20 November 2003

S2M-543 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-543, in the name of Margaret Curran, on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which is UK legislation, and one amendment to the motion.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I thank the minister for making herself available to the Communities Committee. The change in the way in which we deal with Sewel motions, whereby they go to committee, is a valuable change to parliamentary procedures. It was useful to hear from the minister; the committee successfully—and reasonably amicably—dealt with a number of issues that might have exercised the wider Parliament. The committee had scheduled 10 minutes for dealing with the matter, but I think that we took 50 minutes. At the end of the debate, we divided on whether we should report certain matters to the Parliament—five members voted against the proposal, three members voted in favour of it and there was one abstention. Those who did not support the proposal were from three different political parties; therefore, it is entirely right to bring some matters to the full Parliament for discussion.

First, I want to speak to Patrick Harvie's amendment, with which the SNP sympathises. We believe that it would be useful for the issues that are raised in the amendment to be discussed in Parliament so, on that basis, we will support his amendment at decision time. If the substantive motion remains unamended, we will abstain because we believe that it is more appropriate to have discussions on matters that affect Scots law and procedure in the Scottish Parliament than to have them elsewhere.

I want to turn to the matter that concerned me in the committee. We welcome what is happening with the bill at Westminster—the changes will be useful and we have no objection to them. The removal of Crown immunity in respect of the three planning acts is a useful move forward, albeit that there are reservations, which Patrick Harvie spoke about. However, we remain in a position whereby, if the Crown chooses not to obey the law, no criminal sanctions can be brought against it if there is such deviation from the law as it stands, although I accept that it is unlikely that that will happen in practice. The memorandum that we have been provided with states:

"The pivotal opening amendment makes it explicit that abolition of Crown immunity will mean that ... the Planning Acts will bind the Crown."

I am somewhat perplexed as to how that can be true in a strict legal sense if the Crown cannot be prosecuted for failing to consider itself to be actually bound by what is happening.

At the root of the matter is the fact that we are starting to strip away some of the constitutional nonsense that straitjackets the Scottish Parliament, this country and indeed our colleagues south of the border, which includes the convention that the Crown cannot prosecute the Crown. My SNP colleagues and I think that it would be useful if Parliament could discuss the proper structure and form of a legal system in the 21st century as part of a wider-ranging discussion about the removal of Crown immunity in relation to planning. After all, in my view—and I suspect in the view of a great majority of people in Scotland—prosecution really takes place in the name of the citizens of Scotland. The Crown is merely a mechanism that dates from many hundreds of years ago and it is a convention whose time has passed.

In making that point, I say nothing whatever about the person of the Crown, but of the use of that person's title for a purpose that is far removed from the individual who, pro tem, happens to be the wearer of the crown.

Fergus Ewing (Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber) (SNP): What about the heir?

Stewart Stevenson: We will not give airtime to that matter.

On the ability of the Lord Advocate to appoint a special advocate, the Ministry of Defence is the real problem where sensitive matters are concerned. We share such concern—we are in the era of open government and we disadvantage our citizens if we do not treat all information in an open and accountable way.

I have great pleasure in supporting Patrick Harvie's amendment and in saying that we shall abstain on the substantive motion, if it is unamended.


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