Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister, while speaking to a public services summit, claimed that he would not allow a rigged market in the NHS and said that there would be no higher tariffs for private providers. That contradicts the Government's own impact assessment, published with the Health and Social Care Bill.
In view of the mistaken impression that has been created and the seriousness of the issue for many hundreds of thousands of NHS workers and the public at large, will you advise me, Mr Speaker, whether there is any redress in the House? Will the Deputy Prime Minister come to apologise for creating that mistaken impression?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The issue in question involves a point of debate about which the hon. Gentleman has strong views. He asks about redress. The issue is how best to
take forward his concerns. He should consult the Table Office, which he will find a source of profitable advice. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.
Mrs Secretary May, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Secretary Hammond, Mr Secretary Lansley, Secretary Michael Gove, Mr Secretary Clarke and James Brokenshire, presented a Bill to provide for the destruction, retention, use and other regulation of certain evidential material; to impose consent and other requirements in relation to certain processing of biometric information relating to children; to provide for a code of practice about surveillance camera systems and for the appointment and role of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner; to provide for judicial approval in relation to certain authorisations and notices under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000; to provide for the repeal or rewriting of powers of entry and associated powers and for codes of practice and other safeguards in relation to such powers; to make provision about vehicles left on land; to provide for a maximum detention period of 14 days for terrorist suspects; to replace certain stop and search powers and to provide for a related code of practice; to amend the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006; to make provision about criminal records; to disregard convictions and cautions for certain abolished offences; to make provision about the release and publication of datasets held by public authorities and to make other provision about freedom of information and the Information Commissioner; to repeal certain enactments; and for connected purposes.
As a new Member, I drew No. 7 in the private Members' Bill ballot. Some might think that it is great foolhardiness to have chosen to raise the knotty constitutional issue of the West Lothian question in the House today, but it is with a great sense of privilege and trepidation that I today present a Bill that is designed to be extremely helpful to you, Mr Speaker, if you were ever asked to certify whether a particular piece of legislation applied to a particular part of the United Kingdom.
Harriett Baldwin: That is an extremely important question. Mr Speaker has the ability, under Standing Order No. 97, to certify whether a particular piece of legislation applies only to Scotland. He already has the powers, and it will be extremely interesting today, during the debate on this legislation, to discuss whether those powers ought to be extended to further parts of the United Kingdom.
The West Lothian question has vexed constitutional experts since the time of Gladstone, who first perceived the difficulties when Irish Home Rule was being discussed. At various times in the last century, the topic has been raised in the Chamber and in the other place, but it has always been parked in the car park for questions that are too difficult to resolve under our unwritten constitution.
However, the following question is often raised with me by residents of my constituency, which I like to think represents the heart of middle England. How can it be right for it to be possible for potentially decisive pieces of legislation to be voted on in this place by, and carried by a majority of, Members of Parliament who are not legislating on behalf of their own constituents? That is not a question that we can carry on parking in that car park for ever. It is my intention with this Bill to edge the West Lothian question slightly closer to the car park exit.
"Labour have refused to address the so-called 'West Lothian Question': the unfair situation of Scottish MPs voting on matters which are devolved. A Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries."
"We will establish a commission to consider the 'West Lothian question'."
On 26 October last year, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister in this Chamber when the commission would be established, and I was told that it would be established by the end of 2010. However, it became apparent on the final sitting day of 2010 that the commission had not been established, and I again put the question to my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), the Minister on duty, who said that
"the Government will make an announcement on the commission in the new year. I am happy to confirm that we do indeed mean 2011. That is very much part of our programme for next year."-[ Official Report, 21 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 1338.]
Over the last decade, devolution to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, which I wholeheartedly support, has meant that more and more legislation coming before the House affects different constituent parts of the United Kingdom in different ways. For example, at the moment the Health and Social Care Bill will apply essentially to England.
Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point about how difficult it is these days to identify which parts of the United Kingdom Bills will apply to, a problem that this Bill is intended to address. The hon. Gentleman will clearly support it.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): My hon. Friend will be aware that there will be a referendum on further powers for the Welsh Assembly in just a few weeks. If Wales votes in favour of those powers in the 20 areas of competence that the referendum covers, will that create a west Walean question?
Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend asks an important question, pointing out that devolution is an ongoing process. Indeed, the referendum in Wales on 3 March and the Scotland Bill will potentially change the decision-making process in this Chamber, so it is all the more important that the Bill is carried today.
Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman is making extremely important points about how legislation currently before the House can mix up different issues and have different impacts on different parts of the United Kingdom. My Bill would make things clearer, with the result that parliamentary draftsmen would automatically start to make it clearer and much more distinct which parts of the United Kingdom Bills apply to. In addition, the Bill would allow legislation to continue to apply to different parts of the United Kingdom-all it says is, "Let's state that on the face of the Bill." Why should we not do that?
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con):
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this Bill. She describes the issue as complex. Does she understand why it is so complex that the Government have not even been able to set up a commission to look into it? Surely,
that should not be beyond the capability of the Deputy Prime Minister. Has she been able to find out why that has not been done?
Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend asks a somewhat cheeky question. I am sympathetic to the fact that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)-a constituency neighbour of mine-has had a rather busy last couple of weeks. I am giving him a little slack because of that, but I agree that it is important to keep pressing for the establishment of the commission.
The legislation on tuition fees will affect university students from England. It will create the awkward situation of Welsh and English students paying different fees to attend the same university. The Scotland Bill, which I mentioned earlier, will enhance the powers of the Scottish Executive in many instances, including their ability to vary tax rates. Therefore, Parliament and this truly reforming Government need to find a way to scrutinise legislation in such a way that Members, who have the best interests of their own constituents in mind, can play a greater role in the legislative process. This is an issue that we duck at our peril.
Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing her Bill. I am sure that she, like me, receives letters weekly from her constituents asking, "When are you going to get on with the issue? It is just not fair for English constituents, taxpayers, ratepayers and voters."
As I mentioned, the question has been looked at by many heads wiser than mine over the years, and I have benefited from extensive analysis from history of what has not worked. Therefore, I have avoided in the Bill any sense that I want to create two categories of MP at Westminster, which is where the private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter)-the House of Commons (Participation) Bill-ran into difficulty in the previous Parliament. Parliamentary privilege, which is MPs' ability to speak out or vote on any issue, is at the heart of our Parliament.
I am a passionate supporter of the Union, and do not want to undermine it in any way with the Bill. My grandmother, of whom I have fond memories, was called Flora McLean McLeod Morison. She was born in Dunbar to a general practitioner who came from the Isle of Mull, so I am a flesh-and-blood embodiment of the Union myself. It is because I believe that not resolving this question would cause long-term harm to the Union that I urge the Government to support the Bill.
What I found most helpful in preparing the Bill was the Conservative party's democracy taskforce, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who prepared a pamphlet called "Answering the Question". The Leader of the House, who was in the Chamber earlier, and my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) and for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) were also on the taskforce, so
we are talking about some impressive brainpower. The taskforce's report looked at five main options for addressing the West Lothian question.
The first option is the one that the previous Government took for the last decade, which essentially was to do nothing. That approach was best summarised by Lord Irvine's argument-that the best way to answer the West Lothian question was to stop asking it.
Chris Bryant: I think I saw a little partisanness sweep across the hon. Lady's eyes. To say that it is only the Government of the last 10 years who have done nothing about the issue is to ignore the last seven centuries, when no Government did anything about it.
Harriett Baldwin: I fully accept that the issue has been out there and unsolved for at least 100 years. However, I think that it was a deliberate strategy by the previous Government, as evidenced by Lord Irvine's statement. The do-nothing approach risks causing the same English alienation that Scottish devolution was designed to address for Scotland.
A second approach to address the issue is through under-representation at Westminster for the parts of the UK that have their own Parliament, which is often known as the Stormont solution. During most of the 20th century there was a Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont, and Northern Ireland sent only 11 Members of Parliament to Westminster when its population would have justified 17. That is another possible approach, but I do not think it is the right one. Also, it is completely at odds with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which brings a welcome equalisation of constituency sizes.
A third option that people have mentioned is an English Parliament. There is a campaign group for this solution, but that approach leads to a plethora of questions. Would it require separate elections or a separate building? Would we have a First Minister for England? What if the First Minister for England was different from the Prime Minister? That solution would also be extremely expensive, and I do not think that the mood in the country is in favour of an additional layer of politicians. That approach could also lead to the formal break-up of the United Kingdom, so I have completely rejected it. A fourth approach, which, to be fair to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), was the one initially taken by the previous Government, is devolution to regional government, giving the English regions more constitutional power. However, that was rejected decisively in the 2004 referendum in the north-east.
A fifth option, which has been on the table for some time, is something called English votes for English laws. Unfortunately, however, that would create two categories of MPs, leaving the Executive powerless to win votes on important public service issues. That was the approach taken by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset in his private Member's Bill, and was also the approach outlined in the 2001 and 2005 Conservative manifestos.
Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend not agree that at least that solution would appear to be fair? Many voters in this country would see it as the fair solution: if a particular piece of legislation did not affect their area, Members should not be able to vote on it.
Harriett Baldwin: That approach is one of those things that looks fair at first sight, but the more one looks at it, the more problems with it one perceives. For example, what if the Government of the day could not carry the Budget? The Finance Bill is something that the Government have to be able to carry, but if the make-up or majority in the English Parliament was different from that in the overall, national Parliament, how would we solve such conundrums? That is why I have not taken that approach in my Bill.
The recommendation that I thought made the most sense was the one in the democracy taskforce publication, which proposed a lower-strength version of English votes for English laws. This proposal was that Bills be certified by the Speaker as English. They would pass through normal Commons processes as far as and including Second Reading, on which the whole House would vote. The Committee stage would be undertaken by English MPs in proportion to English party strengths. Report stage would be similarly voted on by English Members only, and Third Reading, when no amendments are possible, would again be voted on by the whole House. However, there are also problems with that approach, but it is those problems that my Bill seeks to solve.
"It will be hard for the Speaker to define what is an English bill, at least to do so without controversy-the Speaker could be politicised".
