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9.31 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): It is, as ever, a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who, as always, favoured the House with a thoughtful and well-argued case from first principles. Sadly, an independent cast of mind is all too rarely demonstrated in the Chamber. I know that the hon. Gentleman will be with us only until the next election, so we should savour his contributions between now and then.

Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I find much to welcome in the Gracious Speech, but I am indifferent to some aspects of it and hostile to others. I am struck by the number of proposed Bills or draft Bills that will affect Scotland. From a quick count through the

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paragraphs in the Queen's Speech, I estimate that about 18 Bills or draft Bills will apply north of the border. It is worth reminding people both here and north of the border of the continuing importance of the House to daily life in Scotland.

Since becoming a Member of Parliament in June 2001 I have spent a great deal of my time in Standing Committees. As a result of what I have observed I have become concerned about the manner in which Scottish interests are dealt with in the House and by the civil service in Whitehall post devolution. It has become apparent to me that Scotland has, for all intents and purposes, fallen off the civil service radar in Whitehall so that there is now almost a presumption that Scotland has its own Government or Executive who should deal with Scottish issues. Sadly, that is not the case.

I recently had a conversation with a senior member of the Crown Office, the head of the prosecution service in Scotland, who told me that it is sometimes consulted on legislation that will have an impact on the Scottish legal system, but that it is invariably done too late. It is done after decisions have been taken and after any point at which the distinctiveness of Scottish law can be taken properly into account. It is the integration of Scots law into the business of the House that continues to concern me. I can think of many examples—the Extradition Bill and, more recently, the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill, on whose Standing Committee I served.

It seems to me that the problem is somewhat unnecessary. I have expressed doubts about the need for it in the past, but we continue to have the Scotland Office. Surely the job of Scotland Office Ministers, instead of running around trying to find photo opportunities, should be to give their time to Standing Committees and to Report stages of Bills. The Crime (International Co-operation) Bill is a recent classic example. We were dealing with amendments that had come from the Law Society of Scotland, and the Home Office Minister more or less shrugged her shoulders and said, "We haven't heard from the Scottish Executive about this, and we don't see what the problem is." Of course the Government had not heard from the Scottish Executive. Why would they have done? The matter was not devolved.

One subject that would normally be a devolved matter, but which will come to the House in the coming year because the Scottish Parliament has passed a Sewel motion, is the registration of civil partnerships. I am prepared to give a broad welcome to that because it is long overdue, and it is certainly proper that we should recognise that people in same-sex relationships have hitherto had highly prejudicial and unequal treatment in law.

However, I echo a point that was made earlier: there should be some provision to apply the legislation to opposite-sex couples who choose—because of their personal circumstances, for religious reasons, or for any other reason—not to get married in either a civil or a religious ceremony. I hope that the Government will give that idea some consideration during the Bill's passage. The Leader of the Opposition said that this provision was about life choices, and he was right—but we must recognise that a great many people's life choice is to cohabit with someone of the opposite sex without

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getting married. If we make provision for same-sex couples but not for opposite-sex couples, that may not be understood by the population at large, and we risk damaging what will already be a difficult and controversial piece of legislation.

I would not be a Liberal Democrat if I could resist the temptation to speak about constitutional issues, and a number of those are dealt with in the Gracious Speech. First, there is the abolition of the remaining hereditary peers in the other place. That is overdue and I welcome it, but I regret that at this stage the Government have chosen not to go the whole hog and allow the second House to be properly elected. That will become a more clamant case as the years go by. Patronage is no substitute for democracy.

There is something else that I do not quite understand. At this point I should declare my Presbyterian interests. If we are getting rid of the hereditary peers, why are the Church of England bishops to be kept? As a Presbyterian, I find it obnoxious that the Church of England should remain established, and episcopalians should still be represented in the other place. If that is how I, as a Presbyterian, feel, how must Roman Catholics, Hindus, Muslims and those of any other faith feel about that? I shall seek to return to the subject by tabling amendments later in the Session.

I also broadly welcome the long-overdue legislation to create a supreme court. Scots law has not always been treated well by the Judicial Committee of the other place, and I hope that as the mechanisms of the supreme court are being constructed, one can be found to involve a minimum representation of Scottish qualified jurists in the determination of any civil case that comes to the supreme court from Scotland.

I have no truck with those who say that Scottish civil cases should be repatriated to the Court of Session. That would not be a sensible or workable operation, given the great interaction that there now is between our common civil law and the statute law that affects the whole of the United Kingdom. We should not miss the opportunity offered by the supreme court to deal better with Scots law.

