Constitution and Home Affairs
Oral Answers to Questions — Education
Angus Robertson (Moray, Scottish National Party)
I start by commending Michael Ellis on his excellent and illuminating maiden speech. I am sure we will hear much more from him in the years ahead. I wish well both him and all those who either have already or are about to give their maiden speech.
Since the formation of this Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, we have heard much in the press in Scotland about the fact that there is to be a "respect agenda", with the UK Government improving relations with the devolved Governments and the parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is thus with some regret that I noted the Deputy Prime Minister failing even to mention that agenda in his speech; he made an announcement of important constitutional progress on the reform of the House of Lords in respect of which he saw fit to invite Members from only three parties in this House.
The shadow Secretary of State is not in his place, but I ask his colleagues to pass on to him the comments that I am about to make, because I have not been a blushing violet-or even a shrinking violet; I am now blushing, and not for the first time-when it comes to criticising the last Labour Government. During the last Parliament, there was much I needed to criticise the Labour Government on when it came to constitutional matters, but in recent times the previous Government worked hard on issues such as the reform of party and MP finance to include all the parties. Indeed, the then Justice Secretary was exemplary in his relations with the political parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is totally unacceptable that we are to see major constitutional reforms in the United Kingdom on the basis of excluding the parties of government from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I was pleased to note that other Members on the Opposition side, not least Paul Murphy, recognised that as an important issue.
Moving on to discuss the Queen's Speech, we understand that progress is to be made on further devolution of powers to Scotland. That would mean safer streets and safer communities, which is something that we welcome, as we also welcome the willingness to consider improving the financial powers to be devolved to the Scottish Government and to the Scottish Parliament. This comes at a time when we are hearing growing calls from academics and senior business leaders who want Scottish Ministers to control taxes and social welfare and to have borrowing powers.
The Campaign for Fiscal Responsibility has been triggered in part by the new coalition Government's pledge to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000. Among the leading members of the Scottish business community who are calling for fiscal responsibility in Scotland is Jim McColl, the chairman of business development firm, Clyde Blowers, which is involved in the campaign. He said recently:
"I believe we're at the crossroads of a fantastic opportunity to take more responsibility in Scotland for its economic health... We need to have a financially responsible Parliament where politicians take full responsibility for raising the money that they spend and for the economy that they manage. We need the levers to stimulate that economy".
That has been underlined by Ben Thomson, the chairman of the think-tank Reform Scotland, who said that there is "surprising" breadth of support for radical change, which was further underlined in The Times today by Sir Tom Hunter, who writes:
"Tinkering is not the answer to these challenges-Scotland must take a radical look at itself and change markedly. Scotland needs to control the levers necessary to stimulate growth-and benefit from the receipts that come from that growth."
I very much hope that the coalition Government will take all these voices into account and follow their own advice on the respect agenda and on working constructively with the Scottish Government in pursuing these matters.
In the time remaining, I would like to touch on a number of other constitutional reforms: fixed-term Parliaments, the 55% threshold, democratisation of the House of Lords and reform of the electoral system. We in the Scottish National party have long supported the introduction of fixed terms-experience of which, of course, we have in the Scottish Parliament. To illustrate and underline the point made by colleagues from the Democratic Unionist party earlier, it would be a real mistake to set the date of a fixed Parliament to match exactly the date of elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. If we are to have fixed terms, why not pick four-year rather than five-year cycles? Experience in the last Scottish Parliament election showed that the more elections one holds on the same day, the more problems can ensue.
Turning to the so-called threshold question, we need only a simple majority to form or bring down a Government in the Scottish Parliament. If no Government can command 50% of support among voting MSPs within 28 days, Parliament is dissolved. The 66% barrier exists only to ensure that there is time to allow a new Government to be formed if an old one collapses. I really hope that the Government listen on this issue. For people who have practical experience of the system as it works in action, the 55% threshold is a gerrymandering effort to hold on to power, as are the boundary reviews, which seem to take no account of the geographic diversity in some parts of the United Kingdom. It is also hard to conclude anything but that this is an effort to target poorer and more rural constituencies. If there is a need to reform the size of constituencies, the Government must take account of manageable size and geography.
On democratising the House of Lords, our party is in favour of a unicameral set-up, but should there be a second chamber, it must be elected. On electoral reform, if we are to have a referendum, we should include more than one option: the alternative vote is not proportional representation.
In conclusion, we heard today from the Deputy Prime Minister in soaring reformist rhetorical tones what was in actual fact his falling at the first fence. Inclusion, debate and participation are all fine and well, but they need to include all-