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People are furious that the SNP Government are doing the Tories' job for them in Scotland. They are
repeating the mistakes of the Thatcher years by cutting key economic budgets, and by cutting teachers and NHS staff by thousands.
One reason why Scots voted for devolution in '97 was that they lived through a Tory Government in the '80s who did not care about us, and who indeed used Scotland as a testing ground for their most reviled policy-the hated poll tax. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament should mean that we in Scotland have some defence against the worst excesses of any Tory Government, but that will not happen now that we have an SNP Government in Scotland.
People in my constituency have been hit by an SNP double whammy. An SNP-run council is mounting an attack on the most vulnerable by imposing unfair charges on the elderly and disabled, and an SNP Government are making cuts to local services that are deeper in my area than across the rest of Scotland. The figures bear that out. The SNP in government has seriously failed the people of Scotland and Scots continue to reject separation in massive numbers. As the SNP continues to pursue its obsession with separation, it becomes more and more out of touch by the day. That was highlighted by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) when he spent his time failing to speak to his amendment, but talking about Antarctica and caravans.
Pete Wishart: It is really sad that we are back to incoherent ranting in interchangeable speeches from Labour Members. Will the hon. Lady talk about the Bill? What amendments would she like to see to improve the Bill? Where can we achieve cross-party consensus to achieve a powerhouse Bill? What valuable contribution will she make in Committee to improve the Bill?
The Calman commission concluded that the real way to strengthen devolution to make a real difference to the everyday lives of Scots is to give the Scottish Parliament some specific additional powers and some more responsibility for tax raising. The test of this Bill is whether it delivers those things effectively. I remain concerned about a few particular aspects of the Bill, but I hope that detailed scrutiny will make it stronger. On the whole, I believe that it will consolidate devolution and build on the transformation of the governance of Scotland delivered by Labour in 1999, and I look forward to supporting its progress through Parliament.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Could you clarify the procedural consequences if the House were to vote in favour of the SNP amendment? Would it mean no Second Reading for the Bill and, therefore, no Committee stage?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): If the amendment were passed, the Bill could go forward- [ Interruption. ] I know what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but we would still go on to the main motion. He is talking about hypothetical situations. Let us see whether the amendment is pressed to a Division and what then happens.
Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to be able to make some remarks following this interesting and wide-ranging debate, which has been sometimes informed and often lively. I am sure that the Minister will wish to respond to specific points raised by hon. Members, so I shall endeavour to be concise.
In the opening speech, the Secretary of State set out the background to this Bill and the Calman commission that preceded it. Some hon. Members, in various capacities, have had some familiarity with the Calman commission over recent years, including the motion in the Scottish Parliament to establish the commission; its interim report; the report of the expert group on finance led by Anton Muscatelli; the final report by the commission; the White Paper before the general election; and the Bill published late last year. I pay tribute to the contribution made by the Secretary of State's officials in the Scotland Office and the often complex work that they have done to get to where we are today.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) made clear, the Labour party here and in the Scottish Parliament supports and welcomes the work of the Calman commission which underpins this Bill. That process was, by and large, an extensive exercise in basing recommendations on evidence, something that is not always apparent in debates on this issue, which understandably arouse passionate views.
In his usual lively and energetic-albeit lengthy-manner, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) spoke of his concerns about the level of scrutiny of the Bill. I hope that he was reassured by contributions from many other Members. The fact that we have made clear our broad support for the Bill does not mean that there are not issues that we wish to press further in Committee and reflect upon. That is a much more mature approach at this stage than a blanket dismissal of the Bill. Points have been made by Members representing all parties that we will look to test in Committee over the next few weeks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) mentioned similar points, and the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) reminded us of her memories of the scrutiny of the Scotland Act 1998 as it progressed through the House. I am sure that the Government Front-Bench team will look forward to her continued involvement in Committee over the next few weeks. Importantly, we will also reflect on the scrutiny work being carried out by the Scottish Parliament committee and the report of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs on the Scotland Bill. My hon. Friends the Members for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) are members of that Committee, as is the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), and no doubt they will provide robust scrutiny of the views and opinions of some of those whose work is prayed in aid by those who are against aspects of the Bill.
I would like to touch on a few of the points made during the debate. The hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) spoke from the perspective of a Scot who represents an English constituency. As an Englishman with a Scottish family and a Scottish constituency, I share his view that differences arising from devolution are not to be scoffed at, and in fact provide an opportunity for jurisdictions in different parts of the United Kingdom to learn from each other. He mentioned the cross-border issues that will particularly affect his constituents, and I know that they will affect the constituents of both Scotland Office Ministers as well. In particular, he mentioned drink-driving and speed limits. I am concerned that the largely thorough evidence brought to Calman might not have been as comprehensive in that area as in others. I am sure that we will need to consider in Committee the lack of evidence in those areas from key organisations and get some reassurances from Ministers, particularly on how the practical arrangements for cross-border issues will work.
The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) made the important point that there is not currently-and nor has there ever been-any appetite in Scotland for separating from the rest of the United Kingdom. The Scottish National party might think that there is, but as yet it has failed in every electoral test to convince the public to follow that course. From that perspective, it is therefore important that we use this opportunity to strengthen the Scottish Parliament as a part of the United Kingdom. That is in the interests of our constituents and accords with their views every time it has been tested.
My hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) and for Glasgow North referred to the omission of the Calman commission recommendation on charity regulation. I understand that the Command Paper makes it clear that a review of charity law is being undertaken, but that recommendation was present in the White Paper and is another point that we will wish to consider in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston also referred to the omission of the Calman recommendation on food standards. As I am sure that Ministers are aware, the Scottish Retail Consortium has expressed its disappointment on that point. Again, we will look at the outcome of the scrutiny of both the Holyrood committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee to see how that can be rectified in due course.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) highlighted the concerns that remain about the lack of detail in the definition of firearms. That will also require further work; again, I hope that we will obtain assurances from Ministers in Committee.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who has spent some time in my constituency-he stood there unsuccessfully in the Scottish Parliament elections in 1999-rightly highlighted an important point about how the Barnett formula is used as shorthand for other issues. I am sure that he will spend some time speaking to his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) about that. Importantly, those issues arise from a concern about the lack of accountability for the Scottish Parliament, an issue that the Bill seeks to address.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) referred to the detailed examination that underpins the financial propositions in the Bill. He was right to do so, and I would recommend that those Members who are interested look at the detailed work of the finance group on that issue. Importantly, my hon. Friend also drew the distinction between this constitutional Bill, which has been the subject of lengthy cross-party discussion and a process that translated across from one Government to another, and some of the other constitutional measures that this Government have introduced. I hope that the Government will reflect on that in all seriousness, because the best way of looking at detailed constitutional issues is to seek to take people along, rather than rushing things through quickly and then finding oneself in difficulty elsewhere.
My hon. Friends the Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun and for Glasgow East spoke reflectively and knowledgeably from their perspective as sitting Members of the Scottish Parliament and former Ministers in previous Administrations in Scotland. They also reflected on the important issue-an issue that, although not in the Bill, is reflected in the Command Paper-of the relationships between the UK Government and the devolved Administration, and between the Parliaments. Those are important issues for us all to reflect on and get right, because at various points in the past there have been some perhaps rather more political interventions in those relationships and how they have worked, which have not always been to the good of the people of Scotland. My hon. Friends also both spoke about issues of key importance to their constituencies, on the basis of a great deal of experience.
The Labour party in Scotland believes in a strong Scottish Parliament and a strong Scotland. I hope that we will have the opportunity in a few short weeks to elect a strong Scottish Administration, but to do so as part of the United Kingdom, sharing risks and resources, as others have said, and because that reflects the views of the vast majority of the people of Scotland. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun rightly pointed out, that is what the people of Scotland have confirmed at every electoral test, including and since the referendum.
We will support the Bill on Second Reading. We support the process that underpins it and the degree of involvement that led to that, but there are also issues that we wish to test. There are issues that we will wish to reflect on following the scrutiny of the Holyrood committee and the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. We will look to test those in Committee, perhaps by way of amendments, but we will do so in a serious, reflective and responsible way. We come to this measure as a party that believes in a Scottish Parliament as part of the United Kingdom, seeking not to undermine devolution, but to support and develop it. We look forward to the opportunity of doing so in the weeks to come.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Mundell): I begin by thanking all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I shall try to deal with the detail raised in individual contributions as time allows.
Today's debate is a testament to the significance of the Scotland Bill for the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom. Although the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 was quite rightly greeted with much fanfare-I was pleased to play my part in that day, along with the hon. Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) and for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran)-there was, as has been said, a recognition at that time of the view, which was personified by the then First Minister, Donald Dewar, that devolution was a process rather than an event.
Equally, it must be recognised that this Bill is part of a process within that process of devolution. It is part of the Calman process. The Calman process is one that I have been involved in from the very beginning. It began back in 2007, when I joined the then Scottish Secretary, now Lord Browne of Ladyton and the Government deputy Chief Whip, and the three parties' leaders at Holyrood, Wendy Alexander, Annabel Goldie and Nicol Stephen-I pay tribute to them, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain)-in seeking to establish an independent review of Scottish devolution, 10 years on. I want to put on record the Government's thanks not just to them, but to the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) and all those who worked with him, to Iain Gray MSP and Tavish Scott MSP, who joined us over subsequent months in the cross-party steering group to lay the groundwork on how to implement the recommendations that emerged from the review.
It gives me great personal satisfaction to be part of a new coalition Government who are seeing Calman through. I know that the Opposition remain behind the process, too, and I was pleased to learn that on his visit to the Scottish Parliament on 30 June last year, the current Labour leader said that
"we also recognise the need for Scotland to have an ability to vary its tax rates on the basis of the Calman commission proposals."
I welcome the considered remarks of the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex). It was clear not just from their remarks but from many Back-Bench contributions from both sides of the House that this Bill will indeed receive due scrutiny in this House. Any suggestion to the contrary would be quite wrong.
Let me pick up on one or two of the points about taxation that the hon. Member for Glasgow North raised. I emphasise particularly that the Government, the Scottish Government and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs are working together through the high-level implementation group and other forums to ensure that the tax system works in a way that minimises administration for business and makes it is as easy as possible for Scottish taxpayers to operate.
