I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This has been an important week for the provisions of the Bill, because we have had elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, a devolved Assembly that will have primary law-making powers, secondary powers and the ability to appoint Ministers who are responsible for the government of Northern Ireland. However, this is also an important year. As we all know, the Act of Union was signed 300 years ago, in 1707. There are further important anniversaries in 2007. It is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the treaty of Rome and the 60th anniversary of the signing of the treaty of Dunkirk. That treaty, which was the first post-war treaty of solidarity, was between the United Kingdom and France.
I had not intended to intervene at such an early point in the hon. Gentleman's speech, but given that he has raised the question of the Act of Union, I note that the Bill does not state whether, if it were passed, the Act of Union would be disapplied. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether it is his intention that the Act of Union should stay as the founding legislation of the Union?
I will certainly come on to that point, although I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising it at such an early stage of the debate. This partly explains the rather innocuous name of my Bill: the House of Commons (Participation) Bill. I tried to persuade the Clerk of the House that my Bill should be called the "Act of Union (Amendment) Bill", but I was told that all the provisions of the Act of Union were such that they were no longer extant in the legislation of this country. I was rather disappointed by that because I thought that it would have been a sexier sounding name for a Bill and that that might have got more of my colleagues here. We are thus stuck with the title of the House of Commons (Participation) Bill.
Given the way in which the Bill would take away voting and speaking rights from Members, would not a more appropriate name be the "House of Commons (Non-participation) Bill"?
I regard my Bill as an entirely positive measure that would complete the process started through devolution by providing the ultimate fairness for the voters of England, particularly, and Wales.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Bill would complete the process started by devolution. I am sure that he is aware that the Scottish National party supports his Bill because it thinks that the measure would achieve its stated aim of breaking up the United Kingdom. I know that politics makes for strange bedfellows, but is he not slightly uncomfortable with that alliance?
I should say that there is no support for the Bill from the SNP. I would like to clarify a point: the hon. Gentleman talked about completing the process started by devolution, but would not the completed process of devolution result in independence, and is not devolution independence for slow learners?
There were many debates in the House, and in Scotland and Wales, on the process of devolution, and its purpose is not to lead to independence. Devolution was just that—a devolution of powers from the Union Parliament to the Assemblies and Parliaments in other parts of the kingdom. It did not in itself begin a process that leads to independence.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and not favouring the Scottish National party over me, even if it does support his Bill. He talks about the devolution process being completed, but surely for England the logical outcome of devolution is devolving of powers to England, which his Bill seeks not to do. Does it not therefore sell the English people short?
I thank the hon. Lady for anticipating what I will say. The English people already have 428 Members of Parliament, who sit in this House, and my Bill seeks to empower them in their consideration of English matters in the House. Later, I will make the point that it is not necessary to go to the public expense of creating the structures of a separate English Parliament, as we already have a Parliament, in this House, that consists of all Members of Parliament elected by constituents in England.
I anticipated that I would have got beyond the first couple of words of my prepared remarks by this stage, so I will plough on. As I say, it is 300 years since 1707, an important year. It was the year in which my school was founded, so it will celebrate that 300th anniversary for reasons of its own. It has done me well, and I hope that it will continue to exist.
It is Warminster school. The date that we are really celebrating is the date of the Act of Union with Scotland. The Act was only part of a unification process, as the Act of Union with Wales had come into being some time before. The Union with Wales was achieved through a series of laws passed by this
Parliament between 1536 and 1543. Wales had been under the control of the English kings since the conquests of Edward I and had been ruled as a Principality, which meant that some of its laws were different from those in England. The second Tudor monarch, Henry VIII, was concerned that some Welsh Lords were against his split with Rome, and there was evidence to suggest that some of the marcher Lords were harbouring English criminals. To combat that, and to protect the Welsh coast from a French or Spanish invasion, Henry opted to take a firmer grip on the Principality. As I say, the Act of Union was in reality a series of laws that resulted in Wales being represented in this Parliament. Later, the 1801 Act of Union with Ireland was passed by both Irish and British Parliaments, despite much opposition.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Ireland would not be so prosperous if it were still ruled from Westminster, instead of having self-government? Does he agree that independence has been beneficial to Ireland, and the loss of the Union to which he refers has been thoroughly positive?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but in the early years of Irish separation and independence from the United Kingdom, and of the Irish Free State and the Republic of Ireland, what he says about prosperity was not the case. Many would agree that the prosperity that Ireland has experienced in the past couple of years is due to another Union—the European Union, which provided the Republic of Ireland with extensive aid. That aid, I must add, was provided by the taxpayers of the United Kingdom.
I thank you for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will return to the Acts of Union referred to earlier; Mark Lazarowicz said that I had not mentioned the Act of Union, so I am mentioning several of them now. In 1801, Ireland was joined to Great Britain in a single kingdom that became known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Dublin Parliament was abolished, and Ireland was to be represented at Westminster by 100 MPs, as well as a number of Members of the House of Lords.
Is it not the case that under the 1707 Act of Union two countries willingly came together, whereas the 1801 Act of Union was the result of the suppression of the United Irishmen by the English in 1796?
I had not intended the debate to develop into a lengthy discourse on the history of Ireland, or any other part of the United Kingdom, or a discussion of the whys and wherefores of the implementation of various Acts. I mentioned that the Irish Parliament voted for the Act of Union; the hon. Lady may have views about the status of those who sat in the Irish Parliament as early as 1801, just as many Members of the House would have views about those who sat in this Parliament before the great Reform Act of 1832. History is history, and I have set out what happened.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify a point in this very interesting disquisition on the Act of Union? When nations join under an Act of Union, is not the resulting Parliament sovereign in all respects, unless that Union is completely sundered? Therefore any discussion concerning devolution should relate to the Acts of that sovereign Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and his point relates to the reply that I gave to our friend representing the Scottish Nationalists, Mr. MacNeil, who stated quite clearly that he thought that devolution was a process leading to independence. I do not think that independence is a natural extension of devolution. I believe that this Parliament is sovereign, and will continue to be sovereign, particularly if my Bill is enacted.
We are discussing an important point that goes to the heart of the Bill. To follow up the point made by my hon. Friend Dr. Whitehead, Mr. Walter will surely be aware of section 28(7) of the Scotland Act 1998, which clearly specifies that
That undermines the whole point of his Bill, because it is not the case that this Parliament cannot legislate for Scotland if it so chooses.
I do not want to anticipate the hon. Gentleman's speech, which I am sure he will make later in the debate if he catches Madam Deputy Speaker's eye. The essence of my Bill is that the Speaker can, if he is so minded, rule that Scottish Members could participate in the passage of such legislation. It is highly unlikely that a piece of exclusively Scottish legislation would be debated in this place. It is more likely that there will be pieces of legislation that are predominantly about England but which have clauses relating to Scotland. That is, to some extent, dealt with in my Bill.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, and I promise not to seek to intervene again, at least for some little time. It is important to understand the implications of his Bill. He suggests that the Speaker will have some discretion in the matter. Formally, of course, the Speaker has discretion, but clause 2(10) states:
"When making a designation" under various subsections
"the Speaker shall have regard to his certification as to the territorial extent of the bill".
So the Speaker would not have a free hand in deciding whether or not to bar Scottish, Northern Ireland or
Welsh MPs, depending on the circumstances. There is guidance, to which the Speaker would have to have regard.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He will no doubt wish to probe that point in Committee. I still believe that it is highly unlikely, and I cannot conceive of the circumstances in which any Government would bring before the House a piece of essentially domestic Scottish legislation. The noises coming from Holyrood would be such that even a Government with a substantial majority in this place would find it difficult to pursue that course.
The hon. Gentleman attempts to reassure us that the problem would not arise, but the devolution settlement and the safeguards therein have not necessarily been fully tested while the same party has been leading the Executive in Holyrood as is in government here. In Scotland, we certainly remember the poll tax and the implications of the Conservative Government in the 1980s for Scotland, so I am not sure the Scottish people would be reassured that in all future scenarios the safeguards would be appropriate, if the Bill were passed.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. It was not my intention that during my contribution we should get into a discussion of what the outcome of the elections on
Does my hon. Friend share my concern and surprise that Jo Swinson says that she remembers the poll tax? That was 20 years ago.
It was indeed 20 years ago. As I am no longer constrained by having to speak in an official capacity for my party, I can say that I thought that the community charge was a much fairer tax than the current—
If the House will indulge me for a moment, I will make progress. I want to move from the historical perspectives to the substance of the Bill.
The Act of Union with Scotland was a pair of Acts of Parliament passed in 1706 and 1707, which were given effect on
It is interesting to point out that the two countries had shared a monarch since the Union of the Crowns 100 years earlier in 1603, but had retained their sovereign Parliaments. The Acts of Union dissolved both Parliaments and replaced them with a new Parliament of Great Britain based here at Westminster, which had been the former home of the English Parliament. This was referred to as the Union of the Parliaments.
The Acts of Union were the basis of the United Kingdom. The history of Ireland was that the Act of Union was substantially altered by events in the earlier part of the last century, particularly the events following the Easter rising, the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, and the subsequent designation of the Republic of Ireland as a fully independent sovereign state in 1949.
I shall jump history and come to the 1970s, when the Labour Government of 1974-79 started to legislate for devolution to Scotland and Wales, initially with the Scotland and Wales Bill, which was before the House in the Session of 1976-77. That was presented to the House in November 1976 and provided for a Scottish Assembly and a Welsh Assembly. Following the decision of the Commons not to approve a timetable motion on the Bill, the then Leader of the House, Michael Foot, announced in June 1977 that it was no longer practical to contemplate further progress on the Bill and it was withdrawn.
Separate Bills for Scotland and Wales were introduced in the following Session. Although both were passed, neither came into effect as the majority in favour of devolution for Scotland was not sufficient, and there was no majority in favour of devolution for Wales when the referendums were held in March 1979. I remember participating in the Welsh referendum. In May 1979 I had the great honour and the great pleasure to challenge a former Member of the House, Mr. Neil Kinnock, for his seat of Bedwellty, and we had the strange situation where both the Labour and the Conservative candidates in that election were on the same side in the devolution referendum. There was insufficient support at that stage.
During those debates, a constitutional anomaly which became known as the West Lothian question came to the fore. It was the anomaly whereby Members representing Scottish constituencies, and on occasion those from Welsh and Northern Irish seats, may vote on legislation that extends to England, but neither they nor Members representing English seats can vote on subjects that have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Tam Dalyell, who was then the Member for West Lothian, coined that phrase in an attempt to challenge the legislation.
"This is a question with which, by an iteration for which he should be praised rather than blamed,
Is not the West Lothian question best answered with the West Limerick example of independence?
I anticipate, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman will provide us with all sorts of interesting anecdotes if he succeeds in catching your eye later. The people of West Limerick have not been governed by this House for some considerable time, but I do not think that anybody would suggest that they are in any way under-represented.
If hon. Members could restrain themselves, I am trying to answer the point raised by Mr. Brown. The Conservative party has set up—it has been in existence for about a year now—a democracy taskforce under the very able chairmanship of my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke, which has charged itself with considering several matters, including the decisive matters that the House voted on earlier this week. It will address this question, but has not yet come forward with any proposals on it. I have spoken individually to members of the taskforce who were candidates in the last general election, when this was part of Conservative party policy, and it is very likely that it will be one of the methods that they would consider as a solution. As right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House know full well, the detail of Conservative party policy on several matters that are not before the House as Government business will be left until nearer the general election.
My previous intervention was something of a fishing expedition, because I have already contacted David Mundell. Although this is an important Bill to him, when I asked him whether he would be attending today, he responded by e-mail that Her Majesty's Opposition would not be formally supporting the Bill, but went on to say that his party is awaiting the outcome of the work being done by Mr. Clarke.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for providing confirmation of my original point, which is that the matter is being discussed by our democracy taskforce under the chairmanship of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe.
"if the United Kingdom is to remain in being, then there can be no question but that the Scottish constituencies must continue to be represented at Westminster...Yet once the—
"Assembly had come into being, and was legislating for those areas that had not been reserved to the United Kingdom Government, the position of the seventy-one Scottish Westminster MPs could become awkward and invidious. Their credibility—like those of their counterparts in the Assembly—would be deeply suspect, simply because there would be so many areas of concern to their electors on which they could not pronounce."
He examined and rejected four possible answers to the question and concluded that not one of them could be reconciled with Britain's continued existence as a unitary state. I looked at those four answers but came to a slightly different conclusion.
My hon. Friend might be interested in a practical example of the West Lothian question in relation to the situation of English hospitals, which are currently under threat of reconfiguration or downgrading. I have three such hospitals serving my constituents, all of which face proposals for downgrading or closure. Last month, when there was a vote in the House on the issue, 27 hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies in effect voted for those reconfigurations. Had the Government's majority been lower, the downgrading of local hospitals in England could have been secured only with the votes of Scottish Members of Parliament. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an intolerable situation for people in England who feel very strongly that they should have a say over the closure of their hospitals, and who have no say over the future of hospitals in Scotland?
Let me crave the indulgence of Members on both sides of the House and make some progress, because I am conscious that time is moving on and that several other hon. Members want to speak.
Let me go back to Tam Dalyell's four options. His first was that there should be no Scottish or Welsh representation at Westminster, which is clearly unacceptable. His second option was the simple maintenance of the status quo in respect of the levels of representation and no change in the relationship. His third was the reduction of Scottish and Welsh representation here at Westminster. His fourth was that Scottish and Welsh MPs should speak and vote only on those matters not transferred to the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. I believe that that is the way forward and that is the essence of my Bill. That is why what I want to do today is to add to the Scotland Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the various Northern Ireland Acts to bring that sort of justice about.
To be helpful to me, would the hon. Gentleman be willing to speculate on the origin of the West Lothian question, particularly in respect of the extent to which it can justifiably be called the West Lothian question? He will recall that for a number of years hon. Members from Northern Ireland constituencies voted on matters pertaining to the UK without the opposite being the case when the Stormont devolved Assembly was in place. They also voted, as I recall, under the terms of their alliance with the Conservative party, so why does the hon. Gentleman not think that it should be called the North Down question or the Belfast, West question instead? Would not that be a more appropriate way to describe it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because what happened in the case of Northern Ireland was Tam Dalyell's option three—a reduction in the representation. The hon. Gentleman may recall, although he may not have been in the House at the time, that when the original Stormont Parliament was in place, Northern Ireland representation was just 12 Members, so Northern Ireland was under-represented here. That was the sort of balance that was introduced. I believe that creating such under-representation is not the best way to proceed. That is an unfair solution, which is why I am not proposing it today. Rather, I am proposing Tam Dalyell's option four, which I am about to explain in a few moments.
Is this not why Westminster keeps getting itself into these kind of fankles? It ignores the point that, regardless of the numbers, the principle of someone voting on a matter that does not affect his electors should be properly determined, not just left to one side because of the numbers.
The hon. Gentleman has obviously repeated, albeit more eloquently, my point that that is not the way forward. The settlement between the Westminster Parliament and the then Stormont Parliament was an unsatisfactory one. That is why I am proposing something different today. The fact of the matter is that, even after boundary changes in Scotland and anticipated boundary changes in Wales, both those countries will still be slightly over-represented in this place compared with English constituencies, some of which have in excess of 100,000 electors. My own constituency now has more than 75,000 electors.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the quota for a Scottish constituency is now the same as for an English constituency and that any difference in the average size relates purely to issues of geography, which are taken into account for remote, rural and island communities in England just as much as in Scotland?
I am not sure that the island community of the Isle of Wight would necessarily share the hon. Lady's view, as it has more than 100,000 electors and the matter of geography is given as the excuse.
Let me move on and get to the guts of what I am proposing. The reality today is that Scotland has both primary and secondary legislative powers over areas such as health, which my hon. Friend Nick Herbert mentioned, education, transport, social services, aspects of criminal law and the administration of justice. A First Minister is appointed in Holyrood, Members of the Scottish Parliament deliberate and vote on those matters and there is a separate Government in Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman referred earlier to the Welsh devolution campaign in which he was on the same side— the "no" side—as the then leader of the Labour party. If he is so concerned about those issues, can I ask him why he does not simply propose to reverse the devolution legislation introduced by this Government?
The right hon. Gentleman makes his point, but if he wished to introduce legislation to reverse the devolution settlement, he would probably find that there was no majority in the House to do so. Certainly in Scotland and Wales, there would most definitely not be a majority to reverse that legislation. There may be hon. Members in this House and in Scotland and Wales who would share his view that we should perhaps reverse the devolution legislation, but I do not believe that we should. What I am trying to do is create a situation whereby we do not go down the same expensive route in respect of England.
Of course I am prepared to admit that the view that I expressed at that time was probably not the correct one. I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman's former colleague Lord Kinnock might well share that view. I was right in saying at that time that the exercise would be a lot more expensive than the Government of the day were suggesting—and it has proved to be a much more expensive exercise for the people of Wales and therefore for the taxpayers of the United Kingdom.
Let me move on and deal briefly with the position in Northern Ireland, which is critical. By
The situation in Wales, however, is slightly different, but it is certainly allowed for in my Bill. The Welsh Assembly has much more limited powers: it does not have powers in respect of primary legislation, though it has some for secondary legislation in the areas falling within its competence.
In framing his Bill, did the hon. Gentleman consider the position of London at all? Why has the position of London, with its elected Mayor and assembly, been omitted?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. He may disagree, but when I look at the position of the Mayor of London and the Greater London assembly, I view it as a matter of local government rather than of devolution in the sense of how powers have been devolved to the Assemblies in Northern Ireland and Wales and to the Scottish Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman is a splendid sport. I disagree with his comments about the Greater London authority. All hon. Members probably use public transport that is provided through the Greater London authority, which is therefore vital to us all. Yet, strictly speaking, this Pandora's box of a Bill would mean that London Members should have no say on transport issues.
