HC Deb 30 June 1997 vol 297 cc37-50 4.32 pm
The Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution, Scottish Office (Mr. Henry McLeish)

I beg to move, That—

  1. (1) during the present Parliament, Standing Orders Nos. 99 (Scottish Grand Committee (substantive motions for the adjournment)) and 100 (Scottish Grand Committee (sittings)) shall have effect subject to the following modifications—
    1. (i) in paragraph (3) of Standing Order No. 99, for lines 19 to 30 there shall be substituted—
    2. "(3) The days specified for the consideration of motions for the adjournment of the committee under this order shall be allocated as follows—
      1. (a) four at the disposal of the government;
      2. (b) two at the disposal of the leader of the largest Opposition party in Scotland; and
      3. (c) two at the disposal of the leader of the next largest Opposition party in Scotland:"; and
    3. (ii) in paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 100 there shall be substituted for the word "twelve" in line 21 the word "eight".
  2. (2) the Speaker shall put forthwith the Question on any Motion to vary the provisions of this Order, and proceedings thereon may be disposed of after the time for opposed business.
I welcome the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) to their new Opposition Front-Bench positions. I am not entirely clear at this stage what those positions are, but I am sure that it will become evident over the next few weeks and months. I certainly extend my good wishes for their work in the House.

The motion will enable new arrangements for the Scottish Grand Committee to be put in place. They flow from the fact that there are now no Scottish constituencies represented by members of the official Opposition. The Government have carefully considered what role the Scottish Grand Committee should play in the next year or so prior to the Scottish Parliament coming into being. We have taken into account the views of the other two Opposition parties that have members who represent Scottish constituencies.

The previous Government had their own reasons for reinventing the Scottish Grand Committee as a forum for Scottish issues. Those reasons need not detain us; what matters is what we have inherited. The Scottish Grand Committee can debate matters that relate to Scotland, and all members of the Government can contribute to those debates. Lords Ministers, including the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor-General for Scotland, can also attend to make statements and answer questions. Second and Third Readings of Scottish Bills can be held in Scottish Grand Committee whenever it makes sense to do so. Scottish questions are now a regular feature of the Scottish Grand Committee.

Mr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Was any consideration given to limiting the length of speeches at Scottish Grand Committee meetings? My question is prompted by the prospect of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), who is a fine man, with a penchant for long speeches, becoming the leader of the Opposition in Scotland.

Mr. McLeish

The Standing Orders governing the debates in the Grand Committee allow the imposition of a time limit on speeches. The Chairmen may have failed so far to take up my hon. Friend's interesting suggestion.

Over the past few years, we have also experienced other changes. The Scottish Grand Committee has met much more frequently, up to 12 times a year, and most sittings have been held in local venues the length and breadth of Scotland, often outwith the central belt. The travelling roadshow, as some of my hon. Friends have described it, may have had its inconveniences for Committee members, but there is no doubt that it has struck a chord with the general public. Far more people turned out to watch the Scottish Grand Committee in action in Aberdeen—fighting their way through a snow storm to do so—than would ever be likely to come to see us at work in the House. There is no doubt that the travelling roadshow has stimulated public interest in the workings of government in Scotland.

This Government are keen to see the Scottish Grand Committee continue to operate as a forum for all Members of Parliament from Scottish constituencies to consider matters of relevance to Scotland, whether by means of debate, questions or statements. We intend that the Scottish Grand Committee should operate in the future much as it has done in the past. Precisely because of that, we are opposed to any change to current Standing Orders to add a few token English Conservatives to the Committee. We believe that they would have no locus in the Committee's business.

No doubt there will be opportunities in plenty for official Opposition Members to state their case on constitutional and other matters. That is as it should be.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I am grateful to the Minister for his kind remarks about the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and me. In view of the nil representation of Labour Members in Northern Ireland, what representation does the Minister think it would be appropriate for Labour to have on the Northern Ireland Grand Committee?

