HC Deb 24 February 1977 vol 926 cc1640-52
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Scotland and Wales Bill.

The Government have considered the position on the Bill in the light of the decision of the House on Tuesday not to approve the proposed timetable motion.

The Government remain committed to the principle of devolution. We believe that devolution is essential both to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the people of Scotland and Wales and to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom. We also believe that these objectives are met by the schemes embodied in the Scotland and Wales Bill.

The vote on the Second Reading of the Bill demonstrated that a substantial majority of the House approve the basic principle of the Bill. However, it is clear from Tuesday's vote that many hon. Members have strong reservations which have yet to be removed about particular features of the proposals, and some have offered suggestions about how these might be changed. The Government believe that our proposals are, in fact, soundly based; but we are entirely willing not only to explain them further but also to consider how they might be improved, so that what finally reaches the statute book shall reflect the widest possible agreement in Parliament.

The Government believe that, in general, the working out of legislative proposals is best conducted by the normal processes of the House of Commons. We are, however, ready, in the exceptional circumstances of devolution, to supplement these processes by special discussions. We intend, therefore, within the coming week, to issue invitations to each of the other parties represented in the House to enter into discussions. The aim of these discussions will be to explore how we may achieve, if it is possible, a wider agreement in the House. The Government envisage that it would be best to start the initial discussions on a bilateral basis but will be fully prepared to consider suggestions to place substantive talks on a wider basis if the initial discussions suggest that this would be useful. At this stage, the Government would not wish to rule out any particular method that might prove a fruitful way of carrying matters forward.

Mr. Pym

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement sounds like second thoughts about his perhaps too hasty rejection of my proposal for a convention but that, as an initial reaction on the Government's part to the very significant vote last Tuesday, we welcome it? We will respond to the invitation to bilateral talks, but I must make it clear that we see them as no more than a preliminary to a discussion on the wider basis that we proposed.

In addition to the parties in the House, there are different views within the parties, and those views should be heard and need to be taken into account. At first sight, it appears from the statement as though the Government are still wedded to the Scotland and Wales Bill. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if the Government are genuine in this approach they must be prepared to abandon the Bill?

Mr. Foot

Let us have the preliminary discussions that we have proposed first and see what emerges from them. It is because we think that that is the best way to proceed that we have made the suggestion. We think that there are various ways and various forms of committee or proposals whereby discussions should take place, and, therefore, we do not necessarily accept that the convention which the right hon. Gentleman has proposed would be the best way of achieving the desired result which we have stated.

We still believe that the Scotland and Wales Bill and its general outline is the best way to move forward, but, of course, we will listen to representations made in these discussions, and, of course, we take account of the vote in the House on Tuesday last.

Mr. David Steel

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I welcome what appears to be a more flexible approach being adopted by the Government? The guillotine vote on Tuesday appears to have concentrated his mind wonderfully on this matter. Does he recall that the Second Reading of the Scotland and Wales Bill was carried by a substantial maojrity because the friends of devolu- tion in different parts of the House were prepared to support it? Will he recognise that his view that the proposals are soundly based is not shared widely in this House or outside it, and that we must rest on his contention that he will be willing to consider improving the Bill? We will join these discussions in as constructive and helpful a way as we were willing to do in 1974, when we first suggested this course.

Mr. Foot

I am glad that the Liberal Party will join in the discussions, because we believe that representatives of all parties in the House should take part and that discussions should take place within the parties themselves. We in the Labour Party will have our own discussions, including discussions with those who may have opinions different from those that we have advanced. The right hon. Gentleman talked about flexibility. We do not want the kind of flexibility which votes for the principle of a Bill before Christmas and then tries to kill it afterwards.

Mr. Mellish

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on this side of the House, and, I hope, on the other side, consider his response to the defeat on Tuesday to be very democratic and that hon. Members ought to take it in that spirit? I put it to my right hon. Friend in that sense. Is he further aware that some of us who cannot be described as active devolutionists believe that the time is overdue when the people of Scotland and Wales might be asked for their own points of view before we get ourselves into any more mess?

