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Column 751The Government do not need much of an excuse for introducing a guillotine and cutting sensible and reasonable debate in the House on any subject, including the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill--just look at what they are going to do to the Finance Bill this afternoon. At the instigation of the Scottish nationalists, we are having to debate this motion in place of discussions and possibly a vote on value added tax on fuel in the Finance Bill Committee.
Handing the Government, on a plate, the invaluable excuse of a wholly unnecessary delay in the Committee stage today was an act of pure tactical stupidity and political suicide by the Scottish National party. It seems that there is one iron law in Scottish politics--when the Government are in a hole, send for the nationalist firemen to bring them a ladder, and here they come.
I have a sense of de ja vu on this. Last year's Maastricht debate comes back to haunt me. Just before the debate on the Committee of the Regions, I stood in front of the Mace watching three Scottish nationalists wait until the Chamber drained of other Members. They were preparing to enter the Lobby with the Conservatives to defeat a Labour amendment that would have made it obligatory for the Government--
Mr. Robertson : In relation to the motion, as you rightly and properly direct me, Madam Speaker, Committee Chairmen have the power to exclude Members who are not Committee members. I support the motion and shall ask my hon. Friends to support it and give my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) that power, for the reasons that I am explaining.
Last year the nationalists, who instigated the move this morning and caused this debate, conspired to support the Government on the European Committee of the Regions. They are now conspiring again to get the butchery of Scottish local government through on time.
Mr. Salmond : The hon. Gentleman has just said that he will go through the Conservative Lobby in a few moments. Will he recall when he did exactly the same thing in the early hours of the morning of 22 April, when he and his Labour Front Bench colleagues saved the Prime Minister's bacon on the referendum clause in the Maastricht Bill--
The Bill on which the Committee is deliberating is bad for local government, local democracy and taxpayers in Scotland--
Madam Speaker : Order. I have already called the hon. Gentleman to order. We are concerned not about the Bill but about the fact that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) sought to sit on a Committee without the right to do so, and about the action of the Chairman of that Committee.
Mr. Robertson : It is important for that Committee to go ahead with its proceedings so that those matters can be considered. To do so requires the Committee Chairman to have those powers. I am explaining why those powers are necessary and why the arguments deployed by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) are irrelevant to the case and to the powers requested by the Chairman.
The nature of this bad Bill necessitates my argument that the Committee Chairman should have those powers. It is four Bills in one : on local government ; on water quangoisation ; on children's hearings ; and on tourism reorganisation.
Even if the Committee Chairman gets the powers which I hope the House will give him this afternoon, and even if we make brisk and proper progress in scrutinising the Bill, the Government know that there can be no justification for curtailing the Committee stage before May this year at the earliest. They know that it would be irresponsible and outrageous to guillotine the debates on water, children's hearings and the promotion of tourism, which is precisely why Opposition parties got together to maximise opposition against the Government on the Bill.
In giving the Chairman the power that he asks for, bearing in mind the arguments deployed by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan about why he should be on the Committee, it is important to remember how we have reached this stage. There was an agreement between the parties. The Opposition parties met and, because we were all united against the Bill, it was agreed that there would be an informal degree of co-operation among the Opposition parties in the Standing Committee considering the Bill.
We agreed to meet every Monday ; we agreed that we would consider joint amendments and join forces on those parts of the Bill which we all agreed were against the interests of Scotland and its people. We discussed tactics for three weeks. The hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) even congratulated Labour on the Government's self-inflicted delay, which was caused by the principled stand of my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) on the composition of the Committee.
However, last night the hon. Member for Angus, East did not make it to the joint committee ; he did not come along because he was away conspiring with his leader, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, about how this year again they could do the Government's dirty work and get out of the political silage pit.
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East) : If I understood him correctly, the hon. Gentleman said that I was away conspiring with my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) ; but I did not meet my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan yesterday. That statement is therefore about as accurate as the rest of the
Column 753hon. Gentleman's speech. Is the hon. Gentleman now saying that such co-operation cannot exist? I have met him on those occasions and he knows that I sent my apologies to the meeting last night. I suggest that he would do better to concentrate his fire power on the Government. [Interruption.] The noise from the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends suggests that he withdraws all possible co-operation. Perhaps that was his master plan at the beginning.