I want to pursue the London question a little further. Given London's status as the capital of our United Kingdom and its enormous economic influence throughout the UK, surely what happens there affects everyone, from whichever part of the UK they come. All hon. Members should therefore have some say in what happens in this place with regard to London.
London's position in the world is due to its financial services industry and the power of the City of London as the world's pre-eminent financial services market. That is a matter for the Treasury, and is not devolved to the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. It is a United Kingdom matter, which does not arise in this debate.
There are three, possibly four, solutions. The fourth solution is to do nothing—it is obvious that several hon. Members feel that that is the right way to proceed. The first solution, which several people have proposed, is to create a separate English Parliament, thus balancing the powers between an English Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, a possible Welsh Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not believe that we should follow that route.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the good people of England should be given a referendum to ascertain whether they would like independence from the rest of the United Kingdom?
I do not wish to anticipate the outcome of my party's democracy taskforce. If it proposed an English Parliament, which would be a major constitutional change, I suspect that it would also propose a referendum on that. However, I fear that I anticipate too much, because I suspect that that is not the way it will go.
The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. Does he believe for a moment that the people of the north of England would vote for an English Parliament, given the domination of the south?
Let us consider the popular will. The underlying argument for such a measure is a supposed massive ferment of public anger in England, demanding such a change. I appreciate that it is a Friday morning and we are considering private Members' business, but if there was a genuine ferment of opinion, should not we expect the attendance of more than four Conservative Back Benchers, one of whom may be here to promote his own Bill? If the demand exists, where are all the Conservative Members from England to support it? I also note that the Public Gallery is hardly full.
That was an interesting intervention. There is a genuine sense of injustice among my constituents. They feel that we should do something to tackle the matter. That is why I am promoting the Bill and attempting to run through the options.
An English Parliament presupposes a form of separate English Government, with an English First Minister, English Ministries and so on. I contend that we have already have a Parliament that is capable of legislating for England on matters that have been devolved to Scotland and Wales. That is this Parliament, but limited to Members of Parliament who represent the constituencies that are affected by legislation. It is clear from the current constitutional settlement that most of that legislation would reflect matters that relate to England and Wales. The Bill therefore treats England and Wales as one for primary legislation. Creating a separate English Parliament is an expensive and unnecessary answer when we already have 428 English Members of Parliament who are paid to sit here and represent the interests of their constituents.
There would be only one set of salaries, buildings and civil servants. We already have the ability to govern England from an existing Parliament by simply creating a mechanism whereby Mr. Speaker designates the legislation and matters that relate to England—or England and Wales—rather than the whole of the United Kingdom.
The second solution is to reduce the number of Members of Parliament who are elected for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is the old Stormont solution of having only a limited number of Members of Parliament, as if that somehow provided a democratic balance. As has been pointed out, that sort of democratic balance is not appropriate. It does not matter whether there are 20, 50 or 70 Scottish Members, the point is that they should not participate in matters that do not relate to Scotland. Simply reducing the number would not, therefore, solve the problem.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned Stormont on several occasions. Will he refer to the findings of the royal commission, known as the Kilbrandon commission, that examined the position after Stormont was established?
I shall not go into any more detail on that, because I have taken up rather a lot of the House's time this morning, although I suspect that most of it has been taken up by interventions rather than my contribution.
Before concluding, I should like to discuss the provisions in the Bill to exclude a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament, because that is not the way forward. The title of my Bill is House of Commons (Participation) Bill. As I said in answer to an earlier intervention, I rather liked "Act of Union (Amendment) Bill", but the Clerks told me that that was an unacceptable title, so we are stuck with a rather innocuous title. My Bill follows a similar Bill that was introduced in the House of Lords in the last Session by Lord Baker, which sought to do very much the same as what I propose. However, a number of anomalies were identified in his Bill. Therefore, the basic provisions of my Bill are that, in respect of primary legislation, the Speaker may designate whether it should be considered by
"all members returned for constituencies in England and Wales"— thus taking account of the fact that Wales does not have primary legislative powers—
"all members returned for constituencies in Scotland...all members returned for constituencies in Northern Ireland", or any combination of those.
The simple fact of the matter is that we would never—although it was suggested that we might—have legislation that referred solely to Scotland. It is unlikely that we shall have much legislation in the future that refers exclusively to Northern Ireland. However, we may have some, and it is dealt with in clause 4, which is entitled "Special provision relating to Northern Ireland legislation", to which I shall turn in a moment.
On secondary legislation, I have suggested that the Speaker can designate a statutory instrument to be considered by
"all members...all members returned for constituencies in England and Wales", or
"all members returned for constituencies in England."
There could be a combination of those, too, but the obvious combination would be all hon. Members.
What about statutory instruments that pertain only to Scotland? What provision has the hon. Gentleman made for those?
Statutory instruments that pertain exclusively to Scotland would normally be dealt with by the Scottish Parliament. United Kingdom statutory instruments would be covered by the provisions relating to all hon. Members.
I am grateful to the hon. Member. He is talking about the important issue of which legislation would be designated for decision. The Higher Education Act 2004, which introduced tuition fees, is often held up as an example of where illegitimate voting took place on an English matter. However, the former Member for West Lothian voted on that legislation, on the grounds that it had implications for Scottish higher education. Under the hon. Gentleman's Bill, how does he propose that the Speaker would be able to determine, quite as simply as he suggests, which Bill had which territorial application?
As I understand the current situation, it is incumbent on the Clerks of the House to determine the territorial extent of the Bills that are brought before them. They would advise the Speaker accordingly. If the legislation that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned had had implications for Scotland because its territorial extent included Scotland, it would have been considered by Scottish hon. Members. However, I suspect that the implications were secondary implications, in that the primary purpose of that Bill did not relate to Scotland. It would therefore have been perfectly appropriate for it to have been deliberated on by Members of Parliament for the constituencies that it did relate to, which in that case—if I recall correctly—were in England and Wales.
Clause 4, "Special provision relating to Northern Ireland legislation", is important. It was pointed out to me when I was putting together the provisions of my Bill that Lord Baker's Bill in the other place would have put the House at loggerheads with the various agreements that have been made among all the parties trying to find peace in Northern Ireland. Under his Bill, the only people who could consider Northern Ireland legislation while no Assembly was sitting at Stormont would be the Members of Parliament elected for Northern Ireland constituencies.
It does not take a brilliant mathematician to work out that if the Sinn Fein Members did not take their seats, Northern Ireland would be governed by the Democratic Unionist party, which would of course be contrary to the St. Andrews agreement, the Good Friday agreement and all the other agreements before them that have sought power sharing in Northern Ireland. I have therefore created a special provision that says that if legislation that relates solely to Northern Ireland is considered by the House in future, it should be considered as if it were a United Kingdom matter, and therefore by all hon. Members. That is in the spirit of all those agreements on power sharing among the various parties, which I believe are leading to a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland.
In conclusion, my Bill has arisen out of a sense of frustration on the part of my constituents, and a feeling of unfairness and injustice on the part of people who live in England. My Bill would complete the devolution settlement process without the creation of an English Parliament, because at the end of the day, 428 English Members of Parliament are more than capable of deliberating on matters that relate to England.
It is something of a liberation to speak in a debate that is not directly about a Home Office matter, which is what I am normally restricted to during the rest of the working week. I am pleased to participate in this debate because, so far as I can recall, I have never spoken in public on devolution and constitutional matters—[Hon. Members: "Some us have."] Other hon. Members have indeed. If their interventions become too demanding, I hope that they will understand that I am relatively new to the debate. I welcome the debate that Mr. Walter has initiated. I do not agree with his proposals, for reasons that will become clear, but some of the underlying concerns that have stimulated this debate are worth exploring and will need continuing discussion in the years to come.
I was born on the south coast of England, in Devon. I have lived all but a few months of my life within a mile or two of the south coast of England and I represent a south coast constituency, so I am English and, what is more, southern English. It is probably not widely known in the House that, among their various songs, Southampton football fans chant, "Southerners! Southerners!", when their opponents come from more northerly parts of the country. [ Interruption. ] And, just to make clear my geographical identity in this debate, I am there with them.
The other songs, which refer less than flatteringly to other south coast football teams, are probably best not repeated in the Chamber.
The reason that the debate is worth having and should not just be a rerun of the debates of the previous 20, 30 or 150 years about home rule, devolution and so on, is that there is a sense—although not of tidal wave proportions—that the big constitutional debates about devolution to Scotland and Wales and the developments in Northern Ireland have not included discussion of government for England. That issue strikes a chord with a minority of English people, and it is therefore important that we consider the way forward. The Bill will not be the way forward, but the debate about how we move forward is important.
Constitutional change in the United Kingdom is a long-drawn-out process. That is fundamental to the nature of our constitution, which brings together nations of such different sizes, economic strength and political cultures. There is no perfect constitution for the United Kingdom. Constitutional change is more a matter of recognising anomalies and rearranging those from time to time according to the perceived needs. To show that these issues are not that new, I am grateful to Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit for drawing to my attention Disraeli's comment that the English are governed by Parliament, not by logic.
There are anomalies, but surely the issue is not just how they can be resolved but whether there is a demand for them to be resolved, and whether the resolution will result in worse problems than existed in the first place.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In a moment, I shall highlight the fact that those anomalies get greater or lesser attention in public debate according to certain political circumstances. The issue does not go up the agenda just because the constitution has produced an anomaly but because the anomaly offends the interests or perceived interests of certain groups or political parties. We need to understand that the importance of anomalies in our constitution varies over time.
Our constitutional change proceeds bit by bit—not for us the continental or even Latin American model, in which a revolution takes place, followed by a constitutional convention, a plebiscite and then a new constitution. We adjust a bit here and there, look at what it is like, and then do the next bit. Even when we did have a revolution, no one really sat down and worked out what the constitution was going to be for about 40 or 50 years. Then it came out about right, and everybody was happy with it for a bit, except that universal suffrage took about another 200 years to be introduced. This week, after years of discussion on the composition of the House of Lords, we debated the matter for two days, voted for two hours, agreed two solutions to the problem, and spent two days trying to work out what, if anything, any of it meant. That is the British way of constitutional reform, bit by bit and incremental, and I see nothing particularly wrong with it. The Bill may not be the answer, but the debate is an important part of considering what we want to do next.
Shortly before the 1997 election, when we were in opposition, I remember going on a trip with other Labour Members of Parliament to Brussels. The then Member for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, was a member of that delegation, and we discussed these issues at some length. He made very much the argument to which the hon. Member for North Dorset has referred today. My response was not that there was not a West Lothian question, but that the issues raised by it were of less importance than those that devolution was seeking to overcome: the regular and persistent imposition of solely Scottish legislation on the people of Scotland by an English-dominated Parliament. I said to Tam Dalyell that the pressing problems of devolution to Scotland and Wales should be resolved, and then the other issues that he talked about would arise and further discussion would be needed to consider how best to deal with them. That is what we are now doing, so I commend the hon. Member for North Dorset for raising the matter, although I do not agree with his conclusions.
The right hon. Gentleman is known to be one of the most reasonable Labour Members, but those on the Front Bench are totally different. Shortly before the Scotland Act 1998 was passed, Lord Irvine of Lairg said that the answer to the West Lothian question was to stop asking it. Is not that the view of the Labour power politicians?
I sincerely hope that I am not entirely to be written out of the panoply of Labour power politicians, although I do not have much power at the moment. I disagree with those of my colleagues who think that the devolution settlement was the end of constitutional debate. There is never an end of constitutional debate in a country such as ours. We have seen that this week in the discussions about the House of Lords. That will continue, and I will play my part in it.
Given the way in which constitutional change takes place in this country, the current devolution settlement is at a fairly early stage. It is quite early to make a judgment about how the balance of power and decision making between the Scottish Parliament and the Westminster Parliament will ultimately be resolved. To give one example, I had the privilege a couple of years ago of chairing the Committee that considered the draft corporate manslaughter legislation that is due to come back to this House. In part of our report, the Committee expressed strong concern that the plan at that time was to legislate for an offence in Scotland and a similar offence in England and Wales, because of the great difficulties created for companies operating on both sides of border, for trade unions representing their members and so on. Of course, the current Bill incorporates Scotland, because the mature reflection was that a single piece of legislation that covered both legislatures was better than two separate ones.
I am not an expert on such matters, but I understand that the Sewel motion has been used more often than many had predicted, which I think points to a maturing of the relationship between the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments. Having established the principle of the right to decide on autonomous legislation, there is also the mature and practical consideration of when it is best to do things in a devolved Parliament, and when it is best to do things through Westminster. We need to allow some time to pass before we can be clear about how that relationship will ultimately settle down.
Does not my right hon. Friend's reference to the Sewel motion procedure highlight one of the practical difficulties of the Bill promoted by Mr. Walter? Were the measure passed, a Bill might go through the House on which Scottish MPs were excluded from voting because of its provisions, but a Sewel motion might be adopted that would mean that the Bill would then apply to Scotland, even though Scottish MPs had not been involved in the process of deliberation. Would that be either fair or procedurally advantageous to anybody?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The hon. Member for North Dorset was dismissive of the argument that there would be technical and procedural difficulties in determining the scope of legislation. He is wrong about that, and a few years ago one Scottish Member described the House of Commons having to do constitutional hokey-cokey, with Members opting into certain votes and out of others, and then being asked back to take part in other votes. The procedural problems are immense and probably insuperable.
Surely the point of applying a Sewel motion to a Bill is not which Members voted on it and how it was passed through Parliament but the merits of the Bill itself?
The question of who is able to participate in legislation has none the less an important implication for the operation of this Parliament. I think that that reflects the reality—which the hon. Gentleman would obviously deny—that the Union, which has a devolved Parliament in Scotland, has areas of common interest on which our current constitution allows us to work together in the interests of all our citizens. He would prefer that not to be the case, but I am in favour of it.
My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point about the length of a Bill's passage through Parliament. I note that there is no suggestion that similar provisions should be applied to the other place. If a Bill is halfway through the House and provisions relating to it change, requiring different sections of people to vote or not, would there be an appeals procedure so that it is run through the House again, or would the people who had been discounted from voting previously be allowed to vote retrospectively in an extended version of the Wednesday afternoon voting to validate the vote that would have been valid had the Bill run in the way that was originally intended?
My hon. Friend asks me to clarify the procedures, but in fairness that question is better directed at the Bill's authors. I have not got a clue how the House would be expected to respond to that situation, and with due respect, Madam Deputy Speaker, I think that the Speaker and his Clerks would find it extremely difficult to unpick those complex matters and advise the House how to vote. I shall return to that, but the logic is that we would end up with an English Parliament and there would be no relationship between the legislation of the two Parliaments, and that would be to the extreme disadvantage of the people of Scotland and of England and Wales.
To return to my theme, my hon. Friend Mark Lazarowicz said that the significance of anomalies in the constitution changes over time. I agreed and replied that factors shift and the reasons why anomalies become more important change. It is worth putting it on the record that the major reason why the debate is taking place is the unique political phenomenon of my political lifetime—the collapse of the Conservative and Unionist party of Great Britain, a party that once enjoyed significant representation through its Unionist colleagues in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. It has now become the English national Conservative party.
In reality, the Conservative party of today aspires to be a significant party of government only in England. It does not aspire to play that role in any other part of the United Kingdom; hence the focus on what is going on with English MPs and English votes. It is important that the House does not misunderstand what is dressed up as a constitutional issue as much more than the narrow interests of the Conservative party in England.
I want to reassure the right hon. Gentleman that there is no part of the United Kingdom where the Conservatives do not want to be in government. There are some places where the people do not want us to be, but we are out to change their minds.
I am grateful for that clarification, but it remains the case that in practice the real aspirations of the Conservative party are focused on England. That is a significant change.
May I just make a little more progress.
It is worth looking back at what the Conservative party, when it was the Conservative and Unionist party, used to say about these issues. The hon. Gentleman's history of the problem jumped from somewhere around the early 18th century to 1970, conveniently missing out the 1960s, when the debate was the reverse. The then Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, infuriated by the participation of Northern Ireland MPs in the Bill to nationalise the steel industry, wrote:
"We ought to make up our minds about the idea which I aired last Spring, that Northern Ireland MPs should not have the right to vote in the House of Commons on purely domestic matters affecting Great Britain, where the Stormont Parliament has exclusive jurisdiction...in relation to Northern Ireland."
That proposal was passed to the then Attorney-General, who thought it was unworkable.
The shadow Home Secretary, Peter Thorneycroft, responded, asking the Attorney-General to
"make it absolutely clear that that kind of nonsense does not form any part of the government's thinking, that every Member of the House of Commons is equal with every other Member of the House of Commons, and that all of us will speak on all subjects".
Shortly afterwards, when English Conservative MPs were being whipped to oppose the abolition of school fees in Scotland—a measure with considerable political support among the great majority of Scottish MPs—the Conservative spokesman, Michael Noble, said:
"I do not find it an atom embarrassing to have to ask my English colleagues to come to the House this evening and vote against the clause".
In other words, when it was in the interests of the Conservative party to take diametrically the opposite view to what is being proposed today, it had no hesitation in doing so.
"Most of all, a revised Scotland Act could embody some form of the 'in and out' principle. Under such a principle the remaining Scottish MPs at Westminster would not be allowed to take part in the proceedings of the House when it was debating English or Welsh domestic matters. The 'in and out' principle ought to be attractive to Conservatives" but
"Labour remains committed to devolution and may be expected to consider a plan along these lines".
I have not seen that quotation and do not know whether it is in context. In any case, I think that the in-and-out proposal is unworkable, and I would say that to whoever put it on the table.
