I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As a new Member, I drew No. 7 in the private Members' Bill ballot. Some might think that it is great foolhardiness to have chosen to raise the knotty constitutional issue of the West Lothian question in the House today, but it is with a great sense of privilege and trepidation that I today present a Bill that is designed to be extremely helpful to you, Mr Speaker, if you were ever asked to certify whether a particular piece of legislation applied to a particular part of the United Kingdom.
Mr Speaker, you will be very aware that the question of Members voting on issues that do not affect their own constituencies has vexed many minds much more learned than mine for well over a century.
That is an extremely important question. Mr Speaker has the ability, under
The West Lothian question has vexed constitutional experts since the time of Gladstone, who first perceived the difficulties when Irish Home Rule was being discussed. At various times in the last century, the topic has been raised in the Chamber and in the other place, but it has always been parked in the car park for questions that are too difficult to resolve under our unwritten constitution.
However, the following question is often raised with me by residents of my constituency, which I like to think represents the heart of middle England. How can it be right for it to be possible for potentially decisive pieces of legislation to be voted on in this place by, and carried by a majority of, Members of Parliament who are not legislating on behalf of their own constituents? That is not a question that we can carry on parking in that car park for ever. It is my intention with this Bill to edge the West Lothian question slightly closer to the car park exit.
The Conservative party manifesto, on which I stood, said:
"Labour have refused to address the so-called 'West Lothian Question': the unfair situation of Scottish MPs voting on matters which are devolved. A Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries."
Of course, the Conservative party did not win an overall majority, but in the coalition programme for government, the section on political reform states:
"We will establish a commission to consider the 'West Lothian question'."
"the Government will make an announcement on the commission in the new year. I am happy to confirm that we do indeed mean 2011. That is very much part of our programme for next year."-[ Hansard, 21 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 1338.]
If nothing else, given the fragile life chances of private Members' Bills, I am pleased to use today's debate to encourage the Government to advance their own business.
Over the last decade, devolution to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, which I wholeheartedly support, has meant that more and more legislation coming before the House affects different constituent parts of the United Kingdom in different ways. For example, at the moment the Health and Social Care Bill will apply essentially to England.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point about how difficult it is these days to identify which parts of the United Kingdom Bills will apply to, a problem that this Bill is intended to address. The hon. Gentleman will clearly support it.
My hon. Friend will be aware that there will be a referendum on further powers for the Welsh Assembly in just a few weeks. If Wales votes in favour of those powers in the 20 areas of competence that the referendum covers, will that create a west Walean question?
My hon. Friend asks an important question, pointing out that devolution is an ongoing process. Indeed, the referendum in Wales on
Will the hon. Lady tell us whether she voted on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which contains many provisions that will apply solely to Wales?
The hon. Gentleman is making extremely important points about how legislation currently before the House can mix up different issues and have different impacts on different parts of the United Kingdom. My Bill would make things clearer, with the result that parliamentary draftsmen would automatically start to make it clearer and much more distinct which parts of the United Kingdom Bills apply to. In addition, the Bill would allow legislation to continue to apply to different parts of the United Kingdom-all it says is, "Let's state that on the face of the Bill." Why should we not do that?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this Bill. She describes the issue as complex. Does she understand why it is so complex that the Government have not even been able to set up a commission to look into it? Surely, that should not be beyond the capability of the Deputy Prime Minister. Has she been able to find out why that has not been done?
My hon. Friend asks a somewhat cheeky question. I am sympathetic to the fact that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Mr Harper-a constituency neighbour of mine-has had a rather busy last couple of weeks. I am giving him a little slack because of that, but I agree that it is important to keep pressing for the establishment of the commission.
The legislation on tuition fees will affect university students from England. It will create the awkward situation of Welsh and English students paying different fees to attend the same university. The Scotland Bill, which I mentioned earlier, will enhance the powers of the Scottish Executive in many instances, including their ability to vary tax rates. Therefore, Parliament and this truly reforming Government need to find a way to scrutinise legislation in such a way that Members, who have the best interests of their own constituents in mind, can play a greater role in the legislative process. This is an issue that we duck at our peril.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing her Bill. I am sure that she, like me, receives letters weekly from her constituents asking, "When are you going to get on with the issue? It is just not fair for English constituents, taxpayers, ratepayers and voters."
I thank my hon. Friend for adding those supportive words from her constituents. I am sure that many hon. Members have had the issue raised with them from time to time.
As I mentioned, the question has been looked at by many heads wiser than mine over the years, and I have benefited from extensive analysis from history of what has not worked. Therefore, I have avoided in the Bill any sense that I want to create two categories of MP at Westminster, which is where the private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Mr Walter-the House of Commons (Participation) Bill-ran into difficulty in the previous Parliament. Parliamentary privilege, which is MPs' ability to speak out or vote on any issue, is at the heart of our Parliament.
I am a passionate supporter of the Union, and do not want to undermine it in any way with the Bill. My grandmother, of whom I have fond memories, was called Flora McLean McLeod Morison. She was born in Dunbar to a general practitioner who came from the Isle of Mull, so I am a flesh-and-blood embodiment of the Union myself. It is because I believe that not resolving this question would cause long-term harm to the Union that I urge the Government to support the Bill.
What I found most helpful in preparing the Bill was the Conservative party's democracy taskforce, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke, who prepared a pamphlet called "Answering the Question". The Leader of the House, who was in the Chamber earlier, and my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) and for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) were also on the taskforce, so we are talking about some impressive brainpower. The taskforce's report looked at five main options for addressing the West Lothian question.
The first option is the one that the previous Government took for the last decade, which essentially was to do nothing. That approach was best summarised by Lord Irvine's argument-that the best way to answer the West Lothian question was to stop asking it.
I think I saw a little partisanness sweep across the hon. Lady's eyes. To say that it is only the Government of the last 10 years who have done nothing about the issue is to ignore the last seven centuries, when no Government did anything about it.
I fully accept that the issue has been out there and unsolved for at least 100 years. However, I think that it was a deliberate strategy by the previous Government, as evidenced by Lord Irvine's statement. The do-nothing approach risks causing the same English alienation that Scottish devolution was designed to address for Scotland.
A second approach to address the issue is through under-representation at Westminster for the parts of the UK that have their own Parliament, which is often known as the Stormont solution. During most of the 20th century there was a Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont, and Northern Ireland sent only 11 Members of Parliament to Westminster when its population would have justified 17. That is another possible approach, but I do not think it is the right one. Also, it is completely at odds with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which brings a welcome equalisation of constituency sizes.
A third option that people have mentioned is an English Parliament. There is a campaign group for this solution, but that approach leads to a plethora of questions. Would it require separate elections or a separate building? Would we have a First Minister for England? What if the First Minister for England was different from the Prime Minister? That solution would also be extremely expensive, and I do not think that the mood in the country is in favour of an additional layer of politicians. That approach could also lead to the formal break-up of the United Kingdom, so I have completely rejected it. A fourth approach, which, to be fair to Chris Bryant, was the one initially taken by the previous Government, is devolution to regional government, giving the English regions more constitutional power. However, that was rejected decisively in the 2004 referendum in the north-east.
A fifth option, which has been on the table for some time, is something called English votes for English laws. Unfortunately, however, that would create two categories of MPs, leaving the Executive powerless to win votes on important public service issues. That was the approach taken by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset in his private Member's Bill, and was also the approach outlined in the 2001 and 2005 Conservative manifestos.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that at least that solution would appear to be fair? Many voters in this country would see it as the fair solution: if a particular piece of legislation did not affect their area, Members should not be able to vote on it.
That approach is one of those things that looks fair at first sight, but the more one looks at it, the more problems with it one perceives. For example, what if the Government of the day could not carry the Budget? The Finance Bill is something that the Government have to be able to carry, but if the make-up or majority in the English Parliament was different from that in the overall, national Parliament, how would we solve such conundrums? That is why I have not taken that approach in my Bill.
The recommendation that I thought made the most sense was the one in the democracy taskforce publication, which proposed a lower-strength version of English votes for English laws. This proposal was that Bills be certified by the Speaker as English. They would pass through normal Commons processes as far as and including Second Reading, on which the whole House would vote. The Committee stage would be undertaken by English MPs in proportion to English party strengths. Report stage would be similarly voted on by English Members only, and Third Reading, when no amendments are possible, would again be voted on by the whole House. However, there are also problems with that approach, but it is those problems that my Bill seeks to solve.
The problem was best expressed by lain MacLean of Nuffield college in his 2005 paper, in which he said:
"It will be hard for the Speaker to define what is an English bill, at least to do so without controversy-the Speaker could be politicised".
I would not want to put you in such an awkward position, Mr Speaker. Therefore, by requiring the Secretary of State to specify in draft legislation the territorial extent of a Bill, my expectation is that it would be much clearer in the drafting of Bills to which parts of the UK they applied. Indeed, the Clerk advises me that the Health and Social Care Bill, which was mentioned earlier and which, really, applies only to England, would be hard to certify as being an England-only Bill, because of the way in which it is drafted. What I hope my Bill would achieve, once it received Royal Assent, is gently to guide those drafting Her Majesty's legislation to be clear enough in that drafting so that you, Mr Speaker, would have no problem certifying Bills. Indeed, you already have the power, under
I thank my hon. Friend for indulging me. I wonder whether she would be willing to listen to my perhaps more simple solution to the West Lothian question, which is indeed a boil that needs lancing. If we got rid of Members of the Scottish Parliament and Members of the Welsh Assembly, and instead merely had elected MPs, then all MPs from across Great Britain could meet in this place on Mondays and Tuesdays to attend to British affairs, and then on Wednesdays, and perhaps Thursdays, they could return to the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, or to Northern Ireland, leaving English MPs to attend to English matters in this place. Surely that would save the taxpayer a great deal of money and, by getting rid of so many politicians, be very popular in the country.
That is certainly an original approach, and one that, I must confess, I had not heard from any other source, so I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's putting it on the record. I said at the beginning of my speech that I am very much in favour of devolution and allowing decisions that affect particular areas to be made at the lowest possible level of government. That is the theme of localisation, so although my hon. Friend has set out an original idea, I prefer what I have proposed in my Bill.
To return to my point about
"transferred to a new Standing Order and adapted so that the Speaker may certify that a bill relates exclusively to one of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom."
Further to that, Standing Orders Nos. 102 and 106 allow legislation to be referred to a Welsh Grand Committee. However, we are now touching on issues that have gone far above my pay grade, although they are issues that would be there for the House to agree once my Bill had received Royal Assent.
I am not quite sure how we get from my hon. Friend's Bill to the legislative programme that she is suggesting. Is the idea that this would be done exclusively through the Standing Orders of this House, and that we would therefore change the structures of the passing of legislation purely on our Standing Orders?
My Bill has deliberately shied away from being prescriptive in that area. Our constitution has a capacity to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances in a way that does not need to be written down in legislation, so my Bill stops at the point where the draft legislation outlines which parts of the United Kingdom it affects. It would then be for us, through House procedures, to look at the ways in which the new legislation would permit the House to treat different Bills in different ways.
I have touched on the purpose of the Bill, but there are other provisions that are worth highlighting. The Bill would establish a principle of legislative clarity, which would mean that citizens and Members of Parliament would have the right to see how proposed changes to the law would affect them or their constituents. There is also flexibility built into the Bill, so that if it is not possible for the Secretary of State to affirm that the draft legislation is compatible with those principles, the Government can still make a statement that they wish to proceed anyway. I am sure that no one in the Chamber could possibly object to this new level of transparency in our legislation.
The Bill also calls for a separate statement-a financial memorandum-on the financial implications of legislation on the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Again, this is designed to be helpful to you, Mr Speaker, by making any financial effects of legislation-for example, via the Barnett formula-clear and unambiguous. It is often argued that, because of the Barnett formula, it is impossible to achieve granularity when it comes to the impact of legislation on England. The financial statement would therefore allow the question of whether that was the case to be transparent.
