Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

HC S 2R [Scotland and Wales Bill]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [922/993-1007]
Editorial comments: 1634-1710. Notes for the speech, done in the style MT used throughout her parliamentary career, can be read here .
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 4669
Themes: Executive, Monarchy, Parliament, Union of UK nations, Economic policy - theory and process, European Union (general), Foreign policy (Australia & NZ), Housing, Local government finance, Northern Ireland
[column 993]

4.34 p.m.

Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)

James CallaghanThe Prime Minister has gone through the Bill in chronological order, which was not, perhaps, the best way. Some of the powers are widely scattered about the Bill and it takes a great deal of study to see their precise effects.

There is one matter that I want to take up with the Prime Minister at the out[column 994]set. He said towards the end of his speech something which I thought reflected on his observations when he replied to the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse). At the beginning the Prime Minister said that the Government were considering the amendment on the Order Paper about a referendum being held for Scotland and Wales before the Bill took effect. If the Prime Minister is genuinely considering that, he must also be considering the possibility that the Bill may fall after 30 or 40 days of debate and that the Bill may be killed after a whole Session has been spent on it. The Prime Minister must be considering that possibility or he would not be considering a referendum at all.

The Prime Minister has structured this Bill so that Wales is inextricably bound up with Scotland. If a referendum in Wales produced the result that an Assembly was not wanted there, and if the House accepted that advice, it would be impossible to untangle Wales from Scotland and the whole Bill would fall. At any rate the Prime Minister would have to withdraw the Bill at that stage. What else could he do? He would have to withdraw the Bill and to produce another or else spend such a long time amending it that he would have a fundamentally different Bill. Many of us believe that whatever happens to the Bill it will end up fundamentally different from that which is now before the House.

That is why many think that this is a bad Bill. I will attempt to adduce my arguments for that. It would be better to withdraw the Bill now and to present another while there is still time.

The Prime Minister spoke about the background to the Bill and he gave his version of it. I agree that there is a great deal of background to the measure. We have not had a constitutional provision before the House of Commons for almost a generation. Now, within 18 months to two years, we are making provision to go from having one elected Parliament, the United Kingdom Parliament, to having four elected Assemblies within a period of two years. There will be this House, an elected Welsh Assembly, an elected Scottish Assembly and a directly elected European Parliament.

That is a considerable constitutional upheaval and we do not want to be [column 995]forced to have another. We must be absolutely certain—and I beg the Prime Minister to believe that we feel as strongly and sincerely about this as he does—that we should achieve a stable and lasting solution. We do not want a solution that is unstable and that must be constantly amended by constitutional statutes.

I agree that part of the reason for the Bill is a feeling of remoteness from Parliament or Whitehall. This applies to hon. Members who represent English constituencies as much as to Scottish or Welsh hon. Members. It also arises from the feeling that there is too much government of the people and too little government for the people. The answer to that is not to increase the amount of government but to reduce it.

The third part of the background to the Bill is that as long as the United Kingdom was successful in its economic policies and high in prestige, there was no problem in keeping the United Kingdom intact. It is the moment when one becomes unsuccessful in the economy and prestige falls that the demand for separatism increases. We must bear that in mind because the economic success of this Government has a bearing on the demands from various parts of the kingdom.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

During the 1880s and 1890s there were six Scottish Home Rule Bills brought before the House, five of which were initiated by Scottish Members. There were others in the 1920s. It is not correct to say that this has been caused by the economic difficulties of our time.

Mrs. Thatcher

I do not think the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) was listening. I did not say that it was caused only by economic difficulties. I said that we have not had any constitutional measures before the House up to recent times and that now we shall go from one Parliament to four within two years. That is considerable upheaval.

I agree with the Prime Minister that we must further the interests of the United Kingdom as a whole. The measure is called the Scotland and Wales Bill, but it will have considerable effect on the United Kingdom as a whole, and it is foolish to deny that or to pretend that [column 996]it is otherwise. The objective must be to satisfy the wishes of the Scottish and Welsh people. Inevitably there is a subjective assessment about how far either of them want a directly elected Assembly, particularly the Welsh, and what sort of directly elected Assemblies they want. It is difficult to explain the latter point and it is difficult to decide by way of referendum the kind of directly elected Assembly that people want when they probably have very little means of judging.

I hope that during the next four days many of the Bill's provisions will become clearer than they are at present. It is also important to be satisfied that the Bill works harmoniously. It will not work without difficulty, but it is important that it works without resentment, bitterness or acrimony. In fact, the Bill will give rise to a great deal of conflict, bitterness and acrimony.