My point is not about having a bit of fun at the expense of the Conservative party, but about making it clear that for all political parties and all interests, the views that people take on constitutional matters have an element of party and representational interests behind them. It is better to be honest about that than to pretend that they are pure and abstract debates taking place among constitutional lawyers.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman was making my point in a slightly different way. I agreed that the preceding position on Northern Ireland was unacceptable, but we have moved on, because we have a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly and an up-and-running Northern Ireland Assembly. That is why we need the Bill.
I accept that we should have a mature debate about whether any further changes are required in our constitutional arrangements, but I do not accept that we need the Bill. Despite what Mr. Heald said, there is a minority—but a reasonably significant minority—of voters in Wales and Scotland who would like to be represented by Conservatives, albeit rather fewer than are represented in Westminster by the Conservatives at the moment. It is undoubtedly the case that one reason why we are in the current situation is the first-past-the-post electoral system for the Westminster Parliament. As the co-chair of the Labour campaign for electoral reform, sitting next to the other co-chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith, I merely make the point that it may well be that one of the elements that should enter the equation for the future is a change in the voting system for the Westminster Parliament. That would not resolve all the problems but it would reduce the sharp focus on the anomalies produced by the current system of voting.
The proposals are not new and have been much debated, going back to the days of the Irish home rule discussions. There are three major obstacles to the Bill. The first—the in-and-out proposal—has been aired to some extent. It is about whether, in practice, it is possible on complex Bills—and most Bills are complex—to determine which matters should be voted on solely by English MPs and which should be voted on by the Westminster Parliament as a whole. Gladstone himself referred to this as a problem that was beyond the wit of man to solve. It is true that he ended up putting it in a Home Rule Bill, because he could not think of any other way forward, but it hardly suggested that hewas entirely convinced by his own solution. The Kilbrandon report and the report of the Constitution Unit last year came to a similar conclusion. Most of us who are familiar with the workings of the House would recognise the difficulties that would arise.
The Higher Education Act 2004 was mentioned earlier. It is true that a separate English Parliament would be able to vote on tuition fees for English universities and take no interest in whether that had a knock-on effect on higher education in Scotland, but if a single Parliament were discussing such a Bill, it would be much more difficult to say to Scottish Members of Parliament, "The effects may be indirect, not primary, and you are therefore shut out." There would be considerable concern throughout the House if Members who believed that legislation would affect the interests of their constituents were barred from speaking or voting on it. Everyone who has seriously considered the in-and-out system in the past has concluded that it cannot be made effective, and I think the Bill falls on that basis.
The second issue has not yet been raised today, but it is important. Our practice is to form a Government from Members elected to the House, and that means all Members elected to the House. History shows that it could be quite common for a Government formed from the Westminster Parliament not to be able to pass legislation on matters determined to be English-only. The whole position would become constitutionally unworkable in a relatively short time. Once a Government's Bills were failing regularly, that Government would cease to be able to operate effectively on any United Kingdom scale.
The Bill would turn out to be, inexorably, a staging post towards a separate English Parliament, which in turn would constitute a staging post towards the dissolution of the Union—which is why Mr. MacNeil is nodding so enthusiastically. I happen to believe that the end of the Union would be very bad for all components of the Union. The Scottish Nationalist party has always perplexed me, as a political party that wishes to make a nation less important in the future than it is today. We benefit enormously in the Union from the participation of so many talented and able Scots in the government and the life of this country, and they in turn benefit from the influence that Scotland has in the Union, which it could not possibly have as an independent nation.
The hon. Gentleman says that Scotland would be a less important nation without the Union. Does he think that Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen or Dermot Ahern would agree? Does he think that those people feel they would be better off governed from London, or does he think that Ireland today is a more important nation, which can play a part on the world stage on its own terms?
It is of course for people to determine their own future—I do not deny that—but when I see, for example, a politician from Scotland who, leaving domestic debates aside, is respected around the world for the leading role that he plays in tackling poverty in Africa, debt reduction and climate change, and when I look to a future in which no Scottish politician would play such a role, I find that future disappointing. The Union gives people in Scotland such opportunities.
I agree with my right hon. Friend on that point, but he also said that the Bill would lead inexorably to the establishment of an English Parliament, de facto. Is it not the case that the way in which the Bill would come into effect would lead to much bad feeling, tension and animosity precisely because of the chaotic way in which it would apply in practice? It would represent the worst of all worlds, even for those who support more self-government for England or for regions within it.
It would lead to a very chaotic period. First, it would lead to numerous tensions and divisions among Members of the Westminster Parliament. Secondly, it would lead to chaotic and unstable government, because the Government formed from the Westminster Parliament would be unable to proceed with their legislative programme. Thirdly, it would lead to inexorable pressure for the formation of a Government for England, which in turn would lead, through other unstable processes, to an English Parliament. It would trigger a process of constitutional instability that would be highly undesirable. My hon. Friend invited me earlier to subscribe to a test: does change make things better or worse? On that test, the Bill would make things significantly worse.
Having raised objections to the Bill, I should return to the beginning of my speech. There is, at least to some extent, a debate out there about the future governance of England and whether our current arrangements could be improved for the benefit of England and English issues. Even viewed from an English perspective, the Bill does not provide the best form of governance that England needs. There is an underlying confusion which suggests that because a national Parliament was right for Scotland, the equivalent would be right for England. I do not believe that that is so. I do not consider that our history leads the English to require a Parliament or Assembly as an expression of national identity. Indeed, I consider that in many respects what England needs is a more devolved form of government.
Incidentally, it must be said that one of the things that the Scottish and Welsh have done much better than the English is to develop an ethnically inclusive national identity. It is much more likely that a member of the black and ethnic minority communities in Scotland will describe himself as Scottish than that someone in England with a similar background will describe himself as English. People in England tend to jump straight to the British identity.
There is an important point to be made about the future of English governance. I do not suggest that the hon. Member for North Dorset has fallen foul of this, for he has not, but we must be careful not to allow the future English identity to become a surrogate for a white English identity rather than an inclusive, multiracial, multi-ethnic identity. The other nations have done better in that respect so far; we should acknowledge that, and learn lessons from it.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I certainly do not wish to cast aspersions. What he has said about Scotland is true, and my party hopes to have the first Muslim Member of the Scottish Parliament. His remarks contrast greatly with words that have been bandied around north of the border, such as "xenophobic"—on very wrong grounds.
I am not sure which remarks the hon. Gentleman means, but the surveys, facts and records speak for themselves. A big debate is taking place in England about identity, both Englishness and Britishness, and we need to learn from what is happening north of the border.
I see no great need for an English Parliament or an English Government. If we want to improve our system of government, we need government in smaller units than England. One of the advantages of smaller nations—not always, but sometimes—is that they are of a more manageable size. When my party was in opposition I worked with the current Leader of the House to produce a paper on English regional government, in which we showed that there was a substantial amount of it under the then Conservative Government, but that none of it was subject to any democratic accountability. That position has intensified over the past few years: there has been more regional government, and the accountability has not developed to match it.
I understand, because I live in the real world, that to talk of accountable English regional government at this point in time is like describing an unhealthy cross between a dead duck and a dead horse, but I am not sure it is as dead as all that. At the grass roots of English local government, there is a healthy move to demand more devolution, power and control. It may well be that regional government will no longer take the form of elected regional assemblies, but such movements exist in city regions, even in my part of the country. Political parties are working together throughout south Hampshire to create a much stronger regional focus.
There is a healthy move towards greater devolution in England, and that is where part of the future of English governance lies—in greater internal devolution. That of itself does not affect the question of voting on legislation in Westminster, but as that trend develops—as it inevitably will in the next 20 or 30 years—the demands placed on a Westminster Parliament regarding English legislation will be far more of an enabling sort, and far less of a prescriptive sort, than in the past 30 years or so.
I am sorry to have detained the House for so long, and in summing up, I shall make one further point. There are three elements to consider in responding to the current situation, the first of which is voting reform for the Westminster Parliament. The under-representation of the Conservative party at Westminster, and of Conservative voters, is part of the problem. Secondly, the development of a more accountable system of local and regional government in England is closer to what is needed in terms of good governance in England. The third element is the consequences of the decisions that we took earlier this week on the House of Lords.
Although the in-and-out question of dividing up English and Scottish legislation is insuperable for the primary legislative Chamber, which this place will remain, it is less of an issue for a revising and scrutinising Chamber, as the House of Lords will become, with its democratic mandate. If the House of Lords is wholly or largely elected in future—probably on a proportional, regional basis—it would not be offensive for English legislation, as part of the scrutiny process, to be scrutinised by Lords Members drawn from the English regions. That is worth thinking about. Because the Lords would not have the final say, the rough edges—the boundaries that determine the question whether it is it an England matter a Scotland matter or an everyone matter—would be less important.
That arrangement would provide a democratic focus for an English look at primarily English legislation that might prove helpful in future. Those three elements combined—voting reform for Westminster, stronger devolution within England and an imaginative use of the new House of Lords—could provide a better way forward than the hon. Gentleman's Bill. It will doubtless be 20 or 30 years before we actually do anything about these matters, but we should keep the discussion going.
There is only so much radical reform of the constitution that one can do in one week, and we have perhaps exceeded our quota. It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Denham, and it will surprise neither him nor the House to learn that I agreed with a lot of what he said. I was interested to discover the revelation that he was born in Devon, and it is also clear that he has been in Hampshire for so long that he now thinks of himself as a southerner, rather than a west countryman. I am a west countryman and that is my identity, but that does not prevent me at the same time from being English and British. Our roots within this country are important, as are the people whom we represent.
I want to congratulate Mr. Walter on securing the opportunity to debate his Bill today. I do not agree with its contents, but he is absolutely right to have raised this issue. I point out to Members in all parts of the House that this is not some strange, wacko argument, but a real one in many of our constituencies south of the border and east of the Marches. It is a real issue, and we cannot be indifferent to it. That does not mean to say that I accept the hon. Gentleman's solution, but we ignore it at our peril. If there is a view—and there is—among our constituents that England as a whole is ill-served by the constitutional settlement that we have reached, we need to address that.
I do not dispute for a minute that there may be some truth in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I do not diminish the value of his argument. However, although the focus of such concern might be the current arrangements at Westminster, in many respects the root of the problem is a wider disillusionment with the political process. The answer is not to be found in the measures being proposed by Mr. Walter, but in other reforms of our political system—both nationally and at a local and regional level.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he may have heard me say on many occasions that this country needs a process of extensive democratic renewal. There is a feeling of disfranchisement, disempowerment and disillusionment with the political process on a number of fronts. This issue is simply one symptom of a more deep-rooted malaise within our political system. All that I am saying is that we should not ignore the fact that there are people who ascribe their political disengagement to the fact that their views as English people within a United Kingdom are not being properly represented. I do not think that they are entirely right, but that is a real feeling and we should recognise it.
I tend to agree in part with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Sometimes, people are ill-informed about such matters not of their own volition, but because of the stories that are spread around. Let us consider a typical example that I often hear from colleagues in this place. Some people say, "Isn't Scotland lucky—it has free personal care for the elderly?" Financial support is offered north of the border in that regard, but such care is not as free as people think. An element of envy creeps in, and significant misinformation perhaps leads people south of Hadrian's wall to think that it is a paradise north of the border, and that they are being badly let down in some way.
The hon. Gentleman is right, in that there is an element of mythology. However, people see key decisions about social programmes being taken in Scotland by a Scottish Parliament that seem to provide a better arrangement than is being provided for them by a United Kingdom Parliament in our English constituencies. That is one factor, and another is the feeling that there are occasions when Members representing Scottish seats determine matters in a way that directly contradicts the arrangements in Scotland. Let me illustrate the point with a recent example. About two weeks ago, the House dealt with the highly contentious Offender Management Bill, which put in place arrangements for the probation service in England and Wales, and in doing so it rejected the position that the Scottish Executive adopted on exactly the same matter. The Bill was passed by a narrow majority in this House, with those representing Scottish constituencies—who will have exactly the arrangements that those of us promoting amendment of that Bill wanted—carrying the day. That is not an argument for the arrangements in the Bill before us—still less for an English Parliament, as I shall explain later—but we should recognise that such a situation causes disquiet.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. On the probation service, unless I am wrong—if I am, I am sure that Mr. MacNeil will correct me—some members of the Scottish National party voted in the Division in question according to their base argument that the trade unions had asked them to vote against the measure. Does that not indicate the difficulty that some Members might have in defining what applies to Scotland, and what has implications for Scotland and what does not?
It certainly does. I will not speak for Mr. MacNeil as he takes a different view from me on these matters.
I support the Union—that is one difference I have with the hon. Gentleman. I believe that the Union has served this country well. What worries me is that some people—I do not include the hon. Member for North Dorset among them—might exploit a genuine concern within English constituencies, either by accident, recklessness or malicious intent, to undermine the Union. That is a real threat if we proceed along the lines of having an English Parliament, and I believe that the proposal we are discussing moves us towards the creation of an English Parliament within this United Kingdom Parliament. That concerns me.
Why am I so against an English Parliament? If we have an English Parliament representing 80 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom and 80 per cent. of its material assets—or more if we consider the wealth of the south-east—it will inevitably become not only a rival to the UK Parliament but the real Government of a large part of the country. It is impossible to have a Government drawn from this Parliament and also a separate Government running 80 per cent. of the country and to believe that that will not provide for a constitutional deadlock—exactly the sort of deadlock that was described, wrongly in my opinion, in the debates that we had about the other place.
I should add that, from the point of view of my constituency, I feel that an English Parliament would do my constituents less good than a UK Parliament. I represent a rural west country seat and more of the constituencies that share the characteristics of my seat are to be found in rural Wales and rural Scotland than would be represented in an English Parliament that would be dominated by the urban and suburban interests of the urbanised areas of England. Therefore, if I want community of interest in respect of my constituency, which is more prevalent in a UK Parliament than it would be in an English Parliament.
I have said that I am a supporter of the Union and therefore cannot countenance an English Parliament. The second principle that governs my opposition is that Members of this Parliament are equal and must remain equal. They must not be categorised and put into some sort of national ghetto that does not allow them to participate properly in the workings of this sovereign Parliament. It worries me that that might be the effect of the proposals of the hon. Member for North Dorset.
Thirdly, I am not convinced that we should regulate what we do in this House by statute. We shall return to that matter in the context of House of Lords reform. To what extent can we regulate the affairs of Parliament by statute, or can that be better done by code and our rules of conduct? The moment we start regulating by statute—which is the intention of the proposals—we cross an important constitutional dividing line, because if some Standing Orders are to be dealt with by statute, why should that not be the case for all Standing Orders? At present, we have a marvellously fuzzy constitutional settlement in which very little is written down. A constituent of mine asked me recently what was the legal basis for Parliament. That is in fact quite a difficult question to answer. Is it founded on the fact that we have passed an Act?
That is possibly true, but we had Parliaments before that event, settled by an autocratic monarch—a monarch ruling by divine right. That was the source of the original Parliament's power. Since then, we have had the Bill of Rights. That was passed by a Parliament. Did it have the legal right to do that? It is in fact impossible to answer such questions because the governance of a country ultimately depends on the agreement of the people of the country. We have a Parliament because that is what the people of this country want us to have.
The hon. Gentleman's point is essentially about what is the right procedure. The leader of his party, Sir Menzies Campbell, has said:
"Once devolution has bedded down...it would make sense to examine the role of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs at Westminster, but it should not be done piecemeal."
Therefore, what is the Liberal Democrat position?
The hon. Gentleman might have exercised just a little patience. I have already accepted that there is an issue. I reject the proposal before us, as I understand he intends to do—because his party has a very important constitutional working party which has yet to determine Conservative policy. We are familiar with the fact that very few policies of the new Conservative party are yet determined. We look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman's opinion on this matter. However, what my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Menzies Campbell said is that there is an issue to be addressed, and that is exactly what I have been saying today.
I share the view of those who say that the West Lothian question is a misnomer. How Tam Dalyell managed to hijack this constitutional question and assume that it was his, other than by dint of his constant repetition of his point, is a mystery to me, because this constitutional question was, as has been said, very much a matter before the House during discussions on Irish home rule. Gladstone wrestled with it, as he did with so many problems, and despite it's being beyond any human's comprehension, he, of course, found his solution. That has persisted ever since.
To refer to a point raised earlier, it is right to ask why, in respect of Ireland both before the independence of the Irish Republic and since, it was perfectly acceptable for this House to accommodate the anomaly of having Irish Members participating and voting in debates, and yet it is not acceptable now for Scottish Members to do exactly the same thing. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen is absolutely right that there is a question here to do with a variety of anomalies. All circumstances such as those we are discussing—but particularly in the case of an economic and political Union such as ours, where one partner is very much larger than the others and therefore is the prime mover—create anomalies.
There is also a question to do with the political situation that creates the tensions that have been described. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that if the Conservative party did not do so lamentably poorly in Scotland and Wales, many such anomalies and associated issues would not arise, because there would be rough political parity in all parts of the United Kingdom and therefore circumstances in which it was purely the votes of Scottish Members that were instrumental in determining the result of any Division would arise less often. The Scottish people have so thoroughly rejected the Conservative party that it has often been unable to field anyone even remotely Scottish to speak for it—although it does have David Mundell. May I say, in parenthesis, that it would be a great help to this House if Scottish constituency names were not now a simple list of all the communities that lie within them, so that we might remember them better?
Only two communities are mentioned in my constituency name; some Scottish colleagues have many more. The fact that the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale has been elected as a Scottish Member means that the Conservatives now have a putative shadow Secretary of State. That it appears that he has been completely rejected by his colleagues in Scotland to the extent that they have warned him off attending the Scottish party conference is neither here nor there; he speaks on behalf of the Conservative and Unionist party on matters pertaining to Scotland in this House.
