My purpose in initiating today's debate on electoral reform is not so much to discuss which system for electing Members of Parliament is the best, but to try to bring some clarity to the Government's proposals for electoral reform--a matter on which they have become, at best, confused and, at worst, evasive. While other systems may be appropriate for other institutions, I believe that first past the post is right for Westminster.
There are many issues in which the House has a legitimate interest, but where the Government's policy is less than clear. However, nothing affects us all more than the method by which we secure election here, and it is particularly difficult to find out what is going on.
Today's debate shines a torch on that murky area of policy making and, in order not to take the Government by surprise, on the day that I knew this debate would take place--last Thursday--I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Mr. O'Brien, to gave him advance notice of seven questions that I wanted to put to him. I wrote to the Home Office because electoral reform is its responsibility, but also because an official from the Home Office had telephoned my secretary to establish the purpose of the debate and whether it would be more appropriate for a Cabinet Office Minister to reply. We made it clear that we expected the Home Office to reply.
Last night, I discovered that the Home Office asserted that it had not got my letter. It passed the chalice, not to the Cabinet Office, but to the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who has some acquaintance with these issues having played a key part in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I gave him a copy of my letter and I now see in his place the Under-Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department, Mr. Lock. He will not be offended if I say that the Lord Chancellor's Department was no one's first choice, but as this is a debate on PR perhaps that is appropriate.
Constitutional reform has not been the Government's strongest card. Reform of the House of Lords appears to have stalled, although only two years ago we were told that stage two could happen in this Parliament. There is no sign of the promised joint committee a year after Lord Wakeham reported. Devolution has left an imbalance so far as England is concerned, which the Government pretend does not exist. An internal argument about elected mayors or elected regional assemblies has led to yet more stalling and, so far, they have not embarked on electoral reform for Westminster, and I hope they do not. So, what are they up to?
The history, briefly, is that the manifesto gave a clear commitment on a referendum on voting systems. It said:
We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system. I note at this stage the use of the word "proportional". Anyone reading that sentence would conclude that Labour believes that first past the post is not proportional and the alternative should be. The Minister may tell us that that commitment was undated, but in another sentence at the beginning of the manifesto the Prime Minister addressed the need to counter cynicism about politics, saying:
I want to do it by making a limited set of important promises and achieving them. Later, he said:
That is why we have made it our guiding principle not to promise what we cannot deliver and to deliver what we promise. To put the matter beyond doubt, on BBC Radio 4's programme, "The World at One", on
What we are committed to is having a referendum on voting systems ... this is a major advance for any party to be able to offer the British people that choice and then for that choice to go forward during the course of the next Parliament That strikes me as unequivocal.
When elected, the Government established the Jenkins commission. In the
I shall go through the expected time scale for the referendum. The Jenkins commission hopes to report in October. After that, primary legislation will be needed to permit a referendum to be held. The plan is that the referendum should take place well before the next election. It will offer the public a clear choice between first past the post and an alternative, drawn from the recommendations of the commission.--[Hansard, 2 June 1998; Vol. 313, c. 190.] The report was published on
Beyond this, AV on its own suffers from a stark objection. It offers little prospect of a move towards greater proportionality, and in some circumstances, and those are the ones which certainly prevailed at the last election and may well do so for at least the next one, it is even less proportional than FPTP. Simulations of how the 1997 result might have come out under AV suggest that it would have significantly increased the size of the already swollen Labour majority ... The overall Labour majority could thus have risen from 169 to 245 ... The Conservative 30.7 per cent. of the votes should strictly have given them 202 seats. Instead FPTP gave them 165, or 25 per cent. of the seats, whereas AV would have given them on one estimate only 96 (or 14.6 per cent. of the seats). Paragraph 85 continued:
far from doing much to relieve disproportionality, it is capable of substantially adding to it. My first question to the Minister is: does he agree that AV would not deliver the manifesto commitment of a proportional alternative to first past the post?
On publication, we saw the first signs of equivocation and the Government taking cover. The Home Office press notice on
Fourth, the Government will want to take account of the radical and ambitious programme of constitutional reform that is taking place, particularly the reform of the House of Lords. It will want to consider how the new systems of election soon to be in operation in Scotland, Wales and for the European parliament settle down. The constitutional reform programme should be looked at as a whole prior to any decision being made on this issue. It is worth pausing to consider the appearance of this new alibi. There had never been any hint that the manifesto commitment was to be qualified in that way. Only a few weeks earlier, the commitment had been reasserted--I quoted the Home Secretary-- although it was known at that time that elections for Europe, Scotland and Wales would be held using a different system.
Further evidence of the change of heart came in the debate on the Jenkins report on
As to timing, we have always envisaged that the referendum would be before the next election, and that remains an option. However, plainly, in the light of Lord Jenkins's specific recommendations, this is less certain, because the new system cannot be introduced until the election after next. Nor, in our judgment, is there a need for the Government to come to an early view about the commission's recommendation.--[Hansard, 5 November 1998; Vol. 337, c. 1036.]
The wordsmith had been hard at work with those three sentences, which deserve close analysis. I have three comments. First, an event to which the right hon. Gentleman was "committed" on
The manifesto commitment was never to introduce a new system in this Parliament. Indeed, if the referendum on the alternative were defeated, it would clearly not have been introduced. The commitment was on the referendum, not the introduction of a new system and the Home Secretary conveniently, but wrongly, elided the two. Finally, he asserted that there was no need for the Government to come to an early view on Jenkins. However, an early view was necessary if the Government planned to keep their manifesto commitment. It was ingenious to reverse the argument: to assert that there was no need to come to an early decision and from that assertion to conclude that the referendum should not be held.
I would ask the Minister whether he accepts that the commitment at the election to hold the referendum on PR will be broken. The question is appropriate today because I woke up to a Home Office Minister boasting on the "Today" programme of how the Government were carrying out their commitment on hunting. The debate produced one other quotation that is relevant to our debate this morning. Winding up the debate, the Under-Secretary said:
If we are to have change--and ultimately that will be, quite properly, a decision for the voters--we now have an alternative, whether we like it or not, alongside which the status quo of the first-past-the-post system can be judged and debated. In that important sense the commission members have done us a service.--[Hansard, 5 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 1110-1111.] In other words, when we have a referendum, it will be first past the post against AV-plus.
Will the Minister confirm that the statement made on
We can now pass to last year and the concern behind today's debate. The Sunday Express on
Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy are close to a deal on voting reform aimed at keeping the Tories out of power forever. The Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Leader are moving towards a compromise they believe they can sell to both their parties. The deal, discussed by the two in secret talks, is for a stop-gap voting system known as AV. The Times ran a similar story on
This would not be PR and would preserve the traditional link between MPs and their constituencies, but would give the Liberal Democrats dozens more seats.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that for many years the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors have argued that what comprises fair votes is a system that would give proportionality between the votes cast and the number of MPs elected? Is it not remarkable that they should therefore be willing to consider AV, which as my right hon. Friend pointed out, would give a disproportionate result, but which--it just so happens--would enable the Liberal Democrats to get many more seats?
We look forward to hearing Mr. Maclennan--I hope that he may catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker--denouncing that squalid deal to which I referred and which my hon. Friend criticised so perceptively.
Tony Blair's allies last night brokered a deal on electoral reform which will lead to a commitment in Labour's next manifesto to hold a referendum on modernising the system of elections to the House of Commons. The deal, which will lead to the party embracing the alternative vote (AV) system, will end an internal Labour row between supporters of proportional representation and traditionalists who want to maintain the first-past-the-post system.
The national policy forum in Exeter--an event that we know the Home Secretary attended, as he made his way there at some speed--retained the commitment to hold a referendum, without specifying a voting system to put to the public. However, I understand that the party refused to give its support to AV-plus. By
He was disappointed but not surprised. On
Given the hostility of many Members to a complex voting system proposed by Lord Jenkins, any referendum would almost certainly be confined to a reform that involved the election of all MPs on a constituency basis. Sir David Frost can help us a little on that issue, as he examined the Foreign Secretary on the subject on
Do you feel, in terms of PR that having made the general promise of a referendum on PR, not hinged absolutely on this Parliament, but that next time you'll need to make a pledge for a referendum on PR within the next Parliament? To which the Foreign Secretary replied:
That is our policy, David. Commitment to consulting the public on an alternative to the present voting system is one that has been endorsed by our party twice in the course of this past year, and it will be the policy at the next election. David Frost, then said:
It will be, that, that's an important clarification there, people were concerned that might not happen. The Foreign Secretary replied:
Well David the manifesto hasn't been written, but that is the commitment of the party and that is the policy of the party.
That leads me to my next question. Was the Foreign Secretary correctly setting out Government policy in committing them, if re-elected, to a referendum in the next Parliament?
There are twelve Tory seats where, if fewer than one in ten of the voters who voted for the third place candidate had voted differently, we could have seen seven more Labour MP's and five more LibDems. All it takes is for a couple of hundred voters to vote tactically and we can push the Tories to the margins of British politics.
Developing the theme, the hon. Gentleman said:
To achieve this, we need to show that we are keeping the door open to electoral reform. He spoke approvingly of the system in France, where the social democratic and labour parties vote tactically, saying:
In France, it is called the republican tradition so that in the two round voting system they have there, the best placed non-Conservative candidate gets the votes of the third place party. That is exactly what the alternative vote system does. That is not a fair or a proportional system; it is simply a system that seeks to scupper the Government's principal opponents.
However any change of voting system must be made for national, not party reasons. It is my dearest wish as a Labour politician to dish the Tories and to create in the 21st century a progressive century, in the way the Conservatives, against a divided centre-left opposition, dominated the last. But the case for electoral reform cannot be advanced as a private arrangement that suits Labour and Liberal Democrats. If it is, in a referendum, the cause will surely fail. The case has to be made on grounds of national interest and the solution must be one that lasts.
On tactical voting, for which the hon. Member for Rotherham has high hopes, it would be helpful if the Minister would confirm that the Labour Government, when they seek the endorsement of the electorate, will be offering every voter in Britain the opportunity to vote for a Labour candidate. If he cannot give that assurance, the House will be entitled to conclude that some covert deal is being concocted. Colleagues and hon. Members may have seen The Independent on Sunday that had a headline: "Lib-Lab poll pact aims to crush Tories. Secret 'hands-off deals' could cost Conservatives up to 100 seats." The article went on to say:
Sources close to the Leaders of both parties acknowledged that in many of these seats local arrangements had been made to ensure that there would be a "candidate, but no contest" ...It is proposed that no central resources will be directed into those areas.
In my remarks, I said, as a Labour Member of Parliament, that my duty was to urge all people and all Labour voters to vote for a Labour candidate. I regard Liberal Democrats, especially at local level, as little more than genetically modified Tories. However, as the Conservative party is now so ideologically extreme, so far to the right and so racially opportunistic, it is everyone's duty to defeat the Conservative party at every possible moment in parliamentary elections.
The hon. Member was not born yesterday. He must have realised that when people read the totality of his speech they would see it as an inducement to vote for the third candidate, or for the second candidate, if that displaced the Conservative. That is a clear consequence of the course that he was advocating, and he has no one to blame but himself if his remarks have been misconstrued.
Sources close to the leaders of the two parties are here this morning and we look forward to hearing that there is no covert deal of the type mentioned in the press. My party proposes to contest every seat in Britain and will not be taking part in any behind-the-scenes fixing.
In relation to PR, however, I am not in favour of any system that breaks the link between constituency and Member of Parliament.--[Hansard, 15 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 930.] That rules out AV-plus and the Jenkins system.
It does, because under the top-ups there is no link between the constituency and the Member of Parliament, and that is the alternative system on which the Government are committed to going into a referendum. The Prime Minister has not ruled out AV but he has ruled out AV-plus in that reply, which underlines the importance of my second question to the Minister today.
