HC Deb 14 April 1976 vol 909 cc1382-90
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)

The House will recall that paragraphs 289 and 290 of Cmnd. 6348, the White Paper on devolution to Scotland and Wales, explained the Government's plans for housing the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. Briefly, we propose that the Scottish Assembly should use the Royal High School building in Edinburgh, and the Welsh Assembly the Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff. The capital costs are broadly estimated as being in the range of £2 million to £3 million for Scotland and £1 million to £2 million for Wales.

As the House knows, preparatory planning work has been going ahead without commitment in the appropriate Government Departments. It is clear from this that, for each country, a period of two years is required between the time of initial commitment to limited expenditure and having the building ready for the Assemblies to use. Unless a start is made now on measures towards acquiring and adapting the buildings, they could not be ready for the Assemblies until after the spring of 1978. In the Government's view this would not be acceptable, and we are therefore authorising the Property Services Agency to enter into commitments to the extent necessary to enable the Assemblies to occupy the buildings by spring 1978. Provision will be covered at the earliest opportunity in Estimates laid before Parliament; if necessary, there will be a drawing on the Contingencies Fund. Expenditure in the financial year 1976–77 is provisionally estimated at £1 million for Scotland and £500,000 for Wales.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, with his long experience in the House, will agree that it is always dangerous for Governments to anticipate legislation in this way. There are, however, precedents for action of the sort that he proposes.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the terms put forward are vague and show a considerable expenditure of public money? If the Welsh Assembly should ever be set up, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it will, at any rate at the start, have an opportunity denied to most democratic assemblies if it is to meet in a Temple of Peace and Health?

Mr. Foot

Of course, I understand that the House is sensitive about any such arrangements for public expenditure that have not been passed through the House, but if we did not take this action now we should be prejudging the situation. We should make it impossible for the Assemblies to be in operation if the House decided to go ahead, as I trust it will. Therefore, I think that it was a proper course for us to take.

The detail of the money will be open to discussion in the House. I think that that covers the right hon. Gentleman's point about the vagueness of the figures. The figures are a matter for the Property Services Agency, which is answerable to the House for the details.

As for the suggestion that there is any posibility of our not proceeding with a Welsh Assembly, I should like to remove those doubts from the right hon. Gentleman's mind at once. We fought and won two elections in Wales on this proposition, and we propose to carry out faithfully our obligation to the people of Wales, just as to the people of Scotland and the other people of the United Kingdom.

I believe that a Temple of Peace and Health is a very proper place for this to happen in Wales, if not in more barbarous parts of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware—I am sure he is—that the proposals for devolution are not universally welcomed by all Members in all parties, except perhaps by SNP and Welsh nationalist Members? In view of the fact that only last night my right hon. Friend quite rightly reminded me that the people had voted on the Common Market and that the matter had gone through the House of Commons in the form of legislation, is it not quite wrong to decide to go ahead with the establishment of buildings even before the House of Commons has decided to give the Bill a Second Reading?

I ask my right hon. Friend to have a further look at this matter. I ask him to put the issue of devolution and separation to the whole of the British people in a form of referendum in the three constituent parts so that they can decide whether they want devolution or separation.

Mr. Foot

I hope that I am not too thick-skinned. I am aware that there is not universal acclaim for the idea of going ahead with our devolution proposals. I am fully aware of that. Nonetheless, we propose to proceed. We are deeply committed because we think that it is the right course not only in the interests of devolution in Scotland and Wales but in the interests of the United Kingdom. That is one of the paramount reasons for our being determined to proceed with our proposals. As we are doing so, we think it is right to make these contingency plans. If we did not make them, we should be frustrating or injuring the eventual decision of the House of Commons.

I believe that there are precedents of a perfectly proper character for what we are doing. As I have indicated, the House will have further opportunities to discuss these matters. I think that the referendum issue is a much wider subject altogether. I have the very gravest doubts whether the problem can be eased by any form of referendum. I believe it is much better that the House of Commons should eventually make up its mind on this question on the basis of all the discussions that will have taken place. That is an indication of our determination to retain the final authority here at Westminster. I do not believe that that authority can easily be dissipated by referenda in different parts of the country.

