HC Deb 08 March 1979 vol 963 cc1481-4
Q3. Mr. Shepherd

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 8th March.

The Prime Minister

This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be holding further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, including one with the president of the European Commission.

Mr. Shepherd

Now that the Prime Minister has had a week to ponder on the results of the referendums and also had the opportunity of a full Cabinet meeting, will he be more forthcoming about his intentions concerning the orders to annul the Scotland and Wales Acts? If it is not his intention imminently to lay the orders before the House, will he explain fully his reticence?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is right. There was a discussion this morning and we are continuing our discussions on the matter. The House need not fear. We shall not unduly delay the laying of the orders. There is no intention to do that, but as I said on Tuesday—and I have nothing to add to that—there is a need to take time for a proper reflection of the matter and not to rush into decisions.

Mr. Christopher Price

Could my right hon. Friend find time today to come to the London borough of Lewisham, where he once lived? Is he aware that if he did he would discover that, although, there is general satisfaction in the rest of the country that the local authority manual workers' strike is finishing, unofficial groups have stepped up action in Lewisham to the point where labour is being withdrawn even from homes for spastics? Will my right hon. Friend make clear that we on this side of the House condemn that sort of action as much as does anyone else?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend was good enough to ring 10 Downing Street about this matter last night and I am glad to say that those who assist me followed up the matter. I understand that there is a meeting this afternoon between the people concerned in Lewisham and I certainly hope that they will bring their action to an end. There is no authority for it in the agreement made with the TUC and that agreement is, I am glad to say, being increasingly observed.

Mrs. Thatcher

May I press the Prime Minister a little further on his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd)? Does the Prime Minister recall that when he was interviewed on "Panorama" last week about what would happen to the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies in the event of the 40 per cent. rule not being reached, he replied with words to the effect that he would answer the question next week when he knew what the voting had been. Here we are in next week. Why does the Prime Minister still shrink from laying the orders and allowing the House time to debate them?

The Prime Minister

The answer may not be satisfactory to the right hon. Lady, but at least I have given it. Even I did not see at that time that the result would be so close. [Interruption.] I am sure that all Opposition Members foresaw that. They get everything right. When we have a result that is as close at is was in Scotland, we face a serious issue and the House should not take it lightly. Our task is to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom and the unity of Scotland. I do not intend to delay unduly on this matter, nor do I intend to be pushed into action just because Conservative Back Benchers are shouting at me. I give the right hon. Lady the further assurance that there will be no undue delay on this matter. It is 10 years since the argument started and two years since legislation was introduced. It is not unreasonable to have a few weeks to consider what should be done.

Mr. David Steel

I invite the Prime Minister to look at what Mr. Gladstone said in 1890 on this matter. He complained that he had been endeavouring for four years to persuade the voters to accept Irish autonomy and pointed out that he had rolled the great stone up to the top of the hill only to see it roll down again. May I ask the Prime Minister not to let this matter rest for a few weeks without making any statement at all. The important thing is not whether the Act is repealed but whether the definition of a genuine form of devolution remains.

The Prime Minister

There is no doubt that the Government remain committed to a policy of devolution. How it is to be achieved is another matter. We are giving most earnest consideration to seeing how the matter raised by the right hon. Gentleman can be carried forward in the light of the majority that was secured in Scotland. I shall be ready to come to the House again after reasonable consideration. There will not be any undue delay. I ask the House to accept that. We shall come to the House and indicate what we think is the best way forward.

Mr. William Ross

Is my right hon. Friend aware that most Scottish MPs sitting behind him at least applaud his decision to take some time over this matter? Will he remind the Leader of the Opposition that the "Yes" side actually won? Can my right hon. Friend think of any major Act of Parliament in this Parliament or any other Parliament in the last 20 years that could withstand successfully a well and mysteriously financed campaign of misrepresentation so successfully put to the nation?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. What my right hon. Friend says is true. There was a majority.

Mr. Andrew MacKay

Four to one against.

The Prime Minister

I am talking about Scotland. This needs to be taken carefully into account when the House decides what is the best way forward on this matter. It would be irresponsible to come forward at this stage when there is a majority and to say that all the wishes of that majority are to be flouted. That is why we need time to consider the matter and, if possible, to arrive at a conclusion. I would like a conclusion that was shared by the whole House, if such a thing were possible.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Since there was a clear majority for "Yes", and in view of the firm commitment of the Labour Party to provide Scotland with an assembly, will the Prime Minister explain why there should be any further delay?

The Prime Minister

I dare say that the right hon. Gentleman has not overlooked the fact that Parliament inserted certain provisions into the Act which have not been fulfilled in the result that was secured. It is this matter which must be taken into account by hon. Members and by the House as a whole.