§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)
Before commencing the Scottish business, I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker has authorised me to say that the debate will be a general debate covering all the selected amendments. At the end, each motion will be put separately. The selected amendments may be moved at that time.
I must also inform the House that Mr. Speaker has modified his selection of amendments. On motion No. 4, relating to Scottish Estimates, amendment (c) is selected, as is amendment (c) to motion No. 5.
§ The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Paymaster General and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Francis Pym)
I beg to move motion No. 2,That this House takes note of the Report of an Inter-Party Group on the Government of Scotland.I hope that it will be for the convenience of the House to discuss at the same time the following four motions:
No. 3,That, from the beginning of next Session, Standing Order No. 68 (Scottish Grand Committee) be amended, in line 20, by leaving out from 'constituencies' to the end of the paragraph and adding 'of whom a quorum shall be ten.'.That this Order be a Standing Order of the House.No. 4,
That, from the beginning of next Session, Standing Order No. 70 (Scottish estimates) be amended, in line 7, by leaving out 'more' and inserting 'less'.That this Order be a Standing Order of the House.No. 5,That, from the beginning of next Session, Standing Order No. 71 (Matters relating exclusively to Scotland) be amended, in line 15, by leaving out 'two' and inserting 'six'.That this Order be a Standing Order of the House.No. 6,That, from the beginning of next Session, Standing Order No. 65 (Procedure in Standing Committees) be amended, in line 1, by inserting at the beginning 'Except as provided in Standing Order No. 68 (Scottish Grand Committee)'.That this Order be a Standing Order of the House.As the House will be aware, the background to these motions is that in the aftermath of the repeal of the Scotland Act in 1979 the Government initiated inter-party talks on possible improvements in the parliamentary handling of Scottish business. The terms of reference of these talks were:to consider whether the present system of government in Scotland could be improved by changes in the procedure, powers and operational arrangements for dealing with Scottish parliamentary business".We had hoped that these might be literally all-party talks, but, in the event, the Scottish National Party declined to participate. While recording their view that the proposed talks did not concern devolution as they understood the term, both the Labour and Liberal Parties eventually agreed to take part. I did not participate in those talks, but I understand that the atmosphere was cordial and constructive. While recognising the reservations which both the Opposition parties who took part had about the limited terms of reference, I would like to place on record the Government's appreciation of their contribution.
The talks covered a number of aspects of parliamentary procedures affecting Scotland, and the report makes four main positive procedural recommendations.
959 The first relates to debates by the Scottish Grand Committee on Estimates relating to the Department of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. At present, there is provision for up to six such debates in any one Session. It is now proposed that what has hitherto been a permitted maximum number of debates shall in future be a minimum. In past Sessions this figure has sometimes been attained, but sometimes not. The report expressed the view, with which the Government agree, that in future there should always be at least six such debates each Session.
As well as Estimate debates, the Scottish Grand Committee can at present devote up to two meetings each Session to matter day debates—that is to say, debates on topics of general or specific importance in Scotland relating to Government policy. This arrangement was, I think, originally designed to meet criticisms of inadequate time on the Floor for debates on matters of general Scottish interest. But the report clearly considered that the arrangement did not go far enough. It proposed that in future the maximum number of matter days should be increased to six, with the Opposition parties having the option of insisting on a minimum of four such debates.
Thirdly, the report proposed that the provision in Standing Orders for the appointment of added Members to the Scottish Grand Committee should be removed. The long-standing provision, whereby the Committee of Selection may add up to 15 Members representing constituencies outside Scotland, was designed to enable the Government of the day to secure a majority on the Committee in circumstances where there was no natural Government majority.
Before Labour Members rush to point out that, if that is the intention of the provision, it is ineffective in securing its objective in any case, I shall make no bones about the fact or raise any objection. But the Scottish Grand Committee has not normally sought to operate in a way which makes this a critical factor. Although it most usefully gives an effective Second Reading to some Scottish Bills, there is a procedure for reference to the whole House so that the legislative process cannot be significantly upset by the Government's lack of a majority on the Committee. Of course, there may be a vote against the Government, as happened earlier this Session on a matter day debate, but I do not regard that as a good reason for not making the reform now proposed—nor, I imagine, would hon. Members opposite. Perhaps they are grateful about that.
Finally, the report recommended that the quorum of the Scottish Grand Committee should be reduced from 17 to 10. That seems logical in relation to the reduced size of the Committee.
The report also refers to two other matters on which it leaves the position open without making any recommendations. The first of these was the possibility of sittings of the Scottish Grand Committee being held in Edinburgh. Another was the possibility of provision being made for Members representing constituencies other than Scottish constituencies to attend and speak, but not to vote, move amendments, or be counted in the quorum, in the Scottish Grand Committee. I shall refer briefly to those proposals in a moment.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
I had hoped to interrupt the Leader of the House before he left the question of the number of Estimate days and matter days. All that he has done is to repeat what is in the memorandum. He has not told the House about any of the thinking that lies behind the report. Perhaps there was no thinking.
§ Mr. Pym
I am fulfilling the Government's undertaking to put before the House motions relating to the conclusions reached after the inter-party talks, to enable the House to decide what it wants to do. That is what I am doing by moving the motions tonight.
The inter-party group also considered the suggestion that Scottish Adjournment debates and questions might be taken in the Scottish Grand Committee, and that greater use might be made of the Scottish Grand Committee for legislation—in particular that the Report stage of Scottish Bills might be taken in the Committee. It considered all those matters but rejected all proposals. Therefore, I have not put before the House motions relating to them.
§ Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)
The list of recommended changes states that:The Official Opposition should commit itself at the start of each Parliament to an appropriate allocation to the other Opposition parties of the choice of topic for Estimate and Matter Day debates.Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that no time will be given to any minority parties that did not win any seats in the last general election?
§ Mr. Pym
That is a matter for the Opposition of the day. The quotation given by the hon. Gentleman puts the responsibility for such a decision upon the Opposition. From what he said, assuming that he is in accord with the leadership of his party—we can never be sure—no such opportunity will be given.
The Government have previously indicated to the House that they welcome the report, and that they would, in due course, table motions recommending support for the proposals. The motions now on the Order Paper, if accepted by the House, would thus implement the positive recommendations made in the group's report, in so far as they require amendments to Standing Orders.
Following the "take note" motion, No. 2 on the Order Paper, the first substantive motion in my name, No. 3, would have the effect of doing away with added Members in the Scottish Grand Committee and of reducing the required quorum.
Motion No. 4 would have the effect of substituting a minimum of six Estimate days in the Scottish Grand Committee instead of the present maximum of six days. Motion No. 5 would increase the maximum number of matter day debates in the Scottish Grand Committee from two to six. Motion No. 6 is consequential.
The proposed amendment to Standing Order No. 71 would simply increase the maximum number of matter days to six, and the intention would be that the further provision for a minimum of four matter days at the request of the Opposition would be achieved by convention. That would also be the case with regard to the group's proposals in respect of the choice of topic for Estimate debates remaining with the Opposition; the sharing of the choice of topics for matter day debates between the Government and the Opposition; and the proposed allocation by the official Opposition of an appropriate allocation to the other Opposition parties of the choice of topics for Estimates and 961 matter day debates. However, that would be a matter for the Opposition of the day. All these issues, and those covered in the amendments tabled by hon. Members are entirely for the House to decide.
It may be useful to the House if I indicate briefly the Government's attitude towards some of the amendments, particularly that in the name of my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) and Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart). The amendment reflects views for which the Government have already expressed support in the inter-party talks.
There was no agreement in the inter-party group on this proposal. As I have indicated, the Government regard this issue as entirely one for the House to decide. Nevertheless, and without pre-empting what hon. Members may wish to say, it would perhaps not be inappropriate for me to say that the Government would regard this proposal as a modest but useful modification of our procedures. It would help to underline the unified United Kingdom character of our procedures and the proper interest of hon. Members in all matters relating to every part of the country.
The amendment to motion No. 2 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) would, if approved by the House, accept in principle that it would be desirable if the Scottish Grand Committee were to hold some of its meetings in Edinburgh for an experimental period. The proposal to hold Committee sittings in Edinburgh was considered at some length during the talks. The group came to no conclusion in the matter beyond proposing that it was an issue on which the House should be given the opportunity to express its views.
As the report indicates, this is an issue on which there are strongly held and conflicting opinions. Whatever the will of the House on this matter, sittings away from Westminster could, as the report points out, poseformidable practical and organisational problems.I would see these as ruling out meetings of Scottish Standing Committees in Edinburgh. As no motions and no amendments have been tabled, I assume that hon. Members on both sides of the House share that view. However, several amendments refer to the possibility of sittings of the Scottish Grand Committee in Edinburgh. The Government fully agree, but this is a matter for decision by the House and the Government's stance on the issue is neutral.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
The right hon. Gentleman has referred exlusively to Edinburgh. Why should the Scottish Grand Committee not be free to decide either to meet in Edinburgh or in any other part of Scotland?
§ Mr. Pym
I understand that contemplation was given to that option in the inter-party talks and that opinion was confined almost exclusively to Edinburgh. That is why I have referred to Edinburgh.
Several amendments refer to the possibility of sittings of the Grand Committee in Edinburgh and we think that it is right for the Government to be neutral on the principle. If the House decides that it wishes to proceed in this way, that is a practical possibility. If the House votes in favour of the proposal—[Interruption.] I am glad that Scottish Labour Members are enjoying the details of this debate, which I would regard as matters of some importance. It seems that they regard them as matters of some ridicule. It ill behoves them to treat the debate in such a manner in the light of the extraordinary history of the immensely 962 lengthy debates that we had on the vital topic of how the government of Scotland could best be conducted in the context of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He may understand our levity when I say that I was asking what Edinburgh had done to deserve having the Scottish Grand Committee to itself.
§ Mr. Pym
I do not have the slightest idea, but I imagine that that is something which Aberdeen has not done.
If however, the House were to vote in favour of this proposal, it is desirable that it should be on an experimental basis, and that there should be some further opportunity for consideration to be given to the details of its practical implementation. It would accordingly seem to be premature at this stage for the House to be committed to proposals, such as those in the name of the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen), which would have the effect of enabling the Scottish Grand Committee to resolve at its first meeting of the Session to hold all its meetings, whether for the consideration of Estimates, matter days, or other business, in Edinburgh or elsewhere in Scotland—[Interruption.] That is not my responsibility. I am making comments about it because I believe that it is of general interest to the House.
It is also undesirable and unnecessary for those proposed procedural changes to come formally into operation before the beginning of next Session. A number of amendments on the Order Paper would delete from the Government motions the wordsfrom the beginning of next Session".I do not believe that that is an appropriate amendment.
I said at the outset that the Government had thought it right to consider very carefully what was said in this report. I hold by that view, and consider that it would be better to bring those changes into effect from the beginning of next Session. Moreover, the spirit of this group of amendments is already being largely met. It has been agreed that there will be six Estimates debates in the Scottish Grand Committee over the next few weeks. There has also already been one matter day in the Committee, and my right hon. Friend has made clear to the Opposition that he is willing to have a second matter day debate before the House rises for the recess. I do not think, therefore, that there would be any practical purpose in introducing those procedural changes at this stage of the present Session.