In bringing my remarks to a close, I simply point out that the Bill is both minor and entirely unobjectionable. In fact, it is so innocuous that I am sure all hon. Members in the Chamber today will support not only its aims but its intentions, and that they will all wave through its Second Reading. I am sure that the Government will have no issue with the intended consequences of the Bill, although they may have some drafting issues with the unintended consequences, on which I would welcome their input in Committee. This Bill is necessary to create a strong foundation on which the House can make progress on addressing the important issues of territorial extent, and I commend it to the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin on what she has said today. This is an historic moment. West Worcestershire has taken up the cudgels on the West Lothian question, and I very much welcome her comments. I have taken an interest in these issues for a long time. I first entered the House in 1974, and when Margaret Thatcher became leader of our party, she was kind enough to appoint me as a junior spokesman on devolution. I have therefore had to take some views on these matters. I am now the Member for Kensington, but my primary home remains in Scotland, outside Edinburgh in East Lothian. Later, I will offer what might immodestly be referred to as an East Lothian answer to the West Lothian question.
I have no doubt that the consequences of devolution represent unfinished business. Over the past 12 years, we have witnessed the single biggest constitutional change in the United Kingdom since the Act of Union in 1707-
It was far more important than what happened in 1801, which turned out to be a blip in the constitutional history of the UK. What we are seeing now is a permanent change. It has not destroyed the United Kingdom, but it has undoubtedly created a new kind of United Kingdom. That has constitutional implications, as well as implications for fairness. I suspect that Chris Bryant would suggest that, since Stormont, we have lived with the fact of Members from Northern Ireland being able to vote on all the measures in this House despite the fact that their own constituencies might not be affected by them. There is a de minimis issue that we can sometimes live with, but we now have something quite different, particularly if the Welsh approve an extension of the legislative powers of their Assembly in their referendum.
We will have a situation in which not 11 but approximately 100 Members of this House from three of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom will be able to vote on issues that do not affect their own constituents. There will be only one part of the UK that does not have that right. Rather curiously, having dominated the United Kingdom, by numbers, since the Act of Union in 1707, England will become the one part of the UK whose elected representatives do not, by themselves, have the final say on matters that affect purely their constituents. That will no longer be the case for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, but paradoxically it will have become so for England. Talking about 100 Members, rather than 11, is not a minimal side issue; it goes to the very heart not only of constitutional propriety but of fairness. My remarks today will be about fairness rather than constitutions, because that is the fundamental principle of our political system, and the implications of these arrangements are significant.
We must not get this out of proportion, however. I do not believe that it is right to imply that, as a consequence of devolution, this place has effectively become an English Chamber because the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish have very little continuing involvement here as a result of the big areas that have been devolved to their own Parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. That is a gross exaggeration. If we look at the whole scope of government, we see that the UK Government and Parliament still have either sole or predominant responsibility for massive swaths of policy. The most important issues facing any Government are those of taxation. At this moment, virtually all tax powers reside with the United Kingdom Parliament, and all Members of Parliament from every part of the kingdom have an equal interest in and responsibility for those matters. The largest budget of the British Government is the social security budget, and that is a United Kingdom budget. It does not differentiate in any material way between north and south of the border.
Such proposals are under deliberation and likely to go forward. That could mean a reduction in the block grant to Scotland, if it were to raise a proportionate sum through its own decisions. This is an evolving situation, a dynamic constitutional process. I cannot predict, any more than anyone else, where that process might lead, but for the foreseeable future the UK Government will retain responsibility for virtually all tax responsibilities, as well as for the social security budget, all foreign affairs, all defence policy, all European Union issues, all trade policy, all electoral matters such as those we discussed yesterday, and a whole host of other issues. So we must not imply that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Members have a diminished interest in the affairs of this Parliament.
It is sometimes suggested that it is quite improper, in this post-devolution situation, for a Member from Scotland, Wales or wherever to be appointed as a Minister in a Department whose responsibilities cover only England. Criticisms were made of John Reid when he became Health Secretary in the previous Government because he represented a Scottish constituency. We should not think of that as a constitutional issue, but it might be politically stupid to make such an appointment because of the controversy that it will give rise to, enabling criticism to be made. There is no lack of precedent for such decisions being made in other contexts, however. During the Conservative Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, every Secretary of State for Wales represented an English constituency. There has never been a Northern Ireland Secretary who comes from Northern Ireland, for obvious reasons with which we are all familiar. Let us not suggest that that is a constitutional problem. It is a political problem, and Prime Ministers have to decide whether it is sensible to appoint Ministers from constituencies that are not affected by the decisions of the Department of which they will be in charge. It is against that background that we are considering the question of voting in this Parliament.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we have institutionalised a sense of resentment and unfairness by not giving greater fiscal autonomy and tax-raising powers to the devolved Governments? That sense of unfairness does not exist in other devolved systems, such as the federal system in the United States, in which each state can raise its own taxes, and there is no feeling of resentment towards the central Government.
I return to my point that this should be seen as an evolving situation. We speak of devolution to the three other parts of the United Kingdom, but the devolution is different in each case. We have a power-sharing institutionalised system in Northern Ireland, which does not exist anywhere else. We have a Scottish Parliament that is an Executive with full legislative powers over devolved matters. Wales does not have a Parliament; it has an Assembly that does not yet have legislative powers. In each case, the arrangements will change, but they will change in response to experience and to what are perceived to be the political wishes of the people in the territories concerned. That is the history of the United Kingdom. We are blessed with an unwritten constitution that we can evolve and adapt over the generations in a way that goes no further than necessary but that responds to the aspirations of the peoples in the various parts of the kingdom in a sensible and coherent way.
I shall turn now to the consequences of those arrangements for voting in this Parliament. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire so eloquently said, a range of options has been proposed to deal with what has become known as the West Lothian question. Some of them are completely understandable, including the proposal that, if there is a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish Parliament, there should be an English one. That sounds completely logical, but I was once warned that logic was the art of going wrong with confidence. It is, in fact, absurd to contemplate the co-existence of an English Parliament with this Palace of Westminster, for several reasons.
First of all, to state an emotional and political fact-I say this with some caution-the vast majority of people in England think that there is already an English Parliament and that it is called the House of Commons, largely because of the history of this place and its origins many centuries ago. When such an option is occasionally raised, we are not talking only about two Parliaments. In practice, there would have to be two Governments; there would have to be an English Government just as there is a Scottish Government. The idea that that is a sensible way of dealing with these matters is foolish. It would be a sledgehammer to crack an important but nevertheless modest nut-foolish, as I say.
The second option-one of the bad options-was attractive to many of my hon. Friends during the previous Parliament. It is the idea that Scottish Members-and, one assumes, Welsh and Northern Ireland Members either now or in due course-would be vetoed or prevented from voting on issues that applied only to England. I have always thought that that is a very dangerous and unwise approach. It would manifestly create two classes of Member of Parliament for the very first time since the Act of Union in 1707, and therefore I can only describe it as a nationalist solution to a Unionist problem. I have no doubt that it would be welcomed by the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, because it would provide a constant opportunity for them to emphasise the increasing irrelevance of the Union, as they would see it, and to go much further than the vast majority of people throughout the United Kingdom would currently want. It is not sensible to contemplate having two classes of Member, although not because it could not work. Here I disagree with the hon. Member for Rhondda: it is not a matter of the technical problems, although I can come on to those in moment if he wants me to; rather, I believe that it would be hugely dangerous and, in any event, it is unnecessary.
If those options are unattractive, is there an alternative route to resolve these matters and to deal with the issue of fairness? We do not need a solution that is absolutely perfect in every constitutional respect that fits seamlessly into some web of other issues; we need something that resolves the problem and removes a sense of unfairness.
At one stage, I argued for having an English Grand Committee, to which English-only Bills would be sent. It could be a Committee of all English Members sitting in this Chamber, but only those on such a Committee would be able to vote, just as members of Select Committees are the only people able to vote on them. That would not, in itself, be constitutionally improper. I acknowledge, however, that that would be quite a complicated innovation, which would take a complex series of thoughts to resolve and could take years in practice to implement.
In any event, there is a much simpler alternative-one that has not thus far been mentioned-and I shall put it forward. I would strongly argue that the most simple and straightforward solution relates to when a Bill is certified by the Speaker, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire indicates, as applying only to England. Doing that, incidentally, is not difficult. Many Bills currently affect England and Scotland or England, Scotland and Wales, because there is no reason at the moment for the draftsmen not to draft them in that way, if it suits their drafting objectives. If the rules change and the draftsmen are required to restrict any Bill to that part of the kingdom to which it overwhelmingly applies, they can draft accordingly if instructed to do so.
Where a Bill applies only to England, the right way to resolve matters would be to say that before it can be approved on Second and Third Reading, it must achieve not only the majority of votes of the whole House but, subsumed within that, a majority of Members representing English constituencies. In other words, a double majority is required: a majority of the House as a whole and a majority of those representing English constituencies. If it does not meet that target, it cannot be deemed to have been approved on Second Reading. The attraction is that no hon. Member is prevented from speaking in the debate or from voting in the Division Lobby for or against the measure, but the question of whether an England-only Bill goes forward and is given a Second Reading will have been determined by the House to be dependent on a majority of Members from English constituencies voting for it.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way and also for sharing his enormous wisdom on this topic with the House. Does he agree that the Scotland legislation of the 1970s included a provision made by the Lords for a 14-day waiting period, in which something like what he is describing would apply? What does he think of that particular approach?
Yes, that is indeed one approach. We are always reminding ourselves that this country has a sovereign Parliament. The idea that a sovereign Parliament cannot determine that certain classes of legislation will not go through unless there is a double majority of the kind that I have described is absurd. Of course it can do that if it wishes; it is entirely within its power. It is simply a political judgment as to whether that is the right way forward.
I shall not speak for much longer, but I want to address one fundamental challenge that will be made-it has already been made-to any of the solutions that have been described. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Rhondda will raise this suggestion. It is constantly said that the problem with all these approaches is that if a Government were denied the use of all the votes of their supporters that would usually give them a majority, the whole business of government would become unworkable and the Government would be unable to get their programme through, which would create some sort of constitutional crisis. To be fair, that argument is not made only by Labour Members. Mr Vernon Bogdanor, for example, who we are often told is a great constitutional expert, has constantly opined that that is a fundamental flaw in any such approach. Although I can understand why the Labour party adopts that view, because there is a political interest in putting forward such an argument, I find it very difficult to understand why such a learned gentleman has come to this conclusion-and I hope that he reads this speech.
I have no doubt that he was. Eric Anderson was the headmaster who taught Tony Blair, but I do not think that either could be held responsible for the other; each must come to their own judgments on these matters.
I come to the central point about the accusation that government would become unworkable. It is not just my view, my opinion or my theory that that is nonsense. We know from our own history that it is a ludicrous argument; it is exactly what happens every time we have a hung Parliament. When there is such a Parliament, as there was between 1974 and 1979, there will be many occasions when Governments cannot get their legislation through. It does not necessarily mean the collapse of the Government unless it is on some fundamental issue of confidence. What happens is that Governments either have to withdraw the proposal or discuss it with their opponents and table amendments to make it more acceptable. That is also exactly what happens between the House of Commons and the House of Lords from time to time. It is what happens in the United States all the time. The current President of the US does not have a majority in Congress, so he can never be certain of getting any legislation through. The argument that a British Government would somehow find themselves in an unworkable and unacceptable situation because not all but some of their English-only legislation was so controversial that a majority of English Members could not be persuaded to vote for it and that that would create chaos in the workings of government is manifestly ludicrous. That argument cannot be put forward in any credible way.
I suspect that my hon. Friend's intervention has guaranteed that that will not happen. In any event, I would rather give evidence to the committee than serve on it. We will have to wait and see.
Finally, it is the essence of a parliamentary system of government that Governments must not assume that they can always get their business through. They will occasionally be defeated and, if they believe that the issue is fundamental, they can ask for a motion of confidence to enable them to survive. It is not a barrier to the kind of change that I and others have recommended to say that a Government might from time to time have to amend or withdraw their proposals because they lacked parliamentary consent. The parliamentary consent is what matters, not the Government's wishes.
May I drag my right hon. and learned Friend back to a point he made earlier in his eloquent speech? He said that he did not wish to create two classes of MP. Indeed, there is only one class of MP in this place. However, do we not already have two classes of MPs in our constituencies, because the work load of English MPs is far higher than that of Members in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland- [Interruption.] Chris Bryant makes a sedentary comment, but if the work load of MPs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is not less than that of English MPs, what are the devolved Governments doing and what is their purpose?
