House of Lords
Thursday, 26 January 2012.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Manchester.
My Lords, the Government do not envisage the disintegration of the European Union. The United Kingdom remains a full member of the EU and we will continue to work hard with our many allies throughout Europe to advance our national interests, as well as those of all other EU member states.
My Lords, both Chancellor Merkel and President Van Rompuy have said that if the euro breaks up, the EU itself will follow suit. In case they are right, should we not plan to develop our trade and ties with the countries of the future, most particularly and obviously with the Commonwealth? Secondly, should we not be encouraged in this initiative by the knowledge that the EU was supposed to bring peace and prosperity to Europe, whereas in fact it has brought—
My Lords, we have to be clear-sighted about the future. In one respect the noble Lord is right: all the great growth in new consumer markets, and the areas in which we must succeed as a nation if we are to maintain—let alone increase—our living standards, tend to lie in the emerging powers of Asia, Africa and Latin America. That is where my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has emphasised all along that we must develop our commercial, economic and political clout in order to survive. In that sense the noble Lord is right. However, at the same time, Europe is our neighbourhood and our biggest market. It is full of innovation and potential for the future. There are eurozone difficulties—no one denies that—at the moment, although with the European Central Bank now issuing unlimited three-year loans to all banks in trouble, there is at least a breathing space ahead on the question of the eurozone itself.
As to the specific matter of the Greek debt structure and how it will be resolved in the next few days, I really could not comment. However, one obviously hopes that it will be an orderly affair.
My Lords, if an aspiring Tory candidate for the other place decides to deny that he is Europhobic to the local party, he will not be selected. That means, logically, that UKIP is not fit for purpose, so will it not disintegrate much quicker than the eurozone recovers from its own crisis?
I am not sure that I quite get the ins and outs of all that. Generally, I hope my noble friend agrees with me that Europe is our neighbourhood but the world is our market, that we must have a balanced and sensible approach in developing good relations with a European Union which obviously requires reforming and modernising to meet the 21st century, and that we must also adjust our own nation to meet this new international landscape.
I hear the view of one very learned economist but, as he knows, I think probably better than many economists, there are many different views, and that is very healthy. All economists tend to disagree with each other on these matters. Indeed, when they agree, they are usually wrong. As an ex-economist—a renegade economist—I am afraid that I have to disagree entirely with the noble Lord. I believe that our policies are the right ones to move us out of the colossal difficulties we face not only over the eurozone but the gigantic debt mountain that we were left by the previous Government.
Yes, I can confirm that I am well, well, well aware of that. The Commonwealth is one of the great networks of the future and we are proud to be members of that network. Indeed, it provides a gateway to many of the great new markets that I was talking about a moment ago.
My Lords, in the interests of equipping members of this noble House, can the Government arrange for the provision to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, of a sandwich board with, “The end of the world is nigh” written on one side and, “Stop the world, I want to get off” on the other? Is it not true and does the Minister agree that the United Kingdom’s best interests are in remaining a strong member of a modernising European Union in order that we can effectively deal with what the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, calls “the countries of the future”—notably those in Latin America, China and India? They really respect and take us seriously because we are participants in the EU.
I mostly agree with the noble Lord that our European membership is very valuable in promoting trade interests and access to new markets. At the same time, the bilateral links on the Commonwealth network have their part to play. Therefore, as usual, the answers lie in a number of directions, and if it is a question of sandwich boards, the glory of this House is that we tend to avoid simplicities and single answers and see that in many of these areas the answers are complex and multifaceted.
Lord Triesman: My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, our concern relates to the Government’s plans to improve cohesion with European partners. Last week, the Minister told me that my view was itself too dramatic. However, a week of discussions with other European missions has suggested to me that it was not. What preparatory discussions did the Prime Minister have with the Heads of Government to prepare them for the steps he took at the December Council? What instructions were given to our ambassadors throughout the EU to prepare other Governments for the steps that the Prime Minister took at that Council?
The details of this have been set out, particularly by my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe in front of the Lords European Union Committee the other day. I recommend that the noble Lord reads them. They are very detailed and answer his question very closely. Broadly, however, the preparations were of course there but had to be conditional on the initial drafts of what was going to be, and now is becoming, the intergovernmental agreement. It was presented in the first instance in December as a treaty for the 27. The draft of that was available only 24 hours before the actual meeting, so inevitably there had to be some last-minute reactions and adjustments, but at the end of it all it was perfectly clear that the safeguards sought by the Prime Minister were not going to be available and that haggling over an intergovernmental treaty that other members wanted to achieve rapidly would have been very disruptive. The best way was simply to say that we did not wish to be part of it, and that is what happened.
My Lords, if we are so influential in Europe, what are the Government doing to ensure that the financial framework matches the plans for 2020? At the moment, the common financial framework has not been adjusted to the 2020 planning, particularly regarding the work on the common agricultural policy, where a huge amount of funding continues to go into non-innovative processes.
Well, we are. The Government and many outside government continue to work to strengthen and reform all aspects of the European Union. The common agricultural policy is by no means set in concrete and certainly requires reform, as do infrastructure fund arrangements and many aspects of financial regulation, all of which can be improved. We are working away at those things all the time.
Developing Countries: Free and Fair Elections
The Government have committed to support at least 13 countries to hold free and fair elections by 2015. Elections are not a prerequisite for aid, but we provide direct support only for Governments who share our commitment to poverty reduction, human rights, public financial management and accountability to citizens. Where democratic norms are not respected, we ensure that those in need receive essential assistance by working outside Governments.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. The Government will be aware of the continuing concern about the organisation of the recent elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UK Government are significantly increasing aid to the DRC over this year, next year and the year after. Will the Government, as part of the discussion on that bilateral aid, insist on lessons being learnt in that country, which suffers from some of the worst poverty and violence in the world, to ensure that future elections are more reliable and more transparent and that the results are trusted by more of the population?
I have read the noble Lord’s blog on his experiences in the DRC as an election monitor and I give him credit for going out there to do that. He noted how enthusiastically people voted, but that is balanced against problems in the election. We are monitoring the situation. We expect the full results of the DRC National Assembly elections are to be published shortly. Some problems have been flagged up and we seek that the DRC electoral commission investigates all of them. We are extremely well aware of the problems in the DRC. It was flagged up to me, for example, that it is the worst place in the world to be a woman. The noble Lord will be extremely familiar with the problems and we are well aware of them.
I want to press my noble friend a little further on the issue of the DRC. I, too, had the opportunity to visit the country a few months ago before the elections, but the issues that were obvious then are still obvious today. Is my noble friend familiar with the DfID report, Electoral Assistance and Politics: Lessons for International Support, which states:
“Delivering free, fair and credible elections is … a considerable but important challenge, logistically, financially and politically”?
As my noble friend rightly says, the electoral commission has postponed issuing the results of the legislative elections yet again. The international election experts have left the country—frankly, I think, in disgust because they cannot get access to the election data—and the diaspora from the Congo, particularly in this country, are traumatised by the continuing fraud in elections in their home country. What will DfID do to try to make some sense of it all?
The first thing that I would emphasise is perhaps a sense of humility. If noble Lords bear in mind how long it took us to democratise from 1832 to 1929—in terms of the franchise for women—it is not surprising that, in some of these fragile states, it takes a long time to ensure that the elections are carried out fairly. Positive accounts are coming from the DRC about the elections, as the account of the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, bears out. As I said, various concerns are being monitored, particularly by the United States. We are in close contact. My noble friend Lord Howell answered on this subject the other day and the Minister for Africa is also pressing on the matter. We share those concerns and we are taking this forward, but we need to bear in mind the difficulties.
My Lords, reverting to the specific Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, about the DRC and the outcome of the elections, if the delegation that has been in London this week from opposition parties in the DRC is right and it is found that the elections have been entirely gerrymandered, will Her Majesty’s Government refuse to recognise the legitimacy of President Kabila and his Government? What about the opposition parties and their leaders who have been imprisoned in the DRC since the election and the closure of their television and radio stations and other media outlets? What have the Government to say about that?
One has to bear in mind the interests of all involved. It is striking that none of the observation missions—again, I make reference to the one that noble Lord, Lord McConnell, was on—judged that the overall result of the presidential election would have been changed by the irregularities that have been flagged up. However, it is clearly essential that the DRC electoral commission takes the necessary steps to investigate and address all reported irregularities.
Will the Minister join me in commending the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in promoting free and fair elections? I declare an interest as one of the Labour governors of the WFD. She will be aware that the foundation has put forward a business plan to the Department for International Development so that we can develop our work in the Middle East, north Africa and in other parts of Africa. We are still awaiting—for some time now—a response from DfID. Can she give an assurance that it will come in the very near future?
As the noble Lord clearly knows, the department is discussing with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which has done excellent work right across the world, how to take forward the work that DfID wants to encourage in supporting elections and everything that goes into making those elections work. That includes making sure that civil society is developed, that political parties are encouraged and that there is some basis on which these elections can work more effectively.
Small Businesses: Finance
The Government have a range of measures in place to help small businesses and start-up companies to access the finance they need. They include the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, which helps small businesses lacking track record or collateral to secure bank finance, the enterprise capital funds programme, which provides equity funding to high-growth potential businesses, BIS’s export finance guarantee, UK Export Finance’s products, and the recently announced £20 billion national loan guarantee scheme that will enable banks to offer lower-cost lending to small and medium-sized businesses.
My Lords, can I invite the Minister to correct the false impression given yesterday by the Prime Minister in PMQs that bank lending had increased to small businesses? In fact, the trend in bank lending, published by the Bank of England, shows a decline from April to November of last year. I remind her that the Federation of Small Businesses still talks about the difficulty of members obtaining bank lending. When they do it is typically at a 10 per cent rate. The other government programmes, for instance the Merlin programme, are all smoke and mirrors. The regional growth fund has been lending to big businesses, not small businesses. Can she think of something radical, for instance the state-funded Small Business Administration in America, which has successfully lent to small businesses the right amount of money to get the economy going? It is time that this Government did something big for small businesses.
Right. I am very pleased that I was at Prayers this morning when the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester read so beautifully the prayer with the words, “the sea rageth”. Without doubt the sea rageth when it comes to money and getting growth going, but it is important that we keep the faith and keep a steady course. The things that I have read out so far are working. There is no doubt that we are lending money to small businesses and they are starting to do well.
I congratulate my noble friend and the Chancellor on the initiative that he has taken to allow people who are starting up businesses to obtain support under the enterprise allowance scheme from near relatives, which, for most people starting a business, is the main source of finance. May I respectfully suggest that what we need in this country is not more debt in businesses but more equity, so the Chancellor’s emphasis on this is really very important and worth while?
Of course, I agree with my noble friend. It is a great asset to allow families to support new businesses. I have no doubt that in the next few weeks when the Budget comes to us, we will hear the Chancellor emphasise again the points that my noble friend made so well.
My Lords, it is deeply worrying when stories come from self-employed businesspeople running small companies—sometimes one-man companies—that the banks give verbal assurances that they will give them finance, but several weeks later when they come to sign up the banks withdraw the assurances. That is cruel and hard, and I hope that the Government will be able to do something about it.
We are of course very aware that very often it is difficult for small businesses to make their case. They do not have the mechanisms that large companies have and are not sure how to go and speak to the banks. The banks assure us that they are working very hard to help people, particularly self-employed people, who come to make a business case. Of course, they have to make a business case because it is other people's money that they are borrowing.
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness will be aware that, notwithstanding the list of programmes that she put forward in response to the Question, particularly in the light of the current economic situation there is significant criticism that the Government should be doing more to stimulate growth. Does she think that Her Majesty's Government have the correct balance between the deficit reduction programme and the steps that are being taken to stimulate growth, particularly in the SME sector?
Is the noble Baroness aware that in a county such as Devon, at the heart of the rural economy are a host of small and micro businesses? Is she further aware of the particular challenges facing small, rural businesses as they try to raise start-up capital and money for ongoing investment at this time? Will she gave an assurance that the various programmes that she mentioned, as well as local enterprise partnerships, are properly weighing the needs of rural businesses compared with those in more urban areas?
The right reverend Prelate makes a very fine point. As he knows, I come from Devon. All the banks are being made aware of the fact that not everyone comes to them with the same case. Banks have heard so much criticism since the Government took office that they are very sensitive to the need to make sure, certainly in rural areas, that they are seen to be listening sympathetically to every case.
My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what is being done to help small businesses to export more? We know that many markets abroad would benefit from putting their small businesses together with ours. What action are the Government taking to concentrate on small businesses getting into these very important export markets?
The noble Lord, Lord Green, heads up our export division. I am absolutely sure that he has this well on his scanner. When he took up his office, he decided not to go abroad first but to go around Great Britain and look at small and medium-sized businesses to see what they needed and what help they could be given. I like to think that one day he will come here and described this himself.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that while the Government are doing a lot of what they can to provide finance, the real issue for small business is the cost of the regulatory burden, this is an unattractive economy for small businesses to operate in, in comparison with others, and what is needed is a programme of regulatory exemptions for small businesses?
Health: Tropical Diseases
The Government have just announced a fivefold increase in support for neglected tropical diseases. This will help to protect more than 140 million people worldwide. It will strengthen the UK’s partnerships with the World Health Organisation, foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carter Center, other donors, pharmaceutical companies that are making drug donations, the endemic countries and non-governmental organisations.
I welcome that very positive response from the Minister and the Government’s initiative in this field. I should declare a non-financial interest as a trustee of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, which works to develop new vaccines for diseases such as human hook worm and on mass drug administration programmes.
Does the Minister agree that diseases such as guinea worm, river blindness and schistosomiasis not only devastate the health, education and employment prospects of hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people but impede progress towards the achievement of the millennium development goals? Given that eradication is a real possibility and that intervention is so cost-effective, will the Government do all they can to ensure that generous donors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other countries continue their efforts so that we can rid the world of these truly awful diseases?
The noble Baroness is absolutely right. I pay tribute to her and to her husband Martin Hayman for all that they have done in this field. When this announcement was made, my honourable friend Stephen O’Brien said:
“British support will take the neglected out of neglected tropical diseases”.
That is clearly critical. The noble Baroness is absolutely right: these are devastating diseases. The United Kingdom can help gear up what is happening elsewhere. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been remarkable in what it has managed to achieve, as has the Carter Center. The possible elimination of guinea worm by 2015 would be the second human disease that we have managed to eliminate.
Does the Minister agree that the distribution of drugs and the setting up of treatment programmes present a huge challenge in many of the countries where these neglected tropical diseases are endemic, where health systems are already struggling to provide even the most basic services? Would she also agree that a further challenge comes from meeting requirements to regulate a range of what will be new medical products and to evaluate their safety, their efficacy and their quality in very particular conditions, for instance in Africa? Will the Minister assure the House that funding will be provided to support efforts to strengthen health systems and to build capacity to regulate the new drugs?
I thank my noble friend for those comments. I would also point out that British universities, which have a long track record in research on tropical diseases, are also able to take advantage of this so that the work done at Imperial College, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine should also be encouraged.
My Lords, now that smallpox has been eradicated from the world and that the same may soon be true of poliomyelitis and that vaccines for malaria and many other neglected tropical diseases are in an advanced stage of development, this development by government is most welcome. Is the Minister satisfied that there are sufficient training opportunities in tropical medicine in this country to enable doctors to be trained who wish to work in the tropics on the eradication of these diseases?
I thank the noble Lord for his comments. The prospects before us are astonishing. I have just mentioned the United Kingdom universities and their research centres. I know that various noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, are playing a part in trying to ensure just that.
Can my noble friend confirm that the £20 million increase in funding, a fivefold increase, from the UK Government is in fact dependent on finding matching funds? Therefore, can she tell your Lordships’ House what progress has been made in securing those matching funds, and whether this would enable the programme to maintain its dynamicism, which is obviously so important?
My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of Sightsavers, part of the UK Coalition against Neglected Tropical Diseases. I congratulate the Government on this initiative and on continuing the leading role that the UK plays in development. Does the Minister agree that the Government, national Governments in the affected countries, Sightsavers and others can now plan confidently to eradicate blinding trachoma—it is eminently preventable: we know all the ways to do it and we have the drugs—and that we should be able to do that in the next decade?
Storage of Carbon Dioxide (Inspections etc.) Regulations 2012
Motion to Approve
Committee (1st Day)
Relevant documents: 17th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 17th Report from the Constitution Committee.
As an amendment to the Motion “That the House do now resolve itself into a Committee on the Bill”, to leave out from “House” to end and insert “declines to consider the Bill in Committee until Her Majesty’s Government have laid before Parliament a report on the results of the consultation they launched on 11 January on Scotland’s constitutional future and until the Scottish Parliament has passed a further Legislative Consent Motion in respect of the Bill”.
My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friends the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip for their courtesy in dealing with the first part of my amendment, in so far as a timetable Motion has been brought forward to ensure that those parts of the Bill which are concerned with matters that are subject to consultation will be dealt with at a later stage. I am grateful to the usual channels on all sides of the House for ensuring that that happened. It is a happy remedy to the problem that was created by the consultation paper setting a date of 9 March for responses.
Consultation papers on referenda seem to be a bit like buses: just when you are not expecting any, two come along. We have a competing consultation paper from Alex Salmond and the Scottish Executive, which was launched yesterday in no less grand a place than the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle, which in my day was used only for state and non-controversial occasions. It would be a bit like the Prime Minister launching a consultation paper on a matter of controversy in the great hall here at Westminster—something I know he would never contemplate doing.
I am afraid that I have a number of questions for my noble friend and for the Government on the second part of my amendment, which deals with the issue of legislative consent. Perhaps I may dwell for the moment on the consultation paper that has been released by the Scottish Executive. That has a deadline for responses of 9 May, which is after this Session of Parliament is likely to have ended. The Chief Whip on the opposition Benches is shaking his head. Perhaps it may be possible for us to continue discussions on the Scotland Bill beyond 9 May, with his agreement—I think not.
I am very concerned about this competing consultation paper. First, it proposes an absolutely rigged question on independence. It is a loaded question; those who were listening to the “Today” programme will have heard the advice from a completely impartial US expert which confirms that. The question invites the answer “Yes”. That the First Minister is suggesting that loaded question, and that the Electoral Commission, which I am delighted to say he has now agreed should be involved, should be unable to opine on the question, makes me very concerned about the First Minister’s ability to deliver a referendum campaign that would be fair and balanced let alone legal.
What is being proposed in the consultation paper that has been released is not a referendum at all, and what the First Minister is proposing is the most expensive opinion poll in history—it will cost £10 million. It will not be a decisive referendum, because the authority of the Westminster Parliament would be required to achieve that. He is planning on having a very expensive opinion poll; and if he succeeds in getting a result of yes, he would enter negotiations with the Government, and people would then discover what they had been voting for in his referendum. That seems quite the wrong way round. There is an opportunity for us to amend the Bill to ensure that we have a properly conducted and fair referendum that will be decisive, to bring this matter to a conclusion, and to ensure that all the arguments and information are made available to the voters in advance.
As for this consultation paper, I am also concerned about the Government’s attitude—I would like to have a response from the Minister—both to the question and to the fact that the Electoral Commission’s role is to be rigged. The commission will not be able to carry out its duties, as it did most recently in the referendum on AV. Not only was the Electoral Commission responsible for that referendum but the chief executive was the accounting officer. It seems to me that that should also be the position in a matter as serious as deciding whether to break up the United Kingdom.
Not only does the consultation paper propose that there should be a rigged Electoral Commission: the position on campaign expenses is also being rigged. For the Scottish parliamentary elections, each political party was able to spend £1.5 million. The consultation paper proposes that the sum should be reduced to £250,000 per party. I wonder if that is because there is one party in favour of breaking up Britain and at least three against, and this is an attempt to limit their ability to put the argument. So we have a rigged question, a rigged role for the regulator and rigged expenses. On top of that, there is the suggestion that there should be a rigged franchise.
I dwell on this at length to emphasise how important it is that we ensure in this Bill that we have a proper process in place, so that at the end of the day, however people vote in Scotland on breaking up Britain—yes or no—no one can say that it was not fair and the result was not reached in a proper manner.
It really is extraordinary. Certainly when I was Secretary of State I was conscious that I was a Conservative—in many ways I felt that I was in opposition all the time I was in the Government—but I was also conscious that, as Secretary of State, I had a wider duty. On looking at this consultation paper, I am afraid to say that the First Minister has betrayed the trust which has been put in him as First Minister, and he appears to be putting his party’s interest before his country’s interest while posing as a champion of national interest.
One other point that we have to discuss, which relates to legislative consent, is the whole question of so-called devo-max. The consultation paper suggests that there could be a second question on that. Whatever your views on this, and I am not a fan, it would undoubtedly change the nature not just of how business is treated in Scotland but of how business is treated here. In effect it would create an English Parliament and a federal parliament. That is a matter for the United Kingdom as a whole, and if we are to have a referendum on devo-max, whatever it is and however it is defined, it is something for a referendum for the whole of the United Kingdom. Therefore to suggest that a question on devo-max should be added to a referendum on independence is again a deliberate attempt to rig the thing in order to split those who are opposed to breaking up Britain. Once more, I think that that is the purpose.
I turn now to the second part of my amendment, which suggests that we should not continue with this Committee stage until the Scottish Parliament has passed a further legislative consent Motion in respect of the Bill. I am not sure whether noble Lords have had an opportunity to look at the report of the committee of the Scottish Parliament which considered the issue of legislative consent and reported on it just before Christmas. If the First Minister is so concerned about devo-max, why has the Scottish Parliament not even discussed the report of that committee? The committee concluded:
“On the basis of all of the evidence that we have heard, the responses from the UK Government to the amendments suggested by our predecessor and by others in this new Parliamentary session, the Committee, therefore is unable to recommend that the Parliament approve a Legislative Consent Motion (LCM) on the Scotland Bill unless it is amended in line with the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations”.
