Provisional allocations amounting to £248 million, based on November 1978 prices, were given to local authorities on 14 February. These will be updated to 1979–80 prices at the end of March.
Is the Minister aware that Kirkcaldy district council's share of that allocation will allow it to complete only about 50 per cent. of its projected housing in this financial year? Will he therefore give an assurance that the Glebe Park development, which he visited last November, will not be delayed by the lack of financial provision?
I can give a general assurance that, as has happened this year, there will be supplementary allowances within the total amount in the kitty. I have no reason to doubt that Kirkcaldy will get the same sympathetic consideration that other authorities have received, since the authority is proceeding with a worthwhile improvement scheme.
That does not arise out of the question. There is no restriction on new house building in Scotland. It is now being shown that local authorities, when submitting housing plans, want to switch more of their resources to modernisation and improvement. The figures are available for anybody to see. If any hon. Members wants to submit, through his authority, a scheme for new house building it will be given sympathetic consideration.
Can my hon. Friend say whether the housing plans submitted by district councils have been fully examined by his Department? Can he give an assurance that the continuity of housing modernisation—which is so necessary and which is embodied in these plans—will be honoured by his Department in future?
Yes, in general terms I can give that assurance. What I am trying to say, if I have not made it clear already, is that the bids made by local authorities collectively far outweigh anything that we have in the kitty, or the total amount that they spend in a year. That is the argument which I imagine will go on whether or not I am in this job, and whatever Government are in power.
In recent years education authorities have not been able to expand nursery education as rapidly as I would have wished. The Government remain committed to the expansion of nursery education and the recent White Paper on public expenditure, Cmnd. 7439, made plain that resources will be made available for this purpose.
Is the Minister satisfied that all the regional authorities concerned are using the resources allocated to them for nursery education expansion, since the reply he gave to me earlier this year indicates that not all the resources are being taken up by authorities? What consideration is being given to the use of empty classrooms in primary schools by changing them into nursery wings attached to the schools?
The hon. Lady makes two fair points. She asks whether local authorities at regional level are using all the money available for nursery education. A number of them have underspent on nursery education. This is largely due to staffing ratios, which are quite high in these establishments. I hope that local authorities will take very seriously the suggestion about using spare primary school accommodation. There has been a substantial drop in the number of primary schoolchildren in many areas, which means that there is spare accommodation. It is there to be used, with suitable adaptations. That would be better than waiting for purpose-built nursery schools. I hope that this message will go to local authorities.
It is true that because of a drop in the number of births there are many spare places in nursery schools. But unfortunately this is not spread evenly over the regions. I hope that local authorities will advertise and ensure that families in greatest need are encouraged to use the spare places. I hope also that local authorities will consider the concept, which I have been pushing, of children's centres which give whole-day coverage for mothers with children under five, one-parent families and working mothers.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there were many occasions during the first two months of this year when many roads were passable only by four-wheel drive vehicles? Is he really satisfied that the number is adequate?
We are advised on this matter by the Scottish ambulance service, and it is true, as the hon. Gentleman said, that these vehicles are at their best in bad weather conditions and on long journeys over class B roads. The Scottish ambulance service is satisfied that the 54 vehicles available to it at the moment are adequate to meet its needs.
Is the Minister aware that it might not matter how many four-wheel drive ambulances there are in Scotland shortly if the threat by the National Union of Public Employees in Scotland, which we have heard about today, is carried out? That will virtually close all Scottish hospitals this week. Can he assure the House that—
The return to more normal potato prices is the main cause of the decline in farming incomes in the year ending March 1978. A general improvement is forecast for 1978–79.
Is not the hon. Gentleman glossing over the fact that there has been a decrease of 33 per cent. in farm incomes in Scotland in the last year? Can he tell us what measures he intends to take to ensure that that is made up in the coming year? Farmers are getting a bit fed up with the Government's"jam tomorrow"policy.
I am not glossing over anything. I attended the annual general meeting of the National Farmers' Union of Scotland on Friday, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I was not allowed to gloss over anything. I give the House the assurance that we expect a rise in incomes for the year ending 1979. I readily concede that the hard winter may, perhaps, influence that and that there are other factors that do not give any ground for optimism or complacency. But, to be realistic, the farmers will not starve.
I am glad to say that there are enough intelligent electors in Berwick and East Lothian to return a Labour Member. I am sure that that will continue. We made a specific announcement that we were putting more than £1 million into farming in the hill areas in Scotland where there is the greatest need to supplement incomes.
Surely the hon. Gentleman, after his meeting with the Scottish NFU last Friday, can be in no doubt about the genuine concern amongst farmers in the hill and upland areas. Is he aware of the genuine concern among cattle producers at the inflation in costs and their vulnerability to market prices? Is he prepared to do more to help this hard-pressed sector of Scottish agriculture?
I share the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman, and I have already said that we have applied aid to the areas of greatest need. The hon. Gentleman knows that the production of cattle is a risky business, and I am assuming that the supporters of private enterprise do not want to take away all the initiatives that should be open to the producers. Nevertheless, there is a real concern, which I have recognised. We certainly shall not see the hill farmers lost.
Will the Minister comment further on the special problems facing Scotland's hill farmers because of harsh winter conditions and high interest rates? Does he accept that the delay in announcing the hill livestock compensatory allowances was disgraceful? What further steps is he prepared to take to help hill farmers?
Does the Minister agree that the more or less unanimous view of those at the conference which he attended was that the announcement that he made to hill farmers was inadequate to deal with the serious escalation in costs and the Government's high interest rates? Was he not made aware that what is at stake is the very viability of many of the marginal hill farms in this country, unless he does something more to help them?