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2 Apr 2008 : Column 278WH—continued

Miss Begg: Before anyone thinks that the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of what I said is correct, I have just said that it is for the SNP, if what it is saying is
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correct, to come to the Scottish Parliament with its idea. I did not say whether anyone would support it. It is the SNP’s contention, and no one else’s, that that is what the Scottish people desperately want—that it is their No. 1 priority. As with most politicians in the Chamber today, that is not what I hear on the doorstep, through the mail or in the constituency surgery.

In fact, I am overwhelmed by the incompetence of the SNP on Aberdeen city council. It has managed to find a black hole of £27 million, which it cut from the budget in one financial year. As a result, the council is shutting swimming pools, ice rinks and sheltered workshops for the blind, and taking away day centres and day care from vulnerable adults. All that is at the hands of the SNP administration in Aberdeen. The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) spoke of irresponsible administration. I can tell him where to find an irresponsible administration; it is to be found in Aberdeen and the SNP and Lib-Dem city council. It is a shower. If anyone thinks that the SNP can run a Government, they should consider what is happening in Aberdeen. The party is in power, and what it is doing is appalling.

Stewart Hosie: I am sure that, for the sake of completeness, the hon. Lady will want to advise the House that in the past four years, under the previous administration in Aberdeen, the council reserves were raided to the tune of £7 million, £9 million, £11 million and £12 million. A total of £39 million was taken, leaving a closing balance in deficit last year for the first time since 1999. It is no wonder that there are difficulties, given the shambles of the Aberdeen administration and the £39 million raid on reserves over the past four years.

Miss Begg: I am so happy to answer that, because when Labour left office five years ago in Aberdeen, we left a surplus of £23 million. We had a large amount in reserve as well, although I admit that that surplus has disappeared into a black hole. Since the SNP administration took over in May last year, its financial cuts have hit the most vulnerable. It has not done a disability impact study; it has merely taken lines through the budget without realising the consequences of its decisions. It has not necessarily had to deal with a difficult budget, but most of us object to how it has dealt with that budget.

Pete Wishart: I have no idea what that has to do with the renewal of the Scotland Act 1998 but, when it comes to Aberdeen council, where was the Labour budget this year? Why was one not produced? What would the hon. Lady cut? How much would she increase council tax to address the problem? Every opposition party has produced a budget—

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Order. May I bring Members back to the subject, which is the wider issue of Scotland?

Miss Begg: I take what you say, Mrs. Dean. In Aberdeen and elsewhere, when my colleagues and I and the Liberals were discussing the Scotland Act before the 1997 election, we worked together as part of the constitutional convention and Civic Scotland. We brought together lots of people’s ideas. It was not just a matter
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of going it alone, as the national conversation is doing, and it was certainly not one-sided like the conversation happening now. The SNP has no history of any kind of compromise or of working with others. In fact, its members become defensive if anyone suggests that their view of Scotland is anything less than perfect. They believe that their view is shared by everyone. If that were true, perhaps they would not find themselves in a minority Administration in the Scottish Parliament. That is why they will not put their ideas to the Scottish Parliament: they know that they will lose.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire began his speech by saying that it is accepted everywhere that devolution is a process, not an event. Again, we can argue whether that is accepted everywhere, but it is his interpretation of the word “process” with which I have a problem. I have always understood a process to involve moving forward and perhaps changing something, not necessarily taking more powers. I do not think that any dictionary definition of “process” includes an assumption of more power. Sometimes it involves putting things together, as in the case of a process worker, but I do not know of any definition that necessarily involves adding, taking back or taking more powers.

Even if Donald Dewar said that devolution was a process and not an event—it is still open to doubt—that does not necessarily imply the interpretation made by the hon. Gentleman. What is clear—this is why we are having this debate and why the commission has been set up—is that after 10 years of devolution, it is perhaps time to take stock of how things are working, what is working well and what is not working so well. I do not think that anyone in this Chamber has a problem with that except SNP Members. They have one view and one view only, and if no one else shares that view, they are somehow unpatriotic or un-Scottish. The SNP does not hold the flag for everyone in Scotland, nor are its views shared by the majority of Scots.

Mr. MacNeil: I am intrigued. Is the hon. Lady telling us that she would like an increase in the powers held by the Parliament at Holyrood—the powers independently controlled at the moment by the SNP Government?

Miss Begg: Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I was involved in a lot of the discussion leading up to the Act. I campaigned on it for most of my political career; it is what brought me into politics. Ironically, the reason why I ended up joining the Labour party in 1983 was that I went along to SNP hustings meetings and discovered that I could not vote SNP even to get rid of the Tories—I apologise to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace)—although I believed in Scottish self-determination. Why not? Because I did not agree with the SNP’s hard-line, single and one-dimensional view of Scotland.