Mr. McLeish

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that different Standing Orders cover the appointment of additional members to the Scottish and the Northern Ireland Grand Committees. The Standing Orders prepared and implemented by the Opposition, when in government, do not give the Scottish Grand Committee that opportunity.

The Scottish Grand Committee is a forum for all Members from Scottish constituencies to consider issues of relevance to Scotland. The official Opposition have no Members from Scottish constituencies and they therefore have no place on the Scottish Grand Committee. The motion amends current Standing Orders to delete reference to the official Opposition, and to provide instead for Opposition day debates to be divided between the two Opposition parties that have Members for Scottish constituencies.

The motion also reduces the maximum number of sittings of the Scottish Grand Committee annually from 12 to eight. That reflects the reality of the extent to which Scottish business is likely to dominate business here at Westminster in the coming year. The Government's top priority is to establish a Scottish Parliament; in the short term, sittings of the Scottish Grand Committee, valuable though they are, will have to take second place. For the same reason, we expect the bulk of the sittings in the coming Session to be held at Westminster. We recognise, however, the value of continuing to take the Scottish Grand Committee to venues around Scotland, and that will also be accommodated in the forward programme.

Of the eight sittings in the programme, the Government propose to share those out on the basis of four Government days, two Liberal Democrat days and two SNP days. We expect the full range of business—debates, questions, statements and legislation—to continue to be handled in the Scottish Grand Committee.

The overall shape of the programme will be as follows. On Tuesday 8 July, there will be oral questions and a Liberal Democrat debate on the implications for Scotland of the Budget. Before the summer recess, there will be a debate on a Government subject, which will be held in Scotland. There will be a debate on an SNP subject before Christmas. In the spring, there will be three further Government debates, and two further debates chosen by the Liberal Democrats and the SNP respectively. All three Government debates during that period will be held at Westminster.

To sum up, the Government propose to continue the Scottish Grand Committee in the way developed by the previous Government. We take the view that major change is unnecessary, and in any event inappropriate, given our plans to establish a Scottish Parliament as quickly as possible. The Scottish Grand Committee will continue to be able to call the Government to account on all issues affecting Scotland. It will continue to provide a working forum for parliamentary handling of Scottish business.

From time to time, there will be opportunities to take the Scottish Grand Committee north of the border, so that the people we serve can see how we serve them. The changes set out in the motion are sensible, minimal changes to enable the Scottish Grand Committee to continue to get on with its work. I commend them to the House.

4.39 pm
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes)

I thank the Minister of State for his good wishes on my appointment and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) to our Opposition positions. I was a little puzzled by the Minister's answer to my hon. Friend about a Northern Ireland Grand Committee, and the Standing Orders being different. The Welsh Grand Committee has met today with no Conservative presence—although the Standing Orders allow for it—because the Government decided in the Committee of Selection to make sure that no Conservative was allowed to take up the place available. I am not sure that his answer held water, although we shall leave that matter for now.

In light of current political affairs in Scotland, the motion might appear innocuous—that is what the Minister said—but it is important that we have this chance to debate it, because there are political implications of a constitutional nature which go far beyond the idea of good housekeeping. I must concede that, given the current state of parliamentary representation in Scotland—and therefore on the Scottish Grand Committee—I would find it hard to insist that the official Opposition should retain the right to nominate motions for the Adjournment when we have no Member entitled to take part in the debates. However, deeper constitutional implications must be considered.

The Scottish Grand Committee is, after all, a Committee of this House and of the United Kingdom Parliament, in which we are the official Opposition. For the moment, that constitutional reality cannot be given practical effect in the Scottish Grand Committee—hence the motion. I would like an assurance from the Government that when we win back parliamentary representation in Scotland at by-elections—as we can confidently expect in the nature of things—the motion will be reviewed and reconsidered to reflect the fact that the official Opposition are represented once more within the Grand Committee.

