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Sixthly, as some of my hon. Friends have said, we have a history of strong government. If the Bill were introduced, I think it likely that we would reach a situation where the Government would not be able to command a majority in their own House and Parliament. That is a recipe for chaos.
Seventhly, there is an issue relating to Ministers, and it is linked to my previous point. They should take collective responsibility and take the Government line. How could we have a situation where those from Scotland would not be able to vote in this Houseor support collective responsibilityon issues of Government policy?
Mr. McGovern: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important powers that an elected Government have, apart from the power to bring forward legislation, is the right to control the parliamentary agenda? Given that the Bill would mean that programme motions could become the preserve of the Opposition, it would lead to the chaos to which he has referred.
Paddy Tipping: That is absolutely right. Whichever party we represent, we want a Government who can command support and can get their business done. That is not the case across Europe. My hon. Friends example puts the matter in a nutshell.
I come back to the question of the House of Lords. If Members of this place were not allowed to vote and speak on certain issuesif we were to become a de facto English Parliamentwould the Lords not become the Parliament of the UK? It would be where the essential, big issues covering the whole of the UK would be discussed. We have talked a lot about primacy this week, and we need to explore that issue further.
Paddy Tipping: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. This Chamber should be the primary Chamberit elects and throws out the Government: it controls expenditure; and it can use the Parliament Act.
I shall make a wider and different point. Let us consider what would happen if there were two classes of Members of Parliament, and certain MPs could not vote and, in particular, speak on certain issues. If there were a rival Chamber up the Corridor, where Members from across the United Kingdom, however they were elected or selected, were able to speak, there would be a case for people to say, We are the legitimate Chamber of the United Kingdom, and you Commoners down there are a de facto Parliament for England. That is
the threat. I do not say that that situation will arise, but we need to explore the issue.
I have highlighted the points of principle that I wanted to explore, but there are three points of practice about which I am seriously worried. We have already talked about the way in which one defines the territorial extent of legislation. I do not think that that is easy. The House of Commons Library keeps a set of tables and grids on the matter. In the 2005-06 Session, Scotland was fully covered by 23 Bills and significantly covered by three, while it was affected by the minor provisions of five Bills.
Hon. Members have pointed out that the scope and territorial extent of a Bill can change during its passage through Parliament. Lord Baker tackled that problem when he introduced his Bill in another place by saying that one could separate out bits of Bills to distinguish between the English and UK aspects. That sounds simple enough, but the very next sentence in his speech made it clear that the situation was more complex than he had indicated:
The Speaker can take advice from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 10 February 2006; Vol. 678, c. 906.]
If the Speaker was unhappy about the definition of the territorial extent, he or she could take advice from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Councilthe Law Lordsbut that hardly seems to be a quick procedure for a Parliament in which decisions are made rapidly. If there was an argument about territorial extent, the Speaker might feel that he or she needed to take advice and thus go to the Law Lords. After the Law Lords had considered the matter, they might decide that they should take evidence. It could take months for a decision to be made, which would be a recipe for inaction and chaos.
Mr. Russell Brown: Regrettably, the situation would be even more complex than that. The hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), who is not in the Chamber, is a Scottish Member with a constituency that goes right to the border.
Given the geographical location of the constituency of the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, many of his constituents do not use the services of the hospital in his constituency, but access hospital and medical services, as well as further education services, in Cumbria. If the hon. Gentleman does not take part in the debates and Divisions that are relevant to those services, quite frankly he is not fully representing his electorate, some of whom were my constituents prior to the boundary changes.
Paddy Tipping: My hon. Friend makes his point exactly. He knows, because he is more closely associated with the issue than me, about the discussions that take place about territorial responsibility for the River Tweed, in which the same kind of considerations apply because, as Lord Baker would put it, it is hard to define the English bit and the UK bit.