I would not want to put you in such an awkward position, Mr Speaker. Therefore, by requiring the Secretary of State to specify in draft legislation the territorial extent of a Bill, my expectation is that it would be much clearer in the drafting of Bills to which parts of the UK they applied. Indeed, the Clerk advises me that the Health and Social Care Bill, which was mentioned earlier and which, really, applies only to England, would be hard to certify as being an England-only Bill, because of the way in which it is drafted. What I hope my Bill would achieve, once it received Royal Assent, is gently to guide those drafting Her Majesty's legislation to be clear enough in that drafting so that you, Mr Speaker, would have no problem certifying Bills. Indeed, you already have the power, under Standing Order No. 97, to certify Bills as having regard to Scotland only. In the past, before devolution, that Standing Order was used quite often, which shows that there is a precedent for such certification and that it would not be beyond the wit of those much wiser than me to come up with some improvements on that Standing Order.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for indulging me. I wonder whether she would be willing to listen to my perhaps more simple solution to the West Lothian question, which is indeed a boil that needs lancing. If we got rid of Members of the Scottish Parliament and Members of the Welsh Assembly, and instead merely had elected MPs, then all MPs from across Great Britain could meet in this place on Mondays and Tuesdays to attend to British affairs, and then on Wednesdays, and perhaps Thursdays, they could return to the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, or to Northern Ireland, leaving English MPs to attend to English matters in this place. Surely that would save the taxpayer a great deal of money and, by getting rid of so many politicians, be very popular in the country.
Harriett Baldwin: That is certainly an original approach, and one that, I must confess, I had not heard from any other source, so I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's putting it on the record. I said at the beginning of my speech that I am very much in favour of devolution and allowing decisions that affect particular areas to be made at the lowest possible level of government. That is the theme of localisation, so although my hon. Friend has set out an original idea, I prefer what I have proposed in my Bill.
"the provision allowing the Speaker to certify Bills as relating exclusively to Scotland"
"transferred to a new Standing Order and adapted so that the Speaker may certify that a bill relates exclusively to one of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom."
Further to that, Standing Orders Nos. 102 and 106 allow legislation to be referred to a Welsh Grand Committee. However, we are now touching on issues that have gone far above my pay grade, although they are issues that would be there for the House to agree once my Bill had received Royal Assent.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I am not quite sure how we get from my hon. Friend's Bill to the legislative programme that she is suggesting. Is the idea that this would be done exclusively through the Standing Orders of this House, and that we would therefore change the structures of the passing of legislation purely on our Standing Orders?
Harriett Baldwin: My Bill has deliberately shied away from being prescriptive in that area. Our constitution has a capacity to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances in a way that does not need to be written down in legislation, so my Bill stops at the point where the draft legislation outlines which parts of the United Kingdom it affects. It would then be for us, through House procedures, to look at the ways in which the new legislation would permit the House to treat different Bills in different ways.
I have touched on the purpose of the Bill, but there are other provisions that are worth highlighting. The Bill would establish a principle of legislative clarity, which would mean that citizens and Members of Parliament would have the right to see how proposed changes to the law would affect them or their constituents. There is also flexibility built into the Bill, so that if it is not possible for the Secretary of State to affirm that the draft legislation is compatible with those principles, the Government can still make a statement that they wish to proceed anyway. I am sure that no one in the Chamber could possibly object to this new level of transparency in our legislation.
The Bill also calls for a separate statement-a financial memorandum-on the financial implications of legislation on the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Again, this is designed to be helpful to you, Mr Speaker, by making any financial effects of legislation-for example, via the Barnett formula-clear and unambiguous. It is often argued that, because of the Barnett formula, it is
impossible to achieve granularity when it comes to the impact of legislation on England. The financial statement would therefore allow the question of whether that was the case to be transparent.
In bringing my remarks to a close, I simply point out that the Bill is both minor and entirely unobjectionable. In fact, it is so innocuous that I am sure all hon. Members in the Chamber today will support not only its aims but its intentions, and that they will all wave through its Second Reading. I am sure that the Government will have no issue with the intended consequences of the Bill, although they may have some drafting issues with the unintended consequences, on which I would welcome their input in Committee. This Bill is necessary to create a strong foundation on which the House can make progress on addressing the important issues of territorial extent, and I commend it to the House.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on what she has said today. This is an historic moment. West Worcestershire has taken up the cudgels on the West Lothian question, and I very much welcome her comments. I have taken an interest in these issues for a long time. I first entered the House in 1974, and when Margaret Thatcher became leader of our party, she was kind enough to appoint me as a junior spokesman on devolution. I have therefore had to take some views on these matters. I am now the Member for Kensington, but my primary home remains in Scotland, outside Edinburgh in East Lothian. Later, I will offer what might immodestly be referred to as an East Lothian answer to the West Lothian question.
I have no doubt that the consequences of devolution represent unfinished business. Over the past 12 years, we have witnessed the single biggest constitutional change in the United Kingdom since the Act of Union in 1707-
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: It was far more important than what happened in 1801, which turned out to be a blip in the constitutional history of the UK. What we are seeing now is a permanent change. It has not destroyed the United Kingdom, but it has undoubtedly created a new kind of United Kingdom. That has constitutional implications, as well as implications for fairness. I suspect that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) would suggest that, since Stormont, we have lived with the fact of Members from Northern Ireland being able to vote on all the measures in this House despite the fact that their own constituencies might not be affected by them. There is a de minimis issue that we can sometimes live with, but we now have something quite different, particularly if the Welsh approve an extension of the legislative powers of their Assembly in their referendum.
We will have a situation in which not 11 but approximately 100 Members of this House from three of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom will be able to vote on issues that do not affect their own constituents. There will be only one part of the UK that does not have that right. Rather curiously, having dominated the United Kingdom, by numbers, since the Act of Union in 1707, England will become the one part of the
UK whose elected representatives do not, by themselves, have the final say on matters that affect purely their constituents. That will no longer be the case for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, but paradoxically it will have become so for England. Talking about 100 Members, rather than 11, is not a minimal side issue; it goes to the very heart not only of constitutional propriety but of fairness. My remarks today will be about fairness rather than constitutions, because that is the fundamental principle of our political system, and the implications of these arrangements are significant.
We must not get this out of proportion, however. I do not believe that it is right to imply that, as a consequence of devolution, this place has effectively become an English Chamber because the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish have very little continuing involvement here as a result of the big areas that have been devolved to their own Parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. That is a gross exaggeration. If we look at the whole scope of government, we see that the UK Government and Parliament still have either sole or predominant responsibility for massive swaths of policy. The most important issues facing any Government are those of taxation. At this moment, virtually all tax powers reside with the United Kingdom Parliament, and all Members of Parliament from every part of the kingdom have an equal interest in and responsibility for those matters. The largest budget of the British Government is the social security budget, and that is a United Kingdom budget. It does not differentiate in any material way between north and south of the border.
Bob Stewart: He is no longer my friend. I always used to respect him. Does he think that there will be increased pressure to give more tax-raising powers not only to Scotland in the Scotland Bill but to the Welsh Assembly and to Stormont?
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Such proposals are under deliberation and likely to go forward. That could mean a reduction in the block grant to Scotland, if it were to raise a proportionate sum through its own decisions. This is an evolving situation, a dynamic constitutional process. I cannot predict, any more than anyone else, where that process might lead, but for the foreseeable future the UK Government will retain responsibility for virtually all tax responsibilities, as well as for the social security budget, all foreign affairs, all defence policy, all European Union issues, all trade policy, all electoral matters such as those we discussed yesterday, and a whole host of other issues. So we must not imply that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Members have a diminished interest in the affairs of this Parliament.
It is sometimes suggested that it is quite improper, in this post-devolution situation, for a Member from Scotland, Wales or wherever to be appointed as a Minister in a Department whose responsibilities cover only England. Criticisms were made of John Reid when he became Health Secretary in the previous Government because
he represented a Scottish constituency. We should not think of that as a constitutional issue, but it might be politically stupid to make such an appointment because of the controversy that it will give rise to, enabling criticism to be made. There is no lack of precedent for such decisions being made in other contexts, however. During the Conservative Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, every Secretary of State for Wales represented an English constituency. There has never been a Northern Ireland Secretary who comes from Northern Ireland, for obvious reasons with which we are all familiar. Let us not suggest that that is a constitutional problem. It is a political problem, and Prime Ministers have to decide whether it is sensible to appoint Ministers from constituencies that are not affected by the decisions of the Department of which they will be in charge. It is against that background that we are considering the question of voting in this Parliament.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we have institutionalised a sense of resentment and unfairness by not giving greater fiscal autonomy and tax-raising powers to the devolved Governments? That sense of unfairness does not exist in other devolved systems, such as the federal system in the United States, in which each state can raise its own taxes, and there is no feeling of resentment towards the central Government.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I return to my point that this should be seen as an evolving situation. We speak of devolution to the three other parts of the United Kingdom, but the devolution is different in each case. We have a power-sharing institutionalised system in Northern Ireland, which does not exist anywhere else. We have a Scottish Parliament that is an Executive with full legislative powers over devolved matters. Wales does not have a Parliament; it has an Assembly that does not yet have legislative powers. In each case, the arrangements will change, but they will change in response to experience and to what are perceived to be the political wishes of the people in the territories concerned. That is the history of the United Kingdom. We are blessed with an unwritten constitution that we can evolve and adapt over the generations in a way that goes no further than necessary but that responds to the aspirations of the peoples in the various parts of the kingdom in a sensible and coherent way.
I shall turn now to the consequences of those arrangements for voting in this Parliament. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire so eloquently said, a range of options has been proposed to deal with what has become known as the West Lothian question. Some of them are completely understandable, including the proposal that, if there is a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish Parliament, there should be an English one. That sounds completely logical, but I was once warned that logic was the art of going wrong with confidence. It is, in fact, absurd to contemplate the co-existence of an English Parliament with this Palace of Westminster, for several reasons.
First of all, to state an emotional and political fact-I say this with some caution-the vast majority of people in England think that there is already an English Parliament
and that it is called the House of Commons, largely because of the history of this place and its origins many centuries ago. When such an option is occasionally raised, we are not talking only about two Parliaments. In practice, there would have to be two Governments; there would have to be an English Government just as there is a Scottish Government. The idea that that is a sensible way of dealing with these matters is foolish. It would be a sledgehammer to crack an important but nevertheless modest nut-foolish, as I say.
