HC Deb 19 January 1976 vol 903 cc920-4
32. Mr. Canavan

asked the Lord President of the Council how many representations he has received about the Government's White Paper on Devolution.

35. Mr. Teddy Taylor

asked the Lord President of the Council how many letters he has received from the general public about devolution since the publication of the White Paper.

The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Gerry Fowler)

We have received 29 letters from the general public, including letters addressed to the Constitution Unit, and, in addition, we have received five representations from official bodies.

Mr. Canavan

Did my hon. Friend see the report in last Tuesday's Scotsman about the submission by the 1320 Club, claiming that unless the Scottish Assembly took power by the Spring of 1977 civil unrest might arise in Scotland? May I assure my hon. Friend that the vast majority of Scots would like to dissociate themselves from such inflammatory threats, and will he ask the leadership within the nationalist movement to disown publicly this violent hooligan fringe of nationalism?

Mr. Fowler

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I am quite sure that I speak for the whole House when I say that I utterly deplore threats of civil disobedience or violence in Scotland. We in this House will take the decision on devolution, and take it in accordance with the procedures of the House, irrespective of what may be said by those outside.

Mr. Taylor

Does the Minister agree that 29 letters to the Minister in charge of devolution does not indicate that there has been a great deal of pent-up frustration and rage in Scotland about the need to have devolution in the form presented by the Minister?

In view of the growing doubt in the House of Commons and in Scotland whether the Government's proposals on devolution will do any good at all, in comparison with the cost, bureaucracy and arguments that they will introduce, will the Minister consider the possibility of holding a referendum on the question whether the people of Scotland want the rubbish presented by the Government in their White Paper?

Mr. Fowler

I assume that the response has been rather low so far because most organisations—we have written to over 400—are considering the White Paper in detail and rationally, so that they do not make the sort of very simplistic mistake that the hon. Gentleman made the other day in the debate when he was discussing the Civil Service. None of the arguments seems to me to justify a referendum on this issue.

Mrs. Bain

Does the Minister accept that the reason for the small number of letters received from the general public may be a reflection on the inability of people to pay the high postage rates?

Does the Minister further accept that polls may be a better guide to the opinion of the people of Scotland? Is he aware of the latest poll, showing the Scottish National Party as having 36 per cent. of the vote, the Labour Party with 30 per cent., and the Conservatives continuing to fulfil their third-party role with 28 per cent.?

Mr. Fowler

Compared with the last poll that I saw, it indicates that the support for the SNP is falling, marginally. I am very glad of that.

Mr. Heffer

Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the views very clearly and cogently expressed in the House by the majority of those who have spoken in the debate will be taken into consideration before the draft Bill is presented?

Is my hon. Friend also aware that many of us tonight will be voting to take note of the White Paper and nothing else?

Mr. Fowler

We have already given the assurance that we shall take into account everything that has been said in the debate. I am very glad to repeat that assurance today. We shall take note of every criticism that has been made.

33. Mr. Wigley

asked the Lord President of the Council if he will make a statement clarifying the Government's constitutional proposals for Wales and Scotland in the light of recent discussions.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

I have nothing at this stage to add to what my colleagues and I have said in the current debate.

Mr. Wigley

Will the Minister comment on the point that has been put forward by a number of hon. Members concerning the possibility of separate Bills for Wales and Scotland? If the Minister should be considering this seriously as a possibility for Government action, will he give a categoric assurance that this will not mean in any way that the Welsh Bill will be delayed and taken after the Scottish Bill has cleared the House?

Mr. Fowler

The only matter on which I can give a categoric assurance is that we shall proceed as best fits the convenience of the House. There are clearly great advantages in having a single Bill, since some of the material will be common to Scotland and Wales. We shall, however, have to see how that fits into the parliamentary timetable when the time comes to introduce the Bill.

Mr. Kinnock

Is my hon. Friend aware that, even to a hardened cynic like myself, that is a somewhat surprising answer?

In view of the large number of hon. Members and members of county councils, district councils, Labour parties and other political organisations that have made repeated demands over recent weeks and months for a referendum on the issue of devolution in Wales, will my hon. Friend give further consideration to the matter? If he is interested in giving the Welsh people a voice, should not that he a first step?

Mr. Fowler

We shall await the responses to our White Paper before deciding upon our final course of action. The only firm evidence and the latest firm evidence that we have from local authorities in Wales is that collected by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and his colleagues in their consultations last year. These consultations showed strong support among local authorities for the type of Assembly that we have proposed.

Mr. Stokes

Is the Minister aware that what ordinary people want is devolution to individuals—to themselves—and not devolution to more Assemblies or talking shops?

Mr. Fowler

I think that the hon. Gentleman is confusing two separate questions—the freedom and the rights of the individual, and what is the best vehicle by which certain necessary public functions and services can be administered.

Mr. Whitelaw

Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why he says that it would be for the convenience of the House to have one Bill rather than separate Bills for England and Wales, bearing in mind that the position in Wales is quite different, that the problems are quite different, and that the proposals put forward to the Government are quite different? How can it make sense to have them both together?

Mr. Fowler

When the right hon. Gentleman reads the Official Report tomorrow he will see that what I said was that when we put forward our proposals we would have regard to what is of the greatest convenience to the House.

Mr. Hastings

If, on this great constitutional question, the Government have had only 29 letters from the Scots, how many have they had from the Welsh?

Mr. Fowler

I am afraid that I cannot answer that question without notice.