Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
I agree with Harold Wilsonthe Prime Minister that we are discussing major constitutional changes even more important than those brought about by the oil situation, changes that will endure far longer than the oil deposits. They are not confined to two parts of the United Kingdom—namely, the 5½ million people who live in Scotland and the 2½ million people who live in Wales. They are changes that will affect the future of our country as a whole, and the future of its Parliament. Therefore, it is important that these changes are made on a sound constitutional footing, and that we are clear about what they will do and where they will take us. After all,
“The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley,”
I was going to stop at that line, but I am tempted to go on:
“And leave us nought but grief and pain, For promised joy.”
Before following the Prime Minister into an analysis of the specific proposals, I wish to say a word about two fundamental factors. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) has already referred to one of them—namely, the extent and rôle of Government powers. The Prime Minister referred to the second factor—the future of Great Britain as a whole, although he dealt with that aspect in rather different terms from those which I shall be deploying. [column 230]
On the extent and role of Government powers, I believe that it is no accident that the demand for devolution has come after a period in which Government powers have increased, are increasing and look like continuing to increase. To some extent centralisation is a result of too much government, and over-governed societies can expect trouble and protest—and get both. I believe that the true demands of the people are not merely for the distribution of powers from central Government to other Government bodies or Assemblies but for a more fundamental dispersal, returning more of the decisions directly to the people.
We must watch to see that any particular system of devolution that creates new Assemblies does not result in increasing the powers in the hands of Government compared with the powers and decisions left in the hands of the citizen. I see that this possibility is already being widely discussed. Indeed, at a Glasgow seminar last week it was reported:
“Some of the ablest Scottish local government chiefs fear that devolution, which aims to bring government nearer the people, will in fact remove it further away from them. They argue that, if a Scottish Assembly is established, local city hall decisions will be far more tightly controlled from Edinburgh than they now are from London.”
That is a view stemming not from London but from a Glasgow seminar.
Similar powerful points have been made by the Association of County Councils referring to the proposed Welsh Assembly. In a letter which many hon. Members have received they set out five points. The first is that
“the proposals appear to have implications which could seriously weaken local government in Wales.”
The second point the Association makes is that the whole tenor of local government arrangements tends to move, and is increasingly likely to move,
“the actual decision-making for local services further away from the local areas and their own local authorities.”
Thirdly, it says:
“… what local authorities now require is a removal of central control … not the further imposition of new processes and new controls from Westminster and Whitehall or from a new intermediate level of government.”
The fourth point is as follows:
“In the financial field the proposed role of the Assembly will mean interference in the [column 231]discretion of local authorities to determine how they spent their available funds.”
The fifth point sets out the Association's conclusion:
“It appears that this powerful new instrument is to be achieved at the expense of, and by taking away discretion from, existing local authorities.”
The objective may be to bring power to the people, but the result may be to remove it from the people.
We must make it clear that this need not happen in a devolution process, but it could happen, and I believe that it will happen, under these proposals.
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)
Will the right hon. Lady tell the House one discretion which the document proposes to take from local authorities?
There is a great deal about the administration of the block grant. That is referred to in detail and is fundamental. It is referred to in detail in the letter from the Association of County Councils—[Hon. Members: “The policy is clear.” ] Then it is strange that none of the local authorities seems to understand it, for local authorities are protesting quite vigorously. Apparently it is suggested that I am misquoting. I am not misquoting. I have the whole letter with me. It is a letter from the Association of County Councils dated 8th July.
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. John Morris)
Will the right hon. Lady answer my right hon. Friend's point? Is there any one discretion which it is proposed to take away from local authorities? In other words, are any of the existing powers of local authorities being lost to them as a result of our proposals?
I quoted directly from the letter from the Association of County Councils. The passage I quoted was the following:
“In the financial field the proposed role of the Assembly will mean interference in the discretion of local authorities to determine how they spend their available funds. After Parliament has voted a block grant for Wales, in a process in which there appears to be no part for local authorities to play, as there now is in England and Wales, the Assembly is to decide how and where in Wales it shall be spent.”
[column 232]That is what the Association thinks. It would appear that the Government have not made themselves clear to the major local authorities.
Part of the dislike of increasing power and the rôle of Government is the spread of the bureaucracy it has created, and the cost of paying for that bureaucracy. A true devolution should reduce both.
Mr. John Morris
Has the right hon. Lady read the White Paper?
Every single word—and so has the Association of County Councils.
Let me turn to the question of the future of Great Britain and of the United Kingdom as a whole. Let it be remembered that we are the Unionist Party. Nothing like enough attention has been paid in the White Paper or elsewhere to the remarkable achievements of the British people together. It is true that the Prime Minister devoted a section of his speech to dealing with the economic consequences that would flow from separatism. I believe that there are deeper consequences.
