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18 Jun 2008 : Column 255WH—continued

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10.27 am

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): It is a pleasure to be here under your distinguished chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I am grateful to everyone for leaving me a very reasonable amount of time in which to address all of these complex and important issues. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) on securing the debate. As we have heard, these are immensely important issues for our country and it is good to have the opportunity to discuss them. We have had a number of very interesting contributions from the hon. Members for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), and for Cambridge (David Howarth) and, briefly, from the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), who sadly had more pressing business than to stay for the conclusion of this debate.

We have had a very interesting debate, but I am afraid that I can agree with very few of the propositions that have been put forward. Instead, I want to make the case for the Union, for the United Kingdom, and for the measures that will support it. The starting point for everyone we have heard today is that the Union is a very precious institution for all the peoples of these islands and that we must do everything that we can to preserve and enhance it. I was very pleased to hear the stirring defence of it by the hon. Member for Epping Forest. I agree with every word that she said about that, but unfortunately with very little else that she said, but I will speak about that in a moment.

What lies at the heart of all the concerns that have been expressed today is a belief that, somehow, devolution has threatened the continued existence of the Union. That belief is mistaken. It is our view that devolution is not a threat to the United Kingdom; it secures the Union. The virtue of our Union’s constitution is that, for centuries, it has been able to accommodate the differences within these islands. It does so on the basis of asymmetry. Constitutional arrangements to protect the interests of minorities inevitably differ from arrangements to protect the interests of the majority, and this nation, as hon. Members have said, has an asymmetrical balance of power in which England is overwhelmingly dominant in terms of both population and representation in Parliament.

Asymmetry is what gives rise to the West Lothian question, among other things, but it is not the same as imperfection. The hon. Lady sought to say that it was, but I am glad that she slid away from that proposition in her later remarks. At the beginning, she seemed to be hankering after some perfect symmetry. I think that that also lies behind the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

Asymmetry in our constitutional arrangements is nothing new. It has existed for hundreds of years. Legislative devolution in Scotland built on the distinctive Scottish institutions that remained after the Union of 1707, including the legal and educational systems. Extensive administrative devolution, built around the office of Secretary of State for Scotland from 1885, also provided the basis for the creation of the Scottish Executive and Parliament.

Mrs. Laing: I agree entirely with the Minister that that asymmetry is necessary in practical terms and perfectly acceptable. As a Scottish lawyer, I could not possibly disagree.

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Mr. Wills: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for confirming that on that issue, at least, we are in the same place. It is important to recall that asymmetrical constitutional arrangements are nothing new. Wales has its own history within the Union. Until the early 20th century, Wales and England were administered as one, but in 1964, the first Secretary of State for Wales was appointed with their own Department, the Welsh Office. During the following 30 years or so, that role was progressively widened. The creation of the Welsh Assembly in 1999 put domestic Welsh policy issues under the democratic control of the Assembly.

Northern Ireland has been served for many years by a separate civil service, and separate Northern Ireland Departments have carried out the functions of their Whitehall counterparts. Such asymmetry is not confined to the United Kingdom. It is a feature of most modern democratic constitutions around the world, as the protections necessary for the more dominant partners in any state are not the same as those necessary for minorities.

We believe that the creation of a separate Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly has enabled better local decision making in response to local issues. It empowers local people and, to pick up the point made by the hon. Lady, local people perceive it to be fairer. We believe that that strengthens the Union, which is enormously important. We are bound together not just by a common identity and citizenship but by the enduring interests of all the nations of the Union.

All parts of the Union share resources and pool risks, to the benefit of each. That is a particularly important point to make to the House. At this time of extraordinarily rapid and extensive change in the world around us, pooling risk is important to all of us. We share access to natural resources and, more importantly, to the human resources made up of all the diverse peoples living here. The risks that we pool and carry together involve inherent uncertainty and are increasingly volatile. How do we thrive in an increasingly competitive globalised economy whose demands change ever more swiftly and radically? How do we manage the constantly evolving threat of international terrorism and major challenges such as climate change? In all those matters, we believe, as I hope everybody in this Chamber believes, that the United Kingdom is stronger together than apart. The hon. Lady made that point powerfully.

There have always been asymmetrical constitutional arrangements in the United Kingdom, both before and since devolution. They reflect the different sizes, historical backgrounds and aspirations of the different parts of the UK. That is true of England as well. Again, the hon. Lady made an important point: there is also immense diversity within the UK’s constituent nations. The south-east is very different. The area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey has distinctive characteristics and is quite different from other parts of the south-east, London and my own constituency of Swindon. Such diversity is a source of strength for all of us. We should celebrate it, and our constitutional arrangements must inevitably reflect it.

