§ [Relevant document: The Second Report of the Scottish Affairs Committee, Session 1997–98, on The Operation of Multi-Layer Democracy, HC 460.]2.31 pm
§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)
I beg to move,That this House takes note of the Fourth Report from the Procedure Committee on The Procedural Consequences of Devolution (HC 185), and the First Special Report from the Committee (HC 814) containing the Government Response.
The Government will table motions to agree with the Committee's recommendations on questions to Ministers, Select Committees and the Advocate General for Scotland. Those will appear on the Order Paper and will be put to the House on Monday.
I am very grateful, as I am sure the whole House is, to the Procedure Committee for its careful study of the consequences for this House of the devolution legislation that we passed in the previous Session. The Committee has examined the situation as it developed and advised the House of the changes that we need or may need to make. It has drawn on the experience of many senior Members of the House who chair the Select and Grand Committees most closely affected by devolution. That collective wisdom is distilled in the report that was published after the elections in Scotland and Wales and before power was transferred.
The Committee's report sets out four common principles that the Government commend to the House. They are, in short, that parliamentary procedures should not be called in aid to undermine the devolution settlement agreed by Parliament; that there should be minimal procedural barriers to close co-operation between MPs and Members of the devolved legislatures; that all MPs have an interest in matters that remain the responsibility of the UK Parliament and that there should be consistency in the way that the House deals with devolved legislatures. That all chimes well with the Government's approach. We want devolution to be a success and we shall encourage measures to ensure smooth functioning of that process. In addition, we believe that although some procedural change at Westminster may become necessary, that should evolve in the light of experience.
This is not the first debate on the consequences for Westminster of devolution and I strongly suspect that it will not be the last. Today we are putting forward some proposals for change, but others may become necessary when we see how relations between this House and the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales develop in practice. I welcome the Procedure Committee's intention to keep those matters under review and to report again to the House.
Central to the devolution settlement is the fact that there are now some matters for which UK Ministers are no longer responsible. That must mean that they will be unable to respond to questions and debates on such matters in Parliament. That has happened before; for example, when nationalised industries were privatised. On this occasion, the Committee has put forward a resolution defining the subjects on which questions should no longer 607 be tabled. I accept that, in the end, that will depend on the answering practices adopted by Ministers, but the resolution will give the House a firm basis for asking questions.
I accept that even those who sat through all the debates on each of the devolution Bills may, on occasion, lack instant recall of which subjects are now devolved and which are not. We have, therefore, commissioned a paper for Members and peers which summarises the division between reserved and devolved matters under the devolution legislation. As soon as that is ready, it will be placed in the Library. It does not seek to be a definitive statement—that is ultimately a matter of statute law—but I hope that it will assist colleagues in understanding where the border lies.
We also accept the recommendation that Scottish questions be reduced to 30 minutes, subject to discussions through the usual channels about the rota for oral questions. At this stage, no change is planned for Welsh questions, which are in any case shorter.
As the Procedure Committee points out, the remit of the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Welsh Affairs Committee will also be affected by devolution. In one respect, the role of the two Select Committees will change to reflect the reduced responsibilities of the two Secretaries of State, but in another it will broaden to include liaison with the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales.
The Procedure Committee recommended that the operation of the Grand Committees be suspended during the experiment with sittings in Westminster Hall. We have always accepted that some adjustment to the procedures of those Committees would be necessary, but I am reluctant at this early stage to dispense with what is still a useful procedure.
There will continue to be important Welsh and Scottish matters that need to be debated in the House. Whether they are debated on the Floor, in Westminster Hall or in a Grand Committee can depend on circumstances. I do not want to close off one option so soon, particularly before we have seen how the Westminster Hall experiment works. That experiment is designed to provide time for additional debates on subjects that are not usually covered elsewhere. If part of that time is taken up with debates that would otherwise be held in the Grand Committees, the scope for such additional debates will be restricted from the outset.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)
In the light of the fact that the Government do not accept the Procedure Committee's recommendation for the Grand Committees, will the right hon. Lady give us examples of circumstances in which she thinks that it would be valuable to have debates in the Grand Committees?
§ Mrs. Beckett
The recommendation would not be of much value to the House, as I have already said. The matter will have to be considered in differing circumstances, but the House may take the view that there is virtue in airing a matter in a Grand Committee. If we ultimately find that the route is not needed, we can 608 reconsider the matter. It is a little early to decide to close off that option and to do so would conflict with the establishment of the Westminster Hall sittings.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
Perhaps I should declare an interest as an elected Member of the National Assembly for Wales. The situation in Wales is somewhat different from that in Scotland, and it is felt that the Welsh Grand Committee may well have a role, albeit a different role, in handling matters for which there is specific legislation for Wales. For example, if the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 needed to be amended, the Grand Committee could be a fast-track procedure so that we would not have an inordinate wait in the queue for time in the House. The Committee would be able to make relatively minor changes needed by the National Assembly for Wales.
§ Mrs. Beckett
The right hon. Gentleman reinforces the point that I have just made: there can be a continuing role for the Grand Committees. He suggests a legislative role. The Committees could also deal with the relevant annual estimates. No doubt, different examples will spring to the mind of other Members. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for confirming our view that the Grand Committees are an option that should not be closed to the House.
§ Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)
In the Government's response to the Procedure Committee's recommendation on the Grand Committees, they suggest that the Committees may meet to discuss reserved matters. The guidance given by the Clerks of the House on other aspects of the Procedure Committee's report suggests that Ministers can deal only with issues for which they have responsibility. It is hard to imagine circumstances on a reserved issue that may come before a Grand Committee where, for example, the Secretary of State for Scotland may appear, where he would have direct ministerial responsibility. Can the Leader the House give us an example of such circumstances?
§ Mrs. Beckett
Other Ministers might appear before the Grand Committee; it need not be the Secretary of State for Scotland. That depends on the matters that are before the Committee. However, I believe that the hon. Gentleman is again reinforcing the case that there is a potential continuing role for the Grand Committee. In this debate, we are merely arguing that it is too early to close off that route.
The House may reach a different view in the fullness of time. We may decide that there are other routes and that this route is no longer needed, but we consider that it is too early to decide. Indeed, I understand that the Scottish National party said in evidence to the Procedure Committee that there was virtue in that procedure remaining available to the House.
The Procedure Committee made another interesting recommendation in its report—that Bills that could be certified as relating to only one of the four parts of the United Kingdom should have their Second Reading debate in a Standing Committee. I am certainly in favour of holding the Second Reading debate of less controversial Bills, by agreement, in a Second Reading Committee, but I consider that that should depend on the subject of the Bill, not on whether it relates solely to England, Scotland or Wales.
609 I admit that it is hard to envisage that there will be many occasions, if any, when it would be possible to classify a Bill as relating exclusively to England, but I certainly agree that there would be strong reservations about restricting participation in debate on such a matter to what would inevitably, in a Second Reading Committee, be very few Members and a small proportion of the sum total of 528 Members who represent English constituencies. Of course, in any case the decision on Second Reading would remain with the whole House.
I welcome the initiatives that have been taken to foster close contact between Committees of the House and those of the devolved legislatures. The Procedure Committee's report sets out some of the issues involved in the exchange of documents and formal joint meetings. I believe that the whole House recognises how much can be achieved by informal contacts. It is still early days in the operation of the devolved legislatures, and time is needed for those working relationships to develop and settle down. Therefore I believe that the whole House would welcome the Procedure Committee's willingness to keep those matters under review. I would undertake to the House to consider moving any necessary motion in the House to overcome any specific case of difficulty, but I consider that it is early to change these procedures before we have a clearer idea of what is likely to be needed in practice.
Arrangements for fostering good relations with devolved legislatures go beyond procedural matters as such. The Government hope that members of the devolved legislatures could be given at least as much access to this place as Members of the European Parliament are, but of course that is a matter for the domestic Committees of the House. The House will be aware that it is already possible for MPs to visit Edinburgh and Cardiff on parliamentary business under the extended travel scheme, and it remains to be seen what arrangements the devolved legislatures adopt for access to their premises by MPs and peers.
I believe that, as a whole, the Procedure Committee's report and the Government's response to it provide a way forward for the House to respond to the immediate consequences of devolution. The Committee will study developments and report again. In the light of experience, our procedures may well need to evolve further. In the meantime, I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House will do everything that they can to ensure good working relationships with the devolved bodies.
As we are the Parliament that passed the devolution legislation, we should be—and I hope that we shall be—slow to criticise and quick to encourage the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. It can only be to the good of all parts of the United Kingdom that good relationships exist between elected bodies in all parts of this kingdom, and I hope that no hon. Member can disagree with that.
§ Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)
The Opposition welcome the debate. It has been some five months since the report was published. There might have been some advantage in debating it before 1 July, not least because the Committee produced the report concentratingon those matters which need to be addressed before July".However, I am aware that there were pressures on parliamentary business in the summer, and I welcome the opportunity to debate the report this afternoon.
610 Given that the Government's response to the report was published as recently as yesterday, I agree with their decision not to ask the House to implement their recommendations today, especially where those are at variance with the Committee's proposals. I think it right to invite us instead to take note, with further debates on the specific resolutions as and when the Government decide to take matters forward—Monday for some of the resolutions. Many are non-controversial and can be activated quite quickly.
Like the Leader of the House, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and his Committee for grappling with this important subject. Devolution is like one of those fireworks with sequential bursts of different colours. Just when one thinks that it has finished, there is another explosion of light. The Committee's report provides a further burst of illumination on the devolution landscape. I congratulate my hon. Friend and his Committee on producing a unanimous report on such a complex issue.
I do not believe that the House or the country have fully woken up to all the changes that devolution will bring about, although the recent tensions on beef on the bone have given us a preview. That issue shows how the language of devolution can conflict with some of the centralising imperatives of Downing street.
Our overall approach is to make devolution in Wales and Scotland work; to accept the verdict of the two referendums and to look forward. We welcome the publication of the concordats earlier in the month, although they were a little bit later than was originally expected. However, the Opposition have a caveat, which is very relevant in the context of the report.
In our view, for England, the present devolution settlement is neither stable nor defensible. I do not propose to develop that argument fully in this debate, because it was very well set out in July by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies. In a nutshell, now that we have new arrangements for resolving domestic priorities and legislative programmes in Scotland—arrangements to which English and Welsh MPs are not a party—it is no longer appropriate for Scottish MPs to retain rights on the same issues in England and Wales.
When I address the key paragraphs of the report—paragraphs 23 to 27—I hope to show that the Select Committee's recommendations provide some important building blocks towards a more equitable settlement that will rebalance the constitution and remove the inequity for English voters and English Members of Parliament. I very much regret the fact that the Government have chosen to reject this most important section of the report, and to leave us with an indefensible status quo.
The first paragraph of the report sets the whole tone, and the Leader of the House picked that up. It is essentially a cautious approach, speaking ofsome of the changes which may be requiredto House of Commons procedure. The Committee advocates an evolutionary approach. It says thatarrangements made may well have to be adapted in the light of experience.Itintends a full review of the procedural consequences of devolution in due course.611 Therefore, the report is very much a first-sighting shot at what needs to be done, and it should be recognised as such.
Paragraph 2 suggests a "constitutional affairs committee", but does not spell out how that would be constituted, how it would relate to the existing institutions of the House, or what its terms of reference might be. The Committee will no doubt want to return to that subject in due course, to fill in some important details.
The difficulties that confronted the Committee, and that confront the House and the Government, are listed in paragraph 5, headed "General Principles", which I note the Government have accepted.
Some of the four principles pull in opposite directions. Principle No. 1 is that parliamentary procedure or custom should not undermine the fact of devolution, but principle No. 3 appears to qualify that, by saying:it is legitimate for all Members … to have an interest in matters which remain the responsibility of the United Kingdom Parliament".That is fine, but the report continues:however Members from an area to which powers have been devolved will have a particular interest in business affecting that area".
Principle No. 2 states that, if co-operation is desired, procedural barriers should not prevent it. Co-operation may be desired by Members of this House in a matter that has been devolved, but Members of the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly may not want it. It is not clear how principle No. 2 would operate in that case.
§ Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)
Lest the point be lost by the right hon. Gentleman moving on too quickly, will he make it clear whether he, on behalf of the official Opposition, accepts the third general principle?
§ Sir George Young
I have no difficulty with the principles. I am hoping to show that their application may be difficult when there is ambiguity about which principle comes first. Almost anything could be brought into order in the House under the second principle by a Member simply asserting that, although the matter was devolved, in his or her view, co-operation was desirable.
There is also a difference in emphasis on the principles between the memorandum of understanding published by the Lord Chancellor earlier this month and the Government's response. Paragraph 14 of the memorandum reads:The United Kingdom Parliament retains the absolute right to debate, enquire into or make representations about devolved matters. It is ultimately for Parliament to decide what use to make of that power, but the UK Government will encourage the UK Parliament to bear in mind the primary responsibility of devolved legislatures and administrations in these fields".That is much softer than principle No. 1, which reads:Parliament has agreed that certain powers and responsibilities should pass from it to the devolved legislatures; parliamentary procedure or custom should not be called in aid to undermine that decision".We need to ensure that Parliament and Government are working to the same ground rules. Perhaps at some point we could debate the concordats and return to some of these issues. As I have said, we welcome the recent concordats.
§ Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)
In seeking clarification, is it not legitimate for any representative in 612 any part of the legislative framework to show interest and attempt to inform the debate? It has been said that devolved legislation will be dealt with in the place to which it has been devolved.
§ Sir George Young
Yes. I just wonder how one interprets that principle. Although it looks fine, Members may pray in aid different principles in arguing that something is in order. Indeed, it would be possible to develop as strong an argument that it was out of order from reading another principle.
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. John Reid)
In fairness, let us give the full picture. The right hon. Gentleman says that, while Parliament has the sovereignty and right to debate everything, the Government will encourage Members to respect the devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament and to the National Assembly for Wales. That is one part of the argument. However, if he turns the page of the memorandum of understanding, he will see that paragraph 15 states:The devolved legislatures will be entitled to debate non-devolved matters, but the devolved executives will encourage each devolved legislature to bear in mind the responsibility of the UK Parliament in these matters.It is symmetrical. The idea behind the concordats and what we are trying to achieve by setting precedents is to encourage a partnership and a mutual respect for the rights and responsibilities of both the UK Parliament and the devolved legislatures.
§ Sir George Young
I take the point, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that there is a difference in emphasis between saying, "You will encourage Parliament to bear something in mind," which is what the memorandum says, and saying explicitly that parliamentary procedure or custom should not be called in aid to undermine that decision. I am saying that the Government have come up with a memorandum of understanding, which I accept, while the Procedure Committee has come up with a somewhat different approach to the same question. We need to ensure that Parliament and Government have the same ground rules on the same issues.
§ Dr. Reid
This is an important point because the concordats are not between Parliament and Parliament, but between Government and the Scottish Executive. Parliamentary procedures are matters not for diktat by Government, but for this Parliament. That is why we are debating them. It would have been inappropriate for the Government to do other than arrive at an agreement with their counterparts in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. As a Parliament, we are discussing how we should interpret such matters. That is entirely in accord with the precedents of the House. Of course we shall try to ensure that there is no nuance of difference between the documents, but that requires discussion, as our debate shows.
§ Sir George Young
The way in which to resolve the issue would be for the Government to say, without equivocation, that, where there is a dispute, they would accept the Procedure Committee's comments, which would override the memorandum of understanding. The report is what Parliament has said, and it is what we are 613 debating. We are taking note of what the Procedure Committee—[Interruption.] I should like to make some progress. I have some important points to make.
On subjects for questions, I agree with the Committee that we cannot simply leave the decision on what is in order to Ministers. The report puts this rather delicately:the attitude of ministers to certain issues is not constant".It must be right that the decision should rest with Parliament and the Speaker.
I find some ambiguity in the resolution drafted by the Clerk at the end of paragraph 10, which is an attempt to resolve the issue. It recommends that questions can be tabled that relate to matters whichUK Government ministers have taken an official interest in"—not a legitimate interest or an interest which the law on devolution allows them to take, but an official interest. What is an official interest? Is it an interest that has been expressed by somebody who holds ministerial office? The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food could take an official interest in whether beef on the bone is banned in Scotland—but should he answer questions on that matter? The answer is no if we accept the principle in paragraph 5 of the Committee's report, but yes if we read paragraph 10, which would allow questions on anything in which the Minister has taken an official interest.
§ Mr. Browne
I am fascinated by the right hon. Gentleman's argument. Where does the law on devolution disallow a Minister taking an interest in any subject? We are talking not of federalism or independence, but of devolution.
§ Sir George Young
The principles to which I have referred specifically rule out intervention on certain issues. One such principle is that we should not do anything that undermines the principle of devolution. I am saying that, if "an official interest" is not defined, the principle can be undermined by declaring a question in order whenever a Minister has taken an official interest in the subject, even if that interest is precluded by what is set out in statute.
I think that the Government recognise some of those problems but are reluctant to find a solution. There is an admirably frank quotation of the Leader of the House in the report. She saidthere will be … a number of grey areas.The past 10 minutes have illustrated that. She continued:I am reluctant to get drawn into the precise boundaries of the settlement and the judgements which might be made; indeed that will, happily for me, be a matter for the chair.On oral questions, the Committee reflected the continuing uncertainty over the need for, and the role of, a Secretary of State for Scotland. It did not say that there should always be a separate Question Time for the Secretary of State for Scotland; it simply said that it would be "premature" to decide that it was no longer needed. Perhaps the Secretary of State will shed some light on that when he replies.
If devolution is to work, there can be no argument that we can justify allocating the same time for Scottish questions. I accept the recommendation and the proposals for discussion through the usual channels on what happens to the extra 10 minutes that will become available—the first of the devolution dividends.
614 I agree with the recommendations on Grand Committees. The Modernisation Committee has drawn our attention to the luxuriant foliage of the Committees. Many Members wanted to rationalise and streamline them. We now have just such an opportunity. Grand Committees sit uneasily with devolution; once we have devolution, their purpose is diminished. The Government argue that it is premature to abolish such Committees, and I would not go to the stake over that. The Procedure Committee suggests that they are suspended while we see what happens with the Westminster Hall sittings, but the Government suggest that we keep them while we see what happens in Westminster Hall. The matter should be reviewed, perhaps in a year.
On the scope of Select Committees, the Government appear to take a different view from the Procedure Committee. If my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield, the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall listen to him with interest.
The section on legislation is the most interesting part of the report. I was pleased to find support from the Procedure Committee for the argument that, in the light of the arrangements for Scotland and for Wales, different procedures may now be necessary for England. The Committee anticipates conflict, and wisely suggests procedures for minimising it. I regret that the Government have rejected the proposals.
I was especially interested in the proposal to change rules "by convention", which is set out in paragraph 23. Changing rules by convention is a means of reform in the House without primary legislation. For example, if the Government lose a vote of no confidence, the Prime Minister asks for a dissolution. There is no rule; it is a convention. If there is support for the proposition that matters that affect England should be voted on only by English Members—a number of Scottish Members have already indicated their support for that—it is for consideration whether that might be done by convention rather than legislation.