I believe that the case for union has been assumed and not argued. But it is only when we remind ourselves of it that we fully understand the compelling reasons why the union must continue and why the possibility of separation or any proposals which lead that way must be rejected or modified.
Mr. Gordon Wilson
Why then is the Conservative vote in Scotland going down?
Scotland has played an active and marvellous part in the achievement of the union, and we are anxious that we should stay together to continue those achievements. The hon. Gentleman is a member of a Scottish separatist party. I am a member of a Scottish unionist party. He has his views. Will he respect the fact that we have ours?
Mr. Gordon Wilson
Does the right hon. Lady accept, following her argument that the Conservatives are a unionist party, that the Conservative Party has declined in strength in Scotland from 45 seats in the 1950s down to a present figure of 16 seats, whereas the SNP has been gaining strength?
Will the hon. Gentleman also realise that the Conservative [column 233]Party and the Labour Party have been in existence for a long time and have endured many changes, and no doubt will endure many others?
For centuries the people of these islands have made an unparalleled contribution to the history of the human race. They have popularised the ideas of freedom under law and representative government. They are responsible for the industrial revolution and the scientific revolution which, for the first time in history, have brought material comfort and security within the reach of the many instead of the few. They have spread the English language—one of the richest, most copious and most expressive of human speech forms—across the world both as a first language and as a second language used as a means of communication between persons of different speech. They have saved the liberties and preserved the soul of Europe at least twice in human recollection. They have given to a quarter of mankind and the same fraction of the earth's surface the best laws, an impartial system of justice, and an incorrupt administration. Together we carried through these great things, but they would never have come about had we been separable or separate entities. We have achieved what we have achieved through unity which permitted and encouraged diversity—and diversity which did not contradict that unity. We all recognise the contribution made by the people of Ulster by the Welsh and the Scots to this unity which is every bit as important as the contribution made by anyone else. No better partnership has existed in the history of mankind, and we must do nothing to jeopardise its future, for it has much to contribute still.
Against that background, let us examine the specific proposals in the White Paper to see where they are likely to lead. The first feature of the Government's proposals is that they are likely to lead to maximum conflict, friction and argument between the Assemblies, Government and Parliament. There will be conflict in that there will be rival Executives, and disputes will surely arise between them. It is difficult to adjudge the extent of the devolved powers in each of the 12 groups of subjects set out. We need other tables in the White Paper showing which powers will be left with the Secretaries of State for Scotland and [column 234]Wales and the powers which will be left with other United Kingdom Ministers.
On the face of it, it looks as if in Scotland there will be a Minister for devolved local government matters and one for retained local government matters, a Minister for devolved development and industry and another for retained development and industry, and so on. The problems of overlap, co-ordination and dispute will be considerable.
Again there will be conflict because the Assembly will be used as a forum to demand more powers, and even attempt to pass legislation to that effect. There will be conflict in Parliament because the more different schemes of devolution we have, the greater the difference between the powers of Members of Parliament themselves over policies affecting their own constituencies. Some Members of Parliament will not be able to vote on health and education matters as they affect their own area but will nevertheless be able to vote and even have decisive votes over these matters in other Members' areas. I doubt whether such a situation could endure for long without more resentment and demands for changes here. We must be careful that the contribution and influence of Scottish and Welsh Members here is not diminished. There will be conflict because the Government have taken upon themselves not only to decide whether the Assembly is acting within its legal powers but also to operate a political veto even though it is acting within those powers. In that case, the Government would have set up a system to take back the very power it had devolved, just because it did not like what the Assembly had decided to do. The right to legislate would then turn into arguments about the compatibility of policies, and that would inevitably lead to great political tension. That is the first feature of the Government's proposals—conflict.
The second feature is the massive extension of bureaucracy and its costs. About 3,000 extra civil servants, on the Government's own reckoning, and £22 million a year at present-day prices would be required. Within this figure would be 1,600 civil servants and £12 million for Wales. If that system were to be applied to England and Wales as a whole, I understand that the cost could be £150 [column 235]million a year—not exactly an example of economy. So we are to have more complicated and more costly government and for those with devolved Assemblies. more government, but not necessarily better government.
The third feature is the reduced status in practice of the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales. The White Paper tries unsuccessfully to disguise that fact. It is inevitable that the greater the degree of devolution which involves a second Executive, the less the standing of the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales. I believe that this would diminish the voice of Scotland and Wales in the affairs of the United Kingdom Government and Parliament.
It seems to many of us that the particular model of devolution which the Government have chosen is designed to inincrease the grievances and disputes between the parts of Great Britain and thus to jeopardise that precious unity of which I spoke earlier.
