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Scotland Bill — Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 21st March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lords Spokesperson (Attorney General's Office), Lords Spokesperson (Wales Office), The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Scotland Office) 4:00 pm, 21st March 2012

My Lords, I think I might deal with the final comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Browne. I acknowledge the comments that have been made not just about this Bill but about the general timetable, but I hope that noble Lords who have taken part in our debates on many amendments to this Bill feel that we have had constructive debates. Almost without exception, the amendments that have been tabled have been pertinent and have done what this House does-properly scrutinise-and the Bill is the better for that. Although, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, pointed out, we sat until 10.41 pm last Thursday, even in the final three-quarters of an hour we had some important debates. Although we had been sitting for some time, some important and thoughtful contributions were made.

On the point about the Written Ministerial Statement paving the way to a legislative consent Motion, the noble Lord, Lord Browne, fairly described the situation as he understood it. When we debated this before moving into Committee last Thursday, I indicated to your Lordship' House, not for the first time, that work, negotiations and discussions were going on between the Scottish Government and the United Kingdom Government, and that we were hopeful that they would come to a conclusion. On that occasion, I think I said that I hoped that the House, before moving to Report, would have an outcome to these negotiations. I thought that it was important, if it was at all possible, for that Written Ministerial Statement to be available to your Lordships before we met today. I am pleased that in the event that proved to be possible.

There was an encouragingly wide response to the consultation. We received just under 3,000 responses, including many replies from members of the public living in Scotland and beyond. There were contributions from businesses, academics, political parties, trade unions and many others across civic Scotland. A number of these matters will be debated when we move into Committee, but I can confirm that the Government's key proposal in the consultation was that the referendum should be legal, fair and decisive.

In order to provide a legal referendum, we set out our view that a Section 30 order should be agreed to devolve to the Scottish Parliament the power to legislate for a referendum. Initial analysis of the responses indicates clear support for that proposal. A significant majority of those who responded to this issue agreed that powers to hold a referendum should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Of these, the great majority supported a Section 30 order.

However, analysis of any consultation is not just a simple matter of counting responses, so I am pleased that our preference for agreeing a Section 30 order was endorsed by a number of constitutional experts, including Matt Qvortrup, Adam Tomkins and Alan Trench, as well as knowledgeable organisations such as the Law Society of Scotland, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Academy.

The fact that it is not just simply a numbers question was highlighted by the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, who picked out a point in the response from Professor Tomkins on the Electoral Commission and the question. There were a number of substantially written points, although obviously not 3,000. We want to make sure that when we bring forward a report-my understanding is that because the original consultation was a command document, any report has to go through the process of becoming a Command Paper-we do proper justice to the quality of the responses that we received.

Obviously, we will be able to say more in the debates. Nevertheless, it is possible to give some clear indication as to where the balance of opinion lies in response to a number of the detailed points-for example, on whether there should be one question or two, and on the timing; clearly, considerably more people want it sooner rather than later-and to indicate some of the specific points made by a number of leading experts.

I hear what my noble friend Lord Forsyth says about today's debate and any amendments that he might wish to table for Report. The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Browne, have acknowledged that we have tried to structure a debate today on the referendums in a way that is to the benefit of the Committee. After the appropriate amendment has been moved, I wish to indicate the Government's position by saying something about the consultation. I shall then listen to comments from noble Lords and respond at the end of the debate.