HC Deb 02 February 1977 vol 925 cc572-679
Mr. Dalyell

I beg to move Amendment No. 97, in page 2, leave out lines 15 and 16 and insert 'at any time within four years of the date of the previous election'.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this amendment we may also take the following amendments:

No. 98, in page 2, line 15, leave out 'fourth' and insert 'third'.

No. 99, in page 2, line 15, leave out 'fourth' and insert 'fifth'.

No. 100, in page 2, line 16, at end insert 'or on such earlier date as the Secretary of State may by order appoint'. No. 315, in page 2, line 17, leave out subsection (2) and insert— '(2) Upon the advice of the Scottish Chief Executive, Her Majesty may by Royal Proclamation appoint as the day for the holding of the election a day not more than one month earlier nor more than one month later than the day on which the election would be held apart from the Proclamation; and if Her Majesty is at any time advised by the Scottish Chief Executive that the Scottish Assembly has passed a resolution declaring that the Assembly has no confidence in him and that no other person can he nominated as Scottish Chief Executive enjoying the confidence of the majority of members of the Assembly, she may by Royal Proclamation dissolve the Assembly and appoint as the day for the holding of an election a day not less than one nor more than two months from the day'. No. 519, in page 2, line 22, at end insert— '(2A) Notwithstanding subsections (1) and (2) of this section, an Assembly may be dissolved and an ordinary election held at any time if a resolution to that effect is passed by the Assembly in question by a vote of two-thirds of those present and voting'.

Mr. Dalyell

I have neither the style nor the capacity for invective of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) but I seek by means of this probing amendment to ascertain what is in the Government's mind.

May I first ask a question which was asked yesterday but perhaps at the wrong moment? What will happen in the, circumstances of a fixed-term Assembly when there is a by-election within that term thus creating a change of Government?

Such a proposal for a fixed term, is not similar to the situation in the House of Representatives or the Senate, in the United States. The United States system is wholly different and the Executive is outwith the House of Representatives and the Senate.

However, in the Scottish Assembly there is to be a formidable Executive apparatus. If there is a fixed-term legislative Assembly, what happens when there is a change of power mid-term? Since there might well be Executive and Governmental chaos in such circumstances, we should like to ascertain the Government's thoughts on the matter.

The second matter concerns synchronisation between Westminster and the Royal High School. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) was always warning us of the problems of getting out of gear and of having elections regularly mid-term when Westminster Governments tend to be at the nadir of their popularity. In those circumstances it is not only a question of what will happen when the Government in the Royal High School is of a different party from that in Westminster.

That is not perhaps the most over whelming difficulty or objection. There is something more fundamental to be considered. Whatever party was campaigning at the time when the Westminster Government were at the bottom of their fortunes would be likely to blame all the woes of the day on that Westminster Government regardless of whether its members were in the same party or in a different party. There is always a great temptation to blame other people for one's own shortcomings.

In these circumstances, I hope that the Government will give their estimate of the practicality of having a subordinate Parliament in one part of the country as part of a unitary State. In a situation involving a four-year fixed term, there is more likelihood of friction because of the nature of that fixed term and the campaigns for the Assembly with candidates heaping wrath on Westminster.

Mr. Harry Gourlay (Kirkcaldy)

Surely my hon. Friend's argument is both facetious and time-wasting. It often happens in councils in all parts of the United Kingdom that parties returned locally are of a different political complexion from the party in power at Westminster. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that local government elections are coloured by whatever party is in power at Westminster. However, that argument does not mean that we should not have an Assembly.

Mr. Dalyell

Clearly my remarks have been neither timewasting nor facetious, because they have elicited a great misunderstanding between us. If my hon. Friend thinks after all the days and nights of discussion on this Bill that there is a comparison to be made between a legislative Assembly in Edinburgh and local government, he is deeply mistaken.

Mr. Gourlay

That was not the point I made.

Mr. Dalyell

My hon. Friend was seeking to make a comparison. There is an enormous difference between a legislative Assembly and the situation in local government. SNP and other Assembly representatives will not be content with the role they have been given—unlike the situation in Stormont, where the idea of being more British than the British was prevalent. The idea advanced by my hon. Friend that all we are doing is setting up a top tier of local government is most revealing, although, to be fair, in August 1974 this was an idea that many people seemed to have in mind.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Gourlay

I am afraid that my hon. Friend has the wrong impression. Possibly more than any other Scottish Member, I have been trying to draw the distinction between the legislative Assembly and local government, while my hon. Friend has been going about Scotland giving the impression that Scotland will be over governed. The setting up of the Assembly does not mean that there will be over-government because in the further reorganisation of local government I have no doubt that we shall return to a unitary system. My analogy was that if there were two different parties in power, one at Westminster and another in the Assembly, that would be bound to give rise to the same position as now exists between Westminster and local government.

Mr. Dalyell

Unitary local government will mean either centralisation in Edinburgh—and that would be the opposite of devolution—or 60 education authorities, 60 fire services and 60 police forces, all at enormous cost. It was for such reasons that the Chairman of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, Sir George Sharp—who, incidentally, comes from the region of Fife—last week described the whole idea of the Assembly as a monster. Sir George Sharp has now joined the "Scotland is British" campaign.

Mr. Gourlay

That does not make it any more respectable.

Mr. Dalyell

Certainly I am a friend of George Sharp's and happy to say so. My hon. Friend is making remarks about a figure who, for three decades, has given great service—

Mr. Gourlay

Sir George Sharp and I are great personal friends.

Mr. Dalyell

Local authorities in the Scottish regions have rightly or wrongly, made Sir George Sharp their Convener of the Convention of Local Authorities. He has been a major figure in Fife County Council for a long time and I take what he has to say extremely seriously, as do many other people in local government. If my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Mr. Gourlay) is suggesting that I am lonely in my views on the Assembly, I can only answer that many Labour local and regional councillors in Scotland share them.

I do not want to continue on this point at enormous length, but part of the trouble has arisen because many people have changed their minds about the Assembly. That is a source of considerable irritation to some of my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Front Bench and that is understandable and human.

Only today another organisation changed its mind.

The Edinburgh divisional committee of the AUEW has unanimously passed the motion: This Union, recognising the great dangers to working class unity inherent in the proposals to create Scottish and Welsh Assemblies, instructs the Executive Council to urge the Government to withdraw the Devolution Bill, currently before Parliament". People are entitled to change their minds, This decision was made unanimously by the second biggest area of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, which covers Edinburgh, Fife, West Lothian, Falkirk and the Borders. One might say that Mr. Gavin Laird and Mr. John Boyd and others should have taken a different view in 1974—

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

Does the hon. Gentleman know that the Dundee Chamber of Commerce has taken a similar line?

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. I wonder whether the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has read the whole context of the quotation. Did the motion go on to say that the union wanted elections held—as provided for in the amendment that we are now discussing—at any time within four years of the previous election?

Mr. Dalyell

The motion, like me, was concise and used few words in urging the Government to withdraw the Bill. The union is very precise about what it wants.

It is true that two years ago, particularly in August 1974, the AUEW was instrumental in creating and sowing the seeds of the policy that we are now discussing. But, like many other bodies, the more that the AUEW sees of the proposal and the more that it has to try to understand the consequences of the Bill, the more clearly it sees things and the more it dislikes the Bill. The Edinburgh division has now come out against it.

That process is taking place widely. I am not a keen supporter of opinion polls, but that trend was apparent in the Glasgow Herald opinion poll which showed that 42 per cent. of Labour Party supporters were against devolution and 41 per cent. in favour. That is a tremendous change over a few years. I gave the example of the AUEW as an indication of the way in which serious organisations are changing their minds, perhaps thanks to the work of the "Scotland is British" movement.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

The main point of the amendment is whether the Assembly should have a fixed term. Like many other amendments that we have discussed during the past four or five days, there lies behind it an important question of principle as to the sort of Assembly that there will be. It has already been mentioned that the Assembly might be a form of glorified local government. If that happened it would be a disaster.

I am sorry that, if we were going to change the constitutional situation of tilt country at all, we did not look at it as a whole and start from the local level. Few people approve of the order in which we have tackled our reforms—beginning with local authorities and moving on to devolution. That still leaves the question of elections to the European Parliament. It would have been highly desirable to look at all the matters together, to have started with what should be done at local level and then to have decided what further tiers of government were necessary.

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) was right in saying that the nation is turning against the Bill. People have had enough changes in forms of government during the past year or two, and they are dissatisfied with government as a whole. It is against that background that we must consider the amendments and decide whether we want an Assembly with a fixed term of office or whether it should be in somebody's power to dissolve the Assembly.

I have considerable sympathy with the idea of a fixed term. There is a danger that we will repeat in Edinburgh all the mistakes at present made at Westminster. It has been argued that one of our problems here is that Back Bench Members are losing power. It has been suggested that one of the reasons for that is that the Prime Minister may dissolve Parliament. I know that that is a very rough outline of the argument and that many people would dispute it. Nevertheless, there is a case for saying that the power of the Back Benchers is too weak and that the power of the Government, although not as strong as it is said to be, is stronger than that of Back Benchers and that the position ought to be altered by removing the power of dissolution. Removing the power of dissolution is an important political change, and it would have all sorts of effects on the relationship between Back Benchers and Ministers, between the Opposition and the Government and so forth.

There has been a tendency in this country to think that we can change one part of the constitution without looking at the whole of it. I favour proportional representation, but I realise that if we had it we should have to change a great many other things, including the party system, the committee system and so on.

When we change to virtually fixed-term Assemblies, there will be new possibilities for confusion. As has already been admirably spelt out by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison), one has only to read the Bill to see the possibilities for, if not collisions, at least differences between the Assembly in Edinburgh and the Parliament in London.

The Assembly will probably usually be of a different political complexion than the Parliament at Westminster. Therefore, the Secretary of State and the Chief Executive will belong to different parties. This may work, but it may not; it can be cogently argued that it worked in Northern Ireland, but one party was in power there and was determined at all costs to collaborate with the Government at Westminster. Exactly the opposite position may prevail between Edinburgh and London.

There should be some escape clause by which the Assembly may be dissolved if circumstances become intolerable. Who is to have the power to dissolve the Assembly? I favour the Chief Executive, as suggested in one of the amendments, as against the Secretary of State, who might be of a different party and might be deeply involved in a dispute with the Assembly in which his view was not shared by the majority of the Scottish people. There may be other circumstances. One can imagine a situation in which it would be as well for the Assembly to pack up for one reason or another and have new elections.

In general, the period between elections is not too long. The Bill provides for four years, while some people suggest five years and others three. I think that four years is reasonable, and I would go for five years rather than three. However, there may be times when the Assembly will need to be dissolved more than two months before the scheduled time, and have suggested that this might be done by the vote of two-thirds of the Assembly. I do not stand on that as a rigid proposition because I can see that there are other ways of achieving the flexibility which is essential.

I do not wish to overturn the principle. It is reasonable to try for a fixed term for the Assembly, at least in the beginning, but there should be some way in which it can be dissolved if serious complications arise. This would move it away from being a super-tier of local government and make it an effective political body. Devolution will fail unless this is done.

I accept that there are almost insuperable difficulties about arranging a structure of government which is not a federation or unitary. The nearest reasonable system was contained in the Government of Ireland Act 1920. I do not think that these things are easy, but the Scottish people are demanding least of all another tier of local government. They want less government, better government and government which is simple. At present, we are making it more complicated and rigid.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

I oppose the amendment, but wish to speak in favour of Amendment No. 315 in the names of myself and my hon. Friends. There are no arrangements in the clause for the dissolution in certain circumstances of the Scottish Assembly. I favour fixed-term elections and believe that it is desirable that there should be a four-year period between them. That is a reasonable term. Despite the five-year maximum set by the Parliament Act, the average lifetime of Westminster Parliaments since 1910 has been about four years, even taking into account the exceptionally long wartime Parliaments of 1910 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945.

Although the Government have rightly adopted the four-year period, certain problems could still arise. Opinion polls in Scotland have shown over a fairly sustained period, that opinion is divided among three parties, with the Liberals and the Scottish Labour Party also figuring.

It is right that when we are setting up Executive apparatus there should be an opportunity for the Assembly to decide on its lifetime. It might, for instance, be impossible for the Chief Executive to get the agreement of the Assembly for certain actions, or a motion of "no confidence" might be passed by the Assembly. Without the power of dissolution, we might have a Chief Executive who does not have the backing of the Assembly or, if he could not tolerate that situation, no Executive at all. Our amendment seeks to deal with that problem.

After yesterday's debate on the relationship between the Crown and Parliament, I take it that the Minister of State has not immediately changed his mind on these matters, although if we get to the Report stage I think that he may be willing to reconsider. However, I do not put too much emphasis on the method of proceeding by way of Royal Proclamation. I shall concentrate instead on other parts of our amendment.

The amendment seeks to curtail the period within which the Secretary of State may fix elections. The Bill provides that he may choose a date two months before or two months after the statutory time. Our suggestion, which follows on from yesterday's discussions, is that we should cut back this period to one month.

If the Bill goes through, there would be elections for the Assembly every four years and political parties would operate on that time scale. They would not require long notice of elections if they were fixed within statutory limitations.

Sir Raymond Gower (Barry)

I may have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks. Does he favour fixed terms for the Assembly?

Mr. Wilson

I do, indeed favour a fixed term, subject to certain qualifications to which reference has already been made and to which further reference will be made later.

Instead of there being an effective period of four months within which an election may take place under the four-year term, the discretion which is allowed to the Secretary of State, as stated in the Bill—which would lie with the Crown according to my amendment—should be cut back to one month on either side of the term. In other words, there would be a two-month period in which an election could take place. This would give flexibility in dealing with clashes with the dates of other elections, and in my view there could be no argument against it.

Mr. Cormack

Does the hon. Gentleman favour a fixed term for this Parliament, or is he saying that Assembly elections should be held in a similar way to county council elections, for a fixed term?

Mr. Wilson

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall come to that point in a moment, although I do not think that my view on whether this Parliament shall have a fixed term would be within the scope of these amendments. But if an answer is required, my answer to the hon. Gentleman is "Yes".

Under my amendment, instead of a four-months discretionary period we should have one of two months.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

On a point of order, Sir Myer. May we have your ruling on a very important point? Surely if we are discussing whether the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies should have fixed terms, we are entitled to draw on the experience of the House of Commons and of other Parliaments. The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) appears to have put words into your mouth which you have not uttered. He seems to be saying that it would be out of order to consider whether this Parliament ought to have a fixed term, and that it would be out of order to draw on our experience of this and other Parliaments.

The First Deputy Chairman

I think it right that hon. Members may relate their arguments to the experience of this Parliament, but it would be out of order to start to lay down what the life of this Parliament should be. To argue whether the life of this Parliament should be fixed or altered in some way would not come within the scope of the amendments before us.

Mr. Wilson

I approve of fixed terms, and there are many examples in Continental countries of fixed terms being applied to parliamentary bodies. Clause 3 seems to have a weakness in that it does not allow earlier dissolution if it proves, for valid reasons, that the composition of the Assembly makes it unlikely that the Assembly will be able to function properly. In other words, it is possible that there could be a "hung" Assembly.

We ought to have a degree of flexibility to handle such a situation. Otherwise, we could have an unfortunate state of affairs in which, after an election, there could be three, three and a half, or four years when there was no prospect of having a further election to regularise matters and, because of the representation of different parties in the Assembly, there was no prospect of getting a majority Administration or a coalition of interests which would work together. I am not saying that this is likely or that it would happen, but other fixed-term Parliaments normally make provision for earlier dissolution. That is the main point I wish to make.

In other countries where the power of dissolution exists, including Western Germany and France, that power is rarely used. It is a contingent power that lies virtually unused, and normally where the fixed term is accepted constitutionally the political system tends to adjust to that situation. But that underlines my point that there should be provision for emergency dissolution.

My amendment suggests that if Her Majesty—or the Secretary of State for Scotland, whichever the House chooses— is at any time advised by the Scottish Chief Executive that the Scottish Assembly has passed a resolution declaring that the Assembly has no confidence in him and that no other person can be nominated as Scottish Chief Executive enjoying the confidence of the majority of members of the Assembly, she may by Royal Proclamation"— or, if it be the Secretary of State for Scotland, by order under subsection (4) of the clause—appoint a day for the holding of an election before the four-year period has elapsed.

I hope that the Minister will consider the various ingredients of the amendment. It is difficult to take apart all the issues involved in a composite amendment of this kind and separate the different elements for approval or disapproval. I hope that the Minister will have in mind the possibility of the Assembly running into difficulty as a result of an over-rigid constitution which could prevent the normal operations of the political system, with the result that one had a "hung" Assembly and a fresh mandate needed from the electors.

Mr. Dalyell

This is a question for clarification, not a trick question. As a matter of advice, would it be the Secretary of State or the Sovereign, and would the hon. Gentleman's party accept on this matter the views of a Secretary of State not in his own party?

Mr. Wilson

The hon. Gentleman will see that that issue is taken care of in our amendment. My party would prefer that the relationship of the Assembly was direct with the Crown. That question was debated yesterday, but, as I say, we prefer the Scottish Parliament or Assembly to be involved directly with the Crown, rather than through the Secretary of State. In other words, we should prefer to mirror the present relationship between the Crown and Parliament. We are talking about the technicalities here, and our proposed formula would provide for the Assembly to be dissolved and an election held.

Plainly, there is here the intervention of the Assembly itself in relation to the Chief Executive. The Minister has said that the Secretary of State would approach these matters in as non-political a way as possible. If the Secretary of State finds that the Assembly itself says that it cannot work with the Chief Executive, and the Chief Executive says that he cannot get on with the Assembly, I cannot imagine that anyone in the Assembly, be he a member of my party or anyone else, would then say that an election was unnecessary. It would be patently clear that it was necessary.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman be good enough to elucidate one other aspect of his Amendment No. 315? There are two situations of which, according to the second part of it, Her Majesty might be advised by the Chief Executive. The first is that the Assembly has passed a resolution of no confidence in him. I imagine that the Chief Executive would have little difficulty in knowing whether that was so. But we then come to the second part of the amendment— that no other persons can be nominated …enjoying the confidence of the majority of members of the Assembly". How would the Chief Executive, in whom the Assembly ex hypothesi has lost confidence, be in a position to ascertain whether there was anyone else in whom it would have confidence? We have a situation here analogous to that in which Her Majesty is endeavouring to ascertain who, having received her Commission, could form a Government. But for the outgoing Prime Minister in our Parliament then to hold consultations with the members of the other parties, or other groups, in the Assembly to find who his successor ought to be is difficult to understand. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman can help us.

5.0 p.m.

Mr. Wilson

I hope so. My memory does not have to go back terribly far. It has only to go back to March 1974 when the outgoing Prime Minister, endeavouring to stay in power, entered into negotiations with the Liberal Party. In those circumstances we almost had a mirror situation taking place after the General Election. That is a situation where the Crown—if it is the Crown rather than the Secretary of State—has a right to take soundings.

I would relate this to the situation where Her Majesty, or the Secretary of State, is so advised. Obviously these are matters of fact as well as intuition.

Mr. Onslow


Mr. Wilson

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I should like to try to explain my point. We have a situation where it would be perfectly clear from the motion passed by the Assembly that it did not have confidence in the Chief Executive. The next stage—one can envisage this situation as a possibility—would be informal and, no doubt, there would be behind-the-scenes activities by party leaders about the formation of a coalition or minority Administration. If it became apparent that a majority was emerging that would take care of the situation, there could then be agreement within the Assembly about the appointment of another Chief Executive. It would then be a valid Administration.

But if, after all these soundings had been carried out, there was still a "hung" Assembly, the only way to take care of that situation would be to have an election.

Mr. Leon Brittan (Cleveland and Whitby)

I initially read the amendment as meaning that Her Majesty was advised by the Scottish Chief Executive that the Scottish Assembly has passed a resolution in two parts—first, declaring that the Assembly has no confidence in him and, second, that no other member could be nominated for the Scottish Chief Executive because the Assembly opposed the resolution. I am not arguing in favour of that, but I wondered whether that was what the hon. Gentleman meant.

Mr. Wilson

The hon. Gentleman can read the amendment in two ways. I have every confidence in my own amendment, although I am not a constitutional lawyer. There are two situations: first, where a specific resolution has been passed that the Chief Executive does not have the confidence of the Assembly; second, that Her Majesty has been advised that no other person can be nominated. In those circumstances Her Majesty would be able to call an election.

