HL Deb 26 July 1977 vol 386 cc896-907

4.8 p.m.


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

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

"In the light of the debates in the House and other representations, the Government have decided that new proposals should be brought forward for devolution. I wish to inform the House of the main changes we now propose.

"The Government will introduce two Bills next Session to provide, respectively, for devolution to Scotland and to Wales. The Government have always been fully and equally committed to the achievement of devolution for both countries and we will present the two Bills to the House on that understanding and on the same basis. We believe that the House would welcome the separate consideration of what are dissimilar proposals.

"For any question relating to the interpretation or application of the devolution Statutes, we will now propose that the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council should be the final court of reference, as well as undertaking the pre-Assent scrutiny of Scottish Assembly Bills. The Judicial Committee will thereby finally be the sole court determining questions on vires.

"We believe that it is possible to dispense with certain of the detailed controls on the actions of the devolved Administrations to provide more clear-cut arrangements. We will propose that the Government's general reserve powers should be available only in cases where a matter is prejudiced for which there is no devolved responsibility. The powers will remain as an essential safeguard to protect matters which are not be to devolved, for example defence, trade, the economy and industrial relations.

"We will omit the proposed statutory powers to limit rents and prescribe model rent and rebate schemes. We will no longer provide for the Secretary of State's consent being necessary for changes in the pay and pensions of Scottish teachers, and for the pensions arrangements of a number of public bodies in both Scotland and Wales.

"As for the Assemblies themselves, we have concluded that they should be left much freer to arrange and to conduct their business, and we will accordingly omit a number of the provisions in Part II of the Scotland and Wales Bill. On reconsideration, we believe that members of the Scottish Executive should have the title of Secretary, and the head of the Executive the title of First Secretary. We will also propose a power of premature dissolution for the Scottish Assembly, dependent on a vote of at least two-thirds of its members. We no longer propose the creation of Assembly Commissioners for the investigation of complaints against the new Administrations and their officials, and will propose that the Scottish Assembly should be able to legislate on this matter.

"We will also propose the reservation of responsibility for the pay and pensions of teachers, and of health service employees in Wales.

"Given the expressed concerns about the structure of local government in Wales, we will propose that the Welsh Assembly should have a statutory duty to review the structure of local government.

"The Government are continuing to develop these and other proposals for inclusion in new legislation for introduction next Session. The House will, of course, wish to consider them fully when they are expressed in legislative form and can provide the basis for debate. We have already made clear that in any future debate on proportional representation for the devolved Assemblies there will be a free vote on this side of the House.

"In our review we have paid particular attention to the arrangements for financing the devolved services. A White Paper is being published this afternoon setting out our conclusions and the background to them. It sets out measures which we have in mind to improve the working of the block fund arrangements. First, we shall propose to the devolved Administrations the possibility of setting up an independent advisory board, with the task of improving the information base for financial discussions. Secondly, we shall propose a new approach for settling levels of devolved expenditure. The new system would relate the total of devolved expenditure to comparable expenditure elsewhere in the country, and would establish a percentage formula which would be maintained for a number of years, as an alternative to negotiations every year with the devolved Administrations. The Government will wish to take account of the views of the devolved Administrations on the acceptability and operation of this formula-based system.

"The House will wish to know that we have not identified any satisfactory form of independent revenue raising power for the devolved Administrations. But if the new Administrations wish to put forward proposals for a tax power to supplement the block fund within the conditions set out in the White Paper, and the Administrations were prepared to meet the costs, the Government will consider such proposals sympathetically.

"Additionally, on the establishment of the new Administrations, it is the Government's intention to seek their agreement to the establishment of Joint Councils for Scotland and for Wales, on which representatives of the Government and the new Administrations could consult as necessary on matters of common concern. These would provide a valuable means of ensuring continuing co-operation and consultation.

"In relation to England, consultations are continuing on the basis of our consultative document Devolution: The English Dimension, which the Government published at the end of last year.

"The Government believe that the changes now proposed will result in simpler and more clear-cut arrangements for devolution, and firmly secure the interests of the people of the United Kingdom as a whole".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful to the noble and learned Lord, and I should like to express my own gratitude to him for having deferred the repetition of the Statement until the Judicial Committee upstairs was able to conclude its business at four o'clock. He will also understand that I have probably had less time to consider some of the Statement's details than I otherwise would have had. I am also grateful to my noble friends for allowing a person like myself, with a certain number of personal bees floating about in his bonnet, to reply from the Opposition Front Bench, which perhaps I ought not to do.