I know the point my hon. Friend is making, and it has some validity, but he takes the argument too far. Certainly, the constituency correspondence with which a Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland Member deals must be substantially less, as many issues that the rest of us have drawn to our attention would be a matter for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly or Northern Ireland Assembly. Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and none of us has enough time to do all the things that we would like to do in this Parliament. Although many of our Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish colleagues might not have as much work of that kind, I assume that that gives them more time, if they so wish, to take part in debates on wider, national issues and on matters that affect their constituents. It is not as if they sit around wondering, "How should I spend my day?" The naturally indolent may be in that position and enjoying every moment, and that is for our constituents to come to a judgment on, but a good Member of Parliament never has a shortage of legitimate matters, affecting constituents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to occupy their time.
I conclude more or less where I began: let us not get too involved in constitutional proprieties. The essence of the British constitution is its flexibility and ability to evolve to meet changing circumstances. When, for the first time since the Act of Union, three of the four component parts of the kingdom have their own Parliament or Assembly, the principle of fairness is paramount. The approach that I have suggested would meet that requirement in a fairly simple and straightforward way. There may be other solutions, but it is important to recognise that a solution is needed, and the quicker we achieve it the better.
I welcome the contribution of Harriett Baldwin, who has not been in the House long and yet already has managed to grasp firmly with both hands the nettle of one of the more complicated constitutional matters that has faced the country, I would say, for considerably longer than she suggested. It achieved a name, and once something has a name it achieves greater prominence-because of Irish Home Rule. However, when we first started binding together the different bits of the Union, there were profound discussions about how many Members of Parliament of both Houses should be from each of the constituent parts. To all intents and purposes, that was a very similar debate.
I was with the hon. Lady for part of her contribution, but then she took us to the Welsh Grand Committee. Anyone who suggests that that is an answer to anything, I am afraid, has completely lost me. My experience of the Welsh grandstanding Committee is that, for the most part, it is not as useful as it might seem to those who do not have to attend it.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that the Bill stops well short of such Committees, and would be a simple and innocuous piece of legislation that he could wholeheartedly support?
Was it Socrates-I cannot remember-who said that a small book was always a bad book? Sometimes a simple and innocuous-looking piece of legislation can do the most pernicious damage. I will come on to whether I think it is innocuous later.
It is always great to hear the right hon. and learned-and gallant, and doubtless many other things besides- [Laughter.] Other words, which he might not like so much, are coming to mind now. It is always difficult not to think of Sir Malcolm Rifkind-as a Scottish MP, and I suppose that in many regards he still is, but he is a Scottish MP for an English seat. Several hon. Members think that I am an English Member for a Welsh seat, but I am thoroughly Welsh, and Jeremy Paxman had to apologise when he maintained, in his latest book, that I was not.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to maintain that Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Members of Parliament have no diminished role just because of devolution. In many debates, they bring a specific interest and point of view that adds to the whole equation. Andrew Bridgen, who has departed the scene, said that Wales and Scotland MPs must, by definition, have less casework, which is certainly not my experience. If anything, many constituents, in the process of trying to achieve redress for their individual concern, try to play the Assembly Member off against the Member of Parliament. As the Welsh Assembly also has regional Members, my experience is that those from other political parties who failed to be elected in constituencies end up trying to play a semi-constituency role. Often, that leads to a considerable enhancement of the amount of work done. I make no complaint about that, but I think that those who assume, from their English seat, that a Welsh Assembly and a Scottish Parliament result in Welsh and Scottish MPs having less casework, are wrong.
There are many different kinds of casework. There is casework such as a miners compensation scheme, with which thousands of people want help going through the legal process. Then there is casework such as, "I think it's an absolute outrage that you ever thought of voting for this piece of legislation." I get very little of the latter and a lot of the former. In different constituencies around the land, some Members have a lot of immigration cases. I have had only about three immigration cases during my time as a Member of Parliament. Casework varies between constituencies, and it is not appropriate to legislate directly in relation to that.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that, with constituencies in Scotland and Wales having significantly smaller electorates than those in England, list system Members, devolved Parliament Members and MPs, such MPs have the same work loads as English constituency Members? If so, does he have any academic evidence to support that, because I am quite sceptical?
I think "Sceptical" might be the hon. Gentleman's middle name. I see he is smiling-I have managed to get a smile out of him; that must be a first. He is now trying not to smile. Now he is laughing.
The only point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that there is no academic evidence, and probably never will be. All that we have is anecdotal evidence. I merely offer my own evidence-I have not seen my work load diminish compared with that of my predecessor, who did not have a Welsh Assembly to contend with. The hon. Gentleman is right that a constituency with a smaller number of people might mean that the Member concerned has fewer people contacting them, but it might also mean that access to the Member for constituents is more difficult and that it involves considerable travelling around the constituency. Anyway, that is a matter for a different debate.
The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington referred to the issue of whether there should be an English Parliament. He is right to argue that there is a danger that we would end up with two Governments. Who would take possession of Downing street? Presumably, we would have a set of English Ministers, in addition to British Ministers, and so on. I am not sure that is the direction in which British voters want to go. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire referred to the fact that on the one occasion when we had a referendum on whether there should be devolved responsibilities within the English regions, people decided, largely because they did not want more politicians, not to go down that route.
In parenthesis, let me say briefly that I hear regularly, not from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington but from others, that this is the mother of Parliaments. I again say that John Bright meant that England was the mother of Parliaments and that it was a very difficult and complicated birth. The effortless English superiority that sometimes arises in these debates is unfortunate.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to Wales, and I was reminded of a story, which may not be apocryphal, of Charlotte Church singing before George W. Bush when he was President-a meeting of two great minds, obviously.
When Charlotte Church was introduced to the President, he asked, "Where are you from?" She said, "Wales." He asked, "What state is that in?" , and she said "Terrible." Discussions about issues such as this are not always informed by great intelligence.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the possibility of an English Grand Committee. It has been suggested in the past that such a Committee should sit in the Chamber, because it would obviously have a significant number of members. During the last Parliament we discussed the possibility of regional Grand Committees and arguments were presented both for and against the idea, but it has fallen by the wayside.
I am not convinced by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument in favour of a requirement for a double majority. Neither House has ever operated a system of secondary mandates.
It is true that innovation is sometimes a good thing, but I think that it would lead to confusion in this instance.
I am afraid that I am going to disappoint the right hon. and learned Gentleman now. He expected me to argue that a Government who lost a piece of legislation would fall, but I am not going to argue that at all. In fact, the danger is that as we move towards an elected second Chamber-and over the past few weeks we have seen both sides of the second Chamber behaving almost exactly like an elected Chamber-we will reach a point at which there will be absolutely no check on the power of the Executive. There will be no check by virtue of the time that the second Chamber can take to delay legislation, and no check in this House because, by definition, the Government have a majority. We may have to address that problem through the way in which we interpret the Standing Orders of the House.
The hon. Gentleman has been kind enough to say that he does not think that a double-majority requirement would create an unworkable situation for the Government. The only argument-in fact, it is not even an argument, but just a word-that he has used to indicate his reason for opposing such a requirement is that it would cause "confusion". What does he mean by that?
I shall deal later with an issue that relates directly to the point of the Bill, and I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will then understand why I believe there is a problem. [Interruption.] He is now confused, but I hope that I shall be able to rescue him from his confusion in a moment or two.
As I said to the hon. Member for West Worcestershire, this is an age-old issue. There is a meretricious argument, which the hon. Lady steered away from today-although she dangled it in front of us a little bit-that it is patently absurd for Members whose constituents will not be affected by an individual piece of legislation to be able to vote on it. That is, at any rate, a paraphrase of something that she said. My response is "All that glisters is not gold."
If we decide that Members can vote only on matters that affect their constituents directly-or even indirectly, I suppose-we end up with the question of who runs the country. At any one moment, on any one piece of legislation, there is uncertainty, and in the case of Finance Bills in particular there is a real problem. The issue is not just what the Government propose, but what Members can or cannot amend. Some money Bills have effect only in England, but the danger is that a money Bill could be amended in a way that caused it to have an implication elsewhere.
There are money Bills attached to many pieces of legislation. There will be money Bills in relation to the education Bill and the national health service Bill, for instance. However, I think that the hon. Lady is referring to Finance Bills. It is true that the vast majority of Finance Bills have implications throughout the United Kingdom, although obviously there will be modifications in relation to Scotland if the Scotland Bill is passed. Elements of a future Finance Bill would not apply in Scotland. Indeed, elements of a Finance Bill today already do not apply in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales.
My second point is that it is phenomenally difficult to be clear about what constitutes the territorial extent not just of a particular piece of legislation, but of its transition through the House. It would seem on the face of it that, for instance, the Bill that became the Health Act 2006 was purely an England Bill. Most people would consider that to be the case. The Bill made provision in relation to smoke-free premises, the purpose being to ban smoking in public places in England. On
"The appropriate national authority may make regulations providing for specified descriptions of premises, or specified areas within specified descriptions of premises, not to be smoke-free".
It then listed a series of places that might be exempted. Subsection (5), for example, stated:
"If both a club premises certificate and a premises licence authorising the consumption of alcohol on the premises have effect in respect of any premises, those premises are to be treated for the purposes of this section as if only the premises licence had effect".
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Given that the whole purpose of the Bill is to make clearer in legislation exactly what different legislative proposals relate to in terms of the geographical area of the United Kingdom, surely his argument is one in favour of the Bill.
No, it is an argument against it. I remember clearly the rows that took place in both the Chamber and the Clerk's Office about whether the way in which the amendments to a health Bill were being selected would mean that Wales was or was not covered. Because most Members wanted to remove the provision that would allow the Secretary of State to exempt private members' clubs in England, they actually removed the provision that allowed an exemption for private members' clubs in Wales. It may well be that the Welsh Assembly would have wanted to do that itself anyway, but it had no choice. It could not make such a provision. I can tell the hon. Lady that that row was quite vociferous.
My point is this: I do not think it is possible to be clear. The original legislation might be clear, but people might want to amend it, and why should they not be able to do so? If the parliamentary draftspeople say, "This Bill will cover only England", the number of Bills going through the House will have to be doubled, if not trebled, because there will have to be a separate Wales Bill and a separate Scotland Bill.
With the greatest respect, surely in such circumstances it would be necessary only to say, "This Bill applies to all three areas." My Bill provides for flexibility in order to avoid precisely the kind of row that the hon. Gentleman has described.
But who gets to decide the interpretation of what applies and what does not apply? That is the problem. A series of issues arises. A decision is made by parliamentary draftspeople, or Clerks, or the Speaker. That would bring them into the debate, which would be a mistake.
I want to give the reason why I think the Bill is being introduced. Although it is fascinating to know the territorial extent of any Bill or clause, the only purpose of knowing that must surely be, as the hon. Lady said, to ensure that Members of the House vote only on legislation that directly affects them. That is a misguided intention. In practice, that would mean that we ended up with more Bills, and Second and Third Readings and Committee stages. If we decide that English MPs can vote only on English legislation, who will vote on Welsh clauses? Just Welsh MPs? Would only Welsh MPs be able to attend the Committee to take the Bill through? I think that we have never had a Welsh Secretary of State for Wales under a Conservative Government, although I may be wrong. We would have to allow the Minister to sit on the Committee but they would not be able to vote on their own legislation, which seems patently absurd.
With respect, the hon. Gentleman is missing the whole point. Obviously, legislation will have different effects in different parts of the UK. That will be spelt out in the legislation. All the issues that he is raising are complete red herrings that the Bill would address.
No, I honestly think that the hon. Lady is completely naive in relation to this matter. She said at the beginning of her speech that she thought that it was a fundamental principle that MPs should be able to vote only on those things that affect their constituents. That is the only purpose of having such a provision in any legislation. If she introduces a piece of legislation or a Standing Order-I will come to parliamentary privilege in a moment-that would require MPs not to vote on a piece of legislation, or that would shame people into not voting on a piece of legislation, she will create a real problem. If we assert that only English MPs can take part in the proceedings on English legislation, table amendments, amend Bills, seek to speak and vote on that legislation-that is where her Bill is driving us-there will be a problem for English legislation, not least because large numbers of Scottish and Welsh MPs have been English Ministers dealing with largely English matters. There are and have been Scottish and Welsh Ministers in, for example, the Department of Health and the Department for Education who have largely dealt with matters that refer only to England.