Mr. Malcolm Rifkind (Edinburgh, Pentlands)

Would not the answer be for the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the second part of the amendment and accept the provision in Clause 21 which states specifically that the Secretary of State shall appoint as Chief Executive the person nominated by the Assembly from one of its members? Would not that be more appropriate to the situation where the Assembly has passed a resolution of no confidence in the existing Chief Executive? That would allow the Secretary of State, or whoever is responsible, to wait and see whether the Assembly nominated one of its own members and passed a motion of confidence in him.

Mr. Wilson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. There are three elements in the package with the object of ensuring the need for a procedure by which early dissolution could be attained. I do not maintain that this package in itself is necessarily holy writ. But it is the principle of early dissolution that I wish the Committee to consider.

I leave it to the Minister to give consideration to that. The reason I do so is that having accepted in principle that a four-year term was desirable, and having a situation where there was no prospect of dissolution, any formula adopted should make it difficult for a Chief Executive to be able to call a snap election in order to pick up an easy majority in circumstances which might be favourable. Part of the amendment relates to the situation where there is no prospect of having an effective working Administration enjoying the confidence of the Assembly, and there is a need to go back to the electorate for a fresh mandate.

Under the Bill as it stands there is no such prospect and I hope that in considering this group of amendments the Committee will take that fact into account.

Mr. William Small (Glasgow, Garscadden)

This is the first opportunity I have had of addressing myself to this question. I would take the simple configuration that we are transferring the Scottish Grand Committee and like institutions to Scotland with 142 different faces. It is nonsense to bring in the rôle of the Crown and the Chief Executive and to elevate those institutions to the level of a Parliament.

In Scotland all the district council, regional council and like elections are held on a fixed time scale. Likewise the Assembly, which is to be ethically neutral, should be elected on the same basis. The Scottish National Party is in favour of this, the SLP is in favour and the Tory Party is in favour. Everyone is in favour. The Members of the Assembly would be ethically neutral, since the idea behind the election is to have a four-year period. The idea is that the Members will coalesce and govern the country for four years and do their best for Scotland. That is the whole idea. This symbolism of political friction is quite new to me.

The Assembly is like a downstream activity of what the 71 Scottish Members at present do upstairs in Committee. There will be 142 new faces to consider the same business—no more and no less. Four years is long enough to put up with the agony.

Mr. Powell

I wondered whether the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Small) had not been reading and trying to make some sense out of the Conservative Party's policy for Scottish devolution.

A cursory observer who looked at this group of amendments might well suppose that we were concerned with a mere technical point—a matter of three or four years in the length of the fixed life of the Scottish Assembly. But he would be greatly mistaken.

I am not in any way criticising the wisdom of the Chairman of Ways and Means in his selection and his grouping of these amendments when I say that there are three distinct matters which the amendments raise. The first is whether there should be a fixed or a variable length of life of the Assembly or rather, more accurately, whether there should be a fixed maximum or a maximum which can be reduced. The second is if it is not to be fixed, by what method the life of the Assembly should be shortened. The third is, if it is to be fixed, at what maximum length it should be fixed.

It seems to me that much the most important of the three questions are the first and the second, which is connected with it, namely, whether it should be a fixed or a variable term and, if variable, by what method it should be varied.

Those questions take us straight into the heart of the nature of the new creation which is proposed in the Bill and oblige us to envisage the serious constitutional consequences and the serious implications of the body and the administration being set up in Scotland. In order to understand that, we have to read these amendments and the part of Clause 3 to which they refer in conjunction with Clause 21 dealing with the Executive and the Chief Executive.

Sir Raymond Gower

Is not my right hon. Friend, like others who have spoken, overlooking the fact that, although Clause 21 refers only to Scotland, Clause 3 refers to both Scotland and Wales and that these arguments in relation to the length of the term apply to both Assemblies?

Mr. Powell

I appreciate that, and I thought that I had slipped into my sentence before the hon. Gentleman interrupted me a sub-clause restricting to Scotland the relevance of Clause 21. But I suggest that in relation to Scotland the relevance of Clause 21 is undeniable— not, of course, the details of Clause 21 to which the Committee will come in due course, but the general principle that the formation of an Executive on the basis of an elected Assembly cannot be dissociated from any decision about whether the Assembly ought to have a fixed term or whether its term should be capable of being reduced and, if so, how.

Let me endeavour to simplify the matter by taking the case, with which we are all familiar, of a local authority elected for a fixed period of time. If there is, as usually there will be, a party majority on one side in the local authority, that party majority by acting together can appoint the chairmen and can, within the limits of the law which it is administering, determine the policies applied by the various committees.

That is the situation in a local authority. If in the course of the fixed life of the local authority either by-elections—which is extremely unlikely but could theoretically happen—alter the composition of the party majority or, what can more often happen, if there should be disagreements within a party so that there is a reshuffle of the party pattern, what happens is that the newly constituted, in a party sense, local authority alters the chairmanship and the policies pursued by the respective committees.

5.15 p.m.

That is the way in which an elected administrative Assembly with a fixed term functions. One might then proceed to ask, if that is so with a local government authority, why it is that this Bill places on top of the Scottish Assembly what resembles a Prime Minister and a Cabinet, namely the Chief Executive and an Executive, because it is when that happens that all the problems relating to fixed length are created.

I suppose that one of the reasons why this has been done—and no doubt the Government will explain more fully later in the debate—is that the Scottish Assembly at any rate is not merely an administrative Assembly but is to be a legislative Assembly. I assume, therefore, that it is held to be desirable that, for such an Assembly to legislate, its leadership should be more compact, coherent and continuous than the leadership which is given in a local authority by a caucus of the chairman, the party chairmen and the respective committees or however it may be arranged. It may be that it is because of its legislative character that this mansard roof of a Prime Minister and Cabinet is superimposed upon the Assembly.

But it may also be that in Scotland the administrative functions of the proposed Assembly are considered to be so important that, quite apart from legislation, there should be a continuity and a coherence of policy, derived, presumably, from the mandate given through the election manifestos, which ought to run right through the life of one Assembly and possibly through those of a number of Assemblies. Whichever be the reason, or both, or some other undisclosed one, we are here dealing with an Assembly led, so to speak, by an Executive which in turn is led by a Chief Executive whose creatures, in the sense of being nominees and selections, the other members of the Executive are.

We run into grave difficulties with an Assembly of a fixed term. If there is on the one hand, a constituted leadership appointed, in the case of the Chief Executive under Clause 21, by the Secretary of State and holding office at Her Majesty's pleasure and, on the other hand, there is an Assembly of which the party composition may change both as a result of by elections and as a result of political disagreements and rearrangements of the political pattern, we are hearing straight for an impasse. We are heading straight for the position in which the initiative will lie with an Executive and a Chief Executive who cannot command the confidence of the Assembly but who, in so far as he can govern and legislate at all—presumably he will not be able to legislate but he will be able to administer to some extent—will be able to administer against the wishes of the Assembly. Even with a fixed term as short as three years, if such an event were to occur after a year or a year and a half of the Assembly's life it would be an intolerable and scandalous position that we should have these two entities glowering at one another—the Executive on the one side and the Assembly on the other.

Not unnaturally, the Scottish National Party has sought to provide a means of escape from this impasse. It has sought to write into the Bill some method which bears a shadowy resemblance to the power of a British Prime Minister to advice the Crown upon a dissolution or, alternatively, for the Crown to alter its chief adviser when there is an alteration in the party composition or in the political will of the House of Commons.

Mr. Rifkind

The right hon. Gentleman said that there was a danger under the Bill as at present drafted of an Executive which did not have the confidence of the Assembly, sitting and glowering at the Assembly for a long time, unable to carry its resolutions and legislation as it would like. Surely the problem is even more serious than that. Let us envisage a situation in which a motion of no confidence in the Chief Executive has been carried. Presumably he will resign, along with his Executive. According to the Bill, a new Chief Executive can be appointed only if the Assembly has passed a motion of confidence in him. Therefore, for the rest of the four-year period the situation could exist in which the Assembly was unable to express its confidence in any one individual, and there could be no Chief Executive for the rest of the period.

Mr. Powell

I did not want to pile on the horror, so I hope that I shall be forgiven for not having gone into all the terrifying possibilities that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) has opened up. It is sufficient to remain with the intolerable absurdity of an Executive which does not resign when there is, so far as I can see, no means of making it resign. Maybe under Clause 21(3) it is possible for the Secretary of State to sack the Chief Executive. That may be a way out, but I do not know Perhaps we shall be hearing about that from the Minister.

Let us pursue that possibility for a moment. Let us consider the position in which the Secretary of State is placed by Her Majesty's pleasure and the power that is contained in it for the Secretary of State to sack a Chief Executive who no longer enjoys the confidence of the Assembly. The Secretary of State will be unable to secure from the electorate—as is always possible in our constitution—whatever may have happened inside the Assembly, however much a section of the Assembly may have come adrift from the policies presented to the electorate—any expression of electoral opinion as a basis for his new choice. So however we pursue this matter, it seems to me that the act of placing the Executive, a simulacrum of Her Majesty's Government, on top of this elective Assembly causes gross contradictions with the character of the Assembly as a sort of super local government body rather than the elective house of a Parliament.

We find ourselves confronted with that dilemma written into the very nature of the Bill which one part of the Committee is anxious to limit in one direction while the SNP, not unnaturally, is anxious to extend it in the other direction. In fact in drafting the Bill the Government have attempted, as in so many respects, to give to what they call the Scottish nation the shadow with as little as possible of the substance. They have tried to give it something which looks like a Government, something which looks like a Scottish Prime Minister, and something which looks like a Scottish Parliament when all the time this is being based upon an elective Assembly, the other characteristics of which are those of a local government body. It is a sham or a centaur, but, whatever it is, it is not coherent and satisfactory. It is, to use a word which has come up repeatedly in these debates, an unstable structure.

The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. John Smith)

Leaving aside just for the moment the question of the fixed-term election, would the right hon. Gentleman describe the Stormont régime in Northern Ireland as a super-local authority?

Mr. Powell

Not at all, because the Stormont Parliament, which was intended to coalesce into the Home Rule Parliament of the Island of Ireland, was an almost perfect simulacrum, or mirror image, of this United Kingdom Parliament. It had a Governor exercising the functions of the Crown. It had two Houses and the powers of dissolution. It did not have a fixed term. The Prime Minister had the power to advise the Governor to dissolve it. It had everything which this Assembly does not have. It was certainly coherent in terms in which this Assembly is incoherent. That was because those who created the Government of Ireland Acts 1914 and 1920 intended and wished that there should be real Home Rule and anticipated—I dare almost say hoped—that that Home Rule would prove to be expanding and would eventually solve the long-standing dilemma of the British Isles as between the Island of Ireland and the Island of Great Britain. Thus, as so often in these debates, the case of Northern Ireland proves to be a dialectical means whereby we can clarify the nature and inherent contradictions of what is being attempted in the Bill.

This group of amendments, therefore, has taken us very far into the heart of the Bill. That has happened, but not because hon. Members have been attempting to bring in by a side wind opportunities of extending the debate. It has happened because the very moment one begins to consider the operation of Clause 3 in connection with Clause 21, one finds oneself, whether or not one wishes it, carried on to consider the nature of the operation which is being attempted by the whole of this legislation.

Therefore, we have to decide which it is that we shall do. We have to decide whether we shall give to Scotland, if it needs it, for it has district and regional councils, another elective council on top. As I pronounce those words, I remember that my constituents have no elected representatives far below the level of district councillors of Great Britain and my mouth begins to water with envy and anticipation. We must decide whether we are going to do that on the one hand, or whether we are going to give Scotland a Home Rule constitution with a proper Government and Parliament with all the equipment and trappings of the Government of Ireland Acts 1914 and 1920.

Mr. Dalyell

The right hon. Gentleman should not forget the community councils at the bottom of the scale, which councils many people want.

Mr. Powell

There is no limit to the potential multiplication of elected bodies. Clearly, as long as they are, in the sense of my definition, local government bodies, that is bodies elected to administer the law as subordinate instruments of the sovereign Parliament, it is a matter of convenience and judgment how many tiers are thought to be suitable in different parts of the country.

Sooner or later we shall be obliged to decide whether we intend that Scotland shall be provided with a Home Rule constitution. If we do not intend that—and the Government have over and over again asserted that that is not what they intend—the Bill will not stand up. It will have to be destroyed. In the early hours of this morning one hon. Member observed, I thought most appositely, that the "Titanic" had struck the iceberg at last. I think that that was the effect of yesterday's debate. Like the ripping of the side of the "Titanic", the damage inflicted on the Bill last night was irreparable. What is happening this afternoon is that the Bill is still making water.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Rifkind

I must begin by apologising to the Committee for missing, unavoidably, the first two speeches in this debate. However, the theme that has gone through the subsequent speeches has been one that requires of the Minister a detailed reply. There are few amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) and his hon. Friends with which I am in sympathy but I believe that this is one that the Committee should consider seriously.

I continue to be fascinated by the approach of the Government towards the whole question of devolution. On some issues the Government appear to be the pioneer of radical innovation in our constitution. However, the Government would not think for a moment of introducing fixed Parliaments to Westminster although they are suggesting that it is a novel innovation to be introduced to the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. Likewise, there is the introduction of pre-legislation committees so that Members of the Assembly will be able to consider legislation before it is introduced to the Assembly. There, too, the Government are excitingly pioneering new avenues and new ways although they would not seek to apply them to the business of the House of Commons.

On other issues, when it does not appear to suit them, the Government appear to be the most conservative and reactionary of bodies. When we discussed proportional representation last week we were told that the traditions of the House of Commons militated against any change in the electoral system and that it was wicked for anyone to suggest that an alternative system might be applied to the Assembly. Surely the Government owe it to the Committee to explain on what basic principles they have proceeded in determining the content of the Bill. Do they believe that the Assembly should be a testing-house for new constitutional ideas and that it should be encouraged to go down new constitutional avenues to ascertain whether different methods of procedure are appropriate, or do they believe that it should be a carbon copy of Westminster?

We are reluctantly and sadly coming to the conclusion that the Government have no coherent view of these matters. They tend to adopt an arbitrary position based on party political considerations and to take into account other improper aspects.

The Government, without having given any reason to the country or the House of Commons, have stipulated a radical new departure in our constitutional arrangements. They have stipulated that, unlike the old Northern Ireland Assembly and the House of Commons, the Assembly should sit for a fixed period. I have no strong views on the appropriate period should a fixed term be introduced, but the Government have not sought to explain why they believe that a different period is preferable compared with the flexible arrangements that apply to this place.

I can see a strong argument for saying that on many occasions it has been highly undesirable that the Prime Minister of the day in this place should, by a judicious examination of opinion polls and other arbitrary indicators, be able to call a snap election when he believes that it is more likely to be suitable for the prospects of his party than any other political party that will be appealing to the electorate. That is not a very satisfactory situation. If that were the only problem that the Government were seeking to resolve, we should expect them to introduce a single innovation to include this place, not one that is restricted so that the original innovation applies only to the Assembly.

In fact, we are dealing with a very serious problem, as has been explained by a number of Members. If the Government are insisting on a fixed term for the Scottish Assembly, given the likely political composition of the Assembly they are faced with a number of potential constitutional dilemmas with which the Bill does not deal. Nor does it provide any answers. The Committee will have heard my intervention in the speech of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). It is not for the right hon. Gentleman to explain the Government's Bill, it is for the Minister of State to explain.

This is a fundamental matter. Let us envisage a situation in which the Assembly has withdrawn its confidence in the Chief Executive of the time. In normal circumstances if this Parliament supported a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister would clearly have to resign. The Government would have to resign and a General Election would be likely unless there were an alternative Government who could be called upon by Her Majesty to take office. But what is the situation as the Bill stands?

Let us envisage a situation where, as is quitely likely, there is no one party with an absolute majority in the Assembly. Let us assume that the largest single party has taken office and its leader has become the Chief Executive. Let us further assume that at some time in the course of the four years, perhaps early on if there is no inbuilt majority, the Executive is defeated on a major issue, it asks for a motion of confidence from the Assembly and the Assembly declines to give it a vote of confidence. I concede that there is nothing in the Bill that would require the Chief Executive to resign, nor is it necessary for the Secretary of State to dismiss him in those circumstances, but is it likely that a Chief Executive would wish to continue if on a motion of confidence he had been defeated?

Mr. Powell

He might wish to do so.

Mr. Rifkind

He might, but would he be able to continue to govern with any degree of authority? If, having refused to resign, he found on every important vote thereafter that his Administration did not carry the support of the Assembly, that it was being defeated again and again and that his Administration could not govern because the Assembly was not prepared to give it the votes required to enable it to do so, even though the Chief Executive might stagger on for a few weeks, or possibly a few months, clearly there would soon come a time when, if only to preserve his self respect, he would be obliged to resign, if he had not already been dismissed by the Secretary of State.

In normal circumstances such a situation might lead to a General Election in this Parliament, but if we are to have a fixed term of office and we assume that the Chief Executive has been driven to resign by the end of the first year, we have a minimum of three years before there can be new elections. We are talking of a situation in which no one party has majority control of the Assembly, a situation in which the other parties are not inclined to form a coalition.

What happens when the Chief Executive resigns? According to the Bill, the normal way in which the Chief Executive is appointed is that if the Assembly has nominated one of its Members, that person shall be appointed by the Secretary of State as the Chief Executive. If the Assembly were able to agree on a replacement Chief Executive there would be no problem, but we are envisaging a situation in which political power in the Assembly is evenly divided and no individual is able to command support of the majority of the Assembly. In those circumstances the situation that is envisaged in the Bill would not apply.

If the Assembly nominated one of its Members, that Member would be appointed Chief Executive. If no Chief Executive were nominated by the Assembly, one of two things would happen. We could proceed for the next three years with an Assembly but with no Executive. There would be a total vacuum because no person would appear to be able to command the support of the Assembly. There is another alternative. If the Assembly does not make a nomination, there is nothing in the Bill to prevent the Secretary of State from appointing whomsoever he wishes to be the Chief Executive.

Mr. Grimond

I am not at all unsympathetic towards the hon. Gentleman's argument. Indeed, I suggested that there should be some flexibility about dissolving the Assembly. All the great difficulties that have been suggested must apply to all other countries that have fixed terms. There are a great number of such countries, and some have a great number of parties. It is not by any means certain that the holding of a General Election in Scotland would resolve the difficulty, which appears to be inherent in the Bill. There is an appalling danger of confusion both within the Assembly and between the Assembly and the House of Commons.

Mr. Rifkind

There are other countries that have fixed terms of office. In a situation in which a multiplicity of parties are represented in a Parliament either there are arrangements to allow for that position—for example, provision that in special circumstances, and with the support of a majority of two-thirds or three-quarters, the Parliament can be dissolved. There is nothing in the Bill that would permit such a course to be taken.

Alternatively, the countries that have fixed terms of office with no flexibility have an appalling record. They have a series of minority Governments taking office, existing for two or three months, being defeated and being replaced by another minority Government who stagger on for a further two or three months. The successor minority Government then resign and so the process continues for the whole period of the fixed term. I have yet to find anyone from such a country that is particularly pleased with the result, or who would wish to introduce such a system when devising a new constitution.

We are in an unusual situation. The opportunity of devising a constitution for an Assembly exists only once in a lifetime for most Parliaments. We have the opportunity to learn from the experience of other Parliaments and Assemblies in trying to deal with the problems which arise.

If the Assembly is not prepared to give its vote to a particular individual, either we have no Executive for the remaining period of the term of office of the Assembly or the Secretary of State must appoint someone entirely on his own initiative knowing that that individual is unlikely to have the confidence of the Assembly. It may be that no such individual would be prepared to be the creature of the Secretary of State, because that is what it would mean. If the leader of a minority party in the Assembly knew that he did not have the support of the majority of the Assembly, he might not be willing to agree to be appointed by the Secretary of State as his poodle, because, not having any great degree of support in the Assembly, he would probably have to resign within a short period of having been appointed.

Mr. Onslow

My hon. Friend has posed a possible solution, but the Bill does not provide for it.

Mr. Rifkind

I think that it does. Clause 21(3)(a) provides that if the Assembly has nominated one of its members for appointment as Chief Executive that member shall be so appointed". The implication, although it is not expressly stated, must be that, if no nomination has been made, nothing in the Bill excludes the Chief Executive being appointed by the Secretary of State.

Mr. Onslow

Unwritten constitutions are all very fine, but my hon. Friend is importing something which is not there.