I note that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has tabled an amendment to motion No. 5 proposing that the Committee on Scottish Affairs should be given the right to select a subject arising from one of its reports as the subject of one matter day debate each Session. I am not sure that it is desirable that one Committee of this House should be enabled in that way to determine the nature of the business in another Committee. The inter-party group also recommended in its report that the choice of the topic for matter day debates should in future be shared between the Government and the Opposition. I am, however, sympathetic to the idea behind this amendment and would regard it as entirely appropriate that a report of the Scottish Affairs Committee, recommended by the House for debate, should be an obvious candidate for selection in such discussions.
963 These proposals are not of a fundamental nature. As we have made clear to the House, the inter-party talks were concerned not with a Scottish Assembly or Executive, but with the possibility of making some improvements within the existing parliamentary framework. The people of Scotland had already made clear that they did not give the Scotland Act the degree of support which Parliament had decided that fundamental constitutional change should require. [Interruption.] The noise on Opposition Benches shows the acute embarrassment of those hon. Members. I believe that that is the sense of their noises.
Even within the limited context of changes in parliamentary procedure, the danger has to be recognised that too wide an extension of special procedures for the consideration of Scottish business might lead to pressures for the restriction of the opportunities for hon. Members to raise Scottish issues on the Floor of the House. That was one of the considerations which the inter-party group took into account in its rejection of proposals for the extension of the scope of the Scottish Grand Committee to cover Adjournment debates and Question Time. I believe that the group reached a wise and right conclusion in that respect.
Therefore, while I acknowledge the limited purpose of the group's proposals, I suggest that they represent a useful and realistic series of measures which, taken together, would, if the House so decided, constitute a valuable improvement in our procedures in the interests of the better government of Scotland and the better conduct of the affairs of the House generally. In that spirit, I recommend the motions to the House.
§ 11.4 pm
§ Mr. Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Craighton)
I make it clear at the outset that for the Opposition there will be a free vote on all these matters. We hear what the Leader of the House has said about the Government side, although we are rather sceptical about that, at any rate so far as it concerns the payroll vote.
The matters before us tonight are scarcely earth-shaking. If some of the Minister's comments were greeted with a certain amount of ridicule from the Opposition, it was because some of us remember the kind of speeches that he made during the passage of the Scotland Bill. We were told that if we turned down that legislation, which was unsatisfactory from the point of view of introducing meaningful devolution to Scotland, the Conservative Government would introduce something much better. A whole range of choices was offered, from federalism and quasi-federalism to a deliberative assembly. There were five options. The Leader of the House put his name to all that in a book published not only by him but by the present Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who has gone quite far on false promises made during the passage of that legislation.
Tonight's debate and the proposals before us have nothing whatever to do with devolution. I make that absolutely clear.
§ Mr. Millan
The right hon. Gentleman says "Hear, hear", but at the beginning of the so-called inter-party talks the Government were pushing the line that we were dealing with some kind of substitute for devolution. It has never been that. I reiterate briefly—I shall not go into the 964 detail—that the Labour Party is and remains committed to devolution. We are not dealing with that tonight, however. We are dealing with very minor matters about the government of Scottish business in the House. Nevertheless, in the context of the opportunites for debating Scottish affairs they are quite important, and I welcome this debate.
I must point out, however, that the Government have been extraordinarily dilatory—in my view, quite cynically so—in bringing forward these proposals. The first meeting to discuss the question of inter-party talks took place as long ago as 18 July 1979. There was a great deal of dilatoriness during the 1979–80 Session. Eventually, there were two meetings for inter-party talks, in which the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) participated for the Liberal Party, in April and May 1980. There was then a further delay before the Government finally produced the report and the answer to the written question on 7 August 1980, when they said that they agreed with the recommendations and would bring them before the House. It is now 16 June 1981. It has taken the Government 10 months to bring the recommendations before the House.
The Leader of the House said that it was never intended that the recommendations should apply in the current Session. That is completely untrue. Certainly the Opposition made it clear that we always intended that the recommendations should apply in the present Session. I shall not go into chapter and verse. The right hon. Gentleman has only to look at early-day motion No. 275 put down on 19 March this year in the names of myself and my hon. Friends criticising the delay in bringing these matters forward for debate. We made it absolutely clear then that we expected these proposals to be implemented in the current Session, and that has been our view throughout.
Interestingly enough, despite the Government's efforts to delay this so that it would be quite impracticable for these matters to be dealt with in the current Session, the additional matter days are still possible, and that is all that is at issue. The Leader of the House referred to these and the six Estimates days as though this were some great triumph on the part of the Government, but we always have six Estimates days and two matter days so there is no great advance.
We are dealing here with a comparatively small number of additional matter days, and the Estimates days are already decided in the current year. Running to 7 July, we have a number of days before the House goes into Summer Recess, or a number of days in the autumn spillover, which would give ample opportunities for the additional days that are provided for in these motions for matter day debates to be taken in the current Session. Therefore, I recommend my hon. Friends to vote for the amendments in my name, which would allow these matters to be implemented in the current Session. It would be inexcusable if the Government voted against that modest proposition.
I shall turn in a minute to the substance of the motions but first I want to mention the Scottish National Party. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"] That is precisely the point. The SNP has decided today, with a certain amount of cynical publicity, to boycott these debates. But the SNP already boycotts a good many other debates, in the sense that its members are not here for them. To boycott this evening's debate is, in my view, extremely silly.
965 The SNP is still trying to salve its conscience over helping to bring down a Labour Government and thereby bringing to an end the Scotland Act. Labour Members will not forgive the SNP for that. But the SNP has said that it is not interested in increasing the number of Estimates or matter days that can be taken in Committee, and we shall remember that when we come to those debates. Indeed, I shall be perfectly happy if SNP Members do not turn up at any of the debates, because when they do their contributions are rarely worth listening to.
The Estimates motion simply guarantees the six days, but in most Sessions in my experience, over a considerable period, we have usually managed to get six days. It is a slight advance that these are now guaranteed, and that is perfectly acceptable.
The practice has been to have two matter days, and the motions would provide for a maximum of six, with a guaranteed minimum of four. We could have the guaranteed minimum of four during the current parliamentary Session, despite the late date of the debate. That is a modest improvement, because the matter days, apart from anything else, can be spread throughout the whole of the parliamentary Session in a way that Estimates days cannot, and that will give flexibility in our discussions upstairs, which is worth having.
With regard to the rights of minority parties, I stand by what was said in the inter-party report. When the new arrangements are brought into operation there will be an agreement on our part, at the start of each Parliament, as to what discretion would be allowed to the minority parties in the choosing of subjects for Estimates. It has not been done this year and I stand by that decision as well, because these provisions have not been implemented. But I stand by the undertaking that we gave, and when we get into the new arrangements I shall consult the minority parties, if they are willing to consult me.
The adding of English Members has been an anomaly and I am glad that it has now been eliminated. I do not suppose that any English Members will be too unhappy about the denial of the prospect of sitting on the Scottish Grand Committee. The recommendation about the quorum follows from that and I accept it.
I have no strong feelings about the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), except that I think it is deplorable that we do not have a regular opportunity of discussing the reports of the Select Committee. We should arrange our affairs so that we do so at least once, and on occasion more than once, in a Session. It is probably unnecessary to amend Standing Orders to gain that objective, but I hope that it will be achieved.
§ Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)
Given the proposals for matter days, in which the Opposition are involved, should not the Government also consider giving some of their time to the minority parties?
§ Mr. Millan
The arrangement for the choice of subjects on Estimates days rests—and always has rested—with the Opposition. The six Estimates days are for the Opposition to choose. Until now, matter days have been for the Government to decide. Although there is consultation about the timing, as indeed there is for Estimates days, the ultimate decision about matter days is for the Government to take.
Under these arrangements, we are arguing that matter days should be agreed between the Government and the 966 Opposition. The undertaking to provide for a choice of subject by the minority parties straddles both the Estimates and matter days. Therefore, my hon. Friend's wish might be fulfilled. However, such things are best dealt with by agreement and not by writing them into Standing Orders.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)
Does not the right hon. Gentleman recall that when the Conservative Party was in Opposition it offered the minority parties a particular day in the Estimates debate? The Opposition have not even asked us what we think. That is not a good precursor of what may happen when these reforms have been made.
§ Mr. Millan
If I have given an undertaking, I shall discharge it. When the Conservative Party was in Opposition it had fewer hon. Members than we have. It might sometimes have been desperate to find suitable subjects because it had so little to say. However, we can discuss such issues when the motions have been accepted. I stand by the undertaking that I gave.
There are difficulties about taking questions and Adjournment debates in Committee. They are not intrinsic difficulties, but it would be tempting for the business managers to take Scottish business off the Floor of the House. I do not want that to happen, but other hon. Members may take a different view. However, there is nothing on the Order Paper to give rise to this subject.
I turn to the question whether the Scottish Grand Committee should or could meet in Scotland, and specifically Edinburgh. If hon. Members are to reach a decision it might be better to view the issue in the wider context of Scotland. I do not criticise the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser), but his amendment mentions Edinburgh rather than Scotland. I hope that he will not disagree that it is the matter of meeting in Scotland that is at issue. However, if the House were to be in favour of that, the meetings might take place in Edinburgh. Nevertheless, I would prefer to consider the question in the wider context and to retain a flexibility to meet elsewhere in Scotland.
I shall not go over the arguments in detail as they are familiar to hon. Members. The argument for meeting in Scotland—and specifically in Edinburgh—centres on bringing the work of Parliament nearer to the electorate. It is as simple as that. As we have distinctive arrangements for dealing with Scottish business it would not be a major step to change those distinctive arrangements to enable debate to take place in Scotland rather than in Westminster.
The arguments against meeting in Scotland are matters of practicality rather than principle. There are difficulties with travelling and finding time for the debates in Scotland in a way compatible with the wishes of Members also to participate in debates in the House.
The Select Committee has met in Scotland as well as at Westminster, but on occasion that has given rise to difficulties in relation to the responsibilities of hon. Members in Westminster. Apart from that, a Select Committee has a comparatively small number of members who can pair ad hoc, and it is much more difficult with 71 members of the Scottish Grand Committee.
Picking up a point made by the Leader of the House, I think that the arguments are much more in practical terms about the Grand Committee rather than a Standing Committee, but that, again for different reasons, would 967 create practical problems and deny the members of the Standing Committee a valid opportunity of participating in work here. A Standing Committee on Scottish business has been meeting today. It would have been impossible for hon. Members on that Committee to do work in the House and take part in this debate. I think it has to be the Grand Committee rather than the Standing Committee.
Each hon. Member will have a different view on these matters. As there is a free vote, it is not for me to come down on one side or the other, although I am not convinced about the desirability of meeting in Edinburgh. That is a matter which the Scottish Grand Committee should decide for itself. It would not be right for the House, with English Members participating, to decide one way or the other on meeting in Edinburgh.