People in the country do not want to see Scottish MPs voting as Ministers on English-only legislation. Surely the hon. Gentleman can see that there is a fairness issue. It is surely not a bad thing if people might be shamed into feeling that they cannot represent English-only issues if they are a Scottish MP, and by the way, the Bill is not proposing that.
I think that the hon. Lady has just let the cat out of the bag. That is the whole point of her argument, is it not? There is no other reason to introduce such as measure. The only reason is to shame people. That is what the hon. Lady wants to do. I think that she is effectively saying that she does not want me as a Welsh MP to vote on anything that she believes to be an English-only matter. Is that what she believes?
This is obviously my hon. Friend's Bill. She is not proposing any such legislation. She is merely proposing to clarify the territorial extent of any Bill that goes through the House. For my own part, in direct answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, I think that it is unfair to you, as a Welsh Member representing Welsh interests, voting on English-only interests, or indeed being a Minister for English-only interests. That is my personal opinion and I would not like you to attribute that to my hon. Friend whose Bill this is. She is not making that proposal.
Order. May I gently point out that I have been accused of many things but not of being a Welsh Member?
Although I am sure that you would not mind, Mr Speaker. It is not a libel. It is not like being called an English Member when you are not an English Member. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] We lost badly in the rugby last week so we are still somewhat wounded on these matters.
I recognise that the hon. Member for West Worcestershire has dressed her Bill up so that it does not look like it is moving in that direction, but many Members might only support the Bill because they want it to move in that direction. As I said earlier, I understand that some people are concerned about the issue in the country. However, I cannot think of a single Parliament in the world, including Spain and many other countries-this is not the only argument that I would use in relation to this-where there is asymmetric devolution and MPs cannot vote on every piece of legislation that is brought before them. As the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington said, to go down that route is a nationalist argument-not as in British nationalist, but as in Welsh, Scottish or Irish nationalist-and will unpick the Union in the end. Therefore, if the hon. Member for West Worcestershire really believes in the Union, it is a bit difficult to advance that argument.
As I said earlier, it is because of that belief that it is important that we have clarity in our legislation about which parts of the UK it affects. Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that we have to just continue to park the issue and not address it, thus undermining the Union?
I would like to see the issue addressed in different ways-as it has been addressed in other countries. For example, the role of the second Chamber needs to be looked at. It has been embarrassing that the vast majority of people who have been appointed to the second Chamber in the past few years have been from London and the south-east of England. That is almost inevitable when we have an appointments system. I would prefer to move to an elected system, where we had more people representing the whole of the UK. It might be possible to devise a better answer to the West Lothian question through reform of the second Chamber on an elected basis.
However, as the hon. Lady has said, the whole business of parliamentary privilege comes into play. It has been a fundamental assumption from when the first commoners were allowed to attend parliamentary proceedings under Simon de Montfort in 1258 that grievances that they presented on behalf of the people should be able to be presented without any difference between one and the other Members.
Simon de Montfort invited four knights from each of the shires and six from Yorkshire in 1258 to present in Parliament their grievances on behalf of others. We do not know that all the knights attended. Of the ones who did attend, we only know that because they presented expenses and had them paid, so this problem has been with us since Mauge Vavasour had his payments made in Michaelmas 1258. It was a significant moment. The burgesses obviously arrived after 1258, though earlier in the 13th century there were occasions when some burgesses from the Cinque ports were invited, and some from those cities where there were a large number of Jewish residents were brought to Parliament to debate specific issues.
Well, not all 37 shires had representation, and they certainly did not have that as of right. I am perfectly happy to debate this at another time, but for now Mr Speaker has got that slightly fascinated but also slightly irritated face on.
It would be very dangerous to dismantle the fundamental principle of the equality of all Members of this House. That is why I think that, in the end, the direction of travel the hon. Member for West Worcestershire is moving in with this Bill is an unfortunate one.
As I have said, legislation is about not just what it does, but the declaratory effect that it has. The hon. Lady referred to the intended consequences of her Bill, but it would also have unintended consequences. As her colleague, Andrea Leadsom, has already in effect told us, press releases will be sent out the moment the Bill comes into force condemning some Members for taking part in debates and votes on matters that the Bill declares as being for England only. I presume that there would also be condemnation of English MPs taking part in debates and votes on legislation that applies only to Wales. If we are going to reduce the number of Members of Parliament for Wales to 30, it will be difficult to take such legislation through effectively if there are not enough Back Benchers to be able to make proper informed decisions about the measures under discussion. The direction of travel the hon. Member for West Worcestershire is taking us down is unfortunate.
I also think there will be unfortunate direct consequences, in that the number of Bills will increase, which will make things more difficult for us, and the number of clauses will also increase. We will end up with worse legislation because, as the hon. Lady has said, draftsmen will be required to try to provide absolute clarity that measures apply specifically to England, for example, or to Wales alone.
Such declarations do not specify whether a Bill is exclusively English, Welsh or Northern Irish, or applies to all four territories or just two-or whatever. There has not been a problem thus far, and that is why I do not think there is any reason to make changes through legislation. I am even more sceptical about this Bill than Mr Jackson normally is about everything. If it proceeds to Second Reading, we will want to scrutinise and amend it robustly. As other Members have revealed, there are major problems with these measures that the hon. Member for West Worcestershire has not considered.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin on introducing the Bill. As we have heard, the question it addresses has excited people throughout history. I will not add to the exchange about history between Chris Bryant and my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg, but in its current guise the question has been around since the late 1970s, when Tam Dalyell, the former Member for West Lothian, posed it during deliberations on the Scotland Bill in 1977, although I believe it was Enoch Powell who coined the phrase "the West Lothian question" during those debates.
Like the Barnett formula, this question is one of the perennial issues in respect of devolution. I often ask myself why that is the case. Should we simply not ask the question any more, as Lord Irvine has suggested? Is this just a constitutional nicety that we should ignore? The answer to that is that if left answered, the question would gnaw away at the bonds that hold the Union together. I am a Unionist and the last thing I ever want to see is the Union of our United Kingdom being ripped up. That is why we must turn our minds to finding an answer to this question. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire rightly said that Members representing English constituencies get lobbied by our constituents on why some Scottish Members vote on matters that apply only to England. I am not saying that that is the primary topic of conversation down the "Nut and Squirrel" every Friday night, but it does come up sometimes.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I know that you have been in the Chair since the business of the House started this morning so you may not be aware that the High Court has just ruled in favour of the six local authorities who took the Secretary of State for Education to court over his Building Schools for the Future announcement. You will be aware, Mr Speaker, of the extent of the feeling on both sides of the House about this decision, and you will also appreciate the grave implications it will have for the policy of the Department for Education. It also calls into question the competence of the Secretary of State. Mr Speaker, have you received any notification that the Secretary of State will come to the House and explain the botched decision he made and say how he will move forward to make sure capital programmes for schools, including in my own constituency, will now be reinstated?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I have received no indication from any Minister at the Department for Education of an intention or desire to make a statement in the House today. It would, of course, be open to a Minister to do so however, and the hon. Gentleman has put his point on the record. It will have been heard by Members sitting on the Treasury Bench, including the Leader of the House, and I am sure there will be other opportunities fully to explore these matters in the days and weeks ahead.
I was about to give an example of why it is still extremely valid to address the West Lothian question. Last May's general election did not produce a parliamentary majority for any one party, but it did produce a majority in England for the Conservative party; the Conservatives won a clear overall majority of the seats in England. I accept that no party commanded an overall majority so we had to proceed to a coalition Government, but an alternative coalition to the current one could have been found, such as the "rainbow option" of Labour Members, Liberal Democrats, nationalists, Ulster Members and independents. In that case, the people of England who had voted clearly for a Conservative Government would have been denied that Government, and we would, I think, have entered uncharted constitutional waters. I think there would have been a strong uprising in England on the basis that the will of the English voters had been thwarted. That situation did not arise, but it could have, so this is a very live issue.
A similar situation may arise in this Parliament over a vote to reverse the ban on hunting. That ban applies only to England and Wales from a vote in this House, because the matter is devolved entirely to the Scottish Parliament. Let us suppose there was a clear majority among English and Welsh Members to reverse that ban, but in the House as a whole, with the addition of Scottish Members, there was a wish to keep the law as it is. Why should Scottish Members be able to influence the decision in England or in England and Wales? That situation could arise and, although it might not be the most dominant issue in our postbags, we have to provide for that eventuality.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Will he also consider what might happen in this review that we have been promised? What happens if the commission recommends changing the arrangements to answer the West Lothian question, but that is then unrepresentative of English opinion?
My hon. Friend raises an intriguing possibility. I hope that the commission does report, but we cannot move to a new arrangement without the agreement of those in the existing system; that is part of our process of constitutional evolution. I hope that we do get that commission and I gently encourage my Front-Bench colleagues to speed it up, because I will wholeheartedly support it.
I wish to discuss an intriguing point made by a former Secretary of State for Scotland in the previous Government, Helen Liddell. It relates to a separate issue but it makes the argument well. When we were debating whether the United Kingdom should join the euro, the then Chancellor, Mr Brown, set out five tests by which we should judge whether it was appropriate for the United Kingdom to do so. She made the point that a sixth test should form part of the overall considerations, which was the opportunity cost of not joining: was there a cost to the United Kingdom of not joining the euro? Similarly, we should consider the opportunity cost of not addressing the West Lothian question because if it is left unchecked at some point it will come back to undermine the Union. As a Unionist, that is the last thing that I want. My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind was correct to say that this is an evolutionary process. I did not have the benefit of being tutored by Professor Bogdanor, but I was always taught by the equally eminent Professor Michael Rush at the university of Exeter that the British constitution is a product of evolution, not revolution. We should proceed on that basis, but that should not preclude us from turning our minds to this issue.
Theoretically, there are three perfect solutions to the West Lothian question, although I believe that we should reject them because they have other consequences that are either impractical or undesirable. The first option is that the Union ends, which is the wish of the Scottish National party, whose Members are clearly here in excessive number to debate this matter. They do have a perfect option, because under their solution the number of Scottish Members in this House would be zero and the West Lothian question would therefore not arise. However, for all sorts of economic, cultural and social reasons, I do not wish the Union to end.
The second option is to go back to the arrangement that was in place before we had the Scottish Parliament, either by abolishing that Parliament or by following the intriguing suggestion made by my hon. Friend Andrew Bridgen that Members of this House who represent Scottish constituencies should then form the Scottish Parliament and on certain days-for example, Wednesdays and Thursdays-only English Members would debate in this place. I fear that that is not a practical option at the moment. There is certainly no appetite in Scotland for reversing the Scottish Parliament, and as it was set up by a referendum it can be undone only by a referendum. That may become an option at some point, but I do not see it as a viable option now. Nevertheless, the suggestion would provide a neat solution to the West Lothian question.
The third option is to move to a fully federal United Kingdom, with one United Kingdom Parliament legislating on the big national issues-the economy, international affairs, defence and so on-and the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly and a body for England then dealing, on an equal basis, with the issues affecting those areas. Such a system works perfectly well in Germany, Australia, Canada and many other countries, but the problem would be how to solve the "English question" in a federal situation.
One option would be to have a separate English Parliament with the same powers as the Scottish Parliament. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington said, and as others have argued, the difficulty with that is that England would represent more than 80% of the population and more than 80% of the gross domestic product in one unit. I cannot think of a stable modern democracy with an advanced economy where there is such an overwhelming dominant part in a federation. Any other country with a federal system contains two or more big states that balance each other out. For example, Canada contains Ontario and Quebec, and Germany contains Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia. If England were to be a separate entity in a federal system, the arrangement would have too much of an imbalance.
