As the House will know, it is more than 18 months since I made a speech in the House, so I hope that colleagues will live with a certain disorder of process. It may be bad news for some of my colleagues that I hope to hit my stride later.
I start with a few congratulations, as I think that that would be in order. In particular, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) on his survival. It is, in a sense, a significant achievement. To the question, "What did you do in the great rout of 1997, daddy?" he can answer with genuine pride, "I was still there at the end of the day."
The right hon. Gentleman is, of course—or has been, because there is a bit of ambiguity at the moment—the spokesman on Welsh affairs. I understand, from reading the public prints, that he has other ambitions, but it would not be for me to wish him well. It is not for me to take a partial view of those matters, although I do, of course, recognise some of the strengths of his position. Many people have been elected to high office on the basis of not being someone else, and the fact that he is not the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) or the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) may stand him in quite good stead at the end of the day.
If the right hon. Gentleman's ambitions do not materialise, I suspect that he might still speak on Welsh matters. Who knows, he may even get his step—if not in the peerage, at least in seniority—by having added responsibilities, such as speaking for Scotland. I say that because there is, as he will have noticed, a vacancy in that Department. I spoke to an obvious contender the other day. I would not dream of naming him, but when I suggested that he might be given that responsibility, such was the alarm and distress that, as a matter of humanity, I have not canvassed further among the candidates, as clearly that is bad for morale in the Conservative party.
I do, however, want to make a serious point about the general election and the campaign. There is no doubt that, from a very early stage, the then Prime Minister, now Leader of the Opposition, took the view that he could make considerable progress by concentrating on the constitutional issue. He bore it almost about his person, like an electoral comforter to be returned to whenever the going got tough. One thing on which every hon. Member can agree, however, is that it was not an issue that delivered victory. It failed the then Prime Minister because his argument was wrong and his fears misplaced. People were not impressed with his particular line of argument.
I noticed during the campaign that, on the constitutional issue, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks accused the Labour party of treating people with contempt. I remind him—he will be uncomfortably aware of this—that if the electorate showed contempt, it was reserved for the charges, the scare stories, on the issue that were being run from the Conservative side of the political debate.
I notice that the right hon. Gentleman is going to Scotland, according to the press. He is, according to the Daily Mail,
the main choice of the Scots to lead them out of the wilderness".
hammer home an anti-devolution message.
If the Daily Mail is right, I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman, before he decides on his line, takes a few soundings in case he is left looking like the last of the Bourbons—someone who has learnt nothing and is prepared to make no change in position, however necessary. It is generous of him to go to Scotland, because he will be busy on other matters at the moment. Whatever the virtues of going to Scotland, it will certainly not be a canvassing trip for the Conservatives' leadership election. As far as the Scottish Conservatives are concerned, this is—in an absolute sense—a no-vote campaign and that is worrying them considerably.
Seriously, there are clearly many changes in the views of Scottish Conservatives on devolution. A cynic might say that so complete a disaster encourages fresh thinking. If there is a reappraisal and if a change of mind is in the offing, clearly that is something that I would welcome and want to encourage.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks should look at some of the quotations. The Daily Telegraph of 9 May reported that the deputy chairman of the Conservative party in Scotland said:
The Party had its own Little Big Horn last week and everyone who fought for the status quo in Scotland went down to defeat.
The article reported that he
outlined a radical plan that included backing devolution and a one member one vote system for the election of the Tory leader.
The latter is not so directly relevant to our debate, but it might be of interest to the right hon. Gentleman.
In The Scotsman on 9 May, the president of the voluntary association—the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Association—called on his party to abandon opposition to tax-raising powers and to set up a commission to find the best way of raising revenue for a Scottish Parliament.
While the Conservative party might be described as an English nationalist rump, does my right hon. Friend agree that our proposal for a Scottish Parliament with proportional representation would at least allow a small number of Conservative Members of Parliament to take their places within that Parliament? Surely that would be good for Scottish democracy.
I would not call the Conservative party in Scotland simply a rump. Many people in Scotland vote Conservative, have voted Conservative in the past and will probably do so again. My hon. Friend draws our attention to an important point, because the Conservatives' bitter opposition to the proposed changes in Scotland is certainly a stand of principle, but they would be net gainers from any change proposed.
I promise that I shall come in general terms to the scheme in a minute, but I should like to finish the passage that I am on and make it clear that there is a mood for change.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks will know that Scotland on Sunday recently managed to interview 38 chairmen of constituency associations in Scotland and found that 23 of them wanted a change of policy, either supporting devolution or asking for individual conscience and no collective view on the matter in the Conservative party when the referendum came up. The Conservatives would be well advised further to consider those matters.
The chairman of the Conservative party in Scotland said:
There's a grave danger that if there are continuing multiple rushes of blood to the head there will be a collective stroke and that is not a healthy prospect for the party.
It is not a healthy prospect for the health service either, but she makes the important point that there is time for consideration, and I hope that it will be given. That hope was echoed, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks will know, by the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), who is also a potential leader of the Conservative party, when he visited Scotland recently.
I reiterate that I welcome signs of movement. It is right that there should be reconsideration. People should pause and consider.
I do not want to intervene on the right hon. Gentleman's toying with the Conservative party, but that is flogging a dead horse. Can we look ahead? Does he agree that the early publication of the White Paper giving the detail of the Government's proposals on devolution and a Parliament for Scotland is now very important? Given the confusion earlier this week, will he give an exact time scale for when the White Paper can be expected?
I am happy to respond in general terms, in the sense that I agree with the proposition. The White Paper will set out the scheme in considerable detail and will be the basis on which people will consider how to vote in the referendum. Obviously, it is essential that it is produced in good time for the process to take place. We envisage that the referendums Bill, which will be before the House next week, will complete its passage, paving the way for further process. The White Paper will be published before the House rises, to allow for proper statements and further consideration. We shall then move to a referendum in the autumn. If it goes as I hope it will, the main Bill to implement the devolution settlement will follow very close behind.
I am chary about mentioning dates at this stage, because there are a number of unknowns, particularly about the parliamentary passage, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall certainly move at the best pace that we can and we shall ensure—we have evinced this already in our conduct—that it will be a fair and proper process, with plenty of time for consideration and proper debate. I hope that that does something at least to reassure the hon. Gentleman.
To return to the future, the problem for the Tories—the opportunity for us—is that it is now established that there is a need for change, which is widely recognised, but it is a question not just of the Scottish proposals, but of the much wider constitutional package; I want to range quite widely. I welcome the decision to set up on an expedited timetable a Select Committee on parliamentary procedure. It is important that the House looks into the way in which it conducts its business.
I remember a speech by, not the late but the departed colleague of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, Mr. Michael Portillo, in which he discussed the impact of television on the House, feeling that it was counter-productive in an age when we required more deference—an interesting instance of attitudes. Knowledge, he argued, destroyed respect. The implication was that the cameras should not have been let in. My reaction to such an argument is simple and different. If people are concerned and worried because they can see how we conduct our affairs, we should tackle the problems and not try to drop a veil of secrecy once more.
Whatever we do, our aim will be to strengthen the role of the House and to improve parliamentary scrutiny, but there is a wider malaise. There is no doubt that government is seen by many people as remote and inaccessible. There has been a failure to respond to and control the growth of the unelected state. There has been a reluctance to trust people to take decisions. That is where the case for devolution—the passing of power to Scotland and Wales—comes in. It is a case which is essentially democratic.
The Secretary of State for Wales will speak later in the debate. Of course, Scotland has well-established and distinct traditions, as is recognised in the House by the stream of legislation covering and limited to Scotland, reflecting our different legal and social traditions. That justifies and, indeed, I would use a stronger word, leads to a justified demand for, direct democratic reform. The reform is based firmly within the United Kingdom. The idea is that we strengthen the Union if we show that it can adapt to the needs of and accommodate the wishes of peoples in various parts of the United Kingdom.
We are asking Parliament to pass powerful and better governance of the country to a Parliament in Scotland and an Assembly in Wales, and we look forward to continuing discussions about movement and change in other parts of the country. I must stress that it is self-evident that, as it is a passing of power by this Parliament, it cannot happen unless there is the consent of a majority in this Parliament—a Parliament that represents every part of the country.
Briefly, to return to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), the system is based on partnership, which includes the pooling of resources and their distribution on a formula that is agreed and acceptable to all parts of the United Kingdom. That is a matter for negotiation with the Treasury and ultimately the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive, as my hon. Friend knows, as it has been in the past with the Scottish Office.
I have no intention—or, I should say, the Government have no intention, as my views are not necessarily important—of changing that basic system and procedure. It will all turn on the issue of consent. I have referred to the matter briefly, because we shall deal with it again next week on Second Reading of the referendums Bill. I am well aware of the argument that general elections are fought on a multiplicity of issues and therefore do not decisively end the argument about consent. Some days ago, a Conservative said to me that the vote in Scotland had nothing to do with devolution. He said, "It is just that they did not like us." I genuinely understand what he meant and I find the totality of the argument difficult to rebut.
The course that we have adopted is right and, as we are making the point about the need to involve and trust people, we think that the referendum road is the right one. I am glad that we are following it. There will be debate about the second question in the referendum, but it is important to end the controversy. As I shall argue at greater length next week, it is odd that a directly elected Parliament with legislative powers should in some way not be trusted with the discipline and responsibility of financial powers, when such discipline and responsibility apply to every other tier of local and national Government. That is an odd non-sequitur.
Our proposed scheme is practicable. It is certainly courageous and it is principled, because we are trying to address some of the more obvious difficulties in the present electoral system in terms of the nature of the Scottish Parliament. It is especially principled because my party will probably not be one of the beneficiaries of the process. However, we thought that it was right and we went for it. I do not intend to retreat from that or apologise for it. There will be many checks and balances and many opportunities for debate. I look forward to that.
I own up to that accolade. The Secretary of State spoke about a Scottish Parliament without tax-raising powers as a non-sequitur. I have two questions. First, why is such a non-sequitur proposed for Wales? Secondly, if the answer to the second question in the referendum is that the Scots do not want the tartan tax, will he persist with his non-sequitur?
I said that I would take the hon. Gentleman. I shall not take him, but I shall answer him. The Government are not in the business of rigidly forcing a template upon every part of the United Kingdom. We shall consider opinion and appropriateness. We propose a different scheme for Wales because its needs and aspirations are different. That seems a sensible way to proceed.
On regional developments, we have already allowed for the possibility of development agencies. We have made it clear that we shall discuss and listen to opinion in the regions and move only if there is consent and support for the change. The worst scenario would be for the Government to prattle on—
The hon. Gentleman knows all about waffle. I am trying to make an important point to which I hope he will listen. It would be unfortunate if the Government spoke about the need to consult and to move democratically and then attempted to impose from the centre solutions that were not necessarily acceptable. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's hopes about a split vote will be disappointed. I have every confidence that we shall complete our programme.
Many people want to take part in the debate, and I am impressed by the enthusiasm of new Members. This is the largest attendance on a Friday that I have seen for some time.
I mentioned development agencies in the English regions and how we shall handle that. In London, there will once again be consultation, as there should be. I think that the overwhelming view will be that it is nonsense for such a great capital city to remain voiceless and to have its administration and responsibility fragmented and inevitably weakened. It is right to look at the government of London, to try to create a sensible and strong voice for the city.
During this Parliament, we shall start the process of reforming the upper House. Neither I nor my colleagues are here to lash out at the Lords. It is not a matter of the politics of envy or of old enmities remembered. We certainly do not intend to belittle the integrity or commitment of individual members of that Chamber. However, there is a case for sensible change and we must rethink the role of the House of Lords, which is full of anomalies. While it bravely tries to do its job, it is often limited by its structures. The starting point of removing the votes of hereditary peers is sensible, but I stress that it is the first instalment, the first stage of an important constitutional reform.
I think that I am right in saying that in 1995–96, two thirds of the votes won by the Government in the Lords would have been reversed if hereditary peers had not had the vote. That is important in terms of the day-to-day management of the House. I say gently and, I hope, tactfully, that it is difficult to argue that hereditary peers are drawn from a wide and representative stratum of society. We should address that. I discovered in some reading a few days ago that it worried Lord Curzon. If it worried George Nathaniel Curzon, it ought to worry us.
I think that we have allies among Conservative Members. It is strange that although Conservatives defend as absolutely essential the presence of hereditary peers, they are remarkably coy about creating hereditary peerages. Those that are created are carefully selected, although I shall go no further into that. New hereditary peerages are almost as rare as Scottish Conservative Members. I know from personal experience and civilised debate that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks is coy about saying that, if by mishap at some future date—I accept that pendulums swing, especially after the events of two weeks ago—a Conservative Government should come to power after we have abolished the hereditary principle, they will reintroduce it. I welcome that sensible stance, but I suspect that Conservatives defend it simply because, as is their innate wont, it is there and not because they believe in it.
I have a straightforward question for the Secretary of State. How can it possibly be right to destroy or fundamentally alter the existing structure, without first thinking through and putting before the House what is intended to replace it?
No questions are quite straightforward, even those from the right hon. and learned Gentleman. We think that the hereditary principle is indefensible and that it should go, and we shall defend that proposition as it stands. A more broadly based House of Lords could continue with its present role. However, we have gone further and said that there are some interesting ideas on the role of the upper House and on how it can be made more directly representative. There are ideas on the part that elections should play in that process and on whether the Lords should have the role of a constitutional watchdog.
I am not endorsing any of those ideas, but they are interesting and this first stage would give them an impetus. I understand that the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not disagree; those matters will have to be settled in debate in the House and in the public domain.
The Sovereign is in a quite different position. The hon. Gentleman's question would be fair if the Sovereign were a political figure who was involved in the maelstrom of political argument. If I suggested that the Sovereign should be given such a role, even marginally, I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to say that that was anathema and totally unacceptable. We are dealing with a different set of propositions in different circumstances. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that it is important to maintain that distinction and to underline it. As I say, I hope that the House will look forward with me to that continuing debate.
I stress that we are looking at a five-year programme and that, although the revival of our constitution and bringing people back into the political debate more effectively is enormously important, there is much else of interest to this Administration. Health, education, housing and the economy will all have formidable consideration, both in the House and in the Government, as will the search for peace in Northern Ireland. I understand that the Prime Minister is in the Province today, which is always a continuing concern and of importance to us.
I should mention one other theme in the package: the protection of individual rights. The European convention on human rights will be imported. although not into the law of the United Kingdom, because it is already there. The rather revolutionary suggestion is that we should allow British courts to deal with a law that we imported some 50 years ago. Sometimes people say that we are rushing into and hurrying things. It is extraordinary that this necessary and important reform has been waiting for 50 years; I am personally glad to see it in our programme. There is no reason why people who want to have the protection of the European convention on human rights or who think that it is relevant to their case should have to go to Strasbourg to seek redress at considerable—
No. We are talking about the courts system, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, ingenious though he is, will not suggest that we import into this building the entire legal machinery and process. If he does, I look forward to the flow chart that he will produce.
No. When we come to the debate on the European convention on human rights, the hon. Gentleman can make his point, but there is great unanimity of opinion in the legal profession and among people who are interested in law reform.
The freedom of information Bill will also be part of our programme. As hon. Members will know, there is a long and honourable tradition of Back-Bench attempts to introduce such a Bill, most recently by the Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). There will be a wide welcome in the community as well as in the House for the decision to import such a measure into legislation under the auspices of the present Government. No one could deny that there is a case for a more open approach and for more transparency in government. I think of the debates, and I will not go into them, about the Scott inquiry, and the circumstances surrounding them, and of even more mundane-sounding matters such as food safety. There are circumstances in which secrecy can bring cruel dangers, as we in Scotland know from the E. coli outbreak—sadly, I understand that another case was reported today.
It is right, therefore, that we should move down that road and take such a Bill on board. We should ask the House, obviously with proper safeguards for national security, to put on to the statute book a freedom of information Act, which will do much for the public perception of government. We should not underestimate our own image problem in that respect and the image problem of the House. It is not just image; it is perhaps more than that. [Interruption.] I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had turned the pager off, but there is obviously an error in the system. I shall cast it away. I think that I had better finish. It may be that a very efficient private office is reminding me that I have spoken for my allotted time and that I should sit down.
Obviously, there will be much debate, and I do not doubt that changes will come. I want to make it clear, however, that we shall listen and that we shall be prepared to learn from the opinions of others. What we are not prepared to do, however, is to duck the issues that matter or to settle for second best. My Government believe that there is demand for progress. I am sure that the priorities are right and exciting times lie ahead. Judging by what happened on May day and judging by the results that many of us watched with wild surprise but great satisfaction, I believe that the public also agree that it is time for change.
May I begin by congratulating not only you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your election to the Chair, but, on behalf of the Opposition, the Secretary of State for Scotland and, indeed, the Secretary of State for Wales on their appointments.
The Secretary of State for Scotland and I have debated a wide variety of subjects on many occasions on the Floor of the House and in Committee. After our service together on the Committee that considered the Pensions Bill in the previous Parliament, I think that I can say that, in my eight years so far as a Member of Parliament, I have spent more time listening to him than to any other Member.
The Secretary of State will understand, therefore, that I approached with mixed feelings the discovery that his voice has been returned to him. I do not want to alarm new Members, but the speech that he has just delivered is the shortest that I have ever known him deliver in the many years that I have spent listening to him. I do not know whether it is because he has turned over a new leaf, because he has yet to find his feet or because the message that he received was from the Minister without Portfolio telling him to stop at once. Whichever it was, we look forward to the Secretary of State's speeches.
The Secretary of State has set out a programme for this Session of far-reaching constitutional change. The Government wish, by establishing a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly in particular, to bring about fundamental change in the way in which the United Kingdom is governed. Our contention is that those proposals would amount to a fundamental and far-reaching error, damage the interests of Scotland and Wales, lead to widespread disillusionment and bitterness, create an unstable and unsustainable constitutional situation, and severely weaken and undermine the unity of the United Kingdom.
Before I turn to those proposals in more detail, it would be wrong to let this debate on the constitution pass without noting that the Government have already created three separate controversies over parliamentary and constitutional matters in their first two weeks in office. The first was the decision by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to give independence to the Bank of England without waiting to inform the House of their decision or even holding a meeting of the Cabinet.
What would the Secretary of State have said, as the Opposition Chief Whip in the previous Parliament, if the previous Government had made a decision of such fundamental importance without making a statement on the Floor of the House of Commons to announce it? Was the decision rushed out for reasons of pressing national interest or was the Cabinet not consulted because it did not suit the media-management timetable of the Minister without Portfolio? The whole episode was an early indication that we will have not so much Government by Cabinet as Government by cabal.
If the decision gave off a whiff of arrogance, that was nothing to the odour that emerged when the Prime Minister announced a change in the procedures for his own Question Time without so much as a nod, request or acknowledgment in the direction of the rest of the House. Such changes should be considered by Committees and by all parties in the House. The spectacle of a Prime Minister seeking in his first days to ensure that the questions put to him in the House are more easily predictable is not an attractive one.
Legalistically and according to the rules, the Prime Minister is entitled to do it, but Labour Members may learn to their cost that, although it is technically permissible to exploit and to misuse a huge parliamentary majority, they would be well advised not to do it. They should bear that in mind, too, before they break the long-accepted convention that Bills of the nature that they propose for constitutional change should be considered on the Floor of the House. It is ever clearer that the Government plan to break that convention. It is clear from their waffle, although they have not yet had the courage to say it outright. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister said:
There will be ample time for debate"—[Official Report, 14 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 67.]
and that the new Committee on procedures would think about all this. Why did he not have the courage to say that the Government are paving the way for the most far-reaching constitutional changes proposed for years to be largely considered in a Committee upstairs, staffed with selected Government Back Benchers who would barely say a word? Where would we have been in the 1970s if Mr. Neil Kinnock, then a Member, had not been able to speak on devolution matters? He said in 1977:
As we work our way through this Bill in Committee, we shall more and more adequately demonstrate that many claims made for devolution are false".—[Official Report, 18 January 1977; Vol. 924, c. 150.]
He would not have been able to demonstrate that if the Bill had been dealt with in a Committee upstairs. Can the Secretary of State and his colleagues make it clear, in the light of reports in this morning's press, that Members of Parliament in the Labour party who wish to campaign against devolution proposals will be free to do so?
The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was present earlier, but he has popped out for a moment. He and the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) have always made it clear that they are opposed to devolution, and they have been elected as Members of Parliament on that basis. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if they want to speak against the proposals, they will be free to do so? If not, by what right, in a parliamentary democracy and a free Parliament, can they be told that they are not free to do so? I am not talking about members of the Government, who are bound by collective responsibility, but about Back Benchers with a clear record of speaking out on this matter, and with long-held and clearly expressed views. It now seems that they will be prevented from speaking their minds, because that may bring the Labour party into disrepute. The Secretary of State should now make it clear that they are free to speak their minds in the House and in the forthcoming referendum campaigns.
May I make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman that any Member of Parliament has a right to speak his or her mind as he or she sees fit. It is true that we offer advice [Interruption.] Conservative Members laugh. I will allow and listen to their laughter if the right hon. Gentleman says that, from now on, there will be no whipping in the Conservative party. Whipping is advice, and I do not imagine for a moment that he will tell us that there will be no Conservative party position on matters of importance and no whipping system.
