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9 Mar 2007 : Column 1800

I see no great need for an English Parliament or an English Government. If we want to improve our system of government, we need government in smaller units than England. One of the advantages of smaller nations—not always, but sometimes—is that they are of a more manageable size. When my party was in opposition I worked with the current Leader of the House to produce a paper on English regional government, in which we showed that there was a substantial amount of it under the then Conservative Government, but that none of it was subject to any democratic accountability. That position has intensified over the past few years: there has been more regional government, and the accountability has not developed to match it.

I understand, because I live in the real world, that to talk of accountable English regional government at this point in time is like describing an unhealthy cross between a dead duck and a dead horse, but I am not sure it is as dead as all that. At the grass roots of English local government, there is a healthy move to demand more devolution, power and control. It may well be that regional government will no longer take the form of elected regional assemblies, but such movements exist in city regions, even in my part of the country. Political parties are working together throughout south Hampshire to create a much stronger regional focus.

There is a healthy move towards greater devolution in England, and that is where part of the future of English governance lies—in greater internal devolution. That of itself does not affect the question of voting on legislation in Westminster, but as that trend develops—as it inevitably will in the next 20 or 30 years—the demands placed on a Westminster Parliament regarding English legislation will be far more of an enabling sort, and far less of a prescriptive sort, than in the past 30 years or so.

I am sorry to have detained the House for so long, and in summing up, I shall make one further point. There are three elements to consider in responding to the current situation, the first of which is voting reform for the Westminster Parliament. The under-representation of the Conservative party at Westminster, and of Conservative voters, is part of the problem. Secondly, the development of a more accountable system of local and regional government in England is closer to what is needed in terms of good governance in England. The third element is the consequences of the decisions that we took earlier this week on the House of Lords.

Although the in-and-out question of dividing up English and Scottish legislation is insuperable for the primary legislative Chamber, which this place will remain, it is less of an issue for a revising and scrutinising Chamber, as the House of Lords will become, with its democratic mandate. If the House of Lords is wholly or largely elected in future—probably on a proportional, regional basis—it would not be offensive for English legislation, as part of the scrutiny process, to be scrutinised by Lords Members drawn from the English regions. That is worth thinking about. Because the Lords would not have the final say, the rough edges—the boundaries that determine the question whether it is it an England matter a Scotland matter or an everyone matter—would be less important.

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That arrangement would provide a democratic focus for an English look at primarily English legislation that might prove helpful in future. Those three elements combined—voting reform for Westminster, stronger devolution within England and an imaginative use of the new House of Lords—could provide a better way forward than the hon. Gentleman’s Bill. It will doubtless be 20 or 30 years before we actually do anything about these matters, but we should keep the discussion going.

11.22 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): There is only so much radical reform of the constitution that one can do in one week, and we have perhaps exceeded our quota. It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), and it will surprise neither him nor the House to learn that I agreed with a lot of what he said. I was interested to discover the revelation that he was born in Devon, and it is also clear that he has been in Hampshire for so long that he now thinks of himself as a southerner, rather than a west countryman. I am a west countryman and that is my identity, but that does not prevent me at the same time from being English and British. Our roots within this country are important, as are the people whom we represent.

I want to congratulate the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) on securing the opportunity to debate his Bill today. I do not agree with its contents, but he is absolutely right to have raised this issue. I point out to Members in all parts of the House that this is not some strange, wacko argument, but a real one in many of our constituencies south of the border and east of the Marches. It is a real issue, and we cannot be indifferent to it. That does not mean to say that I accept the hon. Gentleman’s solution, but we ignore it at our peril. If there is a view—and there is—among our constituents that England as a whole is ill-served by the constitutional settlement that we have reached, we need to address that.

Mark Lazarowicz: I do not dispute for a minute that there may be some truth in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I do not diminish the value of his argument. However, although the focus of such concern might be the current arrangements at Westminster, in many respects the root of the problem is a wider disillusionment with the political process. The answer is not to be found in the measures being proposed by the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), but in other reforms of our political system—both nationally and at a local and regional level.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he may have heard me say on many occasions that this country needs a process of extensive democratic renewal. There is a feeling of disfranchisement, disempowerment and disillusionment with the political process on a number of fronts. This issue is simply one symptom of a more deep-rooted malaise within our political system. All that I am saying is that we should not ignore the fact that there are people who ascribe
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their political disengagement to the fact that their views as English people within a United Kingdom are not being properly represented. I do not think that they are entirely right, but that is a real feeling and we should recognise it.

