Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Wallace: Clause 23 is important, not least because those of us who were involved in the constitutional

29 Jan 1998 : Column 586

convention, and who argued the case for a Scottish Parliament in the referendum campaign, hope that the Parliament will lean heavily on a Committee structure. We want Committees to go out and take evidence; we want pre-legislative Committees; we want Committees that will try to give substance to our avowal that the Parliament would include the people of Scotland. We said that it would be inclusive and consultative, and the Committees' powers will make an important contribution to that.

I do not agree with amendment No. 163, which was moved by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), or with the reasons that he gave for it--the idea that a two-thirds majority was necessary before the Parliament could exercise the powers to compel witnesses or seek the production of documents. Especially if power was exercised by Committees, Parliament might never get off the mark if it constantly had to put together two-thirds majorities.

If the Committees are working as we expect, the one-party concern expressed by the hon. Member for North Essex would have no basis. The Committees should work on a cross-party basis. The experience in this House, especially in Select Committees, is that, when they do so, they are far more effective than when they become narrowly partisan.

The hon. Member for North Essex said that the powers were not appropriate because they were far too draconian. He pointed to the fact that in this House people seized the opportunity to give evidence to Select Committees, and that the powers were there as a backstop. That is precisely what is proposed. I do not believe that powers of compulsion would regularly be used. The important point is that they should exist.

If we accept, for the purposes of the debate, that power is devolved, it must be expressly set down in the Bill that the Scottish Parliament has the power to compel witnesses and to compel the production of documents, or it could be challenged by anyone who did not turn up. I do not believe that, because it is written into the Bill, the powers would regularly be used.

I support amendment No. 164, although I do not interpret it in the same way as the hon. Member for North Essex. It would not necessarily exempt regulators, as he said. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) and I signed up to it because it is a probing amendment to find out what was meant by the phrase

Would the provision apply, for example, to members of a children's hearing, who exercise quasi-judicial powers? Would a judge of the European Court of Human Rights or of the International Court of Justice be covered by it? Can the Minister tell us more precisely what is meant by that phrase?

Mr. Dalyell: This is rather an important matter affecting, for instance, Judge David Edward. As he is based at The Hague, is he outside or not?

Mr. Wallace: That is extremely pertinent. Judge David Edward would be resident in Scotland and in other respects could come within the ambit of the powers. That is why it would be helpful if the Minister could specify the scope of the provision.

29 Jan 1998 : Column 587

Amendment No. 249 provides the defence of reasonable excuse if a person fails to answer a question posed by the Parliament under the powers permitted. As there are sanctions attached, some defence should be available if there is reasonable excuse. I hope that the Minister will be minded to consider the amendment.

New clause 2 reflects the points made by the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) with regard to the fulfilment of the Government's commitment in paragraph 2.11 of the White Paper. That is a helpful paragraph, which acknowledges that there will be reserved areas where activities are carried on that have a direct effect on Scotland.

The White Paper provided that the Scottish Parliament would be entitled to invite the submission of reports and the presentation of oral evidence by various bodies. As the hon. Lady read out the list, hon. Members could readily recognise how relevant those might be--the work of the Post Office, for example, and the Health and Safety Commission. Rail franchising has particular relevance, given the history of rail privatisation and its effect on Scotland, with the proposed withdrawal of sleepers and Motorail. The Scottish Parliament would have been keen for evidence to be given by the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising and the Office of the Rail Regulator.

In broadcasting, the merger of Grampian Television and STV recently took place. Under the terms of the franchise, Grampian has requirements in relation to local content in its news broadcasting. The Independent Television Commission is required to enforce those requirements. I am not suggesting for a moment that Grampian will not continue to fulfil them, but if there were a concern that it was falling short, it would be helpful if the ITC could give evidence to the Parliament.

8.45 pm

New clause 2 reflects the terms of the White Paper, which states:

New clause 2 does not make that a requirement, but allows the Parliament to request the attendance of a person or the production of documents in reserved areas.

The only potential sanction is that, if a person declined that request, he would be required to inform the Clerk of the Parliament in writing of the reasons for that refusal. We are not trying to impose any legal sanctions, but it is a legitimate political point to require the person to explain his refusal. It would be a matter for political debate, but it would not mean that the Parliament was trying to exert power over reserved subjects.

