Scotland Bill — Committee (1st Day) (Continued)
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, it has been amply demonstrated by the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd, that, as things currently stand, whole Bills can be delayed-possibly for months-should only a single provision be referred to the Supreme Court to determine whether it was within legislative competence. Section 33 of the Scotland Act 1998 contains a power to allow the law officers to refer Bills passed by the Scottish Parliament to the Supreme Court to determine whether they are within legislative competence prior to Royal Assent to the legislation.
The Scotland Bill provides the Government with an opportunity to re-examine this power. Indeed, as the noble and learned Lord indicated, the Calman recommendations encouraged a general sweep-up, and so within the Scotland Office and the Office of the Advocate-General we looked at all the different matters that had arisen and at where there were opportunities to amend, and some of these are reflected in other parts of the Bill.
It is very helpful that the Committee has been informed by the noble and learned Lord, from his many distinguished years of experience as Lord Advocate, as to how the process works. I should put on record from the UK Government's side that officials in my department talk day in and day out to officials in the Scottish Government's legal department on proposed Bills and orders to ensure that they come within competence. They discuss particular issues, and sometimes, when it is found not possible to get a solution under the legislation to be passed by the Scottish Parliament, orders under Section 104 of the Scotland Act can be brought forward to give effect to certain provisions. One sometimes sees headlines about the more controversial issues. We should not lose sight of the regular and valuable work done by officials in respective Governments to try and resolve many of these issues.
Likewise, officials within my department monitor Bills as they go through the Scottish Parliament. In a similar way to when the noble and learned Lord was Lord Advocate and during the 28-day period, these matters were looked at in my own department and ultimately referred to me to decide whether to refer them to the Supreme Court under Section 33. I share this thought with the noble and learned Lord. I recall from being a Minister when he was Lord Advocate the thoroughness with which that was done. Yet shortly after I took up office as Advocate-General, a case came before the High Court of Justiciary involving the competence of an order of lifelong restriction when someone had been convicted of an offence solely under the Firearms Act. That is of course a reserved matter. The question was whether the order was competent. The general view was that it was not, and ultimately the Crown did not defend the appeal. One of my officials said, "Who was the Minister who signed the original Bill as being competent?". I had to hold my hand up, but I will not say who the law officer was who gave me that advice. It is fair to say that the other parts of the Bill stand with regard to the order of lifelong restriction and to offences that were either common law or related to devolved matters. That underlines the fact that a considerable amount of effort and work go into this.
With this clause, we sought to prevent unnecessary delays to Bills the majority of provisions of which are considered to be within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. In these circumstances, the affected Bill would be submitted for Royal Assent by the Presiding Officer, while the disputed provisions would not come into force until the Supreme Court had reached a decision and Scottish Ministers had made the appropriate commencement order.
As the noble and learned Lord indicated, this power has not been used to date. As I have indicated, that is testament to the engagement between the UK and Scottish Governments, both under the current Administrations and previous ones. We do not really need to be reminded of how much both Parliaments enjoy, particularly in the field of criminal justice, so-called Christmas tree Bills to which bits are added here, there and everywhere. No doubt there is a need to address some recent development, or some official remembers a particular problem that needs sorting out. It would be regrettable if a Bill whose provisions for the most part were well within competence had one particular clause thought to be outwith competence and that had to be referred to the Supreme Court for a determination that held up the whole Bill. We wish to address that issue.
The limited procedure that we propose seeks to do that. I will deal with some of the amendments before addressing some of the points raised by the noble and learned Lord.