Paragraphs 25 and 26 are important for the argument about English Bills. Indeed, they pave the way for the proposals that have been set out by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. It is worth reading the relevant section in full. It states:The main point of principle to be considered is whether it is appropriate to retain special procedures for bills relating exclusively to one of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom, as currently apply to bills relating exclusively to Scotland or Wales. On balance we believe it is. There may soon be governments of different parties in different parts of the United Kingdom; party balances already differ in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.That is a very important section, because it concedes the principle—I believe for the first time—of new procedures for legislation that affects England. Once that point has been conceded, English votes for English Bills are a logical conclusion. Indeed, on page 59, in evidence, that was proposed.
Paragraph 28 also concedes that representation on Bills dealing with English legislation should be in accordance with party balance in England. The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) stated:As a Scottish MP, frankly I am not terribly interested in having a say over the English health budget, the way in which health policy is going or education, and all the matters over which responsibility 615 has been devolved to Scotland, I think it is right and proper that English MPs should be left to consider the equivalent legislation in England for themselves.There speaks a Scottish Member of Parliament.
§ Mr. Wigley
Taking forward the logic that only English Members of Parliament should determine legislation that applies only to England, does the right hon. Gentleman accept the corollary that Welsh Members of Parliament should determine matters that apply only to Wales but are passed in this Parliament?
§ Sir George Young
The logic is precisely that. Where Bills apply only to England and Wales, which is more likely to be so, only English and Welsh Members of Parliament should vote, and likewise if Bills apply only to Wales.
§ Mr. Browne
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way for the third time; he is extremely patient. Would he further concede that, under the principle of English votes for English laws, in the rare circumstances in which the House might need to legislate on a devolved matter, with the agreement of the Scottish Parliament, only Scottish Members should be allowed to vote on that legislation?
§ Sir George Young
I am not sure in what circumstances the House would legislate on a matter that applied only to Scotland and not to other elements of the United Kingdom. To those who have difficulty with the principle, the important point to make is that it was not dreamed up by the Conservatives. The principle that I read out was approved unanimously by a Procedure Committee on which nine members of the governing party serve. I am not the only one who is enunciating and defending a principle; the principle found favour with a Committee of the House.
The Committee report goes on to say that it is too early to tell whether legislation relating to a single part of the UK will be brought forward frequently. However, it must be likely that legislation covering England and Wales will be introduced. The Committee does not seem to have dealt with that. Paragraph 24 covers legislation relating solely to one of the four component parts, as does the recommendation in paragraph 27. That should be amended to cover Bills that affect only England and Wales.
The Committee deals with one of the principal objections to the proposal of the Leader of the Opposition: designating Bills as applying only to one part of the UK. It has been argued that that would put an impossible burden on the Speaker and, therefore, was not a feasible solution, but the Committee clearly comes to a different view in paragraph 27.
On the key recommendation that the Speaker should be able to certify that a Bill applies solely to England, the Government put the telescope to their blind eye. The Committee spells out, in paragraph 26, precisely why it considers such a procedure necessary. Devolution has 616 changed the constitution. Important principles about legislation that applies to only one part of the UK are raised. In order to anticipate and avert conflict, the Committee believes that provision should be made.
How do the Government respond to that considered view? They simply assert in paragraph 8:If … it were possible to identify some bills as relating exclusively to England, it is not clear what benefit this would have for the House.The entire debate about the West Lothian question and the imbalance in the constitution has gone straight over their heads. It is not that they disagree with the solution; they do not believe that there is a problem.
The Select Committee also proposes that the Standing Order that requires Standing Committees to reflect party strength in the House be lifted, so that it can reflect party strength in the relevant constituent part. Again, that supports my right hon. Friend's proposition for English Bills.
The report provides a basis for dealing with the West Lothian question—a question that the Government have found so awkward that the Lord Chancellor has advised us to stop asking it. We will not; nor should we. The Government's view, apparently, is that Scottish Members of Parliament should continue to vote on English Bills. As they stated in their White Paper:Scotland's Members of Parliament will continue to play a full and constructive part in the proceedings of the House of Commons.That view is not supported by public opinion in Scotland, and it is certainly not supported by public opinion in England. [Interruption.] In an opinion poll in Scotland, there was a majority for the proposition that Scottish Members of Parliament should not vote on English domestic legislation.
The Government's proposal for regional assemblies is not an appropriate answer. First, the powers that would be given to the English regions would not compare to those being devolved to Edinburgh; and, secondly, a region will get an assembly only if the Government can demonstrate that there is demand for it. In my region, there is no such demand. England should not have regional government and an extra tier of administration foisted upon it, simply so that the Government can fudge the West Lothian question.
In rejecting the recommendations, the Government are clutching at straws. They recognise that a Committee of English Members of Parliament would have to sit in the Chamber. That is fair enough, but they dismiss that becauseit would be difficult to exclude any other Members of the House—though if they wished to be called in debate they would presumably be less likely to catch the Speaker's eye than Members with a constituency interest.That is a bogus argument, and symptomatic of the culture of excuses that the Prime Minister condemned this morning. The difficulty to which the Government refer is no different from the difficulty that Standing Committees might have at present. Certain Members are entitled to take part in their proceedings, and others are not. I am not aware that that has presented us with any difficulties, and the Government will have to come up with a better alibi than that.
The rest of the report is straightforward. I agree with the proposals on private and delegated legislation. On relationships between Westminster and the devolved 617 legislature, I strongly agree with paragraph 37, which stresses the importance of personal contact. There is much to be said for regular informal meetings, which is how my party has addressed the issue. So far, nothing too offensive has been said in the House about Members of the Scottish Parliament, or the other way round. I hope that that tolerance will continue to be observed, and survive the forthcoming encounter on the soccer pitch.
We shall need to return to the subject. With the qualifications that I mentioned at the beginning, I support what has been proposed, but I believe that it should be taken to its logical conclusion of English votes on English Bills, building on the reforms proposed by the Committee and sadly rejected by the Government.
Our proposals would work within the conventions and traditions of the Westminster Parliament; they are based on precedents; they are accepted as fair in Scotland; and they represent common sense. Above all, they would deal with the English question and make the Union stronger. I must say to the Government that I believe they are making a serious mistake in their response, and it will fall to a different Administration to put right this constitutional mistake, along with all the rest that they have got wrong.
§ 3.8 pm
§ Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South)
As Chairman of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, may I say that we are affected by the consequences of devolution and we welcome the Procedure Committee's report. We also welcome the Government's response to that report, as far as it goes.
When we were asked by the Procedure Committee for our views, I felt both as an individual and as a 110 per cent. supporter of the Assembly that there probably was no role for the Welsh Affairs Committee, as it considered the responsibilities and duties of the Welsh Office, and as the Welsh Office functions to be performed by the Assembly would be overseen by Members of the Assembly who had been elected for that purpose.
However, we considered the matter individually and as a Committee and on reflection, it seemed that, if anything, our role would be enhanced. There were many reasons for that, one of which was that the Assembly does not have primary legislative powers. The Government have rightly called for a greater role for the Select Committee in pre-legislative scrutiny. We believed that, at some time in the future, the Assembly was bound to want legislation from this place, as the only source of primary legislation. At present, the only conduit for that legislation is via the Secretary of State for Wales. Assembly Members' worry was that that may not always work. Therefore—surprisingly in some respects—they felt that the Welsh Affairs Committee should continue. I would have expected them to share my original reservation that they would not want to be second-guessed by a Committee of the House considering their functions.
The corollary of any legislation that the Assembly may require is its need to be considered on an England-Wales basis, and particularly with regard to Wales. I shall not touch on Scotland, which I am sure has its own views. With legislation being promoted and put forward in this place for England and Wales, there is obviously a role for pre-legislative scrutiny of that legislation as it pertains to Wales. Only the Select Committee could consider such legislation.
618 Before devolution, the Select Committee had an informal meeting with the National Assembly advisory group, which, as hon. Members may or may not be aware, included representatives of all parties and was set up before devolution to advise on the Assembly's Standing Orders. It was supportive of the role that we believed the Welsh Affairs Committee to have.
The problem with a pre-legislative role is that much legislation will pertain to England and Wales, and the Select Committee may not have time to consider each piece. The Assembly may not want every piece of legislation pertaining to England and Wales considered in so far as it relates to Wales, but it may give evidence to the Select Committee, focusing on those pieces of legislation that it would like us to scrutinise. Those are two distinct roles that could be performed by the Select Committee, and the Procedure Committee accepted our consensual view, which was given to it in evidence.
Since devolution, we have had other meetings with the Assembly, both informal, with regard to how we proceed in future, and also to consider—in this early period of devolution of suck it and see—what kind of functions it would like the Select Committee to perform and what kind of structures it would like to see. We have had meetings with the First Secretary, with departmental Secretaries and with the Assembly's Chairmen's Panel. They are all in favour of the Select Committee carrying on, and I am pleased that the Government have accepted that view. I am sure that they support our view. We feel strongly that it is a way of helping devolution along and ironing out any problems that may occur.
One of our proposals which was not accepted initially concerned joint meetings, although the Procedure Committee accepted that in principle. I am sure that, eventually, there will be a Welsh Committee of some kind comprising Members of the House and of the Assembly with powers similar to that of the Select Committee, able to call for people and papers and to interrogate the Executive. That will result in a direct input into the Assembly from the House with its law-making processes. That is not an option in the short term, but I am pleased that the Government have decided to put the resolutions of the House on an ad hoc basis for joint meetings of the Select Committee, as it exists now, with Assembly Members. That is a good move forward.
One problem that I foresee, on which I would like the Minister to comment, concerns Standing Order No. 152, which is down for amendment next week. The amendment is minimalist in that the functions of the Welsh Office are to be described as the remaining functions of the Secretary of State for Wales, or the Wales Office, as I think it will be called.
I have reservations in terms of what the Select Committee needs to do. Given that the Welsh Office no longer exists, since May we have been operating reasonably successfully without any Standing Orders, although that situation obviously cannot continue. If the Government's amendment is accepted next week, the Select Committee may be put in the position of having to call the Secretary of State for Wales on policy matters relating to other legislation going through the House concerning other Department, such as the Home Office or the Department of Social Security, which pertain solely to Wales but which would not be a matter for inquiry by those Departments' Select Committees. They would be 619 unlikely to want to consider a piece of legislation in so far as it appertained to only one part of the UK and, moreover, one with devolved powers.
Therefore, the Select Committee has a role in considering legislation put through the House by other Departments and affecting Wales. The problem is that the Select Committee can insist only on the appearance of the Secretary of State for Wales. We can call other Ministers, but they do not have to come. I can foresee a situation where the Secretary of State for Wales will be bouncing to and fro between offices in Whitehall being briefed on issues that we want to discuss. That situation might be unsatisfactory if we want to discuss policies which are being made in other Departments.
I should be most grateful if the Minister would assure the House that the Government would expect Ministers in other Departments to appear before the Select Committee, if it had a good reason concerning policy matters for asking them to do so, so that they could be quizzed on legislation affecting Wales.
The Select Committee broadly welcomes the Government's acceptance of most of the Procedure Committee's report, and we shall do everything that we can to work constructively with the Assembly and to make the government of Wales in devolved matters work as well as possible with this place.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)
The procedural consequences for this House of the devolution settlements were given less consideration during the passage of the legislation than they perhaps merited. They touch on sensitive questions concerning the relationships of the different parts of the United Kingdom to each other and on the continuing authority of the House.
However, the caution that has been displayed by the Select Committee in its report seems appropriate because the different institutions in Wales and Scotland, legislative and executive, are evolving, and it is appropriate that consultation should take place between the different affected bodies before we set in concrete procedures that could be irritating to parties in different parts of the country.
Although the Committee recommends an evolutionary approach, in some respects it made rather radical suggestions. As I disagree with its suggestions in respect of legislation and the role of Select Committees and Grand Committees in Scotland in particular, I shall spend a little more time on that than on many of the other matters on which the House would be sensible to accept its recommendations.
The general view expressed by the Procedure Committee that we should try to get to know each other better—I am putting this in non-legal terms—is extremely wise. It is also right that we should recognise, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) did, that there are contradictions in the Government's attitude as expressed in the concordat, as compared with their response to the Committee's report—in particular with regard to the functioning of Question Time.
As a general principle, it is right that the House and the devolved Assemblies should be broadly free to discuss and raise such matters as they think appropriate without 620 let or hindrance and without a prickly, legalistic sense of where the lines have been drawn legislatively. It would create great artificialities if we were to restrain ourselves in our debates. The fact that something is the responsibility of a devolved Assembly is no reason for the subject matter not to be considered in debate here. That raises certain problems of ministerial accountability and responsibility: the broad principle that Ministers should not be called to answer for matters for which they are not accountable is without doubt correct but the House is a forum in which we debate matters that go far beyond the responsibility of individual Ministers. Public policy consists not only of those matters for which Ministers are answerable in the House.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I do not know whether he was present during the farce that was Welsh questions post-devolution, but does he accept that UK taxpayers' money is being spent throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, and that I, as a UK Member of Parliament, should have a right to question the Secretary of State for Wales about how that money is being spent in Wales, even though he may not be directly accountable for the specifics of how it is spent?
§ Mr. Maclennan
That goes rather further than I was seeking to go. It is right that the House and Members here should have the responsibility of asking Ministers questions about matters of which they have knowledge and in respect of which they are empowered by the parent legislation to require the devolved Administrations to provide information. That is covered by one of the specific recommendations of the Procedure Committee. However, I hope that the lines on questioning are not drawn so tightly that they artificially exclude the general discussion of the affairs of territories—of nations—to which powers have been devolved. So far as it is possible to raise those matters without implying ministerial responsibility, they should be so permitted.
§ Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)
It is not so much the questions as the answers that are the problem. It would be a bold Secretary of State who provided an answer to a question relating to a devolved matter, because that would be likely to queer his pitch in respect of relations with a devolved Administration.
§ Mr. Maclennan
This is a matter of questions, because questions will not be permitted—tabling them will not even be allowed—if they relate to matters for which the Minister to whom they are directed has no responsibility.
§ Dr. Reid
I very much concur with the spirit of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks and it might be better if Opposition Front Benchers, rather than looking only at the last Welsh Question Time, considered the previous Scottish questions, at which there was a wide-ranging and balanced question and answer session covering 17 topics of interest to the people of Scotland. The right hon. Gentleman is talking about balance and suggesting that we can discuss anything, as Members of the Scottish Parliament are able to do, but we ought to strike a balance 621 on the rights and responsibilities of each other's territory in terms of legislation and not abuse that trust. As he says, this is a matter of achieving a balanced partnership.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I am obliged to the Secretary of State, particularly in the light of what I am about to say about his office and certain other matters on which, as he knows, my party is at odds with the Government.
Turning from those general expressions of principle to some of the particular issues to which the report alludes, let me say that the view of my right hon. and hon. Friends is that the devolution settlement—although one that has to be tried and used to the best of our ability to make it work—is flawed and imperfect. It is certainly not one that we would envisage having a lasting shape. We want steady progress towards the achievement of a federal United Kingdom in which there is not uniformity of devolution, but devolution reflecting the aspirations of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, and a settlement under which the United Kingdom Parliament relates to the Parliaments and Assemblies of the nations and regions as a federal Parliament relates to the second-tier Assemblies in existing federations in other countries.
It is fair to say that we have come nearer to achieving that ideal in the Scottish context than in Wales. Partly because of that, my remarks necessarily focus on Scotland, for the Government's thinking—and, indeed, some of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee—fails properly to recognise that, whether they like it or not, the Scottish settlement is quasi-federal. The legislative authority and the administrative powers of the Scottish Executive are substantial and the matters reserved to the House are essentially of United Kingdom interest. The consequence of that for our procedures is that it is at least artificial, and possibly a source of friction, to retain the operations of the Scottish Grand Committee at this time.
I asked the Leader of the House in what circumstances she envisaged it might be advantageous to use the Grand Committee. She certainly did not give me any such example, although she was perhaps looking for one before she replied. The reality is that the Scottish Grand Committee is now supererogatory in its operations and should not exist in the future. Perception is extremely important in these matters, and it is seen as—
§ Mr. Maclennan
When I have finished this sentence. The Scottish Grand Committee will be at risk if it meets and it will have great difficulty not only in excluding devolved matters from discussion—accepting the view of the Procedure Committee, we should tread carefully so that we do not undo the work of devolution—but in not giving rise to considerable criticism in Scotland of our second-guessing the work of those institutions to which we have given direct responsibility.
§ Mr. Browne
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be possible for the Scottish Grand Committee to discuss, for example, news broadcasting in Scotland, the impact of petrol taxation in rural Scotland—doubtless a matter that is close to the right hon. Gentleman's heart—welfare to work in Scotland and the new deal? I did not 622 make those up; they come from the Scottish National party evidence to the Procedure Committee, and the SNP in turn got them from the previous agenda of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs since 1997. It is not difficult to find examples.
§ Mr. Maclennan
Those are important matters, but they are reserved matters. They are reserved for a good reason: because they have United Kingdom dimensions. It is not sensible to discuss matters that have a UK dimension—the peculiar burdens of the taxation of petrol in remote rural parts of the country are felt in Cornwall as they are in Scotland—but it is perfectly appropriate to discuss them in UK Committees of this Parliament and of this House. It is from those debates that consequences will flow.
The Scottish Grand Committee is a notoriously impotent body, which has for many years been subject to criticism on that account. Select Committees, which make recommendations following examination, are much more likely to elicit Government answers, and it would be very much in the interests of the Scots that matters of UK importance, such as the ones that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, should be handled in that way.
§ Mr. Swinney
The right hon. Gentleman's experience of the House, and of the Scottish Grand Committee, predates mine. Before the general election at which I joined the House, a host of what could be described as UK Ministers appeared before the Scottish Grand Committee to discuss various issues that could now be described as "reserved matters". Was there any purpose to any of those discussions, and did they achieve anything other than obliterating the Conservative party? If the Labour Government insist on going down that route, it may happen to them as well.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I have already made the general point that the Scottish Grand Committee was a talking shop that delivered little, and was perceived as such in Scotland. This is an opportunity to wrap it up and to recognise that second guessing the work of the institutions to which we have devolved power is not an appropriate thing for this Parliament to do.
§ Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)
As the evidence will show, I share some of the views that the right hon. Gentleman is expressing about the Scottish Grand Committee. What I do not understand is the intervention by the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney). The evidence submitted to the Committee by the Scottish National party says that the Grand Committeeremains an appropriate forum for the debate of reserved matters from a distinctly Scottish perspective … We therefore propose that it continue on a trial basis for the time being.I therefore do not understand what the hon. Gentleman is talking about.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I am afraid that I share the hon. Gentleman's doubts about the wisdom of those recommendations. We can only speculate about the SNP's motivation.
The second question that arises is whether there should be a territorial Select Committee structure. It is much more sensible if topics addressed by Select Committees 623 covering Scottish matters are handled within the United Kingdom context and addressed by those departmental Committees whose Ministers have prime responsibility for the issues under discussion. From time to time, the Scots may have a particular angle on the subject, the Government may hold a different view and the Secretary of State may be following a different policy. If so, it should be open to those Select Committees to invite the Scottish Secretary to give separate independent evidence.