Without such assurances, today's motion would be a dangerous slide away from the constitutional framework within which this United Kingdom and Parliament have operated. It would undermine the Union and could be seen as the first step on a slippery slope toward the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Mr. McLeish

I am trying to share the optimistic note struck by the right hon. Gentleman about the Conservatives winning by-elections in Scotland. Paragraph 2 of the motion allows for the Standing Orders to be considered and amended, and his point will be taken care of by that provision.

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful for that assurance, and I take it that it goes further than the "maybe" that is implied. I hope that, if we were to win a by-election, the Minister would accept my argument. He is nodding, for which I am grateful.

I am dismayed to find that the number of sittings of the Grand Committee is to be reduced from 12 to eight. Contradicting the Government's much-vaunted concern for Scottish affairs, we see a continuation of a pattern that seeks to downgrade the consideration of Scottish issues in this House. There is now less time for Scottish questions and fewer Grand Committee debates. What next? With the Government increasingly determined to close down the opportunity to scrutinise Scottish affairs or bring them to account, I fear that we can expect more motions of this kind.

Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether this is the beginning of the dismantling of the Grand Committee, even before the people of Scotland have had the chance to declare on the question of the future governance of Scotland. What are the Government's intentions for the Grand Committee? When Scotland says no in the referendum, do they intend to review those intentions? Why will they not await the outcome of the referendum before making these moves? Do they cynically believe that downgrading the Scottish Grand Committee will increase the pressure for a yes vote? I can tell them that, if they do, they will be mistaken.

What are the Government's long-term intentions for retaining a strong voice for Scotland within this Parliament to ensure cohesion within the United Kingdom? We are becoming accustomed to the disdain with which the Government treat both Parliament and the spirit of democratic accountability. Even today in another Grand Committee, the voice of democratic opposition to Welsh devolution has been deliberately excluded, contrary to the spirit of the Standing Orders.

The Government may believe that, because of their majority, they can do what they like, but they tamper with constitutional proprieties, at great risk to the careful balance of democratic accountability that is essential to the working of our democracy. That the voice of dissent is heard and that the structures for hearing it are cherished are central tenets of democracy. Anything that undermines those structures undermines democracy, and the Government should be careful that—in their arrogance—they do not destroy precious and hard-won rights.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

For the right hon. Gentleman—the Minister who took the poll tax legislation through the House—to talk to us about accountability and democracy in Scotland is outrageous.

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman may recall that he was leading for the Opposition at that time and he had every opportunity to voice his dissent.

Mr. Maxton

On a guillotine motion.

Mr. Ancram

I am talking about a reduction of opportunities to voice dissent. I remind him that the guillotine came very late in the Bill, after much discussion—largely by the hon. Gentleman.

The motion is, in practice, hard to resist, but nevertheless raises serious concerns. One swallow does not a summer make and the motion is one of a line of swallows, beginning with the deliberate gagging of debate on significant democratic and constitutional issues during consideration of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill. It is part of a pattern that is profoundly disturbing to those of us who cherish our democratic principles.

It may be that this gagging of dissent and curtailing of debate—the Government's blustering approach—are part of a strategy to force through constitutional reforms such as devolution in which the Government have lost confidence in their own arguments and proposals. If so, it is even more cynical and even less acceptable.

In conclusion, we will not sit idly by and watch our constitution be so abused or our democratic procedures so callously manipulated. Today's motion is a minor element, but it is a step on a slippery slope which the British people would reject were they to see it. We will make sure that they do see it, for it is their constitution that is challenged.

4.45 pm
Mr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

The right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) presents a somewhat confused perspective on devolution. If, on a Monday, he is in Belfast, he argues passionately for devolution. If, on a Tuesday, he is in Glasgow or Cardiff, he argues against political devolution. If he returns to Belfast, he becomes once again a keen advocate of devolution. He is a little confused on the matter, and as a Member who departed Scotland not long after the introduction of the poll tax, he ought to be circumspect when talking about constitutional change. I believe that the poll tax was the beginning of the end for the Conservatives in Scotland. If he were to accept my argument on proportional representation, he might find that there were Conservative Members in a Scottish Parliament.

