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Scotland Bill — Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 21st March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland) 8:00 pm, 21st March 2012

My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if, in the interests of attempting to be brief-I have tried this before and it has not worked-I do not make reference to their contributions to the debate in any great detail. I shall also resist the temptation to go down many of the hypothetical routes or cul-de-sacs that have opened up in the course of the debate. I will try to concentrate on the nub of the issue.

I do that principally because, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, indicated in his opening remarks, there is now a great degree of unanimity across the House about where we are. It may have taken us much longer than it should to get here, and that may be because, as the noble Lord, Lord Lang, pointed out, for a time it was not clear what lead the Government were to give on these issues. That is now much clearer. It may also be that we had, to a degree, a hangover from the past in the sense of the Scotland Bill, which I think we were committed to seeing through. Managing all these things together was challenging and difficult. I do not envy the noble and learned Lord and his colleagues in the Scotland Office having to work their way through this. I congratulate them on getting us to where we are to date. There are still challenges ahead and some of those have been identified in this debate. Given that there is a significant degree of unity and unanimity across the Committee on how we should approach this and the challenges that face the Government, it does not seem very fruitful to pick through all the possibilities. Apart from anything else, I know that that would just encourage Members of the Committee to have other ideas. They might want to make interventions and develop other lines.

I listened carefully to the Minister's contributions this afternoon. I carefully read the Written Statement which his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland laid today and which was referred to in this Committee. From the degree to which the consultation has been reported either by the noble and learned Lord or in the Ministerial Statement, or from other pieces of information that are now allowed, we seem to be able to come to some conclusions about where the Government ought to be, and we can encourage them to continue on this path in their ongoing discussions with the Scottish Government.

It appears that the Government have comprehensively won the argument about legality. I do not think there is any question about that. I was privileged to be present when the noble and learned Lord spoke at length on this issue at Glasgow University. He was persuasive then, and the consultation document is persuasive. Since then, the Scottish Government have tried to undermine that advice, but unsuccessfully-so much so that the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, went to the same location, ostensibly to deliver a competing lecture on the issue, and ended up avoiding the question altogether. I understand that during her speech on independence and its virtues, she referred to one text-book supporting the view that she and her fellow Ministers held about legality, and that she was intervened upon or questioned by an undergraduate who pointed out to her that his instructions, when he appeared as a student at the university, were that you should never be in a position where you have to quote a text-book to support a legal proposition as that was just bad law, and she was flummoxed by it. If she was beaten by an undergraduate at Glasgow University, perhaps she should give up trying to make the argument.

The Government appear to have won comprehensively the argument on legality, and they also appear to have done so on the argument that we have to have this referendum as soon as practically possible. That is now being supported by growing evidence from those in business and other walks of economic life in Scotland. They suggest that evidence is now emerging that the uncertainty about Scotland's future is starting to damage investment in Scotland, and consequently jobs and people's incomes.

The Government appear to have comprehensively won the argument about the question. I do not think there is any doubt that everybody is of the view that it is best to have one clear question-so much so that the Scottish Government were forced to concede that point in their own consultation document, at least as a headline, although they did exactly what my noble friend Lord Reid of Cardowan suggests. They created a consultation with an amorphous group of people in Scotland, to whom they said: "If you persuade us that we need to go further and have another question, we will reluctantly concede to that but our position is that there should be one question". I will come back to the issue of the question. I am not in a position to judge between the competing questions that have been proposed in our debate this evening, but there is a mechanism for working out the appropriate, fair question. We should at least begin that process now, so that when proposals are made to the Electoral Commission and to others who have to take responsibility for adjudicating to some degree on questions, they will be in a position to do that.

The Government appear to have comprehensively won the argument that the referendum ought to be run if not by the Electoral Commission then at least according to the rules that it sets and for it to be accountable to the Electoral Commission. I would prefer it to be run by the Electoral Commission. If I have not covered all the bases relating to the issues of contention, then somebody should point that out to me, but I think that is it. It appears that the Government laid out their stall, found support across Scotland and won the argument comprehensively, and now are able to say, "Not only do we know that we have won the argument but here is the evidence in the response to the consultation showing we have won it". That puts the Government in a strong position, but in negotiating terms it puts them in a difficult position because it does not leave them very much room for manoeuvre, but they should not have very much of that on these issues.

I am inclining to the position that I have always been in about legislative consent Motions regarding the Bill. It is that the Scottish Government, inevitably and for political reasons, will have to come to that position too. As they have gone out and tried to sustain arguments in other areas, they have found that increasingly difficult, and their credibility is being undermined. I suspect that in the negotiations, which I hope will not take too long, the Scottish Government will be brought to that position.

Listening even more carefully to the noble and learned Lord, it now appears that we will not be using this Bill as a vehicle for legislating for a referendum in Scotland, and I agree with that. This Bill is about devolution, and it should remain about devolution. We should not muddy its waters by using it for another purpose. Apart from that, a Section 30 order is the right way to go because it is an established mechanism for transferring the power to the Scottish Government. It is tried and tested, and it involves a level of buy-in by the Scottish Government that should prevent them complaining in future about what they have agreed to. It may not, but at least it provides a political framework where they can be held to account for the consequences of the agreement and we can avoid all these arguments about imposition. If we have a process that they have to buy into to create this opportunity, which we all now want to see, we can stop all this nonsense talk about diktats from London and imposition by Westminster. They will have to buy into it.