I do not want to start a debate about devolution in the middle of this afternoon's Business, and the content of the Statement is sufficiently important to make me cautious about what I say in reply to the noble and learned Lord. I think we have been into this point before, but I should, nevertheless, like to express a regret that the Government persist ultimately in treating this as an ordinary programmed Bill, to be processed through the ordinary Government machine. It has always been my view, and it is, I think, the view of the Party to which I belong, that a widespread consultation with various political organisations, including the Opposition Parties, should be the basis for any important constitutional proposals of this kind. The proposal for consultation which we were given was limited to the parameters of the existing legislation and that, for reasons which we explained publicly, was not good enough for us.

Perhaps I have missed it, but I do not see any reference to referenda in the Statement as delivered by the noble and learned Lord. Do the Government's promises on referenda still stand, or have they been silently withdrawn? Are the people of Wales and the people of Scotland, when the proposals have been passed— if they ever are—to be consulted before they become effective?

I regard the reference to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as a retrograde step. The reason is that the Government have now gone back to the proposal that the Privy Council should decide in advance as to the vires of particular proposals in front of the legislative Assemblies. To my mind no court of law, however wise and judicious and judicial, can possibly tell in advance about vires, and to submit the question of vires to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in advance, as the sole court of jurisdiction is, in effect, to deprive the subject who may be adversely affected by legislative proposals of the right to protest to the courts ex post facto. I regard this a highly retrograde step, and I express my disagreement with it.

I do not think it would be right for me to comment in detail on many of the remarks that the noble and learned Lord has made. My own information about opinion in Wales (as to which the noble and learned Lord is naturally very much better informed than I am, mine depending really on hearsay) is that any form of Welsh Assembly is so far not attractive to Welsh opinion as a whole, and this reinforces what I had to say about the necessity for referenda. My first reaction—although I do not wish to take it further than that—to the financial proposals is that they will not satisfy Scottish Nationalist opinion at all, and they may not satisfy any Welsh Nationalist opinion there may be. My view is that, sooner or later, if you are going in for some kind of devolution, which in the end means coming to terms with some form of federation, you have to give either precepting powers or tax-raising powers to the devolved Assemblies. This is not said as a member of the Conservative Party: it is said in good faith as a student of the subject. I have kept it as short as possible, and I hope I have kept it as restrained as possible. Having said that, I have said what I have to say.

4.22 p.m.


My Lords, in following the noble and learned Lord I should like to thank the Lord Chancellor for repeating this Statement, and I should like to give it a fairly enthusiastic welcome. I think it is a great advance on the previous Bill, and the Government are to be congratulated, in my view, on having taken a considerable step forward and on having consulted very much more widely than before. Perhaps I may comment on one or two points, going through the Statement.

I think that two Bills are very necessary and very much more sensible, but I should like to ask in what order the Government propose to take them as they go through the House, and how they propose to do it. Unlike the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, and of course with a great deal less knowledge, if I may say so, I rather like the idea of the Judicial Committee. My understanding is that it could operate both before and after—that it could both study the effects of the proposed Bill and comment on it, and act as a forum for the citizen after the Bill is passed. Certainly it is a great deal better than the proposals contained in the previous Bill, where the Secretary of State was given the powers of a Governor-General, rather. Indeed, I thought this paragraph, dealing with the Government's general reserve powers, rather significant. I was very glad to see that there had been this restriction, and, along with the proposal with regard to the Judicial Committee, I think this will be a great improvement, and certainly very much more acceptable to the people of Scotland.

I am delighted about the apparently small matter of the names of the Ministers in Scotland. I do not see why we could not have followed Northern Ireland's example, and simply called the chief man the Prime Minister, but "First Secretary" and "Secretary" are very much better than "Chief Executive", in which I thought the Government were small-minded. I am always glad to see such improvements in the Government—due, no doubt, to the influence of excellent people. Going on from that, and dealing, again, with Wales (although, obviously, I am not as well qualified to speak for Wales), I think it is cognisant of the situation to impose a statutory duty on the Assembly to review local government. I trust that in Scotland the Assembly themselves will do that.

