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Mark Durkan: The hon. Gentleman will recognise that one reason the registration effort in schools has been so successful is precisely that the electoral ID card is a strong incentive. It is not necessarily that pupils are overwhelmingly committed to voting for our party!

Jim Shannon: I would not necessarily go with that opinion, because when the pupils congregate for the cards and we help them to go and get them, I think we will gain from that. I am ever the optimist, as you know, Mr Speaker, and I am sometimes referred to as a “glass half full” person. I am conscious of the time, so I will continue.

It is important to address fraud. There have been examples in west Belfast in the past where up to half a dozen people were living in blocked up houses. I do not know how they got in there. If one had four legs, it was easy to get in, but not so easy for those with two legs. That is all I can say. It is acknowledged that we are likely to have a higher volume of voters in the general election—the contest to watch—so for that reason we need accessibility along with accurate data.

In 2012, Northern Ireland had an accuracy of 78% in its electoral registers. That clearly showed what we could do. The electorate of Northern Ireland grew by 9.8% between 2007 and 2012, in comparison with only 2.8% for United Kingdom and the rest of the mainland. Big steps were taken; we moved forward very quickly.

It is now a given that we must talk about technology in all strategies for engaging with and reaching the public. The online system is one thing we have introduced and it has been successful, although I think we could do more with it. Over 90% of responders gave positive feedback, so there have been issues that we have been able to deal with.

The system of voter registration in Northern Ireland for those at further education colleges has been good. There needs to be leafleting and marketing in our universities and colleges and our local businesses, and at grass-roots campaigning levels. Visuals and sign-up drives are also very important.

I urge Ministers to bear it in mind that, in the light of the upcoming elections and the fact that the nation’s eyes will be on how we run the votes, we should be ready for scrutiny and accountability.

6.40 pm

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): Today’s debate comes at an important time. There are just 92 days until the general election. As we were reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who has done fantastic work throughout the current Parliament and before, the Electoral Commission estimated last summer that 7.5 million eligible adults were missing from the electoral register. Our estimate, based on local authority information, is that a further 1 million people have fallen off the register since then.

Throughout the debate, the Minister and Conservative Back Benchers have shown extraordinary complacency. It has been a case of “Blame the local councils”, “blame the Electoral Commission”, “blame the universities”, or “blame the voters themselves.” Conservative Members have wanted to blame everyone except the Government, whose rushed timetable has led to the present position, as the Labour party has said consistently ever since the

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Government introduced legislation earlier in this Parliament. It is simply not good enough. It is scandalous that, in the 21st century, people will turn up at polling stations and be turned away. We all have a responsibility to do more to ensure that our democracy is not undermined in that way.

Let me be fair: the Government have taken some steps that we welcome, and which are welcomed in the motion. Online registration is hugely welcome, as is the opening up of new data sets for electoral registration officers and new guidance on student registration. Today the Minister announced the provision of £2.5 million, and we welcome that as well. However, I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will tell us more about how the money will be allocated, and, in particular, will tell us whether fantastic organisations such as Bite the Ballot will be eligible to bid for it. I think that such organisations know better than any of us how to reach the young people who, as has been pointed out today, are falling off the register.

Bite the Ballot has done amazing work. Anyone who has observed its work in schools—as I have, in both England and Scotland—will know that students walk into the classroom apathetic and uninterested, and walk out debating the rights and wrongs of the death penalty or priorities for public spending. I greatly welcome its efforts, and specifically welcome tomorrow’s fantastic national voter registration day, of which we were reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). As I said, the Electoral Commission estimated last summer that 7.5 million people were missing from the register, and we estimate that a further 1 million are missing from the new register.

As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), students in higher education are disproportionately affected by the change. That is why, in the motion, we suggested allowing universities and colleges to block-register students in halls of residence. I pay tribute to the remarkable work that he has done, working with his local authority and the universities in Sheffield.

Mr Gyimah: And the Cabinet Office.

Stephen Twigg: I was about to say that. If the Minister had been a little more patient, he would have heard me say that I welcome the new guidance from the Cabinet Office, which allows electoral registration officers to register certain individuals if a national insurance number is not or cannot be submitted, and has been verified by data that are within the Government’s guidelines. As my hon. Friend told us, Sheffield university has been able to add 7,000 student electors to the register as a result. However, although it is hugely welcome, the guidance came very late. It would have been so much better if the excellent practice at Sheffield university could have been shared by every university.

As the motion says, we believe that the Government should allow universities to register students en bloc, but, at the very least, will the Government write to all vice-chancellors reiterating the new guidance and, in particular, offering that excellent case study of Sheffield university, so that, even at this late stage, we can boost registration in time for the election in May?

Perhaps the most significant and disturbing development is the one that was cited by my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Bishop Auckland

4 Feb 2015 : Column 380

(Helen Goodman): the apparent massive decline in the number of attainers—17-year-olds who will reach the age of 18 during the coming year. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) reminded the House of the figure for Liverpool. Last year, there were 2,300 attainers on Liverpool’s electoral register; this year, there are just 76. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham described this as a scandal. It is indeed a scandal. The Minister said, rightly, that we should learn from Northern Ireland. One thing we can learn from Northern Ireland is this: the schools initiative in Northern Ireland sees electoral registration officers visiting schools and colleges in their area to encourage young people to register, and requires the schools and colleges to give information to the electoral registration officer so they have the data on school students that can then be used for registration purposes.

