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2.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): This has been a good debate. I agree that it has been worth while and I hope that it continues. As a number of hon. Members, including some of my hon. Friends, said, the constitutional settlement is not the best description of the arrangement because “settlement” suggests a permanence when it is in fact an evolving being. We should continue to return to it and consider the issues that are part of it.

Let me quote to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) someone he has described to me as a very serious heavyweight journalist. The view of Peter Riddell—he mentioned him to me not so long ago—is:

He goes on, as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) did, to say:

A former Secretary of State for Scotland said:

That was the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). The shadow Secretary of State for Defence said:

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I fear that the two contributions from the official Opposition played into the hands of the nationalists.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), in a serious and considered contribution, reminded the Conservatives that they made no mention of the anomaly of the relationship with Northern Irish MPs in this Parliament when Stormont sat in full force. Others also mentioned that. He was right to suggest gently to the Opposition’s taskforce on democracy that it should not go down that road. He gave a detailed analysis of the asymmetrical nature of our devolution when he described what happened with the Channel Islands and other places.

Mr. Heald: I am sure that the hon. Lady would accept, however, that there was a solution in Northern Ireland, which was the under-representation of Northern Ireland MPs because of devolution. We are not proposing that, but the question was certainly not ignored.

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman misses the point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) said from a sedentary position, a small injustice is still an injustice. The solution that the Conservative party appears to have adopted as party policy—English votes for English laws—is in itself a flawed solution and not the way that we should proceed. It may be different, but it is still flawed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), in a number of telling interventions, made the case for the illogicality of the Bill in relation to London. Neither the Bill’s promoter nor the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire could defeat that argument.

Mr. Heath: I entirely agree. It was never explained to us why, if the principle underlying the Bill was that only Members whose constituencies were affected by legislation should be allowed to vote on it, that principle should not apply to London. Indeed, I would extend it to private legislation. Reference was made to a ports Bill on which practically no one in the House would be allowed to vote under the system espoused by the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter).

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. That would indeed be the logical extension of the principle. Had this legislation been in operation at the time, most of us would not have voted on the Bill that became the Cardiff Bay Barrage Act 1993. Some Members may recall the long-standing debate on that Bill. It would not have been possible for Members to vote on the Mersey Tunnels Bill, later the Mersey Tunnels Act 2004, and I would not expect them to be able to vote on Crossrail. The same logic could be applied to any part of the United Kingdom.

I am glad that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire accepts that the Bill raises profound issues that require detailed and expert consideration, but it is for that very reason that I am surprised he supports it.

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The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made a telling point in drawing a parallel between the commonality of interests among rural areas in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the commonality of interests among urban areas. In a thoughtful and indeed thought-provoking speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said that we must recognise the existence of anomalies and make changes where appropriate. His description of the very British way in which we do such things aptly summed up the need for change to be introduced in a progressive, incremental fashion. He also spoke of voting reforms for Westminster, better regional government, and the imaginative use of a reformed House of Lords. I listened to what he said with great interest. As he acknowledged, those are proposals for the longer term to which immediate solutions cannot be applied.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) explained in detail the difficulties and indeed the unacceptability of a two-tier system. Members of this Parliament represent the nation as a whole. As I was coming here today, thinking about the debate, it occurred to me that we should all remember that when people elect us to our individual constituencies, flattering as it may be for us to think that they elect us because they think we as individuals are the most wonderful people listed on the ballot paper—

Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West) (Lab): They are right.

Bridget Prentice: I am sure that it is true of many of my hon. Friends, but due modesty leads me to suspect that most of the people who vote for me do so because they want to vote for the Labour party candidate, and I think that that applies to most Members of Parliament. We should not flatter ourselves too much by believing that our personality will necessarily bring us votes.

People vote for political parties with policies that cover the nation. Although we represent constituencies, we are expected to come here and debate issues with the nation’s interests at heart. It is for that reason, among many others, that the Bill should not be supported. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood made that point very clearly. He also made the point that the Bill is very much a constitutional Bill, and should be treated accordingly. Useful as today’s debate has been, a debate is not the appropriate way in which to deal with these issues.

