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Column 3729.33 pm
Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead) : Despite the giggling bravado from Conservative Members, all hon. Members know that this is an auspicious occasion and that after tonight nothing will ever be the same again.
In view of the hour, I have thrown my notes aside. I want to give one quotation from perhaps the greatest of all Scots, Hugh MacDiarmid. I was searching earlier in the Library for a new descriptive way of talking about a cynical, arrogant, complacent, comprador which is the Scottish Conservative party, the best of which sits on the Front Bench and the worst of which we have heard from so verbosely tonight. I found that description in a wonderful poem of Hugh MacDiarmid called "Hosting of Heroes." He discusses the great heroes of Scottish history and then says :
"What have we to-day?
Dingy parades of vermin!
Details of the English army
In clothes the colour of excrement,
Or processions like that in Edinburgh
In honour of Sir Walter Scott's centenary,
A funeral trickle of Bailies and Lawyers,
Members of the Leith Water Board,
God! What a crawl of cockroaches!"
Hugh MacDiarmid said it--no one could say it better.
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden) : I start by declaring something of an interest, because I was Chairman of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs for some two years. I have no doubt about its worth as an institution and as a means of scrutinising the activities of Government. I genuinely do not recognise the jaundiced account that we have heard of its activities from the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) and other hon. Gentlemen.
I can remember, for example, a lengthy and contentious inquiry into the attraction of inward investment to Scotland, and the inquiry into the provision of Civil Service jobs. On a perhaps lesser level politically, but I believe of great importance, was the pressure that the Committee was able to mount in a quick hearing on the future of the BBC Scottish symphony orchestra. It is genuinely sad that we do not have a Select Committee operating as it should in Scotland. I have listened with great care to the Government's case. Ministers have presented themselves--or some of them have--as men of reason, but they are in an unfortunate situation despite their best efforts. When I shared a radio studio with the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang) this morning, he made it clear that it was everyone's fault but the Government's. I find that a completely unconvincing posture--it just will not do.
It is not a technical matter or one of interest only to the barrack room lawyers that always abound in the House. It is a matter of fundamental importance for the machinery of government and how we scrutinise our legislation. The Executive should be challenged and tested, and, if we cannot do that effectively, we shall be all the poorer for it. I feel strongly that there is presently no Government Department where that is more important than in the Scottish Office. It is not partisan to say that there is probably no Department of state that has a thinner claim to widespread popular support or approval, or whose policies are seen on a wider scale and range of opinion as
Column 373being insensitive and inappropriate. We really should take seriously our duties to the people of Scotland, to the electorate and to the business of the House.
The Minister of State said this morning that it was not the responsibility of the Government. Of course, I understand his theoretical point about how the system works. However, we all know that it has everything to do with the Government and the usual channels, and how we operate in the House. I take it ill to hear the accusation made that the reason why we do not have a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs is the inflexibility of myself or my hon. Friends or our general attitude. It is a thoroughly unpleasant charge, and the dreary version of the facts that has been rehearsed ad longum in a number of speeches does not bear even an approximate relationship to the facts, as I remember them.
Of course, I do not hide the fact that we would have preferred a Select Committee that was set up on the basis of the involvement of the Scottish Tory Back Benchers. I believe that the House would have been astonished if that had not been our preference. However, at an early stage, without being indiscreet or revealing what I should not about the usual channels, it became clear that there was a problem with Scottish Tory Back Benchers. Therefore, we made it clear that we would be prepared to consider a topping -up operation with hon. Members who represented English seats, but who had a genuine interest in Scottish affairs, or who were prepared to cultivate that interest. I can honestly say that the only time I, at least consciously, stood in the way of a proposed deal or was in any sense difficult--I believe it was with complete justification--was when it was suggested to me that I should buy the involvement of the Tory Members on the Select Committee by doing a deal that would reduce the number of Tories serving on Standing Committees. Clearly, it was unacceptable. I do not believe that the Leader of the House would for a moment have expected me to accept that deal.
We have been left with the Minister's regrets. The one, simple reason why we do not have a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs is that Conservative Members will not serve. That is not a matter of regret. It is a cause for concern and condemnation. Given the present state of Scottish politics, it amounts--I say this in cold blood--to a dereliction of duty.
