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Devolution To Scotland And Wales

Volume 912: debated on Tuesday 25 May 1976

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The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Michael Foot)

I wish to tell the House of decisions the Government have taken to carry forward our policy on devolution to Scotland and Wales.

We are determined to introduce legislation affecting both Scotland and Wales at the beginning of the next Session, and to ask Parliament to pass it in that Session. The announcement I made to the House on 14th April about starting to incur commitments on accommodation for the two Assemblies was a sign of our resolve.

As my predecessor promised, we have considered the possibility of having separate Bills for Scotland and Wales. We have decided to keep to a single combined Bill. Separate Bills would demand too much parliamentary time for both to pass in a single Session.

We have decided against holding a referendum on our devolution proposals. There have been wide opportunities, before and since the last General Election, for public discussion of them.

We have decided not to publish a "draft" Bill in the present Session, since this would divert effort for the preparation of the Bill for next Session.

I turn now to the substance of our devolution proposals. I should like to inform the House of certain decisions we have reached, in the light of comments on our White Paper, about the Development Agencies and the constitutional roles of the Secretaries of State.

We have decided that responsibility for all operations of the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies and for all appointments to them should be transferred to the devolved administrations. This includes responsibility for financing the Agencies from the resources controlled by the devolved administrations. To ensure that there can be no unfair competition with other parts of the United Kingdom, the industrial investmen operations of the Agencies will be subject to guidelines laid down by the Government from time to time. With this qualification, they will be wholly the responsibility of the devolved administrations. They will also retain their existing powers to act under the direction of the Secretary of State in selective industrial assistance cases under Section 7 of the Industry Act 1972.

I turn next to the constitutional rôles of the Secretaries of State, particularly in Scotland. In the light of the views expressed in Parliament and elsewhere we have made the following decisions.

Firstly, while our consideration of the detailed arrangements for examination of the vires of Scottish Assembly primary legislation is not complete, we have decided that if there is doubt at the pre-assent stage about the vires of an Assembly Bill, the issue will be resolved on a reference to a judicial body, most probably the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. It follows that the Government will not have the power to reject Assembly Bills on vires grounds.

Secondly, while the formal act of appointment of the Scottish Executive will rest with the Secretary of State he will, in respect of the appointment of the Chief Executive, act on the advice of the Assembly and, in respect of other Executive Members, on the advice of the Chief Executive. Assistants to the Executive will be appointed by the Chief Executive.

Thirdly, the Secretary of State will have no rôle in fixing the maximum size of the Scottish Executive or the pay of its Members. These matters will be left to the Assembly, as will comparable ones in Wales.

We have not completed our detailed consideration of United Kingdom reserve powers other than Parliament's inherent power to legislate. We shall, however, make a major change in this field. Any general reserve powers, whatever their precise form and mechanisms, will be limited to situations where their use is necessary to prevent unacceptable repercussions on matters for which the United Kingdom Government will remain responsible. We have never envisaged using such powers simply because we might politically dislike what was being done, and the change we are making puts this beyond doubt. I reaffirm also that whatever the form of any general powers, they will, as the White Paper made clear, be subject to the direct and specific control of Parliament and not available simply at the hand of the Government.

The Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales will remain, in accordance with the Government's commitments, members of the Cabinet, and will play their full part in the development of United Kingdom policies.

Decisions on a number of further issues remain to be reached. I shall make a further report to the House before the Summer Recess.

The Government have listened carefully to the national debate on devolution and we have improved our schemes in the light of it. We now move forward, as we promised, from the phase of discussion to the phase of legislation and fulfilment. This is what Scotland and Wales had a right to expect. The good faith of the United Kingdom Parliament can strengthen and enhance the Union.

Will the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that as the whole idea of a dummy Bill was a pretty dubious proposal in the first instance, he has had to find a curious and not very subtle reason for dropping it?

