HC Deb 22 March 1979 vol 964 cc1692-705
The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the further action that the Government propose to take following the results of the referendums on devolution which were held in Scotland and Wales on 1 March.

The House is aware that it is now almost 10 years since the Royal Commission on the constitution was appointed at a time when there was much public dissatisfaction with the workings of government in Scotland and Wales.

For a decade there has been intense debate about possible changes in the system of government, not only in this House, where all parties have put forward their own proposals for improvement, but also in Scotland and Wales. Parliament itself has been engaged for almost two years in considering detailed legislation, which included the proposal for advisory referendums to enable the people of Scotland and Wales to vote on whether they wished the Acts to come into force.

The results of those votes fell short of the conditions laid down by Parliament, so today the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales are laying draft orders to repeal the Acts as they are required to do by section 85(2) of the Scotland Act and section 80(2) of the Wales Act. The effect of these orders would be to repeal both Acts in their entirety. That is a fundamental decision and Parliament must have a full and early opportunity to debate and decide the issue. This is the Government's intention.

If the House decides to repeal these Acts, that will certainly not be the end of the matter. The debate will continue, especially in Scotland, where a majority of the votes cast was for the Act to come into force. Such a volume of opinion cannot sensibly be disregarded.

The Government have now fulfilled their obligation to lay the repeal orders. We intend to proceed to the next stage, namely, to ask the House to debate and decide on the orders, but we also propose that before the House makes such an important decision there should be a short intermediate stage.

As the House knows, the Government themselves are firmly committed to a policy of devolution. We shall therefore use this short interval to make formal approaches to all the other parties in the House urgently to discuss on a bilateral basis, taking into account the result of the Scottish referendum, whether a measure of agreement might not be found to provide for the better government of Scotland. We will be ready to consider carefully modifications which might now be proposed to the present Act, and ready to consider no less carefully any other proposals that might emerge. The Government's intention is that such discussions should be brought to a conclusion one way or the other by the end of April at the latest.

As for Wales, the same uncertainties are not present. There was a heavy majority vote against the Wales Act and the Government assume that Parliament will wish to repeal the Act. Nevertheless, agreement might be possible on further administrative changes which would improve the quality of government in the Principality. We shall therefore approach other parties to consider whether we can secure agreement on further devolutionary changes that would lead to a settlement in Wales within the same time limit of the end of April.

The Government's conclusion is that the situation in Scotland makes it imperative that before any irrevocable step is taken by this House there should be one further attempt by the parties to get the matter right in a way that would not disregard the majority voting in the Scottish referendum and would strengthen the unity of the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Thatcher

I put three points to the Prime Minister on his statement. First, is he aware that we believe that the best way would be for the House to proceed to debate the orders on the Scotland and Wales Acts and to decide their fate as a first step? With particular reference to Scotland, we believe that a proposal that is approved by 33 per cent. of Scottish electors, rejected by 31 per cent. and for which about 36 per cent. did not register their vote is no basis for constitutional change.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman has proposed bilateral talks with all the parties. He will recall that he has turned down similar proposals many times. Does he recollect the most recent occasion, in Glasgow, in February of this year, when, referring to the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) for an all-party conference and the extensive range of options that it should consider, he said: What a sham, what a shower. It would seem, therefore, that the Prime Minister does not really believe in talks except when he finds himself in acute difficulty. Does he understand that we are entitled to question whether his prime objective today is genuinely to explore ways of making the Government of the United Kingdom and its parts more effective and closer to the people? It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that this is merely a delaying device, with a different end in view.

Thirdly, bearing in mind that even if this Parliament runs its full time there are only about three months of parliamentary sitting time left, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it would be a cleaner and better way for the question to be considered by a new Parliament with a fresh mandate and a long lease of life ahead?

The Prime Minister

I agree with the right hon. Lady that there is a case for debating and deciding the orders as soon as possible. When the talks that I have proposed have been concluded, in the normal course of events a debate will be arranged through the usual channels. The issue has now been running for about 10 years. Whatever our views may have been before the referendums—here I come to the right hon. Lady's second question—I hope that everybody has learned some lessons as a result of them. In Scotland the result was close, but there was a majority in favour. Unless the House is not really concerned about the constitutional future in these matters, that is surely something to which we should pay attention.