Mr. Rifkind

With respect, it is. Clause 21(3) provides: Subject to subsections (4) and (5) of this section, the members of the Scottish Executive shall be appointed by the Secretary of State".

Mr. Powell

That gives power to the Secretary of State to nominate the members of the Scottish Executive. It does not give him power to appoint the Chief Executive.

Mr. Rifkind

I must respectfully disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. Clause 21(1) provides: There shall be a Scottish Executive consisting of the Chief Executive and other members. The Chief Executive is certainly one of the members of the Executive. The Secretary of State is given the power to appoint the members of the Scottish Executive, and that must include the Chief Executive.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

Perhaps I may attempt to assist my hon. Friend. According to subsection (4), the Secretary of State can appoint A person …to perform functions corresponding to functions performed …by a Law Officer of the Crown". I think that it would be possible for the present Attorney-General to be sent as Chief Executive. That would solve two problems at once.

Mr. Rifkind

I think that unwittingly my hon. Friend has put forward a proposal which would correspond to the government of Scotland throughout the nineteenth century when the Lord Advocate was the Chief Executive arm of the United Kingdom Government in the government of Scotland. Of course, he was more apparent in the House of Commons in the nineteenth century than he appears to be in the twentieth century. But that is another matter.

I stick by my interpretation of Clause 21, but it does not matter very much for the purpose of the amendment. The important point is that it must be clear to the Committee that, unless some flexibility is put into the Bill, we could end up with an entire shambles if no one party has a clear majority in the Assembly.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. John Smith

I have been listening with great care to the hon. Gentleman. Before he sits down, will he tell the Committee his solution to the problem? I am not sure that I have quite got it yet. I should like to know before attempting to comment on it.

Mr. Rifkind

I am happy to respond to the Minister's invitation. If the wishes of the Executive have been defeated in the Assembly and the Chief Executive has asked for a motion of confidence, which the Assembly is not prepared to grant, I believe that the Chief Executive should be entitled to request that the Assembly be dissolved and that an election for a new Assembly be held. It is not a radical suggestion. It is not very different from how the House of Commons has performed its functions over many years. I hope that, if the Minister wishes to repudiate that proposal, he will explain why.

Mr. John Smith

I do not think that words such as "repudiate" help very much. I am trying, in a constructive way, to understand what hon. Members are saying, Does the hon. Gentleman see any merit in having a fixed term? I thought that he seemed to be suggesting a system similar to that at Westminster where there is no fixed term. Is he suggesting a fixed term subject to any qualification—for example, the qualification which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) wants? Will the hon. Gentleman indicate what he is suggesting?

Mr. Rifkind

I should not wish to mirror the situation at Westminster. At the moment, the Prime Minister can go to the country at a date of his own choosing. He can ask for Parliament to be dissolved at any moment which he believes to be appropriate. Alternatively, he is expected to resign and Parliament to be dissolved if the Government are defeated on a motion of no confidence and no alternative Government can command a majority. There has been wide public criticism, with some justification, about the power of the Prime Minister not to advise a dissolution after a defeat in Parliament on a motion of no confidence but to go to the country when he continues to command a majority in the House of Commons because he believes it is an appropriate time to have an election for purely party political considerations. [An HON. MEMBER: "Like the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) in 1974."] All Prime Ministers have sought to use that power at various times throughout the centuries. Some have done so successfully. Others perhaps wished that they did not have the power after having used it.

I am suggesting that the Chief Executive should have the power to require an election not whenever he feels like it because it might help his party but when, within the conventional period of three or four years—whichever time is felt to be appropriate—the Executive is defeated on a motion of on confidence. I suggest that in such circumstances the fixed period should not be insisted upon and that the Secretary of State should have power to provide for a new election to the Assembly.

That would meet the problems which have been raised. That would enable the Government to continue with the desirable general principle that, subject to a motion of no confidence, the Assembly should continue for a predetermined period. I hope that the Minister will accordingly show the maximum flexibility on this matter.

Mr. Onslow

This debate has been exceptionally useful and constructive in the contributions which have been made from a vertical position. I exclude the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) who makes interjections from his customary sedentary, sack-like posture.

The demolition job on the clause carried out by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) should have convinced the Minister that his calls for aid across the Chamber are about all that he has left. There is no doubt that the structure as at present assembled will not fly. It does not have within it the necessary characteristics to remain airborne. It is a perfect design for a lead balloon.

I hope that the Minister, in replying to the debate, will turn his attention seriously to the gap in the clause which must be filled if his aspirations, whatever they may be, are to work out in whatever way he intends. We do not know why the clause was framed in this way. Therefore, I do not suppose that we can yet detect what his ambitions are. The hon. Gentleman must go back to the drawing board now. I hope that when he does he will understand that the difficulty into which he has run here is the attempt to marry two contradictory systems.

Many of us admire the fixed term system and have strong grounds for wishing to see it more widely applied in this country. But flexibility is necessary to prevent the structure from becoming so rigid that it breaks up under the strain. Some way must be found of putting something which is not in the Bill into legislative form if it is to have a chance of commanding an element of public support.

I hope that the Minister will be as convinced as all hon. Members must be of the advantages of a fixed term because the disadvantages and the inequities of a system whereby the Prime Minister of the day, or whoever it is, is able to engineer his own return to power by choosing the most favourable moment for an election commands little continued support in this country. If, therefore, we are to have a fixed term we still need to establish how long that term should be, It was in the hope of arguing that point that I put down my amendment whereby the term would be three not four years.

The argument for shortening the lives of Parliaments in this country has a respectable ancestry. When the pressures for parliamentary reform began to build up during the Napoleonic wars people first wanted to achieve a secret ballot, then universal adult suffrage and then to shorten the life of Parliament. Some people wanted that to be one year and others three. It took them 50 years to achieve their first objective, nearly 100 years to achieve their second and the third is yet to be achieved. It is an important objective to bear in mind because the reality of politics in parliamentary terms is that time equals power.

We are familiar with that concept as an Opposition confronting a Government. But the same is true of an electorate confronting a Government. That is because the longer a Government have before they need to come back to the electorate the less responsive they need to be and the more unpopular are the things that they may do.

If we consider how responsive, effective and representative this body may be—without embarking on the wider arguments about the parliamentary Session here—one can make out a case for saying that the term of life of the proposed Assembly should be shorter rather than longer and that this would be to the advantage of those whose affairs will, in some measure, be determined by the proceedings in the Assembly.

Mr. Gow

I am trying to follow my hon. Friend, but is it not the case that under the Septennial Act of 1715 Parliament used to exist for a period of seven years and, apart from the Napoleonic wars, it was not until the Parliament Act of 1911 that the period of Parliament was reduced to five years?

Mr. Onslow

I shall not strain the patience of the Chair by going over the whole history of political reform in this country since about 1820 when, I believe, the momentum began. We have not yet finished efforts to shorten the life of Parliament, and this is another example.

Those who argue that Parliaments, because they are the foundation of Governments, must have a sufficiently long tenure of office to enable government to be effective may have a point. But I doubt that we still universally adhere as electors to the view that the more time and therefore the power we give Government the better for all of us. It would be much to the advantage of all of us and might remove the need for a Bill of this kind if the life of Parliament were reduced to three years and if this Parliament were to be limited in the things that it could do.

Having advanced the argument in broad terms I hope that the Minister will respond by giving his reason for thinking that four years is the correct term for the Assembly. The electors would not mind having a more frequent opportunity to change the people they send to the Assemblies. I do not know that the influence and power that they will exert will be so important and the need for continuity so great that it would justify the choice that the Government have made. They must justify it in democratic terms.

We are here to improve the Bill. Why else would we be here? If we simply took the view that the Bill is so bad that it is incapable of improvement we would not be doing our duty. We are demonstrating where it can be improved. This is one of many amendments which demonstrate how much better the Bill could be.

Mr. Dalyell

There was a fundamental flaw in the argument of my right hon. Friend who is building on an earthquake area. I do not believe that the Bill can be improved.

Mr. Onslow

I suspect that there are innumerable flaws and that the Government are building on quicksands.

I reinforce the pressures on the Minister to accept that if he insists upon adhering to a fixed-term system he must find some way out of the deadlock which hon. Members have clearly identified, whereby, instead of creating a structure which will work, one will simply create a monumental blockage and waste an enormous amount of time and energy.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I was interested in the argument about the need to have elections within a shorter period than five years. I thought that there was an immutable political law that if one is a prospective parliamentary candidate one wants the election as quickly as possible but once one gets here one wants an election delayed for as long as possible.

Having decided that they prefer a fixed-term period, one of the Government's difficulties is how elections will fit in with the general pattern of political life. I can speak only of Scotland with knowledge but I am sure the same applies to Wales.

Leaving aside the direct elections to a European Parliament, we face the prospect of elections for district councils in May this year and elections for the regional councils next year. Since they involve fixed terms, we all wish the Assembly elections to be held separately from district and regional council elections, otherwise there will be an enormous number of elections in the next 16 months. There will be district council elections, regional council elections, European Parliament elections, the referendum Assembly elections and possibly a General Election. There will be complete and utter chaos in that respect, so I see the logic in deciding on the four-year period.

We are all in uncharted waters here, and no one can understand or hypothesise with any certainty how the Assembly will operate once it is in being. There will always be the temptation for the Chief Executive, locked in some deadlock with the Treasury over the block grant, to threaten or demand the dissolution of the Assembly and go to the country on the question of the size of the block grant in order to embarrass the Government. That is a position that the Government would want to avoid.

6.0 p.m.

There is also another possibility. The Chief Executive will be a highly political figure. We must not imagine that he will be anything akin to the chief executive of a local authority, who is an official paid by the local authority and is non-political. The Chief Executive will be the chief Minister of the Government. It may be that in order to embarrass the central, United Kingdom Government, he would threaten or, indeed, demand the dissolution of the Assembly in order to have an election to demonstrate how the Government's overall policies in Scotland were unacceptable and undesirable.

Therefore, in trying to fix a term of four years and not to have any provision for dissolution in between times, except for the varying period of two months forward or back, the Government would want to avoid that possibility of dissolution in the meantime. They are trying to protect their own position.

A number of hon. Members have hypothesised as to what might happen if the Chief Executive lost on a vote of confidence. As Clause 21 stands, the Assembly is expected in normal circumstances to appoint a Chief Executive, and its advice would be taken by the Secretary of State in making the appointment, but there is nothing to prevent the Assembly from passing a motion of no confidence in the Chief Executive and then agreeing to appoint a new Chief Executive. If that were the case, there would be no real difficulty, except that there could be a number of Chief Executives over two or three months, especially in the position of a hung Assembly in which the balance of political forces, in terms of the recognised political parties, was so closely and finely balanced that they could never agree except for a very short time.

What the Government are assuming by the fixed term is that there will be a reasonably stable form of government within the Assembly; otherwise, all else fails. However, I do not think that they have yet begun to understand the kind of forces that are beginning to emerge in Scotland. The genesis of the Bill and its real purpose, as I understand it—quite apart from the normal democratic argument that is advanced—is an attempt to contain the centrifugal forces that are operating in the United Kingdom and the tendency to make the whole thing fly open into separate bodies.

Quite apart from the Orkneys and the Shetlands, another argument is beginning to emerge. I should like to quote from a letter published in the Aberdeen Evening Express on 24th January. It is addressed to the editor, and it says: It was exciting and quite uplifting news that the people of Shetland had intimated, in no mean voice, that they are men and not mice at the beck and call of arrogant and opportunist Lowlanders. One wonders when the people of the Highlands will raise their own voice and decide that dictation from Edinburgh is not for them. It must be obvious at once that the Highland members at an Edinburgh Parliament could be completely outvoted on every count by the more numerous representatives of the southern half of the country. Not only is it likely that their voices will carry little weight, but that financially the Highlands will be contributing heavily to the many yards and factories now demanding Government aid to keep going. Nor is it likely that the problems and perplexities of the Highlands will be understood or find sympathy with 'the lower half'—as one might well call them. The country is going to be burdened by the vast cost of the Edinburgh Parliament with far too many representatives with their attendant tribes of secretaries, typists and hangers-on, and, where if a recent case of a leading Nationalist is any guide, nepotism will be rife. The idea of a Highland Parliament in Inverness is not only attractive, but sensible and practical. The affairs of the Highlands and Islands would then assume a totally different significance. It would present no problems to draw a demarcation line between High Scotland and Low Scotland, and what a wonderful and thrilling country High Scotland could become. That might seem at first reading to be perhaps an eccentric view. It is the view of a man who, incidentally, comes from Berwickshire, at the opposite end of the country. Nevertheless, I do not think that anyone who has visited the monument outside Inverness will have failed to see that it is not a monument to peple who died in fighting but a monument to Gaelic nationalism, which is a force that is growing in the affairs of Scotland.

Far from the establishment of an Assembly in Edinburgh containing the centrifugal forces, it may well tend to accelerate them. Therefore, we may be faced with a position in the Assembly in which a number of Members from the Highlands and Islands, set upon pursuing the policy of a Highland Parliament, could deliberately, in the delicate circumstances of political balance, withhold their assent from the appointment of any Chief Executive and could deliberately disrupt affairs. In that situation, if the Assembly were not able to do its work effectively, it would be right and proper for the Chief Executive or the Assembly itself to seek dissolution before the four-year period had ended.

All that I am attempting to illustrate is that it is not a cut and dried situation in which a four-year term will work. This applies whether the term is four years, three years, two years or five years. The attempt to define a fixed term is an arbitrary choice which happens to fit in with a number of other circumstances that I have described. There is no magic about the figure four or the figure five. I think that a five-year period has grown up merely by tradition. Perhaps people with better knowledge of constitutional history than I have can point to some statute or Act that says that the period should be five years. There is no magic about the period of four years.

However, my hon. Friend the Minister has a responsibility to look at the question of the possibility of dissolution of the Assembly in certain circumstances, if for no other reason than that if he wants the Assembly to succeed—I know that he desperately wants it to succeed and does not regard this as simply a paper exercise—and if he means to establish something that will work, nothing can do more harm to his case than the possibility of an Assembly that is hung, bickering and arguing and failing to face up to any responsibilities over a lengthy period.

Therefore, there is great merit in some of the suggestions in the amendments. If my hon. Friend does not like them, he ought at least to give an undertaking that on Report he will bring forward the possibility that the Assembly or the Chief Executive, if he so desires, should be allowed dissolution within the fixed term.

Mr. Ridley

I have not yet had the privilege of making any remarks upon the Bill. I have long since tried to be a member of the crusade against it, but every time I come upon the scene—and I have been upon the scene a number of days—I find that the castles of the infidels are in ruins and that there is no more work to be done upon them.

The particular castle that I tried to assail last night was demolished, and there were so many assailants that I felt that my presence was supernumerary. Today, rather persistently having had the good fortune to catch your eye, Mr. Godman Irvine, I find that the infidels' castle is so pulverised that there is no surety as to where it actually stood, whether it be on quicksands or on earthquake ground.

The wretched Minister who is to reply to the debate is beginning to exact the deepest sympathy from all of us. I know that he is feeling in his heart of hearts "This is not my fault. How did I get stuck into this position?" But that is the lot of junior Ministers. I have been through it myself. I only hope that in between the end of Wednesday and the beginning of next Tuesday he will be making his voice felt in the only quarters that can take this Bill away from the Committee.

The particular point about the unwisdom of a fixed term for the Assembly was totally explained by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). All I want to add is that where the difficulties become insuperable there should be power for dissolution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) talked about an Assembly deadlocked over legislation. I think that I am not misquoting him. He said that it was possible for a local authority that did not have power to legislate to continue even though there was a hamstrung political situation within it. I think that the right answer is that where here are legislative powers it becomes almost essential for the Assembly to be able to terminate its own life in sonic way or other, and that a fixed term is appropriate only where there is a purely executive or administrative function.

That brings me to the point that the difference between the Scottish Assembly and the Welsh Assembly is that the latter does not have power to legislate. It may be that a fixed term would be appropriate for the Welsh Assembly, in the same way as it has been demonstrated that a fixed term would not be appropriate for the Scottish Assembly because it has legislative powers.

What is intolerable is the concept of a Chief Executive, wishing to legislate and allocate his block grant in a series of priorities based on a legislative programme, being unable to carry that legislation. That situation could persist for two or three years, and it would be intolerable.

The curious thing is that the only way in which legislation could be enacted for Scotland in those circumstances would be by Private Members' Bills in this House. That would be an even more intolerable situation for the Scottish people, with their own Assembly deadlocked. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Pentlands, if he decides to stay with us rather than go to the Assembly, will be busy promoting Ten-Minute Bills about Scottish education, drinking laws, and other matters.

Mr. Brittan

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be open to the Government to put forward a Bill in this House to deal with Scotland?

Mr. Ridley

Any Government could do that, except this one because they have tried to put about the myth that they are giving power to the Scottish people to legislate for themselves. If the first action of this Government in such a situation were to bring in a Bill dealing with Scottish education, that would blow the credibility of the Labour Party out of the sky in Scotland, in England and in Wales. It would be possible for a Tory Government to try to solve the deadlock, but let us try to avoid the deadlock. That is what the Committee is for. That is what we should try to put right. I see no reason why the Minister should not have risen at the Dispatch Box and said that a fair point has been made and that he will provide powers for the Assembly to dissolve itself.

One specific point arises from the reply that my hon. Friend the Member for Pentlands gave to the Minister who, in desperation, rose at the Dispatch Box and interrupted my hon. Friend to ask "Please tell me what we should do if what we propose is so wrong?". My hon. Friend said that the Government should give the Chief Executive power, if he loses a vote of confidence, to go to the Secretary of State and ask for a dissolution.

I disagree with my hon. Friend that it should depend upon a vote of confidence being lost. It is, after all, possible to stage-manage such a vote of confidence if the Assembly wishes. I cannot see why the Chief Executive should not have power to seek to dissolve the Assembly if he thinks fit. I say that because the argument on the other side is that the Chief Executive— that cunning, scheming politician that it is alleged he will be— will wait until his stock in the country is high and immediately cash in with an election.

6.15 p.m.

I have not been a Member of this House for very long— 17 years— but in that short period I have been the victim of that sort of manoeuvre, and I have seen Labour Members be a victim of it, too. If one looks back through our parliamentary history, one sees that more times than not such a ploy has failed. If one went to Ladbrokes, the bookmakers would always give one odds against a cashing-in election being a success. That is in the nature of politics, but I do not accept it as an argument against giving the Assembly power to dissolve itself.

Mr. Rifkind

If the power to require a dissolution is at the discretion of the Prime Minister and the Chief Executive, what other criteria would he apply than asking for an election at a time when he thought, however wrong he turned out to be, that that would help the fortunes of the Government or the Administration that he represented?

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friend has a fair point. It seems right to leave it to the Assembly to evolve a process by which it can dissolve itself. I said earlier that the Assembly should have power to dissolve itself, and that the processes by which it arrives at that decision should be a matter for it to decide. Clearly, this requires further thought, and that is why it would have been a good idea for the Government to draft the Bill correctly in the first place. The debate would have been more fruitful had it taken place on the very point raised by my hon. Friend, rather than on the matter that we are now considering.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I take it that the hon. Gentleman is not canvassing the idea that there should be a maximum limit of time, otherwise the Assembly could stay there for ever and never have an election.

Mr. Ridley

There is no question about that. There should always be a maximum limit. Indeed, we have one for our proceedings in this House. That would not be a matter of dispute. The correct solution is that there should be a four-year maximum period, with power given to the Assembly to dissolve itself subject, perhaps, to such safeguards as might be decided after further debate, and I think that we should debate this on Report.

Mr. Dalyell

The hon. Gentleman rebukes the Government and says that the Bill should have been properly drafted. I heard him make a powerful speech at the conference that he and I attended about a month ago of the Tyne and Wear Council. I think it was fairly clear from that that there was no possibility of a Bill setting a subordinate Assembly, a point that was agreed by 150 Northumberland county councillors, mostly Labour.

Mr. Ridley

I think I made it clear on that occasion and at the beginning of my speech today that although I am a member, albeit in the rear, of the crusade against the whole Bill, I am trying, because of my respect for the strict rules of order, to stick to the topic before us, and that is the amendment and whether there should be a fixed term. I think that there should not even be an Assembly, but to debate that is not in order on this occasion.

Mr. Gow

This clause relates to the length of the life of the Scottish Assembly. A few days ago my hon. Friends and I voted against an amendment introduced by the Liberal Party to describe the Assemblies as Parliaments. I am sure that we were right to do that. Nevertheless, these Assemblies have many of the characteristics of a Parliament.