It would be helpful to have the Minister's thoughts on one matter. How does the Labour party plan to spend the £5 million that it is allowed on a referendum on PR? We have never had a satisfactory reply to that question. We are aware that the Labour party is split on the issue--there is nothing wrong with that. Does the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 allow the Labour party to spend the £5 million in proportion--spending £2.5 million for those who want to keep the first part of the vote and £2.5 million for those who want to change? Who is going to make the decision? Will it be the leader of the party, the national executive committee, or a membership-wide ballot? Who will be disappointed--Mr. Twigg or Mr. Bell?
That question has been mentioned many times. I hope that we may have an answer this morning. In short, what we have had so far is a manifesto commitment that is not to be honoured, then a commitment to a referendum between first past the post and AV-plus, which has apparently been broken. We have seen a move towards a system--AV, which is not proportional, but which happens to make life difficult for the Government's main opponents-- and, finally, equivocation from the Prime Minister when he is asked to make his position clear.
What has happened to the Prime Minister's ambition to realign the centre-left of British politics? Is it, as the leader of the Liberal Democrats said, gently residing in a coma? The Minister has an opportunity to clarify and define the Government's decision, which is a matter of interest to all hon. Members, and we will hang on every word.
Under the present system--indeed, it is one of the problems with the system of first past the post--the voter is often faced with the necessity of working out who they least want to be in office, and then which other candidate will be the best challenger of that person. That encourages voters to look not for the party that they most support, but for the one, out of those that have the best chance of winning in that constituency, that most closely mirrors their own views. This is where tactical voting comes in: in trying to work out who is best placed and therefore who to vote for. The very fact that the alternative vote system is a preferential voting system means that the voter has a great deal more power and choice to say, "Party A is the one that most closely mirrors what I believe in, so that is the one I am going to give my first preference to-- but I do not want mine to be a wasted vote." The ability to state another preference allows that vote to be transferred.
I accept that hon. Members may have different views about whether preferential voting is a good idea, but to say that it encourages tactical voting is nonsense. It encourages precisely the opposite.
Another reason why a system of preferential voting needs to be an element of the voting system for Westminster is the simple argument that says that, if we are to come here claiming to represent all our constituents, is it too much to suggest that we should have had majority support in the ballot box from those constituents? After all, that is the principle on which we elect our leaders.
I realise that the Conservative party has a chequered history about the precise voting systems that it has used to elect its leaders in the past, but the principle of preferential voting is not outlandish, and today it is operated by the Labour and Conservative parties. So why, when it comes to Parliament, does it have such difficulty with this? If one is going to claim to speak for a constituency, one should at least be able to say, "I secured majority support amongst those who voted in an election"--it is not a bad principle to adopt.
There are powerful arguments for a preferential voting system to be part of a new electoral system for this country. There is great support for the principle of the constituency Member of Parliament link. The most appropriate way to achieve that is through a single Member, from a single constituency and, therefore, AV meets that bill.
There is, however, an issue about whether AV on its own is really appropriate or sufficient to achieve the type of fairer voting system that I should like. That is where I would advocate that we have a system that includes AV but includes something else as well. The problem with the alternative vote on its own is that it focuses purely on the constituency. The individual Member of Parliament will be able legitimately to claim that he or she has a majority of voters supporting him or her, if elected to this House. It does not correct any imbalances nationally, and it has a similar problem to that of first-past-the-post, in that it measures geographical concentrations of votes rather than the support of voters across the country.
I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. There may be arguments for AV-plus and arguments for AV, but I do not understand, when he has just issued his panegyric in favour of AV, why there should then be any need, on the logic of his argument, for any kind of regional representation, because there is no longer an issue--I am sure that he would agree with me about this--about a disproportion having crept in. Will the hon. Gentleman explain that? I think that both systems--AV and AV-plus--are nonsense, but I shall return to that in my speech.
If the hon. Gentleman had contained himself just a little longer, I would have explained precisely that point. The problem is that, while AV does measures proportionality or a degree of proportionality within constituencies, it does not necessarily do so on its own across the country as a whole. For example, in the US in the past couple of months, an odd spectacle has arisen from the results of its presidential election system. My constituents and others think it peculiar that one can end up with, arguably, the most powerful individual in the world not necessarily having gained the majority of the votes in a democracy. It sounds crazy, does it not?
People might think that it could never happen in this country, but it has. For instance, the Labour party achieved a fantastic result in 1951; it did better then than ever before--or since. However, despite achieving more votes than the main challenger party, it lost the election because the geographical dispersal of votes meant that that majority was not reflected in the result. To prove that I am not making a party political point, I must point out that it happened the other way round at the first of the elections held in 1974. We should be concerned about perverse results.
My hon. Friend makes the point well that, on occasion, the popular vote does not secure the greater number of seats. However, does he not accept that if the rules had been different and we were fighting for the popular vote alone, the parties would have waged a different campaign? We would have concentrated on the seats where the greatest numbers of votes might be gained, in order to secure the popular vote, which would have frustrated the system, just as happens under the system that he now complains about.
The history of the major political parties in recent years shows that in order to win under the first-part-the-post system, they have to do exactly that. They target the seats that they believe will make the difference between winning and losing. All parties do it. It is interesting to note that the overall percentage of votes gained by the Liberal Democrats at the last election was not one of their best results, but that the number of seats that the party gained was one of its best results. One reason for that is that the party has worked out how to target and concentrate its efforts. I am not sure that that is the best way to generate the sort of public debate that is necessary at election time.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his great courtesy in giving way to me. He rightly pointed out the occasional perversity whereby, once in a while, the party that wins the largest number of votes does not win a majority of seats. However, does he not accept that a far more frequent perversity operates under PR, which is that, because it is essential to build a majority for a coalition Government, a party with a low level of support in the country is offered posts of an influence disproportionately greater than its support could possibly bring it?
The hon. Gentleman leads me on to my next point. No system is perfect; no system can offer pure democracy. In considering the various electoral systems in other Legislatures and Executives, we should try to work out the criteria that we want. The most important factors were set out clearly in the terms of reference of the Jenkins commission. If the result of an election does not show a clear majority among the voters showing what kind or colour of Government they wish to see, it seems wrong that the mechanics of the voting system should create one. That said, the sort of pure proportional system used in Israel can have serious consequences for effective and stable government. That is why I would not support such a system.
I believe that there are three broad ways to address the problem of the geographical concentration of votes. First, one could get rid of the geographical concentration argument by getting rid of constituencies--but that is entirely unacceptable. It would be the purest form of proportional representation, but it would be chaotic, and as far as I know no serious analyst would advocate it for this country. Secondly, one could build in a degree of proportionality by massively expanding constituencies and building a sort of multi-member system, the most common form of which uses the single transferable vote. That has some merits. However, it has an important flaw in terms of our democratic traditions--the weakening of the link between the individual Member and his or her constituency. That is a problem in relation to STV and multi-member constituencies.
The third way of operating proportional representation is to build in some form of top-up system, with extra Members of Parliament, to correct those imbalances, and the system that came out of the independent commission would do that. The right hon. Gentleman said that Jenkins broke the link between the MP and the constituency. It does not. Under the Jenkins system, every voter in every constituency would have the opportunity to vote for his or her constituency MP.
I shall not take any more interventions, because I know that several people want to speak. The question is whether it is wrong to have top-up MPs as well. Jenkins advocates a small minority of top-up MPs, which would correct some of the worst imbalances of the first-past-the-post system. That does not destroy the constituency system, for two reasons. First, there are still the constituency MPs, and secondly, the top-up MPs would themselves have constituencies. Jenkins is clear that they would be elected through an open list system from clear constituencies, normally the size of a county area.
The objection may be made that there is something intrinsically wrong with having two representatives for an area that may include the same voters. However, if that is a problem for Westminster elections, why is it not a problem that councillors, Members of this Parliament and Members of the European Parliament represent the same area? Why do those who put forward that objection not have the same objection when it comes to their local authority, where multi-member representation is often the norm?
The Jenkins system retains the constituency link, although in a different form. People will decide whether that is good or bad. I believe that it is constructive. Let us not hear the argument that the constituency link is somehow abolished. Some forms of proportional representation do that, but the Jenkins system does not. It retains the constituency link, while allowing for the correction of some of the worst excesses of first past the post in terms of proportionality.
A number of hon. Members want to speak today, so I shall finish my speech. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire put a lot of emphasis on the issue of a referendum, and I shall conclude by saying that I hope that there will be a referendum on the voting system in the next Parliament. Whatever the result, it would be a positive thing for democracy and for politics in this country if we encouraged voters to debate not only the political colour of the people they want to represent them, but what democracy means, what government means, what legislation means and how they relate to the political process. One way to achieve that--and to do so constructively--is through a referendum on the voting system.
I wish to encourage that debate, and I ask Conservative Members whether they want it to take place. If they are for the debate, would they like to clarify whether they are for or against a referendum in principle, so that voters--rather than Opposition Members or myself--decide the way in which they are governed?
Several hon. Members rose--
Over the past week, the papers have been full of the trial of a former member of a German terrorist group. The reason has less to do with the ex-terrorist himself than with a friend of his, who is giving testimony as a witness. That friend, Joschka Fischer, is the Foreign Minister of Germany. He holds that position on the basis that his party--the Green Party--received less than 7 per cent. of the popular vote in the German parliamentary elections. Not only does Mr. Fischer have an extremist past dating from the 1960s, but in the 1980s, the Greens, of whom he is now a representative, had a relatively extreme view on the one-sided abandonment of nuclear defences by NATO. Since the 1990s, and right up to the present day, Mr. Fischer has taken a further extreme position--he supports the development of the most unified type of European state. He has stated that openly. He has consistently, throughout his political career--if one can dignify the earlier parts of it with that term--taken extreme positions. How has such a man risen to be Foreign Minister of his country on such a small proportion of the vote?
That does not affect my argument. The answer to the question that I was posing can be summed up in two words--coalition Governments. All systems proposed for the conducting of elections must deal with the following question: will the outcome be government by the party that wins most votes in the election, or government by coalition? The Jenkins system, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, would tend to lead to coalition Governments as the norm. Systems that lead to coalition Governments allow small parties with a small proportion of the vote to exert disproportionate influence on the Government. A coalition must be formed to get a majority in Parliament, and that cannot be done without the support of small parties. Do those small parties say, "We recognise that we enjoy a relatively small amount of support in the country, so we will settle for an equivalently small amount of influence in the Government"? Do they heck. They exploit that system for everything it is worth, and ensure that they get positions and power in the Government that are wholly out of line with the extent of their support in the country.
Has the hon. Gentleman read the Jenkins report? I ask that because it goes to some lengths to work out simulations of the effect that the Jenkins system would have had on the last five elections, from 1979 onwards. The report comes to the conclusion that the system would have led to the same overall result in 1979--it would have been better spread geographically and the majority might have been smaller, but the outcome would have been the same. The results of the 1983 and 1987 elections would also have been the same. There would have been a different outcome in 1992, but the hon. Gentleman will accept that that was a closely fought and unusual election. The outcome in 1997 would have been the same. The Jenkins report refutes the whole basis of his argument.
I do not accept that. I read the report before I took part in the debate on
The hon. Gentleman is criticising coalitions as a system, but if that is what people vote for--if the result of their deliberations and votes is that there is no clear majority for one party--that is what people should get. That is a fair democratic verdict. The reverse of that is to say that people should have imposed on them a party with a minority of votes, one that people do not especially want and that most of them voted against. That is a fairly exact description of, say, Margaret Thatcher's Government in the 1980s. Such a Government are then free to use the enormous power of the centralised Executive of this country to do what they want with the system. That is exactly what happened. It is a dictatorship of the minority.
