HC Deb 05 June 1996 vol 278 cc591-2
3. Mr. Macdonald

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on employment prospects in the highlands and islands. [30073]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. George Kynoch)

They remain excellent.

Mr. Macdonald

Is the Minister aware of the continuing damage being done to the economy and the employment prospects of the Western Isles and Skye by the high tolls on the Skye bridge? Is he aware that, on the new Severn bridge, which was opened today, the tolls will be 30 per cent. lower than the charges imposed on cars using the Skye bridge? How can the Minister justify that difference, especially when the Severn bridge was much more expensive to build? Is it not time that he listened to the weight of public opinion in the highlands, and indeed throughout Scotland, and scrapped the unpopular and damaging private toll regime?

Mr. Kynoch

I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman takes that line when a bridge has been provided, using private finance, for the people of Skye much sooner that it would have been provided if the project had had to wait in the queue for public expenditure. The tolls are set at the level of the old ferry fares, so the cost of getting to Skye is no greater using the bridge. If people buy discounted tickets, the price of a single crossing can be lowered to £2.44. That compares with a charge for motor cars and caravans to cross the new Severn bridge of £3.80. The hon. Gentleman did not point out that the Severn bridge concession is for some 30 years, so the tolls will remain for that period, whereas tolls will be in existence on the Skye bridge for only some 14 to 17 years until the cost is paid back. The bridge is of great benefit to the people of Skye and it means that weather does not cut them off from the mainland. The people of Skye should welcome the improved transport to and from their island.

Mr. Charles Kennedy

In view of what the Minister said at the end of his reply, I hope that he will take the opportunity after Question Time to give a resume of those benefits to the local protesters who are visiting Westminster today to make clear the depth of not just local opposition but Scotland-wide and international opposition to what is being done. [Interruption.] Those who laugh do so in ignorance because they do not know what is being said in other countries about this matter.

As the direct employment loss so far has come from the closure of the ferry, when will the Minister come clean about how much more the public purse in Scotland is having to subvent Caledonian MacBrayne's other ferry networks as a direct result of the loss of subsidy that was generated by the high charges on the original ferry? Why will he not tell us that, if he believes in the commercial case for this bridge?

Mr. Kynoch

The hon. Gentleman fails to recognise the difference between the bridge and the ferry. Of course, the ferry was subject to weather conditions, and that was amply exemplified just before the bridge officially opened when, I understand, an ambulance, a police car and a lorry load of fresh fish from South Uist, which was bound for Paris, crossed the bridge when the ferry was not running because of bad weather. Rather than associating himself with people who seem to be intent on flaunting the law and trying to follow a policy of non-payment, which seems surprising for the hon. Gentleman, he should recognise the benefits that the project has brought to that part of Scotland.