The second option-one of the bad options-was attractive to many of my hon. Friends during the previous Parliament. It is the idea that Scottish Members-and, one assumes, Welsh and Northern Ireland Members either now or in due course-would be vetoed or prevented from voting on issues that applied only to England. I have always thought that that is a very dangerous and unwise approach. It would manifestly create two classes of Member of Parliament for the very first time since the Act of Union in 1707, and therefore I can only describe it as a nationalist solution to a Unionist problem. I have no doubt that it would be welcomed by the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, because it would provide a constant opportunity for them to emphasise the increasing irrelevance of the Union, as they would see it, and to go much further than the vast majority of people throughout the United Kingdom would currently want. It is not sensible to contemplate having two classes of Member, although not because it could not work. Here I disagree with the hon. Member for Rhondda: it is not a matter of the technical problems, although I can come on to those in moment if he wants me to; rather, I believe that it would be hugely dangerous and, in any event, it is unnecessary.
If those options are unattractive, is there an alternative route to resolve these matters and to deal with the issue of fairness? We do not need a solution that is absolutely perfect in every constitutional respect that fits seamlessly into some web of other issues; we need something that resolves the problem and removes a sense of unfairness.
At one stage, I argued for having an English Grand Committee, to which English-only Bills would be sent. It could be a Committee of all English Members sitting in this Chamber, but only those on such a Committee would be able to vote, just as members of Select Committees are the only people able to vote on them. That would not, in itself, be constitutionally improper. I acknowledge, however, that that would be quite a complicated innovation, which would take a complex series of thoughts to resolve and could take years in practice to implement.
In any event, there is a much simpler alternative-one that has not thus far been mentioned-and I shall put it forward. I would strongly argue that the most simple and straightforward solution relates to when a Bill is certified by the Speaker, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire indicates, as applying only to England. Doing that, incidentally, is not difficult. Many Bills currently affect England and Scotland or England, Scotland and Wales, because there is no reason at the moment for the draftsmen not to draft them in that way, if it suits their drafting objectives. If the rules change and the draftsmen are required to restrict any Bill to that part of the kingdom to which it overwhelmingly applies, they can draft accordingly if instructed to do so.
Where a Bill applies only to England, the right way to resolve matters would be to say that before it can be approved on Second and Third Reading, it must achieve not only the majority of votes of the whole House but, subsumed within that, a majority of Members representing English constituencies. In other words, a double majority is required: a majority of the House as a whole and a majority of those representing English constituencies. If it does not meet that target, it cannot be deemed to have been approved on Second Reading. The attraction is that no hon. Member is prevented from speaking in the debate or from voting in the Division Lobby for or against the measure, but the question of whether an England-only Bill goes forward and is given a Second Reading will have been determined by the House to be dependent on a majority of Members from English constituencies voting for it.
Harriett Baldwin: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way and also for sharing his enormous wisdom on this topic with the House. Does he agree that the Scotland legislation of the 1970s included a provision made by the Lords for a 14-day waiting period, in which something like what he is describing would apply? What does he think of that particular approach?
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Yes, that is indeed one approach. We are always reminding ourselves that this country has a sovereign Parliament. The idea that a sovereign Parliament cannot determine that certain classes of legislation will not go through unless there is a double majority of the kind that I have described is absurd. Of course it can do that if it wishes; it is entirely within its power. It is simply a political judgment as to whether that is the right way forward.
I shall not speak for much longer, but I want to address one fundamental challenge that will be made-it has already been made-to any of the solutions that have been described. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Rhondda will raise this suggestion. It is constantly said that the problem with all these approaches is that if a Government were denied the use of all the votes of their supporters that would usually give them a majority, the whole business of government would become unworkable and the Government would be unable to get their programme through, which would create some sort of constitutional crisis. To be fair, that argument is not made only by Labour Members. Mr Vernon Bogdanor, for example, who we are often told is a great constitutional expert, has constantly opined that that is a fundamental flaw in any such approach. Although I can understand why the Labour party adopts that view, because there is a political interest in putting forward such an argument, I find it very difficult to understand why such a learned gentleman has come to this conclusion-and I hope that he reads this speech.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind:
I have no doubt that he was. Eric Anderson was the headmaster who taught Tony Blair, but I do not think that either could be held
responsible for the other; each must come to their own judgments on these matters.
I come to the central point about the accusation that government would become unworkable. It is not just my view, my opinion or my theory that that is nonsense. We know from our own history that it is a ludicrous argument; it is exactly what happens every time we have a hung Parliament. When there is such a Parliament, as there was between 1974 and 1979, there will be many occasions when Governments cannot get their legislation through. It does not necessarily mean the collapse of the Government unless it is on some fundamental issue of confidence. What happens is that Governments either have to withdraw the proposal or discuss it with their opponents and table amendments to make it more acceptable. That is also exactly what happens between the House of Commons and the House of Lords from time to time. It is what happens in the United States all the time. The current President of the US does not have a majority in Congress, so he can never be certain of getting any legislation through. The argument that a British Government would somehow find themselves in an unworkable and unacceptable situation because not all but some of their English-only legislation was so controversial that a majority of English Members could not be persuaded to vote for it and that that would create chaos in the workings of government is manifestly ludicrous. That argument cannot be put forward in any credible way.
Mr Chope: I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his wisdom. Has he yet been approached by the Deputy Prime Minister to serve on this committee, which is yet to be set up? Surely, his service on that commission would be really useful.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I suspect that my hon. Friend's intervention has guaranteed that that will not happen. In any event, I would rather give evidence to the committee than serve on it. We will have to wait and see.
Finally, it is the essence of a parliamentary system of government that Governments must not assume that they can always get their business through. They will occasionally be defeated and, if they believe that the issue is fundamental, they can ask for a motion of confidence to enable them to survive. It is not a barrier to the kind of change that I and others have recommended to say that a Government might from time to time have to amend or withdraw their proposals because they lacked parliamentary consent. The parliamentary consent is what matters, not the Government's wishes.
Andrew Bridgen: May I drag my right hon. and learned Friend back to a point he made earlier in his eloquent speech? He said that he did not wish to create two classes of MP. Indeed, there is only one class of MP in this place. However, do we not already have two classes of MPs in our constituencies, because the work load of English MPs is far higher than that of Members in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) makes a sedentary comment, but if the work load of MPs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is not less than that of English MPs, what are the devolved Governments doing and what is their purpose?
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I know the point my hon. Friend is making, and it has some validity, but he takes the argument too far. Certainly, the constituency correspondence with which a Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland Member deals must be substantially less, as many issues that the rest of us have drawn to our attention would be a matter for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly or Northern Ireland Assembly. Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and none of us has enough time to do all the things that we would like to do in this Parliament. Although many of our Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish colleagues might not have as much work of that kind, I assume that that gives them more time, if they so wish, to take part in debates on wider, national issues and on matters that affect their constituents. It is not as if they sit around wondering, "How should I spend my day?" The naturally indolent may be in that position and enjoying every moment, and that is for our constituents to come to a judgment on, but a good Member of Parliament never has a shortage of legitimate matters, affecting constituents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to occupy their time.
I conclude more or less where I began: let us not get too involved in constitutional proprieties. The essence of the British constitution is its flexibility and ability to evolve to meet changing circumstances. When, for the first time since the Act of Union, three of the four component parts of the kingdom have their own Parliament or Assembly, the principle of fairness is paramount. The approach that I have suggested would meet that requirement in a fairly simple and straightforward way. There may be other solutions, but it is important to recognise that a solution is needed, and the quicker we achieve it the better.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), who has not been in the House long and yet already has managed to grasp firmly with both hands the nettle of one of the more complicated constitutional matters that has faced the country, I would say, for considerably longer than she suggested. It achieved a name, and once something has a name it achieves greater prominence-because of Irish Home Rule. However, when we first started binding together the different bits of the Union, there were profound discussions about how many Members of Parliament of both Houses should be from each of the constituent parts. To all intents and purposes, that was a very similar debate.
I was with the hon. Lady for part of her contribution, but then she took us to the Welsh Grand Committee. Anyone who suggests that that is an answer to anything, I am afraid, has completely lost me. My experience of the Welsh grandstanding Committee is that, for the most part, it is not as useful as it might seem to those who do not have to attend it.
Harriett Baldwin: Does the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that the Bill stops well short of such Committees, and would be a simple and innocuous piece of legislation that he could wholeheartedly support?
Was it Socrates-I cannot remember-who said that a small book was always a bad book? Sometimes
a simple and innocuous-looking piece of legislation can do the most pernicious damage. I will come on to whether I think it is innocuous later.
It is always great to hear the right hon. and learned-and gallant, and doubtless many other things besides- [Laughter.] Other words, which he might not like so much, are coming to mind now. It is always difficult not to think of the right hon. and learned Member for East Lothian-sorry, for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)-as a Scottish MP, and I suppose that in many regards he still is, but he is a Scottish MP for an English seat. Several hon. Members think that I am an English Member for a Welsh seat, but I am thoroughly Welsh, and Jeremy Paxman had to apologise when he maintained, in his latest book, that I was not.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to maintain that Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Members of Parliament have no diminished role just because of devolution. In many debates, they bring a specific interest and point of view that adds to the whole equation. The hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), who has departed the scene, said that Wales and Scotland MPs must, by definition, have less casework, which is certainly not my experience. If anything, many constituents, in the process of trying to achieve redress for their individual concern, try to play the Assembly Member off against the Member of Parliament. As the Welsh Assembly also has regional Members, my experience is that those from other political parties who failed to be elected in constituencies end up trying to play a semi-constituency role. Often, that leads to a considerable enhancement of the amount of work done. I make no complaint about that, but I think that those who assume, from their English seat, that a Welsh Assembly and a Scottish Parliament result in Welsh and Scottish MPs having less casework, are wrong.
There are many different kinds of casework. There is casework such as a miners compensation scheme, with which thousands of people want help going through the legal process. Then there is casework such as, "I think it's an absolute outrage that you ever thought of voting for this piece of legislation." I get very little of the latter and a lot of the former. In different constituencies around the land, some Members have a lot of immigration cases. I have had only about three immigration cases during my time as a Member of Parliament. Casework varies between constituencies, and it is not appropriate to legislate directly in relation to that.
Mr Stewart Jackson: Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that, with constituencies in Scotland and Wales having significantly smaller electorates than those in England, list system Members, devolved Parliament Members and MPs, such MPs have the same work loads as English constituency Members? If so, does he have any academic evidence to support that, because I am quite sceptical?
Chris Bryant: I think "Sceptical" might be the hon. Gentleman's middle name. I see he is smiling-I have managed to get a smile out of him; that must be a first. He is now trying not to smile. Now he is laughing.
