HC Deb 14 June 1977 vol 933 cc225-40
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 devolution.

Following the decision of the House not to approve the proposed timetable motion on the Scotland and Wales Bill, I announced that the Government were to invite discussions with each of the other parties represented in the House. The Government's approach to these discussions was that a substantial majority of the House had approved the principles of the Bill in the vote on Second Reading and that subsequent votes in the Committee proceedings gave approval to the proposals for elected Assemblies for Scotland and Wales.

The Government's view was that any further consideration of the Bill should proceed within the general framework of the decisions which the House had already reached and be consistent with presenting the House with legislative proposals at an early date.

The Government therefore suggested that the Bill might be referred to a Select Committee of the House which would be empowered to consider the Bill on this basis. There was general support for the suggestion of a Select Committee, with the exception of the Scottish National Party, which declined to meet the Government to discuss the proposal. The Government believed that it was equally essential that there should be general acceptance of the terms of reference for any Select Committee. The Conservative Party, however, proposed wide-ranging terms of reference which in the view of the Government put at issue the whole concept of devolution and were consistent neither with the decisions of the House nor with early action by the House. Accordingly, the Government do not believe that in these circumstances it would be useful to proceed with the appointment of a Select Committee.

The Government remain wholly committed to the establishment of directly-elected Assemblies for Scotland and Wales. We believe that it is essential that Parliament should seek to reform our system of government to give the people of Scotland and Wales a more effective and democratic influence on those matters of government which directly concern them within the context of the unity of the United Kingdom.

It is no longer practicable to contemplate further progress on the Scotland and Wales Bill in this Session. However, it is our objective that legislation should be enacted next Session. To this end the Government are engaged in consultations on our proposals for legislation with our own supporters and the Liberal Party, and we remain very ready to welcome representations from any other part of the House.

Mr. Pym

There will be disappointment and regret that the right hon. Gentleman has broken off the inter-party talks. Does he not realise that there can be no progress in this area as long as he sticks to a scheme which proved in debate to be riddled with flaws and not to command the support of the House?

There will be resentment at the right hon. Gentleman's misrepresentation of what we proposed. If he had accepted the proposal that I made four months ago, much progress could and would have been made by now. Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that in recommending the examination of all the viable alternatives for devolution we were reflecting the deep anxieties revealed in the debates in the House and giving expression to the widely-held feeling that the United Kingdom Parliament should make a more thorough and resolute attempt to solve the crucial constitutional problems that remained patently unsolved in the unlamented Scotland and Wales Bill?

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's prognostications for the future, what does he mean by "objective"? Is that a firm commitment? It does not sound like it.

Will the right hon. Gentleman publish a White Paper or some other document before any further Bill is produced, so that the House can see what his fresh ideas, if any, are? Have the Government decided to separate the Bill, to introduce one or two Bills, or how will it be done?

If this is the Government's considered response after four months, I think that the reaction will be one of astonishment at the absence of constructive ideas and disappointment at their rejection of our own proposals for the better handling of this vital matter.

Mr. Foot

I do not think that there will be any sense of resentment in any quarter about the rejection of the right hon. Gentleman's own plan, as we believe that that was a device to do nothing. It would have merely referred the matter back to pre-Kilbrandon days—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] Some hon. Members may ask "Why not?", but I see that the right hon. Gentleman, who was responsible for the proposal, is shaking his head, so there must be some disagreement there. He is again shaking his head. I am not sure which way he is shaking it now. I think that it is up and down now, but it was the other way before. A few moments ago the right hon. Gentleman was repudiating the idea that he was seeking to go back to a wide-ranging, pre-Kilbrandon discussion, but that is what some of his hon. Friends think his proposal meant and it is what many of us thought it meant. We believe that such a wide-ranging discussion could not be helpful in making any real progress to devolution, and that is why we rejected it.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether our objective was a firm commitment. It is the firm determination of the Government that legislation shall be presented in the next Session to carry out our obligation to both Scotland and Wales. We believe that perhaps it is best to proceed in the way we proposed before, but it is possible that it could be done in two Bills. These matters have not yet been settled. Obviously, they and some other matters would have to be decided first. These are some of the questions we are taking into account following our discussions with other parties.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be a further indication before we departed for the recess. Certainly we shall consider that, but our determination is to produce legislation for the next Session. We believe that the whole House should receive it in the spirit that what we propose is the best way to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Pym

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that we do not think that the way in which he has handled the matter will continue the unity of the United Kingdom in the way he says his party wants and the way the whole House wants? I also ask the right hon. Gentleman to accept that the purpose of what we proposed was not what he suggested it was. It was clear to us all along that it was entirely possible to report within six months. If the right hon. Gentleman had started work way back in March, it would have been possible to make a great deal of progress now in solving the really difficult, fundamental, constitutional issues which remain to this day unresolved. No start has been made. To misrepresent what we have been trying to do and the procedure that we have recommended is unreasonable. I do not say that the right hon. Gentleman means to do that, but I resent very much that he should have appeared to try to do so.

