HC Deb 12 May 1998 vol 312 cc198-203

  1. '.—(1) For the purposes of this Act the bodies as defined in subsections (2) and (3) of this section shall be cross—border reserved bodies.
  2. 199
  3. (2) Cross—border reserved bodies shall be public bodies, including regulatory bodies, whose responsibilities include reserved matters but whose remit covers Scotland.
  4. (3) Without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, such bodies shall include—
    1. (a) the BBC,
    2. (b) the Independent Television Commission,
    3. (c) the Radiocommunications Agency,
    4. (d) the Post Office,
    5. (e) the Commission for Racial Equality,
    6. (f) the Equal Opportunities Commission,
    7. (g) Governmental Departments, Ministers of the Crown, non-departmental public bodies and Departmental Agencies.
  5. (4) The Parliament shall have the power to summon witnesses and require the production of documents from cross-border reserved bodies.'.—[Ms Roseanna Cunningham.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 41 to 45, 152 to 158, 160 to 180, 202, 233, 249, 206, 214 and 220.

Ms Cunningham

I am conscious that there is little time for the debate on the new clause, so I shall try to be as brief as possible.

New clause 17 is an attempt to get around the vexed question of accountability of bodies that deal in reserved matters, but are nevertheless of fundamental importance to Scotland. Effectively, we are proposing a new category of cross-border reserved bodies, which would exist alongside cross-border public bodies as defined in the Bill. The new category would comprise public bodies, including regulatory bodies, whose responsibilities include reserved matters, but whose remit covers Scotland; we have listed them in the new clause.

The Government amendments make two fundamental changes to the cross-border public bodies by changing the definition and widening the category to include Government Departments and officials already included in new clause 17. Rather than specify and modify the bodies by subordinate legislation, the Government now plan to achieve that by Order in Council. In practical terms, it may make no difference, but I hope that that will not be a mechanism whereby the relevant Westminster Departments can hide behind the Queen's authority—something I am known for being unhappy about.

6.15 pm

Our new clause would give the Scottish Parliament the power to summon witnesses and require evidence, rather than being able only to invite them. The underlying principles are fourfold. First, the new clause is about openness and accountability. We may not be permitted to legislate for bodies such as the BBC or the Post Office, but it is essential that we can scrutinise them and call them to account in matters that directly affect Scotland.

In recent weeks, we have witnessed an example in the shape of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and the catalogue of errors at Dounreay. Would a Scottish Parliament have had the power to summon Roy Nelson to give evidence? As I read the Bill—the Minister may wish to comment—we might have been able to summon Mr. Nelson to answer questions in respect of environmental issues, which would cover the underestimation of radioactive emissions, but we could not have called him to answer questions about the security issues arising from Chief Constable Tony Pointer's resignation, or about industrial issues, such as the plans for the use or disposal of the Georgian waste.

I can only imagine the rancour that would result. Frequently throughout our debates on the Scottish Parliament, hon. Members on both sides have stated that it is important for us to minimise the likelihood of such rancour, but if we do not build in a system such as is proposed in new clause 17, there will be a greater likelihood of such clashes occurring.

The other example, which I have used earlier in our proceedings on the Bill, is that of the "Panorama" interview of John Major broadcast during the 1995 Scottish elections. As far as I can see, John Birt would not have been required to answer to the Scottish Parliament. The Minister may argue that Mr. Birt might have agreed to come and speak to us, but there would have been nothing a Scottish Parliament could do had he refused to do so. Such issues are bound to arise and, sooner or later, we shall have a great deal of angry debate and frustration being expressed because of the Parliament's inability to call to account people or bodies that have an important role to play in Scottish life.

The Scottish Parliament has been billed as a Parliament with teeth, but so far, they look more like milk teeth than real teeth and we ought to try to beef them up a bit where possible. That is the second major principle underlying the new clause. Thirdly, there is the issue of pulling rank, in that the Bill appears to put people like John Birt above the reach of the Scottish Parliament. I fear that that will lead to a belittling of the Parliament from the outset and give rise to many of the grievances and arguments that everybody has said they do not want.