The point has been made that the territoriality of the Scottish Committee is what gives it its clout. I do not believe that that is so.
§ Mr. Maclennan
Let me finish the point first.
What gives those Committees clout is the fact that Ministers with prime responsibility for the subject in question appear before them. The Secretary of State for Scotland still has his finger in a lot of pies, but he does not have prime responsibility for dealing with petrol prices in remote rural areas or broadcasting in Scotland. Such matters are best handled by the departmental Minister who is responsible. If the Secretary of State wants to stick his finger in the pie with the Committee, that can doubtless be arranged.
It is time we stopped regarding the territorial Committees as talking shops suitable for sending little press releases to local newspapers, when what we really want is to influence the Government's policies.
§ Mr. Browne
Can the right hon. Gentleman point to the place in the Procedure Committee report where I can find evidence from his party to that effect? Did any member of his party attempt, on behalf of the party, to persuade the Procedure Committee that the Scottish Affairs Committee should be treated in that way?
§ Mr. Maclennan
My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) gave individual and very powerful evidence, with which I totally agree. Indeed, I would have singled her out for special attention even if the hon. Gentleman had not given me the opportunity to do so.
On the final point about legislative proposals, I agree with the Government's conclusion that it would be inappropriate to have a system of Second Reading Committees for Bills that are territorially limited to England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales. I fail to understand the reasoning behind the Procedure Committee's recommendations. It is certainly not spelled out.
The Government's case is not greatly strengthened by their saying that there would be a problem of accommodation for the English Second Reading Committee, which would have 546 members. The principle must be that matters that the House is debating are of United Kingdom interest. The principle is that, where devolution has occurred and matters have been reserved to this House, and the House is legislating on them, all members of this House should be treated alike in participating in those debates and seeking to shape the legislation.
624 The position in Wales in distinctly anomalous and, in many ways, the Committee has done a good job in handling the Welsh issue. The Scottish position, however, seems clear: reserved matters should be debated by Scots as of right, along with all other members of the House. The problems that arise in respect of England may be de minimis problems because, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) advised the Committee, it is hard to put one's finger on a purely English piece of legislation. One senses that those who are trying to stir up this issue are doing so not because there is a major constitutional problem but for political reasons of their own.
I hope that some of the Committee's other recommendations, including the establishment of a Constitutional Affairs Committee to consider the relationship between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, will be implemented with the support of the House. We are watching and participating in an unrolling, developing situation that has great oddities. It should be approached not in an ad hoc, pragmatic way, but with some regard to what the Committee called principles of consistency. I hope that that approach will inform future changes in the procedures of the House.
§ Mr. Douglas Alexander (Paisley, South)
I shall begin by responding to the remarks of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), before turning to two specific recommendations in the Committee's report. The right hon. Gentleman began his speech by quoting the general principles that informed the Committee's deliberations, as set out its report. In paragraph 5, the third principle stipulates thatit is legitimate for all Members of the United Kingdom Parliament to have an interest in matters which remain the responsibility of the United Kingdom Parliament; however Members from an area to which powers have been devolved will have a particular interest in business affecting that area".Surely that principle is merely a restatement of the broad understanding that this is a United Kingdom Parliament, and that all of its Members are UK MPs. There are not, and must not be, two classes of MP in this House.
The so-called West Lothian question—to which the right hon. Gentleman referred and which was echoed by some of the Committee's recommendations, especially those for a new Standing Committee reflecting area representations—questions why Scottish Members are able to legislate on matters that affect English constituencies, whereas English MPs cannot legislate on exclusively Scottish issues devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I contend that the question is based on a fallacy concerning the role of elected Members of this House.
In support of that contention, I owe a debt of gratitude to the writings of the former Member for Berwick and East Lothian, Professor John P. Mackintosh, who, when this issue was first raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), examined the realities of the operation of the House. Mackintosh's critique rested on the observation, which still holds true today, that, in the majority of cases, the legislation affecting, for example, education in West Bromwich is initiated not by individual Members of the House, Scottish or otherwise, but by the Executive.
625 In the words of de Smith and Brazier—and more recent constitutional authorities—the House gives the Government their "legitimate foundation". The invitation to form that Executive is extended to the Member of the House who is judged most capable of commanding a majority of MPs. That majority is a majority of all the Members of the UK Parliament as a collective entity, including representatives from every part of the United Kingdom. To undermine that fundamental principle, and to reduce the status of any individual group of MPs, would be to deny the reality of our country as a multinational state and the status of the House as a UK Parliament. That is why the observations to the Centre for Policy Studies, of the Leader of the Opposition referred to by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, are misplaced and contrary to the third principle in the report.
In that speech, the Leader of the Opposition mentioned the distant drumbeats of English nationalism. He failed to mention the fact that he and his Front-Bench colleagues are themselves now beating that drum. They may try to become once again a one-nation party, but they are revealing their hand: that one nation is little England.
It again falls to the Labour party and the Government to defend devolution from it opponents south and north of the border. That informs the Government's response to the Committee's report.
The Committee recommended that, after devolution, the range and detail of questions to be put to the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales should be reduced to matters relating to their ministerial responsibilities: that was stated in paragraph 8. That rejection of the evolutionary approach was echoed in the statement made by Madam Speaker on 12 July 1999, Official Report, columns 21-22, in advance of today's debate. The broad terms of that statement made it clear that, if matters are devolved to the Scottish Parliament or to the Welsh Assembly, questions on the detail of policy or expenditure would not be deemed in order.
Although Madam Speaker made it clear that the terms of her ruling would be reviewed in light of the operation of the rules and of today's debate, I for one believe that there is no difficulty with that approach. However, I enter an important caveat. This ruling reflects the fact that Scottish devolution is a two-Parliament solution. It also reflects the Committee's finding that, in passing the legislation that underlies devolution, Parliament has agreed that certain powers and responsibilities should pass from this House to devolved legislatures, and that parliamentary procedures and customs should not be called in aid to undermine that decision.
The Scottish Nationalists and the Conservative party rejected, and sought election in opposition to, that reformed constitutional architecture, but the two-Parliament solution was the goal of the Labour party. For the two Parliaments to work harmoniously, there must be a sharing of powers and responsibility. For the devolutionary settlement to succeed, there must be an exercise of responsibility by this House and a recognition of responsibilities by Members of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. That is why I welcome the terms of the memorandum of understanding, especially paragraph 15, which states that the Executive in Edinburgh will encourage Members of the Scottish Parliament to keep in mind the responsibilities of the UK Parliament as well as their own.
626 Although it would be inappropriate and contrary to the spirit of devolution for the House to intrude on the areas of responsibility that have been devolved by the Scotland Act 1998, it would be equally inappropriate, and contrary to the spirit of devolution, for the Parliament in Edinburgh to intrude on areas of responsibility that are not devolved.
I do not believe that the voters of Scotland would look favourably on parties or representatives who have been charged with serious responsibilities, such as improving the health, education, housing and local services of the people of Scotland, who chose to waste their time on matters for which they did not have responsibility.
The Committee recommended that the provision allowing the Speaker to certify that Bills relate exclusively to Scotland should be transferred to a new Standing Order and adapted so that the Speaker can certify that a Bill relates exclusively to one of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. It further recommended that Bills that relate to such a constituent part could be transferred to a new Standing Committee containing at least 16 Members from the area concerned. It is not clear to me that that change would benefit the House or its work. The practice of certifying Scottish Bills has historically been for the purpose of treating them in a different way from other Bills. Now that devolution is in place, the frequency of such Bills will undoubtedly diminish. It remains the case that the issue of whether any Bill is taken on the Floor of the House or in a Second Reading Committee is determined by the size and content of that Bill, rather than its territorial scope.
§ Mr. Grieve
I note that the hon. Gentleman has not touched on the question whether the Grand Committees should remain. I was puzzled that he did not do so, because, in the earlier part of his speech, he said that the essential issue was that all those of us who remained in this House were dealing with reserved matters on an equal basis. How does that square with keeping a Grand Committee to allow a section of Members of Parliament to discuss reserved matters when other MPs cannot be present?
§ Mr. Alexander
The creation of regional Standing Committees is the most obvious answer. Of course Members of the House have equal status, but some matters are dealt with on a regional basis. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) outlined some clear areas that were previously the work of the Scottish Grand Committee which will remain of profound concern to his constituents and to mine.
§ Mr. Swinney
The hon. Gentleman talked about the principles that underpinned the Procedure Committee's report. Has he a particular view on the ranking of those principles? Does the first one have greater status than the second, third or fourth?
§ Mr. Alexander
Anyone familiar with recent electoral politics in Scotland will understand if I happily pass by on the other side and do not take up the hon. Gentleman's invitation to state a second choice.
The report and today's debate offer a real prospect for partnership between the two Parliaments, if we are minded to work in that direction. I believe that we have the support not only of constituents who voted for that 627 approach on 1 May 1997 but of those who did so on 11 September 1997. All hon. Members—whether they opposed devolution for years, whether they are from north or south of the border, and regardless of their party—have an obligation to make devolution work in the interests not only of Scottish constituents but of constituents in every part of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I speak as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, but also as Member of Parliament for Macclesfield. As Member of Parliament for Macclesfield, I think that most of my colleagues on both sides of the House will be well aware of my personal feelings about devolution; but wearing my hat as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, I recognise that this House of Commons has decided that devolution should take place, and now that that decision has been made, I—no less than any of my colleagues on the Committee—hope that devolution will be a success.
I must say that I am somewhat concerned—I go no further than that—about the way in which the debate has been structured. Neither I, as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, nor members of my Committee have featured in a debate that appears to have almost deteriorated into a campaign involving a dispute between those who are pro-devolution, those who are anti-devolution, Labour, Liberal—
§ Mr. Winterton
I am expressing concern, not criticism, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is why I chose the word "concerned". This is a debate about the House of Commons, and party politics should not enter into it. The House of Commons is deciding how it should alter its procedures in the light of what has happened in respect of the passing of powers to Scotland, to Wales and perhaps, in due course, to Northern Ireland.
Since the Committee published its report in May, devolution has taken place. We know that; we have experienced it. The Government have issued—somewhat late in the day—concordats relating to how the devolved Executives and the United Kingdom Government will work together. I welcome the fact that, at long last, those documents have been published: in my view and that of my Committee, they are at least a starting point for the establishment of a framework enabling the Governments within the United Kingdom to work together, and to do so effectively.
I welcome the Secretary of State for Scotland to the debate. I am sad that the Leader of the House can no longer be with us, but she apologised to me personally. She has a reason for not being here, which I fully accept, as I know the House would.
There is a memorandum of understanding between the United Kingdom Government, Scottish Ministers and the Cabinet of the Assembly for Wales. It clearly comes from the same stable as the rest of the Government's thinking. In my view and that of my Committee, it is founded primarily on the assumption that the two sides will work together sensibly. The Secretary of State for Scotland has 628 made that point many times. It is indeed useful to have a basic structure in place, but I genuinely wonder how robust the concordats will prove to be when severe pressure is exerted on them. I look forward to hearing what the Secretary of State has to say when he winds up the debate.
The detail of the concordats raises a number of questions in my mind. I find it alarming that the Government either have not considered these matters or have chosen to gloss over them. One of the most serious issues is the fact that the concordat on international relations apparently allows Ministers of the Scottish Parliament, or of the Welsh Assembly, to speak on behalf of the United Kingdom at foreign summits. Whether or not such representation occurs with the consent of the Foreign Office is not the issue. I ask, how could a politician who is not a Member of the United Kingdom Parliament represent the United Kingdom? To whom would he or she be accountable? What right would this House have to question him or her on the meeting at which he or she represented the United Kingdom? It would clearly be a constitutional outrage if such a thing ever came to pass.
§ Mr. Winterton
I will in a moment.
Personally, I am not convinced that it is appropriate for representatives of devolved Administrations to take the lead on behalf of the United Kingdom in European Union negotiations; but I fear that only time will tell whether I am right, and whether this could prove to be a source of resentment.
Does the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) still wish to intervene?
§ Mr. Winterton
I have obviously satisfied him.
The concordats provide for tiered levels of contact between Ministers and officials of the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Executives, and for a flow of information; but in my view and that of the Committee, many practical issues have not been considered. For example, the concordats are littered with references to the confidential exchange of "relevant" information, but who decides what is relevant, and what recourse has one side if it feels that it has not received important information?
On the other hand, the concordat on financial assistance to industry seems to me to cut across the whole devolutionary principle by requiring all the Governments to supply information about the financial packages that they are putting together in an attempt to woo potential inward investors. Again, I must ask the Secretary of State whether this will be a stable, on-going, workable arrangement. Clearly, there must be some doubt about that.
§ Mr. Swinney
In his capacity as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, would the hon. Gentleman care to reflect on what I think will be the difficulties with regard to parliamentary scrutiny posed by the discussions that take place under the concordats? Many issues relating to dispute resolution will be handled by a joint ministerial 629 committee whose minutes will not be published. How will this House, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly be able to guarantee effective scrutiny?
§ Mr. Winterton
I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an answer, although the Secretary of State for Scotland may well be able to do so on behalf of the Government. I shall be dealing with issues that have already been touched on—perhaps indirectly including the issue that the hon. Gentleman has identified—later in my speech; but there is clearly a problem. I know that politicians north of the border are deeply concerned, because, in their eyes, this understanding and the way in which it will work depend on the diktat of Westminster, and there will be no real input from north of the border. Only time will tell, but it is a question to which the Secretary of State—
§ Dr. Reid
I thank the hon. Gentleman.
The answer is simple. All Ministers in the House of Commons are accountable to the House, and all Ministers in the Scottish Parliament are accountable to the Scottish Parliament. The fact that minutes of any particular meeting may or may not be made available—in the case of any number of meetings, here and in the Scottish Parliament, minutes are not made available instantaneously, if ever—does not mean that Ministers are not accountable for them. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, the real motive behind most questions posed by members of the Scottish National party is not to create concord by means of the concordats, but to create discord and divorce between the Parliaments.
§ Mr. Winterton
I am sure that the House is grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's reply to the question posed by the Scottish National party; but I am not wearing a party political hat, and I therefore cannot be expected to comment on his observation. I am here in the hope of representing—as I have so many times in the past—what my Committee and I hope is the best interest of the House of Commons.
Let me say, in a conciliatory way, that I know the Government favoured an evolutionary approach in the drafting of the concordats. I do not think, however, that the Government had much choice: I do not think that they could do other than feel their way gingerly through the constitutional minefield that they had created. Let me tell the Secretary of State, and the House as a whole, that the Procedure Committee, too, has decided on an evolutionary approach to the matters within its remit.
Huge constitutional issues remain unresolved, however. The concordats are a start. The Procedure Committee's recommendations are also a start, but they will not be enough in themselves; perhaps the speech by the Leader of the House showed that. I am grateful to her for being reasonably flexible. Although I have some criticism of her and of the answers that the Government have provided to our report, on many issues, she has left the door open for action and for changes to Standing Orders and procedures of the House. Some serious thinking has to be done by everyone who wishes our Union to be strong and stable in future.
630 I welcome the Government reply to our report, although with some reservations. The memorandum of understanding states—it is worth reading it out—The United Kingdom Parliament retains the absolute right to debate, enquire into or make representations about devolved matters. It is ultimately for Parliament to decide what use to make of that power, but the UK Government will encourage the UK Parliament to bear in mind the primary responsibility of devolved legislatures and administrations in these fields and to recognise that it is a consequence of Parliament's decision to devolve certain matters that Parliament itself will in future be more restricted in its field of operation.I could not agree more. That chimes with the first of the guiding principles that the Procedure Committee identified in discussing devolution, a principle with which the Government agree:In passing the legislation which underlies devolution, Parliament has agreed that certain powers and responsibilities should pass from it to the devolved legislatures; parliamentary procedure or custom should not be called in aid to undermine that decision.The Government are right that it is for the House, not the Government, to determine its own procedures, but the House can do that only if the Government in due course table the proposals for procedural change that would allow it to do so. In its report, the Committee identified several procedural changes that should be made in response to devolution. I pay tribute to all members of the Committee who played an important role in the inquiry and the report that we produced, to those who came before us as individuals or as Committee Chairmen to give evidence and, of course, to the staff of our Committee.
Implementing devolution without changing the procedures of the House is like giving a person one's wallet but keeping a string of elastic attached to it: he has the wallet in his hand, but if he wants to use it to make a purchase that one disapproves of, one tug and the two are locked in conflict.
We have decided to hand over powers. Let us, then, do it properly and accept that the House will have to curtail some of its activities in consequence of Parliament's decision. It would be unfair—I hope that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths), who is a distinguished member of our Committee, agrees with my sentiments—to the devolved legislatures not to do just that.
The Government have replied to our report and have indicated that they wish to retain the Grand Committees. There seems to be a misunderstanding in the Government's mind about Grand Committees and the Procedure Committee's recommendation. The Procedure Committee gave the matter careful consideration. We suggested not abolishing the Grand Committees, which would close the option for all time, but suspending them for the period of the experiment in Westminster Hall to find out whether there was an on-going purpose for the Grand Committees. My own view is that they should go, but in its wisdom the Committee rightly said that, in the interim, while we learn a bit more about devolution, they should be suspended.
The matter that I am most clear about is that, once devolution is achieved, there is no place in the House of Commons for Grand Committees—which, I remind the House and those who perhaps have come to the House only in recent times—were set up as substitutes for devolution.
I understand that the Government do not wish to crowd rewarding debates out of sittings in Westminster Hall, but that is to miss the point. The Grand Committees will be 631 concerned with reserved matters, or perhaps with devolved ones. The argument against debating devolved matters in the Grand Committees is surely obvious to the House. The temptation in those Committees to second-guess devolved legislatures will be considerable.
We must recognise that, following the Scotland Act 1998, the House is now concerned with reserved matters. Reserved matters are reserved for good reason: as has been said, they pertain to the United Kingdom as a whole. The Procedure Committee accepts that there may be a need for debates on reserved matters as they pertain to Scotland or Wales and that such debates may be of particular interest to Scottish or Welsh Members, but all Members—I repeat, all Members—of the House of Commons potentially have an interest in such matters; the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross made that very point. We need to know how United Kingdom policies work throughout the United Kingdom. As has been pointed out, the Grand Committees, which are limited in their membership, are no longer an appropriate forum for such debates.
§ Sir Raymond Powell (Ogmore)
On that very issue, as a Welsh Member who has been in the House for 20 years and regularly attended the Welsh Grand Committee, I can say that the purpose that it served was to allow Welsh Members to express opinions—it was very limited, but it was especially in connection with Wales.
I, too, have in the past served on the Committee appointing Members to serve on the House's Committees. Having read the list of the Members appointed, I cannot understand why, to my knowledge, not one Welsh Member served on the Procedure Committee, with the result that the views of Welsh Members were not expressed to the hon. Gentleman when the Procedure Committee was talking about the Welsh Grand Committee.