Mr. Foot

I have not even tried to misrepresent the right hon. Gentleman. If I had wanted to, I am sure that it would have been easy, but I have not even tried.

The most damning thing to say about the right hon. Gentleman's proposals is to indicate what they truly involve, which is what I have already described—an examination of the whole matter afresh, going back to all the considerations involved in Kilbrandon. The right hon. Gentleman's proposals involved even wider proposals than that. To suggest that all that could have been carried out and that unanimous proposals could have been produced within six months for us to present to the House would be to mislead the House and the country.

What we propose is a practical way in which the House can proceed to carry out what it voted for by a majority of over 40 on Second Reading—on a matter of principle, to carry into operation an effective system of devolution.

Mr. David Steel

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that devolution is difficult is no excuse for doing nothing about it and that it would have been unacceptable to go back to wide discussions? Does he accept that the present consultations should be brought to an end before the Summer Recess and that a further detailed statement of substance should be made to the House before we rise for the recess?

Mr. Foot

I tell the right hon. Gentleman, as I indicated in reply to an earlier question, that I agree that it may very well be the best course that there should be a statement before the Summer Recess. I think that is very likely, but we are determined to produce legislation to be introduced at the beginning of the next Session.

Of course, we shall take into account both the discussions we have had with others and the discussions which are held during this period. As I have said, during this period and before we produce that legislation we are still ready to have discussions with those who wish to achieve the best form of devolution that we can all carry through successfully. It would be very serious for the unity of the United Kingdom if this question were treated in a derisory fashion, as it is by some Members on the Opposition side of the House.

Mr. Anderson

Since the pledge for a referendum still stands, is it not worth considering holding it immediately after the Second Reading of the proposed new Bill, because at least in the case of Wales that would save a lot of parliamentary time?

Mr. Foot

As the House knows, we have had many discussions here about whether there should be a referendum and, if so, at what stage it might be sensibly held. The Government and the House came to the conclusion when we were discussing the Bill that there should be a referendum on these matters and that the referendum should take place after the Bill had passed through the House of Commons. I certainly think that that is much the best way in which it should be done.

As I have said on many occasions, I think that any referendum that is held before that stage would be of a far too imprecise nature. It might involve considerable dangers on that account. Some of those who are most enthusiastically in favour of it are also those who want to delay the operation of any devolution. The best course is that the referendum should take place when the people of Scotland and Wales know exactly what they will be voting about.

Mr. Powell

Will the Government be applying their mind between now and the beginning of next Session to the conundrum of the representation in this House of a major part of the United Kingdom which is to be given a legislative Assembly of its own? Will they refrain from introducing legislation again until they have succeeded in solving the problem which has hitherto defeated all who have attempted it?

Mr. Foot

I question whether it has defeated all who have attempted it. It is not possible for the right hon. Gentleman to say that the attempts to devise a devolved form of administration have defeated all those who have approached the subject since he comes from a part of the United Kingdom which had a devolved Administration for many years. He cannot say that the proposal has eluded all attempts at bringing it into operation.

As he knows, there are quite a number of people in the part of the United Kingdom that he represents in this House who also favour a devolved Administration. We believe that, contrary to the suggestion that such a system cannot be devised, in fact it can be devised and it can be operated along the general lines we have proposed. We agree, however, that in reproducing these proposals we must take into account the criticisms which were made in various parts of the House on many of these matters and we must seek to improve the measures we are proposing on that account. However, to suggest that no devolved form of administration is possible is the gospel of despair, and that gospel could break up the United Kingdom if it were to be adopted.

Mr. Mackintosh

I sympathise with my right hon. Friend's problems because I suspect that the vote on the guillotine was a more accurate reflection of the opinion of the House than was the vote on Second Reading, and I say that with regret. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if progress is to be made on this matter it will have to be in two stages? There is no point in proceeding with a devolution Bill which does not at least meet the views of those who have campaigned for devolution over the years in all the parties. I see one hon. Member on the Opposition Benches nodding in agreement. I see that the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) is in a similar position and that the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath)——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House is not concerned with what the hon. Gentleman sees. Will he ask a question? I must warn the House that another major statement is to follow and that I can allow only a limited number of questions from hon. Members. If the questions are longer fewer hon. Members will be able to ask them.