I hope that the meetings of the Scottish Grand Committee take place mainly in London and Edinburgh—if we are not to meet in Greenock, Wemyss Bay or Gourock. If we must meet in Inverness—a favourite town of mine, where my wife and I have spent frequent weekends in the spring, summer and autumn—can my hon. Friend the Minister avoid holding such meetings in the depths of winter? Following the last meeting, some of us had enormous difficulty in returning south from that delightful highland town. May I ask also who is to chair these meetings? Such information ought to be given to the House.

My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the meetings of the Committee in Aberdeen, and said that they were well attended by members of the public. He may recall that I argued at that time in a brief intervention—all my interventions are brief—for a complete boycott of the travelling circus. I was one of the first to call it a travelling circus. Michael Forsyth—the then Secretary of State for Scotland—used the Scottish Grand Committee and its meetings, which were scattered around Scotland, in a ruthless way. When we were in Inverness, he offered us the prospect of a university of the highlands—despite the fact that that had been a matter for debate among people in the north of Scotland for many years in relation to the Open university.

I have no objections to the reduction in the number of meetings or to the two Opposition parties sharing Opposition days; indeed, I look forward to that. I am a little concerned about the speeches that will be made by my hon. Friend, if I may so call him, the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). There should be a time limit on speeches. From the moment the Front-Bench speeches end, the contributions of Back Benchers should be restricted, perhaps to 10 minutes. Why not restrict Front-Bench performances—that is what they are sometimes—too?

Mr. Maxton

To five minutes.

Mr. Godman

No, not to five minutes—to 15 minutes, say. That would make matters more equitable for Back Benchers.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will pay particular heed to my request that the meetings be shared between London and Edinburgh.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Perhaps it would help the hon. Gentleman, and relieve the Minister of a responsibility that he does not hold, to say that the chairmanship of the Scottish Grand Committee is a matter for Madam Speaker.

4.50 pm
Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West)

The Liberal Democrats are happy to support the motion. We have had amicable discussions with the Scottish National party and the Government about the allocation of days, which we believe has been done fairly. We believe in collaborative politics to get things done, but we shall certainly oppose the Government vigorously, as I am sure the SNP will, and call them to account at the meetings of the Scottish Grand Committee. It is reasonable to have fewer meetings, because there is likely to be a great deal of Scottish business if the Scottish home rule Bill is introduced; obviously, if it is not, we can think again.

The right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) was sensible not to push his case for inclusion in the Grand Committee too far. There is a clear distinction between Scotland, where the three main United Kingdom parties and the SNP contest elections vigorously, and Northern Ireland, where the politics is different and none of the three largest United Kingdom parties has any representation.

It is sensible to support the Government's proposals. If the Conservatives have no members of the Committee, it is foolish to suggest that they should have any say in its agenda; they seem to have accepted that argument. If there is an argument that the Conservatives should be added on, because they were in some way badly treated in the general election, it should be noted that it is my experience and that of other hon. Members who won seats from them that, in addition to getting support for our party and, we hope, for us, we got support from the other two non-Conservative parties because the electors wanted to defeat the Conservative candidate.

That was clearly the predominant feeling: the voters wanted the Conservative out. In my case, I got support from people who normally voted for Labour or for the SNP, and in my constituency those two parties' votes were lower than—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. Although I have allowed a certain latitude up to now, I need to draw his attention, and that of the House, to the terms of the motion, which is about the meetings and not about the issue on which he is now speaking.

Mr. Gorrie

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was trying to argue why I felt that it was right that the Conservatives should not have the opportunity to dictate what the Committee should debate. I am sorry if I strayed from the point.

If the Conservatives accepted the logic behind proportional representation, they would have a much better case for better treatment. They do not support proportional representation and benefited from the existing electoral system for more than 18 years; they ruled the country with minority support, and now the game has gone against them. If one is losing, one cannot bite off somebody's ear.