The hon. Gentleman has just suggested that the Bill has about it an element of party political point scoring by Conservatives, but earlier in his remarks he conceded that a genuine problem needed to be addressed, as his leader has said. Which is it?
I am not saying that the Bill is party political point scoring. I am saying that the problem arises because of the imbalance caused by the lack of representation of the Conservative party in Scotland, not least because of the rotten electoral system we have—because of course there are Conservative voters there, as we see in the results for the Scottish Parliament. We do not have adequate representation of what is, for the moment, the official Opposition in large parts of the country, and that means that inevitably the constitutional question of how this House conducts its affairs arises. That is not political point scoring: it is a recognition of the facts.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong, and he should listen to what I am saying. That imbalance means that English Conservative Members—and, occasionally, some of my hon. Friends—who wish to oppose a Government position find that there is no resonance for that position from a Conservative element in Scotland, because they are not here. They have not gained representation from the first-past-the-post system, and that is the real difficulty.
There we have some party political point scoring, and we shall see. I am waiting with bated breath to see whether the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party secures the seat that he is so confident of winning under the first-past-the-post system—
I am grateful for that guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. My anticipation over-excited me to the point that I could not forbear to respond to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, who was so clearly out of order in his comments.
As I was saying, the imbalance in representation is the root cause of many of the difficulties that we face. Those difficulties have already been adequately explored by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen, with the exception that I pointed out in an intervention—London. It has an elected Mayor and an assembly, but unlike Wales—the two have comparable, but not identical powers, and the subjects of the powers differ—London is very much included. That is an extraordinary anomaly, but it might simply be that London has a different political settlement to Wales.
We could include the trade policy in that—President Livingstone in a little kingdom of his own.
The Bill raises important questions that we need to explore more fully and I do not rubbish the attempt by the hon. Member for North Dorset to address them. But we urgently need to take certain action, which can be done without statutory support, to address some of the issues. The most obvious anomaly is Scottish questions. Why does this House still have a period of time set aside uniquely for questions to a Secretary of State with no power on subjects that are almost universally devolved to the Scottish Parliament?
I know what the hon. Gentleman is going to say. He is going to say that questions would be ruled out of order if the subject was entirely devolved. One need only look at the wonderful comedic interlude that used to be the five minutes of Advocate-General's questions. It would have been worth paying money to come into the Chamber to see the then Advocate-General, when she was a Member of this House—she is now Baroness Clark of Calton—explaining for five minutes why it was beyond her powers to answer any question that she was asked. It was a waste of this House's time, and Scottish questions are also a waste of time. I cannot ask west country questions. I cannot ask questions on behalf of the similar population of the west country on matters that affect us that are the responsibility of Ministers in this House. We do not have half an hour set aside for such questions, but it is set aside for questions on devolved matters to a vestigial Secretary of State, with very limited powers beyond organising cocktail parties at Dover house for other hon. Members. It is time that that anomaly was addressed.
Perhaps I can enlighten the hon. Gentleman on why we still have Scottish questions. It gives Labour Members half an hour to talk about their favourite subject—the Scottish National party.
The hon. Gentleman perhaps anticipated the nature of my intervention, but the fact is that we are not allowed to ask questions on devolved matters at Scottish questions. We are rigorously controlled by the Table Office if we should choose to attempt to do so. It is still the case that a large proportion of Government expenditure in Scotland still relates to matters decided at UK level. That is why it is right to have an opportunity to raise those questions at an appropriate stage in the parliamentary procedure. The hon. Gentleman should think carefully before suggesting that Scottish questions should be abolished. I am sure that Jo Swinson, who is in her place on the Bench behind the hon. Gentleman, would not agree, for a start.
The hon. Gentleman should consider the fact that there is much more Government expenditure in my region, but I do not have the opportunity to ask such questions. He should also consider how many of the questions are in the form of, "What discussions has the Secretary of State for Scotland had with the Scottish Executive about...". That is a spurious way of raising an issue that is eventually a matter for the Scottish Executive. It is an anomaly that we still have Scottish questions and a Secretary of State for Scotland. We need a single Minister who is responsible for co-ordination with the devolved Administrations and for non-devolved constitutional matters, but we no longer need a Department that behaves as though it still had some sort of provincial authority over the country of Scotland, when it does not. It is a remnant of a previous dispensation.
Yes, absolutely. We should have a new Department that deals with all the devolved Administrations and the constitutional issues—
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head as if that were an extraordinary suggestion: it is not. It is a perfectly proper one. Indeed, the Minister's Department performs some of those functions.
Welsh questions are different, because they deal much more with issues that pertain directly to Welsh constituencies. However, I note that some of the most persistent questioners at Welsh questions are Conservative Members representing English constituencies who, for some reason, have a consuming passion for asking questions about Wales. They are like the football and rugby players who represent Wales on the basis that their grandmother was half-Welsh. Those hon. Members demonstrate that passion for Wales week in and week out at Welsh questions. That runs entirely contrary to the basic thesis presented by the hon. Member for North Dorset.
There we are. Born in Swansea is sufficient qualification for involvement in Welsh matters, but the hon. Gentleman represents North Dorset and the last time I looked at a map North Dorset was not in Wales.
We need to make changes in our consideration of English affairs. We have a quiescent arrangement for a Standing Committee on Regional Affairs, so why does it not meet? Why does it not exist? Why do we not have the equivalent of the Grand Committees for the various other nations? Why do we not have Grand Committees for the regions of England, properly constituted and able to hold Ministers to account? We do not, yet that would be one way of starting to address the anomaly.
The real answer, of course, is a properly devolved settlement for the whole of the United Kingdom— the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen is absolutely right about that. The Government have started a constitutional reform journey with no idea of their destination. That is my main criticism of them. All constitutional reform is an evolution; it all takes time, but I want to know how the Government plan to address the fact that we have regional government in English regions of the UK that is not accountable to elected Members, either here or in the regions themselves.
The hon. Gentleman is a little unfair on the Government in this case. There was a clear way forward—accountable regional government—but we were unable to persuade the people of the north-east that the approach was right, so the hon. Gentleman is being a little unfair in saying that the Government did not know where they were going. The vision has not been abandoned, but we have to take a step back and decide how to approach the objective.
It is crucial to the principles of the Bill, Madam Deputy Speaker, if people in the English regions do not feel properly represented in Parliament and do not feel that they have the opportunities that are presented to the citizens of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to address themselves to an Assembly or a Parliament that has powers. That is the significant point. What was proposed for the north-east was merely glorified local government; it did not bring powers down from Westminster—from Whitehall—it merely agglomerated and duplicated powers from local authorities. That is why the proposal was rejected and that is why we have never properly addressed the issue.
I speak for a region that is incapable of deciding on anything to do with regional government, because we can never satisfactorily draw the line on the map. Whenever anybody suggests that one area is in the south-west, somebody else says, "Oh no it isn't, we're the real south-west." That is inevitable when the Government office for the south-west stretches from the Isles of Scilly to Tewkesbury and Tewkesbury is nearer Scotland than Cornwall— [Interruption.] Mark Lazarowicz looks doubtful, but it is true—he should look at the map. To make an international comparison, the south-west would be a country the size of Belgium, which is one of our problems. Although many of us know perfectly well where we come from, our friends just down the road say that we come from somewhere else.
I accept that there will be huge problems along the way, but only when we have a proper constitutional settlement that provides equality or parity of treatment for the people of the regions of England can we talk properly about having a federal UK Parliament. Until then, we must retain the good in what we have, which is the UK Parliament with Members elected on the same mandate and with the same powers of speaking and voting in this place. We must address by other means the anomalies that undoubtedly exist.
I congratulate Mr. Walter in three respects: first, on being lucky in the ballot; secondly, on the way in which he set the tone of the debate, allowing interventions and lively and thoughtful discussion; and thirdly, on keeping up his long-standing interest in constitutional affairs.
Several years ago, the hon. Gentleman and I worked together on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, to which we took a constructive and consensual approach, although we did not get the measure entirely right. We need to re-focus on the Electoral Commission, and although we did a lot of work on restrictions on donations, the issue of loans passed us by, which has had consequences for all the political parties. When I saw that the hon. Gentleman had produced a new constitutional Bill, I was keen to examine it in some detail. However, on this occasion, I have to depart from him. I think the Bill is wrong in principle, as I shall explain, and that it cannot work in practice. If it became law there would be major consequences for this place.
When the Bill was published, the hon. Gentleman issued a press release. It was interesting that, as far as I can tell, it appeared not on his website but on the "Campaign for an English Parliament" website, which tells us something in itself. In that press release and in his opening remarks today, he said that the text of the Bill would be based on a Bill introduced in the House of Lords in the last Session by Lord Baker. As a philosopher, like some of my colleagues in the Chamber, I have made a textual analysis of both scripts. The texts of both Bills are basically the same; the words are almost identical. There are some differences in layout, two of which are significant, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out.
The first difference is in clause 2(7), where the Lord Baker lists four categories of Member, while the hon. Gentleman has only three. The hon. Gentleman explained that he had put together the English and Welsh categories. As he says in his press release, that is because
There has already been argument about what the devolved settlement means. I believe that settlements will not remain static. There is a thirst in this country for more devolution, to move power and resources away from Westminster and Whitehall and closer to the people, so that we can do things differently in Nottingham and Newcastle, and Wakefield and Whitehaven can have different services. That move towards devolutionis inevitable—it is unstoppable. In the year sinceLord Baker produced his Bill there has been acknowledgement of change and the settlement for Wales has already been discussed in the House and changed. There will be more changes. No settlement is for ever.
The second point of departure from the Baker Bill relates to clause 4. The hon. Gentleman's clause 4 is entitled "Special provision relating to Northern Ireland legislation". As the hon. Gentleman has explained, because of the political discussions in Northern Ireland, it has become clear that all the political parties cannot be represented in an Executive, and therefore discussions on Northern Ireland issues ought to take place in this House. It would be wrong for the 18 Members who represent Northern Ireland, five of whom have not taken their seats, in a sense to dominate the Northern Ireland agenda. The discussion on Northern Ireland highlights the fundamental point that settlements change. If there has ever been a case in point, it is Northern Ireland, where we have seen the balance of power and the settlement change over a period of years.
I, too, was interested to consider the consequences of the idea that, because particular Members of the House from Northern Ireland decided not to take their seats, there would be a constitutional wayleave granted in a piece of legislation for their particular action. Will my hon. Friend speculate on what might happen if, for example, other nationalist parties represented in the House decided at any particular stage of the constitutional process not to take their seats either? In those circumstances, should such a process be undone for the whole of the UK, or for parts of the UK?
My hon. Friend makes a point that has already been talked about. The constitution is messy and it is not even. There will be inconsistencies. Part of the fundamental objection to the Bill is that it seems to want to clean up and categorise the constitution. I think that that is impossible. My hon. Friend gives an example of the way in which that would be difficult.
While I am mentioning Northern Ireland, I want to pick up and reinforce the point that a number of hon. Members have made—that the West Lothian question is not new. The issue of home rule in Ireland and the debates at that time were a precedent for the issues that we are discussing today. As Professor Brigid Hadfield commented:
"only those with short memories have called this the West Lothian Question."
Before that, there was the war of independence in the United States and the issue of no taxation without representation—something that I will return to shortly—which was very live at that time. The issues have been around for many years and we should not be afraid of them. We have to acknowledge that our constitution is not clear, that it is messy, that it changes over time and that time passes very slowly, as we have seen this week in relation to the debate on the House of Lords.
Earlier I said that I wanted to object to some of the many principles behind the Bill. I will mention eight principled objections. First, if the Bill became law, it would create a de facto English Parliament. England has 84 per cent. of the population of the UK. It provides more than 82 per cent. of the MPs and it provides 86 per cent. of the UK's GDP. The representatives from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, high-quality as they are, are swamped by the number of English MPs. In a day when Labour MPs revolt, and revolt frequently and in large numbers, we are nowhere near the scale of revolt that is needed for 200 English MPs to join the MPs from the three other countries and overturn the majority in the Chamber. If we go forward on this basis, rather than enhancing the powers, the powers of people from Wales and Scotland will be brushed away. They will be overwhelmed. This will become, in fact, an English-dominated English Parliament.
Secondly, in a week when we have spent a great deal of time discussing the House of Lords, I am concerned that we will return to the issue of having two classes of representatives—elected and unelected in the other place, and, under the Bill, MPs in this place who can speak on certain issues, but not others. The proposal, which is being actively considered by the official Opposition, is one of the many encountered in politics, as in life, which sounds superficially attractive and simple, but which, on closer examination, turns out to be incredibly complex, confusing in practice and profoundly damaging. There is not a case for a two-tier system of MPs or two classes of MPs. Most importantly, to have such a system would be fundamentally to misunderstand the role of Parliament and the MPs in it. MPs should represent the nation as a whole. Burke said that Parliament was
"a deliberative assembly of our nation with one interest, that of the whole...You choose a member indeed, but when you have chosen him, he is not a member for Bristol, he is a member of Parliament".
That is the point. MPs should speak for the whole nation. They should be able to pick up issues and pursue them vigorously. The notion of two different classes of MPs or two different classes of peers in another place is profoundly damaging.
Thirdly, the premise behind English votes on English laws is fundamentally flawed. My right hon. Friend Mr. Denham has already talked a little about the settlement with Scotland. It is correct that, at any one time while the Scotland Act 1998 is in force, some legislative matters that for England, and to some degree Wales, would be dealt with in the Westminster Parliament, are, for Scotland, dealt with in the Scottish Parliament. But the only legal reason why the Scottish Parliament has those powers is that this Parliament has passed the relevant legislation. We have conceded the powers. The settlement is with Scotland and the Scottish people. It is possible, although unlikely, that the legislation could be reversed. Rather than losing the power, we have ceded it to Scotland. That reinforces the point that I made earlier: settlements change and will need to be revisited.
Fourthly, and importantly—this is not an issue that we have discussed at great length today—there is the issue of the supply of money. Decisions taken in this House, whether on an English issue or anything else, will have consequences for the devolved bodies. The Scottish Parliament is dependent on the Barnett formula. Decisions taken in this place reflect back to Scotland. It is therefore important that colleagues who represent Scottish constituencies have an opportunity to discuss English matters, because of the consequential financial effects. It cannot be right that MPs representing Scottish constituencies should lose the power to discuss issues that will affect their home country financially.
When discussing the same issue, Lord Trimble, as he now is, said that
"expenditure of taxation is so fundamental to government that there must be equal representation for all parts of the country."—[ Hansard, 21 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1419.]
That must be right.
Fifthly, behind this debate lies an issue of symmetry, which we have discussed throughout this morning's proceedings. It is not just an issue for this country and for this settlement. I shall cite an example given by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in his Hansard Society lecture of July 2006. He said:
"Nor are we alone in this. Classically federal systems like the US are, on closer examination, asymmetrical. In the US Senate the smallest 26 states, representing just 18 per cent. of the population, can command a majority over the other states, with 82 per cent. of the population."
That situation involves no more symmetry than ours does. Good constitutional arrangements try to introduce a series of checks and balances to deal with that asymmetrical nature.
Sixthly, as some of my hon. Friends have said, we have a history of strong government. If the Bill were introduced, I think it likely that we would reach a situation where the Government would not be able to command a majority in their own House and Parliament. That is a recipe for chaos.
Seventhly, there is an issue relating to Ministers, and it is linked to my previous point. They should take collective responsibility and take the Government line. How could we have a situation where those from Scotland would not be able to vote in this House—or support collective responsibility—on issues of Government policy?
Eighthly, and finally, there is the issue of the other place. We have discussed that a little, but it needs to be developed further.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important powers that an elected Government have, apart from the power to bring forward legislation, is the right to control the parliamentary agenda? Given that the Bill would mean that programme motions could become the preserve of the Opposition, it would lead to the chaos to which he has referred.
That is absolutely right. Whichever party we represent, we want a Government who can command support and can get their business done. That is not the case across Europe. My hon. Friend's example puts the matter in a nutshell.
I come back to the question of the House of Lords. If Members of this place were not allowed to vote and speak on certain issues—if we were to become a de facto English Parliament—would the Lords not become the Parliament of the UK? It would be where the essential, big issues covering the whole of the UK would be discussed. We have talked a lot about primacy this week, and we need to explore that issue further.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. This Chamber should be the primary Chamber—it elects and throws out the Government: it controls expenditure; and it can use the Parliament Act.
I shall make a wider and different point. Let us consider what would happen if there were two classes of Members of Parliament, and certain MPs could not vote and, in particular, speak on certain issues. If there were a rival Chamber up the Corridor, where Members from across the United Kingdom, however they were elected or selected, were able to speak, there would be a case for people to say, "We are the legitimate Chamber of the United Kingdom, and you Commoners down there are a de facto Parliament for England." That is the threat. I do not say that that situation will arise, but we need to explore the issue.
I have highlighted the points of principle that I wanted to explore, but there are three points of practice about which I am seriously worried. We have already talked about the way in which one defines the territorial extent of legislation. I do not think that that is easy. The House of Commons Library keeps a set of tables and grids on the matter. In the 2005-06 Session, Scotland was fully covered by 23 Bills and significantly covered by three, while it was affected by the minor provisions of five Bills.
Hon. Members have pointed out that the scope and territorial extent of a Bill can change during its passage through Parliament. Lord Baker tackled that problem when he introduced his Bill in another place by saying that one could separate out bits of Bills to distinguish between the English and UK aspects. That sounds simple enough, but the very next sentence in his speech made it clear that the situation was more complex than he had indicated:
"The Speaker can take advice from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council".—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 10 February 2006; Vol. 678, c. 906.]