The other option would be to atomise England into regions-for example, the north-east, the south-west, Greater London and so on. There may be various permutations, but there is simply no appetite in England for that, even in the part of England where there was, allegedly, the highest demand for a regional government-the north-east. When people there were given the option of a regional government a few years ago, they overwhelmingly rejected it. In addition, we would face enormous difficulty in dividing England up. Our debates on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill have included an argument about a cross-border constituency involving Cornwall and Devon. Goodness knows what would happen if we tried to draw a boundary involving Gloucestershire, Cornwall, Dorset and other areas to constitute "the south-west of England". I simply do not believe that federalism is a viable option in this country.
All that brings us to an imperfect answer, as we are not going to create a perfect solution to the West Lothian question unless we go down one of those three avenues. The Bill is a helpful first step in paving the way to finding that answer. I have looked at all the options over many years, although not for as long as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington. I have ruled out some and I do take seriously the comment made by Chris Bryant that we would encounter difficulties if we started excluding Members from voting on particular bits of legislation. I strongly hold the view that every Member in this House is equal and when we start tinkering with that, we enter dangerous waters.
I do believe, however, that there is a solution and I am happy to endorse the one proposed by my right hon. and learned Friend: some form of a double majority. In such a system no Member would be excluded from participating in a debate or voting on a particular Bill or part of a Bill, but there should then be a requirement that if that Bill applied wholly or exclusively to one part of the United Kingdom, an additional majority would be required among Members from that area.
But is the difficulty not that, for the most part, Governments introduce legislation in our system and a Government who were nervous about their majority would simply ensure that Bills contained separate clauses relating to Wales, to Northern Ireland and to Scotland, so we would not be any further forward?
I would answer that by saying that a Government who do not command the majority in all parts of the kingdom should approach with caution legislating against the will of a part where they do not command a majority. For example, one of the main arguments for devolution was that this place would legislate against the wishes of Scotland, if the Government did not command a majority in Scotland. If the Government do not command a majority, they should approach with care legislating for the whole kingdom, if that does not command support across the board.
One should assume that Governments will be unscrupulous. Hon. Members are always scrupulous, but Governments, in their corporate management of taking business through the House, might be unscrupulous. There is the myth that the previous Labour Government did not have a majority in England, but they had the majority of seats in England. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that the Bill will not solve the problem.
I beg to differ.
As I have said, there is an opportunity cost to not addressing the issue. My contention is that doing nothing carries a greater price than doing something, which is why I strongly welcome the Bill.
Once again, the hon. Gentleman comments from a sedentary position. The previous Government did not have the majority of the votes in England. I am a Unionist, and I wholeheartedly support the Union. The biggest risk posed by not addressing the West Lothian question is that the dissatisfaction of English voters, rather than the dissatisfaction of Scottish or Welsh electors, will force the Union apart.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Sadly, I do not have the statistics, but I believe that my hon. Friend Andrew Bridgen, rather than the hon. Member for Rhondda, is correct about the outcome of the 2005 election in England. Hon. Members with BlackBerrys may be able to provide us with that information. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend will debate that one in the bar afterwards.
Doing nothing is more dangerous than doing something. I am yet to hear a convincing view that the double-majority option is worse than the current situation. The approach should, of course, be gradual. We should evolve our constitution, rather than smashing it up and piecing it together again, which is why I am happy to support the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire. I hope that the Bill is read a Second time today and that it gets a fair wind in its later stages.
I want to speak briefly in support of my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin and her short, simple and splendid Bill.
The previous Government started a number of constitutional journeys that did not have clear destinations. The reform of the other place is one example, and devolution is another-as my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind has correctly pointed out, devolution is more than one journey.
The Bill does not tell us exactly where we are going. It does not buy us a map or a TomTom, but it points the vehicle in the correct direction and provides greater visibility of the road ahead. The real divide is between those who think that the West Lothian question is a question that needs to be answered, and those who think that it is a question that might just go away. As my hon. Friend Iain Stewart has put it, the question needs to be answered, if we care about maintaining the Union and carrying the people of the United Kingdom with us.
Chris Bryant discussed the declaratory effect of passing this Bill. He is right, but the declaratory effect would be a good thing, because it would make it clear that this House thinks that the question needs to be answered. The Bill does not answer the question, but it makes it more urgent.
We have discussed a number of options today, such as the double-majority option. The double-lock system, which is slightly different, was proposed by the taskforce on democracy, which was chaired by the Secretary of State for Justice. The double-lock system is an elegant solution to the problem, where the whole House would vote on Second Reading and Third Reading, but only English MPs would be allowed to vote in Committee and on Report. The great advantage of that system is that it would force people to negotiate. If, as a side effect, there were slightly less legislation, it would not be such a bad thing. [ Interruption. ] I do not accept that there would automatically be more legislation caused by Governments duplicating Bills to cover the different constituent countries of the kingdom.
As I have said, the Bill is a first step. It is not the solution to the West Lothian question, but it does enable it. When it comes to constitutional change, baby steps are good steps-incrementalism is a good thing, rather than making great lurches forward. The constitution is an organic and delicate thing, which we change at our peril. In her Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire neatly gets around the two major objections on territorial extent: namely, the potential politicisation of the office of the Speaker and the implications for the Barnett formula.
I am happy to support the Bill. I hope that it is read a Second time today and that it completes its later stages.
I agree with Chris Bryant that it will be difficult to sort out the problem. As we have heard, the problem goes all the way back to Simon de Montfort. Equally, we must remember the problems with the Irish Home Rule Bills in the late 19th century, which were solved-kind of. We had Stormont until 1972, which I can recall operating when I was a soldier.
The issue will become increasingly important as power, particularly the power to raise taxes, is dissipated down. As I understand it, the Scottish Parliament might be able to raise 2p in the pound on income tax. Is that correct? I think that it is. The Scotland Bill may allow more discretion on that. When one starts talking about money as well as issues such as health, education and prisons, there is a big difference. It is important that we find a way ahead, but it will not be easy.
I have had a few tangles with the Table Office, when I used what I thought were plain words in a question. I have had to go there several times after my homework was sent back, but I am sure that the clever people in the Table Office can design a form of words that will help. Surely it should be possible to identify whether a Bill concerns England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
That has not always been my experience of the Table Office, which is often directional and forceful in saying that one cannot table a particular question in, for example, Welsh questions. In such cases, it is often drawn into rows.
Earlier, I suggested that Labour won more votes than the Conservatives in the 2005 election. Actually, we were 70,000 votes short but 92 seats ahead.
I thank my hon. Friend-well, not my friend, but he could be, if he is nicer. I thank the hon. Gentleman.
It will become increasingly important that we address this problem. I am sure now, too, that that the problem will be helped by some sort of solution, such as that suggested by my right hon., learned and former Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who is not in his position, but whom I shall make it up with. Before you were here, Madam Deputy Speaker, I called him "old friend", and he said, "Not as old as you." [ Interruption. ] I am so sorry; I am getting into more trouble now. Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was referring to my right hon., learned and somewhat gallant Friend the Member for Kensington, who produced an elegant solution that would not be a big problem to sort out: the double vote, which my hon. Friend Iain Stewart, who shares the same name as me and who must be slightly Scottish, as I am, suggested that he endorsed as well.
I keep on thinking up more reasons why I dislike that double mandate, so I will suggest another one: one of the reasons why, traditionally, we have granted that a Bill should be given a Second Reading is so that it can be amended. Quite often, hon. Members will allow a debate on Second Reading to proceed because they want to amend something. That is the danger. Many hon. Members might want to amend a Bill to include Welsh or Scottish provisions, but they might have been prohibited from taking part in the debate on Second Reading, and that rather conflicts with the whole purpose of such a debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for, once again, being so perceptive as to pick a few little holes. I accept that this is not an easy problem; there is no easy fix. That is why my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin is suggesting a gradual, slow change, which I support. But I also support the idea that, when the commission sits this year, as we learn, it considers a solution. I prefer evolution, rather than revolution. I would prefer that we start to address this problem, and I am attracted to the idea presented by my new friend, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, who has departed for a coffee. I endorse in the meantime my hon. Friend's Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin on presenting the Bill. The contributions so far have shown
"what a tangled web we weave".
I support devolution as far as it has gone, but I am a great supporter of the Union. That is why my hon. Friend has done a service by promoting further debate.
The hon. Gentleman started the quotation but did not finish it:
"Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive".
I am sure that he is not suggesting that the Bill is deceiving.
That is why I used only the first half of the quotation. I would not dream of suggesting anything such as deception.
I recognise the growing concern-irritation would be one way of putting it-among my constituents, who rightly or wrongly feel that there is now an injustice and that Scotland has a greater say and influence over issues than they do in Lincolnshire. We in the Cleethorpes constituency are in the Yorkshire and Humber region. We do not like that, but the fact is that, officially, we seem to have been consigned to it, where there are 54 constituencies. So, in theory, the 59 constituencies that make up Scotland could overrule my constituents' wishes on an issue that affected only their region.
Many hon. Members have talked about the designation used in Bills-for example, the Energy Bill states that it is limited to England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Education Bill states that it is limited to England and Wales. It does not seem beyond the wit of man to find a system whereby Bills were designated as applying only to one part of the kingdom or another.
The Bill's great strength is that it asks for a common-sense approach to be taken to the process of debate and scrutiny of draft legislation that applies only to the people of England. The anomaly that has been rather misleadingly entitled, "the West Lothian question" exists as a procedural quirk in our system. The Bill proposes that the citizens of England be given the same representation on draft legislation and that we who represent the people of England be given the same accountability as those who represent the devolved nations.
The thrust of the Bill is not something that is radical or unsupported but is a call for the implementation of the ideal of representation, which is the core of our system. I always hesitate to use the word "fair", but the people of my constituency feel, as I mentioned a moment ago, that the system is unfair to them. The word "fairness" is used a lot in politics these days. It is rather a dangerous concept for politicians. Of course, people think that something is fair only if it is to their advantage. The present system is seen by English people as unfair.
Mention has been made of the Conservative democracy taskforce. Its contribution to the debate has been welcome. I had rather thought that its thoughts and conclusions had been put, as with so many reports, into the litter bin of history, but we have perhaps resurrected them this morning. Of course, as has been mentioned, the taskforce suggests that the Committee stage could be taken by English Members if a Bill related only to England-that seems perfectly reasonable-and that the whole House would contribute again on Third Reading. I quote Lord Hurd:
"The government of the United Kingdom would have to ensure that its English measures were acceptable to enough English MPs-or else not put them forward. There would be nothing extraordinary in this process: it is called politics."
That seems an eminently sensible contribution to the debate.
The taskforce proposals would retain the overall parliamentary majority of the UK Government for all policy and daily business. English MPs would have reserved to them only the detailed scrutiny and amendment of legislation that exclusively affects their constituents-the residents of England-but legislation that contained unacceptable amendments passed in Committee could be rejected. That seems an eminently sensible way forward.
I support the Bill because it allows the debate to continue. Perhaps we are on the road to a more federal system, and if we are it is essential that we stop seriously to debate and consider all possible aspects, but the Bill has a downside if taken to its logical conclusion. Although I represent Cleethorpes, I live in the neighbouring constituency of Great Grimsby. Although my representative is not in his place, I am sure that he would not mind my mentioning one aspect of Grimsby. There is something called the Grimsby Pastures Act, which was first passed in 1849 and renewed in 1949, and it relates to the almost unique system of freemen of what was the borough of Great Grimsby.
Freedom of the borough is not an honorary title but an hereditary position. The freemen own a considerable amount of land in the borough, the income from which is distributed to the freemen. Only a few hundred of them are left now. My father was a freeman, but by some quirk of the system, because I was born in Cleethorpes, I did not succeed and I am therefore a few hundred pounds worse off. When that Act comes up for renewal in 2048, only Austin Mitchell would be able to vote. That guarantees a majority, but hon. Members can understand my logic.
I support the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire has contributed considerably to the debate on the thorny West Lothian question, and I will support the Bill in the Lobby later this morning.
The Bill promoted by my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin is tremendously important because the West Lothian question is the constitutional question of the day. That question and reform of the House of Lords are the two issues with which politicians and parliamentarians have wrestled since just before the first world war, although no great solution to either has come forward. Today's debate gives us the opportunity to examine what the solution to the question might be and how the Bill might contribute.
