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Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

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What devolution issues she has dealt with since 11 March. [106707]


What devolution issues have been raised in the last month under the Scotland Act 1998. [106708]

Since 11 March, 31 devolution issue minutes were intimated to me. They concerned a variety of matters, including delay in court proceedings; challenges to confiscation orders; the requirement on the defence to lodge notice of intention to lead sexual history evidence in trials; and the fixing of punishment-part life licence hearings. In the civil sphere there was only one case, which concerned a challenge to the decision of a planning reporter.

If the Office of Fair Trading report into pharmacies were to be implemented, we should see the closure of many high street chemists and their replacement by pharmacies in supermarkets. I was therefore delighted when the Scottish Executive rejected the report. However, there is widespread concern that supermarkets may be able to use UK competition law to overrule the Scottish Executive's decision. I hope that will definitely not be the case and I should be grateful if the Advocate-General advised the House on the legal position.

As I have said time and again, I cannot advise on such matters in the abstract. If proposals are made by the Scottish Executive, and intimated to me in due course if they are to take the form of legislation, I shall do my usual job and look into them. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand that such matters are difficult; they must be seen in the context of the complicated structure of the Scotland Act. He cannot make wide, sweeping assertions about any of them. In general terms, competition policy is, of course, reserved, while health matters are devolved, but the situation can be extremely complex when those matters meet and intersect. That is why the Executive have a Law Officer to deal with them.

Perhaps we could try again!

Was the Advocate-General consulted by the Scottish Executive before their announcement in March of their rejection of the OFT report on pharmacies? Does she agree that the Scottish Parliament has the power to take such a decision, irrespective of what the Department of Trade and Industry may do south of the border, or was that just another meaningless statement from new Labour during the election to try to pull the wool over the eyes of the Scottish electorate?

I am surprised that the hon. Lady still does not understand the devolution structures. The Scottish Executive do not consult me as a Law Officer. I am not the Law Officer to the Scottish Executive; I am the Law Officer to the UK Government. The Scottish Executive can, if they wish, consult their own Law Officers—the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor-General. Those are the devolution processes. I shall deal with any proceedings that are proposed in due course.

What thought is being given to the all too real but complex problem of delay in court proceedings to which the Advocate-General referred?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting issue. As I have told the House, some hundreds of cases of delay have been intimated to me as devolution issues. Some quite complex legal problems have surrounded some of these issues, and we have taken a number of test cases. The most important of these was the case of R, which was dealt with in the Privy Council, and in which I appeared personally. That helped to clarify the law in respect of delay. The main point was that where there is a breach of the convention on human rights in relation to delay in proceedings under article 6, the Lord Advocate is not entitled, because of the operation of the Scotland Act, to proceed with such a prosecution.