In Northern Ireland, when the previous Labour Government began the transition to IER, we saw a massive fall in the number of attainers on the first register—it was very similar to what we have seen in England, Scotland and Wales this year. It fell from 10,000 to 244, which is an even more dramatic fall than the one we have seen in Liverpool. After the schools initiative was introduced, the number of attainers registered went up dramatically to a higher level than was achieved under the household register. My understanding is that on the latest register in Northern Ireland, two thirds of attainers are now registered. That is actually higher than the proportion under the old system of household registration.

Mr Gyimah: In Northern Ireland, registration rates plummeted to about 11% when IER was introduced. In the UK, nine out of 10 have automatically been transferred to IER. The two situations are not similar. The reason we have managed to achieve that is that we have focused on the annual canvass, which Northern Ireland did not.

Stephen Twigg: We are talking about the very specific issue of attainers: those who will reach the age of 18 in the current year. The drop-off in Liverpool, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham referred to, also happened in Northern Ireland, and perhaps even more dramatically, according to the figures I was given. My point relates directly to the motion. If we adopt the Northern Ireland schools initiative in England, Scotland and Wales, we can reverse this. That is no reversal of IER. It is still individual registration, but it is about going into schools and colleges. [Interruption.] I am delighted to hear the Minister say, “Do it.” Will Ministers stand up and commit to introducing the legislation immediately? We will support it. Please, bring forward the legislation to enable England, Scotland and Wales to achieve what has been done in Northern Ireland.

Mr Gyimah: EROs, who are responsible for maintaining the register in their local areas, can go to schools and talk about registering. They do not need legislation to do that. The only thing legislation will do is increase the burden on schools, which we do not want to do.

Stephen Twigg: The whole point of the schools initiative is that the duty is on the schools and colleges, as well as on the electoral registration officers. That is why it has worked in Northern Ireland and that is what we would

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need here. I repeat what I said—perhaps the Minister’s colleague, the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons can respond to this in his closing remarks. If we share a concern across the House on this, it is not too late—it is quite late, but it is not too late—for us to pass legislation for England, Scotland and Wales that matches the schools initiative in Northern Ireland, and reverse that appalling, scandalous and dramatic fall in the number of attainers on the electoral register.

We are in a position where emergency action is urgently needed. From a position that was far, far from perfect previously, with 7.5 million not on the register, we have seen a further drop-off. We have until 20 April: two-and-a-half months. We are proposing two very straightforward changes that could make a real difference: allow live-in institutions to block-register their residents; and immediately introduce the schools initiative so that we can boost youth participation. Those two changes alone could see hundreds of thousands of people added back on to the register. Tomorrow is national voter registration day. We cannot, surely, afford to have a lost generation of young people disconnected from our democratic process. We are arguing for two very, very simple reforms. If the Government join us, we will support them in implementing those reforms. I urge them to do so today.

6.49 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Tom Brake): The debate has been important and wide ranging. We have heard many analyses of the issues we face and a number of possible solutions. The problem of under-registration did not happen overnight, and it will not be fixed overnight. Its causes are complex and are linked to increased population mobility and disengagement from traditional party politics. It is nonsense to suggest, as I am afraid many Opposition Members did, that this Government do not take the issue of under-registration seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As the Minister for the Constitution made clear, the Government are committed to enhancing both the accuracy and the completeness of the electoral register. That is why I cannot support the idea of block registration. The whole purpose of individual electoral registration is that it is individual; it is not block registration. It is not people being put on a register who do not know that that has happened.

The decline in the completeness of the registers between 2000 and 2010—in other words, under the last Government—has been arrested. The most recent research by the Electoral Commission shows that levels of electoral registration have stabilised since 2011. I hope we can all welcome that, but it is of course not enough.

Chris Ruane: The right hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. The figure was 7.5 million under Labour and it is 7.5 million now. Is he aware that the EC’s aim is still to have 7.5 million people on the register by 2019? Does that not show a lack of ambition by the EC?

Tom Brake: I think that Members on both sides of the House would like the Electoral Commission to achieve much more than that, and of course that is why the Government have set out £14 million of spending, which I am going to come to, to boost registration.

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We have taken a number of vital and novel steps to transform electoral registration in this country. Online registration, which has been welcomed by everyone, was introduced for the first time last year and makes registering to vote easier than ever. Of course young people in particular, who spend a significant percentage of their time online and are very familiar with using systems online, will be able to use that very easily. It is easier, too, for people to encourage others to register, simply by sharing a link to the gov.uk website.

Nick Smith: My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) showed how difficult it is for young people to know their national insurance number. What action are the Government going to take to ensure that 16 to 18-year-olds know their NI number so that they can register to vote, and thereby deal with this problem?

Tom Brake: First, as the hon. Gentleman may know, EROs can advise on alternative sources of that information, and I am sure that best practice in helping young people in that respect will be disseminated. I should also say that given that the Labour party supports, as I do, the idea of young people being able to vote at 16, I am a little worried that Labour Members seem to think that young people are completely incapable of keeping any records themselves.

Last month the Government announced a further package of funding of up to £10 million to support activities to maximise registration.

Helen Goodman rose

Tom Brake: I will make a little more progress.

That was on top of the £4.2 million invested last year. The Labour party has rightly wanted to know some of the detail of that, and I will come on to that. Most of this money has already been distributed to EROs, to support their work. Earlier today we announced how the rest of the funding will be used to encourage traditionally under-registered groups to register. If this was part of a Government conspiracy to stop either young people or poorer people registering, as has been suggested by some Opposition Members, then I do not understand why we would have spent £14 million over the last two years on trying to boost registration.

