§ 31. Mr. Canavan
asked the Lord President of the Council whether he will make a further statement on the Government's plans for devolution.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)
The Government hope to publish a further White Paper on devolution next month, which will set out conprehensively the constitutional machinery for the assemblies and the powers they will exercise. My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot anticipate now the decisions which will be announced in the White Paper.
§ Mr. Canavan
Although there are differences of opinion about what specific powers the Scottish Assembly should have, will my right hon. Friend remind the House that the setting up of such an assembly is the policy of the Labour Party, the Scottish Labour Party and the 853 Scottish Trades Union Congress, that it was included in the Labour Party Manifesto and the Queen's Speech earlier this Session, and that the overwhelming majority of opinion among the Scottish people is that the Government must not renege on this promise and must proceed with as much haste as possible to set up a meaningful assembly with meaningful devolution rather than separatism?
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Scottish Office civil servants would like guidance or assurance on the question whether it is likely that they will be answerable to the assembly or to the Secretary of State, or whether there will be two Scottish officers doing the same job and probably conflicting with each other?
§ Mr. Henderson
Does the Lord President recall that he indicated to the House that the White Paper would be published by the time we resumed? He is now talking of a further delay. Will he give a definite date when the legislation will be placed before the House?
§ Mr. Short
I am not aware that I promised that the White Paper would be published before the House reassembled. I said that the White Paper would be published in the autumn. It will be published in November. That is, in a sense, still autumn. It will probably be the most important constitutional document of this century, and it is important that we get it right and allow people sufficient time to consider it.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston
Will the Minister agree that, by tradition, White Papers have been discussion documents? Do I gather from what he has said, which would appear to confirm the rumours 854 which are widely held, that the White Paper will set out in wholly inflexible detail what the Government propose to do and will offer the public no choice—even, if I may say so, down to the shape of the Chamber—least of all on the question of electoral reform despite the recent polls in the Sun? Would it not therefore be more sensible to proceed directly to a Bill on devolution and to allow that a full and proper time for debate?
§ Mr. Short
No, Sir. This matter affects the future and cohesion of the United Kingdom, and it is extremely important that we proceed carefully. The White Paper will set out a carefully devised plan which is one coherent whole. Although it represents firm Government decisions, it is certainly not inflexible. We shall hear what everyone has to say about it and will, as far as possible, take into account all the substantial and significant comments made upon it.
§ Mr. Buchan
Does my right hon. Friend accept that many Labour Members will welcome the flat statement that at long last the White Paper will be published in November? Does he agree that no White Paper in history has been leaked more voluminously than this over the past 12 months, and that perhaps a short period of silence should be welcomed by all parties until we see the Bill in the flesh? We shall then be able to deal with the main problem, which is the real crisis facing this country.
§ Mr. Biggs-Davison
Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that if an acceptable form of devolution to Northern Ireland is agreed it will not be kept waiting because of the time it might take to reach agreement on schemes of devolution to Scotland and Wales? Will the right hon. Gentleman remove apprehensions felt in Northern Ireland on this point?
§ Mr. Wigley
Will the Lord President give an assurance that the further delay in the publication of this White Paper in no way reflects a change of policy by the Government brought about by pressure by the Civil Service, as has been suggested in some newspapers?
§ Mr. Short
The hon. Gentleman is referring to the article in The Sunday 855 Times in which the conclusions were completely false and untrue. It is true that the article was based upon a leak which was extremely serious and which is being investigated. However, the conclusions, which were drawn from an old official paper, were completely false and untrue. I can give that assurance. There is no change of policy. The slight delay—it is not a great delay—is due entirely, first, to the complexity of the Bill and, secondly, to the length of the White Paper.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he has just said that the White Paper will be a major constitutional document, affecting the whole of the United Kingdom? Will he therefore accept that in these circumstances it is extremely important that this House should have the opportunity of considering what the White Paper says and that the Government should have the opportunity of considering what the House thinks of the White Paper before legislation is placed before it? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that any other course could be counter-productive, and could lead to grave difficulties in the House of Commons?
§ Mr. Short
I agree with the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. This will be done. There will be an opportunity to debate the White Paper before Christmas and the Bill will be published after that, in the light not only of the debate in the House but of any significant comments received from any quarters.