The only point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that there is no academic evidence, and probably never will be. All that we have is anecdotal evidence. I merely offer my own evidence-I have not seen my
work load diminish compared with that of my predecessor, who did not have a Welsh Assembly to contend with. The hon. Gentleman is right that a constituency with a smaller number of people might mean that the Member concerned has fewer people contacting them, but it might also mean that access to the Member for constituents is more difficult and that it involves considerable travelling around the constituency. Anyway, that is a matter for a different debate.
The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington referred to the issue of whether there should be an English Parliament. He is right to argue that there is a danger that we would end up with two Governments. Who would take possession of Downing street? Presumably, we would have a set of English Ministers, in addition to British Ministers, and so on. I am not sure that is the direction in which British voters want to go. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire referred to the fact that on the one occasion when we had a referendum on whether there should be devolved responsibilities within the English regions, people decided, largely because they did not want more politicians, not to go down that route.
In parenthesis, let me say briefly that I hear regularly, not from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington but from others, that this is the mother of Parliaments. I again say that John Bright meant that England was the mother of Parliaments and that it was a very difficult and complicated birth. The effortless English superiority that sometimes arises in these debates is unfortunate.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to Wales, and I was reminded of a story, which may not be apocryphal, of Charlotte Church singing before George W. Bush when he was President-a meeting of two great minds, obviously.
When Charlotte Church was introduced to the President, he asked, "Where are you from?" She said, "Wales." He asked, "What state is that in?" , and she said "Terrible." Discussions about issues such as this are not always informed by great intelligence.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the possibility of an English Grand Committee. It has been suggested in the past that such a Committee should sit in the Chamber, because it would obviously have a significant number of members. During the last Parliament we discussed the possibility of regional Grand Committees and arguments were presented both for and against the idea, but it has fallen by the wayside.
I am afraid that I am going to disappoint the right hon. and learned Gentleman now. He expected me to argue that a Government who lost a piece of legislation would fall, but I am not going to argue that at all. In fact, the danger is that as we move towards an elected second Chamber-and over the past few weeks we have seen both sides of the second Chamber behaving almost
exactly like an elected Chamber-we will reach a point at which there will be absolutely no check on the power of the Executive. There will be no check by virtue of the time that the second Chamber can take to delay legislation, and no check in this House because, by definition, the Government have a majority. We may have to address that problem through the way in which we interpret the Standing Orders of the House.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: The hon. Gentleman has been kind enough to say that he does not think that a double-majority requirement would create an unworkable situation for the Government. The only argument-in fact, it is not even an argument, but just a word-that he has used to indicate his reason for opposing such a requirement is that it would cause "confusion". What does he mean by that?
Chris Bryant: I shall deal later with an issue that relates directly to the point of the Bill, and I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will then understand why I believe there is a problem. [Interruption.] He is now confused, but I hope that I shall be able to rescue him from his confusion in a moment or two.
As I said to the hon. Member for West Worcestershire, this is an age-old issue. There is a meretricious argument, which the hon. Lady steered away from today-although she dangled it in front of us a little bit-that it is patently absurd for Members whose constituents will not be affected by an individual piece of legislation to be able to vote on it. That is, at any rate, a paraphrase of something that she said. My response is "All that glisters is not gold."
If we decide that Members can vote only on matters that affect their constituents directly-or even indirectly, I suppose-we end up with the question of who runs the country. At any one moment, on any one piece of legislation, there is uncertainty, and in the case of Finance Bills in particular there is a real problem. The issue is not just what the Government propose, but what Members can or cannot amend. Some money Bills have effect only in England, but the danger is that a money Bill could be amended in a way that caused it to have an implication elsewhere.
Chris Bryant: There are money Bills attached to many pieces of legislation. There will be money Bills in relation to the education Bill and the national health service Bill, for instance. However, I think that the hon. Lady is referring to Finance Bills. It is true that the vast majority of Finance Bills have implications throughout the United Kingdom, although obviously there will be modifications in relation to Scotland if the Scotland Bill is passed. Elements of a future Finance Bill would not apply in Scotland. Indeed, elements of a Finance Bill today already do not apply in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales.
My second point is that it is phenomenally difficult to be clear about what constitutes the territorial extent not just of a particular piece of legislation, but of its transition through the House. It would seem on the face
of it that, for instance, the Bill that became the Health Act 2006 was purely an England Bill. Most people would consider that to be the case. The Bill made provision in relation to smoke-free premises, the purpose being to ban smoking in public places in England. On 14 February 2006 the House debated new clause 5, which replaced the original clause 3. It provided that
"The appropriate national authority may make regulations providing for specified descriptions of premises, or specified areas within specified descriptions of premises, not to be smoke-free".
"If both a club premises certificate and a premises licence authorising the consumption of alcohol on the premises have effect in respect of any premises, those premises are to be treated for the purposes of this section as if only the premises licence had effect".
Andrea Leadsom: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Given that the whole purpose of the Bill is to make clearer in legislation exactly what different legislative proposals relate to in terms of the geographical area of the United Kingdom, surely his argument is one in favour of the Bill.
Chris Bryant: No, it is an argument against it. I remember clearly the rows that took place in both the Chamber and the Clerk's Office about whether the way in which the amendments to a health Bill were being selected would mean that Wales was or was not covered. Because most Members wanted to remove the provision that would allow the Secretary of State to exempt private members' clubs in England, they actually removed the provision that allowed an exemption for private members' clubs in Wales. It may well be that the Welsh Assembly would have wanted to do that itself anyway, but it had no choice. It could not make such a provision. I can tell the hon. Lady that that row was quite vociferous.
My point is this: I do not think it is possible to be clear. The original legislation might be clear, but people might want to amend it, and why should they not be able to do so? If the parliamentary draftspeople say, "This Bill will cover only England", the number of Bills going through the House will have to be doubled, if not trebled, because there will have to be a separate Wales Bill and a separate Scotland Bill.
Harriett Baldwin: With the greatest respect, surely in such circumstances it would be necessary only to say, "This Bill applies to all three areas." My Bill provides for flexibility in order to avoid precisely the kind of row that the hon. Gentleman has described.
Chris Bryant: But who gets to decide the interpretation of what applies and what does not apply? That is the problem. A series of issues arises. A decision is made by parliamentary draftspeople, or Clerks, or the Speaker. That would bring them into the debate, which would be a mistake.
I want to give the reason why I think the Bill is being introduced. Although it is fascinating to know the territorial extent of any Bill or clause, the only purpose of knowing that must surely be, as the hon. Lady said, to ensure that Members of the House vote only on legislation that directly affects them. That is a misguided intention. In practice, that would mean that we ended up with more Bills, and Second and Third Readings and Committee stages. If we decide that English MPs can vote only on English legislation, who will vote on Welsh clauses? Just Welsh MPs? Would only Welsh MPs be able to attend the Committee to take the Bill through? I think that we have never had a Welsh Secretary of State for Wales under a Conservative Government, although I may be wrong. We would have to allow the Minister to sit on the Committee but they would not be able to vote on their own legislation, which seems patently absurd.
Harriett Baldwin: With respect, the hon. Gentleman is missing the whole point. Obviously, legislation will have different effects in different parts of the UK. That will be spelt out in the legislation. All the issues that he is raising are complete red herrings that the Bill would address.
Chris Bryant: No, I honestly think that the hon. Lady is completely naive in relation to this matter. She said at the beginning of her speech that she thought that it was a fundamental principle that MPs should be able to vote only on those things that affect their constituents. That is the only purpose of having such a provision in any legislation. If she introduces a piece of legislation or a Standing Order-I will come to parliamentary privilege in a moment-that would require MPs not to vote on a piece of legislation, or that would shame people into not voting on a piece of legislation, she will create a real problem. If we assert that only English MPs can take part in the proceedings on English legislation, table amendments, amend Bills, seek to speak and vote on that legislation-that is where her Bill is driving us-there will be a problem for English legislation, not least because large numbers of Scottish and Welsh MPs have been English Ministers dealing with largely English matters. There are and have been Scottish and Welsh Ministers in, for example, the Department of Health and the Department for Education who have largely dealt with matters that refer only to England.
Andrea Leadsom: People in the country do not want to see Scottish MPs voting as Ministers on English-only legislation. Surely the hon. Gentleman can see that there is a fairness issue. It is surely not a bad thing if people might be shamed into feeling that they cannot represent English-only issues if they are a Scottish MP, and by the way, the Bill is not proposing that.
Chris Bryant: I think that the hon. Lady has just let the cat out of the bag. That is the whole point of her argument, is it not? There is no other reason to introduce such as measure. The only reason is to shame people. That is what the hon. Lady wants to do. I think that she is effectively saying that she does not want me as a Welsh MP to vote on anything that she believes to be an English-only matter. Is that what she believes?
Andrea Leadsom: This is obviously my hon. Friend's Bill. She is not proposing any such legislation. She is merely proposing to clarify the territorial extent of any Bill that goes through the House. For my own part, in direct answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, I think that it is unfair to you, as a Welsh Member representing Welsh interests, voting on English-only interests, or indeed being a Minister for English-only interests. That is my personal opinion and I would not like you to attribute that to my hon. Friend whose Bill this is. She is not making that proposal.
Chris Bryant: Although I am sure that you would not mind, Mr Speaker. It is not a libel. It is not like being called an English Member when you are not an English Member. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] We lost badly in the rugby last week so we are still somewhat wounded on these matters.
I recognise that the hon. Member for West Worcestershire has dressed her Bill up so that it does not look like it is moving in that direction, but many Members might only support the Bill because they want it to move in that direction. As I said earlier, I understand that some people are concerned about the issue in the country. However, I cannot think of a single Parliament in the world, including Spain and many other countries-this is not the only argument that I would use in relation to this-where there is asymmetric devolution and MPs cannot vote on every piece of legislation that is brought before them. As the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington said, to go down that route is a nationalist argument-not as in British nationalist, but as in Welsh, Scottish or Irish nationalist-and will unpick the Union in the end. Therefore, if the hon. Member for West Worcestershire really believes in the Union, it is a bit difficult to advance that argument.
Harriett Baldwin: As I said earlier, it is because of that belief that it is important that we have clarity in our legislation about which parts of the UK it affects. Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that we have to just continue to park the issue and not address it, thus undermining the Union?