I note what the right hon. Lady said in her last question, about motives. It is true that only three months' sitting time is left. I note what she says about a new Parliament and the position of the Government. However, the real concern here is not the future of the Government but the future of the United Kingdom. I can think of nothing worse than that this House should proceed to a decision on this matter which in certain circumstances would leave a complete vacuum. It seems to me that many hon. Gentlemen are so concerned with scoring party points that they do not look at the wider issues.

Mr. Donald Stewart

May I remind the Prime Minister of the clear commitment in the Labour Party election manifesto that Labour would create elected Assemblies for Scotland and Wales—about which there were no ifs, buts, referendums, 40 per cent. clauses, or anything else? Could not the talks to which he referred easily have taken place in the three weeks since the Scottish people gave their decisive verdict on the Scottish Assembly? Is it a reality that he is not prepared to face the outcome of a vote in the House but is prepared to treat the Scottish people with contempt rather than face an early election?

The Prime Minister

I believe that it would be treating the Scottish people with contempt if an order were laid and voted on to repeal the Act without any attempt being made to see what could be done to achieve a measure of good government in Scotland. I hope that the Scottish National Party will remember that.

Mr. David Steel

Is the Prime Minister not at least correct in saying that devolution is an issue that will not go away? In our view it will not do so. Is he aware of our view that such inter-party discussions as he proposes will in any case be necessary to make progress on this issue, irrespective of whether there is an election or change of Government, and that we might as well start the process now?

Is the Prime Minister aware that during the referendum many of those who campaigned for a"No"vote did so on the basis that the Scotland Act was unacceptable and that better alternative proposals should be considered? Is this not now the chance for them to be produced?

The Prime Minister

The most notable example of what the right hon. Gentleman said was provided by Lord Home, who said that he had debated whether to vote for the Act in the referendum but came to the conclusion that even though the Act was not right it should be taken back and modified. I believe that that is the view of a great many Conservatives —certainly of those who are not merely concerned with whether they can save their skins in the House.

Mr. Dalyell

May I support the Prime Minister in suggesting that the issue is the future of the United Kingdom? Does he accept that, rightly or wrongly, many people believed, on the issue of majorities, that an absent vote was a"No"vote? That must be taken into consideration.

The Prime Minister

I know that. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says. I know that there is that strong argument. With respect, I should prefer not to enter into it. It seems to me that all of us should take note that, whatever were the circumstances, the majority of those who voted did so in favour of setting up an Assembly. It would be totally wrong—and might create intense dissatisfaction—if the House proceeded in an afternoon's debate to wipe out the result of two years' legislation without making an attempt to see whether we could do something to get good government in Scotland.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

Why does the Prime Minister think that any Member of Parliament or anyone else should accept his advice—or is it a device—on devolution? Has not he represented a Cardiff constituency for 34 years? Does not his chief collaborator, the Lord President, also represent a Welsh constituency? Did not they both get it terribly wrong on their home ground? Is it not time that the Prime Minister stopped giving advice and started taking some, by having a free vote on this subject in the House next week and thereafter going to the country for an early election?

The Prime Minister

I never cease to take advice. I am being proffered it from all quarters. Indeed, I now suggest that I should listen to the hon. Gentleman and any others who have advice to offer on how to carry this matter forward. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will help me on that matter.

Mr. Sillars

Is the Prime Minister aware of the growing feeling of sourness and bitterness among the"Yes"voters in Scotland, who see that"first past the post"is acceptable for election to the House, for decisions in the House, and to take us into the Common Market? That was a constitutional change involving a tra[...]er of sovereignty of far greater magnitude than devolution. Is the Prime Minister aware that in the coming election there is no party in Scotland that will get 33 per cent. of the electorate's votes?

May I ask the Prime Minister to confirm two facts? Given the arithmetic, the size of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the known support of the other factions in the House for voting for the repeal order, has he a majority on paper of 35 per cent. to secure the Scotland Act?

