The Scottish Office does not produce unemployment forecasts for either Scotland as a whole or for parts of Scotland. However, independent forecasters have predicted further falls in Scottish unemployment in 1995–1996 and I trust that the highlands will also follow that trend.
Two weeks ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) gave a clear undertaking on behalf of the Government that there would be a full, formal consultation, as required under the Railways Act 1993, before the closure of any rail or Motorail services affecting Fort William, and on the implications of that for employment in the highlands. Will the Minister confirm the Government's commitment to formal consultation? What discussions has he had with his colleagues in the Department of Transport to get the consultations under way?
I recognise the importance of transport links with the Western Isles. Future services to that part of Scotland depend on providing services geared towards the customer. The proper way forward is to ensure privatisation as quickly as possible to achieve improved services and improved usage and, therefore, better links with the area. To answer the hon. Gentleman's question, the franchising director is required, under guidance issued by the Secretary of State for Transport—under the Railways Act 1993—to consult formally the rail users consultative committees and local authorities on the pattern and quality of services to be provided through franchising. Consultations on the ScotRail franchise, of which the passenger service requirement is a key component, will start after the PSR is published—probably in May.
I am grateful, Madam Speaker. Can my hon. Friend confirm to the House that unemployment in the highlands has been, and is, falling because of the strength of the Scottish economy, of which the highlands are an integral part? More specifically, is the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) yes or no?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and shall take the first part first. He is right: unemployment in the highlands and islands area has been falling—it has fallen in seven out of the previous 12 months. On the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, I suggest that he waits for a later question to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will give a full answer.
Given that the unemployment figures in my constituency, particularly in the Kintyre area, are certainly not falling, how does the Minister think that the objective 1 funding will help unemployment figures? He should remember that, out of more than 214 projects, Argyle and Bute received only 20 in the past. In view of the recent criticism of the piecemeal approach to objective 1 funding, can the Minister say what the overall strategic development policy is for the whole of the highlands and islands?
In 1994, a total of 58 projects for the highlands and islands were approved for support from the European regional development fund under the objective I programme. The hon. Lady will be aware that there is also a geographical targeting programme, but that comes secondary in the selection procedure.
The first procedure is very clear: every application is assessed against a set of common criteria, with a view to selecting the best projects, whatever their location. There is then a secondary procedure whereby geographical targeting is taken into account. I am sure that, if the hon. Lady were to encourage her local enterprise companies to support projects which are worth-while, money would be forthcoming.
The House will notice how the new Minister dodges and weaves around a straight question which was also asked by his predecessor, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart). The fact is that unemployment in the highlands will be affected dramatically if railway privatisation leads, as it will, to a reduction in services throughout that area.
A Minister of the Crown gave a categorical assurance in the Scottish Grand Committee that there would be formal consultation on the issue of the Motorail and sleeper services to the north of Scotland. The Minister must not pass the buck to another Minister or to his boss. He must answer the question: will there be formal consultation before the services are withdrawn—yes or no?
I have already answered that question in relation to the passenger service requirement's formal consultation. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and I differ significantly in our views about the benefits of privatisation. I believe that British Rail must improve its service, and the only way to do that is by introducing private enterprise into the network. By attracting more people who will use the railways the service will improve, costs will come down and the number of services will increase.
As the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) gave an assurance to me, will the Minister accept that an answer which refers to the passenger service requirement obligation is not relevant because it depends on the existing timetable when the passenger service requirement is brought forward? We are concerned that the services should be in place when the consultation period starts. I do not want the Minister to put up any blinds with references to passenger service requirements. Will the Minister give a clear answer—yes or no? Will there be formal consultation before the services are withdrawn?