Even if we accept that there were misunderstandings at some point--if there were, they must have come from confused reports about what was happening in the usual channels and about the Labour party's attitude--they have been removed in debates and public statements over a period. If the Minister of State is right in representing the Government's position if he did this morning and if the Leader of the House genuinely regrets that there is no Select Committee, there is now no impediment, except the reluctance and prejudice of Conservative Members to serve on that Committee.
If the Scottish Members will not serve, there is a case for saying that other Members should be prepared to come forward. I do not want to rehearse the argument about what has been happening at Scottish Question Time. I repeat a fundamental point that I made in an intervention. We do not argue that hon. Members have no right to table questions at Scottish Question Time ; we say that that right should be used responsibly and not abused as it has been recently. If we are asked to believe that the enthusiasm is
Column 374not whipped up and is genuine, why is it so difficult to get Members to come forward and sit on the Select Committee?
The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) was the only hon. Member to mention that we shall now have lengthy, contentious Standing Committees looking at opting-out powers for Scottish schools and other such matters and they will have on them probably five added English Back Benchers to preserve the Government's majority. It may be that I am overcynical in thinking that they have been "persuaded"--I use that as a technical term used by the Whips--to serve. Perhaps they are genuine volunteers. On whichever basis, it suggests that if there were a will among Conservative Members, even among Ministers, we could have a Scottish Select Committee. Opposition Members--I think that I speak for all parties--believe that that should happen.
The trouble is that the Government have connived and there are serious implications for the whole Select Committee system. An inconvenient Committee has been shuffled into limbo and--I say this in the presence of the much respected Chairman of the Liaison Committee, the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins)--it is a dangerous precedent which is not in the interests of the House. It is a sad history that sums up all that is wrong with the present Government and the way in which they use the parliamentary process. It has become a niggling formality, discharged in a perfunctory fashion. Political debate is all too often reduced to a flat statement of intent which allows no compromise. The situation is made all the worse when the machinery to challenge the Executive's power is virtually scrapped. That clearly was not the intention of the House when Standing Order No. 130 was approved and included the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. I say advisedly that there are points of principle at stake. The Opposition are deeply unhappy about the way in which the Government have conducted this business.
There have been robust exchanges in the debate--sometimes good-natured, sometimes not so good-natured. I may say many things about the hon. Member for Eastwood--that he is unhelpful, unrepresentative and inadequate--but I would not want to call him a quisling or a traitor. However robust the exchanges, they should not deceive anyone about the depth of feelings on these issues. I am astonished that, given the heat of the argument and the central position that the matter holds in Scottish political debate, the Secretary of State should have chosen not to take part in the debate. It is a major error of judgment on his part.
I recognise that Ministers will have the votes in the Lobby. That is the harsh reality which we have had to live with for some considerable time. But we want to mark our dismay and disgust about what has been happening. We shall do it by voting in the Lobbies, but that is not enough. We shall pursue the matter in the months ahead. There was an interesting exchange with you, Mr. Speaker, during points of order earlier in which you seemed to confirm my impression that the Government motion contains no instruction to the Committee of Selection to cease its efforts to set up a Select Committee which still clearly exists under the Standing Orders of the House. I want to make it clear that we shall fight for the cause and continue to press for the establishment of that
Column 375Committee using the fact that it still exists in a state of suspended animation, but ought properly be brought to life. The contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) was constructive and helpful. There are undoubtedly pressing matters of debate and interest in Scotland where the intense questioning and information--gathering methods of the Select Committee would be particularly valuable and we do not intend to lose sight of that.
I said that we should mark our disapproval in some way tonight. It will probably not come as a great surprise to hon. Members that I have no wish to embarrass or disrupt the House. That would be largely counter-productive and too easily misrepresented. I have no inclination to challenge in any way the authority of the Chair. You, Mr. Speaker, represent the House, and the House is the victim of the way in which the Select Committee system is being treated by the Government.
What I shall do is to ask Scottish colleagues, and Scottish colleagues alone, not to listen to the self-justification and special pleading to come. We do not believe that we can let the matter pass without expressing our dismay at the Government's course of action--their shabby and deplorable determination to undermine the proper scrutiny of Scottish business. I shall not sit and listen to any litany of excuses and I shall invite my colleagues, irrespective of their party, to go with me now from this place and not listen. 9.47 pm
The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Ian Lang) : We are witnessing another own goal, just as this evening's debate has been an own goal, which not even the long reach of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) could have saved. The whole issue has been one more own goal in the lengthening history of such mishaps that we have seen befall the Opposition since June 1987.
