|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): I consider all devolution issues that are intimated to me. Since 2 December 2003, there have been 32 devolution issues. Two of them arose in the civil area, while the rest concerned criminal matters such as pre-trial delay, failure to communicate information required by sea fishing measures, and the use of sexual history evidence in trials.
Ann McKechin : In relation to the current debate about our proposals for the new supreme court, what advantages does my hon. and learned Friend consider the proposals have over the existing arrangements for the Privy Council in connection with the Scottish legal system?
The Advocate-General: Considerable representations have been made on the matter. In my personal experience, appearing both in the Privy Council and the House of Lords, legal principles and disputes do not necessarily fall into easily defined categories. They have a nasty habit of spreading across into other areas. Thus, a devolution issue before the Privy Council may raise more general principles that in other cases are considered by the House of Lords. One possible advantage of a supreme court would be that only one superior court would exist to decide such cases. But there are, as my hon. Friend knows, a range of issues that a number of Members of Parliament have raised, as
Annabelle Ewing: Sticking with the supreme court, does the Advocate-General agree with her fellow members of the Faculty of Advocates who recently concluded that the current proposals for a UK supreme court were unconstitutional? If she disagrees, can she tell the House why?
The Advocate-General: The proposals are being considered along with other proposals. If there were any suggestion that there was any illegality in the proposed arrangements, that might be referred to me as a Law Officer but, on the general issues, there is no question, in my view, of their being unconstitutional, in the sense of illegal. They may be politically controversial, which is another matter altogether.
Mr. Carmichael: Does the Advocate-General share the view of Lord Hope of Craighead, who, with regard to the creation of a supreme court, told the Constitutional Affairs Committee on 2 December last year:
The Advocate-General: Of course I defer entirely to Lord Hope, particularly when I am appearing in front of him, but in other areas of dispute, it depends how the proposals are brought forward. These matters are all still being considered.
Mr. Reid: At the European Fisheries Council meeting in December, a decision was taken that placed certain restrictions on Scottish fishermen fishing in the North sea, but the same restrictions were not imposed on fishermen from other European countries. Surely that is illegal under the treaty of Rome. Does the Advocate-General agree that that is illegal discrimination?
Miss McIntosh: Has the hon. and learned Lady been asked to give her advice on the constitutional implications of the West Lothian question of Scottish Members of Parliament being allowed to vote on laws that will apply exclusively in England? If a test case were brought, which Law Officer would act as adviser?
The Advocate-General: I shall be delighted to see any test case that is brought and to consider it. I am sure that such a case would raise interesting issues. On the general question, the constitutional issue that the hon. Lady mentions seems to me a political controversy, not a legal one.
Miss McIntosh : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving such a full reply. What action is he taking to ensure the security of the electricity supply in view of the fact that thousands of homes and businesses lost electricity in southern Scotland over new year? Will he consider the undergrounding of domestic supplies before we have to import our electricity supply, by 2012 or 2020, from external, independent, third-country dodgy suppliers?
Mr. Darling: There are two points there. First, the hon. Lady is right to be concerned at any interruption in electricity supplies. Over the past few months, there have been some quite serious disruptions to electricity supplies not only in Scotland, but in London and other parts of England. The Department of Trade and Industry, my Department and others are looking at the matter, first to find out exactly what happened and secondly to take appropriate action.
Secondly, I may have misheard the hon. Lady, but I am not sure that burrowing electricity cables is a practical proposition. On longer-term electricity supply, she is right to say that all Governments must ensure security of supply. Of course, there will come a point at which, for perfectly good reasons, we have to import electricity. There is nothing wrong with that, but we need to make sure that our supplies are secure, and that is what we are endeavouring to do.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I have received a wide range of representations on the proposal for a UK supreme court, including a small number referring specifically to where the court should sit. I will publish the responses to the consultation shortly. Various options for the main permanent base of the supreme court are being considered, although the Government believe that, as a UK court, it should be located in the UK capital city. That will not preclude it
Mr. Lazarowicz : I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. When he considers the matter further, will he bear it in mind that the White Paper on Scotland's Parliament, which was published back in 1997, said at paragraph 4.17 that the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, when dealing with devolution issues, might sit in Edinburgh "as appropriate"? That has never happened, as he will be well aware. Will he find out why not and also consider why there should therefore be a requirement on the new supreme court to sit from time to time, when considering devolution issues, in Edinburgh or elsewhere in the UK as appropriate?
Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend comments on the consultation paperI think that he responded to itthat contained a proposal to consider transferring the functions of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in respect of devolution issues to the new United Kingdom supreme court. As I said in my earlier answer, it might be appropriate for such a supreme court to sit in places other than London around the country, but that would be a matter for it and would be subject to logistical questions. I am not closed-minded on that.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Is it not abundantly clear, not least from the evidence of Lords Cullen and Hope and the Faculty of Advocates, that the Government have completely failed to understand the Scottish dimension of what they are proposing with the supreme court? Given that we still have no idea where the court will eventually sitto the extent that the Lord Chancellor has suggested that it may end up camping out in the House of Lordsshould we not take time to get this very important reform, which many of us support wholeheartedly, right rather than rushing it through so haphazardly?
Mr. Leslie: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The purpose of having a consultation paper in respect of any subsequent legislation is to scrutinise such matters in much more detail. We will look very carefully at the representations made about the location of the supreme court. I believe fundamentally that, as a UK supreme court, it should be located in the UK capital city. As I said, however, that will not preclude it from sitting in other parts of the country from time to time.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): If my hon. Friend looks at the evidence that has been given so far to the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, he will see that many other concerns have been raised. May I press him on his answer to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)? Surely a pause in the consultation process and an extension of the timetable would give the House, and the country, the opportunity to have a proper, firm set of proposals on replacing the current system. I do not oppose the proposals, but more time is needed.