Chris Bryant: I would like to see the issue addressed in different ways-as it has been addressed in other countries. For example, the role of the second Chamber needs to be looked at. It has been embarrassing that the vast majority of people who have been appointed to the second Chamber in the past few years have been from London and the south-east of England. That is almost inevitable when we have an appointments system. I would prefer to move to an elected system, where we had more people representing the whole of the UK. It might be possible to devise a better answer to the West Lothian question through reform of the second Chamber on an elected basis.
However, as the hon. Lady has said, the whole business of parliamentary privilege comes into play. It has been a fundamental assumption from when the first commoners were allowed to attend parliamentary proceedings under Simon de Montfort in 1258 that grievances that they presented on behalf of the people should be able to be presented without any difference between one and the other Members.
Chris Bryant: Simon de Montfort invited four knights from each of the shires and six from Yorkshire in 1258 to present in Parliament their grievances on behalf of others. We do not know that all the knights attended. Of the ones who did attend, we only know that because they presented expenses and had them paid, so this problem has been with us since Mauge Vavasour had his payments made in Michaelmas 1258. It was a significant moment. The burgesses obviously arrived after 1258, though earlier in the 13th century there were occasions when some burgesses from the Cinque ports were invited, and some from those cities where there were a large number of Jewish residents were brought to Parliament to debate specific issues.
Chris Bryant: Well, not all 37 shires had representation, and they certainly did not have that as of right. I am perfectly happy to debate this at another time, but for now Mr Speaker has got that slightly fascinated but also slightly irritated face on.
It would be very dangerous to dismantle the fundamental principle of the equality of all Members of this House. That is why I think that, in the end, the direction of travel the hon. Member for West Worcestershire is moving in with this Bill is an unfortunate one.
As I have said, legislation is about not just what it does, but the declaratory effect that it has. The hon. Lady referred to the intended consequences of her Bill, but it would also have unintended consequences. As her colleague, the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), has already in effect told us, press releases will be sent out the moment the Bill comes into force condemning some Members for taking part in debates and votes on matters that the Bill declares as being for England only. I presume that there would also be condemnation of English MPs taking part in debates and votes on legislation that applies only to Wales. If we are going to reduce the number of Members of Parliament for Wales to 30, it will be difficult to take such legislation through effectively
if there are not enough Back Benchers to be able to make proper informed decisions about the measures under discussion. The direction of travel the hon. Member for West Worcestershire is taking us down is unfortunate.
I also think there will be unfortunate direct consequences, in that the number of Bills will increase, which will make things more difficult for us, and the number of clauses will also increase. We will end up with worse legislation because, as the hon. Lady has said, draftsmen will be required to try to provide absolute clarity that measures apply specifically to England, for example, or to Wales alone.
Damian Hinds: I do not know what the hon. Gentleman means by "declaration" as I am relatively new to all this, but Bills currently have a statement of territorial extent, yet I am not aware of certain Members being shamed into not commenting on them.
Chris Bryant: Such declarations do not specify whether a Bill is exclusively English, Welsh or Northern Irish, or applies to all four territories or just two-or whatever. There has not been a problem thus far, and that is why I do not think there is any reason to make changes through legislation. I am even more sceptical about this Bill than the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) normally is about everything. If it proceeds to Second Reading, we will want to scrutinise and amend it robustly. As other Members have revealed, there are major problems with these measures that the hon. Member for West Worcestershire has not considered.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on introducing the Bill. As we have heard, the question it addresses has excited people throughout history. I will not add to the exchange about history between the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), but in its current guise the question has been around since the late 1970s, when Tam Dalyell, the former Member for West Lothian, posed it during deliberations on the Scotland Bill in 1977, although I believe it was Enoch Powell who coined the phrase "the West Lothian question" during those debates.
Like the Barnett formula, this question is one of the perennial issues in respect of devolution. I often ask myself why that is the case. Should we simply not ask the question any more, as Lord Irvine has suggested? Is this just a constitutional nicety that we should ignore?
The answer to that is that if left answered, the question would gnaw away at the bonds that hold the Union together. I am a Unionist and the last thing I ever want to see is the Union of our United Kingdom being ripped up. That is why we must turn our minds to finding an answer to this question. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire rightly said that Members representing English constituencies get lobbied by our constituents on why some Scottish Members vote on matters that apply only to England. I am not saying that that is the primary topic of conversation down the "Nut and Squirrel" every Friday night, but it does come up sometimes.
Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I know that you have been in the Chair since the business of the House started this morning so you may not be aware that the High Court has just ruled in favour of the six local authorities who took the Secretary of State for Education to court over his Building Schools for the Future announcement. You will be aware, Mr Speaker, of the extent of the feeling on both sides of the House about this decision, and you will also appreciate the grave implications it will have for the policy of the Department for Education. It also calls into question the competence of the Secretary of State. Mr Speaker, have you received any notification that the Secretary of State will come to the House and explain the botched decision he made and say how he will move forward to make sure capital programmes for schools, including in my own constituency, will now be reinstated?
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I have received no indication from any Minister at the Department for Education of an intention or desire to make a statement in the House today. It would, of course, be open to a Minister to do so however, and the hon. Gentleman has put his point on the record. It will have been heard by Members sitting on the Treasury Bench, including the Leader of the House, and I am sure there will be other opportunities fully to explore these matters in the days and weeks ahead.
Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Given the significant financial implications of this decision, have you had any indication from a member of the Treasury ministerial team that they will come to address the House today on the matter?
I was about to give an example of why it is still extremely valid to address the West Lothian question. Last May's general election did not produce a parliamentary majority for any one party, but it did produce a majority in England for the Conservative party; the Conservatives won a clear overall majority of the seats in England. I accept that no party commanded an overall majority so we had to proceed to a coalition Government, but an alternative coalition to the current one could have been found, such as the "rainbow option" of Labour Members, Liberal Democrats, nationalists, Ulster Members and independents. In that case, the people of England who had voted clearly for a Conservative
Government would have been denied that Government, and we would, I think, have entered uncharted constitutional waters. I think there would have been a strong uprising in England on the basis that the will of the English voters had been thwarted. That situation did not arise, but it could have, so this is a very live issue.
A similar situation may arise in this Parliament over a vote to reverse the ban on hunting. That ban applies only to England and Wales from a vote in this House, because the matter is devolved entirely to the Scottish Parliament. Let us suppose there was a clear majority among English and Welsh Members to reverse that ban, but in the House as a whole, with the addition of Scottish Members, there was a wish to keep the law as it is. Why should Scottish Members be able to influence the decision in England or in England and Wales? That situation could arise and, although it might not be the most dominant issue in our postbags, we have to provide for that eventuality.
Mr Chope: My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Will he also consider what might happen in this review that we have been promised? What happens if the commission recommends changing the arrangements to answer the West Lothian question, but that is then unrepresentative of English opinion?
Iain Stewart: My hon. Friend raises an intriguing possibility. I hope that the commission does report, but we cannot move to a new arrangement without the agreement of those in the existing system; that is part of our process of constitutional evolution. I hope that we do get that commission and I gently encourage my Front-Bench colleagues to speed it up, because I will wholeheartedly support it.
I wish to discuss an intriguing point made by a former Secretary of State for Scotland in the previous Government, Helen Liddell. It relates to a separate issue but it makes the argument well. When we were debating whether the United Kingdom should join the euro, the then Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), set out five tests by which we should judge whether it was appropriate for the United Kingdom to do so. She made the point that a sixth test should form part of the overall considerations, which was the opportunity cost of not joining: was there a cost to the United Kingdom of not joining the euro? Similarly, we should consider the opportunity cost of not addressing the West Lothian question because if it is left unchecked at some point it will come back to undermine the Union. As a Unionist, that is the last thing that I want. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) was correct to say that this is an evolutionary process. I did not have the benefit of being tutored by Professor Bogdanor, but I was always taught by the equally eminent Professor Michael Rush at the university of Exeter that the British constitution is a product of evolution, not revolution. We should proceed on that basis, but that should not preclude us from turning our minds to this issue.
Theoretically, there are three perfect solutions to the West Lothian question, although I believe that we should reject them because they have other consequences that are either impractical or undesirable. The first option is that the Union ends, which is the wish of the Scottish
National party, whose Members are clearly here in excessive number to debate this matter. They do have a perfect option, because under their solution the number of Scottish Members in this House would be zero and the West Lothian question would therefore not arise. However, for all sorts of economic, cultural and social reasons, I do not wish the Union to end.
The second option is to go back to the arrangement that was in place before we had the Scottish Parliament, either by abolishing that Parliament or by following the intriguing suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) that Members of this House who represent Scottish constituencies should then form the Scottish Parliament and on certain days-for example, Wednesdays and Thursdays-only English Members would debate in this place. I fear that that is not a practical option at the moment. There is certainly no appetite in Scotland for reversing the Scottish Parliament, and as it was set up by a referendum it can be undone only by a referendum. That may become an option at some point, but I do not see it as a viable option now. Nevertheless, the suggestion would provide a neat solution to the West Lothian question.
The third option is to move to a fully federal United Kingdom, with one United Kingdom Parliament legislating on the big national issues-the economy, international affairs, defence and so on-and the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly and a body for England then dealing, on an equal basis, with the issues affecting those areas. Such a system works perfectly well in Germany, Australia, Canada and many other countries, but the problem would be how to solve the "English question" in a federal situation.
One option would be to have a separate English Parliament with the same powers as the Scottish Parliament. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington said, and as others have argued, the difficulty with that is that England would represent more than 80% of the population and more than 80% of the gross domestic product in one unit. I cannot think of a stable modern democracy with an advanced economy where there is such an overwhelming dominant part in a federation. Any other country with a federal system contains two or more big states that balance each other out. For example, Canada contains Ontario and Quebec, and Germany contains Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia. If England were to be a separate entity in a federal system, the arrangement would have too much of an imbalance.
The other option would be to atomise England into regions-for example, the north-east, the south-west, Greater London and so on. There may be various permutations, but there is simply no appetite in England for that, even in the part of England where there was, allegedly, the highest demand for a regional government-the north-east. When people there were given the option of a regional government a few years ago, they overwhelmingly rejected it. In addition, we would face enormous difficulty in dividing England up. Our debates on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill have included an argument about a cross-border constituency involving Cornwall and Devon. Goodness knows what would happen if we tried to draw a boundary involving Gloucestershire, Cornwall, Dorset and other
areas to constitute "the south-west of England". I simply do not believe that federalism is a viable option in this country.
