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9 Mar 2007 : Column 1838

The Bill would create a constitutional mess with no accountability. There could be an English Administration dealing with certain issues that are currently devolved to Scotland, with representatives of one party, and the overall UK Government, led by representatives of another party. How on earth could Cabinet collective responsibility work if different parties were in the same Cabinet?

Mr. Heald: The hon. Lady is setting up Aunt Sallies that are not proposed. Her party says that there is an issue; indeed, her leader has said that we should examine it. Like a typical Liberal Democrat, she has criticised the Labour party and the Conservatives—what would she do?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman anticipates my remarks, because I do not intend to sit down before outlining a more sensible way forward. It is important to describe this constitutional turmoil, because it is not an Aunt Sally but what would happen.

The most worrying aspect is that if one party had control over, say, domestic policy areas, while another party had control over, say, international and reserved policy areas, whom would voters in London, in Liverpool or Lincolnshire be voting for come election day? Would they be voting on the record of the Government who have been in charge of UK-wide matters or that of the Government who have been in charge of English matters? There would be no accountability. From a democratic point of view, that would be a huge problem.

The Conservatives’ policy has been all over the place. This was their manifesto pledge in 2001 and 2005, yet very few Conservative Members are in the Chamber to support it. The 2005 manifesto was written by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), yet he is nowhere to be seen. Last July, the Conservatives were going to have a debate on the issue which was hurriedly pulled when it was realised that perhaps the policy was going to be changed. In September, the right hon. Member for Witney told an audience in Glasgow about the taskforce under the leadership of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), saying:

Was he just playing to his audience? Has the policy changed? When will we find out what it is? Is not the hon. Gentleman jumping the gun somewhat by introducing his Bill? Does he not trust that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe will come to a sensible conclusion on the matter?

Mr. Heath: I think that there is a tradition that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe is kept in the dark on these matters; he was certainly not told about the launch of the new policy to establish a local British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act 1998.

Jo Swinson: No doubt there are communication issues that the Conservatives need to address.

Mr. Vara: Given that the clock is ticking on, it would be helpful if we heard a little about what the Lib Dems had to say rather than the hon. Lady’s criticisms of
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other parties. I echo the point of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald)—that it is about time that we heard something of what the Lib Dems have to say rather than the usual Lib-Dem speech or criticism of the other parties.

Jo Swinson: As I have already mentioned, I fully intend to talk about what I believe is the proper way forward. As to timing, other hon. Members have spoken for far longer than I have so far. I am certainly going to continue with my remarks, but— [Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) muttering from a sedentary position, but other than the odd intervention, I have not heard him contribute to the debate.

On the matter of what the Government are doing—or, rather, what they are not doing—on this issue, it was a great Labour politician, Donald Dewar, who famously said that devolution is a process, not an event, and he was absolutely right. Among the public at large, there is a great appetite for more constitutional change. In fact, within the Scottish context, recent polls suggest an appetite for more powers to be given to the Scottish Parliament, which is the most popular option. The “Newsnight” poll conducted by the BBC on the tercentenary of the Act of Union 1707 showed that there was a great deal of support in England and Scotland for the idea of an English Parliament. I would not necessarily support that, but it shows the public appetite for constitutional change. Furthermore, a British social attitudes survey noted a general decline in the number of people who felt that they had a British identity, as opposed to the individual national identities of English, Scottish and Welsh. That has been most marked in England. Clearly, there is an issue that needs to be addressed.

I have put questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland on the general issue of the Act of Union 1707 and a future constitutional settlement,. The Leader of the House seemed to flirt with the idea of having a debate on that matter in Government time, but the Secretary of State for Scotland seems rather less keen. The Government have consistently said that they have no plans for further constitutional reform, which I think is a great shame. They are ignoring public opinion. It is a short-sighted and irresponsible position because it results in proposals such as this Bill—a well meaning but ill-conceived attempt to address the issue—when what we really need is the Government to take the lead in a national debate on the issue.

In the absence of that, what we propose—it has been proposed by the leader of my party—is a constitutional convention. Surely the best way to achieve constitutional change is by building a consensus and— [Interruption.] I hear Conservative Members ridiculing such an idea. They, of course, did not take part in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which actually led to a very successful consensus being built around what should happen in respect of devolution for Scotland. That has to be the right way to do it.

This is too important an issue to get wrong. Frankly, it is probably too important and too big for any one party to have a monopoly on determining a perfect solution. I would argue that the Scottish Constitutional Convention provides a good model. A variety of political parties were involved in it, as were religious
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groups, trade unions, local government, business people and community groups. Constitutional change affects all those groups within the community, so we do need to bring people together to discuss this.

