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Volume 408: debated on Thursday 3 July 2003

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Community Pharmacies

6 pm

It is my pleasure to present a petition on behalf of 3,500 of my constituents, who have signed in Pydens pharmacies in Chatham, Larkfield and Snodland. I express my thanks to all the staff for their hard work, in particular Mr. Barrie Smith.

The petition states:

That local pharmacies should be preserved and their continued services to local communities safeguarded.
The Petitioners therefore request that the Government reject proposals in the Office of Fair Trading report that would allow unrestricted opening of pharmacies able to dispense NHS prescriptions and replace them with proposals which will retain pharmacies at the heart of the local community, playing a key role in primary care services.
To lie upon the Table

Scotland Office

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

6.1 pm

I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate a current political mystery. It may not be as important or as mysterious as the dodgy dossier or other aspects of the Iraqi issue, but it is none the less a mystery that has been with us for the past two weeks—that is, the role, function and purpose of the Scotland Office. I welcome to the debate the Scottish and Welsh Members who have stayed behind for an Adjournment debate on a Thursday afternoon.

I quite understand why the Secretary of State for Scotland cannot be with us. He has many other responsibilities.[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) says more important responsibilities. That is one of the points that we might want to develop during the debate. We welcome the fact that the Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Constitutional Affairs—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady adds to the confusion by saying the Scotland Office, but in the Government own publication released 10 days ago, the hon. Lady is designated an Under-Secretary in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. There is no mention whatever of the Scotland Office in the document.

To clarify the matter, the title of the Department is the Scotland Office, Department for Constitutional Affairs.

That certainly clears things up. This is the first time that I have heard the designation Scotland Office, Department for Constitutional Affairs. It did not appear in the official publication. The parliamentary Labour party helpfully released a list of Government members, where the Secretary of State for Scotland is listed as a Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I do not understand how a Cabinet Minister can be a Minister in another Department.

I start the debate by speaking about the chaos, confusion and complete disarray of the Government as a result of the reshuffle effect in Scotland and Wales. I shall challenge the concept of a Scotland Office, citing in my support the current Secretary of State for Scotland in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and then I shall suggest a way forward out of the morass that the Government have left us.

In the reshuffle announcement of Thursday 12 June, there was no mention of the Scotland Office and the post of Secretary of State for Scotland continuing. The statement issued on 13 June by the Scottish Affairs Committee, which appeared inHansard, stated that the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) and Mr. David Crawley, Head of Department at the former Scotland Office would appear before the Committee.

We were told by the Leader of the House and Secretary of State for Wales that that designation was the responsibility of House officials, but I know now for a fact that the House officials took the advice of an official in the Scotland Office in order to make it.

Hon. Members should think about that. We are talking about a Government reshuffle affecting who has responsibility for Government Departments and the Ministers and Secretaries of State who carry those burdens of responsibility. It is not a small matter when a reshuffle takes place without even people in those Departments knowing the designation and responsibilities that they are meant to have. That is not a small matter and I think that it is unprecedented in Government reshuffles. I have already stated that we have two conflicting definitions of what has happened in terms of the official list of Her Majesty's Government and the parliamentary Labour party publication. I have heard a new version from the Under-Secretary in the past few minutes. All that I am saying is that there is a great deal of chaos and confusion, which is not helped by the Scotland Office homepage on the internet, which still states:

"This site is currently under redevelopment."
My impression of the reshuffle—it is no more than my impression, but I suspect that something like this happened—is that it was indeed the Prime Minister's intention to abolish the Scotland Office and the post of Secretary of State for Scotland. At some point on the day after the reshuffle, it was discovered that there was a parliamentary difficulty in the abolition of the post of Secretary of State for Wales, as it is named in the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Secretary of State sits, ex officio, on the National Assembly for Wales. As a result, given the confusion that had already surrounded the attempted abolition of the post of Lord Chancellor, the Welsh Secretary was kept. Subsequently, we ended up with the retention of the Scottish Secretary.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation that he has outlined underlines the currently asymmetric nature of devolution in the United Kingdom? Wales and Scotland were treated in exactly the same way in the reshuffle, but the constitutional relationships and tax-varying and legislative powers in Wales and Scotland are very different. Surely, the only way in which the reshuffle could have worked, even by the Government's own standards, would have been if devolution had been advanced to Wales to at least the same level at which it is already available in Scotland.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the Government are now encountering some of the difficulties that were implicit in what they say was a devolution settlement, but what most of us would see as only an intermediate step in the process towards something all together more rational in Scotland and Wales.