Let us consider another example. A bit of a Bill applying to the UK might have been certified as English. Troublemaking English MPsthere are lots of English MPscould table an amendment to make that provision apply to Scotland. The Speaker would then be put in a difficult position, so the situation is not as clear-cut as the hon. Member for North Dorset would have us believe.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of my second point about practice, which is closely related to my first. The Bill shows that he is keen to establish the absolute power of the Speaker and the Deputy Speakersof course, I accept thatalthough the Speaker and his deputies are big and powerful enough to look after themselves. Clause 1 remarks that
This Act does not remove the absolute discretion of the Speaker.
shall not be questioned in any court of law,
this Act in no way affects the ability of the Speaker, or any Member acting in his stead in accordance with the Standing Orders of the that House, to preside over the business of the House of Commons or a committee thereof, or to cast his vote on any item of business.
Despite the reassurances in clause 1, I have no doubt that there are people within and, more particularly, without Parliament who would challenge the discretion of the Speaker. I noted carefully the points that the hon. Gentleman himself raised on the subject. I do not want the Speaker to be brought into controversy; he should be above challenge. If we were to go down the route proposed by the hon. Gentleman, it might be better to use a system currently in use and have the Secretary of State certify the territorial extent of legislation. Secretaries of State use that process when it comes to the European convention on human rights. On the front of each Bill, there is a statement saying that the Bill accords with human rights legislation. I would like to move away from the possibility of challenges to the Speaker and his deputies, and instead have difficult, controversial decisions made by the Secretary of State.
On the third practical issue, we are without doubt discussing a constitutional Bill. If a Government Bill had recommended removing hon. Members rights to vote and speak, hon. Members would clamour for the Bill to be dealt with line by line, clause by clause, on the Floor of the House, and it would be a clamour that we ought to support. However, if the hon. Gentlemans Bill receives its Second Reading today, which is doubtful, the Bill will go upstairs for Committee consideration, just as any other private Members Bill would. It would be wrong for what is clearly a constitutional Bill, albeit a private Members Bill, to face a different process from that used for a Government constitutional Bill, which would be considered on the Floor of the House.
To conclude, I support the Union and I believe strongly that the Union adds to the four constituent parts of the country. The Union is valuable to us all,
and I am concerned that if the Bill became law, we would lose the power of the Union, and the United Kingdoms status in the world. There are commentators, such as Professor Bognador, who is the tutor of the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who would describe the Bill as reckless and opportunist. He is right; its measures are also unprincipled and unpractical, and we should argue strongly against them and refuse to accept them later today.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) on his success in the ballot, and on raising an important issue? I thought that I would speak at this point in light of the imputation of the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown). It is a tribute to my hon. Friend that all Members who have spoken so far have recognised that the subject is important and requires more discussion, and the House is grateful to him for providing that opportunity. It was excellent that my hon. Friend opened the debate by putting the situation in its historical context and going through the history as carefully as he did. I know that the House will be grateful to him for that.
The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) was characteristically honest when he said that Labours position is based on the partys electoral interests. That was the basis of his remarks. We saw an example of that in the speech of the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who cited many implausible scenarios that would scupper the Bill. He was clearly putting the issue in very full context. Towards the end of his remarks, he said that it was unlikely that the Bill would get a Second Reading. No doubt he and his colleagues will be proud that that is the result of their activities today.
I share my hon. Friends concern that there is an imbalance in our constitution following devolution. Although devolution is well established and we support it, it raises an issue particularly as between England and Scotland that requires further consideration. At present, Members representing Scottish seats can help to decide matters for England over which they have no say in their own constituencies, and Members representing English seats have no say in domestic matters in Scotland, which are largely decided by the Scottish Parliament. There is a lack of reciprocity.
The hon. Member for Sherwood spoke of fearing two classes of Members in this place, but he ought to be prepared to observe that we are already in that situation. There are the Members who can decide matters for their constituents on domestic issues and those who cannotthey can just decide matters for other Members constituents. I hope that the hon. Gentleman also recognises that the Opposition have drawn attention to the issue since the Scotland Bill was first presented to the House. In the reasoned amendment to that Bill on its Second Reading, the imbalance was one of the points highlighted.
