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5.50 p.m.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, we have before us for Second Reading of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill which is commendably short--six clauses and two schedules--and admirably concise. I shall speak mainly about Scotland only because that is what I know best and not out of lack of affection for Wales.

First, however, I should like to add my voice to the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, and my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney on outstanding maiden speeches. They come to this House as distinguished parliamentarians and I know that we all look forward to their future contributions.

It is a particular pleasure for me to find myself in the same debating Chamber as the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, for two reasons: first, because we were both active in Scottish student politics and, indeed, were office bearers in the Scottish Union of Students from our respective universities--I shall not specify dates; and secondly, because I have very recently joined the noble Lord as his new co-chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. It is a privilege to join him and a privilege also to succeed my very able predecessor, my noble friend Lord Ewing of Kirkford.

I return to the Bill before us. I am sure I am not alone in Scotland in wondering how such a straightforward proposal to consult the people in Scotland can unleash such a wide variety of queries and criticisms. Scrutiny, on which this House rightly prides itself, is about constructive criticism. It would do no credit to this House to dress up as scrutiny what are attempts to wreck the enterprise.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, found great entertainment in giving a list of quotations from leading Labour figures who, over the years, had different views on devolution. I must say to the noble Lord that that is a very dangerous road for him to go down.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Baroness should recall my speech more accurately. Like the Minister, I never mentioned devolution in any great detail at all. The quotes that I gave were all about referendums, not about devolution.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, the implication from the noble Lord was that the Labour Party and its leadership had kept changing its mind as to how it was to achieve a Scottish assembly. Referendums are a part of how that is to be achieved. Therefore, he was making the point that members of the Labour Party were changing their minds about how devolution was to be achieved. What I was going to say, as the noble Lord well knows, is that there are many leading Conservatives, including ex-Ministers, who can easily be quoted as having changed their minds just as radically on devolution and how to achieve it.

I shall not trade quotation for quotation with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, but I shall merely give one quotation. The noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood,

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quoted Mr. Malcolm Rifkind. I particularly like a quotation that Mr. Malcolm Rifkind made in another place in December 1976 when he was discussing devolution. He quoted Victor Hugo as saying that nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come. That is very, very true and I agree with that.

Some people have questioned the need for a referendum at all, especially after the results of the election when the two parties committed to establishing a devolved parliament for Scotland won 66 out of 72 seats; the party advocating independence took six seats; and the party supporting the status quo won no seats at all.

As I said in my speech on the Address, I believe that it is quite right that people living in Scotland should nevertheless be consulted specifically on such an important single issue. I think it right in principle and I think it right politically in order to put beyond argument that a parliament with tax-varying powers is wanted by the people in Scotland.

Of course, it was a specific manifesto commitment by the Labour Party which the Government are quite rightly honouring to the letter. Let us be quite clear what that commitment was. It was:

    "We will enact legislation to allow the people of Scotland and Wales to vote in separate referendums on our proposals, which will be set out in White Papers. The referendums will take place no later than the autumn of 1997. A simple majority of those voting in each referendum will be the majority required".

Some have argued that the referendums Bill should not be considered before the White Papers are published. I cannot understand that because, with respect, that is what I would call a confusion in thinking. The White Papers, with their detailed proposals, will be published before the House rises for the Summer Recess and well in advance of the autumn referendums. This Bill establishes the mechanism for the will of the people in Scotland and Wales to be expressed in the autumn. The Bill is designed to give the voters in Scotland and Wales an opportunity to vote on the proposals for devolution as promised in the manifesto. I should add in parenthesis that it is not to hold a plebiscite on any other proposals such as independence.

This House, like another place, will have an opportunity to debate the Scotland Bill when it is before us. In the context of this Bill, we should look only at the principle of consulting the Scottish people. I consider that the proposals for doing that in this Bill are as simple, clear and fair as possible.

The questions are laid out in a way which is easily understood and should avoid ambiguity. They have been arrived at after advice from returning officers and other experts on the form and wording.