The amendment in the name of the hon. Member for South Angus is to be welcomed. It is an enabling provision, and I shall vote for it. It does not say that the Scottish Grand Committee must or shall meet in Edinburgh, but that it shall have the opportunity of meeting in Edinburgh. The amendments in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) put flesh on that enabling provision and provide that the Scottish Grand Committee, when it is discussing either matter days or Estimate days, can make the decision for itself. I shall vote for that.
It will have been noted that the amendments to motion No. 3 have not been selected, because the view has been taken that there are practical difficulties—I think they are more theoretical—about the Scottish Grand Committee being committed, in terms of amendments (c) and (d), to draw up a programme of events for the whole Session. I do not think that that was intended. The amendments would not necessarily have that effect.
In practical terms, the amendments to motions Nos. 4 and 5 do the job in any case because they give the opportunity for matter or Estimates days to be taken in Scotland rather than in Westminster. What we are discussing is the principle whether the Scottish Grand Committee should make the decision for itself.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston
When the right hon. Gentleman says that the Scottish Grand Committee should decide for itself, surely he means in practical terms that the majority party in the Scottish Grand Committee will decide for itself.
§ Mr. Millan
The hon. Gentleman does not like the fact that there are only three Liberal Members in Scotland. But he should blame the electors for that and not me. The majority party does not have a party view on the matter. My right hon. and hon. Friends will make up their minds whatever I say, and I do not think that they will all vote the same way. That is a matter for them; it is not for me to commit them.
I shall vote for the enabling amendment of the hon. Member for South Angus and I shall support the amendments of my hon. Friend the Member for Maryhill, rather than that of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian, which is comprehended by those amendments. That is my advice to my colleagues.
We are dealing with a modest improvement in the arrangements for Scottish business. It has nothing to do 968 with devolution, but that much more important matter is a topic which we shall wish to return to on another occasion.
§ Mr. Peter Fraser (South Angus)
My amendment to the motion would add the words:and considers it desirable that the Scottish Grand Committee should for an experimental period be enabled to hold sittings in Edinburgh from time to time".My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) referred to the report of the inter-party working group on the government of Scotland. I shall address myself only to the final section, which is described as theMatter left over for decision by the House".The final two sentences read:It was concluded therefore that there was no basis for a recommendation from the Inter-Party Group in favour of Edinburgh sittings for the Scottish Grand or Standing Committees. This was a matter on which individual Members would have different views and which would have to be decided by the House when it came to debate the Report of the talks".It seemed to me that it was desirable that a Back Bencher, from either side of the House, should table an amendment to give hon. Members the opportunity to consider the point on which the inter-party group was unable to reach an agreed view.
I am grateful for the constructive and reasonable approach of the right hon. Member for Craigton. What I am arguing for falls into three parts—first, that as a matter of principle the Scottish Grand Committee should sit in Scotland, secondly that we should do so for an experimental period and thirdly that Edinburgh should be the location for the meeting.
During the long years when devolution was at the front of the political stage in Scotland, the proposal to hold Scottish Grand Committee meetings in Scotland flitted across the stage from time to time. It would be wrong to pretend to those who believe in a wholly separate Scotland, a federalist Scotland within the United Kingdom or any other major form of constitutional change that what I am arguing for is a substantial substitute for what they want to do.
We should not regard the matter as being the exclusive preserve of Scottish Members. We should contemplate a simple change in our proceedings that will make the meetings both more visible and more accessible to the people of Scotland. That is a reasonable and desirable objective. Being a member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, I identify within Scotland a constituency of interest in the detailed workings of Parliament. I do not believe that what I suggest can be disregarded.
The Select Committee has already produced a number of reports, which are undoubtedly of interest to hon. Members but which also have a specific constituency of interest in Scotland. I pick out just two: one on inward investment and the other on the location of Civil Service jobs in the West of Scotland. They are matters of great interest in Scotland, and the objective of having them debated within Scotland is well worth while.
Given that view, I then have to turn my attention to what I freely accept are valid arguments advanced by the inter-party group, which says that it is not simply a matter of saying "As from next Wednesday, let the Scottish Grand Committee go somewhere in Scotland." There are formidable practical and organisational problems, and I do not underestimate them.
969 Even in the Select Committee there have been times when hon. Members with particular interests in such matters as energy have found it difficult, after a morning's deliberations in Glasgow or Edinburgh, to return to the House in time to take part in energy questions the same afternoon. I do not underestimate the desire of hon. Members to be present for such occasions. It is vital that they should continue to participate. Nothing would be worse for the involvement of Scotland within this United Kingdom Parliament than if they found themselves relegated to a second-class status simply because they did not enjoy the regular opportunity to take part in debates of United Kingdom importance, by the very fact of the other proceedings in which they were involved.
I accept those difficulties and appreciate that they must be carefully considered, but I am not prepared simply to say that they are incapable of resolution. Therefore, rather than suggest that we should now be taking a decision once and for all that the Scottish Grand Committee should meet in Scotland, I suggest that we should give serious consideration to the matter at least for an experimental period.
I turn to the location of the Committee's meetings. I accept what the right hon. Member for Craigton said. I am not wedded to its holding its meetings in Edinburgh. My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East, Mr. Henderson), with a Parliament Hall in St. Andrews university, might argue that that is a very good location. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) will advance an argument for Perth. On a wild occasion, I might even suggest that the Committee meet in the abbey of Arbroath.
The more serious point is that when the Select Committee has met in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh it has moved for specific objectives. Under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) we went to Aberdeen, without any dissent from members of the Committee, because we were discussing fishing. Aberdeen was a natural focal point. No one involved in it thought that it was wrong. An important indication of how valuable it was was that within weeks the Government accepted what came out of that report. When the Committee was discussing the location of Civil Service jobs in the West of Scotland, it was natural to go to Glasgow to consider that. When it has been interviewing, examining or cross-examining the Secretary of State for Scotland, Edinburgh is a natural location for that trauma for him.
Without being fixed in my view about where the Scottish Grand Committee should meet, I should not like to make the Scottish Grand Committee into some form of peripatetic publicity stunt where a Government of Left or Right decided that things were looking gloomy at Fort William and, given the difficult electoral difficulty at the time, decided to locate the Committee there. That would not only undermine the seriousness of its intentions but would undermine the seriousness of the locational arrangements that the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs is making. For that reason, we should go to Edinburgh.
Of the three points I have outlined, that is probably the least important. It is important that we should give to that constituency of interest in Scotland an opportunity visibly to see what the House does. People may from time to time find it both tedious and boring, but I trust that if we gave them that opportunity, contrary to what many may say, 970 especially the Scottish National Party—which has not had the grace to attend or participate in the debate—it would demonstrate to the people of Scotland that in dealing with their affairs we treated them with the utmost seriousness and concern.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)
The House should be reminded before we go any further that 1,230,937 Scots voted on 1 March 1979 to set up a directly elected Scottish Assembly. That was 33 per cent. of the Scottish electorate and a clear majority of those who voted.
Two months later, on 3 May 1979, 33 per cent. of the British electorate voted Conservative—a minority of those who voted—but, for some reason best known to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), a British majority of 33 per cent. is a good enough mandate for a full Parliament of undiluted Thatcherism while the Scottish majority of 33 per cent. is totally meaningless. As a member of that majority, I want to make it abundantly clear that the issue of devolution is not dead. If any hon. Member is under the illusion that it is, it is time that he disabused himself.
I shall concentrate on those who voted against devolution in 1979. A large number of those, excluding my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), who voted "No" in 1979 were Conservatives. It is relevant to the debate to reflect on the advice given to Conservative voters in Scotland by one of my distinguished kinsmen—a noble Lord resident in my constituency, Lord Home of the Hirsel. What better to quote from than the Berwickshire News and East Lothian Advertiser of 27 February 1979? It states:Lord Home said that he was recommending a 'No' vote because he believed it was the only way to ensure that this important matter went back to Parliament.'Constitutional change carries with it an absolute obligation to make sure that the change is for the better,' he declared. 'It ought to be arrived at by a consensus between the political parties.'The only way we can make sure of that is to have a Speaker's Conference to which the Conservative party is pledged, and with which all parties would undoubtedly co-operate.'Lord Home continued:Political division is dangerous—he should know about that—and I think that steps could be taken under the chairmanship of the Speaker. The all-party approach has not been tried and it ought to be, even if it means deferring a decision for a year or 18 months.Here we all are, not a year or 18 months later but more than two years further on, and what do we have? We do not have a Speaker's Conference and we do not have a radical new set of devolution proposals from a dynamic, decentralising Government. We have this pitiful set of proposals, extracted from the Leader of the House under a good deal of pressure and after a very long time. They are a pathetic rag-bag of minor amendments to the procedures of the Scottish Grand Committee.
We are being asked to take note of a five-page report that claims to cover the government of Scotland but, in fact, is only tinkering with the procedures of the Scottish Grand Committee. The Committee is already the epitome of a talking shop, and the proposals will enable us to talk even more about even more matters and Estimates, but still Scottish Members will not be entrusted with Scottish decision-making. Unless an amendment is passed, we 971 shall still be corralled upstairs, as if to emphasise the irrelevance of the Committee's work to the real life of real people in Scotland.
Sadly, it appears that we shall no longer be a multiracial Committee. We shall miss providing a purgatory for naughty English Members. We have enjoyed the company of a silent and chastened hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) and were looking forward perhaps to the company of the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens) or even the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) in due course. It did no harm for English Conservatives to have a glimpse of the horrors of Scottish administration, but I suppose that they were an anachronism and it is right that they should go.
The amendment that stands in my name—to leave out "for an experimental period"—would make it possible for the Scottish Grand Committee to sit in our own capital city of Edinburgh. No one is under the illusion that that would lead directly to an improvement in the way in which our business is handled, but it could lead indirectly to a much-needed reappraisal of the role of Scottish Members and of the machinery of government in Scotland. Indeed, it could lead to a badly needed new consideration of devolved handling of Scottish affairs. It would, incidentally, be good for Scottish Members to work for, say, one day a month in Edinburgh in our own country and might provide more time in the House for English regional debates, such as that yesterday on the affairs of the North-West of England, and that, in turn, might stimulate greater interest in English regional identity, which would do nothing but good.
A move to Edinburgh might help Scottish Members to have a more direct impact on the work of the Scottish Civil Service, which leads a protected life far away in Edinburgh. It might help to make people in Scotland more aware of our democratic institutions, which can on many occasions seem terribly remote. It might also help to make Scottish Members more aware of the wider relevance of their work.
Sometimes, during the course of late sittings on Scottish affairs at Westminster, an almost incestuous attitude prevails among Scottish hon. Members on both sides. We get to know each other very well. There is a danger that we shall lose our awareness of the people we are supposed to represent. The immediate presence of Scottish listeners and the Scottish press in Edinburgh might help to concentrate our minds and do away with some of the frivolity that has been known to arise during these night debates.