Of course, all parties give advice to their members. All Governments and Oppositions take positions and have policies. But to say that Members of Parliament would be forbidden to campaign for a no vote in a devolution campaign is a different matter. I presume, from the Secretary of State's reaction, that that will not be the position, and that Labour Back Benchers who want to campaign against devolution will be free to do so.
The Prime Minister said last Wednesday that
the people will not expect us to be game-playing here—they will expect us to legislate."—[Official Report, 14 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 68.]
His words convey an approach to parliamentary debate that has a certain chilling arrogance. The proposals for pre-legislative referendums may be part of that pattern.
I am trying to follow the argument. Surely the shadow spokesman is not saying that no sanctions can be taken by a political party against its members if they do not follow policy. I recall that the previous Prime Minister tried to do that somewhat unsuccessfully with some Conservative Back Benchers on Europe.
On constitutional probity, I offer the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity to distance himself from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who said that the 50 per cent. rule should be applied to a referendum in Scotland. That would mean that the vote of the dead, the infirm and the don't cares would have to be garnered. Under the 50 per cent. rule, the Conservative party would have only 12 per cent. of the vote in Scotland.
If the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to distance himself from that view, will he tell us whether he believes that such a rule should be applied to a European or Northern Irish referendum, both of which are supported by the Conservative party?
No, I think that there is a powerful case for a threshold in a referendum. I shall deal with that issue later.
The Government's plans are based on long-established Labour party policy. It is something of an irony that, after everything we have heard about new Labour, its flagship Bills on devolution in 1997 will be almost exactly the same as its ill-fated proposals in which it became mired and tangled in 1979. Labour is committed now, as it was then, to creating an additional, expensive tier of government, which will do no favours for Scotland and Wales, and which will make nonsense of some of the operations of the House.
Now that the Labour party is in office and is preparing to implement its plans, we expect the Government to answer clearly the questions that Labour has been unwilling to answer for so long. During the election campaign, the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), now the Secretary of State for Wales, described Plaid Cymru's proposals for a tax-raising Parliament in Wales as a blueprint for a fool's paradise and economic illiteracy. He said that it was economic illiteracy to think that we could have one tax rate on one side of the Welsh border and another tax rate on the other side. We look forward to the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales together explaining why what is economic illiteracy in Wales is essential to the future of Scotland.
We look forward to the right hon. Gentlemen reconciling, by their policy, the statement of the Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Robertson), when he was shadow Scottish Secretary, who said:
The parliament has to have the power"—
to raise tax—
even if it is never used, because no level of government has been denied some control of revenue raising or cutting. Indeed, the lack of such a power and the conflict this might provoke is a more significant danger than having it.
Why is it that the Government propose no such power for the Welsh Assembly? What is the logic of their wanting the Scottish Parliament to have tax-raising powers—or tax-varying powers, as they put it—while maintaining the ludicrous fiction that the Scottish Parliament might not want to spend the money allocated to it, and saying that the Welsh Assembly should have no such powers? Have they got something against the Scots, or do they not trust the Welsh?
The Secretary of State for Wales said in June last year that a Welsh Assembly would not have tax-raising powers initially. Is that still his view? If so, is it his view that there should be another referendum later on tax-raising powers? Will he give an undertaking that any proposals to extend tax-raising powers to a Welsh Assembly would be subject to another referendum? Why does he not want to ask the people of Wales now, at the same time as people in Scotland, whether they want tax-raising powers for an Assembly?
Why would the Scottish Parliament have powers to legislate in every major area of Scottish domestic policy, including local government, the national health service, education, housing and transport, but the Welsh Assembly would not have the power to legislate on any of those matters? Why would the Welsh Assembly have fewer powers than the Scottish Parliament, which the Prime Minister likened to a parish council?
What is the logic, the principle or the deep constitutional thinking that leads the Government to treat Scotland and Wales in such radically different ways? If the Government believe that their model for devolution in Scotland will work, why do they not propose the same for Wales? If they do not believe that their proposals will work, why do they not abandon them altogether?
The truth is that the proposals are not based on any logic or principle. They are based on ill-thought-out proposals that the Labour party were left with in the 1970s, and which it has not had the wisdom to change. They are not based on a clear assessment of how the redrawn constitution would work in practice, but on the internal politics of the Labour party and the varying degree to which it believes nationalism needs to be appeased.
The people of Wales would be asked to pay for the non-legislating, non-tax-raising Assembly that is proposed for Wales. The Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill was published yesterday and sets out, for the first time, some of the costs involved. It will cost £5 million to hold a referendum in Scotland, and £3 million in Wales. Preliminary work to set up the bodies would cost £18 million to £25 million in Scotland and £5 million to £15 million in Wales.
Will the Secries of State make it clear today—people in Wales will certainly want to know—whether that money will come out of the Scottish and Welsh blocks or whether it will be an addition to public expenditure as a whole? Are the Government already breaching the public spending targets to which they are committed, or will the money come from cuts in public services in Scotland and Wales? It must be one or the other. They can answer now if they wish. It is a simple question and there must be an answer. The Secretaries of State must have thought about where the money was coming from before they put their names to the Bill, but they evidently do not want to tell the House of Commons now.
Let me try the right hon. Gentlemen with another question, seeing as the Secretary of State for Wales did not know the answer to that one. How much of the money for the preliminary work on a Welsh Assembly will be spent in advance of the referendum? If the result were no, who would recompense the taxpayer for the money that would have been wasted? What are the Government's estimates of the full cost of establishing a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly?
A far more fundamental question is what would be the relationship of the Parliament and the Assembly with the House of Commons. If a different party to the party in power at Westminster had a majority in Cardiff or Edinburgh, how could deadlock between them be avoided? What would happen if a Welsh Assembly refused to implement legislation passed by the House of Commons?
The Prime Minister said in the general election campaign that sovereignty rested with him as an English Member of Parliament. Is that the position? If so, what is the ultimate power and purpose of a Scottish Parliament? What would be the role of Scottish Members of Parliament after the power to legislate on all matters of Scottish domestic policy had been devolved?
Does the Secretary of State for Scotland believe that it is right that he should be able to vote on legislation affecting my constituents in Yorkshire, whereas neither he nor I would be able to vote in legislation affecting his constituents in Glasgow? Does he believe that it is right that the number of Scottish and Welsh Members should remain the same? Does he believe that it is right that a Scottish Member could sit in the House as a Minister for Agriculture, Health or Education and make decisions affecting the daily lives of everyone's constituents but his own?
Those are the fundamental questions, which the hon. Member for Linlithgow—it is such a pity that he is no longer the hon. Member for West Lothian—raised 20 years ago; and still there are no answers to those questions. What will be the position on dual membership of a Scottish Parliament and the House? Does the Secretary of State for Scotland intend to stand for election to the Scottish Parliament? If not, what do the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Wales intend to do with their jobs after they have devolved all their powers to someone else?
The Secretary of State for Wales has been fond of saying that a Welsh assembly would take over the functions of the Secretary of State for Wales and exercise them in a more democratic manner. After such an assembly is established, therefore, presumably there will be no justification for the continued existence of his position as Secretary of State for Wales. That is another question which the Labour party has refused to answer.
The Secretary of State for Wales has said that he would negotiate with the Treasury every year, but that would take only a few weeks. Deprived of other powers and responsibilities, the Secretary of State for Wales would be a message-boy, scurrying between the assembly and Westminster. He would be a political eunuch—an ornament of doubtful constitutional value, rather than a functioning part of the body politic.
There is a great deal more that we will need to know. Labour Members do not like to be asked questions, but now that they are on the Government Benches, they will have to become accustomed to being asked questions. Moreover, before very long, they will have to start answering some questions. I repeat that there is a great deal more that we will need to know. The Government now have the power to introduce their proposals, but they also have the responsibility to start answering the questions on those proposals.
What would be the role of Members of Parliament in the Public Accounts Committee in relation to money raised by the House but spent by a Welsh Assembly? How would public appointments be made and political bias in appointments to public bodies be avoided? I have already asked about the Government's position on the future of financial arrangements. What will that position mean for local government? We must have the answers to all those questions.
If those questions cannot be answered, and answered well, the Government will be taking the United Kingdom towards constitutional instability, and towards the division of the United Kingdom itself. The Government risk creating, at great expense, new parliamentary bodies that could not possibly fulfil the expectations that their creation would raise. After several disappointing and fractious years, their creation would produce a sense of disillusionment and a culture of buck passing in which Cardiff would blame Westminster, Edinburgh would blame Westminster, Westminster would blame the others, and the common basis of our Union would be fractured.
The Government do not yet have a mandate for those proposals, they have only a mandate to hold referendums on them. The manner in which they decided to propose referendums was in itself revealing, because the decision seems to have been made without reference to the leaders of the Scottish and the Welsh Labour parties—so much for believing that Scotland and Wales should have their own say. On 24 June 1996, the Secretary of State for Wales ruled out a referendum. I remember it well, because I was sitting next to him. He went even further and said:
The trouble with a pre-legislative referendum is that there are so many questions you cannot answer.
We were all astonished—although probably no one was more astonished about it than himself—that, three days later, he was advocating not only a referendum but, specifically, a pre-legislative referendum. Perhaps the only people more astonished were those in the Scottish Labour party, who—in the space of six weeks—had a policy of no referendum, a policy of one referendum with one question, a policy of two referendums with three questions and a policy of one referendum with two questions, which is where they have finally come to rest.
Opposition Members think that it is right to hold referendums on those proposals. We also think that, after rejection of devolution in the 1979 referendums, it is right that the people should again be asked again when the same proposals are reintroduced. However, although the concept of holding the referendums is a good one, and the mandate for holding them is clear, the time and manner of the proposed referendums represent yet another constitutional innovation by the Government, and again it is a deeply disturbing one.
Last year, the right hon. Member for Caerphilly warned us about the dangers of a pre-legislative referendum—only three days before he adopted it as his policy. Previous referendums have been held in ways which allowed the electorate to endorse or reject detailed proposals which have already passed by Parliament. The voters could consider all the detail; they could balance the pros and cons; and they could know exactly what was on offer. Used in that manner, referendums have certainly gained a place in our constitutional arrangements. They are not, however, a substitute for the parliamentary process. Use of referendums does not mean, and must never mean, that detailed parliamentary debate can be short-circuited. If misused, a referendum can become an anti-parliamentary device and a tool of an over-mighty Government. I believe that pre-legislation referendums are such a misuse.
There is a basic problem with referendums that are held before the passage of legislation. If voters vote yes, it is either possible to amend substantially the draft Bill on which they have voted or it is not. If it is possible to amend the Bill, how will voters know what they are voting on? What if a legislative Parliament were provided in a draft Bill for Scotland when people voted for it, but it was not a legislative Parliament when the Bill completed its passage? Would there have to be another referendum? Would there be a referendum to approve the amendments? When considering amendments to a Bill, how will Parliament know whether the voters in a referendum that has already been held would be agreeable to the amendment?
If one takes the other option and says that, once a draft Bill is approved in a referendum, Parliament must not seriously amend it, what will Parliament become? If detailed scrutiny of legislation does not take place at that stage, it will never take place. Parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, as we all understand it, will have broken down. That is the irrefutable logic that flows from the concept of a pre-legislation referendum: either voters will have to vote blindfolded or the essential functions of Parliament will be suppressed. The Secretary of State for Wales should have stuck to his instincts and stood up for those instincts, rather than allowing himself to be overruled by a bunch of spin doctors.
Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify the Conservative party's intentions on a referendum on the euro? Does he suggest that we should hold a referendum after the United Kingdom has signed up to the euro and after any necessary legislation may be in place, or does he suggest that we should have one before?
The hon. Gentleman cannot make that analogy. I am not disputing that a referendum should be held before a Scottish Parliament is established, which is his analogy. A referendum should be held before a Scottish Parliament is established, and a referendum should be held on a single currency, if the issue ever arose, before the United Kingdom entered it.
We are debating a quite different matter. We are debating whether a referendum should be held on proposals that may subsequently be changed or be held in a manner that would bully Parliament into approving, without proper debate, legislation that is proposed in a referendum. That is the point at issue.
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman might like to consider the position in Northern Ireland, where I think that there has been bipartisan agreement. I am glad to see the Minister of State for Home Affairs and Devolution, Scottish Office, the hon. Member for Central Fife (Mr. McLeish) nodding. The position there has been very clearly understood. There is agreement between the parties that legislation will be passed by the House, which will then be put to the people in a referendum. In a Northern Ireland referendum, therefore, the Government's clear position is that a referendum will follow legislation.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely telling point, and I hope that the Secretary of State for Wales, in his reply to this debate, will be able to explain the difference in approach between the Government's proposals for Northern Ireland and those for Scotland and Wales.
That is not our only objection to the referendum proposals. It is striking that the Government are not, so far, proposing any threshold of positive votes or overall turnout. A referendum with a low turnout could be a highly unsatisfactory method of changing the British constitution. I hope that the Secretary of State for Wales will tell us with what percentage of the population voting yes he would be happy. Would he be happy with a result in which 20 per cent. voted yes and slightly fewer voted no? Would that be a mandate on which to embark on a major and highly expensive change?
I appreciate the fact that Governments have to answer. I also remember that on occasions the right hon. Gentleman used to ask me about my party's policy and intentions, so I hope that he will bear with me if I ask him to be a little more frank. Is he saying that the Conservatives will try to amend the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill to impose a threshold? On what principle will that threshold operate? If he believes in thresholds, will he answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and confirm that a similar threshold will be applied to similar referendums in future if the Conservative party has its way?
Of course the Opposition will table a number of amendments to the Bill, and some will deal with the question of possible thresholds. However, it is a matter which the Government cannot ignore.
The proposals pose great dangers for the future of the United Kingdom. They are badly thought out, illogical and inconsistent. The proposed Scottish Parliament would create a direct conflict with the role of this House and, while Scottish Members of Parliament continued to determine policy in England, the existence of such a Parliament would amount to nothing less than the gerrymandering of our constitution.
The proposals for Wales amount to the most expensive roomful of hot air in recent political history. Frustrated and hamstrung, such an Assembly would find that its proceedings were either a total waste of time or would have little to do but apportion blame elsewhere and create conflict with other tiers of government. Its workings would be more likely to lead to fresh disillusionment with the political process than to ease any current dissatisfaction.
That such controversial and damaging proposals should be put to referendums is right; that they should be put to referendums in this way and according to this timetable is wrong. It is one thing to use a referendum to find out whether the people approve of a measure passed by Parliament, which they can judge in its entirety; it is quite another to use the device of a referendum to bully Members of Parliament to curtail debate while keeping the people guessing about what the precise and eventual consequences might be.
The constitutional contents of the Gracious Speech are one of its most worrying and dangerous elements. They are an element which the Opposition will firmly and robustly oppose. We shall expose the inadequacies, inconsistencies and flaws in the Government's constitutional proposals and take great pleasure in doing so because we believe that we are acting in the interests of the future of the United Kingdom and of this nation as a whole. The Government will have to have some answers to the questions that we are going to ask if they are to present a convincing case to the House.
It is surely common ground on this side of the House that if there is to be a Scottish Parliament it should have some chance of lasting in the form that a Scotland Act of 1997 or 1998 proposes.
Were we to pass legislation in the knowledge that what we proposed would soon turn into something different, we would be dishonest with ourselves and with the people.
To have a chance of lasting, a Scottish Parliament must have tax-raising powers; anything else would be a talking shop culminating in frustrated fiasco. Furthermore, my personal view, for what it is worth, is that a Scottish Parliament should be able to use its tax-raising powers from the day on which it is opened.
The White Paper must deal with many questions. Who exactly is to pay the tax? Will it be everyone domiciled in Scotland?
With regard to international tax, state borders provide the touchstone for separating the taxing rights of one fiscal regime from another, but where the border is, in essence, not real—as between Scotland and England—the imposition of tax by reference to the familiar tests of residence, domicile, source of income and location of trading operations is likely at best to be complex and expensive and at worst to be unfair and a major brake on doing business in Scotland.
Is there to be wholly arbitrary exemption for companies?
What is to be done about peripatetic pop stars, business men, or, indeed, Members of Parliament who spend more than half a year outside Scotland? We might be caught by a residency rule, but one can imagine the howls of outrage if we escaped.
What about an Englishman on temporary secondment to Scotland for six months? Would he be treated as a resident for a whole year or a payer of Scottish higher income tax on his English income?
In the UK, a new Scottish tax would be working against the framework of there being, in effect, a tax haven next door in England. I hope that that matter will also be dealt with in the White Paper.
I thank the Secretary of State for dealing with the issue of the Barnett formula. Lord Joel Barnett is a friend of mine. I talked to him and I know that the matter is extremely complex. There should be a statement on the Barnett formula because some people in Scotland are deeply concerned, not least those who have to deal with resources for local councils.
What will be the consequences for the financial arrangements between Scotland and the rest of the UK if the Scots decide to raise income tax by 3p in the pound?
Will the Government of the UK be expected to put the same amount into Scotland as they would if income tax were the same there as in England and Wales?
If the Scots decided to cut taxes, would the English taxpayer be expected to make up the difference?
I hope also that the White Paper will address what John Lloyd in Scotland on Sunday called the Bury North question. A new Labour Member of Parliament has won the not overly rich Bury North seat from a sitting Conservative—in this case, David Chaytor won it from Alistair Burt. How can it be explained that Scotland should have more Members of Parliament than England and Wales, more public spending per head than England and Wales and, on top of that, a Parliament of its own?
I know that the figure is open to argument, but I understand that identifiable public spending in Scotland is £4,505 per head while it is £3,614 in England— a difference in Scotland's favour of 24.6 per cent. That will have to be addressed in the White Paper. There is no way of ducking it.
Before we leave the subject of money, is the Parliament to be paid for out of Scottish Office allocation or out of United Kingdom funds?
I listened to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about mandates. My mandate was far more emphatically for more nurses in St. John's hospital, Livingston than for 129 politicians in Edinburgh.
I come now to the role of Scottish Members of Parliament and what, in deference to Madam Speaker, we might call the West Bromwich question. For how long can a Member of Parliament for West Bromwich accept a situation in which fewer than 55,000 people elect a Scottish Member of Parliament while more than 68,000 elect an English Member of Parliament, when the Scots have an Edinburgh Parliament of our own? Will the White Paper suggest that that situation can last in perpetuity?
I started my speech by saying that we had to talk about proposals that were likely and had a chance of lasting; otherwise, enormous sournesses will be created. Will the White Paper grasp the nettle and recommend a pro rata reduction in the number of Scottish seats to 59, or even to 45? When I was first elected to the House there were 12 Members of Parliament representing Northern Ireland, with the Stormont Parliament operating there. On that calculation, the appropriate figure for Scotland would be 45 Members of Parliament. The White Paper must address that honestly.
I used to discuss this issue with the late Rafton Pounder, Stratton Mills and others and I realise that there are complexities. All that I ask is that the White Paper to be produced by the Government whom I support should address the problem and not leave it unaddressed.
One day—not before I am kicking up the proverbial daisies, I hope—the Government of the day will not be allowed to tolerate a situation in which my successor and the other Member of Parliament for West Lothian, a by that time white-bearded Robin Cook, are still able to vote on housing, education and health in West Bromwich, but not in West Lothian. A Prime Minister who rightly sets such store by doing what is right in the long term cannot shrug off the problem by intoning:
Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
In the current parliamentary arithmetic, the problem does not arise, but there will come a day—later rather than sooner, I hope—when it will arise. If we are talking about proposals that are likely or have a chance of lasting, now is the time to address the problem. The White Paper provides the opportunity to do so.
How will the White Paper address the problem of setting up a subordinate Parliament in a part—though only a part—of a kingdom which, above all, one wishes to keep united?
I confess to being the first person recently to have suggested a referendum on devolution. For this I was rebuked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Robertson), who called me "isolated in the party" and various ruderies. Never in a month of Sundays would I or did I suggest the current referendum proposal. If the referendum is to be on a White Paper, we must have time to see and digest that White Paper. If the White Paper is vague in any respect, the referendum will be on a pig in a poke.
Any Government with a colossal majority should be careful about assuming that a White Paper can go through both Houses unaltered in every respect. The referendum that some of us had in mind—and which, whatever happens, should still be held—is on the one meaningful and precise question that can be asked: "Do you approve of the Scotland Act 1998 as passed by Parliament?"
Will the Secretary of State explain to us in the wind-up the justification for a pre-legislative rather than a post-legislative referendum?
The question of who will be allowed to vote remains. England is affected, too, as is the position of Scots in England. In my view, Madam Speaker was right to say that assent has to be given on the Floor of the House. The devolution debate is being presented as a wholly Scottish matter, but it affects the United Kingdom as a whole.
May I begin by expressing my immense satisfaction that the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Dewar) has assumed his important position as Secretary of State for Scotland? It is rare to speak of friendship for colleagues in the House, but I regard him as my oldest friend in this place and I could not have been more pleased by his appointment.
I welcome the measures foreshadowed in the Gracious Speech promising reforms of our constitution. They are important in themselves, but they are also important as the first steps in a much-needed process of modernisation to make our system of government fit for the tasks required of it by the British people.
Constitutional reform, being concerned with improving the system of government, is sometimes represented as being of less interest to the public than the ends of government, such as health, education, care of the elderly or housing. However, historically that is not a universal truth. Battles to extend the franchise and to reform the House of Lords secured centrality in past elections, when the voting public recognised that progress in attaining the fruits of good government was blocked by outdated constitutional provisions.