The rest of the new clause is modelled on clause 23. I hope that it will commend itself to the Minister. If the present wording does not do so, I hope that he will tell us whether it is covered by a provision elsewhere in the Bill, which has escaped the notice of my hon. and learned Friend, the hon. Lady and myself, or whether, at a later stage in the passage of the Bill--new clause 2 will not be voted on until much later, if it comes to a vote--the Government intend to table a clause to give substance to the valuable provisions set out in paragraph 2.11 of the White Paper.

Mr. Dalyell: I freely confess that I was one of those who supported the Government decision to take the Bill

29 Jan 1998 : Column 588

on the Floor of the House, but I hope that colleagues are beginning to realise how it came about that, in 1978-79, debates took 47 days on the Floor of the House. Contrary to general mythology, there was not much filibustering, but there were many, many problems. Time is receding, and I can only hope for injury time for important clauses.

Few things are more important than the exercise of the judicial power of the state. I shall be brief on amendments Nos. 164 and 167. Clause 23(4) provides:

I repeat the question that was put by the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). It is an urgent question concerning the children's hearings. Do they exercise the judicial power of the state? The point was made about Judge David Edward. What about the courts of the Church of Scotland--for example, the kirk sessions? They are courts, but appear not to be exercising state power. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.

Amendment No. 167 provides a reasonable excuse defence in relation to a failure to answer a question posed by the Parliament under the powers permitted under clause 23. Although Parliament is being treated as a court, and solicitors will be able to claim legal professional privilege, there is in general no public interest defence that would apply to a Select Committee of the House of Commons, unless it is anticipated that public interest would be within the bounds of a reasonable excuse to refuse or fail to attend proceedings. There is, however, no reasonable excuse provision in respect of answering questions by the Parliament, and the amendment takes account of that issue.

Do the terms of clause 24(1)(b) constitute a strict liability offence? Is there no defence to a charge of failing to answer the Parliament's questions? In any case, for a defence provision, the terms are vague. Who is entitled to ask questions and demand an answer? Is it a Member of the Holyrood Parliament? Is it the Lord Advocate, the Solicitor-General or a Clerk of the Parliament? All those questions must be answered, because of the imprecise wording.

If Select Committees are to be effective, they may have to have different rules for those tight situations when witnesses have no intention of answering. I attended both sittings when Sir Leon Brittan and Sir Robert Armstrong, as he was then, appeared before the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. If the rules had been different, the House of Commons might have got a bit further on those occasions. Therefore, this is not just a theoretical question; it is a very real question about the effectiveness of a parliament.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) said that clause 23(3) was too wide, but I think that it is too narrow.

Why is there no specific mention in clauses 23 or 24 of the status of ordinary Members of this United Kingdom Parliament? Are we or are we not covered by the powers that are being given to the Scottish Parliament to have people summoned before it? It may be said that this United Kingdom Parliament will, by definition, have responsibility only for reserved powers, but we all know from our postbags that we are often asked to intervene with a range of public and private bodies, national and

29 Jan 1998 : Column 589

international, which have no direct accountability to the House. I have had letters in my postbag this week asking me to intervene with the Governments of Iran, Indonesia and Tunisia.

It is hardly surprising that we must expect that Members of the United Kingdom Parliament, particularly Scottish Members of this Parliament, will be invited to opine upon, write letters to or perhaps intervene directly in affairs that are reserved under the Act for the Scottish Parliament.

Is there any prospect that Members of this Parliament could under any circumstances be summoned before the Scottish Parliament under these provisions? We have talked about Ministers of the Crown, but what about ordinary Back-Bench Members? In particular, what are the implications for parliamentary privilege? Nothing in clauses 23 or 24 specifically exempts Members of the United Kingdom Parliament from addressing matters relevant to the Scottish Parliament or says whether, if we raise matters on the Floor of the House, we might be summoned before the Scottish Parliament when we next visit Scotland. I should like a clear answer, please, to those questions.

Next Section

IndexHome Page