One suggestion before the House is that all 71 Members of the Scottish Grand Committee should be empowered go walk about or on safari throughout Scotland complete with clerks, shorthand writers, baggage, papers and all the rest—a sort of Harry Gourlay's flying circus. I am not sure that this is necessarily a serious option. There are ample opportunities for the Scottish Select Committee to take evidence in different parts of Scotland. Only yesterday we were taking evidence from the Secretary of State for Scotland in Edinburgh. This sort of exercise is appropriate for the Scottish Select Committee. We are forced to wait for a directly elected Scottish Assembly. It might, therefore, increase our effectiveness if the Scottish Grand Committee was empowered to carry out its considerations 972 in Edinburgh. The assembly building is ready for use. The Civil Service in New and Old St. Andrew's House is long overdue for better scrutiny.
Edinburgh has been the capital of Scotland since the fifteenth century. It is right that Scottish Members should be given the opportunity to work in our capital city. I hope that the opportunity will be taken.
§ Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)
I am surprised to hear the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) say that he feels that the quality of his speeches would be better if we were located in Edinburgh rather than here. It is my impression, having served on the Select Committee with the hon. Gentleman in several locations both here and in Scotland, that his contributions have been of a uniform standard wherever he speaks.
The hon. Gentleman's comment about his hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) seemed somewhat odd, bearing in mind that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, as well as being a Labour Member of Parliament, is a Scotsman. It is, therefore, not surprising that he should show a considerable interest in Scottish affairs. The comments were particularly surprising when it is remembered that they come from an hon. Member of a party that has frequently provided, for the worse, the Government of the United Kingdom since 1945. Yet only in the Parliament of 1966 to 1970 did the Labour Party ever possess a majority in England.
A party that has governed England on many occasions without a majority in England is particularly ill placed to make remarks about Scottish hon. Members who sit for English constituencies having an interest in affairs in Scotland. I would be surprised if a number of Labour Members did not continue to take a considerable interest in and make a valuable contribution to, Northern Ireland affairs.
If hon. Members wish to talk about being nearer to the people and being able to communicate better with the people of Scotland, I would have thought that, more significant than any decision about where we sit would be a decision to televise the proceedings of the House or its Committees, wherever they sit. You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the occasion when you gave your casting vote early in this Parliament which resulted in the House of Commons voting for the first time for the televising of our proceedings at some time in the future. It begins to look like some time, maybe, perhaps.
I doubt whether the number of people who have observed all the meetings of our Select Committee in Scotland would fill half the Benches of the House. Had the proceedings of the Scottish Grand Committee been televised, they would have been seen by tens of thousands of people, even on a poor night.
The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) made some curious remarks about free votes. He said that all Labour Members have free votes. Yet he then recommended his hon. Friends to vote for what I consider to be a trivial amendment about whether we should start the changes this Session. It is a matter of little importance. It is odd that the right hon. Gentleman should speak of free votes one minute, and, the next minute, recommend his hon. Friends to support a trivial amendment.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that there could be an argument for Standing Committees 973 meeting in Edinburgh. He also viewed with sympathy the amendment standing in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) and Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart), suggesting that, somewhat akin to the way in which hon. Members who are not members of Statutory Instruments Committees may address them, hon. Members might be able to address the Scottish Grand Committee. It is unfortunate that the House will not have an opportunity tonight of expressing a view on the matter. I hope that my right hon. Friend will tell us how we can do that.
Leaving aside the merits of the Scottish Grand Committee meeting in Scotland, I believe that there is a stronger case for Standing Committees meeting there. Just as Select Committees take evidence from people and it is therefore convenient for many people, including hon. Members, for those meetings to take place in Scotland, so Standing Committees spend a long time going through the detail of legislation, about which hon. Members may wish to consult people outside the House. It would, therefore, be valuable if Standing Committees were able to meet in Edinburgh, where it would be easier for people to make representations to Members while those Committees were sitting. In discussing whether the Scottish Grand Committee should meet in Edinburgh, it is unfortunate that we have not been able to discuss the matter alongside the merits of doing the same thing with Standing Committees.
I note, too, the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) about Select Committee recommendations. I agree with what the right hon. Member for Craigton said about the spirit of the amendment, as opposed to its terms. I hope that my right hon. Friends would always be prepared to arrange for discussion of matters which the Select Committee recommended should be debated by the House or by one of its Committees. I therefore support the spirit of the amendment, but not its terms.
Lastly, I want to draw attention to one serious problem that could arise if we decided to meet from time to time in either Scotland or, more particularly Edinburgh, depending on which amendment we choose. I can envisage a conflict between our interests in the House concerning the government of the United Kingdom and the time available for issues in Scotland. It depends on which hat we are wearing. On a considerable number of recent Mondays there have been meetings of the Select Committee in Scotland. If we increase the number of meetings of the Scottish Grand Committee, and decide that many, all, or some, will take place in Scotland, there will be clashes of interest between the hon. Members who sit on the Select Committee and all the Scottish Members who sit on the Scottish Grand Committee. That leaves aside the question whether Standing Committees should meet in Scotland.
In the comparatively small amount of time in the parliamentary year during which it would be practical and sensible to consider meeting in Scotland, we would have a considerable conflict of interest about how best to use that time in terms of whether it should be Grand Committee time, Standing Committee time, or Select Committee time. We must move gradually and thoughtfully in the direction of more meetings of Committees outside the House.
§ Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)
The Leader of the House was a little puzzled earlier by the levity in the House. Surely it was understandable because we had to listen to an abundance of lawyers for six hours this afternoon. Moreover, many hon. Members from the West of Scotland are still reeling under the impact of the hacksaw that the parliamentary Boundary Commission is wielding. Perhaps that explains the temporary absence of the PPS to the Secretary of State for Scotland—although I notice that the Secretary of State himself is sitting pretty in the proposed boundary changes.
On several occasions today I met my good and hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) in a kilt. He explained to me that he was upstairs serving on the Committee on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill and that it was the best way to keep cool.
§ Mr. James Hamilton (Bothwell)
Did my hon. Friend notice that our hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) had one sporran at the front and another at the back? He did not know whether he was coming or going.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)
Order. I wonder whether the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) knew that this attack would be made upon him.
§ Mr. Craigen
Knowing the interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Bothwell (Mr. Hamilton) in these matters, I can assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that he knew which Lobby to go into.
For the past 20 or 30 years, there have been suggestions that the Scottish Grand Committee should meet in Scotland. Tonight, we have the opportunity to do something about it and to bring it about. I hope that at the end of the debate the House will agree to support the amendment in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan). It proposes that the Scottish Grand Committee should have the authority to meet in Scotland. It therefore encompasses the points made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson).
There is nothing to preclude the Committee from deciding that it wishes to hold certain, although not necessarily all, of its sittings in Edinburgh. I have no doubt that the Property Services Agency would want to have tenants for the Royal high school building. There is an equal argument for the Scottish Grand Committee to meet in that other high school in Glasgow presently used by the Strathclyde region for its council meetings. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has said, there is no reason why the Committee, if it so wishes, should not sit at Aberdeen or Dundee—
§ Mr. Craigen
The hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) has done us a favour in introducing the possibility of meetings in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman has proposed that the meetings should be experimental. It has taken about two years for the House to find time to debate these motions. I suspect that a decision on an experiment would tend to be postponed. We should seek to give the Scottish Grand Committee the necessary authority to meet 975 in Scotland. The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs as has already shown that it can assemble quite easily in Scotland.
I am under no illusion about the strengths and weaknesses of the Scottish Grand Committee. In its present form, it has been one of the more disappointing aspects of parliamentary activity that I have encountered since entering the House. In many respects the Scottish Grand Committee is more impressive outwith the House than when one sees it in operation within the confines of Westminster. It is an expedient for the better regulation of Scottish business within Westminster. It exists because we require special Scottish legislation, because there is a Scottish Office and because nowadays a forum is required to discuss various Scottish topics. I think that everyone will agree that those topics would not receive sufficient time on the Floor of the House.
However, it is essential that Scottish Members should play the fullest part possible in United Kingdom affairs in the House. We should make certain that from time to time there are important and significant debates on Scottish affairs on the Floor of the House, otherwise Members from other parts of the United Kingdom will become less familiar with the problems that we are experiencing.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
Is there not a dilemma for my hon. Friend? The existence of the Scottish Grand Committee gives the Government of the day the excuse to avoid debates on the Floor of the House by saying that the issue may be discussed in the Scottish Grand Committee.
§ Mr. Craigen
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It depends on the Opposition of the day to ensure that the Government do not get away with that easy argument. The fact that we are locked upstairs in Room 14 does not necessarily mean that other parts of the House are made more aware or familiar with Scottish problems.
The great embarrassment that the Government face is that, even with their extra 15 Members, 22 Scottish Tories are still no match for the 43 plus one, two or three Opposition Members combined. That is their basic problem. Under the present Government, there is no way in which anything that really matters to Scotland will be resolved within the Scottish Grand Committee whether or not it meets in Scotland. The only thing that will be resolved will be in the "Aye" or "No" Lobby in the House. I can well understand why the Government are liberating their 15 non-Scottish Members from compulsory attendance in the Scottish Grand Committee. They recognise their inability to steer through the Scottish Grand Committee any legislation of any import.
I disagree with a theme which was running through the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian. As long as we have a unitary Parliament, the Scottish Grand Committee will be neither a Scottish Assembly in limbo nor a Scottish Parliament in embryo. It is a forum in which Scottish affairs and issues can be discussed. That should not be to the exclusion of discussing Scottish issues on the Floor of the house.
I hope that the House will give authority for the Committee to meet in Scotland. Notwithstanding the points made by the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson), perhaps Mr. Speaker, who, I know, likes to visit Scotland now and again, might chair the initial 976 meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee when it meets in Scotland. I hope that the House will support the proposal.
§ 12.6 am
§ Mr. David Myles (Banff)
I had no intention to speak in the debate, but after listening to the contributions from both sides of the House I felt that I should put in a word.
I largely agreed with what was said by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen). I do not believe that anyone would think that I was less Scottish than I am. I cannot get over the fact thata rose by any other name would smell as sweet.If they meet anywhere, the same people will come to the same conclusions. The same debate will take place, no matter whether the Gallery is filled in Edinburgh, Aberdeen or here. There are a number of exiled Scots in the Gallery at the moment.
It should be mentioned that there is a great feeling in Scotland that there is an ignorance in England of Scottish matters. If we hived off to debate in Edinburgh or anywhere else our little parochial problems, we would prevent English Members with a vital interest in Scottish affairs from hearing the debates and matters concerning Scotland. The Scottish fiddlers' rally is coming to the Albert Hall next Saturday night. I sincerely hope that all the Anglo-Scots and many Englishmen will hear that rally, because that will—
§ Mr. Home Robertson
Does the hon. Member expect the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells) to turn up on that occasion if he pays as much attention to the Scottish fiddlers' rally as he is paying to this debate?
§ Mr. Myles
I have already made reference to that, so there is no need to go on about it. We should go to the Scottish fiddlers' rally. I promised the RSPCC that, if possible, I would give a little plug.
I must be serious and stay in order. We need the Scottish voice down here. We need the people in England to understand the problems of Scotland, because as long as we have a unitary Parliament, which I want to see continue, those people must understand our problems.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
Is the hon. Member suggesting that the Scottish Grand Committee should meet in Liverpool and Birmingham?