All that brings us to an imperfect answer, as we are not going to create a perfect solution to the West Lothian question unless we go down one of those three avenues. The Bill is a helpful first step in paving the way to finding that answer. I have looked at all the options over many years, although not for as long as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington. I have ruled out some and I do take seriously the comment made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that we would encounter difficulties if we started excluding Members from voting on particular bits of legislation. I strongly hold the view that every Member in this House is equal and when we start tinkering with that, we enter dangerous waters.
I do believe, however, that there is a solution and I am happy to endorse the one proposed by my right hon. and learned Friend: some form of a double majority. In such a system no Member would be excluded from participating in a debate or voting on a particular Bill or part of a Bill, but there should then be a requirement that if that Bill applied wholly or exclusively to one part of the United Kingdom, an additional majority would be required among Members from that area.
Chris Bryant: But is the difficulty not that, for the most part, Governments introduce legislation in our system and a Government who were nervous about their majority would simply ensure that Bills contained separate clauses relating to Wales, to Northern Ireland and to Scotland, so we would not be any further forward?
Iain Stewart: I would answer that by saying that a Government who do not command the majority in all parts of the kingdom should approach with caution legislating against the will of a part where they do not command a majority. For example, one of the main arguments for devolution was that this place would legislate against the wishes of Scotland, if the Government did not command a majority in Scotland. If the Government do not command a majority, they should approach with care legislating for the whole kingdom, if that does not command support across the board.
Chris Bryant: One should assume that Governments will be unscrupulous. Hon. Members are always scrupulous, but Governments, in their corporate management of taking business through the House, might be unscrupulous. There is the myth that the previous Labour Government did not have a majority in England, but they had the majority of seats in England. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that the Bill will not solve the problem.
Andrew Bridgen: Once again, the hon. Gentleman comments from a sedentary position. The previous Government did not have the majority of the votes in England. I am a Unionist, and I wholeheartedly support the Union. The biggest risk posed by not addressing the West Lothian question is that the dissatisfaction of English voters, rather than the dissatisfaction of Scottish or Welsh electors, will force the Union apart.
Iain Stewart: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Sadly, I do not have the statistics, but I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), rather than the hon. Member for Rhondda, is correct about the outcome of the 2005 election in England. Hon. Members with BlackBerrys may be able to provide us with that information. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend will debate that one in the bar afterwards.
Doing nothing is more dangerous than doing something. I am yet to hear a convincing view that the double-majority option is worse than the current situation. The approach should, of course, be gradual. We should evolve our constitution, rather than smashing it up and piecing it together again, which is why I am happy to support the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire. I hope that the Bill is read a Second time today and that it gets a fair wind in its later stages.
The previous Government started a number of constitutional journeys that did not have clear destinations. The reform of the other place is one example, and devolution is another-as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) has correctly pointed out, devolution is more than one journey.
The Bill does not tell us exactly where we are going. It does not buy us a map or a TomTom, but it points the vehicle in the correct direction and provides greater visibility of the road ahead. The real divide is between those who think that the West Lothian question is a question that needs to be answered, and those who think that it is a question that might just go away. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) has put it, the question needs to be answered, if we care about maintaining the Union and carrying the people of the United Kingdom with us.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) discussed the declaratory effect of passing this Bill. He is right, but the declaratory effect would be a good thing, because it would make it clear that this House thinks that the question needs to be answered. The Bill does not answer the question, but it makes it more urgent.
We have discussed a number of options today, such as the double-majority option. The double-lock system, which is slightly different, was proposed by the taskforce
on democracy, which was chaired by the Secretary of State for Justice. The double-lock system is an elegant solution to the problem, where the whole House would vote on Second Reading and Third Reading, but only English MPs would be allowed to vote in Committee and on Report. The great advantage of that system is that it would force people to negotiate. If, as a side effect, there were slightly less legislation, it would not be such a bad thing. [ Interruption. ] I do not accept that there would automatically be more legislation caused by Governments duplicating Bills to cover the different constituent countries of the kingdom.
As I have said, the Bill is a first step. It is not the solution to the West Lothian question, but it does enable it. When it comes to constitutional change, baby steps are good steps-incrementalism is a good thing, rather than making great lurches forward. The constitution is an organic and delicate thing, which we change at our peril. In her Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire neatly gets around the two major objections on territorial extent: namely, the potential politicisation of the office of the Speaker and the implications for the Barnett formula.
I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that it will be difficult to sort out the problem. As we have heard, the problem goes all the way back to Simon de Montfort. Equally, we must remember the problems with the Irish Home Rule Bills in the late 19th century, which were solved-kind of. We had Stormont until 1972, which I can recall operating when I was a soldier.
The issue will become increasingly important as power, particularly the power to raise taxes, is dissipated down. As I understand it, the Scottish Parliament might be able to raise 2p in the pound on income tax. Is that correct? I think that it is. The Scotland Bill may allow more discretion on that. When one starts talking about money as well as issues such as health, education and prisons, there is a big difference. It is important that we find a way ahead, but it will not be easy.
I have had a few tangles with the Table Office, when I used what I thought were plain words in a question. I have had to go there several times after my homework was sent back, but I am sure that the clever people in the Table Office can design a form of words that will help. Surely it should be possible to identify whether a Bill concerns England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Chris Bryant: That has not always been my experience of the Table Office, which is often directional and forceful in saying that one cannot table a particular question in, for example, Welsh questions. In such cases, it is often drawn into rows.
It will become increasingly important that we address this problem. I am sure now, too, that that the problem will be helped by some sort of solution, such as that suggested by my right hon., learned and former Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who is not in his position, but whom I shall make it up with. Before you were here, Madam Deputy Speaker, I called him "old friend", and he said, "Not as old as you." [ Interruption. ] I am so sorry; I am getting into more trouble now. Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was referring to my right hon., learned and somewhat gallant Friend the Member for Kensington, who produced an elegant solution that would not be a big problem to sort out: the double vote, which my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who shares the same name as me and who must be slightly Scottish, as I am, suggested that he endorsed as well.
Chris Bryant: I keep on thinking up more reasons why I dislike that double mandate, so I will suggest another one: one of the reasons why, traditionally, we have granted that a Bill should be given a Second Reading is so that it can be amended. Quite often, hon. Members will allow a debate on Second Reading to proceed because they want to amend something. That is the danger. Many hon. Members might want to amend a Bill to include Welsh or Scottish provisions, but they might have been prohibited from taking part in the debate on Second Reading, and that rather conflicts with the whole purpose of such a debate.
Bob Stewart: I thank the hon. Gentleman for, once again, being so perceptive as to pick a few little holes. I accept that this is not an easy problem; there is no easy fix. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) is suggesting a gradual, slow change, which I support. But I also support the idea that, when the commission sits this year, as we learn, it considers a solution. I prefer evolution, rather than revolution. I would prefer that we start to address this problem, and I am attracted to the idea presented by my new friend, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, who has departed for a coffee. I endorse in the meantime my hon. Friend's Bill.
"what a tangled web we weave".
"Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive".
I recognise the growing concern-irritation would be one way of putting it-among my constituents, who rightly or wrongly feel that there is now an injustice and that Scotland has a greater say and influence over issues than they do in Lincolnshire. We in the Cleethorpes constituency are in the Yorkshire and Humber region. We do not like that, but the fact is that, officially, we seem to have been consigned to it, where there are 54 constituencies. So, in theory, the 59 constituencies that make up Scotland could overrule my constituents' wishes on an issue that affected only their region.
Many hon. Members have talked about the designation used in Bills-for example, the Energy Bill states that it is limited to England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Education Bill states that it is limited to England and Wales. It does not seem beyond the wit of man to find a system whereby Bills were designated as applying only to one part of the kingdom or another.
The Bill's great strength is that it asks for a common-sense approach to be taken to the process of debate and scrutiny of draft legislation that applies only to the people of England. The anomaly that has been rather misleadingly entitled, "the West Lothian question" exists as a procedural quirk in our system. The Bill proposes that the citizens of England be given the same representation on draft legislation and that we who represent the people of England be given the same accountability as those who represent the devolved nations.
The thrust of the Bill is not something that is radical or unsupported but is a call for the implementation of the ideal of representation, which is the core of our system. I always hesitate to use the word "fair", but the people of my constituency feel, as I mentioned a moment ago, that the system is unfair to them. The word "fairness" is used a lot in politics these days. It is rather a dangerous concept for politicians. Of course, people think that something is fair only if it is to their advantage. The present system is seen by English people as unfair.
Mention has been made of the Conservative democracy taskforce. Its contribution to the debate has been welcome. I had rather thought that its thoughts and conclusions had been put, as with so many reports, into the litter bin of history, but we have perhaps resurrected them this morning. Of course, as has been mentioned, the taskforce suggests that the Committee stage could be taken by English Members if a Bill related only to England-that seems perfectly reasonable-and that the whole House would contribute again on Third Reading. I quote Lord Hurd:
"The government of the United Kingdom would have to ensure that its English measures were acceptable to enough English MPs-or else not put them forward. There would be nothing extraordinary in this process: it is called politics."
The taskforce proposals would retain the overall parliamentary majority of the UK Government for all policy and daily business. English MPs would have reserved to them only the detailed scrutiny and amendment of legislation that exclusively affects their constituents-the residents of England-but legislation that contained unacceptable amendments passed in Committee could be rejected. That seems an eminently sensible way forward.
I support the Bill because it allows the debate to continue. Perhaps we are on the road to a more federal system, and if we are it is essential that we stop seriously to debate and consider all possible aspects, but the Bill has a downside if taken to its logical conclusion. Although I represent Cleethorpes, I live in the neighbouring constituency of Great Grimsby. Although my representative is not in his place, I am sure that he would not mind my mentioning one aspect of Grimsby. There is something called the Grimsby Pastures Act, which was first passed in 1849 and renewed in 1949, and it relates to the almost unique system of freemen of what was the borough of Great Grimsby.
Freedom of the borough is not an honorary title but an hereditary position. The freemen own a considerable amount of land in the borough, the income from which is distributed to the freemen. Only a few hundred of them are left now. My father was a freeman, but by some quirk of the system, because I was born in Cleethorpes, I did not succeed and I am therefore a few hundred pounds worse off. When that Act comes up for renewal in 2048, only the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) would be able to vote. That guarantees a majority, but hon. Members can understand my logic.
