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House of Commons

Tuesday 19 December 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

MESSAGE FROM THE QUEEN

Queen's Speech (Answer to Address)

The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported Her Majesty's Answer to the Address, as follows:

I have received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of your thanks for the Speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.

PRIVATE BUSINESS

Kent County Council Bill [Lords]

Motion made,


Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Tuesday 9 January.

Medway Council Bill [Lords]

Motion made,


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Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Tuesday 9 January.

Oral Answers to Questions

SCOTLAND

The Secretary of State was asked--

Bicentenary

1. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): What discussions he has had with the First Minister regarding events to celebrate the bicentenary of the United Kingdom. [141563]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): My right hon. Friend meets with the First Minister on a regular basis to discuss a wide range of matters. I do not think that I would be breaking confidentiality if I said that this particular issue has not figured in those discussions.

Mr. Swayne: The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), told me on 13 December that the Government would mark the bicentenary. Will it feature in any future discussions that the Secretary of State may have? How does the Minister plan to celebrate it, and does he agree that it will serve as a useful rehearsal for the real jamboree that will fall due in 2007, when we can jointly celebrate the huge achievements of the union of our nations?

Mr. Wilson: In the year 2001, I hope that this Labour Government will continue to celebrate by deeds rather than jamborees. We shall do that by continuing the march towards social justice, which the hon. Gentleman will oppose. I have no immediate plans to celebrate the events of 1801. Some people in Ireland will celebrate them, some will not. The less we say to stir that up, the better.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): Is my hon. Friend aware that those of us who have been

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campaigning for the by-election at Falkirk, West on behalf of the excellent candidate Major Eric Joyce have had our commitment to social justice reinforced by the voters of that constituency? Will he reconfirm to the House that it is not events that will make the people of Scotland celebrate their status as members of the United Kingdom, but a UK Government who share their priorities? Chief among those priorities are the eradication of child and pensioner poverty and the attainment of full employment. That is in this country's grasp for the first time in more than a generation.

Mr. Wilson: Like my hon. Friend, I am especially glad that youth unemployment in Scotland as a whole and in Falkirk in particular is down by 75 per cent. That is a reason not only to rejoice, but to vote Eric Joyce.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I understand the Minister's reluctance to celebrate 1801, but will not he accept that many people in Ireland have benefited from that Union? Some of them have found their nest here as a result of it. Does not he also accept that the anniversary provides an opportunity to restore the best values of our Christian tradition, as represented in the flag of the Kingdom, which combines the emblems of George, Andrew and Patrick?

Mr. Wilson: I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Many people throughout these islands have benefited from the Union. Clearly, different views obtain in the island of Ireland about the events of 1801. However, I think that the spirit of Wolfe Tone, as well as that of some of the radicals in the north of Ireland, is something over which any people with liberal and progressive views can unite.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): I am Scots-born but have much Irish and other blood in me, so may I invite my hon. Friend not to celebrate the anschluss of Ireland to England 200 years ago? It opened the way to a century's worth of conflict that in some ways still continues. Instead, will he celebrate the great contribution that Irish people have made to Scotland, England and Wales? We live in a multination, multicultural and multirace Great Britain. It is a great country to belong to, but we should not put one nation above another. That admonition applies especially to members of the Conservative party, who want to reduce us all to little Englanders and who are now waving the race card on police crime.

Mr. Wilson: That was a characteristically eclectic question from my hon. Friend. I agree: we should not put one nation or race above the others, but we should celebrate the contributions that all people make to the human family. I want to build bridges and connections between Scotland and all parts of Ireland. I have tried to do my own little bit in that respect through something called the Columba initiative, which celebrates the cultural and linguistic connections between all parts of Ireland and Scotland, especially through the Gaelic language and culture. Historically, that language was as strong in northern Ireland, in the province of Ulster, as it was in the other three provinces of the island of Ireland.

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It is tremendously important to build bridges and to prove that all the good social, cultural, educational and historical links are far more important than any divisions based on religion or politics.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I noted the article written by the Secretary of State in The Herald this week, celebrating the Labour Government's new constitutional settlement. In that context, does the Minister agree that if the new constitutional settlement is to work, it will require an element of forbearance and understanding between all parties? Does he also agree that it would be most undesirable if, for instance, Scottish Members of Parliament were to vote tomorrow on the Hunting Bill which concerns England and Wales alone?

Mr. Wilson: I do not agree with that, and I think that we will come to this issue in a later question. It is important to assert that all Members of the House are equal and have equal voting rights. I have no doubt that some of my hon. Friends will be here tomorrow night to vote on hunting, but I suspect that some might also be in Falkirk, hunting foxes of a different variety.

Mr. Grieve: I find the Minister's answer disappointing. He appears to have missed the point that as a result of the constitutional settlement that we are trying to make work, the equality of Members of Parliament has already been breached through devolution. In those circumstances, is it not right that if that is his attitude, it will in due course be necessary to implement measures in this House to have English and Welsh votes on English and Welsh laws, as people in Scotland well understand when they are asked about it?

Mr. Wilson: It comes ill from a Tory to seek that sort of absolutist solution to a relative problem. When legislation that was already devolved administratively was carried out in this House, I do not remember the hon. Gentleman or any of his colleagues thinking that it was a great constitutional outrage that the Tories ruthlessly used their majority to drive through Scottish legislation against the will of people in Scotland. There is now, by the will of this Parliament, a devolved responsibility to the Parliament in Scotland over certain areas, but that does not change the constitutional position of this House or Members of this House. As soon as one moves away, for populist political reasons, from the theology of devolution--that this House has given devolution freely and willingly to the Scottish Parliament--there is real constitutional trouble. I advise the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues not to go down that road.


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