The Prime Minister optimistically hoped that we might wholly approve the White Paper, but we certainly could not wholly approve it. It may be that after the debate the Government will reconsider the particular form of devolved Assembly they have chosen. [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister
Did I hear the Prime Minister say “I think not” ? I see that I must have misheard the right hon. Gentleman. If the Government decide to go ahead with the White Paper structure of devolution, we on this side must consider a better constitutional basis. We should be faced not with expressing a point of view on the system, but with a particular proposal in a statute. In these circumstances we ought now to indicate how it should be changed, even though we dislike the system.
The Prime Minister
The whole House is interested to know how the right hon. Lady thinks it ought to be changed. This is a long, four-day debate arranged so that we can hear the views of hon. Members from all sides and consider whether any change should be made in the White Paper in the light of the debate. We want to go as quickly as [column 236]possible to the preparation of legislation We think that the proposals are right, but we want to listen and not present the House with a fait accompli.
I understand from what the Prime Minister has said earlier—perhaps in the debate on the Address—that instructions have already been given for the draft statute, and it seems probable that the main structure of the White Paper will continue. The Prime Minister is probably thinking of less fundamental changes than are some of us. If that is so, the Government should consider a better constitutional basis for their chosen system.
The Government should try to mitigate the conflict by first subjecting the use of devolved powers to judicial control by the courts and not to political control by the veto. The question whether the Assembly was acting within its powers would then be seen to be decided on an impartial basis on well-established legal principles. The Prime Minister referred to this as legalistic. Sometimes I think the Government Front Bench calls any law legalistic. But a legal basis for devolved powers is much better than an arbitrary political basis. It is much sounder and much more likely to endure. It gives much more effective boundaries which are likely to be maintained. It would get rid of the terrible idea in the White Paper that because one does not like what the Assembly does with the powers one gives it, one can say “No.” That is not devolution at all.
If the Government go ahead, we must face the possibility that any elected Assembly could use its powers in such a way as to deny some of those freedoms which many of us regard as fundamental. Some of us feel that that has already happened to some extent in this Parliament.
The way to deal with this is not to have a political veto but to enshrine Bill of Rights clauses in the devolution statute. It would be not a Bill of Rights but clauses tantamount to it which would become part of the devolution statute and ensure the future of these fundamental freedoms. It would be a new constitutional venture, but the whole exercise is a new venture. The drafting should not be too difficult because there are a number of precedents. [column 237]
The third point I have to make is that if the Government go ahead with legislation on this basis——
The Prime Minister
The right hon. Lady said just now that I had objected to any court as being legalistic, fussy, bureaucratic and so on. She will recall that I expressed those views specifically in relation to the Liberal proposals for full-dress federalism, and that I was not referring to lesser forms of devolution.
I do not think that a federal solution is possible or that it is wanted. If one were to go that way, one would not start from here. One would have to start with a constitutional conference and one would have to have a similar system of federation for most parts of the country. I do not believe that it is possible, but one can take some of the good things in a federal system and embody them in a devolution statute, such a statute is not setting up a federal system, because it is not a perpetual division of sovereignty. The statute can be changed under the ordinary laws of the supremacy of Parliament. The fundamental point remains that it is better to define in the statute the scope of the powers and to have those powers and their use interpreted by the courts.
My third point refers to international treaty obligations, which are mentioned in paragraphs 87–92. These penetrate into almost every aspect of law and activity of government. If central Government are to retain their international responsibility for treaty performance—as they must, for they have no alternative—they should be competent to override the Assemblies. The Government's solution is to have a veto to quash Assembly action, without the approval of Parliament. That could not be satisfactory. Surely, as regards the EEC we could leave the matter to the relevant court. As for other international obligations, could we not spell out the responsibilities in the devolution statute itself?
While many aspects of conflict to which I referred earlier would inevitably remain, and we are still against the Government's system of devolution and would prefer that an Assembly should not have a separate Executive, I believe that these proposals would provide a sounder constitutional basis than that [column 238]contained in the White Paper. A statutory relationship monitored by the courts, with fundamental safeguards, would be more likely to be stable than that which the Government propose.
I turn to one other extremely important point, relating to paragraph 150 on
“responsibility for the court system and its administration” .
The question is whether responsibility for the courts should remain with the Government and Parliament or should be devolved to the Assemblies, subject to the qualification in paragraph 149 that responsibility for different levels should not be split.
We believe that responsibility must remain with Government and Parliament, for two reasons. First, the provision and oversight of the judicial system is a function of the sovereign power, and that power will still be the Queen in Parliament. Secondly, the courts will have to administer not only statutes derived from the Assembly but the common law of Scotland and United Kingdom law. It would be wrong to give authority on those matters to an Assembly which had responsibility for only one of the sources of the law which the courts will have to apply.