The Conservatives should seriously consider supporting proportional representation; that would give them a logical position from which to claim some say in Scotland. At the moment, they have no such position: those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and the Conservatives do not deserve any say in the Scottish Grand Committee; the voters have voted that they should not have a say.

4.55 pm
Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)

I am somewhat reluctant to participate in this debate, as one of the people whom the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) has in his sights as a by-election possibility. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Gorrie) has raised the possibility of biting in the boxing ring, I am even more reluctant to speak.

The motion is clearly a technical one, and I am glad that the Government are not proposing any inappropriate exceptions to what we would expect to happen as a result of the general election outcome on 1 May. We certainly agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West that the settlement on Government and Opposition days is appropriate and reasonable in the circumstances.

It is encouraging to know that we will not be subjected in the Scottish Grand Committee to listening to some of the things to which we have had to listen in the House from the Conservatives since 1 May. I went along to the other place to observe part of the debate on the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill, and the arguments were a little more coherently expressed by the Conservatives there—who included some of my constituents—than by the Conservatives in the House of Commons.

I would not be expected to complain about nothing in a debate such as this, as nothing is ever perfect in the House. The Standing Orders applying to the Scottish Grand Committee say that the largest Opposition party is defined by the number of seats. On proportional representation, there is cross-party consensus among the hon. Members for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and for Edinburgh, West and me, and we should reflect on the fact that the Scottish National party polled 22.1 per cent. of the vote in Scotland in the general election, compared with 13.1 per cent. for the Liberal Democrats. We should bear that in mind when we settle the roles of the Opposition parties in handling scrutiny of Government business.

I can assure the right hon. Member for Devizes that my party certainly does not intend to sit back and ease off on scrutiny of the Government, their legislative proposals or the matters that they bring before the Scottish Grand Committee. That Committee is a forum in which we have the opportunity to keep a close eye on what the Government propose for Scotland.

Mr. Ancram

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but does it not therefore disturb him that the number of days on which he will be able to exercise that scrutiny is being diminished from 12 to eight?

Mr. Swinney

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) expressed concern about the time available for Scottish questions in the House on a monthly basis. The number of days is limited in comparison with the previous Session, but we accept the Government's argument that the amount of Scottish legislation to be introduced has to be borne in mind in the timetabling of events.

On the subject of timetabling, the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde made some remarks on the length of speeches which were no doubt fair. Although I was not a Member of Parliament at the time, I remember that the previous Secretary of State for Scotland made an extensive speech on one occasion that prevented members of my party from participating in a debate, thus denying the House and the Grand Committee the opportunity to hear all sides of the argument.

This debate is all very well, but the real debate is about how we bring real power, and real scrutiny of Scottish legislation, back to Scotland. In my view, that will be done only by a fully powerful Scottish Parliament deciding all Scotland's affairs. As we work towards that objective, we accept the Government's proposals.

4.58 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

It was of course the Conservatives who made the Scottish Grand Committee what it is today: a forum for questions and debate that brings the Government of both Scotland and the United Kingdom closer to the people of Scotland. It was Ian Lang who introduced a Question Time for Scottish Ministers and opportunities for ministerial statements, expanded the consideration of primary and secondary legislation, and enhanced the scope for general debates, including Adjournment debates at the end of each sitting. It was Michael Forsyth who extended the scope of Question Time to any Minister, including even the Prime Minister, and enabled the Scottish legislative programme to be expanded by taking the Second and Third Readings of non-controversial Bills in Grand Committee.

Most relevant to this debate, it was my noble Friend Lord Younger who made the Committee the exclusive preserve of Scottish Members in 1981. That is what makes the Grand Committee the true heir to the Scottish Parliament that was prorogued in 1707. Then the Scottish Parliament elected 16 peers and 45 Members of Parliament from among its membership to be incorporated into the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster.

We therefore have no dispute with the substance of the proposed changes in Standing Orders for the Committee. The Scottish Grand Committee is the United Kingdom Parliament's Committee of Scots for Scots. It would not be appropriate for the official Opposition to specify subjects for debates, as envisaged in the current Standing Orders, until we have regained representation on the Committee.