I was interested in the version of events given by the new Scotland Secretary when he eventually appeared before the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs on 17 June. It may surprise some hon. Members to hear that I agree with the tenor of the way in which the new Secretary of State approaches his post. In speaking about the problems that can arise and have occurred in the past in the operation of the Scotland Office post devolution, he said:
"If you have to come through me, or Anne for that matter, then it just puts an extra barrier in the way and it is not necessary."
He also said:

"basically what I would like to move to is a situation basically where the two administrations work very closely together in partnership … I would like to get to a situation where, frankly, the ministers in the Scottish Executive and the ministers in the United Kingdom government talk to each other as colleagues … and they get on with it without us holding hands."
In those statements, I think that the new Secretary of State for Scotland was pointing out in an acute way what had not been happening through his predecessor in the previous Scotland Office. A catalogue of blunders or mistakes occurred where the Scotland Office, instead of operating as a helping hand to the Scottish Executive, was an impediment to the contact that should have been taking place between Scottish Executive Ministers and Ministers of the Crown in this place. If we follow the logic of the Secretary of State's argument, we must accept that the best way to arrive at a sensible relationship is to cut out the unnecessary middle man—previously the middle woman—all together and put the responsibility where it should lie.

My second point concerns a problem with the whole concept of the Scotland Office, whether it is a full-time or part-time office and whether it is in a Department or a Department on its own: it sits very uneasily in relation to what responsibilities it has and where they should lie in politics. The Scottish National party has published a dossier—Alastair Campbell has had nothing to do with the document, which is a genuine dossier of factual information—that shows the extent of the Scotland Office's failure and its inability to defend Scotland's interests on issues such as tourism, inward investment, trade promotion and hepatitis C compensation, and in many other ways.

All the issues in the hon. Gentleman's list appear to be devolved. I do not understand their relevance to this Parliament.

Then the hon. Gentleman has not been following Scottish affairs with his usual intimate knowledge. Take hepatitis C, for example. He should know that the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament voted for compensation for hepatitis C sufferers, but that compensation is being blocked by the Westminster Department.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made the point, however, because I am about to go on to give one detailed example from the list of how things are not working at present. What is happening, in my view, is that many UK Departments that still have residual responsibilities affecting Scotland are focusing on English responsibilities and treating themselves as English Departments. In December 2002, an interesting article by Jim and Margaret Cuthbert was published in the Fraser of Allander Institute paper. They examined the Department of Trade and Industry in enormous detail, looking particularly at the development of the knowledge economy, including the Innovation sub-programme, which is a £211 million reserved programme, and expenditure on research councils, which represents a £1.8 billion programme. They show that in relation to such UK responsibilities the DTI focuses on English expenditure, and conclude that the Link and Faraday programmes are not operating fully to the benefit of Scottish firms.

I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's point, because I can give similar examples for each of the subject areas that I raised. UK Departments with residual Scottish responsibilities are not operating as UK Departments, and the Scotland Office in its previous manifestation did absolutely nothing to counterbalance how Scotland is losing out in those circumstances. If it could not work as a full-time Department with a full-time Secretary of State, how on earth is it expected to do that job as a part-time Department with a part-time Secretary of State? It is truly amazing. Having attended every Scotland questions since the last election, I am still unable to understand how the Department can have increased its staff from 73 in 1999 to a projected 130 full-time equivalents this year and nearly doubled its budget to accompany that increase in staff. What on earth have all those people been doing during that time? I agree with the new Secretary of State for Scotland that it is far better to charge Ministers in the Scottish Executive with the responsibility of representing Scottish interests by building the relationship with their UK counterparts and arguing their case directly, without having to go through—to use his word—the obstruction of a Scotland Office operating on a full-time or a part-time basis.

Can the hon. Gentleman explain to the House how Scotland's interests can be better served by taking away Scotland's voice in the Cabinet, given that his preferred option of an independent Scotland is further away than ever because the majority of the Scottish electorate do not want independence? In view of the reality of the situation, how can he justify scrapping Scotland's voice in the Cabinet?

That is a bold statement from a member of a party that has just had its worst result in Scotland since 1931, at 34 per cent. of the vote. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should not dwell too much on recent election results in Scotland.

I am trying to detail, subject by subject, how the Scotland Office has failed to represent Scotland's interests. In each of the areas that I listed, which are UK responsibilities with residual Scottish responsibilities, the Scotland Office has failed to deliver. If the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) or the Minister can detail one triumph of the Scotland Office in representing Scottish interests in the Cabinet over the years, I will be amazed. I represent a fishing constituency, and I should have thought that the recent fishing crisis in Scotland might be one matter on which a Cabinet Minister would have made a decisive intervention to represent Scottish interests, but the Minister concerned did absolutely zilch for the fishing communities of Scotland. The Scotland Office's failure to deliver shows either that there is something deeply wrong with the people who occupy those positions or there is something conceptually wrong with a Scotland Office that, in the Secretary of State's words, operates as a barrier to representing Scotland's interests.