Mr. Mackintosh

There are forces in all parties—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ask a question."] I am asking my right hon. Friend whether it is not right to proceed by two stages. The first is to produce a devolution Bill which meets the views of those in all parties who have supported devolution. The second is to consider whether this House will accept such a Bill. On the first, would it not be better to go back on the proposal that my right hon. Friend has rejected, of a Select Committee to try to produce a satisfactory Bill from the point of view of the devolvers?

Mr. Foot

The reason we have not gone further with the proposal for a Select Committee is precisely that there were some who were engaged in the discussions who were not prepared to take part in a Select Committee on the basis that my hon. Friend is suggesting. They were suggesting a Select Committee which should go much further back and much wider than anything that my hon. Friend has in mind.

I do not know on what authority my hon. Friend suggests that we should discount the vote on Second Reading. I have always understood that a vote on Second Reading—on the principle of a Bill—is the most important vote on a Bill. I believe that we are entitled to proceed on the basis of the vote on that principle, and that is what we shall do. I hope that my hon. Friend, having given support to the principle of a devolution Bill up to the present, will not now desert us.

Mr. Reid

Yet another whitewash job! Does the right hon. Gentleman expect any other reaction from the Scots Press and public tomorrow to today's particularly empty and barren piece of paper? Has he forgotten the promises and clear binding commitments of October 1974, the guarantees of a "Scottish powerhouse"? Why has he ignored the dire warnings of his own Scottish Council of the Labour Party, the Liberal inputs, the talk of fiscal powers? Will he accept that this Bench and the SNP are prepared to react positively to any genuinely constructive proposals but that the one way to jolt Westminster out of its current complacency is the return of a vastly increased number of nationalist Members at the next General Election? Where is the Government's majority to be conjured up from next Session? Will the right hon. Gentleman do us a service and explain that?

Mr. Foot

The Government are not going back on the principles that we enunciated when we presented the Bill and when we presented our case to the electorate before that. We have not gone back on those principles. We are seeking the best way in which we can get support in the House to carry them into effect.

I hope that, on consideration, the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will be prepared to support these proposals. The only proposals that he and his hon. Friends made to us during these discussions were proposals for a draft Bill on the matter, a Bill which would not have had the slightest chance of passing this House in either this century or the next. Therefore I do not regard that as a serious proposal for devolution or a serious proposal for the establishment of a Scottish Assembly. What we are proposing is the shortest and best way of getting an Assembly established, and I hope that all those genuine supporters of devolution will back us in getting it through.

Mr. MacFarquhar

Will my right hon. Friend say whether in any new legislation he proposes to introduce he will look more favourably than in the past at the suggestion of providing taxing powers for a Scottish Assembly?

Mr. Foot

This is one of the matters we have looked at exhaustively. We did that before introducing our original legislation. We have looked at it afresh, because it was one of the matters which were persistently referred to during the debates and it is one of the matters to which we must give the most serious consideration. We have not yet found a solution to that problem, although we are prepared in the consultations which continue to seek to do so. That is the situation, and I do not believe that any hon. Member who has seriously considered this problem could suggest that it is as easy to solve as some people are suggesting. That does not mean to say that we should not go on searching for a proper solution.

Mr. Wigley

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that today's non-statement will be seen by many people in Wales as ample confirmation, after three or four months' discussion, that the Government have made no progress and do not have the determination to see progress made in this matter? If he disagrees, will he give any confirmation, on behalf of him- self and the Prime Minister, that the Government are so concerned about this matter as to make it an issue of confidence in the next parliamentary Session?

Mr. Foot

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is altogether misrepresenting what I have said. The Government are determined to proceed with proposals for devolution, precisely for the reasons that the Government have stated on many occasions. It is true that we were blocked by the vote on the timetable motion. We then sought to see whether it would be possible to proceed in the later period through a Select Committee. We had discussions seriously on that basis to see whether that would be the next best way forward. But when we discovered that there were considerable indications that the House did not want a Select Committee on the basis that we believed to be the only right way to proceed, we then had to consider what was the next best way to do it. We have proposed legislation that will be introduced in the next Session, and that legislation will give the opportunity to the country to carry through the proposals that the Government have made.