The committee says that it should not give legislative consent to this Bill unless its conclusions and recommendations have been agreed. The First Minister, who says that he is concerned about devo-max, has not even debated those proposals. So we do not know what the Scottish Parliament thinks, but we do know what the committee thinks.
There are 45 recommendations which are conditional on approval, according to a committee dominated by the Scottish nationalists. Perhaps I may tell noble Lords what the last one is. Recommendation 45 states:
“We recommend that the Bill be amended to provide full fiscal autonomy for the Scottish Parliament and enable the devolution of welfare and benefits”.
The second to last recommendation, number 44, states:
“The Committee considers that, should the UK Government proceed with the current financial provisions within the Bill, it would be unacceptable for these to be enacted without express agreement of the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, the Committee recommends that the Scotland Bill be amended to include a mechanism for joint approval”.
The fourth to last recommendation, number 42, states:
“The Committee recommends that the UK Government only proceed with the Scotland Bill if it has secured the clear legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament and met any conditions within that legislative consent motion”.
My question to my noble and learned friend is this. What on earth are we doing discussing this Bill at all if the Scottish Parliament cannot even be bothered to decide whether that is its position? And if that is its position, what are the Government going to do?
The Prime Minister has announced that he has a respect agenda for Scotland. Would it be respectful to proceed with this Bill if the Scottish Parliament takes the view that we should not proceed with it? I ask this simply as a humble seeker after truth. I should say to my noble and learned friend that I am not going to read out all 45 recommendations, tempted as I am, but I have to say that if the Scottish Parliament is not going to debate them, surely we should not be debating them, or surely we should have answers from the Minister as to the Government’s attitude. Perhaps we could have a debate in the Moses Room, although it would be rather paradoxical if the unelected House of Lords—as the Leader of the Scottish National Party, the First Minister, Alex Salmond, insists on calling us—actually got round to debating a committee report that was dominated by his own party in the Moses Room.
I do not think that Alex Salmond would like being compared with Moses. After all, Moses never got to see the Promised Land. However, on reflection, perhaps my noble and learned friend is right.
One other aspect of the consultation paper is that he wants to rig the franchise and give the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds. My researchers tell me that there are only nine countries in the world that give the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds, two of which are North Korea and Cuba, both of which have leaders with a high opinion of themselves.
I am not noted for carrying a flag for the Scottish Parliament but, to be serious, there are some very important recommendations here, on some of which I have tabled amendments so that they can at least be debated. I do not agree with all of them, but some of them are perfectly sensible. For example, this Bill provides for the control of speed limits in Scotland to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I think that that is daft, because you would cross the border and suddenly there would be a different speed limit. But it has been agreed—it is in the Bill and I do not want to question it. However, the committee of the Scottish Parliament says that it should not give legislative consent unless the Government agree to change the Bill, which at the moment allows the Scottish Parliament to set the speed limits for cars but not for HGV vehicles. It seems a little odd that we are prepared to devolve responsibility for motor cars but not for HGVs. I have tabled an amendment to which I hope my noble and learned friend will give fair consideration at a later stage. There are other issues, too, which should be considered.
I know that my noble and learned friend is agog as to whether I am going to press this matter to a vote. In order to avoid having to do so, I have tabled an amendment on the issue of legislative consent which says that if within two months of Royal Assent for this Bill we have not had legislative consent from the Scottish Parliament to those provisions which relate to its responsibilities, then the Bill will fall, and only those provisions which do not require legislative consent will remain. I hope that my noble and learned friend, after the consultation period has been concluded, and given the evidence of a lack of good faith on the part of the First Minister, will consider amending the Bill to provide for a fair and proper referendum to be conducted. In those circumstances—if the Scottish Parliament did not give legislative consent—we would be left with a Bill that simply provided for a referendum. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is never easy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, particularly when you agree with him. Like him, I am very glad that the Government tabled their Business Motion on Tuesday and that we agreed it, because if they had not, I would have supported and voted for the Motion of the noble Lord. It would probably have been the first time that I had done so, but it would have been with enthusiasm and alacrity.
Some of my friends warned me against allying myself with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, saying that he is toxic in Scotland. I know that the poll tax which he was associated with was not very popular in Scotland, but I take the simple view that even a Tory is not always wrong. Then, when he or she is right, we should support them; and I think that the noble Lord is right here. I sincerely commend the Prime Minister—I very seldom do that—and the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on their clear, unequivocal and dedicated support for the union, because it is not in their narrow party interest. If they were looking after their narrow party interest, they would want to get rid of Scotland, with all the Labour MPs who come to the United Kingdom Parliament.
I say to my colleagues, with great sincerity, that I am sorry that some of them seem afraid of working with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats on this campaign to protect the union. Of course we will get jibes from Salmond and the cybernats but that is because they do not want us to work together and to be united. That is why they are saying, “Oh, you are working with the Tories. This is dreadful. This is awful”. I am sure that Members opposite will understand that that carries some resonance, in Scotland in particular. However, I was four years in the Scottish Parliament and I remember that it was Annabel Goldie and the Scottish Conservative MSPs who sustained Alex Salmond. So it is all right for him to work with them when it suits him, but he turns on us when we consider doing so.
Indeed. That is something else we agree on. Like the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, we Labour people keep reminding them of that treachery as well. The only good thing about it was that it enabled me to get elected in 1979, but that is another story.
A few years ago I asked one of the most right-wing Thatcherites, George Mathewson, who said that the only person who had done anything good for the Scottish economy was Margaret Thatcher, why he was now supporting the SNP. I could not understand it because he was a real hard-line Tory. He said, “Because I want to keep you Labour people out in Scotland”. That is why he was doing it and, no doubt, that is why Souter, Farmer and others are as well.
I wish to take this opportunity to urge us all, unionists, devolutionists and the Liberal Democrats—who ought to be federalists—not to be fearful of Salmond. The Liberal Democrats need to rediscover the enthusiasm for federalism contained in their manifesto and I was glad to see Simon Hughes at least talking about devolution within England. I have known Salmond for a very long time, since before he was a Member of Parliament. Of course he is cunning, able and a gambler—but he is not infallible. Already we have seen that he is unable to answer some of the searching questions about the reality of independence. When he is asked about the euro or the pound and about defence—when he is challenged on these issues—he is found wanting. We should challenge him at every opportunity. In particular, he wants to muddy the water with the argument between devolution—or devo-max, whatever they call it—and independence by pretending that there is very little difference; that you can move quietly and easily from maximum devolution to independence. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a huge, vital difference and we must remind people in Scotland of that difference. That is why the first question—and it must be the only question—is whether or not Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is right—Salmond is proposing a fixed question. The question should be: “Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom, yes or no?”. That is the honest, sincere question but Salmond is trying to muddy it. Once we decide—as I hope we will—that Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom, then of course we can have a detailed debate about how much devolution. We will no doubt discuss that, hold different views and then come to a consensus on it.
Finally, how do we deal with the Bill? Well, preferably, not on a Thursday.
It is down for next Thursday as well. Sometimes I think that the Whips on both sides have got it in for us Scots by tabling Scottish business on a Thursday. Not every Member of this House comes from London. Those of us from Scotland who have to travel down and back each week need some consideration in relation to business. It is not just the Whips on the other side but my own noble friends. I have spoken to them—gently—about trying to avoid Thursdays.
We also need to give each aspect of the Bill careful consideration. Some people say we should just rush it through. Salmond accuses us and calls us, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said, this “unelected House”. He keeps going on about that but this House is part of our constitution. While we exist, we have a responsibility and duty to deal with legislation properly. We should not be ashamed of that. We should not cower.
Absolutely—and, like every other Bill, it is important that we give it detailed consideration. Like the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I think that we should consider holding off completing consideration of it until that second legislative consent Motion is through. I have the greatest respect for the Minister, as I do for my own Front Bench colleagues—my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton gave me a wee look then. I respect their agreement to hold off consideration until later. However, I hope that they will now give careful consideration to holding off final approval and accepting the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, until the second legislative consent Motion is agreed because this is Salmond’s latest trap.
The future of Scotland does not just affect we Scots but everyone in this United Kingdom. Every Member of this House has a responsibility to take part in that. We must fight to protect the union. It is the most successful economic union in the world, which has existed, developed and moved forward for the past 300 years. It is worth all of us fighting for it. Whether we feel inhibited as unelected Members—I that hope we do not—we should fight for what we think is right.
My Lords, it is not the first time that, rather surprisingly, I have had to rise to agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has said. I, too, have had experience of Mr Salmond as a Minister, when I was in charge of fisheries in the Scottish Office. Of course, Alex Salmond was Member of Parliament for Banff and Buchan, which is—as anyone knows—the main fishing area of Scotland. I can assure noble Lords of what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, just said: we are dealing with an extremely clever, devious man, apparently easy going until things are at a difficult stage, and then he will put the boot in.
I will say just one very sincere thing about this particular Bill, which is vital for us and for Scotland. When we consider the referendum, there must be no weakening of the powers contained in the Scotland Act to hold on firmly to the powers that Westminster has over the constitution. This is what my noble friend Lord Forsyth is getting at. I am extremely worried that there are two consultation papers. There is one that we have already seen and one produced in Edinburgh yesterday. The date for final submissions for the Edinburgh document is May. I am very worried that if this goes into the next Session of Parliament—as we hear is likely to happen—Mr Salmond will again get his way. We must not let that happen. We must ensure, through the Scotland Bill and my noble friend on the Front Bench, that when we face the referendum we have adequate safeguards in our Bill to enable us to tell Mr Salmond, “These are the rules by which we are playing”.
My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy for the position that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has so eloquently set out. A huge amount has happened in the Scottish debate since these issues were discussed in the House of Commons some months ago. We have to take into account the nature of the change in that debate. If the coalition Government had not agreed to defer the discussion of the referendum sections of the Bill, I would have urged the noble Lord to test the opinion of the House on this Bill, whether or not this is Thursday. We must bear in mind the respect for the Scottish people, and it is to the Government’s credit that they have delayed those sections of the Bill until after the end of the consultation process. The consultation document is excellent.
One reason why I believe that this Parliament is so rubbished by the First Minister and the Scottish National Party is because they have consistently failed to make their mark in this Parliament and in elections to this Parliament. The political parties represented here have a mandate from the Scottish people as well, and we are all clearly parties proud to be part of the United Kingdom. I am a proud Scot, a Scot who is proud of being Scottish and of being British—and I am also pretty proud of being European as well. Many of our antecedents fought on the battlefields of Europe under a British flag, and they did so for freedoms that we enjoy today.
The First Minister wants the referendum to be held in 2014 because of the anniversary of Bannockburn. It is also the centenary of the First World War, when my family paid a price, as did many families, for the freedoms that we enjoy. So we should not be taken up by this “Braveheart” rhetoric of the First Minister.
I am very conscious that it is the will of the Government and of many members of my own Front Bench to proceed with this Bill, and I concede to that. There is a wee bit of an element of tidying up here—I always thought that tidying up in January was an affliction that visited the female of the species and that the male had some sort of genetic in-built gear that stopped the tidying up—as I am told that we must not allow this Bill to go into the next Session of Parliament. I am one of those people who is a wee bit sceptical about a self-regulating Chamber, but people tell me that when you have a self-regulating House you are able to do the will of the House, and I believe that it would be the will of the House to give us extra time to consider the next phase of the legislation.
As I indicated at Second Reading, I wish to probe the Minister about the cost of some of the elements within this Bill, not least of the amendments to taxation. We need to get this discussion and debate on to a grown-up level and learn how the disaggregation of taxation in the United Kingdom will be brought about. If possible, I would love to have a debate on the disaggregation of social security in the United Kingdom, because that is something that the nationalists prepare to move on from very quickly indeed.
Let me be a bit controversial. I do not think that the First Minister wants independence. He is frightened of independence. Why else would he say, “Keep the monarchy, keep the Army and keep sterling”—although going into monetary union without fiscal union is something that we should have learnt one or two lessons about. He is frightened of the consequences; he wants the rhetoric but does not want to take the hard decisions.
I urge noble Lords when we consider this Bill to take the opportunity to probe more deeply into what this concept of additional measures of devolution would mean, because I would not want us this time next year or the following year to come back to these issues, particularly around taxation. I look forward to the debates on these matters, but I thank the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for putting this Motion on the Order Paper. To our English colleagues it gives some sort of flavour to the issues that we have to address in Scotland, and I am absolutely confident that every one of us in this House, given the oath that we swear when we take our seats, believes that we are proud to be British, just as many of us are proud to be Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English.
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation, as I did at Second Reading, to intervene but briefly in this debate, because Wales is not Scotland and Plaid Cymru is not the SNP. But I could not sit here and hear my good friend Alex Salmond being bad-mouthed in the way that he has been already in this debate, and no doubt we will hear more of that.
No, indeed, it is not to shut anybody up but to raise the question that every noble Lord or noble Baroness will answer for himself or herself about the words that they choose in following this very important debate with regard to the future relationships of the countries of the United Kingdom. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, rubbished the way in which Alex Salmond had introduced the question, referring to it as a rigged question. He did not, however, read the question out. It is:
“Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”.
I have enough respect for the people of Scotland being able to make a judgment on that, whichever way it goes, because the question is absolutely clear-cut. One can of course have different versions of a question, but that is not a rigged question.
On a point of clarification, I would vote yes to Scotland being an independent country. We are independent at the moment. We are in a marriage with England, and I am quite happy to renew our marriage vows at any time, but that does not mean we are not independent.
Of course the definition of “independent” is certain to be central to the debate, but all that argument will not be on the ballot paper. The ballot paper has to have a question that reflects the debate that has taken place, and I have no doubt that there will be a debate in detail about the implications of an independent country. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, raised the question regarding a referendum possibly not being valid if it is organised from Scotland. However, as we well remember from the debates of the 1970s, the referenda on the then proposed assemblies for Scotland and for Wales were consultative referenda, as any referendum is in the context of our Parliament.
I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord, who is being very generous, but we have just had a referendum on AV which I criticised in this House because, in fairness, it was a binding referendum. It is not true to say that every referendum has been consultative. The difficulty with Alex Salmond’s referendum is that it is simply consultative, but we need to resolve this matter. For example, the Royal Bank of Scotland would not be able to operate in an independent Scotland and if we are going to draw this out till 2016, what is going to happen to the security of our jobs and so on? We need to resolve this one way or the other; that is the criticism. On the point of the question, could the noble Lord, as the spokesman in this place for Alex Salmond, help me? Why is he refusing to agree that that question, which the noble Lord says is fair, should be looked at and determined by the Electoral Commission?
I am very grateful for that intervention. I am not going to go after the Royal Bank of Scotland because no doubt we will come to those issues later in the Bill, and I hope to be participating then. With regard to the latter point, Alex Salmond said yesterday:
“The question is designed to comply with the Electoral Commission's guidelines which are that referendum questions should present the options clearly, simply and neutrally. The question we have published today aims to be all three, and will be subject to testing using a sample of voters”.
That accepts that he will have discussions with the Electoral Commission, and I understand that the Secretary of State for Scotland has welcomed that.
I do not know what the Secretary of State for Scotland has said, but what the First Minister said is what the noble Lord just read out, and it is typical of the weasel words that are used. When he is asked specifically, “Will the question be changed if the Electoral Commission advises that it should be?”, we get no response. Does the noble Lord agree that if the Electoral Commission, as the regulator, suggested a change then any fair minded First Minister would agree to it and agree to that principle?
Clearly, anyone concerned with the question will take great note of what the Electoral Commission says. I make it clear to the noble Lord that I am not here answering on behalf of Alex Salmond, but I wanted to stand up and say a word on his behalf when I heard certain words being used—we heard the phrase “weasel words” a moment ago—and his good faith being questioned. He has been described as cunning, a gambler, devious and frightened. I put it to noble Lords that if the debate is going to be pursued in that tone, what will be the outcome and the reaction in Scotland? I leave it at that.
My Lords, I am ashamed, as a Scotsman and a Scots unionist, that it took a Welshman to make that point. I agree about the language.
I felt uneasy on 10 January when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, presented the Government’s consultation paper to us. There was enormous cross-Chamber unanimity that it was a jolly good document, that it was right in law and that it was right on the question and its timing. All the blue bonnets from over the border, the Forsyths, the Foulkeses, the Steels, the Langs—the Scottish political aristocracy of yesteryear—were all strongly in support of what the United Kingdom Government said in their consultation paper. A different view was taken by quite a large proportion of the Scottish people, for whom this all may have seemed a little odd. I do not disagree with the noble Lord on what he said about the law; the paper is mainly about the law and reserved powers and the power in Section 30. However, it is not clear beyond peradventure in Scotland that the terms and the timing of the question need to be settled by us, not by the Scottish Parliament. I am not saying that the people who disagree with that are right but merely that it is a question for debate.
In the debate that I have referred to, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, put a number of interesting questions to the Scottish National Party and he has done so again today. He has made an interesting, lively, jocular debating speech, asking questions of the SNP. I feel sorry for the Minister who has to answer the debate; it is not really his job to answer for the SNP. Here is my serious point: why is there not someone in this Chamber who does answer for the Scottish National Party? I know the answer, but it would be highly desirable that all parties that are represented in this Chamber should make informal representations to the missing party. I do not support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth; we should go ahead with the Bill and the Government’s timetabling proposals seem absolutely right to me, but our debates on the Bill would be greatly assisted if we had half a dozen people here who actually believed in the policies of the SNP, perhaps because they were members of it.
I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. He may know the answer to his question but maybe not everyone does. My good friend and SNP MP Pete Wishart has raised regularly at SNP conferences that they should take up the offer to nominate for this place. That has been vetoed again and again by Alex Salmond.
It is a question that could be raised again, given that we have a legislative workload on Scotland and that we would benefit from hearing the views of the Scottish National Party.
I have an additional point, and here I agree very strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, said. I do not want to see the balkanisation of Britain. The first casualty, though, could be the language of constitutional debate. We really should not be using language like “rigged” or “fixed”. If there was someone here to answer and hit back at us in this debate, it would be bold and brave to use such language; it is not bold and brave to use it when there is nobody here to speak for the side that one is attacking. To accuse someone who is not represented here of being devious seems very unwise. We have very serious constitutional questions to address. I am a unionist. It is very important for the future and the health of the union that we address these questions in sober, polite and reasonable parliamentary language.
Could I ask the noble Lord about the interesting argument that he is developing about the importance of having people from the Scottish nationalists in this House? Would he apply that to UKIP? When he talks about language, I recall that the noble Lord referred to Members on this side, who are rather more sceptical about Europe than he is, as the Tea Party. Was that an appropriate use of language?
I am delighted that the noble Lord remembers—I thought it was one of my most polished impromptus and that it had fallen by the wayside. I have no views on and nothing to say about UKIP. We are talking about Scotland and the party that won a landslide election victory last year and should be represented in this House.
My Lords, I hope I can be forgiven, as a Sassenach bishop, for making a brief contribution. When I go to Burns suppers at this time of year, I find myself with rather better Scottish credentials than many of those who present themselves in kilts: I have two degrees from a Scottish university and one wife from Scotland, as well as a home there. I am probably the only bishop who will have a vote in the referendum, if I understand the franchise correctly. I am tempted to take a poll of all my Scottish friends who will be disenfranchised before I decide how to cast my vote.
I have a specific question for the Minister, which has not been raised so far. The Second Reading debate was in September and we are now entering Committee at the end of January. An awful lot has happened in that time. In the mists of history, I was a chemist and one of the few things that I learnt was that, when you have several variables on the go at the same time, it is difficult to know what is really happening. In doing an experiment, you change one variable to see what the result is before you bring another variable into play. The referendum might be held in the midst of the implementation of the significant additional devolution that is enshrined in the Scotland Bill, not least in the area of taxation, which throws down the gauntlet as regards fiscal matters. Have the Government given any thought to the awkwardness of holding the referendum and that discussion while we are further down the line of implementing this Bill? That rather undergirds what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said and the last part of his Motion. If we are to go ahead with this Bill, we have to do so with the full consent of the Scottish Parliament. If we do not, it will be a very awkward and messy discussion. It is already marred by a great deal of awkwardness and messiness for various reasons.
My Lords, the result of last year’s election in Scotland produced two significant developments which should affect today’s discussion. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on bringing this matter to the Chamber. There is a need to discuss the Government’s overall strategy in relation to this Bill and the other matters that affect its progress.
The first significant impact of last year’s election result in Scotland is that there will come a point when, for the first time since devolution and the innovation of the legislative consent Motion, which my noble friend Lord Sewel introduced, there will be a significant issue—subject to a legislative consent Motion—on which the two Parliaments disagree. The second significant development and impact was that the majority achieved by the Scottish National Party in those elections gave the First Minister the opportunity to use that majority ruthlessly—he has been very clear about this—to determine, if he could, the rules, organisation and timing of the referendum.
Perhaps to the surprise of many of my colleagues, I welcomed the Prime Minister’s intervention this month, but I have two regrets about it as well. The first is that it was several months too late and should have occurred at a much earlier stage in the debate. None the less, it is welcome. The second is that it appears yet again to be part of a government strategy which, to be honest, has regularly since last May seemed to be all over the place, with different Ministers saying different things, the Prime Minister sometimes intervening and sometimes not, and the Government changing their position on different aspects of a referendum or other matters from time to time, or at least giving the impression of doing so.
