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As a northerner with a strong sense of northern identity, I must admit that a part of me would respond very positively to such a proposal. Indeed, in the dark and distant days of the 1980s I often felt like making a unilateral declaration of independence. But my head tells me that the adoption of such a policy would be disastrous for the north of England economically in the
long term, and I would resist it strongly. I believe that devolution for England is the genuine way forward, but that is not the answer presented by the Bill. The real answer is proper devolution for England, putting us on the same level as the Scots and London. In the long term, devolution for England, and particularly for its regions, is inevitable. Even if it takes five, 10 or 15 years, we will have devolution in the end, because it works, people like it, and it benefits the regions economically and socially.
Another important point is that England cannot be overruled entirely against its wishes, even under the current arrangements. England provides more than 80 per cent. of the membership of the House of Commons, and there are just 59 Scottish MPs. For a decision to be imposed on an English majority, more than 200 English MPs would have to join all those from the other nations. Even in the governing party, the party with the largest group of Scottish MPslong may that continue, as I am sure it willthere are only 39 in a total of 355. That statistic hardly suggests a dictatorship of the north, and I do not think there will ever be one while there is a total of 428 English MPs.
There are a number of Ministers representing Scottish constituencies in Parliament, and quite right too. They are talented individuals doing a good job, serving their country and the Union. They are in Parliament not just to represent Scottish constituents but to legislate on behalf of all in the Union: they have a collective responsibility to legislate for the benefit of everyone who lives in the United Kingdom.
Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where... not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.
That was an 18th-century way of saying that we are all here to work for the collective good. English votes for English laws would break that important principle, making the MPs constituency the most important defining factor about him or her. That would reduce our role considerably and for the worse.
There are other important practical questions to ask about the Bill. Would the Speaker have to rule on each clause of each Bill? As noted in respect of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the territorial extent clause does not always tell the full story. Who would rule on allegations that different clauses had been considered by the wrong Parliament? Would there be challenges to the Speaker, and would the principle that the Speakers authority is paramount be compromised? Also, where would we stop? Should anyone other than London MPs vote on changes to the powers of the Greater London authority? Only two months ago, this House voted collectively on a Bill to extend the powers of the GLA. The logic of the Bill before us today would mean that we would have to apply the principle in question to the GLA as much as we did to England and Wales.
We would end up with the break-up of the Union itself. The Bill is a dangerous measure, and it must be
resisted. It threatens the economic future of the UK. It would also threaten our position in the world and weaken our influence. It would weaken and damage the social ties between the countries that make up the Union. Scotland, England and Wales have lived in peace since the Act of Union of 1707. As a Union, we have built prosperity and economic stability for our peoples. We have worked together, rather than apart. We have learned the lessons of history. We have moved on: we stopped fighting each other and started working for the common good, and long may we continue to do so. We cannot weaken our relationships. I urge Members to reject the Bill.
Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) on promoting the Bill. The intentions behind it are good. I should also say that he was generous and courteous in respect of taking interventions, which was greatly appreciated.
The Bill is an attempt to sort out certain anomalies that have been created, and the hon. Gentleman should be congratulated on trying to do so. Most of the anomalies have arisen because of devolution, under which the Scottish Parliament can act independently in certain restricted areas and come to decisions of its own that can, theoretically, be quite different from the conclusions reached in this House. It might be worth pointing it out to Members that most parties in Scotland now want more powerseither more devolution or independence for the Scottish Parliament. That a couple of parties want more devolution leads me to conclude that devolution is ultimately independence for slow learners, because Scotland will become independent. More and more powers will be moved from London to Holyrood. Independence is the inevitable consequence of the path that we are on. Members of other parties might think that that will not happen, but time will tell, and the sweep of history is on the side of the Scottish National party. In time, it will be seen that that will happen.
The Bill hopes to address the West Lothian question. That question is best answered by offering the West Limerick example. The voters of West Limerick have no interaction with the voters of, for instance, West Leicestershire, and the MPs for Leicestershire and Limerick have no connection at all. They get on perfectly well and perfectly peacefully to their mutual benefit with their own national Parliaments. That shows how matters will develop in the future.
Labour and Liberal Members thought that the SNP would support the Bill. Unfortunately, we think that it is, in effect, a square peg for a round hole. Despite being well intentioned, it does not offer a solution. That it was thought that we would support it shows that whenever the Liberals and Labour analyse SNP policy their analysis is invariably wrong, as it certainly is on this occasion, because we do not support the Bill at all.
