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The other important point at the heart of the debate is that the Bill seeks to resolve a question about the extent to which there is symmetry in the way in which the affairs of the House work. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) pointed out earlier than the constitution of the United Kingdom has never easily bumped along on the basis of attempts to secure exact symmetry at any one stage. In many ways, the UK constitution is involved in a
process of continual becoming. As a position is reached, further changes are made.
As has been pointed out, the West Lothian question is not an issue that arose at the time when the then Member for West Lothian mentioned it; it has a much longer pedigree than that. If one looks at the question of asymmetric devolution, not just in the UK, but in various parts of the world, one realises that not only is it not a relatively recent phenomenon in this country, but a common phenomenon in many countries across the world, and particularly in Europe.
Let us think about the UKs constitutional position. We have discussed the question of the Scottish Parliament, which has its own parliamentary processes and the ability to introduce legislation and vary tax. There are also representatives elected to the UK Parliamentnot the same representatives, but representatives who are voted for by the same electorate.
Wales has no tax-raising power and no primary legislative capacity but it has representatives in the UK Parliament deriving from the same electorate who elect the representatives of its own Assembly. Jersey has its own Parliament and does not have representatives in the UK Parliament, yet the UK Government are responsible for a number of things as far as Jersey is concerned. Jersey is not an independent country, but it does not have the same status as Scotland and Wales.
That is a further and long-standing part of asymmetric devolution in the UK. Indeed, a number of Jerseys residents would claim that the UK is devolved from Jersey, in so far as Jersey is the last part of the Norman possessions that remained in the hands of the King of Normandy, who became the English King after 1066. Jersey and Guernsey do not have the same constitutional status, nor does the Isle of Man. It has its own, ancient Parliament, and it, too, does not have representatives in the UK Parliament.
There are further anomalies, such as Gibraltar. Its population is represented in the UK parliamentary system, in as much as it takes part in Euro elections. It elects a Member who would otherwise take his or her seat in the European Parliament solely representing a part of the UK mainland.
All those different arrangements in the UK can be matched up with others, such as those in the French overseas territories. Those territories have representatives in the French Parliament. There is asymmetric devolution in Denmark, because Greenland has members in the Danish Parliament but it is not a member of the EU; it has members in a sovereign Parliament within the EU, who make decisions relating to the EU. Jersey is not a member of the EU either, but the UK undertakes a number of responsibilities for it and the UK is a member of the EU.
There is an idea that the Bill can bring about an easy solution to the West Lothian question of asymmetrical devolution, but it merely nibbles at the foothills of the asymmetry of how this country is governed and has been governed for a long time. The Bill proposes to
secure an administrative solution for the business of this House. Even if that solution were remotely to work, it would not address the wider question of asymmetric devolution within the UK in general.
Asymmetric devolution is far more common than people think, and it is how many countries deal with the issues of how their constitutions work. Let us consider the interesting example of Spain. There was initially asymmetric devolution within the three linguistic regions of SpainEuskadi, Galicia and Catalunyawhich for a while stood anomalously within the Spanish constitution. The constitution states that there shall be particular forms of devolution in Spain, while also stating that Spain is a unitary and indivisible state.
Mark Lazarowicz: On that point, my hon. Friend will be aware that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), who has returned to the Chamber, was making great play of small nations and their role in the European Union. Is Catalunya not an example of a small nation that has decided to remain part of a wider union? Perhaps he did not mention that because his nationalist friends have been defeated in the past two elections: those in Catalunya and in Spain, whose Government are of course led by the Socialist party.
Dr. Whitehead: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for filling me in on sections of the recent history of devolution in Spain. He is quite right to say that Catalunya is undoubtedly a nation. It has its own history, culture and language, yet it sits in the unified constitutionof Spain. In the past, it has elected nationalist Governments, although it is now governed by representatives of the Spanish Socialist party, which is clearly a good thing. However, under a constitution involving asymmetrical devolution, the state of Spain has not broken up, and nor have there been riots about the relative role of Catalunyans in the Spanish Parliament or any significant interference with the devolved process.
A further important point about Spain is that following what one might call the initial anomalous devolution, all the other regions in Spain achieved states of devolutionautonomiathat approximated to, but did not quite equate to, those in Galicia, Euskadi and Catalunya. That means that Spain has both a unitary and a highly devolved structure of government. The change to the constitutional settlement has, to an extentprecisely as my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen describedamended the constitution to deal with new issues as they arise.