Secondly, does he appreciate that many people will regard the decision to have a single Bill for Scotland and Wales as extremely wrong? Does he not agree that the problems of Scotland and Wales are very different and that the solutions proposed by the Government are also substantially different. Therefore, in these circumstances what is the sense of having a single Bill? Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that if he had not been in his present position on the Government Front Bench but had, instead, still been a Member of the Back Benches, he would have been strongly against this proposal? [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because the problems of Scotland and Wales are very different and therefore should be treated differently in this House, as I have heard the Leader of the House argue on many occasions in the past.

Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to give some estimate of the extra financial burdens placed on the people of Scotland and Wales by putting forward additional proposals? What resources are the Assemblies and Executives to use to finance the development authorities? Does he not agree that as the extra burdens are to be placed on the people of Scotland and Wales, it is important that we should know what these resources are likely to be?

Lastly, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that there is an opportunity to debate these matters before the Summer Recess, because considerable issues arise for discussion before a Bill is presented?

Perhaps I may take the right hon. Gentleman's points in reverse order. We shall have to look into the possibility of a debate. I understand that there may be a desire in the House for a debate and we shall examine what time is available. I take account of what the right hon. Gentleman said on that topic.

As for the financial aspects of the matter, the statement which I have made today does not in any way add to the financial burden or the financial implications of the proposals. We are dealing with the question of making the Scottish Development Agency and the Welsh Development Agency accountable to the Assemblies. That is an essential part of the matter, and it is a reasonable procedure.

The first point made by the right hon. Gentleman related to the dropping of the so-called dummy Bill. There seems to be an excellent reason for doing so. We are making good progress in the production of the real Bill, and I am sure that the sooner we can produce it to the House, the more gratified the right hon. Gentleman will be.

On the question of separate Bills for Scotland and Wales, I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman should suggest that I am in favour of a separate Bill for Wales. Devolution means that there can be different developments in Scotland, in Wales and in England as to the way in which affairs are conducted. That is one of the purposes of devolution. No doubt there will be different developments in Wales, and in Scotland in some respects, compared with developments in England, but the idea that we should not put through the whole Bill together seems to me to be extraordinary.

We all know that one reason for desiring separate Bills lies in preventing devolution for Wales taking place at all. As a long-term devolutionist who has been strongly in favour of devolution ever since publication of the Kilbrandon Report, I would strongly oppose holding up the Bill for Wales. Therefore, I believe that the two Bills should go forward together.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's progress and his kind remarks about the veto and other aspects of the matter. In the course of the consultations which he and his colleagues are having in framing the final Bill—involving university devolution, the law, agriculture and fisheries and all the matters which are still in dispute—will he talk to the STUC, Labour Members of Parliament and other people rather than talk only to those who represent the established interests and who are in charge of these situations? Does he not agree that what we need is a devolution Bill that is acceptable to the people of Scotland, not a measure that is merely acceptable to certain vested interests?

I assure my hon. Friend that I would much rather listen to and talk with the STUC than discuss these matters with what he describes as "vested interests"—because, for one thing, the former are much more interesting. However, I do not think anybody could suggest that we have not taken account of representations from the STUC. We certainly have done so. A most important conference took place in Scotland—and indeed a very important conference was held in Wales, too—at Troon some weeks ago at which the STUC was prominently represented. Its members made proposals in an effort to improve our plans. We have taken them fully into account, and I promise my hon. Friend that, just as we have listened to representations in the past months, so we shall listen to representations on the further proposals that we shall be announcing before the Summer Recess.

In view of the unreduced parliamentary representation which is to be secured to Scotland and Wales under the Bill, is not this legislation an appropriate vehicle for rectifying the under-representation of Northern Ireland in this House?

