SIR ALAN BEITH: Scots debate gets serious

Handout photo issued by Scottish Parliament of First Minister Alex Salmond addressing the Business in the Parliament conference. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday June 8, 2012. See PA story SCOTLAND Business. Photo credit should read: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
Handout photo issued by Scottish Parliament of First Minister Alex Salmond addressing the Business in the Parliament conference. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday June 8, 2012. See PA story SCOTLAND Business. Photo credit should read: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
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The Scottish referendum debate is getting serious, and not just because David Bowie has joined in to say ‘Scotland, stay with us!’

Some might be more influenced by the concerns of the Governor of the Bank of England and the head of BP.

The seriously worrying consequences of a split, especially for the Scots, are now beginning to emerge.

Up to now it has been a debate about an idea, not about reality. Scots could be in for some nasty surprises if they vote ‘yes’, and there will be some serious problems for the rest of the UK as well.

It is not that Scotland would be unable to exist as an independent country – it could, as the Irish Republic does, at a price.

What that price is will only be determined after the vote, in very difficult negotiations.

Scotland may want to keep the pound, but then there cannot be a currency union unless the rest of the UK can control the economic policies pursued by the Scottish Government, in which case it is not independent.

Scotland may not be allowed to rejoin the European Union, with disastrous consequences for Scottish business. UK defence bases will have to be removed from Scotland with a large loss of jobs.

The taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland could not remain based in Scotland.

Scotland would have to take on a chunk of the national debt, and responsibilities for pensions and welfare benefits.

And there could be customs and immigrations controls at Berwick, Cornhill, Carham and Carter Bar if divergent policies are pursued.

Which reminds me – the Penrith and the Border MP has suggested that we all line up along Hadrian’s Wall as a gesture of support in the union between England and Scotland.

He seems to not have noticed that most of Northumberland lies north of Hadrian’s Wall, which is another reason why we share a close interest in the outcome of Scotland’s vote.

Why do Northumberland residents pay on average a third more in council tax than those who live in the city of Newcastle and get £100 less per head spent on them?

Why do rural communities get £145 less than city dwellers in the government grant for local services?

It is a historic bias against rural areas which are heavily outnumbered in Parliament by representatives of urban areas. We have campaigned about it under successive governments and they have all failed to put it right.

Well, the present Coalition government has started to put it right, but on a basis which is so slow that even if it was continued, most of us would never see equalisation being reached.

Having admitted that the formula is unfair to rural areas, Eric Pickles and his ministers said they would start to correct it. What were we offered? 86 pence per person!

That was later put up by a few more pence, but it was so inadequate that, along with several Liberal Democrat colleagues, I refused to vote for the Government’s local government finance settlement this year.

Needless to say, we were outnumbered. Meanwhile, Northumberland’s Labour councillors are putting up the council tax to the highest figure they are permitted to impose without having a referendum of local voters.

They turned down a government grant in order to do so. No other council in the area is taking such a course.

I welcome the Government’s decision to delay the scheme to make anonymous data from our medical records available for research.

For my own part, I would be content to approve this for my own records because I can see real health benefits from research into the long-term impact of treatments.

But, like many of my constituents, I have never received a letter explaining the scheme and telling me how I could opt out if I wanted to.

The introduction of the scheme has been badly mishandled, and the Department of Health needs to use the next six months to engage properly with the public and seek informed consent for what they want to do.

I try to make use of Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons to pursue issues affecting my constituents as I did recently over the Thunton fire.

But the childish shouting match which goes on for much of the time infuriates me, disgusts the public and is the despair of successive Speakers who have in vain tried to keep order and change it for the better.

Now a study by the respected Hansard Society has revealed that the public much prefer what they see of Select Committees in action, including the Liaison Committee (which I chair), where the Prime Minister is subjected to much more extended questioning in a far more orderly and respectful atmosphere.

The irony is that according to the study, this is so different that, although they prefer it to rowdy PMQs, people do not always associate this work with Parliament because it does not take place in the chamber!

They also want to be convinced that things really do change as a result of the work of a committee, and from my experience of the Justice Committee I can testify that they do.

Two weeks ago a senior probation official told me that nothing had changed her job for the better as much as a report from the committee on cutting crime through investing in measures that turn lives around.

She had put that report into practice and had seen the results.

I wonder if the weekly Prime Minister’s question session will ever improve. It has got worse during my 40 years in Parliament, but it was always fairly bad. It used to happen twice a week, in two 15-minute sessions.

When TV coverage was introduced, I thought behaviour would improve because voters could see what their own MP got up to; if anything it got worse. It requires voter to say ‘enough’. If childish and disrespectful behaviour becomes a serious vote loser for those involved, then things might change.