99. In addition, my colleague Jackie Baillie yesterday announced the distribution of £304 million of indirect support to be provided in this financial year to voluntary organisations through public bodies such as Communities Scotland, health boards and local enterprise companies. Following consultation, we are also examining with the sector how direct funding can be further improved.

The Presiding Officer: I call Christine Grahame. [Interruption.] I beg members' pardon—I call Stewart Stevenson. [Interruption.] I am sorry. Is Cathy Peattie going to ask a supplementary question?

Cathy Peattie: Yes.

The Presiding Officer: Please go ahead. That was my fault—I should have called Cathy Peattie first.

Cathy Peattie: As that money will go to agencies such as the health boards or Scottish Natural Heritage, will the acting First Minister give an assurance that it will reach the voluntary sector?

Mr Wallace: Yes. That money is clearly intended for the voluntary sector and those who are in receipt of it know that we expect that money to reach the voluntary sector.

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Is the acting First Minister aware that local rural partnerships, such as the Banffshire Partnership Ltd, are experiencing difficulties in obtaining payments under the objective 2 scheme? Those difficulties have been caused in particular by the fact that the rules for making such payments were finalised only after the closing date had passed for the submission of applications. That is a real hardship in continuing retention affecting partnerships. In other words, it is c-r-a-p—crap.

Mr Wallace: I am sorry that Mr Stevenson's final comments spoiled a genuine question. However, he raised an important matter that I was not aware of. I will ensure that the matter is brought to the attention of the relevant minister and we will try to find an answer to his question.

Robert Brown (Glasgow) (LD): I draw the minister's attention to the voluntary sector's complaint about the amount of time that organisations spend chasing new funding. Does he agree that the main problem with voluntary sector funding is at local government level, given the deplorable lack of progress that local councils have made in putting in place longer-term core funding, in particular three-year funding? Is the Scottish Executive taking action to encourage or cajole local authorities to enter into longer-term arrangements with the voluntary sector?

Mr Wallace: I am well aware that much of the time and effort of people who have expertise to contribute is taken up in putting together funding packages. That is why the Executive encourages three-year funding for voluntary organisations. Indeed, as Robert Brown knows, we have given indicative funding to local authorities for a three-year period, which should, in turn, enable them to offer three-year funding to voluntary organisations.

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