Mr. Foot

That point of view has been put in many of our debates and I have often sought to give the answer. If I give the answer again today, I apologise to those who have heard it before. In the Government's opinion—at any rate unless we hear fresh representations, which can be raised in the talks if desired—a referendum before the firm establishment of what is proposed could be very dangerous. It could be a proposal for an answer to a question in a most ill-defined manner. It could be a proposal which in some circumstances would be highly derogatory to the supremacy of the House of Commons. For these and other reasons, I do not believe, or I am at least very doubtful and would need a lot of persuading to think otherwise, that a referendum prior to the passage of a Bill through the House would be a good idea. We will, however, listen to representations in the talks.

I do not myself think that that is a solution to our problem. If we have an allegiance to devolution—and the Government are strongly in favour of it because we believe that it is essential for the maintenance of the unity of the United Kingdom—I believe that what we have to do in these talks is to search genuinely and speedily for a proper and effective method of devolution.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Scottish people have noticed that, in the slap in the face delivered to them last Tuesday, the majority of Scottish Members were outvoted and that there is anger in Scotland about it? Is he further aware that his statement is meaningless nonsense, indicative of the confusion in which the Government have been landed? Will he assure us that, in the consultations and discussions he has mentioned, there will be no question of any time-wasting convention which will hold back the commitment, which the Government gave in their General Election address three years ago, that there would be a Scottish Parliament in existence as a result of a Bill on the statute book this year?

Mr. Foot

There will be no time-wasting on the part of the Government, although the vote in the House last Tuesday is bound to cause some delay. We want to proceed with the talks at once, go ahead speedily and return to the House with proposals which can be carried through.

Mr. Kinnock

Following what has been said by the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) and the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel), is my right hon. Friend aware that there is no more profit to the Government in seeking to make concessions to Tories and Liberals than there was in seeking to make concessions to the nationalists? He is simply taking the Bill out of the sand and putting it in a maze. If my right hon. Friend still retains his enthusiasm for devolution, he can pursue it only with a firm mandate on this unique constitutional issue, and that mandate can be achieved only in a referendum based on a White Paper stating what is proposed.

Mr. Foot

I will not repeat the objection that I have already stated to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), and which I have stated in earlier debates, as to why I believe that a referendum in the circumstances my hon. Friend has described would not be a fair proposition. My hon. Friend is a fairly violent opponent of devolution, we are strong advocates of it, and I do not believe that we can bridge that gulf very quickly.

Mr. Powell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this House, having shown itself profoundly opposed to the creation within the United Kingdom of bodies co-ordinate and competitive with itself, will prove equally resistant, and successfully resistant, to the attempt to create such a body outside the kingdom by means of direct elections, and that it will eventually proceed to recover for this country the democratic parliamentary independence which has been temporarily lost?

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman is raising another subject. I understand his views on it, but I have also listened to the dazzling logic which he has deployed in our debates over the last few weeks, in which he has denounced any devolution proposal in this Bill. Unfortunately, the flaw in his logic there is that he comes from a part of the United Kingdom which has had a system of devolution for many years and which, in certain circumstances, would be prepared to accept it again.

Mr. William Ross

Is my hon. Friend aware that to the sceptical the exercise he proposes may prove to be an exploration of considerable futility? Unless there is a consensus within the parties, he will never be able to get a consensus between them. Does he recall what happened when there was supposed to be an understanding between the two Front Benches on the question of reform of the House of Lords? The other Benches would not deliver. Will my right hon. Friend therefore not shelve the Bill but carry on with it and let the people of Scotland see not only those who are opposed to the detail of the Bill but those who are opposed to the principle?