Finally—I make this point in all sincerity—this Bill is about devolution, not independence. What I am proposing would not be appropriate if we were discussing a constitution for independence, but we are discussing devolution, and it ought to be perfectly possible and logical to set up procedures such as those outlined in new clause 17. There need be no problem with those procedures and I hope that the Government intend seriously to consider them.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

The arguments that have been deployed reveal some of the problems that are bound to result from the illogical way in which the reserved powers are set out in the Bill. If equal opportunities law is separated from equal opportunities policy, policy on misuse of drugs is separated from policy on crime in general, or issues such as abortion and euthanasia—which obviously have much in common—are separated, there will be areas of dispute.

I remember that in our earlier debates, the official Opposition and the Scottish National party argued that there was no logic in broadcasting not being a matter that could be dealt with by the Scottish Parliament. There were also arguments about who could be summoned by the Scottish Parliament. The SNP argued for a wider group of bodies than those that deal simply with devolved matters. The debate on new clause 17 harks back to the two themes of the reserved powers and their illogicality, and the problem of who can be held accountable to the Scottish Parliament.

The solution in the new clause—whereby certain public bodies are designated cross-border reserved bodies—simply to allow witnesses to be summoned and asked to produce documents for the Scottish Parliament is a good wheeze. I congratulate the Scottish National party on its ingenuity. However, the Opposition do not accept the new clause because it is too wide and would cause difficulties. It is for the Government to explain how the Bill can be a source of settled law for the people of Scotland when there are already so many internal disputes. The fuzzy boundary between the powers is bound to be exploited by the Scottish National party, and it is time that the Government came up with a better solution.

The Government amendments rename cross-border public bodies as authorities and widen that term by including non-statutory bodies, offices, office holders and Government Departments. They provide for subordinate legislation under clauses 84 and 85 to be introduced by Order in Council. They contrast those authorities with the Scottish public authorities, which are local authorities, and define Scottish public authorities in clause 111.

Three questions arise from the Government amendments. First, the extension of the definition of cross-border public bodies to include non-statutory bodies, office holders, Government Departments and so on clearly aims to include certain authorities that were not previously included. Who are the main contenders to be included in the new category, and why?

Secondly, the Minister has provided that the subordinate legislation under clauses 84 and 85 should be made by Order in Council, with procedure here and in Edinburgh. Can he reassure the House that that will be dealt with by affirmative procedure and, if not, will he explain why not? Clearly, such legislation is important because it would modify a range of laws.

Thirdly, a Scottish Parliament will be able to legislate in respect of a Scottish public authority such as a council, which has a mixture of reserved and non-reserved functions. For example, management of housing benefit would be reserved, but is dealt with by local authorities in Scotland. What will be the restrictions on the Parliament's ability to legislate? Will it be able to interfere with the operation of the reserved functions?

For example, what safeguards are there against a change being made by the Parliament that would have adverse side-effects on the administration of housing benefit? Is there any way in which such a law could be prevented? Should it be prevented? What is the Minister's view on that issue? Clause 33 contains a mechanism, which is known as the governor general clause, by which the Secretary of State can intervene, but that would not be consistent with the position that I have described. I look forward to the Minister's answers.

Mr. Dalyell

The smile on the face of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) revealed what I had suspected: this is not quite as artless a new clause as has been made out.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan

Perhaps she is happy.

Mr. Dalyell

Perhaps she is happy—she has plenty to be happy about in the Bill.

I suspect that the new clause could be subtitled "the haul John Birt up to Holyrood and give him a thorough pasting on a rack" clause. From the assent of the hon. Members for Moray and for Perth (Ms Cunningham), I suspect that I am nearer the truth than the House might think. I ask my hon. Friends, is not the new clause and the thought behind it a device to create friction?

