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18 Jun 2008 : Column 249WH—continued

Underlying the comments of the hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) and for Kettering—this is slightly less true of the comments of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey—about where we should go from here and what constitutional arrangements should be put in place is some confusion about the idea of representation. If English MPs were to join together to defend the interests of England as England, there would not be a problem. There are so many of us that we could abuse our position to do whatever we wanted. The problem is not representation in the sense of protecting the interests of our constituents—we are in a strong position to do that as English MPs. The problem is set
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to arise if Government proposals for specific measures may get through only with the votes of non-English MPs, despite the fact that the measures affect only England. That is a different sort of representation. That is political representation—the representation of political views.

There are several problems with the idea of representation put forward by those who argue for English votes for English laws. The first is that it does not apply all the way down. When Parliament was dealing with the Greater London Authority Act 1999, we did not have votes for London MPs only. When we discuss the Bournemouth Bill, we do not restrict debate to MPs from Bournemouth.

Secondly, from a Liberal Democrat point of view, the most important point is that MPs elected for English constituents are not representative of English political opinion. That is because the electoral system—the first-past-the-post system—is not representative of political opinion in that way. It is difficult for opponents of proportional representation to argue in the way they often do for English votes and laws. Those of us who support PR have less need to worry about the anomaly in the first place. Why? The main argument against PR is that it leads to minority Government, and it is true that that outcome is more frequent than coalitions. However, it is interesting that all the proposals except that made by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey imply that we could have a UK Government with a majority at UK level, but a minority in England.

Those who propose such an arrangement think that that is all right. In fact, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who has been arguing for what might be called the “English Committee Stage” solution, said in The Scotsman on 23 April this year—an interesting date—that, under his proposal:

It is interesting that those who propose such interim solutions to the problem of English representation do so in a way that undermines their simultaneous objection to proportional representation. They cannot have it both ways.

The main argument for the first-past-the-post system is that it exists to elect a Government, not to represent political opinion. That is the clearest argument for the present system. However, if we apply first past the post to the problem of English representation, we must conclude that there must be a separate Government for England, and not simply a separate representative body. Will people find that acceptable? There are some problems with such a solution.

That is also the conclusion if we think about maintaining one United Kingdom Government who also run England. It is perfectly possible, especially under the present arrangements, for a Government to have a majority in the UK, but a minority in England, as I said. However, something far more radically challenging is also perfectly possible: namely, a situation in which a UK Government are formed from a party that is in a minority in England, when another party have a majority in England. That would be an extraordinary situation. Such a Government would face defeat on everything all the time. In fact, the Opposition’s position would also be quite extraordinary,
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because they would have a majority in the legislature for their part of the Kingdom, but no ministerial office or responsibility.

Solutions to the problem that do not include a separate English Government face extraordinary problems of coherence. However, if we look at public opinion and the demands for some sort of solution to the West Lothian question, we see little support for a separate Government, because, as is well known, people are not in favour of creating extra layers of paid politicians. That was one of the main reasons why the referendum on regional devolution in the north-east went the way it did—the idea went down. People do not like the idea of those extra layers.

Mr. Andrew Turner: The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that we must have the same size of Government at UK and England level, but surely England and say, the Conservatives, would deal with two thirds of the matters—perhaps not the most important matters—and the other party would deal with a few important matters, such as defence and the national Exchequer. One lot would be doing something at English level, and some other lot would do other things at UK level.

David Howarth: Those would be two separate Governments. The UK Government would be made up by one party, and a separate English Government by a different party. That would be a proper federal system like Germany’s, where Governments at federal level can have different political complexions from those of the Länder.

The question is whether the coherent cure that the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey proposed is worth the disease. At the moment, the proposal seems to be like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, even if it is a coherent sledgehammer. The problem is not as great for those of us who support proportional representation, because PR would be far less likely to produce conflicting political results in the first place. First past the post exaggerates political differences and produces exaggerated results in different parts of the country, whereas PR would reduce them. Although contradictory results are not impossible under PR, they are far less likely.

The first priority is proportional representation. The problem we are discussing today is, it seems, a third-term problem. That is helpfully in line with the timetable that the hon. Gentleman proposed for his constitutional convention. I am therefore fully prepared to wait.

10.6 am

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): It is always interesting to hear the Liberal Democrats’ arguments for proportional representation. We will never be convinced by them, but we understand exactly why it is always their first priority. If we turn the clock back, we will find that the Liberal party did not stand for PR 100 years ago. Then, they wanted to be in government, but they now know that they will not be in government. They were not in government for most of the last century and they will not be in this century, so we forgive them for always making proportional representation their top priority.