Mr. Foot

In these discussions, which I believe should not be lengthy, although they are very important, we shall try to get answers to some of the questions my right hon. Friend has raised, including the question of who are in favour of the principle of the Bill. The Government are in favour of the principle of the Bill, and we want to see whether we can win support in the House for that principle and for putting it into practice. That is what we are seeking to do.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

Does the Lord President accept that many who were and are in favour of devolution to the extent of supporting the Bill on Second Reading became more and more apprehensive about the practical details of a directly-elected Assembly as revealed in discussions during the Committee stage? Will he take that into account in any discussions, bilateral or otherwise, that he may have over the future of the Bill?

Mr. Foot

We shall certainly take that into account. We are certainly in favour of a directly-elected Assembly for Scotland and Wales. At one period I thought that the Conservative Party was also in favour of such an Assembly. Perhaps we shall discover that in the discussions.

Mr. William Hamilton

Will my right hon. Friend indicate how long he thinks that the talks will take? What form will they take, and will there be majority voting within the talks? Will the Government be bringing forward a new or amended Bill? What assurance can he possibly give—in the unlikely event that the talks are successful and agreed—that the proposals will receive the consent of the House?

Mr. Foot

We must proceed with the preliminary discussions first. I certainly would not expect any great support from my hon. Friend in getting any of these proposals through the House.

Mr. D.E. Thomas

Does the Leader of the House accept that what he has proposed today is not new since talks on the Bill between the Government and the political parties took place two years ago? The proposals for Wales at least emerged from those talks and are embodied in the Bill. Does he accept that we in Plaid Cymru will not be prepared to take part in talks unless we have an assurance that the intention is to introduce a Bill and get it through the House during the life of this Parliament?

Mr. Foot

I appreciate the hon. Member's feelings and his impatience. I, too, am impatient to see the Bill on the statute book. However, in order, to secure that we must bow to the will of the House of Commons. That is what we had to accept on Tuesday and what we did accept. It is on that basis that we are to have these discussions. We want them to be speedy and successful.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I suggested to the National Executive of the Labour Party before the Bill was presented to the House that there should be a referendum to ask the people of Scotland and Wales what they believed before we reached the stage of presenting a Bill? May I ask him not to dismiss the argument about a referendum now? Many of us would be prepared to accept the decisions of the Scottish and Welsh people on this matter. Will he, therefore, realise that we are suggesting a positive way out of a situation which has arisen because hon. Members on this side of the House were not listened to and the nationalists were listened to too often?

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend is wrong about the people to whom we listened. We listened to the representations that were made by trade unionists in Scotland and Wales. We listened to the representations that were made by the Labour Party, the National Executive and members of the Labour Party throughout the country. I am not dismissing any proposal for any other form of referendum, but, as I have said on previous occasions—and I underline this afresh now—there are great difficulties, perhaps insurmountable difficulties, with a referendum based on the vague terms suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer).

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Is the Leader of the House aware that I welcome his response to the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr Pym)? Does he agree that this problem will not go away if we ignore it? Does he acknowledge that we should not look at the question of Scotland and Wales in isolation? Does he accept that that might be the reason for getting into this mess? Will he look at the wider aspects of government, including Northern Ireland, the relationship with Europe and perhaps even the effectiveness of the House itself?

Mr. Foot

Perhaps some of those remarks should be addressed to the hon. Member's own Front Bench. I should be glad if the Leader of the Opposition brought the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) along to the discussions.

Mr. Sillars

Is the Leader of the House aware that neither the Cabinet nor the Parliamentary Labour Party has the conviction or the will to honour the election pledge given to the people of Scotland without which there would be no Labour Government at present? Is he aware of the leaflet which has been circulated by the Labour Party in Scotland and which states: Prime Minister Jim Callaghan insists that nothing must stand in the way of this Bill becoming law by December. Only Labour can and will do it"? Why do not the Government do it on a vote of confidence?

Mr. Foot

It remains the case that only the Labour Government can and will do this. That is still a fact. Only a Labour Government will carry through the programme of devolution to which we are committed. We are pledged, and I acknowledge that. We have tried to translate that pledge into terms that can carry a majority in the House. That is what we are still seeking to do and will seek to do in the discussions.

