HC Deb 03 July 1996 vol 280 cc964-8
10. Mr. Michael Brown

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how many meetings of the Scottish Grand Committee he has attended as Secretary of State for Scotland. [34180]

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I shall attend my 14th sitting of the Scottish Grand Committee this Friday in Dumfries, when we shall discuss the constitution; my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will attend. This sitting replaces the one that was postponed following the Dunblane tragedy. I am sure that the whole House welcomes the fact that the Snowdrop petition, which has attracted 750,000 signatures, will be presented by the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) to the House later today. I have no doubt that the House and future sittings of the Grand Committee will want to consider the issues raised.

Mr. Brown

My right hon. Friend has spoken of the importance of the Scottish Grand Committee. In view of the weakening of Labour's commitment to a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers, what would be the difference between the Scottish Grand Committee and a Scottish parliament with no powers to raise tax?

Mr. Forsyth

If we were ever unfortunate enough to have a Labour Government, a Scottish Grand Committee with a Labour majority on it, using the new powers to pass legislation, would be able to do everything that a Scottish parliament could do and more, including holding to account the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, who would determine Scotland's funding, and other Ministers from both Houses of Parliament. The one thing that a Scottish Grand Committee could never do is lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom or impose a tartan tax on the Scottish people. Such a tax would mean that people earning the same wage in Scotland had smaller pay packets than those in England. That is wrong in principle and will be recognised as such throughout Scotland.

Mr. Wray

Is the Secretary of State for Scotland willing to put the subject of nuclear waste dumping in Scotland on the agenda at the next sitting of the Scottish Grand Committee? I know that he is an environmentalist—I have seen him protecting the environment by cuddling a lamb in the local rag of Milton Buchanan—so I hope that he recalls what happened when an explosion involving 2 kg of sodium and potassium in 1977 was not reported until 1995. Will he hold an emergency debate?

Mr. Forsyth

The whole point of the Scottish Grand Committee is that it provides an opportunity for hon. Members to call the Executive to account on matters affecting Scotland. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should discuss the possibility of a debate with his Front Benchers. I see no reason why the Scottish Grand Committee should not debate it, and I agree that is it a very important subject. If that happens, it may prove to be one sitting of the Scottish Grand Committee at which the hon. Gentleman does not complain afterwards that it turned out to be a press conference for the Government.

Mr. Bill Walker

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that any party with a majority of Members from Scotland on the Scottish Grand Committee can enact the most controversial legislation dealing with all aspects of Scottish life and that there is no need whatever to spend any additional funds on the creation of a new Scottish parliament? Therefore, it makes no sense for the Opposition to propose additional public expenditure when the Scottish Grand Committee can do everything that they require.

Mr. Forsyth

I agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, there are costs involved in establishing a Scottish parliament, which would cost about £45 million a year to run thereafter. That would have to be paid by the Scottish people and the money could be better spent on other matters. The real danger is not just the cost, but the conflict with Westminster and the break-up of the United Kingdom. There is also a constitutional danger, which I hope will be discussed in another place this afternoon, arising from the way in which the Labour party wishes to remove the House of Lords or any second Chamber from revision of Scottish legislation. [Interruption.] Opposition Members may laugh and cheer at that prospect, but I was taught at school that the first step towards tyranny is the establishment of unicameral government, and that the second step is the use of plebiscites in an attempt to sideline the Parliament elected by the people.

Mr. Salmond

I associate myself with what the Secretary of State said about the Snowdrop petition. Why will he not allow the Scottish Grand Committee to make any decisions? Why does everything have to be decided here? Is it because at meetings of the Scottish Grand Committee he does not have the gallery of Conservative Members representing English constituencies who come to Scottish Question Time to ask patsy questions? In so far as the Grand Committee signifies interest in Scottish affairs, will the Secretary of State explain why, between 1992 and 1995, he attended only one of its 28 sittings? Why did he attend that one and miss the other 27?

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that question: I did not have ministerial responsibility in Scotland. He is entitled to ask why decisions affecting Scotland cannot be made in the Scottish Grand Committee or a Scottish forum because he is a nationalist, not a Unionist. No Unionist could ever argue that case—although Opposition Members have tried to do so, which is why they have got themselves into such a shambles. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about the Snowdrop petition and for the consistency that he has shown on the matter. He argues that a referendum is of no worth whatsoever unless it is on a specific proposal and unless it offers the Scottish people all the options. The difference between him and Labour Members is that he wants the break-up of the United Kingdom but they would bring about the break-up of the United Kingdom through political opportunism.

