House of Commons (Reserved Matters)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:23 pm on 28 June 2000.

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Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead 4:23, 28 June 2000

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prescribe which Members of the House of Commons may participate only in proceedings on reserved matters under the Scotland and Northern Ireland Acts 1998 or may be appointed only to a ministerial office having responsibility for such matters. I also hope to overestimate the importance of this Bill. It is the next stage in the devolution path on which the Government have set forth. Early on in this Parliament, the Government enacted their key election manifesto pledges of devolving power to Scotland and Northern Ireland and, in a more limited respect, to Wales. Nobody who participated in that debate could believe that it was a one-off measure—that somehow we would be so clever, in a Parliament's early stages, to see through all the moves that would be necessary to ensure the success of such a programme. Indeed, those with more insight and wisdom than I prophesied as we began the debate that we were moving from a unitary to a federal state. The Bill that I seek leave to introduce today is another small, important step on that journey.

The Bill seeks the authority of the House to create two powers. The first is to make Members from Northern Ireland and Scotland unable to vote in this House on matters that have been devolved to their Parliaments. In a second respect, the Bill seeks to limit the power of Members for seats in Scotland and Northern Ireland to hold United Kingdom Ministries, where the relevant powers have been devolved to their regional Parliaments.

The Bill also has, as hon. Members would expect, a clear timetable. We were elected to this Parliament on a mandate to put through devolution without changing our own powers. The Bill does not seek to change those powers, but it sets out a timetable by which we might legislate in the next Parliament so that the legislation would become effective in the Parliament after that.

A major purpose of the Bill is to initiate a debate. Already, it is beginning to have some effect. So hon. Members will not be surprised if I address myself to what are called the main objections that have already arisen from some people who are concerned about the next stage of devolution: people whose nerve appears to be cracking in following the path on which we are safely set.

First, I am told quite correctly that when I was a Minister I did not vote against the devolution proposals. Some of the older Members here will know that, in government, the choice that one has is to be part of the payroll vote or to resign. I chose to resign on a different issue, but I hope that many of my colleagues on this side of the House appreciate the opportunity that they have now, as opposed to then, when we were compelled to vote on a three-line Whip. I am not sure what the Whips are planning for this afternoon, but in theory there will be a free vote. Hon. Members may thus be able to express their views more accurately than they did when we discussed the matter earlier in this Parliament.

Another objection is why I am raising this issue now. It is not an issue which is present in everyday politics. As Members of Parliament, we have a crucial duty both to attend to the immediate issues that affect our constituents and to consider those issues that are beginning to appear on the radar screen, and to try to deal with them so that we do not sour the nature of our politics. Who would have thought that, already, the issue of fox hunting would be raised within the framework of whether Members of Parliament for Scottish seats, whose own Parliament will decide the issue for Scotland, should be able to vote in this House on fox hunting in England and Wales? The legal position is clear for all to see: Scottish Members have every legal right to vote when we come to consider fox hunting for England and Wales. Whether they would be wise to exercise that vote is another matter.

Another objection to the Bill is that it creates two tiers of Members of Parliament, but the clear fact is that we already have at least two tiers of Members. The Bill leaves the powers of this Parliament untouched. I suppose that our constituents will yawn slightly on hearing Members of Parliament say that the Bill creates two tiers of Members of Parliament. I hope that they will forgive us for being so egocentric. For they might say, not that we already have two tiers of Members of Parliament, but that we have created from the Act already on the statute book two tiers of voters. Between national Parliaments and the UK Parliament, we shall see increasingly what we see locally: people vote one way for their local council and a different way for their national MP. That will occur increasingly in voting patterns in Scotland and Northern Ireland and for this place.

The final argument that has been made shocks me. It is: "Why are you so foolish as to introduce this measure? May there not come a time when we will need the votes of Scottish Members to put through a programme affecting English Members that a Labour Government would not be able to carry without those Scottish Members?" The test is simple. Do we give our loyalty primarily to our party? All of us have some, or great, loyalty to our party. Or is our loyalty primarily to the democratic system that we have inherited and that we have a duty to hand on?

Devolution is a Labour issue. I am pleased to see so many Opposition Members in the Chamber, but when we were discussing devolution, they opposed every word, every clause, every line and every page of the legislation. As we know, there is great rejoicing in heaven over the sinner who repents. There is clearly a party breaking out up there at the repentance of the Opposition.

Before anyone tries to prevent us from continuing the debate on the Bill, may I issue one warning? The Tory wasps are beginning to swarm around our hive, which contains the devolution honey. Are we going to let the wasps have it, or shall we take the measure safely towards its logical conclusion? The logical conclusion is that we should debate it today and continue the debate thereafter.

At this stage, the aim of introducing the Bill is, of course, not to try to get it on the statute book; it is that we shall be able—in our own ways—to influence our parties and the programme that they propose for our re-election to the next Parliament. I emphasise that the Bill would not change the powers of Members in this Parliament; it will prevent a feeling of unfairness among voters in England and Wales who, as time goes on, will feel that, however great our devolution programme has been, it remains incomplete. Who better to complete that programme than those Labour Members who had the courage to initiate it?