If the Speaker was unhappy about the definition of the territorial extent, he or she could take advice from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council—the Law Lords—but that hardly seems to be a quick procedure for a Parliament in which decisions are made rapidly. If there was an argument about territorial extent, the Speaker might feel that he or she needed to take advice and thus go to the Law Lords. After the Law Lords had considered the matter, they might decide that they should take evidence. It could take months for a decision to be made, which would be a recipe for inaction and chaos.
I think that he is being thrown off a bridge somewhere.
Given the geographical location of the constituency of the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, many of his constituents do not use the services of the hospital in his constituency, but access hospital and medical services, as well as further education services, in Cumbria. If the hon. Gentleman does not take part in the debates and Divisions that are relevant to those services, quite frankly he is not fully representing his electorate, some of whom were my constituents prior to the boundary changes.
My hon. Friend makes his point exactly. He knows, because he is more closely associated with the issue than me, about the discussions that take place about territorial responsibility for the River Tweed, in which the same kind of considerations apply because, as Lord Baker would put it, it is hard to define the English bit and the UK bit.
Let us consider another example. A bit of a Bill applying to the UK might have been certified as English. Troublemaking English MPs—there are lots of English MPs—could table an amendment to make that provision apply to Scotland. The Speaker would then be put in a difficult position, so the situation is not as clear-cut as the hon. Member for North Dorset would have us believe.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of my second point about practice, which is closely related to my first. The Bill shows that he is keen to establish the absolute power of the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers—of course, I accept that—although the Speaker and his deputies are big and powerful enough to look after themselves. Clause 1 remarks that
"This Act does not remove the absolute discretion of the Speaker".
It says that the Speaker
"shall not be questioned in any court of law", and that
"this Act in no way affects the ability of the Speaker, or any Member acting in his stead in accordance with the Standing Orders of the that House, to preside over the business of the House of Commons or a committee thereof, or to cast his vote on any item of business."
The hon. Gentleman is keen to establish the power of the Speaker, and rightly so, because if the Bill became law, the Speaker would be challenged, and I am uncomfortable about that.
Despite the reassurances in clause 1, I have no doubt that there are people within and, more particularly, without Parliament who would challenge the discretion of the Speaker. I noted carefully the points that the hon. Gentleman himself raised on the subject. I do not want the Speaker to be brought into controversy; he should be above challenge. If we were to go down the route proposed by the hon. Gentleman, it might be better to use a system currently in use and have the Secretary of State certify the territorial extent of legislation. Secretaries of State use that process when it comes to the European convention on human rights. On the front of each Bill, there is a statement saying that the Bill accords with human rights legislation. I would like to move away from the possibility of challenges to the Speaker and his deputies, and instead have difficult, controversial decisions made by the Secretary of State.
On the third practical issue, we are without doubt discussing a constitutional Bill. If a Government Bill had recommended removing hon. Members' rights to vote and speak, hon. Members would clamour for the Bill to be dealt with line by line, clause by clause, on the Floor of the House, and it would be a clamour that we ought to support. However, if the hon. Gentleman's Bill receives its Second Reading today, which is doubtful, the Bill will go upstairs for Committee consideration, just as any other private Member's Bill would. It would be wrong for what is clearly a constitutional Bill, albeit a private Member's Bill, to face a different process from that used for a Government constitutional Bill, which would be considered on the Floor of the House.
To conclude, I support the Union and I believe strongly that the Union adds to the four constituent parts of the country. The Union is valuable to us all, and I am concerned that if the Bill became law, we would lose the power of the Union, and the United Kingdom's status in the world. There are commentators, such as Professor Bognador, who is the tutor of the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Cameron, who would describe the Bill as reckless and opportunist. He is right; its measures are also unprincipled and unpractical, and we should argue strongly against them and refuse to accept them later today.
May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Mr. Walter on his success in the ballot, and on raising an important issue? I thought that I would speak at this point in light of the imputation of Mr. Brown. It is a tribute to my hon. Friend that all Members who have spoken so far have recognised that the subject is important and requires more discussion, and the House is grateful to him for providing that opportunity. It was excellent that my hon. Friend opened the debate by putting the situation in its historical context and going through the history as carefully as he did. I know that the House will be grateful to him for that.
Mr. Denham was characteristically honest when he said that Labour's position is based on the party's electoral interests. That was the basis of his remarks. We saw an example of that in the speech of Paddy Tipping, who cited many implausible scenarios that would scupper the Bill. He was clearly putting the issue in very full context. Towards the end of his remarks, he said that it was unlikely that the Bill would get a Second Reading. No doubt he and his colleagues will be proud that that is the result of their activities today.
I share my hon. Friend's concern that there is an imbalance in our constitution following devolution. Although devolution is well established and we support it, it raises an issue particularly as between England and Scotland that requires further consideration. At present, Members representing Scottish seats can help to decide matters for England over which they have no say in their own constituencies, and Members representing English seats have no say in domestic matters in Scotland, which are largely decided by the Scottish Parliament. There is a lack of reciprocity.
The hon. Member for Sherwood spoke of fearing two classes of Members in this place, but he ought to be prepared to observe that we are already in that situation. There are the Members who can decide matters for their constituents on domestic issues and those who cannot—they can just decide matters for other Members' constituents. I hope that the hon. Gentleman also recognises that the Opposition have drawn attention to the issue since the Scotland Bill was first presented to the House. In the reasoned amendment to that Bill on its Second Reading, the imbalance was one of the points highlighted.
Before the last election, the Bills on university top-up fees and foundation hospitals were passed only by the votes of Scottish MPs, even though both policies had been rejected by the Scottish Parliament and neither measure would apply in Scoland. Given the Prime Minister's reduced House of Commons majority, he has been more dependent than ever on the votes of his Scottish Members of Parliament as he tries to push through measures that are often deeply unpopular in his own party.
I agree with the hon. Member for Sherwood about one thing: there is a trend of power moving to the local from the national, and such devolution is worth while. But Labour's approach to the so-called West Lothian question, or the English question, has been to pretend that it does not exist. That approach was summed up, as I mentioned before, in the words of the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Irving, when he said in 1999:
"Now that we have devolution up and running, I think the best thing to do about the West Lothian question is to stop asking it." —[ Hansard, House of Lords, 25 June 1999; Vol. 602, c. 1201.]
In an appearance before the Commons Liaison Committee, the Prime Minister brushed aside the concerns of the Father of the House, Mr. Williams, by saying that he did not agree that there was a problem and that the debate on the subject had gone on for ever.
I believe, and I think everyone who has spoken would agree, that the Prime Minister's position is a dangerous one. His failure to acknowledge, let alone resolve, the West Lothian question raises fundamental questions of fairness, democratic accountability and legitimacy. It is right that those of us who care about both democracy and the Union should try to address the issue. I welcome the fact that the leader of the Liberal Democrat party has also said that the issue needs to be considered, although he has not come up with a solution.
I return to the Greater London authority, which has powers over public transport, including the regulation of the bus operators. May I take it from the hon. Gentleman's comments that Conservative Members will not take part in the vote on the road transport Bill later this year, which will give similar powers of regulation to bodies elsewhere in England?
The hon. Lady cannot have read this Bill, under which English and Welsh Members would have a say on matters that are to do with England and Wales. The matter generally needs more consideration by the democracy taskforce. Nevertheless, her point is not well made, because, as she may recall, London is still part of England.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that given the powers of the Greater London authority the Bill would also apply to London MPs and London matters? Would it not mean that London MPs should not vote on English matters relating to powers devolved to London?
My hon. Friend Ms Smith makes a good point. Under the logic of the Bill, if a matter is devolved to the London assembly, London Members should not vote on it when it is put to the House in relation to the rest of England.
The Minister clearly has not read the Bill either. She may not have spotted this, but it is about making legislation, something that she and I do all the time—at least, she proposes it and I sometimes oppose it. The London assembly does not yet have law-making powers, and personally I would not want it to.
This discussion comes back to a point that I made earlier. The Bill would open up a Pandora's box by creating not just two classes of Members but perhaps more. London Members could find themselves in an entirely different position.
I should like to make a bit more progress.
I agree with Mr. Heath on one point. We certainly do not support the idea of an English Parliament, and he explained the reasons for that quite well. As for regional assemblies, they are not popular. Regions are not known, liked or understood in large parts of the country. As the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen said, even in areas where it has traditionally been said that regions are popular, such as the north-east, people were not prepared to countenance the kind of regional assemblies proposed by the Deputy Prime Minister when the referendums took place. I think that there is a mood in this country not to have lots more politicians. I have never gone to a doorstep where people have said to me, "Let's have a lot more politicians with pay and rations."
My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke is chairing a democracy taskforce examining constitutional issues in order to recommend improvements that the Conservative party may wish to consider as part of our policy review. We want to consider its recommendations and the reasoning for them before coming to decisions on the detail of these delicate and important matters. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron has made clear, we are committed to finding a constructive Unionist solution to the situation. This Government have often charged ahead with little thought for the consequences when undertaking fundamental constitutional reform. It is therefore vital that any reform that we may propose in future is based on a careful assessment of the options. Some of the implausible objections put forward this morning do not bear close examination, but we do want the detail looked into very carefully.
Let me pick up on one or two points. It has been suggested that it would be frightfully difficult for a Speaker to certify a Bill. As the hon. Member for Sherwood should know, this a procedure that Mr. Speaker has undertaken for many years. According to
"After any public bill has first been printed, the Speaker shall, if of the opinion that its provisions relate exclusively to Scotland, give a certificate to that effect."
The matter is then dealt with in a particular way in this House. It is not a procedure used at the moment because we are not passing Scottish Bills, but it is a well-established practice for the Speaker to certify the territorial extent of a Bill for these sorts of purposes. It never created any difficulty.
In Scotland, Bills are passed with a territorial extent and it has created no difficulty. On occasions when Scotland wanted to co-ordinate with what is happening in this place, it has not created a problem and motions have still worked, so I really think that Government Members are making objections that do not hold water. There is no reason why there should be any difficulty.
It was also suggested that it would be very difficult for a Member of Parliament who is Scottish to be Prime Minister. Not a bit of it; it would make no difference at all. If a Member were thought suitable by his party to lead that party and he became the Prime Minister, there would be no problem with that at all.
Yes, I absolutely endorse that. What is more, if the Labour party in government needed to think about what the needs of England really were and what legislation was appropriate for England, and it wanted to consult widely with other parties in the House, I do not think that it would be a bad thing. Why should we not pass laws for England that are actually attractive to those who represent English constituencies?
Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that with respect to legislation led by Members representing Scottish constituencies or legislation in the name of a Prime Minister representing a Scottish constituency—as opposed to being Scottish, which is not the point. Surely that would create an untenable situation whereby Ministers representing Scottish constituencies would present legislation in this House that their colleagues in Scottish constituencies could not vote on.
First, I agree that this is not about where one was born. There are plenty of MPs born in Scotland who represent English constituencies, and, I suspect, vice versa. If I said "Scottish MPs", what I meant was MPs with Scottish constituencies and if I inadvertently said "English MPs", I meant MPs with English constituencies. I see absolutely no difficulty with a Minister whose constituency is in Scotland putting forward a measure that deals with England. I just think that it would be a good thing if the measure were attractive to Members of Parliament from English constituencies, because it would obviously then be more likely to succeed.
The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. Surely that would mean that that very Minister would not be able to vote on his own legislation, which would be untenable.
I am surprised to hear the hon. Lady say that, because the Prime Minister hardly ever votes for any of his legislation. The fact is that we are stuck with that and I do not think that the hon. Lady's point holds water for a moment.
I would also like to say that the hon. Member for Sherwood was onto a point when he said that we should look into the Westminster situation as a whole and that matters are not set in stone. One of the things about our constitution that I personally like and support is its flexibility: if circumstances change, the constitution can change. He is absolutely right to say that if the Government wish to proceed with what seems to be the logic of the votes earlier this week—that democracy should prevail in the other place—it is incumbent on them to come up would a detailed set of proposalsabout how exactly it would work. The House voted for something that the Government did not propose, so he was right to point that out, and the Government may want to consider the relationship between the different nations of the Union in that context.
Let us consider cross-border matters. The Scottish Parliament deals with health matters for Scotland, and hospitals in the south of Scotland are subject to that. As far as I know, that does not create a problem in the north of England, but if the hon. Gentleman has evidence that some new procedure is required, he will doubtless present it. However, I felt that he was flying a kite.
Some of the measures of constitutional reform proposed by the Government are welcome but the procedure has often been botched. One example is the abolition of the post of Lord Chancellor. It was announced as part of a reshuffle after a mere five minutes' consultation with the Lord Chief Justice. It required a concordat with the Lord Chief Justice to settle his concerns and more than 250 amendments in the other place because the proposal was so badly thought through. In the end, the role of Lord Chancellor was not abolished. The Conservative party should try to do better. That is why we have a democracy taskforce, which is a measured approach to constitutional reform.
I am especially conscious of the Union because of the 300th anniversary. Conservatives are strong supporters of the Union and we would not wish to do anything to undermine it. Indeed, if anything, we would like to strengthen it. That is not based on sentimental reasoning. I firmly believe that the Union has been one of the greatest political success stories of modern European history. It continues to contribute massively to the UK's culture, strength, stability and prosperity while enabling each constituent part to retain its proud sense of national and local identity.
All four nations that make up the UK benefit from the Union and continue to achieve much more together than they would separately. The Union must be strengthened, hence the need to address the unfinished business of the devolution settlement.
The Republic was an aspiration of people in the south and they achieved it. However, if we consider the economic consequences, it was difficult for the Republic in its early days. It had a long period of financial difficulty when matters were pretty desperate. Setting up as a new state is not easy and should not be underestimated. Applying to the European Union for membership and having to compete with all the countries from eastern Europe that are vying to get in means that one would not, as a new entrant, necessarily get the sort of deal or arrangement that one would have got at the time when the Republic or the UK joined. The hon. Gentleman should not think that being a small independent nation is always easy economically. It is not.
If Scotland sought independence and to join the EU, it would take a vote of the French people to sanction that before we moved forward.
I do not want to be nasty about the French. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman agrees—I think he does—that starting as a new state would be difficult in the EU at the moment, given that many other countries are joining. Many of them are not in a strong economic position, so they will look for the sort of help that was given to other countries in the past. It would be quite a competition.
The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that Scotland might need help, but the only help that Scotland needs is to help itself.
Scotland is a wonderful nation and I would certainly not say anything different, but the hon. Gentleman was making a different point. He was saying that Scotland would be in economic clover if it were independent, but I gave the comparison of the Republic of Ireland. I made the point that it was not easy for the Republic economically when it started. A lot of the points that are made about the European Union are predicated on the basis of the same deal that the UK has now being available to a new entrant state, but who knows?
If it was not easy for the Irish Republic when it started, that was because of the very position in which it had been left by the Union that you so enthusiastically espouse.
The fact is that there came a point when the Republic decided to follow what is loosely known as Thatcherite economics. It is since then that the Republic has done extremely well, although I do not remember the Scottish National party ever agreeing with us about that. [ Interruption. ] Perhaps I can continue and annoy hon. Members a little bit more.
These days the Chancellor of the Exchequer is concerned to form a Government. That might explain—following what I would call the Itchen principle, which is that people often speak on the subject in their party's narrow interests—why he has changed his views so much over the years. In the book that he wrote some years ago, "The Politics of Nationalism and Devolution", he said:
"Devolution must be taken out of the relatively restricted confines of Scotland and Wales and seen as part of the attempt to make British Government more acceptable to the British people"...."Most of all, a revised Scotland Act could embody some form of...'in and out' principle. Under such a principle the remaining Scottish MPs at Westminster would not be allowed to take part in the proceedings of the House when it was debating England or Welsh domestic matters"...."Labour...may be expected to consider a plan along these lines",..."No coherent or defensible proposal for devolution can emerge as long as the problems of exerting democratic control over the Scottish and Welsh office are tackled on their own".
The Chancellor therefore argued for a similar system to what is proposed today. I assume that he will take no offence at all when the Minister rubbishes his former argument, but it seems that he has moved on since the sniff of No. 10 has been in his nostrils.
Hon. Members will be well aware of the concern about the issue in the House and the country. Elections for the Scottish Parliament are not far away. We should mount a strong defence of the Union, but that should not be an alibi for the failings of the Labour party. Despite its no doubt good intentions, it has failed to deliver in Scotland as in other parts of the United Kingdom. Labour must do far better on tackling crime and drug abuse and give better care for those who are addicted. We need a more caring and more effective Government, particularly in Scotland but also in the rest of the UK. The Barnett formula has been mentioned, but the leader of the Conservative party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney, has made it clear that we do not seek to make a change to that.
I recently visited Scotland, along with my shadow Cabinet colleagues, and met the Electoral Commission in Edinburgh. It has a serious challenge in ensuring that electors are aware of the complex voting systems that the Government have inflicted on them. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe will report his findings later this year. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset has put down a marker and will want to be involved in the debate at that stage, too, so I thank him for arranging this debate today.
I must confess that I feel slightly guilty about participating in this debate, because I am aware that there are Scots here from all parts of the House who want to make a contribution. I shall try not to detain the Chamber for too long, although I am sure that at least one Scot will be called before the end of the debate.
We have heard a lot about the history of the subject. We have had a quick trot through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and mention has been made of 1949 and the Republic of Ireland, and the devolution referendum for Scotland in 1979, which I can remember— I remember only too painfully the events that followed shortly afterwards. I also remember the poll tax—it would be nice if Opposition Members were to say that I am too young to remember it, but somehow I do not think that that will be the case. We have also heard a great deal about the West Lothian question. None of that persuaded me, however, that the Bill is anything other than an attempt by the Conservative party to build the possibility of getting a majority in the House of Commons on many occasions.