The question to be considered is whether it would be fairer to have, as a result of an election, a combination of parties that offered its junior partner or partners disproportionate amounts of power. The snag with what is recommended is not only that small parties in coalition Governments have far more power than they deserve according to their support in the country, but that the electorate have little say in the policies that will result from the process. Under the present system, in which the winning party tends to form a majority Government on its own, the people know that they can subsequently hold that party to account for what it proposed in its election manifesto. Under a system that leads to combination and coalition-style government, the policies produced by the process are the result of backroom deals and bargaining between the parties that form the coalitions, and they may bear little if any resemblance to the manifestos proposed to the electorate in the first place. I have pointed out before that Dr. Robert Waller, the well known psephologist, has said that any move towards proportional systems of government would be the greatest transfer of power from the people to the politicians in British political history. I am sure that that is true.
Bearing in mind your strictures, Mr. McWilliam, about keeping contributions short, given the time available for this debate, I shall make a couple of points quickly. I alluded to the first in my earlier intervention about the Liberal Democrats. For many years, they and their predecessor parties have maintained that the voting system is unfair, and that fairness and proportionality are one and the same. If that is a position of principle, they should be at the forefront of those rejecting the simple alternative vote system. As my right hon. Friend
In other words, AV tends to exaggerate the disproportionality of the result. Therefore, if the Liberals, who claim that proportionality equals fairness, acted on principle, they should reject AV. They do not act on principle, and they do not reject AV, because they know that, proportionality or no proportionality, AV will increase the number of Liberal Democrat seats gained at a general election. That is all that really motivates them.
I can ask the same question of members of the Labour party's first-past-the-post group. There are two possible motivations for what they are doing. Some of them are acting on principle, because, like me, they believe that a strong Government and a strong Opposition are important. Others are motivated by the knowledge that under a proportional system many Labour Members of Parliament who currently hold seats on a minority of the vote would lose them. Those members of the Labour first-past-the-post campaign are willing to accept the unalloyed alternative vote, which would avoid the proportional route while damaging the Tories and keeping marginal seats safe.
I believe that the Prime Minister has gone cold on proportional representation because he has studied the results under proportional representation in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. I come from Wales, where they used to weigh Labour votes rather than counting them. However, under proportional representation Labour could not obtain a majority of seats in the Assembly, despite the long tradition of Welsh support for Labour. What has happened in Scotland and Wales? The Labour party has had to form coalitions with the Liberal Democrats, the party that came third. That gives the Liberal Democrats power out of proportion to their support in Scotland or Wales.
Democracy requires a clear result at the end of the electoral process. A Government who can cobble together a coalition can defy the will of the people. The fact that Governments stand or fall according to the votes of the people benefits democracy and contributes to the health of the country. It avoids the corruption that inevitably comes from the intricacies, manoeuvrings and disreputable nature of coalition building. I strongly urge hon. Members to realise that the reason for the health of British democracy, in comparison with so many of the systems on the continent and elsewhere, is that our system gives voters a clear choice and makes it easy for them to remove a Government who have failed to keep their promises.
Several hon. Members rose--
Thank you, Mr. McWilliam. I shall bear that in mind.
It is always a pleasure to follow Dr. Lewis. I note that he ascribed motives of self-interest to some hon. Members, whether in the Liberal Democratic party or the Labour first-past-the-post group. I am sure that there is no such self-interested motivation among Conservatives who support a system which, over 50 years of general elections in which the Labour and Conservative vote has been remarkably similar, has produced Conservative Governments 70 per cent. of the time. Sometimes those who argue against electoral reform claim that those of us who favour it deal only with the issue of proportionality of representation, not with the issue of proportionality of power. Looking at the argument in the way that I have just outlined reveals that massively disproportionate power was exercised by the Conservative party in the last century, partly because the electoral system works as other hon. Members have explained this morning.
The constitutional reform programme is one of the Government's most exciting undertakings since 1997--although much remains to be done and there are many loose ends. Many people expected that if the Labour party was elected with a big majority, the constitutional reform plans developed in Opposition would be abandoned. Far from it; they have proceeded. In many ways the programme is the legacy of the late John Smith, the former leader of the Labour party. John Smith did not support electoral reform for the House of Commons, but recognised that it was an important, burning issue, and one that should be decided by the people in a referendum. That is why he gave a commitment to set up an independent commission, and why I believe that a referendum will take place in the next Parliament.
Many of the arguments used by those who oppose reform are arguments against a pure system of proportional representation, as is used in Israel and Germany. Many of us who have long supported reform favour broad proportional representation. However, that is not what the Jenkins commission proposes. It proposes a system that builds on the strengths of first past the post, and the positive aspects of the British system, but seeks to remedy some of its faults, to which my hon. Friend Mr. Burden referred.
The system proposed is uniquely British in seeking to retain a constituency link and prevent the situation that was outlined by the hon. Member for New Forest, East--that of permanent coalition and disproportionate power for smaller parties. I accept that it would make hung Parliaments or coalitions more likely than under first past the post, but it would not result in permanent coalition as in Israel and Germany, which have much purer systems. Last year the Labour party, through its national policy forum and its conference, decided to reaffirm the commitment to hold a referendum prior to reform. However, a decision was also taken to look at how the new systems for Scotland, Wales, London and the European Parliament bed down. That is sensible, and an important contribution to the debate.
Today's debate is focused on the relative merits of the alternative vote and the alternative vote plus. I believe that an alternative vote system would represent an improvement on the first-past-the-post system, for the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield. However, I do not think that that kind of reform is sufficient to meet the need. The remit of the Jenkins commission--which had a tough challenge--was to seek a system that would deliver greater proportionality, greater voter choice and stable government. Clearly, AV delivers greater voter choice and is positive in terms of stability of government, but, as various hon. Members have said, it does not deliver greater proportionality. The "plus" in AV-plus is, therefore, essential.
We must address the question of electoral deserts. In 1997, almost one in five people in Scotland and Wales voted Conservative, but not a single Conservative Member was elected there. About one in four of the people who voted in Surrey and Dorset voted Labour, yet there are no Labour Members in those counties. In north London, part of which I represent, there are no Liberal Democrat Members, although about one in six of the electorate there voted for the Liberal Democrats.
Not only would AV-plus give greater voter choice within the constituency, but significant minorities--such as Conservative voters in Scotland, Labour voters in Surrey and Liberal Democrat voters in north London--would have the opportunity to secure additional representation through the top-up members. That is a clever way of dealing with the problem without either delivering permanent coalition, or giving power to very small parties, which the high threshold would prevent. AV-plus recognises that large numbers of votes are wasted and that wasting votes feeds public cynicism about politics, and it tries to give a voice to significant minorities in constituencies in various parts of the country.
We are now in the run-up to a general election campaign. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield said, all the parties will focus their energies on certain constituencies and make much less effort in other constituencies. One of the features of the cynicism to which many speakers have referred is low turnout in elections--there have been miserably low turnouts in recent parliamentary by-elections, local elections and European elections. A system that encourages parties to focus their energies in a minority of seats contributes to such low turnouts. In 1997, the highest turnouts in the country, by and large, were in hotly contested marginal constituencies. The low turnouts were in constituencies that parties--especially the Labour party--tended to take for granted. If we want to connect people with politics, political parties must take their message nationwide. That will happen only under a system in which people's votes count, regardless of where they live, and people can vote according to their conviction rather than tactically.
Like me, my hon. Friend will be campaigning hard for Labour candidates wherever he finds them and can support them. Does he agree that our aim in life as politicians is to ensure the largest possible vote for every Labour candidate and to return a Labour candidate in every seat? If not, which Tories, fascists, communists--or Greens, browns, blues and pinks--would he like to be elected?
As a Labour Member of Parliament and a member of the Labour party, of course I want people to vote Labour throughout the country and to achieve the best possible Labour representation in this place--but we could have a system that enabled people to vote according to their conviction rather than tactically. In last year's by-election in Romsey, the Labour vote collapsed. I do not believe that the Labour party is uniquely unpopular in Romsey. Rather, ordinary Labour voters decided to vote for the Liberal Democrats, for tactical reasons. I would prefer a system that enabled Labour voters in Romsey to vote out of conviction for the Labour candidate, and the Labour party. The system that the Jenkins commission devised is one such system, and I look forward to a referendum campaign, so that the people, who should make the decision, can do so.
I welcome the initiative of
The right hon. Gentleman raised several important questions about the Government's intention, and speculated about a clandestine arrangement between the Government and the Liberal Democrats. I must disabuse him of the idea that if such an arrangement existed it would be kept secret. It is well known that before the last general election the Labour party and my party reached agreement on the programme of constitutional reform. The agreements were not clandestine. We held a press conference and published a document detailing several proposals for constitutional reform, including commitments on the introduction of proportional representation for Westminster and on holding a referendum, which were embodied in the manifestos of both parties. If we make agreements of which we are proud, we shall no doubt trumpet them to the country. It is our view that for constitutional reform, it is highly desirable to proceed with the broadest possible support across the parties, as such change is intended to be stable and long lasting, and not to be capable of being displaced as a result of changes of Government, as other legislation might be.
Another general point of some importance has emerged in the debate. Dr. Lewis suggested that the system of voting advocated by the Jenkins commission would result in continuous coalition government, which would enable minority parties to wield disproportionate influence. I question whether the hon. Gentleman has read the Jenkins report sufficiently carefully or sufficiently recently, because that issue is firmly and squarely covered in the report, which demonstrates with conclusive power that that would not be the consequence of its implementation. Although the recommended system adheres to the requirement that it be broadly proportionate, it does not give absolute proportionality. The supremely important task of determining the system should be a matter for the electorate. A number of other considerations--there were four criteria--outweighed, or at least modified, the commitment to proportionality. Not least of those were the requirement for stable government and the retention of the link between Members of Parliament and their constituencies.
Are the wishes of the electorate truly reflected under the present system, when minorities are clearly sufficient to establish Governments? Mr. Linton mentioned what would have happened at the 1992 election--the only one of the last five elections that the Jenkins report said would have resulted in a different configuration of government. The 1992 election resulted in what was effectively a divided Government, in which the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, who introduced the debate, was a luminary. With the help of his Department, he took it upon himself to carry through the privatisation of the railways as though that were the settled will of the British people--as though it were what they wanted. I do not know the views of those inside the Conservative Government on that issue, but in many respects, it was a dishonest coalition, totally divided on the major issue of Europe and the Maastricht Treaty.
I recall that that Government depended on the support of the Liberal Democrats, who went into the Lobby and voted for a policy that large numbers of Conservative Members were not prepared to agree with.
The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to that opinion, but it was our view that the will of the country was much closer to that of those who were leading the Government than that of the large minority who were, ostensibly, sustaining them as a dishonest coalition.
The time has come to recognise that when the country's voice is not clear, as quite often happens, it is better to have a Government of coalition who seek to bring together policies that are acceptable across the board and command widespread support in the country. It is not enough, as has been suggested by Conservative Members, to say, "Oh, well, we can put it all right when the Government stand at a general election." That was the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman's argument, but we are still stuck with the wretched mess of the privatised railways, and with Railtrack, which were both the result of that dishonest coalition. The general election did not resolve that issue, and it would have been better if such policies had not been pursued.
The prospects for a change in our voting system remain bright, because British people are essentially fair minded and conscious that the systems that have been introduced in Scotland, Wales and the European Parliament--I can speak authoritatively about Scotland--are working well and reflecting in the decisions of government the measures that enjoy broad support throughout the country.
Will the right hon. Gentleman answer a key question? Would his party support a referendum that offered a choice between first past the post and AV? Would he regard that as in keeping with the agreement between his party and the Labour party?