The funding will be provided to a number of national organisations, including the British Youth Council, Citizens Advice, Citizens UK, Homeless Link, the National Housing Federation, Mencap, Operation Black Vote and UK Youth. Many of these organisations work directly with the groups of people the Labour party has suggested the Government are trying to deny the right to vote.

Mr Kevan Jones: I acknowledge the money being given to councils such as Durham to send out “cleansing” letters, which they are doing next week, but why was reference to 17-year-olds missed off those letters? That was not up to Durham county council; that is the letter it had to use, which the right hon. Gentleman has agreed and the EC has used.

Tom Brake: My understanding is that the Electoral Commission provides guidance that the EROs then act on, but they do have some leeway in how they interpret

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it. Given that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue four times today and clearly wants a response, I will ensure that he gets a written reply.

I have listed the organisations that are going to work very actively on promoting voter registration among the people they work with. They have direct experience of working with unregistered groups and insight into what works. The £2.5 million campaign is funded from the £10 million announced in January to increase voter registration rates. From this we will also be funding student bodies, including the National Union of Students. As I said earlier, if the Government intended to stop students registering, as some of the more overheated Opposition Members have suggested, we would hardly be funding the NUS.

Siobhain McDonagh: Will the Minister congratulate Sean Goulding, John Treacy, Nathan Coe and Mitchell Murdoch—from Carshalton Boys Sports college, in his constituency—who, unfunded, are running their campaign for first-time voters, which can be found on Twitter at #ftvote?

Tom Brake: I am of course very happy to support that initiative, as I am indeed doing.

As a number of Members have highlighted, national voter registration day, organised by Bite the Ballot, which I have worked with, takes place tomorrow. Events will be held up and down the country and I urge everyone here in the Chamber to do what they can to support this and similar initiatives. Of course, we all have at our fingertips the ability—through the many tweets Members send out, through Facebook postings, through the e-mails we send out—to encourage young people to register to vote, and we should all be participating in that.

Tomorrow, the Electoral Commission’s overseas voter registration day marks the launch of its activities over the coming months to encourage British citizens overseas to register and to vote. The Ministry of Defence will also be launching its annual information campaign for the armed forces tomorrow—the start of a range of activity to encourage service personnel and their families to ensure they are registered to vote ahead of the general election.

Helen Goodman: As well as having a publicity campaign with the telephone number for national insurance numbers, why does the Minister not change the letter so that when people get it, they know that they will need it when they register to vote? No mention is made of that at the moment.

Tom Brake: I am very happy to take that point on board and see whether it can be acted on.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee will be publishing its report on voter engagement, and it will no doubt include a range of thoughtful recommendations for the future. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) suggested that the use of photo ID might be appropriate, but the PCRC has recommended that the Government do not adopt the Electoral Commission’s suggestion that people take photo ID to the polling station.

There will be things the next Government can do further to modernise electoral registration in this country.

4 Feb 2015 : Column 384

In the time left I will try to respond to some of the specific points that were made. This is all about ensuring that the electoral register is accurate. That is what the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) wants, and that is what we are trying to do.

On attainers in Liverpool, I have concerns that the best practice that exists in some local authorities is clearly not being picked up by others. My own local authority has successfully exchanged census information from schools with the ERO to ensure that a very significant percentage of young people at school are now on the register. The small number who are not are being individually chased by local authorities to ensure that that happens. So it can be done, and in fact an EROs conference is taking place today at which I am sure some of these issues will be debated.

Yes, we should give special focus to young people, but it is worth pointing out that we will not support the proposed legal requirement for EROs to go into schools. Of course, there are local authorities such as mine where the issue is not registering young people to vote but ensuring that older people in care homes are registered. Forcing EROs to go into schools, where there is not a problem, would tie down resources, which could result in there being insufficient resources to enable them to focus on the areas that they need to focus on. Clearly they have the ability to go into schools now; there is no need for the law to be changed to enable them to do it. We would of course encourage all schools to be participating in this regard. As I have said, there are things that the next Government—

Mr Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab) claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Main Question accordingly put.

The House divided:

Ayes 216, Noes 289.

Division No. 149]


6.59 pm


Abrahams, Debbie

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, rh Mr Douglas

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Ashworth, Jonathan

Austin, Ian

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Balls, rh Ed

Banks, Gordon

Barron, rh Kevin

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Benn, rh Hilary

Berger, Luciana

Betts, Mr Clive

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, rh Mr Gordon

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Brown, Mr Russell

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Campbell, rh Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Caton, Martin

Chapman, Jenny

Clark, Katy

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

David, Wayne

Davidson, Mr Ian

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobson, rh Frank

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doran, Mr Frank

Dowd, Jim

Doyle, Gemma

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Maria

Efford, Clive

Elliott, Julie

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Engel, Natascha

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Farrelly, Paul

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flynn, Paul

Fovargue, Yvonne

Francis, Dr Hywel

Gapes, Mike

Gardiner, Barry

Gilmore, Sheila

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Goodman, Helen

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hamilton, Mr David

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harman, rh Ms Harriet

Harris, Mr Tom

Healey, rh John

Hendrick, Mark

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Heyes, David

Hillier, Meg

Hilling, Julie

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Hopkins, Kelvin

Hosie, Stewart

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jackson, Glenda

Jamieson, Cathy

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Helen

Jones, Mr Kevan

Jowell, rh Dame Tessa

Kane, Mike

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lavery, Ian

Lazarowicz, Mark

Leslie, Chris

Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn

Love, Mr Andrew

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Mr Khalid

Mahmood, Shabana

Malhotra, Seema

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCabe, Steve

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonald, Andy

McDonnell, John

McGovern, Alison

McGovern, Jim

McGuire, rh Dame Anne

McInnes, Liz

McKechin, Ann

McKenzie, Mr Iain

Meale, Sir Alan

Mearns, Ian

Miliband, rh Edward

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morrice, Graeme


Morris, Grahame M.