This debate gives us an opportunity to say to the Government and to the Prime Minister that there needs to be a much more coherent approach to this. It is vital that the referendum, whenever it takes place, does so under fair rules agreed between the parties, not just by the nationalist majority in the Scottish Parliament but by all the parties, as occurred in 1997. The new Labour Government in 1997 gained more votes than did the Scottish National Party in Scotland last May, yet that summer they worked not just with the Liberal Democrats, who were our colleagues in the Constitutional Convention—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, was a leading figure in that discussion—but with the nationalists, who were against devolution up until that referendum, and with the Conservatives, who at that point were in opposition in the House of Commons. That is the approach that must determine the organisation of this referendum. Any interventions that help us secure that are, in my view, welcome. If the Government are to succeed in this effort, they need to be more coherent and more consistent in their approach to tackling these issues.
As regards the legislative consent Motion, we have to understand that if we have a process that works relatively comfortably when the two Governments are working in agreement and when the two Governments are of, or largely of, the same party, there will be times when the legislative consent Motion is not going to happen because the Scottish Parliament is of a different political composition. You cannot have the principle of the legislative consent Motion and then ride roughshod over it. I know that that is not the intention of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and it would certainly not be his approach, but we have to be very cautious about making too much progress on this Bill in advance of further discussion taking place with the Scottish Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has said. There is a point of principle on the LCM. We need to be careful how we proceed. I understand the desire of many Members on both Front Benches and elsewhere to make progress on the Bill, but we need to make sure that any such progress and any further interventions on the issue of a referendum should proceed in a coherent fashion and that the Government should follow through with a proper strategy to engage the Scottish Government in discussions—not just do interviews on Sunday mornings on the BBC—even if they have to force them to the table to do that, to make sure that the Scots get the referendum they deserve.
My Lords, I wish to follow my noble friend on the point about how we are going to have discussions with the Scottish Government or the Scottish Executive. The trouble is that there are no circumstances whatever in which Alex Salmond and the SNP will sit down to discuss anything about the future. My noble friend will recall that Alex Salmond is not alone in that—the Conservative Party did not take part in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which eventually produced the devolution settlement. The Scottish Government refused to have anything to do with the Calman commission, which is the basis of this report. At no time has Alex Salmond been prepared to discuss this rationally with anyone. That is not meant to be an insult; it is a statement of fact. I do not want to go over old scores. I just say to the noble Lord that some of us recollect hearing the wrath of members of the SNP on their doorstep when elections were being fought. That was not a pretty sight. I will say no more than that. However, I do not want to be misunderstood. I will see him outside and tell him later.
I fear that whatever we do today will be misconstrued. Alex Salmond is full of slogans. I remember the slogan in the 1993 election: “Scotland free by ’93!”. Now it is: “Scotland free but not yet”. I do not think that we can achieve agreement. Alex Salmond has said that he wants not only to have the referendum but to set the date for it. I think he will achieve that date, but not by agreement. What happens if we in this Parliament decide—either in the Commons or here, or together—that we want a different date and a different question, and Alex Salmond says, “I am going to have mine anyway.”? How is he to be stopped—perhaps through the Supreme Court? That will easily take up the time until 2014—no problem at all. The dilemma is, I fear, that we really do not know how we are going to deal with this. How can we deal sensibly, reasonably and amicably with a party that is totally determined not to have any discourse whatever?
Although I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has said—in fact, I argued and made representations myself that we should not go ahead, and I even suggested giving the Government a guarantee that we would get the Bill on a date that would be necessary in order not to lose it—we have to go ahead and debate it on the basis of our good faith.
I sometimes think that the only way to make sure that Scotland does not become independent is to trumpet the fact that something like 54 per cent of people in England want Scotland to be independent. What will Alex Salmond do? He will say, “I am not going to be bullied by the English into going independent”. That is his whole attitude—bully, twist and turn. We will do our best, and perhaps the time is coming when we should simply get on with the Bill.
My Lords, before the noble Lord takes his seat, will he comment on what appears to be a strategy by the First Minister—the strategy that can be used by those who wish to move out of a block of flats, if I may use that analogy? The best way to get the move, as a tenant, is to annoy the neighbours. Perhaps a strategy is being followed here. Will the noble Lord join me in asking the people of England not to rise to that strategy?
I absolutely agree and, although I do not know whether it is intentional, I think that Alex Salmond has deliberately set out to attack the English and blame them for everything. I guess that I will probably not be around if there is ever Scottish independence to see how the nationalists react when they are on their own and there is no one to blame. Yes, he wants to annoy people and we should not fall for that. When the referendum comes, I hope that people in England, Ireland and Wales get a say in some form or another. The case will be made very strongly that those of us who believe in the union and in Scotland certainly do not believe in antagonising the neighbours.
My Lords, for a number of reasons, I am not particularly keen for the 1998 Act to be amended, but I will accept it as we progress. However, the important thing is that nothing in the 1998 Act prevents this Parliament legislating in devolved areas. That is stated in the Act itself, but of course to get a proper relationship between the two Parliaments, we formulated what has come to be called the Sewel convention, whereby this Parliament will not normally legislate in a devolved area except with the agreement of the Scottish Parliament—I repeat, not normally. That is the relationship.
The need for a legislative consent Motion, which is founded upon the Sewel convention, was then extended to cover any legislation that affected the powers of Scottish Ministers. I think that that was done without any statement to Parliament. I have never been able to trace, apart from in a Cabinet Office note, how that extension occurred. In some way, that is why we are discussing the need for a legislative consent Motion for the non-referendum part of this Bill. I am attracted to the idea that we split the Bill and deal separately with issues relating to new powers for the Scottish Parliament—which I accept to all intents and purposes come under the requirement for a legislative consent Motion—and the bit about the referendum, because it does not require a legislative consent Motion as a referendum relates to the constitution. The constitution is a matter that is specifically reserved in the 1998 Act to this Parliament. Furthermore, if you read the debates on amendments that Members of the Opposition tabled at that time on the need for a specific reference to an independence referendum, the Secretary of State in the other place and I here made it absolutely clear that by reserving the constitution and everything to do with it, anything anticipatory and ancillary to a referendum is reserved as well.
Does the noble Lord agree that the time for an enabling Bill, because I think he is going down that route, is in the next Session of Parliament once Scotland has agreed to the consultation document—not our own one but the other one? Surely that is the time for this Parliament to consider and if necessary put through a Bill.
The noble Lord, as always, makes an interesting and important point. At this stage, I am not prepared to follow him completely, but it is something upon which we may wish to reflect as the debate progresses in our House.
Part of the confusion that we face on the whole business of a referendum, because the debate in Scotland for a long time assumed that it was within the powers of the Scottish Parliament to call a referendum on independence, is because—and we have seen this sort of tactic in a number of areas—the present First Minister has a very good knack of being able to make quite outlandish assertions, and make them so strongly and repeat them so many times that people come to accept their validity without any attempt to find out what the actual position is in reality and in law.
I hope that we progress with this Bill, but we must do so with a great deal of care.
My Lords, although I agree with many of the arguments advanced by my noble friend Lord Forsyth, I am glad that he is not going to press his amendment to a vote.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, suggested that my noble friend Lord Sanderson was being a bit unkind in using the word “devious” about Mr Salmond, and I take his point. Can I rephrase that and be positive and say that Mr Salmond is successfully manipulative? That is a compliment. I have said repeatedly that members of Her Majesty's Government underestimate him at their peril. He is not known as “smart Alec” for nothing north of the border. I remind the House that in the previous two general elections in Scotland he did not campaign on independence. He did not even campaign under the banner of the Scottish National Party. He campaigned on the basis of, “Alex Salmond for First Minister”. That tells you a great deal about how we have got to where we are. That campaign was very successful and manipulative.
There is another area that we have rather passed over. Before any Bill is introduced, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament has to sign legislative competence, both under the Scotland Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. I used to take that matter very seriously indeed, and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, will not mind me saying that there were occasions when I told the Executive that they could not expect me to act just as a rubber stamp. My legal advisers would send me back with a red box with perhaps 30 pages of their opinion on whether something was legislatively competent or not.
The referendum Bill, as outlined in Mr Salmond’s consultation paper yesterday, would have to come to the Scottish Parliament. Frankly, if I were Presiding Officer I would not sign a document that said that a referendum was within the competence of the Parliament because I do not believe that it is. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, may be correct that the Scottish Parliament can hold an expensive opinion poll, but it certainly cannot hold a referendum, for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, just advanced. However, remember what happened after the most recent election. After the first Scottish election, I was elected as the Presiding Officer, and I came from the Liberal Democrats. In the second Parliament, the Presiding Officer, George Reid, came from the Scottish National Party. In the third Parliament, the Presiding Officer, Alex Fergusson, came from the Conservative Party.
On any understanding of common sense and good will, it was the Labour Party's turn to provide the Presiding Officer after the most recent election, but of course Mr Salmond does not do graciousness. He does not do consensus. He had a majority, so a member of the SNP was appointed as Presiding Officer. I make no criticism of her whatever; I think she has behaved perfectly well, but it puts her in an impossible position and has shown again how Mr Salmond's record is one of being successfully manipulative—as did the use of Edinburgh Castle yesterday, to which the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, referred and as does the question in the consultation paper. We were told over the past few days by every newspaper that Mr Salmond was being so kind that he was going to allow the Electoral Commission to be in charge of the referendum, but when we read the paper we find that it is in charge of the administration but not in charge of the question. That, again, has been successfully manipulated.
I just say to the House that we must be extremely careful in all our dealings with the present Scottish Government. The paper published yesterday is run through with the theme of successful manipulation. I think we should proceed with the Bill. I take the view—as, I think, does my party—that it is not strong enough. We want greater devolution to the Scottish Parliament in future, but that is not on the agenda now. This is a Bill produced by consensus, and for that reason we should press ahead with it.
My Lords, I have great sympathy with the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, because it appears that we are putting the cart before the horse. Nevertheless, I have to say that I do not think that the full implications of what is proposed have sunk in for people. I have a very simple question. If the people of Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom, how can we have a United Kingdom if one of the kingdoms has left? What will we be called? What is Great Britain without Scotland? What will that be called?
A lot of comment has been made about the First Minister personally. I think we should get away from that and forget about the individual. We are talking about the future of more than 60 million of us. We are literally all in this together in every sense. Think of the situation that my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and I would be in. We would have a foreign country on one side of us and a foreign country on the other side of us. We would end up like West Pakistan. We are all hewn from the same rock. Imagine the circumstances we would be placed in. We have just spent decades overcoming nationalist terrorism and we have gradually, after years and years, managed to settle down our community. I do not wish to exaggerate, but if the Scottish nationalists were to succeed it could reignite the difficulties that we have just managed to overcome. I do not say that lightly.
Having spent many years negotiating with Irish nationalists of different stripes, I have to say that we have got to get the tone of the debate right. We should not hector nor bully the Scottish people. We must not, we cannot; if we do, we do so at our peril. We will not win the argument by saying, “You’re going to be impoverished here”. Any group of people who are determined enough can be independent. They may not have the same standard of living, but they can be independent and survive.
There is an emotional issue here which we have to get our heads around. That is where the debate will be won or lost. The people of Scotland are proud. They are proud of their history: look what they have brought to the world, whether in writing, engineering, opening up an empire, on the battlefield or economically—the list goes on. We are not selling the point that together, collectively as a nation, we have done great things together. I cannot see how we can allow an argument to be based around an individual. There are good social, economic and emotional arguments to deploy as to why the United Kingdom has been a most successful venture in the mutual interests of all of us.
Let us forget the First Minister. He is part of it, yes. I take very carefully the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, about the legalities, but from looking back on the Irish nationalist struggle, the question will never be settled or won in the courts; it has to be won in the hearts of all of us. That is the advice I give noble Lords, having, as I said, sat across the table from people of a totally different persuasion for many years in deep, detailed negotiation. The tone of the negotiation, the tone of the argument and the emotion of it must be at the forefront of people's minds. If we get into the legalities and technicalities, we are losing the argument.
Yes, the foundations have to be laid at the start. I totally support that, but when we get past that, as I hope we will, let us concentrate on selling the positive case that there is for the United Kingdom and not trying to put people down by saying, “If you do not remain part of the United Kingdom, you will be eating grass”. That is not an argument that we have to deploy. We have plenty of arguments and a wonderful country to put the case for. Let us do that. That is the basis on which the argument should be made.
My Lords, I follow on the theme of the importance of the tone of the debate. We all know the story of the north wind and the sun, who had an argument about which could make a man take his coat off. The north wind tried first and blew and blew and the man pulled his coat tighter and tighter around him. Then it was the sun's turn, and as the sun came out the man felt happy and warm and took his coat off.
I do not think that aggressive language helps the tone of the debate. We have heard words such as “devious”. Even in the phrase “successfully manipulative”, qualifying the word “manipulative” does not help. If and when a referendum takes place, it is certain that the appeal of the nationalists will be to the history of the union in the first place and the history of fighting and coercion. The argument against that is to look to the interests of a new union based on respect and mutual understanding. If the debate is conducted in that way, I think we have a much better chance of preserving the union.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Forsyth for moving his amendment to the Motion. It is an extremely valuable debate in which most of the relevant points have been made.
I remain concerned, and would like to hear my noble and learned friend’s views about the Scottish Parliament's failure to pass the legislative consent Motion in respect of the Bill. The difficulty is that such a Motion has not even been tabled—the point made by my noble friend—and its absence is crucial. Legislative consent needs to be affirmative; it cannot be presumed by its absence. In the absence of that Motion, Holyrood cannot even vote to reject the Bill, and its progress to the statute book here is as stymied as if there were a clear Motion opposing the Bill.
I understand that at least some members of the Scottish National Party, and of the committee in the Scottish Parliament that looked at the Scotland Bill, are interested in having discussions about its content. The leader of the Scottish National Party may be using his personal veto to prevent the Motion being tabled, but I noticed that Linda Fabiani, the committee’s chairman, asked the coalition Secretary of State to propose changes to the Bill. There has been no response that I am aware of to that request. I think that it would be appropriate to give a public response knowing what authority the Scottish Parliament has over the outcome of our deliberations. I wonder why we have not had some kind of indication.
The Bill is certainly based on broad cross-party consensus. It is possible, in the light of the changed circumstances, that that consensus may have moved on. Some may be more favourably disposed to even more fiscal devolution than was the Calman commission. I think that we ought to have that debate before we get tangled up in detail. We ought to have some idea of where the consensus now lies. I hope that my noble friend will be able to help us on that. It is an important Bill and a vital step along the path towards a fiscally decentralised United Kingdom.
However, there is another consideration that it is right to ventilate at the beginning of this process in the light of what has been said about the referendum. I believe that the bulk of the Scottish people are now not wholly satisfied with the devolution as it was enacted in 1998. There is quite a lot of evidence that there is a willingness—indeed a wish—to see more done. It does seem that, although this is a step in that direction, we could give the Scottish people a greater clarity and sense of the alternative to separation by having that discussion in the context of this Bill. That should certainly precede our deliberation of individual proposals and clauses. This is far too big an issue to have just a tinkering approach to the Bill, which seeks to implement Calman and in some ways goes beyond Calman. Can we hear from the Minister the Government’s thinking on those two points?
My Lords, when we considered the then Scotland Bill 12 or 13 years ago, the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish complained that the failure of the Scottish National Party to seek to appoint any Peers caused the Scottish debate to be similar to trying to debate with Banquo’s ghost. I think that the late Lord would agree that that was still a problem here.
Following on from what my noble friend said, this Bill is the result of a very considerable coalition, in the Calman commission, which brought about the Calman report. These parties ought to get on with delivering the Bill, which is fairly tame by comparison with what is actually wanted in Scotland.
Finally, in a single sentence, I hope that this House will try to avoid making the same mistakes it made in 1893 when considering Irish home rule.
My Lords, we have had a wide-ranging and diverse debate on this comparatively simple Motion, and we have the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, to thank for that opportunity. I have not been long in your Lordships’ House, but when discussing Scotland I have become used to hearing the same familiar voices—speaking on some of the same issues, I have to say.
This debate in its diversity has added something and I am particularly pleased to have heard from the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Singh, and, although it is a Scots voice, from the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. The points that they made individually and collectively should be listened to by my Scots colleagues. I was pleased that on Second Reading my noble friend Lord McConnell made a forward-looking speech. Scotland is in its politics, as I perceive it, beyond arguments that may well have served those of us who wanted to see the union held together. It is now looking for reasons to stay in the union rather than reasons why it cannot leave the union. The tone and content of how we conduct ourselves in these debates is crucial in the modern world. In my contribution to these debates, I intend to try at all times to describe a Scotland that is better for the people of Scotland and the people of the United Kingdom. Some strong strands or threads of debate are emerging already which suggest that there is an appetite in your Lordships’ House for this kind of debate and I am very pleased about that.
My second point is about a slight discord with my noble friend Lord Foulkes who is a very good personal friend as well as being a noble friend and a party colleague. My recollection of the general election on that terrible night in 1979 was not that his election was the highlight in Scotland, but that it was the election of my noble friend Lord Maxton to the constituency of Cathcart. It was a bright light in an otherwise very dull night for me. I hate to introduce that level of discord and I hope that my noble friend will forgive me, but that is certainly my recollection.
The margin of winning may have been very narrow but I certainly know where I stand. I am happy to debate with my noble friend outside but let us just say that there were very few bright lights that night and maybe we should savour them all.
My third point is that I am grateful to the Government, the usual channels or whatever the processes are, which I have never quite got to grips with in this place, for the level of cross-party engagement to manage the order of consideration of the Bill. Having been party to that agreement I shall resist the temptation to discuss referendums and questions relating to referendums in this contribution.
However, I will break that general rule in order to make one point. It struck me as very interesting—indeed, instructive—how quickly the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who came to the aid of Alex Salmond, went from trying to persuade us that the proposed question was straightforward, via one very simple but telling intervention by my noble friend Lord Gordon, to a position of having to try to define one word of it in order to explain why it was straightforward. If I had had the opportunity to cross-examine him further, I suspect that we may well have got a long dissertation from him on that comparatively simple and straightforward question that would have left us all utterly confused about whether a yes or no answer would have made us any the wiser about the view of the people of Scotland. However, these are discussions for another day. Having agreed this with the Minister, as well as with other Members of the House and with the coalition Government, I shall resist the temptation to say more.
At the outset of my remarks, I will assert that we on the Front Bench of this side of the House take the view that the Bill, while not perfect—nothing ever is—is good. It is a Bill that we wish to scrutinise and consider in detail, but it is a good Bill for two reasons in particular. It will deliver greater financial accountability to the Scottish Parliament and it will devolve significant economic powers, among others, that will unable that legislature to govern better in the interests of the Scottish people.
In deciding how we proceed with the Bill, it is important that for a few moments we consider how we got to where we are. Whatever the current view of the Scottish Parliament's committee, the Bill has its genesis in the Scottish Parliament. On 6 December 2007 that Parliament, by a clear majority, passed a Motion to review its powers in order to serve better the Scottish people. As we heard from noble Lords, this was a cross-party initiative involving the Scottish Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties. It is probably well known that, of the major parties in Scotland, only the nationalists refused to participate, preferring to adopt a fundamentalist, all-or-nothing approach to these issues. The most important point is that the Scottish Parliament, which we are now told holds the key to the decision of the Scottish people, expressed an overwhelming view that it wanted to proceed down this route. Those who are now in government in Scotland—democrats that they are—refused to recognise that as a legitimate decision, and refused to take part.
The second point is that this is an exceptionally good example of what my noble friend Lord Foulkes encouraged devolution parties to do: namely, work together in the interests of Scotland. There is a long history of parties who believe in devolution working together in various ways, most recently in the Parliament itself, in the interests of Scotland, and we should not be ashamed of doing that. If some people believe that working together exposes us to criticism that we are in bed or working with certain people who are either toxic or irrelevant to Scotland, we should cast that away. If we are to achieve our objective of more devolution for Scotland within the United Kingdom, we will have to work very hard together over the next couple of years, and the sooner we find a structure for working together to do that overtly for the people of Scotland, the sooner we can get down to debating properly the issues that the Scottish people want us to debate. We have to put all of this behind us. If we believe that in a referendum campaign it will not become apparent that we are all working together and that we all want to preserve the union, we are deluding ourselves. The sooner we get together to do that, the better. My noble friend's advice in relation to that is worth heeding.
Following the decision of the Scottish Parliament in 2008, when I was Secretary of State for Scotland, the Calman commission on Scottish devolution was instructed to review the devolution settlement and to determine ways in which it could be strengthened to increase the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament and to give it the levers necessary to introduce progressive policies to allow Scotland to blossom in the 21st century. We in your Lordships' House have the benefit of Members who were on the Calman commission. Indeed, we have two very prominent members of the Calman commission in the noble and learned Lord and my noble and learned friend who will speak from their respective Front Benches. Others in the Chamber who have already made contributions to this debate will tell us how the process worked. It was a very open process for the people of Scotland, and a very recent opportunity for Scotland—its political parties, its civic society and anybody who had an interest in the way in which Scotland was governed—to argue and give evidence to the Calman commission about the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
It is interesting that what has now become known as “devo-max”—whatever that is—was comparatively absent from the arguments that were made to the Calman commission. There were no significant, coherent arguments about lacunae in the powers of the Scottish Parliament that the people of Scotland thought they needed. I was not a member of the commission, but I am sure that those who were—I invite the noble and learned Lord to confirm this when he speaks—will confirm that that was the case. It was not 20 years ago; it was comparatively only yesterday in the history of Scotland. So it is interesting to try to figure out exactly who are the people who have a whole host of other powers that they think would be useful for the people of Scotland in the context of devolution, and what their arguments are. The first question we ought to ask them is: “Why did you not surface these during the course of the Calman commission? Why did you not come and make this argument?”.