The election from which this country has just emerged is unusual in that, for the first time in modern British history, two of the major contesting parties—the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats—put forward not just a proposal to tackle a particularly offensive constitutional anomaly, such as that which animated two elections in 1910, but a critique of our system of government and a substantial agenda of reforms and remedies.
The securing by the two parties of 62 per cent. of the popular vote is as broad an affirmation as could be given by the British people of their acceptance of the need for fundamental constitutional reform. The former Prime Minister sought to ignite fears that the proposals would damage our democracy and the unity of the realm. The public forcefully rejected that claim.
This, then, is a Parliament entrusted with reform. The people have given us an unparalleled opportunity systematically to reconstruct our democracy and the opportunity has come just in time. There has of late been a marked deterioration of public confidence in our system. The standing of Parliament and parliamentarians is worryingly low. There has also been a decline in participation in the democratic process. The vote in this election was lower than in any since 1935. When people come to believe that they cannot change things through the ballot box, democrats should take notice.
In some parts of our country, there has also been an increasing sense of alienation from what has been presented by the outgoing Government as our national mind. The diversity of our country, which has made it possible for British citizens to feel loyalty to the several communities to which they belong, has been seriously threatened by the impositions of a centralising state.
In my view, an unwritten constitution can work only where there are agreed ground rules and conventions which are shared across the party political divide. Too often in recent years, those assumptions and conventions have been ignored or flouted. As a consequence, the case for a written constitution setting out the limits and responsibilities of public power has strengthened.
A written constitution is the avowed longer-term goal of the Liberal Democrats. We see it, however, not as an event consequent on the disruption of our constitutional system, but rather as the end point of a process which consolidates the achievements of systematic and deliberate reform. That reform must accord with the wishes of the British people to be citizens and not subjects. That reform must reflect in its distribution of power the very British sense of fair play, due proportion and justice. That reform, through its step-by-step achievement, should increase the confidence of the British people that democracy can be made to work better—that it is not just the least bad system of government, but that it can provide an admirable civic framework to fulfil their aspirations which cannot be achieved by individual effort alone.
The Gracious Speech is the beginning of that deliberate process, and it is deliberate in contrast with so many of the constitutional changes wrought by the outgoing Conservative Administration. Those changes were never put to the public for approval and even now they have never been approved. I think of the abolition of the Greater London council and the emasculation of local government throughout the country. I recall the casuistry of the distinction drawn by the outgoing Government between ministerial accountability and ministerial responsibility—a ruse which did not convince the public that Ministers were at fault only if they chose to accept the blame. I think of the muddying of the distinction between the provision of Government information and the purveying at public expense of glossy party political advertising. Such abuses—very different in kind, but the examples are legion—are evidence of a coarsening of standards and the dangers of power unchecked by formal constitutional constraints.
When the country heaved a collective sigh of relief on 2 May, it came from a deep sense that the process of government itself had become indecent. The constitutional measures proposed for this Session are certainly those which merit priority. Nothing can be more important than seeking to give our citizens the opportunity to have their fundamental rights and freedoms protected in the courts of our country. The incorporation of the European convention on human rights into United Kingdom law is a long overdue step towards a British Bill of Rights.
The proposed legislation, agreed in the Scottish constitutional convention by a broad spectrum of civic representatives, to give Scotland its own Parliament is more than welcome. The intention to subject unaccountable Welsh administration to the oversight of an elected Assembly is also timely. The proposal to move to a directly elected strategic authority for London is not simply righting a great wrong done to our capital city, but is necessary to secure its proper governance and development. The Government's assertion of their commitment to openness and transparency will best be met by the passage of a freedom of information Bill at an early date.
These important measures were among those agreed by the joint committee that the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and I chaired prior to the election. There remain a significant number of other agreed constitutional reforms on which legislation is not specifically proposed for this Session, but on which I hope that work will begin concurrently.
I mention in particular the avowed policy and intention of the Labour party to introduce a fair and proportional voting system—the regional list system—for the elections to the European Parliament in 1999. I hope that the Government will confirm that intention at an early date and signal it by an appropriate direction to the boundary commission.
Reform of the voting system for all elections in this country is an imperative need. In the recent election, it required roughly 32,000 votes to elect one Labour Member of Parliament, 58,000 votes to elect one Conservative Member of Parliament and 114,000 votes to elect one Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament. Perhaps the Conservative party deserved to lose every seat in Scotland and in Wales, but when the 17.5 per cent. who voted Conservative in Scotland and the 19.6 per cent. who voted Conservative in Wales lack a Member of Parliament it must be recognised that our deliberations in this place are distorted by an unfair electoral system.
Such a programme of reform as lies ahead will raise questions in the minds of those who have seen previous Labour Governments' proposals for constitutional reform flounder in the shoals of current parliamentary procedures. Constitutional measures must be built to last; that is why they should not only have the broadest possible cross-party support but be subject to deliberate scrutiny. The current procedures of this House are not apt for that purpose as they go beyond protecting the rights of minorities to be heard and have been shown to empower a minority to foil the intentions of the majority. In my clear recollection, that is what happened to the late Dick Crossman's proposals for reform of the House of Lords in the 1960s. Majorities have their rights, too.
That happened after 200 sittings of this Chamber which, even by the standards of constitutional debate, seemed excessive to those of us who were here.
In the Gracious Speech, the Government commit themselves to the programming of House of Commons business to ensure a more effective scrutiny of Bills and better use of Members' time. That is something which we can certainly welcome. Such scrutiny is required for all Bills, but the current procedures for constitutional Bills are particularly unsatisfactory.
I was also glad to note the final undertaking of the Gracious Speech indicating the Government's intention to establish a new Select Committee to look at ways in which to make parliamentary procedure more effective and efficient. I hope that that Committee will be established soon and that, as a matter of priority, it will be invited to consider the handling of constitutional Bills.
In my early years in the House, all clauses of Finance Bills were considered on the Floor of this Chamber. That was not sensible and the rules were changed by the House.
When this Parliament reaches its final term, I hope that it will have enacted in full the proposals of the Joint Committee on Constitutional Reform which I had the honour to sign on behalf of my party. If it does, I believe that it will have helped greatly to restore our democracy and bring power closer to the people. In that task, which I believe is well begun in the Gracious Speech, the Government can count on the support of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
This is a traumatic occasion for me, and I hope that the House will appreciate that there will be a certain omission from my speech. However, I am grateful to be called to speak.
I am more than pleased to be here representing Keighley and Ilkley in West Yorkshire; in fact, I am absolutely delighted. My unique constituency, of which I am extremely fond and proud, lies in the beautiful valleys of the Wharfe and Aire and its tributary, the Worth, which benefits from being served by a magnificent steam railway society of which I have the honour to be vice-president.
Surrounded on all sides by the wonderful backdrop of the Pennines, it is a diverse constituency—from soft green valleys to rugged moorland, from the leafy spa town of Ilkley and its much sung about moor to bustling industrial Keighley, which still has many engineering workshops and textile mills, not forgetting our world famous Bronte literary shrine at Haworth.
The massive development of the Jubilee line extension close to this place has a bearing on industrial Keighley, in that one of our larger employers, Orenstein and Koppel, is supplying the escalators. It is the largest single order for escalators ever placed world wide. Bearing in mind the successes of the company, I am pleased to note that the Gracious Speech included a commitment to encouraging investment in industry, skills, infrastructure and new technologies. I look forward to a move from short-term profitability and towards long-term investment in research and development, in improved plant and machinery and, above all, in our most valuable asset, our people, too many of whom in Keighley have been unemployed for far too long.
I have an abiding interest in early years education, having served on two first schools' governing bodies for many years. I therefore welcome the much-needed Government commitment to reduce class sizes in first and primary schools. I would also welcome Government assistance for schools in my constituency towards much-needed repairs, rebuilding and the overdue replacement of portakabins.
The Gracious Speech also announced measures to enable capital receipts from council house sales to be invested in house building and renovation. That will be a much more useful measure than the previous Government's inflated view of the need for large numbers of expensive homes on highly profitable green-field sites. I am in sympathy with the view of many of my constituents that erosion of the green belt in the Keighley constituency has gone far enough and should be halted and that the highly unpopular Bradford unitary development plan should be amended.
I also welcome the Government's commitment to a freedom of information Bill and trust that the period of consultation will not be too lengthy.
I congratulate the Government on their decision to incorporate in United Kingdom law the main provisions of the European convention on human rights. I note also with great pleasure that the Gracious Speech includes a commitment to prioritise the promotion of human rights world wide. I trust that that commitment will extend not only to the Muslims in Kashmir but to the long-suffering women in Afghanistan.
In keeping with the traditions of the House, I mention that my predecessor, along with other candidates in the Keighley election, fought a dignified and courteous campaign. I acknowledge their contribution in what could have become a much more trying situation.
Before closing, I should like to pay a warm tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and to my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and to the previous Member for Bradford, West. Without their encouragement and support two years ago, I doubt very much whether I would be standing here today.
Finally, I wish to pay tribute to the electors of Keighley who have put their faith in myself and my party. Over the next five years, I hope to do all in my power to justify that trust.
Sir Nicholas Lye11:
I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment and wish you a long and happy period in office. I also congratulate the Opposition on their great victory in the general election and the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales on their appointments.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on her maiden speech. She bears a famous parliamentary name, as she is the widow of Bob Cryer. Although I can fairly say that Bob Cryer and I could hardly find a single political subject on which we agreed, I respected him greatly. No one worked harder in Parliament. He kept us up night after night to speak on money resolutions and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was usually sitting beside him. He was a tremendous parliamentarian. The hon. Lady has the distinction of being not only the widow of a Member of Parliament, a Member of Parliament herself, but the mother of the new Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer). That must be a formidable parliamentary first. She made a dignified speech and we are honoured to welcome her to the House.
The hon. Lady mourns Bob Cryer; in parliamentary terms, we mourn the loss of many excellent colleagues. We know that our duty is to refresh and rebuild our party and thereby to assist the return as legislators of as many of them as possible.
We are told that there has been a great change in the Labour party. The hon. Lady will not take it amiss if I say that at least the stable from which she comes is not entirely that of the Prime Minister's so-called one-nation Labour party. In so far as new Labour has changed, we welcome that change. It is part of our success over 18 years that we did a good deal to force and bring about that change. I hope that change is real. We can also claim that we have left a solid inheritance, a stable and flourishing economy.
Before I turn to the constitution, as the words "one nation" have such a deep tradition going back to Disraeli, it is worth mentioning what it means to be a one-nation Conservative, as I consider myself to be. The words "opportunity for all" have been adopted by the Labour party. In that we can agree, as they belong to us and to one-nation Conservatism. It means helping people to help themselves, private enterprise, personal ownership, individual liberty, not "stakeholding" but a real stake for individuals in their nation, real ownership and a truly pluralist society. By achieving that in the past 18 years, to a great extent—but never enough—we have released the energies of the people of the United Kingdom to create the wealth to improve our public services and help those in real need.
Yesterday, we discussed the need to create jobs for young people. That way of releasing energy helped to create 900,000 new jobs in the past five years. The Labour Government are not on the right route if they think that things can fall from the trees. They cannot create real jobs in the long term by windfalls and the idea that they can win the electorate, the election or recovery for the country by windfall taxes is a sincere but mistaken notion. We shall return to those wider political issues in future debates. Today, we debate the constitution; when one makes constitutional change, there is nothing more important than that it is carefully thought through.
I intend to speak briefly on devolution and say a few words about the incorporation of the European convention on human rights. I shall also say a few words about the reform of the House of Lords. I am glad that the Secretary of State for Scotland mentioned it in his speech. As I was watching proceedings in the other place on the television monitor, I noticed that the Lord Privy Seal said specifically that the subject would be returned to later in this Parliament. I shall develop the point further, but, given that it is to happen "later in this Parliament", it must be unacceptable that the Government should seek to destroy substantially what currently exists without putting forward to the nation and both Houses what they intend to put in its place. I shall return to that theme.
On devolution, I speak as someone who is half Scots. My father comes from Angus. He was born, bred and educated in Scotland and left only at the age of 19. The Government have their majority and I suspect that they will win their referendum in whatever form it takes. I hope that they will answer the very pertinent questions asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) before they are allowed to do so, although I suspect that they will find that difficult. If a devolved Scottish Parliament comes into being, we, as Conservatives, will of course play our part in it. I believe that it will help us to rebuild our presence in Scotland, as I am confident we shall do.
I want to focus principally on the European convention on human rights and the question of its incorporation. Incorporation is likely to happen during this Parliament, too. There is no doubt that there is a majority in favour of it in another place. Nor is it a party political issue; there is cross-party support for it in different ways. My noble Friend Lord Alexander of Weedon and my friend, Sir Leon Brittan, are well known as proponents of it. Nor is it controversial within the different wings of my party. Our late-lamented colleague, Sir Ivan Lawrence, was a strong proponent of it, although he would have declared himself to be firmly on the Euro-sceptic wing of the party. We must therefore address the subject extremely carefully, and I have sought to do so in a number of speeches and debates outside the House—we did not regard it as right to debate the matter in the House—over the years.
We must recognise that, although incorporation has pros and cons—one of the pros would be the benefit of the involvement of our judges and therefore the introduction of our tradition running through to Strasbourg—it can have far-reaching effects. Also, proponents of it have often overstated or misstated their case—I am sure not deliberately.
I would like to clear two myths out of the way. The first is that Britain is the wicked man of Europe in such a context—that somehow we have a worse record than the now 33 member nations of the Council of Europe. That is not true. I invite Ministers to look at written answers on the matter. It is perfectly plain that, if one considers actions per 100,000 of population, and takes account of population size and the length of time that Britain has given the right of individual petition, this country's record, far from being near the bottom, is near the top, near the best. We are a country which believes in the rule of law and our record is thoroughly creditable. I am not against our signing up to the convention. I believe that in a civilised world we have a duty to play our part.
The other myth is that, if we incorporate, we shall somehow reduce the number of cases that go to Strasbourg and somehow cut costs. I very much doubt whether that is so. We have a highly sophisticated legal profession in this country. Indeed, I must declare an interest. My friends in the profession, in the most honourable sense, are rubbing their hands at the thought of widening their practices in European convention work. That work is already growing greatly. Given the growth in judicial review, I have no doubt that we shall see a vast growth in European convention work.
Against that background, how should we view Labour's contention in the recent pamphlet published by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, entitled "Bringing Rights Home", which says confidently on page 1 that incorporation would
cut costs, save time and give power back to the British courts"?
Giving power back to the British courts is a complete historical anomaly. One has to go back to early Stuart times before one finds a time when British courts had the power to strike down a statute—yet that is what will be proposed if we incorporate.
Labour has issued a consultation document, to which I have referred, which is in marked contrast to its failure to issue one in relation to reform of the House of Lords. There is plenty of time to do that too, and I hope that it will.
"Bringing Rights Home" seems to assume that, if our courts find primary legislation to be in breach of the convention, rather than striking it down in the court then and there, they will make a declaration to that effect, and the domestic courts will have no power to give any other remedy and must wait for Parliament to change the law. I should like to pass a bouquet to the Government in that respect. I think that that idea is quite imaginative and should be looked at extremely carefully. It will meet strong opposition from the most long-standing proponents of change.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill—again, an old friend—who is respected and well known as, perhaps, the leading proponent in this matter, will castigate such a suggestion. He has argued that the convention should be incorporated in our law like the treaty of Rome; that it should immediately become part of our domestic law; that it should require all to comply with it; and that it should enable, indeed require, our courts to strike down even any primary statute that is not in conformity with it, whether that statute had been passed before or after the act of incorporation. I warn the House that that is a huge power. It is also virtually certain to bring our judiciary significantly into the political arena, for many of the provisions in the convention, or rather the qualifications to the fundamental rights, are highly political.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman may have overlooked the most recent Bill that my noble Friend Lord Lester introduced in the House of Lords, which did not go so far as the right hon. and learned Gentleman is suggesting in seeking to strike down primary legislation by incorporation. The Bill received widespread support among the Law Lords who spoke in the debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that information. I have in fact looked extremely carefully at that Bill and compared it with the other one. A paper in the second edition of the new magazine on European human rights law deals with the matter. I am afraid that I must ask the hon. Gentleman to look more carefully at the issue. Although Lord Lester's new Bill cuts out the express terms of his earlier Bill, which would enable primary legislation to be struck down, it still contains terms that, in my view, require and can only be construed as requiring, courts to do exactly the same thing. Indeed, Lord Lester wrote an article in The Times only the day before yesterday, saying that that is the power he believed the courts should have. My warning is therefore a real one.
I was making the point that incorporation would bring judges into the political arena. One prime article of the convention, article 8, which says that everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence, is something with which everyone would agree. Instantly, however, one moves to the qualifications to the exercise of that right, which are:
except such as is in accordance with law and is necessary in a democratic society"—
this is the important bit—
in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Every one of those qualifications is a highly political concept.
The counter-argument is that it is better to have some input from our judiciary than simply to leave matters to the Strasbourg judiciary. I acknowledge the force of that counter-argument. The danger is also that it will cut out this House and the other place—our Parliament—and that we shall find our law being made by a judiciary that has been forced, by incorporation legislation passed by this House, to take on a quasi-legislative role. Furthermore, that quasi-legislative role, which the courts will fulfil, will be carried out not merely according to the notions of our own judiciary, who are brought up in and understand our country, but in accordance with the views of judges from some 33 nations. To quote another leading authority, the convention
must be interpreted in an objective and dynamic manner, taking into account social conditions and developments; the ideas and conditions prevailing at the time the treaty was drafted retaining hardly any continuing validity.
A great "acquis", to use a word that infuriates my Euro-sceptic friends, is building up on European convention law. It depends on the views of judges from 33 member states throughout Europe, including parts of eastern Europe. Those views will potentially be forced on us without any opportunity for debate. I cast my bouquet to those on the Government Benches because, although I do not fully understand what is being said in "Bringing Rights Home" and it deserves further thought, the consultation document seems to assume that there will be a place for this House and the other place in the formulation of any modification to our law that might be required following an application of the convention by our courts. That is sensible. I speak personally, from the Back Benches, and I do not commit my party, but we should consider that suggestion seriously.
A further warning is needed. We are handing responsibility to the judiciary in accordance with a body of law that we did not make. If we lose in our own courts all the way up to the House of Lords, my understanding is that the Crown—the Government of this country—cannot take an appeal to Strasbourg; only an applicant can take a case to Strasbourg. I should be grateful if the Secretary of State for Wales would take advice on that point and address it when he winds up. We would also have no democratic way to change the law once it was thus fixed, because no mechanism exists for the 33 countries—possibly 41 by the time the legislation reaches the statute books—to alter it democratically.
I am not opposed to our membership of the convention and I believe that, with one or two unfortunate exceptions, it has been said to work, thanks to the leadership and wisdom of the senior judges. I commend particularly the president of the European Court of Human Rights, Judge Ryssdal, who has shown immense wisdom in recognising the importance of a wide margin of appreciation for member states. However, real dangers must be addressed and real questions must be answered before we incorporate the convention in our domestic law.
Before I conclude, I return to the subject of the House of Lords. The same need for careful thought applies to the Government's proposals for reform of the House of Lords. I say, with all the force and belief at my command, that it is unacceptable to propose to change the present system, by abolishing the rights of hereditary peers, without first providing a Bill to put something in its place. I see the Secretary of State for Scotland frowning and shaking his head mildly—I am glad that he is shaking it only mildly. We have time for thought, and we need thought on the subject. The Government have a responsibility to propose an alternative system.
Why is this issue important? The House of Lords has two key functions. First, it has an important role as a revising Chamber. Secondly, and even more important, there is its role as a constitutional anchor. We had a majority less than 10 years ago—it is still less than 10 years ago—of 144 and the Government now have a majority of 180. In the case of a large majority for the Government, the restraint provided by the second Chamber, in whatever form, is essential. It may have been inconvenient to us 10 years ago and it may be inconvenient to the Government in the coming years, but it is a necessary and proper discipline.
I strongly support the first-past-the-post principle for this Chamber. It gives a decisive result and the gearing effects, win or lose, mean that the views of the people are well reflected here. The Government of the day can normally govern effectively with a working majority. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) is smiling at me. I know that he disagrees and that he would like a German-style system in which his party would always be in the middle and part of government. I can think of nothing less democratic, but I will not get into that wider debate now.
It would be unacceptable and deeply dangerous to our constitution for a similar swing to occur in the second Chamber, whatever form it took. Those who sit there, whether by appointment, hereditary right, some future form of election or some combination of the three, must be there for a sufficiently long time to show real personal independence. They must be able to sit on the Cross Benches; to vote according to their consciences, whether they support the Government or the Opposition of the day; to be comparatively off-hand about whipping; and to do what they believe to be right. Coupled with the convention that the second chamber leaves the Government of the day to implement their broad policies, subject to improvement, that independence has been one of the huge strengths of our constitution. I do not say what should replace the present chamber, if the rights of hereditary peers are abolished, but I reiterate that to destroy a system that works without stating what would be put in its place would be profoundly wrong.
I echo whole-heartedly the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) about the charming speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). It was a moving occasion for those, including myself, who grew up with Bob Cryer in Shipley to see her speaking as his successor. It is also welcome to see his son here as a Member of Parliament. My hon. Friend's speech was charming and it moved us all. It is, I am sure, an augury of an effective career in Parliament, taking up where Bob left off.