Although I am sympathetic to what the Bill is an attempt to do, I have several concerns about its details, some of which were spelled out by Chris Bryant, when we get down to the approach to Bills that Governments might take. What classifications would we have? Some issues are devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while some apply throughout the United Kingdom and others are purely for England. A Bill might cover English issues and matters that are not devolved to Wales but are devolved to Scotland. Would a Standing Order of the House allow English and Welsh Members to consider that Bill, but not the Scots or the Northern Irish? What if one clause of a Bill related to all parts of the United Kingdom, but all the other clauses related only to England? Would Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland join proceedings in Committee and on Report to vote on that particular clause, although they had been kept out of Committee and Report for every other part of the Bill, subject to the Standing Order that would follow from the Bill? The sheer complexities of clarifying territorial extent are probably too great.
Our present position is relatively straightforward. An Act of Parliament can technically overrule a devolved power, but Governments have not been willing to bring forward such a measure because of the great constitutional investment involved in establishing the devolved authorities, all of which were backed by referendums in their constituent parts. If the Bill were passed, England would be protected purely by Standing Orders. It is almost an insult to the English to say, "We had a referendum and then a Parliament for Scotland, and we carried that out in a thorough and proper way, but for the English, we will have a Standing Order." Of course, the drawback to a Standing Order is that an incoming Government could simply remove it so that all MPs could once again vote on all Bills in Committee and on Report. They would lose little political capital if they did so, because a comparatively small amount of political capital would have been invested to set up the previous system, unlike under the referendums prior to setting up the systems of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Stage two from this Bill seems to involve fundamental flaws of definition and description. As my hon. Friend Martin Vickers suggested, it could give rise to ridiculous situations. We will shortly be asked by their lordships to consider whether the Isle of Wight should remain an individual constituency. I rather like the idea that only one Member of Parliament should be able to vote on that. I know without any doubt which way my hon. Friend Mr Turner would vote, but I have a feeling that the Minister would not be entirely happy if the decision of the House was made exclusively by my hon. Friend.
We must be careful about taking territorial extent too far, and there are huge areas in which the situation would not be clear. Let us say that we considered a Finance Bill following the devolution of tax-raising powers to Scotland. Would we go through that Bill with different people sitting on different Committees for each clause, depending on a statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Would we have two separate Finance Bills? As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, we could have a succession of Bills to try to tease out regional effectiveness. It would be incredibly difficult to make such a situation work.
I am afraid that I disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind because there is a difference between having an in-built majority to stop something throughout the five years of a Parliament, and a hung Parliament. Let us put it this way: roughly 100 seats are not English, so 550 seats are English. If 300 of those 550 seats were held by Conservative Members, the Conservatives would have a complete block on all English legislation for an entire Parliament. In a hung Parliament, there is an acceptance among minority parties that the Government's business must be carried, but the main Opposition will oppose day in, day out throughout a hung Parliament, as we see in this hung Parliament and as we saw in the 1970s. In such a situation, the official Opposition would have a majority of English seats, and therefore a block on all exclusively English legislation for the whole Parliament, so the Secretaries of State for Health and for Education would find it almost impossible to get any of their legislation through.
My hon. Friend makes my point for me, as does my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind. If the general election produced a clear majority for one party in England, but the result for the United Kingdom as a whole was different, the UK Government should proceed with the utmost caution and not introduce legislation that would be diametrically opposed to the wishes of English Members.
My hon. Friend makes an important and valid point. The West Lothian question is serious, but the answer is not necessarily one that we have been given so far. Just because the question is right, it does not mean that an answer to it would necessarily work. My hon. Friend is correct to say that if the majority of English seats had been won by Conservatives but we had ended up with a rainbow coalition, it would have caused huge dissatisfaction and opposition within England, as well as a feeling that the Union was not working for England. I want the Union to succeed and prosper, so I want an answer to the West Lothian question to come forward which the English find fair and with which they are comfortable.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington was right to emphasise the issue of fairness, but such fairness needs to be met with constitutional propriety and effectiveness. We have heard a great deal about the fairness so far today, but not about a workable constitutional situation, and that will not do us any good because however much one dislikes the Opposition party being in government, it will be one day, and when it is in government, it must be able to get its programme of government through. The way to stop that programme of government is not to put down so many constitutional man traps that that Government cannot get their business through, but to defeat them at the ensuing general election and reverse the worst elements of what they have done. The Bill would lead to a system that would make it incredibly difficult for a Labour Government to get their English business through, but that is not an answer to the West Lothian question because it would simply mean that that Government would have to reverse the protections that had been introduced, and I would have the gravest concerns about such protections being established purely through Standing Orders of the House.
I know that this is not in the Bill, but its purpose is to establish the declaration so that Standing Orders can then be built either to put in place the double majority suggested by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, or to establish practice in Committee and on Report. Is it right for us to change the whole basis of legislation through Standing Orders? Standing Orders can rightly do many things concerning the hours that we sit and the way that business is timetabled, but they do not tend to change the fundamental way in which legislation is taken through the House.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving such an eloquent speech on some of the issues surrounding legislating on this subject. Does he accept that the Bill stops well short of giving any direction whatever as far as Standing Orders are concerned? It simply says that draft legislation will outline its impact and, in a side statement, its financial impact.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, but I was rather hoping she would not, because there is a desperate tendency on Fridays towards motherhood-and-apple-pie Bills that say nothing very much about anything in particular. If her Bill is that type of Bill, what on earth are we doing discussing it? If it just says that the Minister, out of the kindness of his heart, will say a few words about where an Act applies, it is completely and utterly pointless, and the House should not discuss things that are pointless. We do that on Fridays, and Madam Deputy Speaker is amazingly patient in listening to some of these discussions.
My hon. Friend's Bill has to be an important stepping-stone in answering the West Lothian question, or it is nothing. I give her credit for having the courage to begin to address that question, rather than just detaining us here when we could be doing work in our constituency on a Friday. I hope that she will not try to hide behind the minutiae of the Bill instead of looking at the bigger picture, because that bigger picture is crucial.
My hon. Friend is right to put pressure on the Government to come up with a solution that can be debated in Government time. In that respect, the Bill is really noble, because the Government do have to think about the issue. It is unfair on the British-the English; I apologise for using those two words synonymously, as I know the English do a great deal.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that illuminating point. I always thought that the Auld Alliance meant that they were rather keen on the Scots, but that may be a slight diversion.
What ought the Government to do and to think about as they approach a solution to the West Lothian question? They have to think about the practicalities. We have had learned discussion already today about how difficult it would be to have an English Parliament, because one would then have an English Government, and that would be simply too big. That is the problem that Balfour identified when first discussing Home Rule. He asked what we do about England, when we have Ireland, Scotland and Wales as nations. Do we chop England up, or simply have it swamping the whole new system that is being established? If there is an English Prime Minister and a UK Prime Minister, who does the President of the United States visit when he comes? He sees the English Prime Minister, because the UK Prime Minister would have peripheral powers. He might have a slightly better house, but that would be the extent of it. There is not an easy solution to the English Parliament issue.
There is then the question of English votes on English issues, but the more one discusses that superficially hugely attractive option, the more one discovers that it does not work, because there would be two tiers of MPs, and a Whitehall Government that could not get a major part of its legislation through and would therefore begin to fail. One would then begin to try to chop up the procedures, so that the Government could decide which MPs debated which bits of legislation, but that would not work either, for reasons that we have discussed. There was mention of the Welsh Grand Committee and how little that was able to succeed in doing; and when the Conservatives were last in government, they thought that a sop to devolution would be to have a Scottish Grand Committee. The fact is that the governing party has to be able to get its parliamentary business through. Whatever schemes it sets up will not work if that fundamental principle is not followed, and will be changed to the extent that they cannot be used.
So what do I suggest that the Government do? That is the nub of it. We will have an election at some point in which the Conservatives have a clear majority in England but are not the major part of the governing group. At that point, there will be squeals of anguish from the English electorate, and the Conservative party will use that all it can for political advantage. We will find that the Union comes under fundamental attack. I agree with my hon. Friend Iain Stewart that any attack on the Union is likely to come not from the Scottish nationalists but from English nationalists, fed up with the way that they are being treated.
I would like the Government to consider the proposal that we heard earlier about allowing the two Parliaments and the one Assembly to come together to some extent, but I accept that that is difficult: As a result of how they were set up, it would be problematic to change them at this stage, but it may be that something could be done along those lines. Alternatively, the thing will simply have to be done in the best form of British fudge-that is, Labour Members, when in government, will have to be enormously responsible and self-denying about what they do in England, and conventions will have to become very important in our constitutional settlement. If it becomes a convention, but is not formalised, that English representation will have a majority, or will at least accept a veto on extremely controversial measures, that may be a fudge that would work.
It is interesting and worth noting that on both big constitutional issues-reform of the House of Lords and the West Lothian question-after 100 years of the best brains trying to find a solution, no obvious solution has come up. With every solution that does come up, after one has thought about it for a week or two, one sees any number of holes in it. I therefore see absolutely no reason to oppose the Bill when we come to vote on it. There is nothing objectionable in it, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire has been very sensible to ensure that that is the case. It is good to push the Government, but I would not hold my breath-I do not think that I can breathe in for the next 100 years -waiting for a solution to this almost intractable problem. However, we have to recognise that, as my hon. Friend says, the English may get deeply fed up with the current situation, and when they do, that is when the Union will be most at risk. That is, I think, what most Government Members, and at least one Member on the Opposition side of the Chamber-Ian Paisley-would be extremely keen to avoid.
It is always a pleasure to follow the clever-and highly witty, at times-speeches made by Jacob Rees-Mogg. I also congratulate Harriett Baldwin on getting the Bill before the House. However, my flattery stops at that point, I am afraid.
I have significant difficulties with the Bill, because I believe that it does the exact opposite of what the hon. Lady intends. I believe that she is a good Unionist and that she cares passionately about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However, the Bill could be the slippery slope towards the disengagement of that Union, and that should be avoided.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset talked about the ridiculousness and pointlessness of certain legislation, and I believe that if this private Member's Bill were to be pursued to its ultimate conclusion, we would effectively have what has been described on other occasions as wallpaper. The hon. Lady let the cat out of the bag during her earlier interjection; she said that the Bill wanted only to do something very simple. During my short time at the House, I have found that there is nothing simple about legislation. If we think that a simple piece of legislation can cure ills, we are misguided in our observation.
Some arrant nonsense has been spoken-and, unfortunately, passionately believed by some Members. The idea is that Members of Parliament from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are somehow, to use the parlance of the street, more feckless and lazy than Members from England. That is wrong, and it is condescension of the highest order.
If the Member who made that point wishes to check Hansard or the website theyworkforyou.com for Back-Bench interventions, speeches and contributions to the wealth of the House, he will probably find that there are Members on the Opposition Benches from those regions whose contributions to the debates and activities of the House are above average or significantly greater than some Government Back Benchers. We need to be careful before pointing the finger at the level of skill or contribution brought to this Parliament by Members from the regions.
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that many of us who passionately believe that we have to address the West Lothian question also believe in the equality of the work loads of Members. I do not believe that that is an intractable problem. Although some of my colleagues might believe that for Members from devolved areas there is a lighter load from postbags or parliamentary work, not all of us hold that view.
I do not think that the view is necessary commonly held, but we should caution ourselves. When we speak in this place on behalf of the Union and such points are made-not in jest, but seriously-that seriously undermines the standing of the House and its Members. That is not what we should be about. We should bear that in mind.
Has the hon. Gentleman had the following experience, as I have had in the past couple of weeks? As a Welsh Member of Parliament, I have had a lot of e-mails and correspondence from my constituents on the issue of selling off forests. That does not apply in Wales, but the issue is deeply felt by many in my constituency.
I appreciate that intervention. I got at least three forest trees of letters through my door from people passionately asking me to oppose or support the plan, depending on where the correspondence came from, even though it does not directly affect Northern Ireland. I exercised some caution. I recognised that although it did not directly affect Northern Ireland, I could attend the debate and listen to the arguments. However, I did not vote; I deliberately made a choice not to do so, because I believed that it was a matter for Members who were directly affected and whose constituency issues rested on it. The issues were addressed in the devolved Assembly. I had the right to vote, but I also had the choice of whether to exercise it.