In response to a question about London, the hon. Member for North Dorset said that, as the financial capital of the world, it was influenced by Treasury policy, which is a reserved matter. Surely that illustrates the problem that confronts us. Exactly how do we decide whether a matter is devolved or reserved? What is its impact, and therefore who has a legitimate interest in it? As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) pointed out, what happens if he wants to make an amendment to a Bill that the Speaker has deemed to be on purely English matters? How can he take part in establishing what is the national interest if that is to be the case?

Mr. Walter: The whole question about London and the Greater London authority is a red herring. The GLA does not have legislative powers. The Scottish Parliament has legislative powers both primary and
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secondary. The Welsh Assembly has secondary legislative powers. The Northern Ireland Assembly will have, when it is up and running, primary and secondary legislative powers. That is not the case in respect of the GLA, which is a local authority.

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. What is decided for London by the GLA and the Mayor will very often have effects nationally. As has been pointed out in terms of transport, what happens in London is often crucial to the economy not only of London but of the country as a whole.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said that she was disappointed about Government inaction on constitutional matters. I cannot think of any Government in the 20th century who have done more than ours in making the constitution a major issue and in changing it—whether in respect of the Human Rights Act 1998, devolution to Scotland and Wales or the change in the stature of the role performed by my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. However, I agree with the hon. Lady about the dearth of support at present on the Conservative Benches for what is supposedly Conservative party policy. I hope that that will be rectified if we discuss this matter again.

I will sum up my opposition to the Bill by stressing my belief in the Union—which many hon. Friends have also emphasised. By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone. I am sure that hon. Friends recognise the source of that comment. I do not believe that the Bill will rectify some perceived inequality in this House, but I do believe that if it is passed it will cause untold damage to our institution of Parliament, which has a tradition of unifying the peoples of our United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith got very close to describing what would happen under the Bill in the way that I would wish to describe it. If we were to distinguish one Member of Parliament from another in terms of what they are and
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are not allowed to vote on, we would create a form of parliamentary apartheid. At the heart of the Bill is a call to establish institutional difference, which would extinguish the significance and power of the United Kingdom Parliament by creating two classes of Members and subsequently establishing a de facto English Parliament. The hon. Member for North Dorset talked about using this place as a place for the English Parliament. That is the context in which I put the Bill. The need to preserve the Union is paramount, and we must protect it from any hurried constitutional reform of this kind.

Since the Treaty of Union in 1707—it is appropriate that we are discussing this subject in the year that marks the 300th anniversary of that treaty—the United Kingdom Parliament has been a symbol of a united democracy that represents common values and welcomes differences of identity. Those are the qualities that we see embodied in all our nations today.

The Union was never about establishing uniformity or changing the uniqueness of each of the individual nations. It was developed through social, economic and political interdependence, and it became a symbol of huge achievements from which the peoples of all of our nations have benefited, and which they continue to enjoy.

We were brought together 300 years ago by a desire for stability and security. The Scots were keen to gain access to the overseas markets that England held in its possession.

Mr. MacNeil: The hon. Lady mentions overseas markets. She will of course know that Adam Smith pointed out in “Wealth of Nations” that Scotland lost a lot of its overseas markets because of the Union, and had to trade in particular ways that were not beneficial to it for the first—

It being half-past Two o’clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 19 October.

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Remaining Private Members’ Bills


Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 23 March.


Order for Second reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 23 March.

Age-Related Macular Degeneration BIll

Order for Second reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 19 October.


Order for Second reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 23 March.

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East London Line

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Jonathan Shaw.]

2.31 pm

Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West) (Lab): I am particularly delighted that Mr. Speaker has allowed me to hold this brief debate on a matter of considerable concern to my constituents. This is in fact the second time that I have been fortunate enough to debate this issue on the Adjournment of the House, but as the first time was some 14 years ago and I was sitting on the other side of the Chamber, I am sure that people will not accuse me of being obsessive about it.