Mr. Gwynfor Evans

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his new responsibilities in these matters and I wish him well in them. Will he give an assurance that the new home for the Welsh Assembly will be equipped, as so many courts and public institutions are now equipped, with a system of simultaneous translation so that Assembly Members may debate matters in either the Welsh or the English language, unlike this House and Parliament?

Mr. Foot

I fully agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. I believe that a Welsh Assembly should make available the fullest possible facilities for the proper use of the beautiful Welsh language.

Mr. Reid

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the statement of his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland who has responsibility for Scottish devolution, who said "There has been no slippage. We are bang on target."? What has happened to all the brave Labour talk of elections to the Assembly in 1976 or 1977? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that statement plus today's statement will be treated with contempt in Scotland? Surely it would be better for the Lord President to come clean and to recognise that, apart from the difficulties of getting the Assembly Bill through the House, there is now no chance of the Assembly being established before the next General Election. Does he not appreciate that the people of Scotland will draw their own conclusions?

Mr. Foot

What I have announced has no implication of holding up any date for the elections. It will be perfectly possible for the elections to be held as soon as is convenient after the House of Commons and Parliament have made their decision. There is no implication in what I have said that will in any sense delay the elections once Parliament has decided on the way in which it wants to proceed.

Far from thinking that the people in Scotland will imagine that this announcement is a sign of our slipping from our intentions, I think that the whole House, including my hon. Friends who have been critical, will have made exactly the opposite deduction. I think that the whole House will accept it as an indication of the firm intention of the Government to proceed. The people in Scotland, whatever their views on the subject, will recognise that the Government are determined to carry through the programme that we put to the country.

Mr. Kinnock

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in a matter of irreversible constitutional change such as devolution it is not necessarily enough merely to take the assent of this Parliament? Does he accept that it also needs to enjoy the active and enthusiastic consent of at least the majority of the people that it will affect? Is he aware that without that kind of consent, which can be ascertained only in a referendum, the Assembly building in Cardiff—the Temple of Peace and Health—could be a scene of disbelief and stealth?

Mr. Foot

I know that my hon. Friend has very special views on this subject which he urges with great powers of advocacy, but he happens to be in a small minority. There is no harm in that, but he has a lot of people to convert. I do not accept the view that if the House of Commons carried through this proposal it would be objected to by people in Wales because we have not had a referendum. I say to my hon. Friend and to the country that in my view we should be extremely sparing in using any such instrument as a referendum. I do not believe that this is an appropriate occasion on which to use a referendum. I shall need a great deal of convincing before I change my mind about that.

Mr. Russell Johnston

I recognise the obvious necessity for the Leader of the House to make an announcement in advance of expenditure of this sort, but will he assure me that no part of the advance expenditure that is intended will be used for altering the shape of the debating chamber in advance of a decision by Parliament as to the appropriate form of election to the Scottish Assembly?

Mr. Foot

If the hon. Gentleman is trying to tempt me to make a declaration on proportional representation at this stage, I am afraid that he will be disappointed. However, I do not believe that that would necessarily affect the way in which the Chamber is devised. I am sure that there will be time for the views of the hon. Gentleman, and of others in Scotland and elsewhere, to be made known on that aspect.

Mr. Sillars

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the decision to go ahead with the work on the Royal High School will be welcomed in Scotland? The cost will be about one-tenth of the cost to the British taxpayer of maintaining the milk powder mountain through the common agricultural policy. Is my right hon. Friend aware that of even greater importance is the power that the Assembly will exercise once it is set up? Do the Government still stick by the earlier statements that were made by Ministers on 18th January in Scotland at the start of Labour's devolution versus separation campaign, in which they showed their remarkable degree of hostility to the Scottish Assembly exercising substantial trade and industry powers?

Mr. Foot

I do not accept my hon. Friend's interpretation of what was said on that occasion. My hon. Friend has tabled a Question to me for Written Answer and he will receive his answer during the day or tomorrow, whatever may be the time arranged for him to get it. I have said in my answer that I hope my hon. Friend and others will give me further time to consider some of these specific questions which they have been asking before we make any general statement.

As I have said on this subject and on other matters, I hope that everyone is quite clear that the Government will proceed with the general proposals that we laid before the House. We take into account the representations made in Scotland, England and elsewhere. We shall proceed with the matter as fast as we possibly can. It is an extremely complicated matter, and that is why we must take time. I do not want to lay down too detailed a time scale. As for our determination to carry the matter through, I hope that no one will have any doubt about that whatsoever.

