HL Deb 25 May 1976 vol 371 cc141-53

3.46 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House I shall now repeat a Statement that is being made in another place by the Lord President of the Council. The Statement is as follows: " I wish to tell the House of decisions the Government have taken to carry forward our policy on devolution in Scotland and Wales.

" We are determined to introduce legislation affecting both Scotland and Wales at the beginning of the next Session, and to ask Parliament to pass it in that Session. The announcement I made to the House on 14th April about starting to incur commitments on accommodation for the two Assemblies was a sign of our resolve.

" As my predecessor promised, we have considered the possibility of having separate Bills for Scotland and Wales. We have decided to keep to a single combined Bill, Separate Bills would demand too much Parliamentary time for both to pass in a single Session.

" We have decided against holding a referendum on our devolution proposals. There have been wide opportunities, before and since the last General Election for public discussion of them.

" We have decided not to publish a draft Bill in the present Session, since this would divert effort from the preparation of the Bill for next Session.

" I turn now to the substance of our devolution proposals; I should like to inform the House of certain decisions we have reached, in the light of comments on our White Paper, about the Development Agencies and the constitutional roles of the Secretaries of State.

" We have decided that responsibility for all operations of the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies, and for all appointments to them should be transferred to the devolved Administrations. This includes responsibility for financing the Agencies from the resources controlled by the devolved Administrations. To ensure that there can be no unfair competition with other parts of the United Kingdom. the industrial investment operations of the Agencies will he subject to guidelines laid down by the Government from time to time. With this qualification, they will be wholly the responsibility of the devolved Administrations. They will also retain their existing powers to act under the direction of the Secretary of State in selective industrial assistance cases under Section 7 of the Industry Act 1972.

"I turn next to the constitutional roles of the Secretaries of State, particularly in Scotland. In the light of the views expressed in Parliament and elsewhere, we have made the following decisions. First, while our consideration of the detailed arrangements for examination of the vires of Scottish Assembly primary legislation is not complete, we have decided that, if there is doubt at the pre-assent stage about the vires of an Assembly Bill, the issue will be resolved on a reference to a judicial body, most probably the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. It follows that the Government Will not have the power to reject Assembly Bills on vires grounds.

" Secondly, while the formal act of appointment of the Scottish Executive will rest with the Secretary of State he will, in respect of the appointment of the Chief Executive, act on the advice of the Assembly and, in respect of other Executive Members, on the advice of the Chief Executive. Assistants to the Executive will be appointed by the Chief Executive.

" Thirdly. the Secretary of State will have no role in fixing the maximum size of the Scottish Executive or the pay of its Members. These matters will be left to the Assembly, as will comparable ones in Wales.

" We have not completed our detailed consideration of United Kingdom reserve powers other than Parliament's inherent power to legislate. We shall however make a major change in this field. Any general reserve powers, whatever their precise form and mechanisms, will be limited to situations where their use is necessary to prevent unacceptable repercussions on matters for which the United Kingdom Government will remain responsible. We have never envisaged using such powers simply because we might politically dislike what was being done, and the change we are making puts this beyond doubt. I reaffirm also that whatever the form of any general powers they will, as the White Paper made clear, be subject to the direct and specific control of Parliament, and not available simply at the hand of the Government.

" The Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales will remain, in accordance with the Government's commitments, members of the Cabinet, and will play their full part in the development of United Kingdom policies.

" Decisions on a number of further issues remain to be reached. I shall make a further report to the House before the summer recess.

" The Government have listened carefully to the national debate on devolution, and we have improved our schemes in the light of it. We now move forward, as we promised, from the phase of discussion to the phase of' legislation and fulfilment. This is what Scotland and Wales had a right to expect. The good faith of the United Kingdom Parliament can strengthen and enhance the Union."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for repeating the Statement made in another place. Clearly, the Government have made some changes as a result of the criticism of their proposals in the White Paper, and we welcome most of them so far as they go. But there is one essential change which has not yet been made because the noble Lord said there was still to be a single Bill. On this Bench we believe that Scotland and Wales should be dealt with in separate Bills because the situations arc entirely different. The reason given, that there is not enough Parliamentary time for two Bills, is just the kind of situation or pretext which causes dissatisfaction, certainly North of the Border, with the present Parliamentary situation.