The tube system in south London, and certainly in south-east London, has been a joke for many years—largely because it does not exist. In the latter days of the 19th century, the system was run by a cartel. The Southern Electric Company and the Metropolitan Railway, as they then were, decided that they would not encroach on each other’s territory, which is one reason why the tube system never came very far south of the Thames. Elaborate hoaxes were devised. Reference was made to saturated sand that made tunnelling impossible, and God knows what else, but it was the commercial interests of the railway companies that largely dictated the layout of the London underground as it exists today. Fortunately, in more enlightened times we have adopted a more progressive view of improving transport in and around the capital.

When I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, there was a scheme to extend the Bakerloo line from the Elephant and Castle through Walworth, Camberwell, Peckham and Forest Hill and on to Catford and Bromley, but it was never more than a pipe-dream. The costs were always prohibitive, even then, and although the scheme existed on paper, it never existed in fact.

The extension of the East London line therefore became a much more realistic proposition, particularly in my part of south-east London. Only relatively minor engineering work at New Cross Gate is required to allow it to share the infrastructure with Network Rail that is necessary to produce a service that—when I started campaigning for such an extension in the early ’70s, on being elected to Lewisham council—was designed to go to East Croydon. As the proposed extension of the East London line both north and south was discussed—the House will understand if I do not go into detail about the northern extension, important though that is—the ideas were refined. The decision was taken that it would be better to extend the line to West Croydon, which serves the centre of Croydon more readily than does East Croydon. Extending to East Croydon would have had the advantage of a link with Gatwick airport, but such a service would have been of limited value to commuters.

The idea was hatched to introduce the scheme, which lacked a substantial backer for many years and was little more than a hope or aspiration, rather than an achievable objective. Fortunately, that has changed over time, and we very much welcome the fact that the East London line’s southern and northern extensions will proceed apace over the next few years.

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The London borough of Lewisham has the highest proportion of residents who work outside the borough, so its public transport links are crucial to the well-being of the area and its citizens. We have seen many improvements in recent years. The Docklands light railway extension was eventually continued across the river, from a rather strange terminus at Mudchute on the Isle of Dogs, largely because of the innovative and imaginative approach of the London borough of Lewisham. Modesty almost forbids me from saying that I was the chair of finance at the time. We identified a capital investment that we could make in concert with the Docklands light railway to bring it, via Greenwich and Deptford, to Lewisham. That was achieved a few years ago, improving the transport links considerably.

We have also seen a substantial improvement in bus services since the advent of the Greater London authority, under the Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and the active intervention of Transport for London. The improvements in transport in London alone more than justify the creation of the GLA and Transport for London. My thanks go to the Mayor and the GLA for their determination to develop the East London line from what is at the moment—little more than a cross-river shuttle east of Tower Bridge—to a much more comprehensive service for south and east London, as part of the more ambitious and beneficial project that will become known as the London overground, stretching from Watford in the north-west to Croydon in the south-east.

In the near future, my part of London will also benefit from the moving of the Eurostar channel tunnel rail link services from Waterloo to St. Pancras, because that will free up slots on another local rail line and will result in more services to Sydenham Hill and Penge East stations. Although those stations are not actually in my constituency, they are close enough to the boundary to be used by many of my constituents, so that will be a considerable benefit.

The proposed extension of the East London line to my constituency and the London borough of Lewisham more broadly—and to places further south—is welcomed almost unreservedly, but I have requested this debate because I have to use the word “almost”. The extension has implications that are not as desirable as the extension itself. As we have some of the most congested commuter lines in the whole country, hon. Members will understand the concerns of my constituents.

We also look forward to the as yet unannounced transfer of responsibility—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm it at some point, if not today—for the stations along the route of the extension from the train operating company, Southern, to Transport for London, with a subsequent programme of investment and improvement. In my constituency, that will involve Honor Oak, Forest Hill and Sydenham stations and, just outside it, Penge West, Anerley and Crystal Palace. We look forward to the improved standards of service and security for commuters that TFL provides for its stations, compared to the current operator.

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