HC Deb 15 July 1997 vol 298 cc183-6
6. Mr. Spring

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he expects to publish his White Paper on his proposals for the Scottish Assembly. [6695]

Mr. Dewar

The White Paper will be published on 24 July. This will allow both Houses proper opportunity to debate it before the summer recess.

Mr. Spring

Why has the White Paper been so long in coming? Surely, after all the years of discussion and debate about devolution, it would have been far better to produce specific proposals immediately after the general election.

Mr. Dewar

That shows a remarkable degree of naivety. For the hon. Gentleman's sake, I am glad that he is on the Opposition Benches; he will have some time in which to learn about the realities of government. If he were truly interested in what we have promised, he would know that we have said definitively, from the beginning, that we would publish a White Paper before the House rose for the summer recess. We have met that promise exactly, just as we shall meet many other promises in the time that lies ahead.

Mr. Hood

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the support of tens of thousands of former Conservatives for the White Paper, even before it is published? Will he comment on the decision of Arthur Bell, a leading Scottish Conservative, who has decided to dump that lot opposite us because they are anti-Scottish, anti-British and anti-Conservative?

Mr. Dewar

I do not want to intrude on private grief by discussing the internal state of the Conservative party. There is, however, substantial polling evidence to show that many Conservative supporters will vote yes in the referendum. That is perhaps not surprising when we recall how attractive the concept of devolution was to many distinguished Conservatives now sitting on the Opposition Front Bench.

Mrs. Ray Michie

If the White Paper includes the option of a new building for the Scottish Parliament, will the Secretary of State consider making it our celebration of the millennium—not a dome or a museum, but a building that reflects the best traditions of Scottish culture and architecture? It should be a living and working building, serving all the people: a truly exciting Scottish experience.

Mr. Dewar

I have a great deal of sympathy for what the hon. Lady says. For one horrible moment I thought that she was about to suggest that the Parliament should be housed on a hill above Oban, where, the House will recall, there is a building that might be turned into a dome with a bit of new roofing. I agree with the hon. Lady; the start of the new Parliament will, we hope—it depends on the vote of the Scottish people—almost coincide with the millennium, and I should very much like to think that it will catch the spirit of the time and will usher in a new era. I want an environment and a building that is worthy of that.

Mr. David Marshall

If the Royal high school building in Edinburgh is no longer suitable for the Scottish Parliament, does that open up the debate about where the Parliament will be located? Does it need to be in Edinburgh? Will the Secretary of State's proposals include consultation with local authorities, especially Glasgow, to ascertain what suitable alternative buildings and sites may be available to house the new Parliament?

Mr. Dewar

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to make the position clear. The Government have not ruled out the Royal high school, but we are conscious of its shortcomings as a possible site, and we want to look at other options. To stop many hearts a-fluttering and rumours a-running, I should say that we shall not be looking beyond Edinburgh.

Mr. Ancram

Given that, on his own admission, it has taken the right hon. Gentleman a quarter of a century to bring the proposals to fruition in a White Paper—and it has taken the Labour party 18 years, the convention eight years and the Cabinet three months to bring the White Paper to fruition—does not he think that he is treating the Scottish people with contempt by asking them to make a sensible and valid judgment on the proposals in less than two months? Would it not be right, even now, for him to show some respect for the importance of his White Paper and postpone the referendum until the Scottish people have had a chance properly to consider and understand the highly complex issues, over which, we understand, even the right hon. Gentleman's Cabinet colleagues are falling out among themselves?

Mr. Dewar

I understand why the right hon. Gentleman wants more time to try to invent a few arguments to put to the people in Scotland. I realise that, through no fault of his own but through electoral mischance, he has been removed from the debate for a long time to come. If he is in Scotland more often, as doubtless he will be with his new responsibilities, he will find that, after the lengthy period of discussion, the mood in Scotland is that it is time for action. That will be confirmed by the referendum vote, and I look forward to making progress rapidly thereafter.

Mr. Ernie Ross

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the speed with which he was able to bring forward the White Paper is based wholly on the fact that, for the past eight years, the Labour party has been engaged in detailed discussions, rather than—as it could quite easily have decided to do—telling the people of Scotland what to do? We have been discussing with all the parties that have been prepared to sit down with us in the constitutional convention; even at the last moment, the offer was still open to Conservative members to join us. That discussion has allowed my right hon. Friend to produce the White Paper within such an excellent time scale.

Mr. Dewar

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the discussion over recent years laid a valuable foundation on which we were able to build when we came to power in May this year. I do not want to sound complacent, but we have made good progress in getting the White Paper ready for publication within a tight timetable. To be fair to the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), I am sure that, with his knowledge of government, he will accept that. People have worked hard, and with great skill and commitment, to achieve that end.

Mr. Salmond

As he is talking about recent years, does the Secretary of State recall that he was the co-author and signatory of the Claim of Right, which asserted the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs? Does the right hon. Gentleman recall his Minister of State endorsing, in front of 25,000 people, the democracy declaration that stated that the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament was no longer acceptable to Scots? Does the Secretary of State still hold those beliefs and will they be reflected in the White Paper, or has the Home Secretary told him to change his mind?

Mr. Dewar

The hon. Gentleman always puts it so endearingly. Of course I signed the Claim of Right. I was pleased to do so—proud to do so, almost—and I do not regret having done so. The fallacy in what the hon. Gentleman has put to me—we have had this debate before—is that he makes the arrogant assumption that that right of the Scottish people has to be exercised in a specific way. In my view, however, they could exercise that right as they think fit. I feel that they will want to exercise it in favour of the devolution proposals within the United Kingdom that I am advancing. The referendum puts that to the test, and I hope that, afterwards, we can move ahead with the minimum of further delay.

Mr. John D. Taylor

Before the Government finalise the contents of the White Paper, will the Secretary of State ensure that it addresses the issue of Scottish representation in this Parliament?

Mr. Dewar

It is a comprehensive White Paper. I have no intention of revealing its detailed provisions, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that it is a well-founded and well-formulated scheme, which I know he will read with great interest.