Munn, Meg

Murphy, rh Paul

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

O'Donnell, Fiona

Onwurah, Chi

Osborne, Sandra

Pearce, Teresa

Phillipson, Bridget

Powell, Lucy

Qureshi, Yasmin

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reed, Mr Steve

Reynolds, Emma

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Mr Frank

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Dame Joan

Sawford, Andy

Shannon, Jim

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheridan, Jim

Shuker, Gavin

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, Angela

Smith, Nick

Smith, Owen

Spellar, rh Mr John

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Timms, rh Stephen

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, rh Keith

Vaz, Valerie

Walley, Joan

Weir, Mr Mike

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Williamson, Chris

Wilson, Phil

Wilson, Sammy

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Woodcock, John

Woodward, rh Mr Shaun

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Ayes:

Susan Elan Jones


Graham Jones


Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, rh Norman

Baker, Steve

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, rh Gregory

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Brake, rh Tom

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brokenshire, James

Brooke, rh Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burstow, rh Paul

Burt, rh Alistair

Byles, Dan

Cairns, Alun

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Carmichael, Neil

Cash, Sir William

Chishti, Rehman

Chope, Mr Christopher

Clappison, Mr James

Clark, rh Greg

Clarke, rh Mr Kenneth

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crabb, rh Stephen

Crouch, Tracey

Davies, Philip

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dorries, Nadine

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Evans, Mr Nigel

Evennett, Mr David

Farron, Tim

Featherstone, rh Lynne

Field, Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fuller, Richard

Gale, Sir Roger

Garnier, Sir Edward

Garnier, Mark

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gilbert, Stephen

Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, rh Damian

Greening, rh Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Hague, rh Mr William

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, rh Matthew

Hancock, Mr Mike

Hands, rh Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Harvey, Sir Nick

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Hayes, rh Mr John

Heald, Sir Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Holloway, Mr Adam

Horwood, Martin

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Hunter, Mark

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, rh Sajid

Jenrick, Robert

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Sir Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Lamb, rh Norman

Lancaster, Mark

Laws, rh Mr David

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Leech, Mr John

Leigh, Sir Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Lloyd, Stephen

Lopresti, Jack

Loughton, Tim

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Main, Mrs Anne

Maude, rh Mr Francis

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McPartland, Stephen

Menzies, Mark

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, rh Maria

Mills, Nigel

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Moore, rh Michael

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, rh Nicky

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mulholland, Greg

Murray, Sheryll

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

O'Brien, rh Mr Stephen

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ottaway, rh Sir Richard

Paice, rh Sir James

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Pawsey, Mark

Penning, rh Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Sir John

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Reid, Mr Alan

Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, rh Sir Hugh

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Sir Bob

Rutley, David

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Simpson, Mr Keith

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Smith, Sir Robert

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Mr Graham

Stunell, rh Sir Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Swire, rh Mr Hugo

Syms, Mr Robert

Teather, Sarah

Thornton, Mike

Thurso, rh John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vickers, Martin

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Ward, Mr David

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, rh Steve

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Willetts, rh Mr David

Williams, Roger

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, rh Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Harriett Baldwin


Dr Thérèse Coffey

Question accordingly negatived.

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Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This afternoon, the Serjeant at Arms confirmed to me that the former Member for Eastleigh, Mr Chris Huhne, had applied for and been granted a parliamentary pass. Given the low esteem with which many Members of this House are held by our constituents in regard to poor behaviour, is there any method that we can use to rescind that application to ensure that someone who is a convicted criminal cannot freely walk around the Palace of Westminster?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. He has put his concerns on the record. That said I will, if I may, make two points. First, these are matters dealt with by an established process under the auspices of the Serjeant at Arms, and although I do not cavil at the hon. Gentleman having an opinion on the matter, we do not discuss security related matters on the Floor of the Chamber. Secondly, I put it on the record that, although the hon. Gentleman has a view that he has expressed with great alacrity, there is also the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which is on the statute book. I note what he says and I understand his concern and no one will deny him the right to his point of view, but we will leave it there for tonight.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I inquire whether there is any way within the rules of order that I can draw attention to a possible misprint on the Order Paper to the House of Commons relating to the cross-party early-day motion 757 on defence spending, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff), along with the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) and about a dozen others including me? It reads as follows:

“That this House believes that the UK faces a growing and ever more complex range of current and future threats…and supports the UK devoting at least 20% of its gross domestic product to defence.”

When I signed the early-day motion, I was under the impression that I was supporting 2%. It is beyond even my wildest dreams to have 20%, but a figure in between would not be unacceptable.

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Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. He inquired whether there was a mechanism within the rules of order. As he well knows, there is, and he has just used it. It was 31 years three months ago that I first met the hon. Gentleman. All I will say about him tonight is that once a propagandist who seizes his moment, always a propagandist who seizes his moment.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. There is a serious point underlying this matter, which is that the 2% figure is indeed what the UK Government have encouraged every other NATO country to contribute of GDP to defence. This 2% figure is essential both to UK national security and to our international reputation.

Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has reaffirmed the 2% point.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con) rose—

Mr Speaker: If Sir Gerald Howarth really must make a point of order, I suppose that we must hear him.

Sir Gerald Howarth: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I put it that there needs to be an investigation? Clearly, the Table Office is under the impression that those right hon. and hon. Members have suggested 20%. I have to say that I could not possibly cavil at that. It seems to be the very minimum that we should be spending on defence in view of what has been suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), the Chairman of the esteemed Defence Committee. Will you, Mr Speaker, confirm with the Table Office that it has accurately recorded that which right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have tabled?

Mr Speaker: I have always known that the hon. Gentleman is no great advocate of increased public expenditure, but defence tends to be an exception. He has made his own point in his own way.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You talk about the main act, but is this not an appropriate overture for the main act?

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After all the Scottish people are determined to stay in the Union precisely because they want to maintain Trident.

Mr Speaker: That may be so. We will leave it there. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Terms and Conditions of Employment

That the draft Protected Disclosures (Extension of Meaning of Worker) Order 2015, which was laid before this House on 12 January, be approved.—(DrThérèse Coffey.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Rehabilitation of Offenders

That the draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975 (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2015, which was laid before this House on 8 January, be approved.—(DrThérèse Coffey.)

Question agreed to.

Business of the House


That at the sitting on Monday 9 February, the provisions of Standing Orders No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents) and No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply to the Motions in the name of Secretary Iain Duncan Smith relating to

(1) the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2015 and the Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2015, and the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of those Motions not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first of those Motions, and

(2) the draft Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 and the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, and the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of those Motions not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first of those Motions; and proceedings on those Motions may continue, though opposed, after the moment of interruption.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)

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Scottish Representation in the Union

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)

7.19 pm

Mr Gordon Brown (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (Lab): I asked for this debate on the constitution this evening because in the run-up to the election, when other issues—the national health service, the economy, national security and defence—will clearly be pre-eminent considerations, it is doubtful whether there is any other way over the next two months that this House can give detailed consideration to a set of constitutional challenges that, if not thought through or if mishandled, will in time threaten the very existence of the United Kingdom.

I am not here as an advocate of the status quo. I start by recognising that this House of Commons is England’s Parliament as well as the United Kingdom’s and that we should agree a Commons Committee reform that allows for detailed debate on English-only measures by only English Members. With reform of the Lords, reform of regional and local government, reform of the voting system and reform of the Commons itself also part of the queue of complex, interrelated and interconnected constitutional issues that are in need of democratic resolution, I believe that some kind of convention of the people or, if that is rejected, a Speaker’s Conference, which you might chair, Mr Speaker, is now the best way of ascertaining whether the United Kingdom can finally move from what is a 19th-century constitution to a modern, 21st-century one.

If the Union is to survive, it will have to be built on the interdependence of our four nations, and it will have to guarantee equality of status within the United Kingdom. My argument tonight is that with the announcement of English votes for English laws, which means nothing other than restricting the right of Scottish Members to vote in this House, the Government are deliberately driving a wedge between Scotland and England and, in so doing, they have asked the wrong question, and they are now getting the wrong answer.

However, at the very time that we should be attempting to unify and reconcile the four nations of the United Kingdom, building on the fact that the Scottish National party wants to be part of the UK currency, and on the fact that the nationalists’ economic case for independence has fallen as a result of the halving of oil prices, the Government have summarily rejected one of the central recommendations of the Smith commission, which they set up, which was:

“MPs representing constituencies across the whole of the UK will continue to decide the UK’s Budget, including Income Tax.”

The Conservative party has got this wrong, because it presumes, as Members now on the Government Benches have always said, that the fundamental anomaly in the British constitution is that Scottish MPs can vote on English-only laws, whereas English MPs cannot vote on Scottish-only laws. In retaliation for what they see as Scots pursuing a Scottish interest, they wish to pursue and enshrine an English interest above a common UK interest that could bind us together.

But what is called the West Lothian question is, in truth, only a symptom of the problems we have to deal with. The central anomaly, and the real asymmetry from which all else follows, is the basic, and indeed

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unchangeable, imbalance in the size of the four nations. England represents 84% of the UK population, Scotland represents 8%, Wales represents 5% and Northern Ireland represents 3%. England sends 533 Members to this House, compared with 59 from Scotland, 40 from Wales and 18 from Northern Ireland—117 in total against 533. It is obvious that when we start from such a profound imbalance and asymmetry—such a huge inequality in population and voting shares—fairness of outcome cannot easily be secured by a blanket uniformity that treats the minorities exactly the same as the majority. It follows that the rules needed to respect and reassure the minorities, who might always be outvoted, have to be different from those needed to uphold the majority.

The challenge is not unique to Britain. The United States, Australia, Spain, Switzerland, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria and many other countries have had to find ways of managing the gross inequalities in the size of their constituent parts without undermining their unity. As the price of keeping the United States together, California accepts that it has just two Members of the US Senate to represent its 38 million citizens, while Wyoming has the same number to represent just 500,000 citizens—one Senator for 250,000 people in one part of the country, and one Senator for 19 million in another.

