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Devolution Settlement

Volume 497: debated on Wednesday 14 October 2009

3. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the relationship between the Scottish Executive and the UK Government under the devolution settlement. (292280)

The saga of confusion and miscommunication over Lockerbie has demonstrated that Scotland needs to put more thought into how its Executive decisions play out in the eyes of other Governments. What procedural steps will the Secretary of State and his Government put in place to prevent such public embarrassment in the future?

During the year that I have been Secretary of State I have tried to strike a different tone in Scottish politics. The public expect politicians to agree where possible; I have tried to uphold that and I will continue to do so despite invitations to the contrary. Of course the Lockerbie and al-Megrahi issue was badly handled. The decision to visit al-Megrahi in prison was a mistake, but ultimately it was a mistake that the Scottish Government were entitled to make. It is a decision that is entirely, 100 per cent., their responsibility; they have the constitutional responsibility to take that decision.

It is obviously beneficial for the First Minister and my right hon. Friend to have discussions, but does my right hon. Friend think there is any mileage in some of these discussions being held in public?

I have asked the First Minister to have a public debate with me. The First Minister is, of course, not everyone’s idea of an athlete, but he has certainly tried to run away from these debates in Scotland in recent weeks. I do not know if he can run, but I do know that he cannot hide and that this debate will have to take place at some point over the next few weeks.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had about the higher Scottish Parliament standards of transparency in respect of allowances and expenses? Does he agree that it would be an act of leadership and transparency for all Westminster MPs to publish their Legg recommendations, including himself?

It is of course important that we change the system of expenses in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister has been very clear about that, and he is now in the process of doing it. As the Prime Minister has also made clear, there is a process that we are now going through. If Legg has requested that repayments be made, whether to comply is up to individual Members, but that is certainly the inclination of the majority of Members of this House.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the Hansard for 16 July? In answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) as to when he would be given an opportunity to vote for a Scottish Grand Committee to be held, the Leader of the House answered that

“there needs to be an opportunity for the Scottish Grand Committee to meet, and I will look for an opportunity.”—[Official Report, 16 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 457.]

The best way to have a live debate that includes those who are running away from it is to invite them all to the Scottish Grand Committee to have that debate.

I am stumped for an answer. Because of the many solutions for dealing with the remarkable economic crisis that Scotland and the United Kingdom faces, I am not yet convinced that a meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee is the silver bullet. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood) will continue to make the case, however, and if that meeting does take place, I can think of no better Chair of the proceedings than him.

Rather than reconvening the Scottish Grand Committee, may I suggest that the Secretary of State’s time might be better spent in giving his attention to the report of the Calman commission? There is growing impatience that months after that report was published, there is still a lack of progress on it. Scotland looks to the Government to deliver on Calman come the Queen’s Speech, and if they do not do so, they will pay a heavy price.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman and myself, as well as others, had the opportunity to meet over the summer recess to discuss the important proposals in respect of Calman. We simply believe that Scotland is bigger and stronger because it is part of the United Kingdom, but the devolution settlement does have to be modernised. The Calman commission proposals are substantial. I want to maintain consensus and momentum, and we will respond before the end of this year on details of the Calman proposals.

During my right hon. Friend’s discussions with the First Minister, will he ask him to reconsider his party’s decision to abandon the investment in the Glasgow airport rail link, as that would be seriously damaging for the people of Glasgow and the west of Scotland in terms of tourism and employment?

It is clear that that is a real blow to the city of Glasgow, but that city has never given up on itself and, regardless of the Scottish Government’s decision, it will not do so now. I will be meeting the leader of Glasgow city council later this afternoon, when I will go with him to the Olympic site. I will have the opportunity to discuss these very issues with him then.

Perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us what role he actually played in the deliberations on the Megrahi case within the Government. He surely had an obligation to ensure that both Scotland’s interests and the devolution settlement were fully understood. Currently, our only source of information is Channel 4, whose website says, rather bluntly:

“There has been a lively discussion behind the scenes in government about whether to attack the SNP… I hear that the Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy in particular has been chomping at the bit to go for the SNP administration but has been reined in by the PM and others.”

Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, may I remind the Chamber that far too many private conversations are taking place? That is very unfair on the Member asking the question and on the Minister answering it.

The Foreign Secretary made a statement yesterday and I have nothing further to add to it. I was here for his statement—not all hon. Members were.

I do not regard that as an answer. Given the Secretary of State’s self-proclaimed role as filter between the UK Government and the Scottish Government, can he tell the House why the UK Government refused to give the Scottish Justice Secretary, Mr. MacAskill, the facts and representations that he says he requested when making his decision to release Mr. al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds? Conservative Members do not believe that that decision could have been made on any reasonable basis. Perhaps the Secretary of State regrets ensuring that Mr. MacAskill did not have every piece of information that he needed. [Interruption.]

I have nothing further to add to what the Foreign Secretary offered in a very long and detailed statement yesterday. The fact is that this was 100 per cent. the responsibility of the Scottish Government—it was 100 per cent. their decision and their responsibility—and they made their decision on their merits. However, I think that the issue was very badly mishandled and those scenes in Tripoli were a national disgrace. The St. Andrew’s flag was trailed out on to the tarmac to celebrate that man’s return; that image will haunt Scotland across the world. Some damage was done to Scotland’s reputation, although I do not wish to overstate it. It is now the responsibility of all of us to work together to rebuild Scotland’s reputation across the world.