That is when I joined the Labour party and became involved in the debate. Unlike some Members, I was there. The Labour party and I were part of it, and we think that we created something to be proud of. It is up for review. We have not even started the process yet, but that is where the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire wants the decision to be made— [Interruption.] He has his mind made up before we have started any conversation. That is what makes a conversation one-way.


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Mr. Devine: To summarise, is it not the case that we have great pride in Scotland? What we do not have is the prejudice of the SNP.

Miss Begg: Indeed. The reason for pride in Scotland and Scottish values is that we listen to and engage with others. We are part of a wider civic Scotland, and we do not have the single view held by the SNP. It is a no-compromise and go-it-alone organisation that does not want to engage with others. That is why its only response is to mock those of us who genuinely want a debate.

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

Miss Begg: I was just about to finish, but I will take the intervention.

Mr. MacNeil: As the hon. Lady speaks about engaging with others, I am sure that she will welcome the fact that last Wednesday in Edinburgh, at the second part of the national conversation led by the First Minister, representatives of the Scottish Trades Union Congress were present.

Miss Begg: As indeed they were all through the convention process. I am sure that it will not be long before the SNP gets fed up with them as well and goes it alone.

Anne Moffat: On the issue of the STUC and the trade union movement in Scotland, is my hon. Friend aware that, when a modernisation fund was being promoted by this Government, the Scottish National party was not there for the trade union movement to vote or support it?

Miss Begg: I am not surprised, because I do not think that the SNP has ever taken workers’ rights seriously. One only has to look at the fact that SNP Members did not stay up all night to vote through the National Minimum Wage Act 1998.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): On the subject of engaging with various organisations, my hon. Friend may be aware that the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs visited Glasgow this week, and the shipbuilding yards in Govan and Scotstoun, as part of our inquiry into employment in the defence industry. The SNP is represented on the Scottish Affairs Committee, but unfortunately no one from the SNP was present on our visit. However, it was made crystal clear to us that the shipbuilding industry, particularly in Scotland, depends almost entirely on UK Ministry of Defence contracts. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is deplorable that the SNP seeks to put thousands of jobs in jeopardy by taking Scotland out of the UK?

Miss Begg: One of the main reasons why Scotland is a stronger part of the United Kingdom has to do with those defence jobs. We are also stronger because we do well out of welfare spending. There would be an £800 million black hole if Scotland were to go independent with regard to welfare spending.

Pete Wishart: Will the hon. Lady give way?


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Miss Begg: I would normally take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman, but I have used all my time.

To sum up, when the SNP does not know what to do with its power—this is absolutely clear from everything that it has done in the Scottish Parliament and in Aberdeen—it calls for more. Labour Members should have a sensible conversation, rather than being part of a trumped-up, one-sided conversation in which only the SNP Administration in Holyrood are interested in taking part.

3.10 pm

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): John Smith referred to devolution as unfinished business, and he was right. As we have heard, my neighbour, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), supports devolution. However, we come at the issue of Scotland’s devolved settlement from different points of view. The position that I take is overwhelmingly supported by the Scottish people, by two thirds of the Members of the Scottish Parliament—indeed, it has been voted on and supported by the Scottish Parliament, which is funding it—and by the UK Government. The hon. Gentleman and the SNP approach the matter somewhat in isolation: they have minority support in the Scottish Parliament and from the Scottish people, and authoritative polls show that support for separation, at 23 per cent., is falling.

The point is not only that we approach this matter from two different points of view, but that the issue of Scotland’s governance is being discussed by two different entities. One—the Calman commission, to which I alluded—is approved by the Scottish Parliament; it is independent, it has cross-border support and its findings will be consulted on by the Scottish Parliament and the UK Government. Let us compare that with the alternative that we have heard about today—the nationalist conversation. The conversation document was produced with taxpayers’ money, but without the approval of taxpayers’ representatives. It was launched during the summer recess to avoid the headlines, and it approaches the governance of Scotland from the isolated position of separation.

Pete Wishart: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has actually read the national conversation, but it would be nice if he had. It puts the case for more powers for the Scottish Parliament—we want to debate that. We did not think that the Labour party would actually get around to producing anything or doing anything significant, so my party had to do the job for it. We outlined the case for more powers, and that is set out in the national conversation, which includes all options. Why can the hon. Gentleman not include all options in his commission?

Gordon Banks: I will come to my involvement with the national conversation in a moment, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bide his time.