The Government's proposals have already come under severe criticism as regards Scotland and also Wales, where it seems that the majority of the people do not want an Assembly.
Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)
How does the right hon. Lady reconcile that claim with the fact that the great majority of the people of Wales in the two General Elections of 1974 voted for parties which advocated a greater or lesser degree of devolution?
A greater degree of devolution does not necessarily involve an Assembly, particularly of the kind proposed for Wales. I have heard many descriptions of the proposals in the White Paper for the Welsh Assembly. It is likened to a rather grand county council. I do not think that it is like that at all, because at least a county council is not subject to a political veto. I have found few people who have much to say for the Welsh Assembly, and we shall certainly oppose it.[column 239]
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)
I agree with the right hon. Lady that many people do not like the proposals in the White Paper for a Welsh Assembly, but does she accept that for many of us they do not go halfway far enough? Will the right hon. Lady clarify her party's stand on the matter of the Assembly? At the last election many of her candidates in Wales proposed an Assembly for Wales, but they did not agree that it should be directly elected. They wanted it to be indirectly elected. In other words, they rejected the democratic principle.
The hon. Gentleman will find the position clearly set out in our manifesto. We never proposed a Welsh Assembly. We proposed a wholly different system. My hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Edwards) has already said publicly that we shall oppose a Welsh Assembly.
We do not like the Government's proposals for the Scottish Assembly. We are all in the position of criticising one another's proposals. That is partly what the debate is for. The Prime Minister made some allusions to our scheme. It was certainly very different from the Government's, because it made the Assembly essentially part of the Westminster system and not part of a system in parallel to Westminster. We felt that it should have certain legislative powers and wide powers of consultation, inquisition and debate. I would ask W. Rossthe Secretary of State for Scotland whether his proposed Scottish Assembly will have powers of debate wider than the subjects over which it is competent to legislate. The normal rule is that a parliamentary Assembly can discuss only subjects over which there is a measure of accountability to that Assembly.
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)
Despite the difficulties over the Chrysler decision, I am sure that a Scottish Assembly would have debated it, and would have given public advice to any Government.
But who would reply to such a debate?
I think that the right hon. Lady would find that a Scottish Minister would be able to reply.
Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that he will appear [column 240]before the Assembly to reply whenever he is summoned?
Not at all.
I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was not saying that.
The matter needs a little more working out. The right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend Edward Shortthe Lord President know full well that there are many times when Ministers, especially those who have to reply to Adjournment debates, almost plead with Mr. Deputy Speaker that there is no Government responsibility for the subject chosen, and that therefore it cannot be debated. Perhaps it means putting the subject in a different form.
In the end there must be some responsibility to the Assembly.
Not at all.
If the right hon. Gentleman says that, we clearly have very different views. Perhaps we can discuss them afterwards.
The White Paper sets out three tests for the success of its scheme. It says:
“The new system must work efficiently as well as democratically, and it must stand the test of time.”
I do not believe that what is proposed by the Government will be efficient, but it will be cumbersome and conflicting. I do not believe that it will leave things unchanged democratically. It will probably after our United Kingdom democratic system, because I doubt whether, on the Government's proposals, the number of hon. Members from devolved areas could stay the same as at present. I do not believe that this scheme will stand the test of time. Its constitutional basis is too flimsy.
Our tests for a devolved Assembly are very different. It should genuinely improve the machinery of Government and not extend it. It should lead to a diffusion of power and not a confusion of power. Above all, it should retain our characteristic unity as one kingdom. We do not believe that the present form of White Paper proposals will pass these tests. What we can achieve together in the union is far greater than the sum of anything we can do separately.
Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)
Am I right in thinking that the [column 241]right hon. Lady's proposals would move the Scottish Grand Committee to Edinburgh where it would, as now, discuss Second Readings of Bills, and that whatever the Assembly did at Second Reading or in Committee, it would still be open to this House to deal with Bills on Third Reading as it does now?
I think the right hon. Member has read the Report very carefully. That is why I described the Assembly as a system linked into the United Kingdom Parliament. The early legislative functions—Second Reading, Committee stage and Report stage—would be in the Assembly there, and Third Reading would come here. However, the Assembly will have powers over a much wider range of legislation and also have inquisitorial powers to discuss economic matters. In some ways I would go wider than the Government's proposals do at the moment, but I accept that the Third Readings would come back here. That is why the Assembly is linked into the Westminster system rather than being in parallel.
Several Hon. Members
I will not give way again because my objective is to take about only half as long as Harold Wilsonthe Prime Minister took.
The Prime Minister
I gave way to interruptions.
I have also given way a good deal. I have even given way to an intervention by the Prime Minister.
What we can achieve together is far greater than the sum of anything we can do separately. The devolution scheme which is eventually enacted must both conserve and enhance that union.