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10 Jun 2009 : Column 853

Angus Robertson: The hon. Gentleman makes his point about a very successful and popular SNP Government in Scotland, but rather than get involved in a party political partisan ding-dong on these issues, I ask him and his hon. Friends to listen to the argument that I shall make, which is about the credibility of this House as a whole. It is not about the Government, in my view. The case that I shall make does not involve the Government or the Prime Minister. [Interruption.] Perhaps the Secretary of State for Scotland would like to listen to that, rather than chuntering from a sedentary position.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman makes the point that the Prime Minister is not here, and he also talks about the credibility of this House. That is at the very root of his motion, which I totally support and on which I congratulate him. Will he also note, however, that the Tory Benches are pretty empty right now? Perhaps that is because so many MPs have second jobs. If the House is dissolved, there will be an election, and at that election candidates should declare what proportion of their time will go to, and what proportion of their earnings will come from, this place rather than second jobs.

Angus Robertson: The hon. Gentleman has made his point and it is on the record, but I want to return to the point that I want to make. At this stage, we want to make it clear that the motion affects the whole House—every party and independents, too. It is not a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister or the Government, and that is why I appeal to Members from all parts of the House to support it.

The evidence supporting the case for a general election is compelling, and the feedback that we have all heard on doorsteps throughout the country in the past few weeks has been overwhelming. It has been borne out in a series of recent, independent surveys. In The Guardian on 22 May, a poll conducted by ICM showed that two thirds of voters now say that the Prime Minister should call a general election before the end of the year; that more than half of voters believe that the Prime Minister should go to the country before the process of constitutional change can begin; and that only 30 per cent. think that the election should be delayed until 2010.

It is not just ICM and The Guardian, however: PoliticsHome conducted a poll on 20 May showing that 70 per cent. of respondents want an election now or within a few short months; Populus showed something similar for ITV; YouGov showed something similar for The Daily Telegraph at the end of May; and a YouGov poll for Channel 4 showed that 63 per cent. of respondents do not trust Members of this House of Commons much or at all.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour Members, who earlier this week wanted their own election in respect of the Prime Minister, should extend that courtesy to the rest of the country? If they want an election in the Labour party, they should make sure that the voters of the UK also have an election.

Angus Robertson: My hon. Friend gives an additional reason why there should be a general election. Many people throughout the country agree, and so do many Members from the governing party.

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Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab) rose—

Angus Robertson: Perhaps this is one such hon. Gentleman now.

Chris Ruane: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The Scottish National party has form with this type of activity. In 1979, when you brought down a Labour Government, we had a Conservative Government—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I just remind the hon. Gentleman about using the correct parliamentary term?

Chris Ruane: The hon. Gentleman’s party brought down a Labour Government, and that resulted in the Conservatives being in power for 18 years. Was that a good or a bad thing for the people of Scotland and Wales, let alone England?

Angus Robertson: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s history lesson; I was of course in primary 8 at that time. [ Interruption. ] It is true. I have already made the point— [ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Angus Robertson: The hon. Gentleman has clearly missed the point that I have been trying to make. This is a motion for the dissolution of Parliament; it is not a motion of no confidence in the Government or the Prime Minister. On that basis, I return to the point that I want to make. Sorry, before I do, I should have said that I was in primary 7 rather than primary 8, of course.

I return to the issue of the public’s view on whether there should be a general election. The BBC commissioned a poll by Ipsos MORI at the end of May, and 48 per cent. of respondents said they believed that half or more of MPs are corrupt. Asked whether they trusted MPs to tell the truth, 76 per cent. said that they did not and only 20 per cent. said that they did. The public tend to be more positive about their local MP than they do about MPs in general, which will be a relief to many of us. That was a finding in the BBC survey, but 85 per cent. of those surveyed want an independent judicial body to scrutinise MPs’ affairs.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and also for clarifying the point that confused us about primary 8. Many of us rather suspected that he had been held back for a year.

On the point about statistical evidence and listening on the doorstep, the hon. Gentleman’s logic is that people should vote for people as long as they are not MPs, but, if two thirds of the country want to see a massive change, why did two thirds of the country sit on their hands last Thursday?

Angus Robertson: There are many reasons why people voted for all kinds of things. What I pointed out just now was that the overwhelming majority of public opinion is in favour of Parliament’s being dissolved. That is one of the important reasons why we should vote for the motion.