AV is the system that would undoubtedly favour the Liberal Democrats more clearly than any other--indeed, to an almost distorting extent--and ensure the largest representation of Liberal Democrats in the House. However, we have never made a secret of the fact that we would advance not AV but AV-plus; we would not choose to put forward any alternative to the Jenkins report. There is no equivocation about that; there is no clandestine agreement or any kind of agreement on that issue, between my party and the Labour party.
We have already compromised our view that the single transferable vote system is the preferable one, as it is more proportional. We accepted the Jenkins report proposal, which, retaining as it does the link between the Member and the constituency, is the one most likely to commend itself to the British people. I underline, too, our judgment that the top-up arrangements do not sever that link, as they are based on wider constituencies--counties and cities. There is a long history of parliamentary representation from counties and cities, even after the reform Acts of the 19th century.
We look forward to the Labour party carrying forward constitutional reform in the next Parliament, if it is re-elected as a Government, with or without the participation of my own party. We hope that it will complete the modernisation of government programme that it has begun with great distinction.
This has been a fascinating debate. My right hon. Friend
The debate has raised two issues. First, we have discussed the merits of the different systems. I was struck by the comment of Mr. Burden that all those AVs and AV-pluses did not, or could not, deliver perfect forms of democracy. We should count ourselves fortunate in that, however, because the only people who tried to practise perfect democracy were the Athenians, who tended to cut off the heads of their Executive at the end of their yearly mandate because they had failed to fulfil the criteria given them by the assembled people.
We start on the basis that we are not seeking pure democracy, which is unachievable. We seek, instead, parliamentary democracy with accountable government. The official Opposition have always been wary of the various concoctions put forward to improve the existing system. It may be worth restating that that system works because there is clarity of choice and, above all, a real opportunity for the electorate to get rid of unpopular Governments, as they did in 1997 with the Conservative Government and in 1979 with the Labour Government. Under this system, too, we do not have the politics of "transformismo" so beloved of Mr. Crispi in the Italy of the 19th century, whereby Governments who incurred the utter displeasure of the electorate would hold an election and--hey, presto--a new coalition would emerge, with Mr. Crispi still in control. That went on for a long time; that system is, undoubtedly, a source of corruption.
We would do well to ponder the fact that political corruption is so absent from this country, because many of our western European partners--France, in particular-- do not have such a good record. The example of Israel is telling in that respect, as that country has a system whereby clarity of decision making by government is almost impossible. Small and extreme minorities can hold the Government to ransom, which produces, all in all, an undesirable mix.
Secondly, we discussed the link between Members of Parliament and their constituencies. I was interested to hear the comments made about those links by Mr. Maclennan and Mr. Twigg. The new system in Scotland has clearly broken the constituency links between MPs and their constituencies, because it offers constituents an alternative place, or person, to go to with their problems and grievances.
That may be a choice, but it has a demerit that the hon. Gentleman might do well to ponder. A feature of Members of Parliament is that we represent all our constituents. It does not matter whether they voted for the Liberal Democrat or the United Kingdom Independence party candidate--they have a right to treat us as the people who will act on their grievances. In Scotland, however, people pick the person whose political view best represents theirs, which has a bad effect on the way in which business is conducted in this House and on the willingness of Members of Parliament to take up matters for constituents who do not support their party. That has clearly happened in Scotland, and my party has benefited, because list Members have been able to attach themselves to particular areas and constituencies.
I have dealt with the principles, and I am sorry that I do not have time to develop those matters further. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire touched upon how we are proceeding to resolve the issue. That is a relevant point, and I hope that the Minister will deal with it. There was nothing wrong in the suggestion that a referendum should be held on proportional representation. John Smith is said to have been instrumental in making that part of Labour party policy, although he did not believe in PR himself. He should be commended for that. The Government were elected in 1997 on the basis that they would offer choices on matters such as the euro and proportional representation, which would be placed before the electorate through referendums. That is a sign of a mature Government, I suppose, as it implies that the electorate may reject the choice that it is offered, even if the Government favour another outcome.
I have been worried by the way in which the past three and a half years have unfolded because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire correctly said, the Government have gone through a series of somersaults and convolutions as they have wriggled out of a crystal-clear commitment to give the electorate a choice. We are entitled to speculate why that has happened, and I shall make several suggestions.
First, the Government, far from wishing to allow the electorate mature choices and then to accept its verdict, are wedded to the idea of spin and the need to succeed at all costs. They cannot tolerate the thought of the jolt that they would suffer if they were to ask a referendum question and their view of the desirable outcome were rejected. Far from using referendums a mature tool of government, they want to use them after the manner of Napoleon III, to provide a boost and sustenance to a populist Government. The Prime Minister is, in that sense, Napoleon III writ small.
Secondly, the Prime Minister, is a man of great sensitivity and sensibility, and requires the constant reinforcement of public opinion for his light to continue shining. That is what I call "the Tinkerbell factor". If, for any reason, the light were snuffed out by an audience refusing to give him the expected answer--as happened with the Women's Institute last year--the Prime Minister's light rapidly starts to flicker and fade. I suggest that that is why no referendum has taken place.
There is ample evidence that the British electorate, which has a good dose of common sense, far from desiring such a change in the system, realises that it would represent a massive transfer of power from the electorate to government, and does not wish to endorse it. That has placed the Government in a difficulty from which they have been quite unable to escape. I have to say to the hon. Member for Southgate that it was fascinating to listen to his speech, but he never provided any explanation why the promise had not been honoured--although it was crystal clear.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said that he could not understand why we had resurrected this issue. We have not resurrected it, but we have disinterred it--preferably so as to drive a stake through its heart. The sooner this question can be resolved by the electorate--I believe it will be resolved by a decisive "No" to these various convoluted proposals--the better. The Minister has to tell us today why that choice has not been offered, when it was a clear election promise. That is what we wait to hear with bated breath.
This has been an interesting debate, and I sincerely congratulate
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the clarity with which he has put the six questions that he raised in his letter to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Department, Mr. O'Brien. Given the amount of time available, rather than respond to all the points raised by hon. Members, I propose to go through those six questions and provide him with answers, so that he can appreciate the Government's position. I hope that that will be the most constructive use of the limited time available.
The first question the right hon. Gentleman asked was: does the Minister agree that the alternative vote system would not deliver his manifesto commitment of a proportional alternative to first-past-the-post? The manifesto commitment was to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems was to be appointed early, to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system.
A number of issues arise from that manifesto commitment. The first is that the commission was to be appointed to make recommendations, not to fix the alternative--and indeed, that was what happened. I think that the right hon. Gentleman is focusing on the question whether the alternative vote system could be said to be a system of proportional representation. That is a matter of semantics.
Rather than acting like someone out of "Alice in Wonderland" and saying that words mean precisely what I say they mean, I went to a dictionary of politics and looked up "alternative vote". It has an interesting definition--the system of proportional representation in which electors cast a second vote, and perhaps further votes, which come into play if their first preference candidate finishes at the bottom of the poll.
It is clear from that definition that the alternative vote system is a form of alternative proportional representation within the meaning of the expression, so the answer to the right hon. Gentleman's first question is that AV would be a form of proportional representation, were the Government to put that forward to Parliament in a Bill for consideration at a later date.
No; I think that the right hon. Gentleman and I are asking different questions about Jenkins. He asks whether the alternative vote would produce a form of proportional representation. I have referred him to the dictionary definition, which accepts that it is a form of proportional representation. Therefore, within the terms of the manifesto commitment, it is appropriate.
The Jenkins report asked whether that was the best form of system for electing people to Westminster, which is an entirely different question. The right hon. Gentleman referred to paragraph 82 of the Jenkins report--which sets out the problems with the alternative vote--carefully gliding over paragraph 81, which explained how the alternative vote would meet four of the set criteria. There was a balance.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked: does the Minister accept the commitment in the 1997 election to hold a referendum on PR will not be kept? The answer is that there was a commitment to set up a commission, and for there to be a referendum. Once the commission had reported, the Government had started a debate, but one does not start a debate by defining the result of that debate, and it remains the policy of the Government that there will be a referendum.
The right hon. Gentleman's next question was: can the Minister confirm that the statement made by the Under-Secretary of State, Home Office, George Howarth in the debate on
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that I have read with care the words spoken by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East--who is now the Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office--in that debate. He clearly said that in introducing the alternative, he was starting a debate. As a debate gets under way, one asks what would be the right way to proceed. It is not right to say that the proposed debate on the alternative to be proposed in due course is settled before the debate has taken place. In any event, as the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, there is a process to be followed.
The Government will have to bring forward an alternative, which will have to be put to Parliament in a Bill setting up the referendum. In the end it will be the decision of Parliament what precise alternative is decided, before the matter is considered in a referendum. Therefore, there are a number of stages to pass through before a referendum is held.
However, if it helps, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that no decision has been taken on the precise form of the question that will be proposed to Parliament in any such Bill. To clarify that, he must wait for the next Labour manifesto.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Foreign Secretary's comments on "Breakfast with Frost". I repeat that no decision has been taken. The right hon. Gentleman might draw inferences from the close and constructive working relationship between the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, which might lead him to suggest that in the discussions in setting up the Labour manifesto for the next general election, the Foreign Secretary's views might bear considerable weight--and his inferences might be correct--but in the end, he will have to wait to read the next Labour manifesto to know what the next Government's platform is.
I was intrigued by the right hon. Gentleman's fifth question. He asked whether it was the intention of the Government, when seeking the endorsement of the electorate, to offer every voter in Britain the opportunity of voting for a Labour candidate. That seems to be the nub of what is bothering him--the prospect that in some seats at the next general election, there will be either a Liberal Democrat or a Labour party candidate, and the traditional anti-Conservative majority will coalesce around one candidate. I am afraid that that is a matter for the Labour party, not the Government.
I am trying to be constructive, and I realise that the right hon. Gentleman will want to raise the matter with the Labour party, so I shall suggest to him a letter that he could send to the general secretary of the party. I suggest that he puts his case along the following lines:
Dear Margaret-- That is, Margaret McDonagh--
As you know, we Conservatives did not do too well in the 1997 election; in fact, to quote my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring in the debate referred to on
This gets me to my main point. I am very worried that you and the Liberal Democrats might be getting too close. You know that we Conservatives rely on you and the Liberal Democrats splitting the anti-Conservative vote to let us through the middle. That is how it has been, and in my view rightly so. Now if you introduce this alternative vote nonsense or, even worse, if you withdraw your candidate in favour of a "white knight", or a journalist in a "white suit" as the case may be, or even worse a Liberal Democrat, we simply will not get enough MPs to form an Opposition. That is not how things are supposed to work. I am sure that you would not like that to happen. We will get very, very cross and, to quote Mr. Fox, we might get slaughtered again.
I am recorded as wanting to debate devolution, which is, in fact, a subterfuge for the real issue of the debate, on which I wish to concentrate. It was suggested to me that one could not raise the subject because it demanded legislation from Government. My real preoccupation is regional government in the best part of this country, which is Yorkshire and Humberside, the Geordie nation and the north-west, and the prospects and effects of devolution on them.
I am not a critic of devolution. The Government have made a brave start and were right to do so. It is a system that is beginning to cause tensions. We cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs and there are bound to be conflicts. Such conflicts are good--they are democratic and involve people. I welcome devolution as a recognition of the new politics that we need in a country that has always been too centralised on London in terms of population, careers, government, and in every other respect. London is the great wen. Bureaucracy is centralised and decisions are taken and then handed down to the supplicant rest of the country. London has always been too dominant. It is more dominant in our system than any other country's capital city. People are reacting against that centralisation and dominance.