Before I speak about the Bill in more detail, I recommend that the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland follow the example of Mr. Heald, who is not only the shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs but the shadow Minister for Sheffield—at least he has made some constructive efforts to build support in that city. If only the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland would do the same in Scotland, perhaps the Conservative party could start to think about rebuilding its base there. It is a long way from doing so, and today's Bill is a shortcut to solving a sorry state of affairs for the Conservative party.
On the territorial matters in the Bill, the isolation of English-only parts of a Bill is unlikely if not impossible. Many Acts that could be perceived as dealing with English-only issues have sections that extend to Scotland and Wales. Even when the territorial clause is applied, that is not always apparent. An example from last year was the Compensation Bill, which, thanks to the efforts of my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour Mr. Clapham, ultimately contained an important clause relating to mesothelioma and compensation for miners who had contracted it. In almost every regard, the Compensation Bill applied principally to England, but that one important clause, clause 3, applied to Scotland. The Bill related to legal matters, on which there is a huge difference between Scotland and England, but that clause had to apply to Scotland. It would have been very difficult, had the Bill before us been in force, to separate that clause out and to have a Second and Third Reading. There are fundamental difficulties relating to the Bill.
It has been mentioned already, but it needs to be mentioned again, that a fundamental constitutional principle is at stake: all MPs are equal in this Chamber and should be able to vote on any issue brought before them. Limiting the voting rights for MPs would create two classes of Member, and that would be unacceptable. It is a fundamental principle of the Union that all parts of it are equally represented at Westminster. My righthon. Friend Mr. Denham made probably one of the best defences that I have heard of an unwritten constitution, which may not please Liberal Democrat Members. I agree with him that there is never an end to constitutional debate, but I am sure that he will agree with me that, whatever constitutional change takes place in future, there cannot be two classes of MP.
I would go so far as to say that having English votes for English laws is not sustainable. The in-and-out principle to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen referred would create tensions that would soon lead to demands for a separate English Parliament, which in turn would threaten the Union.
I know that that argument is denied by the Opposition, but the Bill would inevitably lead to that tension and threaten the Union in the end, because the English Parliament's measures would be so dominant that neither the Union Parliament nor the other devolved institutions would be able to maintain their autonomy. For example, if an English Parliament reduced public spending and made a demand on the Union Parliament that taxation be cut as a consequence, those tax cuts would apply to Scotland and Wales equally as they would to England, via a Union Parliament. The expenditure implications of any legislation apply across the Union more often than not. It is that fundamental underlying point, made by my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping, which more than anything else makes it impossible, or very difficult, for us to accept the Bill.
I hope that I can help the hon. Lady. She has strayed into the sphere of taxation and Treasury matters, which would not be affected. Those are United Kingdom matters and would continue to be so.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind remarks about Sheffield. My mother lives there and I am having a very good and rewarding time there.
Is it not the case under the Scotland Act, which is, after all, the governing legislation for the Scottish Parliament, that Treasury matters are reserved to the UK Parliament? The hon. Lady's fear would not arise.
I repeat that an English Parliament or an English-based decision-making process would have an impact on reserved matters at Union level.
The facts on that are clear. In England the population is just under 52 million; in Wales it is 3 million and in Scotland 5 million. There is an in-built majority within the UK, and consequently the UK parliamentary system, which means that it is inevitable that we have the variables in our constitutional arrangements to protect those parts of the UK that do not have the weight and power of England.
Another relevant point is that the Bill, if passed into law, would make it difficult for the Government to do their job. Would it mean, for instance—I raised this in an intervention—that Ministers representing Scottish constituencies would not be able to lead on legislation that was designated as English only? Would it mean that the scope of the Prime Minister for choosing the best and the most able to serve in Government posts would be seriously curtailed? Surely that would not be sensible.
Historical evidence tells us clearly that Scotland has been represented by some of our finest politicians, and a great many Labour Members believe that that continues to be the case. If we could never have a Scottish Prime Minister or a Prime Minister with a Scottish constituency, the Chamber would be sadly reduced in terms of its effectiveness and ability to lead the country. We have many examples to draw on to demonstrate that.
Mr. Heath referred to Gladstone, who represented Midlothian when he led the debate on Home Rule for Ireland. He also extended the franchise and introduced the secret ballot. Following on from Gladstone, we had Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith, who between them represented Stirling and East Fife. Those two Prime Ministers in particular laid the basis of the Liberal reforms, free school meals, old age pensions, labour exchanges—which were still called that when I was small—sick pay and unemployment benefit. Scottish Prime Ministers or Prime Ministers representing Scottish constituencies have done a great deal for the UK.
It is also true, is it not, that the 1707 Union in itself is fundamental to Britain's economic development, and that we are stronger together than apart. For that reason alone, it is critical that we do not do anything today, or vote for any legislation today, that threatens the Union. Britain's place in the world was built on and remains dependent on the Union. Not only Scotland but England would lose its place at the top table if the Union were to split, something that I think would be inevitable.
Yet again I hear the words "the Union". Why is Ireland more prosperous per capita outside the Union and outside London rule, independent and governing itself? How did that happen?
As has already been said, it took Ireland a very long time to get there. Why go backwards when it is better for us to stay together and continue to move forward?
If the Union split, we would also lose our place on the United Nations Security Council, along with our veto power. That is why I think we should think extremely carefully before making any move away from the current arrangements.
Evidence has shown consistently that the Liberal Democrat answer to the so-called West Lothian question would not work. A federation in which one partner is dominant tends not to work; one partner representing 30 per cent. of the whole is the most it can normally cope with. In Germany in 1949, for example, the old Prussia was divided into several parts to prevent if from dominating the new state. Is that what we want for England? I do not think so.
As a northerner with a strong sense of northern identity, I must admit that a part of me would respond very positively to such a proposal. Indeed, in the dark and distant days of the 1980s I often felt like making a unilateral declaration of independence. But my head tells me that the adoption of such a policy would be disastrous for the north of England economically in the long term, and I would resist it strongly. I believe that devolution for England is the genuine way forward, but that is not the answer presented by the Bill. The real answer is proper devolution for England, putting us on the same level as the Scots and London. In the long term, devolution for England, and particularly for its regions, is inevitable. Even if it takes five, 10 or 15 years, we will have devolution in the end, because it works, people like it, and it benefits the regions economically and socially.
Another important point is that England cannot be overruled entirely against its wishes, even under the current arrangements. England provides more than 80 per cent. of the membership of the House of Commons, and there are just 59 Scottish MPs. For a decision to be imposed on an English majority, more than 200 English MPs would have to join all those from the other nations. Even in the governing party, the party with the largest group of Scottish MPs—long may that continue, as I am sure it will—there are only 39 in a total of 355. That statistic hardly suggests a dictatorship of the north, and I do not think there will ever be one while there is a total of 428 English MPs.
There are a number of Ministers representing Scottish constituencies in Parliament, and quite right too. They are talented individuals doing a good job, serving their country and the Union. They are in Parliament not just to represent Scottish constituents but to legislate on behalf of all in the Union: they have a collective responsibility to legislate for the benefit of everyone who lives in the United Kingdom.
Members of Parliament are representatives, not delegates. Edmund Burke—one of the grandfathers of the Conservative party, or at least of Conservative party thinking—said
"Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where... not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole."
That was an 18th-century way of saying that we are all here to work for the collective good. English votes for English laws would break that important principle, making the MP's constituency the most important defining factor about him or her. That would reduce our role considerably and for the worse.
There are other important practical questions to ask about the Bill. Would the Speaker have to rule on each clause of each Bill? As noted in respect of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the territorial extent clause does not always tell the full story. Who would rule on allegations that different clauses had been considered by the wrong Parliament? Would there be challenges to the Speaker, and would the principle that the Speaker's authority is paramount be compromised? Also, where would we stop? Should anyone other than London MPs vote on changes to the powers of the Greater London authority? Only two months ago, this House voted collectively on a Bill to extend the powers of the GLA. The logic of the Bill before us today would mean that we would have to apply the principle in question to the GLA as much as we did to England and Wales.
We would end up with the break-up of the Union itself. The Bill is a dangerous measure, and it must be resisted. It threatens the economic future of the UK. It would also threaten our position in the world and weaken our influence. It would weaken and damage the social ties between the countries that make up the Union. Scotland, England and Wales have lived in peace since the Act of Union of 1707. As a Union, we have built prosperity and economic stability for our peoples. We have worked together, rather than apart. We have learned the lessons of history. We have moved on: we stopped fighting each other and started working for the common good, and long may we continue to do so. We cannot weaken our relationships. I urge Members to reject the Bill.
I congratulate Mr. Walter on promoting the Bill. The intentions behind it are good. I should also say that he was generous and courteous in respect of taking interventions, which was greatly appreciated.
The Bill is an attempt to sort out certain anomalies that have been created, and the hon. Gentleman should be congratulated on trying to do so. Most of the anomalies have arisen because of devolution, under which the Scottish Parliament can act independently in certain restricted areas and come to decisions of its own that can, theoretically, be quite different from the conclusions reached in this House. It might be worth pointing it out to Members that most parties in Scotland now want more powers—either more devolution or independence for the Scottish Parliament. That a couple of parties want more devolution leads me to conclude that devolution is ultimately independence for slow learners, because Scotland will become independent. More and more powers will be moved from London to Holyrood. Independence is the inevitable consequence of the path that we are on. Members of other parties might think that that will not happen, but time will tell, and the sweep of history is on the side of the Scottish National party. In time, it will be seen that that will happen.
The Bill hopes to address the West Lothian question. That question is best answered by offering the West Limerick example. The voters of West Limerick have no interaction with the voters of, for instance, West Leicestershire, and the MPs for Leicestershire and Limerick have no connection at all. They get on perfectly well and perfectly peacefully to their mutual benefit with their own national Parliaments. That shows how matters will develop in the future.
Labour and Liberal Members thought that the SNP would support the Bill. Unfortunately, we think that it is, in effect, a square peg for a round hole. Despite being well intentioned, it does not offer a solution. That it was thought that we would support it shows that whenever the Liberals and Labour analyse SNP policy their analysis is invariably wrong, as it certainly is on this occasion, because we do not support the Bill at all.
It is not the job of the SNP to sort out whatever anomalies arise at Westminster—whatever mess arises from efforts that are akin to attempting to plug holes in a dam. However, I should add that the SNP has been helpful to Westminster in recent times. The searchlight that has been cast on cash for peerages might have been the decisive factor in bringing about the recent vote in favour of having a 100 per cent. elected House of Lords—which I welcome, of course. It is a Scottish tradition to tidy up the house before leaving, and perhaps that will be one of the great favours that the SNP has done Westminster. We hope that it is looked on kindly—after independence.
I have great sympathy with the position as outlined by the hon. Member for North Dorset. It cannot be fair that certain Members vote on legislation that affects not their constituents but somebody else's. For my part, I scrupulously try to avoid that, which sometimes involves much pain, but it is not always possible to do so. Reference has been made to the Bill's territorial reach, and there are sometimes certain consequences to consider.
Can the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why he and his colleagues and the Scottish Conservative Member voted on the Offender Management Bill last week?
Indeed I can. That decision was reached after much internal debate in the SNP. It became clear that that Bill did have consequences for Scotland, and not least for the national body representing parole officers, which approached the SNP. That is why we voted on the Bill.
I think that the hon. Gentleman and others sensed a defeat of the Government, and nothing more than that.
Absolutely not. The reality is that if a measure is going to impact on Scotland, the SNP looks to defend Scotland's interests first and foremost, without any other considerations—such as the job application form of Mr. Brown. We will always look to what is in Scotland's interests.
Does that not underline the extreme difficulty of defining what relates to which part of the UK, in terms of the Speaker's proposed responsibilities as defined in the Bill? Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that he has just illustrated how difficult—indeed, almost impossible—it would be in practice to do a good job as a constituency Member in those circumstances?
I agree fully; indeed, the hon. Gentleman has anticipated some of my remarks. Ultimately, the solution is to do what Latvia, Lithuania, Iceland, Ireland and Norway have done, which is to have an independent country—indeed, two independent countries.
The current situation does lead to problems. For example, it is very hard to define exactly where the territorial reach ends. That has consequences, as we know from the examples of top-up fees, foundation hospitals and the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, on which the SNP had to vote because we could not get a guarantee from the Minister on the Floor of the House that there would not be consequences for Scotland. The same was true of the Offender Management Bill.
The solution to all this is not the Bill before us, as the sweep of history shows. In 1900, there were a mere 50 independent nations or states in the world; today, there are some 200. This is a growing phenomenon, and it will continue to grow, and Scotland will eventually join in. When the slow learners figure out that devolution is actually independence in progress, we will have an independent Scotland—and, indeed, an independent England. The Bill does not really deal with the various problems, for the salient reasons that the hon. Gentleman just gave. The SNP frequently has to examine legislation, and I would not be averse to guidance being provided on a particular Bill's consequences. That would certainly make our job easier, as we would not have to work out from first principles whether a Bill has consequences for Scotland.
The Bill also overlooks the situation regarding statutory instruments. Indeed, earlier this week, Jo Swinson and I served on a Committee that dealt with a statutory instrument for Scotland. There is an anomaly within the Bill's text, in that it does not account for such matters. That issue has perhaps been overlooked, which might be indicative of the nature of the Bill itself.
As far as the SNP is concerned, the current brochan, as they say in Gaelic—the porridge—at Westminster is a shambles. However, the only workable solution is for MPs to be independent—for them to be left to decide individually, or in groups, on the exact reach of a particular Bill. For the SNP's part, we will try as best we can not to interfere in English governance. We actually believe that the English are more than capable of governing themselves. I often chide English MPs and point out to them that France, Germany and Spain are capable of governing themselves without any help from the Scots, and I believe firmly that England is just as capable. When England is an independent nation, the sweep of history will show that to be true.
The solution to the problems that have been outlined and identified in this debate is not this Bill, however well intentioned, but independence for the good people of England. We have to remember that this is Europe's largest stateless nation, and I hope that some day it will take its place in the world. The hon. Member for North Dorset correctly identifies a problem, but I assure him that it will be sorted out fairly soon by means of Scottish independence.
I, too, congratulate Mr. Walter on bringing forward the principles for discussion. It is right that those issues should be discussed. When the hon. Gentleman introduced the Bill with a press release—my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping suggested that it was under the banner of the Campaign for an English Parliament—he said that it was a solution to the West Lothian question. That claim strikes me as being like those mathematicians who claim to have found a solution to Fermat's last theorem. On detailed examination, it turns out that it is not a solution, the prize money goes unclaimed, and the debate continues.
Just as it is right that fellow mathematicians continue to seek to solve Fermat's last theorem, it is right that—whatever the wider principles—the Bill is considered in some detail. Were the general sentiments simply to be agreed, and the Bill were to receive a Second Reading without being considered in detail, we would—as has been suggested before in this debate—be saddled with a monster. It would make debates in this House unworkable. For instance, it would make your job, Mr. Deputy Speaker, almost impossible as far as the proper conduct of debates was concerned. It would require an almost continuous process of serving notices about who was eligible to speak in what debate. As we have also heard, because Bills can change in nature in their passage through the House, certain Members could be deemed able to speak and vote on a Bill at one stage, but not at others. It could also be argued that a Bill might have turned out differently if Members who became able to speak and vote on it at a later stage had been able to participate earlier. That would be a minefield especially when it came to interpretation or revision of the Bill.
Another problem with that proposal comes to mind. Say that on Report an amendment was tabled to a Bill that would mean that it no longer applied to Scotland. If that amendment were carried, would we have to subtract all the votes cast by Scottish MPs at previous stages? What would happen in the reverse circumstances if Scottish interests were added to the Bill on Report?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting and important point, which was unfortunately brushed over by Opposition Members as an argument that did not hold water because Members were raising issues that might never happen. However, when making constitutional legislation we have to think about the things that might come up during the passage of Bills to the statute book and the outcome described by my hon. Friend could indeed come to pass.
The hon. Member for North Dorset tries to protect Mr. Speaker through provisions on the presentation of certificates to Parliament and the making of other rulings; clause 1 would ensure that there would be no recourse to Messrs. Solicitor and Barrister or the courts to overturn the Speaker's rulings. Nevertheless, the situation described by my hon. Friend Mark Lazarowicz could arise during the course of a Bill. Furthermore, the Speaker himself might consider that the original arrangements had not been determined correctly and should be rectified, in which case any previous proceedings on the Bill would be nullified for the rest of its passage. Merely in terms of that narrow reading of the hon. Gentleman's Bill, it would seem unwise for the House to proceed with it.
There has been wider speculation in the Chamber today about the reason why the Bill was introduced. For decades there have been anomalies in the way the House votes on its business. They have attracted periodic but not enormous attention, and there has been some support from the Opposition for their continuation. I am thinking in particular of the continued participation of Northern Ireland Members in votes in this place on business that did not concern Northern Ireland while Stormont was sitting on a devolved basis.
Why is a change being proposed now? I was interested to learn that a commission for democracy has been set up through Conservative party channels, to decide, among other things, on issues covered by the Bill. Indeed, it has been suggested that a measure such as the Bill may be considered by the commission, so if the House's deliberations today serve only one purpose, it will be to tell the commission, "Don't do it—think about something else." Although we are talking about a real issue, it will not be resolved by addressing the detailed way in which we make our decisions with an attempt to solve the West Lothian question through the device of setting up two classes of Members of Parliament.
