Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Michael: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Kirkhope: Very briefly, because I do not want to detain the House.

Mr. Michael: I am grateful for the positive way in which the Minister responded on those two points. That is most helpful, and enables us to be even more enthusiastic about the Bill. As victims of the actual crimes will have priority in the allocation of compensation, will there be a change in the guidance to the courts, to take account of the change arising from the Bill?

Mr. Kirkhope: Obviously, notification of the legislation's provisions would be given to courts where appropriate. I remind the House that the question of compensation paid to a victim is always a matter for the

26 Apr 1996 : Column 731

courts. They take into account all relevant circumstances when deciding whether a compensation order is appropriate. The Bill's provisions will be made known to the relevant parties.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing an excellent measure that will make a positive contribution to prison life and will be acceptable to the wider community. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

26 Apr 1996 : Column 732

Constitutional Change Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

1.54 pm

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful to the House for giving me an opportunity to present my Bill for Second Reading today. I also place on record my thanks to the Clerks for their help in drafting my Bill.

As I stated during my ten-minute Bill speech, the Bill seeks to address the political and constitutional problems that may develop from some of the constitutional proposals being discussed currently. The Bill's objective is to provide for consultation with the people by way of referendum before implementing any constitutional change that is approved by Parliament. In other words, after a Bill has completed its passage through both Houses of Parliament, it must be put to a national referendum in order to decide whether Parliament's proposals will be accepted. There are precedents for that in the Scotland Act 1978 and in a different form in the European Communities Act 1972.

I have news for Sir James Goldsmith: my Bill is not a response to his public statements and actions. In my case, he is about 25 years too late. However, I welcome converts to my cause--even if I have doubts about the wisdom of their tactics.

My Bill, and particularly clause 1, reflects the view that I have held for most of my adult life and follows the line that I took during the public debates in the early 1970s and during the constitutional debates and discussions in the late 1970s. Although I was on the losing side in the 1975 referendum, I support the view that it was constitutionally correct and proper to hold such a referendum.

Clause 1(1) states clearly that any change, redirection or transfer of Parliament's powers agreed by both Houses of Parliament must be put to the people in a referendum. This Parliament, with all its shortcomings--it has a number--is still the finest democratic Parliament anywhere in the world. A cornerstone of the unwritten constitution is the fact that no Parliament can bind future Parliaments. In recent years, constitutional change has undermined that cornerstone. I believe that proposals now under discussion will continue that process.

I believe that Members of Parliament hold the leasehold for our unwritten constitution during their time in this place. While it is in their care, they may make changes that can be altered next week, next year, in five or 10 years or at any time in the future. However, they should not alter the constitution in such a way that it may be impossible for future Parliaments to change it back if they so wish. Hon. Members hold only the leasehold; I believe that the freehold for the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom is the property of the people. Only the people should change the constitution. Sometimes that is called sovereignty: the power of Parliament. The right to create and repeal legislation, to raise taxes, to borrow and to spend, and the right to block supply are powers of Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash), wrote in the March issue of The European Journal, the journal of the European Foundation:

26 Apr 1996 : Column 733

    "I launched the Maastricht Referendum Campaign, MARC--which ran from February to July 1993 under the patronage of Lady Thatcher. This meshed with a parliamentary rebellion of a number of colleagues and myself which involved a relentless effort to amend the Maastricht Bill. MARC organised a popular petition to the House of Commons with over 280,000 signatures--no small achievement for an organisation that had to start from scratch without the support of any political party or trade union or any other body with a ready-made national membership and administration. Although it did not succeed in its immediate objective of obtaining a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, the campaign did generate huge media interest and began the process of swaying public opinion. This is now--The Sunday Times has shown--80 per cent. in favour of a referendum on monetary union, which is now the key issue . . . Lastly let me rebut the silly suggestion that a referendum should be advisory rather than binding. The issue to be decided, let me repeat, is whether we are to continue as a parliamentary democracy or not. That decision cannot be taken by a single parliament for all future generations, any more than a board of directors can merge a company without reference to a general meeting of their shareholders. The source of sovereignty and legitimate authority is the people."

I agree.

Nobody who has studied that which monetary union would involve throughout Europe denies that if Parliament decides to join the single European currency there would be a massive shift to Europe of areas of decision making--that if we signed up for the single currency, there would be a substantial change to the constitutional decision-making powers of this Parliament. Clause 1(1) would ensure that the people would have to be consulted in a referendum.

Part of the problem when discussing the single currency is that the debate is against the background of the UK agreeing that it would not oppose other EU member states going ahead with monetary union. I mention that because, as with many European matters, the negative as well as the positive often has an impact on what may or may not happen.

Another cornerstone of the unwritten constitution is the right of Members of Parliament to ask questions and have them answered. That right, coupled with parliamentary privilege, means that hon. Members can raise matters on behalf of constituents without the risk of action outside Parliament, and all that is done at no direct cost to constituents. Powers ceded by Parliament or given away affect that cornerstone. Again, the unwritten constitution and the citizen's rights and freedoms are affected. I will say more about that aspect later.

Another constitutional area under discussion is the proposals for or assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast. I will confine my remarks to the proposal for Edinburgh, although the problems and principles apply to all three. Clause 1(1) would ensure that any proposal put before Parliament will be debated against the background that whatever is decided by Parliament will have to be put to the people in a referendum. That means that if, heaven help us, we ever had a Labour Government, its Front Benchers would be led by a Scot educated at a fee-paying selective Scottish school. It would have a Cabinet in which the majority of the key posts, such as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, Secretary of State for Scotland and Patronage Secretary--who has been in and out of the Chamber all morning--will not only be Scots but be from Scottish constituencies. In addition, many of the Ministers of State will be Scots from Scottish constituencies. English Members, representing 83 per cent. of the United Kingdom

26 Apr 1996 : Column 734

population, would be right to say that the Scots were running the United Kingdom Parliament. Consequently, clause 1(1) would force that subject to be at the forefront of the debate.