Our clear view is that the system that allows people resident in Scotland for tax purposes to have a distinct Scottish tax code will deal with many of the issues that have been reported. For example, the notion that everyone in Scotland will be required to fill in an income tax return when they do not do so currently is without foundation. I am sure that we will be able to return to these issues when we get into detailed examination of the Bill and debate the precise definition of "a Scottish taxpayer". I am sure that hon. Gentlemen and, indeed,
my hon. Friends, will come forward with the many and varied occupations that could provide a basis for challenging the definition of being resident in Scotland. I was not expecting to hear a reference to stage hypnotists today, but this shows the variety of issues in respect of which we can debate whether they should be devolved or not.
David Mundell: Of course, Antarctica is another issue-it became of interest to the Scottish National party only when it discovered that it might no longer be devolved. As became clear in the debate, SNP policy on it is not exactly clear.
The Calman process provides a great example of different political parties working together in the national interest, and I am sure that Opposition Members will in due course come to see the coalition Government in a similar light. If the Bill benefits from being cross-party, it also benefits from being cross-Parliament. I have no doubt that the Bill, and support for it, will be enhanced through being tested by the unique tricameral scrutiny to which it is subject-in this House, in the other place and in the Scottish Parliament.
I was extremely disappointed by the way in which Scottish National party Members derided the Scottish Parliament process of scrutiny, about which the hon. Member for Glasgow East spoke eloquently, and which is accepted as one of the great assets of the Scottish Parliament. As ever with the Scottish National party, however, the issue is not the level of scrutiny but whether the scrutineers agree with it.
Stewart Hosie: The Minister is wrong: there was no criticism of the process of Scottish Parliament Committee scrutiny, which is a model, an exemplar, a fantastic system. The difficulty was the shameful way in which certain witnesses and potential witnesses were treated. I am happy to defend them against the Committee involved, which treated some of them appallingly.
David Mundell: Anybody who reads the transcripts will realise that it was the way in which the evidence was given, and its quality, that was the issue in the sessions concerned. I look forward to the evidence of Scotland's Finance Secretary when he is recalled to that Committee. Given some of the comments of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), we will not take too many lessons from his party on respect within the context of a debate.
"the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 in the light of experience and to recommend any changes to the present constitutional arrangements that would enable the Scottish Parliament to serve the people of Scotland better, that would improve the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament and that would continue to secure the position of Scotland within the United Kingdom."
As we have heard today, there is an overwhelming consensus in the House and in Scotland that the Bill lives up to that vision. It builds on the success of the first 11 years of the Scottish Parliament, and addresses Holyrood's one critical flaw: the lack of revenue-raising power to match its spending power.
On the amendment, I defer to the House and the Speaker, who selected it, but I am not sure how to respond. It clearly states that the Bill, in its present
form, is unacceptable, yet when Scottish National party Members are asked whether they support the Bill, and whether they will support it if it emerges from the parliamentary process in broadly the same terms, they are unable to give an answer. I am afraid that the amendment strikes me as no more than a stunt-an opportunity to say, "We opposed it," while agreeing with it. It is absolutely ludicrous that a party, which has some worthy people in it-the worthiness of the views of many members of the SNP has been acknowledged-should come to the House and say, when additional powers for the Scottish Parliament are proposed, "No, we don't want them. Because we can't have our own way, we're not going to support the Bill."
Stewart Hosie: The Minister has not listened to the debate. We made it extremely clear that we will not stand in the way of any powers being devolved to Scotland. As the Bill stands, however, it has huge flaws and needs to be improved. That is a rather sensible thing to say, one would have thought, on Second Reading.
David Mundell: In that regard, the hon. Gentleman's comments are as incoherent as his comments in relation to the financial provisions. The SNP stands against the Bill, and will divide the House on the basis that the Bill is unacceptable. If the motion is carried, that, as Mr Deputy Speaker has indicated, would be the basis on which the Bill went forward. The position set out by the SNP is incoherent not just financially but constitutionally.
Let me now deal with some other, more sensible contributions. We heard from a number of old hands-old in terms of the devolution process, although not, of course, in terms of years. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who described her experience of the scrutiny of the original Scotland Act. We also heard from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe), who is no longer in the Chamber, but who is a great supporter of devolution whenever the opportunity arises.
The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who has campaigned on these issues for a long time and with some success, made a thoughtful speech. I can inform him that the United Kingdom Government as a whole will review charity law, and that, as we have made clear in the Command Paper, we felt that it would be better to enact the spirit of the Calman recommendations once that review had been completed in the rest of the UK.
A number of Members raised the question of changes in the income tax threshold. The Command Paper makes it clear that the Government would proceed on the basis of no detriment, and that any such changes would be accommodated in the block grant settlement.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) on the fact that she is celebrating her birthday, although I am slightly concerned that she should enjoy doing so in combat with some members of the SNP. During the course of the debate, I realised that there was an obvious gift for her: the book by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart). As he revealed that he had a large number of copies, not only the hon. Lady but most of her constituents would be able to receive one.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) made some important points about cross-border relations. As both the Secretary of State and I are well aware, people living in the border regions have long been able to cope with the differences on either side of the border. For instance, the well-established difference in the licensing laws that used to prevail did not cause any particular difficulties. The existing devolution settlement does not cause any difficulties, and the revised settlement will not cause any either.
