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I sincerely hope that I am not entirely to be written out of the panoply of Labour power politicians, although I do not have much power at the moment. I disagree with those of my colleagues who think that the devolution settlement was the end of constitutional debate. There is never an end of constitutional debate in a country such as ours. We
have seen that this week in the discussions about the House of Lords. That will continue, and I will play my part in it.
Given the way in which constitutional change takes place in this country, the current devolution settlement is at a fairly early stage. It is quite early to make a judgment about how the balance of power and decision making between the Scottish Parliament and the Westminster Parliament will ultimately be resolved. To give one example, I had the privilege a couple of years ago of chairing the Committee that considered the draft corporate manslaughter legislation that is due to come back to this House. In part of our report, the Committee expressed strong concern that the plan at that time was to legislate for an offence in Scotland and a similar offence in England and Wales, because of the great difficulties created for companies operating on both sides of border, for trade unions representing their members and so on. Of course, the current Bill incorporates Scotland, because the mature reflection was that a single piece of legislation that covered both legislatures was better than two separate ones.
I am not an expert on such matters, but I understand that the Sewel motion has been used more often than many had predicted, which I think points to a maturing of the relationship between the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments. Having established the principle of the right to decide on autonomous legislation, there is also the mature and practical consideration of when it is best to do things in a devolved Parliament, and when it is best to do things through Westminster. We need to allow some time to pass before we can be clear about how that relationship will ultimately settle down.
Mark Lazarowicz: Does not my right hon. Friends reference to the Sewel motion procedure highlight one of the practical difficulties of the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter)? Were the measure passed, a Bill might go through the House on which Scottish MPs were excluded from voting because of its provisions, but a Sewel motion might be adopted that would mean that the Bill would then apply to Scotland, even though Scottish MPs had not been involved in the process of deliberation. Would that be either fair or procedurally advantageous to anybody?
Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The hon. Member for North Dorset was dismissive of the argument that there would be technical and procedural difficulties in determining the scope of legislation. He is wrong about that, and a few years ago one Scottish Member described the House of Commons having to do constitutional hokey-cokey, with Members opting into certain votes and out of others, and then being asked back to take part in other votes. The procedural problems are immense and probably insuperable.
The question of who is able to participate in legislation has none the less an important implication for the operation of this Parliament. I
think that that reflects the realitywhich the hon. Gentleman would obviously denythat the Union, which has a devolved Parliament in Scotland, has areas of common interest on which our current constitution allows us to work together in the interests of all our citizens. He would prefer that not to be the case, but I am in favour of it.
Dr. Whitehead: My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point about the length of a Bills passage through Parliament. I note that there is no suggestion that similar provisions should be applied to the other place. If a Bill is halfway through the House and provisions relating to it change, requiring different sections of people to vote or not, would there be an appeals procedure so that it is run through the House again, or would the people who had been discounted from voting previously be allowed to vote retrospectively in an extended version of the Wednesday afternoon voting to validate the vote that would have been valid had the Bill run in the way that was originally intended?
Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend asks me to clarify the procedures, but in fairness that question is better directed at the Bills authors. I have not got a clue how the House would be expected to respond to that situation, and with due respect, Madam Deputy Speaker, I think that the Speaker and his Clerks would find it extremely difficult to unpick those complex matters and advise the House how to vote. I shall return to that, but the logic is that we would end up with an English Parliament and there would be no relationship between the legislation of the two Parliaments, and that would be to the extreme disadvantage of the people of Scotland and of England and Wales.
To return to my theme, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said that the significance of anomalies in the constitution changes over time. I agreed and replied that factors shift and the reasons why anomalies become more important change. It is worth putting it on the record that the major reason why the debate is taking place is the unique political phenomenon of my political lifetimethe collapse of the Conservative and Unionist party of Great Britain, a party that once enjoyed significant representation through its Unionist colleagues in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. It has now become the English national Conservative party.
In reality, the Conservative party of today aspires to be a significant party of government only in England. It does not aspire to play that role in any other part of the United Kingdom; hence the focus on what is going on with English MPs and English votes. It is important that the House does not misunderstand what is dressed up as a constitutional issue as much more than the narrow interests of the Conservative party in England.