From a constituency point of view, one of the most important measures in the Gracious Speech will be the energy Bill—in shorthand, the BETTA Bill. It will have a profound impact on access to the national grid for developers of renewable energy generation in my constituency. That is essential if we are to develop our abundant wind, tidal and wave resources, which we are keen to share with the rest of the country. The current system requires massive up-front charges for grid connections, due to the byzantine rules operated by Ofgem. I do not think that that situation will improve, so we in the northern isles will be looking closely at the progress of the BETTA Bill.

May I make a plea for a change of mind in the operation of Ofgem? Only last week, Ofgem announced that it deemed the hydro benefit—in effect, a subsidy to electricity distribution in the highlands and islands that has existed in some form for many, many years—contrary to European competition law, and that it was to be abolished. That announcement seemed to come as something of a surprise to the Department of Trade and Industry but, to his credit, the Minister for Energy, E-

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Commerce and Postal Services said that he would seek other ways of preserving the benefit. I hope that he is able to do so. The benefit is crucial to the highlands and islands and especially to my constituency, yet I first heard about the matter only last Monday on Radio Scotland. Surely, there should be better provision for consultation with communities and their representatives, such as me, on issues of such fundamental importance.

I shall finish by talking about asylum. Like many Scots, I have looked with concern, growing occasionally to horror, at the manner in which Dungavel detention centre in Lanarkshire has operated. Nothing that I have heard in the past few days from Government spokesmen and others about the proposed treatment of children makes me feel more optimistic about the centre. We must take seriously the treatment of children in detention centres. It is already bad enough that we detain them in Dungavel for as long as we do, but now it is suggested that they are to be put into care. Whose care? There is already a paucity of foster places and places in children's homes.

I am concerned about the abolition of the second appeal in asylum cases. Twenty per cent. of such appeals are successful. What will happen to such people if that provision is removed?

I am aware that at least one more Member wants to contribute to the debate so I end with this point: as a representative of one of only three entirely island constituencies, I look forward with great interest and a small measure of apprehension to learning to which island the official Opposition intend to send their asylum seekers.

9.43 pm

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): In the early years of the Soviet Union, it is said that a message went out from the communist party to the country: "The dawn of socialism is just over the horizon". One peasant turned to another and said, "I'm quite happy with all this socialism stuff, but what's this word horizon?" His colleague said, "The horizon is an imaginary place; the closer you get to it the further away it seems".

That may have been the case in the Soviet Union, but in real politics, in democratic politics, things that are just over the horizon tend to creep up on us and suddenly arrive. There is no pretence that today's Gracious Speech does not take some cognisance of the fact that a general election is just over the horizon. That election will creep up on us pretty quickly, in political terms.

The Government's first term in office was about getting the basics right. The Government implemented 176 manifesto commitments in a period when they also had to control the country's economic circumstances. The Government were successful: inflation and interest rates were under control, unemployment was falling, and economic competence and stability were at a high level. Without that economic success, we could not have had the spending policies that have been put in place, or the investment in public services. We would not have been able to prepare the Queen's Speech for this coming year, and we would not have been able to start to prepare for a third term in office.

The Government's second term in office—this term—has been about delivery. It has demonstrated that the pain of holding back on investment, as happened for

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some of the first term in office, was worth while. It has shown that the Government's investment of cash in the public services, and their modernisation of those services, have worked to improve delivery. As a result, those public services are able to fulfil the functions that they were designed to perform. The task has not been easy, but people will judge the Government on their record in respect of the delivery of public services and the management of the economy.

The Government's third term will be about renewal, and about moving on to a future that is fair for everyone. That is where today's Queen's Speech starts to lead us. It will be about making sure that boom and bust can never return, because they will be designed out of the economy. It will be about giving ordinary people ownership of the ideas that drive our public services, and not just of the services themselves and of the choices that can be made. That ownership will be experienced, both collectively and individually, within a framework made up of community and social values and the progressive politics espoused by Labour Members.

Only when the practical approach and the ideas and values that drive it are in harmony can we ever hope to succeed in our delivery. The Queen's Speech shows that we are moving in the right direction.

The Queen's Speech is consistent with the preparatory work of the past six years—or one and a half terms of office. It contains some excellent measures. For four years, until last summer, I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche). For two years of that time, she was the Minister with responsibility for equality. I know how hard she worked to get the civil partnership legislation ready, and I am delighted at its inclusion in today's Queen's Speech.

However, I want to turn to a matter touched on by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and others. The civil partnership legislation means that any couple—same-sex or otherwise—can have certain legal rights if the two members of that couple are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to each other. That right has always been available to heterosexual couples, but the proposed legislation will bring parity for homosexual couples. Even so, registration will play an important part, and ensure that the two sets of circumstances will be equivalent. Without registration, questions will be asked about commitment, and every couple could end up in court in an attempt to determine what rights—in respect of pensions, parenting, immigration, property and so on—should be shared. Registration will make it clear that any long-term commitment between two people, regardless of the circumstances, will be recognised in law.

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