I note what the right hon. Gentleman says. But no decision has been made on that subject. I cannot do more than refer him to the White Paper on Northern Ireland—Command Paper No. 6387—which was produced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the beginning of the year. Paragraph 13 deals with this matter, and I have nothing to add to it at the moment.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that however much he uses words about the wide opportunities that there will be for public discussion, that great debate, without a referendum at the end of it, is like a horse race without a winning post and that all that the Government can rely upon is the mood at the moment in this place and in conferences, and not the mood at the moment or in the future amongst the people whom these proposals affect? Is he aware, further, that the developments which he now proposes on the White Paper constitute a substantial degree of separatism within the unity of the United Kingdom and that that must have profound implications for the representation of Scotland and Wales in this House?

I cannot accept what my hon. Friend says. There is not the slightest element of separatism in the proposals that we are making. Indeed, it is the successful adoption of these proposals which I believe is the best way of keeping the United Kingrom united. So I cannot accept that, even from my hon. Friend.

As for the way of testing public opinion, there were good tests, in Wales especially, on this subject both in February 1974 and in October 1974. I believe that inherently there would be great difficulties in putting any devolution proposals to the public in the form of a referendum.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we welcome the strengthening of the powers of the Assembly and the decision on the judicial review? Specifically on the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies, does the decision mean that the allocation of money for the two agencies will now become part of the general block grant negotiation between the Assemblies and Parliament here at Westminster, or are they to be treated separately? Equally, is it fair to say that there is still a conflict between the power of the Assemblies to direct the respective agencies and the power of the Secretaries of State to direct them? Finally, does the right hon. Gentleman intend to make a further statement on what has happened to the White Paper on the English regions, to which many people expected him to refer today?

The discussions will be part of the general block grant discussions between the administrations and the central Government in Westminster.

I do not think that there will be the conflict which the hon. Gentleman describes in the operation of the agencies. There will be guidelines laid down, as I said in my original statement, to protect the interests of the United Kingdom as a whole in this respect. Those guidelines will be quite clear. They will help to clarify the situation to everyone. They will also help to ensure that the Scottish Development Agency like the Welsh Development Agency, shall be properly accountable to the Assemblies which have been established.

On the third matter, concerning a special statement or document about devolution in England, we are still having consultations about the best way in which any proposals might be made on that account.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement today will be considered by some hon. Members as a further retreat in the face of nationalist pressures? Is he aware also that some of us will consider that the tail is now wagging the dog? Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that there are resolutions passed by other regional Labour Parties throughout the country criticising the Government's economic policy? Will the Government accept those resolutions? If not, why are they being selective over the question of devolution?

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the possibility of a referendum in this country, as the people as a whole, including the English people, have a right to express their view on the fundamental constitutional change which is being proposed by the Government?

Of course, the people of England, like the people of Wales and Scotland, have every right to express their views. No doubt they will continue to express them, especially through their representatives in this House. I have never known my hon. Friend to be backward in expressing the views of his constituency in this House, and I am sure that he will continue to do so. I believe that this House is the best place to pass the final judgment on how we are to proceed with the devolution programme.

When my hon. Friend says that we have given way to nationalist pressure, I would not accept that in any sense.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) says that that is what it looks like. He should read the representations which have been made to the Government by the STUC and by the General Council of the TUC in Britain as a whole, by the Labour Party in Scotland and by Labour Parties up and down the country. He will see that, far from giving way to nationalist pressure, if it is to be part of the accusation, we have accepted representations made overwhelmingly by trade unions north and south of the border.

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that his statement will be seen as a small step forward which has been achieved only by sustained Scottish pressure? Will he admit that the voters of East Kilbride, Bo'ness and Bishopbriggs have done their work, at least in part? The Government having shifted their ground yet again, will the right hon. Gentleman admit also that no longer can there be any once and for all transfer of powers but that the transfer is a continuing and on-going process and that where that process stops will be decided only by the people of Scotland?

Finally, does not the right hon. Gentleman understand that his measures still fail to meet Scottish aspirations in four respects: first, the Assembly will have no immediate access to oil revenues; secondly, the Assembly is to have no powers to regenerate the Scottish economy or to end the cycle of deprivation; thirdly, once the Assembly is established, the regions are not to be abolished—

Order. We are not debating this matter now. I hope to get in a few more questions to the Lord President. However, there is another major statement to come.