I mentioned previously that there is currently only a small issue of asymmetry, but I fear that there is genuine concern out there in the constituencies and that it will grow. Let us consider what happened in the Scottish context after the poll tax. As we discussed earlier, there was a feeling of injustice in the 1990s, which stoked up a great amount of concern, and it needed to be dealt with. Perhaps the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) regrets this, but I think that if we had not had the referendum and the Scottish Parliament being created when it was, we might have ended up with Scotland resolving the sense of injustice by going down the route to independence, which is why I am so glad that we did implement a Scottish Parliament.

Mr. MacNeil: I agree. Had the people been asked about independence, I believe that they would have given that answer. Now I can understand why the Liberal Democrats are so fiercely resisting even asking the Scottish people for their opinion on independence.

Jo Swinson: Well, the Scottish people will be asked their opinion on independence on 3 May and it will be intriguing to see the results and which parties they choose. If a similar situation were to develop in England and a feeling of injustice grew, my fear is that we would start to deal with it only when it came to a head in some kind of crisis. I would argue that the Government or people in Britain generally are not particularly at their best when it comes to decision making in the middle of a crisis. We tend to get knee-jerk reactions and Bills rushed through without proper scrutiny and consideration, which something of such magnitude requires. Even though the topic is not a burning issue on the doorstep at the moment, we need to start the process of building consensus and holding a constitutional debate so that, if it becomes much hotter, a great deal of work will already have been done and we can create a robust solution that works.

A variety of different options is on the table. My party has long favoured the regional governance route. That suffered a setback in the north-east, but I would argue that people in the north-east were not offered an assembly with teeth and sufficient powers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, it would have taken powers upwards from local government rather than devolving them downwards. That concept has therefore not necessarily run its course.

We favour further devolution of powers to Scotland, including more fiscal powers. Lord Steel has conducted a robust piece of work, which set out how that could happen.

We need to hold a debate, or the subject could create a headache for us in future. It needs to be held in a wider context that in that of the Bill, which, although it is well intentioned, has flaws. They are: the practicalities of implementation; the minimal improvements that it would make to the current position; the danger of allowing the UK to legislate for Scotland without the scrutiny of Scottish Members,
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and the constitutional chaos that it would create. However, ignoring the need for change is irresponsible and short sighted. We must have a robust constitutional settlement and take the time, through proper, calm and considered debate, to get it right.

Our long-term aim must be to devolve power throughout the UK to allow decision making to take place at the lowest practical level and to simplify rather than increase bureaucracy. I welcome the debate that the Bill has helped spark, but I cannot support the measure.

2.1 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Shortly after the Bill’s promoter began his speech, he admitted that he wanted to entitle it the “Scotland Act (Amendment ) Bill”. I wish that he had been allowed to do that because it would have highlighted to hon. Members and the wider public the far-reaching consequences of the modestly titled measure. Indeed, a more accurate title would have been the “Slow Unravelling of the Union Bill” because that would be its result. The majority of hon. Members would not support such a process.

I accept that there is an anomaly, but, as I said earlier, when considering whether to tackle it, we must ask ourselves whether our proposed solution will lead to worse consequences than those that the anomaly creates. The Bill’s consequences would be serious. Several hon. Members referred to the procedural difficulties that could arise from it and they should not be minimised.

We have discussed defining measures that apply only to Scotland or only to England and Wales. I noted with some amusement the straight face that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) kept when he told us that the only reason he voted in debates about apparently English measures was to do with their content and nothing to do with embarrassing the Government. Whatever people’s motivations for voting, difficulties face anyone who tries to define what constitutes a Scottish-only or English-only Bill.

I remember the former Member for part of the constituency that is now represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) proudly announcing that he would not vote on English measures. He was later revealed to have voted on the Mersey Tunnels Bill. I know that much rethinking is happening in the Scottish Conservative party, but suggesting that that measure could apply to Scotland is surely blue skies thinking at its most generous.

Mr. MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman talks about embarrassing the Government. The Scottish National party does not need to look for ways in which to do that; it has already done so substantially through cash for peerages.

Mark Lazarowicz: The SNP will find itself embarrassed in the Scottish elections. We can deal with that when it arises.

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As well as the procedural problems of determining what constitutes Scottish or English measures, there are difficulties about the processes that we operate in Parliament. Some hon. Members have referred to those, but given the limited time available I shall not repeat the points that have been made.

There are other examples of difficulties that might arise. What would happen if I wanted to amend a clause in a particular Bill that applied only to England so that that clause applied to Scotland? Under the proposals in the Bill, I would presumably not be able to move that amendment, as I would barred from tabling it because I do not represent a constituency in England. However, if that amendment was tabled and moved by somebody else, would I be able to vote on it? In any case, why should I not be able to table an amendment so that provisions in a Bill that applied only to England could apply to Scotland? That is an example of the procedural difficulties that would apply at various stages in the process.