§ Mr. Myles
I hardly ever came out of Scotland before I came here to the House. I used to think that English people ought to know where Aberchirder, Huntly, Turriff and Inverurie were—I have deliberately missed out most of the Banffshire towns—but when I came here I discovered that I had only a vague idea where places like Liverpool and Birmingham were. I therefore believe that that spread of education should take place and that it can best take place by loud mouths such as I coming down here, staying here and speaking here so that English Members, if they can understand us, may learn.
I disagree with the proposal on another count, due to my canny Scottish upbringing. I believe that there will be a certain amount of expense. We should consider the expense and inconvenience involved. It is not all that convenient for members of the Scottish Grand Committee to go up there, to spend the money getting up there or even to pay the rent of the Royal high school in Edinburgh. I believe that we should continue to meet down here and educate the English in Scottish affairs.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
This debate on the proceedings of the Scottish Grand Committee has nothing whatever to do with devolution. I say that as an unrepentant opponent of devolution. I am glad that so many hon. Members this evening have accepted that, however long the Scottish Grand Committee sits and wherever in Scotland it may sit, these modest proposals are not a substitute for devolution. I say that still believing that devolution would not be a good thing for the people of Scotland. It has always seemed to me that there is confusion in some people's minds which leads to the view that the place of decision-making is important. It is not the location but the quality and purpose of the decision-making that is important.
I have always believed that the main purpose of the Labour Party, whether in Scotland or in the United Kingdom, is to ensure that working people receive from the State the benefits and the investment to which they are due. That has remained my proposition throughout all our discussions. I therefore do not intend to address myself to the arguments that have been advanced about devolution. Battle has been joined and those arguments will continue, but I am not concerned this evening with the devolutionary aspects, if any, of where the Scottish Grand Committee should sit.
Having said that, if the majority of Members of Parliament in Scotland wish to meet as a Scottish Grand Committee in Edinburgh, Glasgow, or Aberdeen, I believe that they should be free to make that choice. The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs is free to meet anywhere in Scotland it desires. I do not see why any different principle should apply to the Scottish Grand Committee.
That does not mean that I believe that moving the Committee to Edinburgh or anywhere else will make any major impact on the manner in which people in Scotland view the activities and the work of Scottish Members of Parliament. This was touched upon by the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson) who spoke of the relatively small number of people who have been able personally to witness the proceedings of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. The same is true of the Scottish Grand Committee. Very few people indeed would be able directly to see what we got up to.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) made some fairly disparaging remarks about the Scottish Grand Committee. I must confess that during my darkest moment in that Committee I have often thought that the best argument against devolution would be to put the Scottish Grand Committee on show in Scotland. That would soon make people change their minds about Scottish self-government. But I say that in a humorous sense, because I do not believe that our debates are as bad as that. In fact, I sometimes believe that we write down too much the activities and debates in the Scottish Grand Committee. In general, the standard of our debates is high. We engage very much in the fierce partisan activities of party politics, and that is good. But I do not believe that holding those debates in Edinburgh would make them any better or any worse.
On the main proposition, I would be content to arrive at a decision which would enable the members of the 978 Scottish Grand Committee—that is to say, Members of Parliament from Scotland—to be free to decide for themselves where they want to meet, but in Scotland.
I turn briefly to my amendment, which is to the effect that at least one of the days set aside for debates in the Scottish Grand Committee should be to discuss the report of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. It is perfectly true that a debate on the report of a Select Committee is not wholly dependent on there being a separate day set aside, either on the Floor of the House or in the Scottish Grand Committee, for such a discussion. But it is, nevertheless, a fact that since the Scottish Select Committee was set up in this Parliament, no report of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs has ever been directly debated in its own right either on the Floor of the House or in the Scottish Grand Committee.
It is true that one of the reports of which the Government took great notice was the report of the Select Committee on the levy being raised by the White Fish Authority. That report was extensively debated, not in the context of the report itself but in the context of what the Government's response would be to the White Fish Authority's decision to increase the levy. That report was very well discussed and as a result of the report and the discussion the Government changed their mind and took cognisance of the Select Committee.
Similarly—and I concede that to some extent this goes against my argument—the report of the Select Committee on inward investment was never discussed in Parliament. Nevertheless, the Government accepted a major part of the Select Committee's report, albeit the minority report as it happened at the time.
We wait with some interest to see how the Government will respond to the Select Committee's report on Civil Service job dispersal. We have pressed the Government very hard to give us an early response. So far it is not available. We can only hope that the report will be available soon. But if the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs is to be taken seriously—and its reports ought to be taken seriously—there should be some mechanism to ensure that they are debated. In some ways, the people who can best judge on the best report of a Session to be debated are the Select Committee members themselves.
§ Mr. Hughes
Yes. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has referred to that point, because I was about to say that, although we have more Select Committees in this Parliament than we have ever had, Select Committees are not a new phenomenon. Indeed, the question of the debate of Select Committee reports was discussed by the Procedure Committee in 1978, and the Procedure Committee recommended that there should be greater opportunities for debate of Select Committee reports on the Floor of the House, that the selection of re ports for debate on the Floor of the House should not be left solely to Government or Opposition business managers and that Back Benchers should have some say in what is debated.
The Government of the day did not take up the Procedure Committee's recommendation to set aside a specific number of days for debating reports. Nevertheless, the principle remains sound. Normally, the Government of the day always have a majority on a Select 979 Committee. It is not as if the Government would be handing to a Select Committee a power that would rest solely in the hands of the Opposition Back Benchers. Through their Back-Bench Members, the Government of the day could still determine what should be done. The practice in all Select Committees—certainly in the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs—is that there is a remarkable degree of co-operation and discussion between Government Back Benchers and Opposition Back Benchers about the style of the reports and about what should be discussed. Therefore, there should be no problem about allowing the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs to have an Estimates day.
Sadly, it is often only members of a Select Committee who wish to debate issues that have been discussed in Committee on the Floor of the House. That has always seemed to be a weakness, not in our rules, but in our practice. On Report, those who take part tend to be those who have discussed the Bill in Committee. However, the Report stage is meant to give those who did not serve in Committee a chance to take part in the debate. I never criticise the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but during such debates the Chair might exercise more discretion in calling those who did not serve on the Committee. If it does not do so, hon. Members will become discouraged. The same is true as regards Select Committee reports. That does not alter the principle. The amendment would at least ensure that Scottish Members—all of whom have an interest in the reports—would be able to discuss a report that is exclusively concerned with Scottish affairs.
One of a Select Committee's main weapons is the opportunity to return to an issue once the report has been published and once it has received the Secretary of State's response. The difficulty is that the Secretary of State responds to a report and its recommendations but there is no mechanism—other than within the Select Committee—whereby his response can be discussed. That is a great weakness. I tabled the amendment with the general agreement of those who served on the Committee that it should, at least, be debated. Not every hon. Member is committed to the principle, or to voting in favour of the amendment, but they believe that it should be discussed. One of the amendment's great strengths is that it would allow us to choose at least one topic that could be debated, not among ourselves—in the type of incestuous relationship suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian—but in a wider context. Those who represent Scottish constituencies should be able to debate an issue that has exercised the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs sufficiently for it to report. I hope that the Government will consider allowing that, even if we do not press the amendment to a Division.
We have had long arguments about devolution. However, hon. Members should not confuse the location of a Committee with devolution. It has nothing to do with that. We can have that debate elsewhere, at another time.
§ Mr. Allan Stewart (Renfrewshire, East)
I have listened, as always, with great interest to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), and I am sure that he will excuse me if I do not follow all his arguments. I agree entirely with his final key point.
980 I should like to refer to amendment (b) to motion No. 3, which has not been selected for debate, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) and myself, if that is in order. The subject was raised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when he said that the Government were in favour of Members representing constituencies other than Scottish constituencies attending and speaking but not voting in the Scottish Grand Committee. That is not a matter of fundamental importance but I hope that, following the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson), there will be an opportunity to discuss it in future.
In principle, the Scottish Grand Committee will still remain a Committee of the whole House of Commons. There might occasionally be good and sound practical reasons for someone from outside Scotland to attend a meeting to make a limited contribution from his specialist knowledge or involvement.
§ Mr. Henderson
If we were to discuss Scottish land tenure and its effects from a taxation point of view, does my hon. Friend envisage that we might wish to hear from the Scottish Law Officers and the English Law Officers about the comparative position north and south of the border, as well as a Treasury Minister?
§ Mr. Stewart
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is the kind of occasion on which it would be useful for the Scottish Grand Committee to hear from a Member outside Scotland.
I come to the major area of our discussion. My hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) has done a great service to the House by raising this question. I do not think that anyone is under the illusion that meetings in Scotland of the Scottish Grand Committee will improve the efficiency of parliamentary scrutiny. No one is suggesting that. We should be quite clear that it will not increase the opportunities for dealing with Scottish business.
The argument in favour of the proposal is that it will improve the perception of the people in Scotland about Parliament and that it will stimulate interest and make Parliament nearer to the electors. There are doubts about that argument. The number who will attend will be an infinitesimal proportion of the electorate. The key question is whether the press and the media will give better coverage to the Scottish Grand Committee meetings in Scotland. That is an open question. I could see that an initial meeting in Scotland might result in a burst of publicity, but I doubt whether it would be sustained.
If the argument is that it will improve people's perception of Parliament, Edinburgh is the last place in which to meet, because the citizens of Edinburgh have considerable experience of the machinery of government. Most of it in Scotland is in Edinburgh. I would wish to aim rather at Glasgow or Dundee.
§ Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)
Is not the experience of the Select Committee meeting in Scotland that the press and media give more coverage although it has met in Scotland on several occasions?
§ Mr. Stewart
One reason for that is that the Scottish Select Committee tends to take evidence from people in a locality, and that gives it a local interest. That would not necessarily apply to the Scottish Grand Committee.
981 The first argument against meeting in Scotland is that it is meaningless, it will not change anything and it might be misleading. While we know that this has nothing to do with devolution, people might not believe that and they might regard it as a surrogate assembly, a substitute for devolution. That would be dangerous and misleading.
There will be considerable public expense in meeting in Edinburgh and formidable practical and organisational problems, to which hon. Members have referred. When will the Committee meet? Presumably it will meet on Mondays, so that hon. Members will have to miss Question Time and statements in the House and may face problems with constituents visiting this place. I am glad that, for once, I can agree with the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) that the only logical answer to the organisational problems is for the Committee to meet in parliamentary recesses. There would be no clash with commitments in the House. There would be other problems—Labour Members would have to be called back from their grouse moors and their yachts in the Mediterranean; but I make the suggestion seriously. The problems that will arise if the Scottish Grand Committee meets in Edinburgh while the House is sitting would not arise, at least in theory, if the Committee met when Parliament was in recess.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)
Many hon. Members have drawn attention to the fact that this is a debate not about devolution but about the readjustment of Scottish business in the House. But too few hon. Members have taken the opportunity to chide the Leader of the House for the fact that, when he was Opposition devolution spokesman, he specifically promised that when a Conservative Government came to office there would be all-party talks on devolution. There have been no such talks, and it is important to put that fact on the record.