Last year's surveys on the state of the nation were interesting. There is widespread feeling that this country is not more democratic, that it is too centralised, and that people do not have enough involvement. We face a society now in which people have had a taste of power and have power as consumers. They are taking decisions as consumers all the time. People are waiting to serve them as consumers. They do not have the same power, influence, or ability to control their destinies as citizens as they do as consumers. That is an imbalance in their lives that they would like rectified. They want power and influence as citizens, and they want to be heard--[Interruption.]--like Mr. Evans, who I will not hear for the moment, if he will forgive me. People want to be listened to, and a machine that is centralised on Londoners, that does not have regional government, that has devolution only for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, cannot listen to them. They want government brought closer to them, and that is the basic argument for devolution. After all, it is a universal trend--it is going on in most European Union countries. There is even decentralisation in France which is, traditionally a very centralised society.
No, because my hon. Friend is going to make some petty, pedantic point about Europe.
There is a universal human and governmental trend to establish regional government, which has happened in France, Spain and Italy, and was already there in Germany with the system of the Lander. We should follow that natural instinct and respond to the new politics. I have been criticised by my Euro-sceptic friends--I have some Euro-sceptic friends--who argue that regionalism and decentralisation or devolution are a European plot to cut out the middle man of central Government and create a direct relationship between Brussels and the regions. That has nothing to do with devolution, which is absolutely right in its own right.
I support my hon. Friend in not referring to the European Union, which has nothing to do with the argument. We should look to America, the world's richest country, with its 50 regional assemblies, governors and state administrations. On the other hand, we might look to Switzerland, which is Europe's richest country, has a population similar to Yorkshire's, has 24 regional parliaments, Ministers, assemblies and so on.
Does my hon. Friend share my regret that the Yorkshire Post, our regional newspaper, supports entirely the Tory view that everything should be centralised in London and that devolution to Yorkshire should not be on the political agenda? When will our main regional newspaper speak up for Yorkshire in this matter?
I am grateful for that sagacious, intelligent and smart intervention from my hon. Friend Mr. MacShane, although it was not exactly what I had expected. However, it raises an important and valid point. It is a tragedy and a betrayal that the Yorkshire Post is taking the position to which he referred. It used to be part of the Yorkshire Conservative Newspaper Company Ltd., which is no doubt why it takes such a position. It is wrong to do so because it does not represent the feeling of the region.
The present matter has nothing to do with the argument for or against Europe; I do not understand European intentions, because I am not an expert on abnormal psychology. Devolution is right in itself and we should proceed with it. It has made a brave beginning, so we should go on and extend the benefits of devolution to the north, where it is much needed.
Being a northerner rather than an Englishman, I would say that the north is the best part of the country, but a disadvantaged part. It was always the manufacturing heartland--the area that made things, the powerful producer. The south had the job of manipulating money. People from the south went into professions--to be barrow boys, or whatever--but not into production as northerners do. That gave us a world standing, an independence, a confidence and a pride.
The manufacturing base in the north has been destroyed, partly by the dominance of southern money, manipulation and financial interests, and partly by the incompetence of Governments. That process of destruction continues, with the manufacturing heart still shrinking because of the over-valued pound, which strikes a vital blow at the dominance of the north. Our society has become dependent because our industry has been destroyed, which means higher unemployment and lower earnings and gross domestic product per capita.
A begging-bowl mentality has been forced on us because the job of local government is no longer to regenerate the areas but to go to London and shuttle up and down with begging bowls. The only increase in business that that causes is for the railways. Local government must beg for projects, grants, action areas and all the things that the Government provide. We are dependent and, in that situation, we need to be able to do more for ourselves, take control of our own destinies and fight back against the trend that has knocked the heart out of the manufacturing north. Once it was the most dynamic and richest part of the country--now it is the part with the greatest social problems.
Again, the hon. Gentleman paints the picture of devolution as the panacea for all the ills facing the north, just as it was supposed to be for Wales--although it has certainly not proven to be the case. He says that people want to be listened to. That is true, but they do not want to be over-governed--and they will be governed at the levels of Europe, Westminster, county council, district council and parish council. Are they not being over-governed? In many cases they just want politicians off their backs, so that they can carry on their businesses.
I knew that I should not have given way to the hon. Gentleman. The European issue is irrelevant in this context. We are not talking about that. People want to be heard and to influence the people who are taking the decisions that will affect their lives, whether in Europe or Britain. Bringing government closer to people gives them that influence. Devolution--[Interruption.]
I am grateful to you, Mr. McWilliam.
Devolution affects us because it increases competition for public spending and provides the development that attracts the footloose industries that we need. Devolution provides Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London with a powerful platform from which to argue for a better deal, and they will do so--they are arguing the case already. It also makes those areas more competitive in attracting industry and development. They have not only the regional development agencies that other areas have, but the synergy, drive and dynamism of democracy pushing those agencies on.
Those areas will be powerful competition to the parts of the country that we represent. I do not begrudge them higher levels of public spending and the centre should help them in that way, but we need the same platform. I want English regions to compete effectively and to have the same power that they have in Scotland.
London is the decisive new area that we are confronting. Does my hon. Friend feel that his constituents are expressing concern about the fact that the financing of the London underground system is now an important issue of national politics, whereas important regional issues in the north of England do not register in the same way--because London has devolution?
Yes, there is that type of hostility. Everyone is demanding more for London--more for people who have enough already. Spending must be boosted at all levels, but we want to compete. We want our case to be put as effectively as possible. We should get our share and have a greater ability to raise money for ourselves and tackle our own problems.
Devolution is a big boon, but it creates problems for the rest of the country and destabilises the constitution. We now have an unbalanced constitution. That needs to be rectified--not only so that we can solve the west Lothian problem, which is traditionally asked in this context, but so that we bring the rest of the country up to the level that has been created in Scotland. There are various ways of doing that. The proposal of several Conservative Members is for an English parliament. That is no solution at all. It would be an elephant in a cuckoo's nest--a cuckoo's nest is perhaps the wrong image. It would increase the dominance of London within England. England has a population of about 50 million and Scotland about 5 million--that is unbalanced. The idea of an English parliament is ludicrous.
The proposal of Labour Members, as representatives of the English regions, must be regional government. The process towards regional government should start with the three northern regions. We have a clear and proud regional identity. I am alienated from all the arguments that attempt to define the English and the British because I feel that I am a northener. I keep quiet about the fact that I am a Yorkshireman in Grimsby, because it is in Lincolnshire, but my real identity is that of a northener. We have talked of the Geordie nation. All those areas have their own identity.
The hon. Gentleman is strongly against an English parliament. Given his theme of regionalism, will he tell us how such areas would legislate? Would they come to the House of Commons to do so? The Welsh Assembly must wait for legislation to go through the House of Commons. With further pressure from the other regions of England, this place will become unmanageable.
I agree that the Welsh Assembly does not have adequate powers and that the centre is choking up, as it is the focus of too many decisions for other areas that should be delegated to those areas. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's basic hypothesis; I will deal with the powers later.
We have a regional identity in the north. We are ready for regional government. All three regions have regional assemblies. A regional convention has been held in the north-east and the north-west, and we have had the first stage in Yorkshire. We want regional government. Evidence collected by opinion polls for the Kilbrandon commission as long ago as 1970, showed that there were strong feelings of isolation from London and a sense that decisions were taken there and imposed on us. There was a feeling of alienation--[Interruption]--but it was not stronger than that in Cornwall. I concede that to Mr. George.
I am glad that I have obliged the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat for a moment. He is making a strong point in principle and most hon. Members present agree with him, but what happens if the region itself does not exist? The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Kilbrandon commission report, which makes a strong case for regional identities that do not coincide with the boundaries as defined by the Government. If we want to make regional assemblies work, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should base them on regions that exist, not on synthetic regions based on bureaucratic convenience?
I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's argument--perhaps I should call him an hon. Friend, after our labours together on behalf of the fishing industry. His comments highlight a problem that affects Cornwall's relationship with the south-west, rather than the three regions to which I referred.
All three regions have a clear identity, pretty clear boundaries and strong support for regional government, as the Kilbrandon report showed. In some respects, the report showed a stronger sense of regionalism in Yorkshire and the north-east than in Scotland and Wales. Up-to-date public opinion surveys show that a majority of people are in favour of regional government in the north-east and the north-west. There is a fairly even division in Yorkshire, which surprises me. I should have thought that feeling would be stronger there, but the issue is only becoming salient and the majority will build up.
The first priority of the next Labour Government must be regional government and those three regions must lead the way. Counter-arguments are sometimes put--for instance, that the desire for regional government is not uniform throughout the country. I accept that in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, regionalism hardly happens, and of course there is no problem in the south-east and London.
However, there is clearly a desire for regional government in the three northern regions, which are the focus of my proposals, and there is no reason why areas that do not have the same instincts and feelings should hold back other areas. We can proceed to regional government on a variable geometry basis, by allowing those areas that have built up a case for regional government, developed regional conventions and drawn up proposals to go ahead.
Spain is a pioneer of such an approach--it is obviously sensible. Regions that want stronger powers and more effective democracy take it, and the ones that do not want that stay as they are. Catalonia and the Basques have pushed much further than other parts of Spain. Why should not the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire do the same in this country? We should show the others the way.
Given that regional government will be successful, the same pressures will build up in other parts of the country for the same advantages, just as the pressures have built up in the north-east because of the benefits to Scotland . Those areas should start first. They should not be held back by the fact that others are more laggardly. Why should the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire not do the same in this country? We should be showing others the way. Devolution in the northern regions should not be diluted to some common, unimportant level. We should go for the maximum powers.
No doubt we will hear from the Conservatives the criticism that there will be another layer of bureaucracy, but that is obviously nonsense. We are already developing a regional bureaucracy; in fact, it is already there. We have regional government offices, rightly, as they bring government closer to the people--good on the Government, who introduced them. There are regional development agencies, which are a powerful development tool that is right in principle and that I welcome with open arms, even if the one in my area has the title Yorkshire Forward. I represent a constituency in Lincolnshire, which is not happy with that name. However, the principle is right and the development agency is doing a good job.
There are other bureaucracies as well, such as a regional national health service bureaucracy, the Environment Agency, a bureaucracy on health and safety, the arts bureaucracy and those of other Departments. Each region has many bureaucracies already, but it does not have accountability or democratic control from the region. We are not compounding the problem of bureaucracy, but simply providing a logical accountability and structure of democracy for a bureaucracy that is already in place. If we do that successfully, we will have joined-up government in the regions through co-ordination of the efforts of all those independent bodies. I therefore do not accept that argument.
There is the question of powers. Do we want to be as weak as the Welsh Assembly? No. Wales has had a raw deal. The devolutionary programmes are a basis on which to build. Powers will increase and expand and we should learn from what has happened in Wales. One reason why the majority in the referendum there was so low was that the Assembly was not important enough to grip people, as it did not have enough powers. Therefore, in the northern regions, I want the sort of powers that will fire the imagination, persuade people that they want those powers controlled from their area, and bring those people out to vote. We should go for the maximum.
Should we transfer functions from local government? That question produced problems in Wales and my broad answer is no. Some functions--roads and transport planning, for example--are better handled on a regional basis. In the main, the functions of the regional government and assembly should be functions transferred from London, where central Government are choking under the weight of decisions that would be better taken locally.
There will be arguments and differences of opinion. I went to a meeting of the boy scouts in Grimsby on Friday. They asked why they had to pay for searches on the police computer for certificates for scout leaders when that was free in Scotland. I had no answer. It is one of the divergencies of democracy. I welcome such differences, but we need the power to make our own differences and to take our own decisions. We will have that power if functions are transferred from central Government, who should not and cannot decide everything in London. They cannot help the areas by simply doling out more projects and tied specific funding. Rather than using such controls, they need to give us freedom to handle things in our own way. I want the maximum powers handed down and some ability to raise money locally for local purposes, as in Scotland, although, again, it is inadequate.