The hon. Member for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) made the important point that strengthening devolution does not undermine the United Kingdom, but strengthens it. As well as giving us a précis of his book, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South raised significant points about, for instance, pension plan payments. I can reassure him that the high-level implementation group involving HMRC is examining those issues at this moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South on the subject of the Barnett formula, and was subsequently involved in a discussion of the subject. I accept that concern has been expressed about the system of devolution funding, but tackling the deficit is the Government's top priority, and any changes would await stabilisation of the public finances. The current funding arrangements-in essence, the Barnett formula-are set out in an administrative agreement rather than in statute, but the financing mechanism in the Bill would apply equally well to another way of calculating the block grant. The Bill does not fix the Barnett formula in stone for the future. It neither rules in nor rules out reform of the Barnett formula in the future; indeed, it is designed to be flexible in relation to alternative approaches to funding.
The right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), a seasoned campaigner on these issues, made a number of important points. I can reassure her that the Government are not devolving taxation in relation to savings and unearned income, so most of the things about which she expressed concern will not come to pass. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson), who is no longer in his place, has always been a staunch supporter of the nuclear industry, and he is to be commended for that. However, he will be aware that, after due consideration, the Calman commission concluded that there should be no change to the arrangements on new nuclear power stations in Scotland.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East made an interesting point about a Scottish office for budget responsibility, and I look forward to hearing more about that in the next stage of the debate. As I have said on previous occasions, I very much welcome the hon. Members for Glasgow East and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun to this House, because they bring a great depth of experience of the Scottish Parliament and of being in government in Scotland-in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, of course. I reassure the hon. Member for Glasgow East, in her absence, that the Government are committed to the Bill's proposals on airguns and that I listened to the powerful case she made in that regard. Finally, I did welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle).
However, although she is one of the younger Members of this House, it appeared that she was somewhat stuck in the 1980s.
My final remarks are for those people who have opposed this process, who have sat on the sidelines every time they have had an opportunity to contribute to this process and who are only able to come forward at the last minute with carping complaints. What I say to them is-
I ask those people to reflect, in the few minutes left, on the fact that if they support this process and if their party supports more powers for the Scottish Parliament, they should not press their amendment to a Division. Interestingly, we heard a lot of quotes about academics who support the Calman process but, as Scottish Members will have noted, certain academics were very absent from today's debate.
I want to finish on a specific financial point. It is absolutely essential that we scotch the idea of an £8 billion deflationary bias that been mentioned repeatedly but has no factual basis. There is no deflationary bias about the financing mechanism that is at the heart of the Scotland Bill. The Scottish Government's assertions are based on a period when public spending rose faster than tax receipts-the very activity that resulted in record levels of borrowing and debt. That is unsustainable, and it is simply incorrect to infer that the result from that period equates to a deflationary bias. If implemented now, the means of financing would in fact benefit Scotland during the fiscal consolidation. I urge hon. Members to support the Bill.
That the following provisions shall apply to the Scotland Bill:
1. The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
Proceedings in Committee
2. Proceedings in Committee of the whole House shall be completed in three days.
3. The proceedings shall be taken on the days shown in the first column of the following Table and in the order so shown.
4. The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.
|Proceedings||Time for conclusion of proceedings|
Clauses 1 to 9, Schedule 1, Clauses 10 to 12, Schedule 2, Clauses 13 to 23.
The moment of interruption on the first day.
Second and third days
Clauses 24 to 26, Schedule 3, Clauses 27 to 29, Schedule 4, Clauses 30 and 31, Schedule 5, Clauses 32 to 39, new Clauses, new Schedules, remaining proceedings on the Bill.
The moment of interruption on the third day.
5. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to the proceedings on the Bill in Committee of the whole House.
Consideration and Third Reading
6. Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
7. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced, or one hour after they are commenced, whichever is the earlier.
8. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.
9. Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments or on any further messages from the Lords) may be programmed.- (Mr Vara.)
That, for the purpose of any Act resulting from the Scotland Bill, it is expedient to authorise-
(1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided, and
(2) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under the Scotland Act 1998 out of the National Loans Fund.- (Mr Vara.)
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Scotland Bill, it is expedient to authorise-
(1) the imposition by virtue of a rate-setting resolution of the Scottish Parliament of charges to income tax in relation to the income of Scottish ratepayers,
(2) the making of provision, by Act of the Scottish Parliament, for imposing a tax to be charged on-
(a) the acquisition of an estate, interest, right or power in or over land in Scotland, or
(b) the acquisition of the benefit of an obligation, restriction or condition affecting the value of any such estate, interest, right or power,
(3) the making of provision, by Act of the Scottish Parliament, for imposing a tax to be charged on disposals to landfill made in Scotland,
(4) the amendment of the Scotland Act 1998 by Order in Council so as to-
(a) specify, as an additional tax about which provision may be made by Act of the Scottish Parliament, a tax of any description, or
(b) make any other modifications of the provisions relating to such taxes which Her Majesty considers necessary or expedient, and
(5) the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund or the National Loans Fund.