Before the last election, the Bills on university top-up fees and foundation hospitals were passed only by the votes of Scottish MPs, even though both policies had
been rejected by the Scottish Parliament and neither measure would apply in Scoland. Given the Prime Ministers reduced House of Commons majority, he has been more dependent than ever on the votes of his Scottish Members of Parliament as he tries to push through measures that are often deeply unpopular in his own party.
I agree with the hon. Member for Sherwood about one thing: there is a trend of power moving to the local from the national, and such devolution is worth while. But Labours approach to the so-called West Lothian question, or the English question, has been to pretend that it does not exist. That approach was summed up, as I mentioned before, in the words of the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Irving, when he said in 1999:
Now that we have devolution up and running, I think the best thing to do about the West Lothian question is to stop asking it. [ Official Report, House of Lords, 25 June 1999; Vol. 602, c. 1201.]
In an appearance before the Commons Liaison Committee, the Prime Minister brushed aside the concerns of the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), by saying that he did not agree that there was a problem and that the debate on the subject had gone on for ever.
I believe, and I think everyone who has spoken would agree, that the Prime Ministers position is a dangerous one. His failure to acknowledge, let alone resolve, the West Lothian question raises fundamental questions of fairness, democratic accountability and legitimacy. It is right that those of us who care about both democracy and the Union should try to address the issue. I welcome the fact that the leader of the Liberal Democrat party has also said that the issue needs to be considered, although he has not come up with a solution.
Ms Angela C. Smith: I return to the Greater London authority, which has powers over public transport, including the regulation of the bus operators. May I take it from the hon. Gentlemans comments that Conservative Members will not take part in the vote on the road transport Bill later this year, which will give similar powers of regulation to bodies elsewhere in England?
Mr. Heald: The hon. Lady cannot have read this Bill, under which English and Welsh Members would have a say on matters that are to do with England and Wales. The matter generally needs more consideration by the democracy taskforce. Nevertheless, her point is not well made, because, as she may recall, London is still part of England.
Ms Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that given the powers of the Greater London authority the Bill would also apply to London MPs and London matters? Would it not mean that London MPs should not vote on English matters relating to powers devolved to London?
Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) makes a good point. Under the logic of the Bill, if a matter is devolved to the London assembly, London Members should not vote on it when it is put to the House in relation to the rest of England.
Mr. Heald: The Minister clearly has not read the Bill either. She may not have spotted this, but it is about making legislation, something that she and I do all the timeat least, she proposes it and I sometimes oppose it. The London assembly does not yet have law-making powers, and personally I would not want it to.
Mr. Russell Brown: This discussion comes back to a point that I made earlier. The Bill would open up a Pandoras box by creating not just two classes of Members but perhaps more. London Members could find themselves in an entirely different position.
I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on one point. We certainly do not support the idea of an English Parliament, and he explained the reasons for that quite well. As for regional assemblies, they are not popular. Regions are not known, liked or understood in large parts of the country. As the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen said, even in areas where it has traditionally been said that regions are popular, such as the north-east, people were not prepared to countenance the kind of regional assemblies proposed by the Deputy Prime Minister when the referendums took place. I think that there is a mood in this country not to have lots more politicians. I have never gone to a doorstep where people have said to me, Lets have a lot more politicians with pay and rations.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) is chairing a democracy taskforce examining constitutional issues in order to recommend improvements that the Conservative party may wish to consider as part of our policy review. We want to consider its recommendations and the reasoning for them before coming to decisions on the detail of these delicate and important matters. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has made clear, we are committed to finding a constructive Unionist solution to the situation. This Government have often charged ahead with little thought for the consequences when undertaking fundamental constitutional reform. It is therefore vital that any reform that we may propose in future is based on a careful assessment of the options. Some of the implausible objections put forward this morning do not bear close examination, but we do want the detail looked into very carefully.
Let me pick up on one or two points. It has been suggested that it would be frightfully difficult for a Speaker to certify a Bill. As the hon. Member for
Sherwood should know, this a procedure that Mr. Speaker has undertaken for many years. According to Standing Order No. 97:
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