I wrote to the previous Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), on 22 November 1979 asking when the promised all-party talks would take place. The right hon. Gentleman replied on 17 January 1980 that the Government had decided "quite definitely" that any discussion on the Assembly or an Executive was ruled out on the grounds of the referendum result. That was the first clear indication that we were not to have the all-party talks.
The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) said that the Government have dragged their feet all along the line, and that is incontestably true. They have taken an enormous time to produce a tiny proposal.
Reference has been made to the absence of the SNP, and it might be interesting if I read a letter that I have received from the Leader of the SNP. The party got 17 per cent. of the vote in Scotland at the general election and represents a significant view. Indeed, the number supporting total independence for Scotland touched 25 per cent. in recent opinion polls. Like it or not, the SNP represents a point of view which cannot be stuffed under the carpet.
The right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) wrote:On March 1st 1979 the Scottish people voted by 52% to 48% in favour of the Scottish Assembly … In June of that year, the Government, using its English majority of Conservative MPs, repealed the Scotland Act.982As you know, the SNP refused to participate in the 'All Party Talks' … because we regarded them as a device by which the Government could spread responsibility for the repeal of the Scotland Act.
§ Mr. Johnston
It would be easier for me if the hon. Gentleman would listen instead of burbling on from a seated position.
The letter continued:In the event, the proposals before us today confirm our suspicions that the talks have been an exercise in cynicism, unfortunately given additional weight by the involvement of your Party.Since the Liberal Party apparently still believes in the right of Scots to a form of self-government I would hope that you will advise your colleagues to boycott tonight's fraudulent debateand so on.
The Liberal view on the talks was from the beginning, as the right hon. Member for Craigton said, that we entered them on the basis that they were nothing to do with devolution. Therefore, it was reasonable to deal with the admittedly lesser question of adjusting Scottish business in the Westminster context. Indeed, to refuse to do so would have been to cut off one's nose to spite one's face; it would have made no sense.
I wish to make a few short comments on the proposals before us. First, no one that I have heard has objected to the exclusion of English Members. I am sure that no English Members present would object either.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
The last English Members to object would be the first Conservative Members appointed to the Scottish Grand Committee after the general election, all of whose names, by a remarkable coincidence, began with the letters A and B and who had clearly been chosen by reference to an alphabetical list.
§ Mr. Wells
Liberal Members have nothing to be pleased about in this A and B matter. In the old days when the London telephone directory was in two parts A-K and L-Z, they were equal. But in this House it has always been noticeable that far more Members are in the A-K section than in the L-Z section, so people called Beith and Johnston get here simply because their names were at the top of the ballot papers, not because they are people of any ability.
§ Mr. Johnston
To provide a reasoned response to that highly unreasonable proposition would breach order, so I do not intend to attempt it.
Secondly, the proposal that there be a minimum number of Estimates days and an increase in matter days is good, but, as I said in an intervention in the speech of the right hon. Member for Craigton, as a member of the all-party group I agreed to that proposal only on the clear condition that consideration should be given to the position of minority parties. That is mentioned in the report, in the reference to appropriate considerations.
I must repeat that I was disappointed that this year the major Opposition party made no attempt even to consult. I make no big deal of the matter. The right hon. Member is entitled to say "You have only three Members and only 983 8.3 per cent. of the vote" and so on, but in a democratic society the larger party has a responsibility to listen to what others say. It does not necessarily need to accept it, but it can listen and take account of it. That is important.
The place of the meeting will be on a free vote, as has been said. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Liberal Party, who is better attired than myself, is in favour of that proposition. I am not in favour of the idea of moving to Scotland. I do not see the sense of going there.
The hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart) asked a good simple question. When shall we meet in Scotland? Presumably, we shall meet on a Monday or a Friday. We would probably meet at 10.30 in Edinburgh, or some other place such as Auchtermuchty—if one of the alternative propositions is accepted. That means that one loses two and a half hours in the morning, which one requires for correspondence, and a certain amount of time in the afternoon in travelling. I normally take a sleeper from Inverness to London overnight on Sunday and I am here first thing on Monday morning. I should lose considerable time, probably five or six hours—leaving aside the time for the debate—travelling for no particular purpose.
§ Mr. Canavan
How did the hon. Gentleman manage when he was a Member of the European Parliament to go trekking from Inverness to Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg or wherever else the Parliament was held to such an extent that he earned himself the nickname of "Brussels Johnston"?
§ Mr. Johnston
That did not make much sense either. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer".] The answer is that that was far from satisfactory. I do not see any reason for compounding the problem.
It is important to remember that we are not talking about a Select Committee. One or two hon. Members have made the point that if the select Committee travels, why not the Scottish Grand Committee? They are two entirely different exercises. The Select Committee usually meets in a particular place for hearing evidence. The Grand Committee is not there for that purpose. The Grand Committee is there for the normal purposes that a Grand Committee meets. The Secretary of State would agree that it is for the purpose of hurling abuse at each other. There is no benefit in doing that in Scotland.
The question is, who decides who goes? We have heard flannel about "The Committee will decide." It boils down to the fact that the majority party at any moment in the Committee will decide. It is all very well for the right hon. Member for Craigton to say "We are divided in the Labour Party in the Committee." That may be true. There is some evidence to suggest that that is true, but it should not be taken as a general line. The general line is that the majority party in the Committee will decide to go but not necessarily for objective reasons. It will decide to go because it is thought to be politically advantageous at the time.
It is sad to say that this ends as a trivial debate. It makes small proposals for adjustments to the means of debating Scottish matters. It will not make much difference whether we pass the proposals or reject them. They ignore the real demand in Scotland that has been established for genuine change.
984 Is this the Government's last proposal? Do they not intend to do any more about devolution during their period in office? Speaking as a Liberal, I remain convinced that the federal solution for Scotland is the right decision.
§ Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)
As an Englishman, whose mother is now aged over 90 and who has lived in Scotland for most of her life, may I say that I had all my life been extremely proud of being half Scots until I came to the House, when I became appalled with 50 per cent. of my compatriots. The Scots Members kept us here in the old days night after night while they whined and whinged and snivelled and grumbled, pathetic whingeing, snivelling creatures that they were, and I ceased to be proud of being 50 per cent. a Scotsman and became very ashamed of the little bit of myself.
However, tonight I am enjoying the debate so far as it has gone. I must say that I found the Liberal contribution quite extraordinary. The hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) did not know whether he wanted to go or not. The hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) was wise to remind him that the European Parliament, which is a retrograde and absurd body, does not know whether it is meeting here, there or somewhere else. It carts trunkloads and lorryloads and trainloads of paper around with it.
Some hon. Members of the Opposition would like the Scottish Grand Committee to chunter round from Auchtermuchty to Edinburgh to Westminster and, for all I know, to Inverness. However, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it will be within your recollection that what you and I would call the Westminster Parliament met in Acton Burnell or one of the Actons in Shropshire, round about 1380, and it was none the worse for that. If we could find a nice big church in a pleasant rural spot, we could meet there and think a bit.
The problem with the people here is that, like the hon. Member for Inverness, we are bogged down in bumf. The hon. Gentleman was whingeing about his correspondence. If he was travelling from 10.30 am—I cannot remember whether his journey began or ended at 10.30—he lost six hours in travel between Auchtermuchty and Edinburgh. That was his trouble. He did not know whether he was coming or going. Well, we all know that the Liberal Party does not know whether it is coming or going.
§ Mr. Wells
No. The hon. Gentleman roused me when I was perfectly quiet and placid. I brought into the Chamber this evening some very good stuff, and I should be glad to regale the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members on the Opposition Benches with it for whatever is left of our three hours. I came to the Chamber quite ready to do that, so hon. Members who have not yet spoken may as well go home.
§ Mr. Wells
It is not the Bible. It is the "Encyclopaedia Scotia". It is good stuff, but it is against the rules of order to read, so I will not read, but I have it with me just in case I begin to run a little thin.
We were dealing with the travelling problems of the hon. Member for Inverness and others in the European Parliament. The whole idea tonight is bogged down with 985 excesses of travelling or not travelling. The hon. Gentleman was right for once when he said that it would, of course, be the majority party that would decide where the Grand Committee met.
Many hon. Members will recall a dear hon. Friend of mine, the late Jackie Watts, who was added to the Scottish Grand Committee and thought that this was the most damned boring thing that had ever happened to him. I was also an added Member. I was very young and very foolish. I had not learnt how to avoid this sort of thing. Jackie, who was older and wiser, did learn. I recall a debate on mental health in Scotland. The part of Scotland with which I am familiar contains the Crichton institution, probably the finest mental hospital in the world. Jackie was not prepared to put up with being an added Member of the Committee. He spoke against the Government and voted against the Government. The handsome people in the Whip's Office quickly removed him as an added Member.
The system of added Members has never been satisfactory. Like the hon. Member for Inverness they can do their correspondence in Committee or outside the Committee. Or, like most Liberal Members appointed to Committees, they need not attend at all.
§ Mr. Home Robertson
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am trying to establish the relevance to a debate on the handling of Scottish business of exchanges between the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells) and the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) about attendance at Select Committees.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)
If the relevance does not emerge fairly soon, I shall inquire into the matter.
§ Mr. Wells
—with hon. Members occasionally wandering into a Committee to vote before wandering away again. I have served the House for many years as a member of the Chairmen's Panel. One sits impartially, enthralled—[Interruption]. I will not have that. To be serious for once, I am devoted to the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire, but I will not have the Chairmen's Panel laughed at. I ask him to withdraw his laughter. I appeal to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is intolerable that the hon. Gentleman who, politics apart, is a good friend of mine, should laugh. The hon. Gentleman can laugh at almost anything except that. Will he please withdraw? What a night this is. I have served the House for many years in this capacity. The only Committee I have served once and once only is the Scottish Grand Committee. It 986 was many years ago. I recollect saying that the proceedings were somewhat out of order and that I stopped someone, although I cannot remember the hon. Member—
§ Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an English cabaret turn to monopolise what should be a serious debate on the future conduct of Scottish business in the House? I am coming to the view that the Scottish National Party Members, who have boycotted the debate, were right to do so if we are to be mistreated by the kind of rubbish that we have heard from the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells).
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I am quite confident that the hon. Gentleman will quickly return to one of the amendments.
§ Mr. Wells
I was perfectly peaceful and quiet until I was provoked into speaking. I have not really begun yet. Let me now begin.
We should start at the time of the Act of Union, if not, perhaps, during the Cromwellian period, because that was the last time that Scotland had a Parliament of its own, and the validity of Scottish parliamentary institutions can be judged only during the Cromwellian period. At the time of the Act of Union there were 16 peers and 45 Members of Parliament for Scottish constituencies. Those 45 Members were split into 30 for the counties and 15 for the boroughs. The upsurge in Scottish membership of this House has gone from strength to strength. In 1707, there were 45 Scottish Members. By the Reform Act 1832—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Will the hon. Gentleman assist me by saying to which of the amendments he is addressing his remarks?
§ Mr. Wells
I think that I am correct in saying that we are debating the whole lot together. That covers the entire gambit of Scottish representation in this House. Scottish Members have become more numerous over the years. At present, there are 71. At the peak of their ascendency in 1885, there were 72.