I come to the specific measures suggested in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey is imaginative and creative in his policy making. He is a policy entrepreneur who brings great
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radicalism and insight to all his proposals, but I am afraid that on this occasion he is wrong. He argued for radical new constitutional structures, and some of his remarks found favour with other hon. Members who have spoken.

Before I address the points raised by my hon. Friend, I should like to correct something he said. He seemed to be suggesting that this Government were somehow conservative and predisposed towards the status quo. If he looks back on our record of constitutional reform and renewal in the past 11 years, he might wish to reconsider that attitude. We are perfectly willing to undertake constitutional reform when we think that it is merited, and we have done so consistently since 1997.

With respect to my hon. Friend, his proposals are impractical and might in many ways be dangerous to the future of the United Kingdom. As other hon. Members have recognised, if any federal structure were imposed in the United Kingdom, it would be dominated entirely by England. England has more than 85 per cent. of the population and creates more than 80 per cent. of the gross domestic product. Any separate English Parliament or equivalent would dominate the Union’s macro-economic needs through decisions on spending policies, and the UK Parliament, however constituted, would be left trailing in its wake.

Any federation where one partner has 85 per cent. of the economic strength and the population simply cannot work. That is why constitutional experts generally reckon that only federations where no one partner has more than 30 per cent. of the population and the economic strength are viable. Nowhere in the world does such an unbalanced federation work.

Mr. Andrew Turner: I hear the Minister say that, but he has not explained why. Can he do so?

Mr. Wills: I shall come to the explanation, because I want particularly to address the hon. Gentleman’s comments about an English Parliament and what I took to be his advocacy of, or certainly his constructive engagement with, that idea. I shall address that quite specifically.

To sum up my remarks on the proposals made by my hon. Friend, he made a radical proposal for reform of the House of Lords. We are bringing forward our own proposals for House of Lords reform, and I am sure that he will be interested to see them shortly.

Derek Wyatt: Does my hon. Friend think that it is appropriate that the English have one regional Committee, which has not met since June 2004? Is he saying that he is proud of that record? I think that it has met only five times in 11 and a half years. Is that how we should treat the English in the House?

Mr. Wills: I shall address the question of Select Committees now, because I want to address the idea of an English Grand Committee and say what we are doing to introduce proposals to reflect my hon. Friend’s concerns. I accept that we need to do more to consider how better to represent the regions of this country. Since last year, we have been introducing proposals, which I shall address shortly. My hon. Friend asked me what I am proud of. I am proud of this Government’s
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record on constitutional reform and renewal. It is genuinely radical, and it is doing a great deal for the people of this country.

There has been a lot of discussion about an English Grand Committee. The hon. Member for Epping Forest said that it should be actively considered. We are actively considering it. We have actively considered it, and it is difficult to see what benefits such a Committee would bring. An English Grand Committee that directly mirrored the other two would have 529 members. It would be impossible for such a Committee to work in the same way as other Grand Committees.

We have, however, proposed the establishment of regional Select Committees to ensure that English regions’ different views are taken properly into account, which would support the network of regional Ministers that we have introduced, which is already working well. We believe that to be a much more effective way in which to ensure that the varied needs of the English people are given focused consideration, particularly in relation to matters that cross the boundaries of even the largest local authorities. Although I cannot agree with my hon. Friend’s proposals in their entirety, I hope that he would agree that our proposals at least address the sorts of concerns that he outlined, and believes me when I say that we will bring this forward.

Mrs. Laing rose—

Mr. Andrew Turner rose—

Mr. Wills: I shall give way to both hon. Members in a moment.

If we take further the proposal for an English Grand Committee to consider English legislation, we will be led down a slippery slope towards an English Parliament, which is an issue that I want to address, and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has raised some concerns that I will also address shortly. For the reasons that I have given, however, I believe that such a policy would ultimately lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Laing: The Minister has anticipated my question, and answered it with the reference to a slippery slope towards the break-up of the United Kingdom, which of course was said about the Scottish Parliament. However, it is precisely to stop us further descending down that slippery slope that some of us have proposed English votes for English laws.

Mr. Wills: I give way to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight.

Mr. Andrew Turner: The problem is with the maps that have been drawn, and which keep popping up. The Isle of Wight is more like Devon than Berkshire, and Berkshire, or at least Reading, is more like Swindon than Oxford. Such points are not understood by those who follow the maps.

Mr. Wills: I completely understand the problems with drawing boundaries, but of course such issues will always exist.

