HC Deb 20 February 1991 vol 186 cc284-6

4.1 pm

Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the National Audit Act 1983 to give the National Audit Office additional duties in respect of public expenditure in Scotland, including the provision of assistance to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs of the House of Commons; and for connected purposes. I am glad to have the opportunity to introduce this Bill, which will be effective providing, of course, that it has safe passage through the House. It concerns an issue of particular importance to those of us who represent Scotland.

Some people may wonder why I am seeking to find additional assistance for a Select Committee which, disgracefully, has still not been set up. The failure to establish that Select Committee means that we are daily in breach of the Standing Orders here in the mother of all Parliaments. That is scandalous.

I must record that the Leader of the House has been negligent in his duty, and since he is a fellow Scot that negligence is even more hurtful. The people of Scotland will not forget his negation of duty, but I hope that the Bill will help the right hon. Gentleman to overcome some of the problems he has experienced in trying to set up a genuine and proper Select Committee on Scottish Affairs.

In the past four years, we have had no opportunity to examine affairs in Scotland. We need the added assistance of that Select Committee, because some 3,000 civil servants are scampering around Scotland doing heavens knows what, apparently answerable to no one. There is a backlog of issues that we should have been discussing and which we must discuss once the Select Committee has begun its work.

If that Select Committee had existed, it would have investigated the socio-economic effect of the loss of jobs that Scotland has sustained in the past four years. The most outstanding example of that would be the shambles created in the steel industry by the attitude of Bob Scholey, the chairman of British Steel, and the team who work for him. The Select Committee would have investigated Ravenscraig, Clydesdale, Dalzell and the role of British Steel in the demise of the Scottish steel industry. That industry has almost disappeared from Scotland—which seems to be British Steel's intention.

The Select Committee would also have been forced to investigate the decline of the mining industry. In my constituency, in Ayrshire, there are no deep pit miners left. There are large pockets of unemployment in Cumnock, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), where the male unemployment rate is about 52 per cent. That in itself would have warranted some investigation to find out what could be done to replace the jobs that had been lost.

The only inquiry in the mining industry involved the reopening of Monkton Hall colliery to produce green coal—low-sulphur coal—and was commissioned by the Scottish National Union of Mineworkers, with the aid of local authorities in the district. Those authorities have had to incur expenditure that should have been borne by central Government on behalf of Scotland.

We have witnessed the demise of fishing and agriculture. The farmers recently conducted a magnificent lobby of Parliament and were able to persuade hon. Members that farming, particularly the hill farms in Scotland, was in serious decline and something had to be done urgently to stop the continuing crisis and numerous closures.

As a Select Committee, we would have had a heyday discussing the funding of local government, because during the Government's term of office the revenue support grant has been slashed, capital allocations have been squeezed and the housing support grant has virtually disappeared up the loch.

A Select Committee on Scottish Affairs would have been the appropriate forum to consider closely the subject of the poll tax, which the House discussed yesterday. In Scotland, we were forced to endure the poll tax and were used as guinea pigs to test the tax one year before it was introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom. The unbiased report of a Select Committee would certainly have made the unanimous decision that the poll tax, which was unwanted, unwarranted and uncared for, should be disposed of in Scotland.

The House would not have wasted its time discussing the matter, because it would not have been put into operation in Scotland. The Select Committee could not and would not come to any decision except that the present Secretary of State for the Environment seeks to amend the unamendable and is tinkering with something that should not be tinkered with. Some £558 million poll tax dues are still to be collected in Scotland, which shows that the situation is not only appalling, but cannot be allowed to continue.

Five years ago, the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs went to Glasgow to examine housing, paying particular attention to dampness in housing. All the members of that Committee, including its illustrious Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Lambie), were appalled at the living conditions of the people we visited. The dampness in their homes made clear to all Committee members the appalling life led by those people. Their existence was overshadowed by the awful smell produced by the dampness.

Council officials had told them that it had something to do with the residents' life style, but it was due to a combination of badly designed houses and the fact that the people were so poverty-stricken that they could not afford appropriate heating. To this day, some of those people are still languishing in those appalling conditions. The Select Committee suggested that £50 million to £100 million would have been needed to begin to sort out the problem in Glasgow alone, and the then Minister was quick to jump in with an offer of £3 million.

The Government were unwilling or unable to put names forward for a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs and the Opposition were not slow to set up their own alternative Select Committee. Its members were the hon. Members for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) and my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway), and for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion). We discussed the financing and delivery of the Scottish health service.

We produced a report, at the expense of the Labour party, and a very good report it was. But we discovered, first, that we could not subpoena Ministers or witnesses; because of that, many of them were reluctant to give evidence, and none of them would give evidence on the record. We therefore had to rely mainly on people who worked in the health services to supply us with evidence. Secondly, we attempted to enlist financial support from the House of Commons, but Mr. Speaker advised us that that would be out of order—so we had to find the funds ourselves.

The report cost us more than £3,000. We sold more than 300 copies of it, which must be a record for a Select Committee report on Scotland. However, like thousands of businesses throughout the land, and especially in Scotland, we nevertheless found that we had a cash flow problem. Being skint, we had to go into a state of suspended animation and wait to see whether we could find funds to get the Committee going.

As a defender of Back Benchers and democracy, Mr. Speaker must, I know, be unhappy about this matter. In this Parliament, in the country that is supposed to be the mother of all Parliaments, the epitome of democracy, we stand here day after day in breach of our own Standing Orders. Somehow, that must be put right. I suggest that we place in the hands of Mr. Speaker the power to nominate a Select Committee and put it into operation if the Leader of the House neglects his duty to do so. That there should be no Select Committee on Scottish Affairs is a disgraceful slur on the democratic structures of this House, and an affront to the people of Scotland.

It gives me great pleasure to move this motion. I hope that the Bill will be given safe passage through to the statute book.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. William McKelvey, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie, Mr. Martin Redmond, Mr. Ernie Ross, Mr. John McAllion, Mr. Jimmy Wray, Mr. David Lambie, Mr. Harry Ewing, Mr. Dennis Canavan, Mrs. Irene Adams and Mr. John McFall.