I support the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire has contributed considerably to the debate on the thorny West Lothian question, and I will support the Bill in the Lobby later this morning.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): The Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) is tremendously important because the West Lothian question is the constitutional question of the day. That question and reform of the House of Lords are the two issues with which politicians and parliamentarians have wrestled since just before the first world war, although no great solution to either has come forward. Today's debate gives us the opportunity to examine what the solution to the question might be and how the Bill might contribute.
Although I am sympathetic to what the Bill is an attempt to do, I have several concerns about its details, some of which were spelled out by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), when we get down to the approach to Bills that Governments might take. What classifications would we have? Some issues are devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while some apply throughout the United Kingdom and others are purely for England. A Bill might cover English issues and matters that are not devolved to Wales but are devolved to Scotland. Would a Standing Order of the House allow English and Welsh Members to consider that Bill, but not the Scots or the Northern Irish? What if one clause of a Bill related to all parts of the United Kingdom, but all the other clauses related only to England? Would Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland join proceedings in Committee and on Report to vote on that particular clause, although they had been kept out of Committee and Report for every other part of the Bill, subject to the Standing Order that would follow from the Bill? The sheer complexities of clarifying territorial extent are probably too great.
Our present position is relatively straightforward. An Act of Parliament can technically overrule a devolved power, but Governments have not been willing to bring
forward such a measure because of the great constitutional investment involved in establishing the devolved authorities, all of which were backed by referendums in their constituent parts. If the Bill were passed, England would be protected purely by Standing Orders. It is almost an insult to the English to say, "We had a referendum and then a Parliament for Scotland, and we carried that out in a thorough and proper way, but for the English, we will have a Standing Order." Of course, the drawback to a Standing Order is that an incoming Government could simply remove it so that all MPs could once again vote on all Bills in Committee and on Report. They would lose little political capital if they did so, because a comparatively small amount of political capital would have been invested to set up the previous system, unlike under the referendums prior to setting up the systems of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Stage two from this Bill seems to involve fundamental flaws of definition and description. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) suggested, it could give rise to ridiculous situations. We will shortly be asked by their lordships to consider whether the Isle of Wight should remain an individual constituency. I rather like the idea that only one Member of Parliament should be able to vote on that. I know without any doubt which way my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) would vote, but I have a feeling that the Minister would not be entirely happy if the decision of the House was made exclusively by my hon. Friend.
We must be careful about taking territorial extent too far, and there are huge areas in which the situation would not be clear. Let us say that we considered a Finance Bill following the devolution of tax-raising powers to Scotland. Would we go through that Bill with different people sitting on different Committees for each clause, depending on a statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Would we have two separate Finance Bills? As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, we could have a succession of Bills to try to tease out regional effectiveness. It would be incredibly difficult to make such a situation work.
I am afraid that I disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) because there is a difference between having an in-built majority to stop something throughout the five years of a Parliament, and a hung Parliament. Let us put it this way: roughly 100 seats are not English, so 550 seats are English. If 300 of those 550 seats were held by Conservative Members, the Conservatives would have a complete block on all English legislation for an entire Parliament. In a hung Parliament, there is an acceptance among minority parties that the Government's business must be carried, but the main Opposition will oppose day in, day out throughout a hung Parliament, as we see in this hung Parliament and as we saw in the 1970s. In such a situation, the official Opposition would have a majority of English seats, and therefore a block on all exclusively English legislation for the whole Parliament, so the Secretaries of State for Health and for Education would find it almost impossible to get any of their legislation through.
My hon. Friend makes my point for me, as does my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). If the general
election produced a clear majority for one party in England, but the result for the United Kingdom as a whole was different, the UK Government should proceed with the utmost caution and not introduce legislation that would be diametrically opposed to the wishes of English Members.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: My hon. Friend makes an important and valid point. The West Lothian question is serious, but the answer is not necessarily one that we have been given so far. Just because the question is right, it does not mean that an answer to it would necessarily work. My hon. Friend is correct to say that if the majority of English seats had been won by Conservatives but we had ended up with a rainbow coalition, it would have caused huge dissatisfaction and opposition within England, as well as a feeling that the Union was not working for England. I want the Union to succeed and prosper, so I want an answer to the West Lothian question to come forward which the English find fair and with which they are comfortable.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington was right to emphasise the issue of fairness, but such fairness needs to be met with constitutional propriety and effectiveness. We have heard a great deal about the fairness so far today, but not about a workable constitutional situation, and that will not do us any good because however much one dislikes the Opposition party being in government, it will be one day, and when it is in government, it must be able to get its programme of government through. The way to stop that programme of government is not to put down so many constitutional man traps that that Government cannot get their business through, but to defeat them at the ensuing general election and reverse the worst elements of what they have done. The Bill would lead to a system that would make it incredibly difficult for a Labour Government to get their English business through, but that is not an answer to the West Lothian question because it would simply mean that that Government would have to reverse the protections that had been introduced, and I would have the gravest concerns about such protections being established purely through Standing Orders of the House.
I know that this is not in the Bill, but its purpose is to establish the declaration so that Standing Orders can then be built either to put in place the double majority suggested by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, or to establish practice in Committee and on Report. Is it right for us to change the whole basis of legislation through Standing Orders? Standing Orders can rightly do many things concerning the hours that we sit and the way that business is timetabled, but they do not tend to change the fundamental way in which legislation is taken through the House.
Harriett Baldwin: I thank my hon. Friend for giving such an eloquent speech on some of the issues surrounding legislating on this subject. Does he accept that the Bill stops well short of giving any direction whatever as far as Standing Orders are concerned? It simply says that draft legislation will outline its impact and, in a side statement, its financial impact.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, but I was rather hoping she would not, because there is a desperate tendency on Fridays towards
motherhood-and-apple-pie Bills that say nothing very much about anything in particular. If her Bill is that type of Bill, what on earth are we doing discussing it? If it just says that the Minister, out of the kindness of his heart, will say a few words about where an Act applies, it is completely and utterly pointless, and the House should not discuss things that are pointless. We do that on Fridays, and Madam Deputy Speaker is amazingly patient in listening to some of these discussions.
My hon. Friend's Bill has to be an important stepping-stone in answering the West Lothian question, or it is nothing. I give her credit for having the courage to begin to address that question, rather than just detaining us here when we could be doing work in our constituency on a Friday. I hope that she will not try to hide behind the minutiae of the Bill instead of looking at the bigger picture, because that bigger picture is crucial.
My hon. Friend is right to put pressure on the Government to come up with a solution that can be debated in Government time. In that respect, the Bill is really noble, because the Government do have to think about the issue. It is unfair on the British-the English; I apologise for using those two words synonymously, as I know the English do a great deal.
What ought the Government to do and to think about as they approach a solution to the West Lothian question? They have to think about the practicalities. We have had learned discussion already today about how difficult it would be to have an English Parliament, because one would then have an English Government, and that would be simply too big. That is the problem that Balfour identified when first discussing Home Rule. He asked what we do about England, when we have Ireland, Scotland and Wales as nations. Do we chop England up, or simply have it swamping the whole new system that is being established? If there is an English Prime Minister and a UK Prime Minister, who does the President of the United States visit when he comes? He sees the English Prime Minister, because the UK Prime Minister would have peripheral powers. He might have a slightly better house, but that would be the extent of it. There is not an easy solution to the English Parliament issue.
There is then the question of English votes on English issues, but the more one discusses that superficially hugely attractive option, the more one discovers that it does not work, because there would be two tiers of MPs, and a Whitehall Government that could not get a major part of its legislation through and would therefore begin to fail. One would then begin to try to chop up the procedures, so that the Government could decide which MPs debated which bits of legislation, but that
would not work either, for reasons that we have discussed. There was mention of the Welsh Grand Committee and how little that was able to succeed in doing; and when the Conservatives were last in government, they thought that a sop to devolution would be to have a Scottish Grand Committee. The fact is that the governing party has to be able to get its parliamentary business through. Whatever schemes it sets up will not work if that fundamental principle is not followed, and will be changed to the extent that they cannot be used.
So what do I suggest that the Government do? That is the nub of it. We will have an election at some point in which the Conservatives have a clear majority in England but are not the major part of the governing group. At that point, there will be squeals of anguish from the English electorate, and the Conservative party will use that all it can for political advantage. We will find that the Union comes under fundamental attack. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) that any attack on the Union is likely to come not from the Scottish nationalists but from English nationalists, fed up with the way that they are being treated.
I would like the Government to consider the proposal that we heard earlier about allowing the two Parliaments and the one Assembly to come together to some extent, but I accept that that is difficult: As a result of how they were set up, it would be problematic to change them at this stage, but it may be that something could be done along those lines. Alternatively, the thing will simply have to be done in the best form of British fudge-that is, Labour Members, when in government, will have to be enormously responsible and self-denying about what they do in England, and conventions will have to become very important in our constitutional settlement. If it becomes a convention, but is not formalised, that English representation will have a majority, or will at least accept a veto on extremely controversial measures, that may be a fudge that would work.
It is interesting and worth noting that on both big constitutional issues-reform of the House of Lords and the West Lothian question-after 100 years of the best brains trying to find a solution, no obvious solution has come up. With every solution that does come up, after one has thought about it for a week or two, one sees any number of holes in it. I therefore see absolutely no reason to oppose the Bill when we come to vote on it. There is nothing objectionable in it, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire has been very sensible to ensure that that is the case. It is good to push the Government, but I would not hold my breath-I do not think that I can breathe in for the next 100 years -waiting for a solution to this almost intractable problem. However, we have to recognise that, as my hon. Friend says, the English may get deeply fed up with the current situation, and when they do, that is when the Union will be most at risk. That is, I think, what most Government Members, and at least one Member on the Opposition side of the Chamber-the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley)-would be extremely keen to avoid.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP):
It is always a pleasure to follow the clever-and highly witty, at times-speeches made by the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). I also congratulate the
hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on getting the Bill before the House. However, my flattery stops at that point, I am afraid.
I have significant difficulties with the Bill, because I believe that it does the exact opposite of what the hon. Lady intends. I believe that she is a good Unionist and that she cares passionately about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However, the Bill could be the slippery slope towards the disengagement of that Union, and that should be avoided.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset talked about the ridiculousness and pointlessness of certain legislation, and I believe that if this private Member's Bill were to be pursued to its ultimate conclusion, we would effectively have what has been described on other occasions as wallpaper. The hon. Lady let the cat out of the bag during her earlier interjection; she said that the Bill wanted only to do something very simple. During my short time at the House, I have found that there is nothing simple about legislation. If we think that a simple piece of legislation can cure ills, we are misguided in our observation.
