HC Deb 21 November 1990 vol 181 cc282-4
10. Mr. John D. Taylor

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on Government policy on the devolution of powers of legislation to Scotland.

Mr. Lang

The Government believe that the present constitutional arrangements affecting powers of legislation meet Scotland's needs.

Mr. Taylor

As some 25 per cent. of the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland support political nationalism, and as a constitutional reform is topical subject in both territories, why do the Government discourage inter-party dialogue through the convention in Scotland while at the same time encouraging inter-party dialogue in Northern Ireland? Why do the Government, on the subject of constitutional reform, as on so many other subjects, have two different policies?

Mr. Lang

I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would be one of the first to welcome the fact that the Government can make special provision for the needs and circumstances of Northern Ireland, just as I welcome the fact that the Government can make special provision for the needs and circumstances of Scotland. I must make it clear to him that the self-styled constitutional convention is not a body to which the Government give any credence or authority. It was set up by several interested individuals who believe that they can thereby advance a cause—a cause with which I do not have a great deal of sympathy.

Mr. Ernie Ross

The Minister might have had more impact in the House if he or any of his colleagues had attended even one meeting of the constitutional convention. They were invited to each and every one. The Minister must know that the convention reports on its deliberations next Friday. That will give him and his colleagues, in particular the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), a last opportunity to save face. Do they intend to attend to see whether they support the views agreed on by the convention or do they propose any other alternative before next Friday?

Mr. Lang

It is almost impossible either to agree or disagree with the views expressed by a body which has failed to address any of the significant points of the debate on devolution. For example, does the convention believe that Scotland should continue to have a Secretary of State in the Cabinet? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] Does it consider that the number of Members of Parliament should remain the same? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] Does it believe that it is possible for Scotland to continue to enjoy additional funding from the United Kingdom while it has power to raise taxation at home? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] How does the hon. Gentleman justify asking English Members of Parliament to vote for higher spending on specific areas in Scotland when taxation would be voted through a Scottish assembly to establish a different position?

Mr. Andy Stewart

Does my hon. Friend agree that the type of home rule suggested by the convention is home rule paid for by English and Welsh taxpayers?

Mr. Lang

In so far as the views of the convention are comprehensible, that is certainly one interpretation.

Sir Russell Johnston

Does the Minister agree that it is a contradiction for the Government to claim to oppose centralisation in the European Community when they have been the most centralising Government in the United Kingdom since the war?

Mr. Lang

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman at all. The Government believe in decentralisation, but we decentralise in reality rather than through posturing legislative proposals.

Mr. Allan Stewart

Does my hon. Friend agree that, while Opposition Members may believe that they could get away with a form of devolution for Scotland paid for by English and Welsh taxpayers, it would be simply intolerable? Does he agree that the only possible financial outcome of the convention's proposals would be a far higher level of taxation in Scotland than in England and Wales?

Mr. Lang

That is absolutely right and I am certain that once that fact is brought home to the people of Scotland they will change their view radically and withdraw any support that they might give to a separate Scottish assembly. Certainly, the business community is well aware of the considerable danger that a separate Scottish assembly would create in Scotland.

Mr. Douglas

Will the Minister reflect that what we really desire in Scotland is legislation based on the sovereignty of the Scottish people? Is he aware that if we had that, we would not have the poll tax, because it rests on the sovereignty of the British Parliament? Currently the British Parliament does not have a majority in favour of the poll tax. Therefore, the people of Scotland would be perfectly entitled, having expressed their views on the legislation in 1987, to stop paying the poll tax now.

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman is living in cloud cuckoo land. The last time questions of devolution were put to the test in Scotland was in the referendum of 1978. It was clear that only about a third of the Scottish people supported devolution.

Mr. Worthington

One area in which we already have separate powers of legislation is education. Can the Minister clarify his legislative plans for student unions? Last Friday at 3.25 pm a statement was issued by the Minister of State which mentioned separate legislation on this for Scotland, but at 4.40 pm that was withdrawn and deemed not to exist. On Sunday, a handwritten statement——

Mr. Speaker

Order. What has this to do with devolution of powers?

Mr. Worthington

It is to do with separate legislation for Scotland, which is what the question is about, Mr. Speaker.

On Sunday a handwritten note came out omitting any reference to legislation or freedom of speech. What are the Minister's plans for legislation on student unions, and why was the initial statement withdrawn?

Mr. Lang

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman tables a question to that effect it will be answered at the appropriate time. As he is aware, the present question is not about students or the issue that he raises. As the hon. Gentleman raised the matter of education, however, he may like to know that education is one of many areas in which we in Scotland enjoy substantially higher central Government expenditure than is made south of the border—a situation which would not continue in the event of a tax-raising Scottish assembly being created.