The franchise is to be those eligible to vote in local government elections. I find it quite right that residency should be the requirement and not ethnicity. The rationale of those living in a place deciding how it should be administered seems fairly self-evident to me

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and is indeed why we have the local government franchise in its present form. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, wishes to interrupt.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I do not want to make this look like Glasgow University a few years ago when the noble Baroness and I debated there.

As far as I understand it, the parliamentary franchise is not based on ethnicity either. If the noble Baroness is telling me that it is based on ethnicity, she is saying something quite new and radical. My understanding is that it is not.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, the noble Lord has just anticipated my next sentence. I find it preferable to the alternative of the parliamentary franchise because I find nothing objectionable in allowing 123 resident Peers the vote, nor the 12,000 European nationals, nor in excluding the 1,500 voters who are resident overseas.

I also do not wish to make this appear like it was some years ago but the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, named me as an example of someone who, when I was serving abroad in the Diplomatic Service, would not have had a vote because I would not have been on the local register for local government elections. I am sorry to spoil his fun on that but that is not the case. When I was abroad for the Diplomatic Service, I could vote in local elections through a proxy. That would apply wherever I had had my last residence. If that had been Scotland, then it would have applied in Scotland.

As to why other voters in the United Kingdom should not be included, the answer is simple. The question of whether there should be a Scottish parliament is primarily for the people in Scotland, and similarly in Wales. The details of the proposals will be open for debate by all the Members of both Houses of the UK Parliament during the passage of the main devolution Bills.

There has been much talk of introducing a requirement for a fixed proportion of voters to participate in a Scottish referendum before the result should be considered valid. The banner headline on the front page of my Scottish newspaper only last Sunday was,

    "Tory Lords plan new hurdle for home rule",
and was full of quotes about voting thresholds. I know not to believe all that I read in newspaper reports, and I shall rely on what noble Lords opposite say in this House. But, in fact, they have said enough both in speeches on the humble Address and also already today to give some credence to that headline. I shall repeat a point which I made in my speech on the humble Address. The Scottish people will rightly take it amiss if threshold requirements on voting are imposed on their referendum which are not used in any other voting situation in the United Kingdom, and which were only introduced in the 1979 referendum by those opposed to devolution.

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It will be suspected, with considerable justification, that precisely the same wrecking motivation is at work again. I hope for a very high vote indeed and for an affirmative result, but I could not be more opposed in principle to the introduction of those so-called "fancy franchises", thought up in desperation by those who fear the result will indeed be affirmative on both questions.

I shall be in Scotland working hard for a maximum turnout and an affirmative vote. However, I have to say that I can never understand the logic of allowing, in any ballot, those who are either too apathetic to vote or abstain for other reasons, to affect the decision taken. I am therefore in principle against thresholds in democracies where everyone has the opportunity to vote. I believe that the British tradition of not having them is entirely correct.

Finally, I appeal to this House, especially at this stage of Second Reading and before the Committee stage, to consider carefully how it handles the Bill. It is an opportunity to display to the people in Scotland, and in Wales, the wisdom and objectivity on which this House prides itself. It would indeed be a pity if that reputation were to suffer because the Bill was seen to be treated in a partisan manner and subjected to undue delay. This is a very important Bill, but it is a very short one with a clear and precise aim: to consult the people. That can surely not be wrong.

6.3 p.m.

Lord Renton: My Lords, the noble Baroness rightly said that she welcomes constructive criticism. Perhaps I many remind her that we have already had plenty of valuable constructive criticism in today's debate from my noble friends Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Crickhowell, all of whom speak with tremendous knowledge on the subject. The noble Baroness also said that the people of Scotland should be consulted and, of course, we all agree with her. However, what proportion of them should be required to approve a major constitutional change like that envisaged by the Bill? Surely it should be at least 50 per cent. and not merely the kind of result that we had in the referendum on the Scotland Act 1978, when I believe only 36 per cent. voted in favour, although that was more than half the votes polled. Nevertheless, that is not good enough.