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point about the difference between how MPs are viewed locally and how the corporate body of politics is viewed nationally. Does he agree that although individual Members of Parliament have earned credibility and support in local communities by working in them, the great malaise to which he refers has come about because there has been a fracture in the relationship of trust between the people who elect us to this body and us as a corporate group?

Does the hon. Gentleman not also feel it is important that we should have a transparent discussion about constitutional change? The Prime Minister of the UK—not the First Minister of Scotland, who is here—alluded to some of that. We have a collective responsibility, beyond even what the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, to try to make sure that we win that trust. That will take a lot of effort.

Angus Robertson: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I shall come back to that point shortly; there is a job of work to be done on that important issue.

I return to the BBC survey on public opinion on this important question. Some 62 per cent. of respondents said that they believed MPs put self-interest ahead of the country and their constituents. Only one in five, or 20 per cent., of the public is satisfied with how the Westminster Parliament is doing its job. The figures are damning and if we do not grasp the thorny nettle and deal with the issue, we will have a huge problem.

The recent expenses scandal is the biggest single recent reason for the crisis of confidence, and we should put a lot of effort into getting it sorted. However, it comes after years of House of Commons prevarication and resistance to openness and transparency. The Daily Telegraph revelations exposed a totally unacceptable state of affairs.

The public are right to be very angry about the flipping of properties, the avoidance of capital gains tax and the claims for phantom mortgages. They rightly ask how it is that there appears to be one rule for the public and another for MPs who have been caught out. They also ask how a tainted Parliament with tainted Members can find a trusted, credible solution to the crisis.

Of course it was right to do radical, immediate surgery. That has happened in a number of individual cases, and it has been approached by the different political parties that have finally grasped the nettle of transparency. At the recent meeting of party leaders called by Mr. Speaker, I pointed out that our parties have already committed to a higher standard of transparency—namely, that used in the Scottish Parliament. Years ago at Holyrood, the Labour party, the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and others agreed to that better system. I suggested to the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and others that we should simply emulate that system. They agreed and we are now on the right path with the plans that Parliament should publish our claims regularly. In the meantime, many MPs, myself included, have proactively put their details up for public access on our own websites.

Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman. One would think that he and his colleagues were a race apart in
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respect of the expenses difficulties that we face in this House. As well as taking the credit for putting his details on his website, will the hon. Gentleman accept some of the responsibility for the situation that we all face as parliamentarians? Also, will he advise the House that the Scottish Parliament had to go through its own expenses trauma before it got to its current situation? That was dealt with under a Labour and Liberal-led Administration.

Angus Robertson: The right hon. Lady is right to suggest that under Presiding Officer George Reid the Scottish Parliament reformed the processes that were used, and all political parties were involved in that process. That was welcome then, and it is welcome now that the lessons have been learned. The record will show her that I have not held any party to be better or worse, in this debate or in any other. If she has evidence to the contrary, she can present it at any stage.

Improving transparency has been the right thing to do, as has agreeing to a series of other measures, including the ending of flipping of second homes and introducing independent scrutiny of all second home claims by all MPs. It is in the public interest, and in the interests of many hard-working and honest parliamentarians in all parts of the House, that this process be accelerated. It is right that we set great store by the Kelly commission, which later this year will give independent recommendations on structural changes in allowances and expenses. It is also right that all party leaders have accepted the principle of an external Parliamentary Standards Authority. That means that regardless of which party is in office, we have a guarantee that the system overseeing MPs’ and peers’ conduct, including allowances and complaints, will be delegated from Parliament. That is a good thing and a huge step forward.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman says “regardless of which party is in office”. Could he give us his valued opinion on which party would win a general election, Labour or the Tories?

Angus Robertson: I think it is up to the public to decide. The hon. Gentleman should be confident that all good MPs have an excellent chance of being re-elected, so no doubt he has nothing to fear from an early general election.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Russell Brown rose—

Angus Robertson: I want to make some progress, as I have been generous to Members on both sides of the House.

The case against a general election is completely undermined by the agreements between all the political parties and the tangible progress that has been made.

Mr. Donohoe rose—

Angus Robertson: I said that I am going to make progress, so I will.

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After all, the Kelly commission reports in the autumn, the Parliamentary Standards Authority proposal is still at the discussion stage, and all parties are signed up to these structural improvements. There is no reason why we cannot have an election; it would not delay a single thing. We should embrace the opportunity of an historic, reformist election—not the poor second of yet another presentational relaunch of a tired Government. Let us imagine a general election campaign based on the various ideas for democratic reform—the ideas of the Prime Minister and of others, galvanising public interest and support, if that is what there were.