Some arrant nonsense has been spoken-and, unfortunately, passionately believed by some Members. The idea is that Members of Parliament from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are somehow, to use the parlance of the street, more feckless and lazy than Members from England. That is wrong, and it is condescension of the highest order.
If the Member who made that point wishes to check Hansard or the website theyworkforyou.com for Back-Bench interventions, speeches and contributions to the wealth of the House, he will probably find that there are Members on the Opposition Benches from those regions whose contributions to the debates and activities of the House are above average or significantly greater than some Government Back Benchers. We need to be careful before pointing the finger at the level of skill or contribution brought to this Parliament by Members from the regions.
Iain Stewart: I reassure the hon. Gentleman that many of us who passionately believe that we have to address the West Lothian question also believe in the equality of the work loads of Members. I do not believe that that is an intractable problem. Although some of my colleagues might believe that for Members from devolved areas there is a lighter load from postbags or parliamentary work, not all of us hold that view.
Ian Paisley: I do not think that the view is necessary commonly held, but we should caution ourselves. When we speak in this place on behalf of the Union and such points are made-not in jest, but seriously-that seriously undermines the standing of the House and its Members. That is not what we should be about. We should bear that in mind.
Chris Bryant: Has the hon. Gentleman had the following experience, as I have had in the past couple of weeks? As a Welsh Member of Parliament, I have had a lot of e-mails and correspondence from my constituents on the issue of selling off forests. That does not apply in Wales, but the issue is deeply felt by many in my constituency.
Ian Paisley: I appreciate that intervention. I got at least three forest trees of letters through my door from people passionately asking me to oppose or support the plan, depending on where the correspondence came from, even though it does not directly affect Northern Ireland. I exercised some caution. I recognised that although it did not directly affect Northern Ireland, I could attend the debate and listen to the arguments. However, I did not vote; I deliberately made a choice not to do so, because I believed that it was a matter for Members who were directly affected and whose constituency issues rested on it. The issues were addressed in the devolved Assembly. I had the right to vote, but I also had the choice of whether to exercise it.
If Members feel that they are missing out, they should look at the devolved Assemblies. What exactly are they doing? Last week, our Assembly in Northern Ireland, of which I am no longer a Member, was dealing with legislation for safety helmets for bicycle riders. A dog fouling Bill was also introduced. We are not missing a lot. We should not think that there is stuff going on in those regions that we should really be getting our teeth into and ask why Members there are getting it while we are not. We are not missing that much, and we should bear that in mind.
I turn to the substantial point that I have in mind. I am a Unionist, and a proud one, but my Unionism is as strong only as each component part of the Union. My Unionism is deleted if Scottish or Welsh Unionism is deleted or English Unionism is not strong. As a Member for Northern Ireland, I have a responsibility to encourage the Union and see that it is strengthened. The Union is as strong only as each of its component parts. If Northern Ireland or Scotland are made weaker by legislation such as this, Unionism is made weaker. We should tread very carefully.
Harriett Baldwin: I thank the hon. Gentleman for coming along to participate in the debate, because his perspective is valuable. Will anything in the Bill prevent him from voting on anything? The Bill could allow our unwritten constitution to evolve so that Members might indeed choose to abstain in the way that he describes.
Ian Paisley: The beauty of an unwritten constitution is flexibility. As Burke said, we are here to give to the people who elect us not just of our industry, but of our judgment. We are elected to make judgment calls, and we should have the sense to make those calls without that having to be written down, as the hon. Member for North East Somerset said, in a motherhood and apple pie way. That is what we seriously need to avoid.
I passionately believe that there is a real danger that if we create a two-tier Chamber, instead of having a wonderful House of Commons, we will have a House of little Englanders. That does not serve this nation or the interests of any member of it, whether they are in the Hebrides or Fermanagh. We need to recognise that.
We all pay the same taxes. If we want changes to taxation, the Magna Carta gives us rights to be represented in this House. We should passionately hold on to those. I appeal to my Conservative and Unionist friends to recognise that they should not play party politics with the constitution of this nation because they fear that the English will become bad Unionists in future. They need to be careful. They have a responsibility to lead the
people of England into believing as passionately in the Union as I do. They can do that only by discouraging the view that we need another Parliament for the English. They and the House need to encourage the strength of Parliament and the development of powers here.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset said that he would like some mechanisms to be developed, but there are already such mechanisms, such as the British-Irish Council. The BIC is supposed to strengthen east-west relationships and bring the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly together with members of the Government of this United Kingdom, and indeed at times with members of the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Those mechanisms should be encouraged and worked on. If the House does not play its full role in the BIC, it should get up off its proverbial bottom and do so, and demonstrate why we, as Unionists, can be stronger not as individual components but as a whole.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), my constituency neighbour, on introducing this private Member's Bill. She has been in the House of Commons for only a brief time, but has already secured a place in the ballot for private Members' Bills significantly higher than I ever achieved-I never got into the top 20-and significantly higher than many other hon. Members. I am grateful to her for introducing a measure that has engaged Members on both sides of the House in a thoughtful way.
The West Lothian question is the backdrop to my hon. Friend's Bill. Of course, calling the problem the West Lothian question makes it sound somewhat obscure to most voters. We had a go at rechristening it the English question, but that never seemed to work, so I shall use the old nomenclature. My hon. Friend wants to tackle the question, and she and I have discussed it, after which she has looked at her proposals and improved them. I am not sure that the Bill is exactly as the Government would wish, so at the end of my remarks, particularly because of the complexities involved, I shall test the opinion of the House. However, if the Bill goes into Committee, I look forward to working with her constructively to improve it.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House raised a number of issues. It is worth going into the background and being clear about what we are talking about when we talk about legislation that affects different parts of the UK. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) picked up something that my hon. Friend said when she talked about legislation that affects different parts of the United Kingdom. He referred to parts of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill-I am sure that Members are waiting with bated breath to debate it again next week-that affect Wales. There is a distinction between legislation that affects different parts of the country and legislation under which decisions are reserved to Westminster and are properly not taken by the devolved Assemblies, which are different things. This House can legislate for things where the decisions are reserved here, as the hon. Gentleman said.
For example, there are electoral matters which, although decisions on them may affect only Wales, are reserved to the Secretary of State. In those cases, one could perfectly happily conclude that it was quite right and proper for every Member of this House to vote on such decisions, even though they affected only Wales. There are also cases where it has been decided that decisions should be devolved-in this case to the Welsh Assembly-and that this House should not legislate on them. Members may well want to make a distinction in those cases, because they might not think it proper for the whole House to vote on the equivalent decisions that affected only England. The argument would be that in Wales, for example, it is Welsh Assembly Members who are taking those decisions, whereas in England, Welsh MPs should not be making the same decisions for English constituents when they do not play that role in their own constituencies. It is the asymmetry in these debates that causes some disquiet in England. It is not so much the fact that, in this example, Welsh MPs would be voting on issues that affected only England; it is the fact that English MPs have no say on the same issues in Wales.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire ran through a number of potential solutions. She also noted-as did a number of other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg)-that one solution to the English question posited by the previous Government was to introduce some kind of regional devolution. She noted that this solution had been rejected decisively in the north-east. Indeed, the neighbouring constituencies that the two of us represent highlight that very well. There is a lot in common between Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, yet we are both in different Government office regions and different regions for the European Parliament. We have neighbouring constituencies, yet there is quite a significant dividing line between some of the ways in which we represent our constituents. How we would divide up England would therefore not be a straightforward matter, as the previous Government found, and as any future Government would also find.
In setting out the intention behind her Bill, my hon. Friend was keen to avoid any danger that the Speaker would be drawn into controversy. It is fair to say that Mr Speaker is not known for courting controversy of any kind, and I am sure that he would very much welcome her intention to ensure that he did not inadvertently get drawn into any.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) made an interesting suggestion, which will have been noted, for effectively abolishing Members of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly, and instead having just Members of Parliament with different roles. That is an idea, but given where we start from, I am not sure that it is achievable. It may have been a good solution in the pre-devolution era, but given that those devolution settlements were set up and approved by the people in referendums, I am not sure that it is possible.
My right hon. and learned, and eternally youthful Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) proffered his East Lothian answer to the West Lothian question. He drew attention to the fact-this is a critical point-that, with the three devolution settlements, a large number of Members of Parliament now represent
parts of the United Kingdom with a devolved Parliament or Assembly. That is an important issue that this House needs to deal with. He put forward a solution involving, effectively, a requirement for a double majority on the Second and Third Readings of Bills, and it would certainly be worth while for the commission that the Government will set up to consider that.
My right hon. and learned Friend also referred to the concerns raised by Vernon Bogdanor, who, as the hon. Member for Rhondda pointed out, is my old politics tutor. Professor Bogdanor taught politics not only to me but to the Prime Minister. I am not sure what the Prime Minister would say about this, but I know that the professor and I have both come to the conclusion that neither of us has managed to persuade the other of anything much that we believe. He and I had a debate on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, and, when I was giving evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I drew attention to the concerns that he had raised. I subsequently received a communication from him that broadly confirmed that I have still not managed to persuade him of anything. I did not persuade him of much in my essays at university and he did not persuade me of his views.
Mr Harper: That is an interesting question. This is one of the key differences-not the only one-between me and the Prime Minister. He got a first, but I only got a 2:1, which probably explains why he is the Prime Minister and I am just the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington made several good points. Despite the attempts by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) to put my right hon. and learned Friend's name forward to serve on the commission that we will set up, I noted carefully that he declined the opportunity, saying that he would be happy to give evidence to it.
Chris Bryant: I hope that I am not breaking a private confidence when I say that Vernon Bogdanor told me that he thought that the Minister, when he was his student, was very clever and bright and clearly destined for greater things, but that it was a shame that he had fallen among thieves of late.
Mr Harper: I have just looked at the expression on you face, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I think that I am going to be generous and describe the hon. Gentleman's use of the word "thieves" as an attempt at humour. I do not think that it was a very successful attempt, but this is perhaps the best way to get him out of the difficulty that he might otherwise have got himself into.
Mr Chope: My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) is champing at the bit to give evidence to the commission. Will the Minister tell us when it is going to be set up, so that my right hon. and learned Friend can do that? I hope that it can be within weeks, rather than months.
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