I am today breaking the habit of a parliamentary lifetime by participating in an "address and reply" debate. I have never done so before, because I have always seen such debates as an exchange of pompous platitudes. I wish to take part today, because it is a celebration of a revolution that has taken place in this country. The revolution was not of the Labour party's making. Indeed, I confess that I found our manifesto minimalist and cautious, and I said so before it was published. The revolution was made by the people who wanted, and achieved, a decisive rejection of a Government who had failed.
The people threw out a Government who had turned negative and sour over the years and become nattering nabobs of negativism, as a former Vice-President of the United States called the media. The previous Government turned a long, petty-minded sulk into a system of government. The people took the weight of that failed Government off their backs, and by so doing, they removed the block to change that that Government represented. It was a liberation carried through by the people, boosted by the vision offered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who inspired a fairly timid Labour party campaign with the vision and enthusiasm that he projected.
As this is confession time, I admit that I went away shortly after the election. I did not acquire this tan in Cleethorpes, although the basis of it was laid canvassing in Cleethorpes. I went away because it seemed pointless to me to sit for 10 days while the Government were being formed, waiting for the telephone not to ring. I came back to find that I am indeed part of an excluded generation—the rising-60s. To paraphrase Wordsworth in "The Prelude": "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive—but to be old was something of a disadvantage." That is the situation in which I find myself.
None the less, I rejoice in the revolution that is being carried through. I shall, of course, be a participant in furthering that revolution in the House of Commons. We are living through an exciting period, and it is exciting to see how many of the boot boys of negativism who used to occupy the Government Benches have been swept away. It is exciting to see that those who talked so much rubbish about economics and policy for so long have either gone or been humbled, and now have to sing a different song—the querulous song sung by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the former Secretary of State for Wales, whose attack on our devolution proposals was nothing but a list. Indeed, it was a list of lists, consisting of nit-picking attempts to pick holes in those proposals.
It is wonderful to see a new start, a new mood and a sweeping away of the gloom and failure. This is a honeymoon, but a honeymoon that will last. Labour Governments usually have longer honeymoons than Conservative Governments. In 1979 the honeymoon lasted only nine weeks before the polls turned sour, whereas in 1964 our honeymoon lasted two years, as it did in 1974. This honeymoon will be even longer, because we are carrying through the wish of the people of this country for change in the system.
That is especially true in the constitutional sphere, and on the constitutional question our manifesto was at its most radical. Some of us might want to go further, but we have to begin somewhere, and we are making a powerful beginning now.
Government had become so centralised, and executive power so strongly misused by the previous Government, that it had been abused. It is characteristic of this country, with its strong executive government, that the Prime Minister and Government of the day drive a steamroller through the House of Commons. In opposition, all that one can do—it is what we have been doing for 18 years—is to heckle that steamroller.
When Baroness Thatcher drove that steamroller, she drove it straight, callously and brutally. When her successor, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), drove it, it wandered around the countryside and we got a friendly, amiable grin from the deck—but it was a steamroller none the less.
It is time to take power, power that has been abused, from the Government and to spread it round among the people. That is what we shall do. It is extraordinary to see a party that has abused constitutional power so long and so vigorously, and been so radical in its deformation of the constitution, now presenting the image of being stand-pat opponents of change.
A radical party is suddenly reverting to traditional conservatism—but only on the constitution. It says, "Do nothing; ask your grandmother—or rather, ask your grandfather in the House of Lords—about the constitution." But the people want change in the system, and they will get change. They want to be heard; they want to be involved. That is the basis of our constitutional changes.
Those changes mean bringing government closer to the people, and not only in Scotland and Wales. I want government to be brought closer to the English regions, too. The case for regional government in Yorkshire and Humberside is as strong as that in Scotland and Wales. The opinion surveys by the Kilbrandon commission during the previous review of the constitution showed in Yorkshire and Humberside, in the north-east as well as in the north-west, the same feeling of distance and alienation from central Government, and of neglect by them, as characterised Scotland.
Our case is strong, and it will become stronger when we see the effects of devolution in Scotland and Wales. As people there become energised by having more power over their own destiny, they will become formidable competitors in development, in attracting foot-loose industry and in providing a dynamic to their system, which will make the local government and the people in Yorkshire and Humberside want the same for our people. We must be there in the queue and our place must be guaranteed.
That is the major part of constitutional reform, and that to which we have devoted most of our attention today. However, there are others. Constitutional reform also means incorporating the European convention on human rights into the system in this country. I am delighted to see that.
I was one of only three Labour Members of Parliament who voted for a private Member's Bill to incorporate the convention on human rights—I think that that was in 1984—when the word went out from the shadow Cabinet that Labour Members should abstain or vote against. The Bill was nearly carried, and it would have been carried with Labour support. As one of those three Members, I am pleased to be still here to welcome the fact that we shall now incorporate the European convention.
Constitutional reform also means proportional representation. I see around me in the Chamber several colleagues and friends who are strong advocates of proportional representation, as I am. It is interesting to hear arguments for the first-past-the-post system being offered by the Conservative party, which has benefited from that system for nearly 20 years. For 18 years, we have had dictatorship by the minority, with most people voting against the Conservative Government, who none the less had overwhelming power and executive control.
Personally, I have far more than 44 per cent. of the vote, I am pleased to say.
If the Conservative party intends to stick to its opposition to proportional representation, in the minority position into which first-past-the-post has put it, that can be for no other reason than that it hopes to get power on the same minority basis again in future, and to abuse it in the same way. That is not what the people want.
The people want the Government who represent them and their wishes to reflect in the party strength in the House of Commons their votes for parties in the same proportion. That will come, because first we shall have the commission to agree on an alternative system, and then we shall have a referendum. I am convinced that that will change the first-past-the-post system, because people are fed up with government by embattled minority, which we have had for the past 20 years.
The people want a Government who listen. They want the same influence that the New Zealand electorate now have upon the system there. We are moving towards proportional representation, which would be a major means of freeing up our system.
Constitutional reform means open government. It means reform of the procedures of this place too, to give the people much more influence and impact on our legislation. I served on the Hansard Society's commission on the legislative process, and we recommended a legislative process very like the one that has now been developed in New Zealand.
Bills are introduced and then advertised, and a Committee receives representations from the people, interested parties and all groups concerned. It hears all their views. That avoids what happens in this country, when organisations come in at the last minute, when legislation is being finalised in Committee and say, "This is terrible. We want something done about it."
The New Zealand system avoids such last-minute discovery and involves the people. It also involves Members of Parliament in shaping legislation. That is important, with a majority as large as ours. Members of Parliament must have a more useful role in the system. If we are to be kept off the streets and away from malignancy—if I may make a joke about the large number of Labour Members—we must be usefully employed here rather than left milling around and regarded as mere brute votes at the disposal of the Whips. We have a higher dignity and importance than that, and that must be realised as part of the process of constitutional reform.
Constitutional reform involves handing over powers to the people—an empowered people. But, to conclude on a note of dissent, it does not involve handing supreme power to the Governor of the Bank of England to use in his own unaccountable fashion, to determine the economic interests of this country on behalf of the financial interests in the City, which he represents. The Labour party national executive, in its old, unregenerate days—in its old good days, some of us might say—said that whoever controlled monetary policy controlled the economic destiny of the nation. That is indeed true. I was horrified to find that the Governor of the Bank of England, Mr. Eddie George, was now in supreme power. I did not even know that he was standing at the election. I thought that I was standing and that the Labour party was. I did not know that Eddie George was contesting the election and had won it.
The change will mean that interest rates are marginally higher, when they have been too high for too long and need to come down. It will mean that the pound will be higher than it needs to be for the interests of competitive manufacturing and exports, when the pound is too high and needs to come down. A modern Government have only two weapons of economic management—the fiscal and the monetary. If we are not to increase tax rates, as we are committed not to do, we must have greater freedom to use the monetary weapon to manage the destiny of our country and achieve the growth on which everything in Labour's policy depends.
I do not want to face the dichotomy that we faced at the election. The national campaign was about hypotheticals. It was about Europe, trust, honesty and sleaze. I was interested to see the new hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) sitting in his isolation ward earlier. He is not here now to listen to my support for his stance. The campaign on the ground was about grievances, problems and difficulties. It was about the grumbles of the electorate, who faced cuts in the health service, delays in operations, cancelled appointments, increasing rolls in schools and the meanness of the benefits system. Those are the characteristics of a mean society, which has been bedevilled by cuts and economies for 18 years.
Local government, the health service and social services need more money and cannot face and must not be asked to face another round of cuts such as the long round of cuts under the outgoing Government. That was wasting by anorexia. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] That is why it is essential to expand the economy, so that Labour does not follow in the footsteps of the folly that has made local government less effective and less popular and unable to advance the cause of its people.
The process of building socialism began straight after the election. Socialism is not only a process of empowerment of the people such as we shall provide through our constitutional reforms, to give people the platform of rights and powers from which to control their own destiny and influence the Government, but a process of enrichment and betterment. We must provide jobs because part of that platform is jobs—people's ability to control their economic destiny as well as their political destiny. Those two processes go hand in hand. I am delighted that we are embarking so vigorously and effectively on the empowerment process, but we must embark on the enrichment process as well. Without one, the other fails. We have not waited 18 years in opposition to begin rolling, as we are now rolling, that Sisyphean stone back up the hill where it belongs and advance the cause of the people, to fail on the one front while succeeding on the other.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I join others in congratulating you on having taken your office. It is a great pleasure to see you wearing a tie in some way related to cricket so early in your time in the Chair.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). He and I entered the House at by-elections within months of each other. We are both of us old lags. I have no doubt that I shall demonstrate that in my speech in the same way as he has just demonstrated it in his.
I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). I played cricket for the Lords and Commons with her husband, who was in the great tradition of Yorkshire slow left-arm bowlers and, in that capacity, possessed a perfect but nagging length, which he then transferred into parliamentary affairs. It is a pleasure that she should speak so early in our deliberations in the House, because it increases the number of times that we shall hear her in the rest of the Parliament, to which we already look forward.
There have been signs in this week-long debate on the Queen's Speech that hangover and fatigue are overtaking the Government Benches. Even the Prime Minister's speech was described by a commentator as lacklustre. The Secretary of State for Scotland was a lively exception and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) transformed the debate by the quality of his speech. In addressing the House as he did, he brought it home to me that the constitutional cheese that is being put in front of us owes less to Caerphilly than to Gruyere—the country of origin of which is addicted to referendums. I look forward more than I expected as I got up this morning to the reply by the Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies).
In the early years of the 1950s, in a particular week, The Times on the Monday referred to the publication of the collected poems of the distinguished American poet Wallace Stevens, Faber and Faber, 2 guineas. On Tuesday, it reported with regret the death of Mr. Wallace Stevens. On Friday, the leading article in the Times Literary Supplement began with the words, "This has been a good year for Mr. Wallace Stevens." It has been a rather less good year for the Conservative party. Conversely, since 1 May, a bright morning has been visible for the Labour party.
I am one of the eight survivors in this House of the very first Administration of my noble Friend Lady Thatcher. I can remember exactly what it was like. I do not begrudge anyone in the new Administration a single moment of the bright joy that the Labour party is enjoying. I echo the quotation that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby gave from Wordsworth. One of the most vivid features of government that I recall is the headiness with which one took unpopular and radical decisions and the long delay that then elapsed before one had to introduce them. When they were exceeding unpopular, they were disagreeable and one forgot the headiness with which they were embarked upon.
I have a particular personal reason for wishing the new Administration well. I have only once taken part in a lawsuit, at an industrial tribunal. Our counsel was the present Lord Chancellor and the pupil who accompanied him throughout the case was the present Prime Minister. Given my satisfaction as their client on that occasion, it would be churlish of me to deny them as a citizen my good wishes for the task on which they have set out.
The people have spoken. The battle of Isandlwana is over and the defence of the mission station at Rorke's Drift is about to begin. At the heart of that defence will be the adherence to principle that has been at the heart of the Conservative party for the past 300 years, not least on the constitution. But in due course, as at Rorke's Drift, I hope that we shall mount periodic guerrilla forays into enemy territory, ever mindful of the comment at the caf??es in Athens in 1945 when the news of the British election results arrived to the effect, "Poor old chap, fancy having to take to the hills at his age." I expect us to be a nimble, probing and, I hope, stylish Opposition. Incidentally, contrary to some rather lazy calculation in the media, 33 of us in my party have had experience of opposition before.
The Queen's Speech contains uncontroversial measures that are indistinguishable from the thinking of the previous Government. That is the scale of the Conservative party's achievement in the past 22 years, even if most of the pledges on the Deputy Prime Minister's famous card were somewhat mouselike. I have listened to the verdicts of experts in the various fields—"Fairly limited," said one, "Modest," said another. In the most damning indictment of all, "Frankly pathetic," said the chairman of the British Medical Association.
The pledges were soundbites—the intellectual underpinning for a poster campaign that seemed to promise so much more—but they were simple enough to remember, even for the candidate who uttered that memorably banal response to a journalist, "I am not an individual. You must speak to Millbank."
The principal feature of the Queen's Speech, which distinguishes it from the policies of the other main party, is the proposals on the constitution, which is the subject of today's debate. The debate is too short and crowded to dissect each of the Government's constitutional proposals this morning, but I am conscious that I shall have serial opportunities to examine them again in the future. Each proposal is, however, surrounded by a central paradox. The Government's logic is that they wish to devolve, delegate and decentralise, yet they are themselves a new model army that holds all power to its centre. Indeed, direct from the ducking ponds of Hartlepool, they come equipped with their own witch-finder general.
There is a critical contradiction in those emphases, which carry all the risks of schizophrenia. I have a personal bias towards delegation. Perhaps I belong to an older strand in Conservative thinking, born partly of genetics, which would ascribe powers to local government more than has recently prevailed, but I am not plagued in my own thinking by the intellectual, emotional fault line that runs through the heart of this Government, which I noticed was caught by Garland in The Daily Telegraph yesterday when he chose the image of the glacier or the geological rift.
My own image is more pastoral. I have been only once to Negril, at the far end of Jamaica, where Nelson's 18th-century fleet used to gather in the bay. Latterly, it has become a resort. When I was there a quarter of a century ago, it was a fishing village on a beach, to the right of the road from Montego Bay to Ian Fleming's Savannah le Mare. The road was narrow, and to its left the cartographers had filled a large open space with those tufts which, on battlefield maps, indicate marshes. The cartographers had, however, also given the area a name: it was simply called The Great Morass.
It is off the narrow road of sensible government and into this great morass that the Government are marching their own troops and this Parliament, with the Secretary of State for Scotland at their head. He carries a particular responsibility for this venture, for in the debate on the constitution shortly before the election, in response to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), it was out of his hurried words to the then Leader of the Opposition that sprang the weasel words of a short cut across the great morass, by taking the Committee stages of constitutional measures in Committee rather than on the Floor of the House. The House knows me as a mild-mannered man, but that way lies tyranny.
I agree that the Government are operating in this regard behind a smokescreen of opaque language, but what Dr. Watson would have called "The Case of the Prime Minister's Questions" is profoundly discouraging. The Government's defence of the latter episode yesterday was leaden-footed and broken-backed, and if such batting continues, we shall not win the Ashes this summer.
I hope that wiser counsels prevail before the Secretary of State for Scotland embarks on his short cut across the morass. He has, I acknowledge, done a fair job of repairing the Prime Minister's parish council gaffe, but he still has around his neck the albatross of the Prime Minister's remarks about Scottish tax intentions, which portrayed more vividly than anything else the central fault line of the Government, to which I referred earlier. In the constitutional debate to which I referred, the present Prime Minister did not answer the West Lothian question either.
I shall allude to one other feature of the Government's constitutional policies: the plethora of envisaged referendums. Unlike most of the House, I have lived in Switzerland in my day. I have always found mildly disturbing the enthusiasm of my more Euro-sceptic friends on these Benches—in seeking to avoid further continental entanglements—for the concept of referendums, which have always seemed to me profoundly continental devices wholly antithetical to seven centuries of parliamentary government in this House. Of course they have their place, but the present Government seem to be making them a substitute for careful thought and reasoned debate.
The debate on London lies a little further ahead, but I am constantly bombarded in the media by expressions of the passion of Londoners for a strategic authority, as evidenced by opinion polls. In the glorious weather in April, I called on one in 10 of my constituents in their homes, during 120 hours of canvassing. I must tell the House that, in a gallimaufry of agreeable conversations on the doorstep, the need for a strategic authority for London never once fell from the lips of one of my electors, let alone their enthusiasm for it.
What does surprise me, given Labour's refrain over the 11 years since the demise of the Greater London council, is how little detailed preparation has been done and vouchsafed to us on the London proposals, but now that the civil service is available, no doubt, as Alec Douglas Home once said in response to a question on VAT, a lot of clever chaps are thinking about it.
We are to be ruled by Puritans, although I am not at all confident that the Protector would have approved of anyone calling him 011ie. I hope in due course that someone will tell the London tourist board of this Puritan tendency, just as I hope, too, that the Minister for sport—an inspired appointment—will survive within this Spartan regime.
I take my final words from the war that gave the Puritans power, and from that notable royalist officer, Sir Jacob Astley. He might be said to have had the first words of the war, for it was on the morning of the battle of Edgehill that he gave the English language that great prayer:
O Lord! thou knowest how busy I must be this day: if I forget thee, do not thou forget me.
I commend that prayer to the Treasury Bench. More apposite still to this debate are what might be regarded as the last words of the war, when, in 1646, he surrendered the garrison at the manor house at Stow-on-the-Wold and
handed over his sword to the parliamentarian commander with the words, "You have beaten us. Now go fall out among yourselves."
It is a great privilege to have the opportunity to make my maiden speech so early in the parliamentary Session, and I am delighted to be here as the first ever Labour Member of Parliament for the constituency of Enfield, Southgate. I hope to be the first in a long line of Labour Members of Parliament elected by the people of Enfield, Southgate, where I was born and brought up.
During my lifetime, there have been just two Members of Parliament for the constituency before me. Michael Portillo was elected in a by-election in 1984. Shortly after his election to Parliament, he visited Southgate school, where I was then a sixth former. Although our politics were miles apart, Michael Portillo impressed me then as an articulate, charismatic and candid politician. Since then, he has provided more than 12 years of professional service to the people of Enfield, Southgate. During the general election campaign, on our rare encounters, he was always courteous and charming, and on the night of the election count his dignity in defeat earned him widespread and well-deserved respect. I am sure that, if he chooses to do so, he will continue to play an important role in the public life of this country.
Mr. Portillo succeeded Sir Anthony Berry, who was tragically killed in the Brighton conference bombing in 1984. Sir Anthony Berry represented the people of Enfield, Southgate for more than 20 years in the House and is still remembered with great respect and affection by many of my constituents. In his maiden speech here in 1965, Sir Anthony warned of the dangers of the introduction of comprehensive education in Enfield. As a product of Southgate comprehensive school, I have to say that I think that many of his fears have proved to be unfounded.
Enfield, Southgate is a wonderful and diverse local constituency. We embrace both the busy, urban life of Palmers Green and the north circular road, and the rural tranquillity of Hadley Wood and the green belt. Much of my constituency is a collection of villages—Southgate Green, Oakwood, Grange Park and Winchmore Hill, which has been spared a drive-through McDonald's because of the determined opposition of local people and the good sense of our local Labour-controlled council.
Southgate's diversity is a great strength. It is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious community. Only this week, I had the privilege to lay the foundation stone for the new Hindu community centre of the Darji Mitra Mandal. There is a large Jewish community, as well as significant numbers of Christians, Muslims and Sikhs. It will be a privilege to represent them all.
During my election campaign, perhaps the biggest single issue on the doorstep was the future of the island of Cyprus. I warmly welcome the Government's commitment in the Gracious Speech to seeking a just and lasting settlement in Cyprus and I look forward to giving my full and active support to those efforts.
Perhaps the most positive feature of the recent campaign for me was the opportunity to discuss politics with large numbers of young, first-time voters in my constituency. For me, the first sign of the large swing to Labour in Enfield, Southgate came with the results of the mock elections at our three local secondary schools, Winchmore, Broomfield and Southgate. All three schools voted Labour by overwhelming majorities. That showed the way forward for the results in Enfield, Southgate.
I have never accepted the widely held idea that young people today are apathetic and not interested in politics. I am involved in a Fabian Society research project working with young, first-time voters, talking to them about their attitudes and opinions. In my experience, young people have clear values and strong opinions. What they reject is not politics itself, but the way we do politics in this country—the style, the language and, above all, the adversarial culture. It is an adversarial culture which is best symbolised by the old way that Prime Minister's Question Time was done. I am sure that many people will welcome the change made in the past week.
At the election, the biggest swing to Labour was among first-time voters. This Parliament owes it to our young people to forge a new sort of politics based on consensus, dialogue and co-operation. That is why constitutional reform is so important.
I welcome the commitments in the Gracious Speech to devolution, the incorporation of the European convention on human rights and to reform of Parliament itself. This is not some arcane, abstract debate that is of interest only to the so-called chattering classes. It is about devolving power to the people and starting to restore people's faith in politics.