I turn now to try to scrutinise the only measure before us, and that is this Bill, which is called the Scotland and Wales Bill when really it is “Changes in the Government of Scotland, Wales and the United Kingdom Bill” . I start by dealing with the unwisdom of putting Wales in the same Bill as Scotland. The more one goes through the Bill the more one sees how unwise the Government have been to do this. There are two basically different Assemblies, two basically different structures and even though they have both been put into the same Bill they have not been put clearly into Scottish and Welsh sections but have been entangled.

First, this is wrong. Secondly, it has led to one or two parts of the Bill being difficult to understand and confusing. Thirdly, it will be difficult to tease them apart because I do not believe—perhaps some hon. Members will disagree with me—that the majority of the people of Wales want a directly elected Assembly. Yet the Government try to put in the same parts of the Bill a structure whereby one Assembly has power to legislate and the other has not, except on secondary legislation, and one Assembly has a separate Executive while the other Assembly is the Executive. There are all sorts of confusions which arise from the right hon. Gentleman's decision to legislate in this way.

I turn now to the form of devolution which the Prime Minister has chosen for [column 997]Scotland. We are not discussing devolution in general. We are discussing the particular measure before us. What the right hon. Gentleman proposes to do is to legislate in Scotland with defined powers. But he has chosen a form of legislation under which the Scottish Assembly is always subordinate to the United Kingdom Parliament and always subject to supervision. The right hon. Gentleman has chosen a Scottish Executive which is subordinate to the Secretary of State for Scotland. Having those—namely, a legislature and a separate Executive—the right hon. Gentleman has chosen representation without taxation. He has chosen, in addition to having 150 Members of Parliament in the Scottish Assembly, also to keep 71 Members of Parliament for Scotland in the United Kingdom Parliament. That is the structure, and it is that which we must examine.

It is not easy to examine it by going through the Bill in chronological order. I look at it first on the basis of what are the powers of the Scottish Assembly to legislate or to act. First, the Scottish Assembly has not excluded powers to legislate on any matter whatsoever. It has concurrent powers through the entire Bill. The United Kingdom Parliament can legislate—this is in Clause 1—

“for the United Kingdom or any part of it” .

The structure the right hon. Gentleman has chosen does not give the Scottish Assembly exclusive powers to legislate on a particular matter but concurrent powers.

At once we are in a difficulty. What if there are two Acts, one inconsistent with the other? What is the poor citizen to do? Must he go to courts to allow them to decide? Curiously enough, even then the right hon. Gentleman does not have a provision in the Bill saying that the laws of one Assembly shall prevail over the other. Clause 1 says that the United Kingdom shall have authority to legislate for all of the United Kingdom

“or any part of it” .

Clause 18 declares that a Scottish Assembly can set aside the laws of the United Kingdom. We are left with one Assembly legislating in one way and the other Assembly legislating in another way. What are the rules of consistency to be? It seems a thorough hash and muddle. [column 998]

Many other legislatures have had to sort out this problem. There are many systems, in Canada and Australia for instance, where there are inconsistencies but where there are well-established sections in the statutes for sorting them out. This will lead to the possibility of more conflict between a Scottish Assembly and the United Kingdom Assembly.

The Prime Minister skated over this point, I thought, without revealing exactly what the position is. First he said that if there is a question whether the Scottish Assembly has power to legislate and it does legislate, when the Bill comes to the Secretary of State for submission to Her Majesty in Council for final assent the matter shall be referred to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council for a decision. That sounds fine. It was what we suggested. It might be thought that that is an end to the matter. Yet in the same clause—Clause 20—it is said that the Scottish Assembly cannot legislate on matters affecting international law or matters relating to the European Economic Community.

Let us deal with the last point first, because that does not have to be submitted to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Normally if there is any question whether one Assembly in Europe is at odds with the European Economic Community, the matter is decided at Luxembourg by a court set up for that purpose. But not in this case. If it appears to the Secretary of State that the proposed legislation conflicts with EEC directives or EEC legislation, he does not have to submit it for Royal Assent or to the Judicial Committee. We have, therefore, one conflict there.

That is not an end to the conflict, not in the least. We move to quite a different part of the Bill, to Clause 45 and find that the Secretary of State may—even though a Scottish Assembly has legislated within its devolved powers—say that a Bill might indirectly affect something which was the exclusive province of the United Kingdom Parliament and can veto its passage by using the parliamentary machine.