Mr. Stewart

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Scottish Grand Committee is an important, practical and sensible part of the Union? Therefore, will he congratulate the Leader of the Opposition on his good sense in forcing the resignation of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion), who believes in all this devolution nonsense, and replacing him with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm), who is a good, sound chap with a good, sound Unionist record?

Mr. Forsyth

I will not congratulate the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland on having asked the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) to resign so as not to ruin his party leader's press conference. The hon. Member for Dundee, East has always taken a principled stand on the matters in which he believes. I respect that, although I disagree with it. I agree with what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) said in an article in the Daily Express the other day. No hon. Members would condemn anyone who stood up for what they believe, which is what the hon. Member for Dundee, East has done.

Mr. McAllion

Will the Scottish Grand Committee get the opportunity to debate the rumoured return of the Stone of Destiny to Scotland? Is the Minister aware that the real Stone of Destiny is already in Scotland? It has been hidden in a church in Dundee for a number of years, but security forces should realise that it has since been moved to an alternative safe place. Is he aware that the Stone of Destiny that he is intending to return to Scotland is a sham and a fake, just like his trumped-up Scottish Grand Committee, which fools no one in Scotland? When will the Government understand that the demand for self-government in Scotland will never be satisfied until the Scottish people have a directly elected, tax-raising parliament that meets in Scotland?

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleagues did not like the latter part of his question. The authenticity of the Stone of Destiny was investigated very carefully. The stone was subjected to a number of tests. Although files on the matter have never been released, they show that the authentic stone rests in Westminster abbey. I shall ensure that the files are released so that the hon. Gentleman may look at them. I am sure that he will have plenty of time on his hands in which to do so.

Mr. Richards

When my right hon. Friend next attends the Scottish Grand Committee, will he warn it that a parliament for Scotland and the integration of the United Kingdom into Europe, as proposed by the Labour party, would create a new danger to this country's integrity, the like of which we have not seen since the second world war?

Mr. Forsyth

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is quite difficult to keep up with the changing face of the Labour party's policy on these constitutional matters, but I agree that its policies are a new danger. The idea that it is possible to have a tax-raising Parliament and maintain our present level of funding, yet lose the office of Secretary of State and our voice in Westminster through a diminution in the number of Members of Parliament, is viewed askance by most Scots and offers a new danger. In short, the position is new Labour, nae Britain.

Mr. George Robertson

I thank the Secretary of State for his hospitality at lunchtime in giving party leaders in Scotland and others the chance to meet those who were bringing the Dunblane Snowdrop petition, which has been signed by 750,000 people. Parents and organisers of the campaign expect Parliament not only to accept the petition but to listen to what it proposes and to act on it urgently. I return, however, to the fray.

Nobody in Scotland is conned by the idea that a glorified Scottish Grand Committee is the answer. When he denigrates and deliberately insults the genuine, legitimate ambition of the Scottish people for devolution by referring to "a pigmy Parliament", he demeans the office that he holds and shows himself to be the ideologue for which so many people in Scotland have judged him. Why, in a press release issued in London last Tuesday, did he issue a challenge to Labour, saying that the Scottish people should have a say in major constitutional change through a referendum", only for him now to tell the House that any plebiscite is the first step on the road to tyranny? I fear that such double standards, more than anything that we propose, genuinely threaten this nation's unity.

Mr. Forsyth

I stand by what I have said about a referendum—unlike the hon. Gentleman, who cannot say as much. He rubbished my proposal that the Labour party should commit itself to a referendum after the introduction of legislation—

Mr. Robertson

That is not what the right hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Forsyth

That is indeed what I said, and it is not only me who is saying it. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who is inexplicably absent from our proceedings today, says the same in The Guardian today. He argues the same constitutional case: that to ask people to vote on a matter when they cannot see the whole picture in the form of a Bill that has been considered by the House is to subvert Parliament.

The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and his leader have been boasting about how they see a referendum as a way of getting the legislation through the House more quickly. I understand that they were advised that the referendum legislation was still on the statute book, but they were ill advised. It is not; it was repealed. A Bill would have to be taken through the House, and it would be fought every inch of the way both here and in the House of Lords. No doubt some in the House of Lords would argue that a question should be asked about removing the House of Lords from the consideration of legislation for Scotland, in which their Lordships have taken part for centuries. The hon. Gentleman should stop tinkering with our constitution for party advantage and realise that new Labour could mean nae Britain.