Mr. Heald: I want to reassure the right hon. Gentleman that there is no part of the United Kingdom where the Conservatives do not want to be in government. There are some places where the people do not want us to be, but we are out to change their minds.
It is worth looking back at what the Conservative party, when it was the Conservative and Unionist party, used to say about these issues. The hon. Gentlemans history of the problem jumped from somewhere around the early 18th century to 1970, conveniently missing out the 1960s, when the debate was the reverse. The then Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, infuriated by the participation of Northern Ireland MPs in the Bill to nationalise the steel industry, wrote:
We ought to make up our minds about the idea which I aired last Spring, that Northern Ireland MPs should not have the right to vote in the House of Commons on purely domestic matters affecting Great Britain, where the Stormont Parliament has exclusive jurisdiction...in relation to Northern Ireland.
make it absolutely clear that that kind of nonsense does not form any part of the governments thinking, that every Member of the House of Commons is equal with every other Member of the House of Commons, and that all of us will speak on all subjects.
Shortly afterwards, when English Conservative MPs were being whipped to oppose the abolition of school fees in Scotlanda measure with considerable political support among the great majority of Scottish MPsthe Conservative spokesman, Michael Noble, said:
I do not find it an atom embarrassing to have to ask my English colleagues to come to the House this evening and vote against the clause.
Most of all, a revised Scotland Act could embody some form of the in and out principle. Under such a principle the remaining Scottish MPs at Westminster would not be allowed to take part in the proceedings of the House when it was debating English or Welsh domestic matters. The in and out principle ought to be attractive to Conservatives
Labour remains committed to devolution and may be expected to consider a plan along these lines.
Mr. Denham: I have not seen that quotation and do not know whether it is in context. In any case, I think that the in-and-out proposal is unworkable, and I would say that to whoever put it on the table.
My point is not about having a bit of fun at the expense of the Conservative party, but about making it clear that for all political parties and all interests, the views that people take on constitutional matters have
an element of party and representational interests behind them. It is better to be honest about that than to pretend that they are pure and abstract debates taking place among constitutional lawyers.
Mr. Walter: I think that the right hon. Gentleman was making my point in a slightly different way. I agreed that the preceding position on Northern Ireland was unacceptable, but we have moved on, because we have a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly and an up-and-running Northern Ireland Assembly. That is why we need the Bill.
Mr. Denham: I accept that we should have a mature debate about whether any further changes are required in our constitutional arrangements, but I do not accept that we need the Bill. Despite what the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said, there is a minoritybut a reasonably significant minorityof voters in Wales and Scotland who would like to be represented by Conservatives, albeit rather fewer than are represented in Westminster by the Conservatives at the moment. It is undoubtedly the case that one reason why we are in the current situation is the first-past-the-post electoral system for the Westminster Parliament. As the co-chair of the Labour campaign for electoral reform, sitting next to the other co-chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith, I merely make the point that it may well be that one of the elements that should enter the equation for the future is a change in the voting system for the Westminster Parliament. That would not resolve all the problems but it would reduce the sharp focus on the anomalies produced by the current system of voting.
The proposals are not new and have been much debated, going back to the days of the Irish home rule discussions. There are three major obstacles to the Bill. The firstthe in-and-out proposalhas been aired to some extent. It is about whether, in practice, it is possible on complex Billsand most Bills are complexto determine which matters should be voted on solely by English MPs and which should be voted on by the Westminster Parliament as a whole. Gladstone himself referred to this as a problem that was beyond the wit of man to solve. It is true that he ended up putting it in a Home Rule Bill, because he could not think of any other way forward, but it hardly suggested that hewas entirely convinced by his own solution. The Kilbrandon report and the report of the Constitution Unit last year came to a similar conclusion. Most of us who are familiar with the workings of the House would recognise the difficulties that would arise.
The Higher Education Act 2004 was mentioned earlier. It is true that a separate English Parliament would be able to vote on tuition fees for English universities and take no interest in whether that had a knock-on effect on higher education in Scotland, but if a single Parliament were discussing such a Bill, it would be much more difficult to say to Scottish Members of Parliament, The effects may be indirect, not primary, and you are therefore shut out. There would be considerable concern throughout the House if Members who believed that legislation would affect the
interests of their constituents were barred from speaking or voting on it. Everyone who has seriously considered the in-and-out system in the past has concluded that it cannot be made effective, and I think the Bill falls on that basis.