The debate would probably run as follows: the Scots would be running the Westminster Parliament, yet they would also run Scotland separately. English Members would be unable to vote on matters devolved to Scotland, yet Scottish Members would be able to vote on English education, law and order, local government, transport, the environment and other purely English legislative proposals. Scottish Members would be unable to ask questions or to have debates on matters that have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament or Assembly. They would become part-time Members of Parliament and probably should be paid part-time salaries. The cry would be throughout the country: "Is that fair?" Fair, it will not be. The constitutional change would be substantial, which is why clause 1(1) would properly require the matter, after it had been decided by Parliament, to be put to the people in a referendum.

The United Kingdom constitution is not cast in stone. It has evolved since 1707 to meet the needs of the times. Its great strength has been its ability to change. It has changed because Members of Parliament have introduced change, and they have done so by consultation and agreement and in the knowledge that a future Parliament could not be bound by their decisions. There is no consultation or agreement about laws imposed on us by Europe, especially by the European Court of Justice. Is it any wonder that there is ever-increasing concern in the country?

Any proposal to change the way in which we vote in general elections may also be caught by clause 1(1). If so, any proposal for a change to a proportional representation system of voting may have to be put to the people in a referendum.

Clause 1(2) would determine the way in which the question would be asked in a referendum. Parliament would have debated the proposed change, in both Houses, and those debates--from the experience of previous constitutional debates--would be fairly protracted, lengthy and contain considerable detail. I imagine that they would have been fully reported by the media, so no one would be able to claim with any confidence that the issue was too complex to be put to the people. The people would have followed the debates with interest and, as in the Scotland Act 1978 and the Referendum Act 1975, the question put in the referendum would be

The changes would be clearly stated, whatever they were, so the people would be asked, for example, "Do you wish to set up a Parliament in Edinburgh: yes or no?" or "Do you wish to join a single currency: yes or no?" The clause would address the point that many constitutional experts have made about the difficulty of asking a clear and simple question. In my experience of the Scotland Act 1978 and the following referendum, it was easy to explain what that was about. I say that because I was not on the losing side in that referendum, although I was on the losing side in the 1975 referendum.

Clause 2(1) deals with the conduct of a referendum. It sets out clearly how a referendum should be carried out. There would be no problem, because we have already had the experience of the referendums that I have

26 Apr 1996 : Column 735

mentioned. I will not go into detail because the process would be fairly straightforward. Clause 2(2) provides for the conduct of the counting of the votes, and gives details of the counting officers' duties.

Clause 3 is important. It provides that no court

the Bill if it becomes an Act. That is to prevent unnecessary interference through the courts.

Clause 4 cites the name of what will become the Act. The schedule sets out the form of the ballot paper.

It would be wrong of me not to draw attention to the final part of clause 1. I want to draw particular attention to it. Subsection (7) reads:

That is important. That was set out in the Scotland Act 1978, and the provision worked superbly. About one third voted for, about one third against--with those voting for slightly more than those voting against--and one third did not vote. As we in Scotland say, "They didna' care". Of course, they had already been told that if they did not vote their potential vote would be treated as a no vote. That was explained. I think that some lessons were learnt.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister would like to say a few words about my Bill. That being so, I shall not detain the House too long. However, with constitutional change of the sort and magnitude that I have described, I have taken the precedent of the 1978 Act as my guide. It worked well at the time and I believe that it would provide the right levels of checks and balances that are normally expected when substantial constitutional change is to be workable and acceptable. The alternative might create severe political instability.

I believe that my Bill is a necessary measure. Something of its sort will have to be put on the statute book because of the instability that we are experiencing, caused largely by public debate and the pressures that have been mounted by Sir James Goldsmith and others who wish to interfere with the way in which we run things in Parliament.

I make no apology for defending Parliament. I believe that this is the finest Parliament anywhere in the world. We do not get everything right and we do not have all the correct procedures. Only a fool would suggest otherwise. I can say, however, that if my grandchildren inherit what I inherited--the unwritten United Kingdom constitution and all the protections to which I have referred--I shall have passed on to them an extremely valuable inheritance.

If we continue to allow the erosion of Parliament's decision-making powers and if we shackle future Parliaments, or if we seek powers in a way that means that Members can no longer ask questions affecting the rights of their constituents, as is happening progressively, we shall have undermined the cornerstones of our unwritten constitution. That would be foolish and unwise.

It would be foolish and unwise of the Scots, with less than 9 per cent. of the United Kingdom population, to expect to run Parliament and to run a parliament at

26 Apr 1996 : Column 736

Edinburgh at the same time, without that process producing a massive constitutional backlash. Against the background of pressures from Europe and those for constitutional change that have not been thought through adequately and fully, and the instability that could ensue and risk the break-up of the United Kingdom that I visualise if the Scots were to be foolish enough to think that they could have their cake and eat it by having the running of this place in their hands--and the running of a parliament in Edinburgh--I have introduced the Bill. I firmly believe that we need such a measure to ensure that we move forward sanely and sensibly on the basis of consultation and consent.

Next Section

IndexHome Page