The debate about Scotland currently tends to be one-sided in its detail. We have seen another recent example of this in relation to the legal basis for a referendum for Scotland. I congratulate the noble and learned Lord the Advocate General on the speech he made at the University of Glasgow last Friday evening. He may have breached the convention that the Government do not reveal their legal advice when he laid out in the clearest terms why this Scottish Parliament required legal help in order to have the power to do what it seeks to do, and for which it undoubtedly has an electoral mandate. I was in the audience. He spent a long time afterwards engaging with questions. Nobody challenged the advice. Some people implied that they did, but they did not set it out. He was asked questions about everything other than that, and he answered them very well. I hope that that does not sound patronising; it was not meant to. He handled it very well and I was very pleased; he knows that because I spoke to him afterwards.
Interestingly, I spoke afterwards to others in the audience—I am tempted to name them, but I will not; they know who they are—who suggested that they disagreed with him. I offered them then, and I offer them now, the opportunity of the same platform to make the same quality of speech and to set out the arguments that they think support the alternative to the position that the noble and learned Lord put over. They had a whole series of biblical excuses about why they could not do it; there were all sorts of reasons to do with their backgrounds. I noticed yesterday that when the consultation by the Scottish Government was announced—they are perfectly entitled to do that—the issue was skated over. My point is that it is incumbent on us when we have this debate to be not just progressive in the sense of looking forward but to be detailed, informed and researched. Up until now, the Government, in relation to this issue in particular, have been detailed and researched and they have, in my view, won the argument comprehensively, but there are many other arguments that they need to win.
To get back to how we got where we are—
The noble Lord is making a very interesting and important speech, and I do not want to ruin his thread, but I am not clear about what he is saying about legislative consent. Is he saying that because this process has been gone through, if the Scottish Parliament did not give legislative consent, we should go ahead anyway? Or is he saying that the Scottish Parliament ought to make up its mind and decide? Will he help me with that?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his question and I shall endeavour, if I may, to deal with those issues in the thread of my argument, because I will deal with them. I apologise if I am engaging your Lordships' House for a period of time on this, but it is important. I want to make this argument in its entirety so, if I may, I shall make it in the order in which I have thought about it.
Not only did the Calman review report, and not only did successive UK Governments welcome that report and start the process of implementing the recommendations—I say at this point that when it comes to the detail of the debate, I will be probing whether we have been true to Calman in some regards, because that is quite important—but we put this issue to the Scottish Parliament. I say “we put this issue”; the issue was put to the Scottish Parliament. We have a Bill that is largely faithful to Calman. Calman is, in my view, well argued and well explained. I know that all noble Lords do not agree with that, but we will have a debate about it. That Bill has been through a process in the Scottish Parliament, and this is important. On 10 March 2011, the Scottish Parliament, on a cross-party basis, which this time included the Scottish nationalists, voted in favour of a legislative consent Motion supporting this Bill—not precisely this Bill, but largely this Bill. It made certain recommendations and asked that the Government and the UK Parliament take those recommendations into account. In other words, it voted in favour of that with conditions, and Alex Salmond himself voted in favour of that Motion on the basis of those conditions, so we have a legislative consent Motion from the Scottish Parliament which Alex Salmond voted in favour of. Those conditions have largely been met. In fact, the amendments to the Bill, and the reason that the Bill arguably has to go back for a further legislative consent Motion, are substantially because of the conditions that the Scottish Parliament asked to be considered that are now reflected in amendments to the Bill. In 2011, Alex Salmond said that he was in favour of this Bill, if the Government did certain things with it. Substantially, those things have been done, as we will no doubt uncover when we debate this in Committee and on Report, and now there appears to be some question mark about whether the Parliament, which his party controls, is prepared to give that amended Bill consent. I do not know whether this is unparliamentary language in your Lordships' House, but it seems hypocritical in the extreme for him, having voted for it, to reject the Bill at this stage.
The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, essentially argued for postponement of the legislation pending a further legislative consent Motion from the Scottish Parliament. Although it has not yet surfaced—it will in this debate—there are others who believe that this Bill should be dropped as the pending referendum in Scotland makes it irrelevant. There are others, as we have heard, who think that the Bill does not go far enough and that Scotland has moved on in the comparatively short period since Calman—I would need to be persuaded—and that we should think about even deeper devolution. Some suggest a postponement or some device of postponement until after the current consultations on the process for the referendum are concluded.
These suggestions may on the surface individually appear appealing, but in my view they do a disservice to the people of Scotland for two main reasons. The first is because delay or postponement would be to ignore the express wishes of those elected to represent the people of Scotland. The democratically elected Scottish Parliament provided the impetus for this Bill through its original Motion back in 2007, the democratically elected UK Parliament passed this Bill in the other place in 2011, and the democratically elected Scottish Parliament overwhelmingly supported the Bill the last time it passed the legislative consent Motion in 2011. The democratically elected representatives of all the major parties in Scotland—Scottish Labour, the nationalists, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives—have voted in support of this Bill. The people of Scotland want this Bill to pass. Overwhelmingly, they are supportive of the additional powers for the Scottish Parliament, and the people tell us that some of those powers are urgently needed. For this House to postpone this Bill would be to ignore the wishes of the people of Scotland and the faith that they have put in their elected representatives, and I do not want to see that happen.
The second reason is because a number of the elements of the Bill could be implemented quickly and, if they were, could be implemented to the benefit of the people of Scotland. The Bill, if passed, will give the Scottish Parliament the power to tackle the scourge of drink-driving head on. We are told, and I agree, that Scotland in large part has a problem with drink and drunkenness. The Scottish Parliament has wrestled unsuccessfully thus far with trying, through devices, to reduce the consumption of alcohol in Scotland and its effects. In the Bill, we are offering the people of Scotland an opportunity to do something very specific, which I understand that the people of Northern Ireland are already consulting on: reducing the drink-driving limit and therefore restricting or limiting the effect of drink, at least in that area. This could be done very quickly. Where from those who govern Scotland at the moment in relation to these issues is there any sign that they are preparing themselves for this power, which they could have comparatively quickly and could implement in line with their policy? It is nowhere. They could be at this moment consulting on these issues or setting up a consultation, and then they could have a power. We should point that out to them. We should point out to them that the people of Scotland will not forgive them if they have to wait for a decade or so for the implementation of changes such as this that people in Scotland think could be to their benefit.
The borrowing powers in the Bill are wanted by the people of Scotland and would give the Scottish Government greater influence over the pace and priorities of Scotland's capital investment programme, we are told in their official response to Calman. I think we probably all agree that that would be the case. If they had borrowing powers, it would give them opportunities that they presently do not have. Those opportunities are much needed now, not in 10 or 15 years’ time. Alex Salmond has said that borrowing powers are necessary to boost economic activity in Scotland and to give the Scottish Parliament the levers to shape Scotland's future. He has demanded that these powers be devolved, and he has said that they should be devolved quickly. The Bill does exactly that. We should, therefore, pass it so that these powers can be available and can be used as soon as possible for the betterment of Scotland and its people. If they are not, the Scottish people will know who decided not to take them.
Further, the devolution of stamp duty land tax will potentially give the Scottish Government a significant lever to stimulate the Scottish housing sector or encourage the appropriate development of land. On Saturday I went to St Mirren Park to watch the football. Those of you who know Paisley will know that St Mirren recently built a new stadium and abandoned their traditional heartland stadium at Love Street in the centre of Paisley. It was sold to either a developer or a supermarket, I am not sure. Apparently the current economic circumstances do not encourage the development of this site. Consequently, it has been lying derelict in the heart of one of our great cities for years, and looks as though it will lie derelict, falling apart, for a lot longer.
I can think of many such examples in the centre of cities and on brownfield sites up and down Scotland. I am not here to try to develop a stamp duty land tax approach to deal with that, but it is an opportunity and I am sure that those who understand this area of law much better than I do can think of other opportunities where these powers available to Scotland now could be used to provide stimulus to the economy and opportunities for the Scottish people. This opportunity is wanted; it was recommended by Calman and accepted by the previous Government and the coalition Government. If they want it, it is there, and if they do not use it the Scottish people need to know who was responsible for that, and that it was not the unelected Chamber of the UK Parliament.
These are significant powers and they could be put to use now or in a comparatively short period of time. I am mindful of the right reverend Prelate’s question, which I thought was an exceptionally good one, and I will be delighted if the Minister is able to answer it. We in Scotland know that the timetable for some of these powers is urgent and we need to get them while thinking about them is still fresh in people’s minds, and while there is still an opportunity that we can use them in some way to redress the consequences that Scotland is suffering quite significantly as a result of the current recession and of some other policies of certain Governments.
Not only should we be anxious to complete the passage of this legislation but we should be challenging the Scottish Parliament to move quickly to complete the process by an LCM. In the mean time, there are serious questions to be asked and I will be asking them, through the Minister, of the Scottish Government’s preparedness to use these powers. Why are they not preparing now to use the powers that are being offered to them, which they say the Scottish people want and need?
There is one further reason to progress with this Bill. If we do not, we will play directly into the hands of the separatists; we will present those advocating an agenda of separation with an open goal. They will say that those in favour of Scotland remaining part of the UK cannot be trusted; that those in favour of Scotland remaining part of the UK offer with one hand and take away with the other. That may not be true, but postponement creates an opportunity in a Scottish politics that has a vocabulary and a tone the flavour of which your Lordships have heard some of this afternoon. That opportunity will be seized, and we should not present it if we do not need to. We cannot and we must not play into the hands of this argument. To paraphrase my noble friend Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale when he spoke at Second Reading, we must not sleepwalk our way to separation. We should be very careful about everything we do.
We on this side of the House will forensically and carefully scrutinise this Bill. A number of difficult questions need to be asked—and answered. I will come to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, in a minute as my peroration. This House is rightly respected for its approach to the scrutiny and review of legislation, and that should continue. However, as I said at Second Reading, on this side of the House, we want to get on with this but the tests we will apply are essentially whether or not this is to the benefit of the people of Scotland.
The “small” point that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, drew our attention to some one hour and 47 minutes ago is, as everyone has said, an arguable point and I am not dismissing it. I think it is a legitimate point but it has a history. Whether or not that point can be answered, I believe the reasons I have set out about the interests of the people of Scotland and the politics of the current situation demand that we should continue. But I believe and hope there is an answer to the noble Lord’s point.
In the first place, I cannot discern any clear pattern as to when legislative consent Motions are passed by the Scottish Parliament. They appear to have been passed at different times in relation to the passage of legislation in the United Kingdom Parliament but, as I have pointed out, we already have one. It must have been passed after the Bill came from the other place—or was it while it was still there? My understanding is that discussions are continuing between the UK and Scottish Governments, no doubt including the Parliament, about these issues.
In the absence of an indication from the Minister that we should be optimistic that there will be a legislative consent Motion, there is no obvious cause for optimism, and the committee report of the Scottish Parliament tends the other way. Equally, because of the history of the Scottish Parliament’s treatment of this Bill, in my view there are no persuasive signs for pessimism either. I believe that political and other circumstances can be created, and we can contribute to them, where the Scottish Parliament feels compelled to consistency. It will be difficult for individuals and parties in the Scottish Parliament to explain to the people of Scotland why they have refused to take these powers that only months ago they said they wanted.
I cannot guarantee that there will be a legislative consent Motion, but I can guarantee that we have an opportunity to create the circumstances where it becomes more likely than not. I ask the Minister, in the way in which we scrutinise and debate this Bill, to approach everything he says from that perspective. I believe that if the manifest abilities and experiences of people in this House approach these issues from that perspective, we can make a substantial contribution to the future of the people of Scotland; and that we will do our bit to ensure that, when they are asked whatever question they are asked, they overwhelmingly tell us that they want to stay in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Forsyth for moving this amendment. He questions whether I should—I think it has been very useful. I hope we will move into Committee, but it is helpful that that has been placed in the context of the current political debate. It is a very serious constitutional debate, not just for Scotland but for the wider United Kingdom, as other noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Empey, have indicated. The comments that have been made have helped to set that context.
I endorse what was said by the noble Lords, Lord Kerr, Lord Singh of Wimbledon and Lord Browne, about the importance of the tone of these debates. It is important that we conduct these debates in a very rational manner, putting and testing argument in a way that I think is typical of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, indicated that it was perhaps unfortunate that there are no Scottish National Party Peers here. I do not propose to answer for the Scottish National Party but I share his view. That is a decision that the party has taken. Our debates are possibly the poorer for it. Without embarrassing anyone by naming names, many of us can think of one or two Scottish National Party Members who would certainly add to the deliberations in your Lordships’ House. Of course, they might then be able to move some of the amendments on the recommendations of the Scottish Parliament committee. I know that my noble friend Lord Forsyth will move some of them. No doubt the business managers will have noted his comments about the Moses Room.
We certainly took on board the comments that had been made about the fact that it would not necessarily be desirable for Committee stage of this Bill to take place when there would still be live questions on amendments tabled in relation to the referendum on independence while the Government’s consultation was still outstanding. That consultation will close on 9 March. I am grateful to all who contributed through the usual channels that the House was able to agree a Motion on Tuesday, which has been widely welcomed, to enable our debates on Clause 10 to be taken last. At that time, I suggested to the House that any amendments relating to the referendum or independence should be best placed before Clause 10. Perhaps I may express my gratitude to noble Lords who have tabled, and in some cases retabled, referendum-related amendments before Clause 10 rather than to other parts of the Bill in order that we can fulfil the intention of the order of consideration that was put before the House. To repeat what I said on Tuesday, the Chief Whip will ensure that the last day in Committee is scheduled for the week of 12 March, which will allow us to debate the referendum in the light of the responses received during the consultation period.
That said, we immediately found ourselves debating issues relating to the referendum and the consultation documents. While I am tempted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Browne, down the road of saying, “Well, perhaps it is not appropriate to discuss these”, I think that it would be only courtesy at least to address some of the issues that have been raised. However, quite clearly, when the House resolves itself into Committee and we reach the amendments that have been tabled in relation to a referendum, we will have an opportunity to discuss those issues at greater length and in more detail.
I am very grateful for the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, about the lecture I delivered at Glasgow University last week. I was able to confirm the very strong view of the United Kingdom Government that under the Scotland Act 1998 the Scottish Parliament does not have the legal competence to pass a referendum Bill. Things obviously flowed from that and we set out in our consultation why we believe that a referendum should be legal, fair and decisive, and the ways in which we might seek to do that.
It is fair to say that we have moved a long way in two weeks. First, I do not think that I had sat down in your Lordships’ House after having repeated the Statement before we had been given a preferred date by the Scottish Government for a referendum, for which many people had been asking for some considerable time. It appears to be the case that we have agreed that the preferred way to deliver the legislation for a referendum is by the two Governments working together. In their consultation paper yesterday, just as the United Kingdom Government expressed their preference for an order under Section 30 of the Scotland Act to take this matter forward, the Scottish Government indicated that their preference was for a Section 30 order.
Without going into the detail of the Section 30 order, I know that my noble friend Lord Sanderson expressed the importance of the role of the Westminster Parliament in constitutional issues. Of course, a Section 30 order not only has to be approved by the Scottish Parliament but has to be approved by both Houses of this Parliament, which means that, assuming we can make progress, any order which we would wish to bring before the House is one which this House would have an opportunity to consider. Clearly, that will be in mind as these discussions take place.
Perhaps my noble and learned friend can help me on one point. He has been very generous in agreeing to reschedule the consideration of the Bill in order to accommodate the timetable of the Government’s consultation paper. Will he say something about how he proposes to deal with the problem created yesterday by the Scottish Executive’s consultation paper, which has a timetable that takes us beyond the period probably of this Session and therefore our ability to consider the Bill? How do we resolve that?
I was going to deal with that matter later. The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, also made reference to the possibility of carrying over the Bill. Certainly, it is my understanding that the normal process for carrying over legislation is that it has not passed to the second House for consideration. Page 642 of the 24th edition of Erskine May states that,
“carry-over is restricted to Bills which have not yet left the House in which they originated”.
Therefore, to try to carry over this Bill would mean not so much carrying over but effectively starting the process again, which would significantly delay implementation. That is why I believe it is right to continue with the current timetable and I will come on later to explain why. It is important that we make progress on that.
My noble friend Lord Forsyth mentioned the fact that, as we are well aware, the consultation paper was published yesterday. The point is that the UK Government’s consultation paper indicates that while our preference is for a Section 30 order, there is also the possibility of using this Scotland Bill. Clearly, if we are to get this Bill passed in the current Session, it would not be possible to put it off indefinitely. I note that paragraph 1.7 of the Scottish Government’s consultation paper states:
“The UK paper sets out two possible mechanisms to transfer the power to hold a referendum on independence: an Order in Council under Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, or an amendment to the Scotland Bill currently under consideration by the House of Lords”.
It does so without any implied criticism. It just states that as a fact. We would wish therefore to make progress, although it is important for us to indicate that, but for the fact that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has been stricken down with chicken pox, there would have been a meeting tomorrow between him and the First Minister on these matters. Unfortunately, it cannot take place tomorrow but we are very keen that it should take place—I do not think the First Minister is keen that it should take place while the Secretary of State has got chicken pox—as soon as possible. It is a welcome sign that that engagement is happening.
I will reflect on the points made by my noble friend and others about the role of the Electoral Commission. However, the UK Government have made it very clear that we believe that the Electoral Commission is a proper body to have oversight of the referendum, not least given its track record in monitoring referendums since its inception. We are clear that that is our preference.
A number of noble Lords raised whether the question proposed by the Scottish Government is fair. We will certainly wish to consider the consultation document carefully but we believe, as set out in our consultation paper, that the Electoral Commission should have a statutory role to review and to comment on the question. As others have pointed out in the press today, it is not immediately clear from the Scottish Government’s document that they propose that the Electoral Commission will have that role. I understand that the First Minister has indicated that this may have been an oversight of the document but we will obviously pay close attention to that. Clearly, it would be part of the substance of discussions.
The Minister advised that at some stage, perhaps not today but in the future, that process could involve looking at a variety of ways of posing the choice. Over the past few decades, it has not necessarily been the case in the United Kingdom that all referenda have included questions that had a yes or no answer. There have been referenda which posed a choice. I should like the Electoral Commission to be able to look at a variety of possibilities and not just those that have been chosen in more recent times.
I recall the kind of situation that the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, suggests. That emphasises that the Electoral Commission does have an important role to play. I cannot answer his specific question today, but it underlines more generally the important role of the commission. Further, as I have indicated, this will be a matter for discussions with the Scottish Government.
I have made the point that these discussions are taking place, but my noble friend also raised the question of what we should do with the Bill pending a legislative consent Motion in the Scottish Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, reminded us, the Scottish Parliament expressed its general support for the Bill, subject to some detailed concerns, in a vote in March 2011. Of course, the Scottish political landscape has changed since then, but as he rightly reminded us, those voting for the resolution included many Members of the current majority party in the Scottish Parliament, including the First Minister himself. He also indicated that there has been a response from the UK Government to the points made in the legislative consent Motion, specifically that provision has now been made in the Bill to allow bonds to be introduced in the future without the need for further legislation. There is a provision in the Bill to allow for reciprocal consultation between Governments in relation to electoral matters; provision to provide Scottish Ministers a role in the appointments to MG Alba; and provision to give Scottish Ministers responsibility for the disqualification rules for the Scottish Parliament. Obviously we will come to discuss Clause 17 at the next sitting of the Committee, if we get that far, which in a number of important respects is a response to the review undertaken by the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, at the request of the Scottish Government. So there have in fact been numerous comprehensive responses to the previous LCM.
I can assure the House that we are considering carefully the latest Scotland Bill Committee report. Its timing is clearly not a matter for the UK Government, but I can confirm that we are in continuing constructive discussions on the Bill with the Scottish Government. It might be premature to table a legislative consent Motion when these discussions are ongoing. I do not particularly want to say anything that might prejudice those discussions, but I can confirm that they have been happening on a constructive basis, and I hope that they will provide us with a way forward.
My noble friend Lord Maclennan asked about our response to Miss Fabiani, who is the convenor of the committee. I can confirm that on 20 January the Secretary of State wrote to her and again made it clear that constructive discussions are under way. He also indicated that in addition to reviewing the report of the Scottish Parliament, the Government would have to have regard to comments and contributions made in your Lordships’ House on the Bill. I think I am right in saying that the letter contained a paragraph which reminded the convenor of the Scotland Bill Committee that the Government do not have a majority in this House, and therefore we could not necessarily guarantee that any particular amendments would be carried. However, I hope that I can reassure noble Lords that there is constructive engagement on this.
It is also fair to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, pointed out, that there is no clear timetable about when in the progress of a Bill a legislative consent Motion is passed. As I indicated, one was passed in the Scottish Parliament last March, which certainly meant that it was done before Report stage in the House of Commons.
I have considerable respect for my noble and learned friend, and perhaps I may ask him to answer a straightforward question. In the absence of a legislative consent Motion, will the Government proceed with the Bill to Royal Assent, and implement it; or is it their position that without a legislative consent Motion, the Bill will not go ahead? It is important that Members of the Scottish Parliament know the score. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, if one were a Member of the Scottish Parliament who, like the First Minister, was publicly committed to the Bill, one would not want to do anything that might prevent it getting on to the statute book. The fact that the committee report has not even been scheduled for a debate in the Scottish Parliament, when we want to take account of what it has to say, is an affront to democracy—which might be a strange thing to say in this unelected House.
My Lords, I sought to indicate that if discussions are going on, it might be premature to go ahead with a legislative consent Motion. That could prejudice the discussions when in fact there is an opportunity for agreement. I do not want to say anything that might be seen as a threat and jeopardise the position, as that would not be helpful to the process. We want to achieve a process in which a further legislative consent Motion can be passed by the Scottish Parliament, and I do not wish to say anything in the debate to prejudice that. I say that particularly as an engagement has taken place. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, made clear, many powers that will be available in this Bill are ones that the Scottish Government have been calling for. The recently published document on infrastructure planning is actually predicated on carrying forward to fruition the borrowing powers which the Bill makes available.