Mr. English

Was it inadvertence or governmental mismanagement that caused my right hon. Friend to make this statement without mentioning England or the English regions? Does he realise that practically the whole of the United Kingdom is fed up with small details being decided in Whitehall, and that the five-sixths of his supporters in this House of Commons who represent English constituencies will not go on supporting him any more unless he and the Government decide what to do about devolving some of those small details so that they may be decided in Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol and the rest of the regions 01 the United Kingdom?

Mr. Foot

As my hon. Friend knows very well—he attended the meeting at which we discussed these matters—I had a meeting with every section of the Parliamentary Labour Party on these questions. That included the group from the Midlands. We discussed all these matters in detail then, I have fully indicated to him that all representations that he and his hon. Friends wished to make on that subject would be fully considered.

What we are proposing is to deal with the Scotland and Wales situation first at the beginning of next Session. It has always been made clear—and in the discussions that we had with the other Members of the Labour Party it was always made clear—that we would proceed in that fashion. I have not heard a single Member of the Parliamentary Labour Party who favoured devolution and who objected to that proposition. I hope that my hon. Friend will not think that there is anything wrong in the way that we are proposing to proceed.

Sir David Renton

As the Opposition proposals would have enabled the various alternatives set out in the Kilbrandon Report to be considered, is it not misleading and unfair on the part of the right hon. Gentleman to say that those proposals take us back to a pre-Kilbrandon position? Why is it that after all this time of indecisive consideration the Government are still unable to say whether there will be one Bill for Scotland and Wales next Session or two?

Hon. Members: Because they do not know.

Mr. Foot

On the second question, I appreciate the importance of the matter, but, as I have said, we have not decided whether the proposals should be in one Bill or two. I am not diminishing the significance of the matter.

On the first question, I am not seeking to mislead or misrepresent anything put to us on this matter. All I ask those who are suggesting an inter-party committee or convention—the proposal made by the Conservative Party—is whether they think that would not involve going back to the whole Kilbrandon discussion. If they will look at the terms of reference which were suggested they will see that this confirms exactly what I have said.

Mr. Gourlay

Will my right hon. Friend accept that we in Scotland welcome his statement this afternoon reaffirming the Government's commitment to devolution in Scotland and Wales? [Interruption.] There is no need for Opposition Members to laugh at a very serious matter. I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to give serious consideration to the view of many of us in Scotland that next Session he should introduce two separate Bills, so that we could at least have the reality of a Scottish Assembly in 1978.

Mr. Foot

I understand what my hon. Friend said in his last point, and I have already commented on that. What we are proposing, certainly from all the indications, is to combine a genuine establishment of a Scottish Assembly with the maintenance of the unity of the United Kingdom, and the establishment of a Welsh Assembly with the maintenance of the United Kingdom. What we are proposing also conforms to what appears to be the majority opinion certainly in Scotland and probably in Wales, and over the country as a whole. What is proposed by others certainly does not. The Scottish National Party proposes a completely separatist position. What the Conservative Party now proposes is a retreat even from its own earlier timid proposals on devolution. Therefore our proposals represent the majority of opinion.

Mr. Rifkind

Does the Lord President realise that any new Scotland and Wales Bill will come to the same sticky end as its predecessor unless it deals with the fundamental problems of the powers of Scottish and Welsh Members in this House after devolution? Does he not appreciate that the alternatives are either no devolution or parallel devolution throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Foot

I think that the second remedy or suggestion is a recipe for the postponement of devolution for many years. That has great dangers, and the hon. Gentleman ought to know the dangers of proposing that devolution should be postponed in that manner or until such a time as nobody would know whether anything was to be done at all.

On the first proposition, if I have understood the hon. Gentleman's question, this was one of the matters considered by the Kilbrandon Committee. It examined the proposition of an in-and-out method by which Members of Parliament might operate. It rejected it, and the Government have acted on the basis of that rejection.

Mr. Heifer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on the Government side of the House are not opposed to the Government having the widest possible discussions on this matter and that nor are we opposed to the Government bringing in one, two or three Bills? Is he aware that we should welcome such discussions in the next Session? Is he also aware that it would be most unwise to suggest that there should be a timetable to force such a Bill through?