Mr. Robertson : That is one of the feeblest excuses for not turning up to a meeting which was designed to maximise the discomfort of the Government but ended up with the Government having the huge comfort of a debate this afternoon that will delay the guillotine on the Standing Committee considering the Finance Bill.
Scottish National party Members were not around for the meeting that we had in Committee, nor for our meeting here. Nor were they here for the debate on the imposition of tax on air fares to parts of Scotland where people are crying out about it.
On behalf of his party, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan says that the disruption this morning was caused because he wants to serve on the Committee. The last time the hon. Gentleman served on a Scottish Standing Committee was on 10 November 1987. It was on the Scottish Development Agency Bill, it lasted for one morning session, and the hon. Gentleman did not raise a point of order about the fact that there was an English majority on that Committee.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan says that it is because he wants to delay the Committee stage of the Bill, but the hon. Member for Angus, East did not even know that the motion to report to the House was actually debatable and let it go. He was the only person in the Committee who voted at 10.46 not to adjourn the Committee. Presumably, he wanted to make progress on the Bill and keep it going for even longer.
Mr. Robertson : The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said that it is not right and proper to have English Members of Parliament parachuted on to the Committee, but the hon. Member for Angus, East serves on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs which has an inbuilt English Tory majority to make up the numbers.
When the House considered the poll tax Bill, there was no disruption by the then leader of the Scottish National party in Parliament and that point was not raised.
The nationalists say, as does the hon. Gentleman, that this is a brand new tactic, brilliant in its execution, which will not provoke an early guillotine, but it is a carbon copy of the self-indulgent opportunistic stunt that he and his hon. Friends pulled on 14 March 1989 on the Self- Governing Schools Etc. (Scotland) Bill. They lost a day's consideration in Committee and then the Government introduced a guillotine on the Self- Governing Schools Etc. (Scotland) Bill. They say--not here, but outside the House--that they have more procedural tricks to play which are just as brilliant. Frankly, that is good news for the Government but bad news for Scottish local government and Scottish water.
Mr. Salmond : Before the hon. Gentleman votes with the Conservatives, will he tell the House what progress he is making--according to his forecasts--in persuading English Conservatives to vote with him in the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill?
Mr. Robertson : On the night when the hon. Gentleman and his pals voted with the Tory Government, about 26 Tories voted with the Labour party to impose on the Government an obligation to have elected councillors on the Committee of the Regions. I am not making any prophecies as to whether the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) or others will see the benefits of the arguments in the Committee. That is a matter for the Committee. I make one prediction : as the SNP has not ended its co-operation with the Government, and as it has been helpful in the past, by gosh it is almost bound to be helpful in future.
Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud) : Does not the hon. Gentleman agree wholeheartedly that this is a Parliament for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which includes Scotland, and therefore that my English colleagues and I have a perfect right to be on the Committee?
Mr. Robertson : The hon. Gentleman was helpful during the Maastricht ratification process. Of course this is the United Kingdom Parliament. He has a right to be on the Committee. Nobody questions the right of English Tory Members who are on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, least of all the hon. Member for Angus, East who serves on it with them.
The motion before us is to give the Committee Chairman the power to exclude from its proceedings those who wish to indulge in this morning's stunt, to prevent other people from coming along and giving the Government an excuse or some vestige of respectability for the argument for an early guillotine. The nationalists will say and do anything to excuse their own stupidity. Just as they were rumbled and exposed throughout Scotland last year when they voted with the Tories on Maastricht, they will be exposed again this year. This morning's stunt was counter-productive and designed to get cheap publicity for the Scottish National party, which has always seemed to put its self-indulgence and tactical ineptitude before the real interests of the Scottish people.
The Scottish people want us to delay this bad Bill if we can, to get the verdict on it in the regional elections. They want us to destroy it if possible. That is the principal objective of the Labour party. They want us to change and improve it just in case it goes through on the ludicrously short timetable that the Government have set for it. Kindergarten parliamentary games will simply put advantage in the hands of the Government and we will have nothing to do with them. The nationalists want to divide the Opposition and, it would appear, to make life easy for the Government, as they constantly seem to want and desire. In that case, let them do it alone. But let them be conscious that they will bear the proper contempt of the people of Scotland if they do so. Therefore, I call on my hon. Friends to vote for the motion this afternoon.