We are told, for example, in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum: The Scottish Assembly is to be able to make laws, which may amend or repeal Acts of Parliament. If ever there was a characteristic of Parliament, it is the power to make and to repeal laws.

We have not been let into the confidence of the Government about how in Clause 3 they came to hit upon the device that these Assemblies should last for four years only, subject to this extraordinary discretion in subsection (2) that there should be a variation of two months earlier or later than the four-year span. We have criticised the extraordinary period of gestation which gave birth to the Bill. We do not know from what basis this device of a fixed period was selected. However, the Minister of State, who probably had no hand in the drafting of the Bill, has been put up to defend the indefensible.

We believe that this clause was drafted on a hit-or-miss basis with no justification in logic. The same may be said of the amendments. Amendment No. 97, to which I am most attracted, would empower the Scottish Assembly to end at any time within four years. Amendment No. 98 would provide a fixed term of three years and Amendment No. 99 of five years. Amendment No. 100 would provide for the Secretary of State to exercise his discretion.

Amendment No. 315, in the names of members of the Scottish National Party, seems incomprehensible, not least for the reasons given by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). We welcome the SNP's solitary representative. Perhaps he can tell us how it will be established whether there is a person enjoying the confidence of the majority of members of the Assembly".

Mr. Onslow

While the SNP spokesman tries to fathom the amendment, perhaps I may point out that it would be helpful if he could tell us which of the alternative readings of the amendment is the less incomprehensible.

Mr. Gow

I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to avoid the embarrassment of trying to interpret the wisdom, or lack of it, of the SNP. We should allow its representative to answer the question himself.

Mr. George Thompson (Galloway)

I am not a lawyer or skilled even in interpreting amendments. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) has had to leave the Committee for a short time. I am sure that he would have been delighted to explain the position once again, as he has already in my hearing. I shall certainly inform him of the hon. Member's problem and try to get an answer for him.

Mr. Gow

I am not sure to what extent I should be grateful for that intervention—

Mr. Thompson

Very grateful.

Mr. Gow

I have said that the Scottish Assembly in particular has some of the characteristics of a Parliament. It is therefore relevant when considering the length of its life to consider our experience in this place. My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), who has clearly had to go to another urgent engagement, misled the Committee when he implied that we had power to dissolve ourselves. That is not the correct constitutional position, except in so far as we can pass any Act that we like.

The life of this place can be ended only by the expiry of the time limit laid down in the Parliament Act of 1911, or by dissolution, which involves the exercise of the Royal Prerogative. There are differences of view on whether that situation is satisfactory, whether the Crown, with or without the advice of the Chief Minister, should be able to terminate the life of this Parliament. I believe that that is a discretion properly vested in the Crown. I should like a similar discretion to be exercised on the advice of her Ministers in relation to a Scottish Assembly.

If we consider Clause 21, relating to the appointment of the Chief Executive and the Scottish Executive, and our own experience, and if we bear in mind that the Scottish Assembly will have many of the legislative powers that we have, we can see that if that Assembly had to exist for at least four years less two months, we should be in the gravest difficulty in providing it with any coherent Executive and any coherent legislative powers. It is possible to envisage a Scottish Assembly, just as it is possible to envisage this place, in total paralysis, from which the Bill would offer no escape for the Government or the Secretary of State except a new Bill to repeal Section 3 of what might, in the Minister of State's view—I do not believe that it will ever happen—become the Scotland and Wales Act.

We should consider whether a fixed term for an Assembly or a Parliament—I repeat that this body will have many of the characteristics of a Parliament—should be frozen for at least four years less two months. We can conceive of the need, as happened in both World Wars, to prolong the life of a Parliament. But the Minister of State will remember what happened in October 1974 when the Government decided to terminate the life of that Parliament four years and more before its natural term. They had two reasons for that decision: first, their ability to get legislation through was jeopardised by the smallness of their majority; second, they thought that they might improved their majority in an early election. We had a paralysed Administration in 1951. After the resignation of the predecessor of the Lord President and the resignation of the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) the then Prime Minister found it impossible to carry on the government of the United Kingdom.

So far as the Bill purports to hand over to the Scottish Assembly important powers to legislate for Scotland, it would be disastrous if it were paralysed and there was no possibility of removing that paralysis.

6.30 p.m.

Mr. Grimond

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we would not want to put too much stress on the possibility of a paralysed Administration. Sometimes, I long for paralysed Administrations. In many ways paralysis is much better than St. Vitus's Dance.

Mr. Gow

I would agree with the right hon. Gentleman in relation to this Government. We are now in the seventh day of consideration of the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman may think that this Government are paralysed over the Bill. If he is anxious for that paralysis to continue, the matter is very much in his hands. It rests upon the fidelity of the Liberal Party and its unwillingness to be corrupted by the Government Front Bench whether we have a timetable motion on the Bill. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will remember that he likes paralysis. However, I fear greatly that the Liberal Party will make a squalid deal with the Minister of State and the Lord President of the Council.

Mr. Grimond

So far, no one has attacked our virtue.

Mr. Gow

I hope that I shall be able to say to the right hon. Gentleman when we have killed this Bill that the virtue of the Liberal Party has remained intact and that he has achieved his aim of a certain paralysis in this aspect of the Government's work.

I was developing a point about the desirability of an Assembly—a Scottish Parliament—which is paralysed being subject to the power of dissolution by the Sovreign or even by the Secretary of State. There are situations, as I have tried to illustrate, where one can have a total impasse, where it is impossible to make any kind of legislative progress, and that situation is not covered in the Bill.

I hope that when the Minister of State replies to the debate he will tell us precisely what will happen if we have an Assembly which cannot legislate properly on matters which are essential to the lives of the people of Scotland. I hope that the Minister will be able to satisfy us on how he arrived at the figure of four years, which seems to have been plucked out of the sky, with the two months-minus or two months-plus. We believe that this is another nonsense in the Bill. I extend my sympathy to the Minister of State on having to defend what I believe is indefensible.

Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)

I want to put forward a point of view which I do not think has been put forward in the debate so far. From the start of the proceedings on the Bill the potential for friction which these proposals can create has worried me and a great number of my hon. Friends. There could be friction between Edinburgh on one side and Westminster on the other, and the same applies to Wales.

I have listened with great interest to the very learned speeches that have been made about the difficulties of the Chief Executive in the Scottish Assembly. Interesting though they are, I do not think it is a really important point in considering how the Assembly should be elected. I have considerable sympathy with the Scots, because under the arrangements in the Bill it seems that they will never be out of the polling booths. As has been said, there will be European elections, local government elections, General Elections and Assembly elections. The Scots will be experiencing a plethora of elections as time goes on.

We can learn a lesson from what happens in local government. We are all aware that if a General Election and local government elections are held at the same time the party composition of local authorities and Parliament is the same. As the Government go on and reach the position of the present Government—not making a very good hand of things—the results swing the other way at local government elections. It does not matter in this case, because local government is purely administrative, carrying out the laws we make. That will not be the case with the Assembly, because it is legislative. From the point of view of pure logic, if the Assembly and the Parliament are elected separately, there is bound to be friction between the two.

I am attracted by Amendment No. 387. I appreciate the great technical difficulties of this case because someone may want to stand for the Scottish Assembly and for the Westminster Parliament, but that difficulty is not insuperable. The point of having the two elections at the same time whether or not on a fixed term—and I am attracted by the idea of the fixed term and should like to see a fixed-term election for this Parliament—is that the possibilities of friction are less.

If the Bill is left as it stands in this respect, the chances are that when the Scottish Assembly is elected, two things could happen. First, there could be a move towards separation. Secondly, we could have the protest vote, which has been experienced over and over again in local government. This is a most important point to bear in mind if friction is to be avoided between the two Assemblies.

Mr. Nick Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

All the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate have made the observation that we are dealing not with detailed or trivial amendments but with issues which go to the heart of the Bill. I believe that most of all these are issues which go to the heart of the relationship between the Scottish Assembly and the Westminster—the United Kingdom—Parliament.

I say that because I believe that it is in relation to the Scottish Assembly that there is the greatest ambivalence. The Scottish Assembly is being presented to the Scottish people as though it were an equal Parliament to the United Kingdom Parliament. It is that ambivalence of representation, that attempt to appear one thing to Scottish Unionists and another thing to members of the Scottish National Party, which gives rise to the greatest instability.

In so far as I wish to see the Bill in any way improved, I want to make it plain that we do not want to see a separate Scotland and that we want to see a subordinate Scottish Assembly. Only by demonstrating clearly that the Scottish Assembly is subordinate shall we take away some of the elements of instability which have been so often and eloquently referred to by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell).

Many right hon. and hon. Members have referred in this interesting debate to the deadlock which may occur between the Chief Executive and the Executive and the Assembly. I agree with those arguments, but there could be a deadlock the other way which in my recollection has not been considered. What happens if the United Kingdom Parliament decides that it wishes to exercise those devolved powers over which it has concurrent power with the devolved Assembly, which because of its legislative powers has the capacity to pass itself off as though it were a Parliament? There could then be friction between the United Kingdom Parliament and the Scottish Assembly. In those circumstances, some body, some Assembly or Parliament, must be able to demonstrate that it is the superior Parliament or the superior person.

There are two other circumstances in which there may be a deadlock between the Executive and the Secretary of State. If the Secretary of State considers that a Bill is not within the competence of the Assembly's legislative powers, he may refer it to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, or, if he considers that it is not compatible with the international obligations of the United Kingdom, he can so certify and the Bill cannot become law. But what happens if, for example, we have in the Scottish Assembly a Chief Executive and Executive of an SNP frame of mind and they are determined to persist with legislation that the Secretary of State has certified is incompatible with the United Kingdom's international obligations or is outside the Assembly's powers? In those circumstances he must have the power to dismiss the Executive and dissolve the Assembly. He must be left in no doubt as to when he can do it.

Therefore, I contend, first, that it is right that there should be a maximum period for the life of the Scottish Assembly. I do not much mind whether it is three, four or five years, but within that period there should be flexibility exercised by the Secretary of State so that he may make it absolutely plain that it is he who exercises the overriding powers of the United Kingdom Parliament.

Mr. Dalyell

Has the following situation occurred to the hon. Gentleman? Suppose there were a Labour or SNP Government in the Assembly and an issue arose which greatly perturbed the Conservative grass roots in Scotland and the Conservative Party there. Is it conceivable that those interests would not run to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor)—

Mr. Robert Hughes

The hon. Gentleman will never be Secretary of State.

Mr. Dalyell

Let us just suppose that there were a Conservative Prime Minister in Westminster and those interests urged the hon. Gentleman to join them in urging that Prime Minister to override the Labour or SNP Assembly. Those pressures from the grass roots in conditions of flexibility and overriding powers would be a source of friction in themselves.

6.45 p.m.

Mr. Budgen

I accept that they would be a source of friction and instability. The hon. Gentleman may well be right in his general proposition that the friction and instability are built into the Bill. and that nothing anybody can do can make this a workable constitutional structure. That is a proposition with which on the whole I agree. I am not particularly inclined to try to improve the Bill. But if we are to try to make marginal improvements, if this structure has a very favourable climate in which to operate, my proposals may improve it somewhat, may give it a slightly better chance of survival.

I suppose it can be argued that the situation which the hon. Gentleman describes is not unlike one in which, say, there is a Conservative majority in the Westminster Parliament and there is a great deal of grass roots Conservative pressure for universal selective education. The Secretary of State for Education and Science of the day might say "I shall allow individual local authorities to decide whether they want comprehensive or selective education, because if I intervened there would be such a backlash against centralised and Tory interference that such intervention would do more harm than good." That would be a value judgment that the Secretary of State had to make.

In the same way, a Secretary of State for Scotland, even though he were my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) and although he wished to respond to grassroots Tory opinion throughout the United Kingdom, might wish to hold the balance between the Scottish Assembly and grassroots Tory opinion. That is at least the possibility.

All I can urge the Committee most strongly to consider is that the only way in which the Scottish Assembly has any hope of survival is for it to be clearly established by the Committee that in all matters the Westminster Parliament is the "boss", that it is supreme and exercises its power through the Secretary of State, a member of the United Kingdom Executive and responsible to this Parliament.

If the Government go on fiddling around and trying to pretend to Scottish opinion that they have created in Scotand an independent but not separate organisation which is some form of equal Parliament, the confusion will continue. Only by emphasising the supremacy of this Parliament shall we avoid perhaps only a little part of the conflict and instability to which so many right hon. and hon. Members have referred with far more eloquence than I.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan (Farnham)

I wish to speak briefly to the two amendments in the names of my hon. Friends and myself, Nos. 99 and 100.

First, I take issue in the most friendly and gentle manner with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). He correctly described the Scottish National Party's Amendment No. 315 as nearly incomprehensible. I do not quarrel with him about that. What I think it is intended to do is to lay upon the Crown directly the responsibility for dissolving the Assembly in Scotland as if it were a Parliament of the United Kingdom here at Westminster. My hon. Friend appeared to think that that was not a bad idea. I do not think that he is right, because the amendment seems to raise the status of the Assembly, which in any case I deplore, to that of a separate Parliament which can only be dissolved by the Royal Proclamation.

By analogy, the situation that used to obtain in Northern Ireland involved the exercise of powers by a Governor acting for the Crown, It was not exercised by Her Majesty in person or by the Sovereign exercising the Royal Prerogative directly, as in the case of this Parliament. Therefore, this is not an unimportant constitutional point.

The Committee seems to agree generally—with the exception perhaps of the nationalist parties—that, whatever happens, it is essential that the supremacy of this Parliament and the sovereignty of the Queen in Parliament should not be disturbed in any way by the Bill, Indeed, Clause 1 sets that out quite firmly. Since it is everybody's intention that this Parliament should be supreme, the suggestion which has been made would not lead to that conclusion and therefore the constitutional implications would be considerable.

There are obvious attractions in having an Assembly sitting for a fixed period, especially if one could manage to contrive a period that is the same as that accepted for the other elected bodies that we are about to inflict on the poor Scots. If they are to have all these elections, there is much to be said for holding them on the same day and, indeed, for moving to voting machines, voting on a ticket—and, for good measure, adding the procurator fiscal and voting for him too. At least that system has the advantage of simplicity.

Mr. Gow

I see the force of that argument, but by Clause 3(1) as now drafted one would have to fit any other elections into the rigid framework that governs the election of the Scottish Assembly. The difficulty is that there is no flexibility at all—not in respect of a change of Government at Westminster, dissolution of the United Kingdom Parliament, the wishes of the Assembly, or the fact that the Assembly has lost confidence in the Executive. None of those things can alter the time scale in the Bill as drafted. The only flexibility one has relates to the period of two months before and two months after.

Mr. Macmillan

My hon. Friend has pointed to some of the electoral difficulties. There are attractions in having simultaneous elections with the regional and county councils and in having the same period so that people do not have to go to the polls more often than is necessary. I am not altogether sure, so difficult is it to make any sense out of the Bill, whether there would be an administrative freeze-up and complete inability to carry on if such an arrangement were to lead to internal conflict.

So bogus are the Assembly and the Executive that I have a feeling that the Secretary of State will carry on administrating as though the Assembly were local government and will manage affairs directly from here. However, that is not the purpose of the Bill. Therefore, with regret one must come to the conclusion that the only thing to do is to make it possible for the Assembly to be dissolved in some way or other within a maximum period.

Amendment No. 99 suggests that the maximum should be five years to make the period compatible with that of this Parliament. A period of four years was suggested a little earlier. I do not think we should be unduly fussy about the period chosen, and I would not insist on a term of five years. A term of four years might for some reasons be too short and for other reasons appear too long. We must have some coherent method of bringing a stalemated Assembly to an end. Amendment No. 100, which envisages the concept of such earlier date as the Secretary of State may by order appoint is as good a way of trying to make a little sense out of the nonsense of this Bill.

There is some force in the Liberal amendment, No. 519, although the requirement as to a two-thirds majority is a little stringent. I think I am right in saying that the Bundestag requires a figure of only 50 per cent. There might have to be a compromise to prevent a hostile Secretary of State from misusing his powers to cause a premature election in the Assembly, following a difference of political alignment between Westminster and the Assembly in Edinburgh, and to prevent any feeling that the Assembly is being put upon by this House, or indeed any feeling that this House is being put upon by the Assembly. One way out of the difficulty would be for the Government to say "In circumstances in which half the Assembly were present and voting, the Assembly can be dissolved prior to the maximum period", whatever that period may be.

I do not expect the Minister of State to accept one of these amendments, or even to give the Government's thoughts on this subject, because I do not suppose he knows them. However, he must accept the spirit of Amendment No. 97, which gives a degree of flexibility to the life of the Assembly. Perhaps the Minister will give the Committee his views on the Assembly's rôle in determining its own end and on the rôle of the central Government in such circumstances. Perhaps he can say what stresses he believes there may be between the two bodies and if those stresses could be accommodated within a more flexible period.

Mr. Brittan

A small part of this debate has been devoted to the subject of what the proper normal length of the Assembly's life should be. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) put forward powerful reasons for a three-year basic normal term instead of a four-year term. I am sure that many will have been tempted by the thought that a more frequent period for elections would give less power to the Assembly, and therefore to the Executive in control of the Assembly, in influencing the lives of individual citizens. It is right to say that the major part of the debate has concentrated not so much on the proper normal length of the Assembly's term as whether there should be a fixed term or an element of flexibility in the term of the Assembly.

It was said earlier that a fixed term was characteristic of an executive body, but that in a legislative body an element of flexibility was required or desirable. I suggest that that is not quite the position because, if we examine experience elsewhere, we see what happens with a fixed term in the case of a legislature, but a legislature without an Executive. The most notable example of that is the House of Representatives of the United States Congress. Similarly, a county council is an example of an executive without legislative powers.

7.0 p.m.

The point is not so much the distinction between a legislature and an executive, but rather that if, and only if, we have a body in which the executive and the legislature are combined, there is a need for an element of flexibility and a fixed term is undesirable. It is in that situation—which is a peculiar characteristic of parliamentary government as we know it—that leadership has to be, in the words of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), more compact, continuous and coherent than in the case of a body such as a local authority, in which purely executive powers are exercised, or in the case of a legislature in which no executive powers are exercised.

Mr. Powell

Has the hon. Member even now got the formula correct when he speaks of an executive combined with an assembly? That description is also applicable to a local authority body which is, at one and the same time, executive and deliberative.

Mr. Brittan

I was referring to an executive of the Cabinet type that has to command support. I see from the nod given by the right hon. Member for Down, South that he agrees, and I value that.

In this peculiar parliamentary type of situation the case for a measure of flexibility has been made out. To do the Government justice, I wonder whether the reason why there is no such flexibility in the Bill as Clause 3 is drafted is that the Government have been determined that wherever possible the provisions in relation to Scotland and Wales should be identical.

This is, perhaps, another example of the mischief that can be caused by combining Scottish and Welsh legislation in one Bill. If such a determination on the part of the Government had not existed, I am sure that Ministers and others involved in preparation of the Bill would have seen that wholly different considerations apply in relation to this matter and to the powers that the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies should have.

If that is correct and if the Government concede that there should be an element of flexibility in the term of the Scottish Assembly, the question arises as to the type of circumstances that should lead to the possibility of the fixed term coming to an end and who should make that decision. One possibility would be the Westminster model. The equivalent would be that the Chief Executive would be able to decide at any time that the Assembly should be dissolved and that there should be fresh elections.

The point has rightly been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) that that is exactly the aspect of our arrangements at Westminster that has been criticised so much. He argued with some force that it would mean giving a power to the Executive that it perhaps ought not to have—the power to choose the moment that would be convenient for it to hold an election and to attempt to obtain a fresh mandate. The fact that in recent history Prime Ministers have often got it wrong is not necessarily an answer to the argument that they should not have such a power.

If one accepts that that is an obstacle to giving the Chief Executive power to dissolve the Assembly, one must ask what alternative exists. My hon. Friend the Member for Pentlands said that there should be premature dissolution when the Executive lost the confidence of the Assembly and when there was no alternative Executive. But I wonder who would make the decision about when such a situation existed. It would be clear if there had been a vote of no confidence in the Chief Executive, but as it is would not be easy to decide it would not be easy to decide whether there was an alternative Executive. The SNP spokesman attempted to deal with that point, but even as he attempted to explain it the difficulties came to the fore.

