9 Mar 2007 : Column 1775

9 Mar 2007 : Column 1775

House of Commons

Friday 9 March 2007

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

9.33 am

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move, That the House do sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (Motions to sit in private):—

The House divided: Ayes 0, Noes 32.
Division No. 73]
[9.34 am


Tellers for the Ayes:

Mark Lazarowicz and
Ms Angela C. Smith

Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Brady, Mr. Graham
Field, Mr. Mark
Goodwill, Mr. Robert
Gray, Mr. James
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Heath, Mr. David
Hendry, Charles
Herbert, Nick
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Linton, Martin
Mackay, rh Mr. Andrew
MacNeil, Mr. Angus

McCabe, Steve
Merron, Gillian
Paterson, Mr. Owen
Prentice, Bridget
Primarolo, rh Dawn
Purnell, James
Riordan, Mrs. Linda
Roy, Mr. Frank
Shaw, Jonathan
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Smith, Angela E. (Basildon)
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Swinson, Jo
Tipping, Paddy
Vara, Mr. Shailesh
Villiers, Mrs. Theresa
Walter, Mr. Robert
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Jim McGovern and
Mr. Russell Brown
It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, Madam Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided.
9.44 am

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Would you organise a search of the premises, because it is apparent that although there are a considerable number of Labour Members here, it seems as if the Leader of the Opposition has decided to tell the Tories to keep away—or something very similar—because they have not turned up for work?

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not a victory for democracy and free speech that rather than choosing to sit in private, thus preventing the many people who might want to hear our deliberations from doing so, we have actually decided, by an overwhelming majority—a total majority—that we will sit in public?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Whatever the pros and cons, a decision has been made and the motion has fallen.

Orders of the Day

House of Commons (Participation) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.45 am

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This has been an important week for the provisions of the Bill, because we have had elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, a devolved Assembly that will have primary law-making powers, secondary powers and the ability to appoint Ministers who are responsible for the government of Northern Ireland. However, this is also an important year. As we all know, the Act of Union was signed 300 years ago, in 1707. There are further important anniversaries in 2007. It is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the treaty of Rome and the 60th anniversary of the signing of the treaty of Dunkirk. That treaty, which was the first post-war treaty of solidarity, was between the United Kingdom and France.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I had not intended to intervene at such an early point in the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but given that he has raised the question of the Act of Union, I note that the Bill does not state whether, if it were passed, the Act of Union would be disapplied. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether it is his intention that the Act of Union should stay as the founding legislation of the Union?

Mr. Walter: I will certainly come on to that point, although I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising it at such an early stage of the debate. This partly explains the rather innocuous name of my Bill: the House of Commons (Participation) Bill. I tried to persuade the Clerk of the House that my Bill should be called the “Act of Union (Amendment) Bill”, but I was told that all the provisions of the Act of Union were such that they were no longer extant in the legislation of this country. I was rather disappointed by that because I thought that it would have been a sexier sounding name for a Bill and that that might have got more of my colleagues here. We are thus stuck with the title of the House of Commons (Participation) Bill.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Given the way in which the Bill would take away voting and speaking rights from Members, would not a more appropriate name be the “House of Commons (Non-participation) Bill”?

Mr. Walter: I regard my Bill as an entirely positive measure that would complete the process started through devolution by providing the ultimate fairness for the voters of England, particularly, and Wales.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman says that the Bill would complete the process started by devolution. I am sure that he is aware that the Scottish National party supports his Bill because it thinks that the measure would achieve its stated aim of breaking up the United Kingdom. I know that politics makes for strange bedfellows, but is he not slightly uncomfortable with that alliance?

Mr. Walter: No alliance is created, because I am unashamedly a Unionist. I believe in the Union and I will continue to defend it, including in my speech.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD) rose—

Mr. Walter: With respect, I will not give way as I ought to make progress.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walter: For the Scottish National party, of course I will.

Mr. MacNeil: I should say that there is no support for the Bill from the SNP. I would like to clarify a point: the hon. Gentleman talked about completing the process started by devolution, but would not the completed process of devolution result in independence, and is not devolution independence for slow learners?

Mr. Walter: There were many debates in the House, and in Scotland and Wales, on the process of devolution, and its purpose is not to lead to independence. Devolution was just that—a devolution of powers from the Union Parliament to the Assemblies and Parliaments in other parts of the kingdom. It did not in itself begin a process that leads to independence.

Jo Swinson rose—

Mr. Walter: I give way to the hon. Lady.

Jo Swinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and not favouring the Scottish National party over me, even if it does support his Bill. He talks about the devolution process being completed, but surely for England the logical outcome of devolution is devolving of powers to England, which his Bill seeks not to do. Does it not therefore sell the English people short?

Mr. Walter: I thank the hon. Lady for anticipating what I will say. The English people already have 428 Members of Parliament, who sit in this House, and my Bill seeks to empower them in their consideration of English matters in the House. Later, I will make the point that it is not necessary to go to the public expense of creating the structures of a separate English Parliament, as we already have a Parliament, in this House, that consists of all Members of Parliament elected by constituents in England.

I anticipated that I would have got beyond the first couple of words of my prepared remarks by this stage, so I will plough on. As I say, it is 300 years since 1707, an important year. It was the year in which my school was founded, so it will celebrate that 300th anniversary for reasons of its own. It has done me well, and I hope that it will continue to exist.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Name the school!

