HL Deb 23 January 1979 vol 397 cc1326-30

2.56 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether copies of the Scotland Act 1978 are now available in all public libraries in Scotland and where copies of the Act can be bought in Scotland.


My Lords, arrangements for the publication and distribution of the Scotland Act 1978 were as for any other Acts of Parliament, although Her Majesty's Stationery Office in Scotland ordered a larger stock than usual. I understand that most public libraries will have copies available, as will many university and private libraries. Copies can be bought from Her Majesty's Stationery Office bookshop in Edinburgh, Stationery Office agents in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Dumfries, and by order from any bookseller.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply, but as the only question on the ballot paper in the referendum in five weeks' time is, "Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act to be put into effect?", ought not the electors at the very least to have a chance of seeing what they are being asked to vote on? Is the noble Lord aware that there have been letters and reports in the Scottish Press that members of the public have found it impossible to see copies? The Act is far too expensive for most individuals to buy. So will the Government do everything they can to arrange that there is a good supply of copies in libraries in Scotland?


My Lords, there is already a good supply. Yesterday Her Majesty's Stationery Office bookshop in Edinburgh had copies of the Act available for sale, as did all the three agents in Scotland. John Smith's in Glasgow have already over 300 copies in stock and the Edinburgh bookshop had 100 in stock at the end of last week. With regard to libraries, all the larger library authorities at least will have copies of the Act, since they have a standing order for all Acts of Parliament. It is reasonable to suppose that a number of the library authorities who do not automatically take every Act of Parliament will have ordered copies of the Scotland Act.


My Lords, the noble Lord is still dealing with availability for sale, about which I did ask in my Question, for which information I am grateful; but is he aware that the real problem is availability to see rather than to buy, because it is far too expensive for the individual to buy? To compare it with other Acts of Parliament is quite wrong, because there has been no referendum in our history on any other Act of Parliament.


My Lords, I thought I had answered that. The alternative to buying a copy is to go and read one in the library. This, of course, is a matter for the local authorities, the library service, but we have checked up and we understand that it is working perfectly well; there have been no complaints to the Scottish Office that anybody has been denied being able to read the Act in the library. With regard to putting out explanatory leaflets and other things, as the noble Lord knows, the Government planned to do this but Parliament thought otherwise.


My Lords, will copies of the Act be available on the island of Benbecula?


My Lords, in view of the extreme complexity of the Act, would the noble Lord not agree that it is not just a question of having it available to study or buy? Will the Government not consider issuing free a short factual summary of the Act written in plain English, to enable the people of Scotland to know what precisely they are being asked to vote about?


My Lords, the Government originally planned to issue a leaflet but it became clear during the debates on the Scotland and Wales Bills that Parliament did not accept that a sufficiently balanced presentation of the issues could be made to warrant the use of public funds. When the Government indicated last July that they did not intend to issue a leaflet they made it clear that they believed that a case could be made for so doing, although they accepted the view of Parliament, including the view of another place.


My Lords, in view of the importance of the referendum, if the Government cannot publish a leaflet, can they not prepare a summary of the Act for publication in the newspapers in Scotland, so that the people may be aware of the subject of the referendum?


My Lords, I thought that I had made it clear that it was found that it was not possible to do that—this was the view of Parliament— without putting a slight bias on it. However, in order to achieve the highest possible poll, the Government are mounting a campaign in the Scottish media explaining how postal or proxy votes can be obtained.


My Lords, will my noble friend accept that there is considerable support for what is contained in his Answer in Scotland and in Wales? Will he also accept that the Wales Bill and the Scotland Bill seem to have been with us so long as to have consumed our youth? Will he further accept that if there is any man, woman, or child in Wales or in Scotland who does not now know the content of the Wales Act or the Scotland Act and does not know what the referendum is about, that person is singularly fortunate? Is my noble friend aware that we believe that the Government have taken a very careful line in what they have put forward regarding the Bills and that the Opposition have argued long into the night regarding the clauses? If there is anyone in the country who at this time does not know what the Acts are about, he will be well informed in the next few weeks by those Parties who will campaign for Assemblies in Wales and in Scotland.


My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. The Government believe that, in view of the decision by Parliament in its wisdom, the referendum campaign as a whole should be the best means of conveying to the public what is at stake.

The Earl of SELKIRK

My Lords, can the noble Lord say how many copies of the Act have been sold in Scotland?


My Lords, 2,000 copies have been sold in Scotland, but this figure does not take into account those copies which, for some reason, were ordered direct from England.


My Lords, I detect a feeling that we have heard quite a lot about the Scotland Act, and I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that we have an important debate to follow.