Mr. Rifkind

The power in the Bill that allows the Assembly to nominate a Chief Executive would make it clear when such a situation had arisen. In other words, there would be a situation in which the Chief Executive had resigned and the Assembly was unable to find a replacement. It would then be clear to the Secretary of State that there was no alternative administration that could command the majority support of the Assembly.

Mr. Brittan

The use of the words "Secretary of State" leads me to my next point.

The mere fact that no majority appeared to support an Executive would not be clear and the Assembly could not dissolve itself. Somebody would have to put the dissolution in train. Therefore Amendment No. 100, for the reasons advanced in its favour by my right hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Mr. Macmillan), is probably the best course of conduct. I hope that Amendment No. 100 will commend itself to the Committee.

According to that amendment, the Secretary of State would determine that deadlock had occurred and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pentlands explained, it would be clear that there was a situation in which one would expect the Secretary of State to come to such a conclusion. That would be in accordance with the procedure set out in Clause 21 whereby the Assembly may nominate a Chief Executive and the Secretary of State must appoint him. If no such nomination is made, by implication the Secretary of State may make a nomination himself, but the clause does not actually say that.

Mr. Dalyell

It is just that sort of residual power vested in the Secretary of State that would make it inevitable that he and the Scottish Prime Minister would fight like rutting stags or Kilkenny cats.

Mr. Brittan

Of course, I agree with the general argument about conflict, but I am not sure that it would occur in this situation. In these circumstances there would not be a Chief Executive to do any rutting, because he would have been destroyed by the Assembly and would have lost the Assembly's confidence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pentlands suggested, there simply would not be a Chief Executive. In those circumstances the Secretary of State could reasonably be allowed the power of dissolving the Assembly. If further protection were needed against the Secretary of State intervening in an unacceptable way, some device on the lines suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Farnham would be appropriate.

I am sure that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has no illusions that the solution to the problem is easy, that the Bill presents a viable system, or that the amendments will cure radical and fundamental defects in the Bill. But we are trying to be constructive, difficult though that is, within the confines of a structure that we regard as unviable and unstable. A real problem of fundamental constitutional importance has been pinpointed by this debate. It cannot necessarily be solved and it certainly cannot be solved readily. If the scheme is to proceed, it is desirable that it should be along the lines recommended by my right hon. Friend the Member for Farnham in Amendment No. 100.

Mr. Powell

Since the hon. Gentleman is concentrating on that amendment which leaves the power of the Secretary of State to dissolve the Assembly at large, would it not be the case that, if that were so, the Chief Executive would not resign, knowing that the Secretary of State had the power to dissolve the Assembly unconditionally? I should expect—and perhaps this bears out the contention of the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell)—that he would sit there and say to the Secretary of State that he believed that he commanded the support of the electorate of Scotland and add "It is your duty, by dissolving the Assembly, to enable me to prove that". Under Amendment No. 100, he could force something analogous to the situation in which a British Prime Minister finds himself in regard to Her Majesty.

Mr. Brittan

It seems that one of two situation arises; either the Chief Executive fails to resign, but continues to command the confidence of the Assembly—in which case there is no problem and he may continue to govern—or he loses the confidence of the Assembly and refuses to resign. The position then is quite simple and is prescribed in Clause 21, which says: a member of the Scottish Executive shall hold office at Her Majesty's pleasure". It would be open to the Secretary of State, being the emanation of Her Majesty in that situation, to dismiss the Executive and dissolve the Assembly.

Mr. Powell

It is true that in those circumstances the Secretary of State could dismiss the Chief Executive, but if he possessed the power at large to dissolve the Assembly, the political pressure which the Chief Executive could exert upon him to dissolve instead of dismissing would be very powerful. We should thereby be increasing the risk of the conflict envisaged by the hon. Member for West Lothian between the Secretary of State and the Scottish set-up.

Mr. Brittan

That is precisely the point to which I was addressing myself. I was trying to distinguish between the situation here, in which the Prime Minister can, in effect, demand dissolution rather than resign and be replaced, and the situation in the Assembly.

The reason that there could be a distinction in the Assembly while there could not be here is that if we wanted a system which provided for dissolution only when the Prime Minister had lost the confidence of the House and not when he wanted it for political purposes, we should have to drag the Crown directly into politics. I do not imagine that anyone would wish to do that. When we are talking about a devolved system with a subordinate Assembly, it is not necessary for that to happen in quite that way because we can make clear that the Secretary of State will not act as a Chief Executive's catspaw to procure a dissolution in order for him to be returned with a larger majority, but will act only where there is deadlock and where the Assembly is not operating. If that were the case, the problem would be resolved to a limited but important extent.

It would certainly be open for the Chief Executive to argue that there was no deadlock and that the Assembly should continue, but that could readily be put to the test by the Secretary of State saying that he was waiting for the Assembly to pass a motion of confidence in a Chief Executive. If that happened within a reasonable period, there would be no dissolution; if it did not happen, there would be a dissolution.

It is impossible to avoid conflict altogether and most of us agree that the Bill is redolent of conflict. God knows why, but I am trying to assist the Government by at least reducing the chance of conflict as much as possible within the confines of an amendment to the scheme.

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

It one follows through the argument that the Secretary of State should be given the power to dismiss the Assembly, does not the hon. Gentleman think that Amendment No. 100, even when wrapped around with reasonable phraseology, gives far too much power to the Secretary of State and could give rise to conflict? I do not wish to peddle my amendment as the sole way of dealing with this matter, but does not the hon. Gentleman realise that Amendment No. 100 would not be acceptable in Scotland? One of the greatest outbursts of rage against the original White Paper was caused by the fact that it gave far too much power to the Secretary of State and far too little to the Assembly. The hon. Gentleman's Amendment No. 100 seems to have the same effect.

Mr. Brittan

Amendment No. 100 is not mine and I did not support it without qualification. I merely indicated that it seemed to be pointing in the right direction. I said earlier that perhaps it ought to be buttressed along the lines of the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) and his colleagues. I did not give Amendment No. 100 unqualified acceptance.

As for giving excessive power to the Secretary of State, perhaps that could be qualified by a requirement that the Secretary of State had to be satisfied that there was a conflict which could not be resolved by the Assembly. I am not advocating any particular phraseology, but merely indicating—in a reasonably constructive way, I hope—the sort of direction in which we shall have to go to resolve this matter.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Will the hon. Gentleman not take too much account of the bogus rage following the publication of the original White Paper, since most of it was printed before anyone had read the White Paper?

Mr. Brittan

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will accept that I have not been motivated by any rage, bogus or otherwise. I have indicated that within the scheme, which the Government know I regard as intrinsically unviable, unstable and undesirable, it is possible to remove at least these sources of difficulty, or go some way towards doing so.

Mr. John Smith

I hope that I can give a constructive reply to the various points that have been raised, but there was one remark, made earlier by the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), to which I am entitled to take exception. When I was asking questions designed to elicit what proposals the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) was canvassing, I was accused of seeking help across the Chamber. It is difficult for a Minister who is seeking to be helpful when he is accused of pleading for help. I was trying merely to probe and ascertain exactly what was being suggested to the Committee.

That is the spirit in which I have listened to the debate. There have been some propositions put forward about which I must advise the Committee to be careful, but there are others which we can look at. One was raised in the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) which relates to the desirable length of time for the Assemblies to be in existence. It is extremely difficult to give a list of reasons why three years is better than four or why four years is better than five.

It has been said—the hon. Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) referred to this—that three years was desirable in that it did not give very much power to the forms of Government brought into existence. In my view, it is a matter of balance—not allowing so long a period as to give excessive power to the Executive, while, on the other hand, allowing a reasonable time for policies to be developed and implemented. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) is quite right to remind us of the danger in drawing parallels with the American system, where there is a separation of powers. But I think that it is clear that most people feel that elections to the House of Representatives once every two years are too frequent and sometimes stultify the electoral process. I was surprised to learn that many members are elected unopposed because of the difficulty of sustaining electoral interest when the period is so short.

There must, clearly, be a balance be tween having a very short period, which makes it difficult for those elected to carry out a consistent policy or see their policies come to fruition, and giving them too long in office, which results in those elected being removed a little further from the control of the electorate.

Our judgment is that a four-year term is as reasonable a proposition as any other. I think that three years is too short, but there is no great difference between four years and five. Four years is the minimum period, but I could not say that five years was clearly too long. There is no particular merit in the fact that we have a five-year Parliament at Westminster. The Assemblies will do a different job, and there is no reason why they should copy what is done here.

We have given careful thought to what the correct period should be. The hon. Member for Woking asked me to give a list of reasons. I do not know whether he finds what I say acceptable. It is very much a matter of balancing conflicting considerations and coming to the most reasonable judgment one can. I hope that the Committee will agree that a four-year term is reasonable.

The next point raised in the debate was the interesting question of the fixed term as opposed to a period of time which could be altered one way or the other by the Assembly or the Secretary of State. I judge that probably the majority opinion among hon. Members who contributed to the debate was that there was merit in the idea of having a fixed term. I agree that it is hard to judge just what the balance of opinion is, but I think that it has been in favour of a fixed term, with some hon. Members adding qualifications regarding dissolution.

Mr. Brittan

This is an important point. Would it not greatly assist out deliberations if, for the purposes of this argument, the phrase "fixed term" was used to describe a term which cannot be altered, without any qualification? Obviously, everyone is in favour of a fixed term in the sense that there should be a maximum. Therefore, would it not be more convenient if we spoke of a fixed term as a rigid term, as in the Bill, and called anything else a flexible term?

Mr. Smith

With respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman is taking the easy way out. I can see the intention behind his suggestion but I submit that it would be proper to call it a fixed term where it took an unusual situation to disturb it, as was proposed by the hon. Member for Pentlands. This is clearly different from the situation which obtains in the House of Commons. With respect to the hon. Member for Cleveland and Whitby, I prefer to stick to my own formulation, which I think is better on balance.

We have had a discussion on whether there should be a "fixed term"—I put it in inverted commas—and on balance there seemed to be a majority opinion in favour of it. I think that that is correct. I agree that we ought to stick to a fixed term. One of the difficulties that we should have if there were a system such as in the House of Commons would be that where it was open to the Assembly, either by a decision of the Chief Executive or a majority of the Members of the Assembly, to have elections at different times, there might be a severe temptation for the Assembly or the political party in control of the Assembly to pick tactical times in relation to the Government at Westminster.

It is for these reasons that I think that a fixed term would be desirable, although perhaps with some blurring at the edges for unusual situations, and perhaps we could get a more accurate formulation of the proposition. I do not think that the weight of argument tended to favour having the sort of system that we have at Westminster.

Mr. Brittan

Would the Minister accept the formula "fixed term with a crisis clause"?

Mr. Smith

I am always careful to examine any proposition before I buy it in full. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman means well, and if it will assist understanding, I shall be happy to take what he says.

I shall deal now with one or two other points before coming to th main burden of the argument. I take first Amendment No. 315, prsented by the hon. Mmber for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson), which has tucked in at its center—although it is now the most important provision—a point which led him to question whether we were wise to have a period of two months on either side of the fixed term within which the Secretary of State could decide that the four-year term should come to an end. The hon. Gentleman argued for one month on either side.

Clearly, there is no magic in one month as opposed to two. We thought that on the whole two months gave a little more flexibility. One month either way might make it difficult to avoid a United Kingdom General Election taking place at about the same time. I shall look at that again, although I am pretty confident that two months is better than one. However, since I intend to give further consideration to some other matters, I shall look into that at the same time.

The hon. Member for Dundee, East will not be surprised when I tell him that we cannot accept the other propositions in his amendment. In particular, we could not advise the Committee to accept the direct link with the Crown.

That brings me to the main part of the argument, namely, the concern expressed that one of the difficulties in a fixed term, without any crisis clause or whatever might be built into it, is that there could be an unstable political situation within the Scottish Assembly. Hon. Members on both sides expressed concern about this, and I shall certainly pay close attention to it.

It is assumed, perhaps too readily, that fresh elections will necessarily cure the difficulty. One could have another election and find even deeper difficulty. [Laughter.] This is not something about which we in the House of Commons should be too superior, because it can happen quite easily here as well as in the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies.

There is also some advantage in a four-year period which is known to be inflexible, except for the little movement at the edges which the Secretary of State has for reasons of administration, in that it would encourage to come together the warring factions or parts of a coalition which were not coming together. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman disagrees with that, but I consider that there is some weight in the proposition, and it is one of the reasons why the four-year period or a fixed term of some kind is adopted by some other countries.

There is the further difficulty that if we start building in crisis clauses, as it were, we may well find it difficult to make statutory provision for some matters which are normally left to convention. It is quite difficult to write in statutory form provision for a dissolution following a vote of no confidence.

When we talk about a dissolution following a vote of no confidence, all hon. Members, I believe, recognise the sort of political situation which we have in mind, but we should have to be careful to ensure that we described what was a vote of no confidence in statutory terms if we were to amend the Bill. One would have to be certain of defining it adequately for the miscellany of political situations which can arise in any Assembly of directly elected Members. I do not say that that is a reason for not trying. This is not a quibble. There is a problem here, which I am willing to look at to see whether it can be solved.

Because of the feeling in the Committee that there could be a situation in which there might be a deadlock I am willing to have another look at this whole proposition. There are difficulties in finding an easy solution. Perhaps hon. Members are overestimating the dangers that might arise from political deadlock. On the other hand, one has to take account of situations that we cannot yet foresee and it would be wise to be prudent and careful.

7.30 p.m.

I have some reservations about Amendment No. 100. It is dangerous to give very wide powers to the Secretary of State in this situation. On the whole, we have been trying to minimise what were called the "Governor-General" powers of the Secretary of State and there are certain political dangers in enlarging the powers to include such highly political matters as the timing of elections.

Another proposition came from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), although he did not want to be tied to any precise formula. There are two routes which can be followed. There is either the Secretary of State route or the Assembly route. There might even be a combination of the two. I hope that the Committee will understand that I am trying to be constructive about the matter and react to the concern which has been expressed.

I ask the Committee to reject the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Dundee, East because it is so fundamentally out of line with the thinking of the Government.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

In view of the two assurances that the Minister has given, I am quite willing not to move that amendment.

Mr. Smith

I should just spell out clearly what I am agreeing to do. I am agreeing to look at what has been said in this debate and examine it carefully to see whether there is a proposition consistent with fixed-term elections that could ease the concern felt by some hon. Members that we have not got the complete answer to a situation where there is a difficulty causing political instability in the Assembly. I shall look at this to see whether anything can be done at Report stage.

I thank the Committee for the comments that have been made. Some of the speeches were the usual ritual incantations against the Bill, but other were constructive and helpful and concentrated on the points at issue. I hope that we shall get more of the latter and fewer of the former as the debate proceeds. In the light of the reply that I have given, I hope that hon. Members who have tabled amendments might be willing to withdraw them.

In case of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian feels that I might be forgetting him, his ever-presence at my elbow reminds me that he is here. I do not have the capacity of indulging in the aristocratic analogy of the rutting stag that was put forward by my hon. Friend. I cannot deal with my hon. Friend's amendments in the colourful way in which he so often proposes them. But my hon. Friend's amendment is not one that would find very much acceptance with the Government. Of course, by-elections can alter the balance of political force in the Assembly as they can in any elected political system. I hope that my hon. Friend will not feel that he is being forgotten. I hope that hon. Members will agree to follow the course that I have suggested.

Mr. Dalyell

I shall not be so indelicate as to ask my hon. Friend which category he put my opening speech into. My hon. Friend has given a serious, thoroughly decent and thought-out reply. Perhaps he could say something about by-elections and the effect they might have?

Mr. Smith

Perhaps it was my fault—perhaps I was diverted by my hon. Friend's reference to the rutting stag—but I think I have dealt with the fact that by-elections can alter the political force. It is a self-evident proposition.

Mr. Dalyell

We are, of course, faced with this continuous problem of when a fixed term is not a fixed term. The whole question of the crisis clause is obviously very difficult. But, in view of the serious reply that has been given and the difficulties that have been faced up to, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Temporary Chairman (Mr. John Wells)

Am I right in thinking that the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) does not wish to move Amendment No. 315?

Mr. Gordon Wilson

That is correct.

Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)

I beg to move Amendment No. 106, in page 2, line 17, leave out subsection (2).

The Temporary Chairman

With this we may take the following amendments:

No. 108, in page 2, line 20, leave out from "election" to end of line 22 and insert: such other day as he may decide'. No. 110, in page 2, line 22, at end insert: the Secretary of State shall, before making an order under this subsection, consider any representations made to him by or on behalf of the Scottish or Welsh Assembly".

Mr. Hooson

This group of amendments deals with the power of the Secretary of State to vary the date of the Assembly elections by up to two months on either side of the third Thursday in March. The amendment I have moved aims to delete subsection (2) and to remove the power of the Secretaries of State that I have just mentioned.

The reasoning behind the amendment is that we want to remove from the Bill the power of the Secretary of State to interfere with the day-to-day operation of the Assembly and to cut out, as far as we can, the quasi-constitutional rôle of the Secretary of State. We feel that the only body which should have the power to vary the date of the election should be the Assembly itself, subject, of course, to adequate safeguards. Speaking for myself, I feel that we should not provide for a crisis clause at all. I think the Assembly should sit for a fixed term, simpliciter.

A great deal of argument has emanated in the last few days about the fact that if a General Election were called by this House, it would be inconvenient at the same time to have an election for the Scottish or Welsh Assemblies and that, therefore, there should be an element of discretion vested in the Secretary of State to meet that kind of situation.

Local elections are, of course, held on a fixed date. Indeed, we know when the election is to be held for the county councils. That in no way interferes with the affairs of this House. Nor should any subordinate legislature, and any subordinate elections to this particular body, interfere in any way with the general discretion of this House. It is this House which has the flexibility. Provided we have the flexibility here, we can avoid all kinds of situation which have been presented as requiring flexibility, perhaps by the Secretary of State.

Mr. Brittan

I am mystified by what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said. As I understand it, he was in favour of a fixed term for the Assembly simpliciter. without any crisis clause. If that is so, can the hon. and learned Gentleman explain why his name has appeared on the amendment, admittedly last, which says: Notwithstanding subsections (1) and (2) of this section, an Assembly may be dissolved and an ordinary election held at any time if a resolution to that effect is passed by the Assembly in question by a vote of two-thirds of those present and voting. If that is not a crisis clause, I do not know what is.

Mr. Hooson

The hon. Gentleman is right. It is a crisis clause. Just as his party puts forward a variety of amendments to meet certin situations, my view is that if we cannot have a fixed term simpliciter with no kind of power for variation, then it is better to have a kind of crisis clause provided for by Amendment No. 519. On that basis, I supported that amendment. But in saying, that, I outline only my personal view. My right hon. and hon. Friends do not go along entirely with my view.

Mr. Brittan

A split.

Mr. Hooson

A major split.

I should like to know why the Govern ment require this subsection at all. It would be very interesting to have from the Minister some explanation why it is required in the Bill.

Amendment No. 108, which is to be debated with this amendment, takes the opposite viewpoint in that it would allow the Secretary of State to specify any date as the day for the elections. Therefore, it is diametrically opposed to my viewpoint.

Mr. Gow

There is a typing error in Amendment No. 108. It refers to "such other day". Translated literally, that could mean any date. It should read "such earlier day".

Mr. Hooson

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I confess that I thought it was a completely wrecking amendment.

Mr. Onslow

On a point of order, Mr. Wells. I think that I detect the way in which the argument of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) is moving and the kind of reply that he expects to it. There is another group of amendments which is to be taken immediately after this debate but which is extremely relevant to this one, and I shall be surprised if the Minister is able to answer the hon. and learned Member without referring to the arguments that he intends to deploy against Amendments Nos. 109 and 111. Is it possible for you to allow the debate on this group of amendments to be widened so as to encompass the arguments on Amendments Nos. 109 and 111, which otherwise will have to wait until those amendments are called?

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Harry Ewing)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Wells. If the suggestion of the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) met the convenience of the Committee, I should be happy for both sets of amendments to be grouped together and to have one comprehensive debate on them.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Wells. In a debate of this kind, as opposed to a debate in Committee upstairs, it is extremely difficult for right hon. and hon. Members if the order in which amendments are taken is changed. A great many right hon. and hon. Members rely on the tape, especially at this time of the evening when they may be refreshing themselves for a long night.

Mr. Hooson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Wells. In our debates so far, I do not think that there has been any inhibition about repetition.

The Temporary Chairman

On balance, I think that it would be wiser if we stuck to the selection already published. The point made by the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) is a valid one. Although the Chair could take the voices of right hon. and hon. Members present in the Chamber, this would not be a very convenient hour at which to do it.

