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Monday, June 1, 1998 Published at 13:07 GMT 14:07 UK

UK Politics: Talking Politics

The Reserved Powers

BBC Scotland's Political Editor Brian Taylor looks at the controversy surrounding the decision to reserve powers over abortion and broadcasting to Westminster.

Despite the controversy, it should be noted that those who accept the concept of devolution - those who back the division of powers - broadly accept much of the framework of the government's approach.

The Nationalist position

The Nationalists naturally would wish ultimately to detach Scotland from Westminster control entirely.

But for strategic reasons which we will discuss below they have been careful to limit much of their argument during Westminster consideration of the Bill to further reforms which might be capable of implementation within a devolution settlement.

We have seen in other sections of this article that there has been considerable controversy over the nature of Scotland's financial settlement and over Scotland's future relations with Europe.

With these exceptions, most have accepted that macro-economics, defence and foreign relations should be the preserve of Westminster within any devolved settlement.

Most have equally accepted that it is sensible to retain a uniform system of social security - although some have queried the efficacy of any efforts by the Scottish Parliament to tackle unemployment issues when it has no direct influence over the benefits system.


With regard to abortion, opposition parties argued that it was inconsistent to devolve health and the legal system - and yet to retain control over abortion at Westminster.

The demand for devolution in this field won support from the Roman Catholic church, which detected an opportunity to press for moves to restrict abortion in Scotland.

The government argued, however, that such a potential restriction might lead to Scottish women seeking abortions in England.

Opposition parties argued vainly that the Scottish Parliament should be free to restrict, liberalise or leave alone the law on abortion as on other matters.

The government's Commons majority held sway - although some Labour MPs who had wanted to indicate support for the Catholic church's line complained that there was uncertainty as to the nature of the Whip applied by party managers.

In any event, abortion will not be devolved and privately, there is some relief - even among those who favoured devolving this issue on principle - that the Scottish Parliament will not face pressure in its early years to address this extremely difficult and sensitive question.


With regard to broadcasting, it was argued that the Scottish Parliament should be granted regulatory responsibility for broadcasting authorities in Scotland.

The government, however, won the day with its insistence that such regulation should remain a UK matter.

It is stressed, however, that it will still be open to the Scottish Parliament to interrogate the Scottish broadcasting authorities on their strategy. In response, the authorities have declared themselves willing to participate.

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