I heartily congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) on introducing this debate. It is a welcome opportunity to discuss an extremely
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important matter—I am only sorry that more Members of Parliament do not make it a high priority. I am nevertheless pleased to see that six of us are in the Chamber; what we lose in quantity we make up for, as ever, in quality. The issue must be discussed. I believe that that ought to happen in Government time, but as that has not happened, the hon. Gentleman is to be congratulated on opening the matter up. I am pleased to see the Minister—by my calculations looking at the clock, he will have plenty of time to answer all the matters that have been raised this morning. I will raise only a few more for him.

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey was right that this is unfinished business, as it has been for a long time. The issue became known as the West Lothian question, rightly, because the then Member for West Lothian, Mr. Tam Dalyell, brought the subject up again and again in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, when devolution for Scotland was discussed repeatedly in the House of Commons, and finally was put to more than one referendum in Scotland. Mr. Tam Dalyell was right to ask the question and to highlight the anomaly, and no Government have come up with an answer to the West Lothian question. The current Government want to sweep the whole matter under the carpet and have, indeed, successfully done so for 11 years. They have simply refused to address the problem, although I am sure that they would not answer it even if they did. That is simply not fair.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Does my hon. Friend agree that pushing the issue under the carpet for 11 years has made the situation far worse, particularly in some constituencies in England?

Mrs. Laing: Yes. My hon. Friend is correct, and I was about to make precisely that point. The constitution of the United Kingdom is imperfect, and there is an imbalance on this issue, as there is on many others. We do not pretend that our constitution is perfect; what matters, however, is not that it should be a perfect work of academic excellence—we are not looking for a first in constitutional law from Cambridge—but that it should work for the United Kingdom and make the Union work. My top priority is the Union of all the parts of our United Kingdom, and that is what Conservative Members want to see preserved and improved in anything that is done on this issue.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, however, the situation has got worse over the past 11 years, and that is because of the perceived unfairness. Now, I would argue that the unfairness in the constitution and the Barnett formula is not as bad as some people make it out to be; indeed, with all respect to the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, who argued his case very well, it is not as bad as he calculates it to be. However, we do not know how bad it is, because the Government have not properly considered the matter. As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) rightly said, therefore, the perception of unfairness has grown. The perception that some parts of the United Kingdom are not getting as good a deal as others has grown, and resentment has grown, too. I would argue that there is no need for that resentment, but it is essential that it is addressed. As the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey correctly said, it cannot be fair that people who are elected to
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represent Scottish constituencies are making rules for the English that they themselves do not have to follow. That is the worst of the perceived unfairnesses, but the Government have refused to address it.

The hon. Gentleman rightly, and most interestingly, analysed the weight of the vote in different parts of the United Kingdom. However, when we elect a Government—to take up the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)—we are not trying exactly to represent different people in different parts of the United Kingdom, or indeed in different constituencies; we are generally electing a Government. That takes me back to the idea of the perfection of the constitution. We would have an unworkable Government if we tried to have perfect representation and to ensure that Parliament exactly reflected the proportional make-up of the people of the United Kingdom in economic, ethnic or any other terms that we might care to mention. That simply would not work.

What matters is that we construct a system that works, that is perceived as fair and that gives people in all parts of the United Kingdom the feeling that they are being fairly governed. Indeed, one of the principle rules of constitutional development is that arrangements should not only be fair, but be seen to be fair. That, of course, is why there is now a problem with the Barnett formula, and I am pleased that the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey has given us the opportunity to raise the issue.

Again, the Barnett formula is not as unfair as it is sometimes made out to be. After all, Scotland is not all the same; there are enormous disparities between the industrial belt in central Scotland, the borders and the agricultural areas in the north, just as there are enormous differences in the region called the south-east of England. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that his constituency contains areas that are calculated as deprived, but which, because they are in the south-east, do not necessarily get the financial subsidy that he might hope for. The same is true in my constituency, where some areas are very much in need of greater social, economic and other input, but do not get it because the wider area is not perceived to be in need. Likewise, Scotland is not one homogenous area. The Barnett formula must therefore be calculated in a way that takes all parts of Scotland into consideration. It might be said that Glasgow, for example, equates to the centre of Birmingham, Manchester or Newcastle, but that does not mean that the whole of Scotland equates to the whole of England.

My point is that this is not a simple matter and that it cannot be distilled into simplistic terms. Indeed, I heard Lord Barnett eloquently give evidence to the Select Committee on Justice a few weeks ago. He said—I am not quoting him, but trying to reflect his comments exactly, and I am sure that hon. Members will check what he said in due course—that he had intended to put together a fair funding formula that operated on a needs basis for the different parts of the United Kingdom, and particularly Scotland. He said that it had never worked on a needs basis, however, and that he would like to see it do so. There are ways in which the Barnett formula could be improved without rocking the boat of constitutional reform. Its perceived unfairness is greater
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than its actual unfairness, although that does not mean that the issue does not have to be addressed—of course it does. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight was absolutely correct in all that he said in that regard.