As a Greater London Member of Parliament, I especially welcome the proposals for a new strategic authority and a directly elected mayor for London. This country is alone in the democratic world in denying its capital city a democratic voice. The removal of that voice was one of the most petty and vindictive acts of the previous Government. I look forward to a new elected authority, working alongside an elected mayor. The mayor will be a powerful champion of London's interests, ensuring that our first-class capital city has the impact and influence that it rightly deserves. I hope that all hon. Members representing London, regardless of their party, will unite in campaigning for a yes vote in the proposed London w ide referendum.
Constitutional reform is not some academic debating point; it has real relevance to the bread and butter concerns of our constituents. A new authority for London can start to improve the appalling state of our transport system. Greater London's crumbling transport infrastructure is letting down the people and the economy of this great city. We need a new authority and we need a new mayor to take the lead and get London moving again. The Labour party supports a proportional voting system for the proposed new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. I hope that we shall also adopt a similar system for the new London authority. That will ensure that we have a credible London voice representing the diversity of opinion in our capital city.
More widely, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, our manifesto proposes a commission on electoral reform for the House of Commons, followed by a referendum. Proportional representation for this House is an idea whose time has come. Electoral reform is an important democratic change, which will assist in the renewal of hope and faith in politics itself. Labour's proposed referendum will enable the people to decide how the House is elected. It is a momentous and crucial commitment. Following the election result in Scotland, Wales and much of urban England, it is an argument that I hope the Opposition will take more seriously than they have done, both in the interests of democracy and of their party.
This Parliament is often described as the mother of Parliaments. There is much in our parliamentary history of which we can be proud. Constitutional reform is not about tearing up our history, but about building on what is good and changing what is not. I support the Government's proposals, both because they are good and because they will contribute to the renewal of politics and democracy in this country. Now is the time for a new, consensual politics in the United Kingdom. I look forward to playing my small part in securing those important and long-overdue reforms.
First, I must congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on the position in which you find yourself and Labour Members on their election success. I wish them all the best for this Parliament.
I am particularly pleased to be able to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), which was a pleasure to listen to. Of course, I did not agree with all of it, but it was thoughtful and I think we have someone here who will make a significant contribution to the House. I did not see the television coverage in question, but I understand that one of the great pleasures that people derived from watching it and one of the high points was seeing the astonishment of the hon. Gentleman when he won the seat. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will enjoy his stay in the House.
I should like to take up some points from the Prime Minister's speech on Wednesday, but, before doing that, I want to query a passage at the beginning of the speech. He was clearly speaking from the heart when he referred to new Labour as
the one nation party in British politics today.
Later in his speech he told hon. Members:
They will see Labour Members of Parliament from every part of the country; every region, every nation.
I see a smile on the faces of some Labour Members and my next point is obvious and predictable. While the Prime Minister's ambition is laudable, it is not accurate because there are no Labour Members from one of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, part of which I have the honour to represent. That is not a petty point: it is a substantive one.
The question for the Prime Minister and the Labour party is that when they speak about "our country" and "our nation" do they include all of our country and our nation or are they mentally censoring out the British people of Ulster? That is a question for them to ponder. Old Labour discriminated against our part of the United Kingdom and the old Labour rules that new Labour has inherited prevent anybody in Northern Ireland from even joining the Labour party. That is a unique disadvantage for the people of Northern Ireland and it is not shared by people anywhere else in the world.
In every other country, people can join the Labour party or one of its support organisations. That leads to the joke which I told at the Labour party conference. It caused some amusement, but it is not original, and it is the question of what one do in Bangkok but not in Belfast. The answer, of course, is join the Labour party because everything else that can be done in Bangkok can be done in Belfast. The substantial point relates to whether new Labour will try to be a party and a Government for the whole nation. I hope that they will meet that challenge.
I refer with approval to another passage in the Prime Minister's speech. He said:
Britain … must change a situation in which unelected quangos spend more money than elected local government".—[Official Report, 14 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 61–62.]
I say, "Hear, hear" to that. I hope that when the Prime Minister looks at those quangos that spend more than local government he will also look at the situation in Northern Ireland where, thanks to the previous Government, unelected quangos spend nine times as much as what is called local government in Northern Ireland. Hon. Members may think that local government in England, Scotland and Wales is disadvantaged, but in Northern Ireland it is so limited that quangos spend nine times as much.
There is a need for representative local government in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Scotland spoke about the need for devolution in Scotland and justified it by referring to Scotland's separate legal system and its social differences. Those arguments apply with equal force to Northern Ireland, which also has a separate legal system and where there are clear differences in social and cultural attitudes and, in some cases, even national allegiance. There is a clear need for devolution.
I have some queries about the meaning of some parts of the Gracious Speech. The commitment to incorporate the European convention on human rights has been mentioned, and in principle I approve of that. However, I am a little curious about why the main part of the Gracious Speech refers to incorporating
the main provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights.
It is all or nothing for that. I commend to the House the thoughtful contributions by Opposition Members on some of the practical problems of incorporation. Those need to be considered and I speak as someone who, in principle, favours incorporation. We must look carefully at the implications for the House and for the ability of the people of the United Kingdom to control the legislation that affects them. That is important because when we try to protect the position of the House we do not do it for the benefit of the more than 600 Members but for the benefit of the people who sent us here because we are the guardians of their rights.
I want to query also a reference in the paragraph relating to Northern Ireland. It announces that the Government will bring forward legislation to deal with
other measures to protect human rights".
One queries what that might mean, because it clearly envisages something that goes beyond the European convention. It must go beyond the convention because it cannot be less and it cannot depart from provisions in the convention without being in breach of that. I should like to know the Government's thinking on that matter.
There are some areas where one could go beyond the European convention on human rights. The United Nations declaration on human rights and the UN covenant on civil and political rights contain provisions dealing particularly with civil and political rights that are not contained in the European convention, which is quite a modest document. I would look favourably on the incorporation of some of the provisions in the UN declaration and in the UN covenant. It would be interesting.
Some hon. Members may recall how, in the previous Parliament, I regularly made the point and supported it with detailed argument to show that the direct-rule regime in Northern Ireland is in conflict with the UN covenant. Never did I hear any coherent response from the Government Benches. It will be interesting if we manage to move to those matters. Of course, it would be better to remove that inconsistency and to ensure that the same quality of democracy existed in Northern Ireland as exists elsewhere in the UK.
Other points in the Northern Ireland paragraph will no doubt be amplified by my hon. Friends speaking on other days in the debate, but I read with concern the passing reference in the paragraph to matters such as increasing confidence in policing. When dealing with Northern Ireland, it is not wise to use language in that fashion without explaining what one means. From speaking to people in Northern Ireland during the election and since, I know that the bland reference in the Labour party manifesto to reform of the police caused considerable unease and did much to increase tension in Northern Ireland.
In the absence of any detailed explanation by Labour of its intentions, the phrase was interpreted as meaning a commitment by Labour to adopt the republican attitude to policing. Labour referred to confidence-building measures on policing. What it means, of course, is the abolition of the Royal Ulster Constabulary or its reconstruction out of recognition. I hope that that is not the Government's intention, but it is necessary to spell out that intention because to introduce such phrases without giving an explanation gives rise to increased tension and causes alarm. It is not wise to do that.
I note also the reference to reducing "tension over parades". If the Government were to give more confidence to the community about their overall objectives, that would reduce tension over parades. The main point to remember about parades is that they are not a cause; they are a symptom. The tensions that arise there are symptoms of other causes. That should be borne in mind.
I shall not go into detail on that topic because, as I say, I hope that a colleague of mine will go into it in more detail, but I will share with the House just a few quotes, as it were. In a secret speech last November in Athboy in the Republic of Ireland, the gentleman who has been returned to serve as Member of Parliament for Belfast, West, but who is refusing to discharge his obligation, said:
Ask any activist in the North did Drumcree happen by accident … they will tell you No. Three years work went into creating that situation … and they are the type of scene changes we have to focus in on and develop.
That is part of what I mean when I say that we have to bear in mind what is a cause and what is an effect, and who is creating a problem and who is manipulating it.
Last autumn, Irish officials at the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental secretariat in Northern Ireland were heard to say—they attend the inter-party talks and, consequently, there is some awareness of their views—that they realised that, last summer, they had gone too far. They know, even if hon. Members do not, that they exercise governmental functions within Northern Ireland. I should like to think that their mistake was simply through ignorance of the facts in Northern Ireland, but I fear that that is not the case. I fear that their malevolence played a greater part. It is a reproach to the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), that they were allowed to play such a part in destabilising society in Northern Ireland.
Much more admirable is the approach adopted by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume). In the Irish Times on 19 October 1996 he referred to a controversial parade and said:
Given the Apprentice Boys are marching early in the morning and that only local members will take part in a 20 minute parade …I think they should be allowed to have their parade and that their rights should be respected.
I heartily endorse the hon. Gentleman's view.
On the Government's main proposals on constitutional matters and the principles that they have announced, one would endorse the commitments that they gave in their manifesto to decentralisation, devolution, openness and accountability. I should be delighted to see greater and more effective accountability, and greater openness. I endorse entirety the proposition that there should be decentralisation and devolution.
My party has never been opposed to devolution in principle. We have been keenly interested in the details. I was interested to hear the powerful speech of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) who raised questions about the Scottish proposals. They were very well put and deserve an answer. We will listen carefully to the answers. We are greatly interested in the details of devolution. Our experience in Northern Ireland is worth considering, because advantage can be gathered from it. We certainly hope to take part in the debate: I trust that there will be a proper debate.
One of the disadvantages of sending these important issues upstairs to a Standing Committee is that not all views in the House can be expressed in such a Committee. That is particularly true for smaller parties, such as ours, whose members rarely find themselves on Standing Committees considering major issues. That is one of the reasons why it is so important for constitutional issues to be dealt with on the Floor of the House. The full range of opinion in the House can then be expressed properly.
We have no problems with devolution in principle: indeed, in some areas we favour it. The Conservatives continue to make the mistake of arguing that there is a necessary connection between devolution and disunity. There is no necessary connection: it does not follow from the nature or the basic concept of devolution. It depends very much on the nature of the devolution, on the extent of the powers given and on the social context in which it happens. Devolution in Northern Ireland did not lead to disunity and did not weaken the kingdom: the kingdom was stronger during devolution. The United Kingdom has been demonstrably weakened since the ending of devolution in Northern Ireland.
We must consider the practical matters. Devolution will work if we get the details right and if there is sensible co-operation between the centre and the regions. Sensible co-operation means a clear delineation and definition of responsibilities. Failure to respect the regions causes problems: that is one of the mistakes that the Conservative party made over the years. The feeling in the regions that they have been treated unfairly has fuelled the demand for devolution, although those demands and the attitudes to them are sometimes unrealistic.
The Government are in danger—particularly with regard to Scotland—of overselling their proposals and creating expectations that will not be met. That would play into the hands of those who are hostile to the existence of the Union, and that is not in Scotland's interest. Ministers are more realistic about devolution in Wales. They should not oversell the issues.
Possibilities for significant policy differences between the regions are very limited. Even now, I do not think that it would be possible to return to the situation that prevailed in Northern Ireland between 1922 and the late-1960s. It would not be possible to sustain a policy in Northern Ireland that was significantly different from that in other parts of the United Kingdom, primarily because the expectations of people there and those in the rest of the UK are set primarily by the media. The UK media are highly centralised and unified, and it is consequently not possible to maintain significantly different social provision levels in the various areas, because people will be aware of those differences through the national media and make their demands. Radical differences in social provision in the United Kingdom are also not possible, because it is a highly integrated state. We must remember that important fact.
We also cannot go too far down the devolution road and create a quasi-federal arrangement in the United Kingdom, primarily because England would not want to do so. England, which contains more than 80 per cent. of the UK population, will inevitably be the centre of gravity. That is a basic reality within which those who argue for devolution—whether in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales—will have to work.
Equally, it must be realised that the United Kingdom is not a uniform state, and that it is right to have a regional policy that recognises the different regions. Such a policy may not seem intellectually neat, but it would reflect the reality of the situation if regional bodies—whether they are called assemblies, councils or something else—are established in the other parts of the United Kingdom, and it would emphasise a regional aspect that might otherwise be ignored by institutions that are too tightly focused on the United Kingdom.
In the interests of the regions, I strongly believe that fiscal unity of the United Kingdom should be maintained. Once we vary tax rates, we strike at the very core of the argument for equal service provision, which is the other side of the coin. If we vary tax rates, we cannot claim to provide services equally. Because higher expenditure levels are often necessary in some areas to achieve an equal quality of service, that would be very much against the regions' interests.
I appreciate the irritation that is sometimes felt by people about the crude comparisons that are made between per capita expenditure in Scotland and England and between Northern Ireland and England, because areas with greater need or with a less dense population often require higher spending to achieve the same service level. If one varies the fiscal unity of the United Kingdom, that provision issue will arise.
The fiscal question in the proposed referendums is wrong.
The hon. Gentleman, in his experience, must be aware that, until the 1950s, Northern Ireland was certainly a net contributor to the United Kingdom Exchequer. He will know that, in January, a Treasury parliamentary answer stated that, in Scotland, since 1979 there was a revenue-over-expenditure surplus of £27,000 million.
That point is highly debatable, and I will not deal with it now. There are different ways of calculating those figures, but the fact is that, on identifiable public expenditure, the regions are net beneficiaries.
The questions in the proposed referendums are not as well focused as they could be. The point made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow on the desirability of allowing bodies to raise finance is important, but it would be better to raise such finance by means other than varying national taxation rates. That is why in most countries in which there is extensive devolution or federalism, local finance is provided through, for example, a local sales tax or property taxes. That is a better basis and, of course, avoids some of the problems that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. However, I agree that if one is designing some form of devolution, one must ensure that it is built on something that will last and that it will work. That is extremely important.
I approve of the comments that the Prime Minister made on Wednesday about participation in the present Northern Ireland talks process. It is not possible to include parties that have hitherto been involved in terrorism unless they decisively commit themselves "once and for all" to the democratic process. I welcome the use of the phrase "once and for all", which goes further than some of the unsatisfactory formulae that we heard from the previous Government.
While it may be necessary to give people a further opportunity to join the process, it is important that that is the last chance and that the talks proceed. We cannot wait for ever to see whether people who have no real commitment to peaceful means and the democratic process are going to change when there is no reason to believe that such a change is possible. By holding the process back, we are preventing what might be possible.
I believe that it is possible to find agreement in Northern Ireland. Surprisingly, it is not difficult to predict the basic outlines of that agreement. We see commitment among the major parties in Northern Ireland to some form of regional administration. We propose that it operate on the basis of proportionality. That is not a general endorsement of proportional representation, because the arguments at local level are different from those here where the crucial issue is that of forming a Government rather than a limited regional administration.
We support the concept of a Bill of Rights and will examine the procedures spelt out by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. We recognise that what happens in Northern Ireland happens not in isolation but in a British context and that there are different identities within Northern Ireland which have to be taken into account. The right balance has to be struck and it could be struck if the principal parties to the process were able to get down to the details. That should not be too difficult.
During the election campaign, and since, I said that I regarded this Parliament as an opportunity. I think that the Government's commitment to decentralisation and openness creates opportunities for us. The Ulster Unionist party is ready to grasp any and every opportunity that will bring real peace and democracy to our part of the United Kingdom.
We expect the Government to discharge their duties to our people who have for far too long been treated as second-class citizens by the House. We will insist on equality of treatment for Northern Ireland. We are entitled to the same democratic rights as other parts of the UK. We hope that the Prime Minister will answer in the affirmative the question that I posed earlier about whether we are included in his concept of the country and the people.
Listening to the interesting but in some places rather sour speech of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and his litany of complaints about the previous Government, I wondered why he and his parliamentary colleagues spent so much time and energy propping up the late Government, keeping them in power long after it was even in their own interests to remain so. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues earned the resentment not only of the Opposition—now the Government—but of vast swathes of British people who wanted an election and who wanted rid of the previous Government who were sustained time and again by the hon. Gentleman and his party.
The hon. Gentleman's point might have some weight if there were a scrap of truth in it, but there is not. If he looks back over the proceedings of the House of Commons in the past 18 months he will find that there were only two occasions on which the Government might have been defeated. On the first occasion, they were sustained by the abstention of the Democratic Unionist party and on the second occasion they were sustained by the abstention of the Social Democratic and Labour party. In no vote in the past 18 months were the previous Government sustained by the Ulster Unionist party.
There could have been votes if the Ulster Unionists had not signalled in advance that they were determined to prop up that Government. That was the feeling that we had in the last Parliament and it colours the glass through which we look at the hon. Gentleman and his new-found unhappiness about the conduct of affairs under the Conservative Government.
Notwithstanding some of the sourness of the hon. Gentleman's contribution, this has been a remarkably interesting parliamentary occasion. We have witnessed the moving parliamentary debut of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), whom we all welcome warmly to the House for her qualities and because of the fond memories that hon. Members on both sides have of her late husband, Bob Cryer. We have also heard the remarkable maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), delivered with such polish, verve and youthfulness. I agree with the hon. Member for Upper Bann that my hon. Friend will make a major contribution to life in the House. The graciousness of his commiserations with his predecessor and his tribute to his predecessor's work in the House were to his credit.
We have also heard the remarkable erudition and wit of the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). He characteristically appeared in the tradition of the upper class, civilised English officer played by Michael Caine in the film to which he alluded. Michael Caine was so civilised that he voted Labour two weeks ago for the first time in several elections. Alas for the right hon. Gentleman's party and for all of us, the five bald men fighting over a comb, fighting for the leadership of the Conservative party, do not come from that tradition. We are likely to face a new leader of Her Majesty's Opposition in the tradition of Private Hook of Rorke's Drift rather than the elegance of the right hon. Gentleman.
This has been an important debate. I wanted to welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is not in his place. He and I go back a long way. Almost 20 years ago, he picked me up from Queen Street station. I put my luggage in the back of his car and we drove to Langholm street in the Garscadden constituency, where he was fighting the historic by-election. We went in a door and when we came out five minutes later his car had been broken into and all my luggage had been stolen. That was where the fast track for young offenders was born—an idea that was emblazoned on our parliamentary pledges card during the election campaign. I have metaphorically broken my right hon. Friend's windows on some occasions since then, but I hope that he does not harbour a grudge against me for that because I genuinely welcome him to his position—a position for which he was born and for which he is better suited than any other parliamentarian.
I was sorry that my right hon. Friend's opponent at the start of the debate unsheathed the sword of no-change Unionism in reply. That was churlish from a party that had been so comprehensively routed under the current electoral system—I want to say something about that in a minute—in the countries of Scotland and Wales. I should have thought that a little more humility might have been in order. It is not as though the peoples of Scotland and Wales were not treated to all the arguments of the former Secretary of State for Wales and of the former Secretary of State for Scotland, who was then the right hon. Member for Stirling. The Scottish and Welsh people were not ignorant of their point of view.
The Conservative case was put comprehensively—indeed, almost as comprehensively as any other issue in the election. The former Prime Minister stalked the country wearing his no-change Unionism on his sleeve and warning the people of Scotland and Wales of the consequences of electing a Labour Government, which in overwhelming numbers they nevertheless did and routed the parliamentary forces of the Conservative party in Scotland and Wales.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) struck a more discordant note than his party colleagues in Scotland are striking. He does not appear to know that a thorough debate is going on in the ranks of the Scottish Conservatives about whether to abandon the no-change unionist position. They are right to consider that, for it is important to recognise—I was glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland made this point—that Scotland is not a Tory-free zone. Half a million good, decent, patriotic Scottish people voted Conservative in Scotland two weeks ago. It is the outrageousness of our voting system that has robbed those half a million decent Scottish citizens of parliamentary representation.
Those people certainly will not have any parliamentarians to speak for them; that is a matter of regret. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take that as a sincerely felt point of view.
The thinking upper reaches of the Scottish Conservatives—among whom I include the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who in a previous life was a Scottish Conservative, the former Foreign Secretary and many others—believed that there was a case for Scottish devolution. I urge the present Government to try to be as inclusive as possible in the approach to and the conduct of the referendum and to try to take with them those civilised, thinking sectors of Scottish Conservative opinion who are engaged in that thought process at the minute, as they do, indeed, represent an important strand of political opinion which is, sadly, unrepresented. We want them to be in the new Scottish Parliament; that is one of the reasons why, at political cost to ourselves, we have developed a proportional representation system that will allow them properly to be represented there.
I rather regretted the tone of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, who was presumably playing to a different gallery from the constitutional debate. I picked up on a word that the right hon. Gentleman used three times in his speech and which the former Prime Minister used throughout the general election campaign. It is a significant misnomer and lies at the heart of the failure of many Conservatives to understand the national question in Scotland. The former Prime Minister constantly referred to "the British nation". There is no British nation. This is a multinational country—a multinational state.
No one in Scotland, whether Conservative, Liberal Democrat, nationalist or Labour, regards himself or herself first and foremost as British. The Scottish people regard themselves first and foremost as Scottish and thereafter as British to a greater or lesser extent. It is the failure to grasp that fundamental point which has led the Scottish Conservative party to the sorry pass in which it now finds itself.
The overwhelming majority of the Scottish people want to have the best of both worlds, and what is wrong with that? They want to express their Scottishness and to have a political focus in a Parliament in Edinburgh without losing the great benefits of being part of a multinational state in these islands. Conservatives should also be able to grasp that proposition because our country is a sum greater than its parts. There is no contradiction between being a Scottish patriot and a British patriot. It is one of the idiocies of the so-called cricket test set by Lord Tebbit. It is perfectly possible to be loyal to more than one country. Indian and Pakistani citizens who live in Britain do it, and so do Scottish and Welsh citizens. It is perfectly possible to have multilayered patriotism, with a commitment to Britain and to one's own nationality within it.
