HC Deb 17 May 1991 vol 191 cc538-610 9.37 am
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I wish to call attention to the case for constitutional reform and I beg to move, That this House, noting the results of the recent MORI opinion poll on the State of the Nation, calls on Her Majesty's Government to introduce measures designed to effect an extensive modernisation of the United Kingdom's democratic institutions and constitutional provisions. One of the funniest things to happen to me in the House since I was elected in 1983 occurred in the last Parliament. Unusually, I was sitting with some friends and visitors from my constituency in the public gallery. The House was crowded, as it had been throughout the debate. We were sitting behind an eight-year-old who was obviously, by his accent, from the west coast of Scotland.

I nipped down into the Division Lobby and afterwards returned to where I had been sitting. The little boy was clearly watching the scene of apparent chaos with dismay, with hon. Members elbowing their way into the Lobby from a crowded House. The division bells were ringing throughout the precincts of the Palace of Westminster and, according to tradition, Mr. Deputy Speaker, who was in the Chair, shouted, "Lock the doors." I heard the wee fellow turn to his mother and utter the immortal words, "Mam, one of them has escaped." I often think that people have a strange perception of what goes on in this place. Perhaps children have a way of cutting through the cant and nonsense that some of us cannot see.

Indeed, people have strange perceptions of the whole process of government. They may not have a perfect grasp of all the subtleties of our unwritten constitution and they may not fully understand the relationship between the judiciary, the Executive and the legislature; they may also have many false expectations of what can be politically achieved and what is realistically possible. For example, people regularly tell me in the same breath that they are in favour of strong government and united parties, and that they believe that Members of Parliament should exercise their individual consciences in the Division Lobbies. Those, surely, are mutually exclusive objectives.

There is one issue, however, on which people are sufficiently wise and sufficiently tutored to decide: the question whether our system of government serves their needs. The current public feeling is that government is not working. We must, of course, ensure that proper respect is paid to our democratic institutions, which must be assiduously fostered and defended. None the less, a great deal of nonsensical cant and mystique surrounds much of our constitutional baggage and I feel that that should now be discarded.

Is it not more than a little strange that we have no permanent, open and accessible machinery to allow constant review of our constitutional arrangements? Can any hon. Member recall when we last engaged in a debate on constitutional reform, apart from Consolidated Fund debates in the middle of the night? The most recent such debate, as far as I know, took place in 1968, when the former Liberal leader Mr. Jeremy Thorpe—then Member of Parliament for Devon, North—introduced a debate on the Kilbrandon report when the House was dealing with the Gracious Speech.

That is a long time for which to leave such a subject undiscussed. Is it not more than ever necessary for effective checks and balances to be applied and constantly reviewed at a time when our country is experiencing exponential rates of change in social and economic matters? Statutory provision now regulates every aspect of our private lives from the cradle to the grave; information technology threatens to make slaves of us all.

Our ramshackle, amateurish, muddle-through mentality is now holding the United Kingdom back. Our system of government is shot through with administrative myths and political fictions, and is no longer adequate to carry out its task. The lack of a clearly defined, modern framework for our constitution is now one of the most urgent problems that face the country. I feel that hon. Members, representing as they do so many disparate constituencies, have a duty to respond clearly to the need for change.

I freely acknowledge that the body politic has been wrestling with the task of modernising our system of government for the past three decades. Much ingenuity and considerable energy have been expended, but, according to any test, the extent to which lasting results have been produced does not measure up to the effort deployed. Little real progress has been made, as a brief review of recent reforms will show. It is, in fact, a disappointing and depressing saga.

It could be argued that the Macmillan Government were the first to recognise the need for change. That Government looked specifically at economic and industrial policy making, and set up the National Economic Development Council as a national forum for policy discussion. That was potentially a very important reform; the Germans have used a similar mechanism with great success in the recent past. Over the years, the fortunes of the NEDC may have waxed and waned, but it is still with us, endeavouring to do good by stealth when it can—which, admittedly, is not often nowadays.

Macmillan also introduced the short-lived National Incomes Commission—together with new techniques for controlling public expenditure, following the recommendations of the Plowden report in 1962. The pace of reformist change gathered momentum as the Governments of Lord Wilson—as he now is—and the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) vied with each other in a bid to be seen as the real architects of the modernisation of Britain's political institutions. That time, when I first became politically aware—the period of the white heat of technology and the Heath Government's dash for growth—was a heady one for anyone who was interested in politics; but its reforming achievements did not amount to a row of administrative beans.

In the mid-1960s, the Labour Government invented the Department of Economic Affairs, introduced its still-born "national plan", instituted the Government Economic Service, empanelled regional planning boards and set up the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, the Prices and Incomes Board and the Commission of Industrial Relations. They also introduced a system of ministerial cabinets, in which political advisers were allowed to help Ministers at Cabinet level and within the civil service system. In the wake of the Fulton report, the Wilson Government also modified the running of the civil service substantially.

