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Scotland And Wales Bill

Volume 929: debated on Monday 4 April 1977

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asked the Lord President of the Council whether he has yet completed his talks with Opposition parties about the future of the Scotland and Wales Bill; and if he will make a statement.


asked the Lord President of the Council what progress he is making in his discussions about the Scotland and Wales Bill.


asked the Lord President of the Council whether, in view of the talks currently being held, he will make a statement about the progress of the Scotland and Wales Bill.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Michael Foot)

The discussions are still in progress. I shall report to the House when the outcome is known.

In order to recommence progress on implementing the devolution commitment, will my right hon. Friend make an early announcement about the possibility of separate Bills for Scotland and Wales and also about the holding of an early referendum according to the policy of the Scottish Council of the Labour Party, whose view ought to receive more recognition from this Government than any Opposition party?

I fully accept what my hon. Friend says about the necessity for an early statement, and we shall do our best to make one. We are, of course, having consultations with other parties, as we said, but we are also having close consultation with members of the Labour Party and the Parliamentary Labour Party, and, indeed, with others who wish to make representations. On the two points mentioned by my hon. Friend, representations have been made about proposals for two Bills rather than one. As he will recall, that was debated in the House, but we will consider representations on that subject. On the second matter, a pre-Bill referendum was recommended by the Scottish Conference of the Labour Party, as my hon. Friend rightly recalls. None the less, we still think that there are very considerable objections to such a proposal.

Does the Lord President recall that in last Wednesday's debate he said that he still expected to get a satisfactory Bill on devolution on the statute book within this Parliament? Will he define what he meant by those words? Does he mean in this Session? If so, does he mean by October or so? If that is the case, is he not running very short of time?

It is undoubtedly the case that the failure to secure a majority for a timetable motion has caused some delay in progress. That is well understood by all observant Members of this House and possibly by others outside, but it does not alter the fact that we are determined to carry through a measure of this great constitutional character within the period of this Parliament. As it becomes more and more apparent that only a Labour Government would carry through such a measure, that is one reason among many why this Parliament should go its full time.

Since the Lord President will have noticed the predictable absence of representatives of the Liberal Party, does he not think that there is a strong caes for strengthening membership of the joint consultative committee by adding the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) and possibly the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) to the Committee?

There is a great distinction between those two propositions. I am always very eager to consult my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan), but the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) stands high on the the list of hon. Members of whom I cannot say the same.

In view of the fact that a number of us argued very strongly during the course of the devolution Bill that there should be a pre-Bill referendum, and in view of the fact that the Scottish Council of the Labour Party has now adopted that policy, will my right hon. Friend reconsider the reply that he gave to my hon. Friend and bring it forward as a mater of urgency, because many of us feel that if the people of Scotland or Wales genuinely wanted devolution there could be no more argument against it in this House?

I understand the representations made by my hon. Friend and by those at the Scottish conference. I was present at the conference when the debate on this matter took place. I think that my hon. Friend and others in the House must take into account the extremely powerful arguments against a pre-Bill referendum. It could give rise to considerable confusion. The matters on which such a referendum would take place are nothing like as clear as they would be on a Bill which had actually passed through this House, and I believe that there are serious constitutional objections to such a proposal. However, as I said before, that does not mean that the Government have absolutely excluded the possibility. I have merely said that that is the general approach we have to the matter at the moment.

Can the Lord President give an indication of when he envisages the first elections to a Scottish Assembly taking place? We take a great interest in this matter. Beyond that, can he give an assurance that the passing of such a Bill will be made an issue of confidence with his own Back Benchers, in view of the failure of 44 Members to support the commitment?

We had always hoped that the first elections to the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies would take place in the spring of 1978. We still believe that that would have been a good date. It is certainly not the fault of the Government that that date is to be delayed, if it has to be delayed. But we certainly look forward to the hon. Lady's support and that of her hon. Friends when we proceed further with the devolution measure. I repeat that only a Labour Government can carry through this great constitutional measure. That is why we propose to stay here to carry that measure through, along with many others.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on these Benches were glad to see that the White Paper published on another series of elections as recently as last Friday acknowledges the undesirability of making major constitutional changes without a wide measure of support? Does he recall that over six weeks ago I put to him a proposition that an all-party convention should be convened precisely so that that wide measure of support could be achieved? The right hon. Gentleman rejected the proposition at first and then had second thoughts about it to some extent. Does he realise that the House of Commons would like to hear at an early date what progress has been made with all the parties and whether he will set up such a convention in order to get the widespread support necessary for a constitutional change of this magnitude?

As I said in my original reply, I shall make a statement as soon as we have had time to see what progress is made in the talks. As I indicated before, I am extremely doubtful whether an all-party convention of the type described by the right hon. Gentleman is the best way to proceed—not through any prejudice against him, but because I believe that it would be likely that such an all-party convention would end in complete deadlock. It may be better for us to have some of these further conversations and then to bring forward further proposals which have a good chance of getting a majority in the House.