It is not the job of the SNP to sort out whatever anomalies arise at Westminsterwhatever mess arises from efforts that are akin to attempting to plug holes in a dam. However, I should add that the SNP has been helpful to Westminster in recent times. The searchlight
that has been cast on cash for peerages might have been the decisive factor in bringing about the recent vote in favour of having a 100 per cent. elected House of Lordswhich I welcome, of course. It is a Scottish tradition to tidy up the house before leaving, and perhaps that will be one of the great favours that the SNP has done Westminster. We hope that it is looked on kindlyafter independence.
I have great sympathy with the position as outlined by the hon. Member for North Dorset. It cannot be fair that certain Members vote on legislation that affects not their constituents but somebody elses. For my part, I scrupulously try to avoid that, which sometimes involves much pain, but it is not always possible to do so. Reference has been made to the Bills territorial reach, and there are sometimes certain consequences to consider.
Mr. MacNeil: Indeed I can. That decision was reached after much internal debate in the SNP. It became clear that that Bill did have consequences for Scotland, and not least for the national body representing parole officers, which approached the SNP. That is why we voted on the Bill.
Mr. MacNeil: Absolutely not. The reality is that if a measure is going to impact on Scotland, the SNP looks to defend Scotlands interests first and foremost, without any other considerationssuch as the job application form of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown). We will always look to what is in Scotlands interests.
Dr. Whitehead: Does that not underline the extreme difficulty of defining what relates to which part of the UK, in terms of the Speakers proposed responsibilities as defined in the Bill? Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that he has just illustrated how difficultindeed, almost impossibleit would be in practice to do a good job as a constituency Member in those circumstances?
Mr. MacNeil: I agree fully; indeed, the hon. Gentleman has anticipated some of my remarks. Ultimately, the solution is to do what Latvia, Lithuania, Iceland, Ireland and Norway have done, which is to have an independent countryindeed, two independent countries.
The current situation does lead to problems. For example, it is very hard to define exactly where the territorial reach ends. That has consequences, as we know from the examples of top-up fees, foundation hospitals and the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, on which the SNP had to vote because we could not get a guarantee from the Minister on the Floor of the House that there would not be consequences for Scotland. The same was true of the Offender Management Bill.
The solution to all this is not the Bill before us, as the sweep of history shows. In 1900, there were a mere 50 independent nations or states in the world; today, there are some 200. This is a growing phenomenon, and it will continue to grow, and Scotland will
eventually join in. When the slow learners figure out that devolution is actually independence in progress, we will have an independent Scotlandand, indeed, an independent England. The Bill does not really deal with the various problems, for the salient reasons that the hon. Gentleman just gave. The SNP frequently has to examine legislation, and I would not be averse to guidance being provided on a particular Bills consequences. That would certainly make our job easier, as we would not have to work out from first principles whether a Bill has consequences for Scotland.
The Bill also overlooks the situation regarding statutory instruments. Indeed, earlier this week, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and I served on a Committee that dealt with a statutory instrument for Scotland. There is an anomaly within the Bills text, in that it does not account for such matters. That issue has perhaps been overlooked, which might be indicative of the nature of the Bill itself.
As far as the SNP is concerned, the current brochan, as they say in Gaelicthe porridgeat Westminster is a shambles. However, the only workable solution is for MPs to be independentfor them to be left to decide individually, or in groups, on the exact reach of a particular Bill. For the SNPs part, we will try as best we can not to interfere in English governance. We actually believe that the English are more than capable of governing themselves. I often chide English MPs and point out to them that France, Germany and Spain are capable of governing themselves without any help from the Scots, and I believe firmly that England is just as capable. When England is an independent nation, the sweep of history will show that to be true.
The solution to the problems that have been outlined and identified in this debate is not this Bill, however well intentioned, but independence for the good people of England. We have to remember that this is Europes largest stateless nation, and I hope that some day it will take its place in the world. The hon. Member for North Dorset correctly identifies a problem, but I assure him that it will be sorted out fairly soon by means of Scottish independence.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) on bringing forward the principles for discussion. It is right that those issues should be discussed. When the hon. Gentleman introduced the Bill with a press releasemy hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) suggested that it was under the banner of the Campaign for an English Parliamenthe said that it was a solution to the West Lothian question. That claim strikes me as being like those mathematicians who claim to have found a solution to Fermats last theorem. On detailed examination, it turns out that it is not a solution, the prize money goes unclaimed, and the debate continues.