The Bill does not have to be submitted to the Privy Council. The Secretary of State has a wholly separate veto. He can put it before this House. It is difficult to see how Scottish Members of [column 999]Parliament would vote on such an issue. If, representing the same constituency, there were two Members of a Scottish Assembly and one Member of the Parliament here and they had to veto what the Scottish Assembly had done, it would be a very difficult matter.

Even though we have gone to Clause 45 we are not at the end of the conflict surrounding the subordination, the supervision or the veto. Clause 107–[Interruption.] I am scrutinising this measure. I hope that the Prime Minister will realise that someone has been through this Bill very carefully.

The Prime Minister

If I may say so to the right hon. Lady, it is clear from some of the points she is making that, whoever has been through the Bill carefully, she has not.

Mrs. Thatcher

That remark is less than worthy of any Prime Minister. I notice that the right hon. Gentleman has not had the knowledge to contradict me on any point.

We now turn to another important point, namely how the veto provisions are to operate. They are to operate by the Secretary of State laying them before this House. They are to be approved by this House and the House of Lords. If the House of Lords does not approve them within 10 days of the motion being laid, the House of Lords is to be dispensed with. We are to have two resolutions of the House of Commons and then, in this Bill, we shall have achieved what Members of the Labour Party have longed to achieve—a unicameral legislature.

Mr. Thorpe

I have listened with great care and attention to the argument of the right hon. Lady. May I put two short points to her? When she says that we must look at these points again is she not saying that these are matters that must be considered in Committee and does not that become impossible if the Bill is killed on Thursday night? Secondly, does it not trouble her conscience that the last time her party killed the Home Rule Bill it led directly to the secession and partition of Ireland?

Mrs. Thatcher

I am taking this form of argument because it goes to the root of the Bill. The powers, structure, and [column 1000]approach I am indicating go to the root of the Bill and affect the whole Bill. That is precisely why I am taking the trouble, and have taken the trouble, to go through the Bill with some of the best constitutional lawyers in the land.

Secondly, I consider some of the devolved powers. There are some measures on which, according to the Bill, the Scottish Assembly is competent to legislate—including housing, health and education. But when one looks at them more closely one sees that they are nothing like as simple and as straightforward as that. Power is given with one hand and very largely taken away with the other. I cannot but feel that there will be a sense of disappointment and a feeling that many people in Scotland have been cheated by this structure.

Let me give some examples to substantiate my argument. What the Prime Minister has done is to choose the ideal way to create dissatisfaction. On housing, the powers in Schedule 6, Part I, Group 13, allow the Scottish Assembly to legislate on the

“provision, improvement and management of dwellings, including the regulation of rents.”

One would think from this that the Bill gave the Assembly power to regulate rents; but not a bit of it. In Clause 52 the Secretary of State has power to restrict rents; he does not leave it to the Scottish Assembly. He also has power in another clause to insist upon model rent rebate schemes.

This is an example of giving power to legislate on housing and rents with one hand and taking it back in another clause. That is fundamental to the structure of the Bill. It is absurd for the Government to give power to legislate in one clause and to take it back in another.

Let me now deal with the rates argument. In Group 9 of Part I of Schedule 6 the Scottish Assembly has power to legislate with regard to rating and the distribution of the rate support grant to local authorities. In another part of the Bill the Secretary of State can prescribe model standard schemes for rates. This is another example of giving powers and then taking them away. There are other interferences with executive powers. Where the Scottish Assembly does not have power to legislate, it has power to exercise existing powers under United [column 1001]Kingdom legislation; but even that power is fettered. It must fit in with pay policy and a number of other things. The Scottish Development Agency must submit to guidelines from the Secretary of State. There are various other matters which put a fetter on the Executive's power. Again, power is given and taken away.

Mr. John P. Mackintosh (Berwick and East Lothian)

I am following with interest the right hon. Lady's detailed analysis of the powers, and I agree with what she has said on the question of constant reservations interrupting an apparently clear grant of power, but would she not agree that every point she has made about the Scottish Assembly suggests that the powers should be more extensive than they are in this Bill, more complete and more clear-cut, yet the Conservative Party is proposing a less effective Assembly with more restricted powers, which will cause more disappointment?

Mrs. Thatcher

What I am saying is that this structure and this approach, and the Government's deviousness, will inevitably lead to trouble. It will mean that one cannot stay at this point. It will create an unstable legislature. That is the point I am making. I agree with the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) that one either has a system based on Lord Home's proposals or one goes much further. The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian has substantiated my point that this structure is basically unstable and cannot endure and will cause endless trouble.