Mr. Russell Brown: I tend to agree in part with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Sometimes, people are ill-informed about such matters not of their own volition, but because of the stories that are spread around. Let us consider a typical example that I often hear from colleagues in this place. Some people say, “Isn’t Scotland lucky—it has free personal care for the elderly?” Financial support is offered north of the border in that regard, but such care is not as free as people think. An element of envy creeps in, and significant misinformation perhaps leads people south of Hadrian’s wall to think that it is a paradise north of the border, and that they are being badly let down in some way.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right, in that there is an element of mythology. However, people see key decisions about social programmes being taken in Scotland by a Scottish Parliament that seem to provide a better arrangement than is being provided for them by a United Kingdom Parliament in our English constituencies. That is one factor, and another is the feeling that there are occasions when Members representing Scottish seats determine matters in a way that directly contradicts the arrangements in Scotland. Let me illustrate the point with a recent example. About two weeks ago, the House dealt with the highly contentious Offender Management Bill, which put in place arrangements for the probation service in England and Wales, and in doing so it rejected the position that the Scottish Executive adopted on exactly the same matter. The Bill was passed by a narrow majority in this House, with those representing Scottish constituencies—who will have exactly the arrangements that those of us promoting amendment of that Bill wanted—carrying the day. That is not an argument for the arrangements in the Bill before us—still less for an English Parliament, as I shall explain later—but we should recognise that such a situation causes disquiet.

Mark Lazarowicz: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: I will do so once more, and then I must make some progress.

Mark Lazarowicz: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. On the probation service, unless I am wrong—if I am, I am sure that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) will correct me—some members of the Scottish National party voted in the Division in question according to their base argument that the trade unions had asked them to vote against the measure. Does that not indicate the difficulty that some Members might have in defining what applies to Scotland, and what has implications for Scotland and what does not?

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Mr. Heath: It certainly does. I will not speak for the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) as he takes a different view from me on these matters.

I support the Union—that is one difference I have with the hon. Gentleman. I believe that the Union has served this country well. What worries me is that some people—I do not include the hon. Member for North Dorset among them—might exploit a genuine concern within English constituencies, either by accident, recklessness or malicious intent, to undermine the Union. That is a real threat if we proceed along the lines of having an English Parliament, and I believe that the proposal we are discussing moves us towards the creation of an English Parliament within this United Kingdom Parliament. That concerns me.

Why am I so against an English Parliament? If we have an English Parliament representing 80 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom and 80 per cent. of its material assets—or more if we consider the wealth of the south-east—it will inevitably become not only a rival to the UK Parliament but the real Government of a large part of the country. It is impossible to have a Government drawn from this Parliament and also a separate Government running 80 per cent. of the country and to believe that that will not provide for a constitutional deadlock—exactly the sort of deadlock that was described, wrongly in my opinion, in the debates that we had about the other place.

I should add that, from the point of view of my constituency, I feel that an English Parliament would do my constituents less good than a UK Parliament. I represent a rural west country seat and more of the constituencies that share the characteristics of my seat are to be found in rural Wales and rural Scotland than would be represented in an English Parliament that would be dominated by the urban and suburban interests of the urbanised areas of England. Therefore, if I want community of interest in respect of my constituency, which is more prevalent in a UK Parliament than it would be in an English Parliament.

I have said that I am a supporter of the Union and therefore cannot countenance an English Parliament. The second principle that governs my opposition is that Members of this Parliament are equal and must remain equal. They must not be categorised and put into some sort of national ghetto that does not allow them to participate properly in the workings of this sovereign Parliament. It worries me that that might be the effect of the proposals of the hon. Member for North Dorset.

Thirdly, I am not convinced that we should regulate what we do in this House by statute. We shall return to that matter in the context of House of Lords reform. To what extent can we regulate the affairs of Parliament by statute, or can that be better done by code and our rules of conduct? The moment we start regulating by statute—which is the intention of the proposals—we cross an important constitutional dividing line, because if some Standing Orders are to be dealt with by statute, why should that not be the case for all Standing Orders? At present, we have a marvellously fuzzy constitutional settlement in which very little is written down. A constituent of mine asked me recently what was the legal basis for Parliament.
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That is in fact quite a difficult question to answer. Is it founded on the fact that we have passed an Act?

Mark Lazarowicz: It is because there was a revolution.

Mr. Heath: That is possibly true, but we had Parliaments before that event, settled by an autocratic monarch—a monarch ruling by divine right. That was the source of the original Parliament’s power. Since then, we have had the Bill of Rights. That was passed by a Parliament. Did it have the legal right to do that? It is in fact impossible to answer such questions because the governance of a country ultimately depends on the agreement of the people of the country. We have a Parliament because that is what the people of this country want us to have.

Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman’s point is essentially about what is the right procedure. The leader of his party, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), has said:

Therefore, what is the Liberal Democrat position?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman might have exercised just a little patience. I have already accepted that there is an issue. I reject the proposal before us, as I understand he intends to do—because his party has a very important constitutional working party which has yet to determine Conservative policy. We are familiar with the fact that very few policies of the new Conservative party are yet determined. We look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman’s opinion on this matter. However, what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said is that there is an issue to be addressed, and that is exactly what I have been saying today.