That is at the heart of the wider issue raised by the Bill. Devolution to the Scottish Parliament of powers to make legislation and raise taxes and devolution to a lesser extent to Wales came about as the result of Acts of Parliament here. As has been said this morning, it is possible, although highly unlikely, that a similar Act of Parliament could undo that process. Therefore, although it is true that there is an anomaly in terms of the way in which votes may be said to take place on a daily basis in the House on legislation that affects parts of the UK, but not other parts, it is also true that Members are in the House on the basis that they have an overall concern about all legislation that relates to the UK, because of the way in which the legislation devolved from an Act of Parliament passed and contributed to by all Members of Parliaments in the UK when devolution first took place.
It has been emphasised that the logic of the Bill is not that it resolves that anomaly, but that it leads on to a resolution by other means: the setting up of an English Parliament, which, presumably, would have the same legislative features as perhaps a Welsh Parliament, the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly. In those circumstances, as hon. Members have also pointed out, there could well be a certain outcome, because one particular part of that federation would have an overwhelming preponderance of the votes. I am afraid that Mr. Heald failed to understand the importance of that point, which was raised by my hon. Friend Ms Smith.
If the federal Parliament were to vote on the money supply for the UK as a whole and devolve that into national Parliament components, and a national Parliament that had 80 per cent. of the votes for the federal Parliament as a whole then considered the matter, the likelihood of the entire decision-making process of that federal Parliament effectively being run by the one Parliament that had 80 per cent. of the votes in terms of the decision making on finances in the first place, would be high. The net result of a federal system would be that, in effect, there would be less power and devolution for the components than there is at the moment. That outcome would look quite perverse in terms of the ambitions of those who sought to push through that federal arrangement in the first place.
The other important point at the heart of the debate is that the Bill seeks to resolve a question about the extent to which there is symmetry in the way in which the affairs of the House work. My right hon. Friend Mr. Denham pointed out earlier than the constitution of the United Kingdom has never easily bumped along on the basis of attempts to secure exact symmetry at any one stage. In many ways, the UK constitution is involved in a process of continual becoming. As a position is reached, further changes are made.
As has been pointed out, the West Lothian question is not an issue that arose at the time when the then Member for West Lothian mentioned it; it has a much longer pedigree than that. If one looks at the question of asymmetric devolution, not just in the UK, but in various parts of the world, one realises that not only is it not a relatively recent phenomenon in this country, but a common phenomenon in many countries across the world, and particularly in Europe.
Let us think about the UK's constitutional position. We have discussed the question of the Scottish Parliament, which has its own parliamentary processes and the ability to introduce legislation and vary tax. There are also representatives elected to the UK Parliament—not the same representatives, but representatives who are voted for by the same electorate.
Wales has no tax-raising power and no primary legislative capacity but it has representatives in the UK Parliament deriving from the same electorate who elect the representatives of its own Assembly. Jersey has its own Parliament and does not have representatives in the UK Parliament, yet the UK Government are responsible for a number of things as far as Jersey is concerned. Jersey is not an independent country, but it does not have the same status as Scotland and Wales.
That is a further and long-standing part of asymmetric devolution in the UK. Indeed, a number of Jersey's residents would claim that the UK is devolved from Jersey, in so far as Jersey is the last part of the Norman possessions that remained in the hands of the King of Normandy, who became the English King after 1066. Jersey and Guernsey do not have the same constitutional status, nor does the Isle of Man. It has its own, ancient Parliament, and it, too, does not have representatives in the UK Parliament.
We could talk about Sark and Alderney, but we do not have time to do so today.
There are further anomalies, such as Gibraltar. Its population is represented in the UK parliamentary system, in as much as it takes part in Euro elections. It elects a Member who would otherwise take his or her seat in the European Parliament solely representing a part of the UK mainland.
All those different arrangements in the UK can be matched up with others, such as those in the French overseas territories. Those territories have representatives in the French Parliament. There is asymmetric devolution in Denmark, because Greenland has members in the Danish Parliament but it is not a member of the EU; it has members in a sovereign Parliament within the EU, who make decisions relating to the EU. Jersey is not a member of the EU either, but the UK undertakes a number of responsibilities for it and the UK is a member of the EU.
There is an idea that the Bill can bring about an easy solution to the West Lothian question of asymmetrical devolution, but it merely nibbles at the foothills of the asymmetry of how this country is governed and has been governed for a long time. The Bill proposes to secure an administrative solution for the business of this House. Even if that solution were remotely to work, it would not address the wider question of asymmetric devolution within the UK in general.
Asymmetric devolution is far more common than people think, and it is how many countries deal with the issues of how their constitutions work. Let us consider the interesting example of Spain. There was initially asymmetric devolution within the three linguistic regions of Spain—Euskadi, Galicia and Catalunya—which for a while stood anomalously within the Spanish constitution. The constitution states that there shall be particular forms of devolution in Spain, while also stating that Spain is a unitary and indivisible state.
On that point, my hon. Friend will be aware that Mr. MacNeil, who has returned to the Chamber, was making great play of small nations and their role in the European Union. Is Catalunya not an example of a small nation that has decided to remain part of a wider union? Perhaps he did not mention that because his nationalist friends have been defeated in the past two elections: those in Catalunya and in Spain, whose Government are of course led by the Socialist party.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for filling me in on sections of the recent history of devolution in Spain. He is quite right to say that Catalunya is undoubtedly a nation. It has its own history, culture and language, yet it sits in the unified constitutionof Spain. In the past, it has elected nationalist Governments, although it is now governed by representatives of the Spanish Socialist party, which is clearly a good thing. However, under a constitution involving asymmetrical devolution, the state of Spain has not broken up, and nor have there been riots about the relative role of Catalunyans in the Spanish Parliament or any significant interference with the devolved process.
A further important point about Spain is that following what one might call the initial anomalous devolution, all the other regions in Spain achieved states of devolution—autonomia—that approximated to, but did not quite equate to, those in Galicia, Euskadi and Catalunya. That means that Spain has both a unitary and a highly devolved structure of government. The change to the constitutional settlement has, to an extent—precisely as my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen described—amended the constitution to deal with new issues as they arise.
I consider that the wider consequence of our debate is the suggestion that we should set our face against attempts to implement tinkering administrative solutions to the question of devolution in this country that relate to the way in which our Parliament deals with anomalies that have been part of the British constitution for hundreds of years, one way or another. Instead, we should consider how the devolution of power and authority to not an English Parliament, but the English regions, might proceed. I share the view of several hon. Members that although the question of devolution to the English regions is resting, it has certainly not gone away. If we are ever to come up with a solution to either Fermat's last theorem or the West Lothian question —
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman overlooks the obvious option: independence.
I think that the hon. Gentleman was out of the Chamber when the question of independence and federal Parliaments was dealt with. In such circumstances, I suggested that the applicable phrase would be "beware of your wishes for they might come true." Perversely, the net outcome of a federal Parliament could be much less devolutionary independence and authority than is in place at the moment. That is why the constitutional route that I have suggested would be much firmer. I am grateful to have had the opportunity both to suggest that route and, hopefully, to inform the democracy commission of the Conservative party—
I am sorry. I hope that I have made the taskforce's work a little easier by ensuring that it does not make the mistake of going down the path suggested in the Bill for the way in which the House of Commons should work as part of a devolutionary constitutional settlement.
I welcome the chance to speak in this debate on a subject of great constitutional importance. I congratulate Mr. Walter on his success in the private Member's Bill ballot, and on using the opportunity to introduce a Bill on an issue on which there is clearly a constitutional debate to be had. It has been productive for us to air the issue today.
I would however like to put on record my fundamental opposition to the Bill. As a soundbite, English votes on English matters has a certain superficial attractiveness. It pretends to be a simple solution to an anomaly, but it is actually a rather clumsy attempt to correct an asymmetry, and it brings a host of problems with it, some of which we have already heard about, and some of which I will touch on in my remarks. I am dismayed by the Government's unacceptable inaction on the constitutional issue. They are wishing and hoping that the issue will go away, but in the longer term, that is not a sustainable course of action, so I welcome today's debate on the issue, even if it is taking place on a Friday, when there is not a fabulous turnout of Members.
The hon. Members who are present are clearly fabulous, but there could have been a greater number of them. I expected to see many more Members on the Conservative Benches, given that the measures in the Bill were Conservative policy at the last election. Clearly, devolution will involve further changes before we get the balance right. As other hon. Members have eloquently said, it will continually evolve, and so it should. The Bill looks at the issue from the wrong end of the telescope. It concentrates on a small anomaly that does not have a huge impact on the constitution, and it entirely misses the bigger picture, which is the unfinished business of devolution for England, and the need to ensure that power is closer to the people, rather than centralised in Westminster.
Some people have questioned the motivation behind the Bill. Obviously, I accept that the hon. Member for North Dorset has a genuine concern about the current settlement, but it has been pointed out that the subject is wound up with issues of party political advantage, particularly given that the Conservatives did not think that there was a problem at all in the 1960s, when the boot was on the other foot, as was mentioned earlier in respect of the situation in Northern Ireland. Now, they are in a very different position, particularly electorally in Scotland. In a recent well-publicised memo, their own shadow Secretary of State for Scotland said:
"There are more obvious problems than solutions emanating from Scotland from a party point of view."
I would argue that the Conservatives are increasingly an English party and, furthermore, a party of south-east England. I am surprised that David Mundell is not in the Chamber for today's debate. I know initially he had a diary clash because of the Scottish Conservative party conference, but that is clearly no longer an issue, because according to senior Tories in Scotland, he was certain to get booed, so he has no excuse for not being here.
The Conservatives are picking and choosing the anomalies that they want to correct. The current Labour Government were elected on 35 per cent. of the vote, yet more than 55 per cent. of Members are Labour, so the issue of the Government mandate is a much more serious anomaly, but the Conservatives are far less keen to change our warped electoral system. In fact, as was pointed out by Mr. Denham, if the issue of electoral reform were addressed, the saliency of the issue would be considerably reduced, because parties would be better and more fairly represented.
The Bill will cause more problems than it solves. The issue of Scottish votes deciding English legislation has been raised, but in reality there have been many occasions on which Scottish votes have had that impact. In the 2001 to 2005 Parliament, such votes made a tangible difference to only two Bills—the Health and Social Care Bill and the Higher Education Bill, both of which have already been mentioned. So far in this Parliament, which began in 2005, no legislation that has not related directly to Scotland has been passed just on the votes of Scottish MPs. I would argue that if we considered the frequency with which the issue comes up, we would see that it is not a common problem. The problems that the Bill creates are far greater than the problems that it claims to try to solve.
For clarification to the hon. Lady and others on the effect of the votes of Scottish MPs, in the case of the Heath and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Act 2003, let me point out that, even if Scottish MPs had not voted and only English and Welsh MPs had voted, the Government would still have won by 284 votes to 239. That contradicts the myth circulated by those who want an English Parliament.
I welcome the intervention from the Minister, with that correction. The briefing that I have states that if only English MPs had voted, the result would have been different, but given that the Bill treats English and Welsh MPs in the same way, nothing would have changed if it had been in place at that time.
On definition, there are many reasons why it would be difficult for a Bill to be designated as relating only to England. One of the main issues is funding. Members from the Scottish National party who have a policy of not voting when they think there is no Scottish impact often vote on Bills where there is an issue related to Barnett formula consequentials. The total funding package given to the Holyrood Parliament to use as it sees fit would be affected by the passage of a Bill that related to provisions in England and Wales. That is one major area in which it would be difficult to define what is English and what is not.
Statutory instruments have been mentioned. Earlier this week some of us served on a Committee considering a statutory instrument dealing with the Scottish elections and changes to electoral law. Interestingly, there were Conservative Members on the Committee, not one of whom represented a Scottish constituency. The Conservatives should look more closely at their own back yard before raising the issues that the Bill seeks to address.
If a Bill were deemed to contain certain sections that applied to Scotland and others that did not, what would happen on Second Reading? We vote on the Second Reading of the Bill as a whole, not of its parts. These issues would have to be resolved and would be difficult to resolve.
I think the hon. Lady would acknowledge, though, that electoral matters are a reserved matter, so they do not come into the category that we are discussing.
Certain electoral matters clearly are reserved, although I suspect that if the Conservatives had more Members representing Scottish constituencies, they might have chosen to put them on the Committee that I mentioned.
It is ironic that the Bill would prevent Scottish MPs from voting on certain legislation, yet the person who would decide that is himself a Scottish Member of Parliament. Certain Tories have suggested, and been hastily slapped down by their leader, that it may well be impossible for a Member of Parliament representing a Scottish constituency to be Prime Minister. If the Bill were passed, I wonder whether we would start to hear it suggested by the Conservatives that Scottish MPs should not apply for the role of Speaker. That would be extremely regrettable.
The prospect of two classes of MP at Westminster has been discussed. It would have far-reaching implications. That would be have divisive and dangerous, and would be a slippery slope. In a week when we rejected the idea ofa hybrid House of Lords by voting for a second Chamber that was 100 per cent. elected, it would be strange to suggest a hybrid House of Commons.
That is quite clear. Power is devolved to Holyrood; it is not ceded or given away. It would be dangerous to deprive Scottish MPs of the right to debate and vote on legislation, without removing the power of this Parliament to legislate for Scotland in those areas. Some kind of federal structure would correct that. I would favour a situation where the powers of the Scottish Parliament were outlined and could not be overruled by this House, but that has been rejected by Conservatives in the past. Indeed, they rejected the whole concept of devolution, although the hon. Member for North Dorset seems to have recognised that he may have been misguided in that earlier belief.
One of my main concerns about the Bill is the constitutional chaos that it would cause. That is not just my view but that of the Constitution Unit at UCL, which says that the policy of English votes for English MPs
"would cause a constitutional crisis far greater than the West Lothian question itself."
A brief look at the role of statutory instruments and what would happen in relation to the London assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly gives some idea of the mess that would be created. Let us take that to its logical conclusion. It would be a stepping stone to a English Parliament within a UK Parliament. We can imagine a scenario in which one party has a majority among UK Members of Parliament and another among English Members. On certain topics and certain Bills, the UK Government would not be able to get their business through.
Surely the hon. Lady is merely saying that they would be unable to get through a Bill that did not attract the support of English Members of Parliament—and why should they?
Of course, the hon. Lady will be aware that we have a Scottish ministry of education.
Indeed. Were English people to have such a system, they should enjoy the same accountability as we enjoy in Scotland.
The Bill would create a constitutional mess with no accountability. There could be an English Administration dealing with certain issues that are currently devolved to Scotland, with representatives of one party, and the overall UK Government, led by representatives of another party. How on earth could Cabinet collective responsibility work if different parties were in the same Cabinet?
The hon. Lady is setting up Aunt Sallies that are not proposed. Her party says that there is an issue; indeed, her leader has said that we should examine it. Like a typical Liberal Democrat, she has criticised the Labour party and the Conservatives—what would she do?
The hon. Gentleman anticipates my remarks, because I do not intend to sit down before outlining a more sensible way forward. It is important to describe this constitutional turmoil, because it is not an Aunt Sally but what would happen.
The most worrying aspect is that if one party had control over, say, domestic policy areas, while another party had control over, say, international and reserved policy areas, whom would voters in London, in Liverpool or Lincolnshire be voting for come election day? Would they be voting on the record of the Government who have been in charge of UK-wide matters or that of the Government who have been in charge of English matters? There would be no accountability. From a democratic point of view, that would be a huge problem.
The Conservatives' policy has been all over the place. This was their manifesto pledge in 2001 and 2005, yet very few Conservative Members are in the Chamber to support it. The 2005 manifesto was written by Mr. Cameron, yet he is nowhere to be seen. Last July, the Conservatives were going to have a debate on the issue which was hurriedly pulled when it was realised that perhaps the policy was going to be changed. In September, the right hon. Member for Witney told an audience in Glasgow about the taskforce under the leadership of Mr. Clarke, saying:
"We should address the asymmetrical nature of the current arrangements in a calm and considered fashion."
Was he just playing to his audience? Has the policy changed? When will we find out what it is? Is not the hon. Gentleman jumping the gun somewhat by introducing his Bill? Does he not trust that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe will come to a sensible conclusion on the matter?
No doubt there are communication issues that the Conservatives need to address.
Given that the clock is ticking on, it would be helpful if we heard a little about what the Lib Dems had to say rather than the hon. Lady's criticisms of other parties. I echo the point of my hon. Friend Mr. Heald—that it is about time that we heard something of what the Lib Dems have to say rather than the usual Lib-Dem speech or criticism of the other parties.
As I have already mentioned, I fully intend to talk about what I believe is the proper way forward. As to timing, other hon. Members have spoken for far longer than I have so far. I am certainly going to continue with my remarks, but— [Interruption.] I hear Mr. Vara muttering from a sedentary position, but other than the odd intervention, I have not heard him contribute to the debate.
On the matter of what the Government are doing—or, rather, what they are not doing—on this issue, it was a great Labour politician, Donald Dewar, who famously said that devolution is a process, not an event, and he was absolutely right. Among the public at large, there is a great appetite for more constitutional change. In fact, within the Scottish context, recent polls suggest an appetite for more powers to be given to the Scottish Parliament, which is the most popular option. The "Newsnight" poll conducted by the BBC on the tercentenary of the Act of Union 1707 showed that there was a great deal of support in England and Scotland for the idea of an English Parliament. I would not necessarily support that, but it shows the public appetite for constitutional change. Furthermore, a British social attitudes survey noted a general decline in the number of people who felt that they had a British identity, as opposed to the individual national identities of English, Scottish and Welsh. That has been most marked in England. Clearly, there is an issue that needs to be addressed.