That is not to say that we have no concerns. Changes to the Standing Orders specifically to exclude the official Opposition are unnecessary. We would have been happy to give a commitment of forbearance until such time as there were Scottish Conservative Members once again, but this trust-me Government wish to leave nothing to trust. Yet again, we find something of the high-handed rather than the high-minded in the actions of new Labour. We have no choice but to trust them to be true to their word, if and when circumstances change.

What of the future of the Scottish Grand Committee? Each and every one of the changes made under the Conservatives was welcomed. Before the proposals in the motion, the Committee played an increasingly important role, dealing with more legislation than ever before and being able to summon the most powerful in the kingdom to account: the Chancellor of the Exchequer to explain excise duty on whisky; the Secretary of State for Defence to justify the threat of Labour's defence review to Scottish regiments and jobs; and even the Prime Minister to give account of his conduct of Government.

To judge from recent Welsh events, Government Back Benchers would be wise to pause before asking such questions. The Government machine was never more geared to the Scottish interest and to the Scottish dimension. That was never to have been the last word on the Committee's future. Michael Forsyth was always interested in developing its powers and function.

Have the Government considered how the Committee's role could be further enhanced, rather than reduced as in the motion? As the governing party also has the majority on the Grand Committee, is there not almost unlimited scope for the delegation of powers to it? Have the Government considered how all stages of uncontroversial Scottish Bills could effectively be taken in the Scottish Grand Committee? Under such circumstances, would it not be sensible to increase the number of sittings in Scotland so that more matters affecting Scotland could be debated on Scottish soil? Should the Committee have a permanent home in Scotland? A regular meeting place and a regular time in the calendar would enable the rest of Parliament, the press and Scottish public opinion to become increasingly used to it.

Mr. Swinney

The hon. Gentleman's arguments nudge remarkably close to those advanced by the former Member for Eastwood at the Conservative conference at the weekend. He suggested that if the Union was unsustainable—after 1 May, I think that we all agree on that—the arguments for independence were unassailable.

Mr. Jenkin

I am not here to answer for the former Member for Eastwood. I am asking the Government questions, which is the Opposition's job.

I doubt whether the Government have asked the questions that I put forward. They do not want to know. The Minister paid lip service to continuing the work of the Scottish Grand Committee; but, with fewer sitting days and meetings mostly at Westminster, it is clear that the Government want the Scottish Grand Committee to go to sleep as quietly as possible.

What is their political purpose in downgrading the Scottish Grand Committee, now of all times, long before a Scottish Parliament has become a certainty, let alone assumed certain shape or form? What better forum could there be for the discussion of Scotland's future at this time than the Scottish Grand Committee, where the Government even have the comfort of a controlling majority? Is Scottish democracy to be mothballed for the convenience of the Mandelson publicity machine? What sort of preparation is that for Scotland's democratic future?

The truth behind the motion is that the Committee's success is an embarrassment to the advocates of devolution; for if the Grand Committee continues to develop its role, what need for a Scottish Parliament, except to levy a tartan tax and to promote nationalism by stealth? That is what the motion is really about. It surprises me little that the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney) spoke with such enthusiasm for it.

Whenever people complain—I am coming to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton)—that the Grand Committee could not have challenged the ultimate authority of Westminster, I wonder whether they realise what they imply. There is no way that a devolved Parliament in Edinburgh can be established by an Act of this Parliament that cannot be subsequently amended by this Parliament. That is the basis of our constitution, based as it is on the ultimate sovereignty of Parliament. We had that from the Prime Minister's lips when he explained that ultimate sovereignty rested with him as an English Member.

The Secretary of State knows that that is true, but then I respect him as a Unionist, albeit a misguided one. The case made by some of his more enthusiastic colleagues suggests that they do not know it. There should more meetings of the Scottish Grand Committee to discuss the question, not fewer meetings. That is the danger of establishing a Scottish Parliament based on the Claim of Right, instead of enhancing the Committee's powers.