Secondly, is not the Prime Minister's strong position on paper undermined because he and the Cabinet are in an extremely difficult position, as some Labour Members of Parliament would rather see a Thatcher Government in Downing Street than the Scots sitting in an Assembly in Edinburgh?

The Prime Minister

What my hon. Friend said at the beginning of his question is true. All our decisions are taken on the basis of a majority vote. Winston Churchill once said"One is enough." The Cabinet and the Government must take note that Parliament, after long debates, inserted the 40 per cent. provision into the Act. That is why it would not be right for us to plunge ahead without further discussions on this matter.

As to the future of the country, my hon. Friend should not worry himself with nightmares about a Conservative Government. That will not happen.

Mr. George Gardiner

Whether or not the Prime Minister is treating the Scottish people with contempt, does he recognise that many people on both sides of the House believe that he is treating the House with contempt? The House of Commons established the rules by which these referendums should be conducted. It has the right to expect him to play by those rules.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is correct. That is why we laid the orders today. We shall proceed to a debate and Division on this matter, in the normal course of events, when the talks, which I have said must finish by the end of April, have been concluded.

Mr. George Cunningham

Does the Prime Minister agree that one fact that every Member of Parliament must bear in mind, besides those that he mentioned, is that more than two-thirds of the people of Scotland did not support the proposal that was before them? Is he aware that what people throughout the country, north and south of the border, want is more local decision-taking? Two-thirds of the people in Scotland did not support the proposal, as they believed that this must be done on an all-British basis and not on a partial basis.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend states the position correctly. Whether or not the Act was popular and a majority of people voted for it, even if the House of Commons took a swift decision to wipe it off the statute book there would be continuing pressure for more local decision-taking in Scotland, as my hon. Friend said. This is an issue to which the House should address itself seriously, and it is on that basis that we shall be intending to enter into talks.

Mr. Graham Page

Does the Prime Minister think that the Government are really carrying out their obligation under the Scotland Act when they merely lay these orders without laying also a motion to approve them? Is this not using the procedure of this House to cheat the House out of an early debate?

The Prime Minister

The answer to the first part of the question is"Yes"and to the second part"No ".

Mr. William Ross

Is the Prime Minister aware that I wish him well, but I"hae ma doots "? For a number of years we have waited publicly for a clear declaration from the official Opposition as to their policy on devolution. It would be helpful to Scotland and, indeed, to the United Kingdom if the official Opposition could come clean with the people and with this House as to where they stand. Will the Prime Minister seek to have these discussions in public?

Will the Prime Minister assure us that he will go beyond the Leader of the Opposition and seek the views of the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and of another former Conservative Prime Minister, Lord Home of the Hirsel, who clearly, in election after election, gave to the people of Scotland the promise of an elected Assembly?

The Prime Minister

Yes, the Conservative Party has in the past said that, although more recently, in December, it published a pamphlet in which four viable options were offered. That was before the referendum, and they did not seem to us at that time to be appropriate. Nevertheless, if the Conservative Party wishes to advance those options during the course of discussions, they ought to be considered, as there was such a narrow majority on this matter. We cannot wish away the fact that a majority of people have voted in favour of the Assembly and there is therefore a responsibility on all of us.

I think that it would be better to begin with bilateral talks. They can be broadened out in any other way, provided that we get them finished within a reasonable period. That seems to me to be essential. I have already indicated what I mean by that.

Mr. Whitelaw

As the Prime Minister referred to my noble Friend the Lord Home, and as he was also referred to by the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), may I ask the Prime Minister whether he noticed the statement made by Lord Home yesterday, in which he said that In terms of practical politics nothing can happen before a general election "?

The Prime Minister

That, no doubt, is Lord Home's view, but that depends on the willingness of the parties to have discussions. I believe that there is such a willingness, and certainly the effort ought to be made.