I take issue with the main premise of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. We do not need another Parliament—we have too much government already. As the hon. Member for Cambridge rightly said, and as was decisively evidenced in the referendum in the north-east of England a few years ago, the people do not want more government, more Parliaments or more politicians; they want taxpayers’ money to be spent on supporting the people, not Parliaments and politicians—we have quite enough politicians at various levels already. I therefore take issue with the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that the answer is a federal system. Why would we want a federal system? Would it be so that it would fit in with the idea of a European superstate or so that the United Kingdom could be divided into bite-sized chunks, ready to be gobbled up by a federal Europe?

Derek Wyatt: The idea of the EU gobbling up England is as far-fetched as I have heard for a while. However, I did not have Europe in mind, but the English. As a result of the discussions in the House over the past 12 years, the English have not been given a fair constitutional settlement.

Mrs. Laing: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made it clear what he thinks about Europe. I do not believe that the United Kingdom can be gobbled up by Europe or anyone else, but if it is split up into bite-sized chunks, it could be prepared to become part of a federal Europe. That is the last thing that I, or any Conservative Member, would want to see.

David Howarth: A more commonly held view is the one proposed by Professor Vernon Bogdanor at Oxford. He says that the centralisation of power in Europe has the opposite effect within member states. It tends to make those member states less decentralised, and more centralised. What the hon. Lady is saying is the opposite of what appears to be going on.

Mrs. Laing: It is all about perception, is it not? The hon. Gentleman possibly perceives things from a rather different angle from me, but that is what democracy is all about, is it not? In his consideration of the European angle, the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey brought forward a most interesting proposition, which is that Members of the European Parliament should, in some way, be held accountable by their member states. That is an issue that is worth exploring, and I hope that all sides of the House will consider that possibility.

The real problem is the West Lothian question. The fact is that Members of Parliament who are elected to represent constituencies in England should have a decisive say in matters that affect only England. That is the simplest way in which I can put it. There are various ways in which we can make that happen. One of them is the hon. Gentleman’s idea of a federal system, which I personally reject. My right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) have both, in recent months, proposed very elegant solutions along
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the lines of an English Grand Committee or a ruling by the Speaker on matters that affect only England. Those ideas should be examined in greater detail and considered for a future Parliament.

Likewise, I expect that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who, along with his commission on the constitution, has been examining the matter in detail for some time, may well propose another similar solution. Such a solution may suggest that giving English Members of Parliament—Members of Parliament who sit for English seats—a decisive say in matters that affect only England can be properly addressed without creating further tiers of government or more bureaucracy than we need and without costing the taxpayer enormous amounts in constitutional reform, but in a way in which the Union is preserved and enhanced. I understand why the Government are so reluctant to discuss this matter and to come forward with their own proposals.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Before my hon. Friend moves on, does she not agree that English Members should be in the House one extra day—or perhaps Scottish, Irish and Welsh Members could be in the House one day fewer—so that we can discuss English matters?

Mrs. Laing: As usual, my hon. Friend has proposed a good and logical solution. It is similar to the possible solutions proposed by my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Kensington and Chelsea and for Devizes. Although I cannot anticipate what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe will propose, it could be along those lines as well. There are ways in which this matter could partially be put right. We will not have a perfectly balanced constitution, but we could have one that is perceived to be much fairer than it is at present. It is that perceived unfairness that I want to put right—and I want it to be seen to be put right—because the growing resentment within some political movements in England will give rise to English nationalism, which will be just as bad as Scottish nationalism, or any other kind of nationalism, which seeks to divide one set of people from another at a time in our history—and that of the world—when we should be coming together and not looking for divisions. I do not want to see nationalism that draws lines, but a Union that brings people together.

However, I understand why the Government do not wish to discuss the matter. It is because of the 59 seats that come from Scotland—or the 59 Members of this House who are returned from Scotland. At present, 40 of them represent the Labour party, which is a low figure compared with the past 50 or 60 years. It is usually a higher proportion. Therefore, the current Government are terrified of losing 40 votes in matters that they want to push through this House. Naturally enough, they do not want to address the issue, especially as two of those 40 Members are the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I put it to the Minister and the House that if we do not correct the perceived unfairness, then we will allow resentment to grow. That resentment is not good for the constitution or for government. Government should be fair, and I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about how this Government propose to correct the perceived unfairness.

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