Similarly, the price New South Wales pays for Australian unity is having one Senator for every 580,000 people, in contrast to Tasmania’s one Senator for every 40,000. Fair treatment for minorities and national unity are achieved in the Spanish Senate, the Swiss Council of States, the South African National Council of Provinces and the Brazilian, Nigerian and Mexican Senates not by the crude and blanket uniformity that is characterised by English votes for English laws, but by special arrangements that recognise that minority rights have to be respected and upheld so that the provinces, states or nations can be held together in one Union.

With the Leader of the House’s announcement that he would exclude Scottish representatives from voting on what he now calls consent motions, including annual consent motions on tax issues arising from the Budget, he is breaking with the old-established practice of other countries, breaking with our own constitutional history, and breaking with all sensible advice in creating what the Government now boast is the English veto, making ours the first and only Parliament in the world where two classes of representatives will exist and where some representatives are clearly more equal than others.

By the Government’s own insistence on devolving all income tax to the Scottish Parliament and then using that as a pretext for banning Scottish MPs from voting on income tax here, there will be a constant national refrain that there are now first-class and second-class MPs: the English who rule and the Scots there on sufferance. I have to ask—

Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con) rose

Mr Brown: I will give way after this. I have to ask Government Members this: can you imagine Scotland, or possibly Wales and Northern Ireland, being enthusiastic about sending MPs to this place indefinitely if they have to withdraw when the real vote on the Budget—the consent vote, or the veto motion—is being taken on this central economic legislation once a year: income tax rates in the Budget voted on by a consent motion that

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excludes Scottish and, in time, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs who also want devolution of taxation? Can we sustain truly positive support for one United Kingdom Parliament for long when it becomes clear that the Government of the day owe their existence to an English majority and ride roughshod over other representation? If anybody is in any doubt about the threat to the unity of the UK posed by English votes for English laws, they should take note of how Scottish National party Members, who want to break the Union, have become its biggest supporters.

It was said of the Hapsburg monarchs that they would never learn from their mistakes. Surely the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats should heed the lessons of history. For decades William Gladstone, when Prime Minister, tried to find a way of balancing what he called the rights of “outsiders”—in this case, the Irish after home rule—and “insiders” without breaking the Union, but then concluded in his final term that it

“passed the wit of man to frame any distinct, thorough-going, universal severance between the one class of subjects and the other”.

He was not alone, for in 1965, when Harold Wilson’s proposal for steel nationalisation was defeated by Ulster Unionist votes, he asked his Attorney-General to devise a formula for two tiers of MPs, and he could not do so. At that time, the Conservative party insisted: “Every Member of this House is equal with every other Member of this House and all of us will speak on all subjects.”

Sir William Cash: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Brown: I will finish the history and then I will let the hon. Gentleman intervene.

When, in 1972, the Kilbrandon royal commission again considered English votes for English laws, it concluded:

“in our view, therefore, all Members of Parliament, whether or not they come from regions with their own legislative assemblies, must have the same rights of participation in the business of the House of Commons”.

Then again, in 1977, when James Callaghan had to revisit the issue during the first Scotland Bill, the advice he received agreed with Gladstone that

“no form of ‘in and out’ voting has been identified that would be sufficiently consistent with the basic features of our constitution to be workable”.

It seems that a problem that could not be solved in two centuries the Prime Minister now claims he has mastered and resolved in just a few weeks. I have to say this: if after 50 years in politics and four periods as Prime Minister, Gladstone could not find an answer to this question, and if every subsequent Prime Minister since has found it unworkable and unanswerable within the Union, might it not be somewhat immodest for the Prime Minister, who set up his review in October and published the results in December, to say that he has found the answer in just eight weeks? Might not he have been modest enough at least to listen to and get some perspective from his old constitutional history tutor at university, Professor Bogdanor, who has argued—

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Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Brown: Professor Bogdanor has argued that while

“English votes for English laws seems at first sight a logical response to the English Question…it is in fact incoherent…a bifurcated government is a logical absurdity. A government must be collectively responsible to parliament for all the policies that come before it, not just a selection of them.”

The reality is that EVEL, English votes for English laws, and this hunt for perfect symmetry in an asymmetrical world risk jeopardising the Union in the long term. Let me quote Mr Michael Portillo—this is probably what the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) wants to say. Mr Portillo said only a few days ago:

“I think it is creating daily a greater division between the two nations, which will lead to a sort of logic that the two nations should separate...The English mentality I think is now increasingly that the two nations are going in different directions: that if you’re a Scottish Member of Parliament you are a second-class citizen to an English Member of Parliament and you will be allowed to vote on certain matters.”

If the Union fell now, it would not be because of what happened during the referendum, the result of which was conclusively against leaving the United Kingdom, but because of what happened since—[Interruption.] The Union will not fall because most Scots demanded independence from the United Kingdom—they did not—but because leaders failed to convince them that they were fully committed to its unity—[Interruption.] It will not fall because a majority of people today want to leave the United Kingdom but because people feel that there is a Scottish interest and an English interest and that the Government have not defended the UK interest.

Sensible Conservatives recognise that. Commenting the morning after the referendum speech by the Prime Minister, Lord Strathclyde, author of the Conservatives’ own proposals on devolution, which rejected this approach, said:

“If we are serious Unionist politicians we need to use the language of healing and strengthening...We started off perhaps with…a step in the wrong direction”.

The Prime Minister’s Cabinet colleague, the Liberal party Member who is Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was blunter. He said of the Prime Minister’s speech that morning:

“He went from being a Prime Minister who had absolutely done the right thing in the national interest to making a very partisan judgement on behalf of the Conservative party”.

