HL Deb 24 February 1977 vol 380 cc379-84

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Lord President in another place reads as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement.

"The Government have considered the position on the Scotland and Wales Bill in the light of the decision of the House on Tuesday not to approve the proposed timetable Motion.

"The Government remain committed to the principle of devolution. We believe that devolution is essential both to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the people of Scotland and Wales and to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom. We also believe that these objectives are met by the schemes embodied in the Scotland and Wales Bill.

"The vote on the Second Reading of the Bill demonstrated that a substantial majority of the House approve the basic principle of the Bill. However, it is clear from Tuesday's vote that many honourable Members have strong reservations which have yet to be removed about particular features of the proposals, and some have offered suggestions about how these might be changed. The Government believe that our proposals are in fact soundly based; but we are entirely willing not only to explain them further but also to consider how they might be improved, so that what finally reaches the Statute Book shall reflect the widest possible agreement in Parliament.

"The Government believe that in general the working out of legislative proposals is best conducted by the normal processes of the House of Commons. We are however ready in the exceptional circumstances of devolution to supplement these processes by special discussions. We intend therefore, within the coming week, to issue invitations to each of the other Parties represented in the House to enter into discussions. The aim of these discussions will be to explore how we may achieve, if it is possible, a wider agreement in the House. The Government envisage that it would be best to start the initial discussions on a bilateral basis, but will be fully prepared to consider suggestions to place substantive talks on a wider basis if the initial discussions suggest that this would be useful. At this stage, the Government would not wish to rule out any particular method that might prove a fruitful way of carrying matters forward."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord will be aware how eagerly this Statement has been awaited on all sides of the House. It is indeed welcome that in the Statement the Government should have recognised that legislation designed to bring about major constitutional change cannot be unduly rushed, but can proceed only after discussion has established at least a measure of all Party agreement, and indeed countrywide acceptance.

Having said how much we welcome the Statement, I should like to call attention to one rather curious feature of it. The Statement refers to, …the normal processes of the House of Commons. I do not think that we in this House would wish to be hypersensitive, nor arrogant, nor would we wish in any way to upset our colleagues in another place. But I should like to suggest that possibly this House might have a contribution to make in a matter of this kind, of this constitutionally earth-shaking character, in which possibly the discussions which can be held in this House are free from the tyranny of looking over the shoulder at the ballot box and so could perhaps be of some value.

I should like to take up the very last point that the Statement makes, where it is said: …the Government would not wish to rule out any particular method that might prove a fruitful way of carrying matters forward. I believe that we might have a contribution to make, my Lords.


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble and learned Lord for repeating the Statement made in another place. We on these Benches agree that devolution is essential, and we warmly welcome the procedure which the Government now propose to follow of holding bilateral talks with the Parties represented in another place. That is, I think, a course which was first advocated by my honourable friend in another place, Mr. Russell Johnston, and it offers a hope of getting out of the present impasse.

I am wondering whether the Government have in mind any period of time for these discussions. We do not agree that the proposals in the Bill, as the Statement puts it, are entirely soundly based, and we are glad that the Government are prepared to consider improvements. I hope that in this connection they will be prepared to consider in particular the possibility of giving revenue raising powers to the Assemblies, the possibility of giving greater power over industry and agriculture, and the possibility of using a different electoral system. I am sure that much will depend upon the degree of flexibility which the Government bring to these matters.


My Lords, I am grateful for the response which has been given to the Statement. I should like to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, that I think that my right honourable friend the Lord President was applying his mind to the proceedings in another place. I do not think that he intended, either expressly or otherwise, to exclude the obvious contribution which this House can make to the discussion, above all, of important constitutional questions—this in a House where there is so much expertise that can be directed to those problems.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, said that it was important that consideration of these matters should not be unduly rushed. No one can say that that has happened until now in the consideration of the Bill; but clearly there are many problems to be resolved. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, asked whether there was a time factor. It is clearly very desirable that these talks about talks (if I may so describe them) should be terminated as soon as is reasonably possible. The points that the noble Lord has raised are obviously the kind of matters that will fall for consideration in the discussion as to whether we can find a suitable basis to reach a wider level of agreement about the devolution proposals. No doubt the matters that he has mentioned will be part of the bilateral discussions which we hope will take place with the approval of all the Parties.

Lord HOME of the HIRSEL

My Lords, will the Lord Chancellor accept that there is, I suspect, great relief in many quarters, on all sides of the House, that the Government have taken this course of action? It is clearly far the best way to proceed. Would the Lord Chancellor perhaps represent to his colleagues that the present structure of local government in Scotland is very unsatisfactory, and cannot be divorced from the central problem of how you deal with the devolution of powers from Westminster? So could we hope that this question will be embraced by those who consider these matters in the wider context?


My Lords, I am not quite sure how far I should go by way of commitment to extending the area of discussion into the sphere of reform of local government. There are many who think that some changes which took place in local government not so long ago have not been entirely successful, if I may put it as moderately as I can—and I see one of those responsible is smiling appreciatively at what I have said. It is a matter that falls for consideration, but I cannot promise the noble Lord, Lord Home, that it will be immediately on the tapis.


My Lords, may we deduce from the very welcome Statement which has just been made that the way is now happily clear for the early introduction of legislation regarding direct elections to the European Parliament?


My Lords, that is a matter which is under consideration. It may well be that if there be an interval for further legislation there would be greater opportunity for discussing that among other measures.


My Lords, I wonder whether, when they consult, the Government intend in this case to consult with those people who believe in devolution—with their friends, instead of the enemies of devolution—because up till now the Government have tried to get away with the minimum consultation. I trust that the approach is now going to be much more positive, and that the consultations will also take into account the Government's own supporters who have not been too co-operative up till now.


My Lords, I do not think the basis of discussion will be of a selective nature. Certainly it would be unfruitful to consult only those who agree with everything we have done so far; but clearly there will be discussions across the board, and I would not exempt those of my friends in another place who so far have manifested their own concern about some of the difficult problems that arise.

Viscount ECCLES

My Lords, while I welcome very much the Statement repeated by the noble and learned Lord, I think I understood him to say that the discussions would start off with bilateral discussions and then possibly move on to multilateral discussions. May I ask him whether it would not be better to get multilateral discussions moving as soon as possible? Suspicion will be aroused if the Government try to negotiate certain concessions with one Party and other concessions with another Party. What we want is to get Party politics out of this, and to get an agreed basis for devolution. That, I am sure, exists, but it will not be promoted by bilateral discussions.


My Lords, this will be one of the objects of the bilateral discussions. We are not really sufficiently sure of what promising ground lies ahead for multilateral talks. It is better, I should have thought, to have talks with each of the Parties at this stage to see where we go from there. To plunge forthwith into a multilateral arrangement which might prove to be quite unacceptable could set the thing off on the wrong foot ab initio.