I now wish to make a point about the structure of the Scottish legislature. In the British system, when we set up a legislature, the Crown is usually one of the elements. In these proposals, a Bill has to go through the Secretary of State to Her Majesty in Council, but, with all due respect, that is not the same as going directly from an Assembly to receive Royal Assent. It is an Assembly submitting a Bill to the Secretary of State who submits it to Her Majesty in Council.

This is because the Prime Minister has chosen, and it is relevant to the point which the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian has just made, always to [column 1002]have a subordinate legislature. This is his choice. I think this model will lead to trouble.

The Prime Minister has chosen a halfway house which I believe is unstable. There are two points on the structure of the legislature of which the Prime Minister must be aware, because he said something affecting the Royal Prerogative.

The Secretary of State has power to appoint a Chief Executive who is responsible to the legislature but also responsible to the Secretary of State for Scotland. If he could be dismissed, by whom would he be dismissed? Presumably it is the person who appointed him, the Secretary of State for Scotland. Normally a Minister is responsible to the Crown.

What I believe the Prime Minister has done is to legislate away part of the Royal Prerogative. He has also ensured by this system that there will be conflict, not only between one person and the legislature but between two Governments, which would create a crisis between two Governments. Normally the Secretary of State would advise on the use of the Royal Prerogative. In the Bill there are statutory provisions for its exercise. I cannot remember any other statute—and I have taken advice on this matter, although we have not been through all the statutes—where there has been legislation delegating the Royal Prerogative on the scale that we have in the Bill. The Government are in fact taking it away. It becomes only nominally the Royal Prerogative. Once we alter that, we alter a basic reserve power in the constitution. That is what the Royal Prerogative is.

I hope the Prime Minister will look at this matter. The problem arises partly from the structure he has chosen. We now have a statute directing the Crown in part of its Royal Prerogative, and the words “on behalf of the Crown” do not alter that. The Executive may exercise the Prerogative in the Crown's name, but it will no longer be the Crown's Prerogative except nominally.

Mr. George Reid (Clackmannan and East Lothian)

The right hon. Lady has made much of the conflict that will result from the Bill, but would not her own proposals lead to constitutional chaos? With an Assembly in Scotland, which [column 1003]would be a tier of Westminster government, what would happen to a Bill going to Committee in Edinburgh in an Assembly of a different political colour and then coming to a Parliament of a different political colour? Would not the right hon. Lady's criticisms have more credence if she had thought through her proposals more carefully—and what are they?

Mrs. Thatcher

The hon. Member will use the Scottish Assembly as a basis of conflict and will urge that more and more powers should be devolved. But always he will have to say, to make devolution meaningful, “We must have more.” One would finish with a structure that was totally different. There would be a far-reaching effect on the United Kingdom as a whole and on the authority of this legislature. One would have an entirely different legislature.

We also find—[Interruption.] I am scrutinising the Government's proposals, and I find them wanting. On the Royal Prerogative point, we find that, in a curious way, it is also being granted to the Welsh Assembly, which is an Executive as well.

I urge the right hon. Gentleman to look again at this matter. This is a reserve power in the British constitution, and the Crown has a definite place in the British constitution. The right hon. Gentleman's proposed structure denies that place and can have far-reaching consequences on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative.

Mr. John Lee (Birmingham, Handsworth)

Is the right hon. Lady really saying that the Royal Prerogative can ever be exercised independently of the advice of Ministers? Is she implying that she would allow a Sir John Kerr situation in this country?

Mrs. Thatcher

I am suggesting that the Government have not looked at the Australian situation, recently or in 1932, when the Government of New South Wales were dismissed because they were at odds with legislation of the federal Government. I have been through a period of advice on these matters, and it is because of that that I raise the matter.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)

Has not the right hon. Lady got it entirely wrong? The appointment of the Chief Executive is to be at the command [column 1004]of the Scottish Assembly. Is not that a valuable democratic experiment?

Mrs. Thatcher

My understanding of the Bill is that the nomination is to be in the hands of the Assembly; the appointment is to be in the hands of the Secretary of State. That is rather different. Exactitude in constitutional matters is extremely important.

I turn to a third point—not so much a constitutional point as a point about the cost of the bureaucracy. What the Government have managed to do is to ensure that their proposed Welsh Assembly has far fewer powers than the Scottish Assembly. The running cost of the Welsh Assembly will be far more than that of the Scottish Assembly. The capital cost of the Welsh Assembly will be £3.8 million and the cost of the Scottish Assembly £4 million. Although the Welsh Assembly would have far fewer powers, its annual cost would exceed the cost of the Scottish Assembly. A large number of extra people will be taken on for it. I understand that when that is added to the forecast increases in the number of civil servants, in Scotland there will be a total of 14,000 in 1978 and in Wales a total of 2,720. It makes the EEC Commission, which employs only 7,810 people, look very economical by contrast.

