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2 Apr 2008 : Column 285WH—continued

We have a real opportunity for Scottish progress, on a particularly Scottish matter, in a way that will include a wide range of expertise from Scottish business, law, public life and civic Scotland. Although it is fundamentally important not to prejudge the outcome of the commission—unlike what the SNP wants us to do—the flexibility that the Scotland Act gave us must be retained in any new agreement. Since 1999, the flexibility under the Act has delivered 164 orders with more to come later this year. That flexibility reflects good governance in the interests of the Scottish people.

Where there has been a clear case for devolving further powers, the UK Government have agreed to do so. For the sake of clarity, no matter has ever moved the other way—from devolved back to reserved control. That balance must be a matter for consideration by the commission and for it to make recommendations on. How can it be independent if we do not allow it to reach its own conclusions?

The Calman commission allows for a review of the devolution settlement, which has been in place for 10 years, for the position approved by the democratically-elected Scottish Parliament to be considered and for cross-border and non-partisan discussion. Will the SNP abandon its late-night cyberspace conversations, see the light and embrace it?

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Order. We have eight minutes before I must call the Front-Bench spokesmen and four more Members have indicated that they want to speak. It is up to them—two minutes each or whatever.

3.23 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): This has been a rather cathartic experience. Often it is only every five weeks that we get to debate such matters in the House. Unfortunately, however, this debate has been characterised by hyperbole and spin and has not given us the opportunity to discuss and consider matters of detail, which should form part of the discussion about the creation of new powers for the Scottish Parliament. The Liberal Democrats have set down a marker—we do not want more powers repatriated back to Westminster. That is an important issue for us. However, we want to discuss such matters with the other parties. We recognise that the Labour and Conservative parties have moved, and have come on to our agenda, as set out by the Steel commission, led by Lord Steel of Aikwood, who considered those matters in considerable detail. We welcome the opportunity to have this discussion today.

I was rather surprised that this debate was scheduled to take place in the Chamber, because, as has been mentioned, such a debate has not been held in the Scottish Parliament. I went to the Scottish Government’s website to see where this national conversation had taken place. It has been conducted in various places, including Estonia, Dublin, Harvard university, Stolt salmon farm on Harris and even the Moonlight Tandoori in Turriff, but it still has not taken place in the Scottish Parliament—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) will stand up
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again and give us his view on whether it should take place in the Scottish Parliament. Or does he recognise that, if it did go to the Scottish Parliament, the matter would be killed off and that there would be no mandate for the national conversation, either in the Scotland or in the tandoori in Turriff. He is frightened of exposing the question to the will of the Scottish Parliament, as expressed in last May’s elections.

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

Willie Rennie: No, because I only have two minutes.

It should be recognised that the pro-independence parties—Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist party, the Scottish Green party and the SNP—formed a minority in the last year’s elections and did not secure a majority of Scottish opinion in their favour. Last May’s election was the referendum. We do not need another one, because the single issue party—the SNP—put their manifesto to the electorate and it was soundly beaten. The pro-Unionist parties—we are now the pro-reform parties—were in favour of the Union and therefore secured a majority of opinion on our side. We must recognise that the will of the people has been expressed, and we must now have a serious look at the issues at the heart of the debate, such as fiscal federalism, the abolition of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, broadcasting and so on. Those are the issues of substance that should be considered.

3.25 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing this debate. I shall make three very quick points. First, I surveyed 10,000 households in my constituency and asked various questions about issues that were important to them—issues of the day—and discovered nothing of great surprise. The things that are important to people—health, education, the economy, the environment and so on—are the same across the UK and Scotland. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) said, those matters of substance are rarely mentioned by the SNP and were not mentioned by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire. They are the issues that we should be debating, because they concern people the most.

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

Mr. Joyce: No, because I only have two minutes.

Secondly, the way in which the nationalist conversation is being conducted seems to encourage the posting of bigoted, racist comments on the Government website, which is funded totally by the taxpayer. The Scottish Administration needs to consider very carefully what they are encouraging. My third point concerns the issue about which the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) has been jumping up and down and chuntering away. He wants all powers devolved to Scotland and full independence. My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) mentioned defence. I was perusing the Scotland on Sunday and noticed a letter from a chap called Jeff Duncan who runs a campaign to reinstate all six former Scottish regiments, which I understand is also the SNP’s policy—that demonstrates how little concern it has about defence.
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However, I also noticed that Mr. Duncan describes himself as the webmaster for the Black Watch. Among other things, he consistently criticises troops’ commitment to the course in Afghanistan, which does profound damage to morale in the Black Watch. I am deeply depressed that this man, who describes himself as webmaster for the Black Watch website—indeed, he appears to be so—also describes himself as being close to Alex Salmond, by whom he is supposedly extremely well supported. I hope that SNP Members will take this opportunity to dissociate themselves from Jeff Duncan’s disgraceful comments, if he is, as I believe he is, the Black Watch webmaster.