In the Resolution, 'rate-setting resolution' means a resolution providing for a number which is to be added to the rate which would otherwise be paid by Scottish taxpayers, after the deduction of ten percentage points, to calculate the basic rate, higher rate or additional rate payable by those taxpayers for any tax year on income other than savings income and which is either a whole number or half a whole number .-(Mr Vara.)
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): I must first declare my interests, which are entered in the overseas visits section of the Register of Members' Financial Interests. I am also chair of the all-party group on Morocco and the parliamentary link for the British Moroccan Association. I have been in touch with Western Sahara Campaign UK and Polisario and am grateful for their insights. I should make plain at the outset my admiration for Morocco, its history and people, and I am proud to represent the largest Moroccan expatriate community outside London.
I will spare the House the history and background of the Western Sahara dispute, which should be taken as read. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) and the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) wish to speak in the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr Offord) would have liked to contribute, as he attended the recent visit to Morocco and Western Sahara, but unfortunately he is unwell.
It seems to me that there are broadly three options for Western Sahara: the status quo, which has been described as "untenable" by the current UN special envoy, Christopher Ross; independence, which is unrealistic, according to Peter Van Walsum, the previous UN special envoy; and autonomy, which is the option we are left with. I will go through those options one by one.
I agree with Christopher Ross that the status quo is not an option. It is not an option for the inhabitants of the Tindouf camps or of the wider Maghreb, who continue to pay the price economically and socially. Violence in and around Laayoune in November, apparently whipped up by grievances over Sahrawi social conditions, left 11 officials and two civilians dead. We are told that the fingerprints of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are not on that, just as there is no confirmed evidence of its complicity in the unrest in Tunisia and Algeria. Nevertheless, the status quo in Western Sahara offers an opportunity for fundamentalist terror groups to move out of their operating bases in the vast, barely-governed spaces of Mali, Niger and southern Algeria.
There is no firm evidence of links between the Polisario and AQIM. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Algeria would be keen to support an organisation with formal links to AQIM. Nevertheless, the potential for fundamentalist terrorists to feed off poverty and grievance is clear. We simply cannot be complacent. In December, an arms cache attributed to AQIM was discovered by the Moroccan authorities in Western Sahara. It is vital that we shrink the space available to insurgents. We must always be vigilant for the sorts of opportunities that have been offered elsewhere.
I agree with Peter Van Walsum that independence is no option at all. We understand that the American and French Governments are at least sympathetic to Van Walsum's position, and the UK considers Western Sahara's status to be undetermined and disputed and has lined up behind the official UN position. Van Walsum was apparently replaced as UN special envoy because he said that independence was not realistic, which rendered
him unacceptable to Polisario. Even if we agreed hypothetically with the principle of independence, we must consider whether it is practical or achievable. It would mean a country the size of Britain with a population smaller than that of Bristol. How could its Government guarantee internal and external security in a highly challenging environment without relying indefinitely on benign or malign foreign agencies? Would we be comfortable with such an entity becoming the client state of the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria, which many human rights campaigners see as militaristic, closed and repressive? We must be careful about supporting the creation of states that are inherently unstable. We must also be cautious because of the security threat highlighted by the terrorism and insurgency centre run by Jane's. Although it ranks Morocco's counter-terrorism measures as "moderately effective", it remains concerned about frontier security and unregulated migration.
In Europe, we are not disinterested bystanders. We have a stake in getting this right. Since the UK's treaty obligations have rendered our borders porous, for practical purposes the southern Mediterranean coastline is our frontier. The recent trouble in Tunis and Algeria does not read across directly to Morocco, but in the Maghreb and in Egypt we have seen significant civil unrest in recent days, which is a reminder of the fragility of countries with young populations, high youth unemployment and poor living standards.
The third option is autonomy. In April 2007, Morocco unveiled its autonomy plan for Western Sahara. In part, it represented a compromise and, in part, it reflected wider governance changes involving the greater devolution of powers within Morocco itself. The UN Security Council, in its resolution of 30 April 2010, noted the proposal and commended the
"serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward towards resolution."
America, which prides itself on being Morocco's oldest ally, has been understandably supportive. It knows very well the benefits of a federal model and has in its history incorporated, annexed and otherwise acquired territory on a grand scale. The plan that remains on the table would establish a Sahara autonomous region within the Kingdom of Morocco. It would have considerable autonomy and certainly move in the direction of the UN's support for what it calls
"self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara."
Some have even said that the powers over matters excluding foreign affairs, defence and the national judiciary exceed those devolved to Scotland and Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth might wish to comment on that in due course.
There are, however, problems. Enumerating the Sahrawis, the Sahrawi diaspora and the resident Moroccan population is a challenge that seems almost overwhelming. It failed completely in 2000, but the job has to be done under both the independence and autonomy options. The only way we get out of it is if we are prepared to accept the status quo.
The Moroccan Government have said that they will not entertain a referendum with independence as an option, but unless we exclude those people who have
migrated since 1975, with the presumption that if we do so they will not enjoy the citizenship of any Western Saharan state, it seems unlikely that such a referendum will result in support for independence. That suggests that for Morocco the question of independence as an option is one mainly of principle, rather than avoidance.