I am sorry to press my noble and learned friend. I am asking not about the negotiations but about the constitutional position. So far as the Government are concerned, is the constitutional position such that they will not proceed to put this legislation on to the statute book in the absence of a legislative consent Motion—or might they? I do not wish to prejudice the negotiations but I do want to have clarity on the status of legislative consent Motions. The noble Lord, Lord Sewel, gave us his view. I want to know the Government’s view on the status of legislative consent Motions. The Motions apply not only to the negotiations on this Bill but to Section 30 orders.
My Lords, the point on Section 30 orders is clear—it is in statute. Statute law requires the consent of the Scottish Parliament and of each House in this Parliament. A convention is just that, a convention; it is not enshrined in statute. However, as the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, said, if a convention has been operating for a period, you have to be careful about how you deal with it. I am not going to say anything today that might prejudice the way in which that convention is dealt with. Equally, although there is a legislative consent Motion outstanding, I very much hope that there will be a further one to which the House can have regard before we reach Report.
I shall come to the question asked by the right reverend Prelate in a moment. However, we may well have completed the Committee stage before we have the report of the Scottish Parliament committee. At one stage it seemed possible that we might receive it but, for reasons of timing, that has not happened. There is certainly nothing sinister about it, and I do not think that the Scottish Parliament necessarily expects that we would hold back our deliberations in Committee until the legislative consent Motion had been tabled and debated. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, is desperate to intervene.
That accords with my recollection. Given the limitations on amendments tabled at Third Reading in your Lordships’ House, I am not going to get into a discussion on whether it would be before Third Reading or before Report. However, that—as enunciated by the noble Lord, Lord Sewel—accords with my understanding of the convention.
It is also important to note what has been noted by a number of contributors to this debate—that not only has the Bill been passed by the elected House, its content was included in the 2010 general election manifestos of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and, substantially, the Conservative Party. Each party which had been party to the Calman commission process made a commitment in its respective manifesto to take it forward. It is quite a rare event in politics to be criticised for implementing your manifesto commitments. It rather stands things on their head if for some reason you are criticised for actually doing what you said you would do.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, asked me as a member of the Calman commission—I suppose that my declaration of interest will apply throughout these proceedings—what response the commission received. I think that it is fair to say—there are other members of the commission present in your Lordships' House today—that we were not inundated with suggestions about where the boundary between devolved and reserved matters should fall. Many of the representations that we did receive—there were not a particularly large number—are reflected in the Bill before us. However, it was strongly represented to the Calman commission that the 1998 Act would have to be revisited because of the lack of financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament. That was understood when the Act was passed. We have had since 1999 a Parliament that has had complete discretion over how it spends the money it receives but precious little responsibility for raising it. I think that my noble friend Lord Steel said in a Donald Dewar lecture that a Parliament that was 100 per cent dependent on its revenue from another Parliament would have to address that issue. That is what we seek to do in the Bill. As the Calman commission proposals have been around since 2009—they elicited a White Paper from both the previous and the present Administrations—I suspect that many of them, to some extent, have already been banked. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, indicated, these are very substantial proposals that should not be minimised. They will give to the Scottish Parliament a degree of financial accountability that does not exist at the moment. That is one of the reasons why we want to make progress.
The right reverend Prelate asked about the overlap of the Scotland Bill and a referendum campaign. I think it is fair to say that it has been known since last year’s election, and before the Commons debated the Bill on Report, that we would have a referendum campaign at some point. That is something that we have to take account of but it has not suddenly come up. It was clear in the Second Reading debate that we would go into a referendum campaign at some stage. However, the Bill’s powers are substantial and we should continue to make progress with it.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, raised some important issues about the referendum campaign that will have to be debated, as the substance of that independence debate, once the process is resolved. I think that many of us look forward to engaging in that debate and making a positive case for Scotland being part of the United Kingdom. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, warned that the First Minister was perhaps taking the view that the way to get rid of bad tenants is for them to annoy the neighbours. It is a good analogy up to a point, but the point is that we are not tenants. We helped to build the house and we co-own it. That is why the union is so valuable to us.
My noble friend’s Amendment 85 will allow us to return to these matters later in Committee. As I indicated earlier, although the Scottish Parliament has considered the Bill, your Lordships' House should be able to consider it in detail too. I am conscious that there are a number of your Lordships present who were here during the debates in 1998. I think that those debates well served the Scotland Bill, which became the Scotland Act 1998. The kind of deliberation that your Lordships can bring to a constitutional measure such as this is an important part of the process. I encourage noble Lords to continue deliberations on the Bill, and I hope that we can now proceed to do so in Committee.
My Lords, we have had a really good debate. My view that the debate would take half an hour has not worked out entirely right—we have had two hours and 17 minutes of debate. It is fantastic that we have had such a turnout given that the debate was scheduled for the Thursday after Burns Night when many of us would have been in Scotland and perhaps not as bright and breezy as people obviously were this morning.
I do not propose to respond to all the points but I thank everyone who contributed to the debate. I am not sure whether I should thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for praising me for acting against my party interest in taking the view that I do on the union. Being serious, I think that we all recognise that the future of the United Kingdom is an issue that is above party, as this debate has demonstrated.
My noble friend Lord Sanderson talked about competition between consultation papers. Although I believe in competition, in this case it may have led to a certain disorder in the marketplace. It is really disappointing that the idea of carry-over proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, cannot work, because that would have been a solution. I have to say to my noble friend Lord Sanderson that the last thing we want is another Bill to deal with a referendum in the next Session of Parliament, when we will by all accounts have to deal with the future of this House, which I think will take on considerable time and turbulence.
The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, is right to be concerned about language, but I just ask him to spend half an hour on the internet looking at what the cybernats write about many of those who have spoken in this debate. If he could convey those views about language to them, it would be very much appreciated.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, argued that it was important that there should be nationalist Members in this Chamber in order to put their point of view, but he seemed to have a bit of a wobble when I suggested that UKIP might be treated in the same manner. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester made the key point that it is important that this debate is seen to be carried out respectfully. That means that the consent of the Scottish Parliament is fairly important, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell. He criticised the Prime Minister for intervening perhaps a little late in the debate. That might be a fair criticism, but I do not think that any of us could have expected the First Minister to have made quite so many changes so quickly in response, so perhaps we have caught up with a timetable that would otherwise have applied.
The noble Lord, Lord Hughes, who I believe celebrated a major birthday recently, and who has a long experience in these matters, reminded us of the—I shall be careful with my language—flexible view on devolution which the First Minister has taken. He has been against it; then, in 1998, he campaigned with the Labour Party for it; then he went back to Scotland in 2004 and denounced devolution as a disaster; and now he is the high priest of devo-max, because nobody else seems to be talking about it.
I have great sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Sewel. He shares with the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, the fate of having something named after him which he is going to spend the rest of his life denying any responsibility for.
It was very important to have the contribution of my noble friend Lord Steel, who was the first Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. Of course, in the original Scotland Act, it was thought that the electoral system had been designed so that no one party would be able to get a majority, and that it was unnecessary to have a House such as your Lordships' House to be a check and balance against the Executive, because the committee system would ensure a balance. Well, it has now turned into almost a one-party Parliament. The nationalists have a majority in the committees and there is no check and balance. Therefore the role of this House is even more important. The fact that the current Presiding Officer was taken from the same party underlines the lack of sensitivity to the point so well made by my noble friend.
In his address, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, reminded us of how important it is to get these matters right, and that the balkanisation of Britain is a matter that concerns every part of the United Kingdom.
My noble friend Lord Maclennan reminded us that absence of consent is not acceptance. I agree. The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, referred to the absence of the SNP as Banquo’s ghost. I plead with him to find another analogy because, of course, Banquo’s successors inherited the crown.
Finally, in an excellent speech—I hope this is not damaging for him—the noble Lord, Lord Browne, set out the answers. He reminded me of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, said about the West Lothian question in response to my pressing him on where we were on the legislative consent Motion—a view which was echoed by my noble and learned friend in his excellent reply—which was that, with some questions, the answer to the question is not to ask the question. So on the basis that we do not ask the question now and make progress in the interests of what I accept is the democratically expressed views of the Scottish people, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.
Clause 1 : Administration of elections
Debate on whether Clause 1 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House if I explain an arrangement that has been agreed in the usual channels to facilitate a short break for those who have taken part in at least the preparations for the Scotland Bill Committee so far. We will start the debate on Clause 1 stand part and the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, will make his speech. At the conclusion of that speech the House will resume. It will finish its Committee considerations for 45 minutes, during which time other business in the name of my noble friend Lord Dykes will be taken. At the end of that 45 minutes, whoever wishes to follow on from the stand part speech of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, will be in a position to do so.
My Lords, for obvious reasons, I shall be brief. The purpose of this opposition to Clause 1 standing part of the Bill is to probe what appears to be a selective implementation by the Government of the Calman commission’s recommendations. I say “appears” because I am not entirely sure, and I shall explain why I use that word.
Clause 1 devolves to Scottish Ministers powers that currently reside with the Secretary of State for Scotland pertaining to the administration and conduct of Scottish Parliament elections. However, it appears that it does not devolve these powers in their entirety. The purpose of this debate is simply to probe why it is that the Government have sought to retain the reservation of some of these powers apparently contrary to the recommendations of Calman. I can assure noble Lords that I do not intend to press this issue to a vote. However, I hope to draw out from the Minister a more comprehensive account than I have been able to ascertain so far of the rationale behind the Government’s choice of powers for devolution in Clause 1. It may be simply that all the powers which are clearly about the administration and conduct of Scottish Parliament elections have been devolved and that those that are, in part or totally, about the electoral system have not. If that is the answer and it can be explained, I will be happy to accept it.
It is my understanding that Clause 1 devolves responsibility for the conduct and administration of Scottish Parliament elections and for the consequences of irregularities. However, it reserves powers, particularly, in relation to the registration of electors, the abandonment of a constituency poll or notice of it being countermanded, the procedure for filling regional MSP vacancies—an issue to which we will return in another amendment—and the application and modification of electoral law. I would be grateful if the Advocate General could confirm whether this is an exhaustive list. If it is not, what else is reserved?
The Calman commission made a clear recommendation in paragraph 5.1 of its report that the powers of the Secretary of State for Scotland relating to the administration of elections to the Scottish Parliament should be devolved. However, the commission did not discriminate between such powers as to their suitability for devolution. In contrast, it stated explicitly that it was unconvinced that there are strong constitutional or practical arguments against their devolution, particularly when considering that responsibility for local authority elections is already devolved to the Scottish Parliament. This view was widely supported across civic Scotland and by political parties.
By choosing to devolve powers over certain administrative functions but not others, the risk is that Clause 1 will continue the fragmentation of responsibility for Scottish elections, which is precisely what Gould, among others, identified as being the key factor in the chaos of the Scottish parliamentary and local government elections on 3 May 2007—chaos which, as we all know, resulted in the disenfranchisement of in excess of 100,000 Scottish voters. We must avoid that at all costs.
From the Scottish Parliament’s point of view, both its previous and present Scottish Bill Committees recommended that the list of powers that remain reserved in this area should be reduced. In particular, the committees highlighted powers over the procedure for filling regional seat vacancies and rules relating to disqualification as more properly residing with Scottish Ministers.
It is vital that the lessons from the 2007 elections are heeded and that the responsibility and rules surrounding Scottish elections are rationalised. The devolution of powers over the administration of Scottish parliamentary elections is a natural reflection of the Scottish Parliament’s maturity as a democratic body and of the principle that matters should be determined at the level closest to those—the Scottish people—who are affected by them unless good reason can be seen otherwise. I have initiated this debate simply to ask the Minister to set out good reasons for each of the powers for the administration of elections that remain reserved so that the House may judge whether they are compelling reasons and whether we are being faithful to Calman.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 2.55 pm.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful to the usual channels for providing time for this debate and to the Treasury Minister for coming to the Front Bench at this time. I apologise to him that it is lunchtime—although a slightly late lunchtime because of the previous debate—and I welcome his visit to deal with this important and thorny matter. He is a very busy Treasury Minister and I wish that I could have saved him having to do without lunch on this occasion. I hope he can catch up with that later.
I declare an historic interest as a former member of the London Stock Exchange for many years and as a partner in a leading institutional stock broking firm, as well as a shareholder in other former City interests.
The title of the debate deliberately uses the word “avoidance” because of the grey area of avoidance leading into illegal evasion as well. The title focuses deliberately on the behaviour of business representatives and groups because that really covers almost the whole field. Most wealthy individuals, as well as companies, who seek to lower their tax liabilities tend to arrange schemes through accountants and other professional advisers. Equally, however, it would be reprehensible if non-business sector individuals were either avoiding tax unfairly or evading tax illegally through their own decisions without advisers. I have sought to raise this issue for some time because of the widespread public concern that one hears here, there and everywhere that improper tax avoidance is widespread in the UK. These matters are very sensitive right now because of the bank bonus season as well—we of course assume that our senior bank director colleagues declare and pay tax properly. Bank bonuses and whether they are justified are not within this subject. It is because rumours are so often an inadequate substitute for facts that HMG need to answer questions from Members of Parliament to allay concerns.
Of course, the concept of unfairness in the tax system is hard to grasp. The public as a whole has a strong and maybe unfair impression that ordinary taxpayers, mostly but not all subject to the deduction at source system, do not have the sophisticated advantages of professional and corporate taxpayers to soften what some people regard as the hammer blows of brutal tax demands. Add to this the widespread feeling that, unfortunately, our colleagues in the main part of the coalition seem psychologically far more interested in giving lower-income individuals rather a rough time by cutting into their social benefit payments than pursuing their—dare I say?—friends in the world of business over tax dodging, then we have an explosive political cocktail about the relentless growth of the unequal society. That is mercifully nowhere near the lamentable position in the USA, with its by-now medieval inequalities, obliging even Warren Buffett to complain yet again recently. Personally, I have a cousin in California who is a member of the Libertarian Party that regards any tax apart from defence spending and foreign affairs as positively poisonous and communistic.
In the excellent debate on financial crime legislation launched by my noble friend Lady Williams on 17 March last year, I raised what I called the “sad” case of Sir Philip Green—that is at col. 385 of Hansard—who was able to channel his £1 billion-plus dividend from his brilliant and skilful reorganisation of BHS through his wife as a resident of that little territory, Monaco, and thereby avoided paying, I think, £200 million or more in income tax on the dividend. Far from condemning outright this pathetic example of sheer greed, the new coalition Government later hired him as a totally ineffective adviser on efficiency in government. We do not find it hard to imagine how ordinary struggling families feel when they see such goings on in Britain. Could HMG ask HMRC to contact Sir Philip to see whether he could persuade his wife to reconsider and possibly make a voluntary donation to the Revenue as a gesture of social solidarity in these tough times, especially since apparently several hundred Topshop stores are now to close because of the fierce recession? No wonder this sad little saga spawned the UK Uncut movement.
I intend to stay within the time limit of my speech but unfortunately the monitor Clock is incorrect and I do not know when I started. I hope it will be adjusted as quickly as possible.
Of course, I expect the Minister to say on these matters, as ever, “We do not comment on individual cases”. I understand that, but the lack of accountability then speaks volumes and the public can draw their own conclusions. At least he might today try to reassure us that the colossal tax dodging that apparently occurs routinely in Britain nowadays is being dealt with. Despite some enlargement of the personnel at HMRC in recent times, it is by all accounts still struggling manfully—and womanfully, I assume—to cope with the huge backlog of dodgy schemes.
Why is it, as I hinted in that same debate in March last year, that if, for instance, you go to dinner parties in large houses in Wiltshire or Oxfordshire—I do not know about Chadlington but maybe elsewhere, too—around the table are people who appear to be in the UK a great deal but who scoff when someone says, “I pay full taxes”? Perhaps they are just boasting and making it up, but all sorts of rumours swirl around.
The absence of definitional precision helps that process of confusion and the shrugging of shoulders. Hence statistics on tax avoidance are fiercely contested and the interpretative basis is elusive. In a court of law for example, the judges presumably base their findings on what Parliament intended in any laws and regulations. That examination alone can spawn huge fees for yet more lawyers and accountants. For instance, I am assured by friends in so-called professional circles that a large number of senior broadcasters in both the public sector—that is, the BBC—and private TV and radio services routinely have corporate plans of their own that offer much bigger offsets than personal taxpayers can claim paying tax as individuals, even though these broadcasters are of course individuals. Can the Minister help here and give us any information that the Government might have to hand?
HMG have regularly referred to what they consider to be more than a £40 billion tax gap—“gap” is the word I use here. On the assumption that it would be somewhat higher because HMRC struggles to cover all cases, if everyone who should pay paid up—like ordinary mortals—that would cover a good chunk of the deficit. However, we are struggling philosophically because HMG keep banging on about corporation tax being too high. Is a 50 per cent income tax rate so excessive when it starts at such a high level? We must be careful in this country to avoid the worst horrors of the Tea Party lunacy in America that progressive taxes are worse even than communism or a proper national health service.
What is the latest development on redress policies in the many other secretive tax havens dotted around the world, partly as a result of our historical British Empire? Are the UK and other authorities locally in those areas getting to grips with the most severe abuses—and abuses in general?
Our newspapers, reflecting the reality that most—with some honourable exceptions—are owned and run by non-UK taxpaying moguls who live all over the place but not the UK, probably do not want to run too many stories about UK tax dodgers. They prefer benefit fraud, as in the Daily Mail. That is a much more attractive story for them to run. Naturally, the practical difficulties for the authorities here in dealing with these problems are huge. I sympathise entirely and once again express appreciation for what the Minister and his colleagues have been trying to do in the Treasury.
We know all too well from the world financial crisis of 2007-08 that business anywhere is truly international, global and incredibly complicated. It is hard to keep up with the worldwide legions of tax advisers—often themselves multimillionaires as well. Look how enormous the biggest UK-origin accountancy firms—the famous names—have become as worldwide entities, usually in very large towers. I remember the furore last spring when it was discovered that the Treasury had missed out on some £17 billion of tax due from companies disappearing, along with their directors, or banks and other groups not paying their taxes properly. More than half a million companies were dissolved in 2009-10, with most removed from the official register because they did not even bother to file accounts. Indeed, the Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation estimated last year that nearly a million companies failed to pay tax at all, even though presumably only a small proportion of those were not trading. Richard Murphy, a well-known director of the consultants Tax Research LLP, calculated that the total tax gap in Britain two years ago was over £120 billion. No one knows whether that is correct, but it is obviously likely to be significantly higher than the £40 billion mentioned by the Government on several occasions recently.
I hope that the Minister can reassure the House today that these estimates are ahead of the true figures. My anxiety is that, in reality, not even the Treasury, hardly known for its huge competence in guiding the ever-faltering British economy in recent decades, actually knows the truth. In replying to the debate, I hope that the Minister will also refer to the tax treatment of the overseas subsidiaries profits in UK-registered corporations which seem to be of special artificial help to the banks in recent times.
Finally, he may generously wish to guide us with his analysis of the cash-only economy—the black economy—which obviously deprives the Inland Revenue part of HMRC of yet more tax revenues, and how the authorities have managed to deal with VAT fraud and evasion. I am sure that the Government do not wish to give the impression that they are much keener on cuts in services than getting in more tax from what is apparently regarded in the City—some people repeat this again and again—as an army of tax dodgers in Britain.
Because of the Clock, I conclude by referring to Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who said on Tuesday that tax dodgers have nowhere to hide and that we will get them. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that comment from the other place.
My Lords, it is perhaps a measure of how the subject of this debate is viewed that only around 10 Members of the House are present, apart from the speakers. I fear that the whole issue of tax avoidance or evasion—I do not see the difference—is of the most fundamental importance to this country at this time. Some of the greatest traditions of our country revolve around integrity and equality before the law. In the legal profession that I started in, in 1957, there was no tax evasion or avoidance industry. It is a creature of the last 30 or 40 years. Indeed, the lengths of tax avoidance would have been to tell your farmer client that he had better give away some land at least seven years before he died, so that he did not have to pay inheritance tax. In the 1970s, we had the growth of what one would call highly artificial tax schemes. Some may remember the name Rossminster. That was the start of what has become an international industry.
There are tens of thousands of lawyers and accountants who do nothing but avoid tax for their highly paying clients. While the vast majority of British accountants and lawyers try to play fair and will not stretch the rules beyond reasonability, they are under pressure because an increasing number of professionals will stretch the law beyond reasonability and will take artifice to byzantine and ludicrous lengths. We had a little hint of that when Mr Diamond gave evidence to the Select Committee and purported not to know how many subsidiary companies Barclays used in avoiding tax in this country. I believe that it paid only 1 per cent of its gains in tax in the UK. Someone was able to inform the committee afterwards that there were literally hundreds and hundreds of subsidiaries spread across the various tax havens, which enabled that state of affairs to come about.
What sort of society is it in which the CEO of Barclays this year, last year or the year before can earn £22 million with his bonus and earn more in a day than a state-registered nurse on an acute ward in one of our hospitals earns in a year? That is so contrary to any concept of a fair or decent society that I put it to the House that the issues that we are talking about run to the very roots of our society, its culture and nature.
When I started again in the law, solicitors and accountants were what were called pillars of the community. For a complex of reasons, I am afraid that that is no longer the case. There is a quite staggering disconnect between those who work in the City of London and civic society at large. Very few indeed contribute anything to civic society, except their taxes. I believe with a passion that we need to have a renaissance of citizenship in this country, a restoration of a sense of community, national and local, because as a lawyer I have to tell the House that you cannot legislate for virtue. We have already gone a long way down the road of regulation in trying to stop loopholes, as they are called. The statute book has got more and more complicated and, with a great irony, has removed even further from the minds of professionals in this world the sense that they should play fair and have some sort of civic justice in the work they do.