Mr. Maxton

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jenkin


No one should dispute the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine their future, but to choose to express that right through elections to a separate Scottish Parliament is to encourage denial of the very basis of the Union of the Crowns and of the Parliaments.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman during his first time as a Front-Bench spokesman, but the thread connecting the motion with his remarks is very thin and I suspect that it is getting ever thinner. I ask him to move back within the terms of the motion.

Mr. Jenkin

The Scottish Grand Committee could serve an ever larger role, expressing the will of the Scottish people but at the heart of the Westminster system. We want Scotland to be at the heart of Britain, not progressively isolated from the mainstream of the discussions that are so vital to Scotland's interests. A Scottish Parliament, unlike the Scottish Grand Committee, could never cross-examine the United Kingdom Prime Minister as an equal.

Until this motion, the Grand Committee represented a form of devolution that could have worked better and better, that raised no West Lothian question, that would not have cost millions of pounds to establish, and did not threaten the Union. The changes to the Standing Orders and the decision to confine its meetings represent the start of its demise. The Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution should at least come clean on that. The last thing that the Government want at Westminster is a rival pole of attraction to the forthcoming Scottish Parliament, which by comparison will be a constitutional pantomime horse. As comic or tragic as it turns out to be, it will cost Scotland dear.

5.8 pm

Mr. McLeish

With permission, I wish to add some concluding remarks.

I appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you did not want the debate to range wide and far, but it has in some respects. Suffice it to say that the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney) is a clear illustration of a reality that the Conservatives simply fail to grasp.

The Grand Committee was compared to a possible Scottish Parliament. We have heard it described as the real heir to the Parliament that existed before the union of the Parliaments in 1707. To be extraordinarily charitable, that is simply wide of the mark. If the election result on 1 May told us nothing more, it said that the Scots want a measure of constitutional change. There are certainly differences of opinion over what form that should take, but the overriding issue was settled—change had to be on the agenda. Unless and until Conservative Members start to appreciate that, they will make no progress in Scotland or in this House.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin

It is extremely revealing that the hon. Gentleman feels that his devolution proposals have to satisfy the nationalists on the Opposition Benches, rather than the Unionists. Does that not suggest the direction in which his proposals are taking his country?

Mr. McLeish

What must astonish right hon. and hon. Members is that since 1 May, we have not had a hint of humility, a crumb of contrition or a smattering of any sorrow for the plight that the Conservative party faces in Scotland. That is a matter for the Conservatives on the Opposition Benches. In my own way, I am always trying to be helpful, but no matter the level of help offered, nothing seems to be taken on board.

To return to the Scottish Grand Committee, which is the focus of this debate, the motion is not a downgrading of the Committee. As I said earlier, we are endorsing the fact that the previous Government made progress in taking the Grand Committee to other parts of Scotland. We are continuing to have the meetings.

Mr. Jenkin

Lip service.

Mr. McLeish

We believe that, on the central question of strengthening accountability and democracy in Scotland, we are taking a much bigger step. That is why, through the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill, we want to make substantial progress on that aspect of accountability and to strengthen the government of Scotland.

At the start, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) asked what would happen if there were a Conservative win in a by-election, however ridiculous that might seem at present. First, the Conservative Member would automatically become a member of the Scottish Grand Committee. Secondly, the Standing Orders could be amended. I use the word "could" because, in a sense, the motion allows that possibility, but what is equally interesting is that Standing Order No. 99—again, devised by the Opposition when they were in government—states: For the purposes of this order, the 'largest' and 'next largest' opposition parties in Scotland shall be those parties, not being represented in Her Majesty's Government and of which the Leader of the Opposition is not a member". The Standing Order goes on to confirm that three Members—in this case, Conservative Members would have to be elected, to trigger the review of the situation. It is unhelpful for the Government to be criticised for merely using what has been put in a Standing Order that was written and agreed by the Opposition when in government.

