HC Deb 26 April 1995 vol 258 cc852-3
14. Mr. Charles Kennedy

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will assess the prospects for the highlands economy; and if he will make a statement. [19583]

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The success of this Government's economic policies means that the prospects for continuing growth towards long-term economic prosperity in the highlands look very encouraging.

Mr. Kennedy

Does the Minister for the highlands, as he is sometimes known, think that he is fit to hold that title, given the noticeable absence of any worthwhile public support from him—there is support across the political spectrum, including that of the Scottish Conservative party, the communities and, indeed, the country as a whole—for the broad campaign to support Scottish rail services? Is it not about time that, instead of leaving it to the Highland region to have to go to the courts simply to try to get fair consultation, he showed that the pledge that those services need to be maintained on an on-going basis against a backdrop of public consultation across the summer—which was given by his ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), in the Scottish Grand Committee a few weeks ago—is upheld? Will the hon. Gentleman do that and, if need be, will he dig into his own budget to ensure that that fairness is established?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I think that I answered the hon. Gentleman last time when I said that I cannot divert funds from health, education or housing for the purposes to which he referred. The measures announced by the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), on 8 February and the formal process to which the hon. Gentleman referred are to be carried out by the franchising director. What is important is that the rail regulator considers that decisions on service levels should not make it impracticable to restore services if the consultation process so concludes. Any final decision on minimum service levels will be for the franchising director to make after his consultation on the ScotRail passenger service requirement later this year.

Mr. McLeish

Does the Under-Secretary accept that the Government's assault on the railways in the highlands will create problems for the tourist industry? More important, why is the Scottish Office quite happy to stand idly by and see the Secretary of State for Transport, the franchising director and the rail regulator destroy crucial services? Is it not a disgrace that the Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland simply do nothing? Will the hon. Gentleman assure us that, even at this late stage, he will enter the fray and give some support to Highland regional council, which is fighting in the courts? The council need not have been in the courts if the Government had shown some guts. We have a spineless set of Ministers who are selling the highlands short.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The hon. Gentleman is totally incorrect. The passenger service requirement will lay down a minimum requirement. That never existed under nationalisation. Under nationalisation, British Rail could stop any service at any time. That will not happen in future. Obviously, there could be a great impact on tourism, but the great majority of tourists travel by road. Indeed, 12 per cent. of British holiday trips are based on travel to Scotland by train and 7 per cent. of holiday trips to the highlands are by train. There is no point in exaggerating that particular matter, but the point should be made properly during consultation.