Of course, we in the SNP and Plaid Cymru would argue for decision making closer to home, but we would also make the case for wholesale Westminster reform, such as electoral reform. One can imagine a Parliament properly reflecting the views of the people—with, of course, the necessary safeguards of a minimum electoral hurdle. How about a fully democratic Parliament, ending the grotesque farce of a Second Chamber in the self-styled mother of all Parliaments without any democratic mandate whatsoever? How about fixed-term Parliaments, ending the whip hand of the Executive over the democratic process? How about strengthening Parliament with stronger Committees, the proper scrutiny of legislation, and less curtailment of detailed oversight, ending the travesty of undebated amendments? How about a proper constitution? Those are all exciting ideas, some of which are supported in all parts of the House.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is most gracious. Can I assume from what he has said that he will be supporting the Prime Minister in his plans to reorganise Parliament and to give more to the ordinary people? It would be nice to see him do that because our problem with him, as he knows, is that he is always voting with the Conservatives, and never with any other party.

Angus Robertson: This is a good stage at which to put on record the fact that halfway through the debate I will have to leave to meet the Secretary of State for Justice to discuss the Parliamentary Standards Authority, because there is all-party involvement in moving these proposals forward. No doubt some or most of those proposals would find support from other parties. Whichever party wins can then take them forward, and the reform process will have a mandate.

The second argument that I have been hearing in opposition to a democratic election is that, because of the economic crisis, we somehow cannot let the public decide. If that is the case, how is it that the world’s largest democracy, India, has managed a general election in recent months? How has the world’s biggest economy, the United States, managed through an economic crisis with the historic election of Barack Obama, and how has the country with the closest parliamentary system to the UK’s, Canada, similarly managed a general election in the middle of testing economic times? The list goes on and on. The argument against having a general election in testing economic times is just not credible.

It is true to say, however, that we need an election to rebuild confidence in UK economic policy. Not only have this Government taken no responsibility for their
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role in our economic difficulties, but they are overseeing a catastrophic rise in unemployment. More than 200,000 people have been thrown on the dole in the past three months, and there is a forecast balance of payments deficit of £93 billion and a national debt expected to reach £1.6 trillion.

Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman is well liked in the House, and he is showing his customary charm, but may I say to him, first, that the United States and India have fixed-term Parliaments, so there is not a direct read-across? Secondly, at the risk of sounding like an over-anxious primary age child, I say to him that when the expression “mother of Parliaments” was first used in this very Chamber by John Bright, it referred specifically to England, not to Parliament. That may not sit comfortably with the hon. Gentleman, but it is accurate.

Angus Robertson: I am grateful for the history lesson, and we will be glad to return this Chamber to the good people of England so that it is their Parliament, while we make better decisions at home in Scotland. I see next to the hon. Gentleman his colleague from the Social Democratic and Labour party, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who no doubt would also like to see a united Ireland making decisions for itself and no Northern Irish Members in this Chamber, but that is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland to decide on.

Lembit Öpik rose—

Angus Robertson: I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, and I want to allow other Members to take part in this important debate.

I return to the current economic challenges. It is of immense concern that under Labour, we now have a debt of more than £60,000 for every household in the UK. I remember election leaflets being put around stating, “Don’t vote SNP, it’ll cost every family £5,000.” Was it in the 1999 election campaign? [Hon. Members: “It was 2007.”] Oh, it was as recent as 2007. My goodness, how much more expensive it has been. There is now a £60,000 price tag for Labour’s mismanagement of our economy.

Of course, we have a Government, a Prime Minister and a Chancellor who dithered and delayed over Northern Rock, taking five months from the start of the run before eventually nationalising the bank.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Angus Robertson: I have already signalled that I want to make progress to allow other Members to get in. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a speech, no doubt he will attempt to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

We have a Government who delayed when the banking crisis started, refusing to guarantee sterling deposits across the banking system, and who took a year to get a banking Act on the statute book, but who even now have not introduced changes to the very banking regulations that led to many of the problems in the first place. We have a Government who failed to understand the impact on the poorest when they abolished the 10p rate of tax, who failed to act to temper the rise of fuel prices and whose VAT cut protected less than half the jobs that direct capital investment would have protected.

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