Constitutional Change

– in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 5 February 1997.

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Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside 3:33, 5 February 1997

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the holding of a referendum on any constitutional change approved by Parliament. The Bill seeks to address the public concern that could be expressed if some of the constitutional proposals that are currently being discussed in the United Kingdom and the European Union were to be implemented. I make it clear at the outset that it is neither a device to maintain the status quo nor a device to frustrate Parliament.

I sincerely believe that the United Kingdom's constitution and Parliament have served the people of these islands well. Scotland and the Scottish people have been especially well served. Sometimes the arrangement is called sovereignty—the right to make one's own democratic decisions.

The constitution's great strength is that it is not cast in stone. Since 1707, it has changed to meet the needs of the times. In other words, it has evolved, and the people have accepted its evolution. Only during the past 20 or so years might some changes have occurred by default rather than consent. That is important, because consent is at the heart of the United Kingdom constitution and vital to the way in which we are governed. If Parliament deliberately or inadvertently ignores that, it does so at its peril.

The single-Member constituency is a cornerstone of the constitution. Once elected, a Member represents all the people of the constituency. Another cornerstone is the Member's right to ask questions and have them answered. That, coupled with parliamentary privilege, means that Members can, through questions, debates and motions, address problems brought to them by their constituents. All that is free to the constituent. Any change that affects those cornerstones should have the consent of the people. My Bill seeks to ensure that that will happen.

Members of Parliament have the leasehold of the constitution during their time in Parliament. They can make changes that can be reversed the following month or year if Parliament so decides. However, we cannot bind future Parliaments. That is why I say that Members have the leasehold of the constitution—or sovereignty—during their period in Parliament. The freehold of the constitution belongs to the people. I remind the House that, in the United Kingdom, we govern by consent. If Parliament wishes to make permanent constitutional change, it must have the consent of the people. Only the people can give away our grandchildren's inheritance—the constitution of the United Kingdom and Parliament.

Put simply, constitutional change embraces any transfer of power from this Parliament to other bodies in Europe, Scotland Wales, Northern Ireland or the regions of England; any change in the single-Member constituency and the way in which elections to the House are organised and structured; any change in how individuals can become peers of the realm and sit in the other place; and any reduction in the ability of this House to vote Supply, or to influence interest rates, inflation, or levels of borrowing or unemployment.

Many people propose referendums because they regard them as a means of obtaining consent before Parliament decides. The main problem with such proposals is the difficulty of framing the questions to be put to the people. There is also the problem of the complexity of such changes and the difficulty that that creates for public debate. My Bill would ensure that any change proposed was fully debated by Parliament, and that only after Parliament had decided, and a Bill had completed its passage through both Houses, would the matter be put to the people. That means a straight yes or no: do the electors accept or reject Parliament's proposed change?

During the passage of a constitutional Bill, the proposers—probably the Government of the day—will have to tell the millions who voted for them what Members of Parliament will or will not be able to do if the proposal becomes law. They will, quite properly, have to explain the impact of their proposals on the ability of the House to influence matters of great importance to the people. Sovereignty—or the constitution—is not a theoretical abstract matter but a living thing that impacts on everyone living in the United Kingdom. It influences tax and spending decisions, and unemployment. All that will be argued in Parliament during the passage of any Bill for constitutional change, be it for devolved assemblies in Cardiff, Edinburgh or Belfast, for European Union federal matters, or for the single currency.

My Bill is not novel. It was tested and tried during the referendum on entry to the European Economic Community. It was used again during the referendum on the Scotland Act 1978; the precedents exist.

My Bill ensures that full, frank and open debate on constitutional change is held in Parliament against the background of the knowledge that the proposals, when agreed, will be put to the people in a referendum, thus ensuring that consent will occur before sovereignty or the constitution is changed. Change by default will cease, and the risks of constitutional unrest following unwanted change will have been banished.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bill Walker. Mr. Allan Stewart, Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, Mr. Bill Cash, Sir Teddy Taylor, Mr. Andrew Hargreaves, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mr. Jacques Arnold, Mr. Barry Field, Sir George Gardiner and Mr. David Shaw.