The limited company, too, has been a great engine of demoralisation, to use that word in its literal sense. How few board members these days feel able to say, “I’m sorry, I think that’s wrong—I don’t think this company should be doing that.”? Indeed, a friend of mine whom noble Lords would know, who is a chairman of public companies, made this point around the board table not long ago in relation to some new tax scheme thought up by the company’s advisers. The board concurred, but the next day he had a visit from the company secretary, who said, “You know, you acted illegally yesterday in rejecting out of hand the scheme that was put up”. That is but one small instance of a demoralised corporate world.
Where amorality rules, it is not able to withstand for long the creep towards immorality when the gains are big enough. I shall give an example, although it is probably unfair to KPMG, because all its competitors have their own dark secrets. In 2006-07, KPMG was exposed in the US as having been party to fraudulent tax schemes that enabled its clients fraudulently to avoid paying $2.5 billion of US tax. In a plea bargain, the partners managed to avoid being individually criminally prosecuted, as in my view they should have been, by agreeing to pay penalties of $450 million. This is a great firm reduced to ignominy because there is no longer any culture of integrity sufficiently strong to withstand the huge pressures and temptations of the tax avoidance industry. And of course the voice that says, “If we don’t do it, our competitors will”, is a powerful one.
What can we do about it? I am convinced that we have to do something about it, because I am convinced that we are destroying the very seedbed of our proud civic traditions in this country. To whom do ordinary young people look as good examples these days? Unless we do something about this, we will find more of the statistics revealed yesterday by the University of Essex, which did some long-term research on attitudes of the public to honesty. The university has now established a centre for the study of integrity on a longitudinal, cross-departmental basis. That research revealed that the 20 to 25 age group has a radically different view of honesty from the 60 to 65-year age group. The graph is a straight stairway. The evidence is complicated and difficult to interpret, but it is that the standards of probity and attitudes to honesty in our great country are in decline. I am sure that everyone here today still feels proud, because we still have standards of probity in public life that are the envy of most countries. However, when standards are in head-long decline, it behoves us in this place most of all to recognise it and do something about it.
Of course, the great stain on our escutcheon was the extensive expenses fraud in both Houses. We suffer from that—and the reckoning of the evidence from the University of Essex is that 91 per cent of the public feels that the politicians in this country are fairly corrupt. They do not trust us—and trust and fairness are the pillars of a good society. Without either of them you cannot have a good society. I am sure that all of us feel passionate about trying to bring about a good society as far as we can.
I end by restating my conviction that there is a strict limit to what we in Parliament can do. Far too much of the time, the citizens of this land look to us to put things right, and far too much of the time we pretend that we can. In this broad matter of honesty in taxation, it is down to individual people and businessmen to assert their moral autonomy for the public good.
My Lords, the issues raised by the noble Lords, Lord Dykes and Lord Phillips, have recently been the subject of two important reports. First, the report of the Public Accounts Committee into tax disputes, published on 20 December last year, revealed what can only be described as a scandal. It demonstrated a quite extraordinarily cosy relationship between HMRC and major companies, particularly international companies, in the determination of tax liabilities. It also demonstrated a failure to follow proper procedures in the resolution of tax disputes, and a consistent bias towards the favourable treatment of large companies compared with small companies and the ordinary taxpayer.
Everyone in this country who is settling their tax assessment this month, knowing that they will incur a fine and interest charges if they do not pay up on 31 January on the dot, will be astonished to discover that large companies may be given 10 years to settle their tax obligations. They will also be furious that up to £20 million in interest has been lost because of HMRC errors, while, for reasons that are still not clear, the department decided it would not reopen negotiations with the relevant company—a decision that it appears was taken without legal advice. The PAC report says that,
“the Department did not even take the most basic step of making its own note of meetings with the company concerned, relying instead on the record kept by the company”.
To compound this record of complacency and connivance, the department failed to be open with the PAC investigation and was,
“less than clear and consistent in the evidence”,
given to the PAC and to the Treasury Select Committee in another place.
It is important to remember that HMRC is, quite rightly, a non-ministerial department, thereby removing Ministers from any suspicion of involvement in individual taxpayers’ affairs, but this scandal goes beyond matters that can be remedied at arm's length by more effective management and the appointment of extra Revenue commissioners. It strikes at the very heart of the fair and impartial management of the tax system. It reveals systemic failures that have resulted in unfair and partial treatment verging on favouritism, and it demands the exercise of ministerial responsibility, for it undermines public confidence in the probity of government and the integrity of the Revenue.
If the failings exposed by the PAC were an isolated set of events—an aberration—the measures taken so far by HMRC to put its house in order just might be regarded as sufficient. Regrettably, this is not the case. As we have heard from the noble Lords opposite, it is a widely held view that tax avoidance is rife in this country, and that wealthy individuals and large companies that can afford sophisticated tax advisers can avoid attacks by abusive means.
The term “abusive means” has been defined by Mr Graham Aaronson QC as,
“contrived and artificial schemes which are widely regarded as an intolerable attack on the integrity of the UK’s tax regime”.
This quotation is taken from a report entitled A Study to Consider whether a General Anti-Avoidance Rule should be Introduced into the UK Tax System, published in November last year, which was authored by Mr Aaronson and commissioned, to give them due credit, by Her Majesty’s Government. I applaud the initiative. Mr Aaronson concludes that a general anti-avoidance rule should be introduced, and proposes practical means by which this might be done. In his report, he argues that certainty in the tax system makes an important positive contribution to the economic and business environment. The presence of tax loopholes, and their exploitation by the unscrupulous, undermines that certainty. Moreover, competitive pressure forces firms to adopt more and more elaborate tax avoidance measures.
Competitive advantage can be gained by companies that go down the tax-abusive route, and hence firms that attempt to take a high moral stand, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, points out, are placed at a competitive disadvantage and may be eliminated from the marketplace. All must join the race to the bottom. Tax avoidance by businesses therefore undermines certainty, forces firms to adopt the tax-avoidance policies of the lowest common denominator, undermines any perception of fairness in the tax system and imposes a dead-weight loss on the economy by spawning a socially useless tax avoidance industry. It is damaging not just to the Revenue, but to the performance of the economy as a whole.
The source of this pernicious burden on our economy, the foundation of the tax avoidance industry, is the complexity of the tax system. It is complexity that by its very nature creates the exceptions and loopholes that can be legally exploited by the enthusiastic, well resourced tax avoider. If we are to tackle the disease rather than the symptoms, complexity should be the target. An important reason for the complexity of the tax system is that Governments attempt to manipulate behaviour via tax allowances and reliefs to incentivise people to behave in a particular way—to invest in new businesses or to undertake more R&D, or to recycle waste, or whatever. What is remarkable is that years of academic study have demonstrated that very few of these incentives actually work. Tax allowances to stimulate investment, for example, do not tend to result in more investment. Instead, they are a subsidy to investment that would have taken place anyway.
Another important source of complexity is a government belief that it is appropriate to differentiate between revenues from different sources, so that benefit deemed to derive from capital gains, or, more scandalously, from carried interest, is taxed differently from benefit derived from income. The treatment of interest on debt as a cost, and hence being tax deductible, is a major factor distorting the funding of business in this country. All this is a rich source of tax avoidance. Then of course there are the tax benefits handed out to specific social groups with the most powerful lobbying voices—the non-doms come immediately to mind.
Whether it derives from good intentions, perceived policy objectives, or mere cowardice and/or patronage in the face of the powerful and well funded, complexity is the fundamental source of avoidance. Without tackling complexity, the avoidance industry will never be significantly reduced. I therefore applaud the establishment by the Government of the Office of Tax Simplification and look forward, in hope rather than expectation, to its efforts bearing fruit. In the mean time, while we wait for the simplified promised land, Mr Aaronson concludes that all current approaches to curb tax avoidance,
“are not capable of dealing with some of the most egregious tax avoidance schemes”.
He might have added, if he had had the PAC report before him, that all attempts to limit tax avoidance are undermined if there exists the cosy relationship between the HMRC and big business identified in the PAC report.
With the PAC report and Mr Aaronson's report before him, the Minister must address a number of questions. First, when did Ministers first know of the matters identified in the PAC report? Were they fully informed, or have they made further investigations? What have their investigations, if any, revealed about further abuse and, if so, what sort of abuses? What action do the Government intend to take to correct the systemic deficiencies in the HMRC? Is it not time for a full investigation into the practices and substance of the taxation of large companies, in order to re-establish public confidence in the probity of government and of the Revenue? Secondly, do the Government accept the conclusions of Mr Aaronson's report? When do they intend to introduce a general anti-avoidance rule, with the institutional support outlined by Mr Aaronson? Thirdly, when can we expect a report from the Office of Tax Simplification that deals specifically with business taxation and tax avoidance?
Confidence in the tax system is, as noble Lords opposite have said, fundamental to our democracy. If confidence in the fairness and probity of the state is lost, effective revenue raising is undermined—colourful examples, perhaps from the Mediterranean, can be imagined. The issues identified in the Public Accounts Committee report and in Mr Aaronson’s report demand an urgent response. I hope we will hear from the Minister today the concrete steps that the Government intend to take to curb abusive behaviour towards the tax system. If practical steps are not forthcoming, the Government will have some explaining to do to this House and to the British people.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Dykes for giving us an opportunity to discuss the important issue of tax avoidance and to remind the House of what the Government are doing to clamp down on it. However, we should put the whole subject into perspective. It is an important topic. There have been few speakers, but a considerable degree of heat has been thrown at the topic that may occasionally have obscured the light.
We must remember what we need to achieve in this area, particularly in the current economic situation, when we are faced with reducing the largest peacetime deficit on record. It is of course more important than ever and fair that everyone, whether businesses or individuals, pays their fair share of tax, but we have to remember that we must keep this country competitive. We are competing in a global economy, so we have to have a tax regime that is competitive for businesses, is fair for individuals and incentivises individuals to get off benefits and into work. Yes, the tax-avoidance question is critical, but we have to remember the wider context in which it operates.
A fair tax system means closing the tax gap and ensuring, as I have said, that businesses and individuals pay in full what they owe. My noble friend Lord Dykes asked questions about the size of the tax gap and whether we really understand its make-up. The figures for 2009-10 are that the tax gap was estimated at 7.9 per cent of liabilities, £35 billion in cash terms, which means that HMRC collects over 90 per cent of all the tax that is theoretically due. We have to do better. HMRC has to do better and it is working on that—I shall come on to that shortly—but, if someone heard this debate in isolation, they might think that the performance of HMRC was much worse. It collects over 90 per cent of all the tax that is theoretically due, or £468.9 billion in revenue in 2010-11. We should also remind ourselves that the latest figures show an overall decrease in the overall net tax gap of £7 billion from 2008-09 to 2009-10.
We should therefore be cautious about the methodology, but the 8 per cent tax gap in the UK compares well with other economies. For example, the USA’s tax gap is 14 per cent and, to take a country in Europe that is widely regarded as a model of fiscal rectitude, in Sweden the tax gap is 10 per cent.
The Government’s approach to tackling avoidance builds on HMRC’s anti-avoidance strategy. There are three core elements to that approach: prevention, detection and counteraction, with a clear focus on preventing avoidance before it can occur. I say “avoidance”; I do not of course share my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury’s contention. I know that it is nothing new that he feels strongly that avoidance and evasion are the same thing.
Over the past 20 months we have demonstrated real progress. In answer to the challenge from the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, about the concrete actions that we are taking, in the most recent Finance Act we closed down a range of avoidance schemes to bring in yields of around £1 billion a year over the course of this Parliament. Only this month, we acted quickly to stop a particularly significant avoidance scheme aimed at artificially exploiting an income tax relief. That scheme posed a significant risk to the Exchequer, and our quick action ensured that this risk did not materialise. That is the sort of concrete action that we will take.
In answer to the questions about whether HMRC has the capacity to deal with the threat of avoidance, the Government have underlined our commitment to tackling avoidance with the reinvestment in HMRC, which I am sure noble Lords are aware of, of over £900 million, which should bring in around £7 billion each year by 2014-15 in additional tax—again, concrete additional targeted action.
My Lords, as I am sure my noble friend would recognise, all government departments are having to tighten their belts; otherwise, the deficit is not going to be tackled. I hope to reassure him by explaining where HMRC is focusing its efforts. The recruitment of over 1,200 staff in new posts to tackle non-compliance is significantly upping HMRC’s efforts in this area and will bring in significant additional revenue in each tax year, so the answer to his question is yes.
The customer relationship model that HMRC uses has considerably improved its ability to identify risk and to handle these issues. The report by the National Audit Office on HMRC’s 2010-11 accounts, which underlay one of the reports referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, noted that HMRC’s high-risk corporate programme has brought in a yield of over £9 billion and that it contributed to reduced avoidance activity by major companies. The investment is there. On another point made by my noble friend Lord Dykes, we do not forget the cash economy in those efforts.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, for drawing attention to the question of the general anti-avoidance rule, the GAAR. We are exploring that option to see whether such a rule could help to deter and counter tax avoidance in a fair way. Attention has been drawn to the work of Graham Aaronson and his colleagues and their report. We received the report in November last year. We will be considering it and are actively discussing its implications with businesses and tax professionals. We will respond to the report at the Budget and set out our plans if appropriate. We have said clearly that we would not introduce a GAAR without a further formal round of public consultation, so that is very much work in progress.
I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, for applauding the introduction and the work of the Office of Tax Simplification. The complexity of the tax system has been much remarked on, and I can echo many of the remarks made by noble Lords on that. The OTS has started its work and published recommendations on tax relief, avoidance legislation and IR35, as well as an interim report on small business tax. More is coming down the pipeline and this ongoing work will be an important part of what we all want to see: a simpler tax system that is easier for individuals to comply with. I may disagree with the emphasis of my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury on some things, but I certainly agree that this is fundamentally about individuals doing what they are required by the law to do.
Another critical component of preventing avoidance is the way in which HMRC engages with the largest taxpayers proactively to identify and tackle avoidance. We do not have the time to go into the detail of this but, in response to some of the somewhat one-sided interpretation and selective quoting of the recent Public Accounts Committee report, I draw the attention of the House to HMRC’s detailed rebuttal on many factual points in the conclusion of that report. In brief, to be clear, this effort with large businesses is not in any way HMRC being soft on large business or on those with complex tax affairs. HMRC treats all taxpayers even-handedly and does not allow them to settle for anything less than the full amount due. It is through its engaged and intelligent approach to tax avoidance that the additional revenue to which I have already referred is coming in.
My Lords, the substance of the issues to which HMRC takes exception is to do with the size of unresolved tax bills and some of the details of cases in which errors were found that HMRC disputes. That is the substance, rather than the question of who met whom with what refreshments laid on. We should stick to the substance.
Other noble Lords have been scrupulous in keeping to their time. I am conscious that, with the interventions, I risk going over my time, so I will press on. I want to answer just one more question, raised by my noble friend Lord Dykes, about the tax treatment of overseas companies. I just confirm that we are reforming the controlled foreign company rules very much to protect against the artificial diversion of profits to low-tax jurisdictions, just as our general reforms are being made to make the UK a good place for global corporates to have their headquarters. Having said that this is a matter for individuals, I will not comment on the affairs of any individuals.
In conclusion, I have very briefly explained our strategy for tackling tax avoidance to ensure that everyone pays their fair share. This is an important topic and I am glad that we have had this debate. The Government are taking real, decisive, concrete action to close the tax gap. We are making good progress, but there is much more to do. We will ensure that every sector of society pulls in the same direction to tackle the deficit and the woeful economic legacy left to us by our predecessors.
Committee (1st Day) (Continued)
Debate on whether Clause 1 should stand part of the Bill resumed.
My Lords, I made the mistake before we started today’s business of having a brief word with the Minister, from which I gained the impression that if I kept quiet the preliminary business would be dealt with very quickly and we would soon be into the body of the Bill. I increasingly regretted taking the decision to keep quiet. I have picked some of the notes that I made and scribbled all over them, with a view to reintroducing and regurgitating them now.
The first thing I would say to my noble and learned friend is that, historically, two and a half hours of letting off steam at the beginning of the Committee stage on any Scottish legislation has always proved a way of shortening the overall length of proceedings. Perhaps that may happen on this occasion. However, not having let off steam, I still have some to let off and I propose to do it in short, sharp bursts periodically through the progress of the Bill.
I absolutely support the admirable speech made by my noble friend Lord Forsyth and the brilliant way in which he laid out the concern that all sides of the House have. It was an extremely productive and successful debate. I thought that his tone was absolutely first-class as well. While the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and others have criticised the tone, and are right to do so, we should always remember that tone is important but so are the facts. The facts will be pretty unpalatable but will have to be laid out before the electorate at various stages. We fail in our obligations if we do not take every opportunity to do it in this place, as well as in the referendum when it comes.
This clause was not one that concerned me when I initially looked at the Bill. I had concerns about other clauses but not about this one. However, in the light of what has happened in the past few days, and the way in which the Scottish National Party Administration has behaved, it is not a clause that one should let pass unchallenged without questioning precisely what it would achieve. That is an important approach to take, not just to this clause but to the whole Bill.
It is unsatisfactory that there is no Scottish National Party Peer in the House who could answer for that party. Let us hope that that will soon be put right. However, foghorn diplomacy is one of the First Minister’s strengths and we hear pretty clearly, even from here, what he has to say. The views of the Scottish Administration shriek out from the paper in which they published them and we are not in much doubt as to what they believe.
Turning specifically to the clause, I think the noble Lord, Lord Browne, raised the question of the possible extension of the franchise to 16 or 17 year-olds. If he did not, I hereby raise it now. I see that Clause 1 transfers certain executive functions in Section 12, relating to the conduct and administration of Scottish Parliament elections. That sounds harmless enough but I should like to hear a little more from the Minister by way of reassurance that it will not jeopardise our position any more than it is already jeopardised by the gymnastics of the First Minister.
Subsection (2) gives Scottish Ministers the powers to make provisions on the conduct of Scottish Parliament elections, which again sounds innocent but is not necessarily innocent in delivery. Subsection (3) amends Section 12(2), which clarifies the scope of the order-making powers of Scottish Ministers to make provisions under Section 12(1)(a). It also amends Section 12(2)(d) to allow Scottish Ministers to combine polls to the Scottish Parliament with other devolved elections where the polls are held on the same day. This seems to me not to involve any principle but to create a potentially anomalous situation. If the electorate were extended to include 16 and 17 year-olds and the poll for a Westminster Parliament took place on the same day as that for a Scottish Parliament, or, indeed, for Scottish councils, would it not seem anomalous if the 16 and 17 year-olds were able to vote for one but not for the other? The same would be true of European elections. To me it points not to any high principle but to self-interest on behalf of the Scottish Administration, who seem to believe that young voters would be more likely than older voters to turn out and vote for independence. Therefore, I hope that my right honourable noble and learned friend understands how my concern grows in looking at this relatively innocent clause.
In that context, I should like to revisit the consultation paper published by the SNP yesterday as it is full of self-serving homilies and phrases which, on the face of it, might not spread alarm but could generate considerable concern when the day comes. I was looking particularly at the question that the SNP proposes to ask in the referendum. The summary states:
“The referendum must be trusted and clear”.
It also states that the rules are,
“designed to ensure that the referendum will meet the highest standards of fairness, transparency and propriety and deliver a decisive result”.
However, any question that starts with the words “Do you agree?” is obviously totally loaded in favour of the answer that it seeks. It is rather like a judge saying to a jury before it goes out to consider its verdict, “Do you agree with me that this man is innocent and should be set free?”. Immediately, one sees the tone of loading the answer in favour of a particular outcome. Again, it is rather like a plaintiff in a divorce court presiding over the court in which his or her divorce is heard.
Considering the way in which the Scottish National Party and Administration seem to dress up their intentions in bland language, finessing the difficult areas, should put us on our guard. That is why, when we see that the very first clause of the Bill proposes to hand more controls over parliamentary elections to the Scottish Administration, I ask my noble friend to reassure me on all that and to bear in mind that it is through the prism of the nationalist approach in the Scottish Parliament that this clause, and indeed the whole Bill, should be considered.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Browne, for using the clause stand part debate to allow us to explore and examine what is intended by this clause and, indeed, what is not intended. I also thank my noble friend Lord Lang. I assure him that it was not my intent to try to stop him speaking. I think he knows full well that we genuinely expected the previous debate to be somewhat shorter than was the case. He is absolutely right to say that it was good that we started with a lengthy but very good debate which allowed numerous views to be expressed. It may well facilitate our consideration of these clauses.
This clause transfers to Scottish Ministers certain of the executive functions that are currently the responsibility of the Secretary of State relating to the administration of Scottish Parliament elections. It will enable Scottish Ministers to make general provision by order for the conduct and administration of elections to the Scottish Parliament, the questioning of such an election and the consequences of irregularities. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, asked me to be more specific about what the powers confer and what continues to be reserved. In the same spirit, my noble friend Lord Lang asked for some reassurances. As I have indicated, the Bill will transfer to Scottish Ministers some of the executive functions that are currently the responsibility of the Secretary of State. There is no corresponding widening of the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament although, obviously, it will have a role in approving the subordinate legislation made by Scottish Ministers. So it is executive devolution rather than legislative devolution.
Specifically, Scottish Ministers will be able to make provision by order as to the conduct of Scottish Parliament elections, the questioning of such an election and the consequences of irregularities. This power includes making provision about the supply or otherwise dealing with the electoral register, the combination of Scottish Parliament elections with other elections falling within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament—the most obvious one being local authority elections—as well as the limitation of candidates’ election expenses. However, elements of the powers will remain the function of the Secretary of State: the franchise and the combining of Scottish Parliament polls with polls at other reserved elections. This will ensure that issues of constitutional importance continue to be dealt with by the UK Parliament.
