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Business Of The House: Scotland Bill

Volume 590: debated on Thursday 11 June 1998

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My Lords, I hope that the Government Chief Whip will not see it as a discourtesy if I rise to ask for clarification, first, on some general points of business management and, secondly and more importantly, on the Second Reading of the Scotland Bill which is due to take place next week.

The House will remember that my noble friend Lord Cranborne and I both gave warnings last summer of the potential consequences in terms of pressure of business in this House if the government programme were too full and there was not a proper balance between the weight of legislation introduced in this House and in another place.

We said that this House could not and would not be held to account if, as a result of the way in which the Government packed and arranged the programme, we were forced into a very prolonged Session. Since then, and in many cases for good reasons, further government legislation has been added to the programme. However, most of the Government's main programme Bills were introduced in another place and the most far-reaching and complex of all its Bills, the Scotland Bill, is yet to receive a Second Reading.

In such a crowded programme it behoves the Government to assist us in scrutinising legislation. From the first, we have not always received that to which the House is entitled. I will not go through the sorry saga of the past 12 months—that will be well known throughout the Chamber—but we are seeing signs of increasing pressure and haste on the part of the Government at a time when the legislative programme is still growing. There is a risk of this House being pushed too far when there is plenty of time in the spillover to complete the programme with full and proper scrutiny.

The Government Chief Whip and the usual channels have not been entirely unsuccessful. I wish to put on record how grateful are the Opposition for the extra half-day that we received on the Wales Bill. But it should never have been envisaged that such a major constitutional Bill could have been settled in less time.

My specific point is on the Scotland Bill. It has been announced that that Bill will have its Second Reading next week. But in the first edition of Forthcoming Business it is believed by the Government that it can be completed within a single day. Over 60 speakers have put down their names to speak at Second Reading. Since then the Government have accepted that there should be a second day. They have simply put on the Forthcoming Business,
"It is expected that debate on the Second Reading of the Scotland Bill will be continued this day, as first business".
I welcome that.

However, I wish to have clarification as to how that will work in practice. When will Peers know whether they have been selected to speak on Wednesday or Thursday? Might it not be wiser to decide now to split the subjects for debate on the Scotland Bill? Having seen the list of speakers so far, might it not be appropriate to spend the first day dealing with the political issues of devolution and on the second to look more at the legal aspects? A number of speakers have already put their names down to speak on this matter.

I want to avoid any accusation that the Government wish to confuse this House in their approach to this important Second Reading and that they would like the debate to take place in the small hours of Thursday morning rather than on Thursday afternoon. I hope that the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip will be able to give clarification on that point.

The last time this subject was debated was 20 years ago. On that occasion the House was given two full days. There were some 60 to 65 speakers. Moreover, next Thursday is the day on which the Government have decided to have the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, the chairman of the European Union Committee, on the European central bank. I hope that the noble Lord will not accept having his debate pushed further into the night and that he will ask the Government for the debate to be rescheduled.

I fully understand the need to expedite business, particularly at this time of the year, but I believe that there is no need to hurry. There is plenty of time for this House to give full and effective scrutiny to this legislation. I very much hope that the Chief Whip will take this opportunity to clarify the situation.

My Lords, perhaps I may say a word before my noble friend replies. I have little or no sympathy for the Opposition Chief Whip, but I have sympathy for those who wish to participate in a major debate on the European central bank, including members of my committee. I would find it quite intolerable were the Chief Whip to tell us that that debate will take place after the second day of the debate on the Scotland Bill. That would be outrageous. Many noble Lords on all sides of the House wish to participate in the important debate on the European central bank. I hope that my noble friend is able to assure me and others in this House, regardless of what the Opposition Chief Whip wants, that we shall have a full day's debate early on another day rather than have it late at night on the day suggested.

My Lords, I understand the point made by the Opposition Chief Whip. But I recall that when the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was Government Chief Whip in the last Parliament his attitude was remarkably different from the position he has set out this afternoon. I remember with great clarity the refusal of the then government to provide adequate time for a major Bill involving policy on criminal justice. But I do not propose to go down that particular avenue save to comment on the particular point made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, as regards the Scotland Bill.

Given the number of speakers, the Government have, as I understand it, agreed that part of the debate should spill over into Thursday. That is acceptable. I found it a little puzzling to hear the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, suggest that the Government were embarked on a policy of attempting to confuse the House. I suspect that his complaint would have been the intolerable arrogance of Ministers if the Government had not agreed to provide additional time for the Second Reading of the Scotland Bill. The noble Lord cannot have it both ways.

The position is quite clear. I do not think we can separate the debate on the Scotland Bill into two sections relating to different parts of the Bill. It would lead to a most confusing and unsatisfactory debate. That being so, I very much welcome what I understand the Government Chief Whip will say about the Scotland Bill. I very much hope that we have a valuable debate on this very important measure.