It is plain from the facts revealed by my hon. Friends that the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs could have been set up had Opposition Members been more reasonable in the earlier stages of negotiations. The hon. Member for Garscadden, alas no longer with us, spoke of misunderstandings, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) pointed out, the Opposition's intractable attitudes were all too clear in the matters that he described. This is a short but important debate. I should have thought that it would have been a relief to Opposition Members that at last they had a subject on which all in the Scottish Labour party could have agreed, because there is little that unites them these days. But even that fragile unity would probably have been undermined when I said that I share their regret that we have not succeeded in setting up a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. I share their wish that it had been possible to set up such a Committee, but, as my hon. Friends' speeches have revealed, the fault for that does not lie on one side of the House alone.
It is important to emphasise--I am glad to confirm this to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood--that the manning of Select Committees is a matter for the House,
Column 376not for the Government. That is fundamental to this issue. The Opposition's amendment is factually inaccurate on that point. As a Minister at the Scottish Office, and on behalf of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friends who are also Ministers there, I emphasise that it is pity that the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs has not been set up. We would have welcomed it as one more form of scrutiny of Scottish affairs. I believe that we have a good story to tell in Scotland, with our policies on housing, education, industry, local government and, indeed, inward investment.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas)--alas, also no longer with us to hear the answer to his questions--talked of dictatorship, and in the next breath urged the Government to use their majority to force through the kind of decision that would suit him. I emphasise to him and to other Opposition Members, who I hope will at least read the report of our debate in Hansard tomorrow, that it was the present Government who established the set of 12 departmental Select Committees--precisely because we think it right that Back Benchers should have an opportunity to carry out a check on the activities of the Executive. It was this Government who brought forward the proposals to which the House gave its approval. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) on what by general agreement was an excellent speech. It was well rehearsed and well argued, and it scored one bullseye after another. Let me say candidly that I disagree with my hon. Friend's attitude to the Select Committee proposals, as I have told him in the past. But it is a travesty to suggest that his attitude to that calls into question his sense of duty to Scotland. His record of dedicated and consistent work--in Committee, in the Chamber and elsewhere--is beyond question. Whether on behalf of his constituents' interests or those of Scotland--or, indeed, such important United Kingdom interests as defence, on which he is an active participant--his application has been exemplary, and his commitment and breadth of experience have been of value to the House. Nevertheless, I think that it would have been better to add the Select Committee work to his other commitments, and to try to steer it in what could have been productive and useful directions.
The House is indebted to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the humbug on the Opposition Benches. I offer him another example. Much has been said today about the importance of scrutiny of the Executive, in the Scottish Office particularly, for which a Select Committee would be appropriate. But, if a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs is so important now, why was no such Committee set up between 1974 and 1979 when Labour was in office? We had individual Select Committees in the years of the Conservative Government in the 1970s, but no Select Committee scrutiny was thought necessary by the Labour party during the havoc that they were wreaking on the country during their five years of government.
Mr. Dobson : Does the Minister also recognise that there were no other departmental Committees at that time? The proposal for such Committees came from an all-party Select Committee on procedure and was duly endorsed by the House on an all-party--not a
Column 377Government--basis in 1979. All that the Minister is saying about what happened before 1979 is irrelevant to the argument that he is trying to put forward.
Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman underlines my point. By illustrating that there were no Select Committees in 1974-79, he compounds the felony. The fact remains that the last Labour Government did not set up Select Committees to study Departments, but as soon as the Conservative Government came into office we undertook, and fulfilled, the commitment to set up 12 departmental Select Committees, including one to scrutinise Scottish affairs.
Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton) : My hon. Friend has missed one step in the argument. The Labour Government refused to allow the Select Committee report to be debated. It was not debated until the Government changed. The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), who subsequently became Leader of the Labour party, as Leader of the House would not allow the report to be debated because he did not wish the House to have the opportunity to vote to set up a Select Committee.