Just as it is right that fellow mathematicians continue to seek to solve Fermats last theorem, it is right thatwhatever the wider principlesthe Bill is considered in some detail. Were the general sentiments simply to be agreed, and the Bill were to receive a Second Reading without being considered in detail, we
wouldas has been suggested before in this debatebe saddled with a monster. It would make debates in this House unworkable. For instance, it would make your job, Mr. Deputy Speaker, almost impossible as far as the proper conduct of debates was concerned. It would require an almost continuous process of serving notices about who was eligible to speak in what debate. As we have also heard, because Bills can change in nature in their passage through the House, certain Members could be deemed able to speak and vote on a Bill at one stage, but not at others. It could also be argued that a Bill might have turned out differently if Members who became able to speak and vote on it at a later stage had been able to participate earlier. That would be a minefield especially when it came to interpretation or revision of the Bill.
Mark Lazarowicz: Another problem with that proposal comes to mind. Say that on Report an amendment was tabled to a Bill that would mean that it no longer applied to Scotland. If that amendment were carried, would we have to subtract all the votes cast by Scottish MPs at previous stages? What would happen in the reverse circumstances if Scottish interests were added to the Bill on Report?
Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend raises an interesting and important point, which was unfortunately brushed over by Opposition Members as an argument that did not hold water because Members were raising issues that might never happen. However, when making constitutional legislation we have to think about the things that might come up during the passage of Bills to the statute book and the outcome described by my hon. Friend could indeed come to pass.
The hon. Member for North Dorset tries to protect Mr. Speaker through provisions on the presentation of certificates to Parliament and the making of other rulings; clause 1 would ensure that there would be no recourse to Messrs. Solicitor and Barrister or the courts to overturn the Speakers rulings. Nevertheless, the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) could arise during the course of a Bill. Furthermore, the Speaker himself might consider that the original arrangements had not been determined correctly and should be rectified, in which case any previous proceedings on the Bill would be nullified for the rest of its passage. Merely in terms of that narrow reading of the hon. Gentlemans Bill, it would seem unwise for the House to proceed with it.
There has been wider speculation in the Chamber today about the reason why the Bill was introduced. For decades there have been anomalies in the way the House votes on its business. They have attracted periodic but not enormous attention, and there has been some support from the Opposition for their continuation. I am thinking in particular of the continued participation of Northern Ireland Members in votes in this place on business that did not concern Northern Ireland while Stormont was sitting on a devolved basis.
Why is a change being proposed now? I was interested to learn that a commission for democracy has been set up through Conservative party channels, to decide, among other things, on issues covered by the
Bill. Indeed, it has been suggested that a measure such as the Bill may be considered by the commission, so if the Houses deliberations today serve only one purpose, it will be to tell the commission, Dont do itthink about something else. Although we are talking about a real issue, it will not be resolved by addressing the detailed way in which we make our decisions with an attempt to solve the West Lothian question through the device of setting up two classes of Members of Parliament.
That is at the heart of the wider issue raised by the Bill. Devolution to the Scottish Parliament of powers to make legislation and raise taxes and devolution to a lesser extent to Wales came about as the result of Acts of Parliament here. As has been said this morning, it is possible, although highly unlikely, that a similar Act of Parliament could undo that process. Therefore, although it is true that there is an anomaly in terms of the way in which votes may be said to take place on a daily basis in the House on legislation that affects parts of the UK, but not other parts, it is also true that Members are in the House on the basis that they have an overall concern about all legislation that relates to the UK, because of the way in which the legislation devolved from an Act of Parliament passed and contributed to by all Members of Parliaments in the UK when devolution first took place.
It has been emphasised that the logic of the Bill is not that it resolves that anomaly, but that it leads on to a resolution by other means: the setting up of an English Parliament, which, presumably, would have the same legislative features as perhaps a Welsh Parliament, the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly. In those circumstances, as hon. Members have also pointed out, there could well be a certain outcome, because one particular part of that federation would have an overwhelming preponderance of the votes. I am afraid that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) failed to understand the importance of that point, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith).
If the federal Parliament were to vote on the money supply for the UK as a whole and devolve that into national Parliament components, and a national Parliament that had 80 per cent. of the votes for the federal Parliament as a whole then considered the matter, the likelihood of the entire decision-making process of that federal Parliament effectively being run by the one Parliament that had 80 per cent. of the votes in terms of the decision making on finances in the first place, would be high. The net result of a federal system would be that, in effect, there would be less power and devolution for the components than there is at the moment. That outcome would look quite perverse in terms of the ambitions of those who sought to push through that federal arrangement in the first place.
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