§ Mr. Winterton
The hon. Gentleman has been in the House for many years. I happen to have been here for 28 years, if we are making play of how long we have been here. We took evidence from the Welsh Grand Committee and from the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones), who chairs that Committee with great distinction. We also took evidence from the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, so those who come from the Principality contributed considerably to the evidence that we took for our report. The hon. Gentleman has, I believe, been a Whip of his party. It is not up to me as Chairman to dictate who is appointed to my Committee. Sadly, that is done through the usual channels—that dark hole that many people refer to from time to time.
Towards the end of our inquiry, we were fortunate to have appointed to our Committee a Member of the United Kingdom Parliament from Scotland, but it took me quite a lot of effort and representation behind the scenes to get a Member who represents a very important part of the Union of the United Kingdom, north of Hadrian's wall, on our Committee. If there was any implied criticism of the Committee or me as Chairman, it was misdirected and off target. It does not lie with me to decide who serves on my Committee. That is no cause for criticism of the Chair.
In shadowing the Secretaries of State, the territorial Committees will inevitably touch on the work of many, if not all, the United Kingdom Departments. Moreover, the 632 territorial Committees will inevitably have much contact with the devolved legislatures. That is, as hon. Members have said, already the case, and I hope that it will continue to be so.
Surely it would be better to appoint freestanding Committees now. That would abandon the pretence that the Committees should concentrate on "expenditure and administration", when much of that responsibility in relation to Scotland and Wales has been devolved. It would also make future amendments to the Committees' terms of reference very much more simple. I am sure that, eventually, relations between Westminster and the devolved legislatures will necessitate an amendment to the territorial Committees for Wales and Scotland, and possibly Northern Ireland.
Our report deals with one matter that may soon become very pressing: co-operation between Westminster and the devolved legislatures. The Government seem unaware of the real difficulties in formal co-operation, saying that—like me—they hope thatthe House will not take too restrictive a view of its proceduresin such relations with the devolved countries of the United Kingdom. However, the problems arise from statute, not from procedure.
In this House, we operate under the protection of parliamentary privilege and the privilege of the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840. We have a near-complete protection—it is so good that we are hardly aware of it. Our speeches in debates, our proceedings in Select Committees and the documents prepared for those Committees are all protected. Our colleagues in the devolved legislatures have no such complete privilege. That technical subject is dealt with in our report. Now, I shall merely point out that, although it would be possible to do much by informal agreement, it is also possible that Committees will find that formal co-operation is much more satisfactory.
I tell the Scottish Secretary that I would be a bit queasy and uneasy about Committees informally exchanging papers with bodies outside the House—they need the authority of Standing Orders to exchange papers with one another—if the House had not previously agreed to the principle of such changes.
I understand why the Government have not yet proceeded with some Standing Order changes. In our report, we note that it is not for Westminster to prescribe the nature of the relationship with devolved bodies. As the Scottish Secretary has said, such relationships must evolve, and both sides will have an influence on their evolution. There are, however, legal questions to be addressed, and I trust that the Leader of the House and the Scottish Secretary will recognise that, in time, there may have to be a resolution of the House, and meaningful Standing Order changes, to comply with the recommendations of our report.
We shall have to change our procedures if we are to be fair to Wales. We shall have to change our procedures if we are to be fair to Scotland. We shall have to change also if we are to be fair to England. As has been said in the debate, we have enacted a variable-geometry devolution, and each part of the United Kingdom has its own system and powers. Scotland and Wales—and eventually, I hope, also Northern Ireland—will have powers to determine how they, as constituent parts of the Union, should be administered. However, the largest and 633 most popular country in the United Kingdom has no such power. [HON. MEMBERS: "Populous."] No, popular, in respect of numbers. I do not mean populous or population, but the country in the United Kingdom that is most popular, because of its numbers.
When the Procedure Committee visited the Basque country in Spain to see how the Spanish system was developing, our hosts were in no doubt—Committee colleagues took part in the debate, and can confirm what was said—that the answer to the West Lothian question was an English Parliament. Occasionally, a small group of people demonstrates in Parliament square, demanding just that—an English Parliament. Some hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that that may well be the answer.
§ Mrs. Fyfe
Although there may be some expressions of a backlash against devolution outside the House, has the hon. Gentleman noticed that, today, such a backlash has not been evident in the Chamber? Most hon. Members in this debate represent constituencies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and the few English Members here do not seem to have seen the debate as an opportunity of expressing opposition to the consequences of devolution. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the way in which some of the media has attempted to stir up opposition to devolution has been very misguided?
§ Mr. Winterton
I shall allow hon. Members to draw their own conclusions on that matter and state my own position—which is that I do not support the cause of an English Parliament. Such an institution would weaken the Union. It would be too powerful and would steamroller the constituent parts. Moreover, I believe that it is harmful and artificial for nations to define themselves—and regard their national interests—as opposed to each other: the English, the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish must work together, both in Europe and in the world as a whole. Over the years, surely, the history of the United Kingdom has been one of intermarriage, mobility and flexibility.
I do not want to witness the further fragmentation—
§ Mr. Winterton
I shall not give way to the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Alexander) either.
I do not want to witness the further fragmentation of the Union of the United Kingdom by the introduction of regional governments or assemblies. Regionalism, in my view, does not have a place in our country's history and traditions, and I most certainly hope that it will not have a place in the future of the United Kingdom. We must, however, find ways of being fair to England. The devolution settlement that we now have means that 634 Westminster Members—be they English, Scottish or Welsh—should not interfere in matters that are the responsibility of the devolved legislatures. We should recognise that, and I agree with it. However, I go further.
I believe—I think that this will be welcomed by many who support the Welsh national party, the Scottish National party and other national parties—that, although in principle Westminster retains the right to legislate on devolved matters, we should not exercise that right unless we are requested to do so. However, under that very settlement, Scottish Members of the United Kingdom Parliament may find themselves holding the balance of power when legislation dealing with England and Wales, or even England alone, is before the House of Commons, even when the legislation is on matters whose equivalents are devolved to Scotland or within the power of the National Assembly for Wales.
In other words, my esteemed colleague on the Committee, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South, for example, may not be able to vote on the structure of local government in Scotland, whereas he may cast the crucial vote that determines the structure of local government in England. I say quite openly that surely that would not be fair.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
Does the hon. Gentleman remember chairing the Standing Committee's proceedings on the Welsh Language Act 1993, when he cast his vote against an amendment that I tabled on Welsh jury trials?
§ Mr. Winterton
I do indeed. I also remember that, on every occasion, I attempted to introduce sittings that I was chairing in the Welsh language. I tell the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great affection, regard and respect, that as he knows—and as the Deputy Speaker would be very quick to tell the House, if he were asked—as a Committee Chairman, I operate in accordance with precedent. Regardless of whether I liked the hon. Gentleman's amendment, I had to vote as I did, in accordance with precedent.
§ Mr. Alexander
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the gracious manner in which he gave way. Will he confirm that there has never been an occasion when the Conservative party has had a majority in England and Wales while Labour has commanded a majority in the House throughout the United Kingdom? My understanding is that at no point during this century has that been the case. I welcome his concession of rejecting an English Parliament. Other than the physical architecture, what is the difference between an English Parliament and the proposals advanced by Conservative Front Benchers—of English votes for English laws?
§ Mr. Winterton
I am not sure that I can give an answer off the cuff, although in the previous Parliament when the 635 Government's majority came down to one, the Scots and the Welsh played a major role in deciding what the Government could do.
§ Mr. Winterton
As Chairman of the Procedure Committee, I am looking at how the procedures of the House are influenced by the devolution that has taken place. I do not wish to trade across the Floor of the House statistics relating to what the position might have been under a particular Government and what influence the Welsh Members, Scottish Members or, as the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) says from a sedentary position, Northern Ireland Members may have had.
It is no solution to say that the number of Scottish seats will soon be reduced and that it is extremely unlikely that the Scots will hold the balance of power as they did in the 1974 Parliament. I was there, although I was not very senior or very experienced. As the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) said when the Scottish Affairs Committee gave evidence to our Committee—I paraphrase him—such matters are best dealt with before there is danger of conflict, when it is possible to determine them without rancour. Those were very wise words.
Debate is not a problem. We are a United Kingdom Parliament, even on matters that are of more concern to one part than another. We can learn from one another. That is why the Grand Committees should go. The English way of doing things may not be the best, hard though it is for me to say that, but this House is not just about debate—it is about taking decisions. That is very important. The procedures of the House must be seen to be fair on that. It is not just a matter of fairness to England. When we take decisions that affect a specific part of the United Kingdom, we need to have a system that gives Members from that area ample opportunity to have their say.
That brings me back to the points made by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. In our report we suggest—tentatively, as one colleague on the Committee may well add if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—that one way of giving Members from the region affected a say would be for Bills to be certified by Madam Speaker as relating exclusively to England, Wales, Scotland or, in due course one hopes, Northern Ireland. The normal presumption would be that such Bills would be debated in Committees containing a substantial proportion of Members from the area concerned. The Leader of the House seemed to feel that we were suggesting that all Members representing England would serve on such Committees. That is not the case. The Government would be able to override them, but if they did so it would be transparent and obvious to all. We do not pretend that that is the only solution or even the best that can be found, but I would be reassured to have some sign that the Government were also seeking solutions to the problems that I have outlined.
I am somewhat disappointed by the section of the Government's reply relating to legislation. In our report we made it clear that our proposals were tentative. We are 636 learning as we go into devolution. The Government have dealt with the detail of our proposal without addressing the concerns that underlie it. It could be argued that the gradual approach—it says that the future will be shaped in reaction to devolution rather than beginning by thinking about abstract concepts such as fairness—is an inherently English approach. It was Louis MacNeice—born in Belfast—who observed:They don't want any philosopher-Kings in England".I am content to accept a devolution settlement that leaves room for negotiation and adjustment, but there needs to be some concept of fairness underlying the development.
The Scots may have resented the influence of England in the United Kingdom and felt that their aspirations were thwarted by English domination. Now there is a danger that the largest and most populated part of the Union will feel itself controlled by the devolved Administrations. The issue of whether beef on the bone is safe to eat is, as it were, but a taste of things to come.
I want devolution to be a success. I do not want to have to echo Dr. Johnson and say:Seeing England, madam, is only seeing a worse Scotland.We need means for English Members to take those decisions that affect England alone. If we find such a mechanism now, we may avoid much unnecessary conflict in the future—and Parliament will be the better for it.
§ Ms Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire)
It is an honour yet again to follow the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). It is getting to be a habit, and I feel honoured to do so. I congratulate him on his speech, which demonstrates the service that he has done to the Select Committee system which seeks to put Parliament's interests above those of the party structure.
I have listened from the beginning of the debate with great interest. The opening comments of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) confirmed that the Opposition are painting themselves as a purely English party. That is how we have always perceived them in Wales. The people of Wales certainly recognised it in 1997, and those on the Conservative Front Bench seem to be recognising it, too. The debate is not about devolution but about the processes by which we make devolution work. However, far from defending the Union, the Conservatives' line contains an implicit threat of the break-up of the Union.
In his intervention, the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) confirmed the separatist basis of his party's history by demonstrating his willingness to use the procedures of the House to further that separatist aim. It is a dreadful shame that he is no longer present, because I was hoping that he would come back on that point.
§ Ms Lawrence
I am here as a Welsh Member of Parliament to look at the issues relating to Wales and to comment on the stance of the Opposition in relation to the area that I represent.
§ Ms Lawrence
Only the Labour party has demonstrated by its actions that it is committed to the future of the Union, while ensuring through devolution that the decision-making process is closest to those whom it affects. We have delivered devolution, and we want to see devolution deliver.
As the first "victim" of the uncertainty surrounding the issue of questions, I was delighted that the report and the Government's response recommended that questions should not be so prescriptive as we had all feared initially. Similarly, the Grand Committee will have a role initially in Wales, as we need that forum to discuss matters such as the Budget for Wales.
§ Ms Lawrence
No, I have already given way. I wish to make one particular point, which is fundamental to the Government's response and the report.
Paragraph 23 of the report concerns legislation. It states:We support the principles behind the Government statement on legislation and agree that the House should not legislate on devolved matters without the consent of the legislature concerned.However, no reference is made in the response to the fact that the report goes on to say:There is a grey area, in that the Welsh Assembly does not have the power to pass primary legislation".The failure to acknowledge that further statement by the Committee in relation to this grey area creates the potential for misunderstanding, leading to possible conflict in the future unless it is clarified here today.
The response goes on to compound the potential for misunderstanding, first, by not referring to the grey area, and then by changing the terminology in the response. The Government refer simply to collective "devolved administrations", appearing to accord them all the same rights. Wales does not have primary legislative powers but, as it has secondary powers, it is clearly a legislature and an Administration—hence the need to acknowledge the difference and to clarify the Government's definition of legislature and Administration in the context of the response.
If that is not done now, the way will be paved for considerable misunderstanding and conflict between Westminster and the National Assembly for Wales. I speak as someone who wholeheartedly supports the principles of devolution. It is important to make that point, because I want the system to work and to work well on behalf of the people of Wales.
638 The Assembly offers the people of Wales the opportunity to set their own priorities within Wales in a way that they have never done before. That is to be welcomed and built upon. To do that, it is vital that the potential for misunderstanding is dealt with now—as the hon. Member for Macclesfield said consistently throughout his excellent speech.
Assembly Members, working with colleagues at Westminster, should be able to set those priorities in their areas of responsibility in the certain knowledge of the parameters of their particular legislature's responsibilities and the precise remit of each body as the new National Assembly for Wales beds down and consolidates its role in Wales.
In the response to the report, the word "consent" is quoted by the Government. In the report, that is qualified by an explanation of the framework within which Scotland has responsibility for primary legislation, based on the role of the Sewel convention. That explanation is not confirmed in the response, in that it does not define the difference between Scotland and Wales, but changes the terminology to refer simply to "devolved administrations". If that point is not clarified, the use of the word "consent", as outlined in the response, would effectively transfer much more power to the Assembly, allowing it to veto the role of Westminster. It could effectively undermine Westminster's powers over primary legislation in relation to Wales.
In the case of Wales, one would expect consultation with the Assembly legislature and the Administration. That is right and proper, and reflects the debates that took place here during consideration of the Government of Wales Act 1998. Any failure to make the distinction between consent and consultation in the case of Wales could result in conflict.
I believe that it is important that we acknowledge here today that while consultation, co-operation and partnership are not just desirable but essential—and to be welcomed and encouraged—it must be made clear that there is no doubt that primary legislation in relation to Wales is completely at the discretion of the UK Parliament.
§ Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)
I congratulate the Select Committee on Procedure on its fourth report. During Agriculture questions earlier today, the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), said that this House was at its most effective when it was at its most courteous. The language of the Committee's report is very courteous and sensitive, and allows the House to reflect on how the debate should move on after the legislative changes associated with the Scotland and the Government of Wales Acts 1998.
The hon. Member for Macclesfield caused some consternation among Scottish Labour Members when he referred to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) as the Member from Scotland. He created—inadvertently, I assume—the sense that the number of Scottish Members was to be reduced from 72 to one, and that all power was to be vested in the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South. That would result in a short-lived experience for the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) who has joined us recently, and whom 639 I congratulate on his election victory in late September. I am sure that that will not be the next step of the Procedure Committee, but it may be a future recommendation that the number of Scottish Members be reduced from 72 to one, and that a lifetime appointment be made for the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South to carry out that task.
We have heard it said that some people have an interest in making devolution work and others do not. I want to make it clear to the House once again that my objective and that of my party is to make devolution work. I believe that Scotland will be able to achieve the fundamental aim of my party—Scottish independence—only if the Scottish people see the Scottish Parliament being successful and effective. The Scottish people could then come to the conclusion that, having made a success of control over a limited but important number of areas of policy within the Scottish Parliament, they would be capable of controlling all the affairs of Scotland and of representing Scotland in Europe effectively as an equal member of the European Union. That is our aspiration.
When I raise with the hon. Member for Macclesfield my concerns about the memorandum of understanding and the role of the Joint Ministerial Committee, it is not to be unhelpful but to ask how we are to exercise true and transparent parliamentary scrutiny if we are not in possession of the information that is appropriate to allow us to arrive at decisions.
§ Mr. Alexander
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for his kind remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), to whose election campaign the hon. Gentleman contributed so much. The hon. Gentleman has observed that there are limited but important matters dealt with in the Scottish Parliament, devolved in Holyrood. Will he give an undertaking to the House that his time in that Parliament—and the time of his fellow representatives of the Scottish National party—will be used to deal with those specific, limited but important powers, such as education, housing and health, rather than using the Parliament to try to discuss issues outwith the competence of the Parliament, which are reserved here at Westminster?
§ Mr. Swinney
An important point established during the passage of the Scotland Act 1998 was the right of the Scottish Parliament to debate issues that it considers appropriate. That point was well made in the Chamber, so it should not be a surprise to the hon. Gentleman. My party will certainly ensure that the matters that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament are properly dealt with there. Some of the unease and tension among Labour Members is evidence of the effectiveness of the way in which we scrutinise the work of the Executive in the Scottish Parliament, although I accept that that Executive also involves Liberal Democrats, however uncomfortable they may feel at times.
It is important that we address the issues that are of concern to the people of Scotland. That is the rule of thumb that my party follows in the Scottish Parliament.
§ Dr. Reid
Will the hon. Gentleman answer the question that he was asked? In view of what he said earlier, will 640 he give an assurance not only to the House but, more important, to the people of Scotland that he and his party will spend the bulk of their time in the Scottish Parliament dealing with issues that are within the competence of that Parliament—the issues that the Scottish people want to be dealt with in Scotland and that they pay him and the other Members of that Parliament to deal with—rather than, as is currently evidenced in the majority of the parliamentary questions that they table there, dealing with issues which are reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament and which the Scottish people want to be dealt with in the United Kingdom Parliament?
§ Mr. Swinney
We will discuss the issues that are of relevance to the people of Scotland. I am interested to find that the Secretary of State is paying close attention to the questions tabled in the Scottish Parliament, but if I were to go much further down that road, Mr. Deputy Speaker would tell me that I was roaming out of order.
In Inverness yesterday, I chaired a meeting of the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee of the Scottish Parliament at which the chief executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise expressed his concern about the enormous damage being done to the highlands and islands economy by the fuel duty escalator. It would have been inappropriate of me to say to him, "Stop there. That is nothing to do with this Parliament. The Secretary of State for Scotland has to fight for the Scottish interest in Westminster." Members of Parliament who are sent to Westminster to represent the Scottish interest sign up to such issues of enormous concern left, right and centre.
§ Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)
Can I take it, then, that the hon. Gentleman would be happy for someone from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, or whoever is concerned about the fuel duty escalator, to come down and give evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee? That is the only conclusion that we can reach from what he is saying.
§ Mr. Swinney
I want to continue with my comments about the institutions of the House, but I will certainly answer the hon. Lady's point. My point in response to the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Alexander) and the Secretary of State is that it is unrealistic to believe that the Scottish Parliament will not encroach on or raise issues that are important to the Scottish people but happen to be reserved.
The principles in paragraph 5 of the Procedure Committee's report have been referred to at length. The first of the principles is thatin passing the legislation which underlies devolution, Parliament has agreed that certain powers and responsibilities should pass from it to the devolved legislatures; parliamentary procedure or custom should not be called in aid to undermine that decision".That is a robust interpretation of the Scotland Act 1998.
