§ 5. Mr. Macdonald
To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the economic situation in the Western Isles.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Allan Stewart)
The Western Isles economy has performed relatively well in recent years despite a narrow base and inherent difficulties faced by island economies.
§ Mr. Macdonald
Does the Minister accept that the islands economy now faces its worst crisis since the war? Does he appreciate the despair and anger felt by the community at the Government's lack of response so far? Whatever the origins of the present crisis, does he agree that the brunt should not fall on the most vulnerable in the community—the elderly, the handicapped and school children? I extend an invitation to the Minister to visit the community. If he cannot accept it, can he at least dispatch a team of Scottish Office officials to see matters on the ground and report back to the Scottish Office on the grim situation faced by the islands?
§ Mr. Stewart
As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend has granted the islands council consent to borrow up to £24 million during the rest of this financial year. I recognise the effect of the decisions taken by Western Isles council. It is worth recording that before these expenditure reductions were announced Western Isles council received 98.4 per cent. of its expenditure from aggregate external finance—revenue support grant, non-domestic rate income and community charge grants. Only 1.6 per cent. of the expenditure was borne by community charge payers. The hon. Gentleman invited me to visit the area. If I am not able to visit the Western Isles in the near future, I shall certainly act on his suggestion that we should send a team of Scottish Office officials and that will be arranged as soon as is reasonably practicable.
§ Mr. Wallace
Does the Minister accept that transport costs are of considerable importance to the economy of the Western Isles? My constituents often look with envy at the relatively low freight costs for transport from the Scottish mainland to the Western Isles compared with transport costs from the mainland to the northern isles. When can we expect the Government to announce the subventions for next year? May we expect that the cost of transporting freight from the mainland to Orkney and Shetland will be comparable with the cost of such transport to the Western Isles?
Orkney and Shetland are further from the mainland than the Western Isles, but the answer to the hon. Member's specific question about when an announcement will be made is, shortly.