If Members feel that they are missing out, they should look at the devolved Assemblies. What exactly are they doing? Last week, our Assembly in Northern Ireland, of which I am no longer a Member, was dealing with legislation for safety helmets for bicycle riders. A dog fouling Bill was also introduced. We are not missing a lot. We should not think that there is stuff going on in those regions that we should really be getting our teeth into and ask why Members there are getting it while we are not. We are not missing that much, and we should bear that in mind.
I turn to the substantial point that I have in mind. I am a Unionist, and a proud one, but my Unionism is as strong only as each component part of the Union. My Unionism is deleted if Scottish or Welsh Unionism is deleted or English Unionism is not strong. As a Member for Northern Ireland, I have a responsibility to encourage the Union and see that it is strengthened. The Union is as strong only as each of its component parts. If Northern Ireland or Scotland are made weaker by legislation such as this, Unionism is made weaker. We should tread very carefully.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for coming along to participate in the debate, because his perspective is valuable. Will anything in the Bill prevent him from voting on anything? The Bill could allow our unwritten constitution to evolve so that Members might indeed choose to abstain in the way that he describes.
The beauty of an unwritten constitution is flexibility. As Burke said, we are here to give to the people who elect us not just of our industry, but of our judgment. We are elected to make judgment calls, and we should have the sense to make those calls without that having to be written down, as the hon. Member for North East Somerset said, in a motherhood and apple pie way. That is what we seriously need to avoid.
I passionately believe that there is a real danger that if we create a two-tier Chamber, instead of having a wonderful House of Commons, we will have a House of little Englanders. That does not serve this nation or the interests of any member of it, whether they are in the Hebrides or Fermanagh. We need to recognise that.
We all pay the same taxes. If we want changes to taxation, the Magna Carta gives us rights to be represented in this House. We should passionately hold on to those. I appeal to my Conservative and Unionist friends to recognise that they should not play party politics with the constitution of this nation because they fear that the English will become bad Unionists in future. They need to be careful. They have a responsibility to lead the people of England into believing as passionately in the Union as I do. They can do that only by discouraging the view that we need another Parliament for the English. They and the House need to encourage the strength of Parliament and the development of powers here.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset said that he would like some mechanisms to be developed, but there are already such mechanisms, such as the British-Irish Council. The BIC is supposed to strengthen east-west relationships and bring the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly together with members of the Government of this United Kingdom, and indeed at times with members of the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Those mechanisms should be encouraged and worked on. If the House does not play its full role in the BIC, it should get up off its proverbial bottom and do so, and demonstrate why we, as Unionists, can be stronger not as individual components but as a whole.
I leave those points with the House. I cannot support the Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin, my constituency neighbour, on introducing this private Member's Bill. She has been in the House of Commons for only a brief time, but has already secured a place in the ballot for private Members' Bills significantly higher than I ever achieved-I never got into the top 20-and significantly higher than many other hon. Members. I am grateful to her for introducing a measure that has engaged Members on both sides of the House in a thoughtful way.
The West Lothian question is the backdrop to my hon. Friend's Bill. Of course, calling the problem the West Lothian question makes it sound somewhat obscure to most voters. We had a go at rechristening it the English question, but that never seemed to work, so I shall use the old nomenclature. My hon. Friend wants to tackle the question, and she and I have discussed it, after which she has looked at her proposals and improved them. I am not sure that the Bill is exactly as the Government would wish, so at the end of my remarks, particularly because of the complexities involved, I shall test the opinion of the House. However, if the Bill goes into Committee, I look forward to working with her constructively to improve it.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House raised a number of issues. It is worth going into the background and being clear about what we are talking about when we talk about legislation that affects different parts of the UK. Chris Bryant picked up something that my hon. Friend said when she talked about legislation that affects different parts of the United Kingdom. He referred to parts of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill-I am sure that Members are waiting with bated breath to debate it again next week-that affect Wales. There is a distinction between legislation that affects different parts of the country and legislation under which decisions are reserved to Westminster and are properly not taken by the devolved Assemblies, which are different things. This House can legislate for things where the decisions are reserved here, as the hon. Gentleman said.
For example, there are electoral matters which, although decisions on them may affect only Wales, are reserved to the Secretary of State. In those cases, one could perfectly happily conclude that it was quite right and proper for every Member of this House to vote on such decisions, even though they affected only Wales. There are also cases where it has been decided that decisions should be devolved-in this case to the Welsh Assembly-and that this House should not legislate on them. Members may well want to make a distinction in those cases, because they might not think it proper for the whole House to vote on the equivalent decisions that affected only England. The argument would be that in Wales, for example, it is Welsh Assembly Members who are taking those decisions, whereas in England, Welsh MPs should not be making the same decisions for English constituents when they do not play that role in their own constituencies. It is the asymmetry in these debates that causes some disquiet in England. It is not so much the fact that, in this example, Welsh MPs would be voting on issues that affected only England; it is the fact that English MPs have no say on the same issues in Wales.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire ran through a number of potential solutions. She also noted-as did a number of other Members, including my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg-that one solution to the English question posited by the previous Government was to introduce some kind of regional devolution. She noted that this solution had been rejected decisively in the north-east. Indeed, the neighbouring constituencies that the two of us represent highlight that very well. There is a lot in common between Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, yet we are both in different Government office regions and different regions for the European Parliament. We have neighbouring constituencies, yet there is quite a significant dividing line between some of the ways in which we represent our constituents. How we would divide up England would therefore not be a straightforward matter, as the previous Government found, and as any future Government would also find.
In setting out the intention behind her Bill, my hon. Friend was keen to avoid any danger that the Speaker would be drawn into controversy. It is fair to say that Mr Speaker is not known for courting controversy of any kind, and I am sure that he would very much welcome her intention to ensure that he did not inadvertently get drawn into any.
My hon. Friend Andrew Bridgen made an interesting suggestion, which will have been noted, for effectively abolishing Members of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly, and instead having just Members of Parliament with different roles. That is an idea, but given where we start from, I am not sure that it is achievable. It may have been a good solution in the pre-devolution era, but given that those devolution settlements were set up and approved by the people in referendums, I am not sure that it is possible.
My right hon. and learned, and eternally youthful Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind proffered his East Lothian answer to the West Lothian question. He drew attention to the fact-this is a critical point-that, with the three devolution settlements, a large number of Members of Parliament now represent parts of the United Kingdom with a devolved Parliament or Assembly. That is an important issue that this House needs to deal with. He put forward a solution involving, effectively, a requirement for a double majority on the Second and Third Readings of Bills, and it would certainly be worth while for the commission that the Government will set up to consider that.
My right hon. and learned Friend also referred to the concerns raised by Vernon Bogdanor, who, as the hon. Member for Rhondda pointed out, is my old politics tutor. Professor Bogdanor taught politics not only to me but to the Prime Minister. I am not sure what the Prime Minister would say about this, but I know that the professor and I have both come to the conclusion that neither of us has managed to persuade the other of anything much that we believe. He and I had a debate on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, and, when I was giving evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I drew attention to the concerns that he had raised. I subsequently received a communication from him that broadly confirmed that I have still not managed to persuade him of anything. I did not persuade him of much in my essays at university and he did not persuade me of his views.
That is an interesting question. This is one of the key differences-not the only one-between me and the Prime Minister. He got a first, but I only got a 2:1, which probably explains why he is the Prime Minister and I am just the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington made several good points. Despite the attempts by my hon. Friend Mr Chope to put my right hon. and learned Friend's name forward to serve on the commission that we will set up, I noted carefully that he declined the opportunity, saying that he would be happy to give evidence to it.
I hope that I am not breaking a private confidence when I say that Vernon Bogdanor told me that he thought that the Minister, when he was his student, was very clever and bright and clearly destined for greater things, but that it was a shame that he had fallen among thieves of late.
I have just looked at the expression on you face, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I think that I am going to be generous and describe the hon. Gentleman's use of the word "thieves" as an attempt at humour. I do not think that it was a very successful attempt, but this is perhaps the best way to get him out of the difficulty that he might otherwise have got himself into.
If my hon. Friend can wait just a little longer, I will come to that important point.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire had talked about the Welsh Grand Committee, and the hon. Member for Rhondda made a very telling comment-I am sure that he will correct me if I did not hear him correctly-when he leapt to his feet and said that the Committee was otherwise known as the Welsh grandstanding Committee. I think that that is what he called it; he is not demurring. He said that if that was the solution, we were not asking the right question. I wanted to ensure that I had heard him correctly, and to put on record that he thinks the Welsh Grand Committee is a grandstanding Committee. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will bear his opinion in mind when Welsh Labour Members are making bids for issues to be considered by the, as he called it, Welsh grandstanding Committee. I am sure that she will find his intervention extremely helpful.
I am slightly confused. Did the hon. Member for Rhondda mean that it was a grand Standing Committee or a grandstanding Committee?
In view of what I think the hon. Member for Rhondda was saying about the way in which the Committee had behaved from time to time, I think he was making it clear that he felt it was a Welsh grandstanding Committee. I think that it is helpful to get that point on to the record.
Well, this is a grand debate, isn't it? The truth is that, all too often, the Welsh Grand Committee has been a pretty futile body. It is all the more futile when the Government give it matters to discuss that its members do not want to discuss, and when those decisions are made only by the Government and not by the Committee's members.
Order. I have let this run a little bit, but I think that we should now return to the Bill. This is not a debate about the Welsh Grand; it is a debate about the hon. Lady's Bill, and I would like the Minister to return to that subject.
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I detected that the House probably felt that that part of the debate had run its course.
My hon. Friend Iain Stewart made a powerful speech in favour of the Union, but he cautioned about the reason why we should answer the West Lothian question. He noted that in last year's general election, the Conservative party had a majority of seats in England and that if our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had not led in such a bold fashion to put together this coalition, an alternative might well have caused a constitutional crisis. That suggests how important it is for the Government to deal with this issue now. It is better to deal with the question and provide a possible solution, however complex that be, in an atmosphere of relative calm rather than to solve it hurriedly in an atmosphere of crisis. I hope that all those of a Unionist inclination-probably every Member in the House today-will agree that it is better to look at these matters sensibly and implement solutions calmly rather than wait for the crisis to happen, when significant pressure might come from English voters to solve the problem, making it more difficult to resolve it calmly and sensibly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South referred to the opportunity cost of doing nothing, which might ultimately put the Union at risk. He ran through a number of what he called "perfect"-perhaps better described as "tidy"-solutions, but noted that there were good reasons to believe that they would not work. He suggested-I think it was the same conclusion as that put forward by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington-that there is no single tidy solution, but that a number of imperfect solutions could deal with the nub of the issue. I believe that a number of my hon. Friends reached the same conclusion.
My hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg also rightly drew attention to the fact that there is no simple solution. He ran through a number of solutions and noted some concerns about them, including about the solution of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, which my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset believed might face some difficult procedural problems. His key point was that people must think that any proposed solution is fair-fair to all parts of the United Kingdom. He also flagged up the potential risk of an election result in which a majority party in England was not the same as the Government at Westminster. He correctly put his finger on the fact that that would indeed constitute a risk to the Union. He argued in favour of a classic British fudge, suggesting that a party that did not have a majority in England but was in government at Westminster would need a self-denying ordinance. Perhaps some solutions could be put in place along those lines. All the issues show how complicated the problem is.
The Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire puts forward a number of solutions. There are two new duties on any Minister publishing legislation in draft. Clause 1 deals with the first duty, which is to
"ensure that the legal and financial effect of that legislation on each part of the United Kingdom is separately and clearly identified."
The second duty, in clause 3, is to "make a statement" that the Bill is
"compatible with the principles of legislative territorial clarity, or" if the Bill is not compatible with them, to make a similar statement where
"the government nonetheless wishes to proceed."
This is my hon. Friend's attempt, I think, to set out clearly in the Bill that the Government must make those judgments so that the Chair would not be drawn into controversy. The principles of legislative clarity are set out in clause 4, which states that
"every citizen of the United Kingdom has the right to see how proposed changes to the law will affect them" and that hon. Members of this House
"have the right to see how proposed changes to the law will affect their constituents."
