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House of Commons

Tuesday 27 April 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Constitutional Reform

1. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): What recent representations he has received on constitutional reform for Scotland. [167027]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling): I have received a number of representations on constitutional issues in Scotland.

Bob Spink : As we want to make devolution work and see it stable in Scotland, which requires a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs, will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that, once the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill has passed through the House, he will lay orders to reduce the number of Scottish MPs from 72 to 59?

Mr. Darling: I am glad that the Conservatives want to make devolution work, which marks a welcome change from the last 20 or 30 years. As to the reduction of Scottish Members of Parliament, it does not depend on the Bill currently passing through Parliament. Under the Scotland Act 1998, the boundary commission was asked to examine the boundaries with a view to reducing them so that the constituencies would be approximately the same size and the electoral quota the same as between Scotland and England. The position now is that the boundary commission has finished its work on the Westminster parliamentary boundaries. All other things being equal, it would have proceeded to examine the boundaries of the Scottish Parliament, but the Bill going through the House puts a stop to that, as we are going to retain the 129 Members. As I have said on many occasions—and at every Question Time that I can recall—as soon as I have received the report, I intend to lay it before the House with a view to implementation. I believe that all the Scottish political parties are preparing for that and proceeding on that basis.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend provide an update on where we are in respect of the commission established to examine the
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coterminous boundaries of constituencies? Will he tell us when all these things are going to happen, and whether they will be done before the next Scottish Parliament elections?

Mr. Darling: We are making good progress on the membership of the commission. Conservative Members pressed me at previous Scottish questions about why we were not making faster progress. I was very surprised to receive a letter from the leader of the Conservative party saying that the Conservatives—despite the fact that they wanted me to make progress—would play no part in the proceedings whatever. We saw that before, when they were in denial when we were preparing for devolution. Some things never change.

On my hon. Friend's general point, I repeat that, once the commission is set up, I would like it to make progress as quickly as possible. I see no point in prolonging these things: the issues before the commission relating to the lack of coterminosity in the boundaries are fairly straightforward. I am not saying that there will not be representations to consider, but I see no point in dragging out the whole process. I have also said before that I cannot commit the Government to introducing primary legislation in Sessions yet to come. But I do think—and I hope there is common ground here—that we need to make progress as quickly as possible.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Now that even retired diplomats have lost confidence in the Prime Minister's disastrous foreign policy, does the Secretary of State not think that there a case for further constitutional change to allow Scotland direct access to the world, so that we can pursue an ethical foreign policy and one that is not totally subservient to the Administration of the United States of America?

Mr. Darling: No, I do not, and I have never been convinced of the case for separatism in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman might want to reflect on the fact that the Scottish National party has never ever won an election that it has contested.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale) (Con): But constitutional reform has many facets to it. The coming debate on the EU constitution will have profound constitutional implications for Scotland, as it will for the rest of the UK. However, the Government now seem to be seeking the strangest of bedfellows—those strange people behind me. We learn that negotiations and deals are to be hatched between the Foreign Secretary—head of the Straw-ites, I understand—and the SNP. In the process of constitutional reform, who does the Secretary of State think is most likely to be sold out on—Scottish fishing communities or the Scottish people, as a result of a left-wing consensus that is determined to relinquish our nation's sovereignty?

Mr. Darling: Once again, the hon. Gentleman is rather muddled in what he says. Since he has raised the question—in some ways I was not surprised that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) did not raise this point—I understand that the meeting with the Foreign Secretary was arranged some time before the referendum was announced, so the SNP's claim that
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this is all about some sort of negotiation is the sort of overblown and overspun claim that one might expect from the hon. Gentleman. We intend to hold the referendum and to fight it on the issues. I believe that it is in the best interests of Scotland that we remain at the heart of Europe. Scotland depends on its membership of a United Kingdom at the heart of Europe. That is what we will be fighting on. The only common ground is that the Conservatives in Scotland and the nationalists are trying to outdo each other in their Euroscepticism.

Farm Holdings (English Border)

2. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): What estimate he has made of the number of registered farm holdings which straddle the English border. [167028]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I have made no such estimate. The registration of farm holdings in England and Scotland is a matter for the respective agriculture Departments. I am informed, however, that the relevant Departments have agreed detailed arrangements in respect of farm holdings that straddle the border, and of farm businesses with separate holdings on both sides of the border.

Mr. Gray : It is disappointing that the Minister has made no estimate of how many farms will be affected. The reform of the common agricultural policy means that English farms get £220 per hectare, whereas Scottish farms will still be paid on the historic basis and may get only half as much. What does the Minister think about a potato field that straddles the border? Farmers in England will be paid a subsidy for growing potatoes, but those in Scotland will not. The subsidy will mean that the noble English tuber will be substantially cheaper than the common Scottish tattie. Does the Minister think that that is reasonable? What is she going to do about farms that straddle the border?

Mrs. Anne McGuire: It is always a delight to hear the hon. Gentleman try to get his tongue around Scots words such as "tattie".

Arrangements are in place to allow holdings that straddle the border to apply for subsidy at a one-stop shop. Agriculture is a devolved issue, and different systems exist in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. There are also three different areas in England—a point that I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind at the next Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Question Time. It all depends on the particular circumstances of an area.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh) (Lab): On the question of the implementation of the most recent CAP reform package, does my hon. Friend agree that it is a very good thing that the four parts of the United Kingdom are able to diverge when it comes to the application of the measures? However, will she make representations to the Scottish Executive and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the UK Agriculture Minister, in respect of the real concerns about the continuation of set-aside, not least whole-farm set-aside? The CAP reform package has not
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eliminated set-aside, and many of us in Scotland are particularly concerned not just about the short-term income of those who happen to be farmers at the moment but about future levels of agricultural production on these islands.

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my right hon. Friend for that question, as he has great knowledge in this area. I welcome his comments about the devolution of responsibility. That allows different areas in the UK—including the three regions identified in England for the purposes of the single-farm payment—to take account of local circumstances. I shall draw my right hon. Friend's comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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