My Lords, I support what my noble friend Lord Strathclyde has said. In this Parliament there has been only one debate in this House on the Government's proposals in relation to Scotland and that was 10 months ago. That debate was on what had been described as a White Paper. It was published only five days before the debate. It was a very sketchy brochure containing meagre proposals and a scant outline of what they were. The debate took place on the day before the Recess, if my memory serves me correctly. It was time-limited and the speakers had only 10 minutes to speak on proposed major constitutional changes.

There is now a substantial Bill before us and the Government apparently intend to time-limit that debate. It is no surprise that so many speakers have put down their names because the constitutional effects go far wider than Scotland; they affect the whole of the United Kingdom. Therefore, I support what my noble friend has proposed.

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on this matter. At the Cross-Bench meeting this afternoon I raised the matter that only one day was to be given to the issue. General support was given to the view that that was not enough. It is a vital issue not only for Scotland but also for England. The fact that there are no fewer than 60 speakers strongly supports the view that this measure is critical for all of us. If we are to prevail on the Act of Union we should have a proper debate on it, but not at two o'clock, three o'clock or four o'clock in the morning. I very much support urging the Government to divide the debate into two days.

My Lords, there is one fundamental point that I wish to raise. On the Opposition Benches in another place there are scarcely any Scottish Members. Indeed, there are no Conservative Scottish Members although there are still quite a lot of Conservatives in Scotland. In your Lordships' House we have a formidable array of Scottish Peers with wide experience. That is one of the main reasons why so many noble Lords wish to speak in the debate. Will the Government Chief Whip kindly bear that in mind?

My Lords, over 50 speakers have put down their names to speak in the debate and, obviously, they cannot be accommodated within the day or day-and-a-half proposed. It is a matter of vital importance constitutionally. But bearing in mind that many of the speakers will presumably travel from Scotland, with all the cost of overnight expenses, is it constitutionally possible to hold the Second Reading debate—there will be no vote anyway—in Scotland?

My Lords, I understand that this may be the last major Second Reading debate on Scotland. It is quite intolerable to think that so many Peers on both sides of the House, and former Scottish Ministers, will not have an opportunity to express their views within a reasonable timescale. To do so at three or four o'clock in the morning, or even late on the second day, is not acceptable. We simply must have two full days.

My Lords, on the question of timetabling generally, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord the Chief Whip to reconsider the apparent intention to set down on Thursday 25th June the Bill for the premature release of terrorists, which happens to be the day provided for, in legislation passed by this House, the all-important elections to the new Northern Ireland assembly.

My Lords, it is a little unusual to have a usual channels discussion on the Floor of the House. The one thing that I have learnt in this job is never to be surprised by the frailty of human nature. It is a little early to start the usual discussions about the date of the Summer Recess. In the usual way, we shall discuss that a little nearer the date.

I am grateful to the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip for his kind remarks about the Government of Wales Bill. Perhaps he will remember that there was first an unexpectedly long debate on the report from the Select Committee on Procedure. In my usual kindly way, I managed to find some more time, so everybody was happy.

On the point about this House not starting its fair ration of Bills, I remind your Lordships that we started the Crime and Disorder Bill and the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, together with other important Bills. In fact, we receive what we are entitled to. On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, the date of the Second Reading of that Northern Ireland Bill was agreed through the usual channels.

I turn now to Scotland. I am grateful to the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip for his remarks and I give him full marks for a good try. It had been the clear intention that the debate on the Second Reading of the Scotland Bill would be concluded in one day. However, when we saw the length of the list of speakers, we took our decision. When the number of speakers became clear this morning, after discussion through the usual channels, it was decided that the list of speakers had grown too long to allow the debate to be confined to a single day unless the House sat extremely late into the night. Therefore, time has been provided to allow that debate to spill over into a second day. It is hoped that it will be possible to do that without deleting the other business set down for Thursday 18th June although that business would then start later in the day. I shall certainly bear the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Barnett very much in mind.

All noble Lords who have already set down their names to speak will be assumed to be available on Wednesday, as that was the day for which the business was announced and, accordingly, it is the day for which they put down their names to speak. If any noble Lord whose name is already down will also be available on the Thursday, it would be helpful if that fact could be communicated to the Government Whips' Office to assist in the construction of the Speakers' List. I should stress that the procedure will be to have a single debate spread over two days rather than to have two days for separate debates. As always, the final list of speakers will be produced on the Wednesday morning in the usual way. I am not sure whether the Opposition Chief Whip was entirely serious when he suggested splitting the subjects. It will be the Second Reading of an important Bill and every noble Lord should be able to speak in his place on the list to every aspect of the Bill.

Regarding the question from the noble Lord, Lord Renton, the one thing for which I am not responsible is the lack of Scottish Opposition Members of Parliament in the other place.

I hope that your Lordships will be satisfied. As always, we have tried to be accommodating. We had to see how many names were put down to speak. When we saw the list, we realised that it was too long for one day so we have allowed a spill-over into the second day.