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Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : I believe that the House should support the motion. Everyone knows that, without the powers to remove disruptive Members, the Speaker would not be able to conduct business effectively within the Chamber. That is equally true of the Scottish Standing Committee. If it has those who are determined to cause trouble--we saw evidence of it this morning--the Chairman must have powers so that the Committee can get on with the important business of debating the issues before it. That is the same with the House. We should be getting on with today's business as well.
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : I have listened carefully to the words of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). He said that he took a stand on the matter of principle that English Members in this Parliament should not be allowed to have any role in legislation that relates exclusively to Scotland. He then completely contradicted his principled stand by appealing to Members representing English constituencies, on both sides of the House, to join him in intervening in matters which relate exclusively to the people of Scotland, by denying the Chairman of the Committee the power to exclude Members who are in breach of Standing Orders. He really cannot have it both ways : he cannot tell English Members to stay away from Scottish debates, and then appeal to them to intervene directly in Scottish business to support the arguments that he tried to advance to the Welsh Committee.
I am prepared to accept the principle that hon. Members should be able to halt the proceedings of the House to defend a principle or to highlight an injustice ; indeed, when my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) did precisely that during debate on the Housing (Scotland) Bill back in 1987, I supported him. There is, however, a limit to the number of times that such action can be repeated : eventually, other hon. Members will become sick of the constant halting of business, and the hon. Member responsible will begin to discredit his own principled position.
That is not just my view ; it is the view of Scottish National party Members themselves. Let us consider the way in which exclusively Scottish business has been dealt with over the years. The Standing Committee considering what became the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1990, for instance, consisted of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and four English Members representing English constituencies-- and not a word of objection came from any Scottish National party Member.
It is a contradiction in terms. It seems that English Members cannot intervene in discussion of this Bill, although Scottish National party members did not object to such action on previous occasions. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan did not object to the involvement of English Members in the passage of the Scottish Development Agency Act 1987 ; the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) considered the Transport (Scotland) Bill--enacted in 1989--along with eight English Members, and uttered not a word of objection.
a reasonable job in defending Scottish interests, along with other interests throughout the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend may recall that a place on that Committee--which was debating a matter of cruciaimportance to Scotland--was offered to the Scottish National party. The party turned down the offer, with the result that another place was filled by Labour. Mr. McAllion : That is a fair point
It should be understood that the Scottish National party has a long tradition of refusing to serve on Committees. My predecessor as Member for Dundee, East--then chairman of the Scottish National party--turned down the chance to serve on the Scottish Select Committee ; and I know that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan has served on only one Committee in the six or seven years that he has been in the House.
Recently, the hon. Member for Angus, East was not even present for a vital vote in the Scottish Select Committee, in connection with the investigation of the Peterkin affair. Conservative Members, however, turned up to vote. I cannot use the word "hypocrisy", because it is not parliamentary ; but a large dose of something very like hypocrisy is now emanating from the Scottish National party Bench.
When the House last debated a motion of this kind, it concerned the Self- Governing Schools Etc. (Scotland) Bill, enacted in 1989. Three Scottish National party members were ejected, and the House had to decide whether to give the Chairman power to exclude them. At the time, the hon. Member for Angus, East explained why he thought that the Chairman should not be given that power, arguing that it was pointless to table amendments in Scottish Standing Committees, because the Government never accepted them--that the present Government simply could not be trusted. That was in 1989--a couple of years before certain hon. Members tried to make a deal with the Government by agreeing to support their opposition to a Labour amendment to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.
Mr. McAllion : I shall give way in a minute. I have not yet finished with the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Gentleman has learnt his lesson. He argues that we should oppose this motion as there is no point in Scottish Members tabling amendments to Scottish Bills ; yet, in the case of this piece of legislation, there are amendments standing in his name, and no doubt he will argue that they should be supported in Committee.
