HC Deb 17 May 1978 vol 950 cc443-7
3. Mr. Knox

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what he expects the cost of the elections to the Scottish Assembly will be.

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

£1,120,000 is the best available estimate.

Mr. Knox

Would the cost of the elections be any different if they were conducted on the basis of proportional representation? Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the decision of another place on this matter, since it would be a more sensible and progressive decision than the decision of this House? Will he recommend to his colleagues in the Government that PR should be retained in the Scotland Bill, as it is obviously a very much fairer system than first past the post?

Mr. Ewing

No, I shall not recommend my colleagues in the Government to adopt PR for the Assembly elections. I shall not comment on the decision of another place, because the House will have an opportunity to pass its own verdict on that decision when the Bill returns from another place. Obviously, the costs that we have assessed are based on the existing electoral system.

Mr. Dewar

Does my hon. Friend accept that, despite the considerable scaremongering from the Conservative Opposition about the cost of the Assembly, recent by-election experiences have underlined the very strong public support for the Government's devolution policy? Does he agree with me that it is sad for those of us who believe that a coherent and, at least, occasionally effective Opposition are good for the political system, to see the Scottish Conservative Party in total disarray, ratting on its previous devolution commitments and, finally, forfeiting any claim to represent Scottish public opinion?

Mr. Ewing

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. During the passage of the Bill I argued that no democrat should ever count the cost of an extension of democracy in money terms. I take my hon. Friend's point about the Conservative Opposition ratting on their policies. I remember you, Mr. Speaker, once using the phrase that someone was in danger of being labelled as the person who had broken more promises than Casanova. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) is in serious danger of that.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Did I say that?

Mr. Russell Johnston

In view of the reasonable point made by the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Knox), what consideration have the Government given to the possibility of the House of Lords sticking on this constitutional question in view of the very large majority by which it passed PR?

Mr. Ewing

The best advice that can give to the hon. Gentleman and the House is to wait until the Bill comes back from another place and the House passes its verdict on what was decided in another place.

7. Mr. Thorne

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland when he considers the Scottish Assembly is likely to begin work.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Bruce Milan)

This depends on the date of the Assembly elections.

Mr. Thorne

Has my right hon. Friend yet been able to assess the damage done to the provisional programme by the unelected gentlemen in the other place? Can he give us any information about his thoughts on the matter?

Mr. Millan

We are keeping an eye on what is happening in the other place, and I think we shall have certain propositions to put to the House when we get back the amendments from the other place. But I cannot really anticipate what will happen. We are well up to the timetable, and I see no reason why the timetable for Royal Assent before the Summer Recess should not be adhered to comfortably.

Mr. Fairbairn

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that most of the unelected Members of the other place who have taken part in this matter were put there by the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), and that this Assembly, if it ever sits—which, praise God, it will not—will not have the benefit of any check upon its stupidities?

Mr. Millan

I do not know whether I accept what the hon. and learned Member said about the kind of opposition that the Bill has been having in another place. It has been opposed by a rather motley crew, as far as I can see.

Mr. Heffer

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, apart from the irrelevancy of what happens in the other place, the important question affecting the Assembly is the decision of the Scottish people in the referendum? That is what really determines the matter. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a matter for the Scottish people?

Mr. Millan

That is certainly my view, and I hope that it is the view of every hon. Member of this House—which makes it rather odd that some hon. Members, even at this late stage, seem to want to deny the Scottish people the right to take a decision on the matter.

Mr. Reid

Is not it disgraceful that another place elected by no one and encouraged by the Conservatives should be making such a dog's breakfast of the Scottish Bill? Will the Secretary of State now take the opportunity to warn the Conservative Party of the great danger of playing the "peers versus the people" game?

Mr. Millan

There would be a danger in that if that were to happen. But the Government have made their views known on the various amendments moved in the House of Lords, and we shall consider what to do about any amendments in the later stages of the Bill there. But, of course, we shall return to all these matters here in the House of Commons, when the Government will take a very robust view of what has happened in the other place.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the reasons why we are having so much discussion in the Lords is that the Government forced this Bill through under a savage guillotine, which resulted in three-quarters of the Bill not being discussed at all? As for the timetable, will he assure us that he will not add to the uncertainty by delaying the referendum? Why cannot he give us a clear assurance that if the Bill goes through before the recess we shall have a referendum in September?

Mr. Millan

For a long time the Conservative Party maintained a hypocritical stance that it was really in favour of devolution, but it abandoned that at its conference last week. As a result, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) would like us to continue discussions on these matters indefinitely. That is not the Government's view. We intend to see that the Bill is put on the statute book, and the hon. Member for Cathcart can be assured that the referendum will then take place without any unnecessary delay.