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House of Commons

Tuesday 28 February 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


The unavoidable absence of Mr. Speaker having been announced, The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Members' Voting Rights

1. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the voting rights of hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies in relation to matters that affect only England. [54018]

2. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the voting rights of hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies on matters not affecting Scotland. [54019]

3. Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues regarding voting rights of hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies on matters not affecting Scotland. [54020]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling): With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I express the good wishes of the whole House to Mr. Speaker? We look forward to seeing him back as soon as possible and hope that he makes a good recovery.

I have frequent discussions with ministerial colleagues on a wide range of issues.

Mr. Bone: Does the Secretary of State agree that it cannot be fair or democratic for hon. Members from Scottish constituencies to vote on matters that affect only England? The only reason proposals have not been introduced to address that anomaly is that it would be to the Government's electoral disadvantage.

Mr. Darling: No, I do not agree. The hon. Gentleman should read the letter sent to the Financial Times by Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who is an expert on such matters—I believe that he tutored the Leader of the Opposition—and who has pointed out the difficulties in
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creating two classes of MPs. He has made the case for hon. Members being able to vote on all matters that come before them.

Mr. Amess: Does the Secretary of State realise how offensive his remarks are to those of us who firmly believe in democracy? Given that there is a Scottish Parliament, will the Secretary of State do something to address the disquiet felt among the splendid Scottish Labour Members who feel that the creation of a two-tier membership system for this House of Commons is very wrong?

Mr. Darling: Given the hon. Gentleman's past performance, I look forward to his representing a Scottish seat one day.

Adam Afriyie: Will the Secretary of State explain the precise logic by which Scottish MPs can vote on English laws?

Mr. Darling: Those elected to this House are entitled to participate in all of its proceedings, debates and votes. On his website, the hon. Gentleman makes the point that we need to preserve the British constitution. Our constitutional settlement is currently asymmetrical, but the principle that there should be one class of MP that participates in all proceedings is sound.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Scottish public have no interest in the West Lothian question, apart from remembering that English Tories imposed the poll tax on Scotland? The Tories object to Scottish MPs participating in English business, but Tory Members are participating in Scottish questions as usual. We do not object to that—in fact, we welcome it—because every time English Tories take part in Scottish questions, support for Labour in Scotland goes up.

Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend. I have no objection to MPs participating in any proceedings. I see that the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), who is the sole Conservative MP in Scotland, voted no fewer than five times on the Government of Wales Bill last night. In June last year, he voted on special schools and special education, NHS dentistry, council tax and licensing, all of which affect England. I would be interested to know when he established his great principle of not voting on English matters.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that Northern Ireland had its own legislature and Prime Minister for 50 years, but it continued to send Members of Parliament to this House. Will he enlighten the House on why the Conservative party supported the right of Northern Ireland Members to vote on all issues before this House during those 50 years?

Mr. Darling: Since 1987, I recollect many Northern Ireland Members voting more often than not with the Conservative party, so the issue was not a problem for the Conservative party. We are seeing sheer, naked
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opportunism from a party that used to stand in Scotland as the Conservative and Unionist party—now it has given up on Scotland altogether.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State understand the strange logic by which a Scottish borders MP, whose constituents travel across the border daily for work and pleasure, refused to vote on a smoking ban but felt it right to vote on the Government of Wales Bill last night?

Mr. Darling: I find it difficult to follow, too. If I were to represent a constituency from which several thousand people travel across the border every day, I would take an interest in their well-being at work, which might be affected by the smoking ban. I had no difficulty in voting on that matter, and I cannot understand why any other hon. Member would, too.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): May I associate the Scottish National party with the Secretary of State's remarks about Mr. Speaker and our hope for his early restoration to the Chair and to good health?

Let me understand this issue correctly. English Conservative MPs are revolting because the Secretary of State for Scotland is threatening to vote on English education with the Prime Minister, and with English Conservative MPs, but against what any normal person in England would like. Will the Secretary of State for Scotland therefore stop upsetting the revolting English Conservative MPs and undertake not to agree with them or to vote with them on the English Education and Inspections Bill?

Mr. Darling: This cannot be one of the hon. Gentleman's more lucid days. I would say, though, that Conservatives and Unionists should think long and hard about going down a road whereby they would end up in the same bed as the Scottish National party.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the early-day motion submitted by SNP Members on the principled position that hon. Members should not vote on matters not relevant to Scotland. Why, then, have they voted consistently on the Government of Wales Bill?

Mr. Darling: I think that my hon. Friend will find that the nationalists vote when it suits them—there is no issue of principle at all. The big difference between us and them is that they want to break up the United Kingdom. The Conservatives should think very hard before they go down that road.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I associate my hon. Friends with the Secretary of State's remarks about Mr. Speaker and wish him a speedy recovery?

Does the Secretary of State agree that for as long as the Scotland Act 1998 provides for any legislation enacted here at Westminster subsequently to be imposed in Scotland by Order in Council, it is vital that all MPs maintain their right to vote on that legislation? Does he
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further agree that the only logical answer to the West Lothian question is devolution for England, not the parliamentary gerrymandering of the party formerly known as Unionist?

Mr. Darling: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am trying to work out which one of his leadership candidates he will support, since I have not heard such a clear exposition of a principled position for some time. The key principle is that we are all elected to the House of Commons in the same way and are all entitled to take part in all the proceedings and Divisions. Once that changes and there are two classes of MPs, there are profound constitutional consequences. What we have from the Conservatives is sheer, naked opportunism. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) will try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am looking forward to him explaining why he has managed to vote on so many measures that affect purely English matters, given that he claims that he will not do so on a matter of principle.

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