I believe those are sensible principles, but I hope to persuade the House and my hon. Friend that her Bill is not necessarily the best way of advancing those objectives.
My hon. Friend has sensibly made the Bill apply only to draft legislation, to preserve the independence of Parliament from the courts, and to protect its exclusive cognisance. Had she attempted to set down in legislation how actual Bills were presented to the House, that might have opened up the opportunity for courts to involve themselves in our legislative procedures. She has avoided that danger, but the flipside is that her Bill will affect only draft legislation and, therefore, it will not affect every Bill brought to the House. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset highlighted an alternative, non-legislative solution, which is to deal with such matters in the Standing Orders of the House. He also noted the difficulties in that approach, such as not being able to entrench the provision.
By mirroring the provisions in section 19 of the Human Rights Act, which requires Ministers to make a statement of compatibility with the convention, the requirement under clause 3 of the Bill is carefully drafted so as not to fall foul of the exclusive cognisance principle. The duty is on Ministers, rather than being a legislative requirement. The flaw is that the Bill imposes requirements on Government that are already in place and with which the Government should comply. As has been noted, the Cabinet Office's "Guide to Making Legislation" already provides that the territorial extent and application of legislation should be set out in a statement at the beginning of the explanatory notes, in whatever form of words is appropriate to the Bill. In addition, it provides that where a Bill makes different provision for the different nations of the United Kingdom, that should be outlined in the explanatory notes, setting out the territorial extent of each part of the Bill separately if necessary.
I thank the Minister for his perceptive comments about what I have tried to avoid in drafting the Bill. I am glad that he accepts that the principles of the Bill are sound, even if its wording might be modified by the Government in Committee, which I would welcome. The Bill moves civil service guidance on to a statutory footing, thus strengthening the whole process.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification. It comes back to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset that the Bill does nothing harmful, but nor does it take us much further forward. I start from the position, as do the Government, that we should not legislate for unnecessary matters that do not add anything.
A clear example is to be found in the explanatory notes to the next Bill that we will consider. In relation to the territorial extent and application, the notes state:
Often, there is not the clarity that an ordinary person might want and seek, even when we put something on the face of a Bill.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the fact that, even when something is required, it is not always executed brilliantly. Even if the requirements in the Cabinet Office guidance on drafting legislation were put into statute, that would not necessarily mean that they would be better executed than they are currently.
In practice, the financial aspects of the Bill would also have little consequence, because the present arrangements already require all new UK-wide legislation to specify the financial impact and to be drafted within a Department's existing funding plans. Therefore, no new Barnett financial consequentials would arise, as a matter of course. Bills that deal with reserved matters have no Barnett consequentials attached and do not have significant impact on different Administrations.
In relation to how legislation is drafted, the Bill does not take us much further forward. Effectively, it puts into statutory form what the Government currently intend and do, thus losing a little flexibility. However, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset put his finger on it when he observed that the West Lothian question was complicated. While the Bill may lead us to a potential solution, it may not be the one that the commission comes up with.
Finally, let me do what I was invited to do by my hon. Friend Mr Chope, and remind the House that the Government have made a commitment to set up a commission to examine the West Lothian question. Although the coalition parties approach the issue from different angles, they have made a common commitment to resolve the question. In the Conservative party manifesto, we promised to
"introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries."
The Liberal Democrats' manifesto said that they would
"Address the status of England within a federal Britain, through the Constitutional Convention set up to draft a written constitution for the UK as a whole."
Although the coalition parties came up with very different solutions to the West Lothian question, both parties consider it important to attempt to answer it, and neither party believes that it is possible to answer it by ceasing to ask it. We consider it a serious question that will be best tackled when we can tackle it in a calm and reasonable manner rather than waiting for a crisis.
I can confirm that we will set up the commission this year, as, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire established through her perceptive questioning. We had hoped to make announcements to the House at an earlier stage, but I look forward to making them in the not-too-distant future, and the commission will then be able to consider the ideas that have been advanced today. Hon. Members have effectively made bids to participate, either as members of the commission or in giving evidence to it. I hope that it will arrive at solutions that we can subsequently debate.
I urge my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire to withdraw her Bill, to participate in the commission in whatever way proves appropriate, and to continue to take part in this important debate. The Government are keen to answer the question and deal with this important matter, but I am not sure that my hon. Friend's Bill provides the right way of going about it, and I think it right to test the opinion of the House.
I had not intended to speak in the debate, but I must say that I am disappointed that the Minister was not more forthcoming about the commitment in the coalition agreement to establishing a commission. As he and other Members have observed, this issue is extremely complicated, so why are we now delaying even the appointment of the people who will consider it? We have already delayed for far too long. The original commitment was that the commission would be established before the end of 2010, but the Minister now expects us to accept as a big deal the information that he will make an announcement before the end of this year.
One great virtue of the Bill is that if it is given a Committee stage, members of the Committee will be able to maintain pressure on the Government to fulfil their commitment to do something. The Minister tells us that the cost of doing nothing about it is putting the Union at risk, which is pretty serious stuff, but at the moment the Government are doing nothing about it.
I would not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on what I am about to say. Indeed, the reason I am able to speak after him is that he will not be able to comment on it. I think that the Deputy Prime Minister, who is in charge of my hon. Friend's Department and is the person who can give the yea or nay to whether the commission is to be set up and when, has not got his heart in it. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell the Deputy Prime Minister that in the extra time that he will have next week, now that he has cancelled his trip to South America, he should give serious consideration to getting on with working out who will be on the commission and what will be its scope and remit. Surely the commission should be set up now, so that it can get to work before all the other stuff that is coming along is before the House. The last written answer on the issue says:
"Careful consideration is ongoing as to the timing, composition, scope and remit of the Commission to consider the... question."
Some of us were not born yesterday. It is obvious that this is a stalling exercise by the Government. There was an unholy compromise in the coalition agreement but the Deputy Prime Minister is not even delivering on that compromise. He may realise that it could have implications for his party. There is no point, if the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have different views on the matter, trying to paper over the cracks. Why do we not get on and appoint the commission? Perhaps the coalition cannot even agree who could be on it, or what its scope and remit would be.
The written answer goes on to say that the commission
"will need to take account of our proposals to reform the House of Lords".
Well, what has happened to those? We were told that a draft Bill would be published before Christmas. We have not seen that yet. We might be waiting another year or so before those proposals emerge.
The written answer goes on to say that the commission will need to take account of
"the changes being made to the way this House does business".
There will be further changes to the way the House does business when the Backbench Business Committee is able to look at both Government legislation and Back-Bench business, and we are told that that will not start until the third year of this Parliament-another recipe for delay.
The written answer says that the commission will have to consider
"amendments to the devolution regimes".
We know that a referendum will be held shortly in Wales, but why do we need to wait for the outcome of that before we set up the body that will look into these complex issues? There is then a reference to the fact that there is
"the Scotland Bill presently before the House".
The written answer concludes; it is similar to what my hon. Friend the Minister has said today:
"We will make an announcement later this year."-[ Hansard, 31 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 549W.]
It does not even say that the commission will be set up later this year.
I commend my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin for having a stab at what is an extremely complex issue. People perhaps more learned in the law than she is, such as my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind, had a go at the issue. More than 100 of us came to support him when his Bill had its Second Reading debate to ensure that it could get into Committee. It was then kicked into the long grass. That shows for how long the issue has been discussed.
I remain suspicious about the motives of the Deputy Prime Minister. I think that he is stalling seriously on the issue. If the Bill goes into Committee it will give all hon. Members the opportunity to keep the pressure on the Government to meet what was a pretty meaningless commitment in the coalition agreement anyway. At least it would be something.
I know that my hon. Friend is not perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of the coalition Government but I think that he sees mischief where there is none. The clear message from the thoughtful speeches of all Members today is that the issue is complicated. If the Government are to deal with it calmly and sensibly and in a manner that does not put the Union at risk, we must proceed thoughtfully and properly. However, I have given a clear commitment that we need to deal with the matter and answer the question. Therefore, I urge him to be a bit more generous in spirit.
I am generous by nature but I would be even more generous if my hon. Friend had explained why it has turned out to be impossible for the Government to appoint the commission before Christmas, as they originally intended.
May I come to the support of the Minister, and on a constitutional issue, which may surprise him? Our consideration of the earlier legislation on the alternative vote, parliamentary boundaries and fixed-term Parliaments was desperately rushed, and therefore its measures were not necessarily very well thought through, which is a great shame. In contrast, the progress we are making towards considering the West Lothian question in a deliberative and thorough way is in the best traditions of high Toryism.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think that these deliberations should be conducted by the commission itself, however, rather than by the Government, and I do not want the Government to be agonising over whether there should be a commission and, if so, who will serve on it. I do not think my hon. Friend and I are very far apart, as I believe the commission must be given the maximum amount of time to go into the details of this topic. However, if we are going to get this sorted out before the end of this fixed-term Parliament, why have we not got on with it already? What is the reason for the delay? It seems to me that the justifications for delay put forward thus far are specious in the extreme, and we have learned from experience that if a Government have not got a proper explanation for delay, the reason is usually that they intended to delay matters, as is the case now.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept, however, that he cannot have both sides of the argument? He cannot claim that this is a very complex and complicated issue to resolve, but also say, "But here's an easy way to get it sorted out." Does he not recognise that there are two ways to skin this rat, as it were, and that the commission offered today is perhaps one of those ways?
I think the hon. Gentleman is on the same side as I am on that, because I am saying not that this is an easy issue to sort out, but that the coalition Government agreed to set up a commission to consider it, yet until the commission is set up it cannot start considering it. I cannot understand why the commission has not yet been set up and why my hon. Friend the Minister cannot give a commitment that it will be set up sooner rather than later. Instead, he just talks vaguely about something happening towards the end of this year. That will be one and a half years into this Parliament, and it would mean that if the commission were to come up with legislative proposals, the chances of being able to get them through in this Parliament would be significantly reduced unless the commission concertinaed its work into a very short space of time.
That is what leads me to conclude-I think any rational observer would conclude this-that the Government have not got their heart in this. They are hopelessly split between the Liberal Democrat agenda and the Conservative party agenda, which was clearly set out in our manifesto. We compromised on that in the coalition agreement, and we have given the tools whereby that compromise might be taken forward, namely the setting up of the commission, to the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. I do not think he has got his heart in trying to achieve any progress on this matter, however. I sympathise enormously with the Minister, but I hope that by getting the Bill into Committee we will be able to maintain the pressure. That is why I support the Bill.
I thank all Members on both sides of the House for their excellent contributions today. The debate has been extremely interesting, and we have heard widespread support for the Bill's intentions. We have also heard a range of objections, however, such as from Ian Paisley, but I think his fears are unjustified; we are on his side here. By not talking about this, we would run into as many difficulties as we might through some of the solutions he fears. I urge him to support the Bill on Second Reading, as I think that if it progresses that will serve to get some of the issues out in the open, and not bury them, which I think would be worse for his case in the long term.
The shadow Minister, Chris Bryant, put up a series of straw men-or ghouls and ghosties-that do not apply to the Bill. I therefore feel sure that he will support the Bill- [Interruption.] I may have misread his intentions, in which case I ask him to forgive me.
My hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg made some supportive comments, but he also rightly raised concerns about some of the subsequent issues that this House might still have to grapple with. I am not, by any means, pretending that this Bill solves all those issues, but his description of it as "pointless" rankles. The very fact that we have had this excellent debate shows that it is not pointless. It would provide much greater clarity and put that on a statutory footing, and would prevent the Speaker from possibly being put in a difficult position.
I apologise if I implied that I thought the Bill was pointless. I was concerned that if it did not lead to anything else, it would be pointless, and therefore I thought it needed to go on to the subsequent events.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for that clarification. In an elegant speech, the Minister made similar points, saying that the Bill was good as far as it goes but that we need to go much further. I would have been much more sympathetic to his desire for me to withdraw the Bill today if he could have made some announcements or put some measures on the table that would give me confidence that his urgency on the issue was similar to that expressed by colleagues on our Benches. Having considered his kind invitation for me to withdraw the Bill, I have decided that I do not wish to do so and I ask that the Question be put.