When the noble Lord said that there would he no draft Bill in this Session, does that mean that there will be a draft Bill. as was foreshadowed, in the coming session before the actual Bill appears? That would provide a further stage for consultations. Then the noble Lord indicated that no change had been made on the question of two Executives. We pointed out in the devolution debate that creating two Executives, the Secretary of State and his Executive and a new Executive in the Scottish or Welsh Assembly, was creating an arena for conflict, so that is not a basic change which we still believe should be made.

Regarding the points where changes have occurred, the Development Agencies are now to come under one Executive; that is accepted in principle, though the detail needs to be examined from what the noble Lord said. On vires and reserve powers, the Government have moved in the direction which many noble Lords advocated in our debate on devolution, including myself, On vires we stated we thought this should be determined judicially and not by Government decision, so the Government are meeting that point. When the noble Lord states that the Government have decided that there should he no referendum, does he accept that most people have felt that if there were to be a referendum the question should be not on certain devolution proposals, but on whether there should be a breakup of the United Kingdom into two or more countries.

Is the noble Lord aware that recent opinion polls in Scotland, for example, confirm that at present about 80 per cent. of the population there are opposed to independence and the attendant breakup of Britain? At least a referendum now or in the near future would register that. Es the noble Lord also aware that the Scottish National Party are opposed to devolution, save only as a stepping stone to breaking up Britain, and that the greatest care will be necessary therefore to work out a system of devolution which will be stable. Is he also aware that the present degree of support for the Scottish National Party is not for their objective but because of discontent with the present arrangements? I and many others recognise that reform is necessary. though it should be handled with the greatest of care.

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, I also should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for repeating the Statement made in another place. While the changes in the White Paper proposals which the Statement outlines do not transform it into the federal system of Assemblies for Scotland and Wales and for the regions of England which we on these Benches have been advocating for so long, they remove some of the most severely criticised proposals in the White Paper and, to that extent, we welcome these changes and hope for more in due course. In particular, we welcome the transfer of the control of the Development Agencies to the Assemblies. We approve the pre-assent judicial review arrangements which are outlined. We are glad that the central Government are not to have power to question Assembly legislation on the grounds of vires. We welcome the assertion of intention in the Statement regarding the objection on policy grounds, but it seems to be merely an assertion of intention, and I am wondering whether it is to be incorporated into the Bill in some way.

I share the regret of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, that there are not to be two separate Bills, one for Wales and one for Scotland. There are to be further decisions, the Statement tells us, and I hope that one of those might be to introduce a form of proportional representation for the election of the Assemblies. I should like to ask the noble Lord what is the position about the White Paper which has been promised on the English regions?

Arising out of that, we have been discussing at various times in recent months in this House a wide variety of Constitutional issues, not merely devolution but a Bill of Rights, elections to the European Parliament, local government and other matters. Would the noble Lord agree it is important to see them as a whole and not piecemeal? Does he think that there is a case for an overall Government Statement on the whole question of the Constitution into which these various pieces could he fitted?

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the way that both noble Lords have approached this Statement. It seems to me that they have given a broad support to the proposals. Regarding a referendum, may I say to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, that it refers to the question of devolution. Whatever may be the merits of a referendum, clearly devolution is not something which is susceptible to a reply, " Yes " or " No ". It is far too complicated and involved.

I agree with the noble Lord as to the present sentiment in Scotland about independence and the maintenance of the United Kingdom. I think it is generally recognised in Scotland that the matter is not only one for the Scots but that the English and Welsh also have a say here. I think there is a general recognition that what is devolved should be devolved on a stable basis. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, criticised the fact of having only one Bill and with lack of time being given as the reason. My Lords, these are complicated matters which need to be examined by both Houses with the greatest care. I think it would be accepted that if devolution is granted to Scotland it would need to be given to Wales at the same time. Therefore the problem of handling two Bills of this nature would be immense and would greatly reduce the amount of time the two Houses would have for the proper consideration of the proposals. Therefore, I believe that the Government are right in their decision.

As to whether there will be a draft Bill, the answer is, " No ". We intend to introduce the Bill as soon as possible after the opening of the next Session so that consideration of the clauses can start immediately. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, asked me whether the guidelines would be put in the Bill. Again the answer is, " No "; hut provision will be made in the Bill for guidelines to be brought into effect and given legal hacking by means of a Statutory Instrument. I hope—though I cannot be too specific now—that the draft of those guidelines will be available for Parliament to consider and debate some time before the Statutory Instrument is placed before the House.