Mr. Hooson

I had been referring to Amendment No. 108. I now make a brief reference to Amendment No. 110 and what is a very narrow point. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to consider any representations made to him by either the Scottish or the Welsh Assemblies before making an order to vary the date of an election. This is really a safeguard which my right hon. and hon. Friends would support if our amendment proved to be unacceptable. I make that clear to the Minister of State

This is a narrow point, and I understand why the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) thought that it would have been more convenient to deal with all these amendments together.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

The matter to which the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery has referred is a reasonable and sensible one because the principle of consultation with local authorities and assemblies in this kind of situation is very important to the functioning of the Act. But on his own amendment, where he makes a pertinent point about the rôle of the Secretary of State, will he explain whether there is any anomaly, disparity or difficulty as regards the Scottish Assembly, which under the Bill has executive powers, and as regards the Welsh Assembly, which does not? I think that some comment from him is called for about that.

Mr. Hooson

The essential distinction between the two is that the Welsh Assembly has executive powers, whereas the Scottish Assembly has legislative powers. However, I do not think that any point turns on the distinction between their powers as regards this amendment. As a matter of fact, I had already sat down when the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) got me back to my feet. But I do not think that any point turns on the matter that he raised.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Mr. Wells. In order to save the time of the Committee, since a direct question was asked, would not it be convenient if the Committee now heard the Minister of State explain the Government's reasoning?

The Temporary Chairman

That is not a point of order for me. It is entirely at the Minister's discretion when he gets up.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page

I wish to refer to Amendment No. 110, which is being considered with this group. It is the amendment which directs the Secretary of State to take representations from the Assemblies before making any order under Clause 3.

As it stands, Clause 3 leaves the Secretary of State with almost dictatorial powers over the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. He can be called into question only on a Prayer against the order in this House. That is provided in subsection (4). We all know the difficulty in getting a Prayer debated in the House at present. So not only is the Secretary of State given very strong powers to make an order without any reference to the Scottish or Welsh Assemblies, but there is very little chance of its being questioned in this House having regard to our present procedure for Prayers.

Amendment No. 111 recognises and endeavours to remedy that state of affairs. The answer may be that of course the Secretary of State would not act in a dictatorial way, that no reasonable Secretary of State would, and that of course the Secretary of State will take representations from or on behalf of the Scottish or Welsh Assemblies before making any order. If that is the case, let us spell it out in the legislation. This amendment would do that.

Mr. Gow

Is not the power conferred upon the Secretary of State under Clause 3 very limited? It is true that he has power to fix the date of the first elections. But he could hardly consult Members of the Assembly about the fixing of the date of the first elections because they would not have been elected. As for subsequent elections, is not the discretion of the Secretary of State limited to a period of two months before or two months after the date which falls on the fourth anniversary of the first elections? To say that those are dictatorial powers seems quite wrong, unless Amendment No. 108 is incorporated in the Bill, in which case very considerable powers will be vested in the Secretary of State.

Mr. Page

My hon. Friend will recall that one right hon. Member said on a memorable occasion that a week in politics was a long time. It is quite possible that two months either side—a period of four months—would be vital. Let us suppose that there were by-elections which had changed the balance of power in either of the Assemblies, or let us suppose that there were by-elections pending which perhaps it was desirable to avoid. Even though the Secretary of State can exercise his power only for a period of four months—two months either side of the fixed time—this is giving him a substantial degree of control over the Assemblies.

Mr. Hooson

Bearing in mind the third Thursday in March and the normal date of the Budget, the power of the Secretary of State will be added to even further.

Mr. Page

I have been greatly puzzled by that day of the third Thursday in March. I regret that I was not here for earlier debates. I should have been, but I was engaged in other parliamentary matters about the Palace of Westminster. If this day has been questioned earlier, I am sorry to be repetitive. Fixing an occasion on either side of the third Thursday in March takes us into a peculiar period—it is neither the end of a financial year nor the end of a calendar year, and it makes the four-month period rather long.

Mr. Harry Ewing

I think that I can clear up this point about the by-elections. Clause 5(4) does that. It provides that a by-election shall not be held if the latest date for holding it would fall within three months preceding the next ordinary election of Members to the Assembly. So, even if there was a by-election and a discretionary time was available to the Secretary of State, it would not take place in any case because of that provision. In a sense, therefore, the by-election point is not valid.

Mr. Page

The Secretary of State could still make an order to avoid it, even with the three-months' period. I will not go into the formula, but by using his order-making power under Clause 3(2) he could act in a biased way and choose a time which might benefit one party or another in the Scottish or Welsh Assemblies.

My main reason for advocating the amendment is that it merely expresses something which surely any Secretary of State would do. I am surprised that the provision was not actually set out in the clause, but since it is omitted a Secretary of State might well think that he had the power to act without consultation.

When Statutory Instruments come before the House and the Secretary of State concerned is directed by the parent statute to consult before he makes the order—that is a common form now—the consultation is described in the preamble to the statutory instrument. The House therefore knows that the consultation has taken place. That would be a welcome arrangement for the making of orders under Clause 3. Here the Government could show a nice bit of goodwill to the Opposition side of the Committee by accepting an amendment of this sort which would involve no drafting difficulties and would be non-controversial.

Mr. Leadbitter

The right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) has defined a valid point. Yesterday, for a large part of the 13 hours of our debate, we were discussing the position of the Secretary of State. I believe that we now have an opportunity for the Government Front Bench to help us by explaining the Government's intention. I do not believe that there is any division among hon. Members. We are merely seeking clarity. There may be an element of division among views about Amendment No. 106, but the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) would have anticipated that.

If subsection (2) is to remain in the Bill, we must be satisfied that the Secretary of State is fulfilling his functions with an acceptable degree of consultation, as provided by the Bill. Therefore the Minister must relieve the concern expressed by the right hon. Member for Crosby and assure us that the Secretary of State will not merely come to the House at some pretty unholy hour of the night and introduce an order.

The number of hon. Members who attend late at night to deal with orders or to pray against them are very few, and certainly only those who have the time to keep a diligent eye on the Government's intentions do so. This, therefore, is an important matter on which the Front Bench might indicate its intentions. The Committee should be grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) for his constructive contribution towards improving the Bill. I have not noticed in all our heated debates since Second Reading any reference to anyone wanting to improve the Bill. It is a rotten Bill and one which I oppose. Since we are here, however, we have a duty to try to improve it. If by chance and ill fortune the machinations of the Government succeed in foisting this awful Bill upon us, at least we shall have had the opportunity of making some useful contribution to improving it.

It would be helpful now, however, for the Minister to put down a marker as to the Government's intention, and that will mean that the next group of amendments will take less time.

Mr. Gow

This group of amendments involves a matter that we touched upon in our first debate. The effect of the Liberal amendment would be to fix, without any possibility of variation, the third Thursday in March every four years as the date upon which elections to both Assemblies must be held. So, whatever disaster might overtake us, we would be committed to that date. That would happen regardless of whether there was some natural disaster in Scotland or Wales.

We are just at the end of the rugger season. Supposing that there was to be a Cup Final in Cardiff or Edinburgh—

Mr. Hooson

On a Thursday?

Mr. Gow

The hon. and learned Gentleman should realise that we are now in the Community. The third Thursday in March might easily become a new saint's day.

If I remember rightly, 3rd March is St. Andrew's Day.

Mr. McCusker (Armagh)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the third Thursday this year is St. Patrick's Day?

8.0 p.m.

Mr. Gow

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point.

Mr. Onslow

I am displaying my acute ecclesiastical ignorance by raising the point, but would it be possible under the calendar that we have for the wandering Easter, as opposed to a fixed Easter, to come during the campaigning period for an election that would have to take place on the third Thursday in March?

The Temporary Chairman

This is becoming rather a wandering debate.

Mr. Gow

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) is quite right.

Mr. Harry Ewing

I fear that tomorrow there will be a terrible error in the record of this debate if I do not intervene. The 1st March is not St. Andrew's Day but St. David's Day.

Mr. Gow

I am very grateful to the Minister. But is it not possible, Mr. Wells—and who better qualified than you, Mr. Wells, to guide us in these matters—for the third Thursday in March to be Maundy Thursday, so that the counting might take place under the Government's proposals—of course, these are not your proposals, Mr. Wells, and it would not have occurred to you so to draft a Bill that it might be necessary to count the votes in Cardiff and Edinburgh upon Good Friday—

Mr. Onslow

This could happen in 1978.

Mr. Gow

And the voting day could be the Thursday and the third Thursday could be in the middle of Holy Week.

Mr. Hooson


Mr. Gow

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) does not understand. Easter is a moveable ecclesiastical feast. A complicated calculation has to be made and only those most learned in ecclesiastical law can decide when Easter is to be.

Mr. Hooson

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is most learned in ecclesiastical law. Perhaps he will tell me when Good Friday fell in the third week in March.

Mr. Gow

It is true that it is necessary to go back a few decades, or a few centuries for all I know.

The Temporary Chairman

Order. I must remind the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) that this group of amendments is concerned with subsection (2) and that the third Thursday in March is concerned with subsection (1), I ask the hon. Gentleman to return to subsection (1). Let us have a little less wandering Easter.

Mr. Gow

With great deference to your ruling, Mr. Wells, if the Liberal amendment, Amendment No. 106, were to be effective and subsection (2) were to be removed from the Bill, there would be no method of avoiding Holy Week, whereas if the clause remains as it stands it would be possible to avoid Holy Week.

There are other matters to be considered. For example, there could be a natural disaster such as a plague or famine. If such a disaster were to take place and the Liberal amendment were to have effect, there would be no possibility of altering the date. There could be a plague, a drought, a flood, a famine, a Cup Final, a Royal anniversary or even a Royal death.

Mr. Hooson

There are fixed elections. The House of Representatives of the Senate in the United States has fixed elections and there is no provision for a movable date.

Mr. Gow

I am arguing against that proposition. I am not arguing that there are no legislatures with fixed elections. It is within the knowledge of the Committee that we have fixed elections for county councils and district councils. The Minister and his hon. Friends should be delighted that I am agreeing with the Government. I am saying that the Bill will be better if subsection (2) remains.

Mr. Dalyell

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the American analogies are totally misleading? As he knows very well, the Scottish Assembly is like the House of Commons in that it is not only a legislative Assembly but a so-called "pool of talent" from which the Executive is chosen. That is not so in the United States. Therefore, any analogies with the United States are wholly misleading in this context.

Mr. Gow

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will agree that I did not make an analogy with the United States. I was confining my remarks to inviting the Committee to consider a number of possibilities that make a fixed date undesirable. No doubt you can think of other eventualities, Mr. Wells, that could occur on the third Thursday in March. I shall leave the matter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page), who is well versed in ecclesiastical law. No doubt he will be able to tell us in which year the third Thursday fell within Holy Week.

I have been dealing with Amendment No. 106, that was moved by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery. Is the hon. and learned Gentleman the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party?

Mr. Hooson


Mr. Gow

The hon. and learned Gentleman is the only representative of the Liberal Party in the Chamber so for the moment we can give him the title of Acting Deputy Leader or Acting Leader.

I move from the Liberal amendment to No. 108, which stands in my name. First, I must draw the attention of the Committee to a typing error. The amendment should read: such earlier day as he may decide and not such other day as he may decide". I do not know whther I am in order in pointing that out, Mr. Wells. If I am not, perhaps I shall be forgiven for mentioning it. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) and I are saying that we believe that it is right in some circumstances to give power to the Secretary of State to dissolve an Assembly that had become addled.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby made an important point a few moments ago when he was talking about dictatorial powers being given to the Secretary of State. It was almost as if by telepathy I had been in secret communion with my right hon. Friend, because it was in order to meet the point that he raised that I drafted the amendment with the assistance of my hon. Friend.

It is not given to us to understand why it is that certain amendments are selected and others are not. I am now referring to Amendment No. 105 that stands in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Barry (Sir R. Gower) and Mid-Sussex and myself. I appreciate that we are not allowed to comment on why an amendment has not been selected. However, I think it is in order to say that there is a sympathy between my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby and myself. That is because if we had been debating Amendment No. 105, which we are not, I should have had his support. That is because the amendment was drafted precisely with my right hon. Friends' point in mind.

The Temporary Chairman

The hon. Gentleman will have a good opportunity to discuss Amendment No. 105 at a later stage because it will be discussed with Amendment No. 115.

Mr. Gow

I know that, Mr. Wells. I hope that on that occasion I shall be developing my argument at some length. On this occasion I want to touch on the point very briefly before I move on—and perhaps I should do so now—to Amendment No. 110, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby spoke.

I have no objection to the Executive being obliged to consult others before taking a decision. I am no friend of power being conferred upon an Executive that is not answerable to this House of Commons. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will accept Amendment No. 110.

Governments seem to have got out of the habit of listening to the representatives of the people. It is time that we had a little more humility from Ministers. I am talking not about the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is one of the most courteous Ministers in the Government, but about Ministers, whether Conservative or Labour, having got out of the habit of listening to advice. What harm will be done to the Executive by placing it under an obligation to consult and to listen to advice, then being free, of course, to ignore it?

Mr. Dalyell

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with all humility. Does he not think that he in turn might have listened to those who work in the steel industry? Many of us have had a letter from Bill Sirs saying that before putting forward his recent controversial ideas the hon. Gentleman did not consult anyone in the steel industry.

Mr. Gow

I am not sure to what extent I am in order in discussing the wishes of those who work in the steel industry. I believe that a great number of people in the steel industry, including many in the union of which Mr. Sirs is the General Secretary, would have been very pleased if the Bill which I sought leave to introduce on 19th January—

The Temporary Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman is succumbing to temptation.

Mr. Gow

I was tempted by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell).

Mr. Dalyell

The hon. Gentleman swallowed the hook.

Mr. Gow

The hon. Gentleman gave me an apple and I did eat. I apologise.

These three amendments require to be considered very carefully by the Government. I hope that we shall have a sympathetic reply from the Minister.

Mr. Onslow

I rise briefly to make two or three points. First, I hope that the Minister will have been persuaded by the arguments advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) and others who have spoken in support of Amendment No. 110, which seems an admirable amendment, to accept it. I think that it can be accepted by the Government without doing any great damage to the rickety structure of the Bill. Indeed, it might marginally improve it. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) will no doubt join me in thinking that would be a good thing.

There are other matters on which I may not carry the Minister with me. However, I should be surprised if I did not carry him with me on one in view of what was said by his hon. Friend the Minister of State, Privy Council Office, in the debate on the previous amendment. In an aside—I think that it was a deliberate aside—the Minister said that one reason for having flexibility was that a British General Election might be announced at a time which would otherwise be the time for an Assembly election and that that would be an overriding consideration.

I should be surprised if the Minister were to say that the Government thought that it would be a good thing to have a pair of Assembly election campaigns going on at the same time as a parliamentary election campaign with the probability that neither the pair of Assembly elections nor the parliamentary election campaign would come to a climax on the same day. They would inevitably overlap one another. The effect would be thoroughly undesirable. It would be particularly undesirable from the point of view not only of inconvenience to those who have to run the campaigns but of the political conflict which would be created, because the accepted conventions about the limitation of expenditure on political publicity would quickly contradict each other. For example, activities undertaken by Assembly candidates might have a positive influence on votes in the parliamentary election campaign and vice versa. I think that if the Minister were prepared to entertain that possibility, he would be unlikely to entertain it for long. Indeed, I do not believe that the Committee would entertain it for long either.

I should like to hear the Minister's comments on my argument, which I think is in order, even though I might have waited and repeated it on my Amendment No. 109 to which the Committee is likely to come next. I recognise, Mr. Wells, that you are obviously right not to disturb the established order of selection. On reflection, I should not have made that point. However, I was trying to be helpful.

8.15 p.m.

If the Liberal amendment were carried—I hope that it will not be carried—it would have the automatic effect of forcing both Assembly elections to be held on the same day—the third Thursday in March. I am not sure whether the Government intend that those elections should always be held on the same day or whether, under their powers, they would consider separating the dates of the elections—for example, one early in February and the other early in May. The Government's intentions in this respect do not seem wholly clear.

Sir Raymond Gower

Does my hon. Friend derive any guidance in that respect from the fact that the first election will be held "on a day"? Presumably that means that the two separate Assemblies will, in the first instance, be elected on the same day. Does that indicate the practice?

Mr. Onslow

I do not know. I am unable to help my hon. Friend. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what the Bill means and how it will be applied.

Mr. Graham Page

I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Barry (Sir R. Gower) noticed that it was in the alternative—"Scottish or Welsh Assembly". Therefore, they could be on different days.

Mr. Onslow

My right hon. Friend confirms my suspicion. I believe that he can read a Bill with his eyes shut. Indeed, he is a master draftsman in his own right. I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that this point requires clarification.

Regarding my right hon. Friend's uncertainty about the choice of date, I think that I can see some reason or logic in the line of thought which has brought the Government to this conclusion. Unless I am mistaken, 22nd February is normally the date on which the new register comes into force. It is presumably desirable that the election should be fought on as fresh and up-to-date a register as possible. After 22nd February there is a narrow gap into which an election campaign can be fitted.

On reflection, reading my diary, I was wrong to suppose that next year the campaign might lead to a situation in which votes were counted on Good Friday. I believe that next year Good Friday falls on the fourth Friday in March. I do not know whether it can ever be earlier than that. That is one of the mysteries which we look forward to having resolved in the Minister's reply. I still believe that it would be fatally constricting to accept the Liberal amendment if the operative date is to be the third Thursday in March.

There must be flexibility. There must be a crisis clause. I believe that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery believes that there must be a crisis clause, unless by mistake he put his name to the amendment to which one of my hon. Friends referred.

Mr. Hooson

I believe that there should be a crisis clause. However, if it is refused, I rely on other safeguards.

Mr. Onslow

That does not make the Liberal Party's position any clearer to me, although it may to others. We considered its answer to the crisis situation on Amendment No. 519. The position on the structure of the elections is not wholly satisfactory.

I am attracted by the argument that there is a great deal to be said for some of the elections which are now held on different dates throughout the year being held on the same day. That is a possibility that deserves serious consideration. It is unnecessarily cumbersome to commit and condemn ourselves to a series of three-week or month-long election campaigns starting effectively at the beginning of March, as they might in a few years, and running through until the end of May. That is a particularly unbusinesslike way of conducting our affairs. The more flexibility we can achieve in the Bill, the more intelligent use that can be made of it the more likely we are to get this done in a seamanlike manner.

Sir Raymond Gower

Obviously the Government intended the subsection, which the Liberal Party amendment seeks to take out, to create some flexibility. Neverthless, this is not adequate in view of the machinery of election. From the wording of the Bill it seems that the first subsequent election will be held on the third Thursday in March, or thereabouts. It is possible that that could be followed by a couple of weeks, or a couple of months at the most, of campaign.

But I do not want to mention the particular date for that reason. It is normal for the new electoral register to be published on about 22nd February. That precludes the possibility of a reasonable election campaign and all the canvassing and other activities that normally take place at election time in any period before the latter part of March or early April. That is governed by this extra period which is within the discretion of the Secretary of State. Why mention this particular date in the Bill when it is so close to the publication of the electoral register?

Mr. Hooson

Does that argument not make a nonsense of the two months option prior to that date, because that would force an election on the old register?

Sir R. Gower

Precisely. It is desirable that these elections should be held after the publication of the new register.

Mr. Leadbitter

Before the hon. Member develops his argument on the basis of the assumption that the electoral register is made available on 22nd February, I must say, with respect to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), that it is important for the purpose of the soundness of his argument that we should know the precise date. His point might be strengthened or disposed of should the date be earlier than that. I think it is earlier.

Mr. Harry Ewing

My information is that the register for 1977 will be published on 16th February. I shall correct that if I find that I am wrong. The date is approximately the same each year.

Sir R. Gower

The Minister will appreciate that all kinds of unforeseen eventualities could prevent the publication of the register—a printing strike, for example. Why is this date so near to the publication of the register. Why not have a date in May? Why cannot we set the date at the third or first Thursday in May and have a gap between the normal date of the publication of the new register and the election? Even the latitude given in subsection (2) cannot protect against the possibilities that I have mentioned.

The Government should introduce a provision to ensure that there will be a period that is adequate for a normal election campaign, including printing and canvassing and so forth. The prescribed dates should not be so near to the date of publication in case something delays publication generally or in a particular locality. The Minister must take that into account.

