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1.10 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) in debates of this nature. He started by asking the fundamental questions that flow from the consequences of the Scotland Bill, questions to which we have so far had absolutely no answers from the Government. As he put those questions specifically to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) today, I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to answer them. I particularly look forward to the answers to the new question about the Kilbrandon commission, but all the issues raised by the Scotland Bill deserve to be treated seriously.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)--[Interruption.]

Mr. Mackinlay: She has finally crossed the Floor of the House.

Mr. Jenkin: My hon. Friend's political dexterity has been slightly over-estimated. I am sure that she intends to remain on the Opposition Benches. I congratulate her on securing this debate. The debate that she has led this morning is not about an English backlash, but her high state of arousal on the issue, her enthusiasm and the originality of her speech are a great contribution to the general debate about the constitution, which the Government have so far neglected.

The Government are pursuing an agenda of their own making in pursuit of their own interests at the expense of a proper, holistic view of the British constitution. I shall refer briefly to comments that have been made during the debate, but I wish to make one general qualification about the comments that I intend to make today. This is a debate that raises questions. It is not a debate that will provide us with answers, although I appreciate that some answers have been put before us. However, one thing is absolutely clear. I make this point in response to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). There is clearly an agenda for the reform of the British constitution that goes hand in hand with the programme for the integration of Europe. That was endorsed specifically by the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, when he talked about a Europe of the regions. That is the policy of the Government.

If anything is designed to make it easier for the institutions of the European Union to get a hold on the political agenda within the member states, it is the stripping of national Governments and national Parliaments of their powers, taking some powers up to European level and encouraging others down to regional level. That is consistent with the programme that the Government seem to be pursuing.

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The Bill is analogous to the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill, which was passed by the House last summer in a great rush, and it is similar in style to the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill, which is in the other place. The problem with the Government's approach to the referendums is that it is they who choose the timing and the issue, who frame the questions and who decide whether there should be one question or two.

We wanted to change the questions in the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill. There is an argument about whether there should be two questions or one question in the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill as it is about two issues: a democratically elected mayor and a democratically elected assembly.

The Government also choose the franchise. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), who spoke eloquently and at length, talked about the sacrifices that people have made for this entity--the English entity. It is notable that, although--I use more up-to-date examples than him--the Welsh Guards died on HMS Sir Galahad when they were fighting under the British flag for the Falklands, they would have been denied a vote in the Welsh referendum if they had, by accident, neglected to maintain themselves on the Welsh electoral local government register because they were stationed in London.

It is also notable that the First Battalion of the Royal Scots--which is stationed in Colchester--the finest regiment in the British Army and the successor regiment to the Lovat Scouts, which was cut down by Hitler's machine guns on the D-day beaches, did not get a vote in the Scottish referendum. What a travesty it is that national destinies are being decided when those who would fight and die for their country are denied a say. Therefore, we are not satisfied with the way in which the referendums have been conducted.

The comment of the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston) that, somehow, tacking on to a manifesto a commitment to hold a referendum makes it okay for the Government to call their referendums and to dismiss anyone else's claim to hold a referendum is ridiculous. When he knocked on their doors in his constituency during the general election, did his voters say, "I am particularly pleased that you are having a referendum in Wales on a Welsh Assembly and that is why I am going to vote for the Labour party"? That is taking the doctrine of mandate to ridiculous limits.

What we need--this is the only substantive policy commitment that I shall make on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition this morning--are clear rules, which are agreed on an all-party basis and on which there is consensus, on the conduct of referendums. That may mean having a Select Committee examine the issue, a standing commission on referendums, a referendums Bill eventually or, as has been suggested elsewhere, a Speaker's Conference on the conduct of referendums. It is absolutely unacceptable that referendums should be used and abused as an instrument for the political convenience of the Executive, as they have been.

The referendum should be a hurdle, not a weapon in the hands of the Executive. A former Labour Prime Minister, Mr. Attlee, described referendums as a device of demagogues and dictators. I do not agree that a referendum needs to be such a thing, but the Government seem to be proving that adage.

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Given that the referendum on whether this country should continue to have the right to issue its own coinage in relation to the single currency may be conducted in the same cack-handed and cavalier fashion in which the Welsh referendum has been conducted--with the Secretary of State for Wales, who has such a vested interest in the result, being the sole arbiter of whether the result was fair--the whole construction of the referendums is exposed as completely unacceptable.

The official Opposition have called for a proper, independent inquiry to decide the question of the malpractices that were evident in the conduct of the counting of the votes in the Welsh referendum. It is worth reminding the House that the majority in the Welsh referendum was the equivalent of only 200 votes per constituency and I challenge any Labour Member to stand up and say that he would not call for a recount if he lost the next election by only 200 votes--of course they all would. We do not call for a recount; we just want someone independent to look into the matter and the Secretary of State cannot be regarded as an innocent bystander in that regard.

The Bill also addresses the English question. There is a squeamishness on the part of the Government to regard the English question as the English question, but we have had the Scottish question and the Welsh question, so it seems perfectly legitimate to discuss the English question. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay is right to say that, whether or not we approve of the questions that were originally asked, devolution in Scotland and Wales throws up anomalies that need to be answered. She is right to say that we should oppose the European view of the regions and she is right to say that we should now try to provide an answer to the West Lothian question.

The Bill provides only one of the answers to the West Lothian question and I shall not spend much time on reiterating all the other solutions. It has been suggested that we should have a federal United Kingdom, but that debate has only just started in the largest part of the United Kingdom. That underlines the Government's irresponsibility in proceeding with massive constitutional reform in the form of devolution to a legislative and tax-raising Parliament in Scotland. There is the question whether we should have an English Parliament and whether that Parliament should be here, in this Chamber, or based elsewhere as a separate institution. We do not dismiss that, but regard it as only one of the options to be considered. In addition, there is the question whether we should have English days.

There are grave disadvantages to all those solutions. The idea that we should purposefully carve up the United Kingdom House of Commons and accentuate the inequalities and differences between different Members of Parliament seems difficult to promote as a Unionist proposition. If we are to have a Parliament of the United Kingdom, we should all sit as equal Members of that Parliament. To give people different powers over different issues, or different rights to sit in different parts of the parliamentary timetable, should be anathema.

That leaves the Northern Ireland solution, seen during the period of the Stormont Parliament. Then, no attempt was made to answer the West Lothian question, but it was addressed in a complementary fashion by reducing the

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representation here from the part of the United Kingdom that had its own legislative forum. That is not a satisfactory answer. It worked to some extent in respect of the smallest component of the United Kingdom, but the scale of the Scottish problem does not lend itself to that solution. It is one thing to reduce the number of Northern Ireland Members of Parliament from about 20 to 15, as we did then, but it may not be acceptable to reduce the number of Scottish Members of Parliament from 72 to 46 or even fewer, depending on the degree of legislative authority that they end up having in the Scottish Parliament.

Another measure that does not even start to answer the West Lothian question is that sop to the English, the regional assemblies. As has been adequately and extensively explained by my right hon. and hon. Friends, the assemblies will be nothing but administrative talkshops in regions that have no natural boundaries or affinities. To which region would my own county, Essex, belong? Essex extends into the heart of London--in fact, it originally started at the Bow bells, although we have lost that bit, along with the constituency of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). Would he and his constituency be in the London region or the south-east region, or would they join Essex in the East Anglian region? What region would Thurrock be in?


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