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1.52 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I shall start where the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) left off. The hon. Gentleman talked about the failure of the Labour party to be radical on constitutional reform throughout history. He showed an admirable grasp and understanding of such matters.

I could go further. The vast majority of social and welfare reforms introduced in this country over the past century were under Conservative Governments, not under

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the old Liberal party. We must remember, for example, that it was the old Liberal party that wanted to keep boys up chimneys. It opposed every measure of welfare and social reform that was introduced during the 19th century. So the Conservative party has a proud record not only in its pragmatic treatment of the constitution but in terms of its treatment of all the people under the heading of social and welfare reform.

Can the hon. Member for Thurrock draw some comfort from the current Government and Prime Minister? In my judgment and from my perspective, although perhaps not from his, we have the worst possible combination in our Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman is socially reactionary. He has no feel, sensitivity or empathy for the poor or the disadvantaged, but he is a constitutional radical because equally he has no feel, sensitivity or empathy for our heritage, traditions and history. For me, that is the worst possible combination. It is the diametric opposite of good conservatism.

We have heard a great deal during this debate about the paucity of the Government's policy. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) described their failure as a failure to grasp the holistic issue of constitutional reform. Perhaps that was best exposed, curiously enough, by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). I am an open, fair-minded and decent chap, and the House will understand that, as such, I regard all Liberal Democrats with a certain distaste. Their policies and ideas, as I think all reasonable, fair-minded and open people will acknowledge, are generally appalling. The hon. Gentleman, however, spoke persuasively about four particular matters in relation to the Government's policy on the constitution.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned, first, the incoherence of the Government's policy. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex described as their lack of an holistic approach. Their policy is incoherent and inconsistent. They display an inability to grasp the matter as a whole and to take it seriously conceptually. The hon. Member for Thurrock made the same criticism, although from a slightly different perspective. There is an incoherence about the Government's position on the constitution.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey talked about the bogus comparison between regional governments and the Parliament in Scotland and assembly in Wales--the idea that these were directly comparable. No political scientist or serious student would suggest that a regional assembly in the east midlands is the equivalent of a Scottish Parliament. That is not merely a sop to the English, but an insult to the Welsh and the Scots, because by implication what that really says is that their Parliaments are the equivalent of a regional assembly. One cannot have it both ways, so he exposed yet another hole in the Government's approach.

The third issue that the hon. Gentleman raised was the over-representation of Scots and the Welsh--Celts and Picts, as I do not want to be prejudiced--in this place. I shall not dwell on that, as it has been well rehearsed.

The fourth issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned--this was refreshing, coming from a Liberal Democrat--was what he described as sensible, moderate nationalism

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as a vehicle for expressing national concerns. I suggest that national identity is far more than a mere vehicle for expressing national concerns and needs. National identity gives people a sense of place, of belonging, a sense of purpose, which is even more important to people who otherwise would not, perhaps, be winners, or have less to celebrate in their lives, than it is to those who can celebrate so much because they are at the apex of their particular calling, pursuit, or profession. We enliven our citizens, our fellow countrymen, by the common sense of identity. We enliven them when we share more than that which divides us. We sacrifice that sense of common identity at our peril. The result could well be social disintegration, and certainly unhappiness and disaffection across our nation.

We have had the whole panoply of fashionable socialist prejudices this morning. We had European supranationalism, proportional representation and regional government. We even had criticism of adversarial politics. I do not have time to deal with all of them, any more than I have time to deal with all the historical figures who were mentioned--Bagehot, Chesterton, Mackintosh, even Simon de Montfort--except to say that the thing that characterises all those figures, as the hon. Member for Thurrock revealed, is that they are all dead.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) suggested that Simon de Montfort was the founder of the modern Parliament. Some historians would suggest that the English Parliament dates back to Saxon times. The 100 Saxons who gathered around the Elloe stone, in my constituency, long before Simon de Montfort died in mid-Worcestershire, had in their hearts--in their soul, one might say--a passion to gather together to make decisions about affairs that affected their particular part of the country. That sense of the relationship between the common man and the exercise of political power lies at the very heart of political legitimacy, which I shall now deal with specifically.

It seems to me that political legitimacy differentiates regional government and national Parliaments. In the matter of legitimacy, one must consider the issue of consent. Consent relies on an organisation, an institution, enjoying popular acclaim, comprehension, understanding, appreciation and regard. Earlier, someone added enthusiasm. I question whether regional authorities would enjoy any of those things. Would they enjoy acclaim, understanding and enthusiastic support? If they did not, they would not have consent and would not deliver politically legitimate government.

I simply refer hon. Members to my own area. In Lincolnshire, people would presumably elect members to a regional assembly in the east midlands. As I said in an earlier intervention, most people in Lincolnshire do not even acknowledge that they live in the east midlands: they regard themselves as part of eastern Britain, yet their representatives would be placed in an assembly alongside Derby, Leicester and Nottingham. I find it impossible to believe or comprehend that Labour Members think that the people in Lincolnshire would give such an institution their support, and that it would command their affection and enthusiastic consent.

Let us test other institutions on a similar basis, and ask how the alternative constitutional models measure up to the test of political legitimacy. This Parliament, rooted as it is in history, well understood by the people, respected

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and regarded through years of evolutionary political development, enjoys a high level of legitimacy by comparison with the proposed assemblies.

How does the European Parliament score on that test of legitimacy? Very low indeed, I suggest. Most people know little about it and care less. Most people do not understand how the Parliament or any of the institutions of Europe operate, and definitely would not wish power to be transferred there. Therefore the vision of a Europe of regions, with regional assemblies and a European Parliament, neither of which enjoys the affection, support or even understanding of the vast majority of the British electorate, is for me truly Orwellian. It is an Orwellian nightmare of power removed further and further from the British people, who would not only fail to understand what had been done to them but have limited opportunity to change what was happening as they became increasingly disfranchised.

The debate has not widely covered the eventual implications that the Government's model of the constitution has for other institutions that currently form part of our democracy--local authorities, including county councils, district councils, even parishes. It is rarely said that the model which the Government are pursuing--the supranational model with regional assemblies--would, by definition, result in a dilution of the power of ancient local authorities, of cities that have just regained their unitary status--their sovereignty--of county councils, rooted in history, and of parishes.

The transfer of authority from local government to the regional assemblies would be inevitable, but no one is coming clean about it. No one is honestly saying to local authorities, "You will be the losers when regional government is set up because power will have to be distributed both downwards from the national Parliament and upwards from the existing institutions of local government." Let us have honesty about the repercussions for local government if we have the model that the Government anticipate.

I became a sponsor of the Bill for two reasons. First, I believed that this matter should be aired. As many hon. Members have said, my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) did the House a service by placing this debate on the agenda of this place and on the public agenda. We need a wider public debate about distribution of power, the exercise of power, and the political legitimacy of Parliament and the proposed alternatives.

Secondly, although I have no natural enthusiasm for the principle of an English Parliament, I believe that such a Parliament becomes inevitable and a necessity when Parliaments are established in Wales and Scotland. Many of us would prefer a model based around the status quo: a United Kingdom Parliament, although I do not say that we should set this in stone, or freeze it in aspic. Of course the political system must evolve and change, as it has throughout history, but, forced by Government policy to look at this imbalance in terms of representation, we are obliged seriously to consider an English Parliament, which is why I shall support the Bill.

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