It is suggested that the same considerations should apply to a programme motion, too. It might be that the big issue for debate in a particular Bill is whether certain provisions would apply to Scotland. However, under the proposals in the Bill, I would be barred from voting on a programme motion to decide whether I would have time to speak and propose that certain elements should apply to Scotland. The same difficulties would apply to measures that had originally started out as a GB Bill but that at some stage in the process stopped applying to Scotland. As I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) earlier, would that mean that the votes of Scottish Members would suddenly be subtracted from previous Divisions on that Bill?

I am not attempting to uncover little difficulties in order to set up an Aunt Sally or maximise the range of arguments that can be marshalled against the Bill. Those problems are real. For example, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill could have been introduced as an England-only Bill. As we know, it was decided later that it was most appropriate to introduce it as a UK-wide Bill. Once a Sewel motion had been passed, the Bill would have applied to Scotland as well as England, but Scottish Members of Parliament would have been entirely excluded from previous debates on it.

Those procedural difficulties would arise precisely because we have a United Kingdom Parliament that is structured in such a way as to make all hon. Members equal. As the articles of the Treaty of Union make clear, its purpose was to establish one Parliament for the United Kingdom. That is why any attempt to introduce a two-tier system in Parliament seems bound to come up against such procedural difficulties.

As I have indicated, however, it is not just procedural difficulties that would arise from the Bill. Much wider political problems would arise, too. It has already been pointed out that if the Bill were successful, one of the consequences would be, effectively, two Governments in Parliament. There would be the official Government, formed of Ministers from the party with a majority in the House, but leading members of the Opposition could also act as quasi-Ministers, because the civil servants would know that they could command a majority on certain measures. That would cause all
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sorts of difficulties, because Ministers would still have the Executive authority but the policy drive would to a great extent come from Members from Opposition parties.

Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that his arguments are fanciful? For example, he has talked about wanting to amend a Bill to include Scotland. However, that would be in breach of the Scotland Act 1998, except in the rare circumstances where the Scottish Parliament had asked for the amendment through a Sewel motion, so what the hon. Gentleman is talking about is absolute nonsense.

Mark Lazarowicz: Not at all. As I have indicated and as other hon. Members have made clear, the Sewel motion procedure has been used on many occasions, sometimes even with the agreement of the Scottish National party in the Scottish Parliament. The difficulty is therefore not just theoretical, but real.

There might be an argument about how we reflect the views of the English electorate in the House. I shall touch on that issue in a moment, but the Bill is certainly not the way to achieve that objective. As I have indicated, this Parliament was established as a unitary Parliament, but the consequence of the Bill would be to dismantle it, and I hope that the House will reject that.

The idea that Scottish MPs make such a difference to legislation here that we are in some way forcing our views on the people of England is absurd. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) indicated, the cases in which that might even potentially be regarded as an issue are very limited. The Library research shows that on no occasion has a Second Reading—a vote on the principle of a Bill—been dependent on the vote of Scottish MPs.

Where one or more nations or states are in partnership in a wider political union, it is not unusual to have provisions that give a certain degree of protection to the smaller members of that union, reflecting the fact that the larger members have a wider say in political arrangements. In the United States Senate, for example, every state has the same number of Senators, which is specifically designed to give a certain degree of protection to the smaller states. In the European Union, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test has indicated, several member states have different degrees of asymmetric devolution within them.

The Library’s helpful briefing paper highlights some 15 countries that have a certain degree of asymmetric devolution—I will not list them, as that would take more time than is available. It is worth while pointing out, however, that as many states have asymmetric devolution as have some form of perfect devolution. In Europe, there are examples of asymmetric devolution that seem to work fairly well. We should reject the suggestion that that arrangement is not sustainable for this country or other countries.

The Bill would create many much worse anomalies than are said to exist under the present arrangements. The situation in London has been mentioned. Under the Bill, MPs from England and Wales could vote on Scotland-only statutory instruments. Apparently, the minority party Members who have spoken were on a
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Committee last week, and I am on a Committee next week that deals with a Scottish statutory instrument, which would just apply to Scotland. In the past, the Conservatives have had no objection to the Ulster Unionists being on their side and voting.

Of course, we have had the anomaly of the unelected House of Lords for centuries. That anomaly might be resolved in the not-too-distant future—I say that with some trepidation. In the meantime, peers who have some connection with Scotland are still able to vote on English-only matters, and yet the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) does not suggest for a minute that there is anything wrong with Scottish-based peers voting on legislation for England. Perhaps that is because a higher proportion of those are Conservatives than is the case in the House of Commons.

The proposals would be unworkable in practice, except in so far as they would help to undermine the unity of this Parliament. It is worth while considering how the House can improve its processes, but I note that the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs has hardly met, and nor am I aware of a high demand from Members for it to meet. The Bill is not the way forward. Ultimately, in trying to bring about short-term political advantage for the Conservatives, it risks undermining what the Union between Scotland, England and Wales has achieved in the past 300 years.

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