The implication was that the Prime Minister was putting the integrity of the United Kingdom second not to the express demands of the people of England but to the very vocal demands of the UK Independence party.

Sir William Cash: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Brown: I will give way in a minute—[Laughter.] I am setting out my argument, and the hon. Gentleman will have to refute it.

I have said nothing yet about the obvious technical problems of English votes for English laws.

Mr MacNeil: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I hope that it is a point of order, but go on. Briefly.

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Mr MacNeil: Mr Speaker, will you give me some guidance on the difference between a debate and a lecture? Should a Member who has promised to give way not give way?

Mr Speaker: Let me make two points. It is very simple. First, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) is perfectly in order. Secondly, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) is bearing more than a striking resemblance to an over-ebullient puppy dog. That is not something we want to see in this Chamber. He should take an example in statemanship from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and calm himself.

Mr Brown: I will give way to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil).

Mr MacNeil: Is the right hon. Gentleman giving way? He has to sit down to give way.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He mentioned the Kilbrandon commission, and Labour said to that commission that it preferred a Tory Government to independence. Is that still his view?

Mr Brown: The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong again. His colleague the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) was wrong to shout earlier that the majority of Scottish people wanted independence. The majority of Scottish people were clear that they did not want independence, and the sooner the SNP realises that it does not have a majority for that position the better.

Sir William Cash: The right hon. Gentleman is overlooking several points. The first is the question of unfairness to the English voters. That is the key issue. Secondly, he asserts that there will be two classes of Members under our proposals. It is not about two classes of Members but two different functions. It was his Government and his party leader in 1996-97 who created the devolution arrangements without making proper recompense for the unfairness to the British voter. That is where the problem lies.

Mr Brown: I have already proposed an English committee system that the hon. Gentleman should accept. He is forgetting the lessons of every other country in the world that is trying to hold together minorities in different parts of the country. They have to find a way of respecting the rights of minorities while upholding the majority. Nothing in yesterday’s EVEL proposals answered those problems. It is difficult to define what an English-only Bill is. If we take one possible definition of “separate and distinct effect”, constitutional lawyers say that that would encompass just half a dozen Bills in 10 years. That makes us ask why it has been proposed.

English MPs vote normally as a bloc in the same way as UK MPs, which suggests that this move has been proposed for other reasons. Whatever the practical considerations, the real damage of English votes for English laws is not its mechanical application. The real damage, before a veto is imposed, is the creation of a perception that the United Kingdom is now only about separate interests and not a common interest.

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Several hon. Members rose

Mr Brown: I am going to finish.

There is a myth that the Union can survive this new polarisation of Scotland and England. The myth is that it is held together by bonds that are of such long standing that they can overcome what may be seen as a local difficulty. I say to the House, however, that what may have been true in the aftermath of the second world war and its shared sacrifice has given way to a new world where none of our ancient institutions is strong enough or popular enough on its own to hold us together.

The Union cannot survive on mutual respect alone—it is in short supply at the moment—or just on the basis of mutual toleration, a minimalist policy of holding each other at a distance for fear that we will fight. The Union will hold together only if there are things that the people of our four nations believe they have in common; if we emphasise that there are common needs, mutual interests and similar values that make us want to co-operate; and, in short, if there is a belief that we do best by sharing. In the modern world, where countries survive or falter on the basis of a daily referendum of opinion, such sharing has to preserve our historical willingness to share risks and transfer resources between each other to tackle issues such as poverty, unemployment and inequality.

The 18th-century Prime Minister Lord North is today remembered for only one thing, which is that he lost America. Will this current Prime Minister—this is the statesman’s question—now act to ensure that he will not be remembered in history as the Lord North of the 21st century? On 19 September 2014, for purely short-term gain—putting party before country, without considering the long-term interests of our united country, and ignoring the need to reconcile people and bring them together—he may have lit a fuse that eventually blows the Union apart.

I have made proposals for reform. I do not want us to pre-empt a constitutional review. I know that the Secretary of State for Scotland supports the position I am representing. The issue tonight is whether he can persuade his colleagues in the coalition Government and Government Members before it is too late.

7.37 pm

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr Alistair Carmichael): May I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) on securing this evening’s debate? It is very good to see the House so well attended and particularly animated, which is not always the case in our Adjournment debates.

At the start of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman said one thing with which nobody could take exception, which was that this is a time for us, through the work of the House, to bring unity to our four nations. For those of us who represent Scottish constituents at Westminster, that was very much the view expressed by the people of Scotland in a quite remarkable democratic exercise on 18 September. We would do well at all times to remember that.

The right hon. Gentleman has done us a service by bringing this issue to the House tonight. The issue is entirely legitimate, and nothing will work less to the

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advantage of the Union than seeking in any way to deny that legitimacy or simply seeking to avoid it. It is absolutely right that all the political parties should look to address the issue, as indeed they are doing.

As we look across the political landscape and address the various options available, it is possible to conclude only one thing—that there is no easy answer and absolutely no quick fix. If we try to achieve an easy answer or a quick fix, we run a very real risk of replacing the obvious and patent anomalies of the current constitutional settlement with new ones, which would place more pressure on the hinges of our United Kingdom at a time when those who would break it up remain vigilant for a chance to do so.

