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Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. We shall obviously be coming back to this subject. We must now move on.

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Points of Order

4.22 pm

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. First, I apologise for having used an improper word, but is there any precedent for a Secretary of State failing to apologise for repeating a statement for which his own deputy has previously apologised to the House?

Madam Speaker: I fear that that is barely a point of order for me. I can well understand that there are some problems and difficulties with exchanges across the Floor of the House from time to time, and I refer hon. Members, as I did yesterday, to the wise words of "Erskine May" about good temper and moderation in our language. I hope that Front Benchers will have heard what the right hon. Gentleman said, and will take his point to heart.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am not sure whether this is a point of order, but I hope that it is. The whole House will have heard the Secretary of State say in his statement that the importance of the Post Office cannot be underestimated. It is clear that the right hon. Gentleman must have meant "overestimated". He may want to correct that, because Hansard is bound to record what he said--namely, that its importance cannot be underestimated.

Madam Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is being very helpful to us all, as well as to Hansard.

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House of Commons (Reserved Matters)

4.23 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I beg to move,

I also hope to overestimate the importance of this Bill. It is the next stage in the devolution path on which the Government have set forth. Early on in this Parliament, the Government enacted their key election manifesto pledges of devolving power to Scotland and Northern Ireland and, in a more limited respect, to Wales. Nobody who participated in that debate could believe that it was a one-off measure--that somehow we would be so clever, in a Parliament's early stages, to see through all the moves that would be necessary to ensure the success of such a programme. Indeed, those with more insight and wisdom than I prophesied as we began the debate that we were moving from a unitary to a federal state. The Bill that I seek leave to introduce today is another small, important step on that journey.

The Bill seeks the authority of the House to create two powers. The first is to make Members from Northern Ireland and Scotland unable to vote in this House on matters that have been devolved to their Parliaments. In a second respect, the Bill seeks to limit the power of Members for seats in Scotland and Northern Ireland to hold United Kingdom Ministries, where the relevant powers have been devolved to their regional Parliaments.

The Bill also has, as hon. Members would expect, a clear timetable. We were elected to this Parliament on a mandate to put through devolution without changing our own powers. The Bill does not seek to change those powers, but it sets out a timetable by which we might legislate in the next Parliament so that the legislation would become effective in the Parliament after that.

A major purpose of the Bill is to initiate a debate. Already, it is beginning to have some effect. So hon. Members will not be surprised if I address myself to what are called the main objections that have already arisen from some people who are concerned about the next stage of devolution: people whose nerve appears to be cracking in following the path on which we are safely set.

First, I am told quite correctly that when I was a Minister I did not vote against the devolution proposals. Some of the older Members here will know that, in government, the choice that one has is to be part of the payroll vote or to resign. I chose to resign on a different issue, but I hope that many of my colleagues on this side of the House appreciate the opportunity that they have now, as opposed to then, when we were compelled to vote on a three-line Whip. I am not sure what the Whips are planning for this afternoon, but in theory there will be a free vote. Hon. Members may thus be able to express their views more accurately than they did when we discussed the matter earlier in this Parliament.

Another objection is why I am raising this issue now. It is not an issue which is present in everyday politics. As Members of Parliament, we have a crucial duty both to attend to the immediate issues that affect our constituents and to consider those issues that are beginning to appear on the radar screen, and to try to deal with them so that

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we do not sour the nature of our politics. Who would have thought that, already, the issue of fox hunting would be raised within the framework of whether Members of Parliament for Scottish seats, whose own Parliament will decide the issue for Scotland, should be able to vote in this House on fox hunting in England and Wales? The legal position is clear for all to see: Scottish Members have every legal right to vote when we come to consider fox hunting for England and Wales. Whether they would be wise to exercise that vote is another matter.

Another objection to the Bill is that it creates two tiers of Members of Parliament, but the clear fact is that we already have at least two tiers of Members. The Bill leaves the powers of this Parliament untouched. I suppose that our constituents will yawn slightly on hearing Members of Parliament say that the Bill creates two tiers of Members of Parliament. I hope that they will forgive us for being so egocentric. For they might say, not that we already have two tiers of Members of Parliament, but that we have created from the Act already on the statute book two tiers of voters. Between national Parliaments and the UK Parliament, we shall see increasingly what we see locally: people vote one way for their local council and a different way for their national MP. That will occur increasingly in voting patterns in Scotland and Northern Ireland and for this place.

The final argument that has been made shocks me. It is: "Why are you so foolish as to introduce this measure? May there not come a time when we will need the votes of Scottish Members to put through a programme affecting English Members that a Labour Government would not be able to carry without those Scottish Members?" The test is simple. Do we give our loyalty primarily to our party? All of us have some, or great, loyalty to our party. Or is our loyalty primarily to the democratic system that we have inherited and that we have a duty to hand on?