I hope that reassures my noble friend that, because of its constitutional importance, the franchise will be reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament. He referred to 16 and 17 year-olds being able to vote. Such a situation is purely hypothetical. However, having different franchises for different elections held in a combined poll may not be as anomalous as my noble friend thinks. If a local election were held in a combined poll with a Westminster election, while he and I would have the ability to vote in local elections we would not be allowed to vote in a Westminster election, so you can already have elections which could be combined on the same day with a different franchise applying in each.
As regards the referendum, I remind my noble friend and, indeed, the Committee that the preference expressed by the United Kingdom Government in our consultation paper was that the franchise of the electorate for any referendum on Scottish independence should be that which applies at the Scottish Parliament elections. That same franchise applied at the 1997 referendum. We take the view that, if it was good enough to elect a Scottish Parliament in May last year, it is appropriate for a referendum.
In addition, the Secretary of State will retain the powers to modify the application of Section 7(1) of the Scotland Act, which sets out the modifications to the calculation of the regional figures which are made when a constituency poll is countermanded or abandoned, and to modify Section 8(7), which sets out what happens when the highest regional figure is the regional figure of two or more parties or individual candidates. This is about the election to the Scottish Parliament rather than an administrative part of it. It is about the election itself. That is why we have considered it appropriate to continue the reservation. The Secretary of State will also retain the power to make provision for the return of members of the Parliament otherwise than at an election.
The B3 reservation—that is, elections to the United Kingdom, European and Scottish Parliaments and the franchise at local government elections in Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act—will remain unchanged. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, asked whether that would lead to the fragmentation which the Gould report raised concerns about with regard to the operation of the 2007 Scottish and local government elections. All responsibilities for the effective conduct of a Scottish Parliament election are being handed over to the Scottish Government. I have indicated the nature of the functions being retained, which relate to the framework under which those elections are run—for example, the franchise and the electoral registration system—or to the reserved elections such as the parliamentary elections. We believe that the difficulties encountered in 2007 were the result of a unique combination of factors that is not expected to arise again.
It is fair to put on record that the 2011 elections were well administered, notwithstanding the fact that it was a combined poll with the AV referendum. That is to the credit of electoral administrators, who are now better co-ordinated through the electoral management board that both the UK and the Scottish Governments support. If one were to change the rules with regard to electoral registration and devolve that, you could then get fragmentation because you could possibly find yourself with different rules for electoral registration for Scottish parliamentary elections and for Westminster elections. I think we are agreed that, although the franchise may be different for each of these elections, it makes sense to have the one canvass subject to the one set of rules for electoral registration.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, in referring to the previous report of the Scottish Parliament, asked about disqualification from membership of the Scottish Parliament. Section 15 of the Scotland Act allows Her Majesty to specify, by Order in Council, various office-holders who are disqualified from membership of the Scottish Parliament. At present, Scotland Office Ministers are responsible for preparing the draft legislation and presenting it to Her Majesty in Council, but it must first be approved by the Scottish Parliament. Clause 16 has been added in response to the legislative consent Motion in March last year, and will pass responsibility from Scotland Office to the Scottish Government, although the requirement for approval by the Scottish Parliament will remain.
We believe that devolving the elements of responsibility for the administration of elections as I have outlined is consistent with the Calman commission’s principle that these matters should be decided at a level closest to those affected, unless there are good reasons for determining them at a UK level. I have sought to try and make the distinction in respect of constitutional matters and where, in terms of electoral registration, it makes sense to get consistency across the United Kingdom.
Perhaps I may make one point. I do not want to keep on bringing the debate back to the present First Minister, but he has made clear over the years his animosity and antipathy towards this House. Would it therefore be possible under the arrangements that have been outlined for the Scottish Parliament to disqualify Peers from being Members of the Scottish Parliament? That would be a great shame because a number of Peers have distinguished themselves as MSPs.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. From the way in which his voice changed, I had the sense that he was moving towards a peroration.
I am beginning more clearly to understand this division. I understand the difference between the framework within which the elections are conducted, as opposed to the administration; and I understand the difference that I imposed on this debate between the electoral system and conduct. I should be grateful if the Minister would go through the list that I gave—at some stage, if not now. Perhaps he may write to tell me where at least two of those matters lie. One of them may be straightforward and we will come to an amendment on it shortly, one hopes—the procedure and framework for filling regional MSP vacancies—but where does the abandonment of a constituency poll or notice of it to be countermanded lie? Those two matters concern me and I will ignore the other two. I should just like a reassurance that beyond the list that I gave there are no matters other than those the noble and learned Lord has identified.
My Lords, I will certainly write to confirm, but I can seek to indicate that the rules regarding the regional list will remain reserved to the Secretary of State. On the abandonment of a poll, my understanding is that the issue in question is not so much with the abandonment of the poll itself but where that leads to a difference in the calculation of the regional vote. It is that calculation that would be affected if there was an abandonment of a poll in a particular constituency. I am seeing nods that I have actually got it right. That is the substance of this reservation. I will confirm that, but I hope that that has been a sufficient explanation to the noble Lord.
Clause 1 agreed.
The Question is that Clause 2 stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 agreed.
1: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Regional vacancies: individual candidates
(1) Section 10 of the 1998 Act (regional vacancies) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2) omit “the regional member was returned as an individual candidate, or”.
(3) After subsection (6) insert—
“(6A) If the regional member was returned as an individual candidate, an election will be held and the single vacancy allocated in accordance with the procedures set out in subsection (6B).
(6B) In any election held in accordance with subsection (6A)—
(a) for each registered party which has submitted a regional list, the regional figure for the purposes of paragraph (c) is the total number of regional votes given for the party in all the constituencies included in the region divided by the aggregate of one plus the number of candidates of the party presently returned as constituency members for any of those constituencies plus the number of regional seats allocated under section 8 to that party at the previous general election;(b) for each individual candidate, the regional figure for the purposes of paragraph (c) is the total number of regional votes given for him in all the constituencies included in the region;(c) the vacant regional member seat shall be allocated to the registered political party or individual candidate with the highest regional figure.””
Thank you, Lord Chairman. I am really grateful to you. You are almost a relative. I have great respect for your knowledge of procedure, including procedure in the other place, where you served with great distinction as Deputy Speaker. I remember very well that you kept me in order from time to time. I wish that you had the same powers here, by the way, but that is another story.
Perhaps I may also be permitted to speak to Amendment 16, which is grouped with this amendment. I am sure that one speech would be welcomed by the House, rather than if I spoke to the amendments separately.
As to Amendment 1, I believe that I have discovered a gap, a lacuna or whatever word one should use, in the electoral process. It came about in my discussions in relation to my very good friend, the independent Member in Lothian, Margo MacDonald MSP, who I have known for many years. In raising this issue, I wish her absolutely no ill at all—quite the reverse. I hope that this issue does not arise in any way. However, it occurred to me when talking to her and then looking at the legal position that if a vacancy arises for a constituency Member, there is provision for a by-election, and if there is a vacancy for a regional Member on a party list, the next person on that list automatically takes over. However, when an independent Member either resigns or sadly dies, there is no provision for filling that vacancy. There seems to be something missing from the arrangements. I am sure that everyone would agree that there ought to be some method for filling that vacancy. Having discussed it with the helpful people in the Public Bill Office, my amendment is just one way of dealing with that issue.
If a vacancy arose due to the resignation or the decease of an independent Member, new subsection (6B) proposed in my amendment would take effect. A new calculation would then be carried out by the returning officer, in the same way as the allocation of the regional seats which resulted in the election of that independent Member. It would be:
“for each registered party which has submitted a regional list, the regional figure for the purposes of paragraph (c) is the total number of regional votes given for the party in all the constituencies”—
we know that figure; that was used in the initial calculation—
“divided by the aggregate of one plus the number of candidates of the party presently returned as constituency members for any of those constituencies plus the number of regional seats allocated under section 8 to a party at the previous general election”.
So those seats are all taken into account. Proposed new paragraph (b) states:
“for each individual candidate, the regional figure for the purposes of paragraph (c) is the total number of regional votes given for him”—
it should say “or her”, but I am sure that in this case “him” includes “her”, or embraces “her” may be a better way to put it—
“in all the constituencies included in the region”.
Then, the vacant regional Member seat would be allocated to either the registered political party or the individual candidate with the highest regional figure. That seems to me, and it seemed to the Public Bill Office, the best way to deal with it.
I hope that the Minister and all Members of the House agree that the issue needs to be dealt with. The Minister has a great deal more advisers on drafting than I do. If, for any reason, this is not the best way to deal with the matter, I hope that at the very least he will say that he will come back with an amendment that deals with it more effectively.
Amendment 16 is very different and addresses a difficult issue on which I have changed my views—as have others, I think. It concerns whether persons should be permitted to stand for both a regional seat and a constituency seat at the same election. Paradoxically, the position is different in Wales from that in Scotland. I do not understand why it should be different. In Wales, the same individual is not permitted to stand for both a regional and a constituency seat.
A few years ago, before the most recent election in Scotland, that seemed to me to be a very sensible provision. I tabled an amendment in this House. Strangely enough—but these things happen in politics—the Minister who had piloted the legislation for Wales, and argued the case in Wales that a person should not be permitted to stand for both, made an entirely opposite argument in rejecting my amendment to bring Scotland into line with Wales. I have great respect for my good and noble friend Lord Evans, especially when he can argue one way one year and the other by the next; that is a necessary skill in politics. However, he did not give any explanation for it.
I hope that if the Minister does not accept my amendment today, he will at least give some logical explanation which will convince not just me but other Members of the House why it should be different in Scotland from Wales.
Arbuthnott identified the problem of dual candidacy in his report. He said that the commission found considerable public opposition to the party control of the closed list. Concerns cited were a lack of voter choice over the selection and election of regional candidates. This was perceived to undermine legitimacy. That is not dealing with precisely my point, but he went on to state that the lack of legitimacy was compounded by the problem of dual candidacy. While candidates were defeated in their constituency, many were then elected because they were included on closed party lists. It was noted that 88 per cent of successful regional MSPs had been failed constituency candidates.
There is scope for another amendment, I think. I have tabled enough already, so perhaps the noble Lord might think of tabling one. Everyone here from Scotland will know that list Members have a habit of choosing a seat they would like to stand for in the constituency and then concentrate on opening an office and taking up issues in that constituency. If the constituency Member cannot deal with a problem—elected Members will know that some problems are insoluble—the candidate will jump on the bandwagon and take it up.
Dual candidacy is a real problem. I have tabled a later amendment proposing a general review of the electoral system. I will discuss that in greater detail when we get to that amendment. It would be a better way of dealing with the issue in the longer term, but this would deal with it in the short term. Our electoral system was set up with the best of intentions, but even the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who was involved, now recognises that it is not fit for purpose. One of the problems is the question of dual candidacy. I hope that other Members who have experienced the problems of dual candidacy in Scotland will comment, and I certainly hope that the Minister will consider the potential change and, at the very least, explain why there should be a different system in Scotland from the one that I understand operates quite successfully in Wales.
My Lords, the noble Lord has raised two very important, if minor points. We have to remember that when we were legislating on the then Scotland Bill, in which I was involved in this Chamber, the additional Member system, as it is known, was completely new to this country. There were one or two loose ends that were not quite right.
On Amendment 16, which is the noble Lord’s more substantial amendment, I entirely agree with him. As Presiding Officer I had to deal privately with complaints from constituency Members about the activities of regional Members. It is slightly worse than the noble Lord said because quite often regional Members had not just stood and been defeated, they were intending to stand again in the constituency. People were sitting in the Parliament—quite unlike this place—and had every intention of fighting a Member sitting on another Bench. That made for bad relations within the Parliament and some people—I shall name no names—exploited it disgracefully. In Wales—
I shall give way in a second. The same problem arose in the original Welsh legislation—the noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong—but it was the wish of the Welsh people to change the rule. Unfortunately there is not the same will in Scotland, not even in my own party.
It was not exactly the same in Wales. The circumstances are different in that there are four Members on the list in Wales, compared with seven in Scotland. The proposed changes would not overcome one of the basic problems. Someone who has been elected on a list can still stand at the next election for a constituency seat and do exactly what the noble Lord described, and can give up the regional seat in standing for the constituency.
I take that, but what they cannot do in Wales and not only can but actually do in Scotland is stand in the constituency and also be on the list. They have a fallback position which is not the case in Wales. That is wrong and it should be put right. Whether we can do it in this Bill is another matter but the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, raises a very important point.
On the noble Lord’s other more minor amendment about by-elections in the event of an independent Member creating a vacancy, I have an additional point to make. My memory is fading but I think that I gave evidence to the Calman commission, which has not dealt with it in the report. I was elected on the regional list as a Liberal Democrat and when I went into the Chair, of course, I had to resign from the party. There was no way that I could be re-elected because I was no longer a member of the party; I was an independent. I could not stand in Edinburgh and say, “Please elect me because I am the Presiding Officer”. I am not saying that I wanted to particularly but it was impossible to do it. My two successors were fortunately elected in constituencies but that might not always be so. When a Presiding Officer happens to be a regional list Member there is no way that he or she can continue for a second Parliament. That cannot be right. There is a minor problem in addition about independents standing on the regional list. The whole thing would be clarified if we had a different electoral system but we are saddled with what we have now and I have no instant solution to that problem. It is one that ought to be taken up as we proceed with the Bill.
My Lords, I shall speak to the amendment in this group standing in my name and that of my noble and learned friend Lord Boyd of Duncansby. I also have something to say about the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Foulkes.
My amendment would grant the Scottish Parliament the power to ensure that its elections are never again held on the same day as another national poll. The amendment is nearly identical to one tabled by my honourable friend Tom Greatrex, the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, at the Public Bill Committee stage in the House of Commons. However, I regret that during that debate the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and many others were diverted by the then controversy of the imminent application and interaction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. As far as I can see, although my honourable friend spoke to the amendment, it was never properly answered. Therefore, it has been repeated here in order to get an answer. If the answer allows for the avoidance of a coincidence of polls such as we saw in 2007, I will be greatly satisfied.
As noble Lords will know, the coincidence of local government and Scottish Parliament elections on 3 May 2007—and other factors—led to the rejection of 146,099 Scottish Parliament ballot papers and 38,362 local election ballot papers. It was the nadir of electoral administration in the United Kingdom, and everybody has focused on ensuring that it never happens again. It is the firm belief of this side of the House that never again should the people of Scotland be subjected to the confusion and chaos of two polls on the same day. We strongly opposed the coalition Government's decision to impose a referendum on the alternative vote system on the same day as the Holyrood election. The Minister said that it passed off without incident, but we will never know what effect that coincidence had on the way in which people behaved. There was no repeat of the dreadful circumstances of 2007, but I argue in my amendment that we should try to avoid repeating the coincidence if at all possible.
I am conscious that Clause 2 relates to the administration of the combination of polls that would be required should there be such a coincidence. I have nothing to say about that; I agree with it. We have been combining polls in those circumstances probably since 1978 or before. It makes good sense. Therefore, I am happy to let Clause 2 pass. What I am concerned about is seeking to use the device of the 1998 Act to avoid this. If the clause is properly drafted—and I hope that it is—it would grant the Scottish Parliament the flexibility to move its poll in the event of a coincidence. It would mean that there should never be any future coincidence of polls unless the Scottish Parliament decided otherwise. Most people believe that probably we cannot have that coincidence. However, despite the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and the devices of extending the period of a Parliament, in particular of the Scottish Parliament, that the coalition Government have agreed to, there is the possibility of an extraordinary election—some noble Lords on this side of the House would quite like next to see ordinary election, despite the Fixed-term Parliaments Act—coinciding with a date fixed for a Scottish Parliament election.
I got myself into some difficulties with the arithmetic of trying to work out whether coincidence is at all possible with the European Parliament elections as a consequence of the movement of the Scottish Parliament elections. It may just be possible, which is why the amendment anticipates the coincidence. I may be wrong about that, but we could in future have to use the device of extending the Scottish Parliament’s time again to avoid coincidence. That may throw up the possibility of a European Parliament coincidence. We believe this is the best way to do this. It should be a matter for the Scottish Parliament. In response to Gould, the Scottish Parliament committed to decoupling Scottish Parliamentary and local government elections, which was the real mischief that caused the problem in 2007. Similar provisions have been made to try to ensure that Scottish parliamentary and UK general elections do not follow the same cycle, as I have already said. The Calman commission recommended that, for reasons of practicality and principle, Scottish parliamentary elections should be administered at the level closest to those affected by them. We have already debated that to a degree. In a sense, it was the electorate of the Scottish Parliament who were the victims of the catastrophe that was the 2007 election. We believe that as a mature Parliament the Scottish Parliament should have the responsibility to decide whether it wants to allow this coincidence to persist, should it happen because of the rhythm of parliamentary elections or the possibility of an extraordinary election. This amendment is devised to achieve that possibility.
I turn to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. I congratulate my noble friend and, by extension, the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. Each of them identified lacunae in the framework for Scottish elections, which is a phrase that I will now use, to the Scottish Parliament that could be addressed. I was not aware that there is no process for filling a vacancy for an independent member in the regional part of the system. That should not be allowed to continue. I understand that my noble friend’s approach to this is to devise a method that is very similar to the method adopted for electing regional members. It is very close to that, if not precisely the same. I urge the Minister to take this away to see whether, at some stage during the passage of this Bill, we can deal with this. His advisers are, in addition, capable of dealing with a lacuna that has been identified by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. I suggest that the Minister considers that too. It would genuinely be in the spirit of the appropriate approach to this legislation. I am sorry that the Calman commission did not have its attention drawn to this problem because I am sure that if it had the noble and learned Lord in another guise may well have been party to a recommendation to resolve it.
I turn to Amendment 16 which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, identifies as being the more substantial amendment. My noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock is a man of extraordinary experience, not just in your Lordships' House but in the House of Commons and in the Scottish Parliament. Some of us were privileged to be at the celebration of his 70th birthday in the Gorgie Suite in his beloved Tynecastle Park on Saturday night. He knows where my allegiances lie, and I am delighted that there is at least one reason for celebration in the Gorgie Suite in Tynecastle this year because there will be precious few others. For those noble Lords who do not know what I am referring to, in an act of extraordinary generosity his family invited almost 200 people from all over the world to join the celebration of his 70th birthday. The fact that almost nobody refused the invitation no matter how far away they came from or, it seemed to me, failed to turn up is a measure of the high esteem in which he is held. I refer to this because the speeches that night celebrated a lifetime of service to politics in Scotland and to public life. It is from that background that he speaks when he rises in your Lordships' House, and he ought to be listened to carefully. However—
However, I regret that in this case I cannot support my noble friend’s amendment. If there is a mischief here, it seems to me that the solution lies in the hands of the political parties. We should not be legislating for this and I am surprised that we have in fact legislated in Wales, but if the Welsh people wanted that, that is fine.
For many years, the Labour Party had a voluntary prohibition on this. We had a rule that you could not stand for both the lists and the constituencies. We departed from that at the last election to the Scottish Parliament and because of that Sarah Boyack is a Member of the Scottish Parliament. That seems to be a good result; apart from anything else, it may be a reason for maintaining the status quo.
I am most grateful. Every day I come to work in your Lordships’ House I learn something, and that is today’s learning experience. I had no idea that that was the case. Maybe at some stage—I will not take up your Lordships’ time with this now—somebody will explain to me why that was the case.
Perhaps I can add to the amount the noble Lord has learnt today. It was not really the case that the people of Wales wanted to abandon dual candidacy—the Labour Party in Wales was very keen on that. Consultation produced a total lack of interest on the part of the people of Wales. However, although the system of election is better than first past the post, it is rather chancy. Not allowing dual candidacy actually increases the chances of strange results happening. For example, in the last Welsh elections the Conservative Party was extremely successful, led by a leader who was not able to be a constituency candidate because he was a list candidate. He was so successful and they won so many constituencies that he lost his list seat. It does enhance the problems of the system.
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for continuing my education. I am better informed than I was when I rose to speak. I have to say that when I started in my political life, the people of Wales and the Labour Party were almost synonymous. In any event, one of the consequences of our generous devolution of power has been that with proportional representation in the political colour of the United Kingdom, parties have taken advantage of opportunities. I accept that and it is all part of democracy.
I am not arguing for maintaining the status quo because of the outcome. In fact, I pray in aid Arbuthnott. The Arbuthnott commission was set up to look into constituency boundaries for the Scottish Parliament, because there was an issue of divergence of boundaries between the Scottish Parliament and the United Kingdom Parliament, and voting and representation in Scotland. I have an extract of the commission’s report, entitled Putting Citizens First: Boundaries, Voting and Representation in Scotland. I am looking at paragraphs 4.5 onwards. In moving his amendment, my noble friend quoted from Arbuthnott. I do not intend to quote all these 12 or 13 paragraphs, but they seem to set out a very coherent argument for why it would be inappropriate to depart by law from what has become the practice of dual candidacy.
With all due respect to my noble friend, I will read the conclusion, paragraph 4.60, which in a sense contradicts some of the thinking. It states:
“The Commission believes that preventing dual candidacy would be undemocratic and agrees that it would place”—
and here I think it is quoting a witness—
“‘an unnecessary restriction on the democratic rights of potential candidates, parties and local electors to have as unrestricted a choice as possible in an election’.”.
Certainly, in Scotland, as a consequence of divergent party practice, in a situation that permitted dual candidacy, there is a belief that people took advantage. In my view, political parties just need to learn to make the best of the circumstances in which they are operating and then we can all take advantage of the circumstances, rather than changing the circumstances or the opportunities that other people take advantage of.
My Lords, in introducing his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has given us an opportunity to look at a number of the issues that have arisen with regard to the operation of the electoral system. As my noble friend Lord Steel said, when we were legislating in 1998 it was not really possible to foresee all the implications and consequences of it. Therefore, we have had a useful opportunity to highlight a number of the issues and concerns that have arisen.