I am proud of what Labour has done--of the regional development agencies, the building up of unified Government offices in the regions and the better financial deal that we have received. I hope that that will be expanded and improved, but now we have to go on from that. Ours is not a hand-out society. We must bite the bullet. Regional governments are the next step towards re-empowering the northern regions and transferring power to the people, so that we can do things for ourselves, tackle our own problems and get the synergy of democracy behind the development that we need. My conclusion is that what Scotland has, we now want.
I shall be extremely brief as I am conscious that many hon. Members want to speak. I must explain that I find the conventions of this Chamber rather obscure. I am sat behind a nationalist, which for the purposes of the debate is perhaps appropriate.
I intend Mr. Llwyd no harm whatsoever.
The issue is serious and practical. We are not discussing castles and cathedrals, history and mysticism; we are discussing the practical issues of resources that are beginning to make the people of the English regions, particularly the northern ones, extremely restless. As a result of the Government's programme, we are seeing the strong benefits of devolution. In the north-east of England, which I represent, we see at close hand the benefits of Scottish Government in the programme for warm homes, the decision to deal with long-term care on a different basis from that in England, and in terms of student finance and the important issue of teachers' pay. Not all of that may be deliverable, it may not all work out, but there are real practical benefits to people just over the border.
People just to the south of the border are bound to want to be cut in as well. We want the ability to do some of those things for ourselves. We want to have the same block grant system and the same ability to generate local flexibility about where we apply finance as the Scots, the Welsh and people in Northern Ireland have. That is a political issue that cannot be forever kicked into touch. It is a serious issue that will surface in the next Parliament and will need to be addressed.
I welcome the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in the House yesterday, when he reiterated his personal commitment to regionalism. In a significant move forward, my right hon. Friend de-coupled the issue of local government reform from the movement toward regional government. That is an important new statement of the Government's intentions. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to expand on that. It is a real step forward and clears away one obstacle.
We are not engaged in some constitutional experiment. Mention has already been made of the West Lothian question. If, as a result of pushing for directly elected, democratically accountable government in the northern English regions--[Interruption.] The hon. Member for St. Ives represents a constituency in the south-west, but he does not seem sure where the south-west is, and that is the essential starting point.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that there is a movement both in the south-west and in Cornwall. On Monday, the front page of The Western Morning News--which is different from that of the Yorkshire Post--reported 20,000 people supporting the Cornish assembly, including the captain of the local rugby team. There was strong feeling about the campaign and we are very clear about where the boundaries are.
I shall leave that issue, and 20,000 Cornishmen will know why.
Boundaries are an issue to be dealt with by regions. The northern English regions are not burdened by that question. We are clear about where and who we are, and what we want to do. The work on those questions has been done. I am concerned not about the West Lothian question but about the west Newcastle question. The west Newcastle question concerns an area where health and educational experience are among the worst in Britain and where until May 1997 not one major decision that could correct those historic inequalities was being taken, whether in west Newcastle, Newcastle or the region. That is what we want to put right.
The Government have taken a significant forward step in the creation of the regional development agencies. However, it is just the first step along the road. We have had to fight hard even to achieve flexibility in the various streams of money that come to the regional development agency. That will not happen until next year. We are only at the beginning of the argument for a block grant enabling the people of the region, in a democratic assembly, to decide how the resources are to be used, and to choose different courses of action from those taken in other English regions and the rest of Britain. The issue is a practical one of resources and their use, rather than a question of local government reform or broader constitutional issues; it involves giving people the power that they do not yet have to make decisions about what happens to their communities, and to tackle long-term inequalities.
We have seen the example of Scotland, and the positive benefits to the Scottish people that are flowing from what has happened there. It cannot be reasonable to expect the people of the north-east of England to be patient for ever, with that example north of the border; indeed, it is already affecting their decisions about where to make a home and plan their futures. Many people in the north-east have such choices and mean to take advantage of the Scottish system. The issue will not go away.
I know that in this morning's short debate there is not time to explore all the issues. However, I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that we are discussing a practical matter of importance, which is already creating a strong echo among the people whom we represent. They are beginning to ask questions about all the matters that I have raised. They are beginning to use the example of London as well as Scotland. I hope that the manifesto on which we shall go to the people at some time in the next 12 months will contain a strong, clear commitment to enabling regions to create a democratically elected regional government if they choose to do so.
I hope that those democratically elected regional governments will be able to command resources and begin to take their own decisions--not just in the area of economic development. They should be able to couple those decisions to others affecting education, training, health and social inequalities, so that we can be given the responsibility for dealing with our historic problems. That will put us in charge and will give our people responsibility to sort out their own future, as well as the rights and freedoms that go with such responsibility.
The Conservatives' response to what has been said this morning will be to complain about the creation of another layer of bureaucracy and so on. Mr. Mitchell will remember that during the Maastricht debates the clarion call of the Conservatives was subsidiarity. Mr. Major frequently came home claiming to have secured something on the basis of subsidiarity. Devolution is a similar concept. It is about bringing democratic control down to the lowest reasonable level. It is entirely appropriate for any part of the UK.
We have taken a step forward in Wales, but I am afraid that, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, the Assembly is not a good deal for Wales, because we have to depend on the House to make any changes. There is already too much work for the House, anyway, and that is another reason for devolution, if it is to have any meaning for our constituents and for the areas that we represent.
Like Mr. Davies, I believe that devolution is a process, not an event. He said that these things develop and have their own momentum--Catalonia is one example. A twin-track approach is necessary, whereby some areas can have more powers and move faster than others, and others do not even sign up to devolution. That is entirely appropriate in terms of a Europe of the regions and it is the way in which we should be approaching the matter. I will not say any more about Europe, because I know that if I do, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby will jump up and down and shout. We do not agree on that.
On the benefits of regionalism, Merseyside has a strong case for having its own authority. I hope that it gets one in the not-too-distant future, because there are problems endemic to Wales and Merseyside that we need to sort out. The problems are often different, and there is a difference of emphasis and degree of difficulty and so on.
The hon. Gentleman should be aware that Merseyside is pleased to be part of the north-west region and is fully involved in campaigning for a north-west assembly. Is he aware that one of the benefits of our current position on devolution is that the north-west development agency has linked up with Liverpool city council, English Partnerships and others to form Liverpool Vision, the first urban regeneration company? That shows some of the benefits of devolution that have already accrued to us.
I did not know that. I sometimes go to Anfield to watch football, but that is all. I know a little about football, but not much. I am pleased that the hon. Lady has put that on the record, because it is important. It shows that the more power is devolved locally, the more likely it is that the solution appropriate to a given area will be found. That bolsters the theme of the debate.
However, the way in which the National Assembly for Wales has been put together is flawed. If the Assembly decides that it wants legislation, it must then rely on the Secretary of State for Wales to push for that in Cabinet and obtain parliamentary time for an exclusively Welsh Bill. It may have happened last night, but it will not happen often. Clearly it will not happen in the context of the regional chambers that are the theme of the debate.
It is obvious that we need greater powers for Cardiff. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby said that similar powers have been given to Scotland. The Scottish Parliament can make a greater difference than the Welsh Assembly, and it has done so. The Assembly now deals with statutory instruments, which used to be dealt with by the Wales Office and by Westminster, and of which there is a backlog. That is a good step forward and brings the process closer to the people. However, people did not foresee devolution in terms of an Assembly dealing only with statutory instruments.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people in this Chamber would be enlightened to discover that there is only one Bill in the Queen's Speech that is specific to Wales? That Bill only extends the powers of the Children's Commissioner, and it received a Second Reading last night. That is snail's pace democracy and it must change. I am sure that he will agree.
I agree entirely. The hon. Gentleman has been campaigning for a long time for strong devolution, and I fully accept what he says, but it underlines the basic problem--only one Bill has come from the Welsh Assembly.
Another problem is that the Secretary of State is bound by his Cabinet responsibilities. What happens if he is urged to act on behalf of the Assembly and its declared intention puts him in conflict with the Cabinet? The ideas of the Assembly are obviously thrown out of the window, as we saw with the creation of the Strategic Rail Authority in the Transport Bill. The Assembly had a firm view about the membership of the SRA, believing also that it should have a Welsh office, but none of those ideas went anywhere. The Secretary of State should have batted for Wales; perhaps he did--we do not know--but he certainly did not win.
The point at issue is whether devolution in Wales will make a difference, but the current situation is a recipe for confusion and complexity because of a build-up of bad feeling. First, the Assembly requires proper legislative power. The model can be adapted and, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, it will develop at its own pace in due course, but many experts now believe that devolution in Wales was flawed. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's final words, when he said that we should go for as much power as we can get and that we should go for the Scottish model.
I am pleased that we have devolution in Wales, but it is only one step forward and more needs to be done. I shall give some examples. For instance, my party, Plaid Cymru, said that the Assembly should decide what should happen with regard to hunting in Wales. On objective 1 funding, the Assembly and the Welsh Affairs Select Committee called on the Government to take further action to ensure matched funding, but Westminster ignored the plea. The Assembly decided that Wales should be GM-free, but Westminster would not allow it. Wales decided on special action with regard to beef, but Westminster told us that we could not do that.
It is no use giving us devolution and then slowly winding it back. Bills now going through the House of Commons are winding power back to Westminster rather than devolving it to Wales. That was the subject of a debate at the Welsh Assembly in which Mr. Livsey, I and other members of the Welsh Assembly took part. It is vital that we are careful, otherwise devolution will become a sham. Yes, I am pleased that we have devolution, but I stress that it is a process, not an event.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell on securing this important and timely debate. I support devolution to the English regions in general, and particularly to the north-west. Devolution to the English regions is the unfinished business of devolution in the United Kingdom. It is unacceptable that, as part of an on-going process suited to their needs and requirements, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and now London should have devolution while the remainder of England is ignored. However, we have come a long way during the past three or four years.
The Government clearly recognise the importance of English regionalism in a way that was not accepted before. The importance of regional devolution to economic development has been recognised and we have started to act upon it. We now have regional development agencies. Their existence, their funding, the flexibility now being awarded to them and the requirement placed on them to draw up regional economic strategies show how it is possible to consider the needs and potential of all regions, including urban and rural areas, and how they can be developed.
Devolution is a powerful tool in dealing with the economic disparities between regions, particularly in gross domestic product. London is still at 145 on the standard scale of 100 for the UK; but it is unacceptable that the north-west is at 88.2, the north-east 78.8 and Yorkshire and Humberside 87.8, particularly as those disparities are widening.
Will my hon. Friend comment on a statistic that shows that there are greater regional disparities in the United Kingdom than in any other European country except Germany, where there are particular reasons for that relating to the inclusion of east Germany? Britain has the least devolved system. Those two facts may be connected.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Those facts are indeed connected. We need regional devolution to enable the regions to examine the potential of their economies. It must take place in such a way that it influences national decisions and European decisions that have a bearing on regional areas. It is not only a matter of GDP, but of increasing disparities and the concentration of factors that bring success to the south-east. London and the south-east are again at the top of the recent competitiveness index; the northern regions are towards the bottom. The population drift is continuing. It is anticipated that more people will leave the northern regions for the already over-heated south-east, and such a problem can be dealt with only by investment and regional devolution.
Over the past four years, we have started to recognise the importance of regional representation, but not only for reasons of economic regeneration. Regional chambers and assemblies have been set up. In the north-west, our regional assembly is strong; it brings together elected local authority councillors with universities, colleges, trade unions, the private sector, the co-operative movement, the voluntary sector, the national health service, the Environment Agency and other bodies. It is an important building block. However, we have a long way to go and what is missing is a clear accountable regional remit. The elected element in our regional assemblies comes from local authorities-- [Interruption.]
