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Mr. Salmond: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you confirm that the Chair has responsibilities to the minority parties in the House? The Chair recognises the political situation in Scotland and Wales. Is it not extraordinary that, even in a guillotined Third Reading, no speaker from the Scottish National party or Plaid Cymru has been called in the debate? Might that just make the case for the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments that we are discussing?

Mr. Bernard Jenkin: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I point out that the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties voted for the guillotine, so they have got their come-uppance?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I shall deal with the first point of order. The selection of speakers is entirely a matter for the Chair. It is not to be criticised in that way.

Mr. Salmond: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Am I correct in believing that the Chair takes into account the position of the minority parties in this House? Furthermore, does not the Chair take cognisance of the political situation in Scotland and

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Wales? The Scots and the Welsh returned no Member from the Conservative party--the Chair must be aware of these things.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The Chair recognises all the points that the hon. Gentleman has made and always adopts a balanced view of these matters.

9.44 pm

Mr. Howard: The debate that we have just had has been marked by a number of distinguished speeches, however brief the time available for it has been. We heard another speech from the uniquely authoritative standpoint of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), and a distinguished maiden speech by the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore), who rightly paid a glowing tribute to his predecessor, who is missed by all in the House. The hon. Gentleman gave us an extremely interesting insight into the economy of the Borders constituency that he represents. We look forward to hearing many more such distinguished contributions from him.

The House is now nearing the end of its consideration of the first Bill of this Parliament. It has been a melancholy experience, a chastening example of the tyranny of the large majority, laced with contempt for this House. The time allowed for discussion has been ludicrously inadequate. Debate after debate has been curtailed before the real issues at stake have even begun to be expounded.

In a newspaper article this morning, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) wrote:

It is clear that the central question at the heart of the legislation remains unanswered. The fundamental criticism that we have made remains as valid now as when we offered it at the outset. There is no justification for holding these referendums before the relevant legislation has been passed by the House. As the hon. Member for Linlithgow has pointed out, the only valid question to be posed in a referendum would be: "Do you approve of the Scotland Act and Wales Act of 1998?"

We make it absolutely clear that we are not against a referendum on this issue. We would not be opposed to a referendum on the question posed by the hon. Member for Linlithgow. We have no objection in principle to a referendum. But we do object to a referendum that is intended as a pre-emptive strike against proper parliamentary debate. That is the effect of holding a referendum before the legislation has been passed.

Earlier this evening, the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) put a simple question to the Welsh Office Minister. He asked for a concise answer. His question concerned whether the people of Wales should be allowed to express an opinion on whether the Welsh Assembly should have tax-raising powers. All he got from the Minister was prevarication.

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Later on, I put another simple question to the same Minister. I asked him whether he would now do what the Prime Minister so conspicuously failed to do earlier this afternoon--apologise for the misleading information that he gave the House in answer to a question put to him on 14 May by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). The Prime Minister said then:

We now know that that was quite wrong, yet the Prime Minister was today incapable of saying, "I'm sorry: I got it wrong."

We fear that the Bill is the first legislative step towards the break-up of the United Kingdom, and we fear that the last two days' proceedings in the House will be looked back on as melancholy staging posts on the way to that destination.

Mr. Donald Anderson: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howard: I am afraid that I have very little time.

If that indeed proves to be the case, the blame that will be attached to the Government on the basis of their responsibility for this measure will be compounded by the shame that will be attributed to them in view of the way in which they have railroaded it through the House.

Later in the current Parliament, we shall see these days as having established a pattern of arrogance and contempt of Parliament, as a hallmark of the new Government. They are days that the Government will come to regret; they are days that the nation will come to regret. That is why we shall vote against the Bill when the debate concludes in 10 minutes' time.