Mr. Abse

Does the Prime Minister agree that even in Wales, where only a very small number of people supported the Assembly, it is highly desirable that that small minority should not be totally disregarded? Will he further agree that it is important, in the interests of the unity of the Principality, as well as the unity of the United Kingdom, that wherever minorities have expressed their view, be they in Scotland or in Wales, by means of talks we should try to see whether we can have something far short of Assemblies but something that will bring about decentralisation in a manner that will find a general consensus?

The Prime Minister

I hope that the House will take note of what my hon. Friend has said. He is a representative of the Principality who fought very hard against putting the Wales Act on the statute book. I think it is clear to all of us that for Wales, with its separate language and its different culture, we should not take hasty decisions unless, as my hon. Friend says, we are able to find ways of strengthening the power of local decision-making and of strengthening the sense of identity of the minority in Wales.

Mr. Sproat

In the light of what the Prime Minister has repeatedly said about the so-called majority in Scotland, what does he now say to those voters in Scotland who believed the persistent statements by members of his own Government, and the statement in the one official Labour Party political broadcast, that an abstention meant a"No"vote? Will not those voters who acted accordingly feel bitterly cheated if he now disregards their abstentions, which, in the majority of cases, were clearly votes against the Assembly?

The Prime Minister

I know the view that is expressed about this. I did not enter into that, and I do not wish to do so now. We can go only on the basis of the votes that were cast. Anyone is entitled to put his own interpretation on what would have happened if votes that were not cast had been cast. I am not holding an inquest on the past; I am trying to see whether there is any way—considering that of the number of votes cast there was a majority in favour of the Assembly—of finding a path forward that would satisfy the majority.

Mr. Dewar

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people in Scotland who have supported devolution for a long time—indeed, the vast majority of supporters of the Labour Party in Scotland—will support his idea of talks at this stage, as the alternative is almost certainly the repeal of the Act and putting back the cause of devolution for many years?

Does my right hon. Friend further accept that if small groups in this House—groups who have temporarily been given a place of importance by the even balance of the House—block those talks, they will be seen by many people in Scotland as acting against the best interests of devolution, and as probably going for something very different indeed from the reform of the government of the United Kingdom that everyone in Scotland wants?

The Prime Minister

I have put before the House the Government's proposal. Every hon. Member must now reach his own conclusion on what he wishes to do about that, and I have no desire to influence anybody beyond what I have said.

Mr. Reid

By refusing today to give a clear guarantee that the vote on the Scotland Act will be on a three-line Whip, does not the Prime Minister confirm what the House already knows—that there is a Scots majority for the Assembly, an English majority against the Assembly, and enough Members in his own party who would rather see the Leader of the Opposition in Downing Street than honour the clear manifesto commitment to the Scots people?

If it is clear to the Prime Minister by tonight that there are no takers for his bilateral talks, will he have the vote next week, anyway?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman seems to be repeating points that were made earlier. Whether it is a three-line Whip or a four-line Whip is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council and not for me. He is the one who decides that. The hon. Gentleman should not be pessimistic. I believe that from these talks we can help to save something for the people of Scotland, and I hope that he will help us to do so.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call three more hon. Members from each side.

Mr. William Hamilton

Does the Prime Minister agree that whether or not the inter-party discussions take place there will be a very expensive empty building in Edinburgh? Will the Government therefore consider sending the 71 Scottish Members of the Scottish Grand Committee, with the Scottish Estimates, to debate all matters relating to Scotland, including legislation, in that chamber? Will he, in addition, pioneer the devolution process by encouraging that Assembly to set up powerful Select Committees to investigate specific Scottish matters, in line with the recommendations of the recent report of the Procedure Committee?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend's proposal is one that might well come from one or other of the parties with whom we intend to have discussions. The Government would approach that matter with an open mind, to see whether it met with assent.

Mr. Fairbairn

In view of the charlatan-like and twisted statement made by the Prime Minister this afternoon, and the sycophantic statement made by the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel), would it not be better, instead of declining, as the Prime Minister did earlier, to send observers to Rhodesia, to ask some members of the Patriotic Front to come here and see whether we have free and fair elections?