Elected councillors have a remit relating to their local authority area. No one is elected with a remit for the whole region. The regional structure lacks clear, democratic accountability. Yes, the regional development agencies are required to consult the regional chambers and assemblies--and most of them do that extremely well. However, they are responsible to the Minister, not to the region. There is no structure whereby we can have accountability for regional quangos in higher and further education, the environment, the arts, health and elsewhere. There is no open forum in which regional consumer interests can be articulated and considered. Would it not be a good thing if the regions could call the regional management of Railtrack to account for its action? Would it not be good if the regions could call the regional structures of the utilities to account for their actions? The region is an important level in many areas, yet it cannot act in the public interest.
As we do not have an elected accountable regional tier, that tier does not have the regional clout that is needed to affect decisions taken at Westminster and in representations in Europe. Will the Minister give thought to two issues of particular importance to the north-west that show the need for elected regional authorities? If we had had an elected assembly in the north-west, would the decision have been taken to move £500 million worth of investment from the Daresbury high-technology laboratory in the north-west to Rutherford in the south-east, in Oxfordshire? I doubt it. Does she agree that it was because of the outrage over that decision, that all public, private and educational sectors in the north-west have come together in a way that has never happened before? I praise the Government for reacting to that, but they must recognise that the decision was unlikely to have been taken had we had a strong, elected, accountable north-west body.
There is a real and current issue regarding economic investment in the north-west and elsewhere. We are struggling with the impact of new definitions of state aid decided by the competition directorate in Brussels. Those definitions have already stopped gap funding, which was important to the north-west, as it was to other regions, and major parts of the European objective 1 programme in Merseyside are now threatened. No doubt that is also the case in other areas. There are now grave delays and possible cancellations in public-private sector partnerships, including one for a proposed business centre in Toxteth, in my constituency.
Based on information given to me by my hon. Friend the Minister, I understand that the Welsh Assembly has taken up the problem, and that progress has been made, while the Government have apparently been unable to make any progress. That leads me to believe that the Welsh Assembly--with powers that its Members wish to be extended--has already shown that it can deliver for Wales in a way that, until now, the Government have not been able to deliver for the north-west and other regions.
This is a time of change. Devolution is a process, not simply an event. We are at a time when changes can be made. In the review of the second chamber, the Wakeham commission recognised the importance of regional representation for the first time. Constitutional conventions have now been set up in Yorkshire and Humberside, the north-west, the north-east and the midlands, and will soon be set up in the south-west. We need elected regions, and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give us a commitment that this Government or the following Labour Government will give us the opportunity to make that happen.
I am grateful to you, Mr. McWilliam. I speak as an enthusiastic supporter of devolution in Scotland where it has been recognised that devolution is working well and has given a vigorous boost to political life. Every area of political thought now has a focus that did not exist before, and I look back with horror to this place, where major themes such as primary, nursery or further education can go for decades without a debate--that is no exaggeration.
That is now behind us. Every aspect of Scottish life is now focused and there is a recognition of the separateness of Scottish life. On tuition fees, for example, there has been a different solution in Scotland. If that causes embarrassment to some centralists, that is tough. They have to live with it. We had to live with the decision to impose a system without any input from Scottish political thought.
The only people who do not recognise that success are centralists or those in the media who mistake differences for a row. However, we must recognise that there cannot be devolution in some parts of the United Kingdom without there being implications for other parts. We have an unbalanced constitution.
Probably the greatest devolution that has occurred in the UK, to which hon. Members have not referred, is in Northern Ireland. The powers of its 1.6 million people are greater, were one to add them all up, than those of the Scots. Indeed, if one adds them all up, the powers to be different are greater than for any other part of the UK.
Devolution has, however, led to some very strange situations. In Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, there is not a single Conservative Member--out of 140 Members, there is not a single one from the official Opposition. I doubt whether that will change much at the next election. It means that the Conservatives will start 140 Members behind in England in terms of gaining a majority in the UK. That is very welcome to my party, but anyone who believes that that will not cause problems in the future--although I do not want to return to cuckoos--is living in cloud-cuckoo land.
Distressingly, the only aspect of devolution that is reasonably high on the manifesto agenda is the House of Lords. It would be utterly foolish to proceed with reform of the House of Lords without taking into account the English regional issues that have been raised today. The House of Lords is already largely English, not in terms of its membership--there are Scots peers, Welsh peers and so on--but in terms of its business. Finance matters are not dealt with by the House of Lords, and it is rare for defence Bills or foreign affairs Bills to be considered there. There is no second chamber for the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly, and there is no discernible demand that there should be. When foxhunting is banned in Scotland, there will be no charade about the Bill going to the House of Lords. The elected representatives of Scotland will have decided, as they have in relation to section 28.
Scottish Bills and Northern Ireland Bills--although they may be for smaller populations--are every bit as complicated, in terms of their implications for the citizenry, as English Bills, but they are dealt with more intelligently. I ask hon. Members to consider the Queen's Speech in relation to Scotland. According to Mr. Field, it contains 16 Bills, only five of which apply to the United Kingdom. Eleven apply to England or England and Wales, and I accept fully that Wales is bound to proceed to having its own legislative power. The strange thing is that the 140 Members can vote on all Bills, which is untenable.
I point out to my party that the revenge of the people of Scotland for England deciding on Scotland's government was to expel the Tories from the land. Scotland was made a Tory-free zone, which continued until we introduced the assisted seats scheme in the Scottish Parliament.
Important issues must be resolved. The debate this morning about English regional issues has been fascinating. However, there are also important questions about how we relate to the European Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to the need to have a second chamber in the European Parliament. I do not want to comment on that, although it is an important issue, because we must first decide the role of the House of Commons. We can then decide about the House of Lords, Europe and so on. We cannot go on thinking that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution does not have implications for democracy. I hope that that will give us time to abandon the belief that we can have democracy without elections.
The proposal to have an appointed House of Lords is very strange. Were I to look around the House of Commons to see who will be going to the House of Lords, I would say to my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell that, although he has added much to the gaiety of life in all of this century and much of the last, he has not constructed his curriculum vitae in order to reach the House of Lords. However, he, and people like him, should be in the House of Lords. An appointed House of Lords, which would favour all those who have constructed their CVs in order to reach it, is not the way ahead.
I welcome the debate, but it is too short. The interest is clear, and the issue has many dimensions. We cannot ignore the phrase that has been repeatedly used about devolution being a process and not an event, because we have many solutions to find, and devolution is at the heart of those solutions.
Order. I draw hon. Members' attention to the time. The Minister and the Opposition spokesman have both agreed to take about 10 minutes. Three more Members wish to speak, and to be fair to everyone, I suggest that Mr. Bruce takes about six minutes to allow the other two a couple of minutes each. That will enable everyone who wants to participate to do so. I am grateful to Mr. Worthington for finishing when he did.
Thank you, Mr. Hancock. I shall endeavour to conform to that. This good debate can, must and will be held on the Floor of the House. It needs to be full and extended.
The dynamic that we forecast that devolution would create is now evident. As a founder member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, I find it invigorating that our debates about change in Scotland are now spreading out across the United Kingdom. Although it is 10 years later, I genuinely welcome that and the spirit in which hon. Members representing the regions have come here to argue the case to extend devolution. I am sure that they have the full support of all hon. Members who currently represent Scotland, and that may continue to be true after the next election, as Mr. Worthington suggested.
Mr. Mitchell highlighted some positive aspects of devolution. One is that, apart from bringing government closer to the people, it allows a genuine diversity of policy options to be tested. In her heyday, one of Mrs. Thatcher's great slogans was, "There is no alternative." It is the most damning indictment of a democracy to say that there is no alternative. Lively democracy involves exploring alternatives. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London can now experiment--and, perhaps, make mistakes--with different policy options without the permission or authorisation of the House or Whitehall. That is a fundamentally healthy development. It clearly alarms centralists in the Conservative party, but it exhilarates most people, and it will do a great deal to reconnect voters with both the decision-making and the general political processes. I therefore believe that this debate is good and positive.
I also believe that, as several hon. Members said, debate on devolution will open up the idea of rounding off constitutional reform. The debate relates to how we elect hon. Members to this place, determine policies and share decision making. The dynamic involved must lead to more change.
Some of my constituents are still slightly sceptical of devolution. They are worried that it is the first step towards the break-up of the United Kingdom and the creation of independent states, and that in Scotland it will lead to the domination of the central belt decision-making process over the peripheral regions of Scotland. Both those anxieties are wrong and will not be realised, but it is important to face up to them.
I have no quarrel with people's right to campaign democratically for an independent Scotland or an independent Wales, but they can justify that only if they win the hearts and minds of the people. One of the reasons that we had to secure a fair and democratic voting system in Scotland was to avoid the possibility of a minority of votes securing a majority and creating a crisis to break up the United Kingdom. I do not believe that there is or is likely to be a majority for Scottish independence, provided that devolution proceeds sensitively, and I certainly would not support it, respect it though I may. On the contrary, devolution is more likely, ironically, to loosen the ties but strengthen the Union by its diversity.
The problem of central belt dominance can be tackled. I am not being divisive, but many of us who do not live in the central belt felt that the decisions taken in Edinburgh were dominated mainly by civil servants, who focused on the central-belt perspective. They are now confronted with an elected Parliament that will make them recognise that decisions appropriate to Edinburgh may not mean the same in Aberdeen or Galashiels. The Scottish Parliament has the time to debate such matters and, in a small way, we have seen some evidence of that even in the local government settlement, which has acknowledged that some peripheral and rural areas have not always been treated fairly. A modest step has now been taken to do something about that.
Devolution is beginning to reconnect people. Given the political process, that will take time. People are realising that there is more opportunity to debate and to make representations, and that issues that were not previously dealt with can now be considered, whether they be land reform or the restructuring of education and health in Scotland. I was encouraged to hear Labour Members speak so vigorously about the need for their party to take the matter forward. As the party in government, Labour is under an obligation to do that.
I suggest to the Government that there is a common cause to gain popular support behind the campaign for the English regions. I say to the Conservatives who worry about the English dimension that the way to resolve the problem is to hand power to the regions and to accept that there is a gap in English decision making. As Mr. Llwyd said, we must not clog up this place with unnecessary legislation that can be devolved to the regions. Such action will open up the House of Commons so that it can debate those issues that are of common interest to all the citizens of the United Kingdom, rather than it dwelling on the argument about who should vote on what. All right hon. and hon. Members are equal; we should debate everything on an equal footing and the appropriate decisions should be taken at the appropriate place.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to make an all-too-short contribution to this all-too-short debate. As one who supports devolution, I welcome a better opportunity to celebrate its achievements and to look forward with other hon. Members to the completion of the devolution project. Over time, I am convinced that it will lead to better governance for all United Kingdom citizens. A significant part of our legislative programme has been devoted to constitutional reform. We ought to remind ourselves that the delivery of the programme of modernisation was formulated in consultation with and in opposition to other political parties, but, most importantly, with the civic society in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have achieved much during the lifetime of this Parliament but, to paraphrase the late John Smith, as my hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman did, there is still unfinished business and we must complete it.
As my hon. Friend Mr. Worthington said, it does no harm to remind ourselves of where we were prior to May 1997. Scotland is a consequence of the distortion of the Union under the centralising Governments of Margaret Thatcher and Mr. Major. Two matters became inseparable: the future of social democracy and the future of the constitution. When successive Conservative Governments began to move away from consultation with the people of Scotland, from permitting Scottish distinctiveness and from an inclusive and coherent approach to social policy, the clamour for home rule became deafening. The Scottish Constitutional Convention responded to that noise, which was the basis of the White Paper that led eventually to the Scotland Act 1998. The success of devolution in Scotland and the benefits that it is delivering for the people of Scotland should be judged by those measures.