Sir Patrick Cormack: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you draw Madam Speaker's attention to the fact that we shall have had precisely one and a half hours' debate on Third Reading of a major Bill, and that more than half that time has been taken up by Front Benchers? Will you ask Madam Speaker to discuss, in the appropriate quarters, what can be done to try to redress the balance?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Madam Speaker is always well aware of everything that goes on in the House, and I am sure that she will note what the hon. Gentleman has said.

9.51 pm

Mr. McLeish: The debate can, I think, be summed up in three ways, especially in respect of the Conservative Opposition. First, their performance over the past three days has confirmed the wisdom of the electorate in doing the decent thing for the country on 1 May. Secondly, we have seen a remarkable example of the posturing that is going on in connection with the leadership of the Conservative party. Opposition Members have picked up briefs and arrived on the Front Bench, then disappeared just as quickly. Thirdly, we have seen no humility in regard to what happened on 1 May.

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Let me ask the Conservative party in opposition to consider the plight of Scotland and Wales in relation to that party. The Scots and the Welsh simply rejected the notion of being represented by any Conservative Members of Parliament. If we needed just one example on which a bit of humility could be hung, that would clearly be it.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McLeish: No. I have not much time, and I want to reply to the points that have been made.

In the final speech from the Opposition Front Bench, many points were made relating to the detailed White Paper and to the debate and discussions that will ensue before the referendum. On Third Reading, many hon. Members--my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)--have made points that are germane to discussion of that detailed White Paper, and to the subsequent process leading up to the referendum. Let me tell them that we shall not make progress unless we produce a detailed White Paper that addresses the issues that have been raised. In the context of tonight's debate, the Bill is a straightforward piece of legislation. It is important in that it paves the way for referendums in Scotland and Wales, but it does not change the constitution. It follows well-established precedent, and applies common sense. That is not a quality that we have observed in abundance on the Opposition Benches today or yesterday.

The Bill provides for people in Scotland and Wales to be asked whether they support our proposals for a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. It enables provision to be made by Orders in Council for the conduct of the referendums, and provides for the conduct of the votes. It also includes a prudent measure enabling expenditure to be incurred in preparation for the establishment of a Scottish Parliament or a Welsh Assembly.

As I have said, the Bill is simple and to the point, but at the same time it is important, particularly for the people in Scotland and Wales. When the Bill is enacted, it will set us well on our way down the path, taking, as I said in my concluding remarks on Second Reading, the next step in the unfinished business of establishing a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly.

The Bill will give the people of Scotland and Wales the opportunity to put beyond all doubt their views on our proposals for devolution in those countries. Its passage through the House is an important milestone on the way to modernising government in the United Kingdom.

I have no doubt that the Government will receive resounding support. That will lend our proposals moral authority. It will provide a helpful backdrop against which Parliament will be able to scrutinise the main devolution legislation. That has been a recurrent theme in the two days of debate. The Opposition should have some patience and then we shall have a full and long-term debate on the details of the White Paper.

The Bill has been debated on Second Reading and in Committee. For such a short Bill, of six clauses, it attracted a remarkably large number of amendments--more than 250 in total. Had they all been accepted, we

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would have had before us a Bill which, among other things, would have provided for a referendum to be held in Scotland only on a Sunday, on St. Andrew's day, in daylight hours, during a two-day period and--something of a Catch-22--on any day other than a Sunday.

The point about the frivolous nature of some of the amendments has already been well made by other hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace).

However, it is fair to say that many other amendments rightly sought to promote debate on important issues, including in particular the provisions dealing with the franchise and the propositions on which the people in Scotland and Wales are to be consulted. We made every effort to ensure that, despite the attempts to disrupt and delay consideration of the Bill, those issues were given a fair wind, and we have had a constructive debate on the issues that we have discussed.

The House has had ample opportunity to consider the Bill. There is no reason why we should delay giving the people in Scotland and Wales the opportunity to vote on the Government's devolution proposals. The Bill will give them that opportunity. However, I repeat our categorical assurance that the devolution proposals will be set out in White Papers well in advance of the referendums and before the House rises for the summer recess.

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