The speeches to which I have already referred made by my noble friends enable me to shorten my contribution. However, before I go any further, I have three confessions to make. First, although I was born in Kent, am a member of the English Bar and have fought and won 10 general elections in Huntingdonshire, I am proud to say that I am more than half Scottish. I shall, therefore, confine my remarks to the Scottish situation under the Bill.

I turn now to my second confession. I must say that the delightful maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, has tempted me to make this confession. I, too, was born a Liberal but like my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and the great Sir Winston Churchill, I became a Conservative. My third and last confession is that I am the only speaker in

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today's debate who was a member of the Royal Commission on the Constitution which sat for four years. I served upon it for the last three years and was put on it when Lord Selwyn-Lloyd was made Speaker of the other place. I was on it when decisions were taken, and I am sorry to have to tell your Lordships that I disagreed with all the other members of the commission, all of whom wanted legislative and executive devolution for Scotland on a considerable scale. I personally favoured the setting up, as recommended by the late Lord Home, of a deliberative assembly for Scotland with limited legislative powers over secondary legislation, with Committee stages of Scottish Bills being taken before that assembly but with Westminster having the last word.

Having made those confessions, perhaps I may now make my few comments on the Bill. I agree with those speakers who have already said that it is wrong in principle because it proposes pre-legislative referendums. I suggest that these are wrong because Parliament has, and should have, constitutional expertise and responsibility which we cannot expect the great mass of voters to have in sufficient numbers. The great mass of voters--the people--should be consulted and given a chance to decide, but on proposals already approved by Parliament and not merely promised for the future.

We really should not be asked to provide for holding referendums without our deciding the constitutional outcome of voting in favour of them. All we are told on this occasion--and this is different from all the previous occasions--is that a White Paper will be produced after the Bill is passed and that we may have a chance to debate it. However, a White Paper is not part of our law. Moreover, when it is said to take the place of a code of practice, which has been mentioned on behalf of the Government, we must remember that normally a code of practice is not part of our law unless it is approved by Parliament as secondary legislation.

We are told that, if the voters decide that there should be a Scots parliament with perhaps tax-varying powers, we shall have legislation to implement the White Paper. But if after full discussion in both Houses of Parliament--assuming that that takes place--it is found, on reflection, that the White Paper contains some principles which are unsound or unworkable, the later Bill would have to depart from the proposals in the White Paper. The result of that would be that the people of Scotland would have voted for the devolution suggested on one assumption--the assumption in the White Paper--but Parliament later would be asked to implement it on a different assumption, an assumption based on the changes from the White Paper. In other words, the Scottish people would then have been misled. That is another reason why pre-legislative referundums are unconstitutional and, I suggest, undemocratic.

I am glad that the Government have decided to keep the Scottish Office. It does splendid work and it is based mainly in Scotland, but of course it also has its presence in Whitehall, and that enables the Westminster

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Parliament to be kept fully in touch with Scottish affairs. Would it not be much better, in the light of what I have been trying to put before your Lordships, to make that clear in a Bill introduced before the referendum, setting out the exact division of responsibilities of the Scottish Office? Those responsibilities will be divided under the scheme proposed by the Government. Those responsibilities will be partly vis-a-vis a Scottish Parliament and partly vis-a-vis Westminster. That should be made abundantly clear.

We have a duty to revise and improve legislation sent to us from another place. I hope that we shall do so on this Bill, especially in the ways already mentioned by my noble friends.

In conclusion, we live in a progressive society in which we have experienced since the war continuous change. But in a matter of such great democratic importance as devolution, we should observe the fundamental principle--I believe that it is a good Conservative principle--that if change is not necessary or is not wanted by the people, it is necessary not to change.

6.13 p.m.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Renton, but at the outset of his remarks when he referred to the possible threshold for a vote, I could not help reflecting on the fact that when the government of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, were elected in 1979 I believe they obtained 35 per cent. of the vote of this country. Everyone on the Conservative Benches extols the revolution she wrought with that government, but where would they have been if there had been a threshold?