Another sticking point is the extension of the UN mandate to include human rights. I think my Moroccan constituents would concur with the sentiments of two enjoinders in that respect, one secular, the other divine: "be sure you've sorted the beam in your own eye before the mote in your brother's"; and "don't make the perfect the enemy of the good."
There was outrage here when the US tried to suggest that there should be UN human rights monitoring in Northern Ireland, so we can begin to see how Morocco, a proud country, should also resist, particularly when it perceives that its eastern neighbour with a more questionable record is left alone. The major human rights movements have a presence in Western Sahara, and both Malcolm Smart of Amnesty and Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch say that they have not been restricted in investigating the November violence. Morocco has come a long way, but perhaps the time has come in the interests of facilitating a lasting settlement for it to swallow hard and allow human rights monitors, thus defusing the claims of its opponents.
Morocco has earned much respect for its autonomy plan, and Rabat might do well to accept an extension of the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO, but it would be ludicrous if that happened without including the Tindouf camps in southern Algeria, where light desperately needs to be shone on darkness. The UK has a money interest, as it has contributed to the €165 million in humanitarian aid through the European Community humanitarian aid office, with the promise of more to come. We should worry, in the context of reported hardship in the camps, about aid money that might not end up where it is supposed to, because aid falls into disrepute when that happens-whether it is bilateral or through the fingers of Brussels.
We have a duty to ensure that we know much more about the camps, and who and how many people are in them, if that money is to continue to be spent safely and effectively. The King of Morocco has issued reassurances to the refugees of the camps and undertaken to treat them well, and we understand that there has been a significant trickle back to Western Sahara, a process that is likely to develop as confidence is built up on all sides.
Can the Minister say what actions the UK has taken to ensure the safety of the high-ranking Polisario official, Mustapha Salma? We have only unconfirmed reports that he has taken refuge in Mauritania, and his family are allegedly unable to be united with him, as they are confined to Tindouf. What are we doing to clarify the position with Algeria? Whatever our position on the autonomy plan, we must recognise that Mustapha Salma's bravery, in defying Mohammed Abdel Aziz in order to support proposals that he believes are in the interests of his people, is admirable. His witness is a substantial contribution to what I believe to be gathering support for the autonomy plan.
So far, the UN special envoy process has presided over the status quo. Christopher Ross convened a meeting in December in New York and another last weekend, the outcome of which was another fixture for Geneva in February. We understand that that will focus on how family visits from the camps can more readily be achieved. What is the Minister's view on monitoring in the camps? How can the UK help to facilitate the safe passage of refugees who wish to visit family members in Western Sahara?
What have Baroness Ashton and her EU External Action Service been doing to move matters on? If we have to have it, it might as well do something useful. Given that Morocco counts as Europe's near abroad and that it has an association agreement with the EU, what progress has been made on security, migration and welfare?
Given that MINURSO's mandate is up for reaffirmation in April, what discussions have the UK Government had with the permanent members of the UN Security Council on the Moroccan Government's autonomy plan? What is the Minister's attitude to that plan? I hope that the UK Government can join France and the US in being sympathetic.
I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Western Sahara. I first raised what I believe to be the plight of the Sahrawi refugees in the House in 1984, and have raised the matter consistently ever since. This is possibly one of the longest-running sores in the world, although the Palestine situation is even longer running. For a moment, we should spare a thought for the people who have been living in refugee camps in Algeria for this whole time-we are now on the third or fourth generation of such families. We must recognise that they have a functioning elected Government in exile, a functioning parliamentary system, and effective representatives in this country and around the world through their political party, Polisario. Indeed, Lamine Baali is a very effective representative of the Polisario in this country.
When I last raised this matter in the House, I sought a meeting with the Minister. I am grateful to him for replying. I received a letter from him today in which he made one or two important points that I will refer to quickly. First, he said that MINURSO needs to continue. I think I am right in saying that that is the only remaining UN-mandated organisation that does not have a human rights requirement. I think that it must have a human rights agenda that it observes, so that the issues of human rights abuse, at least, can be dealt with.
Secondly, the Minister visited Morocco recently and I believe that he is due to go there again-I am sure he will tell me if I am wrong about that. What is his perception and that of our ambassador on the current position in el-Aaiun, where unfortunately there was a great deal of violence last year? I understand that a number of parliamentarians from Europe and elsewhere were refused access to the city, as were a number of media people. I sought and obtained a meeting with the
Moroccan ambassador to discuss those issues, and I was assured that in future, parliamentarians would not be prevented from visiting el-Aaiun.
Thirdly, the EU fisheries agreement with Morocco expires on 27 January. I do not have a problem with the EU having a fisheries agreement with Morocco; I do have a problem with the idea that fish in the waters of Western Sahara should be taken by international fishing vessels, with the money being paid to Morocco and none of the benefits going to the Sahrawi people. That is an untenable position, which is of very questionable legality. I hope that this time, Britain will be prepared to block the EU fisheries agreement until it is recognised that without a resolution to the Western Sahara issue, the international community should not be making arrangements to take away the natural resources of Western Sahara any more than Morocco should be encouraging international companies to take away the mineral-rich resources in Western Sahara.
