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Scotland: Constitutional Settlement

Volume 760: debated on Tuesday 10 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the public reaction to their Command Paper Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement.

My Lords, the Government welcome feedback on the draft clauses as we continue to refine the draft legislation. We are holding events across Scotland to enable stakeholders to provide feedback on the draft clauses and how the new powers might be best used. Four events have taken place to date, with a further event in the borders later this month. Representatives from a wide range of sectors are participating, including from business, the voluntary sector, universities and schools.

Can my noble and learned friend explain how the Government’s proposals will provide a basis for an enduring settlement when the Scottish National Party is demanding yet further concessions? Is it not obvious that we need a new constitutional settlement, an explicitly unionist settlement, for our entire country, not further piecemeal changes in different parts of it, devised with short, artificial deadlines? When will our national leaders of all parties summon up the eloquence and conviction that is needed to make the case for an enduring union, which so many of us in this House, in the other place and throughout our country hold so dear?

I entirely agree with my noble friend on that need. The best way forward is to have an enduring union, to which I am certainly committed. The proposals in the White Paper which the Government produced at the end of January give effect to the agreement reached under the commission chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Kelvin. Not to have acknowledged and fulfilled the commitment given to the electorate would have been more damaging to the union. I have taken part in numerous debates in your Lordships’ House where noble Lords from all sides have called for a constitutional convention. That may well be the way forward after the election.

My Lords, on behalf of the Labour Party, I welcome the noble and learned Lord’s further commitment to the Smith commission’s proposals for devolution. If elected in May, the Labour Government will be committed to including the home rule Bill in their first Queen’s Speech and introducing it in their first 100 days. The Smith commission also expressed a strong desire for further devolution within Scotland. Do the Government have any proposals for ideas at this stage to ensure that devolution does not stop at the Scottish Parliament but goes further through Scottish public life?

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord’s commitment on behalf of his party. It is important to say that all three United Kingdom parties have undertaken to make that commitment in their respective manifestoes. I also share the noble Lord’s view that devolution should not stop at Edinburgh, not least because in the constituency which I used to represent, there is a very strong view that there should be devolution within Scotland. Most of the powers to do that rest with the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, but in public debate we should be making that point very clearly because we have had considerable centralisation under the present SNP Administration.

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend not agree that these are radical proposals, which represent a major step forward in the government of Scotland and which have been widely welcomed by most people in Scotland, except the SNP? It must always be remembered that the SNP was part of the Smith commission that signed up to these proposals and agreed them unanimously, then started to rubbish them as soon as they were announced. Does he not agree that this represents a far better, safer, more secure future for Scotland than independence based on an oil price of $110 a barrel, when today the price is less than $60 and sliding further?

My noble friend is right to remind us of what we might have been facing if Scotland had voted yes and of the black hole which would have emerged. It is also important that we continue that engagement; certainly, at the stakeholder event which I attended in Aberdeen there was considerable enthusiasm for the proposals that have been put forward. People very much welcomed the fact that the United Kingdom Government were engaging but it is important that the Scottish Government engage as well.

My Lords, to what extent does the noble and learned Lord accept that opinion polls in Scotland are a reflection on the reaction to this document? Have the Government ruled out any form of federal solution that brings stability with it and if there is to be a convention, can he give some assurance that it will not take as long as the investigation by the Kilbrandon commission, which took more than five and a half years and just kicked the problem into the long grass?

My Lords, the noble Lord knows the position of my own party with regard to federalism but we are not there yet. However, I believe that by implementing the recommendations of the Smith commission in these proposals, we will ensure that we are honouring our commitment. I take his view that a constitutional convention should not be an excuse for kicking this issue into the long grass. I was a member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which produced the blueprint for the Scottish Parliament that was legislated for by the Labour Government in 1997.

My Lords, can my noble and learned friend tell me how he thinks the strategy of piecemeal devolution in Scotland in order to kill nationalism stone dead is going?

My Lords, when the Scottish Parliament was established, many of us recognised that more would need to be done in due course. There was at that time recognition that we needed greater financial accountability because it is not healthy to have a Parliament that had total discretion as to how it spent money but little or no discretion as to how it raised that money. It was important that we recognised that in the 2012 Act which this Parliament passed, and the proposals that we have now strengthen that position.

I do not think we should forget that the no vote won in Scotland, or those people who voted no. Does the Minister agree that a constitutional convention is so important because we need to devolve power throughout the UK and doing that would change the nature and role of this House and the House of Commons? If we are to get that right, we need to take our time and give it a lot of thought.

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right to remind us that the no vote won. It won by more than 10%, which was a clear margin. He is also right to say that in looking at these issues it is not only important that we get it right but that it is seen to be equitable to all parts of the United Kingdom, and indeed strengthens rather than weakens the union.

My Lords, is it credible to put forward a policy that we will make our government of this country more effective by having more layers of government, with more Members of various Parliaments, councils and other strata of government, and more officials? That does not quite make sense, does it?

My Lords, there is nothing in the proposals that were in the agreement of the Smith commission and the draft clauses that would add another layer of government. The premise of my noble friend’s question is wrong.

My Lords, as this is the third enduring settlement that has been offered in the past 17 years to strengthen the union through devolution, and as three of the signatories of the Smith convention moved on rapidly, using it as something of a stepping stone to demand further change, does my noble and learned friend not agree that what is on offer is not so much an enduring settlement as a springboard to separation? I echo the words of my noble friend Lord Lexden to emphasise that this matter has not been properly debated in the United Kingdom context and that before anything else happens it should be fully debated in both Houses of Parliament, with the United Kingdom’s interests put to the fore?

My Lords, as I indicated in my answer to my noble friend Lord Forsyth, no one actually accepted that the 1997 or 1998 Acts were the final word. Clearly more needed to be done to ensure financial accountability; that is something that I hope that my noble friend would probably endorse as a good, democratic principle. These are matters that should be debated by the United Kingdom Parliament; it has heard that all three United Kingdom parties are committed to a Bill being brought forward after the Queen’s Speech, when there will be ample opportunity for debate.