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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice):
I want to pursue the London question a little further. Given Londons status as the capital of our United Kingdom
and its enormous economic influence throughout the UK, surely what happens there affects everyone, from whichever part of the UK they come. All hon. Members should therefore have some say in what happens in this place with regard to London.
Mr. Walter: Londons position in the world is due to its financial services industry and the power of the City of London as the worlds pre-eminent financial services market. That is a matter for the Treasury, and is not devolved to the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. It is a United Kingdom matter, which does not arise in this debate.
There are three, possibly four, solutions. The fourth solution is to do nothingit is obvious that several hon. Members feel that that is the right way to proceed. The first solution, which several people have proposed, is to create a separate English Parliament, thus balancing the powers between an English Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, a possible Welsh Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not believe that we should follow that route.
Mr. Walter: I do not wish to anticipate the outcome of my partys democracy taskforce. If it proposed an English Parliament, which would be a major constitutional change, I suspect that it would also propose a referendum on that. However, I fear that I anticipate too much, because I suspect that that is not the way it will go.
Ms Angela C. Smith: The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. Does he believe for a moment that the people of the north of England would vote for an English Parliament, given the domination of the south?
Mr. Walter: It is clear that the north of England did not want a regional assembly. I think that the people of the north of England would probably vote against an English Parliament. I would argue against it for the reasons that I was about to state.
Mark Lazarowicz: Let us consider the popular will. The underlying argument for such a measure is a supposed massive ferment of public anger in England, demanding such a change. I appreciate that it is a Friday morning and we are considering private Members business, but if there was a genuine ferment of opinion, should not we expect the attendance of more than four Conservative Back Benchers, one of whom may be here to promote his own Bill? If the demand exists, where are all the Conservative Members from England to support it? I also note that the Public Gallery is hardly full.
Mr. Walter: That was an interesting intervention. There is a genuine sense of injustice among my constituents. They feel that we should do something to tackle the matter. That is why I am promoting the Bill and attempting to run through the options.
An English Parliament presupposes a form of separate English Government, with an English First Minister, English Ministries and so on. I contend that we have already have a Parliament that is capable of legislating for England on matters that have been devolved to Scotland and Wales. That is this Parliament, but limited to Members of Parliament who represent the constituencies that are affected by legislation. It is clear from the current constitutional settlement that most of that legislation would reflect matters that relate to England and Wales. The Bill therefore treats England and Wales as one for primary legislation. Creating a separate English Parliament is an expensive and unnecessary answer when we already have 428 English Members of Parliament who are paid to sit here and represent the interests of their constituents.
Jo Swinson: Does not the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the logical extension of his proposal is to create an English Parliament within this Parliament? That would mean a de facto English Government and English Ministries. The problems that he outlines would therefore apply if his Bill were passed.
Mr. Walter: There would be only one set of salaries, buildings and civil servants. We already have the ability to govern England from an existing Parliament by simply creating a mechanism whereby Mr. Speaker designates the legislation and matters that relate to Englandor England and Walesrather than the whole of the United Kingdom.
The second solution is to reduce the number of Members of Parliament who are elected for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is the old Stormont solution of having only a limited number of Members of Parliament, as if that somehow provided a democratic balance. As has been pointed out, that sort of democratic balance is not appropriate. It does not matter whether there are 20, 50 or 70 Scottish Members, the point is that they should not participate in matters that do not relate to Scotland. Simply reducing the number would not, therefore, solve the problem.
Mr. Russell Brown: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned Stormont on several occasions. Will he refer to the findings of the royal commission, known as the Kilbrandon commission, that examined the position after Stormont was established?
Mr. Walter: I shall not go into any more detail on that, because I have taken up rather a lot of the Houses time this morning, although I suspect that most of it has been taken up by interventions rather than my contribution.