David Howarth: Before the Minister moves on, how is it envisaged that the regional Select Committees will work?

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Derek Wyatt: And when?

David Howarth: Are the Government still insisting that the Labour party must have a majority on each Committee? That would lead to impossible difficulties in regions where it does not have sufficient members, and would seem to undermine the idea that the regional Select Committees should be representative of their regions.

Mr. Wills: We will bring forward details shortly, so the hon. Gentleman will just have to be patient for a few more weeks—that also answers my hon. Friend’s sedentary question.

This debate highlights the very difficult problem, for all of us who must confront such issues, of the composition of such Committees. However, I shall come to the nub of the question about an English Parliament, or Grand Chamber, which in effect would be a precursor to an English Parliament. Such questions are raised very frequently. At the heart of the promotion of such measures lie two myths, which the hon. Members for Isle of Wight and for Epping Forest have perpetuated again today. The first is that it is in the Labour party’s narrow self-interest to resist them, because we do not have a sufficient majority of MPs in England, but historically that simply has not been the case.

I shall take up a little of the Chamber’s time to give a few figures for recent elections. In the following elections, the Labour party had a comfortable majority of English MPs: 1945, 1966, 1977, 2001 and 2005. So the hon. Lady’s comments simply are not rooted in fact. In two elections—1964 and 1974—the Conservatives had a majority of English MPs under a Labour Government. In October 1974, and in 1950, there was no overall control. Astute Members will have spotted that when a Labour Government have had a comfortable working majority, over the UK Parliament as a whole, they have also had a comfortable majority of English MPs, as logic would suggest—irrespective of what she implied. Under a very narrow majority—as there was in 1950, 1964 and 1974—there have been problems, but of course any Government with as narrow a majority as that which the Labour Government had following those elections will have all kinds of other problems in managing their majority. It simply is not true, therefore, that our opposition to the sorts of proposals put forward today is in the Labour party’s narrow self-interest. We are concerned solely with the preservation of the Union.

Mrs. Laing: I do not for one second dispute the Minister’s figures, or indeed his statistical analysis, but surely he and his fellow Ministers, when planning Government policy, look not to past statistics, but to the statistics of the present and the possible statistics of the future. At the moment, it is not likely that a Labour Government, if elected in the next few years, would have a large and comfortable majority.

Mr. Wills: On the basis of historical evidence and projections, if a Labour Government are re-elected with a comfortable working majority in the House, they will most likely have a comfortable working majority of English MPs. The hon. Lady can form her own views about whether that will happen, but that is a completely separate issue. If the Conservative party’s representation
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in Scotland remains the same—it has a very small proportion of the Scottish MPs—under her arrangements, it would have considerable difficulty passing Bills relating only Scotland in the UK Parliament. I ask her to consider that.

Mrs. Laing Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wills: I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me for not giving way, but I want to come on to the second myth. I was—very generously—left a lot of time at the beginning of my remarks, but I have many more important points to make about, for example, the Barnett formula, among other things, which I am sure that hon. Members would like to hear.

A second myth has been floated: that it is possible to define an English Bill. It is in fact extremely hard, and anyone who has observed the legislative process in this House will realise just how difficult it would be to define one. The Higher Education Bill was adduced as an example of how the current system is unfair. At the time, in 2004, that Bill was dubbed a West Lothian Bill by the Conservative party, because student finance is devolved. I think that point was made earlier. However, part 1 of the Bill provided for the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which extended to the whole of the UK. In other words, this Bill, which so often is adduced as an example of an English Bill, was nothing of the sort.

Much more important, however, is the difficulty of isolating any Bill from having an effect throughout the United Kingdom, partly owing to the way in which the Scottish block grant is determined. However, there are other reasons, and I can do no better than to quote the Kilbrandon royal commission on the constitution, because it put the point extremely well. It said that

That is not a party political point; it is the extremely astute and elegantly expressed comment of a royal commission, and we should all bear it in mind when we discuss these issues.

I come to the Barnett formula and funding, which I think all hon. Members have mentioned today, and which is always a lively issue. We have heard a lot about the inequities of the system, and I should like to correct some common misconceptions about the way in which it operates. Some high-profile devolved administration decisions and much of the associated media coverage have created the impression that there are—to use the hon. Member for Epping Forest’s phrase—unfair differences between public services in different parts of the UK, and that the devolved administrations receive funding for services additional to those available in England. That is not the case. They receive a block grant to spend on the public services for which they are responsible. The mathematical formula that underpins the Barnett formula has not changed since its inception, including through 18 years of Conservative Governments.

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