Mr. George Gardiner

Does the Leader of the House accept that his discussions will prove to be as abortive as the Bill unless the Government allow expression to the Back Benchers who contributed so substantially to the Committee stage?

Mr. Foot

I am not repressing representations that are made from any quarter, but the hon. Member is opposed to any form of devolution. He should make that clear.

Mr. Urwin

Since one of the purposes of the Bill is to legislate for and on behalf of the Scottish and Welsh people, would it not be to their advantage if they were consulted by a referendum in the first place rather than waste a lot of time by heeding the minorities such as the nationalists and some of my hon. Friends? Surely the people are the most important.

Mr. Foot

We have debated that matter in the House. I have referred to it in my answers this afternoon. I still believe that the obstacles to a referendum in these circumstances are very difficult to overcome. A referendum in the circumstances that we proposed is quite different.

Miss Harvie Anderson

Does the Leader of the House accept that such flexibility as he has shown will be welcomed by all those who wish to sustain the unity of the United Kingdom? Does he understand that the suggested talks are unlikely to prove fruitful unless they are based on a commitment to drop the Bill?

Mr. Foot

We accept no such condition or undertaking in any sense whatever. The right hon. Lady is amongst those who are opposed to any form of devolution that can properly be described as such. We introduced the Bill in the form that we did partly because we believed that it was of paramount importance to the unity of the United Kingdom.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I propose to call three hon. Members from either side in addition to any interventions from the Front Benches.

Mr. Abse

Will my right hon. Friend accept the thanks of many hon. Members for his new approach and, in particular, for his recognition that it is desirable that he should consult not only other parties but perhaps minority opinions within his own party? May I stress how important it is that in any discussions my right hon. Friend should totally disengage from the idea that there is some community of interest on the constitutional question between Scotland and Wales?

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is necessary, above all, to recognise that totally different circumstances exist between the two countries which can be met in totally different ways? Does he accept that Wales does not require some of the radical solutions that are proposed for Scotland? Will he assure the House that he will enter into the talks with an open mind, neither committed nor not committed to any Bill? Will he assure us that he is prepared to accept all views which may help forward what we all have in mind—some peace in Scotland and Wales?

Mr. Foot

I can listen to all views, but obviously I cannot accept all views because some of them are contradictory. On the question whether we should have Wales and Scotland dealt with in one Bill, I also take into account the House of Commons. I take into account the way in which the House voted on the timetable motion. I am also entitled to take into account the way in which the House voted on the question of the inclusion of Wales. Therefore, that also must be taken into account. My hon. Friend must recognise that.

As for consultations, I am very eager to enter into the consultations that I have described, and others elsewhere. I remember vividly the consultations that my hon. Friend and I had in Swansea a few months ago, when the Welsh Labour Party came down strongly in favour of my view rather than my hon. Friend's view.

Mr. Cormack

Does the Lord President accept that there is a great deal to be said for consulting the people on three questions—as to whether they want independence, a directly-elected Assembly or the status quo? As there is a little time on the Government's hands at present, will he consider giving a Second Reading to the Bill that I intend to present to the House in a few minutes' time?

Mr. Foot

I should certainly look at any Bill introduced by the hon. Gentleman with the utmost suspicion in the first place. I should then look at it all the more carefully if it is saying what he suggests it is saying. Given that, I shall approach the matter with a fully open mind.

Mr. Fred Evans

In the forthcoming discussions, will my right hon. Friend please bear in mind that his oft-reiterated claim that he can speak for the people of Wales is simply not true and that there is a gathering weight of opinion which adduces plenty of evidence, including in his own county, that the opposition within his own party, let alone among the people of Wales, is growing to such an extent that straw tests of opinion published this morning showed a feeling against the form of devolution proposed in the Bill of five to one?

In view of the proximity of the dates, will my right hon. Friend please remember that the contract for the acquisition of the Coal Exchange in Cardiff will be signed on 1st March, at a cost of £2½ million—with £250,000 already spent on the renovations—and that he may be acquiring a building for which, as I am sure he will reflect, he has no use at all? There is some folly in acquiring a building at that price which will be of no use in the future.

