Orders of the Day — Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:51 pm on 22nd May 1997.

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Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Liberal Democrat, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine 4:51 pm, 22nd May 1997

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the chance to make my maiden speech in a debate that so affects the country from which I come, and especially my constituency. West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine is a new constituency and, as one can tell from the length of the name, a creation of the boundary commission. It is not a constituency of one entity; rather it is a bringing together of several different areas.

I wish to pay tribute to the two hon. Members who previously represented parts of what is now the West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine constituency. I urge hon. Members to try to remember the full name from time to time, and not to abbreviate it. Kincardine is an ancient area of Scotland and does not wish to be forgotten.

One of the two hon. Members who preceded me in the constituency is Mr. George Kynoch, who is no longer in this place. I pay tribute to his loyalty to the Conservative party, particularly to his loyalty as a Minister—a role which he took extremely seriously. The other hon. Member who represented part of my constituency is my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce). Many right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of his standing in this place and of his capabilities. I can say that, on the doorstep, my hon. Friend is extremely popular in the part of my constituency that he used to represent.

There has been a sea change in the attitude of the Conservative party to the debate about the direction of the future of Scotland. It is the settled will of the people of Scotland that we should have a Scottish Parliament. Indeed, it is the logical and obvious way forward.

One of the problems, however, is the lumping together of legislation. There seems to be a different debate in Wales about what should happen there and the need for a referendum to test what is happening. There is a suspicion among Liberal Democrats that we are taking part in a debate about a referendum in Scotland, not on a matter of principle, but on worries that were expressed during the build up to the general election on the effect of such considerations in England—in other words, going ahead with the policies to which the Labour party was then committed.

My colleagues and I believe that the Bill, and the delay in bringing forward the referendum, is prolonging the much-needed requirement for a Scottish Parliament, which will be able to deal with the issues that affect my constituency and the rest of Scotland.

We have seen already today the way in which the House can operate. Questions were asked about education in England and Wales, and it seems that the Labour party in government are planning to abolish nursery vouchers, yet we hear that the Government are planning to continue with the voucher scheme in Scotland. It is surprising that, when matters of principle and technicality can surely be dealt with across Departments, those involved cannot see a way of abolishing vouchers in Scotland when a way has been found of abolishing them in England. I hope that a Scottish Parliament will enable us in Scotland to deal with the issues that will have an effect on us.

In my constituency, one of the main concerns at the forefront of the electorate's mind during the general election campaign was under-investment in education. It is sad that, again today, that has not been fully taken on board by the new Government. The crisis that is affecting our schools has not been fully recognised. I hope that the Government will recognise the urgency of the problem.

Another issue that is important in my constituency is the role of the private finance initiative in the future of the health service. It is the clear will of my constituents that management and control of clinical care should not be handed over to private companies. I am sure that the Government will be able to provide some reassurance on that front.

I think of those who previously represented parts of my constituency; I have in mind Sir Russell Fairgrieve and the late Alick Buchanan-Smith. There was a time when the Conservative party could grasp the need for a Scottish Parliament and an accountable Scottish legislature. I commend to the House an excellent book written by Dr. James Mitchell, formerly of Edinburgh university and now of Strathclyde university; entitled, "Conservatives and the Union: A Study of the Conservative party". Unfortunately, the hon. Member who borrowed it from the Library is no longer an hon. Member, and has not yet managed to return it. That being so, I do not have a copy available to me.

I would only say from past reading of the book that the Conservative party was instrumental in the creation of the Scottish Office—a tier of government that needs to be held accountable to the people it is meant to serve. If we have such a tier of government in Scotland, the process of creating democratic accountability is an obvious next step.

The Liberal Democrats are extremely important in the context of this debate. The last thing my constituents want is a Parliament dominated by one part of Scotland and one party in Scotland, which is why a fair voting system is crucial to the acceptance of a Scottish Parliament—and, presumably, a Welsh Senate—and why the Liberal Democrats have played such a crucial role in the negotiations that have led to what has been agreed by the Scottish Constitutional Convention. I hope very much that we shall have a fair voting system to the Parliament and that fair voting will be embraced. Without it, there will be no parliamentary legitimacy.

Some people in the north-east of Scotland are concerned—it is a legitimate concern—about the domination of one party in the central belt. If we do not have a Scottish Parliament, I am pretty sure that, for the next five years, decisions that bear on the north-east of Scotland and are relevant to the Scottish Office will be dominated by one party and by one part of Scotland, because the Secretary of State is very much from one party, and it has many hon. Members who will make sure that he represents their part of Scotland. That being so, I urge all parts of Scotland to embrace the need for the Parliament.

I am disappointed about the delay and hope that, in Committee, the need to amend the Bill so that we do not need a referendum for Scotland will be recognised. That would enable us to get on with the real legislation. I hope also that the need for a referendum in Wales will be accepted, where the issue has not been so developed.

I urge the House not to delay any more that which is needed in Scotland. The House has a great deal of legislation with which to cope, and many Bills that bear on Scotland, which should be scrutinised, do not, unfortunately, receive scrutiny. There are many needs for reform in Scotland that are not even considered by the House because of delays. A means of dealing with the Scottish Office and the consequences for our constituents purely and only in Scotland within a Scottish Parliament is long overdue. I urge the House, in Committee, while accepting the need for a referendum in Wales, to delete the need for a referendum in Scotland.