I consider that the wider consequence of our debate is the suggestion that we should set our face against attempts to implement tinkering administrative solutions to the question of devolution in this country that relate to the way in which our Parliament deals with anomalies that have been part of the British constitution for hundreds of years, one way or another. Instead, we should consider how the devolution of power and authority to not an English Parliament, but the English regions, might proceed. I share the view of
several hon. Members that although the question of devolution to the English regions is resting, it has certainly not gone away. If we are ever to come up with a solution to either Fermats last theorem or the West Lothian question
Dr. Whitehead: I think that the hon. Gentleman was out of the Chamber when the question of independence and federal Parliaments was dealt with. In such circumstances, I suggested that the applicable phrase would be beware of your wishes for they might come true. Perversely, the net outcome of a federal Parliament could be much less devolutionary independence and authority than is in place at the moment. That is why the constitutional route that I have suggested would be much firmer. I am grateful to have had the opportunity both to suggest that route and, hopefully, to inform the democracy commission of the Conservative party
Dr. Whitehead: I am sorry. I hope that I have made the taskforces work a little easier by ensuring that it does not make the mistake of going down the path suggested in the Bill for the way in which the House of Commons should work as part of a devolutionary constitutional settlement.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I welcome the chance to speak in this debate on a subject of great constitutional importance. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) on his success in the private Members Bill ballot, and on using the opportunity to introduce a Bill on an issue on which there is clearly a constitutional debate to be had. It has been productive for us to air the issue today.
I would however like to put on record my fundamental opposition to the Bill. As a soundbite, English votes on English matters has a certain superficial attractiveness. It pretends to be a simple solution to an anomaly, but it is actually a rather clumsy attempt to correct an asymmetry, and it brings a host of problems with it, some of which we have already heard about, and some of which I will touch on in my remarks. I am dismayed by the Governments unacceptable inaction on the constitutional issue. They are wishing and hoping that the issue will go away, but in the longer term, that is not a sustainable course of action, so I welcome todays debate on the issue, even if it is taking place on a Friday, when there is not a fabulous turnout of Members.
Jo Swinson: The hon. Members who are present are clearly fabulous, but there could have been a greater number of them. I expected to see many more Members on the Conservative Benches, given that the measures in the Bill were Conservative policy at the last election. Clearly, devolution will involve further changes before we get the balance right. As other hon. Members have eloquently said, it will continually evolve, and so it should. The Bill looks at the issue from the wrong end of the telescope. It concentrates on a small anomaly that does not have a huge impact on the constitution, and it entirely misses the bigger picture, which is the unfinished business of devolution for England, and the need to ensure that power is closer to the people, rather than centralised in Westminster.
Some people have questioned the motivation behind the Bill. Obviously, I accept that the hon. Member for North Dorset has a genuine concern about the current settlement, but it has been pointed out that the subject is wound up with issues of party political advantage, particularly given that the Conservatives did not think that there was a problem at all in the 1960s, when the boot was on the other foot, as was mentioned earlier in respect of the situation in Northern Ireland. Now, they are in a very different position, particularly electorally in Scotland. In a recent well-publicised memo, their own shadow Secretary of State for Scotland said:
There are more obvious problems than solutions emanating from Scotland from a party point of view.
I would argue that the Conservatives are increasingly an English party and, furthermore, a party of south-east England. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) is not in the Chamber for todays debate. I know initially he had a diary clash because of the Scottish Conservative party conference, but that is clearly no longer an issue, because according to senior Tories in Scotland, he was certain to get booed, so he has no excuse for not being here.
The Conservatives are picking and choosing the anomalies that they want to correct. The current Labour Government were elected on 35 per cent. of the vote, yet more than 55 per cent. of Members are Labour, so the issue of the Government mandate is a much more serious anomaly, but the Conservatives are far less keen to change our warped electoral system. In fact, as was pointed out by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), if the issue of electoral reform were addressed, the saliency of the issue would be considerably reduced, because parties would be better and more fairly represented.