I say to those who criticise our attempt to reform the British state—I should not need to say it to Conservatives—that the bough that will not bend is the bough that may well break. Those of us who are trying to make amendments that will make our islands a better, more democratic, more decentralised and more civilised place in which to live deserve critical support from Conservatives rather than root and branch opposition.
Let me say to my very dear hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), with whom I have travelled many long political miles, that I am in complete agreement with him on almost every question. He won my heart one day in the Blackburn West Lothian miners' club after he had seen me score a goal against a local West Lothian team by saying that he had not seen a left foot like mine since Puskas. I have been a loyal supporter of his ever since. However, he will have noted the significantly greater murmur of approval from the Opposition to his arguments on the Scottish question than normally meets his propositions. With all due respect, I hope that that will chasten him. Of course, the specific questions that he raises are academically interesting, but I believe that they are simply that. The British constitution is riddled with such academically interesting questions.
It is said that according to the laws of aerodynamics the bumble bee cannot fly—it is too heavy for its wing span and its wings are too slight—and yet we all know that it does fly. And so does the British constitution, despite all the anomalies which, were we at a seminar, we could easily identify. They include an unelected second chamber, an hereditary monarchy and the fact that in a previous Parliament English Members were able to impose the poll tax in Scotland, when it had been absolutely rejected by the people of Scotland, at a cost of several thousand million pounds, a whole year before its introduction here. There are innumerable anomalies, including the position of Northern Ireland, which has also been mentioned. We are trying as best we can to find a new modus vivendi that will make the British state work better. That is what lies behind the blast of constitutional fresh air that the Queens's Speech intends to blow down the sclerotic arteries of the British state. We do not hate the British state: we want to save it and make it better.
The Opposition's policy of no-change unionism has no support worth speaking of in either Scotland or Wales. A significant number of Conservative voters in those two countries did before and are certainly now coming out of the woodwork and saying that it is time for change.
A new Parliament for Scotland will give expression to the legitimate national aspirations of the people of my country who have waited a long time for it.
More than a century ago, Keir Hardie had three demands. He had a pledge card with three pledges on it: home rule for Scotland, proportional representation, and prohibition of alcohol. I very much hope that, by the end of the Parliament we shall have won a great victory for two out of three of those propositions. I look forward very much, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland—I hope that someone will draw his attention to the kind remarks that I made about him in his absence at the beginning of my speech—to fighting the campaign for the referendum in the autumn, which I hope will be inclusive and which I am certain will result in an overwhelming vote in favour of home rule for Scotland according to the plans of the Scottish Constitutional Convention.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech in this important debate. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Ian Lang. Ian served for some 18 years as the Member of Parliament first for Galloway and then for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale. During that period, he held some of the great offices of state for the United Kingdom and I am sure that hon. Members will join me in paying tribute to his service.
I should also mention Ian Lang's predecessor as the hon. Member for Galloway, George Thompson. George was a Scottish National party Member of Parliament and is well known for having been a diligent, hard-working Member. As I went around Galloway and Upper Nithsdale during the campaign, I certainly found out how much people still remember George with great affection and gratitude. His will certainly be a difficult example to follow.
Galloway and Upper Nithsdale is a vast constituency, even in Scottish terms. It stretches from Portpatrick in the west almost up to the boundaries of Dumfries in the east, from the Mull of Galloway in the south to Wanlockhead in the north. Despite the fact that Galloway and Upper Nithsdale is a lowlands rather than a highlands seat, Wanlockhead is the highest village in the United Kingdom.
Galloway and Upper Nithsdale has been at the heart of Scotland's history over many years. St Ninian brought Christianity to Galloway several centuries before Columba went to Iona. I believe that it was the first Christian settlement outside the boundaries of the then Roman empire. Some years later, Galloway was the site of the battle of Glentrool, where Her Majesty's ancestor King Robert I, King of Scots, won his first victory in the wars of Scottish independence.
Galloway and Upper Nithsdale is also a very varied constituency. In the west, we have the major town and sea ferry port for Ireland at Stranraer. Throughout the rest of the constituency, we have market towns and very rich farmland, and in the north-east the unfortunately now rather depressed ex-mining areas of Upper Nithsdale, Sanquhar and Kirkconnel.
Galloway and Upper Nithsdale has very beautiful countryside. Although it is sometimes forgotten and passed by as people head north to the obvious attractions of Edinburgh and the more advertised attractions of the highlands, it is perhaps the most beautiful part of Scotland. Unfortunately, however, beauty does not pay the rent or put food on the table. Some of the highest levels of unemployment in all of Scotland are in Upper Nithsdale, the Newton Stewart travel-to-work area and around Stranraer. I have heard during the course of this debate, however, that Wigtown in the South Machars—one of the worst areas of rural unemployment—has today won the race to be Scotland's first book town and only the second such town in the United Kingdom. I am sure that that will do something to alleviate the problems of the South Machars.
Given the problems of high unemployment and the terrible lack of other employment opportunities, I was happy to hear the emphasis by the Government in the Gracious Speech on attacking youth and long-term unemployment. I know that my constituents will be looking for real action in the south-west of Scotland to flow from those promises. I am, however, somewhat sceptical about the methods with which the Government propose to fund such measures—namely, the windfall tax.
Closely tied up with the problem of unemployment in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale is the transport infrastructure—especially the roads, since railways form only a small part of the infrastructure in my constituency. The road network in Galloway is essential if we are to attract new investment. It is also essential for the prosperity of the major town of Stranraer, which depends totally on ferry traffic to Ireland. The A75, the main route from Stranraer to the English border at Gretna, is part of the Euro-route from Ireland to Leningrad. There is a sick joke in Galloway that the only two speed restrictions on the road from Stranraer to Leningrad have been imposed in the two villages of Crocketford and Springholm in the constituency, where a lorry going to Leningrad, if such exists, has to slow down to 30 mph on two occasions. We shall be looking for urgent action to address the infrastructure problems of Galloway and especially the A75.
I have already said that my constituency is largely agricultural. Galloway is especially well known for its beef. High-quality Galloway beef is sought after in Scotland and throughout the world and until recently much of it was exported. It has been disastrous for Galloway and its farming community—and for the other communities that depend on the farming community—that Scottish beef can no longer be exported to Europe and to much of the rest of the world. It is essential that the Government build on the new relationship which seems to be available with the European Union to work quickly and take all necessary actions to achieve a lifting of the beef ban. If Scottish and Irish herds have to go first, ahead of the pack, and have the restrictions lifted early, so be it.
I come now to the constitution, which is the focus of today's debate. Demand for constitutional change has long been at the top of the Scottish agenda and the focus for political debate in Scotland. I am glad that it is now top of the political agenda at Westminster, as evinced by the fact that the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill was the first to be published in this Session.
The strongest argument for Scottish self-government is the democratic one. Like the people of all nations, Scots should have the right to determine and run their own affairs. The Government claim that their proposals are closely modelled on those of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The founding document of the convention was the Claim of Right, which stated that the convention acknowledged
the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs.
That principle was endorsed by the present Secretary of State for Scotland and by all—bar one—Labour Members. I trust that they will not now turn their backs on that principle which they endorsed some years ago.
I am concerned that the Government's proposals will not give the people of Scotland the right to determine their form of government. The Government's refusal to support a multi-option referendum with independence as one of the options and their proposal instead to have a take-it-or-leave-it referendum, as though the Labour party's proposals were the only possible option, represent a refusal to recognise the democratic right of Scots to determine not only whether they want a Parliament but what kind of Parliament it should be.
The Secretary of State for Scotland, who opened today's debate, agreed that the election had not given consent to his party's proposals. That argument emphasises the need for a genuine, multi-option referendum with all the options on the ballot paper. Scotland is, after all, a country: it is not a county or a parish. We therefore need a real Parliament in Scotland and not a county council, still less a parish council. To represent the people of Scotland properly, we need a Parliament that is restricted only by the willingness of its members to take decisions and not by rules laid down in any other place.
During the election campaign, the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), who is now a Minister of State at the Scottish Office, suggested that a devolved Assembly would not be able to organise its own referendum to find out whether the Scots wanted to take constitutional change a step further. In that context, I remind the House of the words of Charles Stewart Parnell, spoken in Cork in 1885:
No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to say to his country—thus far shalt thou go and no further.
I trust that no such restriction will be put on any Scottish Parliament.
Nevertheless, if such a Parliament is set up in Scotland during the next few years, my friends and I will work for it in a positive way to further the interests of the Scottish people—and I mean all their interests. Clearly, we shall seek to enlarge and strengthen the powers of such a Scottish Parliament.
The present Parliament will probably be the last of the millennium. It is therefore appropriate that this should be a time of opportunity for the people of Scotland, and we shall seek to ensure that we make the best of that opportunity for them.
I congratulate the new hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) on his confident and forthright speech. I did not agree with all of it, but it was a good speech, and I am sure that he will make many more contributions—as, I hope, will all new Members.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me so early in the debate on the Gracious Speech. As many hon. Members on both sides of the House will know, my father was a Member of the House for many years, first for Keighley and then for Bradford, South. They may not know, however, that after the February election in 1974 he was the first new Member to make his maiden speech. He got in immediately on the Wednesday afternoon, under the advice and guidance, you will not be surprised to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).
My father was a fine parliamentarian and, more important, a fine socialist. I am grateful for the fact that I had his inspiration and guidance for many years, and I wish, as I am sure many other people here do, that he was still around. He would have had a great contribution to make, and he would have been thrilled to see the glorious victory by the Labour party on 1 May. He would have regarded that as a fine result.
Unlike my father's constituencies, mine is in east London. Many people in Hornchurch originate in the east end of London, and take great pride in those roots. The constituency elected a Conservative Member of Parliament for 18 years, but I am glad that its people have now elected me as their Labour Member, and I think that Hornchurch will remain a Labour seat for many years to come.
Many people in the area depend on two sectors of the economy—small and medium businesses, and the banking and financial institutions of the City of London. People who depend on both those sources of work have been hurt over the past eight or 10 years.
Canvassing during the campaign, I met many small business men and women who had been brought to their knees by the policies of the Conservative Government. One, who said to me, "Quite honestly, I was a Thatcherite in the 80s," was a builder with his own business, and, having talked to him for 10 minutes, I would say that he was on the verge of some sort of breakdown. He was up to his eyes in debt, with all sorts of problems, and was starting to wonder what would happen to his family, his house and his business over the next two or three years.
In the City, too, there have been massive job losses, comparable to those in the mining and steel industries in the 1980s. The people who go to work from Hornchurch into the City of London have suffered enormously.
The other aspect of life in Hornchurch that suffered greatly under the policies of the previous Government is health. Oldchurch hospital is in Romford rather than Hornchurch, but people go there from all over the borough—and just after Christmas we saw the obscene spectacle of ambulances queuing up outside that hospital, unable to get inside because there were not enough beds or doctors to treat those patients. I personally know many constituents who have had to wait on trolleys in some pain in corridors in Oldchurch hospital because there were not enough doctors to see them.
I am glad to see that the new Government have placed a moratorium on hospital closures. I should like to see more than that. I should like a guarantee to be made that Oldchurch hospital will remain open for many years to come and will have sufficient resources to treat the people of Hornchurch, Romford and Upminster. My two new hon. Friends the Members for Romford (Mrs. Gordon) and for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) will join me in hoping that.
The debate today is on the constitution. The Gracious Address contained a number of measures which I very much welcome, such as legislation for a new authority for Greater London, which is an important measure, and reforms to the House of Lords—personally, I would close it and turn it into a cafeteria, because that is all that it is really good for.
Another element, which was touched on earlier, is the role of Europe, which will impinge enormously on the role of the constitution. If we go down the path of the Maastricht treaty, the effects will hit millions of people across western Europe and Britain. For instance, the convergence criteria will mean billions of pounds of cuts. It will also mean the transfer of enormous powers from London to unelected, unaccountable bankers sitting in Frankfurt or Bonn, who will then make the decisions for us. That is something that I cannot tolerate.
I was elected to this Chamber to defend universal benefits, free and universal health care, jobs and living standards. If we go down the path of Maastricht, we will not be able to defend those sorts of things in Government. The issue of Europe was brought up on the doorsteps all the time, for a number of reasons. People are becoming genuinely worried about what a single currency might mean for the economy of this country and other countries in western Europe. There is also a feeling that we had the wool pulled over our eyes many years ago.
In 1975—I was only 11 years old at the time—we had a referendum in which Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, said that we should stay inside what was then the Common Market for two key reasons: first, because we would have a veto on all policies that we did not want and, secondly, because there would not be an exchange rate mechanism which would be a threat to jobs and living standards. Both those assurances have gone out the window. Mrs. Thatcher signed the Single European Act, which gave up much of our veto, and then we became members of the exchange rate mechanism, which we had to leave in fairly shameful circumstances. Extraordinarily enough, although the ERM undoubtedly attacked our manufacturing base and sacrificed jobs in the name of monetarism, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), was desperate to get back inside the ERM once again, presumably to sacrifice thousands more jobs on the altar of monetarism.
A referendum is the right way to proceed on the single currency. I am glad that it is the policy of the Labour party to follow that through. When we come to the House, we carry 60,000 votes or thereabouts. We have one vote, but it is on behalf of 60,000 people. It is a block vote, which is a bit unfashionable these days. When we cast our vote, it has a certain power. If we talk about altering that power in any way, the people of Hornchurch and every other constituency have a right to some role and say in that change. That is why I support a referendum on the single currency. It is absolutely the right way to proceed.
I pay tribute to three Members of Parliament who have given me a great deal of guidance and help in the past two or three years. Certainly since I was nominated to stand for Hornchurch, which was a great privilege and honour for me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and, most of all, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover have given me great help and guidance.
Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough):
I dare say that the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) also received a great deal of support from the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). I am sure that she, with the rest of us, listened with admiration and, in her case, great pride, as the hon. Gentleman spoke so eloquently and forcefully in his maiden speech from the Benches below the Gangway.
When I first came to the House—not so long ago, in 1992—I used to sit on the Government Benches, and the hon. Gentleman's late father sat more or less in the opposite seat that the hon. Gentleman now occupies. If I had shut my eyes, I could have been mistaken in thinking that the words were being uttered by his late father. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on an excellent maiden speech and I wish him and his mother—who also made an admirable maiden speech earlier this morning—well in their time in the House.
The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) has a fine tradition to follow in representing that great seat. My former right hon. Friend, Mr. Ian Lang, represented it for many years, as the hon. Gentleman so politely said. I am glad that a man with a Welsh surname who represents a Scottish seat is proud to sit in the United Kingdom Parliament. I wish him well in his time in the House.
I would be remiss if, in the short time available to me, I did not congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and your colleagues as Deputy Chairmen. I wish you and your colleagues well in taking up the office of Deputy Speaker.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) on what was probably the best speech he has made in Parliament. It is a pity that he had to wait until we were in opposition to make such a speech, but it was one that should be read and re-read by hon. Members on the Treasury Bench, because a great many questions that have yet to be answered were posed in it. I trust that, either in the winding-up speech or later, the Government will condescend to answer in detail the questions that my right hon. Friend put so probingly.
I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who gave a characteristically excellent speech which was full of wit and wisdom. It should have been recorded; if it were, he would make as much money as our noble Friend Lord Archer in the selling of it, except that his was no work of fiction. I hope that in due course I will not be found to be right, but I rather suspect that my right hon. Friend—indeed, all of us—will pay rather more for the services of the Lord Chancellor and his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister than my right hon. Friend did when he instructed them as counsel on his behalf before the industrial tribunal. The bills will mount, I fear, but we shall all have to pay them. My right hon. Friend's references to the new model Army and to 011ie were apt.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) made an excellent speech, but I hope that the fact that, in part, it was criticised gently by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) and the fact that many Conservative Members will have agreed with it will not prevent Labour Members from reading, considering and, possibly, agreeing with it.
I also commend the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), with whom I worked as parliamentary private secretary when he was Attorney-General in the previous Parliament. His speech was well worth listening to. It was a model of caution and scepticism about the enthusiasm with which the measures addressed in the Gracious Speech were announced by the Government.
I, too, wish the Government well. At some moments, I was even overcome with the excitement of the huge swing against the Conservatives which took place on election night—
I am sure I can, but think how I felt with my swing of only 2.9 per cent. I felt like Smuggit-the-Puggit as I sat there watching the screen as greater politicians than I were swept aside by the landslide.
However, the election result brings with it not only good fortune—and my good wishes—but great responsibility. I hope that the new Government will reflect carefully on everything they do and will not be overcome by their sense of power, rushing things through with enthusiasm but without considering the detail of what they are doing.
I shall concentrate my few remarks on the aspiration to incorporate the European convention on human rights—ECHR—in United Kingdom law. As the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said, it is interesting that the Government intend to introduce only the main provisions of the convention. I assume that that means the convention without the protocols. No doubt that will be made clear in due course, as will the reason—if a part, why not the whole?
The convention was the first major achievement of the Council of Europe—the grouping of 10 democratic European states set up in 1949. In the statute of the Council of Europe, the signatories agreed:
Every Member of the Council of Europe must accept the principles of the rule of law and of the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms".
The convention, which the Council drafted during 1949 and 1950, was to be not only an affirmation of principle but a test that potential members of the Council would have to pass before being admitted. That has continued to apply, and, as the membership of the Council of Europe has swollen from 10 to 33, each new member has been required to sign and ratify the convention.
In 1949 and 1950, the ECHR also served to distinguish the democratic states of western Europe from the Soviet-occupied and communist states of eastern and central Europe. Perhaps that is why the human rights information centre of the Council of Europe states that the ECHR is
the most concrete expression by the member states of the Council of Europe of their profound belief in the values of democracy, peace and justice, and through them, respect for the rights and fundamental freedoms of persons living in our society.
The United Kingdom was one of the 10 original signatories to the convention, which has been binding on the UK ever since. It entered into force in September 1953, but it has been binding in international law as an external obligation rather than directly as legislation of this Parliament. This country and Ireland are alone among the parties to the convention in not having integrated it in domestic law. Consequently, British citizens are obliged to take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights to obtain rulings based directly on the convention. If they are successful in establishing that this country is in breach of an article of the convention, the judgment does not have any direct effect; instead, it is for the British Government and Parliament to remedy the situation in such a way as to bring British law or practice into line with the convention, if necessary by means of new legislation.
For many years, there have been arguments about the pros and cons of incorporating the convention. For some, it would be intrinsically desirable as a substitute for the national Bill of Rights that some other countries have entrenched in their constitutions. Drawing up a new Bill of Rights from scratch would inevitably be a difficult and controversial process and could bring conflicts with international agreements such as the European convention, whereas the convention is readily available and is already the yardstick against which human rights in the United Kingdom and many other European countries are measured at Strasbourg.
Supporters of incorporation also hold that it would be preferable for the majority of cases involving the convention to be resolved by British judges in accordance with British approaches to the interpretation of legal texts. For the opponents of incorporation, that might be a disadvantage, as it could give unelected judges the power to question and strike down laws passed by Parliament, whereas the present arrangements at least give Parliament some discretion in how a breach identified in Strasbourg might best be remedied. The evidence from other countries suggests that incorporation might not affect the number of British cases taken to Strasbourg as much as is sometimes supposed.
In practice, there have already been cases in which British courts have taken account of the convention to assist in the interpretation of British law, and some have argued that incorporation is already almost an accomplished fact. The increasing reliance on the convention as a yardstick for European Union legislation and the introduction of references to it in EU treaties are taken as a further pointer in that direction. Certainly, judgments handed down in Strasbourg have already had significant effects on British law and, more important, practice. There have been a number of rulings either partly or entirely against the United Kingdom.
I urge the Government to remember that the English system of law is predominantly remedy rather than rights based, be it in statute or under the common law. We have only to look at some of the convention's articles to realise that in some respects everything contained in them is already part of our law while in others they bring us dangerously close to creating a conflict between the House and our judiciary. Some of the articles read as follows:
No one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
We all agree with that.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.
Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person.
In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time …
No one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence under national or international law at the time when it was committed.
Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;…
Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
The document containing those articles should be firmly pinned on the wall in the Government Whips Office so that Labour Members are entitled to hold and express the thoughts that they were elected to express and advocate. However, I suspect that the Minister without Portfolio, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), and his friends of the night will not allow the contents of such a document to enter the heads of the new hon. Members. We shall see.
It is important to bear in mind what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire said about there being exceptions to the rights that are set out. Signatories to the convention are allowed to depart from the articles, and it will be for judges and not for Parliament to decide whether an Act of Parliament or an act by the Government is in line with the popular will or the provisions of the European convention.
I do not have a religious or philosophical or other principled objection to incorporation of the convention. However, I ask the Government to think carefully about the constitutional and political effects of such a move. My family has provided Members of Parliament since the reign of Henry VIII and we should remember that, for centuries, this place has been the protector and guarantor of human rights. We should not transfer that work to others without the clearest possible reasons and the most detailed examination. The burden of proof is on the Government and the standard of proof must be the highest possible.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech so early in the Parliament. I think that I am the first "new Labour" Member to make a maiden speech today. The constituency that I have the privilege to represent results from the most recent parliamentary boundary review, which brought about major changes to the constituencies that were formerly contained in the old county council area of Clwyd.