Mr. Anderson

If, in the bilateral talks, my right hon. Friend will not be in the position of reacting to proposals from other parties, surely he must have some idea of the various options available. Can he now tell the House what will be on the agenda at those meetings, what the alternatives are that the Government have in mind, and whether those alternatives include reform of this House for Select Committees on Welsh and Scottish affairs?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is, of course, correct. Naturally we have given consideration to what might be put forward. When we have these inter-party talks we will certainly be ready to discuss a number of issues that will concern both Wales and Scotland, and we have prepared such a small list.

Mr. Gow

Is the Prime Minister aware that the successive misjudgments that have been made by the Government in regard to their devolution policy, including their misjudgment of the response of the people of Wales and Scotland, mean that he has no authority left to call such talks? Will the Prime Minister tell the House what his time scale will be if the only person with whom he finds himself in conversation is the temporary Leader of the Liberal Party?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman seems to be putting an odd complexion on the result in Scotland, where a majority voted in favour of the Act. No amount of argument can wish that away. If more than 1¼ million people voted in favour of the Act, it would seem to show—even Eastbourne might take this into account—that in Scotland there is a very real desire for more local devolution of one sort or another, even among many of those who voted against the Act as it stood. It is to that fact that we must now direct our attention.

Mr. Kinnock

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his short intermediate stage can be justified, especially if it means that impending death will concentrate the minds of nationalists in the House? Is he aware that on 1 March the people of Scotland and Wales shattered nationalism and also firmly rejected selective and isolating devolution within the United Kingdom? Will he make absolutely sure that his period of reflection, however necessary, is not mistaken for prevarication?

The Prime Minister

The fact that we are ready to enter into talks with a time limit—and a very short time limit—in order to see what can be done about this matter is in itself sufficient indication of our good faith.

Mr. Alan Clark

Instead of indulging in these various hypocrisies and shadow boxings with the minority parties, why does not the Prime Minister simply lay before Parliament the Septennial Act? In view of the proccupation of the minority parties with losing their seats, that would be probably the most effective way of ensuring the right hon. Gentleman's personal ambition—namely, to remain in office for another two years.

The Prime Minister

Like so many others, the hon. Gentleman seems so concerned about these matters that he is unable to look at the wider issues that concern the future of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will remember that when the Prime Minister made his statement he said that the matter affected the United Kingdom. I appreciate your difficulty, but in view of the fact that all those hon. Members whom you have called have been Scots or Welsh, or represent Scottish or Welsh constituencies, and also the fact that the Prime Minister said that this matter affects the United Kingdom, should not at least some hon. Members who also have an interest in the United Kingdom have been called? This matter concerns regional questions, including London, so surely we are entitled to join in this discussion.

Mr. Speaker

I understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration at not being called, but his facts are not strictly correct. I did call a London Member.

Mr. Lewis

But he was Scottish.

Mr. Speaker

I do not ask an hon. Member's nationality; I am guided by constituency.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I believe that my hon. Friend has a point. A number of hon. Members represent English constituencies, and the Prime Minister has always said that this is a matter of importance to them as well as to anyone else. My protest is a mild one, but it is, nevertheless, a protest.

Mr. Cormack

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Since when has Eastbourne been in Scotland?

Mr. Speaker

Order. We were not debating the matter today. We were asking questions. I allowed a long time for questions, but there will now be a serious statement by the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Lewis

On another point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I raise with you, in the hearing of the Prime Minister, something that I believe will be appreciated by the House? When statements are made—I know that it has gone on for many years, quite rightly—the Leaders of the Oppositions receive copies of the statements beforehand. Are there any objections to every right hon. and hon. Member having copies of these statements beforehand, in the same way as they receive budgetary and financial statements? I ask the Prime Minister whether he will consider that seriously.

My point is that Back Benchers cannot remember a long statement. As a chosen few Opposition Members refer to such statements, what possible objection can there be, when the Prime Minister or any Minister has a statement to make and the statement is available from the Vote Office, to hon. Members going to the Vote Office to get a copy of that statement so that they may be apprised of the details? Perhaps, Mr. Speaker, you could have a word with the Officials of the House to see whether that can be done.

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that the point of view he has expressed will be considered.