The Bill will cause more problems than it solves. The issue of Scottish votes deciding English legislation has been raised, but in reality there have been many occasions on which Scottish votes have had that impact. In the 2001 to 2005 Parliament, such votes made a tangible difference to only two Billsthe Health and Social Care Bill and the Higher Education Bill, both of which have already been mentioned. So far in this Parliament, which began in 2005, no legislation that has not related directly to Scotland has been passed just on the votes of Scottish MPs. I would argue that if we considered the frequency with which the issue comes up, we would see that it is not a
common problem. The problems that the Bill creates are far greater than the problems that it claims to try to solve.
Bridget Prentice: For clarification to the hon. Lady and others on the effect of the votes of Scottish MPs, in the case of the Heath and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Act 2003, let me point out that, even if Scottish MPs had not voted and only English and Welsh MPs had voted, the Government would still have won by 284 votes to 239. That contradicts the myth circulated by those who want an English Parliament.
Jo Swinson: I welcome the intervention from the Minister, with that correction. The briefing that I have states that if only English MPs had voted, the result would have been different, but given that the Bill treats English and Welsh MPs in the same way, nothing would have changed if it had been in place at that time.
On definition, there are many reasons why it would be difficult for a Bill to be designated as relating only to England. One of the main issues is funding. Members from the Scottish National party who have a policy of not voting when they think there is no Scottish impact often vote on Bills where there is an issue related to Barnett formula consequentials. The total funding package given to the Holyrood Parliament to use as it sees fit would be affected by the passage of a Bill that related to provisions in England and Wales. That is one major area in which it would be difficult to define what is English and what is not.
Statutory instruments have been mentioned. Earlier this week some of us served on a Committee considering a statutory instrument dealing with the Scottish elections and changes to electoral law. Interestingly, there were Conservative Members on the Committee, not one of whom represented a Scottish constituency. The Conservatives should look more closely at their own back yard before raising the issues that the Bill seeks to address.
If a Bill were deemed to contain certain sections that applied to Scotland and others that did not, what would happen on Second Reading? We vote on the Second Reading of the Bill as a whole, not of its parts. These issues would have to be resolved and would be difficult to resolve.
Jo Swinson: Certain electoral matters clearly are reserved, although I suspect that if the Conservatives had more Members representing Scottish constituencies, they might have chosen to put them on the Committee that I mentioned.
It is ironic that the Bill would prevent Scottish MPs from voting on certain legislation, yet the person who would decide that is himself a Scottish Member of Parliament. Certain Tories have suggested, and been hastily slapped down by their leader, that it may well be impossible for a Member of Parliament representing a Scottish constituency to be Prime Minister. If the Bill were passed, I wonder whether we would start to hear it
suggested by the Conservatives that Scottish MPs should not apply for the role of Speaker. That would be extremely regrettable.
The prospect of two classes of MP at Westminster has been discussed. It would have far-reaching implications. That would be have divisive and dangerous, and would be a slippery slope. In a week when we rejected the idea ofa hybrid House of Lords by voting for a second Chamber that was 100 per cent. elected, it would be strange to suggest a hybrid House of Commons.
This section does not affect the power of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws for Scotland.
That is quite clear. Power is devolved to Holyrood; it is not ceded or given away. It would be dangerous to deprive Scottish MPs of the right to debate and vote on legislation, without removing the power of this Parliament to legislate for Scotland in those areas. Some kind of federal structure would correct that. I would favour a situation where the powers of the Scottish Parliament were outlined and could not be overruled by this House, but that has been rejected by Conservatives in the past. Indeed, they rejected the whole concept of devolution, although the hon. Member for North Dorset seems to have recognised that he may have been misguided in that earlier belief.
One of my main concerns about the Bill is the constitutional chaos that it would cause. That is not just my view but that of the Constitution Unit at UCL, which says that the policy of English votes for English MPs
would cause a constitutional crisis far greater than the West Lothian question itself.
A brief look at the role of statutory instruments and what would happen in relation to the London assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly gives some idea of the mess that would be created. Let us take that to its logical conclusion. It would be a stepping stone to a English Parliament within a UK Parliament. We can imagine a scenario in which one party has a majority among UK Members of Parliament and another among English Members. On certain topics and certain Bills, the UK Government would not be able to get their business through.
Jo Swinson: The logical conclusion is that there would be, in effect, English ministries, with, say, an English Education Minister who was able to introduce legislation and get it through contrary to the views of the overall Government.
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