My Lords, before the Chief Whip sits down, may I ask him to reconsider the point made by my noble friend Lord Molyneaux about the debate on 25th June? This matter was not discussed with the Cross Benches and as two former Northern Ireland Members of Parliament sit on our Benches, it would have been courteous to discuss with us whether that was a convenient day. Northern Ireland Members will naturally wish to be in the Province at the time of the election.

My Lords, all I can say is that there was the usual discussion through the usual channels. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, if he was excluded, but because of the very tight timetable, of which all your Lordships are aware, regarding the enactment of that legislation and relating to the agreement in Northern Ireland, it was agreed that that was the right day for that business. We discussed this through the usual channels and the business was agreed for that day.

My Lords, before the noble Lord comes to a final decision on this matter, may I urge the importance of the arguments put by my noble friend Lord Barnett concerning a debate on the European Central Bank? The debate on the European Central Bank, and in particular the comprehensive and authoritative contents of the report from Sub-committee A, make it indispensable that this House treats the matter very seriously. The events that may happen would have a profound effect, not only on the economy of the United Kingdom, but also on its political relationships with other countries.

I am sure the noble Lord agrees that it would be intolerable if such an important document did not have a full day allotted to it. It is inconceivable that the report could properly be discussed at the fag end of business—although I agree that that business is of considerable importance. Therefore, I implore the noble Lord, in both the short-term and the long-term interests of the country, to give a full and adequate opportunity to the whole House to discuss that report on the European Central Bank. I hope that wise and more considered counsels may ultimately prevail.

My Lords, is the Chief Whip suggesting that Northern Ireland Members of this House should be deprived of their democratic right to vote in the assembly elections in Northern Ireland because they have to stay here to suit his convenience to consider the Northern Ireland Bill to release terrorists?

My Lords, perhaps I may deal first with a point raised by my noble friend Lord Bruce. We are, of course, aware of the importance of that debate. The decision was taken only this morning that, because of the length of the list of speakers for the Second Reading of the Scotland Bill, we had to adjust the business. These are early days. I suggest that we wait until next week when we shall take a final decision on the shape of the day.

I return to the point about the Northern Ireland Bill. I repeat that the timetabling was agreed between the usual channels—between myself, the Opposition Chief Whip and the Chief Whip of the Liberal Democrat Party. The Belfast agreement states that we shall seek to enact the legislation by the end of June. If your Lordships will consider the timing of that Bill in the Commons, you will see that it is important that we now get on with the Bill. The usual channels decided not to put down the Bill for consideration before the election on 25th June, but on that day. On the point about voting in that election, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, will be able to vote in the morning and to take part in our debate in the afternoon.

My Lords, I am thankful that some aspects of this debate can return to the mystery of the usual channels. I am sure that that is where such discussions should be held. Perhaps I may clarify two points. First, there is no reason why this Session should necessarily end at the end of October. It could easily go into November. I refer to the point about there being plenty of time to complete the business when we return after the Summer Recess.

Secondly, and more specifically, I am still confused about how noble Lords who have put down their names to speak on the Scotland Bill on Wednesday will know whether they have been moved and are to speak on Thursday. I do not expect an answer to this now from the noble Lord the Chief Whip. It is important that not only my noble friends, but all Peers around the House, can adjust their diaries to deal with this. Will the Government Whips' Office telephone all those who have put down their names to speak to ask them on which day they wish to speak so that we can have a clear view of who will be speaking when?

My Lords, I hope that the Opposition Chief Whip, having agreed to the wish of the House for a debate lasting two days, is not now suggesting that not all noble Lords will be present on both days. I hope that he is not suggesting that. I do not think that we can telephone all noble Lords. If noble Lords can tell us that they are available on the Thursday as well as on the Wednesday because—I must make this clear—they were expected to speak on the Wednesday, that would be helpful. As to the dates of the Summer Recess and the spill-over, again, I give the noble Lord full marks for a good try, but it is very early in the season to be starting that debate.

My Lords, on the question of the Northern Ireland day, can the Chief Whip clarify to me whether he considers that the Cross Benchers in our House are not part of the usual channels?

My Lords, discussion of the Business of the House in the usual channels takes place among the three Chief Whips and always has done.

My Lords, as I understand what has been decided, we are to have two days, which was certainly the wish of the Cross Benches.

My Lords, I intervene briefly. I thank the Chief Whip for his constructive attitude. We all know that he is an extremely reasonable man both as a Member of this House and in his former profession. He is very professional. I hope that the Chief Whip will be able to give the House an assurance that when the usual channels resume their discussions on this matter he will take very carefully into account the points that have been made on all sides of the House this afternoon and that when he has addressed these points in his usual helpful fashion he may be able to report back to the House as to the detailed conclusions that have been reached.

My Lords, of course. The short debate that we have had illustrates what happens when the usual channels are invited to work across the Floor of the House and not outside the Chamber.