HC Deb 04 March 1986 vol 93 cc168-71 4.29 pm
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish an elected Scottish Legislative Assembly for the purpose of improving, modernising and amending Scottish legislation and for the purpose of controlling and scrutinising the administration of Scottish affairs within the United Kingdom; and for connected purposes. The people of Scotland voted almost exactly seven years ago, on 1 March 1979, by a majority of 77,435, which included, I believe, the Secretary of State for Scotland, to establish a Scottish Assembly. That decision has been treated with contempt by the Government. Instead of having an Assembly to deal with Scottish affairs within the United Kingdom, we have had the exact opposite. We have had a minority Government who have gone to great lengths to centralise more and more power in Whitehall.

The consequences of the refusal to carry out the wishes of the Scottish electorate have been serious. The machinery of government in Scotland is falling into disrepute. The catalogue of failure of the present administration in the Scottish Office is almost endless. The most recent and dramatic example yet of the incompetence of the Scottish Office is the betrayal of the work force at Gartcosh. We have also had the long-drawn-out tragedy of the teachers' dispute.

I am anxious to achieve the widest possible support for the principle of Scottish devolution. Accordingly, I have selected the wording of the long title extremely carefully. In fact, I did not choose the words. I borrowed them from an excellent speech which was delivered by the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) on 16 December 1976. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is now, of course, the Secretary of State for Scotland. He said: 'Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.' The time has come for devolution for Scotland, and this House must take account of it. The House took account of that and the right hon. and learned Gentleman went on to perform some amazing political acrobatics in the ensuing years. In column 1832 he said:

Scotland is the only territory on the face of the earth which has a legal system without a legislature to improve, modernise and amend it. This is a crazy anomaly. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was no Johnny-come-lately to the cause of a Scottish Assembly. He declared in column 1837 that he had for 10 years argued the need for a directly elected Assembly". What a splendid fellow. He conceded in column 1833 that there should be no substantial industrial or taxation powers devolved. However, he clearly did not rule out some devolved industrial and taxation powers. He summed up his position as follows: There has been a qualitive change in the call for devolution. In the early twentieth century the demand for a separate Scottish Legislature was the result of national sentiment. That national sentiment still exists, but added to it is the need for good government, good administration and a better deal for the Scottish people within the United Kingdom. Amen to that.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman's comments on the Scottish Office are especially relevant in view of his present position. In column 1833 he said: Clearly I welcome the establishment of a directly-elected Assembly, and I welcome the fact that its functions are broadly those of the Scottish Office. The very fact that these functions are with the Scottish Office already is a recognition by previous Governments that distinctive Scottish treatment of these problems is necessary. In column 1832 he said:

We have now a Secretary of State for Scotland who is for all practical purposes a Scottish Prime Minister. He covers a Department the equivalent of which in England and Wales is served by eight or nine Ministries. He has one Department, and Scottish Members are expected to scrutinise his actions. The Scottish Office has more civil servants than the European Commission. If that was the position in 1976, it must surely be as strong now, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman is Secretary of State for Scotland. I have drafted the long title in accordance with his clearly stated objectives and I repeat the invitation which I offered to him during Scottish Question Time last week. I ask him to sponsor my Bill in the interests of consistency if not in the interests of expediency.

In column 1836, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said of the concept of Scottish devolution: It would not satisfy the extreme nationalists, nor would it meet the fears of the diehard Unionists, but those two do not represent more than a minority of the Scottish population."—[Official Report, 16 December 1976; Vol. 922, cc. 1831–37.] Since then the right hon. and learned Gentleman has seen fit to join that diehard unionist minority, a minority which consists now of only about 15 per cent. of the Scottish electorate according to recent polls. Indeed, the right hon. and learned Gentleman had the neck actively to support the repeal of the Scotland Act on 20 June 1979 on the ground that the clear referendum majority for devolution was not large enough, despite the fact that he had campaigned actively for a yes vote.