The agreement on proportional representation is very important indeed, as we have a free vote, and I have no doubt that noble Lords on this side of the House will be delighted to support the proposals for a free vote upon proportional representation. On the levels of devolved expenditure, I think that the formula is a great advance. I personally have looked for long at the question of taxation—and it is a very difficult one. When you look at the behaviour of Eire in the days pre-Common Market, there is no question but that a closely involved economy has to look at the major partner, which is of course England, with 50 million people, and it makes the question of varying expenditure extremely difficult. But at least with a formula over four years, the Assembly in Scotland will not be constantly supervised over every single detail by a long-nosed Treasury which hates parting with any power whatsoever; and I think that this is a very reasonable compromise. I would not comment on the English dimension, but I think it is very important that the Government study the necessity for the satisfying of aspirations of regions of England, as well as of Wales and of Scotland.

Lastly, I should like to ask the Government why they do not mention agriculture and industry, because I assume that this means that we are left with the situation in the White Paper, where agriculture and industry really come under the Secretary of State and guidelines are laid down by the United Kingdom Government for the conduct of the Scottish Development Association and for the Highland Development Board. It appears to me that this is entirely wrong, in that when you look at the Government of Northern Ireland and at the good things about them, there is no question but that the development of industry and the conduct of agriculture were extraordinarily well done by that Government. I should like to add the question which has already been asked by the noble and learned Lord about referenda after the Bill has been produced.

4.28 p.m.


My Lords, I fully appreciate from what both noble Lords have said that this is not an occasion for a detailed interposition of this matter in a major way in the course of the existing debate. There will of course be ample opportunities for debate when the proposals in the Statement are particularised in legislative form, which sometimes achieves a considerable difference; and the Bills will be published in due course. The intention is that both Bills shall receive a First Reading at the same time, and then we will proceed from there to give effect by legislation to the proposals to which I have referred today. There has been widespread consultation and consideration of the matters which emerged in the discussion of the Bill in another place, and the new proposals which are made reflect reconsideration of what was previously proposed and the outcome of discussions with various people.

On the specific matters which were raised, first by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, it is indeed proposed to persist in the intention to hold referendums after Royal Assent. We attach very great importance to this. I notice that the noble and learned Lord jibs at "referendums". I was a little hesitant about it myself, but apparently that has now become a term of art in this context, and classicists like the noble and learned Lord will have to live with it. We have given consideration of course to ascertaining the wishes of the Scots and Welsh people in a referendum before devolution legislation is enacted, but we have come to the conclusion that to do so would pose very serious practical difficulties. They would require initial separate legislation, and that could delay the devolution settlement. But, more importantly, they would be very imprecise affairs, because voters would be asked to approve or reject a scheme which had not been considered by Parliament and which might indeed be substantially modified by Parliament after the referendums had been held.

Therefore, we certainly intend to hold referendums before the Act comes into effect, and we attach great importance to ensuring that, before any proposals are implemented, they have the support of the majority of Scots and Welsh people. The new Bills will contain the necessary provisions for holding referendums. I shall not venture to forecast what the outcome of the referendum will be in Wales. As Mark Twain said, "Prophecies are always dangerous—especially about future events". I am certainly not going to embark on that prophecy at this moment in time. We shall wait and see.

In regard to the review of vires by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, I myself believe that this is a valuable provision. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, has said, there was a great deal of criticism earlier of the executive power, the sort of dictatorial power given to the Secretary of State himself to intervene while a measure was going through the Scottish Assembly and asserting purely executive control in that way. I think that there is a great deal to be said for this judicial review before and after legislation emanating from the Assembly is finalised. I note with satisfaction the approval that has been given by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, to the changed attitude towards override, and that he approves of the titles of the Members of the proposed Executives.

On the question of the tax-raising powers, I do not think I can add to what was said in the Statement. As the Statement indicated, a White Paper on the financing of the devolved services will be published this afternoon. It contains a very detailed and, I hope your Lordships may think a reasonably objective analysis of possible forms of independent revenue-raising powers for the devolved Administration, but the conclusion the Government have reached is that it has not been possible to identify any satisfactory form of independent revenue-raising powers. As the Statement went on to say, if the new Administrations wish to put forward proposals for a tax power to supplement the block fund within the conditions set out in the White Paper and the Administrations were prepared to meet the costs, the Government will consider such proposals sympathetically. As to the English dimension, consultations arising from the White Paper on that are continuing and it will be returned to when those consultations have been completed.