As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, says, Amendment 1 identifies a lacuna, which, to be fair, I am not sure has been highlighted very much in the past. My noble friend Lord Steel pointed out a variation on that with regard to the role of the Presiding Officer, who gets elected on a list basis as opposed to a constituency basis. Perhaps I may add that Mr George Reid did not stand again so the issue did not arise, whereas Mr Alex Fergusson always indicated that he would seek to stand again as a Conservative. No doubt he would have had to win the nomination of the Galloway Conservatives. It may also be said that it would have been open to my noble friend Lord Steel to have sought again to put his name forward in the Liberal Democrat list for Lothian. Although I did not live in Lothian, had I done so I certainly would have voted for him.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has raised an important point. No doubt with some work he has found an interesting way to address it. As he properly says, currently a seat vacated by an individual candidate who was returned as a regional Member remains vacant until the next general election. The noble Lord proposes that a poll is held across the whole region to select a new Member. Calculations would ensue upon that—he set that out very clearly and I do not propose to repeat it—to identify who would succeed.
The noble Lord is right to point out that a regional seat vacancy has not yet been caused by an independent Member vacating one. I share his view. I bear no ill will towards Mrs Margo MacDonald for being the only independent Member. Not only do I bear her no ill will but I think that everyone who knows her would take the opportunity to wish her well. My experience is that she has always made a very robust and independent contribution to the deliberations of the Scottish Parliament, and long may that continue, although we do not always agree with her.
We should remember that voters continue to be represented by their constituency MSP and several regional MSPs. It is an important issue, which, given that it is novel, I would wish to look at. If we did anything, it would be important that it commanded consensus among all the parties because it is an important part of our electoral system. To commit from the Dispatch Box without having taken proper soundings among all the parties would be inappropriate, but I hope that we can get an opportunity to take soundings to see whether this gap can be plugged, and plugged suitably to take account of the position of a Presiding Officer as well.
The other amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, would allow candidates to stand for both constituency and regional polls, and both he and my noble friend Lord Steel indicated some discontent from their own experiences with the current system. The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Browne, quoted from the Arbuthnott commission, which stated that it was,
“not convinced that there is any evidence to support the claims made regarding these perceived problems. There is no survey evidence to suggest that dual candidacy is an issue for voters, or a disincentive to their participation in the political process. Few of our consultation responses raised dual candidacy as an issue, nor was it raised spontaneously in our focus groups”.
I am certainly aware from my time in the Scottish Parliament that colleagues representing Orkney would find that not many regional list candidates would bother to get that far, although occasionally it was quite useful to have regional-list MSPs in order to pass on some of the more difficult cases. If a constituent was clearly not satisfied with what you had done on their behalf, and you would be surprised if anyone would be able to satisfy them, it was always useful to have another seven MSPs with whom you could share the burden.
That said, this would be a significant change to the system for electing Members of the Scottish Parliament. The question was raised with regard to Wales—my noble friend Lady Randerson and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, are in their places. My understanding is that objections were raised by three of the four main political parties in Wales when this was brought forward. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked me to explain why this position arises. In our debate before we went into Committee I was asked at one stage to explain the policy of the Scottish National Party, and now I am being asked to defend the position that was brought about by the previous Labour Administration, of which the noble Lord, Lord Browne, was a most distinguished member. It actually arose from a proposal in the White Paper, Better Governance for Wales, published in June 2005. It is fair to say that there is no reason why the position in Scotland should be the same as that in Wales. There is an automatic assumption that the systems are always going to be the same, but I think it is reasonable to say that there can be variations tailored to suit particular requirements in different parts of the United Kingdom. I do not think it follows that because Wales has not gone down the route, Scotland should not do so either.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, indicated that a later amendment of his would propose a general review of the electoral system. He will be aware that the Government have stated their intention to consider what has been said about a review of the electoral system in the reports of both the Calman commission and the Arbuthnott commission. There is obviously some support for this in some quarters, but it would be possible to take forward such a review only with the full support of the Scottish Parliament as well. The Committee will be aware that quite a number of consultations are under way. The most crucial one at the moment is on the referendum, and in a moment I will deal with the amendment spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, on the coincidence of election dates. The Government are committed to looking at the issue of fixed-term Parliaments and whether the Scottish Parliament should move to fixed terms. That will generate another consultation. Perhaps this is not the most appropriate and propitious time to start a review of the electoral system, although I repeat that the Government have indicated their intention to consider a response to both Calman and Arbuthnott on that point.
The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, seeks to allow the Scottish Parliament to move the date for parliamentary elections by up to 12 months either way when it falls in the same year as either an early UK general election or a European Parliament general election, so long as the new date is not within six months of either of those elections. He mentioned that when this was debated in the House of Commons, there was more of a focus on the then quite likely coincidence of a Scottish and a Westminster election in 2015. I moved an amendment during the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill through your Lordships’ House that changed the date of the next Scottish election so that such a clash would not occur. The Government are already committed to carrying out a detailed assessment of the implications of the two elections coinciding on the same day and to consult on the possibility of moving permanently to five-year terms for the Scottish Parliament. We will make a more detailed announcement of our plans in due course.
If any future consultation is in favour of moving the Scottish Parliament to five-year terms, that would solve the problem of a clash with both scheduled UK elections and European parliamentary elections, as all three will then be on five-year cycles scheduled for different years. That said, there will always be a risk that an early UK general election could reintroduce a clash of dates due to the resetting of the parliamentary timetable. However, if there are concerns about that happening, I hope the noble Lord will agree that that would be an important issue to raise in the context of a consultation on moving to a five-year fixed term for the Scottish Parliament, as we intend to do.
We are committed to considering a change to the length of the term of the Scottish Parliament. It is an appropriate concern for the noble Lord to have raised, but I hope he would agree that this Bill is perhaps not the place to deal with it. However, it is germane to the consultation that is about to take place. That would be the appropriate place in which to consider it. In these circumstances, I hope that noble Lords will not press their amendments.
My Lords, as always, that was a really helpful reply from the Minister. We are now getting used to helpful replies from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, for which I am grateful.
I was hoping that he would answer the question which the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, did not. I was sure that he would have had exactly the same brief from the excellent civil servants the noble Lord, Lord Evans, had, and that it would not be too difficult for him. As it turned out, it was not, so I am grateful to him for explaining it.
As I said in my introduction to the amendment, I am a little equivocal about it anyway. Perhaps I may return the flattery that I received from my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton, whom I thank for his kindness. Now one or two people will ask me why they were not invited to the party, by the way; that is the only problem that I have. My noble friend explained extremely well why we should leave it to the political parties and wait for the promised wider review of the electoral system. I understand also that my right honourable friend Mr Peter Hain is suggesting that Wales should move back to first past the post elections for the Welsh Assembly, which seems like a wonderful idea for those of us who are Neanderthal first past the post supporters—so there is even discussion there. Therefore, I shall not press Amendment 16.
I do feel strongly about Amendment 1, because this matter should be sorted out. I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. As I understood it, he said that he would take the matter away and consult other parties, and that if there was some consensus he would come forward with an amendment on Report. He is nodding, so I am not jumping to conclusions. On that basis, I am quite happy to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendment 2 not moved.
Clause 3 : Supplementary and transitional provision about elections
3: Clause 3, page 3, line 25, leave out from “powers)” to end of line 34 and insert “after subsection (1) insert—
“(1A) Subsections (2) to (11), except subsection (9), apply also to the power of the Scottish Ministers to make an order under section 12.””
My Lords, Section 113 of the Scotland Act 1998 makes provision about the scope of subordinate legislation powers in that Act. Clause 3(1) of this Bill amends Section 113 of the 1998 Act so that it also applies to Scottish Ministers’ new powers to make subordinate legislation about the administration of Scottish Parliament elections under Section 12 of the 1998 Act.
The amendment replaces Clause 3(1) with a provision that has the same effect and restructures Section 113. This is intended to make it easier for provisions in this Bill or in future legislation to provide that Section 113 applies in relation to other powers that may subsequently be conferred on Scottish Ministers. I beg to move.
Amendment 3 agreed.
Clause 3, as amended, agreed.
Clause 4 : Presiding Officer and deputies
Debate on whether Clause 4 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Government for including in the Bill the second part of this clause on the election of the Presiding Officer, possible deputies and temporary deputies. It arose directly out of evidence that I gave to the Calman commission, which arose in turn from my own experience when, despite trying to juggle radiotherapy for prostate cancer with my duties in the chair, I was absent for some time, and the Parliament found that it had no provision to enable it appoint even a temporary deputy to help take the load. I am glad that this clause appears in the Bill. I am thankful and I welcome it.
The other point that I wish to make is slightly astray of the Bill. Members of the House will note that under Clause 4(3) the Parliament has 14 days from polling day to meet and elect a Presiding Officer. That is in stark contrast to what happens here. I have on other occasions severely criticised the haste with which the present coalition was put together, which I thought was entirely unnecessary. Under the Scottish arrangement, which was already much looser, because of proportional representation it was anticipated before the first election that a coalition was more likely than not and therefore that there was plenty of time. My noble and learned friend was actively involved and will remember how long it took, even with a more limited agenda, which the Scottish Parliament has compared with Westminster, to put a coalition together. It was done with great care and skill and it worked. Without going into extraneous matters, I think that the haste with which the coalition was put together at Westminster was a mistake and that perhaps they can learn by reading Clause 4 of this excellent Bill.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Steel. I can indeed confirm that he made representations to the Calman commission on this point, not least in the light of his own experience. His proposal was supported by the then Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, Alex Fergusson, and therefore the Government were happy to agree with the Calman commission’s recommendation that there should be greater flexibility in the running of the Scottish Parliament.
My noble friend is also right to point to the other parts of the clause, which gets rid of the restriction that the Presiding Officers and their deputies have to be appointed at the Parliament’s first meeting. This inflexibility caused problems during the last Session, given the very close electoral result. This meant that parties had difficulty in deciding quickly to release one of their members to be Presiding Officer.
My noble friend made comments about the time taken to form coalitions. In 2003, we did so in a more measured way than perhaps in 1999, when we were under greater pressure. However, we did not have the markets waiting on every twist and turn of the coalition negotiations. There are important differences between Westminster and Scotland, although no doubt we all learn lessons from experience. I hope that what we are putting in here will provide additional flexibility in the election of the Presiding Officer. It has been supported by the previous Scotland Bill Committee in the Scottish Parliament, and the current Scotland Bill Committee has also indicated that it is content with this clause.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5 : Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body
Amendments 4 and 5 not moved.
Clause 5 agreed.
6: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
(1) Schedule 3 to the 1998 Act (Standing orders—further provision) is amended as follows.
(2) After paragraph 7 insert—
“Parliamentary calendar8. The standing orders may include provision for ensuring that the Parliament shall—
(a) sit on at least 30 weeks in each calendar year,(b) meet on at least three days in each week that it sits, and(c) not adjourn for a period of more than 60 consecutive days.””
My Lords, it might be said that by moving the amendment—and even by discussing it, let alone coming to any decision on it—Westminster is interfering in the work of the Scottish Parliament. However, I have raised the issue because it is a dissolved Parliament and, ultimately, until such time as there is an independent Scotland—heaven or the electorate forbid—it is the responsibility of this sovereign Parliament.
I raise the issue also because for four years I served, along with the noble Lord, Lord Stephen, and others, as a Member of the Scottish Parliament. I came across a huge number of people who were absolutely astonished when they found out that the Scottish Parliament sat for only one and a half days a week in plenary. Members of the Scottish Parliament are paid a substantial amount of money—something like 87.5 per cent of the salary of a Member of this Parliament—and it is seen as a full-time job. Of course, just as MPs have responsibilities in their constituencies, MSPs have constituency responsibilities, too—at least, constituency MSPs do. Committees also meet on a Tuesday and a Wednesday morning. Even so, it is difficult to explain that the Scottish Parliament sits for only one and a half days in the weeks that it is sitting.
As a result of that, some strange things happen. It is amazing. There are other former Members of the Scottish Parliament here, including the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, who can give their experiences in relation to this. In almost every debate in which I took part in the Scottish Parliament, the speeches were limited to four minutes. Occasionally, we get time limits here but it is ridiculous to expect people to be able to put forward a coherent argument on a major issue of education, the health service or whatever they are dealing with in four minutes.
Compared with the House of Commons, there are also relatively few opportunities for Statements and Urgent Questions. Recently, under Speaker Bercow in the House of Commons, there have been lots of Urgent Questions. In the time that I was in Holyrood, I cannot remember more than one or perhaps two Urgent Questions. There was not the time. It was difficult to fit anything new or additional into the programme and timetable of the Scottish Parliament.
I find the Report stages of Bills there quite astonishing. These are important Bills dealing, as I say, with important issues such as education, social work, local government reform or the health service. They are rushed through. Sometimes, on an amendment being dealt with on Report, people are allowed to argue a case for only 30 seconds. It is ludicrous that they should be squeezed into that length of time.
Again, Question Time, partly but not completely because of the time constraints, becomes a bit of a farce and a very predictable occasion. I could almost write the script for every First Minister’s Questions, with who will come in and how many of them there will be. It does not have the spontaneity of—
I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way and sorry that I was not here for the start of his speech; I had to go to another meeting. Could he help me, as I have not had his experience in the Scottish Parliament? Is there some restriction that prevents it from sitting for more than one and a half days a week? Is that not a matter for the Scottish Parliament to decide itself?
As always, the noble Lord is perceptive. I was going to come on to say that but will say it now. I put down the amendment some time ago and am now very pleased to hear that, since then, the Scottish Parliament has started talking about sitting at greater length. The purpose of the amendment was to try and get a debate on this, not just here but in the Scottish Parliament. I am glad that it has achieved that. After this debate finishes—if other noble Lords want to participate—were the Minister to give some indication as to what is happening in the Scottish Parliament in relation to its sitting times, more time for debating these issues and Report stages allowing fuller consideration, I would of course be satisfied and willing to withdraw the amendment. I am very glad I raised this as it is long overdue. If it is now being dealt with, no one will be happier than me.
My Lords, I confessed that I knew nothing about it, but it seems a very sensible proposal. I have in the past suggested that because the Scottish Parliament sits only one and a half days a week, a solution to the West Lothian question would be that all Scottish Members of Parliament should sit in the Scottish Parliament for one and a half days a week and on those one and a half days the House of Commons could discuss those matters not related to devolved issues. This has not proved very popular with Members of the Scottish Parliament, for reasons that I cannot imagine. So in following the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, they might protect themselves from being endangered by people like me, who might suggest that there were synergies in combining the roles of a Member of the House of Commons with a Member of the Scottish Parliament. I am sure that the Scottish Parliament will show considerable gratitude to the noble Lord in drawing this matter to public attention if, indeed, it has already got that Parliament rethinking its sitting days.
My Lords, I agree very much with the first contribution that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, made. This is essentially a matter for the Scottish Parliament, which has wide discretion in this area. Unfortunately, I cannot agree with the suggestions that he made in his most recent contribution. I agree with a great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said. I am sure that others who have been in the Scottish Parliament, most notably my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness, also agree with a great number of his suggestions, most particularly about the guillotining of virtually every contribution made in the Scottish Parliament. The noble Lord is absolutely right; it is impossible to make a full and weighty contribution when the guillotine constantly comes after sometimes less than four minutes. These issues should be addressed, and I hope that in addressing those issues the Scottish Parliament will look to the contributions of former Members and those who have had experience of the Parliament. But I do not think that it should be as a result of an amendment proposed through the House of Lords that those matters are best addressed. I am sure that the Minister will explain that those matters are being looked at; I understand that there is a concerted effort to look at changing the way in which the Scottish Parliament operates. That is all the more important in the context of more powers being granted to the Scottish Parliament; as the Parliament grows and develops, these issues should be tackled, and the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, made an extremely valuable contribution in pointing to the Parliament the way ahead.
If I may, I would like to ask a very brief question to the Minister in this connection. During the Calman commission, we recommended that more time should be given for the final stages of Bills in the Scottish Parliament. It seemed to us that with many Bills, voluntary organisations, charities or other worthy bodies would have recommendations to make but would get virtually no changes in the final stages of the Bill because procedures were so rapid and everything went so quickly. My understanding was that that was under consideration by the Scottish Parliament, and I wonder whether the Minister could give us the up-to-date situation on that subject, if he has the facts readily at hand.
This is the first time that I have spoken at this stage of the debate, so I renew my declaration of interest in the Calman commission. I am somewhat surprised to find that I am standing here at the Dispatch Box, and I hope that the Committee does not find it strange that two lawyers who were both on the Calman commission now find ourselves on opposing sides of the bar but pulling in the same direction. I hope that it reflects the cross-party approach to the Bill.
To my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock I can say that I was very pleased, particularly given what has been said already, that I was one of those invited to his party, and that I very much enjoyed it. So if I disagree with him on any point, he can be assured that it is not because I am biting the hand that fed me.
On the issue of timetabling, I think I am right in saying that there are states within the United States that have within their constitution maximum times during which legislators can sit. They take the view that the longer they sit the more mischief they can make. That might be one approach. In Britain, we tend to take the opposite view—that we pay legislators to legislate, and if they are not sitting in plenary session, they are clearly not worth the taxpayers’ money.
The court of public opinion is the important element here. I suspect that it modified the sittings of this Parliament, given the criticisms that were made about the long summer recess, but clearly it may also very well have worked in relation to the Scottish Parliament, given the proposals. In particular, the amendment that my noble friend has put down may very well have spurred some action on it. With these words, I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
My Lords, the amendment, which was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, would enable the Scottish Parliament’s standing orders to make provision to ensure that the Parliament would have to sit on at least 30 weeks in each calendar year; that it met on at least three days in each week that it sits; and that it does not adjourn for a period of more than 60 consecutive days. In moving the amendment the noble Lord certainly described some frustrations which I can readily identify with, although we never actually served at the same time in the Scottish Parliament. Although it does not relate to a restriction on back-bench time, I remember one Conservative opposition day when Mr Murdo Fraser was the Conservative spokesman on the economy and enterprise and I was the Enterprise Minister, and the Deputy Presiding Officer announced: “A Conservative debate on the future of Scotland's economy. Mr Murdo Fraser, you have seven minutes”. That did not really seem to give justice to the issue in hand.
That said, when dealing with the internal arrangements of the Scottish Parliament, it is important that we remember the words in the White Paper which the previous Government published when Mr Donald Dewar was Secretary of State for Scotland, in 1997. The White Paper said:
“The Government intend the minimum of legislation to establish the Scottish Parliament; and wherever possible to leave the Scottish Parliament to decide for itself what its procedures should be”.
This Government believe that that statement holds as true today as it did in 1997. The Government do not believe that it is appropriate for the United Kingdom Parliament to place restrictions on the freedom of the Scottish Parliament to administer its own affairs. It is now embedded within our UK constitutional arrangements, and our view is that the Scottish Parliament is capable of making its own changes to procedures as it sees fit.
As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, mentioned, on 21 December the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee of the Scottish Parliament published the phase 1 report of its inquiry into the reform of parliamentary business, which is appropriately entitled Remodelling the Parliamentary Week. I do not know whether that happened as a result of or in spite of this amendment, but as the noble Lord indicated when moving the amendment, it certainly was timely. The committee undertook its inquiry into parliamentary business last September in order to review the Parliament’s procedures and recommend areas for improvement and change. As I indicated, it is a phase 1 report. The aim of the inquiry is to give the Scottish Parliament greater scrutiny and responsiveness to emerging issues of importance to the people of Scotland.
The report makes a number of recommendations. My understanding is that they will soon be debated in the Scottish Parliament and, if agreed, implemented after the Easter Recess. Recommendation 1 states,
“that the sitting patterns of the Parliament should be changed to allow committee meetings to take place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings with Chamber business on those afternoons”.
This would mean that the Parliament will sit for three days a week when it is sitting, which would meet part of what the noble Lord’s amendment aims to do. The report does not make any recommendations on the other two parts of the noble Lord’s amendment—to ensure that the Parliament sits on at least 30 weeks of the calendar year, and not to adjourn for a period of more than 60 consecutive days. However, the report concluded that,
“given the need to protect the”—
“between the Chamber and committee business, and to protect time for engagement with civic Scotland, the amount of time allocated to each of these priorities at present is broadly correct”.
I have however noted that as the inquiry evolved, it also looked at how the likely addition of new powers and responsibilities proposed in this Bill would need to be taken into account, as further timetabling commitments will need to be made to scrutinise the use of these new powers for the Scottish Government and Parliament. As my noble friend Lord Forsyth indicated in a question, where does the responsibility lie? It is for the standing orders of the Scottish Parliament.
My recollection, though, is that there is also a considerable amount of flexibility. When I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament—more recent Members can correct me—although the normal starting time on a Wednesday, with time for reflection, was 2.30 pm, noble Lords will have realised that yesterday the Parliament managed to sit at 1.35 pm in order for the First Minister to make his statement launching his consultation document, no doubt so that he could then hot-foot it to his appointment with the world’s press at 3 pm in the Great Hall at Edinburgh Castle. I recall other occasions—for example, when it was clear that stage three of the Bill was going to take much longer—when there was flexibility to sit earlier or later.
My noble friend Lord Selkirk asked about the recommendation from the Calman commission regarding the separation of time to allow more time at stage three if new amendments come up, which would engage more stakeholders. I indicate to him that that is obviously a matter for the Scottish Parliament, but I will write to him and other Members of the Committee who are participating in our deliberations to give our understanding of the up-to-date position with regard to the Scottish Parliament’s response to that recommendation.
The Scottish Parliament, now 12 or almost 13 years old, is capable of reviewing its own processes, but we are showing our willingness to look at this issue too. I hope that in those circumstances the noble Lord will feel that the amendment is unnecessary and withdraw his amendment.