I am concerned about the fact that the third principle states:Members from an area to which powers have been devolved will have a particular interest in business affecting that area".I suspect that there will be a trade-off between those principles as the issues that this Parliament wrestles with begin to change.
The Procedure Committee recommended that there be a continuing role for the Scottish Affairs Committee, and I certainly welcome that commitment. It is important that 641 the role and responsibility of the Secretary of State be properly scrutinised by a Committee of the House to which he is accountable. He may properly divulge to the House some of the confidential documents about which I am most concerned, if his Scottish Executive colleagues are not prepared to release them to the Scottish Parliament to enable proper scrutiny there.
We need to be able to find out what the Secretary of State is doing, what he costs and what his office costs. That is a matter of enormous concern. The running costs for the Scottish Office for the current financial year were initially estimated at £2.4 million, but I read in the newspapers that they have gone up to £5.7 million and are expected to rise to £6 million in the next financial year. That is 138 per cent. more than the original estimate. If that is an example of the new Administration's book keeping, it is a pretty unhappy one.
I recognise that the Scotland Act 1998 entitles the Secretary of State to certain powers, but it is important that we should have proper scrutiny when he is removing from the Scottish block the amount that is required to run his Department. It is important that the Scottish Affairs Committee should be in there, scrutinising his activities. It should also scrutinise the work on reserved matters, including the climate change levy, the fuel duty escalator and IR35—the Inland Revenue document—all of which cause great concern to my constituents. In a Select Committee environment, members can consider dispassionately how those issues are handled.
When we debated the role of Select Committees earlier, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) made an extensive case for the requirement on their members to act independently of the party Whip, on the basis of the evidence before them. That is exactly what we need Scottish Members on the Scottish Affairs Committee to do. They must consider what is happening dispassionately, from a Scottish perspective, and be prepared to call to account United Kingdom Departments that are pursuing an agenda on reserved matters that is hostile to the Scottish interest.
§ Mr. Alexander
Does the principle of the dispassionate scrutiny of the Executive by a Select Committee hold good north of the border, and would there be a conflict of interest when a party's leading spokesperson also held the chair of the relevant Select Committee?
§ Mr. Swinney
That matter is being considered by the Procedures Committee of the Scottish Parliament. I will happily abide by the outcome of that consideration. Before the hon. Gentleman makes such remarks, he should read the official record of that Committee and reflect on some of the remarks that his colleagues north of the border have made. I will not embarrass him by recounting them here, as that would probably damage my reputation more than his.
The Procedure Committee has recommended the retention of Question Time; we support that, but with restricted time. I have some concern about how much the criteria for questions can be extended. Madam Speaker referred to the acceptability of questions that relate toinformation that the United Kingdom Government are empowered to require of the devolved Executive".—[Official Report, 12 July 1999; Vol. 335, c. 21.]That is endorsed by the Procedure Committee in its report as the basis for the admissibility of questions.
642 Section 96 of the Scotland Act 1998 states:The Treasury may require the Scottish Ministers to provide, within such period as the Treasury may reasonably specify, such information, in such form and prepared in such manner, as the Treasury may reasonably specify.If that is not a blank cheque for the Treasury to ask what it wants of the Scottish Executive and to require the Executive to supply that information, I do not know what is. It will open the flood gates as to what questions hon. Members may ask in this place. That is a practical illustration of the inconsistencies we face and the fact that some definitions may be stretched in a way that no one envisaged.
Madam Speaker has ruled—the Procedure Committee has supported her view—that Adjournment debates on Scottish subjects may be held in the House only when they relate to areas of ministerial responsibility. On 20 July, I raised a point of order with Madam Speaker about a motion that had been submitted by the Conservative Opposition for a debate on health policy within the United Kingdom. I asked Madam Speaker for some guidance on whether it was appropriate to debate health policy in the United Kingdom after 1 July when power was devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Madam Speaker said that it was not a point of order, and I obviously accepted her ruling. However, I think that we must consider the circumstances of all debates and the steps that led to that motion being accepted inadvertently for debate in the House. I am sure that the Select Committee on Procedure will examine the issue.
§ Mr. Browne
I intervene on the hon. Gentleman at this stage as he appears to have abandoned his prepared speech. He briefed the Scottish press yesterday about his intention to criticise the Secretary of State for Scotland about his decision to retain the Scottish Grand Committee, which the hon. Gentleman claimed was part of the Secretary of State's "empire building". Did the hon. Gentleman bother to tell the press that retention of the Scottish Grand Committee was part of the written evidence that the Scottish National party submitted in a memorandum to the Procedures Committee; or did he neglect to mention that?
§ Mr. Swinney
The hon. Gentleman asserts that I have abandoned my prepared speech, but I intend to go through it page by page. This is a website extract from the Procedure Committee report and it presents a sequence—[Interruption.] I will deal first with the points raised by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) in his intervention—if he has the courtesy to listen. I had the courtesy to allow him to intervene, so he should have the courtesy to listen to my response.
I have various quotations made by several Members: the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), Madam Speaker, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), me and many others. I also have a briefing note entitled "The Scotland Office Rip-Off', which outlines the expanding costs of the office of the Secretary of State for Scotland, and I have referred already to section 96 of the Scotland Act. My speech is crafted on AS paper and written in my own hand. The next page is entitled "Grand Committee", so I am about to address the issue about which the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun is so concerned. [Interruption.] 643 The Secretary of State is behaving as discourteously as the hon. Gentleman. I will come to that point in a moment.
The Procedure Committee report states:Grand Committees are, in some sense, an alternative to devolution and when devolution is effected, they are no longer appropriate.I am prepared to accept that point of view. My party made a submission to the Procedure Committee in February 1999. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) failed to refer to the part of our submission that said:It is to be questioned whether there remains a role for the Scottish Grand Committee. It remains an appropriate forum for the debate of the reserved matters from a distinctly Scottish perspective, but this is also within the Scottish Parliament. We therefore propose that it continue on a trial basis for the time being.That was in February. We have had a trial period. We have had a number more of them. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) presided over the last one in the former Scottish Assembly building in Regent road, Edinburgh some weeks before the election in May. It was a comprehensive waste of time, just as they all were before the 1997 election. The formula proposed by the Secretary of State for Scotland that we should summon all sorts of United Kingdom Ministers to the Scottish Grand Committee produced nothing but cost to the public purse. No information was given to the Scottish public and absolutely no purpose was served.
In proposing the continuation of the Scottish Grand Committee now, the Secretary of State is simply extending that process of giving institutions to Scottish Members of Parliament at Westminster who do not have enough to do and are determined to find a role for themselves. That is what we take exception to. The Scottish Parliament is doing fine work scrutinising important issues. The reserved areas can be adequately handled by the Scottish Affairs Committee, scrutinising them genuinely and dispassionately. There is no need to summon a whole bunch of Labour Members just to say yes to the Secretary of State for Scotland, who seeks to intervene again.
§ Dr. Reid
I intervene only because the hon. Gentleman did not answer the question that he was courteously offering to answer. Did he tell the press yesterday, when he made the allegation that the Scottish Grand Committee constituted an empire being built by me, that it was the view of his party in its evidence to the Procedure Committee that the Scottish Grand Committee should be retained as it was a useful forum for discussion of reserved matters? Did he tell the press that? If not, is that not one of the most rank pieces of hypocrisy, even by the SNP's standards of double briefing?
§ Mr. Swinney
In terms of the most rank pieces of hypocrisy, the Secretary of State could outclass me any day of the week. This morning's news reports said:These measures were generally supported by the Scottish National Party last night, but it is expected the Nationalists will today heavily criticise Dr. Reid's decision to retain the grand committee.I have explained the development of our position.
§ Mr. Swinney
No, I am making progress. I have explained what we are doing, what we have set out in our arguments and what we are putting to the House today. It is important that we do not have more institutions built upon existing ones simply to create the infrastructure for the Secretary of State to have a bigger role and job.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman may be keen to intervene but I will not have two Members standing at the same time.
§ Mr. Swinney
I have spoken for 22 minutes, which is longer than I had intended and I certainly wish to give other hon. Members the opportunity to take part.
We do not want to see institutions built upon institutions to create a job and a role for the Secretary of State for Scotland and his not-so-busy Labour Members at Westminster. The key point in our proposals today is that there must be no unilateral interference in the matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament by Westminster—the Select Committee on Procedure has helped us with a number of definitions by what it has reported today. Westminster must respect the right of elected representatives of the Scottish Parliament to express their views on any number of issues, the scope of which will be for the Scottish Parliament to determine.
§ Mr. Swinney
I am bringing my remarks to a close. I have spoken for longer than I had anticipated because I was so gracious in accepting interventions.
The final issue does not concern me because I represent a Scottish constituency and I have no desire to intrude on the domestic debate within England about how it is governed, but there are legitimate issues about the governance of England that are not answered by the Government's response to the Procedure Committee's report. The Government should reflect on that. The logical solution to the position that has resulted from devolution is to establish in Scotland an independent Parliament with the powers and control over Scotland's resources to fulfil the aspirations of people in Scotland and meet their expectations in all policy areas.
§ 5 pm
§ Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, North and Leith)
Perhaps I should declare an interest as a Member of the Scottish Parliament. I am proud to be a Member of that Parliament, but I am proud also to be a Member of this Parliament until the general election. Unlike the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney), I see a central, crucial role for Scottish Members in this Parliament throughout the next century and beyond.
§ Mr. Swinney
I should also have prefaced my remarks by declaring an interest as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to make that declaration now.
§ Mr. Chisholm
Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I have a coherent view on the Scottish Grand Committee. We all 645 enjoyed his attempts to explain the earlier submission on that issue by the Scottish National party. I noted that he resorted, as a final defence of that submission, to the explanation that the party supported the Grand Committee on a trial basis. Since 6 May, the Scottish Grand Committee has met on precisely no occasions. That must be the first trial in the history of Parliament based on no sittings whatever. For opportunistic reasons, the SNP changed its view simply because it wanted to continue its campaign against my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and on this occasion the Scottish Grand Committee was the stick with which to beat him.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who led the debate for the official Opposition, restated the charge that Labour Members have not thought through the consequences of devolution. However, it strikes me that the Opposition have not thought through the consequences of their central proposal. Their oft-repeated message, which is directed at their English electorate, relates to English and Welsh Members voting on English and Welsh legislation.
There is a case to be made for that by those who believe in federalism, and the Liberal Democrats are consistent in that regard. There is even a case to be made by those who believe in an English Parliament, but the official Opposition keep saying that they do not believe in federalism or an English Parliament, while making their populist, opportunist appeal to their English voters.
In this century, only between 1964 and 1966 has there been a Labour majority in Parliament and a Conservative majority in England, but we know that on some future date that situation could arise. By quoting John Mackintosh, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Alexander) made the important theoretical point that the Opposition's proposals undermine the whole nature of Cabinet Government in this Parliament. One party could have a majority in England, but another party might command the UK Government, and the Opposition know that in those circumstances we would have, for example, a Health Secretary for England who could not get legislation through the House. If the Opposition wanted to make their proposals and move towards federalism, that would be a consistent position, but it is totally dishonest of them to use the argument about English votes without thinking through the consequences of their proposals.
§ Mr. Grieve
Surely the hon. Gentleman himself has half-answered the question. It is unlikely in practice that limiting votes on English and Welsh issues to English and Welsh MPs would affect the viability of the United Kingdom Government. That is a good reason not to go down the road to the federalism of which the Secretary of State does not approve. However, on those occasions on which such a situation could arise, the Government would, in any event, be inherently weak, and the fact that they might be shorter-lived as a result probably does not matter for the sake of making sure that the Union is maintained, and that the people of England and Wales consider that they have been treated fairly as a result of the way in which devolution works north of the border.
§ Mr. Chisholm
It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is proposing a federal solution, and he should think of its consequences.
646 The settlement, as agreed by legislation in the House, is based on a fundamental distinction between devolved and reserved areas. As a consequence, all Members of the House have a vote in reserved areas. The fundamental principle of the settlement is power sharing, and we should remember that that is at the centre of what we are discussing.
I noticed that, at the start of the debate, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said that the language of devolution was inconsistent with the centralising instincts of Downing street. I do not know anything about the instincts of Downing street, but I do know that, in the past few years, Downing street has handed over more power than any other Government did in this or any other century. That is the reality of the decentralisation of power. Now, on the brink of a new century, we are moving forward to a century of power sharing—by contrast with the 19th century and most of the 20th century, which were centuries of nationalism.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for North Tayside has left the Chamber, because my fundamental reason for objecting to the ideology of the Scottish National party is that it is rooted in the nationalism of the past, whereas we are moving on the tide of history towards the power sharing of the new century.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
The hon. Gentleman has three times used the term "power sharing". Would he care to give the House his definition of that? He seemed to be mixing it up with divesting the House of its power, and I do not think that power sharing is exactly as he envisages it.
§ Mr. Chisholm
I was going to speak about power sharing. I thought that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State summed it up in the word "symmetrical". He said that the House should be concerned with the reserved areas although it could at times, if it wished, discuss areas devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, whereas the Parliament and Assembly should concentrate on their devolved areas, although they could sometimes discuss the reserved areas.
That is the partnership that the new settlement is all about. We all know that that is how it will work. Power over health policy and education policy in Scotland lies with the Scottish Parliament; power over social security policy and defence policy and other areas lies in this place. I hope that that partnership will extend to all levels of the political process—to the devolved bodies and to the constituencies. I hope that, sooner rather than later, individual MPs and MSPs will get used to focusing on their specific areas. I am sure that that is already happening—that Members of the Scottish Parliament are dealing with constituents who come to them about health or education, whereas Members of this Parliament are dealing with constituents who come to them about social security or immigration.
That separation of powers also underlies many of the suggestions in the report. When I first thought about the subject, I shared many of the feelings of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton)—who, in his submissions to the Procedure Committee, said that his first instinct was that there should not be a Scottish Grand Committee, a Scottish Affairs Committee or Scottish questions because devolved areas only would 647 have been discussed in them. If that had happened, or if those areas had been discussed substantially at all, I would certainly not have supported the continuation of those bodies. However, the report and the Government's words show that it is intended that those bodies should focus not on devolved areas but on reserved areas as they affect Scotland. That is the massive role—I hope that Welsh Members will forgive me if I focus on Scotland—that Scottish Members of Parliament will continue to play in the House.
Often, the media do not seem to understand that massive areas of policy affecting Scotland—social security, Treasury matters, defence, foreign affairs, and many others—are still being decided in this House, and that, increasingly, Scottish Members will devote themselves to and focus on those issues. The work of the Secretary of State and the different Committees should all be seen in the light of that general point.
As the first paragraph of the memorandum of understanding says, the Secretary of State is speaking for Scottish interests in all those reserved areas, and part of that work—which is not understood by many people outside the House, including the media—is the crucial work of the Secretary of State in the Cabinet Committees. So much of the work of Government takes place in those Committees. It is crucial that the Secretary of State for Scotland is present to argue for Scotland in the same way as Scottish Office Ministers used to do in the past.
§ Mr. Alexander
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the difficulties that has bedevilled many of the debates on these issues has been the basic failure of people to understand that the mandate of Members representing Scottish constituencies at Westminster is derived not from the Scottish Parliament, but directly from their election by the Scottish people at general elections? In the light of that, it is reasonable, defensible and attractive to have a situation where powers can be shared within Parliaments, because within defined and limited areas, Parliaments have competencies. There are reserved areas—the areas that are dealt with by Westminster Members, whose mandate for them is derived directly from the Scottish people. Equally, Members of the Scottish Parliament have a mandate derived from the Scottish people in respect of devolved areas of government.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Interventions should be brief. They are not a chance to make another speech.
§ Mr. Chisholm
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South. I hope that over time, members of the public will come to have that understanding.
Having dealt with the Secretary of State, the next contentious issue is the Scottish Grand Committee. I do not see that as problematic. It seems only natural for Scottish Members to want to express an interest in reserved areas as they affect Scotland. I have dealt with the position of the Scottish National party, but I was surprised to see the SNP changing its mind. The hon. Member for North Tayside gave the example of the fuel duty escalator. At some point he might welcome a Scottish Grand Committee, where that issue could be discussed in relation to Scotland.
648 On a lighter note, the hon. Member for North Tayside said that before the general election, Scottish Grand Committees had been successful only in helping to obliterate the Conservative party in Scotland. That is also an argument in their favour.
Theoretically, there might be more contention in relation to Scottish questions and the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. When those involved are dealing with reserved matters, they can tread on the toes of other Secretaries of State and other Select Committees. Basically, that is a fact of life that we must accept in the new settlement. I think that there can be negotiations within Westminster so that the Secretary of State and the Committees can take an interest in the various reserved areas.
§ Mr. Swinney
Does the hon. Gentleman think that a report of a Select Committee would be more effective in changing the Government's mind in a particular policy area than a debate in the Scottish Grand Committee?
§ Mr. Chisholm
I do not see why we have to make an exclusive decision about that. Clearly the Select Committee and the Scottish Grand Committee would have different roles. I am a great supporter of Select Committees and of the Committees of the Scottish Parliament. Equally, however, a Grand Committee can express a view.
With the Procedure Committee report and the Government's response, we have a sound basis for building the new sort of Union that we want to create in the new century. The United Kingdom has never been a unitary state, even under the old dispensation, but it is now clearer that we are a Union of different nations. I believe that we can go forward into the new millennium strengthening the bonds within the Union, but making sure that nations can express their own concerns and priorities because of the new opportunities that the Government have created via devolution.
§ Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)
I want to be succinct because I feel that as a member of the Select Committee that produced the report, it is more appropriate to listen and afterwards to read the report of the debate.
I shall touch on two matters that came through to the Committee, and certainly to me, but do not come through in the rather dry report that is before us. The feeling came through quite clearly—I salute my ancestors, who were almost all Scottish and Macdonalds, a comment that has probably started the war again—that the role of a Scottish Member in Westminster following devolution had dramatically diminished. One had the feeling that some Scottish Members were wondering what on earth they would do with their time. That feeling is exacerbated by the over-representation of Scottish Members in the House. I understand that that will be righted in two elections' time, and I regret that it will not happen earlier.
It seemed to me that various approaches to the problem were possible. The over-representation could be reduced. The tight boundaries on discussion in this House of matters before the junior Parliament, if I may put it that way, could be broadened. I use local government in England as an example, although I accept that it is a tenuous example.
649 Local government in England comes under heavy scrutiny in the House. That presents an opportunity. The Chairman of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs suggested a joint Select Committee between the two Parliaments, and consideration should be given to that proposal in the Procedure Committee.
The Committee's immediate response was to examine whether the procedures could be reduced to meet the diminished role. There was considerable debate and we agreed—rightly, I think—that the Select Committees should continue. They have a definite role. However, we were clear—some of us emphatically so—that the Scottish Grand Committee should go. As one can imagine, there was quite a squawk, and we are hearing the reverberations from some hon. Members this evening.
Consequently, it was decided to try a "suck it and see" approach, and to ask for the matter to be laid to one side for a time, to be tested. It is with considerable regret that I note that the Government take the same position—test and see—without actually testing it. I hope that they will think about the issue more carefully and recognise that the Committee carefully adopted a similar posture to that of the Government, but intended to use the opportunity to test whether we needed the Grand Committee.