I congratulate Mr. Mitchell. I agree that the time we have for the debate is all too short. The arguments for devolution and further decentralisation have been well made. Some issues of powers have been addressed. I agree with the proposal that further powers should be devolved. The relationship between regional assemblies and existing bureaucracies in the regions has also been discussed, but what should we do if the region that has been defined by central Government does not exist? That question needs to be addressed. It is a bull whose horns need to be yanked.
There is a common implication of derision, which was expressed by Mr. Cousins this morning, whenever reference is made to the idea of variable geometry--or geography-- as Mr. Mitchell referred to it. He was concerned that other places should not hold back areas that want regional assemblies. Exactly the same applies in respect of those who want to consider how one identifies a region. If devolution is to be a success--and I believe that it needs to be a success-- it has to be based on regions that people identify with and it has to have democratic legitimacy.
People should be concerned about the increasingly low turnouts at elections. The low turnouts at the European elections would surely be eclipsed by very low turnouts at regional assembly elections in areas where people have no sense of regional identity. People would stay home in their droves, if they did not identify with their region. Rather than destroying existing regions such as Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, simply to create synthetic ones, we really do need to address that issue. There is a great opportunity, but we need to approach it with an open mind.
We have had a good debate and I congratulate Mr. Mitchell for bringing it to Westminster Hall. I also agree that it should be taken on the Floor of the House. When we debate first principles--and this is a very important first principle that concerns our constitution--all hon. Members should have the opportunity to participate. There have been some good speeches, and as I have disagreed with almost all of them, I shall be expressing the Conservative and Unionist view.
We have a problem in that we have a different size of nations within the United Kingdom. England represents 84 per cent. of the UK. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby was perfectly correct to say that England represents an elephant in relation to the other states. We established the Union so that the smaller countries could be represented in Parliament. The devolution settlement that we have had so far has changed that. There is a degree of unfinished business. Mr. Worthington has said in the House that there is an English dimension and there is a problem. That problem may grow if the balance of the House of Commons changes, and English representation changes.
I should correct the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. We are not committed to an English Parliament, although it is odd that people should glory in the Scottish Parliament, but say that the English should have something different. We are committed to English and Welsh votes within the House of Commons on issues that directly affect England and Wales and we have concerns about Scottish Members casting their vote on matters for which they have no responsibility in Scotland and changing the balance in the rest of the UK. When we vote on hunting later today, it will be interesting to see how many Scottish Members who cannot vote on that issue north of the border, will be voting to determine what happens in my constituency and other constituencies throughout southern England.
There is a problem with the way in which we proceeded with devolution, partly because it is a process and not an event. When we undertake constitutional change, we never quite get agreement for the boundaries of that change, but once it has been effected, people have to make it work. If we have a process, however, we are bound to have recurring argument. For example, the Welsh nationalists are dissatisfied with the settlement for Wales and are pushing for more powers. They look at the Scottish example and believe that they too should have more powers.
There is an endemic problem with the Scottish settlement in that the logic of devolution has not been followed through with the financial arrangements in that tomorrow the Treasury has to agree a limit for the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, there is a very limited amount of additional taxation, which the Scottish Parliament does not actually take. Those issues are likely to produce a degree of argument between Edinburgh and London and between Cardiff and London, and as a Unionist I am concerned that that could cause problems.
May I take the hon. Gentleman back to his example of Scottish Members voting on hunting? Will he contrast that problem with the position in the House of Lords, where people who are not elected by anyone, but who overwhelmingly represent London, as most of them live in London, should determine what the whole of the United Kingdom should do? Which is the greater wrong?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I would have preferred to leave the House of Lords as it was before the Government started reforming it. However, there is an overwhelming logic in my personal view, although it is not necessarily my party's view, for an elected upper House. That point was made earlier in the debate and it is curious that the Government have backed away from that.
I believe that we should continue to have two Chambers. I do not favour a unicameral system, as they have in New Zealand. Once we start to unpick the House of Lords, we have to look for means to give it some legitimate representation so that it can exercise its views.
Some hon. Members pre-empted my arguments about additional tiers. Additional tiers of elected politicians in local government, national Government and the European Parliament give people the choice of many more politicians to write to, but may not improve accountability. Furthermore, there will be the additional costs of salaries, back-up and offices. I notice in newspapers north of the border and, indeed, in Cardiff, arguments about the cost of headquarters, parliaments, buildings and so on.
Mr. George raised the issue of boundaries. In England, the current boundaries were set up for Governmental Offices for the Regions. I do not believe, in most cases, that the first time people heard of them was when the Government introduced regional development agencies, which we are committed to abolish.
Most of us do not feel that we are in the right region. I am in the same region as the hon. Member for St. Ives. Most of my constituents look to Southampton and the M3. When we wanted to make representations about our council tax, we were asked to go to Bristol. However, it is quicker to get to London from Poole than it is to get to Bristol because the roads are not very good. The issue of boundaries needs to be addressed. I acknowledge that there may be more regional feeling in Yorkshire, but I think that throughout most of England there is not. Most of us look for an English dimension.
Nobody mentioned Barnett and the issue of funding. When we discuss such arrangements, everyone seems to think that a local regional assembly will have additional resources. Those resources will come from two possible sources, either from the taxpayer in London or from some locally raised taxation which will result in differential tax rates in England. There is always the assumption that there is a pot of gold somewhere and those pushing for some sort of assembly always seem to think that everyone will be better off because there will be more money. However, there is a finite amount of money within the United Kingdom, so inevitably there cannot be more money.
When I listened to the arguments relating to Wales and indeed Scotland, it was interesting to hear that most of those who spoke had shopping lists for their countries or, indeed, their constituencies. It will be difficult to meet people's aspirations. The resources within the United Kingdom will be the same, and adding another tier, which is expensive, will not result in more money.
I put the point to the hon. Gentleman that the recent Scottish experience suggests that within that finite pot of money within the existing Barnett formula, devolution allows the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive to determine different priorities and that is important.
The hon. Member makes that point, but of course the Barnett formula does mean that public spending north of the border is one fifth higher than throughout most of the United Kingdom. Some of those that understand these matters better than I, say that over a 10-year period that will unscramble and matters will change with population changes, but the Scottish Parliament can, of course, determine its own resources.
There is a danger that devolution could top-slice local government too, and I understand that there has been some tension between local government and the Scottish Parliament. Underlying this constitutional argument is the keen issue of how resources are divided in the UK. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby made an enjoyable speech, but did not specify how additional resources would be allocated to Yorkshire or the north--whether they would be raised from areas without devolution, or indeed whether there would be a higher tax rate. If he had to tell his constituents that if they had devolution, they would pay additional taxes I wonder how popular it would be.
I have covered quick points concerning boundaries and resources. I do not believe that there is an appetite for regionalism. I know that there is a legitimate English dimension.
Before I call the Minister I should say that my only disappointment in that speech was to hear that people in Poole did not look straight to Portsmouth rather than Southampton.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell secured this debate. It has been both enjoyable and interesting, and I welcome the opportunity to set out how much this is a key issue for the Government. As hon. Members have said, we need a wider debate, not just in the House, but in the country. I feel almost sorry for Mr. Syms. Not only does his party oppose regional development agencies, regional government offices, and any regionally focused policy, it has demonstrated today that it is not interested in being part of the debate, either in terms of the principle of devolution, or in terms of extending devolution to the English regions. I am, however, pleased to have the support of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members in this Chamber, for the principle of devolution and how we extend it to the English regions. Although I may not have time to acknowledge the contribution of every hon. Member, let me acknowledge the importance of the debate and thank hon. Members for their support.
It is important that we are aware of the context of the debate. We are talking about devolution, albeit that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby understandably wants to focus on the English regions. We came to office after a long period in which our constitution had lain in a state of abject stagnation. We set out in our manifesto the many changes that we wanted to bring about--changes that we passionately believe in--and that were essential for the democratic health of our country. It is not simply a matter of principle.
We had an over-centralised Government, a near national crisis in confidence in our national parliament, excessive secrecy and a lack of principal protection for human rights. That was the reason for change. We believe that our institutions must reflect our values and not circumscribe them. Our agenda for change was very much as hon. Members have identified it: as well as revitalising and modernising the constitution to ensure that it reflects the society we serve, giving people opportunities to become engaged in the process of governmental decision making at every level.
The intervention by Mr. Evans showed what difficulty the Tories have with that concept when he talked about the governed and the governing, as if there were a them and an us. We do not have that problem. We want to engage people in the process of decision making that affects them. However, hon. Members are right to say that there is no blueprint for change. We have sought solutions that reflect the context of each area, its legitimate needs and the popular mandate. We have tried to be flexible and pragmatic in our response. As my hon. Friend Mr. Cousins rightly said, that is important.
For good reason, our approach to decentralisation and devolution has been different for different parts of the UK, reflecting the different circumstances and histories of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, indeed, London. I shall not dwell on some of the points raised about Scotland and Wales--we did not have much of a debate about Northern Ireland--except to say that what is evolving in those areas demonstrates many of the points that hon. Members have raised today about how devolution can begin to engage local people and give them a sense of ownership in respect of the decisions that affect them and the freedom to take different courses that reflect the different circumstances and needs of their areas.
As my hon. Friends have said, we must not and have not ignored the English dimension. We have begun the process of decentralisation and devolution in England. We have to be realistic about the speed--the previous Administration spent 20 years running down the regional policy. It is taking some time to reverse that but that does not indicate a lack of commitment.
It is germane, although it was not raised in the debate, that in this Parliament we have also spent a great deal of time supporting, strengthening and modernising local government, enabling it to develop strong local strategic partnerships. Whatever happens in terms of devolution to a regional level, the agencies that will have to deliver what directly elected regional bodies think is necessary, will have to operate at local level.
The issue of partnership between regional structures, whatever they may be, and locally based organisations particularly in local authorities, is also important. We have embarked on a radical process of change. The RDAs and the changes in London show how we can establish the case for further change at regional level. This is far from the end of the story. My hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman called it unfinished business. We have made an important commitment in our manifesto and that has been reiterated twice by my rt. hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, including yesterday.
We need to understand and build on what the regions themselves need and want rather than imposing something from Whitehall. The issue of self-determination, in terms of form and so on, is obviously intrinsic to the debate. Several Members raised issues that I would like to discuss.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central that the crucial issues are not history or mystique, but practicality, resources, the purpose of a directly elected regional government and how we can define those broader ends as well as seeing directly elected regional government as an essential means to those ends.
My hon. Friend also asked me about local government determination. It is more a matter of reorganisation and it is too early to say what that might mean in practice. I can tell him, however, that there is no presumption that, if there is to be any local government restructuring, it would have to come before the introduction of regional government. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made that clear yesterday and I am happy to reiterate the point about no presumption.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned the manifesto and the Labour party's position. My hon. Friends will know that in the Labour party's policy forum document "Building a Future for All", we have said again that we intend to move towards directly elected regional government, where and when there is clear demand for it. We have made a commitment to publishing a Green Paper or a White Paper on regional governance. My hon. Friends will understand that I cannot pre-empt what will be in our manifesto, but they can be clear that the Labour party wants to take the matter forward.
In conclusion, let me restate the Government's commitment to constitutional reform and modernisation. As well as stating Government policy, let me make three points. There are a number of key issues, including size, structure and the level of powers, but in promoting wider debate we need to concentrate on three issues: the economic case for directly elected regional government, accountability and the democratic case and the popular case. We need a clear popular mandate to take this forward, but if we can focus on the economic, democratic and popular aspects of the debate, we will do so in a productive way.