The second issue has not yet been raised today, but it is important. Our practice is to form a Government from Members elected to the House, and that means all Members elected to the House. History shows that it could be quite common for a Government formed from the Westminster Parliament not to be able to pass legislation on matters determined to be English-only. The whole position would become constitutionally unworkable in a relatively short time. Once a Governments Bills were failing regularly, that Government would cease to be able to operate effectively on any United Kingdom scale.
The Bill would turn out to be, inexorably, a staging post towards a separate English Parliament, which in turn would constitute a staging post towards the dissolution of the Unionwhich is why the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) is nodding so enthusiastically. I happen to believe that the end of the Union would be very bad for all components of the Union. The Scottish Nationalist party has always perplexed me, as a political party that wishes to make a nation less important in the future than it is today. We benefit enormously in the Union from the participation of so many talented and able Scots in the government and the life of this country, and they in turn benefit from the influence that Scotland has in the Union, which it could not possibly have as an independent nation.
Mr. MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman says that Scotland would be a less important nation without the Union. Does he think that Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen or Dermot Ahern would agree? Does he think that those people feel they would be better off governed from London, or does he think that Ireland today is a more important nation, which can play a part on the world stage on its own terms?
Mr. Denham: It is of course for people to determine their own futureI do not deny thatbut when I see, for example, a politician from Scotland who, leaving domestic debates aside, is respected around the world for the leading role that he plays in tackling poverty in Africa, debt reduction and climate change, and when I look to a future in which no Scottish politician would play such a role, I find that future disappointing. The Union gives people in Scotland such opportunities.
Mark Lazarowicz: I agree with my right hon. Friend on that point, but he also said that the Bill would lead inexorably to the establishment of an English Parliament, de facto. Is it not the case that the way in which the Bill would come into effect would lead to much bad feeling, tension and animosity precisely because of the chaotic way in which it would apply in practice? It would represent the worst of all worlds, even for those who support more self-government for England or for regions within it.
Mr. Denham: It would lead to a very chaotic period. First, it would lead to numerous tensions and divisions among Members of the Westminster Parliament. Secondly, it would lead to chaotic and unstable government, because the Government formed from the Westminster Parliament would be unable to proceed with their legislative programme. Thirdly, it would lead to inexorable pressure for the formation of a Government for England, which in turn would lead, through other unstable processes, to an English Parliament. It would trigger a process of constitutional instability that would be highly undesirable. My hon. Friend invited me earlier to subscribe to a test: does change make things better or worse? On that test, the Bill would make things significantly worse.
Having raised objections to the Bill, I should return to the beginning of my speech. There is, at least to some extent, a debate out there about the future governance of England and whether our current arrangements could be improved for the benefit of England and English issues. Even viewed from an English perspective, the Bill does not provide the best form of governance that England needs. There is an underlying confusion which suggests that because a national Parliament was right for Scotland, the equivalent would be right for England. I do not believe that that is so. I do not consider that our history leads the English to require a Parliament or Assembly as an expression of national identity. Indeed, I consider that in many respects what England needs is a more devolved form of government.
Incidentally, it must be said that one of the things that the Scottish and Welsh have done much better than the English is to develop an ethnically inclusive national identity. It is much more likely that a member of the black and ethnic minority communities in Scotland will describe himself as Scottish than that someone in England with a similar background will describe himself as English. People in England tend to jump straight to the British identity.
There is an important point to be made about the future of English governance. I do not suggest that the hon. Member for North Dorset has fallen foul of this, for he has not, but we must be careful not to allow the future English identity to become a surrogate for a white English identity rather than an inclusive, multiracial, multi-ethnic identity. The other nations have done better in that respect so far; we should acknowledge that, and learn lessons from it.
Mr. MacNeil: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I certainly do not wish to cast aspersions. What he has said about Scotland is true, and my party hopes to have the first Muslim Member of the Scottish Parliament. His remarks contrast greatly with words that have been bandied around north of the border, such as xenophobicon very wrong grounds.
Mr. Denham: I am not sure which remarks the hon. Gentleman means, but the surveys, facts and records speak for themselves. A big debate is taking place in England about identity, both Englishness and Britishness, and we need to learn from what is happening north of the border.
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