Scotland currently gets the worst of all worlds. Scotland and Wales appear to have privileged access, but in reality, have second-class service and status.The Observer is normally a balanced newspaper, and Andrew Rawnsley—journalist of the year—is usually an erudite commentator. However, 10 days ago, he wrote a piece that I can describe only as near racist. It was full of comments such as "whingeing in the hillsides from Scotland and Wales". He also believed that members of my party were arguing for retaining the Scotland Office; he got that bit wrong. However, the article shows the way in which even the most reasoned commentators can be led into an outpouring of bile because they believe that Scotland and Wales have privileged status and access. The reality, which the facts support, is that we suffer from second-class status and second-class government. I shall allow substantial time for the Under-Secretary to reply. There is much to explain about what is happening.

The hon. Gentleman is approaching the close of his remarks. If my memory serves me correctly, he said at the beginning that he would provide some answers. Yet we are 15 minutes into his speech and I am waiting to hear some answers and about what his party would do.

The hon. Gentleman should pay closer attention. I said that I agreed with the argument that the Secretary of State for Scotland expressed in the Scottish Affairs Committee. He argued that, rather than have the Scotland Office as an obstacle to contact between Scottish Ministers and their United Kingdom equivalents, it should get out of the way. He wants to do that on a part-time basis, whereas I believe that if the logic applies to some issues, it applies to them all. Responsibility should be given to Scottish Ministers; that is where it should lie.

The Scotland Office has been a failure as a full-time Office. I believe that it will also fail as a part-time Office. The clear and obvious solution to the devolution conundrum is to give the Scottish Parliament the financial power and authority to raise and spend revenue. We would then not have to hold such opaque debates about who is responsible for what.

When the Under-Secretary replies, I am sure that she will answer some simple questions about what happens in the Scotland Office, which is part of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. If there is a policy disagreement between Lord Falconer and the new Secretary of State for Scotland, from whom do the civil servants take their guidance? Why did not Lord Falconer consult the Scottish legal Minister on the initiative on the constitutional court, which could impinge on the integrity of Scots law? Why is there no contact between Scottish Ministers and their counterparts in the UK? Why cannot Scotland have the normal status that is afforded to most nations and the self-respect and efficient government that comes from raising and spending one's own revenue?

6.18 pm

The answer to the last question is that the Scottish people do not want that. First, I offer my formal congratulations to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on securing the debate. He does not often venture into the Adjournment zone—he has secured three Adjournment debates in the Parliament. It is therefore gratifying that he has been successful this evening. I believe that that is the last time in my remarks that I shall be nice to him.

I was somewhat disappointed that, in spite of the fact that I had a preview of the hon. Gentleman's comments, he addressed the detail of very little. He highlighted some of the examples that he was allegedly going to raise and I shall deal with them shortly. However, we all know where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. Every comment made by him, his party and his colleagues from Wales is predicated on the simple fact that they do not accept the devolution settlement. His clear agenda is to divorce Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom. He does not want a smart, successful Scotland within the UK; he wants Scotland to lose its seat at the top table, to lose its seat in Cabinet and to lose its seat at the heart of Government in the United Kingdom.

Let us carry out a reality check. Let us see exactly what the hon. Gentleman wants. I admit he is an honourable man. He says that he wants
"all of the powers held by London over Scotland … transferred to our democratic Scots Parliament in Edinburgh".
That is the bottom line and the top line.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for reminding him that it was my party, along with the Liberal Democrats and other political parties and movements in Scotland, that delivered a Scottish Parliament to the people of Scotland, with their endorsement. Even when it came to what the hon. Gentleman describes as an incremental step, the Scottish National party could not take part in coalition-building, which continued for so many years. I note the presence of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) on the Opposition Front Bench. The only other group in Scotland that did not see the value of devolution at that time was, of course, the Conservative party.

According to various analyses, there is very little support for independence in Scotland. From 1997 onwards, there has been increasing support for the option that is closest to the current devolution settlement—a Parliament in the United Kingdom with tax-raising powers.

It would be foolish of me to say that the Government need not continue to play their part in explaining what devolution means to the people of Scotland—and, dare I say, to some of our colleagues south of the border. If that means speaking to journalists such as Andrew Rawnsley, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will join me in doing so. Such discussion is at the core of the Scotland Office's activity. I think that the Labour party is in tune with the Scottish people when it comes to the benefits of a devolved Scotland, and it is on that basis that we have developed a Scotland Office that works within the politics of devolution.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained a few weeks ago, when giving evidence to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, now that devolution has bedded down successfully the time has come to encourage even more direct communication between Whitehall and the Scottish Executive. That is not a new development; it is a continuation of a process that has been going on since July 1999. It is a credit to all concerned that the transition between a centralised United Kingdom and a decentralised system in the UK has occurred so smoothly.