Mr. Ancram

This is a matter of some seriousness. Perhaps we are reading the Standing Order differently. As I read it, the requirement for three Members relates to the largest and next largest Opposition parties, which under the current motion, which is being amended, exclude the Leader of the Opposition's party. As I pointed out earlier, once a member of the official Opposition is back in the Scottish Grand Committee, I hope that the Minister will review the Standing Order to restore the status quo.

Mr. McLeish

Our interpretation is right—it is about three Members being elected. I have given the assurance that, if a Conservative Member is elected, we will review the position. On the other hand, the Standing Orders were discussed, debated and agreed in the House and they mean that the Conservatives will have to try a little harder than merely having one Conservative Member elected in any forthcoming by-election. It is crucial that the Opposition appreciate that. They are hoist with their own petard.

The right hon. Member for Devizes mentioned our attempt to gag. Nothing could be further from the truth. Again, it is important—to be fair, the Opposition have been measured in accepting the reality of 1 May—to point out that the Opposition have no case to argue and we have no case to answer on the decisions that we have made and that are contained in the change in the Standing Order that is before the House.

The right hon. Gentleman also made a point about cohesion, democratic debate and accountability. It becomes a little wearing listening to Opposition Members talking about those when, during their 18 years in government, they often paid lip service to anything that could be described as accountability. My hon. Friends have made some telling points in that regard during our brief debate.

The right hon. Member for Devizes also said that the new, limited-in-number Conservative Opposition are the custodians of everything democratic in the House. Suffice it to say that the House simply will not wear that, and it certainly will not be worn the length and breadth of Scotland.

Pessimism and cynicism are not part of Our agenda for change in Scotland. The changes that we are making to the Standing Orders for the Scottish Grand Committee are purposeful and reasonable in the circumstances and will continue to allow the Committee to undertake the work that it has been doing. My hon. Friends made other points about the future of democratic debate. Apart from on the Conservative Benches, that has been secured in terms of the activities of the Scottish Grand Committee.

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman), we want to consider weather, seasons and geography when we consider having Scottish Grand Committees in Scotland. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party can each select two debates. Where those might be held is very much a matter for them, in discussions with the Government. That is a fair point.

The motion will adjust the Standing Orders that govern how the Scottish Grand Committee operates. The adjustments are required because the official Opposition have no Members representing Scottish constituencies. The adjustments to the Standing Orders will achieve the change. They wipe out the reference to the official Opposition because their Members have been wiped out from Scottish constituencies.

The adjustments will also reduce the total number of sittings from 12 to eight in the light of the expectation that a Bill to establish a Scottish Parliament will dominate Scottish business in the coming year. I look forward to debates in the Grand Committee, in this House and elsewhere on a Scottish Parliament. The key issue is that we are here as the Government to strengthen democratic accountability in Scotland and to ensure that legislation is adequately scrutinised. It would be helpful and more meaningful if the Conservative Opposition would learn a little from 1 May and start to participate constructively in Scotland's future.



  1. (1) during the present Parliament, Standing Orders Nos. 99 (Scottish Grand Committee (substantive motions for the adjournment)) and 100 (Scottish Grand Committee (sittings)) shall have effect subject to the following modifications—
    1. (i) in paragraph (3) of Standing Order No. 99, for lines 19 to 30 there shall be substituted—
    2. "(3) The days specified for the consideration of motions for the adjournment of the committee under this order shall be allocated as follows—
      1. (a) four at the disposal of the government;
      2. (b) two at the disposal of the leader of the largest Opposition party in Scotland; and
      3. (c) two at the disposal of the leader of the next largest Opposition party in Scotland:"; and
    3. (ii) in paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 100 there shall be substituted for the word "twelve" in line 21 the word "eight".
  2. (2) the Speaker shall put forthwith the Question on any Motion to vary the provisions of this Order, and proceedings thereon may be disposed of after the time for opposed business.