This is a post-colonial issue. It is the last remaining unresolved issue in Africa. The Government of Western Sahara are supported by Western Sahara Campaign UK and the African Union. By law, there has to be a resolution of the conflict in agreement with the wishes of the people of Western Sahara. There have been delays, obstructions and obfuscation about getting a referendum of the people of Western Sahara to bring about a solution, and I hope that the Minister will say that Britain is going to stand up for the rights of those people so that there can be a resolution based on international law, respect for the rights of the Sahrawi people and a free-standing referendum.
I should like to declare that I was in Laayoune about two weeks ago as a guest of the Moroccan Government, along with several other parliamentarians. There were no problems at all with getting access and moving around, and in our discussions with MINURSO, it made it clear that at no time had it had any problems in that regard. It made it pretty clear to us that it felt the Moroccan Government had behaved well on human rights issues in the area. That came from a completely independent body, and we should take it seriously.
The dispute is long running, and it is important for all of us that it is settled. I may not be an expert on north Africa, but I know a thing or two about devolution and the need to compromise sometimes. That is why it is important that we look very favourably at the autonomy agreement, which would provide far more autonomy than has been granted to Wales or Scotland. In fact, I would definitely have opposed it had it been offered in Wales or Scotland, because it is a big step on the route to independence. If that is what is required to settle the problems of the region, and to allow the Sahrawi people the access to human rights and growing wealth that we have seen around the rest of Morocco, we should view it favourably.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt):
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire
(Dr Murrison) on securing the debate and on allowing the contributions of the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). All three contributions indicated the seriousness with which the issue is taken on both sides of the House and the long-standing commitment to it of a number of Members. As the hon. Member for Islington North said, the problem is long running and difficult, and it exercises us all. I appreciate the way in which the House is dealing with it tonight.
The disputed territory of Western Sahara seems, in many ways, an intractable problem. However, the fact that it is difficult does not mean that we should not try to make progress. I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire about the unresolved status of Western Sahara, because the absence of a settlement prevents regional integration and co-operation on a range of important issues. The Government are committed to the United Nations Security Council position, calling for a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.
Sovereignty over Western Sahara has been contested between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi movement for independence, since 1975. The UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and set up MINURSO, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, as a peacekeeping operation with the intention of facilitating a public vote on the future of the territory within six months. Some 20 years later, that referendum is yet to be held and MINURSO's mandate continues to be renewed on an annual basis by the UN Security Council.
The UK fully supports the right of the Sahrawi people to exercise their right to self-determination and applauds the efforts of the UN Secretary-General's special envoy, Ambassador Christopher Ross, to encourage the parties to enter dialogue without preconditions. I have followed closely the progress of the negotiations convened by Ambassador Ross and am heartened that the atmosphere between the parties is one of cordiality and respect. However, the fact remains that as yet, neither party is prepared to countenance the proposal of the other as the single basis for any future negotiations. For Morocco, the solution is autonomy; for the Polisario, it is a referendum with independence as a possible outcome.
Where Ambassador Ross has succeeded is in delivering results in the important area of confidence-building measures. We are pleased that on 7 January, the programme of family visits by air between Moroccan-administered Western Sahara and the Polisario-controlled refugee camps in Western Sahara was able to resume after a 10-month hiatus.
I would also like to congratulate the parties on their agreement to meet officials from the office of the high commissioner for human rights in Geneva from 9 to 10 February to discuss further confidence-building measures, such as the construction of a land bridge to facilitate visits by road. We wish these talks, which have the potential significantly to improve the lives of ordinary Sahrawis, every success.
However, those meetings alone are not sufficient to address the myriad voices that are gravely concerned about the accusations of human rights abuses made by both sides. The United Kingdom Government support the idea of independent verification of the human
rights situation. The UN currently has no role on the ground in monitoring human rights, nor is human rights monitoring built into the MINURSO mandate. Without an independent monitor, it is rarely possible to follow up allegations of human rights violations.
While remaining neutral on the political outcome of the disputed territory, the UK has played an active role in bringing the humanitarian aspects of the conflict to the forefront of the debate. To that end, we have considered a range of monitoring options, which we have circulated to the parties and the members of the Group of Friends, with the full support of Ambassador Christopher Ross. We have also held detailed talks with other members of the Group of Friends and Morocco on the substance of those proposals. I shall briefly summarise the components, which, we believe, a human rights monitoring mechanism requires to operate effectively and credibly. I note the remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire was good enough to make about the human rights mechanism.
It is essential that any human rights monitoring should apply in equal measure to the Moroccan-administered territory of Western Sahara and the Polisario-controlled refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. The mechanism must be, and be seen to be, independent. Its aims and objectives should be clearly set out and measurable to ensure that monitoring activities are effective and accountable. It would also be strongly preferable for the monitoring body to report to a body able to act on its findings. That is closely linked to the issue of the mandate, since MINURSO, Ambassador Ross, or the Security Council would be well placed to respond.