Sir William Cash: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Carmichael: If I may make a little progress, I will give way to my hon. Friend in a minute.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House laid out the proposals of the Conservative party. It is a matter of record that my party disagrees with that approach. Nor is it much of a secret that there is a range of views within the Conservative party, from those who believe that this issue is best left alone to those who want a more radical solution. There is not much consensus in that party, let alone between the parties in this House. However, there is a broad consensus here about keeping together our family of nations. That requires that this issue be considered carefully with an eye to a lasting settlement, not a short-sighted or short-term partisan advantage.

Sir William Cash: Does the Secretary of State agree that the proposals that were agreed to tentatively by the Conservative party yesterday will not necessarily be the solution, because the real problem is that the new Parnell from Scotland, in the form of Mr Alex Salmond, will come down and use any opportunity relentlessly and ruthlessly to create as much chaos as possible, and thereby disrupt the United Kingdom?

Mr Carmichael: The hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that Alex Salmond was here for many years and often sought to do exactly that. However, in terms of achievement, there was not a great deal to show for his time here. I therefore caution my hon. Friend about pre-judging the outcome of the election on 7 May and what the consequences of that outcome might be.

My party has always been clear that any parliamentary vote involving English or English and Welsh MPs should be held only on the basis of a proportionate vote share from the previous election. Devolution to the constituent nations of our United Kingdom has always taken place on that basis, and for good reason. It would be wholly unjust effectively to devolve power to England or England and Wales in a way that distorted democratic opinion and passed unfair advantage to any party.

The logical and lasting solution to this conundrum, in the view of my party, is the creation of a federal United Kingdom, in which England as a whole or in its constituent parts devolves powers from Westminster

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and, by extension, answers the West Lothian question. I accept, however, that we may be some way from that solution.

The options can and should be considered by a constitutional convention, as the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath indicated. The convention should be empowered to look at all the anomalies and difficulties that we face. In that way, we can forge a consensus and build lasting solutions that strengthen the bonds of our United Kingdom, rather than threaten to break them.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): It is important in this debate that we learn more about the Liberal plans for the proportional representation of MPs. It seems, with respect, that they could end in a really bonkers situation. What would happen if the Green party got 5% of the votes but only one MP? Would the Green party lady walk through the Lobby representing 20 other colleagues? What would happen if the Labour party got 38% of the popular vote but 43% of MPs? How would it be worked out in practice?

Mr Carmichael: Those matters would, of course, have to be considered by the House before it countenanced a change to Standing Orders of the sort that I have outlined. The example about the Greens would have to be taken into account and it might determine the size of any such Committee. I say to my hon. Friend gently that this House has tackled many bigger conundrums and challenges than that, and we have shown ourselves to be equal to the task. Although his point is legitimate and thoughtful, I do not see it as a barrier to a change of the sort that my party favours.

It might be helpful to add a little context to the question of Scotland’s representation in the Union, so I will briefly remind the House of the recent constitutional events that brought us here. On 18 September, the people in Scotland voted to secure Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom and to keep the advantages of the UK pound, UK pensions, UK armed forces, and a strong UK voice in the world. They voted for the strength and security that the United Kingdom provides through our single domestic market, our social union, and our ability to pool and share risks. However, people in Scotland were also clear that they wanted change. They wanted a strengthened, more accountable Scottish Parliament, with more decisions that affect Scotland being made in Scotland. The United Kingdom Government made a commitment to delivering the vow made by the three party leaders—in respect of which the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath made such a decisive intervention—and to delivering further powers to the Scottish Parliament early after the next general election. Despite the ambitious time scale, all deadlines in the vow have been met.

Immediately following the independence referendum, the Prime Minister established the Smith commission as an independent body to convene cross-party talks on further powers for the Scottish Parliament. The heads of agreement were published before St Andrew’s day, in line with our commitment, and were welcomed by the UK Government. The next stage of our commitment was to publish draft legislation, setting out what the agreement would look like in law in advance of Burns

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night. Two weeks ago, ahead of schedule, the Government published the draft clauses with an accompanying Command Paper.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): The Secretary of State has got part of his history wrong, because since the vow there is now the vow plus that has been advocated by the Labour party. We are in a constant state of flux and constitutional change in Scotland. Where do the Government see it ending? We have the vow plus from Labour, but what is the view of the UK Government?

Mr Carmichael: I thought I was making a mistake in giving way, and I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s question confirms that. His party did a brave thing in taking part in the Smith commission—for the first time ever, it was an historic moment to get all five parties from the Scottish Parliament around one table. He was part of that consensus; perhaps he did not like it and was one of those who put pressure on John Swinney and others to run away from the settlement that they had just signed up to.

Rather than coming up with such points, the hon. Gentleman would do better first to calm down and relax a little, and he could then tell the House what he and his party will do with the powers that will come to the Scottish Parliament as a result of the Smith commission. One thing he does not want to accept is that as a result

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of the Smith commission, Scotland will have the third most powerful devolved Parliament anywhere in the world. A tremendous amount of good can be done with the powers that will be given to the Scottish Parliament, and that is where the debate ought to be, rather than the constant whinge about vows or vows plus.

Conor Burns (Bournemouth West) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Carmichael: I am sorry but I am running out of time.

The Government are doing everything we can to enable 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, as recommended by Lord Smith, and hon. Members will know that on Monday I took an order through the House to deal with that very point.

A great deal more could—indeed will—be said on this subject between now and 7 May. That is absolutely right, because to build a consensus we must make this Parliament fit for the whole United Kingdom, and such debates will be necessary. I am therefore grateful to the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath for bringing the matter to the House this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

7.49 pm

House adjourned.