Mr. MacNeil: I do not know anything about that website—everything that the hon. Gentleman is saying is news to me. The question that I want to ask him is: does he want more powers for the Scottish Parliament?

Mr. Joyce: Need we say more? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will ask the leader of his party whether he will dissociate himself from Jeff Duncan’s comments because, until now, he has been a big fan of his. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am entirely relaxed about an intelligent discussion on the powers of the Scottish Parliament. That is the purpose of the Calman commission, and I look forward to seeing its proposals.

3.28 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I understand that the Front-Bench spokespersons have kindly agreed to give up a couple of minutes, thus allowing me to speak.

I did not originally intend to contribute to this debate, but I was moved by the contribution of the House’s favourite rock star, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), whom I congratulate on securing this debate. He said one thing that really struck home: that the commission does not have a democratic mandate. That is a misrepresentation that cannot be allowed to remain on the record unchallenged.

Pete Wishart: That is not true.

Mr. Carmichael: That is exactly what the hon. Gentleman said, and he can check it tomorrow morning. The commission has a democratic mandate. It has been endorsed by the Scottish Parliament, which is impressive and stands in stark contrast with the website offered by the Scottish Government. That is very important. That democratic mandate emphasises and reinforces the fact that the work of the Calman commission is in accord with the mainstream view, which is where the centre of gravity lies in Scottish public opinion. We want a Scottish Parliament and we can see that, after 10 years, the time has come to consider giving it extra powers. To my mind, that is a very important position. After eight years of the Scottish Parliament, it is time to look at giving it the power to raise more of its own budget.

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

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Mr. Carmichael: No, I do not have time; the hon. Gentleman has wasted enough time already. It is surely axiomatic that, if there is to be a democratic Government—

Mr. MacNeil: Let the people decide.

Mr. Carmichael: The people have decided; they decided last May and his party got 20 per cent. of the electorate’s votes, so let us not hear any nonsense about people deciding—[Interruption.]

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Has the hon. Gentleman finished?

Mr. Carmichael: I am sorry, Mrs. Dean. I think that you were quite right to castigate the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) in the way that you did.

As usual, of course, the SNP chooses not to be part of this process. That is nothing new. In the early 1990s, we had the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Mainstream Scottish civic opinion was concerned with that convention and engaged in debate, but where was the SNP? Its members did not want to know. They took their ball away and did not want to play. All we are seeing today—and on their website—is a repeat of history. They have nothing to offer and for that reason they do not want to be part of our commission. [Interruption.]

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Before I call the Front Bench spokesmen, I want to say that there is too much talking from a sedentary position.

3.31 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing the debate. That is a heartfelt congratulation, not just a courtesy, because the debate is timely and interesting. It is certainly timely, coming the week after the appointment of Sir Kenneth Calman as chair of the constitutional commission, which is examining the powers of the Scottish Parliament.

There is widespread support throughout Scotland for the long-held position of Liberal Democrats that there should be more powers for the Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom. We are therefore pleased to be working with the Labour and Conservative parties within the constitutional commission, and we are disappointed that the SNP has opted out of the commission, just as it opted out of the constitutional convention in the 1990s.

The present state of affairs, in which the Scottish Parliament’s sole financial responsibility is to receive a block grant for £30 billion from Westminster and then decide how to spend it, is not sustainable. That situation has meant that, since 1999, the debate in the Scottish Parliament has been about how to spend that block grant and not about how to raise money. I do not believe that that situation is healthy for our politics, and it has to change.

We need to modernise the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom through a new federal settlement for the whole of the UK, which delivers new powers for the Scottish Parliament through a written constitution for the UK. In the matter of
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finance, the Scottish Government should raise as much of their own budget as is practical, and there should be absolutely no question of powers being returned from the Scottish Parliament to Westminster. In fact, there should be a new written constitution for the UK, which entrenches the rights of Scotland and other nations and regions of the UK within a constitutional framework, rather then the present situation, in which the Scottish Parliament’s powers are determined simply by an Act of Parliament, as those powers could be removed simply by another Act of Parliament.