Before concluding, I should like to discuss the provisions in the Bill to exclude a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament, because that is not the way forward. The title of my Bill is House of Commons (Participation) Bill. As I said in answer to
an earlier intervention, I rather liked Act of Union (Amendment) Bill, but the Clerks told me that that was an unacceptable title, so we are stuck with a rather innocuous title. My Bill follows a similar Bill that was introduced in the House of Lords in the last Session by Lord Baker, which sought to do very much the same as what I propose. However, a number of anomalies were identified in his Bill. Therefore, the basic provisions of my Bill are that, in respect of primary legislation, the Speaker may designate whether it should be considered by
all members returned for constituencies in England and Wales
all members returned for constituencies in Scotland...all members returned for constituencies in Northern Ireland,
The simple fact of the matter is that we would neveralthough it was suggested that we mighthave legislation that referred solely to Scotland. It is unlikely that we shall have much legislation in the future that refers exclusively to Northern Ireland. However, we may have some, and it is dealt with in clause 4, which is entitled Special provision relating to Northern Ireland legislation, to which I shall turn in a moment.
all members...all members returned for constituencies in England and Wales,
all members returned for constituencies in England.
Mr. Walter: Statutory instruments that pertain exclusively to Scotland would normally be dealt with by the Scottish Parliament. United Kingdom statutory instruments would be covered by the provisions relating to all hon. Members.
Mr. Walter: I am conscious of the time and need to make some progress. I am coming to an end, and hon. Members will have the opportunity to make their own contributions if they catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am grateful to the hon. Member. He is talking about the important issue of which legislation would be designated for decision. The Higher Education Act 2004, which introduced tuition fees, is often held up as an example of where illegitimate voting took place on an English matter.
However, the former Member for West Lothian voted on that legislation, on the grounds that it had implications for Scottish higher education. Under the hon. Gentlemans Bill, how does he propose that the Speaker would be able to determine, quite as simply as he suggests, which Bill had which territorial application?
Mr. Walter: As I understand the current situation, it is incumbent on the Clerks of the House to determine the territorial extent of the Bills that are brought before them. They would advise the Speaker accordingly. If the legislation that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned had had implications for Scotland because its territorial extent included Scotland, it would have been considered by Scottish hon. Members. However, I suspect that the implications were secondary implications, in that the primary purpose of that Bill did not relate to Scotland. It would therefore have been perfectly appropriate for it to have been deliberated on by Members of Parliament for the constituencies that it did relate to, which in that caseif I recall correctlywere in England and Wales.
Clause 4, Special provision relating to Northern Ireland legislation, is important. It was pointed out to me when I was putting together the provisions of my Bill that Lord Bakers Bill in the other place would have put the House at loggerheads with the various agreements that have been made among all the parties trying to find peace in Northern Ireland. Under his Bill, the only people who could consider Northern Ireland legislation while no Assembly was sitting at Stormont would be the Members of Parliament elected for Northern Ireland constituencies.
It does not take a brilliant mathematician to work out that if the Sinn Fein Members did not take their seats, Northern Ireland would be governed by the Democratic Unionist party, which would of course be contrary to the St. Andrews agreement, the Good Friday agreement and all the other agreements before them that have sought power sharing in Northern Ireland. I have therefore created a special provision that says that if legislation that relates solely to Northern Ireland is considered by the House in future, it should be considered as if it were a United Kingdom matter, and therefore by all hon. Members. That is in the spirit of all those agreements on power sharing among the various parties, which I believe are leading to a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland.
In conclusion, my Bill has arisen out of a sense of frustration on the part of my constituents, and a feeling of unfairness and injustice on the part of people who live in England. My Bill would complete the devolution settlement process without the creation of an English Parliament, because at the end of the day, 428 English Members of Parliament are more than capable of deliberating on matters that relate to England.
