Major plans wide-ranging reforms for Scotland

Exclusive interview: PM says package to be introduced within weeks oveyr 2
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A substantial package of constitutional change for Scotland, which may give Scottish MPs new powers to debate and vote on their own affairs, will be announced by the Government before the end of the year.

Plans for reform measures were revealed in an exclusive interview with the Independent in which the Prime Minister also says he is now considering "very carefully" the idea - originally proposed by Tony Blair - for a unique special standing committee on the controversial Asylum and Immigration Bill.

John Major said he was hoping that Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, would be ready to announce the outcome of ministerial discussions on a reform package "within a very few weeks". The plan promises to be the most extensive Tory package of reforms since the proposals put forward, but never enacted, after the first upsurge of Scottish nationalism in the late 1960s.

The Prime Minister refused to give details of the plan - which he said would have "ramifications in Wales" - but his disclosure will invite speculation that it could give Scottish MPs alone the right to debate and vote on some measures specific to Scotland before they are approved by all MPs.

The revelation came in a wide-ranging interview in which Mr Major said he hoped "shortly" to submit proposals to be agreed at a fresh summit with John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, and which are intended to lead to all-party talks early next year.

He indicated he was warming to the idea of a special standing committee on the Asylum and Immigration Bill - which could call expert witnesses - because of his concern about "good race relations." Such a move could defuse a full-scale party political row over the highly sensitive measure.

He also quashed speculation that he was intending to rule out British membership of the European Monetary Union because it would mean a "surrender" of influence on a critical issue of EU policy.

The Scottish reforms are designed as an answer to the more far-reaching Labour and Liberal Democrat plans for a tax-raising Scottish parliament.

The Prime Minister reiterated his passionate opposition to Labour's plan for a Scottish parliament with a dramatic warning that it could provide a platform for the Scottish National Party to "turn Scotland into a separate nation".

The new initiative is the result of consultations which Mr Major said at the Tory conference last month he was holding to look at ways "to improve the government of Scotland". And he made clear that he saw it as part of a cumulative package of Tory political reform.

Mr Major said he had been struck by how little coverage the assembly proposals of the Scottish constitutional convention had been given in London. It was an "important event" even though he disagreed with the proposals. He added: "I want people in Scotland, who often feel cut off from parliamentary debate in London, to have better access to government."

Mr Major went out of his way to say that he had committed himself to a series of important but "gentle and evolutionary" constitutional reforms, including publication of full cabinet committee lists, reforms of parliamentary procedures, opening up the security service to scrutiny, and had "got further down the line on Northern Ireland".

The new proposals that Mr Major could submit to Mr Bruton are designed to revive the summit which was aborted two months ago, and which would set up an international commission on arms decommissioning, along with preliminary talks leading to full all-party talks early next year.

He made it clear he was still holding firmly to the precondition that the IRA should take a first step to handing over arms before all-party talks could begin and he remained opposed to nationalist suggestions that the demand could become part of the remit of the commission. But he insisted: "I want all-party talks and I am trying to get them."

He said he was "genuinely" examining the idea of a special standing committee as a means of ensuring the passage of the Asylum Bill did not inflame fears among ethnic minorities, and he would announce his decision "within a few days".

He criticised Mr Blair, the Labour leader, who suggested the idea in the Commons on Wednesday, for not proposing it privately before the Queen's Speech debate. He added: "If I change my mind, it will because I am concerned about good race relations."

The Prime Minister made it clear that he was not prepared to give up Britain's capacity to argue its case - for example, over how a single currency might affect countries outside monetary union as well as inside it. Referring to pressure explicitly to rule out a single currency before 2002, he said: "What people are asking me to do is to surrender British influence on an important policy. I am not going to surrender British influence on an important issue of policy.

"We are a full part of all the examination of what goes on. But we have uniquely a complete freedom to decide whether to join in or not.".