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Devolution

Volume 384: debated on Tuesday 14 June 1977

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3.34 p.m.

My Lords, with permission, I wish to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Lord President. It reads as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement on devolution. Following the decision of the House not to approve the proposed timetable Motion on the Scotland and Wales Bill, I announced that the Government were to invite discussions with each of the other Parties represented in the House. The Government's approach to these discussions was that a substantial majority of the House had approved the principles of the Bill in the vote on Second Reading and subsequent votes in the Committee proceedings gave approval to the proposals for elected Assemblies for Scotland and Wales.

"The Government's view was that any further consideration of the Bill should proceed within the general framework of the decisions which the House had already reached and be consistent with presenting the House with legislative proposals at an early date.

"The Government therefore suggested that the Bill might be referred to a select Committee of the House which would be empowered to consider the Bill on this basis. There was general support for the suggestion of a Select Committee, with the exception of the Scottish National Party who declined to meet the Government to discuss the proposal. The Government believed that it was equally essential that there should be general acceptance of the terms of reference for any Select Committee. The Conservative Party however proposed wide ranging terms of reference which, in the view of the Government, put at issue the whole concept of devolution and were consistent neither with the decisions of the House nor early action by the House. Accordingly, the Government do not believe that in these circumstances it would be useful to proceed with the appointment of a Select Committee.

"The Government remain wholly committed to the establishment of directly elected Assemblies for Scotland and Wales. We believe it is essential that Parliament should seek to reform our system of Government to give the people of Scotland and Wales a more effective and democratic influence in those matters of Government which directly concern them within the context of the unity of the United Kingdom. It is no longer practicable to contemplate further progress on the Scotland and Wales Bill in this Session. However, it is our objective that legislation should be enacted next Session. To this end, the Government are engaged in consultations on our proposals for legislation with our own supporters and the Liberal Party, and we remain very ready to welcome representations from any other part of the House."

My Lords, that completes the Statement.

My Lords, I should be lacking in courtesy if I did not thank the noble and learned Lord for repeating the Statement to this House. I have no wish to initiate a prolonged debate on the subject, but the noble and learned Lord will forgive me if I describe the Statement as dreary, jejune and totally negative. When will the Government learn the basic facts of life about this dispute? The basic question to be decided is, first: which options are really viable for this United Kingdom? Are they not three and three alone: either the status quo, with or without modifications, or some form of federated society, or complete separation?

Will not the Government recognise that their failure this Session with their existing legislation was due to their failure to identify the options and their persistent insistence upon blurring the distinction between the first two? Is it not certain that an attempt to reiterate those mistakes will lead to exactly the same failure in Parliament as took place this Session and that the only worse thing which could happen—and it would be a good deal worse—would be if it were actually carried into law?

Is it not the case that the approach by way of Select Committee was in fact the only effective way forward, and that the attempt by the Government to muzzle the Select Committee by limiting the terms of reference to the existing framework, which has failed, is the one sure way to lead to disaster in this field? Will not the Government realise that those of us—and I include myself in this number—who sincerely want some form of devolution in this country are in absolutely desperate straits, because we believe that the Government are playing ducks and drakes with the unity of the United Kingdom by fluffing the alternatives and failing to identify them for the sake of public discussion? Can they not be persuaded to learn something from their failure this Session and to try to approach the problem a little more humbly?

My Lords, I should like to welcome the Statement which has been repeated by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. I agree that it is too late for further progress on devolution in this Session, but I welcome the Government's commitment to legislation next Session and I see nothing negative about a positive commitment to legislation in the next Session. I should only like to ask the noble and learned Lord whether it is contemplated that there shall be two Bills, one for Scotland and one for Wales; when will they be ready to study in draft form and whether we can make a real effort to take them very early in the legislative programme of the next Session?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, for his support of the Statement, and perhaps I may deal briefly with the two questions he has raised. No decision has yet been taken as to whether there should be two separate Bills, one for Scotland and one for Wales. That is a matter that we shall be considering in the continuing discussions. As to the time of the introduction of the Bill, I hope it will be early in the new Session, but clearly as there is much more discussion to take place I cannot specify any particular time.

I was surprised to hear the criticism of the noble and learned Lord that the announcement of the Lord President was totally negative. It was exactly the opposite; it was totally positive, in the sense that there was a positive commitment for devolution and for the setting up of Assemblies for Scotland and for Wales. His adjective describing the statement as "dreary" is not a controversy I should like to enter into, nor should I like to compare it with the scintillating quality of the noble and learned Lord's own statement. That must remain yet another manifestation of the many-sidedness of truth.

At any rate, the Government have made it perfectly clear that they are committed to devolution and to the setting up of the Assemblies and we look forward to the discussions which will continue and in respect of which I hope we may yet receive suggestions from the Conservative Party. The difficulty we are in is that the Conservative Party has now apparently resiled from the initial commitment to devolution—to Assemblies—and that I concede presents them with a difficult position at the present time. They have my sympathy in that. These fundamental changes in policy decisions are always painful and always involve painful consequences.