Not at this point. I am about to reveal the rest of what the Secretary of State said to the Select Committee. This is the bit that the hon. Gentleman did not reveal to the House.

My right hon. Friend said
"they speak to each other. If you have to come through me, or Anne for that matter, then it just puts an extra barrier in the way and it is not necessary."
That was building on the good relationship that we had established. My right hon. Friend continued
"What is necessary is to make sure that, were that relationship not to be working or, as can sometimes happen, and I see this across Whitehall never mind Scotland and the United Kingdom where you get two departments where officials for one reason or another are not working with each other, it sometimes needs … intervention to make it happen. That is why it is important to get the Scotland Office there."
That is what the Secretary of State said—not the truncated version given by the hon. Gentleman.

Probably the only dodgy dossier that is floating around Whitehall is the one that was not revealed by the hon. Gentleman this evening, but was previewed in his press statement on the debate.[Interruption.] Flattery will get you nowhere. I am not taking an intervention at this point.

The hon. Gentleman quickly flicked over some of the issues that he told the press he intended to raise this evening, one of which was tourism.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know that the Under-Secretary may be confused about what Department she is in, but in any Department, when a Minister is replying to an Adjournment debate, it is the normal courtesy to give way to the hon. Member who sought that debate. I think that it is unprecedented for that not to happen.

That really is a matter for the individual Minister concerned.

With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I did say "at this point", and we still have five minutes to go.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) has said, tourism is a devolved matter. One of the charges that I expect to see when the dossier is eventually published—we were promised it before this evening—is that Scottish interests were not represented at the tourism summit. I do not see how that can be an issue for the Scotland Office. If tourism is devolved, responsibility for representing Scotland at tourism summits must fall to the devolved Administration, and Alasdair Morrison, the then Deputy Minister for the Highlands and Islands and Gaelic, attended the inaugural summit in 2000, and both Elaine Murray MSP and Mike Watson MSP were involved in the tourism summit in 2002, representing Scotland's interests.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to trade and the Department of Trade and Industry. Certain aspects of trade are also devolved.

I will now, generously, give way to the hon. Gentleman.

The Under-Secretary has just admitted that there was no one representing Scotland at the 2001 tourism summit, which was the point I was making.

The Government are meant to have concordats for exchanging information. "Prior notification" is meant to be given to the Scottish Executive of changes in UK policy that affect them. Why, then, was there no prior notification of the changes in the constitutional court, and the substantial implications that they will have for Scots law?

Both the Lord Advocate and the Lord Chancellor have said that these issues are matters for consultation. The Scottish Executive and the First Minister yesterday robustly rebutted some of the ludicrous charges floating around about the Prime Minister having to engage with the First Minister every time there happened to be a change in his Cabinet. Indeed, the First Minister firmly stated that if the charge was the other way round—that the First Minister had to speak to the Prime Minister every time he wanted to make a change in his ministerial teams—people such as the hon. Gentleman would be up in arms, saying that Westminster was attempting to make Scotland toe a line that it did not want.

The hon. Gentleman protests too much. There is still a need to have a Scottish Secretary in the Cabinet, and most hon. Members—certainly those from parties with Scottish interests—would agree. That is certainly the case with the Conservative party, and I understand that even Liberal Democrat spokespersons have accepted that the way in which we have adjusted the work load of the Scotland Office is the correct way forward in the light of the devolutionary settlement. The only ones ploughing this very narrow furrow are SNP Members—although tonight they clearly have the assistance of their Welsh colleagues.

Time is winding on, and I just want to say a couple of things by way of conclusion. Earlier this week, all manner of statements were made about the Scotland Office not delivering. According to certain press reports—including in the local press of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan—the Scotland Office is a dead parrot, but there are no dead parrots in our Department. All that we get from the Scottish nationalists is spam, spam and more spam; that is the sort of Monty Pythonesque world they want us to live in. For most people in Scotland, the devolution settlement has delivered. It has delivered for the thousands of people in the hon. Gentleman's own constituency who are getting the winter fuel allowance and the working families tax credit, and it has delivered for those now in work who did not have jobs in 1997.

Let me set the record straight once and for all: the Scotland Office continues to function as part of the new Department for Constitutional Affairs. Its essential work continues in advocating Scotland's interests in the Cabinet, as does the role of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. Quiet, careful work is going on behind the scenes that does not often grab the headlines. I know that the hon. Gentleman likes to judge events in terms of how many headlines he can get, but I suspect that the real reason for this debate is not that the Scotland Office is as dead as a dead parrot, but that the hon. Gentleman is a sick as a parrot because devolution is working.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Seven o'clock.