Mr. George Younger

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is a matter which undoubtedly affects Parliament? Does he realise that Members on both sides of the House will want to be consulted not merely about the sums of money involved but about the details of accommodation and facilities which will be available? How can they do this before they know the details of the Government's dummy Bill? Does this not indicate that the right hon. Gentleman should consult the House before the details are finalised?

Mr. Foot

The fact that I came to the House and made this announcement today indicates that I am eager to have consultations with the House on all these matters. I do not think that any deduction could be drawn in an opposite sense. There will be plenty of opportunities for discussing all these matters.

Mr. Buchan

Does my right hon. Friend accept that he was not totally accurate when he said that every party represented in this House was in favour of devolution? The Scottish National Party seeks devolution merely as a means of achieving separation. [An HON. MEMBER: "Rubbish."] Is the SNP now rejecting separation? That is interesting, and it raises an important point

I accept that we should take these preliminary steps leading to a devolved Assembly in Scotland, which I welcome. At the same time, in order to prevent those who wish to elect such an Assembly from bringing about separation, is it not proper that this House should democratically decide whether to have a referendum Bill? Would it not be going against the right of the House if we decided here to have a referendum Bill?

Secondly, should we not hold such a referendum, since the question of independence and placing ourselves under a separate Government transcends parliamentary rights?

If I may revert to my right hon. Friend's favourite reading—the Putney debate in the seventeenth century—I remind him of his brilliant use of the quotation from Colonel Rainborough in his speech in the debate on the EEC referendum—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind those Members whose Adjournment time is being taken and to come to the point of his question.

Mr. Buchan

The point of my question—I am almost in the middle of it—is that it is therefore proper that, while proceeding with preliminary steps for the creation of Assembly buildings, we should also proceed with the preliminary steps for a referendum to be held in Scotland and in Wales to decide on the parameters of the devolution which we wish to bring about.

Mr. Foot

I am certainly prepared to listen to any representations which my hon. Friend may make now or in future. In response to an earlier question, I was merely indicating my feelings about referenda. I am doubtful whether there is any possibility of any form of referendum being of much use in this situation. I suppose that there is a chink of my mind left open on the subject, and my hon. Friend will have to see what he can do there. What the Government are proposing is in no way a departure from the principle of consent, on which I believe these matters should be carried through. We secured the consent of the British people to proceed in this way at the General Elections which we fought in 1974.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

If these large sums of money are to be spent on the Royal High School in Edinburgh and the Temple in Cardiff for the benefit of the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies, does the Lord President have any machinery available by which the moneys can be paid by the people of Scotland and Wales?

Mr. Foot

The hon. and learned Gentleman is making a suggestion which detracts from one of our main purposes in the whole operation. We believe that, if we can carry through this programme on the general lines which we have proposed, so far from injuring the position of England as against other parts of the United Kingdom we would be holding together the United Kingdom. That is also one of our predominant purposes in the whole operation.

Mr. William Hamilton

When does my right hon. Friend intend to produce the real Bill? Secondly, in view of the extreme constitutional importance of this matter, will he give an absolute assurance that in no circumstances will he recommend the House to accept the guillotine procedure on it?

Mr. Foot

I agree that a Bill of this character is of major constitutional importance. No one can possibly dissent from that. It has always been the custom that major constitutional measures are carried through overwhelmingly on the Floor of the House of Commons. It was the case that another Bill of a major constitutional character—the European Communities Bill—was drummed through the House by the guillotine. That was a disgraceful occasion. Whatever we do, I hope that we shall not follow that precedent. But any Government would have to take precautions to ensure that, whilst giving the fullest possible opportunities for debate, they would have a chance, if the House so willed, of getting the measure through eventually. That matter must be taken into account. I think my hon. Friend will probably accept that I have given a perfectly fair answer to his question.

The Bill will be presented in the next Session of Parliament. We hope and are determined to carry through the Bill, if the House wishes it. I fully understand the pressures and eagerness of hon. Members to see that we proceed with this matter. The announcement which I have made today, which does not raise all these questions, is proof that we are proceeding as fast as we can.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Kershaw

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am about to make a statement myself. This is not the time to continue the debate on this matter.