With regard to agriculture, the Statement does not in terms make any reference to agriculture. We have already included among the powers to be devolved those aspects of agriculture which can be dealt with separately in Scotland. Decisions on matters like agricultural support are of great economic importance and we think must be taken at the British, and indeed international, level. British farmers operate in a single market and that market would be distorted, it is thought, if the farmers were not supported on a consistent national basis. I apologise for the length of time I have taken in answering noble Lords, but I am grateful for the way in which they have responded.

4.34 p.m.


My Lords, as a Welshman—and a Welshman who has never spoken an English word with his noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor—may I say that this Statement will be welcomed in Wales. I want to correct an impression given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, when he said that he understood that the majority of the people in Wales are against devolution. What has happened is this. They have expressed themselves by a majority against the idea propounded by the Welsh Nationalist Party which advocates separation, complete independence. Otherwise, the people of Wales are in favour of devolution and are looking forward to it. This Statement, as I have said, will be greatly welcomed there.


My Lords, I wonder whether I might ask two questions. It is rather difficult to grasp all the points in a lengthy Statement of this kind. The first was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie. It was the specific reference to the responsibilities of the Welsh Assembly in reviewing the structure of local government. Am I to take it that it will be within the powers of the new Scottish Assembly similarly to review the structure of local government, which is a matter of great national concern? Secondly, among the subjects not to be devolved were included finance, trade, economy and industrial relations. Since a good deal of the economic and trade policy in Scotland is at present already devolved to the Secretary of State for Scotland and was not so long ago removed from the DTI, am I to assume that there is no change in the status of trade and economy as a matter of concern being subject to the review of the proposed Assembly?


My Lords, in reply to my noble friend Lord Taylor, I think that the latter part of his statement is accurate. On the question of the review of local government, there has been a great deal of pressure in Wales to review the framework of local government in Wales. For that reason, that has been expressly referred to in the Statement as something which the Assembly should give its mind to. There is nothing directly comparable in the Statement in regard to Scotland. It may be that there is less pressure there than in Wales. I know not. That is how the matter stands.


My Lords, as one who had served for longer than any other Member of this House as a Scottish Minister, would your Lordships allow me to speak for two minutes, and no more? I thank the noble and learned Lord for having informed us of Her Majesty's Government's intentions. May I say that I listened to the Statement with very great regret. It is raising a subject which would die in the ordinary course of events. It is a subject which has divided and is dividing my country—and when I say "my country" I mean Scotland—and is not one that is bringing it together. It is also going to threaten the great benefits that Scotland has received by being joined to England. During the period when I was a Scottish Minister I think that I received more deputations than any other Scottish Minister before me, for reasons I do not need to explain, but I have never had any great wish for the setting up of such a thing as a Scottish Assembly. The feeling of the people, as I gather, is that we have far too many legislative bodies at the moment. We want less Government control and more to be allowed to get on with our own affairs in our own way. I am terribly sorry that the Government have thought it wise to raise this matter again. I do not think that it is going to help Scotland or England or the people of both countries one little bit, but rather that it will divide them further than they have ever been divided since the union of the two Parliaments.


My Lords, I appreciate that that is a point of view which many people hold with sincerity and seriousness, but I myself am quite satisfied that the majority of people take a different view and that it is time to devolve a greater responsibility for their own affairs, those affairs directly affecting them, to the people of Scotland and Wales. No doubt we shall return to this broad question in the fullness of time.

May I add a further observation to my noble friend Lord Taylor? The structure of local government in Scotland is already a devolved matter in the Bill. That will continue. That is why there was no specific reference to it in the Statement of my right honourable friend in another place.

The Earl of SELKIRK

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he can confirm three points: first, that the First Secretary will be appointed at the behest of the Secretary of State; secondly, that law and order will not be a devolved subject; and, thirdly, that the reduction of taxation will also not be a devolved subject?


My Lords, I am sorry; I missed the first point put by the noble Earl.

The Earl of SELKIRK

My Lords, it was whether the First Secretary would be appointed at the behest of the Secretary of State?


My Lords, I should be very surprised if that was provided for. I think that would be a decision for the Assembly itself to make. I do not know whether he will be the First Secretary. Certainly, it is not contemplated that he should be nominated by the Secretary of State for Scotland. On law and order, very large questions are raised as to the extent of devolution, broadly speaking, and I would expect that to remain as the domain of the Secretary of State for Scotland. There will be no power proposed to reduce income tax. If the Assembly brings forward a suitable proposal, all that may arise is a limited power on their part, provided they are prepared to pay the administrative costs of doing so, to raise revenue by some subordinate method.