My constituency is in the central part of north Wales and is probably the Principality's most diverse constituency. It consists of a coastal belt stretching from Rhos-on-Sea and Colwyn Bay to the outskirts of Rhyl. It has a large rural hinterland comprising the county borough of Conwy and the new Denbighshire. It includes in its boundaries the famous historic town of Ruthin which was for so long associated with the major historical figure of Owain Glyndwr.
The area that I represent was formerly represented by two hon. Members, my hon. Friend the Member for the new constituency of Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) and Mr. Rod Richards. Until the general election, Mr. Richards was described as the safest Tory in Wales.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South has represented the rural parts of my constituency since 1987. He is held in high esteem as an assiduous Member and he has a large personal following, based, I am sure, on his experience and expertise in agriculture and the environment, which are major concerns of my constituents.
Mr. Rod Richards, the former Member for Clwyd, North-West, was a politician with a robust, not to say at times combative, style, which many Members would say was at variance with that of his Conservative predecessor, Sir Anthony Meyer, who, to this day, is held in high regard, even in staunchly Labour areas of my constituency. Perhaps what can be said on behalf of Mr. Richards is that he brought a touch of iconoclasm to political debate in Wales, a country—and I speak as a Welshman and am proud of the fact—whose institutions are perhaps sometimes over-sensitive to criticism.
Mr. Richards and I fought a good-natured contest. He accepted defeat gracefully and I wish him and his family well as he readjusts to a life outside Westminster. Clwyd, West was regarded as the safest Conservative seat in Wales and its loss has meant that the Conservative party has no parliamentary representation in Wales, a matter which hon. Members may feel has some significance in the context of our debate on the constitutional aspects of the Gracious Speech.
The Conservative party has long since ceased to be a serious force in local government in Wales. During the past 18 years, Conservative rule has been exercised through an increasingly powerful and unaccountable Welsh Office and through an array of quangos, which, to a large extent, have been filled with persons sympathetic to the Conservative party. A substantial majority of my constituents will welcome the commitment in the Gracious Speech to establish a Welsh Assembly to renew our democracy in Wales.
I am pleased to note that the voting arrangements in respect of that assembly will contain a substantial element of proportionality. I am sure that due regard will be given to regional interests in Wales, particularly those of north Wales.
The assembly will provide a national focus, which is much needed in Wales. It will develop a strategy for economic regeneration and it will improve not only accountability, but, most important, the quality of decision making. That is particularly apposite in a country that has had two major mistakes imposed on it: nursery vouchers and major local government reorganisation, which was imposed without proper consultation.
I fought the election on a strongly pro-devolution platform, in marked contrast to my Conservative opponent, who maintained an implacable hostility to any concept of devolution. Clwyd, West is notable because the anti-Tory vote was split. Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats have respectable support in that region. The fact that many supporters of those parties voted Labour is a hopeful sign that there will be strong cross-party unity in the forthcoming referendum campaign in Wales for a yes vote.
I applaud the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway), who said that we had to be inclusive in our approach. I am sure that we will be. There are indications that some prominent Welsh Tories are prepared to reconsider their hostility to devolution and to accept a more realistic approach to constitutional reform. That will be welcomed by many of my constituents.
I am pleased to be able to serve my constituency. It is a great privilege. Colwyn Bay is the largest town in my constituency and the second largest in north Wales. Towards the end of the last century, it grew as a popular holiday and retirement area for people from north-west England. Its development was inextricably linked to the railway and its continued economic well-being will require improvements and electrification of the north Wales line, a matter which I will pursue in this Parliament.
Colwyn Bay benefits from a magnificent coastal position with a spectacular backdrop of mountains and hills. However, it is fair to say that, in common with many parts of this country and with the neighbouring communities of Abergele and Kinmel Bay, it has suffered economic decline in recent years. Unemployment, low wages, poor housing and crime are serious concerns of my constituents. They will welcome the proposals contained in the Gracious Speech to tackle the social evils of unemployment, exploitation in the workplace and poor housing. The Government's proposals to combat crime will also meet with approval.
The future of Colwyn Bay lies in diversity. I expect to be able to support the work of major employers, such as Quinton Hazell in Mochdre. It is also necessary to pursue new initiatives, particularly in Colwyn Bay. We have a splendid Victorian pier which requires renovation and an injection of funds. We need to work in Ruthin on the well-known building, Nant Clwyd house: it is a major amenity in the area, and also requires an initiative.
My constituency has the highest percentage of persons of pensionable age in Wales: it is one of the highest in the United Kingdom. The great many pensioners that I represent will welcome the Government's proposals for a reduction in VAT on domestic fuel and our plans to improve the health service. There is grave concern among the ranks of pensioners about the dramatic decline in the value of the state old-age pension and about the future of long-term care. I am sure that the Government will address those issues in due course.
What unites my diverse constituency is the belief that our future lies in a high-quality education system that will enable us to compete in the global economy not on the basis of low wages—which is the Conservative party's vision—but on our skills and education. My constituency has four successful secondary schools and an important college of further education at Llandrillo. There is also a vibrant agricultural college at Llysfasi in the south of the constituency. The Government's avowed intention to make education their number one priority strikes a cord with many of my constituents. Cuts in expenditure and increases in class sizes are matters of grave concern to them. The recent announcement that the nursery voucher scheme in Wales will be scrapped was widely welcomed.
The need to maintain a strong rural economy is vital to many of my constituents. I hope to work closely with the National Farmers Union and the Farmers Union of Wales on matters of concern to farmers. Foremost among those concerns is the need to lift the beef ban following the fiasco of the BSE crisis. My constituents will welcome the constructive, united and positive approach that the new Government have adopted. Only by working in that way will we have a realistic prospect of removing the ban.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) is fond of lists. In his nit-picking analysis—which was described as "no change Unionism" by my hon. Friend the Member for Kelvin—he gave us a long list of various defects. I congratulate him on his engagement to a well-known Welsh speaker. I shall give him a list of place names in my constituency: Llanfair Dyffryn Clywd, Llanbedr Duffryn Clwyd, Llanfair Talhaiarn, Llangynhafal, Llanrhaeadr yng Nahinmeirch, Llangernyw and Llanarmon-yn-lal. As those wonderful Welsh names suggest, the Welsh language is one of the oldest in Europe. It is alive and kicking in my constituency.
My constituency has a strong tradition of local eisteddfod, and can lay claim to one of the most important bards in Wales—Gwilym Hiraethog, to whom a statue has been erected in the important village of Llansannan. This year, the Urdd—which is one of the largest youth movements in Europe—celebrates its 75th birthday. I applaud the movement and its great work, not only among the Welsh-speaking community but among the English-speaking community in Wales.
I applaud the Gracious Speech. It heralds a new Britain and a new Wales.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas), who eloquently provided the House and me with an insight into his constituency. He also paid an eloquent tribute to his predecessors, not that I—being a new hon. Member—have met either one of them. This is my maiden speech, and it is a great honour to be making it.
I am the new Member of Parliament for the constituency of Torbay—the English Riviera. After the general election, I was described in my local newspaper as "Sanders of the Riviera"—a description which we did not dare put on our election posters before the general election, although we may do so at the next one.
It is customary to pay tribute to one's predecessor. Mr. Rupert Allason—who is also known as Nigel West, the writer of spy novels—was a colourful character, and one thing that the Conservative Benches are perhaps missing is some of the colourful characters who lost in the general election. He was certainly one of them.
Rupert Allason was an hon. Member about whom people held strong opinions, one way or the other. Many people thought that he was an excellent Member of Parliament, whereas others held a contrary opinion, which is their right. His constituency will miss him. He had 10 years as an hon. Member, which is a good innings for anyone. With a majority of 12, I would be glad to serve as an hon. Member for 10 years; 10 years in the House—if not longer—would suit me fine.
My constituency is part of the west country, but it is a little different from the rest of the west country. It is an urban and not a rural constituency. I think that I have three farms in my constituency, and I suspect that one of them is a fish farm. As a west country constituency, therefore, it is a little different.
We look out to sea on one side, and we have hills behind us. Beyond them, in the hinterlands, are the moors. Our climate is different from that in the rest of the west country. We are on the Gulf stream and are famed for our palm trees, which are able to survive the winters. The temperatures on our coastline are always one or two degrees higher than they are only a few miles inland, and it is a very pleasant climate for those who have chosen to move to the area to retire. It is a very nice place for retirement, but it is also a very nice place to visit—which is why tourism has been, and remains, our primary industry, although it is not our only one.
Yesterday, I heard the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Turner), and I almost thought that he was describing my constituency. He talked about the facades of Regency houses in Brighton, and the social problems and deprivation that lies behind them. In my constituency, the palm trees and gardens provide the facade, but behind those we have the same problems.
We also have a problem of low incomes. A characteristic that we share with the rest of the west country is that we have some of the lowest incomes in the United Kingdom. That has been a major problem for many years, but I hope that the Government will be able to do something to lift people out of poverty and give them more opportunity to find work and create wealth themselves. Small businesses are vital to our local economy. Anything that we can do to help small businesses will be good for my constituents.
My constituency also has a major problem with development. Being an urban area, its growth is restricted. There are hills behind it—it was built on seven hills—so it cannot expand any further. Over the years, houses have been converted into flats, which have been converted into even smaller flats, so there is a great deal of overcrowding.
Developers have a beady eye on the green fields which the Government also expect local authorities to use for housing. That must be resisted because the great attraction of our area is its environment. If we build on it, we shall lose our greatest asset. The major challenge facing us is to balance the demand for extra housing and economic activity with the need to protect our environment.
The environment was high on the list of issues that electors mentioned during the campaign. I hope that the Government will strengthen the Environment Agency and that it will enforce higher standards of water quality so that our sewerage and water treatment scheme, undertaken by the infamous South West Water, includes secondary as well as primary treatment. Stronger European directives are on their way. The treatment scheme currently envisaged for my constituency offers only primary treatment whereas we need secondary treatment to raise it to the standards to be applied in future. We cannot fall behind other tourist resorts in the south-west which already have what is known as the clean sweep programme.
Many issues were raised during the general election, but I shall pick up only on those that are peculiar to my constituency. That brings me back to the issue of water. We have to pay the highest water and sewerage charges in the country, which means that 3 per cent. of the population are expected to meet the cost of cleaning up 30 per cent. of the nation's coastline. That has to be rectified, given that the area has such low incomes.
I urge all hon. Members, especially those who have never visited my constituency, to come to the south-west for a break and sample what we have to offer. Torbay has a future as a tourist resort. The quality of its accommodation has improved dramatically and we have improved the shoulders of the season for the short-term break. However, we need more help from the Government to promote tourism as the south-west does not get as much help as other regions. We need a fair deal in that respect, as in others.
The debate is about the constitution, and I shall deal with one narrow aspect—electoral regulations. All of us are aware of the byzantine rules on election expenses and the various forms that we had to fill in before and after the election. How many of us wondered why there is a space on the nomination paper asking for a "description" of the candidate? I am sure that we all know of candidates who wrote, for example, "farmer" or "banker" when they should have said whether they were a Labour or Liberal Democrat candidate. A couple of years ago, a council candidate in my constituency, who we hoped would sit for us, wrote "bored housewife with masochistic tendencies". It was acceptable under the six-word rule, but it did not really describe her politics.
Those descriptions are there to help voters in their choice and to guide them as to the politics of the candidates. I am afraid that the rules have been abused in the past few years by people who have taken advantage of English law, which does not recognise political parties. They have tried to spoil elections by using a description that confuses voters about which party they represent.
I speak with considerable personal experience because I was the Liberal Democrat candidate for Devon and East Plymouth at the 1994 European election, when a Literal Democrat candidate, whose surname came above mine on the ballot paper, because it began with an H, polled 12,000 votes without having put out any literature or posters or being interviewed. People told us afterwards and signed affidavits saying that they did not know the name of the candidate.
It is difficult for candidates to get their name known across seven parliamentary constituencies at a European election. Perhaps it is a little easier in one parliamentary constituency, but there are problems even then—we have only to look at what happened in Winchester, where somebody stood as a Liberal Democrat and polled 650 votes. The eventual winner was elected with a majority of just two. That is nice for me, because I have a majority of just 12 and at least I can say that I have a majority six times the size of somebody else's. I do not know how many other hon. Members can say that.
My point is a serious one. We do not need a big change to rectify the situation. An animal welfare activist group threatened to put up a number of Conversative candidates at the last election. I do not believe that it carried out that threat, but the threat is always there that people might seek to undermine our democratic process. I spoke to people after the European election about how their vote did not go the way that they intended. They had a real sense of having had their democratic rights stolen.
We have to accept that people vote for parties. Some people still vote for the person, but most decide to go with a party. If they do not know the name of the candidate, they will look down the list for the first description that closely matches the party for which they have decided to vote. Therein lies the problem for those of us with a surname beginning with a letter towards the end of the alphabet. I hope that during this Parliament—the sooner, the better—something can be done to correct the problem and get rid of the fear of people's votes being stolen and the wrong people being elected.
Only a few spoiler candidates would have been needed in a few significant constituencies at the general election to undermine the democratic process, stealing a few Conservative votes by standing as Conservative party candidates, as people are entitled to do under the law. We could then have had a change of Government based on mistakes rather than on the way in which people intended to vote.
I am proud and honoured to represent Torbay. It is the constituency where I was born, where I have lived for most of my life and where most members of my family still reside. I look forward to doing the best job that I can for my constituents in the next few years, highlighting some of the area's special characteristics and problems and perhaps sharing some of the good news that I hope that there will be over the years for my constituents.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech so early. Before I do so, I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) on his excellent maiden speech and on drawing the House's attention to an important issue, the way in which the description on the ballot paper can mislead the electorate, and the need for legislation.
I thank the people of Sutton and Cheam for returning me as their Member of Parliament. My predecessor, Lady Olga Maitland, represented Sutton and Cheam for five years. She was an assiduous attender and participant in debates and Divisions in this House. Indeed, I understand from the Library that she was in the top 22 for oral questions in the previous Session. She was and is a forceful personality who pursues causes in which she believes with great energy.
This is not the first occasion on which a Liberal or Liberal Democrat has been sent to Parliament by Sutton and Cheam electors. In 1972, my colleague and friend Graham Tope, now Lord Tope, was elected in a sensational by-election. He started an all-too-brief career in December 1972 by delivering his maiden speech a little over two hours after taking his seat. I am pleased that I did not have to go through that ritual.
It is a great source of pride to me to be part of the largest Liberal Democrat parliamentary party since 1929. I have no doubt that my election in Sutton and Cheam owes much to the hard work and leadership of Lord Tope in the constituency over the past quarter century.
Sutton and Cheam, for those who are not so familiar with it, is in south-west London, just 13 miles from this Chamber. The constituency nestles on the edge of the north downs and it is, I believe, one of the greenest constituencies in London, both in terms of its politics and in terms of its environment. Indeed, it has the greatest tree cover in London. It is a great place to live. It is the place where I was born and it is the place where I wish to continue living.
Sutton and Cheam has, on any measure, some of the best schools in our country. I have the pleasure of being a school governor of Westbourne primary school. It has just received one of the most glowing Office for Standards in Education reports that I have had the opportunity to read. It is all strengths and no weaknesses—a real tribute to the staff and pupils of that school.
A number of concerns were raised with me as I was out campaigning in the general election. One concern that I am particularly keen to draw to the House's attention is the effect of the Greenwich judgment. It is a judgment by the courts, which effectively denies to many children in my constituency the opportunity of getting a place in the school that their parents choose for them. In some cases, it is denying children a place in a high school in my constituency altogether. I am determined to press for legislation to change the law and thus lift the stress and burden that many parents feel as a consequence of the transfer to high school and of the way in which the judgment penalises them.
The single most important issue that came up on the doorsteps in my constituency during the general election was the health service and the financial crisis in which the previous Government had left it. My and my constituents' local hospital is St. Helier hospital. Even as the election campaign was proceeding, a ward was being closed. That was on top of the spectacle of many people being forced to wait for hours during the winter on trolleys to get treatment in accident and emergency. It is vital that the Government act not only to safeguard the health service, but to go beyond that. They must stop the closures, employ more nurses and doctors, make sure that we see real cuts in bureaucracy and give additional resources to our health service.
During the general election, I was greatly impressed by the many people who expressed concerns to me about the rights of disabled people. I was much heartened yesterday, therefore, when I heard the Secretary of State for Education and Employment say that he would review the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I believe that the Act falls well short of the comprehensive civil rights legislation that disabled people want and are entitled to. Although I welcome much of what is in the Queen's Speech, I am sorry that it was silent on that question.
I hope that the Government will do more than simply incorporate the European convention on human rights into UK law, welcome though that is. We need a powerful human rights commission to strengthen the protection of individual rights, and that includes the rights of disabled people. Disability is a social and political issue as well as a physical one. An impairment becomes a disability as much if not more because of social and political barriers. Rather than accepting exclusion, the emphasis must be on identifying and removing external barriers. I hope that the Government will accept that principle when they review the Disability Discrimination Act.
Fundamentally, civil rights for disabled people are about removing the political and social barriers that often cause physical barriers. They are about changing attitudes and challenging the "Does he take sugar?" attitude towards disabled people. In opposition, many Labour Members took a lead in promoting such a change. I hope that, in government, that commitment will shine through.
As a councillor for the past 11 years, I believe passionately in the need for decentralisation, which is vital for renewing our democratic life and for rebuilding a sense of community. Therefore, I hope that the Government will introduce legislation to give local government a power of general competence to act for the common good and in the service of local communities.
Earlier today, there was talk of flow charts and the way in which the incorporation of the European convention on human rights would affect this place. I was elected as a councillor to the London borough of Sutton in 1986, the year of the demise of the Greater London council. I had the opportunity to serve on some of the joint boards that dealt with such matters after abolition; we have faced a chaotic mess in London in the past 18 years as a result of that abolition. I look forward to the creation of a new strategic authority for London. However, the test for the Government will be how far they delegate powers from Whitehall to a new strategic authority and how little they encroach on the London boroughs.
There is a new mood in the country. The Government begin their administration with a great fund of good will. Now is the time and the opportunity to modernise Britain's outdated institutions, rebuild a sense of trust, renew democracy and give Britain's nations, regions and local communities a greater say in our affairs. I hope that Parliament will address those issues. If it does, it will make a real difference.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have sat here for four hours and 20 minutes as the only Opposition Member present representing a Welsh constituency. I regard the House as having a reputation for fairness, but no Opposition Member representing a Welsh constituency has been able to contribute to today's debate on constitutional reform. As a Welshman, I am used to being treated with contempt, but I would not have expected my nation to be disgraced in this way in the House. I am sure that that was not your intention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that it will not happen again. If the Secretary of State for Wales will allow me, I shall attempt to intervene in his speech.
The hon. Gentleman has some experience of the House and he knows the difficulties of the Chair, particularly early in a Parliament when a great number of new Members are seeking to catch one's eye and make a maiden speech. His party has had very adequate representation in that respect. I hope that he will recognise that it is a matter of taking the rough with the smooth and that no slight to the nation of Wales was ever intended.
We all appreciate the difficulties that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and your colleagues have on these occasions in trying to fit in all those who wish to speak. I congratulate you and your colleagues on your appointment. We are certainly pleased to see you in the Chair and we look forward to the way in which you will handle our deliberations in the months and years ahead.
I also congratulate the Secretary of State for Scotland. He and I go back a long way, even further than the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway), in that we go back to the days when we were both practising in different branches of the law in Scotland and we sometimes found ourselves working on the same side. I wish the right hon. Gentleman well in his endeavours. I also congratulate the Secretary of State for Wales, with whom I have not had as long a connection. Although I have had political experience in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, I have yet to have political experience in Wales and I wish him well.
This has been a wide-ranging debate. We have touched on a number of important constitutional issues. Although I suspect that we shall have to await further detail on many of them before we can do them justice, the debate has been an important opportunity for a first trot around the course of the constitutional reforms that the Government are suggesting.
We have had a veritable clutch of maiden speeches of a very high quality. I particularly pay tribute to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who spoke with great dignity and feeling about her constituency and her concerns for the problems of people there. I am sure that she will contribute in the Chamber on many other occasions.
I should also like to congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) and particularly thank him for his generous tribute to Michael Portillo. I cannot say that I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said, but I congratulate him on the way in which he made his case.
The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) also made his maiden speech, and I thank him for his remarks about my friend Ian Lang. The hon. Gentleman obviously has an affection for his constituency, which is indeed shared by many of us who have travelled through and stayed in it on many occasions.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) made his maiden speech, and I congratulate him, too. I noticed the place from where he spoke, which was reminiscent of that occupied by his father. Indeed, the style with which he spoke was also reminiscent, although I am not sure whether under the new dispensation of the Minister without Portfolio he will be allowed quite the independence that his father used to exercise in the House. The hon. Gentleman found an echo of support on the Opposition Benches for some of the remarks that he made about the Maastricht treaty and the single currency.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas). He paid tribute to his predecessor, Rod Richards, referring to him as blunt and iconoclastic. Opposition Members found such a style refreshing in the Chamber. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not mean his comments in anything other than a favourable sense. He made a well-constructed and well-argued speech and I look forward to debating many constitutional issues with him in future.