The second view that came across clearly was that England was not being represented and was not getting a fair crack of the whip. The Committee argued that Bills—I should say all legislation—relating exclusively to England, Scotland or Wales should be considered in Committee by Members representing the relevant part of the United Kingdom. There have been examples of that under previous Governments, particularly in the case of legislation relating to local government. Generally, such Bills relate to England and Wales, and it would be appropriate for Members from those two countries only to participate in the discussion and perhaps even in the vote.
I stress those two topics because they are not represented in the report, although they provoked the most heated discussion. I hope that deep consideration will be given to those views, which the Government seem to have rejected. That is a mistake, and they should think again.
§ Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who chairs the Procedure Committee. He spoke today with directness and honesty. Those who do not serve with him on a Committee may not see the hon. Gentleman's diligence and energy, hard work and output, to which, in spite of political differences, I and everyone else pay tribute.
We have just heard from the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford) an equally honest account of how he sees things. To my mind, he has just spelled out to the House a recipe for tearing the United Kingdom asunder. He directly challenged the role of Scottish Members of Parliament in this House of Commons, with which the Procedure Committee's report dealt in detail. If we go down the route of excluding Scottish Members of Parliament, not only will it damage relations between us within the United Kingdom, but it will leave England immensely impoverished. That is because all of us bring to debates and deliberations on legislation in this place our experiences, and the experiences of our constituencies and of our regions.
650 In this House, Madam Speaker, like previous Speakers, lays down clear rules for calling on Members of Parliament to participate in questions and debates according, among other things, to what she believes they have to contribute from their experience.
On Tuesday, when the Deputy Prime Minister spoke in the House on the terrible rail tragedy at Ladbroke Grove, those who were called to put questions to him had some interest in the matter, such as the Chairman of the Select Committee. Only those with some interest were called. We have a history of that.
On 19 May, one Home Office Minister was answering questions about the Government's proposals on the right to elect for trial by jury. Hon Members were called from both sides. A number of hon. Members suggested that any restriction on that right was a tremendous infringement of civil liberties. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), a Scottish Member of Parliament, rose to say that the Scottish people have never really had that right, that it is a matter for the prosecution. If Madam Speaker had not called my hon Friend, on what, as a consequence of the Procedure Committee's report, might be considered a wholly English issue, the House would have been immeasurably impoverished and ill-informed, or would certainly not have had that information.
I have a children's hospital in my constituency and, when the problems arose in Bristol, I, like, I am sure, other hon. Members in a similar situation to me, obtained a briefing from the local consultant on whether there was a likelihood of anything similar arising. I was informed why, without prejudging the final outcome, it was unlikely that anything similar would arise.
If we are saying that the right of a Member of Parliament from one part of the United Kingdom, be it Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, to inform a debate and—to come directly to the point made by the hon. Member for Mole Valley—even to vote, to avoid a problem and a pitfall into which people may be blindly walking, should be removed, that would be bad for the people of England as well as for the way in which we legislate in this place.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I shall give way to my hon. Friend, but I give way first to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).
§ Mr. Grieve
The hon. Gentleman is making a most interesting contribution. Is it not a fact that I, as a Member of Parliament for the United Kingdom, with, as it happens, a great interest in conservation in the highlands and in the Cairngorm area, which I know well, can no longer intervene on the question of the Cairngorm funicular because that is one of the consequences of devolution? It may be a loss, but is there not a measure of unfairness when the reverse is not the case—and an unfairness which is likely to grow unless the issue is addressed, possibly incrementally, but certainly now?
§ Mr. Griffiths
I realise that the hon. Gentleman was not a Member of the House in the previous Parliament. 651 He did not see the impact of hon. Members telling the Scottish people exactly what they thought was best for them—the poll tax and a catalogue of other measures, for example. I do not want to rake through history, but that was a mistake. It would be a mistake if hon. Members from parts of the United Kingdom other than England did not take full account of what local Members of Parliament were saying and what was informing them. Restricting the dialogue and debate in any way would be quite detrimental.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I have a point to make to the hon. Member for Mole Valley, but before I do so I shall honour my word to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown).
§ Mr. Brown
I thank my hon. Friend, and perhaps I can add to his argument. He is fully aware of the location of my constituency. The point being made in the Chamber, which has been made in the past, concerns restricting the voting power of Scottish Members. As important as the health care offered by Dumfries and Galloway health board in my constituency and the neighbouring constituency is that provided in Cumbria, because about—
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. An intervention must be brief. The hon. Gentleman is not the only Member who has perhaps made a small speech during an intervention, but that cannot be allowed.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I will give way to the hon. Member for Mole Valley, but I shall perhaps provoke him a little further by giving an example that comes to mind because of something that was said about the problem of English Members of Parliament—or, indeed, Scottish Members of Parliament—not being able to vote on the reform of local government in Scotland, but being able to vote on such reform in England. We may learn in two scenarios: the Scottish Parliament may make mistakes, which we will want to inform the House of and avoid; equally, we may want to participate in reforms of local government that are carried out by the House and which we will then want to commend to our colleagues up in Scotland. This is not a clear-cut issue in terms of participation or voting.
§ Sir Paul Beresford
There is an opposite to that. I, and many of my hon. Friends, have experience of local government in England, but we are not able to contribute to any debate on the reform of local government in Scotland—unless, perhaps, this House has more far-reaching effects on its junior Parliament than are presently envisaged or allowed.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I can be more direct with the hon. Gentleman than I was with the hon. Member for 652 Beaconsfield, his colleague on the Front Bench, because he was a Minister in the previous Government. The damage that I am afraid was done in Scotland is the reason why there are no Conservative Members of Parliament representing Scottish seats. Under no circumstances will we make the same mistake in England.
On page 139, the report raises several issues under the heading "Post Devolution Concerns", and the hon. Member for Mole Valley touched on one of them—the electoral change that may be needed in Scotland in respect of boundaries. I am concerned about one aspect of that. Let me concede at the outset that there may be a case for considering how many electors in cities such as Edinburgh, which are comparable to cities elsewhere in the United Kingdom, should elect a Member of Parliament. However, the biggest discrepancies can occur in rural areas—the smallest electorates in Scotland live in the islands, for example—and we shall have to be very careful. The biggest seat in Scotland—Ross, Skye and Inverness, West—covers 3,500 sq m of territory and has an electorate of some 55,500.
§ Mr. Griffiths
No, because other hon. Members want to speak.
If one wants to adjust that boundary and have a bigger electorate, does one go north to Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, where there are already 3,200 sq m to be covered, or south to Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber, which covers 3,300 sq m and has an electorate of 65,500—closer to the English average of just under 70,000? The biggest English seats are all more than half that size. Indeed, the biggest English seat is well under half the size; the second biggest is less than 1,000 sq m and, therefore, less than a third of the size. Those seats sit together. Hexham, which is the second biggest—Penrith and The Border is the other—has an electorate of 59,000. In recognition of the fact that the Member of Parliament representing that seat has to cover such a large area, his electorate is 15 per cent. lower than the English average.
I use those examples to inform the House of the problems faced. Although we do not live in an age when one has to spend a month riding on horseback around the constituency, or even a week or two, and most of our constituents now have telephones, people are increasingly sceptical of politicians' intentions. As one who is passionately committed to public service, I know of the sacrifices that are made by everyone in this Chamber, and I think that our constituents appreciate them. However, if one expands some of those big constituencies, it becomes impossible for hon. Members to cover them and see their constituents, and to keep the link that we prize so much.
From the tenor of some of the comments made in this debate, I fear that those who will be most disadvantaged are not the Scottish Members of Parliament but the electorates not just of Scotland but of Northern Ireland, of Wales and, most important in the context of this debate, of England.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
To quote Lewis Carroll, this debate is becoming curiouser and curiouser. We have been discussing the West Lothian 653 question for hours, and the architect seems to be missing from the Chamber. There is some talk in the Lobby that he has been imprisoned in Millbank Tower, but I do not know whether that is true.
Post-devolution, many questions will have to be asked. There is uncertainty about how the relationship between this place and the National Assembly for Wales will develop, but, crucially, there is some uncertainty about the future relationship and conduct of affairs with the European Commission and the Council of Ministers, and the important role that the National Assembly will play in that regard.
It does not matter whether one is on the progressive side of the argument—believing that devolution is a process, not an event—or on the regressive side, or dinosaur tendency, which adheres to the opposite view. We have before us a real opportunity to improve the governance of Wales and, in so doing, to bring it far closer to the people. That will bring with it a far greater sense of accountability, something that I am sure that we would all want.
In the European context, I am pleased to note that the agreed concordats provide:In appropriate cases, the leader of the delegation could agree to Ministers from the devolved administrations speaking for the UK in Council … and that they would do so with the full weight of the UK behind them".My party and colleagues in the Scottish National party have been campaigning for that for a long time. It is a great step forward, but whether it happens is another matter. I hope that it will happen, if devolution in its true sense is to come about. I welcome the day when Scottish Ministers and Welsh Secretaries conduct affairs on the European mainland. Despite what the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) said in his redoubtable, forceful and eloquent way, as usual I do not agree with him.
There are many other issues to consider, such as the deep and wider agricultural crisis in Wales. The crisis in Wales is different from that in the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom. There is an immediate case for a Secretary from Wales to represent the National Assembly at a European level.
§ Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon)
My hon. Friend has referred to concordats and our problems in agriculture. Does he agree that we could make considerable progress if the Government in Westminster were to push ahead with plans to have much wider concordats between, for example, the National Assembly's Agriculture Secretary and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, so that the ground rules are clear into the future?
§ Mr. Llwyd
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The concordats are very important documents. We have waited a long time for them, and I welcome the fact that they have now been produced. I am pleased that they will be reviewed annually. Despite what I said earlier, I realise that this process takes time and we cannot have all the answers at once.
The impact of the agricultural crisis on all sectors of the Welsh agricultural economy is slightly different, and problems will be tackled differently from those in East Anglia, where substantial farmers farm in a totally 654 different way. I hope that we take advantage of this concordat, and move forward to better the situation of people in rural Wales.
In March this year, I gave evidence to the Procedure Committee, which is ably chaired by the hon. Member for Macclesfield. I welcomed that inquiry because things were, and are, going to change. My major concern at that time was the suggestion that the Welsh Grand Committee should be abolished: "suspended" was the word used. To be perfectly honest, the Welsh Grand Committee is no great shakes. Its list of achievements is minimal, to put it mildly. It has never taken any decisions of earth-shattering importance.
Nevertheless, it is a conduit to Welsh opinion, and, in its latter stages, it met several times in Wales and was a tangible and useful link with the electors. Fewer meetings in Wales may be called for post-devolution, but the vital point that I was trying to make then, and that I wish briefly to make now, is that the Welsh Grand Committee is entitled, under current Standing Orders, to sit as a Second Reading Committee. That is the crux of the matter. It could be used as a Liaison Committee with the National Assembly: a sounding board providing a fast-track procedure for legislation that the National Assembly wants to bring before the House without its being caught up in the timetable that inevitably clogs up work in this Parliament.
I recall the exchange that I had with the Chairman when it was suggested that the new Chamber in the Grand Committee Room could serve as a venue for Welsh debates. It does not matter where the Committee sits. I believe that that made the case for the Welsh Grand Committee. I took the view that it was important that we fought to retain the Welsh Grand Committee. I am pleased that the Government have sided with my party on the evidence that we and others gave that day. I believe that the Welsh Grand Committee still has an important role in the current settlement. I welcome paragraph 5 of the Government's response to the report. I agree that to suspend the Welsh Grand would be premature and possibly damaging. I share the Government's view that that forum is a useful mechanism for debating issues of particular interest to Wales.
Some of the more cynical in our midst might place a different construction on that. Curiously enough—speaking of cynics—it was put to me by a member of the lobby that this might enable central Government to reel back a bit; but I prefer to think that that is not the case, and that it is a contribution to devolution. I am not naive, but I genuinely believe that that is the right construction, and that the process will be assisted rather than impeded.
The question of a legislative platform for the National Assembly is vital. It is one of the core points. As others have observed, the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs engaged in a fruitful discussion with a panel of chairpersons of the various National Assembly Committees. We are graced by the presence of one of them today—my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Jones). The prevailing view seems to be that the Welsh Affairs Committee could become a conduit, or sounding board, for legislation, and that the Assembly might want that to happen.
We heard earlier that whatever legislation was introduced must be introduced at the behest of the National Assembly or the Scottish Parliament. That is 655 fine: I have no problem with it. Such action could focus on the primary legislation that was considered a priority by the Assembly, but it could also provide a useful mechanism for feedback from Westminster on the progress of primary legislation. It should be stressed, however, that the Welsh Affairs Committee could not be the sole route or interface for communication. I feel that the Welsh Grand Committee should perform that function as well, because, in my view, the situation requires a bolster of that kind. Meetings that I have had with Welsh Assembly Members of various political hues suggest to me that they and Welsh Members of Parliament unanimously want the relationship to succeed, in the interests of better governance in Wales.
The hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney) made a point that impressed me greatly, but it seems to have escaped me now. No doubt, it will come back to me in a moment. His speech contained so many impressive points that it is not surprising that I missed out one or two.
Perhaps the most important of the report's recommendations for Wales is that there should be a new way of dealing with legislation relating exclusively to Wales. Instead of the current Second Reading debates on the Floor of the House, for most Bills of that kind, special Committees would be set up. If agreed, Bills would then proceed to Committee and to other stages. That would provide a fast-track system: Bills would not be clogged up in the procedures of this House.
The Procedure Committee rejected the suggestion that Second Reading should be taken in the Welsh Grand Committee, and I feel that that was a mistake. I think that I have made the point sufficiently. The Procedure Committee suggested that there should be an ad hoc Second Reading Committee containing at least 20 Welsh Members of Parliament. That implies that there might be a different political balance—that the Second Reading Committee might reflect party strengths in Wales, while the Committee stage Committee might reflect the strength of the Commons as a whole. That may give rise to concern.
The Government's response is careful and considered. I ask the Secretary of State for Scotland whether the wordsdebating issues of particular interest to those parts of the UKenvisage the possibility that the Welsh Grand Committee will become a debating chamber for particularly Welsh business. Can we consider strengthening it by giving it a role involving liaison with the Assembly, initiating Bills to be dealt with by this Parliament rather than relying on Government time or private Members' procedures? That might envisage a requirement on Government to introduce any Bills that are presented to them by the National Assembly. The Committee would surely be the forum for that.
I deal with two short matters of substance. One is the scope of future inquiries of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. The obvious point is that the Select Committee's remit will be that of non-devolved areas that impact on Wales. It follows that the remit must be examined carefully and redefined. For example, if there were a problem to do with taxation, defence, social security or one of the other reserved matters, Welsh electors would not have the same rights via their 656 representatives and the respective Select Committee to scrutinise and to hold the Department responsible to account. That presents a case for broadening the Standing Orders. In fairness, the Procedure Committee suggested that, although that suggestion has not found favour, as yet anyway, with the Government. However, the tenor of the Leader of the House's speech was careful and balanced. To put it crudely, it was a wait-and-see speech. I should like to develop that theme further at another point.
There is no doubt that we need to look at that matter. We have talked about fairness for various constituent parts of the United Kingdom, but that point is crucial. I commend the letter of 14 October from the Chairman of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs to the Leader of the House as the right way forward. I have no doubt that it can be reconsidered at another point.
Therefore, the Procedure Committee's recommendation of a relaxation in that area is right. Of course, I do not agree with the Government's view, but, as I have said, I hope that the matter can be revisited fairly urgently. There will be an urgent need to redefine the working of the Select Committee if, as is suggested, it is to carry on working.
I am not saying that to perpetuate my membership of the Committee—I have other things to do—but it is in the best interests of our constituents; that is really what it is all about. As I have said, I am sure that the Leader of the House will be prepared to debate the matter at another point.
The other matter is the Government's correct belief, that Select Committees will play an important role in fostering good relations between Westminster and the respective devolved legislatures. In the words of the Government's response:It is possible that they will also conduct inquiries in conjunction with Committees of the devolved legislatures into subjects for which responsibility is shared.That makes sense. It will reflect the tenor of the useful recent meeting between the Select Committee and National Assembly Members in Cardiff.
The Procedure Committee's view on joint meetings appears to be a little negative and not reflective of the views of Assembly Members and Members of the House of Commons, as far as I am aware. At paragraph 17, the Committee said:Committees should not hold formal meetings in conjunction with Members of the devolved legislatures without the express authority of the House and Members should be aware that there is no guarantee that their words enjoy the protection of Article IX of the Bill of Rights in any informal joint meetings.That is a bit negative. Clearly, what is needed is for Standing Orders to be changed. I hope that we shall persuade the Leader of the House that a Standing Order change is necessary to foster good regular meetings and good relations with the devolved legislatures. The reference to privilege is clearly not insurmountable and can be cleared up with a little ingenuity.
Subject to the caveats that I have mentioned, the Procedure Committee's report is broadly to be welcomed, as is the Government's response. Both are constructive and will assist devolution. If the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) pleads for a full legislative and tax-varying Parliament for England, he can rely on Plaid Cymru for support.
§ Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)
I shall concentrate on two aspects of the report. The first is expressed in the report's very first paragraph, which says that the Committee supports an evolutionary approach. That is to be welcomed, and I note that some matters are still evolving.
Secondly, I shall concentrate on the role of the Scottish Affairs Committee, of which I am privileged to be a member. I believe that I am also the only member of that Committee who is to speak in this debate. I was very happy to note that, if the report's recommendations are accepted, for years to come I shall have a long and fruitful time on the Select Committee, the powers of which may even be enhanced.
Over the years, many of the House's procedures have developed through habit and repute. Our procedures have not been written in tablets of stone, and the same should apply to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. One evolving feature of devolution has been the relationships developing between Members of Parliament and Members of the Scottish Parliament—and I ask hon. Members from the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom to forgive me if I concentrate most of my remarks on the situation in Scotland.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart), I am in the unusual position of being in a different party from that of the Member of the Scottish Parliament representing my constituency there. One might therefore think that, if such a situation causes tensions, I would be aware of them. However, I am happy to report that it is possible to have good working relationships with members of other political parties.
It is important for my constituents in Aberdeen, South that I should work with, not against, the Liberal Democrat Member of the Scottish Parliament representing my constituency. In fact, the two of us met and decided how we should deal with the various cases that will come our way. It was not terribly difficult to reach a decision on a procedure, and other hon. Members may want to copy the model—which essentially boiled down to dividing a Member's role into an advocacy and a policy-making function.
In determining which of us should fulfil the advocacy role, the primary consideration should be to whom the constituent went first. However, if a constituent came to me saying that Scottish housing policy, for example, should be changed, I would pass on the case to the Member of the Scottish Parliament. Conversely, if someone had a query on social security policy but went to the MSP, the case would be referred to me. The arrangement is not terribly difficult to understand.
Nevertheless, I believe that there is a case for an evolutionary approach to dealing with those matters, as we cannot know what other issues will arise. Moreover, various grey areas between the two Parliaments will inevitably become apparent.