An absolute majority of those who voted in the referendum voted yes. Indeed, 32.9 per cent. of the electorate voted yes, which was a stronger mandate than the 30.83 per cent. of the British electorate who voted for a Tory Government in the 1983 general election. As for the Secretary of State himself, he had the support of only 20.61 per cent. of his constituency's electorate in the 1983 election. However, he seems still to think that he has a strong enough mandate to carry out the actions that he is now taking. We understand from recent local by-elections that the Scottish Tories are now running in fifth place in Scotland, behind the Labour party, the Nationalists, the Liberals and even the Communists.

I welcome this opportunity to draw attention to the ludicrous and spectacularly inconsistent position of the Secretary of State for Scotland on this crucial issue. After having taken the courageous decision to resign from his Opposition Front Bench position in 1976 so that he could fight for devolution, he has now become Scotland's answer to Jim Hacker. Yes, Secretary of State, seems to be the order of the day.

It is important to reassert the firm commitment of the Labour party and the majority of the people of Scotland to establish an elected Scottish Assembly to assume control of the powers which have been devolved to the Scottish Office over the years. Obviously that commitment is consistent entirely with our recognition of the position of our friends and neighbours in other parts of the United Kingdom, especially in the aftermath of the destruction of the democratic institutions of England's metropolitan areas. Scottish Labour Members can promise wholehearted support to our friends in the north of England in their just demand for the decentralisation of power and the provision of an effective agency for economic development.

The overriding objective must be the defeat of this pernicious Tory Government. However, we should all recognise that the establishment of a better Britain and a better Scotland must be consolidated as soon as possible by constitutional reform, including, as an urgent priority, the establishment of an Assembly. It is in that spirit that I introduce my Bill.

4.38 pm
Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)


Mr. Speaker

Order. Is the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) seeking to oppose the Bill?

Mr. Dixon

It gives me no joy to speak against a ten-minute Bill that has been introduced by one of my horn. Friends. I feel rather like Daniel today. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) has made my task far easier by explaining that the wording of the Bill is based on the words of the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), who is now the Secretary of State for Scotland.

I have a strong affinity with my friend the hon. Member for East Lothian. I have a holiday in Scotland every year with my family and I believe that the coastline on the west of Scotland is second only to the Northumberland and Durham coastline. The scenery in the west of Scotland is second only to that of Durham, Northumberland and Cumbria.

As one who represents a constituency in northern England with the highest unemployment in mainland Britain and with as many, if not more, social problems as are to be found in the part of the United Kingdom that is represented by my hon. Friend, I oppose the Bill for two reasons. We have already lost a tier of local government. The Tyne and Wear county council provided quite a strong agency for creating employment in the area I represent.

The motion does not ask that leave be given to introduce a Bill to establish an elected Assembly in Scotland in two years' time, or after we have a northern development agency or after a regional system of government which benefits the region has been established. It speaks of establishing an elected Assembly now.

My first reason for opposing the motion springs from naked envy. I envy my Scottish colleagues, who have a Secretary of State with Cabinet rank. I envy their being able to come here every month and ask questions of their Secretary of State. I am envious of their Select Committee. I am envious of their Grand Committee. I am envious of Scotland's development agency.

My second reason for opposing the motion involves a warning to a future Labour leadership. When we get a Labour Government in 12 months' or two years' time, we shall inherit an unemployment level of more than 4 million. We shall inherit a National Health Service which will be a shambles. We shall inherit a welfare state which the Government have disassembled. We shall inherit an industrial base which is in tatters. My warning as an individual Member of Parliament who will in all probability be re-elected at the next election is that I shall not spend time, as did the Labour Government between 1974 and 1979, dealing with constitutional issues in the House when there is so much in the country to be put right. That is why I oppose the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Home Robertson, Mr. John Maxton, Mr. Dick Douglas, Mr. Dennis Canavan, Mr. George Foulkes, Dr. Norman A. Godman, Mr. Tom Clarke, Mr. Allen Adams, Mr. William McKelvey, Mr. David Lambie, Mr. David Marshall and Mr. Bob McTaggart.

Mr. Home Robertson

And there is room for the Secretary of State for Scotland if he wants.

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