I can well understand that my statement does not satisfy the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) and some of his friends because he believes in separatism, and we repudiate separatism. Of course we shall not satisfy him. But, as I have said, when we published our White Paper on the subject we said that we would have consultations on it. The consultations and the representations of which we have taken most account are those wishing to see a proper democratic decentralisation of power in this country combined with the maintenance of the United Kingdom. That, of course, does not appeal to the hon. Gentleman.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Scottish Development Agency is the only industrial function to be transferred to the Assembly? Is he aware how far short that falls of the Labour Party's statement in October 1974 which promised extensive trade and industry powers to a Scottish Assembly? Will my right hon. Friend have another look at the guidelines for the Scottish Development Agency residing at Westminster because, if this continued, it would only be a Scottish industrial puppet controlled by a Westminster string?

I repudiate entirely the suggestion that the Scottish Development Agency, or the Welsh Development Agency, under the proposals we have made, will be the puppet of central Government in any sense whatsoever. Guidelines are to be there in order to protect the legitimate interests of the United Kingdom as a whole, but the Scottish Development Agency will be accountable to the Assembly. My hon. Friend says that this is not what the people in Scotland were asking for. It is certainly what they were asking for at Troon. I think that the Troon conference was much more representative than anybody my hon. Friend can muster to bring forward his ideas.

After the changes announced by the Leader of the House, will there by any worthwhile role at all for the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales or, for that matter, for the elected Members of Parliament of Scotland and Wales? If so, what is it?

I have said in my statement, and it is in the original White Paper, that the Secretaries of State will play a prominent part, as they do now, in the shaping of United Kingdom policy as a whole. Precisely because we are opposed to separatism, there must be Scottish and Welsh representation both in this House and in the Government. If we were to follow the course which appears to be implicit in the hon. Gentleman's question we should indeed be heading for separatism, and we are determined not to follow that course.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement fails to remove the blatant injustice which the Government propose to put upon Wales by denying it equality of status with Scotland? There is a great need for powers to deal with the social and economic problems in Wales, such as unemployment, depopulation and emigration. Centralised Governments over generations have failed to solve these problems. Is he further aware that we also need powers to be able to put our infrastructure in order and to develop, design and execute our own development plans?

I think the proposal the hon. Gentleman has made about the responsibility and the accountability of the Welsh Development Agency will assist in enabling the Welsh Assembly to play its part in the economic affairs of the Principality. But over and above that, one of the major demands from Wales has been that we should make many of these nominated bodies democratically responsible. That, too, is comprised in our proposals. I believe that the people of Wales will welcome what we have proposed. I believe that they have already shown that this is the way in which they hope that we shall proceed. We have responded to their representations as well.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement is welcome in Scotland? It has shown that the Government have been constructively responsive to the criticisms which have been made of the White Paper in this House as well as in discussions in Scotland. May I take it that he will proceed to look further at some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) about the law in Scotland in particular?

We welcome the decision to drop the draft Bill and to proceed with the final Bill. However, bearing in mind the complexity of the decisions he still has to make, may I urge on my right hon. Friend that it is better to get the thing right than to do it quickly and get it wrong? Will he give an answer to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw) about a debate? It will be a very good thing because many of us are dying to hear just exactly what the riotous Tory Party—a reasonable description, to judge from its conference—will say about the matter.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for every word he has uttered, particularly his last suggestion. The temptation is so overwhelming that I am sure we shall have to agree to a debate for this purpose, if for no other. I am sure that there are other good reasons as well.

I can give my right hon. Friend the undertaking that, in preparing the further statement on a series of important questions which have still to be settled, some of which were enumerated by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh), we shall of course have consultations. I look forward in particular to the consultations which I shall have with my right hon. Friend, who has given great assistance to the House over the whole of his lifetime and in the question he has put today.