Mr. Foot

With my supersensitivity, I have understood my hon. Friend's views on this matter. They have penetrated my mind. I am fully aware of his views on the subject. I am also fully aware of the reiterated views of the Labour Party both in Scotland and in Wales. By overwhelming majorities they have urged upon the Government that we should proceed as fast as possible along the lines that we are proposing. That is what we are seeking to do, and that is why we are seeking to ask a majority of the House of Commons, when we come to the next Session, to carry through such a measure as this, which will achieve those objectives but will take into account many of the criticisms made before in the House of Commons.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

In view of the constitutional confusion which is now bound to spread, and in view of the uncertainty, will the right hon. Gentleman consider postponing the question of direct elections to the European Parliament until these matters have been internally resolved?

Mr. Foot

I fully understand that that might be a popular proposal in some quarters. I am not quite sure whether it would unite the House of Commons, but I hope that the House as a whole will not think that these two propositions are interdependent. I believe that when the House of Commons voted seriously on Second Reading on the principle of devolution, it gave an indication to the Government how they should proceed, and it is on that foundation that we are proposing to go forward.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to take two more speakers from each side. We have been half an hour already on this matter.

Dr. Phipps

Is my right hon. Friend prepared to assure the Members of the Parliamentary Labour Party that when this Bill comes—or these Bills come—to the Floor of the House, it will be treated, in regard to matters of Cabinet responsibility, guillotines and three-line Whips, in exactly the same way as the Government intend to treat the Bill on direct elections to the European Parliament?

Mr. Foot

So far as I can see, it would not make any difference to my hon. Friend which recommendations are made because he is apparently absolutely determined not to support Labour Party policy on these matters. However, there may be others who will be more open to conversion, and we must try them first.

Mr. Stanbrook

Does the right hon. Gentleman still adhere to the view that he expressed during the debates on the European Communities Bill, namely, that radical constitutional change should not be attempted without the support of all the major parties in the State?

Mr. Foot

What I said in the debates was that we should certainly seek to have the full-hearted consent of the British people. That was what the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) said, and, as he said it, I thought there would be no harm in our suggesting that that is what should occur. My view about major constitutional proposals for changing the constitution of this country, and in particular the power of this Parliament, is that such proposals should be included in party manifestos that are put to the electorate. That was not so in the case of the measure for taking us into the Common Market, because the proposal in the manifesto then was not to invite support for a specific transfer of power but rather to involve the possibility of negotiating or not negotiating, no more and no less.

That is not what we said in our manifestos. Both in February and October we put clearly to the people what our proposals were for carrying through a devolution measure and, therefore, we have a mandate from the country to carry this measure on to the statute book.

Mr. Kinnock

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if he continues to believe that the vote on Second Reading is a charter for further progress on devolution through the House he is trying to sustain the completely untenable political idea that there is life after death on this subject? If, for instance, he were to come forward with a Liberal idea about taxation powers, those hon. Members who could accept a measure of devolution for Scotland would have the greatest possible difficulty in supporting him. My right hon. Friend had better rethink that one.

Would it not be more sensible to use up the slack months during the summer actually to secure the measured consent of the Scottish and Welsh people to the very firm proposition that the Government must put to them, on the basis of a Government Bill or White Paper, asking for their vote in a referendum on whether we should have devolution as understood by the Scottish and Welsh people on the basis of the Government's proposals?

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend has put the proposal for a referendum on many occasions but I believe that the objections to it are very serious. With regard to taking up slack time, both he and I went to Llandudno and used some of our slack time to present our views on this matter to the representative, democratic assembly of the Labour Party in Wales. My hon. Friend's eloquence was so persistent and overpowering that he lost the vote again. What happened was that the party voted overwhelmingly for what we are now doing. I hope that my hon. Friend will have a few more slack weekends when he can learn what the people of Wales want.

Mr. Henderson

Is the Lord President not aware that his answers this afternoon, and the responses from the Tory Front Bench, are a confirmation to the people of Scotland that they cannot trust Westminster parties to look after their interests? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept the point made in an oblique way by his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) that there is no point in coming up with any further proposals until he can assure the House that the Government are able to carry a timetable motion for such a Bill? Without that this is just PR and window-dressing and a monumental waste of time.

Mr. Foot

What the people of Scotland should take note of is that all the SNP has sought to do during this period is to present a Bill which would not have the faintest chance of getting through the House of Commons. It was therefore not a serious proposal at all. It was just a propagandist exercise.

What we are proposing is a Bill which can go through the House of Commons, such as that which commanded a majority on Second Reading but which has also taken into account the criticisms made of the fact that we were not successful in getting a timetable motion approved. All these factors have to be taken into account, and that is what we are doing. Therefore, however much the hon. Gentleman seeks to raise this matter, he will not convince people in Scotland that we are not in earnest. Of course we are.

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