If there is no point in tabling amendments, why has the hon. Gentleman done exactly that? I have spoken to members of a delegation from Scotland who have had discussions with the hon. Member for Angus, East. Their understanding is that the hon. Gentleman has given them an undertaking that he will support an amendment tabled in the name of the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), who is a Tory.
Madam Speaker : Order. This is all very interesting, but it is not in order. If the hon. Gentleman wants to look at the terms of the motion before us, I will hand it to him. I hope that he will address his remarks to it.
I shall give way to the hon. Member for Angus, East, as he seems to be getting rather agitated.
Mr. Welsh : What is the hon. Gentleman's standing in the Labour party? When he quoted me, he should have quoted also his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe), who pointed out that the Government simply did not accept amendments. I throw the matter back to the hon. Gentleman and to his hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) : which amendments to this Bill do they expect to be accepted? Which English Tories on the Committee does the hon. Gentleman expect to be able to convince about water boards or any other matter except boundaries? Which amendments, and which Tories?
Mr. McAllion : The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan has argued that, as a matter of principle, we should oppose this motion. I am arguing that no principle is involved. Where principle is involved, hon. Members must be consistent in its defence. In this case, the Scottish National party has been wholly inconsistent. It is important that hon. Members understand this fact before responding to the appeal of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan.
Mr. Connarty : If we were not to give the Chair these powers, we could find ourselves having to deal with such indiscipline in the future. That possible difficulty is in addition to the loss of time today for debate on the Finance Bill. We ought not to lose very important time for discussion of such matters as value added tax on fuel and the Child Support Agency because of the behaviour of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond).
The basic argument of the Scottish National party is that hon. Members who are serious about delaying the implementation of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill ought to continue to disrupt the proceedings. SNP Members believe that they can convince a majority of hon. Members. In essence, that would mean convincing Tories representing English constituencies that they should support moves to defeat the Government. That is clearly impractical : it simply will not happen.
The Bill contains 169 clauses and 14 schedules. It is two and a half times as big as any other Bill relating exclusively to Scotland. The Standing Committee spent 13 days on legislation dealing with housing in Scotland. The number of sittings was 24, and the number of hours spent was between 85 and 86. If the same principles were applied to this legislation, we could look forward to thirty-two and a half days in Committee, 60 sittings and more than 200 hours' debate. During that debate, we could expose the Government for what they are trying to do in Scotland, and seek to have some amendments accepted.
Column 758It must be remembered that the Government have a Committee majority of only one. They do not want to spend 200 hours knowing that a Division could be called at any moment. They would have to ensure that every Member was present. They are desperate for a guillotine, not only to curtail debate, shorten the timetable and enable them to hit their target of April 1995 for shadow elections to the new councils ; but also to ensure that they will know when Divisions will occur, so that they can have their 12 Members present. They are desperate for an excuse for a guillotine on this Bill.
What has the SNP done? It has given the Government their excuse.
The Government will now argue : "We cannot possibly deal with the Bill in Committee, because the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and his friends, and anyone who supports them in the Division, are out to wreck the Bill. We therefore need a guillotine and extended powers for the Chair."
It is important that people realise that this did not suddenly happen this morning : it has been months in planning. It was trailed during the Christmas recess, when the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan leaked information about what the SNP intended to do to Scottish Sunday newspapers. It was trailed in a press release issued yesterday by the hon. Member for Angus, East.
The SNP is in a desperate political situation. With the Government at an all-time low in Scotland, it cannot make any headway, because the Labour party has seen it off. The SNP's true purpose in opposing the motion is not to get at the Tory Government but to get at the major opposition to the Tory Government in Scotland--the Labour party. It seeks to fool the Scottish people that it is fighting the Bill and we are not, when the opposite is the truth.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said that my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) had been cheered to the echo by Tory Members. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan was cheered to the echo by Scottish Office Ministers and Conservative members of the Committee this morning.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan asks : what is the alternative ? It is very clear--to get rid of the Tory Government and to establish a Scottish Parliament, and the way to do that is to elect a Labour Government.
Mr. Greg Knight (Derby North) rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
Question put, That the Question be now put :--
The House divided : Ayes 307, Noes 41.
Division No. 95] [4.30 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)