Mr. Joyce: I will be as quick as I can. The hon. Gentleman said that there should be no return of powers to Westminster, but I think that I am correct in saying that the Liberal Democrats have said that, whatever the Calman commission proposes, we should support it. As far as I can see, they have abdicated responsibility; I believe that that is the position in Scotland.

Mr. Reid: I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misunderstanding. We have never given that commitment. We have our own views, and we will argue for them within the Calman commission. Furthermore, such is the strength of our views, we are confident that other parties within the commission will agree with them.

Mr. Ingram: My understanding is that the hon. Gentleman supports the presence of Faslane in his constituency. Does he agree that, under the existing Act, it is possible that the powers resting with the minority Administration in Holyrood could frustrate or delay much-needed developments at Faslane? If that is the case, would it not be better if some of those powers came back to the centre, so that there could be better control of national security?

Mr. Reid: No, I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. I believe in democracy and the decentralisation of power, just as I support the presence of the Navy at Faslane in my constituency. However, we must persuade the people of Scotland that that situation should continue, and I am confident that the people of Scotland will support the presence of the Navy at Faslane.

Pete Wishart: This all seems to be quite a bit of a shambles; hon. Members cannot agree among themselves about these sorts of issues. What we need to hear from the hon. Gentleman is an answer to this question: if the Labour party persists with the idea of taking powers back from Holyrood, at what point will the Liberal Democrats leave the commission and have nothing whatsoever to do with that particular objective?

Mr. Reid: I will reiterate what I have said: the Liberal Democrats do not support any transfer of powers from the Scottish Parliament back to Westminster, and if the hon. Gentleman and his party would join the commission, they could add weight to that argument.

Pete Wishart: Will the hon. Gentleman answer my question?

Mr. Reid: That is typical of SNP members: they take the ball away; they will not participate in the discussions, and simply shout abuse from the sidelines, as the hon. Gentleman continues to do.

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Mr. Carmichael: Does my hon. Friend recall that, at the start of the constitutional convention process in the 1990s, we found ourselves in very similar territory, as a lot of senior people in the Labour party said that under no circumstances would they ever countenance a Scottish Parliament elected by proportional representation? Does he also recall that we argued the case for that Parliament within the Scottish constitutional convention, and eventually Labour produced a blueprint that included proportional representation in elections? Finally, does he recall that we did that on our own, because the SNP could not stand the heat of constructive engagement?

Mr. Reid: Yes, my hon. Friend is quite correct. I remember the process that the constitutional convention underwent. Initially, there were to be 112 seats, which would have meant that the Scottish Parliament would not be proportional. It was through our arguments that we persuaded the Labour party to add another 17 seats, which allowed the Parliament to be proportional.

Mr. Hood: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Reid: Yes, but this is the last intervention that I will accept.

Mr. Hood: Is the hon. Gentleman going to tell the Chamber that, if it was not for his policy, we would not have an SNP Government today? Is he saying that that was a good policy?

Mr. Reid: If it had not been for the Liberal Democrats insisting on proportional representation, the result of the Scottish Parliament elections would be very unfair, and we would have a Labour Government with an overall majority despite the fact that Labour won less than a third of the votes. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not arguing that we should go back to that situation.

Mr. Hood: Yes.

Mr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman shows that he obviously does not believe in democracy. However, I must press on.

The Liberal Democrats set up the Steel commission three years ago to make recommendations on constitutional changes. Chaired by Lord Steel, it reported in March 2006, and I certainly suggest to all hon. Members that they read its recommendations, because it made excellent recommendations about how we should take the debate forward. The commission found that, compared with many Parliaments that operate in a federal system, the Scottish Parliament has considerable legislative power, but very limited control over taxation. That situation certainly has to change. We need a written constitution that sets out the limits of power of the various partners within the Union; sets out the powers that are the exclusive domain of the UK Parliament; introduces a new category of formal partnership working in specific areas; and confirms that all other areas are within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. In particular, tax-raising powers must be transferred to the Scottish Parliament, so that it raises the bulk of its own funds. I certainly look forward to the constitutional commission taking this debate forward and the Liberal Democrats,
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unlike the SNP, will enthusiastically participate in the coming debate on Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom.

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