As a Scottish Member of Parliament, I find it difficult to know which Minister we should approach on various issues. Health, for example, is a devolved matter. Therefore, one might expect that, as a Scottish Member, I should not write to United Kingdom Health Ministers on health policy, which has been devolved. However, some health matters have not been devolved.
658 To use a personal example, I have a single-gene defect. However, genetics is not a devolved matter. So if I wanted to lobby on my condition—or on one like it, such as cystic fibrosis—the appropriate Minister to approach would be the Secretary of State for Health, not the Scottish Minister for Health. Needless to say, I should hope that the Member of the Scottish Parliament would be lobbying the appropriate Scottish Ministers on precisely the same issues. In dealing with research into genetics and the cure for certain conditions, I would hope that any advances would be applied United Kingdom-wide and not only in Scotland or in England. That will be for the benefit of everybody in the United Kingdom.
That is a personal issue, but others are not so clear-cut. A constituent wrote to me about the fact that her child was born with an eye defect because she had been in contact with toxoplasmosis before he was born. I see no contradiction in a Scottish Member of Parliament alerting the Secretary of State for Health, because the issue will affect people throughout the United Kingdom. I am sure that other hon. Members would want to be involved in campaigning on changing the policy.
These grey areas are important. That is why the relationship between the two Parliaments should be of an evolutionary nature until we see how matters work out. The golden rule in those relationships should be common sense and maturity. The First Minister called the devolution settlement a grown-up Parliament. It will need maturity in both Parliaments to make commonsense decisions on who should take up cases or whether it is appropriate for both Parliaments to deal with issues at the same time.
I support the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Alexander) that there is nothing to prevent this Parliament from discussing devolved matters or to prevent the Scottish Parliament from discussing reserved matters. We are looking for self-discipline in both Parliaments. When an issue is obviously a reserved matter, such as broadcasting, the Scottish Parliament should not discuss it. Issues relating particularly to Scottish broadcasting or the media in Scotland should be left to Scottish Members of Parliament to raise here. Scottish Members of Parliament should have the self-discipline not to raise most health issues or matters that are peculiar to the Scottish education system, which is very different from that in England and Wales.
We need to be mature. Perhaps there was some confusion when members of Highlands and Islands Enterprise spoke to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney) about the fuel escalator. They may have been unsure whether he was sitting in front of them as a Member of the Scottish Parliament or as a Scottish Member of Parliament. Perhaps he should have said that he was wearing his other hat that day and they should have come back to see him the following day when he would be wearing his Member of Parliament's hat. Such confusion—if it was confusion—should be solved after the next general election, when I hope that the other political parties will adopt Labour's policy of saying that there should be no dual mandates. That will make it even more important for the relationships between the two Parliaments to be well established by the time of that election, so that any tensions can be smoothly dealt with.
659 I am pleased that the Scottish Affairs Committee has survived the report. It should continue because it has an important role to play. Interestingly, the Scottish National party's submission to the Procedure Committee lists the reports that the Scottish Affairs Committee has produced over the past two years, while I have been a member. Not all of them were on purely devolved matters. I take issue with the assertion that an investigation into multi-layered democracy was a devolved matter. Surely it would still be within the rights of this House to investigate that to see how well the devolution settlement was working.
The Scottish Affairs Committee's next report will look into poverty in Scotland. Social security remains a reserved matter, but many other aspects of poverty are devolved matters. Perhaps this report will be the model from which we can start to see this Parliament and the Scottish Parliament working together. The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Welsh)—who is in his place—is a Member of both Parliaments, and a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, and at least one other Member is a Member of both Parliaments.
As a dual mandate exists until the general election, we have an opportunity to set up relationships between the two Parliaments. It is important that Members of Parliament and Members of the Scottish Parliament get together often to share their experiences. For most Labour Members of Parliament, this will mean meeting someone else. I appreciate that when Scottish National party Members wish to liaise with their counterparts in the Scottish Parliament, they must speak to themselves. I hope that their relationships are cordial, although I am not always sure that they are—even within that narrow remit.
The Scottish Affairs Committee and the Welsh Affairs Committee could have a valuable role in terms of liaison at Back-Bench level. We know that liaison exists at an Executive level, and that the Secretary of State for Scotland regularly meets the First Minister. I am glad to see that happening. However, it is important that there is also liaison at Back-Bench level, and at the lower levels of the Parliaments.
I was worried for a while that there would not be enough for the Scottish Affairs Committee to look into, but I am glad that the hon. Member for North Tayside has expanded what will be relevant. He said that if the Highlands and Islands enterprise board or Scottish Enterprise was concerned about the fuel escalator, the Scottish Affairs Committee could call them in to give evidence. I had assumed that the Scottish quangos would be held to account by the Scottish Parliament, and I am grateful that there may be a role for the Select Committee in looking at those quangos.
§ Mr. Swinney
The hon. Lady has totally misunderstood my point. I said that on a UK-reserved matter, I saw that there was a role for the Scottish Affairs Committee in providing the opportunity for such evidence to be taken. However, that concerns holding UK Ministries to account. It is not about holding to account Scottish quangos which receive their funding from the Scottish Parliament; that is a matter for the Scottish Parliament. It is important that 660 UK Ministries listen to what is going on in Scotland and do not ignore it, as they are currently doing with regard to the fuel duty escalator.
§ Miss Begg
But how will we know the views of the Scottish quangos if we do not have them down to ask them questions? We cannot depend on press reports, as we know how accurate they can be; the hon. Gentleman himself was caught out today by the press. Obviously, we need to get the story from the horse's mouth, and if there is genuine concern among Scottish bodies about reserved matters in Scotland, we need to find that out. That will be the role of the Scottish Affairs Committee.
The hon. Member for North Tayside said that Scottish Members of Parliament do not have enough to do. This week, I have tabled questions to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Prime Minister and the Department of Trade and Industry. I have signed an early-day motion on the test ban treaty, and I have had a briefing from the Secretary of State for Social Security. I have been involved in a range of things in which I, as a Member of this Parliament from Scotland, have an interest. If Scottish National Party Members have no interest in reserved matters, I wonder what they have been doing for the past two years. There is a great deal more for Scottish Members to do than even I had anticipated. We have an important role.
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate an important report. I am sure that there will be evolutionary change. It is crucial that the issues be aired and debated both here and in Scotland so that we can come to a mutual understanding and the two Parliaments can work in harmony.
§ 6.5 pm
§ Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)
I have followed this debate with interest for most of the day. Scotland and Wales have been mentioned frequently, but Northern Ireland only rarely, possibly because devolution is yet to take place there. It is well known that the late John Smith, when Leader of the Opposition, intended to establish a common pattern of devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with minor variations to take account of the different structures of local government. At that time, the present Prime Minister was shadow Home Secretary, and as such was closely involved in all discussions on the design of uniform structures for the three countries.
There is no such uniformity in the current position. Scotland has a Parliament with legislative and tax-varying powers; Wales an Assembly without tax-raising powers; and Northern Ireland a shadow Assembly, also without tax-raising powers. In Scotland, the First Minister chose to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to deliver a workable majority; in Wales, the First Secretary decided to proceed with a minority Administration; but in Northern Ireland, under the legislation passed in the House, the First Minister designate has to lead a four-party coalition—some call it an unholy alliance. The Executive there is different from any other in not having collective responsibility. A more awkward state of affairs would be difficult to imagine or design.
I am sure that the Prime Minister would agree that it is often difficult enough to get Cabinet agreement with only one party involved; but of course he can sack those who 661 disagree with him, which cannot be done in Northern Ireland. A two-party coalition, even when the two parties share some goals and values, presents further problems. How on earth is the First Minister of Northern Ireland expected to deliver sound governance when he has four parties with widely different policies, aims, values and, indeed, methods, to satisfy?
What sort of decision making would result in Scotland if the Cabinet consisted of representatives of the Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Scottish National parties? How would Wales fare under an Executive comprising Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Plaid Cymru members?
§ Mr. Ross
Perhaps we shall see about that in time.
How does anyone expect an enforced coalition of members of the Ulster Unionist, Democratic Unionist, Social Democratic and Labour parties and Sinn Fein-IRA to produce stable government in Northern Ireland? Why should such an arrangement succeed there when it has been rejected as a model for the remainder of the kingdom and, to the best of my knowledge, in the rest of the world? If such an arrangement were to succeed, future elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly would simply be redundant, as a four-party coalition would form the Executive as long as the Assembly continued in existence. Let us not forget that all that is on the assumption that Sinn Fein-IRA can be persuaded to decommission or, to be more brutal about it, to surrender their weapons. The Gardai at least seem to be doing rather better in that respect at the moment, and we welcome that.
Once again, the Government's policy on Northern Ireland represents the triumph of hope over experience. They have a vague idea of how they want things to work and believe that they know how they should work, but when it comes to putting the theory into practice, a yawning chasm opens up.
I want to consider the effect of devolution on the oversight of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. When the devolution order comes into force, if it ever does, responsibility for all matters relating to Northern Ireland, other than excepted and reserved matters, will be transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Ministerial responsibility for those transferred matters will pass from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to Northern Ireland Ministers who are supposed to be accountable to the Assembly.
Ministerial responsibility for excepted and reserved matters will remain as at present and will continue to be discharged by the appropriate United Kingdom Minister. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will thus retain responsibility for a wide range of important policy areas, including security, policing, criminal law, public order, prisons, human rights, equality and payments into the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. The Secretary of State will also assume responsibilities in relation to the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council and will have a continuing interest in the British-Irish Council.
Under the terms of Standing Order No. 152, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's areas of oversight that are related directly to the expenditure, administration and policy of the Northern Ireland Office and other matters within the responsibility of the Secretary of State 662 for Northern Ireland will change automatically in line with the changed responsibilities of the office and the Secretary of State. Thus transferred matters will fall automatically outside the Committee's terms of reference—although the finance that will flow to those particular expenditures will come from the United Kingdom tax revenues. I shall say more about that later.
The establishment of devolved Administrations in three areas of the United Kingdom marks a major constitutional shift, and I believe that people throughout the United Kingdom—and particularly those in Northern Ireland—have not yet fully grasped the long-term downstream consequences. We are departing from the traditional British model of an unwritten constitution, whereby change is gradual and evolutionary, and arriving at a written constitution. An inevitable consequence of this shift is that future Government decisions will be more open to legal challenge, as occurs under the federal system of the United States, in Canada to a lesser extent and in Australia.
Any discussion of the procedural consequences of devolution must take account of the United Kingdom's only previous experience: the Stormont model under which the government of Northern Ireland was conducted between 1921 and 1972. Under the devolved Stormont parliamentary system, which was established in 1920—another system was set up in Dublin, but never functioned—the central Government retained certain functions. Under present devolution arrangements, specified bodies have been given several specified powers. So the approach is very different: in the latter example, certain things are devolved and, in the original example, certain things were retained. Those who have examined the original arrangements—the present Secretary of State for Wales has had to consider them in relation to Northern Ireland in the past year—will know that certain things were transferred that should not have been. I believe that the present system is much better.
Hon. Members must recognise that all elected bodies try to increase their powers. The most recent example—we do not have to look far to find it—is the European Union and its efforts to increase its scope and powers. It would be naive in the extreme to expect our devolved assemblies to behave any differently. It will inevitably diminish the power and influence of the House of Commons as elements in those devolved bodies seek constantly to probe and push the boundaries of their powers, and to extend them in all sorts of ways and in all directions where a Government have competence.
If hon. Members read the speech of the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney), they will see that he has spelled out clearly the nationalist methodology. I am familiar with it and other hon. Members will rapidly become accustomed to it. The hon. Gentleman is, after all, a nationalist: his party believes in a Scotland that is free from any oversight by this place. Members of the Welsh parties undoubtedly feel the same. Anyone who thinks that those folk will behave any differently from Irish nationalists is living in a dream world. Indeed, these assemblies came into being not because this House had an overwhelming wish to devolve powers but because it was necessary owing to pressure on the ground. I live in the real world, not the fairytale vacuum that sometimes seems to accompany these debates in the House.
663 The Scotland Act 1998 includes over 30 powers to make subordinate legislation. Of these, 26 are subject to procedure in the Westminster Parliament only, and normal scrutiny arrangements will continue to apply. A further four are subject to procedure in the Scottish Parliament only. The procedures which it adopts for consideration of these orders are a matter for itself. Of particular interest are the five powers that are subject to procedures in both the Westminster and Scottish Parliaments. This approach has been used where both Parliaments have an interest. The relevant powers include the adaptation of cross-border public bodies, the transfer of property of cross-border public bodies and the regulation of the Tweed and Esk fisheries. I think that others will emerge later. These powers will require co-ordination between the two Parliaments and between appropriate Ministers of the Crown and the Scottish Executive. It is not possible to determine what precise arrangements will be required until the Scottish Parliament has determined the scrutiny procedures that it will adopt.
Some interesting comments were made in the memorandum from the Leader of the House and it is worth re-reading it carefully. Among other things it said:In order to consider instruments subject to parliamentary procedures both at Westminster and in the devolved assemblies, there will have to be some form of liaison between the scrutiny committees of those bodies to avoid the possibility of different conclusions being reached on, say, vires. The scrutiny arrangements will not apply to any instruments made in Edinburgh or Cardiff which do not need to be laid at Westminster.There are so many hundreds of these instruments passing through the House that inevitably there will be questions. No one should imagine that the more nationalist elements in the assembly parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will let slip any opportunity to portray any proper scrutiny by Westminster as inappropriate interference in their affairs. Such tensions are not only likely; they are as inevitable as the sun rising tomorrow morning.
Devolution will also have an impact on parliamentary questions, written and oral. For example, what will happen to areas of interest that cross boundaries: transport, sea transport and European Union trunk roads? A very important road to Northern Ireland passes across south-west Scotland. We wish that much more money had been spent on it by previous Secretaries of State for Scotland, but that is by the by.
§ Mr. Ross
I hear support for that and I have had support from the Scottish National party in the past because the road passes through the hon. Gentleman's former constituency. It is a road that I travel several times a year to and from this place. I just wish that it was better. These areas of responsibility all receive money from central Government, so central Government will retain a strong vested interest in them.
The Select Committee on Procedure noted that when the Government of Ireland Act was in force, questions relating to matters transferred were disallowed. The Committee stated that if this precedent were adopted, the scope for questions in the House relating to Scotland would be extremely limited, although there would be 664 greater opportunity for questions relating to Wales and Northern Ireland. The Committee considered the Stormont precedent to be too restrictive, but I believe that friction will be the consequence of extending the scope of parliamentary questions into areas that are even partially the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. They will certainly be portrayed as such.
We need to look at how central Government will try to retain control and clout in areas with devolved government—how, indeed, they will poke their nose in there, to put it bluntly. I understand that under the Australian system of government, devolved territorial matters, which derive not from the federal arrangements but, as I understand it, from the constitution of Australia, can be raised in the Federal Parliament in Adjournment debates. That may very well present a means by which Westminster could retain a degree of control and scrutiny over Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland matters. I recall all the complaints that were made because Northern Ireland was not discussed in the House for 50 years. There is an opening for such discussion.
There is a proposal that Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland Committees should be restricted to matters controlled by the relevant Secretary of State. However, the financial contribution—the tax of the United Kingdom as a whole which funds those bodies—will open a door for the House of Commons to debate those matters, again in Adjournment debates secured by individual Members.
There will be much discussion, one way and another, when people decide to stir the pot, and it will not necessarily be stirred by those who want the Union to remain intact; it is more likely to be stirred by those who want it to disappear.
One matter that has not been dealt with in the debate is the raising and spending of money, and that is the central issue in government. The control of the money supply for the public service is the issue over which the House wrestled with the Crown for centuries. That is the point of friction and the fulcrum. It will also be the test of whether the Labour party is nationalist or Unionist in character in Wales and Scotland, where it will be the dominant party. That question has not yet been answered, but it is clear from the contributions made today that not all Labour Members will be on the same side of that dividing line, and some day they will all have to make up their minds. I look forward to that because it will be as instructive for that party as it will be for the country at large.
I turn now to the question of concurrent meetings between the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly. This issue applies also in Wales and Scotland. Aside from the obvious difficulties of the extent of co-operation and responsibility, another problem presents itself, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and by a Welsh Member. Some Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly were elected also as Members of this House, but they did not take the oath, do not sit in the House and take no part in it. They do not recognise it. If they had to be present at concurrent meetings between the Committee of this House and the Committee of the Assembly, that could cause difficulties for everyone concerned.
There is, however, a precedent, which was mentioned earlier, for a Committee to be given the power to call into consultation persons who are not Members of the House. 665 In the Sessions of 1932–33 and 1933–34, the Joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform was given power to call into consultation representatives of the Indian states and British India. Although the delegates were allowed to discuss matters with the Joint Committee—we all know what that means—they were not allowed to participate in the Committee's final deliberations.
Using that precedent as a model for future co-operation is more likely to be satisfactory than using the analogy of a joint Committee of Assembly and Parliament or of other devolved institutions and Parliament, since it would avoid the legal problems caused by the differing status of Committees, which was also mentioned earlier. That would get round the whole question of the absolute privilege that we enjoy when speaking in the House and the issue of papers that have to be brought before Committees. That is dealt with in the report and it is well worth reading.
Unlike its Scottish and Welsh counterparts, the Northern Ireland Executive, comprising as it does four parties, will not be easily able to formulate clear policy. However, the problem is even worse than that. The Northern Ireland Assembly cannot endorse anything using a simple majority; rather, the agreement of a majority of Assembly Members from the Unionist community and a majority of those from the nationalist community must be achieved. Although to some observers that may appear to be an example of what is meant by the new buzz words, "inclusive government", it appears to me and many others a recipe for inertia and stagnation, and it will almost certainly ensure that hard choices will be shied away from. Once again, Northern Ireland is being asked to accept a system that the Government would not dream of foisting on Scotland and Wales, let alone applying to themselves.
The appearance of the whole affair, especially regarding Northern Ireland but also regarding Scotland and Wales, is that the Government have not clearly thought out the long-term consequences of their policy. That was borne out by the recent experience of the Welsh Cabinet as it sought to pursue its own line on agricultural issues in Europe.
Lord Roberts of Conwy said in another place:our experience of devolution to date—brief as it is—suggests that only the fullest possible co-operation and mutual support between the executive elements in the new system are required if the best interests of the peoples they govern are to be served".His sentiments were echoed by Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton, who said:I share with the noble Lord the belief that we are all working together to overcome any minor difficulties at the beginning of the process."—[ Official Report, House of Lords, 13 October 1999; Vol. 604, c. 358.]The trouble is that those minor difficulties will be like Topsy—they will just grow.
Experience of Northern Ireland leads one to anticipate something more serious than "minor difficulties". If the Government continue to pursue their present policy of "no Executive without Sinn Fein-IRA", the people of Northern Ireland will be faced with two possible outcomes.
Either Sinn Fein-IRA will disarm so that they may take their place in the Executive, or they will not. Even if those concerned are successful in forming the four-party 666 coalition to attempt to govern Northern Ireland, and even if they can secure the support of a majority of both Unionist and nationalist Assembly Members, there will be difficulties. If they are not successful—which has seemed increasingly likely in the past day or two—the Government must assess the position once more and decide whether a majority of democratic Members or Sinn Fein-IRA dictate policy for the future government of the Province.