Mr. Foot

The building will be put to very good use. On the first matter, my hon. Friend is entitled to his view as to what are the views of Labour people in Wales, and I am entitled to mine. All that I say to him is that all the representative bodies in Wales, such as the Labour Party and the trade unions—whose views he accepts and accepted previously—have come down in support of the view that I hold, and my hon. Friend must take that into account.

Mr. Crouch

Does the Lord President appreciate that my response to his offer of these all-party talks is not grudgingly grateful? I am somewhat amazed when he listens to speeches—even mine. I twice suggested this last week. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on having sat through those many hours of debate. As he goes into the discussions, will it be with an open mind and not to discuss just Scotland and Wales but the English dimension as well? It was on the English dimension, or, should I say, the reaction that would occur in England to the changes in Scotland, particularly regarding representation at Westminster, that some of us felt very uneasy about the Bill as it was.

Mr. Foot

Some of these questions are bound to be raised by hon. Members in the discussions, as they were raised in the debates. As for the formidable eloquence of the hon. Gentleman, I fully acknowledge the effect that it had in persuading me to this course—although I hope that he will not regard it as insulting if I say that the vote had some influence as well.

Mr. Palmer

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that, if these all-party talks are to stand any chance of succeeding, all discussions on the Bill should be postponed for the time being?

Mr. Foot

Some discussions are taking place this afternoon. As to further discussion, we shall have to see. I have not made any proposals for returning to the Bill next week, but we shall see how we proceed with this matter.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Will the Lord President accept that many hon. Members on both sides of the House will be very sceptical about talks held on the basis of breathing life into this particular cause and that he is likely to make some progress if he takes it away and starts afresh? Secondly, will he tell the House why, in the circumstances, we are to spend the rest of the day debating this measure? Would it not be wiser to recognise that the Adjournment debate tonight deals with Concorde, a matter on which the House stands in some need of a debate, and that we might do better to turn to that and forget about Scotland and Wales for the rest of the day?

Mr. Foot

I think that we should stick to the business that has been announced. [Hon Members: "Why?"] Because there are many hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate, as will be seen.

On the first matter, I dare say that there are some Opposition Members who are bitterly opposed to devolution in almost any form, and I take the hon. Gentleman to be one of those. I hope that in the discussions that will be made clear, too, because what we are seeking to secure is the vote of this House for a proper imaginative measure of devolution. Of course, the bitter opponents of devolution will not wish to support that.

Mr. Pym

Is the Lord President aware that in the exchanges this afternoon he has given the impression—though he may well not have intended to give it—of a degree of inflexibility which I think will have to be relaxed somewhat if what he is embarked upon is to be successful? [Interruption.] I said that the Lord President gave that impression.

The second point is this. Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that the continuation of the debate on an amendment to the new clause on referendums is really a waste of the time of the House of Commons? It would have been better to debate the new clause at a later stage, as I argued when it was introduced. Now that the circumstances have altered so dramatically, however, and the Lord President will be having discussions about discussions, would it not be much wiser not to pursue this further amendment this afternoon, otherwise we shall look slightly ridiculous and be in an atmosphere of unreality in relation to legislation, which is not a good way for the House to proceed?

Mr. Foot

On the contrary, from some of the questions that have been put to me it is quite apparent that many of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members wish to discuss the question of the referendum in different contexts, and I do not believe that the debate this evening will be wasted.

As to the first of the right hon. Gentleman's statements, it is a subjective view as to whether I may have sounded inflexible or flexible. I suggest that if he reads what I have said—I shall read what I have said—he will see that no one could reach the judgment that I was being inflexible. I have said on numerous occasion that we are willing to listen to what is said in these bilateral talks. We wish to proceed from them to see what other kinds of mechanism can be established from the discussions. We want to do that speedily, although we want to do it on the basis of trying to make real progress towards a genuine scheme of devolution.