The population of Scotland has grown since the Act of Union from 1 million to 6 million, whereas the population of the rest of the United Kingdom—
§ Mr. Millan
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is really intolerable. What the hon. Gentleman is saying has absolutely nothing to do with the debate. We must come back to the debate.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. May I make one more appeal to the hon. Gentleman to return to one of the amendments?
§ Mr. Wells
I am dealing with a serious point. I have been much provoked by hon. Members, which is exactly what they have been doing to us down the years. It will do them no harm to be provoked once in a while.
The fact remains that Scotland is greatly over-represented, and should be less represented in the House.
§ Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)
It is not my intention to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells), because he has demonstrated just what Parliament is not about. If I address my remarks to the Scottish Grand Committee meeting in Scotland/Edinburgh, it will be to say what, in my view, Parliament ought to be about. Parliament makes decisions. That is part of parliamentary responsibility and part of its functions.
I do not want to cross swords with hon. Members who say that the proposals do not emanate from a considered review of devolution. What has happened to the Scottish Grand Committee has been a response to the recognition that there has been a substantial amount of administrative and executive devolution to Scotland. What is missing is a forum in Scotland legislatively to link those functions and, perhaps more important, to link Scotland to the Government of the day, of whatever party colour, so that they can defend their policy and record in Scotland.
The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs is useful, but it does not supply a forum for the Government to defend their policy and record. As parliamentarians, we are absorbed with what Parliament does for us and how we perform in relation to parliamentary institutions. Parliament is not only for us but for the people. They have a right to see their representatives criticising the Government. They also have a right to see how the Government defend their policy under scrutiny. Some have suggested that the Scottish Grand Committee could become a glorified talking shop. That might be disparaging to the Committee, but it is none the worse for that. That is what Parliament is about. It is about individual Members of Parliament examining the Government's record and asking them to defend it.
I am not overcome by the view that the Scottish Grand Committee should meet in Edinburgh. If it moved around Scotland, it would find, as did the United Kingdom Parliament and the Scottish Parliament, that it eventually reached a view on where it should sit. The natural place would be Edinburgh. I am willing to consider the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen). I shall not argue about meeting in Edinburgh. Within a short time, he would come round to the view that the Committee should meet there.
We should move slowly and cautiously. I do not charge the Government with not running forward with the proposals, except to say that we have lost the benefit of the Estimates and matters days because of the delay from August 1980. It behoves us to ask the Government, as did the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston), whether this is the last word on the devolutionary argument for the period that the Government are in office. We have a right to know that. Or will the Government propose that there should be further all-party talks or a Speaker's Conference to consider devolution as a whole? It is a matter that will not go away. If we move towards meeting in Edinburgh, we will give new focus and attention to that issue. Things have a habit of not turning out as one expects. Nevertheless, the Government have a responsibility to try to anticipate some of the responses if we move to the Scottish Grand Committee meeting in Scotland or in Edinburgh in particular.
I shall address myself to some of the difficulties, which arise in the main because we have a plethora of legislation 988 at Westminster. We cannot consider the improvement of the government of Scotland outwith the improvement of the operations of the House. To deal with that would be to strain the bounds of order, but we have had an example. There are those who talk about the inconvenience of travelling. There is nothing more inconvenient than discussing a grave matter such as this at a quarter past one in the morning. If some hon. Members are talking about the difficulties of travelling, we have to take cognisance of the fact that we are over-inclined to regard Parliament—I think wrongly—as a legislative sausage machine. That applies to Governments of all parties. I am not charging this Government especially.
If, as the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) suggests, we get an experimental period, or we make it more fixed as some of my hon. Friends suggest, we shall be able to move away a little from legislation to using the Scottish Grand Committee in Scotland as a forum for the examination of our affairs.
Under the Scotland Act 1978—I use this as an example—we could move to a more devolutionary status without necessarily embracing further enactments. I make that comment with a view to examining the role of the Comptroller and Auditor-General. Northern Ireland has a Comptroller and Auditor-General of its own but not a parliament at present. Scotland, with all the administrative devolution and executive devolution, does not have its own Comptroller and Auditor General. Having been a member of the Public Accounts Committee for some years, I recognise that the value of the PAC relates to having an officer with a staff who can scrutinise the Government's accounting and other aspects of their expenditure in terms of value for money and efficiency auditing.
If we are to move to Edinburgh and undertake a closer examination of the Government's activities, the Government should consider in the longer term, but perhaps over not too long a term, having recourse to a Scottish Comptroller and Auditor General. That would greatly assist the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs and our debates and greatly assist the scrutiny of the Government's actions in Scotland. If, as I hope, we take a decision this morning to get the Scottish Grand Committee meeting in Scotland, I see it not assisting legislation but assisting what we all should be arguing for—the openness of government in this democratic age.
§ 1.9 am
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)
My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells), who has departed from the Chamber, said that if one's name begins with A or B one is likely to be in the majority in the House. That is probably why, with my name beginning with W, I seem to be at the tail end of the queue when it comes to being called to participate in debates. I was at the foot of the ballot paper but I came out top of the poll. Perhaps that does not really reflect what my hon. Friend meant.
The speech of the hon. Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Douglas) was thoughtful and constructive. It contributed to the debate. It is sad that sometimes we deviate from the serious aspects of our debates. This is brought about in part by interjections that are meant to be humorous but which result in farce.
We must recognise in the House and in Scotland that there is a real demand that some Scottish parliamentary business should be conducted in Scotland. I would not 989 wish that in any way to be confused with the wide variety of devolution proposals, including the rejected Scotland Act. Nor is that a substitute for any federalism or devolution as proposed by the Labour Party. We are considering a better way of organising the parliamentary business which we conduct in this unitary parliament. I would not wish to be party to anything that would put at risk the unitary parliament because the risk to Scotland would be far too great for us to move along that path.
However, I do not believe that it is too much to ask our Scottish Grand Committee to hold sittings in Scotland. I believe that they should be in Edinburgh. I agree with the hon. Member for Dunfermline that, in the end, one would probably finish up in one place. I believe that a case could be made for Perth, but it is likely that one would end up in Edinburgh.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) was right to suggest that we should have an experimental period. It is important that we should test the water and see how successful the plan is. We should not charge along this path too hurriedly. I trust that the House will bear in mind that the major reason given for not holding sittings in Edinburgh is that they would create problems for the management of parliamentary business and practical problems for individual Members of Parliament.
The House should never be deterred by that as the only reason. We should not be deterred from making decisions because they would create management problems. Otherwise, we would make few decisions in the House. Equally, we should not be deterred because there would be problems for hon. Members. I remind hon. Members that in Scotland we already face considerable problems individually and collectively. For example, the holidays of the House rarely coincide with the holidays of our children in Scotland. That creates enormous problems. I also remind hon. Members that frequently we are required to travel back and forth to Scotland at great inconvenience, often caused by transport difficulties. We have to do that on a regular basis.
We must also recognise that as Members of Parliament we are faced with having to make concessions in our domestic lives, private lives and any business lives we have. Therefore, we already face enormous pressures of time. There is much to be said for looking seriously at the way in which the House manages its business at present and for reducing the volume of legislation that goes through the House. That is true of all parties in Government.
I should like to think that we could somehow try out the experiment to see how it works. I recognise that there will be a conflict of interests. I am sure that hon. Members already find that. How many of us find that we are on a Committee when we want to be in a debate that is of particular constituency interest or of interest to us as individual Members because it concerns an aspect of parliamentary and other business in which we probably have first-hand experience and, therefore, could make a valuable contribution? That happens day in and day out. Therefore, we already face that conflict of interests.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) did not want to speak in the debate and I did, yet he was called before I was. He said that what was important was not where the debate took place, but the quality of the debate. That is correct. For that reason, the people of Scotland should be given an opportunity to test the quality of our 990 debate and to hear their own Members of Parliament speaking on topics in Scotland which are important to Scotland. They then could pass judgment on the quality of the contributions. Conservative Members would have little to fear if that happened. Indeed, we should have much to gain conducting our debates in Scotland. Judgment could then be made on the quality rather than the quantity of representation about which we hear so much. That is one reason why I believe that we should do something constructive along these lines.
I therefore hope that the House will decide that we should meet in Scotland. I am prepared to support the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus and also, if it is called, that of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) because I believe that this would make a positive and meaningful contribution to the good government of Scotland.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)
; I must admit that the speech of the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) was a model of clarity, lucidity , common sense and constructiveness in a most unsatisfactory debate.
The debate has been unsatisfactory because, like most Scottish debates, it has been taken at a ridiculous hour. The Leader of the House introduced it in a languid mariner without any concern for the real issues. He laid before us in a technical way the terms of the motions that we all know, giving no sense of understanding of the issues involved.
The debate has also been unsatisfactory because some have treated it as a cabaret—I refer not just to the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells) but to others—with interpolations about people attending the Scottish fiddlers' rally. Moreover, despite Conservative protestations about there being a free vote, we have seen large numbers of the payroll vote hovering around. I shall be very surprised if they do not do the bidding of the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State for Scotland.
As I said in a rather heated intervention—I apologise if it was too heated—I now understand the feelings of the Scottish National Party Members. That is not to say that I agree with their reasoning. I have sat through every minute of the debate. I have not left the Chamber at all. Nevertheless, I understand the action of SNP Members in not attending when an important matter for Scotland is treated with such levity and lack of concern by some hon. Members.
§ Mr. Foulkes
Some hon. Members treated the debate seriously. There were also some genuinely witty and thoroughly commendable speeches referring to the sensible topics before us, and I joined in the laughter.
Like my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), I feel strongly that this is no substitute for devolution. Unlike my hon. Friend, I do not think that whatever we decide today will strengthen or weaken the arguments for devolution. He seems to feel that if we agree that the Scottish Grand Committee should go to Scotland, whether to Edinburgh or elsewhere, that would weaken the argument. I believe that it would make no difference whatever. The arguments for democratic control over the Executive in Scotland and 991 for separate and more detailed consideration of our separate legal structure, the argument that our Scottish legislation is always dealt with as a kind of fag end of United Kingdom legislation and the argument for getting away from the system of edicts from the Scottish Office by written answer because no time can be found on the Floor of the House, will remain as strong as ever.
§ Mr. Foulkes
I am concerned at the delay in considering this matter. It is unfortunate that it has taken so long for it even to come forward for debate on the Floor of the House. There was delay in meetings taking place and delay in tabling the motions. The Leader of the House knows that I was on my feet Thursday after Thursday asking him when we could have this debate. It has taken a gestation period of two years—and what has been produced in that time? There has been nothing substantial. In fact, a mouse has been produced. What is suggested is merely that there should be some marginal increase in Estimates and matter days and that the debates should take place in Committee, with a lack of interest on the part of the general public and the media and often also by Scottish Members. I am equally concerned that there are a number of Scottish Members on each side of the House who have not seen fit to stay for the debate and vote today. That should be a matter of concern to all of us and to their constituents in Scotland.