In closing, I would refer to the comments of Baroness Thatcher in her memoirs. She said:In dealing with Northern Ireland, successive governments have studiously refrained from security policies that might alienate the Irish government and Irish nationalist opinion in Ulster, in the hope of winning their support against the IRA. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was squarely in that tradition. But I discovered the results of this approach to be disappointing. Our concessions alienated the Unionists without gaining the level of security co-operation we had a right to expect. In the light of this experience it is surely time to consider an alternative approach".
I believe not only that the time may well come again, but that it is practically upon us. However, I believe that the West Lothian question, which was raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), will be with the House for a very long time. It will increase in importance, and those who think that Santa Claus will come and take all their troubles away will be very severely disappointed.
§ Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)
The debate has been vigorous and interesting. That may be characteristic of debates not on a Government issue or narrow party political issue, but on a Procedure Committee report.
The Secretary of State for Scotland said, as he has said previously, that he seeks the co-operation of those parties that believe in the Union to make the Union work. Although I am aware that he sometimes criticises the official Opposition for their approach to devolution, I should tell him that it is our aim to make the Union work. I regret, and am disappointed by, the fact that Labour Members do not always accept that our commitment to making devolution work, and our commitment to the Union, are total.
However, at times the way in which the Government approach the consequences of devolution—it is their creature, and they have risen to the challenge to produce it—makes Conservative Members worry whether the Government are willing to take the challenge past the Scotland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 1998, and make the relationships work. That is what the debate is all about.
It is worth while starting with a few basic principles. The speech of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) appeared to me to be a model of its kind in the way in which she personally was setting about making devolution work. It was a most impressive performance and I listened to it with great interest.
The principles are clear. There must be fairness between the different parts of the United Kingdom. There must be openness in the relationship and a recognition of the real transfer of power that has taken place by the vote of this Parliament. If we fail to take those approaches, we shall be heading for trouble. Required also is a willingness to address the knock-on consequences of what we have done.
667 There is a major challenge for us all. There is a challenge for the Government, a challenge for those of us in the House who are firm on the Union and determined to make it work and thrive far into the next millennium and, above all, a challenge for common sense. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South might almost be said to be espousing the commonsense revolution of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—using those very words in addressing devolution.
The issue is how we shall meet the challenge. It is significant that nine members of the Procedure Committee which produced the report were Labour Members who support the Government. It is greatly to their credit that the report of the Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), should have come up with such creative solutions. Even if we, the official Opposition, would wish to go further on some issues and even if we, as we have stated clearly, believe that there can be no long-term solution to the West Lothian question without English and Welsh Members having a monopoly of vote on English and Welsh issues in this place, much creative good sense has come out of the report. That being so, we welcome it.
The report is perhaps a classic example in the House of what happens in the more informal framework of discussion in Committee, when party political mantras are abandoned and Members start objectively to consider some of the problems that have arisen.
One of the principal areas that we have discussed is procedural issues. Above all, there is the question of how legislation is handled in this place. The Government's response, which was published only yesterday, seems to be hopelessly inadequate. Why is it that in an area where it is acknowledged by the very occurrence of devolution that there are diverse interests within the United Kingdom that need to be recognised, Bills that relate solely to Scotland or Wales or England—we might go further and say England and Wales together—should not be referred to a Second Reading Committee for consideration?
We are certainly not going as far down the road as Opposition Members would wish in respect of English rights, but Second Reading Committees would at least provide a forum where the public could see how issues were being addressed in the different areas of the United Kingdom by their representatives. If the Government did not like it at the end of the day, it would be open to them, by putting Bills in the Chamber on Second Reading, to overrule whatever conclusion the Second Reading Committees had come to. I suggest that the Government do not want to go down that road because in the event of there being massive opposition from representatives from the particular—the only—part of the United Kingdom to be affected by the legislation, it might be an unwise Government who started to ignore the views that had been expressed.
When considering the way in which the Government have approached devolution, one of our anxieties is that the way in which matters have unfolded since the devolved Parliament or Assembly has come into being suggests that having given with one hand they are trying to claw back with the other, largely through the back-room mechanisms of the Labour party. Such a 668 system is bound to fail and has already shown clear signs of creating the very tensions that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South was at such pains to diffuse.
§ Mr. Browne
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I realise that he is short of time. I have one simple point to put to him. There is no such thing as an exclusively English public spending measure in respect of health or education. Because of the way in which the block grant is calculated for Scotland, every single public spending decision that is made in the House has a knock-on effect on Scotland.
§ Mr. Grieve
I accept that the way in which the Budget is set will be a United Kingdom matter, but once that has been done and the Barnett formula has been brought into operation, there is no good reason why English Members of Parliament should not determine how the expenditure is spent in England. I do not follow the hon. Gentleman's argument on that point.
The second issue that exercised us considerably during the debate was the future of the Grand Committees. I confess that I find the Government's position inexplicable. As was rightly said by several hon. Members in the debate, the Grand Committees were set up as an alternative to devolution. Devolution has occurred. Although I accept that there may well be occasions when Scottish and Welsh Members of Parliament may wish to express a view in debate that is particular to the problems facing their own regions in reserved matters, I do not see why that cannot be done in a forum such as Westminster Hall, where Members of Parliament from English constituencies—or, indeed, from Welsh constituencies if the matter under discussion related to Scotland—could also contribute to the discussion.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) highlighted the loss of cross-fertilisation of ideas between Members from different parts of the United Kingdom. I heartily endorse that view. One way of making sure that such cross-fertilisation continues is by ensuring that we have far more debates, for which Westminster Hall provides the very forum, and by ensuring that hon. Members who participate in those debates are drawn from all parts of the United Kingdom with interests in those matters.
The Grand Committee is a dinosaur relic. I was astonished when the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Alexander) suggested that the justification for the Grand Committee lay in the existence of the regional Standing Committees which, unless I am entirely mistaken, have not met since the late 1970s. That is a poor analogy. Regionalisation in England is not desired, and I would not wish to go down that road. There should be maximum opportunity for hon. Members to pool their ideas in a forum such as Westminster Hall, not through the Grand Committee.
The only proposal was that the Grand Committee should be suspended, not abolished. Such a measure could easily have been taken, but the Government have funked it, possibly because it has been a device that they could throw as a sop to their own Back-Bench Members from Wales and Scotland, to maintain the illusion that they would be able to continue as before. That is a failure to accept the reality of devolution, which the Opposition have shown themselves much readier to accept.
669 The role of the Secretary of State is a critical issue underpinning the Procedure Committee's report, although there is an exceptional lack of clarity on the matter. I hope that the Secretary of State for Scotland will not take my comments amiss. I fully recognise that through his efforts he is attempting to make sure that devolution works, even if I sometimes think that he is doing it wrongly, and that he is also attempting to define the relationship between himself and the First Minister in Scotland.
It is perhaps inevitable, but it is undoubtedly an unsatisfactory state of affairs that, several months after the devolution settlement has started, it is unclear what the Secretary of State is doing—whether he is simply dealing with the remaining reserved matters which belong to him, or whether he is acting in some sort of ambassadorial role as a broker and facilitator between the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive and this House and the United Kingdom Government.
It is important that we should have some more clarity because, as I said earlier, in fairness to the Procedure Committee, it is difficult to decide what questions should be allowed until one knows what answers can be given, and, above all, what answers can be given without those answers being a gross intrusion on the remit of powers that has been devolved to the Scottish Executive. It is an area that is ripe for conflict which the House needs to consider. The fact that the Procedure Committee has been unable to consider it completely is not its fault; it is because we have never had any clarity on the issue.
Simply by looking at what is in the concordats and then at what is said by the Government, one can see clear differences of emphasis about the role of the Secretary of State for Scotland. It would be helpful if we could have some further clarification from the Secretary of State on the issue.
The second problem, which appears to Conservative Members to be considerable, concerns the nature of the concordats. They, too, must underpin how procedure develops in the House. The concordats were published late and we may well have to have a far more detailed debate on them at some later date, but it is worth looking at what they say to start to understand some of the problems.
To begin with, the second paragraph of the introduction of this extraordinary document presented by the Lord Chancellor and, I presume, drafted by him, states:This memorandum is a statement of political intent and should not be interpreted as a binding agreement. It does not create legal obligations with the parties. It is intended to be binding in honour only.The last person I heard say that he was bound in honour only was a gangster who was about to appear in court, and it concerned his relationship with fellow gangsters. It all ended rather badly when the honour code under which they were operating collapsed.
But there is a point to this. The relationship between the different parts of the United Kingdom will work only if those who live in different parts of the United Kingdom wish it to work. There is no other basis to the concordats. There is no other basis to devolution. One of the most stunning aspects of the concordat document is that it blindly assumes that the Northern Ireland Executive, once set up, will be willing to sign up to it in exactly the same terms as has been done in Wales and Scotland, something which they have no obligation to do within their own devolved areas.
670 Therefore, the concordats will have to be renegotiated every time there is a change of Administration in Edinburgh or Cardiff—I think that the Secretary of State will have to accept that—unless they command such widespread acceptance in conventional matters that no one would wish to gainsay them.
That is why it appears to Conservative Members that the Government's approach in the matter is badly flawed. During the past three months there has been ample evidence that resentments are being stoked up—resentments with regard to the relationship between the Government and the Scottish Executive, which have been making newspaper headlines in Scotland virtually every day of the week; resentments which we English Members of Parliament pick up from our constituents in relation to the unfairnesses of devolution. In those circumstances, it is for the Government to ensure that public opinion triumphs in wanting to make devolution work. Accepting the Procedure Committee's recommendations would have been a good start.
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. John Reid)
We have had a wide-ranging and useful debate this afternoon. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and all the members of his Committee for the obvious work that they have put in. We are all deeply grateful to them.
As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said, the debate is not taking place in a vacuum and I shall remind the House of why we are having it. The Government came to power in 1997 with a clear commitment to modernise our constitution and to decentralise power throughout the United Kingdom. Devolution is about modernising the way in which we govern ourselves in this United Kingdom, decentralising power and empowering local institutions. I say that because devolution did not have the universal support of the House or of the parties represented in it.
Throughout the two decades during which we were working out the details of devolution, two parties opposed it tooth and nail: one party is represented on the Benches opposite me; the other is the Scottish National party. They were adamantly opposed to devolution. One party wanted to keep everything totally central; one wanted everything totally separate in Scotland. There has been a remarkable coincidence of views tonight, and the remarkable feature of tonight's debate is that the same two parties are still opposed to the devolution settlement.
Those parties oppose the role of the Secretary of State and of the Scottish Grand Committee—and what is, in practical terms, the outcome of the referendum. I am not for a minute suggesting that of hon. Member for Macclesfield, but merely pointing out the context in which the debate is taking place: the same unholy alliance of Tories and the SNP is doing everything to impede the practical working out of the devolution settlement, in the same fashion as they opposed the establishment of this partnership of Parliaments over the past 20 years.
§ Mr. Swinney
Can the Secretary of State inform us of any devolution measures put before the House in the past 20 years that Scottish National party MPs voted against? 671 Will he say which political parties campaigned on 11 September 1997 for the Scotland Act 1998, which was enacted by the House?
§ Dr. Reid
It does not surprise me that the Scottish National party votes for every piece of legislation that takes power from the House outwards; it comes as no surprise to anyone. The fact is, and I am choosing my words carefully, that for 20 of the 22 years that we were debating the practical proposals of this devolution settlement, the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney) and his colleagues opposed it. They underwent a conversion of Pauline proportions 18 months before the referendum, when they decided that they would back it. They support the Scottish Parliament the way a rope supports a hanging man, and they support devolution in order to strangle a devolved settlement because they recognise that devolution means a Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom. Just as my party opposed centralism, it will continue to oppose the separation, divorce and break-up of the United Kingdom which the hon. Gentleman and his party represent.
§ Dr. Reid
If I may make some progress, I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman.
Devolution is not about nationalism and it is not about separatism. On the contrary; in its practical implications for the House it is a response to the perception in the United Kingdom that the Government had become too remote, too centralised and out of touch with the needs of real people. The nationalists—the separatists—have exploited that perception, but I make it clear that devolution is as much about rebuilding and modernising the partnership that is the United Kingdom as it is about responding to local needs.
There is another important point about devolution being a process: empowerment does not begin and end in Scotland or in Wales. I hope I speak on behalf of the whole House: we hope that we are united in believing that the continuing efforts to solve differences in Northern Ireland and to enable the Good Friday agreement to be implemented will be successful.
The Greater London Authority Bill, which is close to completing its passage in the other place, will pass substantial executive powers downward, and elsewhere in England we are addressing the concerns of regional economic development by setting up regional development agencies. Regional chambers are being established in all regions where local authorities and other partners can come together to give voice to the interests of their region. The Government have made it clear that they are prepared to give regions of England directly elected assemblies where there is a demand for them. Devolution is a process, but not one that will inevitably lead to the break-up of the Britain.
Devolution is a process of empowerment that should be spread geographically to all areas of the United Kingdom. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution; it is a policy that has been tailored to suit the various parts of the United Kingdom and the Union as a whole.
Many of the points that Opposition Members made tonight were about inconsistencies, as if devolution and the British constitution had for centuries been free of 672 inconsistencies; as if both Chambers of this Parliament were elected—that is an inconsistency. I notice no opposition to that inconsistency from Opposition Members. The British constitution is strong because it can deal with inconsistencies, whether they are on the grand scale of one elected Chamber and one appointed Chamber, or whether it is because a male Roman Catholic Scottish Member of Parliament can vote on whether the Church of England has women ministers. The British constitution is riddled with inconsistencies. That is not its weakness; it is the strength of the United Kingdom.
That is why, with all our inconsistencies, we have gone for centuries avoiding coups d'état, civil wars and the disruption that occurs throughout Europe among people who have little, neat, consistent, written constitutions. The more the Opposition denigrate our constitution and its flexibility, the more they illustrate that they do not understand what it means to be British and, in practice, to support the Union.
§ Mr. Grieve
I heartily endorse all the Secretary of State's comments about the strength of the inconsistencies of the British constitution. However, are they not there because they are accepted? It is when they no longer command acceptance that they need addressing, which is in a sense exactly what the right hon. Gentleman did over devolution and should now do over the knock-on consequences.
§ Dr. Reid
That is exactly the point to which I was coming—at last we find something on which we agree.
The question, therefore, is not whether we have a neat, tidy, symmetrical equation that matches up on every side; the question is, does it work? Does it respond to the needs and aspirations of the people of the United Kingdom? We have devolution precisely because it responds to those questions. As we decentralise, and empower people throughout the United Kingdom, we must change at the centre, and we are prepared to do so. That is precisely why we are having this discussion. We are prepared to change. I speak with a Scottish accent and I accept that we must have fewer Scottish Members of Parliament.
I accept that there must be a diminution in the time that we spend on Scottish questions, but I do not accept the implication of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and his nationalist allies that, now that they have failed to stop one side of the devolution settlement—the establishment of our Parliament—they will not stop until they have completely diminished the presence of Scottish or Welsh Members in this Union. I do not doubt their sincerity and motives No one was more sincere or purely motivated in defending the United Kingdom than Baroness Thatcher however, and no one did more to break up the fabric and unity of the UK than that same lady, whatever her motives.
§ Mr. Welsh
The Secretary of State is a unionist and a nationalist. We accept those as honourable standpoints, and argue for and against them. However, I cannot allow him to rewrite history. He will find that the Scottish National party supported the Labour party on devolution. I was in the Chamber in the 1970s, and some of the biggest opponents to devolution included Neil Kinnock and some of his colleagues in the Labour party.
§ Dr. Reid
I do not want to get involved in private grief within the SNP, but it is now in a peculiar position. 673 Its candidate for the Hamilton, South by-election said that she did not really want to come to Westminster in the first place. I presume that she came here to watch Alex Salmond. Alex Salmond does not come here. The Queen comes to this House once a year, which is slightly more frequently than the leader of the SNP. He says that he comes here to keep an eye on the British Government. Meanwhile, Margo MacDonald says that she does not want to go to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood because she opposes that, but she goes there only to watch Alex Salmond to see whether he is selling out there—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he is referring to another Member of this House. He should therefore do so not by his name but by his constituency.
§ Dr. Reid
I thought that Margo MacDonald had left the House, but perhaps she attends with the same regularity as the leader of the SNP and I have just missed her.
I can tell members of the Scottish National party that no one in the House is fooled by anything they do. They have only one reason for being, which is to break up Britain and to divorce Scotland from the United Kingdom and from the House.
§ Mr. Winterton
In the last five minutes of the debate, could the Secretary of State direct his attention to the fourth report of the Procedure Committee, which we are discussing? I am interested in his response, because the Committee hopes that in due course the Government will implement more of our recommendations.
§ Dr. Reid
Of course I shall do so. I was merely trying to be courteous to our visitors.
One of the great areas of debate was the Grand Committee system. I have an interest in that, not just because of the report, but because I awoke this morning to hear that I was to be decimated on this issue by the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney). As usual, he has turned out to be a horizontal champ. He took issue with our decision to disagree with the Select Committee on this matter. He forgot to mention that he supported the Grand Committee system in his submission to the hon. Member for Macclesfield, and he was abandoned by the Welsh nationalists, who supported the Government's position.
The major areas of policy in legislation that affect the everyday lives of men and women in Scotland and England are reserved to Westminster. They are hugely important matters that apply to the whole of the United Kingdom, although they may have a distinct effect in different areas. It is the Government's view that we should have a forum to discuss such matters. There could, for instance, be the controversial issue of the disbandment of the Scottish regiments, but it appears that the SNP would no longer want to have that discussion, because they do not want such a forum.
674 The Government accept that the Grand Committee system should apply to Wales, and believe that it should also apply to the regions of England. That is why we submitted proposals to the Modernisation Committee for a Standing Committee on Regional Affairs, which would allow, for instance, MPs from Yorkshire or from Lancashire to discuss issues that would be implemented at UK level, but which would have a distinct effect on the people in their area as a result of local demography, local geography or local history. That is eminently sensible. I have read that it is my intention to use Grand Committees to duplicate the work of the Scottish Parliament. That is not my intention. There are many important matters to discuss, and I am more than happy for English MPs to discuss them as well.
There was much talk arising from the report about the unfairness of Scottish MPs, participating in English debates. That argument would carry slightly more weight if I had not read the list of questions at the previous Scottish Question Time in the House. Hon. Members may be interested to know that Question 1 was from a Conservative, the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), followed by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) obviously spoke during Scottish questions. The hon. Members who spoke on Question 2 were the hon. Members for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).
The number of questions that English MPs table at Scottish Question Time is considerable. I have no complaint about that: it is appropriate and proper. However, it is not proper for the Opposition to argue one thing when it comes to English MPs, but to argue the opposite when it comes to Scotland.
I commend the Government's response to the report, and I hope that the House will accept it.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the Fourth Report from the Procedure Committee on The procedural Consequences of Devolution (HC 185), and the First Special Report from the Committee (HC 814) containing the Government Response.