HC Deb 17 June 1997 vol 296 cc97-9
1 Mr. Amess

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received concerning the proposed form of the question for the proposed referendum on Scottish devolution [2329]

The Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution, Scottish Office (Mr. Henry McLeish)

The Scottish Office has received seven representations, of which five have suggested that independence or the status quo should also be an option put to the electorate and two have commented on the style of the ballot paper.

Mr. Amess

I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. Now that the new Labour party has led the British people to what is perceived to be the promised land, will the Minister explain to my constituents in Southend, West how it can be fair that they will not be involved in the referendum process? Furthermore, how can he justify the fact that those who will be involved in the referendum process have no precise idea of what they are being consulted about?

Mr. McLeish

I am delighted to welcome the hon. Gentleman to Scottish questions. The question whether there should be a Scottish Parliament is primarily for the people in Scotland. The details of the proposals will be open for debate by all UK Members of Parliament during the passage of the devolution Bill. We think that that is important because it gives the people of Scotland a chance to vote on the two questions in the referendum and to give their consent, and it then allows the devolution Bill to be properly and thoroughly discussed in the House. That should reassure not only the hon. Gentleman but his constituents.

Mr. McAllion

The form of the question in the referendum and other matters relating to the referendum are currently the subject of debate in the other place. Therefore, may I have an assurance from my hon. Friend that he will not suffer any lessons in the democratic running of a referendum from those who owe their place in Parliament either to hereditary privilege or to political patronage? Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind our noble brothers and sisters that Scotland is a democracy where sovereignty rests with the people, that the people have elected Members of this House to decide on the referendum and that peers interfere in that democratic exercise at their peril?

Mr. McLeish

I fully acknowledge my hon. Friend's comments. However, in the spirit of good will in which we have tried to conduct the debate, I hope that, in another place, there will be reasonable debate and scrutiny of the legislation, and that it will be serious and sensible. I feel very relaxed in the belief that the peers will do that and I do not think that there is anything to be fearful of at this stage.

Mrs. Ewing

I welcome the hon. Gentleman and the full team to the Scottish Office and their new responsibilities. Does the hon. Gentleman share my recognition that the rather offensive comments made during the passage of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill by Conservative Members and the questions scattered throughout the Order Paper today show that they have learned absolutely nothing from their behaviour in the previous Parliament? Might that not explain the total absence of any Conservative Member north of the Tweed?

Mr. McLeish

Again, I appreciate the hon. Lady's points. It is important for the House to be reminded that the party that promoted the status quo in Scotland did not return a single Member to this House. On the other hand, we want to see the devolution proposals go forward in a spirit that reflects their importance to the people of Scotland. That is why I hope that even Conservative Members will accept my point that this is a vital matter. Clearly, we do not want to see a repetition in the other place of some of the frivolous questions posed in this House.

Mr. Canavan

On the question of consulting the people of Scotland through the ballot box, is it not rather ironic that some of the most vociferous opponents of a Scottish Parliament are Tory rejects who were kicked out by the people of Scotland through the ballot box? I think of people such as the Earl of Ancram—now the right hon. Member for Devizes—Lord Fraser of Carmyllie and Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish. It is no wonder that the Tories suffered a complete wipeout in Scotland. When will they ever learn?

Mr. McLeish

My hon. Friend makes some reasonable points. Conservative Members, wherever they come from, should acknowledge that this is a very important issue. They should also learn the important lessons of the election on 1 May, which showed that constitutional change is high on the agenda of Scots. We want to move forward on that as quickly as possible.

Mr. Ancram

Does the Minister agree that the proposal in the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill for "a Scottish Parliament" could be supported equally by those seeking independence, who might regard it as the first step along that road, and those, such as the Secretary of State, who claim that it would save the Union? As both cannot be right, does he agree that the current proposition is a dangerous and dishonest fudge and that the only honest course would be to set out the three real options: independence; a devolved, tax-raising Parliament; and the status quo? Or is he frightened of the answer that the Scottish people might give?

Mr. McLeish

I utterly reject the right hon. Gentleman's assertions on two counts. The only party that had the temerity to favour the status quo was—I choose my words carefully—annihilated. The Scottish people also clearly rejected separatism on 1 May and endorsed our proposals. The Scots will be asked to vote yes, yes in the referendum on the basis of the White Paper that we shall publish before we rise for the summer.

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