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Mr. Salmond: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing: I have hardly started, but I will stop and start again.

Mr. Salmond: The hon. Lady may hardly have started, but she has made an important point. Is she aware that Ministers, including the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, have already signed such a declaration, in the Claim of Right? Why on earth should they refuse to accept it in the Bill?

Mr. Collins: That is their problem.

Mrs. Laing: That is indeed their problem, but I take the point made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). I believe that it was irresponsible and short-sighted for any hon. Member to sign the so-called Claim of Right--except for members of his party, who really believe in republicanism and a separate Scotland. If, however, the Government insist, as they do, that their plans for devolution are intended to strengthen the Union, they cannot--no matter what they have signed, under whatever misapprehension--accept the amendment.

Mr. Salmond: Perhaps I can tell the hon. Lady a little bit of history. The Scottish National party did not, in fact, sign the Claim of Right, although we believed in it; the question is whether those who did sign it believed in it.

Mrs. Laing: I thank the hon. Gentleman for enlightening us with that little bit of history, as he called it, but we are discussing the serious matter of what will actually be in the Bill. What may or may not have been signed in the past--and I know that we can go all the way back to the declaration of Arbroath and so on and so forth--is very interesting in its historical context, but it is not relevant to the future of Scotland. We are discussing that future, and what will actually be in the Bill.

The amendment is ludicrous for three reasons. First, it would be a complete negation of the United Kingdom. I know that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan would like that to happen, but I did not know that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) had aligned himself to such an extent with the Scottish National party. That is entirely up to him, of course, and I accept that he believes in his arguments. However, the rest of his party cannot possibly believe in them. Not only is the amendment a negation of the Union; it negates the position of Her Majesty the Queen as the sovereign in whom we, as an elected Parliament, vest our democratic and constitutional rights.

Mr. Salmond: One last intervention. In her memoirs, "The Downing Street Years", Lady Thatcher said that if the Scottish people were to determine on independence, no English politician, certainly not herself, would gainsay

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that decision. I paraphrase, but is that not an affirmation from the great Lady Thatcher of the right of sovereignty of the Scottish people?

Mrs. Laing: I appreciate that that is a paraphrase and not exactly what she said, but it is close. I accept that, and, of course, I entirely agree with it. There is nothing wrong with that, but that is not what we are discussing. The hon. Gentleman strays from the point, and I am being too generous in accepting his interventions. Naturally, Lady Thatcher was right. I choose my words carefully. That is why I agree with her and that is why we are not in principle against devolution because it is the will of the Scottish people.

The first reason why the amendment cannot be accepted is that it negates the sovereignty of Her Majesty the Queen, which we vest in her as an elected parliamentary body.

Mr. Collins: My hon. Friend is making a wonderful speech and demonstrating that there is another Conservative woman who is naturally always right. Will she focus on why it is beneficial to those who believe in democracy to vest sovereignty in the monarch? Dictators across the years, from Hitler to Stalin to Saddam Hussein, have all paid lip service to popular sovereignty. Only by having a sovereign above and outside politics can we ensure that we have smooth-running, democratic politics and no risk of dictatorship.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is right. It is because of the risk of dictatorship and other forms of republicanism that we are proud of our heritage and our constitution, which has at its head Her Majesty the Queen as the sovereign in Parliament. She is not the sovereign alone, but the sovereign in Parliament in making the laws of our country. My hon. Friend's other remarks are probably the nicest thing that anyone has ever said to me.

Mr. Salmond: That will not get you anywhere these days.

Mrs. Laing: That is all I am admitting to anyway.

Secondly, the amendment is an atheist's charter. I respect the rights of anyone who wishes to be an atheist. It is up to each of us personally whether and how we believe in God, or which god we believe in. However, if the amendment were accepted, Members of the Scottish Parliament would have no choice but to make the affirmation. That is out of character with our democratic system. When Members come to this House, they are given the choice of swearing the oath of allegiance by almighty God or affirming. The amendment would mean that MSPs had no choice.

When I took the oath of allegiance a year ago, I heard two new lady Members of the Labour party discussing whether to swear or affirm. One said that she would not swear because she did not believe in God, but the other said that she was not sure whether she would affirm or swear. It amazed me that someone could go so far in life as to become an elected Labour Member without knowing whether she believed in God. Presumably, she was waiting for her bleeper to tell her whether she was supposed to swear or affirm. She had been here for three days, but she had to wait for the "voice of Mr. Mandelson".

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Thirdly, some MSPs would not be able to say the words in the amendment. I could not if I became an MSP, not that that is possible because I will not stand. The oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen is what binds the United Kingdom together. Members who support this amendment are merely showing, once and for all, that they are bent on the destruction of the United Kingdom.

8.45 pm

Mr. McLeish: I am grateful for the fact that the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) has finished, because, the more I listened to her, the more I might have been tempted to go astray on the amendment. I will resist that temptation.

We have to return to the pragmatic decision before us on the two amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), whose sincerity is never in doubt. I acknowledge the consistency with which he tabled certain amendments. The Government ask the House to resist amendments Nos. 106 and 125.

Provision has already been made in the Bill for all Members of the Scottish Parliament to take the oath of allegiance provided for by the Promissory Oaths Act 1868 or to make the corresponding affirmation. Members of the Executive will also be required to take the official oath under the 1868 Act and the oath of allegiance, where they have not already taken it as MSPs. That is in line with current practice at Westminster and recognises the relationship between the Parliament and Her Majesty, as has been noted in the debate.

Hon. Members will agree that clause 79 does nothing contentious. It simply makes a similar provision for the taking of the oath for Members of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive as is required of Members of this House and Ministers, which is entirely appropriate.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute): The Minister talks about what happens when new Members are elected to the House of Commons. Will he confirm that the practice here whereby the oath can be taken in English, Gaelic or Welsh will be extended to allow the oath to be taken in English or Gaelic in the Scottish Parliament? I was the only Member who took it in Gaelic after the last general election. I hope that the practice will apply to the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. McLeish: That is interesting. We have established a constitutional consultative steering group and done considerable work on identifying virtually every issue that we need to discuss, but I am not sure that that is on the agenda. I assure the hon. Lady that that will happen. We need that consistency. It is a valid point. I will find out whether the point is covered in the deliberations; if it is not, it will be.

Mr. Dalyell: I listened carefully to my hon. Friend. For clarity's sake, does this not mean, to use his word "simply", that the Government, rightly or wrongly, have recanted on the Claim of Right?

Mr. McLeish: Not at all. We have had a rich and heady mix of constitutional, governmental and parliamentary theory, but there is no inconsistency about the comments

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of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland on the sovereignty of the people, to which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) alluded. Nor is the signature of the Claim of Right inconsistent with the points that we are making this evening, in the context of Parliament and of taking the oath.

Hon. Members would no doubt also agree that it is proper that MSPs and members of the Executive take an oath that is symbolic of the relationship between the Parliament, the Executive and Her Majesty.

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