I agree with those who pleaded for the mandatory requirement of consultation. As some of my hon. Friends said, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) emphasised, consultation is desirable. I hope that the Government will accept that.

Mr. Dalyell

Why is it that we seem to be discussing the issue in terms of the third week in March? There are various objections to that. The first is the closeness of that date to the publication of the register. Has the Minister considered the problems that would be caused in severe winter conditions when campaigning in Shotts or Fauldhouse? Is there an objection—and I can see that there might be from the Government's point of view—to linking the Assembly election to the May district regional elections?

Because of the slight altercation that I had with my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Mr. Gourlay), I can see that there could be an argument from those who are in favour of a legislative Assembly not to mix the election up with others.

Yesterday I referred to the views of an agent who is a full-time official of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers and who is appalled at the prospect of having to do all these elections separately. One must remember that many agents have full-time jobs of their own. They have heavyweight jobs and are running other things. But at all elections we rely on voluntary help. Can one reasonably ask the same people, who are always those who are interested in politics, to go through the process in March and again in May?

Finally, I should like to pin on the question whether there would not be advantage if the elections were to be in May. It is all very well in the parliamentary elections suddenly to find that one is catapulted into a different world and into a different job. However, would this not be a bit more rational? Let us suppose that the Assembly was to start serious annual business after the summer holiday, in late August or early September. Scottish schools resume in late August. Is there not some advantage in a three-month gap—it clearly could not be much longer—so that people could make personal arrangements and that Members of the previous Assembly could do all the winding-up business?

That is common practice in Europe. It is what the Bundestag does. The Bundestag does not get under way until about three and half months after the election I should have thought that from the point of view of Members and the efficiency of the system, there is something to be said for having a May election, if an Assembly comes about, on the understanding that people start serious work in September, and the successful candidates would then be able to wind up their personal affairs.

I put that forward in the form of a not unhelpful question.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

It seems that quite an important issue of principle is raised here. The Bill on which we are embarked is the beginning of a journey. We know from where we start. Personally, I would rather not start at all. I would rather stay as we are. However, the Bill commits us to at any rate studying and considering the destination towards which we are going—and about that there is considerable uncertainty.

The question of the dates on which elections should take place is very relevant to the end product of the Bill. Are we moving to a federal structure in the end? Are we moving to separatism? Or will it be possible to have a devolved form a Government that will secure the predominance and supremacy of this Parliament at Westminster?

Clearly, if we wanted to move to a federal system, which I understand to be the aspiration of the Liberal Party, there is everything to be said for a fixed date. There is a definition of powers as between the federal Government and the State powers and, therefore, we want the distinction to be very clear. What is in the domain of the States—in the United States, Australia or other federal structures—is entirely their own matter and, therefore, the elections come at a fixed time and bear no particular relationship to the central Government.

The same would be true, I think, for those who, such as the SNP, wish to go to separatism, because here again everything that accentuates and emphasises the difference between the Scottish or Welsh Assembly and the Parliament at West-minister obviously helps to further the cause of separatism.

However, for those of us who wish to see the closest links maintained between this Parliament and any Assembly that may be created—even if we have hesitations about any Assembly—clearly our concern is to ensure the maximum of flexibility in the dates for the elections. We want to see the influence and authority of Westminster asserted. We also want to have a good understanding with any Assembly that might come into being. We want to have a good relationship with it and we want it to be able to make representations to us. Therefore, those of us who are not yet prepared to accept a federal solution and those of us who set our faces completely against separatism face a difficult problem.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Mr. Macmillan) made a strong case that there was a great deal to be said for having all elections on the same day. That would have the great advantage of avoiding the "electionitis" to which we are likely to be subjected if things go on as they seem to be developing at present. There is, therefore, a great deal to be said for that proposition, but there are also great practical difficulties. I should like to see it, but if we cannot have that—and I do not think that the Government are ready to concede it—I would ask the Minister seriously to consider giving us the maximum flexibility possible and, as a step in that direction, accepting Amendment No. 110, which stands in the names of a number of my hon. Friends and myself, with a view to giving us, at any rate, as much flexibility as possible.

That is not asking a great deal. It is something that does not in any way destroy the fundamental character of the Bill. Indeed, it would probably be helpful to the Minister in enabling him to keep perhaps better relations with any Assemblies that may come into being—against my wish; I accept them only reluctantly. It would enable them to make representations to him and would give him a certain flexibility in agreeing with them exactly what dates should be fixed.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

I intervene only briefly. The Committee will be aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends have no intention of supporting the Bill at any of its stages, for the reasons that we set out at an earlier stage, but I am beginning to wonder whether we have some strong allies within the ranks of the Government themselves, because over the past 48 hours we have had clear evidence that at least one section of the Government is determined to sabotage this legislation.

If we consider the matter before us in this group of amendments, we cannot help wondering whether the Government are not making the whole business unnecessarily complicated. It seems to me that we have to recognise that a poll must take place on the register that was in force on the day on which the election was embarked upon.

Is not that a needless complication? We in Northern Ireland once had this difficulty in a Stormont election. Because of a slip-up in timing we were forced to hold a General Election on a register that was two weeks out of date. The new register had been published, but because the election procedures had been commenced during the period of life of the old register, that register had to be used and the new one, updated as it was, had to be ignored and set aside.

There is a strong argument for keeping the election date well away from this watershed of the date of the publication of the register, beset as it is, as I have illustrated, by so many pitfalls.

Mr. Brittan

The first of these amendments, No. 106, proposed on behalf of the Liberal Party, seeks to remove the element of flexibility that at present stands in the Bill. It is a limited element of flexibility that the Secretary of State has to vary the election by no more than two months in one direction or another.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) was candid enough to admit that that amendment reflected a slight difference of opinion within the Liberal Party, as compared with the amendment that was debated in the previous group. He explained that it was an exaggeration to refer to it as a split within the Liberal Party and that he preferred the somewhat rigid approach of the amendment. It does not seem to me that that approach has found much favour elsewhere in the Committee.

It seems an extraordinarily inflexible attitude to insist that the elections should be on exactly the same day, without any variation, year in and year out. Until I heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery), explain the suitability of fixed dates for a federal situation I found it inexplicable that the Liberal Party had come up with what appeared to be an illogical proposal. I suppose if it is tarred with the federal brush it finds favour in that quarter, but I do not think that it finds favour with the Committee generally, because, in all seriousness, I do not think that we want to tie any Assembly that is created in quite so rigid a way.

The second amendment, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), relates to a proposition with which it is coupled and which will be debated later, so I shall not deal with it now.

However, during the course of the debate reference has been made to the extraordinarily inconvenient date of the third Thursday in March for the election. A number of different reasons have been given for that being an inconvenient date, and it seems to me that whatever other date one might choose it is almost sure to be more conveneint than the third Thursday in March, whether one considers it from the point of view of climate or from the point of view of the proximity to the date of publication of the electoral register. One might almost thing that the Government tried to think of a day that was as inconveneint as possible because they wanted the Bill defeated.

We want the Bill defeated, but we think that we shall be able to find rather more substantial grounds than this malchosen day.

I have a great deal of sympathy with Amendment No. 110, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) addressed himself and which provides that when the Secretary of State intends to vary the date of the election, he shall consider the representations of either Assembly. However, perhaps it should be modified slightly. The mere obligation to consider representation imports no obligation to notify the Assemblies of his inclination to exercise this power or to give them enough time to make such representations.

I favour this amendment, but I would respectfully suggest that it might be desirable that it should provide that the Assemblies should have a reasonable period—it could be quite short—to make the representations that the Secretary of State would be obliged to consider. Subject to that minor drafting point, we on this side hope that the Government will accept the spirit of that amendment.

Mr. Harry Ewing

This could be one of the few occasions when the Committee is in broad agreement.

The right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) put the case very nicely against Amendment No. 106 when he referred to the Liberal standpoint on a federal system. The amendment is linked closely to a federal system, a notable feature of which is rigidity. I therefore understand the reasons for the amendment—it is in line with the Liberal idea of the system we should have—but I do not accept its rigidity.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) asked why the Secretary of State should have the flexibility to vary the date two months either way. He was supported by the hon. Member for Barry (Sir R. Gower), who asked why there should be flexibility in these elections when other elections have fixed dates. He referred specifically to local government elections. The one election which does not have a fixed date in this country is a parliamentary election. No one knows when it is to be held. That is one reason that it was felt necessary to build in the flexibility in Clause 3(2) and that is the first good reason to ask the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery to withdraw the amendment. Otherwise, I would ask the Committee to reject it.

The hon. Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) said that Amendment No. 108 related to a discussion which we shall have at a later stage. I should refer to the correction made to the amendment by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), who was kind enough to tell me that unfortunately he would have to leave the Committee after he spoke. I appreciate his taking the trouble to apologise. The correction means that if the amendment were carried the elections would be held on such earlier date as the Secretary of State would decide and not such other day as he may decide", as in the original printed form of the amendment.

8.45 p.m.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne was honest, as always, in saying that the purpose of his amendment was that the Secretary of State should exercise these powers to have these elections as soon as possible after the Assembly elections are held—in other words, to try to frustrate the work of the Assembly. That is why it would not be wise to accept even the amended words of Amendment No. 108.

I do not underestimate the importance of when the electoral register is published, nor its relationship to the date of an election. Under Section 1(2) of the Electoral Registers Act 1949, the electoral register must be published before the fifteenth day of February each year, to come into effect on the sixteenth day of February each year, and every election that takes place within 12 months of 16th February will be conducted on that electoral register.

Sir Raymond Gower

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate, however, that even though every attempt is made to observe that requirement of the law, in practice it is sometimes impossible to obtain copies of the register until much later, due to local difficulties. Sometimes the printers have not got it ready, or there is only one copy available. Therefore, it is wise to have some flexibility to cover such eventualities.

Mr. Ewing

Even if the Assembly elections were to be held on the date defined in the legislation—the third Thursday in March—that still leaves five or six weeks between the date on which the register comes into force and the date on which the elections would normally take place.

Mr. Leadbitter

This is an important matter, and I want to be helpful. Subsection (2) gives the Secretary of State powers, albeit without consultation, to appoint the day of the election—that is, the next ordinary election—two months before the third Thursday in March, which brings him to the third Thursday in January. This would create problems as my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has mentioned so succinctly. On the other hand, it gives the Secretary of State similar powers to put the date forward up to a period of two months—that is, up to the third Thursday of April. Therefore, we are getting much nearer, if there are discretionary powers in that direction, to considering before Report whether it would be better to move the date towards May, because the Secretary of State virtually has those powers anyway. Is that helpful to my hon. Friend?

Mr. Ewing

Indeed, it is helpful, because it will allow me to bring out a point on why we decided that the election should not be held in May.

But I want first to return to the question about the proximity of an election to the date of publication of the electoral register. We have recent experience of just such an event, because the first General Election of 1974 was held on 28th February on an electoral register that was only about 14 days old. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has spoken of the inclement weather we are liable to encounter during February. During that election campaign the weather was atrocious, yet we had the highest percentage turnout in a General Election for a long time.

In October 1974, when the electoral register had been in existence for some time, and in better weather, the turnout was down by 8 per cent. to 10 per cent. If the argument is that an electoral register that has been in existence for five or six months gives us longer to work on it, that it enables us to canvass more extensively and do all the things we like to do in our political campaigning, we must ask why that happened.

It would not be wise for the Committee to link its arguments about the date on which an election should be held to the kind of weather we are inclined to get, or to link them too closely to the publication date of the electoral register. I contested a by-election in September 1971 when a new register was being made up. The situation was much more confusing for everyone involved than I imagine it would be in the circumstance which has been posed.

Mr. Onslow

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not ask the Committee to suppose that the sole or even main cause of the difference between the turnout in February 1974 and October 1974 was the age of the register. It is possible to imagine that other factors might have played a part. The point on which we would rather hear the Minister is linked more to the accessibility of the electors to those who wish to campaign among them at that time of year, particularly in Scotland and Wales, where there has been a fair bit of difficulty with snow and so on this year. Is the hon. Gentleman seeking to extend his argument to say that an aging register is in itself an argument against having an election in May, when the age of the register is scarcely more significant?

Mr. Ewing

I am placing no great emphasis on the arguments about the electoral register. I just sought to clear up the point about the publication date and to give the examples of recent experience in February 1974 and October 1974.

I pass to the question why we decided that the elections should not be held in May. Here I link what I have to say to Amendment No. 110 about consultation. I shall ask the Committee not to accept Amendment No. 110, which seeks to write into the provision a statutory obligation for the Secretary of State to consult the Assemblies should the Secretary of State consider it necessary to use the comprehensive powers in the Bill.

We do not believe that May would be a good month for the elections because it would not be a good idea to link the elections to the district or regional council elections. We consulted the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the local authorities in Wales about the possibility of holding these elections in May. We asked those who are normally involved in electioneering for their advice, and they thought that it would be unwise to hold the elections in May. For that reason, we decided that it would be better to hold the elections in March.

Sir Raymond Gower

I do not wish to be unfair to the Minister, but he is not giving the Committee an answer. Of course, the local authority personnel would not want some other election to overshadow their own. Naturally they would be disposed to give that advice to the Minister. We are asking for something fundamentally different—in other words, for consultations with Assembly Members, who are people of a different kind.

Mr. Onslow

If I may follow up my hon. Friend's intervention, can the Minister say whether the local authorities were specifically asked whether they would like two separate election campaigns to be fitted into the month of May? Did they have an opportunity to express their opinion about holding two separate contests on the same polling day?

Mr. Ewing

We discussed with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities the question when the Assembly elections should take place. It became clear that their view was that the month of May was not acceptable. Furthermore, these elections are different in type. Therefore, it is not possible for us to associate elections to the Assembly with elections to local authorities. For that reason, we decided to recommend the month of March.

The hon. Member for Woking (Mr Onslow) asked whether in future elections in Wales and Scotland would be held on the same day. I think it can be said that the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) picked up that point a little earlier and in a sense cleared the matter up. It is the intention to hold the first elections on the same day, if that is possible, but after that there is a degree of flexibility which can be introduced if so desired.

Mr. Onslow

Whose desire will this be? Is it to be in response to an expression of opinion on behalf of the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies, which the Minister dismissed as a method, or at the whim of the Secretary of State?

Mr. Ewing

I did not dismiss any approach by the Welsh or Scottish Assemblies. We believe that another reason for not accepting Amendment No. 110 is that the Bill is constructed on the basis of consultations between the Assemblies and the central Government. In regard to the Secretaries of State for Wales and Scotland, it is expected that there will be constant consultation on this and a whole range of subjects. Indeed, the very theme of the Bill is one of consultation. If it is found necessary to vary the date of the election, it will be done on the basis of consultation. For these reasons we do not consider that it is necessary to write into the Bill a statutory requirement for the Secretary of State to consult with the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Brittan

It is only during the last minute that the Minister has addressed his mind to the matter raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page). The fact that the consultations will take place on whether the basic date for the elections should be March or May has nothing to do with whether there should be an obligation on the Secretary of State to consult the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies if he is inclined to exercise his power of varying the date of any future election. The only reason that the Minister has given for not wanting that obligation in the Bill is that he already plans to consult the Welsh and Scottish Assemblies.

Does the Minister not realise that the power of varying the date of elections will be one of the most sensitive points of contact and possibly conflict between the Secretary of State and the Assemblies? If the Government want to avoid conflict, would it not be wise to allow an express provision requiring consultation to be written into the Bill? The Minister has said that it is his intention that there should be consultation in any event.

Mr. Ewing

During the debate, the hon. Member for Eastbourne said that Governments of all parties had stopped consulting. I was about to point out that that is not the case. We are continually consulting local authority associations and various other organisations. I imagine that that also applied to the previous Administration. Consultations go on and there is no need to write them into statute.

The Government's view is that a statutory requirement for consultation is unnecessary because consultations will take place in any case. I sometimes imagine that if this were the only major area of conflict we should all be both happy and to some extent surprised, but I do not make too much of that point.

For all these reasons I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery will withdraw Amendment No. 106 and that, if not, the Committee will reject it. Nor are the Government minded to accept Amendment No. 110, and again I ask the Committee to reject it should there be a vote.

Mr. Graham Page

I am extremely disappointed that the Minister has been unable to accept the spirit of Amendment No. 110. I was prepared for him to say that because the amendment referred to representations instead of to consultation, it could be drafted in a better form—so that it would oblige the Secretary of State to consult the Assembly rather than wait for the Assembly to make representations to him when it could not know that he had any intention of making such an order. I ask and trust that the Government will accept such an amendment.

The Minister argued that there are and always will be continual consultations. It so, why should it not be written into the Bill against the very important order in Clause 3? It is important that there should be consultations, not only because it would be foolish for a Secretary of State not to consult the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies before making such an order, but because the House ought to know that such consultations have taken place. According to Clause 3, there will be an obligation upon the Secretary of State to lay the order before the House in the form of a Statutory Instrument and to let it be the subject of a Prayer by any Member. At present in cases where the Secretary of State is under an obligation to consult someone before making an order, that is set out in the preamble. If that happened in this case we should know when the order was laid that the Secretary of State had consulted the people concerned.

The Minister said that it was unusual to write this provision into orders, but he should look at the modem Statutory Instruments going through the House every day and he will see that this provision appears in the preamble time and again. We often see it said that the Secretary of State must consult with the organisations concerned, whether local government, trade associations, nationalised industries or whatever.

I am merely asking that a statutory obligation should be placed on the Secretary of State not to make orders on a whim but only after consultation with the Assemblies. I urge the Minister to think again about his rejection of that principle. I do not ask him to accept the wording of the amendment, but it would assist in the operation of the Bill, much as I dislike it, if such a statutory obligation were laid upon the Secretary of State.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Onslow

I beg to move Amendment No. 109, in page 2, line 22, at end insert: 'provided that no Assembly Election may be held during a period when Parliament has been dissolved'.

The Temporary Chairman (Mr. Alan Fitch)

With this, we are to take Amendment No. 111, in page 2, line 22, at end insert: '(2A) Elections to the Scottish or Welsh Assemblies shall not take place within two months of a Parliamentary general election or any election to the European Parliament'

Mr. Onslow

I hope that in the spirit in which I shall briefly rehearse my argument I shall meet no opposition from the Minister and shall succeed in persuading him that it would be to the general advantage if words to the effect of those in the amendment were included in the Bill. I think that the Minister agrees with me that it would be undesirable for there to be an overlap and a conflict between parliamentary elections and elections for either Assembly. There would be all sorts of complications and undesirable byproducts if such a situation occurred.

We have been told that it is because this danger has been foreseen and identified as something to be avoided that the flexibility that we have been discussing is regarded by the Government as being so important. We have not discussed whether it is desirable for the words to make this become the law to be incorporated in the Bill.

There is a case for that because, however hopeful we may be about consultations between one elected body and another, such bodies tend to be jealous animals and may be extremely reluctant to see the point, however sensible, unless it is spelled out in the Act that they must do so.

I can imagine circumstances in which members of the Assembly build themselves up to an election on, say, the third Thursday in March and go to considerable expense and even be so incautious as to print literature—when something suddenly happens to make it essential that a General Election is held on that day or a day close to it.

In such circumstances, I imagine that the prospective candidates for the Assembly elections would be exceptionally reluctant to recognise any argument which might be levelled against them by the Secretary of State that they should not have their elections on the date they had anticipated. It might make matters worse, or even precipitate a minor political crisis to the disadvantage of one political party or another. But if Parliament has judged the matter before hand, as we are attempting to do now, and has concluded that there is an overriding interest which should be enshrined in law, that argument may be acrimonious but it will not be prolonged and will not provoke a constitutional crisis because the constitution and its interpretation should be clear.

I shall not go into great length on this point, but I hope that the Minister can see why I have tabled the amendment and why I hope that he will be able to accept either the amendment or words to the same effect.

Sir Raymond Gower

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) has said, and I hope that the Minister, to judge by what he said earlier, will be disposed to accept the amendment. The Minister made clear that it was objectionable to have an Assembly election at the same time as local government elections. That was one of his main reasons for rejecting an earlier amendment. How much more objectionable would it be to have an Assembly election during a period when this Parliament was dissolved, just before a General Election.

A General Election for the Parliament at Westminster involves a great deal of activity, hard work, expense and so on, and it is a burdensome time for many people. Moreover, the election, and especially the period of dissolution prior to it, influences much that goes on economically. I respectfully submit that the Minister should agree to incorporate in the Bill not necessarily the exact wording of my hon. Friend's amendment—I do not think that my hon. Friend is attached to this wording, to the exclusion of some alternative rendering—but at least something on these lines to make it impossible for there to be a clash between elections to the Parliament at Westminster and elections to the Assembly.