The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) made a powerful speech. He paid tribute to his predecessor, Rupert Allason. I was impressed by the extempore way in which he delivered his speech. Although he might not be literal, he is certainly literate. I finally congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), who paid tribute to his predecessor, Lady Olga Maitland. He also made a fine speech. The speeches that we heard from those whose first occasion it was in the House give us some confidence in the quality of debate in future.
I now refer to the speeches made by other hon. Members and hon. Friends. I shall be brief because I realise that we have constraints on our time. I want to leave plenty of time for the Secretary of State for Wales to answer the detailed questions put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), which, rather to my surprise, have been referred to as nit-picking. If trying to get constitutional reform right and securing the constitution are regarded as nit-picking by certain hon. Members, I fear very much for our constitution. Some very powerful questions were put. I expect, as does the rest of the House, to hear answers to them from the Secretary of State for Wales. I shall come in a moment to certain other questions that were asked as powerfully by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), but should first refer to one or two other comments.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) spoke, as did my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Gamier), about the European convention on human rights. They both spoke with a good deal of expertise. We shall have to look closely at the implications of incorporation in the light of what they said. There is certainly much more work to be done.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) lifted the veil a little by saying that the new dawn was about building socialism after the election. I am not sure whether he cleared that with the Minister without Portfolio before he said it. Such a belief is certainly what many of us have suspected for some time.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) made one of his usual gracious speeches, but, for all the wit and humour, the message was strong and powerful. I pay tribute to him for what he said. He made it clear that he would regard any attempt to short-change the Chamber in terms of the debate on constitutional matters as—I think that these were the words that he used—something akin to tyranny. I hope that those words were listened to by Government Front Benchers.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) spoke from the Northern Ireland perspective. We on the Opposition Benches also want an end to direct rule and the creation of institutions of locally accountable democracy in Northern Ireland. That can be achieved only by agreement and by addressing the various relationships within Northern Ireland, between the north and the south and between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The way in which that is done must be broadly acceptable to both parts of the community in Northern Ireland. I wish the talks process success when it resumes in June, and I take this opportunity to wish the Government success in advancing it. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Upper Bann endorse the talks process and I hope that when he returns to it on 3 June, he will demonstrate the political will and determination to make real progress.
The main and most urgent legislation that the House faces is, of course, the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill, which was published yesterday. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks posed a number of questions about the Bill and, although we shall debate it next week, it is worth reiterating some of our concerns. Several hon. Members and hon. Friends have made the point that it would be more appropriate to have a referendum after the legislation had passed through the House, so that the people of Scotland and Wales knew what they were voting for. It is noticeable that the Bill mentions agreement to a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, not to the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly proposed by the Government. The Bill does not even refer to a White Paper, but refers merely to a vague concept. That fills me with suspicion about whether the purpose of the Bill is to allow the Scottish and Welsh people to say yes to a general concept and thus to allow the Government to do what they want, regardless of the wishes of the people of Scotland and Wales.
Why is there no threshold in the Bill? The Secretary of State for Scotland is looking at me in surprise, but if only 10 or 20 per cent. of the Scottish people bothered to vote in a referendum, would he regard that as a mandate to proceed with constitutional change? Or does he, like me, believe that the result will need some credibility from the numbers who vote before a mandate is created? I put that question for answer next week, because we feel strongly about the issue.
I find it difficult to believe that the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) is following the route of the leadership candidates, the right hon. Members for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). He surely cannot be suggesting a threshold—a blocking mechanism or a 50 per cent. Rule—that his party would not apply to other constitutional legislation, such as would be necessary for a single currency. Will he say now whether the Conservative party would insist on a threshold for legislation on a single currency? If not, it is not the Chamber that will be short-changed, but the people of Scotland and Wales, by the Conservative party.
My question, and I am entitled to put it also to the leader of the Scottish National party, is whether a referendum, to have any credibility, should have a minimum requirement for a percentage of the electorate to vote. If not, we could see extraordinary anomalies being created in the constitution that would be justified by the Government through the referendum, even though a majority of the people in the relevant parts of the United Kingdom might not have voted, let alone voted for the proposition. In a democracy, we must take that issue seriously.
Will the results of the referendums be announced only on an all-Scotland and all-Wales basis? Last time, we were told the regional results. If that is the case, I fear that we are seeing another attempt to cover up the fact that areas of Scotland are frightened of being run by the central belt of Scotland. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks asked where the money would come from, and he gave the figures. Will the money be taken— the people of Scotland and Wales have a right to know—from the education, health or transport budgets? In this current climate of economic discipline proposed by the Secretary of State for Scotland and his colleagues, the people have a right to know.
I come to the main concept of devolution. We oppose the Labour Government's proposals for a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly because we believe that they will launch us on a slippery slope to the break-up of the United Kingdom. I fear that a Scottish Parliament would swiftly become the focus for growing resentment and discontent on both sides of the border. What is being proposed is a unilateral form of devolution that is structurally unstable, and would not be able to stand for long on its own. In the end, the genuine aspirations of the Scottish and Welsh people, far from being served by such a structure, could be undermined and ultimately destroyed.
Scotland has for far too long been sold by both Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians the fantasy that a Scottish Parliament will cure all her ills, imagined and real alike. But when, as is inevitable, it does not, or if the Scots find themselves paying more than the rest of the United Kingdom, there will be a surge of disappointment and discontent.
It does not take a cynic to understand how quickly a Scottish Parliament would, for its own protection, seek to shift the blame for that to what it would call the parsimonious actions of Westminster. "Not enough money, not enough power," would be the cry. The result would be to increase the bitterness in Scotland against the rest of the United Kingdom, and it would be naive in the extreme not to see how that would accelerate the move towards the breaking up of the United Kingdom.
Moreover, we should not overestimate the patience of those outside Scotland who look at present subventions and feel that Scotland has not done half badly. If they feel that they are constantly asked to pay more through the block grant to protect the stability of the Scottish Parliament, the day will come when they will say, "Enough."
That is why constitutional change is not simply a Scottish or a Welsh matter. It affects the whole of the United Kingdom, and must be treated in Parliament accordingly. The hon. Member for Linlithgow made that point powerfully.
Whichever way we look at it, the issues at stake are significant and historic. We might have expected the Government of the so-called new dawn to advance their proposals confidently, prepared to argue them fully and steadily against all corners. Instead, we see a Government determined to rush the legislation through. Yesterday, the Secretary of State charmingly described that as "maintaining momentum".
I am sorry to see that even the right hon. Gentleman has fallen under the spell of the Minister without Portfolio, and is practising the art of Mandelspeak. The art is to pretend that a change is not really controversial—that the taxing powers are no different from those of a parish council, and that the matter is merely one of good governance, affecting Wales and Scotland but not the rest of the United Kingdom, which therefore need not concern itself. That is rather like saying that divorce affects only one partner in a marriage. It is nonsense and the Government know it; it is a dangerous travesty of what they are about.
Let us look at the consequences for the rest of the United Kingdom of what is proposed. There will be parts of the kingdom where, on matters of significant policy, the writ of this sovereign Parliament will no longer run. The old West Lothian question is still important.
For instance, Labour told us during the election that its top priority was education, education, education. That is the platform on which each Labour Member was elected by his or her constituents. Yet if the proposals go through, even the Secretary of State for Scotland will have no vote and no say on education in his own constituency, which elected him on that mandate—unless, of course, he stands for the Scottish Parliament. Perhaps he will let us know whether he intends to do so.
Similarly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence, as well as many junior Ministers, will by their own vote have abdicated that hir which they were elected. However, they will be able to vote on education in my constituency, where they were not elected.
The constitutional anomaly goes even further. In the public expenditure survey round, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who are both Scottish Members, will decide what is spent on health, education and roads in English constituencies, but not in Scottish constituencies. They will be able to decide for my constituency, but not for their own. On any view, that is a constitutional travesty of the concept of elected representation and accountability. It goes to the very heart of the credibility of our constitution.
That is why the proposal is not just a Scottish or Welsh issue, but affects the whole of the United Kingdom—and not only in its anomalies. It will bring into sharp relief the heavy over-representation of Scotland at Westminster, long justified by the lack of devolution, and the over-subvention in Scotland, which has long been justified by Scotland's special needs. Both of those would be rendered unfair within the United Kingdom by the creation of a Scottish Parliament.
So much for the argument that the change is moderate. It is a major constitutional change which will send shock waves throughout the United Kingdom and fundamentally alter our constitution, undermining the sovereignty of this Parliament. I give notice that we will resist it.
A chilling arrogance is emerging in the Government and new Labour. New Labour assumes that because it believes something, no one has a right to question it—that because something was in its manifesto, no one has a right to debate and determine it in Parliament, but that it can, and should, simply go ahead. I say to the Government that they are wrong—profoundly wrong, constitutionally wrong and democratically wrong.
On 1 May, the people did not elect an executive presidency, however much the Prime Minister fancies himself in that role. The people elected a Government answerable and accountable to Parliament, and Parliament cannot be bypassed or short-changed. It has a right to discuss, scrutinise and determine every significant aspect of the manifesto before it is implemented. That is what Parliament is about, and nowhere more so than on the constitution. That is why all the Bills proposing schemes of devolution must be taken on the Floor of the House.
They go to the heart of the United Kingdom and they affect the whole. It would be a travesty of our constitution if they were not subjected in detail to the scrutiny of all who represent all parts of the United Kingdom.
We are in the House to represent our constituencies and we have a right to be heard. We will not be told that the election determined this debate. Elections confer powers, but they cannot alter truths or convictions any more than they can turn night into day. Nor do we in our party discard our deeply held principles and beliefs just to suit the changing wind.
Let me make it clear that, whatever the Prime Minister may think, we do not see the future of our constitution and of the United Kingdom as games-playing. We believe passionately and fundamentally that what is being proposed will lead inexorably to the break-up of the United Kingdom. We believe that the Union has been a force for stability, strength and good—tested and proved in the cauldron of the events of this century. That is the truth to which we hold and that is our fear. No amount of sleight of hand, no slick propaganda, no weight of votes can change that or stop us voicing those fears. We will voice them here in Parliament. We will voice them as the Bills go through. We will voice them with all our strength in the referendum campaigns in Scotland and Wales and we will voice them in the rest of the United Kingdom.
This Union and this constitution are not games to be played. They are the hard-won birthright and heritage of all our people and we will not betray them by treating them as games. Our adherence to the concept of one nation is not just words to win votes. It goes to the heart of everything in which we believe. We give notice today that to us these issues are fundamental. We will not be deflected from them. We will fight for them with every means at our disposal.
The debate today is not only about devolution but about the position of the constitution generally. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) appreciates that. I thank him on behalf of the Secretary of State for Scotland—my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Dewar)—and myself for the good wishes that he expressed to both of us at the start of the debate. I in turn wish him well in what will be a difficult and arduous task in the years to come. As he said, we have not debated together on many previous occasions, but I hope that we shall spend a long time in our present respective positions and get to know each other much better in the years to come.
I should like to reply to two particular points that the right hon. Member for Devizes made. First, let me assure him that, well before the referendums are held in Scotland and Wales, White Papers will be produced for both Scotland and Wales and the people of both countries will be adequately informed of what the Government propose. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman spoke movingly and properly about the rights of Parliament. Let me assure him that Parliament will decide its own procedures for dealing with those matters. That is an appropriate way to deal with them.
No, I want to make a little progress. If there is time, I will give way later, but I have a number of points that I wish to cover.
This has been a well-attended, interesting and well-informed debate. I apologise that I shall not respond directly to the many powerful speeches that we have heard from both sides of the House, except for my responses to the speeches of new Members of Parliament and of two others—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who opened the debate, and the leader of the Ulster Unionists, the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).
I pay tribute to the maiden speeches made today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on her election and assure her that there is a warm welcome for her in the House. It was a poignant occasion for her, as her late husband was a very active and well, respected Member of the House. Her son now represents the constituency of Hornchurch, so it will be a memorable occasion for her. She has already given notice that she will be an independent champion of liberty—a cause that will be appreciated on both sides of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) also spoke and I warmly congratulate him on his magnificent victory. That victory will be welcomed by many hon. Members, and I can assure him that not all of them sit on the Government Benches. My hon. Friend paid a fulsome tribute to his predecessor. He also spoke powerfully, eloquently and knowledgeably of his constituency and of his commitment to constitutional reform. He has made an early mark in this Parliament and he will always be listened to with great interest.
The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) paid tribute to his predecessor, Mr. Ian Lang, which will be appreciated by Conservative colleagues of the former right hon. Member. The hon. Gentleman spoke knowledgably of his constituency and his country and I am sure that he will make a mark in this Parliament.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) and congratulate him on his memorable victory over Robin Squire, who was a senior and well-respected member of the House. The new Member for Hornchurch, in his presentation and in his forceful and direct speech, reminded me very much of his father, whom I knew very well. Like his father, he will be a Member to reckon with.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) was the only Member from Wales to make a maiden speech. He paid tribute to both his predecessors, Sir Wyn Roberts and Rod Richards. He will be interested to know that Sir Wyn Roberts declared his support this morning for an elected Assembly for Wales. As Sir Wyn was a well-liked and respected Member of the House—he was the longest serving Welsh Office Minister that we ever had-and as he retired at the last election with the full knowledge of contemporary politics and the problems of our democracy in Wales, his views will carry a great deal of weight. He is, of course, only the latest to join a growing chorus of Conservative party members and leaders in Wales who now acknowledge that we must have a commitment to devolution.
The election victory of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West gave me particular satisfaction as he took the last Conservative seat in Wales. His speech was confident, thoughtful and well delivered. In managing to pay an eloquent tribute to Rod Richards, who was not always the most popular Member of the House, my hon. Friend also showed a rare political skill.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) on a thoughtful and confident speech. He acknowledged his predecessor, Rupert Allason, who was a colourful character and a man with an independent mind. If the new hon. Member for Torbay applies those qualities, he will serve his new constituency—which he obviously knows very well—with distinction.
The hon. Gentleman's colleague on the Liberal Democrat Benches, the new hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), replaced a colourful character who was an active Member of the House and he paid tribute to her. The hon. Gentleman is rightly proud of his constituency and of the increased representation of his party in the House. I am sure that he will be a diligent representative of his constituency.
I now come to the speech of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. I offer him a warm welcome in his new role. I know that he will enjoy it immensely, particularly the time that he will spend travelling from Richmond to Wales and the time that he will spend travelling around Wales, speaking to that small and dwindling band—the stalwarts of the Conservative party in Wales—and explaining to them why the Opposition, the Conservatives, must now set their face against devolution. He will have to try to explain why, having been rejected quite comprehensively in the polls because of their adherence to the status quo, they must now adhere to the status quo to provide them with their salvation. He will find that a very difficult task.
I should like, however, to pay two tributes to the right hon. Gentleman. He is a great educator and with his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), he made abundantly clear to us in Wales the unsatisfactory nature of Tory rule from London. My second tribute is that he brings a greater knowledge of Wales to his present job as shadow Secretary of State for Wales than he did when he was appointed Secretary of State.
The right hon. Gentleman made an entertaining speech. It was well practised—and so it should be, as he has made it several times in the past couple of months in various locations and combinations. Sometimes it was with lions, sometimes with Union Jacks, sometimes with Michael Forsyth—and on one memorable occasion it was with all three. The right hon. Gentleman does not seem to have noticed, however, that that speech did not impress the electorate and it does not impress members of this Government. As the Conservative party seeks to come to terms with its failure to represent the interests of the people who voted for it, I should have thought that that party—and the right hon. Gentleman in particular, given his experience in Wales—would take the opportunity for a more reflective look at the big issues that are facing us.
The second exception is the hon. Member for Upper Bann. I am sorry that I missed much of his speech and that he is not in the Chamber now. Obviously, he spoke with great knowledge of affairs in Northern Ireland and I must place on record the fact that I welcome the support that he gave for devolution and assure him that this Government, like the last, will not flinch in the face of terrorism and that any constitutional change in the north of Ireland will be based firmly on the principle of consent.
The proposals set out in the Queen's Speech reflect the Government's determination to give Britain a modern constitution fit for the 21st century. The themes that we shall pursue are those of democratisation, decentralisation, openness and accountability, and respect and proper protection for human rights. Our agenda is one of sensible, incremental change to meet modern democratic demands.
There are fundamental problems with our present constitutional arrangements—problems which go far to explain public disillusion with our system of government. There is too much power centralised in the hands of too few people, many of them unelected, and too little freedom for local communities to decide their own priorities. Government holds more information than ever before, but the public still have no legal right to share information collected on them by their government.
Parliament itself has probably not been held in lower esteem since the completion of the universal franchise. The passage of deeply unpopular and impractical measures such as the poll tax has raised doubts about both the accountability of Members of Parliament and the effectiveness of their scrutiny in the House.
In Wales, those problems have been exacerbated. There is devolved government, but no democratic process to ensure that government works on behalf of the people. As a result, we have seen the development of the quango state and unaccountable Ministers implementing deeply unpopular and quite inappropriate policies. Fortunately, that system is coming to an end and those policies will be reversed at the earliest opportunity. The early scrapping in Wales of the wasteful, bureaucratic and divisive nursery vouchers system, which was forced on us by an unaccountable Government, is an indication of the determination of the new Government to translate our new policies into early action.
No, I am afraid that time is tight. I am sorry, as I should have liked to give way to the hon. Gentleman. However, there will be many more occasions for an exchange and I want to reply to the main points made in the debate thus far.
I want to deal mainly with devolution, but I should remind the House how we intend to address some of the wider issues. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that in our foreign policy the promotion of human rights world wide will be a priority. As abroad, so at home: we believe that the provision of a code of human rights in United Kingdom law is essential to guarantee an open society and a wider democracy. We are therefore committed to incorporating the main provisions of the European convention on human rights into United Kingdom law. We shall do so by introducing legislation to make the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the convention part of our own law. That legislation will be an important step in restoring trust in the way in which we are governed, re-balancing the relationship between the citizen and the state and strengthening the commitment to individual rights and freedoms which lies at the heart of our constitution.
We have also made plain the importance that we attach to open and transparent government. We intend to strengthen data protection controls and to publish proposals for a Bill on freedom of information. We shall publish draft Bills for introduction in later Sessions on which we shall undertake public consultation. We shall also seek to ensure more effective scrutiny of those Bills in the House.
With regard to devolution, the Government's proposals for a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly have caught the public mood. They are in tune with a growing feeling that government has become too distant from people's everyday lives. People understand the scale of the challenge that the new Labour Government face. For 18 years, key public services have been downgraded and demoralised. Reversing that trend will take a new form of government that is more responsive to local needs and better able to promote and encourage local initiative.
In the debate, there have been some inaccurate statements about the Government's devolution proposals, so I shall tell the House what the proposals would mean. In Wales, they would involve placing all the powers currently exercised by the Welsh Office under local democratic control. When established, the Assembly would have the powers that the Welsh Office currently exercises on behalf of the Secretary of State. The Assembly will become responsible for just about all the key public services in Wales, with the exception of social security and law and order. It will have powers to reform the quangos and it will inherit the powers of the Secretary of State for Wales to make secondary legislation.
Those changes will herald an unprecedented transfer of power to the people. Alongside the Scottish Parliament, the Assembly will lead to a radical transformation of our democracy. Given the failures and successes of the last two decades and the decisive rejection of the Conservative party by the people, the continuation of the status quo is no longer an option. The case for change is essentially democratic, but our changes are not only about democracy: by allowing people to have a greater say in fashioning their own lives, asserting their own values and determining their own priorities, I am confident that we shall be able to achieve greater economic prosperity and, by improving our public services, improve our quality of life.
I want the Assembly to be representative of all shades of opinion and it will operate in as open and inclusive a manner as possible. It will serve all the people of Wales and its membership must reflect that. The extent of our commitment to consensual politics is reflected in the additional member system by which people will be elected to the Assembly.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have to finish by a specific time.
I want the Assembly to be a vehicle for establishing a new sense of partnership in Wales. We want to involve those who are within the existing machinery of government as well as people from outside who have a contribution to make. We need to break down the barriers between public and private, management and unions and between north and south. We need to set ourselves a new agenda in which our common goal is to make Wales a better place in which to live. Our Assembly and the Scottish Parliament will be at the heart of this programme of renewal.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks implied that the Government would be authoritarian and repressive in their attitude to dissident Back Benchers. I assure him that that will not be the case. We need no lessons in party management from a member of a former Cabinet which, while the right hon. Gentleman was a member of it, withdrew the Whip from a clutch of its own Members, plunging the Conservative party into chaos and allowing it to degenerate into a disorganised rabble.
I must complete my speech. I make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman that we are entitled to ask for loyalty from party members and from Members of Parliament who were elected on the basis of our manifesto. The party endorsed the policy and the manifesto was endorsed by the people. Everybody, apart from the discredited Conservative party, allows that the status quo is no longer an option. The Conservatives held office for 18 unbroken years, but now their party in the House is scarcely big enough to provide an Opposition.
The former Secretary of State for Wales defends the status quo. Does he not realise how that is seen? He is defending a record that has brought our democracy into disrepute. The Conservative party has put party before country. It is tainted by sleaze and corruption in party and in Government. We have had cash for questions and money for influence, centralisation, denial of diversity, secrecy, cover-up, a quango state, Ministers withholding information, Whips cheating and dissembling, the Scott fiasco and the scandal of the Pergau dam. That is not the way to run a country. This Queen's Speech shows a better way to run this country.