The noble Lord, Lord Banks, also asked about the English regions and the commitment contained in the White Paper. That commitment still remains in force, but anyone who has been involved in the reform— others may prefer the word " change "—in local government in recent years will recognise the very great difficulties involved in producing a Paper which will receive not only support but general understanding within England. I hope that that Paper might be available before the Summer Recess, but quite clearly such a Paper will be absolutely vital before the Bill is introduced in another place during the next Session.

I think that deals with all the points that were raised, except the normal one which comes from our Liberal friends in regard to proportional representation. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, asked whether the Government would consider making a Statement, bringing forward the various constitutional changes that are envisaged with regard to the European Parliament, devolution and so on. I should like to consider this matter, and perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to write to him.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, listening to his Statement, I have arrived at a conclusion that devolution can result in only one thing. Devolution means separatism, and we shall have separatism once devolution is introduced, even more in Scotland than in Wales. I am all in favour of a referendum to be taken, because I can see that what is going to happen so far as Wales and Scotland are concerned is that a great deal of power will be vested in the hands of the Secretaries of State of those nations whereas, for example, the Yorkshire and Durham regions, taken together in population, exceed the population of Scotland and Wales at this moment. Therefore, further consideration should be given to this matter. This is my personal reaction, and I really think it will lead to one thing only; that is, separatism, so far as the United Kingdom is concerned.


My Lords, my noble friend clearly is entitled to his view, and I know it is shared by many. But those who have examined this matter take the view that whatever risks there may he, the risks of not recognising the very great pressures that exist in Scotland and Wales and the consequent risks of a break-up of the unitary State are infinitely greater. I would not give my support to the devolution proposals unless I had complete and utter confidence in the stability of Scotland and Wales and in the sense of self-interest, if I may use that phrase, of those people regarding the need to maintain the unitary State.


My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the House has told us, as indeed did the Statement, that there is no Parliamentary time for two Bills. I hope the noble Lord is aware that West of Offa's Dyke this will be read to mean that whereas there is time for a Bill concerning the devolution of Scotland, there is no time for a similar Bill concerning the devolution of Wales, and that this will he taken the more seriously since the problems of the two countries are scarcely related at all, particularly with regard to the very large area they cover.

The noble Lord the Leader of the House has said that the Government have listened closely to the national debate on this matter. I think that if they listened more closely they would hear that opinion has moved away from the position of the Government in Wales and that the majority of people do not wish to have a form of devolution, and certainly not one analogous to that in Scotland. It was already apparent at the time of our debate on this subject in this House that four of the noble Lords who spoke from the Benches opposite were all hostile to the proposition of devolution. However, not one of them received-an answer in reply to the many points they raised; nor did f myself. I hope the noble Lord is aware that there is a resentment against the setting aside of the Welsh interest as though it were being made to appear subordinate to that of Scotland, and I hope that this will he put right.


My Lords, with a Prime Minister who represents a Welsh constituency, I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, should suggest that a Government led by the present Prime Minister would place 'Wales in a detrimental position in relation to Scotland. When we have the Bill, it will be seen that not only is it a complicated measure but that both countries have their proper share in it. We wish to see one Bill and one Act, with both countries going to their devolved responsibilities together.

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support what my noble friend Lord Banks has said in respect of the United Kingdom and I should also like to put one or two points which are particularly related to Scotland. First, I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in that I fail to see why one Bill embracing both countries should take up less time than two Bills separately; because there is no question at all that the feeling in Wales is entirely different from that in Scotland and, further, there is no question of a clear geographical boundary. The general economic circumstances of the two countries are also entirely different. I should have thought this would have been recognised and that it would take up quite as much time to have a composite Bill as it would to have two separate Bills.

Secondly, I should like to congratulate the Government on, somewhat belatedly, bowing to popular democratic expression of feeling throughout the United Kingdom and of being enormously sensible in the advances they have made. I particularly welcome the independence of the Scottish Development Agency, but I should like to ask what the Government mean by the phrase " from their own resources ". Are the Government accepting the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Home, that a proportion of the oil revenues be set aside- which suggestion was hacked by my humble self—or have they other resources? Or are they expecting the Scots to finance the SDA out of the £2,000 million which, as the noble Lord knows, it is enormously difficult to shift in one year?

