HC Deb 08 February 1977 vol 925 cc1243-7
Mr. Sillars

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I add my apologies for detaining the House from its normal business. I wish to raise three issues which I believe will require a ruling from you with respect to further proceedings on the Scotland and Wales Bill. I thought that it might be helpful to you, the Chairman of Ways and Means, and the House, if I were to raise these matters now and ask for a ruling before we start on Thursday's business.

The questions arise because of a possible conflict between amendments to the referendum clause and schedule and the wording, character and purpose of the Scotland and Wales Bill, and our obligation to and legislative involvement with the EEC through the Treaty of Accession and the European Communities Act 1972.

The first point concerns the opportunity available to hon. Members tabling "independence" amendments to have those amendments selected. As you know, Mr. Speaker, for an amendment to be selected for debate it must be in order. As I understand it, to be in order an amendment must not conflict with the principle of the Bill.

It is here that I must refer you to Clause 1. I shall not read it out, because the House has gone over it on many occasions and I am sure that we are all familiar with it. But the important wording is: They do not affect the unity of the United Kingdom …". Given that Clause 1 now stands part of the Bill, is it not the case that any amendment which seeks to put the independence question would be out of order and therefore stand no chance of selection?

Without doubt, an independence question could affect the unity of the United Kingdom and, indeed, expressly provides the opportunity for that unity to be affected. Is it not the case that the only amendments in order would be those which acknowledged Clause 1 and fell short of affecting the unity of the United Kingdom?

In raising this point, I am not trying to prevent the independence question from being placed on the referendum ballot paper. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. Robertson), I wish to amend the clause to enable the Scottish people to decide whether they want to be independent within the Common Market. I am anxious that such an option be available to the people. But I do not want to wait until Thursday to find that such a question has not been selected because it is out of order, and that it is out of order because Clause 1 has been drawn up to prevent just such a question. If I am correct in my interpretation of the restrictive effects of Clause 1, is it possible for you and the usual channels, Mr. Speaker, to devise a way of going back on the offending clause so that the House can alter it and thus widen the options the referendum can offer?

I now come to my second point. That is the question of the European dimension and its effect on the definition, the legislative definition, of independence. If by Thursday we are indeed debating Scottish independence, do the legislative proposals now before us in the Scotland and Wales Bill allow that independence to be outwith the European Community in that the Bill specifically makes provision for the Scottish component of the United Kingdom to be withdrawn from the wider EEC framework of which we are now part due to the European Communities Act 1972 and the Treaty of Accession? As I read it, there is nothing in the Bill, in the Government's clause and schedule, or in the amendments to the clause and schedule, or in any other part of the Bill, which in any way overrides the European Communities Act. But that is only as I read it.

I am asking you to rule on the relationship between the Scotland and Wales Bill and its attendant proposals, and current statute. Will an "independence" question amount to a legislative provision enabling the people in Scotland to repeal the effect on Scotland of the European Communities Act, and to abrogate Scotland's rôle in the Treaty of Accession?

If your ruling is that the Bill provides no such opportunity and that therefore a straightforward "independence" question is bogus, will you rule on the competence and order of the amendment to be tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and myself on independence within the Common Market? I would point out that our question on independence would not challenge arrangements made for Scotland to be part of the European Community by the Act of 1972, and that places it in a different category from other "independence" questions.

So far, Mr. Speaker, the term "independence" has had a very loose definition. I am sure that you will appreciate the importance of that term's having a correct legislative definition if we are to give the people in Scotland honest options in a referendum. I think in essence that the question of order is whether we can proceed to place "independence" questions on a referendum ballot paper without first, or at the same time, repealing all or part of the European Communities Act 1972, or substantially amending it.

I now come to my third point. This also concerns definition. I would point out, Mr. Speaker, that, while there has been much talk about a referendum on independence, and I have raised the issue with you this afternoon, so far we are missing a correct definition of what is meant by the term "Scotland" I should like you to rule, Mr. Speaker, that if and when we get to debating Scottish independence, whether within or without the EEC, it will not be in order to do so until the House is given the territorial definition of Scotland, which will involve a division of the sea both east and west of the British mainland and the allocation of Rockall, which is presently part of Inverness County Council, with all the oil implications therein. I am sure you will agree, Mr. Speaker, that it would not be proper to proceed to debate Scottish independence and hold a referendum on that vital issue until everyone is clear about what "Scotland" means in terms of territory and resources.

I apologise again for the length of this point of order, Mr. Speaker, but I thought it might be helpful if I raised it now.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars), with his customary courtesy, let me have his point of order in writing, and I therefore have had the opportunity to consider it and, where I needed advice, to look for it.

With regard to the first point which the hon. Gentleman raised—whether an amendment to insert an independence question in the referendum would be in order—as the House knows, once a Bill is in Committee of the whole House, it is a matter for the Chairman of Ways and Means, and it is not for me to interfere. I have no desire to interfere, and I am sure that the House would not like me to interfere. I ought also to tell the House that, in replying to this point of order, I am doing so having first of all consulted the Chairman of Ways and Means, and he has asked me to tell the House that he fully associates himself with the ruling I am giving on this question.

I turn now to the second and third points raised by the hon. Gentleman concerning the relationship of the Scotland and Wales Bill and the European Communities Act, and the correct definition of the word "Scotland". I am not entirely precluded from expressing an opinion here, for the simple reason that these do not, I must say, appear to me to be points of order at all. The hon. Gentleman has expressed views as to the substance of the interpretation of the Bill, about which he is perfectly at liberty, and he will no doubt seek ministerial assurances within the course of any, debates to which they are relevant, and I fear that he will have to pursue these matters, if he so desires, when the House in Committee turns to the subject again.