Mr. Walter: It is Warminster school. The date that we are really celebrating is the date of the Act of Union with Scotland. The Act was only part of a unification process, as the Act of Union with Wales had come into being some time before. The Union with Wales was achieved through a series of laws passed by this
Parliament between 1536 and 1543. Wales had been under the control of the English kings since the conquests of Edward I and had been ruled as a Principality, which meant that some of its laws were different from those in England. The second Tudor monarch, Henry VIII, was concerned that some Welsh Lords were against his split with Rome, and there was evidence to suggest that some of the marcher Lords were harbouring English criminals. To combat that, and to protect the Welsh coast from a French or Spanish invasion, Henry opted to take a firmer grip on the Principality. As I say, the Act of Union was in reality a series of laws that resulted in Wales being represented in this Parliament. Later, the 1801 Act of Union with Ireland was passed by both Irish and British Parliaments, despite much opposition.

Mr. MacNeil: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Ireland would not be so prosperous if it were still ruled from Westminster, instead of having self-government? Does he agree that independence has been beneficial to Ireland, and the loss of the Union to which he refers has been thoroughly positive?

Mr. Walter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but in the early years of Irish separation and independence from the United Kingdom, and of the Irish Free State and the Republic of Ireland, what he says about prosperity was not the case. Many would agree that the prosperity that Ireland has experienced in the past couple of years is due to another Union—the European Union, which provided the Republic of Ireland with extensive aid. That aid, I must add, was provided by the taxpayers of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Heald: Does my hon. Friend agree that the economic policies pursued by the Republic have been Thatcherite?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) would prefer to get back to debating his Bill.

Mr. Walter: I thank you for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will return to the Acts of Union referred to earlier; the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said that I had not mentioned the Act of Union, so I am mentioning several of them now. In 1801, Ireland was joined to Great Britain in a single kingdom that became known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Dublin Parliament was abolished, and Ireland was to be represented at Westminster by 100 MPs, as well as a number of Members of the House of Lords.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Is it not the case that under the 1707 Act of Union two countries willingly came together, whereas the 1801 Act of Union was the result of the suppression of the United Irishmen by the English in 1796?

Mr. Walter: I had not intended the debate to develop into a lengthy discourse on the history of Ireland, or any other part of the United Kingdom, or a discussion of the whys and wherefores of the implementation of various Acts. I mentioned that the Irish Parliament
voted for the Act of Union; the hon. Lady may have views about the status of those who sat in the Irish Parliament as early as 1801, just as many Members of the House would have views about those who sat in this Parliament before the great Reform Act of 1832. History is history, and I have set out what happened.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman clarify a point in this very interesting disquisition on the Act of Union? When nations join under an Act of Union, is not the resulting Parliament sovereign in all respects, unless that Union is completely sundered? Therefore any discussion concerning devolution should relate to the Acts of that sovereign Parliament.

Mr. Walter: The hon. Gentleman is right, and his point relates to the reply that I gave to our friend representing the Scottish Nationalists, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), who stated quite clearly that he thought that devolution was a process leading to independence. I do not think that independence is a natural extension of devolution. I believe that this Parliament is sovereign, and will continue to be sovereign, particularly if my Bill is enacted.

Mark Lazarowicz: We are discussing an important point that goes to the heart of the Bill. To follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) will surely be aware of section 28(7) of the Scotland Act 1998, which clearly specifies that

That undermines the whole point of his Bill, because it is not the case that this Parliament cannot legislate for Scotland if it so chooses.

Mr. Walter: I do not want to anticipate the hon. Gentleman’s speech, which I am sure he will make later in the debate if he catches Madam Deputy Speaker’s eye. The essence of my Bill is that the Speaker can, if he is so minded, rule that Scottish Members could participate in the passage of such legislation. It is highly unlikely that a piece of exclusively Scottish legislation would be debated in this place. It is more likely that there will be pieces of legislation that are predominantly about England but which have clauses relating to Scotland. That is, to some extent, dealt with in my Bill.

Mark Lazarowicz: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, and I promise not to seek to intervene again, at least for some little time. It is important to understand the implications of his Bill. He suggests that the Speaker will have some discretion in the matter. Formally, of course, the Speaker has discretion, but clause 2(10) states:

under various subsections

So the Speaker would not have a free hand in deciding whether or not to bar Scottish, Northern Ireland or
Welsh MPs, depending on the circumstances. There is guidance, to which the Speaker would have to have regard.

Mr. Walter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He will no doubt wish to probe that point in Committee. I still believe that it is highly unlikely, and I cannot conceive of the circumstances in which any Government would bring before the House a piece of essentially domestic Scottish legislation. The noises coming from Holyrood would be such that even a Government with a substantial majority in this place would find it difficult to pursue that course.

Jo Swinson rose—

Mr. Walter: I shall give way to the hon. Lady, then I shall attempt to make some progress.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman attempts to reassure us that the problem would not arise, but the devolution settlement and the safeguards therein have not necessarily been fully tested while the same party has been leading the Executive in Holyrood as is in government here. In Scotland, we certainly remember the poll tax and the implications of the Conservative Government in the 1980s for Scotland, so I am not sure the Scottish people would be reassured that in all future scenarios the safeguards would be appropriate, if the Bill were passed.

Mr. Walter: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. It was not my intention that during my contribution we should get into a discussion of what the outcome of the elections on 3 May will be and the consequences of that. I had anticipated that a number of Members might suggest that after my Bill was passed, a situation might arise in which the will of the English Members of Parliament in this House was different from the will of the national Government of the UK. My answer was to be that that might well be the case after 3 May in both Scotland and Wales.

Mr. Heald: Does my hon. Friend share my concern and surprise that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) says that she remembers the poll tax? That was 20 years ago.

Mr. Walter: It was indeed 20 years ago. As I am no longer constrained by having to speak in an official capacity for my party, I can say that I thought that the community charge was a much fairer tax than the current—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Whether the hon. Gentleman has certain responsibilities or not, I have a responsibility to make sure that the Bill before us is the one that is discussed.

Mr. Walter: I will get back to that, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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