I share the view of those who say that the West Lothian question is a misnomer. How Tam Dalyell managed to hijack this constitutional question and assume that it was his, other than by dint of his constant repetition of his point, is a mystery to me, because this constitutional question was, as has been said, very much a matter before the House during discussions on Irish home rule. Gladstone wrestled with it, as he did with so many problems, and despite it’s being beyond any human’s comprehension, he, of course, found his solution. That has persisted ever since.

To refer to a point raised earlier, it is right to ask why, in respect of Ireland both before the independence of the Irish Republic and since, it was perfectly acceptable for this House to accommodate the anomaly of having Irish Members participating and voting in debates, and yet it is not acceptable now for Scottish Members to do exactly the same thing. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen is absolutely right that there is a question here to do with a variety of anomalies. All circumstances such as those we are discussing—but particularly in the case of an economic and political Union such as ours, where one partner is very much larger than the others and therefore is the prime mover—create anomalies.

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There is also a question to do with the political situation that creates the tensions that have been described. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that if the Conservative party did not do so lamentably poorly in Scotland and Wales, many such anomalies and associated issues would not arise, because there would be rough political parity in all parts of the United Kingdom and therefore circumstances in which it was purely the votes of Scottish Members that were instrumental in determining the result of any Division would arise less often. The Scottish people have so thoroughly rejected the Conservative party that it has often been unable to field anyone even remotely Scottish to speak for it—although it does have the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell). May I say, in parenthesis, that it would be a great help to this House if Scottish constituency names were not now a simple list of all the communities that lie within them, so that we might remember them better?

Mark Lazarowicz: What about Somerton and Frome?

Mr. Heath: Only two communities are mentioned in my constituency name; some Scottish colleagues have many more. The fact that the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale has been elected as a Scottish Member means that the Conservatives now have a putative shadow Secretary of State. That it appears that he has been completely rejected by his colleagues in Scotland to the extent that they have warned him off attending the Scottish party conference is neither here nor there; he speaks on behalf of the Conservative and Unionist party on matters pertaining to Scotland in this House.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has just suggested that the Bill has about it an element of party political point scoring by Conservatives, but earlier in his remarks he conceded that a genuine problem needed to be addressed, as his leader has said. Which is it?

Mr. Heath: I am not saying that the Bill is party political point scoring. I am saying that the problem arises because of the imbalance caused by the lack of representation of the Conservative party in Scotland, not least because of the rotten electoral system we have—because of course there are Conservative voters there, as we see in the results for the Scottish Parliament. We do not have adequate representation of what is, for the moment, the official Opposition in large parts of the country, and that means that inevitably the constitutional question of how this House conducts its affairs arises. That is not political point scoring: it is a recognition of the facts.

Mr. Vara: That is party politics.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is wrong, and he should listen to what I am saying. That imbalance means that English Conservative Members—and, occasionally, some of my hon. Friends—who wish to
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oppose a Government position find that there is no resonance for that position from a Conservative element in Scotland, because they are not here. They have not gained representation from the first-past-the-post system, and that is the real difficulty.

Mr. MacNeil: I am hearing a lot about party political point scoring, but in Scotland both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are on around 15 per cent. in the polls and are competing for fourth place in the elections in May.

Mr. Heath: There we have some party political point scoring, and we shall see. I am waiting with bated breath to see whether the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party secures the seat that he is so confident of winning under the first-past-the-post system—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Despite that anticipation, perhaps the hon. Gentleman could return to discussing the Bill that is before the House.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful for that guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. My anticipation over-excited me to the point that I could not forbear to respond to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, who was so clearly out of order in his comments.

As I was saying, the imbalance in representation is the root cause of many of the difficulties that we face. Those difficulties have already been adequately explored by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen, with the exception that I pointed out in an intervention—London. It has an elected Mayor and an assembly, but unlike Wales—the two have comparable, but not identical powers, and the subjects of the powers differ—London is very much included. That is an extraordinary anomaly, but it might simply be that London has a different political settlement to Wales.

Mark Lazarowicz: London also has a foreign policy that would seem much more ambitious than that of either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly —[ Laughter. ]

Mr. Heath: We could include the trade policy in that—President Livingstone in a little kingdom of his own.

The Bill raises important questions that we need to explore more fully and I do not rubbish the attempt by the hon. Member for North Dorset to address them. But we urgently need to take certain action, which can be done without statutory support, to address some of the issues. The most obvious anomaly is Scottish questions. Why does this House still have a period of time set aside uniquely for questions to a Secretary of State with no power on subjects that are almost universally devolved to the Scottish Parliament?

Mark Lazarowicz rose—

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