Mr. Gorrie

I strongly support the new clause in the name of Scottish National party Members. It is an attempt to deal with some of the issues, including broadcasting, equal opportunities and racial equality, on which other hon. Members and I tabled amendments in Committee. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) seems to have a new doctrine that gloom must pervade all Members of the House at all times. Although we must all make our own judgment, I think that he is mistaken and that the new clause is a genuine attempt to produce a reasonable modus operandi which would reduce friction. For that reason, I am happy to support it.

I have read the numerous Government amendments and not seen anything sinister in them, but that may be my fault, and I look forward to the Minister explaining them.

Mr. McLeish

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Gorrie) has made an excellent judgment on the Government amendments, and I am sure that it will hold for the last few minutes of the debate.

I shall deal specifically with new clause 17 in the name of the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham). We have reserved bodies, devolved bodies and cross-border public bodies. The new clause would create a new category of cross-border reserved bodies. The Government's policy on the power of the Scottish Parliament to summon witnesses and documents from bodies operating in Scotland with responsibilities only in reserved areas was clearly set out in the White Paper. We recognise the importance of those bodies in the economic and social life of Scotland. For that reason, the Parliament will be able to invite such bodies to give evidence. I know that that is not acceptable to the Scottish nationalists.

Rightly, bodies that are active in devolved areas could be held to account by the Scottish Parliament for their activities in those areas. However, it would wrong for the Parliament to be able to hold bodies to account for their activities in reserved areas because the direct line of responsibility and accountability lies at Westminster.

Mr. Heald

If the Scots people are dissatisfied with broadcasting in Scotland, why should they not be able to force the person in charge of it to come before the Parliament?

Mr. McLeish

We have discussed that matter in some detail previously. We are trying to make a judgment about reserved and devolved areas, and I think that we have arrived at a balanced settlement. In light of my comments—which have been unbelievably brief—I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw her new clause.

In addition, we propose that there should be devolution of functions under clause 59 in some cases. For example, Scottish Ministers will be consulted about the appointment of one member of some bodies, including the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Independent Television Commission—to which the new clause refers—and the Radio Authority. Those bodies will make their annual reports available to Scottish Ministers so that they can present them to the Scottish Parliament. Arrangements will also be made so that Scottish Ministers are consulted about advice to Her Majesty regarding the appointment of the BBC national governor for Scotland. I am afraid that it is difficult to go into much detail in the time available.

6.30 pm
Ms Roseanna Cunningham

Perhaps the Minister will answer one question: what does he think will be the reaction of the Scottish Parliament or Scotland at large when the first refusal to an invitation is received—which is what will happen?

Mr. McLeish

I live in a realpolitik and I understand the import of the hon. Lady's comments. This settlement is about devolution. It reserves matters to Westminster where the legislative competence will lie and it devolves matters to Scotland where the legislative competence will lie. Through myriad complex organisations, we are attempting to introduce a settlement that will endure and that looks logical not only to Scots and Members of the Scottish Parliament, but to those in England, in Wales and at Westminster. It is a question of balance. That is why I hope that, despite the difficulties, we have arrived at a fair settlement.

The Scottish Parliament will be able to discuss reserved matters and make its views known in many areas. I expect that if the Scottish Parliament issues an invitation in a constructive manner, many people will want to respond beyond the issue of the devolved areas where the Parliament will have a statutory right to demand attendance.

Because of the brevity of the discussion, I shall write to all hon. Members who have raised points and I shall answer the three questions posed by the official Opposition. I apologise that I have not had time to go into the detail of the Government's amendments, but they are mainly technical amendments which will improve the Bill and do nothing more than that.

Ms Cunningham

I am sorry to hear the Minister's reply, which I think that he will live to regret. I shall not press the matter to a vote this evening, but I think that it will come back to haunt him. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to