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab):
It is something of a liberation to speak in a debate that is not directly about a Home Office matter, which is what I am normally restricted to during the rest of the working week. I am pleased to participate in this debate because, so far as I can recall, I have never spoken in public on devolution and constitutional
matters[Hon. Members: Some us have.] Other hon. Members have indeed. If their interventions become too demanding, I hope that they will understand that I am relatively new to the debate. I welcome the debate that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) has initiated. I do not agree with his proposals, for reasons that will become clear, but some of the underlying concerns that have stimulated this debate are worth exploring and will need continuing discussion in the years to come.
I was born on the south coast of England, in Devon. I have lived all but a few months of my life within a mile or two of the south coast of England and I represent a south coast constituency, so I am English and, what is more, southern English. It is probably not widely known in the House that, among their various songs, Southampton football fans chant, Southerners! Southerners!, when their opponents come from more northerly parts of the country. [ Interruption. ] And, just to make clear my geographical identity in this debate, I am there with them.
The reason that the debate is worth having and should not just be a rerun of the debates of the previous 20, 30 or 150 years about home rule, devolution and so on, is that there is a sensealthough not of tidal wave proportionsthat the big constitutional debates about devolution to Scotland and Wales and the developments in Northern Ireland have not included discussion of government for England. That issue strikes a chord with a minority of English people, and it is therefore important that we consider the way forward. The Bill will not be the way forward, but the debate about how we move forward is important.
Constitutional change in the United Kingdom is a long-drawn-out process. That is fundamental to the nature of our constitution, which brings together nations of such different sizes, economic strength and political cultures. There is no perfect constitution for the United Kingdom. Constitutional change is more a matter of recognising anomalies and rearranging those from time to time according to the perceived needs. To show that these issues are not that new, I am grateful to Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit for drawing to my attention Disraelis comment that the English are governed by Parliament, not by logic.
Mark Lazarowicz: There are anomalies, but surely the issue is not just how they can be resolved but whether there is a demand for them to be resolved, and whether the resolution will result in worse problems than existed in the first place.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In a moment, I shall highlight the fact that those anomalies get greater or lesser attention in public debate according to certain political circumstances.
The issue does not go up the agenda just because the constitution has produced an anomaly but because the anomaly offends the interests or perceived interests of certain groups or political parties. We need to understand that the importance of anomalies in our constitution varies over time.
Our constitutional change proceeds bit by bitnot for us the continental or even Latin American model, in which a revolution takes place, followed by a constitutional convention, a plebiscite and then a new constitution. We adjust a bit here and there, look at what it is like, and then do the next bit. Even when we did have a revolution, no one really sat down and worked out what the constitution was going to be for about 40 or 50 years. Then it came out about right, and everybody was happy with it for a bit, except that universal suffrage took about another 200 years to be introduced. This week, after years of discussion on the composition of the House of Lords, we debated the matter for two days, voted for two hours, agreed two solutions to the problem, and spent two days trying to work out what, if anything, any of it meant. That is the British way of constitutional reform, bit by bit and incremental, and I see nothing particularly wrong with it. The Bill may not be the answer, but the debate is an important part of considering what we want to do next.
Shortly before the 1997 election, when we were in opposition, I remember going on a trip with other Labour Members of Parliament to Brussels. The then Member for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, was a member of that delegation, and we discussed these issues at some length. He made very much the argument to which the hon. Member for North Dorset has referred today. My response was not that there was not a West Lothian question, but that the issues raised by it were of less importance than those that devolution was seeking to overcome: the regular and persistent imposition of solely Scottish legislation on the people of Scotland by an English-dominated Parliament. I said to Tam Dalyell that the pressing problems of devolution to Scotland and Wales should be resolved, and then the other issues that he talked about would arise and further discussion would be needed to consider how best to deal with them. That is what we are now doing, so I commend the hon. Member for North Dorset for raising the matter, although I do not agree with his conclusions.
Mr. Heald: The right hon. Gentleman is known to be one of the most reasonable Labour Members, but those on the Front Bench are totally different. Shortly before the Scotland Act 1998 was passed, Lord Irvine of Lairg said that the answer to the West Lothian question was to stop asking it. Is not that the view of the Labour power politicians?
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