I have put questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland on the general issue of the Act of Union 1707 and a future constitutional settlement,. The Leader of the House seemed to flirt with the idea of having a debate on that matter in Government time, but the Secretary of State for Scotland seems rather less keen. The Government have consistently said that they have no plans for further constitutional reform, which I think is a great shame. They are ignoring public opinion. It is a short-sighted and irresponsible position because it results in proposals such as this Bill—a well meaning but ill-conceived attempt to address the issue—when what we really need is the Government to take the lead in a national debate on the issue.
In the absence of that, what we propose—it has been proposed by the leader of my party—is a constitutional convention. Surely the best way to achieve constitutional change is by building a consensus and— [Interruption.] I hear Conservative Members ridiculing such an idea. They, of course, did not take part in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which actually led to a very successful consensus being built around what should happen in respect of devolution for Scotland. That has to be the right way to do it.
This is too important an issue to get wrong. Frankly, it is probably too important and too big for any one party to have a monopoly on determining a perfect solution. I would argue that the Scottish Constitutional Convention provides a good model. A variety of political parties were involved in it, as were religious groups, trade unions, local government, business people and community groups. Constitutional change affects all those groups within the community, so we do need to bring people together to discuss this.
I mentioned previously that there is currently only a small issue of asymmetry, but I fear that there is genuine concern out there in the constituencies and that it will grow. Let us consider what happened in the Scottish context after the poll tax. As we discussed earlier, there was a feeling of injustice in the 1990s, which stoked up a great amount of concern, and it needed to be dealt with. Perhaps Mr. MacNeil regrets this, but I think that if we had not had the referendum and the Scottish Parliament being created when it was, we might have ended up with Scotland resolving the sense of injustice by going down the route to independence, which is why I am so glad that we did implement a Scottish Parliament.
I agree. Had the people been asked about independence, I believe that they would have given that answer. Now I can understand why the Liberal Democrats are so fiercely resisting even asking the Scottish people for their opinion on independence.
Well, the Scottish people will be asked their opinion on independence on
A variety of different options is on the table. My party has long favoured the regional governance route. That suffered a setback in the north-east, but I would argue that people in the north-east were not offered an assembly with teeth and sufficient powers. As my hon. Friend Mr. Heath said, it would have taken powers upwards from local government rather than devolving them downwards. That concept has therefore not necessarily run its course.
We favour further devolution of powers to Scotland, including more fiscal powers. Lord Steel has conducted a robust piece of work, which set out how that could happen.
We need to hold a debate, or the subject could create a headache for us in future. It needs to be held in a wider context that in that of the Bill, which, although it is well intentioned, has flaws. They are: the practicalities of implementation; the minimal improvements that it would make to the current position; the danger of allowing the UK to legislate for Scotland without the scrutiny of Scottish Members, and the constitutional chaos that it would create. However, ignoring the need for change is irresponsible and short sighted. We must have a robust constitutional settlement and take the time, through proper, calm and considered debate, to get it right.
Our long-term aim must be to devolve power throughout the UK to allow decision making to take place at the lowest practical level and to simplify rather than increase bureaucracy. I welcome the debate that the Bill has helped spark, but I cannot support the measure.
Shortly after the Bill's promoter began his speech, he admitted that he wanted to entitle it the "Scotland Act (Amendment ) Bill". I wish that he had been allowed to do that because it would have highlighted to hon. Members and the wider public the far-reaching consequences of the modestly titled measure. Indeed, a more accurate title would have been the "Slow Unravelling of the Union Bill" because that would be its result. The majority of hon. Members would not support such a process.
I accept that there is an anomaly, but, as I said earlier, when considering whether to tackle it, we must ask ourselves whether our proposed solution will lead to worse consequences than those that the anomaly creates. The Bill's consequences would be serious. Several hon. Members referred to the procedural difficulties that could arise from it and they should not be minimised.
We have discussed defining measures that apply only to Scotland or only to England and Wales. I noted with some amusement the straight face that Mr. MacNeil kept when he told us that the only reason he voted in debates about apparently English measures was to do with their content and nothing to do with embarrassing the Government. Whatever people's motivations for voting, difficulties face anyone who tries to define what constitutes a Scottish-only or English-only Bill.
I remember the former Member for part of the constituency that is now represented by my hon. Friend Mr. Brown proudly announcing that he would not vote on English measures. He was later revealed to have voted on the Mersey Tunnels Bill. I know that much rethinking is happening in the Scottish Conservative party, but suggesting that that measure could apply to Scotland is surely blue skies thinking at its most generous.
The hon. Gentleman talks about embarrassing the Government. The Scottish National party does not need to look for ways in which to do that; it has already done so substantially through cash for peerages.
The SNP will find itself embarrassed in the Scottish elections. We can deal with that when it arises.
As well as the procedural problems of determining what constitutes Scottish or English measures, there are difficulties about the processes that we operate in Parliament. Some hon. Members have referred to those, but given the limited time available I shall not repeat the points that have been made.
There are other examples of difficulties that might arise. What would happen if I wanted to amend a clause in a particular Bill that applied only to England so that that clause applied to Scotland? Under the proposals in the Bill, I would presumably not be able to move that amendment, as I would barred from tabling it because I do not represent a constituency in England. However, if that amendment was tabled and moved by somebody else, would I be able to vote on it? In any case, why should I not be able to table an amendment so that provisions in a Bill that applied only to England could apply to Scotland? That is an example of the procedural difficulties that would apply at various stages in the process.
It is suggested that the same considerations should apply to a programme motion, too. It might be that the big issue for debate in a particular Bill is whether certain provisions would apply to Scotland. However, under the proposals in the Bill, I would be barred from voting on a programme motion to decide whether I would have time to speak and propose that certain elements should apply to Scotland. The same difficulties would apply to measures that had originally started out as a GB Bill but that at some stage in the process stopped applying to Scotland. As I asked my hon. Friend Dr. Whitehead earlier, would that mean that the votes of Scottish Members would suddenly be subtracted from previous Divisions on that Bill?
I am not attempting to uncover little difficulties in order to set up an Aunt Sally or maximise the range of arguments that can be marshalled against the Bill. Those problems are real. For example, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill could have been introduced as an England-only Bill. As we know, it was decided later that it was most appropriate to introduce it as a UK-wide Bill. Once a Sewel motion had been passed, the Bill would have applied to Scotland as well as England, but Scottish Members of Parliament would have been entirely excluded from previous debates on it.
Those procedural difficulties would arise precisely because we have a United Kingdom Parliament that is structured in such a way as to make all hon. Members equal. As the articles of the Treaty of Union make clear, its purpose was to establish one Parliament for the United Kingdom. That is why any attempt to introduce a two-tier system in Parliament seems bound to come up against such procedural difficulties.
As I have indicated, however, it is not just procedural difficulties that would arise from the Bill. Much wider political problems would arise, too. It has already been pointed out that if the Bill were successful, one of the consequences would be, effectively, two Governments in Parliament. There would be the official Government, formed of Ministers from the party with a majority in the House, but leading members of the Opposition could also act as quasi-Ministers, because the civil servants would know that they could command a majority on certain measures. That would cause all sorts of difficulties, because Ministers would still have the Executive authority but the policy drive would to a great extent come from Members from Opposition parties.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that his arguments are fanciful? For example, he has talked about wanting to amend a Bill to include Scotland. However, that would be in breach of the Scotland Act 1998, except in the rare circumstances where the Scottish Parliament had asked for the amendment through a Sewel motion, so what the hon. Gentleman is talking about is absolute nonsense.
Not at all. As I have indicated and as other hon. Members have made clear, the Sewel motion procedure has been used on many occasions, sometimes even with the agreement of the Scottish National party in the Scottish Parliament. The difficulty is therefore not just theoretical, but real.
There might be an argument about how we reflect the views of the English electorate in the House. I shall touch on that issue in a moment, but the Bill is certainly not the way to achieve that objective. As I have indicated, this Parliament was established as a unitary Parliament, but the consequence of the Bill would be to dismantle it, and I hope that the House will reject that.
The idea that Scottish MPs make such a difference to legislation here that we are in some way forcing our views on the people of England is absurd. As Jo Swinson indicated, the cases in which that might even potentially be regarded as an issue are very limited. The Library research shows that on no occasion has a Second Reading—a vote on the principle of a Bill—been dependent on the vote of Scottish MPs.
Where one or more nations or states are in partnership in a wider political union, it is not unusual to have provisions that give a certain degree of protection to the smaller members of that union, reflecting the fact that the larger members have a wider say in political arrangements. In the United States Senate, for example, every state has the same number of Senators, which is specifically designed to give a certain degree of protection to the smaller states. In the European Union, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test has indicated, several member states have different degrees of asymmetric devolution within them.
The Library's helpful briefing paper highlights some 15 countries that have a certain degree of asymmetric devolution—I will not list them, as that would take more time than is available. It is worth while pointing out, however, that as many states have asymmetric devolution as have some form of perfect devolution. In Europe, there are examples of asymmetric devolution that seem to work fairly well. We should reject the suggestion that that arrangement is not sustainable for this country or other countries.
The Bill would create many much worse anomalies than are said to exist under the present arrangements. The situation in London has been mentioned. Under the Bill, MPs from England and Wales could vote on Scotland-only statutory instruments. Apparently, the minority party Members who have spoken were on a Committee last week, and I am on a Committee next week that deals with a Scottish statutory instrument, which would just apply to Scotland. In the past, the Conservatives have had no objection to the Ulster Unionists being on their side and voting.
Of course, we have had the anomaly of the unelected House of Lords for centuries. That anomaly might be resolved in the not-too-distant future—I say that with some trepidation. In the meantime, peers who have some connection with Scotland are still able to vote on English-only matters, and yet Mr. Walter does not suggest for a minute that there is anything wrong with Scottish-based peers voting on legislation for England. Perhaps that is because a higher proportion of those are Conservatives than is the case in the House of Commons.
The proposals would be unworkable in practice, except in so far as they would help to undermine the unity of this Parliament. It is worth while considering how the House can improve its processes, but I note that the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs has hardly met, and nor am I aware of a high demand from Members for it to meet. The Bill is not the way forward. Ultimately, in trying to bring about short-term political advantage for the Conservatives, it risks undermining what the Union between Scotland, England and Wales has achieved in the past 300 years.
This has been a good debate. I agree that it has been worth while and I hope that it continues. As a number of hon. Members, including some of my hon. Friends, said, the constitutional settlement is not the best description of the arrangement because "settlement" suggests a permanence when it is in fact an evolving being. We should continue to return to it and consider the issues that are part of it.
"The Conservatives' attempt to play the English, or rather the anti-Scottish, card is in danger of backfiring...The question arises from the uneven, or asymmetrical, nature of devolution...Attacking the power of the Scots may appeal to a certain crude English nationalism, but it is weird and inconsistent coming from the party that has been committed to the preservation of the Union."
He goes on, as Jo Swinson did, to say:
"While English votes for English laws has an appealing ring, it is deeply flawed in practice; the basic problem is the relative size of England, which has more than four fifths of Britain's population and number of MPs."
A former Secretary of State for Scotland said:
"This proposal risks creating two classes of MP. It would be a constitutional abortion".
"The Conservative party needs to remember it is a Unionist party...To claim that a Scottish MP would have difficulty in becoming Prime Minister plays into the hands of the nationalists."
I fear that the two contributions from the official Opposition played into the hands of the nationalists.
My hon. Friend Dr. Whitehead, in a serious and considered contribution, reminded the Conservatives that they made no mention of the anomaly of the relationship with Northern Irish MPs in this Parliament when Stormont sat in full force. Others also mentioned that. He was right to suggest gently to the Opposition's taskforce on democracy that it should not go down that road. He gave a detailed analysis of the asymmetrical nature of our devolution when he described what happened with the Channel Islands and other places.
I am sure that the hon. Lady would accept, however, that there was a solution in Northern Ireland, which was the under-representation of Northern Ireland MPs because of devolution. We are not proposing that, but the question was certainly not ignored.
The hon. Gentleman misses the point. As my hon. Friend Martin Linton said from a sedentary position, a small injustice is still an injustice. The solution that the Conservative party appears to have adopted as party policy—English votes for English laws—is in itself a flawed solution and not the way that we should proceed. It may be different, but it is still flawed.
My hon. Friend Ms Smith, in a number of telling interventions, made the case for the illogicality of the Bill in relation to London. Neither the Bill's promoter nor the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire could defeat that argument.
I entirely agree. It was never explained to us why, if the principle underlying the Bill was that only Members whose constituencies were affected by legislation should be allowed to vote on it, that principle should not apply to London. Indeed, I would extend it to private legislation. Reference was made to a ports Bill on which practically no one in the House would be allowed to vote under the system espoused by Mr. Walter.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. That would indeed be the logical extension of the principle. Had this legislation been in operation at the time, most of us would not have voted on the Bill that became the Cardiff Bay Barrage Act 1993. Some Members may recall the long-standing debate on that Bill. It would not have been possible for Members to vote on the Mersey Tunnels Bill, later the Mersey Tunnels Act 2004, and I would not expect them to be able to vote on Crossrail. The same logic could be applied to any part of the United Kingdom.
I am glad that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire accepts that the Bill raises profound issues that require detailed and expert consideration, but it is for that very reason that I am surprised he supports it.
Mr. Heath made a telling point in drawing a parallel between the commonality of interests among rural areas in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the commonality of interests among urban areas. In a thoughtful and indeed thought-provoking speech, my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham said that we must recognise the existence of anomalies and make changes where appropriate. His description of the very British way in which we do such things aptly summed up the need for change to be introduced in a progressive, incremental fashion. He also spoke of voting reforms for Westminster, better regional government, and the imaginative use of a reformed House of Lords. I listened to what he said with great interest. As he acknowledged, those are proposals for the longer term to which immediate solutions cannot be applied.
My hon. Friend Paddy Tipping explained in detail the difficulties and indeed the unacceptability of a two-tier system. Members of this Parliament represent the nation as a whole. As I was coming here today, thinking about the debate, it occurred to me that we should all remember that when people elect us to our individual constituencies, flattering as it may be for us to think that they elect us because they think we as individuals are the most wonderful people listed on the ballot paper—
I am sure that it is true of many of my hon. Friends, but due modesty leads me to suspect that most of the people who vote for me do so because they want to vote for the Labour party candidate, and I think that that applies to most Members of Parliament. We should not flatter ourselves too much by believing that our personality will necessarily bring us votes.
People vote for political parties with policies that cover the nation. Although we represent constituencies, we are expected to come here and debate issues with the nation's interests at heart. It is for that reason, among many others, that the Bill should not be supported. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood made that point very clearly. He also made the point that the Bill is very much a constitutional Bill, and should be treated accordingly. Useful as today's debate has been, a debate is not the appropriate way in which to deal with these issues.
In response to a question about London, the hon. Member for North Dorset said that, as the financial capital of the world, it was influenced by Treasury policy, which is a reserved matter. Surely that illustrates the problem that confronts us. Exactly how do we decide whether a matter is devolved or reserved? What is its impact, and therefore who has a legitimate interest in it? As my hon. Friend Mark Lazarowicz pointed out, what happens if he wants to make an amendment to a Bill that the Speaker has deemed to be on purely English matters? How can he take part in establishing what is the national interest if that is to be the case?
The whole question about London and the Greater London authority is a red herring. The GLA does not have legislative powers. The Scottish Parliament has legislative powers both primary and secondary. The Welsh Assembly has secondary legislative powers. The Northern Ireland Assembly will have, when it is up and running, primary and secondary legislative powers. That is not the case in respect of the GLA, which is a local authority.
The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. What is decided for London by the GLA and the Mayor will very often have effects nationally. As has been pointed out in terms of transport, what happens in London is often crucial to the economy not only of London but of the country as a whole.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said that she was disappointed about Government inaction on constitutional matters. I cannot think of any Government in the 20th century who have done more than ours in making the constitution a major issue and in changing it—whether in respect of the Human Rights Act 1998, devolution to Scotland and Wales or the change in the stature of the role performed by my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. However, I agree with the hon. Lady about the dearth of support at present on the Conservative Benches for what is supposedly Conservative party policy. I hope that that will be rectified if we discuss this matter again.
I will sum up my opposition to the Bill by stressing my belief in the Union—which many hon. Friends have also emphasised. By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone. I am sure that hon. Friends recognise the source of that comment. I do not believe that the Bill will rectify some perceived inequality in this House, but I do believe that if it is passed it will cause untold damage to our institution of Parliament, which has a tradition of unifying the peoples of our United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith got very close to describing what would happen under the Bill in the way that I would wish to describe it. If we were to distinguish one Member of Parliament from another in terms of what they are and are not allowed to vote on, we would create a form of parliamentary apartheid. At the heart of the Bill is a call to establish institutional difference, which would extinguish the significance and power of the United Kingdom Parliament by creating two classes of Members and subsequently establishing a de facto English Parliament. The hon. Member for North Dorset talked about using this place as a place for the English Parliament. That is the context in which I put the Bill. The need to preserve the Union is paramount, and we must protect it from any hurried constitutional reform of this kind.
Since the Treaty of Union in 1707—it is appropriate that we are discussing this subject in the year that marks the 300th anniversary of that treaty—the United Kingdom Parliament has been a symbol of a united democracy that represents common values and welcomes differences of identity. Those are the qualities that we see embodied in all our nations today.
The Union was never about establishing uniformity or changing the uniqueness of each of the individual nations. It was developed through social, economic and political interdependence, and it became a symbol of huge achievements from which the peoples of all of our nations have benefited, and which they continue to enjoy.
We were brought together 300 years ago by a desire for stability and security. The Scots were keen to gain access to the overseas markets that England held in its possession.
The hon. Lady mentions overseas markets. She will of course know that Adam Smith pointed out in "Wealth of Nations" that Scotland lost a lot of its overseas markets because of the Union, and had to trade in particular ways that were not beneficial to it for the first—
It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
Debate to be resumed on