The demand has been for much less government. The response has been more government, more Members of Parliament, more bureaucracy, and more cost.

Mr. Abse

The right hon. Lady is understating her case. The cost for each Assembly man in Wales and his support is said to be £31,250 per annum, but that is on the basis that there will be a shared Civil Service—something which will never come about with a Welsh Assembly, which will be jealous of its powers. Therefore, despite the advice which the right hon. Lady has received, she has considerably underestimated the massive bureaucracy which will be imposed on Wales if the Bill is passed.

Mrs. Thatcher

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The advice which I received was on constitutional matters. On the question of figures, I took the Government's. Perhaps that is why they are wrong.

I believe that the Government have ignored the effects of the Bill on the [column 1005]United Kingdom Parliament. The whole essence of the United Kingdom Parliament is that all hon. Members are equal in their powers and right to vote. The basis for that is that we are each equal in representation proportionally. That basis has not been honoured in recent years. England and Northern Ireland—and Northern Ireland, in particular—are under-represented in the House. Scotland has had more Members than the proportion of her population, and so has Wales. That should be corrected by the customary way of referring the matter to a Speaker's Conference.

That is a grievous imbalance as it is. The Government propose to aggravate the imbalance by keeping the existing numbers but adding to the 71 Scottish Members 150 people sitting in Edinburgh and, in the case of Wales, another 80 people sitting in Cardiff. Inevitably, if there is an unstable structure, the demand for more and more powers for Edinburgh will continue. Then there will soon be a demand here to restrict the voting powers of the Scottish Members of Parliament. I should be reluctant to see that, and that is one reason why I believe the structure of the Bill is wrong. Although the Government have tried to ignore this factor, it will not go away just because it is ignored.

Mr. Dalyell

Is it not a fact that even the Assembly which the right hon. Lady apparently is proposing would ask for more and more and would never be satisfied?

Mrs. Thatcher

There is a great difference—and I do not have to respond long to show the hon. Gentleman this—between an Assembly geared into the Westminster structure, an Assembly which has powers of primary legislation, which will then have to come to this House merely for final assent, and an Assembly which has a separate Executive, which itself can be a great source of conflict. The Government propose two legislatures, two Executives and two groups of civil servants. Such a structure does not make for efficient government for the citizens of any part of the United Kingdom.

I believe that the Bill is a bad Bill, first, because it is wrong to have Scotland [column 1006]and Wales in the same Bill—and one reason that the Government put Wales in the same Bill was that they knew that they would not get the Bill through otherwise—which will cause us considerable difficulties. The Government have chosen a completely wrong approach to and wrong structure for the Scottish Assembly. They have chosen to make it separate but supervised. That is giving power with one hand and taking it back with the other. It will satisfy no one and will lead to the very discord and conflict which it is our purpose to avoid. It will be used as a basis of agitation and eventually as a basis to try to fragment the unity of the kingdom.

It is inevitable that an extra layer of government on the Government's model will lead also to delay, confusion and complication for those who have to get on with the business of providing jobs and prosperity in Scotland. They will have to respond, not only to the requests of the Whitehall Departments of State, but to a whole series of requests from the Executive and Departments in Scotland. It will add to, not reduce, our problem of creating greater prosperity in Scotland.

We recognise that the needs and wishes of the Welsh people are different. I believe that the Welsh people do not want an Assembly, and if they were allowed the chance to say so that is the answer that they would give.

The Prime Minister referred to Clause 1, which states that the provisions

“do not affect the united of the United Kingdom or the supreme authority of Parliament to make laws for the United Kingdom or any part of it” .

The unity of the United Kingdom and the authority of Parliament are not maintained merely by making a declaration to that effect. I do not believe that they would be maintained by starting on the course upon which the Government have embarked in this Bill; they would be endangered. I believe that the structure which the right hon. Gentleman has chosen will have a far-reaching effect on the United Kingdom Parliament, and I have set out my reasons for saying that. It will cause increasing conflict. I believe that many people in Scotland, when they realise the consequences of this structure, will say that they would rather not have this kind of Assembly.

I believe that these proposals will satisfy no one. This Bill is a bad Bill and the [column 1007]thing to do with a bad Bill is to say so fearlessly, as I have done, and to vote accordingly, which I shall do.