I understand that what is being proposed by the Conservative Party as terms of reference is really a review of the whole process of Government. It was proposed in terms which frankly would have amounted to an abandonment of the commitment, certainly of the Labour Party and the Liberal Party and other minority Parties in the House, to enact legislation for devolution. I hope accordingly that the noble and learned Lord and the members of his Party will look again at this matter in the hope that we can move forward to achieving consensus on this problem. With that part of the noble and learned Lord's observations, I entirely agree. We are embarking upon a major constitutional change and, therefore, I hope there will be no final taking of the decision and that discussions may continue. At any rate, what we are committed to is a Bill—or Bills—in the next Session.

3.45 p.m.

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that his last few words seemed to be in direct conflict with the Statement which he repeated? The Statement made it perfectly clear that the Government intend to push on with this, even by making it a Party issue on a constitutional matter which ought to be settled by way of consensus, as the noble and learned Lord has just said. It is quite clear that the importance of this matter is such that it ought to go through the sieve of a Select Committee with the widest possible terms of reference, so that it comes to both Houses with that examination having been made in detail and with all the thoroughness with which it can be made. It is not surprising that the noble Lord, Lord Byers—

Several noble Lords: Question!

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that it is not surprising that he has the support of the noble Lord, Lord Byers, speaking for the Liberal Party, because he now seems to have joined to make it a one-Party appeal although it has the two separate headings of the Socialist Party and of the Liberal Party? Is it too late to ask the noble and learned Lord to have the Statement reconsidered by his colleagues with a view to referring it to a Select Committee with reference wide enough for it to have the detailed and thorough examination that the issues ought to have before a constitutional change of this kind is contemplated?

My Lords, perhaps I may explain that there have been discussions in the hope of arriving at agreed terms of reference for this Select Committee, but there was a fundamental difference of approach, on the one hand, from the Conservative Party, which was not prepared to commit itself to the principle of devolution to Assemblies but wanted the whole structure of Government to be reconsidered, including the conception of federation and the examination of our whole governmental system, which really would have put the argument back to before the Kilbrandon Report. It was in the light of that fact that the Labour Party and the Liberal Party spokesmen in these discussions found that agreed terms of reference for a Select Committee could not be arrived at. Of course, this Bill will have to be the responsibility of the Government when they introduce it, but I still hope that when its terms are finalised it will receive support from various Parties in the House and it may be from at least some Members, also, of the Conservative Party.

My Lords, there is an assumption in the Statement which has been repeated in this House that there is an increasing or a majority demand on the part of the people of Scotland and Wales for devolution. It is some time since this subject was introduced and since then there has been a growing disenchantment with the idea of an Assembly. Is the noble and learned Lord aware that there is an increasing feeling that the demand for devolution has lost some of its importance as the consequences of separation are becoming fully realised? Would it not be wise, therefore, to test public opinion in Scotland and Wales by means of a referendum before embarking on the principles proposed in the new legislation?

My Lords, on the matter of a referendum I think frankly, to put it at its lowest, it would be unsatisfactory to have a referendum before a devolution Bill was enacted. The referendum itself would involve legislation, of course, but I venture to suggest that it would be a very imprecise affair before the shape and colour and content of the devolution Bill was available to the public. Indeed, it would be asking voters to approve or reject a scheme of devolution which had not been voted on by Parliament and would then of course be open to modification by Parliament after the referendum. In their proposals for the Bill as it stood, the Government favoured a referendum after devolution, and that proposal will still continue to be considered because clearly the Government attach great importance to ensuring that before any proposals are implemented they have the support of the majority of the Scottish and the Welsh people.

My Lords, I must press the noble and learned Lord once more. He really rather provoked me into initiating a debate on this subject which I will not yield to the temptation of doing. But may I just put to him this point because he has grossly misrepresented the question which I was designing to put to him. Does he not realise that by limiting the options in the way that he has he has prevented a clarification of the viable alternatives open to this country? Although I used the words "a federated society", I have by no means withdrawn or moderated my desire for provincial Assemblies. Does he not realise that he and his colleagues failed earlier this Session precisely because they tried to draft subordinate Assemblies on to a unitary State, and as he is now banging his head against the same brick wall he will find, like the Bourbons, that it does not pay to learn nothing or to forget nothing.

My Lords, I certainly do not feel particularly Bourbonish about this. The fact is that in another place on Second Reading a very large majority indeed supported the principle of devolution to Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. That basic principle was never resiled from in the votes that took place in another place. It is true that there has been great room for discussion about matters of detail, taxation possibilities and the rest of it; those, I hope, we shall sort out between now and publication of the Bill in the coming Session. But to turn hack on what had been carried by a majority in the House, on the basic principle that we are facing, would have been to reduce the whole argument to a futile postponement into the "never-never land."

My Lords, might I ask one question of the noble and learned Lord. Is it intended that the Select Committee will cover some forms of local government? Is he aware that the increasing cost of government in Scotland is a matter of anxiety there, and I believe it is a matter of anxiety that England should have to bear some of that cost as well.

My Lords, I am afraid I did not make clear the decision that there will be no Select Committee, that now we will proceed with preparation of the Bill, and it will be introduced in the next Session.