Scots MPs get power to query Prime Minister

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Scotland's 72 MPs are to get a new power to cross-examine the Prime Minister and senior ministers over controversial Scottish issues in a Government bid to meet the clamour for devolved Scottish democracy.

Long-awaited proposals unveiled by Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, will also give the Labour-dominated Scottish Grand Committee, sitting in selected Scottish cities, a new right to debate Second and Third Readings of Scottish legislation. Similar plans are being considered for Bills beginning in the House of Lords.

The procedure will be confined, Mr Forsyth said, to Bills "where it makes sense" - meaning non-contentious legislation - provoking condemnation from Labour. Westminster will also have the final say. The whole House will vote on the Second and Third Readings, while a Government-dominated standing committee will deal with amendments.

In a disparaging reference to John Major's inconclusive Taking Stock exercise in 1993, George Robertson, Labour's spokesman on Scottish Treasury affairs, taunted: "First we had Taking Stock, now we have 'taking the Michael'."

The package would be little more than a rubber stamp for agreed legislation, he said. "What has really changed?"

Mr Forsyth said it was "only right" that the Prime Minister and senior ministers "should have to explain to the Grand Committee in Scotland why particular policies are being followed and the benefits they will bring ... it offers the opportunity of adding a completely new dimension of accountability for Government business in Scotland ..."

There will also be fuller use of Special Standing Committees, as was the case with the Children (Scotland) Bill, to hear evidence from Scottish people and organisations prior to Scottish Bills embarking on their committee stage.

While arguably bold in Tory terms, most of Mr Forsyth's statement was received with scornful laughter by opposition MPs. Mr Robertson dismissed the plans as "a con trick", and declared: "What the people of Scotland want is a Scottish Parliament and nothing less than that."

Mr Forsyth accused Labour of wanting something for Scotland it would not tolerate giving to a Grand Committee in England.

He will disclose further proposals in Glasgow today. These are expected to include making the Scottish Economic Council of business and union leaders - who advise Mr Forsyth on how to spend the pounds 1.45bn Scottish Office budget - debate more openly to encourage public involvement.

Mr Forsyth will also devolve some powers from the Scottish Office to Scotland's 29 new unitary local authorities which take power next April.