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Scotland: Constitutional Future

Volume 736: debated on Monday 26 March 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect to publish their response to the consultation on Scotland’s constitutional future.

My Lords, on 20 March the Secretary of State wrote to party spokespeople setting out an initial summary of the findings of the consultation. This letter was deposited in the Library and I set out the initial findings during the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill on 21 March. Officials are currently reviewing and analysing the consultation responses and a full summary will be published before the Third Reading of the Scotland Bill.

My Lords, will the Minister confess that the Government have broken their promise to publish the response in advance of the Report stage of the Scotland Bill, which we are taking this afternoon? In order to make amends, will he discuss with his colleagues a way of getting every department of government, particularly the Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Defence, to commission independent reports in advance of the referendum on the real costs of breaking up Britain?

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will agree that we had a good debate about the referendum in Committee last Wednesday. I was able to give clear indications to the effect that, for example, the majority who responded to the consultation believed that powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament and that a great majority of those also supported the use of a Section 30 order. Our initial analysis shows clear support for a single question on independence, for the referendum to be held sooner rather than later, and for the involvement of the Electoral Commission. With regard to the second part of the noble Lord’s question, I hope that all departments will be very much engaged in setting out a positive case for the union.

My Lords, first, I thank my noble and learned friend for the undertaking to publish the full results of the consultation before Third Reading. That is very welcome and much appreciated. Secondly, given that the Government have decided not to proceed by amendment of the Scotland Bill to a referendum, will he give an undertaking that in the absence of reaching agreement on a single question organised by the Electoral Commission, the Government will bring forward their own legislation in the next Session of Parliament, as a Section 30 order requires the consent of the First Minister and his officials?

My Lords, a Section 30 order requires the consent of both Houses of this Parliament and of the Scottish Parliament. As I said last week, if agreement cannot be reached on a Section 30 order and if we are to try to ensure that this matter is kept out of the courts, which would be very helpful, the Government will need to consider what other options are open to them in order to provide a legal, fair and decisive referendum. Many people said that there would be no chance of getting a legislative consent Motion in respect of the Scotland Bill, but that is now within our grasp and is going to happen. I think we should focus our efforts on making sure, as I believe we can, that we get a Section 30 order for a fair, legal and decisive referendum.

My Lords, will the Minister take this opportunity to repeat to the House the assurance he gave in Committee that while the question of whether Scotland wishes to leave the United Kingdom is properly a matter for the Scottish people, any other question that would affect the relationship between the people of the United Kingdom—that is, extended devolution—cannot just be a decision for the Scottish people? It must also be a decision for which there is consultation with either the rest of the people of the United Kingdom or the United Kingdom Parliament.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Reid, makes an important distinction between a question about a referendum on Scotland leaving the United Kingdom and one that would necessarily involve other parts of the United Kingdom. That is why the Government believe it is inappropriate for any referendum to have two questions. He is right to say that if there is to be further devolution, there must be some means of engaging other parts of the United Kingdom. The main provisions of the Scotland Bill, which we are currently debating, were included in the manifestos of the three parties at the last general election.

Have the Government given any thought to a consultation on England’s constitutional future, bearing in mind that with the increasingly powerful and dedicated representation that the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament afford to their citizens, this country is going to feel increasingly left out?

My Lords, I hope that in our arguments and debates about a referendum on Scotland’s future, we can make it clear that not only do we believe that Scotland is better off within the United Kingdom, but the United Kingdom is better off with Scotland.

The noble Earl will be aware that a commission has been set up to look at the implications of devolution for the procedures in the House of Commons, under the chairmanship of the Sir William Mackay. We await the outcome of that commission.

My Lords, coming back to the original Question, will the noble and learned Lord accept that with the Bill in your Lordships’ House at the moment, it is completely unacceptable for the full consultation not to be published until just before Third Reading? Will he accept that in view of that, and the fact that noble Lords may well wish to lay amendments on Third Reading, there should be greater latitude for amendments to be laid at that stage?

My Lords, I do not necessarily think I can indicate the latitude that would be allowed at that stage, although I hear what the noble Lord says. I hope he will agree, that we gave considerable indications in Committee and, indeed, if the matter arises again today, on Report. In answering the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I indicated some of the key elements where the majority of opinion lies within the consultation. I think that was able to inform our debate on a referendum last week. I very much hope that by the time we get to Third Reading, people will have had an opportunity not just to analyse the numbers but also the quality of some of the responses, and they will feel that the preferences expressed by the Government in the consultation document command considerable support.