Mr. Lang : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose authoritative knowledge of such matters is beyond question. It reminds me of the occasion when the Labour Government presented the Boundary Commission report to the House and then used their own majority to vote it down. We know the Labour party's attitude to constitutional matters. I was surprised that the Scottish National party chose to participate in the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North pointed out, it was a supreme example of humbug in 1979, refusing as it did to take part in the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) made no attempt to answer that point in her intervention. The Scottish National party has come to this Parliament to destroy Scotland's place in it, so it has no locus in a debate on extending Scottish involvement in its processes.
I can understand the anxieties that my hon. Friends must have felt about the intentions of Opposition Members towards the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. For a Select Committee to be effective it should seek to be non-partisan in its approach, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) so rightly pointed out in his sensible speech. It is a pity that he is not here to hear me compliment him on it. A Select Committee should be a forum for exploring matters in depth and for seeking to inform debate elsewhere, as the Scottish Committee did well in the early years of its existence, when it examined important issues such as inward investment and Civil Service job dispersal. It should not be one more platform for adversarial politics, which it rapidly became. The Opposition amendment displays a complete failure to grasp this important point. It speaks of the importance of a Select Committee "because of the damaging and unpopular policies being followed by Scottish Office Ministers".
That is not what Select Committees are all about. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood rightly said that a Select Committee would have been set up had the attitude of Opposition Members been more like what it was in the early 1979-83 Parliament and not what we have witnessed during the past few weeks. The Opposition amendment shows the increasingly high-handed and intolerant
Column 378attitudes of Scottish Labour Members since the general election last year. In the past 18 months they have shown themselves to be at best impatient with, and at worst intolerant of, all due parliamentary processes.
We have seen Front Bench spokesmen filibustering on the money resolution on the Transport Bill ; the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) invading and disrupting a Standing Committee on the Housing Bill in the last Parliament ; and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown) damaging the Mace, the symbol of the authority of the Crown in Parliament. We have seen Opposition Members suspended for abusing the procedures of the House ; we have seen them seeking to restrict freedom of speech for other hon. Members participating in Scottish business. Only last night, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) caused business to be suspended--not for the first time. That is what the Opposition have done in the past 18 months and that is the measure of their respect for parliamentary procedures.
It is no wonder that my hon. Friends have increasingly taken the view that a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs would be a pointless exercise--
Mr. Dobson : If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about upholding the Standing Orders of the House, why is he a member of a Government who have failed to carry them out ever since the last election, by not setting up a Scottish Affairs Select Committee as required under the Standing Orders?
Now Opposition Members talk increasingly about new devices and machinations, about conventions and shadow Select Committees in which, presumably, they will discuss the weather in Iceland or environmental conditions in the Himalayas. Because they cannot win the political arguments they have started to blame the political machinery. If their case about the Committee was to carry conviction they should have shown greater sensitivity to the procedures of the House and greater commitment to the unitary Parliament of the United Kingdom. It is not as if there is any lack of procedures for scrutinising the Scottish Office. There is the Public Accounts Committee and there are the activities of the other Select Committees--
There are other Select Committees to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and my noble Friend the Minister of State have given evidence. All those opportunities exist, and there are the activities of the Scottish Grand Committee, with matter day debates and estimates debates. There are, therefore, opportunities for Scottish affairs to be scrutinised.
Despite what Opposition Members have said, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the Committee of Selection have done their utmost to achieve a solution to the problem. No one could have done more to negotiate a solution on the setting up of the Scottish Affairs Committee. It is plain --and tonight's debate confirms it--that a solution is not available. We in the Scottish Office would have welcomed the setting up of such a Committee. Although there is no shortage of other forms of scrutiny,
Column 379the opportunity for close and detailed examination of specific aspects of activity would have been welcome. It is a matter not for the Government but for the House. The motion recognises that the House has not succeeded in finding a way through. I commend the motion to the House.
Amendment proposed, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof :
"condemns in the strongest possible terms the failure of the Government to set up the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs and the irresponsible approach of Conservative Right honourable and honourable Members who have abdicated all responsibility for a Committee which is of particular importance to Scotland because of the damaging and unpopular policies being followed by the Scottish Office Ministers ; and instructs the Committee of Selection to nominate sufficient members to allow the House to establish the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs under Standing Order No. 130.".-- [Mr. Dobson.]
Question put, That the amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 229, Noes 285.
Division No. 22] [10 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Cunningham, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Duffy, A. E. P.
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Heffer, Eric S.