Thirdly, I should like to welcome the abandonment of the vice-regal powers of the Secretary of State and ask whether, along with this, the Government will consider abandoning the petty use of the term " executive and assistant ". With respect, why the devil should we not call it a Parliament, and call them Ministers as is their right? Thirdly, I should like to raise what to me and a whole lot of other people is a very important point, and very important to the economy of Scotland, about the control of agriculture. Agriculture and farming are a very much larger part of the economy of Scotland than they are of England. It is something which was controlled by the Ulster Parliament very successfully, and I have never understood the abandonment of it in the projected legislation.


My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord. Lord Mackie, recognises that this Government bow to democratic opinion. We said at the very outset, when we produced our White Paper which had green edges. that we wished to hear comment. We have had comment, we have listened to it and we have sought to respond to it. With regard to the question of time, and whether it is one Bill or two, the noble Lord is entitled to his own view. I have mine, and it is backed up by those who have long experience in arranging the business in another place. In regard to own resources and the Scottish Development Agency, it will be open to the Assembly on how to allocate the block grant. It will also still retain the right to make surcharges on the rates. The Assembly will have responsibility and it will be for that body to decide how to use the resources available to it, and what should be the priorities. In regard to the name " executive ", and the body that will have administrative responsibility for the Assembly, I also share the view of the noble Lord that the name is not exactly inspiring. We are not wedded to it, and if Parliament can find a better word, it will be for it to insert it into the Bill. Finally, agriculture will remain with the Secretary of State.


My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned the question of local government. Unfortunately, the reform of local government came a couple of years before the suggestions about the Assembly, with the result that if we in Scotland have the Assembly we shall have five, or possibly six, tiers of government, from the community councils up to the regional government. I hope that when the Government are discussing all the details. which I gather from the noble Lord have not yet been finally decided, they will seriously think of the extraordinary complication of a regional government, a district government, a community government and 71 Members of Parliament plus the European Parliament. We could well do without one tier of local government which, in my opinion, should he the region, and go back to the county and the district, plus the Assembly. I hope that this suggestion will be considered, because otherwise we shall be the most heavily governed 5½million people in the world, and I cannot believe that we shall all agree.


My Lords, if the noble Baroness had exercised her present caution when some of the local authority legislation was being passed by the Government which she supported, she might not be in her present difficulties. The Statement that is before the House does not cover that, but clearly this is a matter which we shall need to consider when legislation comes before the House.

The PRINCIPAL DEPUTY CHAIRMAN of COMMITTEES (Baroness Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie)

My Lords, in view of the wide range of domestic responsibilities proposed to be given to the Scottish Assembly, can the noble Lord the Leader of the House say what will be the position of the 71 Members of another place? Will they have no say at all in domestic matters, as of course happened in the Northern Ireland Parliament?


My Lords, the Members of another place will be elected by the democratic Parliamentary procedure for the United Kingdom as a whole. They will have no control over, or be able to interfere in, those matters which are devolved to the Scottish or Welsh Assemblies. But there are a number of matters which are being retained to the Secretary of State, which really means the Westminster Parliament, and they will clearly have a direct interest in and responsibility for them. My Lords, we have been discussing this subject for 29 minutes, and I wonder whether the House feels that we should now return to the Energy Bill.


My Lords, can there be one question from the Cross-Benches? When we set up the Government of Northern Ireland, no one foresaw that Stormont might take action which would impinge on the rights and privileges of a major minority of the Province, and would pursue policies which were really objectionable to the people of the United Kingdom as a whole. Will the Government he including some kind of entrenched provisions, which will prevent this from happening in the Assemblies which are now projected?


No. my Lords. What one is doing is devolving responsibility to these two Assemblies, but at the end of the day the sovereignty and the responsibility for the protection and guaranteeing of human rights will remain in Westminster. I know that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, expressed interest in this matter when the noble Lord, Lord Wade, introduced a Bill, and the Government gave an undertaking that they would produce a paper on the question of human rights. When the paper is issued—and I hope that it will not be too long delayed—this is perhaps a matter which we can debate and consider whether or not action can be taken. I come back to what I said earlier. We have now been discussing this subject for 31 minutes, and I suggest that we move to the next business.