I wish now to comment on Amendment No. 111. It is equally undesirable that elections to the Assembly should be held at the same time as elections to the European Parliament. I accept that we do not know when elections to the European Parliament will become a reality and when all the details will be settled, but it seems likely that elections to the Assemblies will be contemporaneous with elections for the European Parliament.

Mr. John Robertson (Paisley)


Sir R. Gower

The hon. Gentleman may dissent, but it seems likely that that will happen. This country has decided by a massive majority in a referendum to remain in the European Community, and I believe that, emerging from that decision, almost inevitably—

Mr. Powell

On a point of order, Mr. Fitch. Since the hon. Member for Barry (Sir R. Gower) has brought into his argument considerations deduced from the referendum on the European Community, may we assume that it will be in order for other hon. Members taking part in the debate to rebut those deductions?

The Temporary Chairman

We ought to see how we get along. I do not want the debate to widen on the question of direct elections to the European Parliament.

9.15 p.m.

Sir R. Gower

I did not intend to enlarge the question of the referendum, but I am speaking to an amendment that expressly refers to the elections to the European Parliament. I am not incorporating something that is outside the terms of the amendment, except by a reference to the referendum. I hope my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) will accept that I was making a general submission closely related to the contents of the amendment.

In the second amendment we have gone a little further in relation to parliamentary General Elections and suggested that we should prescribe a period of two months within which elections to the Assembly should not take place. That is reasonable, because in the aftermath of a General Election some such period is needed before people can have time to appraise the somewhat different considerations that might apply to the Assembly elections.

They will not be exactly the same considerations in Scotland or, indeed, in Wales. They will be dissimilar from the broader economic considerations, or national considerations on defence, or other subjects that are not within the purview of the Assemblies. The considerations will be related to the devolved functions. It is therefore reasonable that there should be this period after a General Election for this Parliament. Indeed, the same argument would apply with regard to future elections to the European Parliament.

In seconding the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), I also plead the merits of Amendment No. 111. I hope that the Minister, on behalf of the Government, will at least be able to accept the two amendments in spirit although not necessarily the actual wording.

Mr. Budgen

I support both Amend, ment No. 109 and Amendment No. 111. I do so because I believe as a matter of profound conviction in the preliminary clause to the Bill. I think I was offensive during our earlier discussions when I described Clause 1 as no more than a preliminary puff. For many of the Government's supporters I believe that it is no more than a preliminary puff. But there are those of us who do not want to affect the unity of the United Kingdom or the supreme authority of Parliament to make laws for the United Kingdom or any part of it.

Mr. Powell

Subject to Brussels.

Mr. Budgen

My right hon. Friend says "Subject to Brussels". No doubt, Mr. Fitch, he will deal with that when he catches your eye.

For those of us who believe in Clause 1, not as a matter of preliminary advertisement but as a matter of profound belief, the one thing we want to do above all else is to try to retain within the affections of the people of Wales and Scotland a sense that this Parliament is supreme and a sense that they look to this Parliament primarily rather than to any other subordinate body such as the Assemblies in Wales or Edinburgh or, indeed, to any purported superior body such as that in Brussels. On this issue, I agree with my right lion. Friend the Member for Down, South. I am opposed to direct elections to a European Assembly or Parliament. I therefore argue that it is vital that the timing of the elections to either the Scottish or Welsh Assemblies should be kept wholly separate from any elections to the United Kingdom Parliament.

Mr. Leadbitter

The hon. Gentleman stressed the paramount importance of the United Kingdom Parliament. But how can he see this possibility working out when already we have in the Bill proposals for 27 groups of a social, trading and economic kind to be devolved to Scotland and for 20 groups of a similar kind to be devolved to Wales, in addition to an endless number of directives coming from the Common Market? In that context, how can he uphold his views about Clause 1 of the Bill?

Mr. Budgen

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. In passing, perhaps I might say that I have admired the force and vigour of his oratory throughout these proceedings. It may be that in directing my mind to these problems I am wasting my energy on a useless enterprise. But in my view it is our constitutional duty to see whether this Bill can be improved and at the very least whether we cannot stop it from being as bad as it might be.

I hope that we may be able to prevent the cancer of separatism from catching hold too quickly in Wales and more especially in Scotland. If it is possible, I want to retain the sense of unique identity which exists between the United Kingdom Parliament and all the people of the United Kingdom. Let it be known throughout the United Kingdom that, even if this Parliament devolves some powers to Assemblies in Scotland and Wales, and that anomalous though it may be, that we retain concurrent control over all these devolved matters, the real power lies here, and that we have the right to take back these concurrent devolved powers.

It would be dangerous if anyone in, say, Strathclyde, went to a polling booth in Glasgow and said to himself "I shall not vote for the Westminster Parliament because I regard it as being wholly alien to my problems." He might say to himself, as many people do today, "All that I am interested in is whether I can get a council house, the rent that I pay for my council house, and whether that rent will be subsidised." Another man might say to himself, "I am concerned about education. I am not concerned about whether we give away further powers to a European Parliament. I shall not bother with those issues about which I understand nothing." If at the same time he had to vote in an Assembly election, he might say to himself "My preference is to vote for the Scottish Assembly which I understand and to which I am increasingly coming to give my affection and even my love."

I argue that it is essential that we keep elections to any Scottish or Welsh Assembly separate from elections to the United Kingdom Parliament, and if, unhappily, it comes about that there are any elections to the European Assembly, separate from those elections, too.

There are many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Committee whose real love and whose loyalty go to the United Kingdom Parliament and who do not wish to see any movement by which we may corrupt the love and the affection of any of the citizens of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Leadbitter

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) came very close to the concern which I was expressing earlier, and, as I listened to his argument, I discovered that his support for the Bill was just about as significant as my own in that I oppose it.

Now that we have reached Amendments Nos. 109 and 111, I find that I was mistaken in the judgment which I formed when we discussed Amendment No. 106 and those grouped with it. Then I suggested that we might be falling into the trap of repetition. Before you took the Chair, Mr. Fitch, your predecessor indicated that it was the will of the House not to discuss this group of amendments with the previous group, and it was feared that there might be some repetition in the contributions by hon. Members.

Here we are dealing with the important and significant subject of General Elections, the dates on which they are held, their impact on the community, and the response to them by the electorate. The electorate will be facing growing demands to go to the ballot box throughout the course of the year. There will be local elections at district and county levels, Assembly elections, and, if certain powers have their way, direct elections to the European Parliament. The Committee should bear in mind just how damaging a surfeit of such elections could be on the people when they feel that the issues in the elections are becoming increasingly remote from them.

Even hon. Members sometimes feel overwhelmed by the magnitude and burden of EEC legislation. What is the electorate supposed to think when Common Market issues of vital importance to it appear to grow increasingly remote from ordinary men and women in a democratic system?

Amendment No. 109 provides that the Assembly elections may not be held when Parliament has been dissolved. We know from our previous debates that elections to the Assemblies can take place at different times. The elections must be held every four years, but within that time scale the Secretary of State has the power to vary the date by two months one way or the other. How will this arrangement operate, however, when Parliament is dissolved? We may want to introduce greater flexibility into the arrangements for Assembly elections, but surely as the arrangements stand, and with the dissolution of Westminster Parliament an unpredictable factor, there is bound to be conflict. The whole thing is in the lap of the gods in terms of whether there will be a clash.

I am glad that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) saw the significance of the Common Market aspect and referred to it. I do not pretend to be a constitutionalist, and I suspect that other Members will be able to go into these matters more deeply and effectively, but if we impose upon the electors elections at the lower end of the scale for local government purposes in the same year as direct elections to the Common Market, I suspect that we shall be doing something that is damaging to the ballot box

9.30 p.m.

In my reading of history I have found that once the ballot box ceases to be supported by the will of the people there are other political forces that are ready to take advantage. When we are seeking to respond to certain minority group pressures by increasing democratic processes and introducing Assembly after Assembly, we must bear in mind the inevitable effect on the people. The people must have a reason to go to the ballot box otherwise the system breaks down. This involves consensus. There must be an understanding of the principles involved in the election process. There must be that understanding involved in the participation of any person who is qualified to cast his or her vote.

The devolved matters that will go to Scotland include health, social work, social security, education and science, the arts, housing, physical planning and environment, the latter having a great deal to do with the development of industry. Although the House of Commons will have the right in non-devolved areas to deal with the economy, there is an aspect of the economy involved in the determination of planning procedures for industry. Other devolved matters are roads and transport, the development of industry, natural resources, the law and legal systems, tourism, pay in the public sector, the regulation of professions, statistics and other information, tribunals and inquiries.

Given that devolvement, a Member of the House of Commons who comes from Scotland—more or less the same subjects are to be devolved to Wales and the same comments apply to a Member representing a Welsh constituency—or Wales who asks for support from the electors will find that the people will say "Why should we vote for you when the important matters that concern us are dealt with at the Assembly?" That may well be the wrong attitude, but events have led them to believe that to be the case.

In those two parts of the United Kingdom there will be increasing apathy. The Committee should consider how much worse that will be for the United Kingdom as a whole when the people will be faced with direct elections to the Common Market. I have lived in my area for 25 years and I fail to understand how the electors will know for what they are voting. That knowledge is an important part of the electoral system.

Reference was made earlier to the lower turn out for the October than for the February 1974 election. I believe that it was something to do with the fact that the electorate had been asked to go out to the ballot box twice in that year. That can change the whole electoral complex.

The Committee should listen not so much to the departmental administrative niceties and their requirements as to the experience of those who have many years' experience of fighting elections and studying the responses of the electors. I believe that the electors go to the ballot box when they feel that they have an involvement and that issues affect them.

I believe that hon. Members in the House of Commons—never mind the electorate—who spend all their working hours here are totally at sea when it comes to directives, regulations and instructions from the Common Market. Indeed, some hon. Members present now have experience of sitting late at night knowing that they can do no more than comment on what is put before them. We either take note or do not take note.

The amendments give us the opportunity to indicate our views. Whether amendments are accepted and written into the Bill is a matter for a vote. The overriding consideration is to make the Government fully aware that this tide towards spreading our democracy will not in the end serve the House of Commons well.

The right hon. Member for Down, South referred to his belief in the purposes and intentions of Clause 1, albeit that those of us who debated that clause questioned and doubted it and said that the Government were not sincere about it. However, it underlines what the right hon. Gentleman said about the need for the unity and strength of the United Kingdom within the concept of one nation. We shall not have that unity if this tide is not stopped now.

Mr. Powell

I have listened attentively to the four speeches which have been made on Amendments Nos. 109 and 111. I am fully seized of the importance of the matters which lie behind them, but I am doubtful about the practicality of what is proposed.

First, Amendment No. 111 seeks to provide that Elections to the Scottish or Welsh Assemblies shall not take place within two months of a Parliamentary general election". I take it that "within two months" means that it shall be either more than two months before or more than two months after. I am open to correction, but that appears to be the natural meaning of the expression "within".

I can understand how the occurrence of a parliamentary General Election or even—I shall come to this matter later—the improbable event of a European Assembly election might constitute thereafter a close season, as it were, of two months for elections to these Assemblies. However, I cannot for the life of me understand how the incidence of a parliamentary General Election will be foreseen with such accuracy that the Secretary of State, in making his dispositions—he has not got much water in which to swim as the clause is constituted—will be able to avoid the dead ground of the two months before the General Election.

While I am on that point, perhaps it would be useful if the Under-Secretary would indicate how long in advance of the statutory normal deadline for an Assembly election he anticipates that the Secretary of State would make one of these varying orders. This is something which is quite different from the fixing of a date for a General Election. After all, there is the presumed date coming up for the next Assembly elections but there is also the power of the Secretary of State to vary it by so much forwards or backwards. I would have thought that the Secretary of State would normally wish to give notice that he was going to make an order—or indeed, to give notice that he was not going to make an order—a good time in advance and, indeed, considerably more than two months in advance of the normal fixed terminal date for the holding of the Assembly. Otherwise, he would be leaving those concerned with every aspect of the elections in unnecessary uncertainty.

If I am right—and no doubt the Minister will confirm whether my assumption is correct—it would be impracticable for the Secretary of State, deciding for or against exercising his anticipatory or deferring powers, to take account of the existence of a parliamentary General Election. I doubt whether there is any practicability in Amendment No. 111 as it stands.

I come to Amendment No. 109. I well remember that in 1955 a General Election was called during a period in which local government elections were going to fall. I can remember vividly my sense of distress when I realised that this conjuncture was going to occur. But the experience was not so bad as the anticipation. I think that there was a fortnight's interval between the week in which the local government elections took place and the Thursday on which the General Election took place. It was astonishing how little conflict and how little inconvenience was caused either to electors—so far as one could judge—or to candidates and those who were organising the General Election. From memory the local government election and the General Election fell fairly close together and certainly within the same month.

Mr. Graham Page

The experience of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) does not tally with that of the rest of us. I recollect that there was considerable confusion at that time.

Mr. Powell

That is most interesting. I simply reported to the Committee my own experience. Perhaps circumstances were simpler in a borough constituency which then had the advantage of being an all-purpose authority. The circumstances in a borough constituency may be different from those in a county constituency.

However, my reason for referring to the 1955 conjuncture is that that was a conjuncture between local government elections and a parliamentary election where, certainly for the purposes of the electorate, there was a distinction which they could not possibly mistake between the subjects on which they were called upon deal in the context of the municipal elections and those involved in the election called by the late Lord Avon in 1955.

I entirely agree with hon. Members that it is a different matter when one is dealing with the relationship in Wales, and particularly in Scotland, between elections to the Assembly and elections to Parliament. In fact, I would think it probable that as time goes on the elections to the Assembly and the importance of the Assembly in the minds of electors will greatly detract from the significance of the parliamentary elections and the significance of representation in the House of Commons.

9.45 p.m.

Therefore, I entirely take the point that perhaps lies behind Amendment No. 109, that we are setting up a real conflict such as does not exist between local government and the House of Commons. We are setting up a real conflict between the claims and ambitions of the new Assemblies, particularly the Scottish Assembly, and the House of Commons.

Reverting again to the practicalities, I wonder whether by simply keeping the elections apart by more than three weeks, or even two months, we are doing anything to remedy the problem. When one asks this question, one is driven to the conclusion that it is in the nature of what we are doing that we are undermining the significance of the House of Commons in the minds of the electorate in the two parts of the United Kingdom concerned and that we are rather counteracting the profession which is contained in Clause 1.

Therefore, while I regard the proposals in the two amendments as inherently impracticable, I think that the fact that they are being debated is a sign of the justified anxiety—it goes much deeper than the matter of the date of the elections—felt by an increasing number of Members of the House of Commons as to the concurrence—which, after all, means competition—in the minds of the electorate between their representation in the Assembly and their representation in Parliament.

Finally, I come to the hypothetical matter of elections to the European Parliament, as it is called. I tread very hesitantly upon this ground, first because I do not think that one should waste too much time with so remote a hypothesis as that there should be elections to a European Assembly. After all the bitter disappointments of recent years, I still cannot bring myself to believe that the House of Commons will seal the surrender of its authority and its representative character by bringing direct elections to a European Parliament into existence.

However, my only purpose in referring to this matter—I believe that I had your authority or consent to do so, Mr. Fitch—was most succinctly to rebut the assertion of the hon. Member for Barry (Sir R. Gower) that we may take these elections to the European Parliament for granted because they were implicit in the result of the referendum. On the contrary, it cannot be too often put upon the record that not only was the whole question of direct elections sedulously kept out both of the literature and the conduct of that campaign but, what is more, the official document of the time specifically reserved that as an issue that was not involved.

The White Paper following the previous ministerial meeting, which I think was in December 1974, actually contained the statement that Her Majesty's Government reserved their position on the whole matter of direct elections until after the referendum. That is something that they could not possibly have done if a referendum automatically decided, yea or nay, the question of direct elections.

I am greatly indebted to you, Mr. Fitch, for your long suffering, patience, generosity and flexibility—and whatever other abstract nouns I can heap together to confer upon you and to lay at your feet—for enabling me to rebut the false, wounding and damaging assertion which in this context fell from the lips of the hon. Member for Barry.

Laying that finally on one side, I conclude by saying that once again in considering these amendments we are having the experience that has been ours throughout the Committee stage. Over and over again we find ourselves attempting to remedy by amendments that which is irremediable in the nature of the Bill.

I confess that I shall not find it possible to support Amendment No. 109 or Amendment No. 111. That is because I regard them as impracticable. But that is no offence to those who drafted the amendments, because the trouble that they have aimed at alleviating is so inherent that no amendments of this sort can remedy it. In short, speaking of the Bill and in the words of Hamlet, it is no good simply reforming it. We must "reform it altogether".

Mr. Arthur Jones (Daventry)

I think that the right hon. Mmber for Down, South (Mr. Powell) should not be too critical of the amendments. After all, they have given him the opportunity to use his eloquence in respect of the Bill and of the European Parliament. I am sure that but for the amendments he would not have had the opportunity of doing that this evening.

The Temporary Chairman

Order. The hon. Member should not turn his back on the Chair. I should like to see his face.

Mr. Jones

I do not know that it would be any great contribution to the debate to see my countenance, but I recognise that my remarks should be addressed to you, Mr. Fitch.

However, I was hoping—I was going to say "catch the eye of the right hon. Member for Down, South", but that would be an unfortunate phrase to use—to say to the right hon. Gentleman that the amendments to which he has addressed himself have given him the opportunity of addressing the Committee on subjects to which his eloquence has been devoted on many previous occasions.

I cannot understand how the right hon. Gentleman can refuse to accept the verdict of the United Kingdom as a whole on the referendum. To my mind that does not manifest the commitment that he clearly has to the democratic system, and that is why I have never really understood the criticism that he has addressed in that regard to the overwhelming decision of the British people.

I want to address myself essentially to the administrative considerations arising from Amendment No. 111. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) told us something of the problem that would face the electorate in the event of a General Election and local authority elections being held at roughly the same time. I know of the hon. Gentleman's long experience in both local and central Government and how knowledgeable he is of the consequences of elections running too close together.

I was pleased to be reminded of the circumstances that arose in 1955. I agree with the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) that considerable confusion arose from the fact that at about the same time there were local government elections for the county boroughs and also, as the right hon. Member for Down, South said, for non-municipal boroughs, and a General Election. I fought that General Election in 1955, and I remember the confusion that there was for many of my colleagues in an adjoining county who were contesting the local authority elections.

Tremendous administrative problems will arise from the proposals in the Bill.

Sir Raymond Gower

Does my hon. Friend's experience accord with mine? Did he receive complaints and expressions of exasperation from some of the workers engaged in the elections at that time?

Mr. Jones

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is the point to which I want to turn. Not only those involved in elections on a voluntary basis or as employees of the parties but the staffs in local government faced heavy duties as a result of two elections in the same month. The registration officer has duties: the register has to be updated. Serious confusion arises over postal votes at normal times, and it is desirable to avoid added complications in the arrangements proposed in the Bill. Local authority staffs have to advertise.

I need not emphasise the party organisations: we all know the problems of having elections too close together and the problems for candidates. Those problems will be compounded if candidates stand for two elections, to the Assembly and to the House of Commons. The overriding consideration for political parties is fund raising.

I understand the point about the close season. With the flexibility in the clause, this could last for four months and could create problems. We want an arrangement which takes into account all the circumstances. There is much to be said for the amendment and I am glad that we have been able to discuss the relative merits of revised arrangements.

The timing of parliamentary elections is indeterminate. At least elections to the European Parliament will he predetermined, which will avoid the sudden appearance of a General Election at the same time.

I hope that the Government will consider ways of meeting the valid points which arise on Amendment No. 111, The circumstances which arose in 1959 highlight the possible problems. I hope that some sort of accommodation can be reached.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I am not sure that the two amendments will technically achieve their precise purpose, but I very much agree with their intention and spirit. The primary reason that I am anxious to avoid confusion in the minds of the electorate between Assembly and Westminster elections is quite simply that of the paramountcy of Parliament.

The first clause of the Bill and most of the speeches made by Ministers reiterate again and again that nothing in the Bill shall effect the unity of the United Kingdom or the supreme authority of Parliament…. Therefore, I believe it to be common ground that all of us, the Government and my right hon. and hon. Friends—

It being Ten o'clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress.

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