I must apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lord Geraint, of Ponterwyd, who is the embodiment of Welshness. He has been devoted to devolution throughout his life but, alas, he was taken ill when we were travelling home last weekend and he is in hospital. However, I am glad to say that he seems to be well treated and I hope that he is recovering. His position is very much like mine because I have always been in favour of devolution. He, like me, is prepared to go much further on this issue than the Government. However, we wholeheartedly support the Government and commend them on this Bill. I hope that it will lead to Wales, for the first time in the whole of its history, having a directly, democratically elected national political body. No one can underestimate the importance of that for the future welfare of the people of Wales. I hope that all who believe in Wales having a greater say in its own affairs, or in having a body which will be trusted, and which can gradually get rid of most, if not all, of those executive appointed quangos which now so dominate, and in some cases distort, in an entirely undemocratic way, the life of the Principality, will combine to support this move. When I say "distort" I think one of the great problems of quangos, particularly when they are remote from the people, is that they distort the priorities of ordinary people in their areas.

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I understand that my old friend Sir Wyn Roberts, who rendered signal service to Wales for many years as Minister of State at the Welsh Office, has apparently opined that he would support an assembly for Wales if it had tax-raising powers. Like him, I should like to see an assembly with such tax-raising powers for it would greatly increase the responsibility of its members. But such a preference is no excuse whatsoever for not supporting this measure or the proposed assembly.

I believe Mr. Peter Hain, the Under-Secretary at the Welsh Office, was quite right when he said during the Second Reading debate in another place,

    "If Wales votes no to devolution for the second time in a generation, Wales can kiss goodbye to devolution. That is the blunt truth".--[Official Report, Commons, 22/5/97; col. 854.]
I think that is right. Party differences and loyalty should be set aside if necessary in the greater interest of the Welsh people. Labour is the dominant party in Wales and that is as far as it will go when it faces reality. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, mentioned with approval people he does not normally mention with approval; that is, members of Old Labour with huge majorities in Wales who are against devolution. However, I believe that he could not refer to any members of New Labour who are against it.

The tone of the official Conservative Opposition on this issue is, to put it mildly, somewhat pathetic. They seem to be trying to fight yesterday's battle, for the country, whether we like it or not, has given the Government a clear mandate for their purpose--nowhere so clearly as in Wales and Scotland, but also (let us not forget this) in England too. I am delighted to learn that some eminent Conservatives have already clearly demonstrated their acceptance of the view so poetically expressed in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,

    "The moving finger having writ moves on and never once returns".
Thus, the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones, all eminent Welshmen, and Sir Edward Heath, a distinguished former Prime Minister, to mention a few, have already disapproved of the continued anti-devolution stand of their own party, and have indicated that a much more constructive and forward-looking approach is necessary.

I wish to make a few points on issues which have been raised during this debate, but in particular in a debate on the loyal Address. I am generally against referendums of any kind save where there is an irrevocable major change to our constitution. No act of devolution is a major constitutional change because the sovereign power rests in the devolving body and can be returned to it at any time. Therefore this is not such an occasion. If the Government had not promised a referendum in their manifesto I would have said that they clearly had a sufficient mandate to go ahead with their devolution proceedings.

Equally I think it is bunkum to suggest the referendum should involve the electorate of the whole of the United Kingdom. That is a purely wrecking approach. If I may say so, so many of the arguments I have heard today are ingenious debating hurdles that

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one hears in a debating society and do not reflect a pragmatic realistic approach. This is a party that has won an election with devolution as part of its programme and we are now facing the reality. Did any Conservative ever suggest that a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland, for example, should involve the whole of the electorate of the Republic of Ireland as well as Ulster? I see the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, restive in his seat; I come to what he said in the debate on the Queen's Speech. After all, Ireland was one country until the early 1920s. He argued that devolution affects England as well as Scotland and Wales. I shall give way to the noble Lord in a moment. He referred to the Wilsonian principle of national self-determination when he advocated English participation in the referendum. He should consider carefully what that involves. If that principle were applied to England in relation to Scotland and Wales, surely it should apply to the whole of Ireland in relation to Ulster.

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