Devolution is a Labour issue. I am pleased to see so many Opposition Members in the Chamber, but when we were discussing devolution, they opposed every word, every clause, every line and every page of the legislation. As we know, there is great rejoicing in heaven over the sinner who repents. There is clearly a party breaking out up there at the repentance of the Opposition.

Before anyone tries to prevent us from continuing the debate on the Bill, may I issue one warning? The Tory wasps are beginning to swarm around our hive, which contains the devolution honey. Are we going to let the wasps have it, or shall we take the measure safely towards its logical conclusion? The logical conclusion is that we should debate it today and continue the debate thereafter.

At this stage, the aim of introducing the Bill is, of course, not to try to get it on the statute book; it is that we shall be able--in our own ways--to influence our parties and the programme that they propose for our re-election to the next Parliament. I emphasise that the Bill would not change the powers of Members in this Parliament; it will prevent a feeling of unfairness among voters in England and Wales who, as time goes on, will feel that, however great our devolution programme has been, it remains incomplete. Who better to complete that programme than those Labour Members who had the courage to initiate it?

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4.33 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): I beg to oppose the Bill. The proposal of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is beguiling, even seductive. There is an implacable logic to his analysis.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to imply that, in their haste to head off, contain and discipline Scottish and Welsh nationalism, the Government have left unaddressed the question of the position of England. Given the existence of a Scottish Parliament, he is right that the position of Scottish MPs in the House is anomalous and, to some people, perhaps even provocative. He is right to accept that, just because a majority is, in general, tolerant and at ease with itself and its identity, its own rights should not be left unattended.

However, he is wrong in his prescription. He is wrong because his proposals would create two Parliaments within the one body--Parliaments with different majorities, different ambitions and competing and contested legitimacies. The proposal would create an English Parliament--a haphazard, accidental creation within the body of the UK Parliament.

There may be a case for an English Parliament, although I am not sure that I share the Arthurian reveries of some of the people who regularly gather to display the flag of St. George at the approach to this place. If there is to be an English Parliament, it must be a deliberately created one--apart and separate from this House; it must have an undisputed legitimacy so that this place is uncompromised as the forum for debating the British interest. The Parliament itself must be the creation of deliberate policy, not of procedural accident.

Create an English Parliament if you want one, Madam Speaker, and, if you like, put it in Winchester. Even better, put it in York. If you like, dare I say it, put it in Liverpool. But do not demean, denature and destroy this place by imposing on it an institutional schizophrenia. However much we pretend otherwise, we would also be creating an English Government--a sort of bastard Government not born in its own right.

Let us imagine a situation which the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned, where the withdrawal of Scottish MPs left a majority on English matters in the House different from that of the UK Government. One would then, necessarily, end up with a Government elected on a manifesto significant parts of which they could not deliver, and a competing Administration, unable to deliver their manifesto because they would not command the business of the House, and would therefore depend on the opportunistic hijacking of Government proposals.

The most persuasive claim made in support of our system of elections is that it delivers firm government. The proposal in the Bill to graft an English Parliament on to a UK Parliament with competing aims, programmes and majorities would spell incoherence at best and, literally, incompetence at worst. If we want an English Government, let us have a genuinely federal system, with four national Parliaments and Administrations, together with a UK-wide Parliament for non-devolved matters--not the disfigurement of this Parliament and the deliberate disabling of its Government.

I am English--according to my French wife, very English. I feel comfortable in my skin; I do not feel threatened, and although I might grumble about such

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things as per capita spending in Scotland when compared with that in England, I do not feel abused by the differential. I do think that we should beware of the dangers of the aggressive assertion of the English interest expressed as a political mechanism.

We English are not a minority in these islands; we do not have an identity to prove or a history to rescue. When a federation exists in which there is a massive disequilibrium between the size and weight of one of its components and the others, there is a particular responsibility on the dominant partner to behave with restraint.

I do not believe that the Union is at risk from Scottish nationalism if that nationalism is left to sustain its own momentum and renew its own energy, if it can; but give it the adrenalin of an assertive English nationalism against which to identify itself, and I do fear that we shall be providing the weapon for an assault on the integrity of the Union.

The politicisation of English nationalism will risk making the disequilibrium at the heart of our federation of UK nations, which devolution, however clumsily and self-interestedly, has sought to address, unsustainable. We do need to reflect on the nature of the Anglo-Scottish relationship, about which, to be honest, I am not even remotely sentimental. We have already, through devolution, created structures that need to negotiate with one another to co-exist--resulting in the plethora of concordats that lie at the heart of the relationship between the different parts of the United Kingdom. If we exclude Scottish MPs from our deliberations on purely English affairs--assuming that those can be isolated and defined, which I doubt--we go one stage further in putting intergovernmental relations at the heart of British governance. We shall appropriate the idea that the UK is made up of foreign countries. Worse, we could let loose forces which, if ruthlessly exploited, could makes us strangers to ourselves.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):--

The House divided: Ayes 131, Noes 190.

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