If the Government are determined to have one Bill, will the Leader of the House consider that clauses which affect only Wales and clauses which affect only Scotland should be discussed in Committee in the Welsh Grand Committee and the Scottish Grand Committee and that the whole matter should then be discussed on Report in the House? As this matter affects Wales in particular, Scotland in particular and the United Kingdom in general, is that not the way to deal with it?

If I were to be forthcoming in reply to the hon. and learned Gentleman I might be accused of participating in his election. I would only say to him that we have looked at this possibility. Naturally, I am always interested in being able to abbreviate time taken by the House if it can be decently done, but it is extremely difficult, as far as we can see, to split the Bill in that way. We do not believe that it would simplify matters or save the time of the House, but we shall look afresh at the matter under the inspiration of the hon. and learned Gentleman.

My right hon. Friend's statement will be widely welcomed in Wales as being a clear fulfilment of our election pledge given in 1974. Will he bear in mind that many people in Wales would like the structure of local government in the Principality to be looked at at the same time because they feel that a new Assembly would lead, along with the existing local government system, to a little bit of over-government in the Principality?

If I were to say what people in Wales think about the present structure of local government, I should be had up for using unparliamentary language. Therefore, I cannot elaborate on this at the moment, but I appreciate my right hon. Friend's points and I am well aware of the strong feeling in Wales on this subject, and perhaps in other parts of the country as well, and I believe that we have to make a fresh approach to the subject.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that most people in this House, and in the country, will regard his statement as springing from nothing other than shameful appeasement and the further concessions he has announced today as owing nothing to trying genuinely to improve the government of the country but a misguided attempt to buy Labour votes? As to getting the Bill through the House, will he accept from me that the opposition he will face on this matter will make the warfare that he waged over reform of the House of Lords look like a gentle tea party?

I understand that the hon. Gentleman has not yet converted his own party to his views. He had better not threaten us until he has succeeded with that operation. What we are proposing derives from a quite different source than that which he has described. Many of us in this House have argued for years that there ought to be a proper decentralisation of power. Power is too much concentrated in the centre, and we believe that it is democratic to have a form of devolution. That is the real source of the proposals we are making. Of course Conservatives such as the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour)—I see that he has retired hurt—are in favour of that. I should have thought that some Conservative Members would also want to see our institutions made more democratic. We on this side of the House have made up our minds on the subject.

Order. I shall take two more questions only because we cannot debate this matter today.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the question of devolution and the alleged benefits which it will bring affect only a tenth of the total population of the United Kingdom? There are 45 million people in England who may want to say something on this matter. Before he formulates the final draft of the Bill, is he aware that he should take cognisance of what is being said to him by the English regions, by the trade unions in those regions and by the Members of Parliament who represent those regions?

I fully accept what my hon. Friend says. I do not quarrel with any word that he has used in that connection. But our policy of seeking the best course for keeping the United Kingdom united is the best way to serve England as well as Scotland and Wales.

When the right hon. Gentleman says in his statement that, under the Government's proposals, the Secretary of State for Scotland will act on the advice of the proposed Scottish Assembly and its Chief Executive, and then says in the next breath that he will reserve the right to overrule those recommendations when they involve unacceptable repercussions for the United Kingdom as a whole, is he not postulating a constitutional formula which is bound to plunge this country into almost permanent constitutional crisis and lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman may have heard my statement read hastily, but I am afraid that he has mixed up two different passages relating to two entirely different functions—one of the Secretary of State accepting the decision of the Assembly about the appointment of a Chief Executive, and the other, which is quite different from the question of the vires of the Assembly, of what would be the relationship between the Secretary of State and the conduct of the Assembly. They are quite different matters, as I think he will see from even a cursory reading of my statement when he is able to read it.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, I have a query about the availability of the Lord President's statement. Would you prefer me to raise the matter now or later?

I should be grateful if the hon. Member would wait a while and raise it after the next statement.