I contest what has been said by some Conservative Members. I contend that there would be much greater public and media interest in the Scottish Grand Committee meeting in Scotland. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North and others made some valid points. We are not talking about something like the Scottish Select Committee. Some of us did a television programme of a mock Select Committee. The people I spoke to about it said that it was extremely boring. Select Committees do valuable work, but by the very nature of their operations they tend to be boring. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North said, however, in the Scottish Grand Committee there is the cut and thrust of political argument and it is much more exciting. It would be covered by the media, it would be covered by the radio and with some luck it might be used as an experiment for television coverage as well.
I do not accept the arguments about the logistics of having meetings of the Scottish Grand Committee in Scotland. In an excellent intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) pointed out that the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) was able to make frequent trips to Brussels, Strasbourg and elsewhere and manage the logistics involved. It would be much easier for him to attend meetings of the Scottish Grand Committee in Edinburgh or in other parts of Scotland.
I am conscious of the fact that time is limited. It is limited because the hon. Member for Maidstone abused the privilege of the House in his interventions. I shall, therefore, have to omit some of the other things that I intended to say. I hope that we shall be able to support all the amendments that have been selected, because they are not mutually exclusive. I hope that they will all be called and that they will all be voted on. I should like to see a 992 change in the way in which Scottish business is conducted in the House, because during my two years it has been most unsatisfactory. I know many other hon. Members, particularly new ones, who agree that the Scottish business of the House is treated in a derisory way and does not get the attention that the business of Scotland merits.
§ Mr. Millan
I should like to intervene briefly before the Secretary of State winds up in order to add a little to what I said earlier about meeting in Edinburgh, and to modify slightly what I said—not in substance, but on the practicalities of what we are doing in the matter of votes this evening.
I hope that the House will vote for the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser), because it is an enabling amendment and gives us the opportunity to consider the question and decide to meet in Scotland. It does not decide the matter conclusively one way or the other but without it the matter of meeting in Scotland really falls. Therefore, I hope that the amendment will be carried.
I said earlier that if the amendment were to be carried I would want the decision about the meetings to be taken by the Scottish Grand Committee. I pointed out that amendments (c) and (d) to motion No. 3 which were specifically directed towards letting the Scottish Grand Committee make that decision, had not been selected. I was not unduly worried about that, because I felt that we could decide the matter on the amendments to motions Nos. 4 and 5 tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen). I did not think that there was a gap. However, after further consultation and consideration I see that there is a gap.
The amendments to motions Nos. 4 and 5 deal with motions to sit in Edinburgh or Scotland respectively that are taken in the House and not in the Scottish Grand Committee. There is a gap, because the amendments to motion No. 3 that would have provided the full procedure—the decision in principle—in the Scottish Grand Committee have not been selected. Therefore, the amendments to motions Nos. 4 and 5 do not, by themselves, do what hon. Members wish.
I assume that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for South Angus will be carried. Indeed, I hope that it will be. If it is, further consideration will have to be given to the mechanics of taking a decision in the first place, and of how to get that decision agreed by the House. That must be done in a way—I do not wish to offend any hon. Member—that does not involve another debate such as this one. The matter could be decided forthwith.
I hope that the Secretary of State will say that if the hon. Gentleman's amendment is accepted there will be further discussions to see how the voices of Scottish Members can be collected in order to ensure that they are in favour of meetings taking place in Edinburgh, and in Scotland generally. If the majority of Scottish Members—regardless of party affiliations—are in favour of that, appropriate motions could, after consultation, be placed on the Order Paper to make the provision work. However, we do not have the complete set of motions that would enable us to do that. If the hon. Gentleman's amendment is accepted and if the Secretary of State gives the undertaking that I hope for, I shall not advise my hon. Friends the Members for Berwick and East Lothian and for 993 Maryhill to press their amendments to a Division. I should then rest on the basis that after further discussion the Government will bring forward motions to make the hon. Gentleman's amendment effective.
I hope that the Secretary of State will give such an undertaking. Indeed, I intervened only to ask him to do so.
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. George Younger)
I thank the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) both for his assistance and courtesy in carrying out the inter-party talks and for his general welcome to the suggestions and motions put forward.
Given that little has been said and that what has been said has been favourable, we can take it that there is general agreement about the main thread of the decisions taken at the inter-party talks. There seems to be general agreement about the demise—if that is the right word—of the added Members. At present, they do not serve any useful purpose. In addition, there was general agreement about the corresponding change in the quorum.
The right hon. Gentleman raised an interesting point. If amendment (a) to motion No. 2 were carried, we would be committed to an experiment of the Scottish Grand Committee sitting in Edinburgh. That is a vague term; it does not define how much of an experiment it would be or how and when it would be done. My right hon. Friend and I envisage that the mechanics of such a complicated matter would have to be worked out once the general will of the House had been established.
If the will of the House were to be that we should conduct such an experiment, I assure the right hon. Member for Craigton that our intention is that the form of the experiment and the times, dates and frequency of sittings in Edinburgh would be arrived at by agreement between all the parties. Therefore, we shall consult through the usual channels with all the parties represented in Scotland to find the most convenient method for Scottish Members. Having established that, we would put down the necessary motions in the Government's name, having agreed the substance of them through the usual channels.
§ Mr. Craigen
The hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) has given us the opportunity to test the feeling of the House about the Scottish Grand Committee meeting in Scotland. In view of the highly regrettable complications that have arisen over the selection of amendments, do I take it that the Secretary of State accepts that support has been given to the suggestion that in the longer term those meetings might not necessarily be confined to Edinburgh?
§ Mr. Younger
Yes; I was just about to mention that.
If the experiment took place and it was the general wish that it should be converted to a more permanent arrangement, I give an assurance to the right hon. Member for Craigton that if that were the wish of the House—it would require a further decision—we should wish to enter discussions with him and the usual channels on the best method of making those arrangements and securing agreement on the form of the permanent arrangement.
The right hon. Member for Craigton will appreciate that, even with a permanent arrangement, as with all other matters in the House, the Government of the day would still retain ultimate control of the business of the House by tabling the necessary motion. Our intention would be to 994 discuss through the usual channels how this could be done and how the views of Scottish Members could be established.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) asked whether the meetings would be in Edinburgh or in Scotland generally. My view and that of my right hon. Friend is that there is no reason to be tied always to sitting in Edinburgh if Scottish Members generally decide that they wished to sit elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) said that he did not feel absolutely tied to Edinburgh, and I take the spirit of the views expressed in the debate to be that we should not be tied irrevocably to Edinburgh. That is my view, too. I qualify that slightly by saying that there is a great difference in the ease with which the Scottish Grand Committee can flit about Scotland in comparison with the Select Committee. I am not saying it is impossible, but we may find that it is not so easy. I, too, think that there could be an occasion when we would wish to sit in Glasgow or elsewhere in Scotland if that was suitable and appropriate.
The speed of proceeding has been criticised by some and mentioned by others. It may have been too slow for some hon. Members, but we should not rush into this matter too quickly. It involves a change in the customs of the House and it will be thought out carefully.
The hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) and others mentioned the choice of subjects by Opposition parties. I assure them that the system should be reasonably satisfactory to all parties. The Estimates days will still be chosen by the Opposition. The official Opposition have the right to choose the subjects for debate. In the past, official Oppositions have offered one of the days to a minority party. The Conservatives when in Opposition gave one day to the Liberal Party and another to the SNP. That will continue under the new arrangements.
I have always thought of matter days as being by agreement, although the Government usually propose the subject for debate. I do not recall an Opposition refusing to debate a topic, but that could happen. I shall be glad to bear in mind the views of the smaller Opposition parties in considering the question of matter days.
In general, the other decisions of the all-party talks have been welcomed. I accept that they are not an answer to the problem of devolution; they were never intended to be. Devolution has been debated over many years and was the subject of a referendum, which, whatever else it did, did not produce an overwhelming majority for the measure then before us.
The SNP Members have been right not to take part in the inter-party talks. They are not interested in improving the government of Scotland under the present system. They do not wish Scotland to be part of the United Kingdom. They have been ambivalent in the past, and I am glad that their attitude is now clearly laid on the table. Their absence from the debate makes it clear that they have no further interest in devolution—because that means devolution within the United Kingdom—or in improvements in our procedures. That is logical for them and is an improvement on some of their other decisions.
I was not sure whether the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) was giving the SNP a bonus by joining in tonight. The tenor of his arguments tied in with his wish that Scotland should have a separate Government. That is the only implication that can be drawn from his suggestion that only Scottish Members should take Scottish decisions. If the hon. 995 Gentleman wishes to join the SNP, he should do so. I wonder whether he is following in the footsteps of Mr. Jim Sillars, who made similar remarks in the House for many years. We could never understand why he did not join the SNP. He has now done so, and perhaps the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian will be the next to do so. I should regret it if he were.
§ Mr. Home Robertson
I am sorry that the Secretary of State has become confused at this late hour. What I want to achieve, and what the Labour Party in Scotland wants to achieve, is a devolved Scottish Assembly. I fully accept that what we are talking about has nothing to do with devolution. I am glad that everyone present appreciates that.
§ Mr. Younger
What the hon. Gentleman has just said will be a great disappointment to the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), who may have been expecting to gain another recruit. I note that he has not got one, and I am not sorry about that.
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
The Leader of the House suggested that the Government were neutral. Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify that? Those of us who have sat through the debate have watched with great interest coming into the Chamber, among others, Ministers from the Home Office, the Department of Health and Social Security, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Industry, the Solicitor-General and the whole ministerial team from the Department of Energy. It surely can be no coincidence that the payroll vote has flooded in. How neutral will the Government be in the Divisions?
§ Mr. Younger
I have not had the benefit that the hon. Gentleman has had of going round the corridors to count who is in the House. I am not sure where his right hon. and hon. Friends are. If they have a real interest in Scottish affairs, they should be here, too, ready to vote as they feel it right to vote. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, all my right hon. and hon. Friends who are present tonight are free to vote in any way they wish. That is clear, and it is how I think it should be done.
One of the most important aspects of the background to the decisions that we take today and to our discussions is that any major changes in how we conduct our business, or the way in which the government of Britain or Scotland is considered, should always be approached on the basis of the maximum inter-party agreement. The mistake that we have made in many of these matters over the past 10 years is to fail to take that approach.
The motions result from at least inter-party talks. Some may say that they were on a narrow basis, but they were inter-party talks to try to achieve a basis of agreement across the House on what should be done.
I hope that the House will take careful decisions on each aspect and that those who have listened to the debate have found it useful in helping them to make up their minds on how to vote.
Amendment made: (a), at end add
'and considers it desirable that the Scottish Grand Committee should for an experimental period be enabled to hold sittings in Edinburgh from time to time.'.—[Mr. Peter Fraser.]
§ Main Question, as amended, agreed to.
That this House takes note of the Report of an Inter-Party Group on the Government of Scotland and considers it desirable that the Scottish Grand Committee should for an experimental period be enabled to hold sittings in Edinburgh from time to time.
§ It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motions, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to the Order this day, to put forthwith the Questions necessary to dispose of the motions relating to Scottish Grand Committee, Scottish Estimates, Matters relating exclusively to Scotland and Procedure in Standing Committees.