The national conversation on which the SNP has embarked has been carried out largely in cyberspace and in the early hours of the morning for some strange reason. Perhaps the nationalists are up pounding their computer keyboards because they are too worried about all the manifesto promises that they are breaking to sleep. Perhaps the consultation process will tell us the reason, but perhaps it is because some of the contributions
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to the national conversation do not deserve to see the light of day. There have been comments about burning the Union Jack and about Union liars, as well as comments that could incite hatred and divide people, such as those about Asians, Swedish, Danish, Belgian, Norwegian and English business men owning land in Scotland. I want the SNP as a party, and certainly Ministers in the Scottish Executive who represent me, to dissociate themselves from such aggressively confrontational comments. I hope that SNP Members will take the opportunity of this debate to do just that.

Mr. MacNeil: I will take this opportunity to dissociate myself—as I am sure that my party would—from anybody who behaves in that way. We do not know who is doing this. It could be agents provocateurs—we do not know. However, will the hon. Gentleman answer the question that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) failed to answer? Does he support more powers and further independence for the Scottish Parliament? That is one of a series of questions that we could ask Scottish Labour MPs.

Gordon Banks: What I support—I will come to this as well—is the commission’s right to do its job and not to go in with the prejudged conclusion that the nationalist conversation has arrived at before we have even had a conversation.

Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend gave a very interesting list of the rhetoric that is used. I draw his attention to the fact that, not very long ago, an SNP MSP called the Union flag the butcher’s apron. That comment has never been repudiated. Will my hon. Friend give way to an intervention by an SNP Member to see whether they will repudiate it?

Gordon Banks: I am certainly willing to sit down if there are any takers for another intervention—no, I did not think so. Perhaps the SNP should look in greater depth at some of the tawdry comments on its website. Incidentally, it got one more hit from me last night, but I urge SNP Members not to read anything into that, because I did not engage in the conversation.

Perhaps SNP Members should look at some of the other comments on its website, such as that by Alistair from Stirling. In his posting, he said that few things made him want to get involved in politics, but that having

Mr. MacNeil: I am very impressed by the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of the national conversation website—I have seen the hard copy, but I have not seen it in electronic form. I just wonder what Gordon from Ochil is saying about the issue of more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

Gordon Banks: I have already asked the hon. Gentleman to be patient. He will hear what Gordon from Ochil—and South Perthshire, I hasten to add—feels about more powers for the Scottish Parliament.


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However, perhaps the hon. Gentleman should listen to John Stuart from Edinburgh, who considers the national conversation “a Nationalist rant” and who questions who is paying for it. Let me take this opportunity to tell John Stuart who is paying for this nationalist rant—it is Scottish taxpayers. The hon. Gentleman should also listen to Alan from Midlothian, who

The second round of the conversation, which we have heard a little about today, has met with equal derision, and no wonder. The First Minster has used the hastily convened opportunity for a relaunch to announce that a referendum on separatism—despite what the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said—could be on the basis of multi-option preferential voting. That is an attempt to get separation at any cost. Perhaps the First Minister would be better spending his time listening to the advice given to him by CBI Scotland and getting on with the job that he is charged to do.

I invite the SNP to engage in the official review of how devolution is working. At the same time, the party could show a maturity that has been lacking to date and engage constructively with the UK Government on a range of issues. We must get away from the peddled myths that Scotland is being bullied by the UK Government, the BBC and the Treasury. At the same time, we must squash the myth, as one of my colleagues has said, that for someone to be patriotic to Scotland, they must be a nationalist—they do not. We must rise above the persecuted, Braveheart image of politics in Scotland or, indeed, its “alter image”, as described on the national conversation website—the politics of the White Heather club. Both are equally unfitting for Scotland in the 21st century.

Mr. MacNeil: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and he claims to stand for Scotland. Will he therefore support John Swinney’s call for £150 million for Scottish prisons—money that is being withheld by Whitehall—or will he support London?

Gordon Banks: The Scottish Executive has more than double the money that Donald Dewar had in 1999. For the First Minister or any representative of his party to cry about the lack of money in Scotland is shameful.

Mr. Russell Brown: In response to the question from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), let me say that I would not support that call. That is because I am still looking for answers to the question of where the £34 million for disabled children and their families has gone. I have had three replies on the issue from Executive Ministers, but they make no sense. If that money has not come to local authorities and health boards in Scotland when I get to the end of my investigation, the SNP Administration can hang their heads in shame.

Gordon Banks: My hon. Friend makes extremely good sense, and I think that the whole of Scotland wants to know what happened to that £34 million.

The Calman commission provides an opportunity to grasp all of the issues that I have paraded before the Chamber. It will explore the success of devolution and consider how the devolution settlement can be better
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developed to work for the people of Scotland within the UK. The chair of the commission stated clearly that he


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