Secretary of State for Scotland (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:09 pm on 12th June 2003.

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Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 3:09 pm, 12th June 2003

To ask the First Minister when he will next meet the Secretary of State for Scotland—assuming that there still is one—and what issues he intends to discuss. (S2F-66)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I intend to speak with the Secretary of State for Scotland later this afternoon.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

That might be a last supper or a last conversation.

At their next meeting, I hope that the First Minister will discuss the proposed inquiry that Lord Fraser will conduct, to which Mr Swinney alluded. Some weeks ago, at the height of the election campaign, the First Minister said that there needed to be a full public investigation. Will he advise us whether he had the Secretary of State for Scotland's support for making that statement? He made references to the Auditor General's previous investigation into Holyrood but, as far as I am aware, that investigation did not include the questioning of the principals involved. If the powers of the proposed inquiry rely on what was available to the Auditor General, I assume that that will not be sufficient to do the job without the active co-operation of the individuals who were involved between 1997 and 1999. I invite the First Minister to comment on that.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Obviously, I did not discuss that matter with the secretary of state. It is right that such an initiative is a matter for the First Minister, the Executive and the Scottish Parliament. It will also be important to discuss with Lord Fraser the exact terms of reference relating to the conduct of his investigation. That is necessary not only to pay proper respect to Lord Fraser, but to ensure that the terms of reference are as complete as possible. We will ensure that he is involved in such discussion in the next week. That is why, in my letter, I offer to make a full statement to Parliament before the end of June.

Lord Fraser will want to consider how best to conduct the investigation. That should involve the questioning—others may prefer to use the word "grilling"—of key people who have been involved during the past four to six years. Lord Fraser will have that opportunity and I am sure that he will want to take it up. If he requires any assistance from me in that task, he will receive it.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The First Minister will acknowledge that people in Scotland expect a full and independent inquiry. Anything less than that will be seen as a whitewash and will not command public confidence.

The First Minister said that he would discuss the terms of the remit with Lord Fraser, but I was concerned to note that the First Minister's letter to the Presiding Officer states:

"A detailed remit for the investigation should be agreed between ourselves, Lord Fraser, and the Auditor General before the end of June."

I suggest to the First Minister that, in that group that will determine the remit and powers of the inquiry, the one important party that is conspicuous by its absence is the Scotland Office on behalf of Her Majesty's Government.

The inquiry must be able to cover the period prior to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive. Does the First Minister agree that, if the inquiry is to be comprehensive, if witnesses are to be compellable, and if all the relevant information is to be available, the Scotland Office should be a party to the discussions that determine the powers and remit of the inquiry?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

It would have been interesting to see what the response would have been if the letter had said that we intended to agree the terms of reference of the investigation with the Scotland Office. Presumably, Mr McLetchie would have accused me of being under the thumb of the Scotland Office and of allowing the Scotland Office a veto over the terms of reference.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The nationalists might have done so, but the Tories would not.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Perhaps both those parties would have done so.

It is important that the inquiry's terms of reference are properly agreed with Lord Fraser, with the active involvement of both the Presiding Officer and the Auditor General, given their important roles in the matter. As Mr McLetchie is aware, I believe that it is important that I discuss the matter with all the party leaders in advance of any final decisions. I also intend to ensure that the conveners of the Finance Committee and the Holyrood progress group are kept fully informed. Having made the matter clear to Parliament, I would also wish to ensure that the Scotland Office has a chance to discuss the matter with me over the next week.

I have no intention of giving anybody a veto over the inquiry. I want to agree proper terms of reference so that the inquiry can get to the bottom of this story, provide the answers that the people of Scotland desire and ensure that this never happens again.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

I ask that the next three questions and answers be kept tight so that we can revisit the Holyrood issue under question 5.

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat

In the light of recent reports that the UK Department of Transport and the Strategic Rail Authority may consider the closure of rural lines, and in the light of the remark by the rail minister, David Jamieson, that no branch line could be considered sacrosanct, will the First Minister make it clear to Westminster colleagues that the Scottish Executive is committed to, and expects to be supported in, maintaining and extending Scotland's current rail network?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

As we are about to hear in this afternoon's transport debate—which some members did not want to have—the Scottish Executive is very committed not only to not closing lines in Scotland but to opening new lines or reopening old ones. People are looking forward to that investment in communities across Scotland, not least in the Stirling to Dunfermline area, in the Airdrie to Bathgate area in central Scotland, and in the Larkhall to Glasgow area, as well as in other parts of Scotland that are referred to in the partnership agreement and in our other plans. Our objective is to expand rail services in Scotland; it is certainly not to decrease them.