We are aware that the human rights situation cannot be discussed in isolation from the political sensitivities of the conflict, and I am genuinely grateful to Morocco for the spirit of engagement in which it has responded to the non-paper, which circulated the proposals. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire for his comments. It is sometimes difficult to accept an independent human rights monitoring aspect to any national state's work, but it can make a significant difference in confidence building, particularly in an area of disputed territory. The United Kingdom will continue to ensure that human rights and the human dimension of the conflict remain at the forefront of the debate, including during discussions on the MINURSO resolution at the UN in April.
That is all the more pressing in the light of recent developments in the disputed territory. As I am sure hon. Members know-it has already been mentioned-in early October, a large number of Sahrawis set up a protest camp just outside Laayoune. Their mass protests appear to have focused on socio-economic problems rather than on the question of Western Sahara's status. On 8 November, following failed negotiations and warnings to the protestors to disperse, the Moroccan royal gendarmerie and auxiliary forces carried out an operation to dismantle the camps. That resulted in the deaths of 12 security personnel at the camps and two civilians in the subsequent unrest in Laayoune.
We were deeply saddened to hear of those violent events and regret the loss of life. As the hon. Member for Islington North pointed out, we were also concerned to learn that, following those events, Morocco restricted
access to the territory to several international observers. However, we were encouraged to learn that a confidence-building meeting between all parties, which was due to be held shortly afterwards in New York, went ahead, despite the difficulties.
It is our hope that the regrettable event-the incident at Laayoune-will underline to the international community the importance of taking a proactive approach to this year's Security Council negotiations on the renewal of MINURSO's mandate. Neither party must assume that the mandate will roll over as a matter of course. The UK has been active in calling for greater transparency, and we will continue to pursue this approach.
In answer to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire about our activity in relation to that, we used our November presidency of the UN Security Council to chair a Council meeting to gather evidence about the events in Western Sahara from Ambassador Ross and the assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations. We were disappointed to learn that, in the immediate aftermath, Morocco denied access to a number of international observers, including journalists, parliamentarians and NGOs, on security grounds. However, having visited Morocco shortly afterwards, I understand why the Moroccans felt that some elements of the international press markedly misrepresented the facts of the situation.
Our understanding now is that there are no restrictions on access to Western Sahara, and that members of civil society and international observers have been able to visit. An official from the British embassy in Rabat visited the territory in December 2010 and met a range of Moroccan officials, international bodies, UN agencies and local non-governmental organisations. I understand that the all-party parliamentary group was granted a similar level of access on its recent visit.
As hon. Members are rightly aware, I too have had the opportunity to travel to the region. During my visit to Morocco in December, I made clear to my interlocutors the benefits of a monitoring presence on the ground as the best way to ensure a balanced picture of events. I appreciate the serious, proper and open manner of our conversation, and that there was much concern about recent events. I also raised the matter during my visit to Algeria in November, where I communicated the UK's interest in a secure and prosperous region working well together. Again, I appreciated the Algerian Minister's response and understanding of the seriousness of the situation. As the world is showing us, such long-standing disputes have a habit of popping up at the least expected times, and it as well to continue to pay serious attention to them and try to get things moving.
Until the question of Western Sahara can be resolved, there is little chance of a significant improvement in Morocco-Algeria relations. The Maghreb is an emerging market and of growing strategic importance to the UK. We are also interested in encouraging greater political openness throughout the region, but perhaps that is happening of its own accord.
On the worrying hypothesis put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire, he rightly conjects that Western Sahara is potentially vulnerable to exploitation from extremists. The discovery earlier this month of a significant al-Qaeda in the Maghreb arms cache at Amghaha, 220 km from Laayoune, is of particular concern. We share the Moroccan Government's
concerns that AQIM is increasingly becoming involved in criminal activity throughout the region, although we must stress, as my hon. Friend said, that we have no evidence to suggest a link between AQIM and the Polisario. We are carefully monitoring the activities of AQIM and its links with other organisations. As in the case of other terrorist groups, the issue of Western Sahara continues to prevent meaningful co-operation across the Maghreb on combating the shared threat from extremist groups.
The hon. Member for Islington North referred to the fishing agreement. We believe that the EU-Morocco fisheries partnership agreement is consistent with international law, but we are aware of concerns about how the agreement is implemented, particularly in relation to its impact on the people of Western Sahara. The FPA is due to expire in February 2011, and we expect the negotiations on a new agreement to take into account any changes in the situation since it was first agreed.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire mentioned the EU External Action Service. The EU's
partnership with Morocco is based on a commitment by the latter to uphold our common values. Respect for democratic principles, human rights and fundamental freedoms form the cornerstone of relations between the EU and Morocco. The consequences of the Western Sahara situation are discussed at all meetings between the two. The EU has emphasised to Morocco the importance that we attach to improving the human rights situation in the territory of Western Sahara. The matter was discussed at the latest meeting of the EU-Moroccan association committee in Rabat in October 2010, and Baroness Ashton is well sighted on it.
My hon. Friend referred to Mr Mustapha Salma. Officials from the British embassy in Rabat have met his family, and officials in London raised his case with the Polisario representative to the UK, so we are sighted on the issue. This matter will run-