All those changes were focused on economic and industrial policy making. Another common feature was the introduction of quangos: the great and the good were appointed to do the bidding of the political Administration.

In their turn, the Heath Government reorganised local government, established the Central Policy Review Staff—a potentially important administrative and political reform which did not come to much—spawned both a Prices Commission and a pay board and invented the Manpower Services Commission and an industrial development executive. Amid all that economic and industrial change, the Kilbrandon commission on the constitution reported in 1973, but no one seemed to take much notice of its recommendations.

There was, however, no slackening of reformist zeal on the industrial and economic front when Mr. Wilson returned to office in 1974. He rapidly formed the National Enterprise Board, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, the Health and Safety Commission, the National Consumer Council and other similar bodies. A tinge of consumerism was beginning to appear on the agenda, although a good many quangos—publicly appointed bodies—were still being set up to carry out the changes that were then being recommended.

I have given those examples to try to give the flavour, and show the nature and range, of the modernising endeavours—such as they were—that were implemented in the 1960s and 1970s. The spirit, or motivating force, that prompted those endeavours may well have been similar to that which prompted the era of mid-century reform experienced by the Victorians. The difference lies in the fact that they lack the impact and substance of the 19th century's far-reaching constitutional reforms. To be fair, that lack was all too apparent to the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) when she entered No. 10 Downing street. She actually diagnosed the problem: the institutional changes put in train by her predecessors had largely failed in their attempt to update the system of government to serve the needs of our people.

Apparently, our former Prime Minister needed advice from no one; quangos were out and strong men were in as the main agents of change. Tripartism—the whole system of across-the-board, collective consultation and discussion—fell from grace, to be replaced by accountants, management consultants and retailers: the likes of Lord Rayner and Sir Roy Griffiths. The modernising gurus of the Thatcher era had arrived with a vengeance. Market forces would achieve all the change that was necessary and devil take the hindmost.

Unfortunately, as is now all too apparent, while these business people, acting in good faith, as I am sure they were, had some impact on public policy, as often as not it was for the worst. The results of their ministrations can be seen all too clearly in the deterioration and demoralisation that are now widespread in the public sector. The notion of public service as an honourable and fulfilling activity with a degree of job satisfaction and of public status was gradually being replaced by the business ethic. Education, local government, health, transport systems, the prisons, the police and the law court services have all been blighted by their attentions.

The former Prime Minister correctly saw the failures of previous Governments, but she did not learn the proper lessons or draw the right conclusions. Instead, her attempts to change things made the problems worse. They culminated in the great irony that, for all the rhetoric about freedom, her Government took more power to themselves, arguably, than at any other time in our history since the Tudors, with the difference that the Tudors were nation building while the former Prime Minister was apparently creating a personal empire within the realms of central Government. The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) once sought to excuse his Government's overweening centralising tendencies with a stock-in-trade quip, to the effect that it had to nationalise in order to privatise. The proportion of nationalisation, in the sense of greater centralised Government, to privatisation as a surrogate for greater freedom remains, in my view, excessively skewed in favour of nationalisation.

The former Prime Minister lauded Victorian values, but from my perspective she picked very selectively from them. She seized upon the tenets of economic Liberalism, but what she failed completely to do was to recognise that it required to be complemented by the principles of political Liberalism, based on participation, partnership and decentralisation. She opted for an economic system unfettered by any constitutional constraint. Thus, the political economy that is necessary for economic success totally passed her by. That has cost this country dear.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I have been following the hon. Gentleman's argument with interest. I share his criticism of the former Prime Minister, but her vices were not hidden from view in 1979. One wonders, therefore, why the Liberal party joined with the Conservatives to vote against the Labour Government, particularly as it was poised to introduce a private Member's Bill promoted by Clement Freud to achieve a degree of freedom of information. Why, therefore, did the Liberal party sabotage that opportunity and instead join the Conservatives, led by the woman whom the hon. Gentleman criticises?

Mr. Kirkwood

That takes us a long way back into history. I believe that that Parliament—like this Parliament—had run its course. I believe that at that stage it was right to take the issues on to the hustings where points such as that raised by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) could be argued openly and in public during a general election. That point should be addressed to the Prime Minister at this stage. We are at a similar point in this Parliament. The sooner we have a general election the better.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Ought not it to be placed on record that the Labour Government's willingness to intoduce a freedom of information Act, which they had previously failed conspicuously to do, depended entirely on the willingness of my then hon. Friend Mr. Clement Freud not to vote against them? A freedom of information Act was the price that they were prepared to pay out of desperation, at a very late stage in their Government, in the knowledge that it had no chance of getting through.

Mr. Kirkwood

My hon. Friend makes the point very well. One of the worst criticisms that people could make of the last Labour Government was that they set their face so rigorously against legislation that I think is now so necessary.

I was arguing that the attempted and largely abortive reforms of the last three decades have either come to absolutely nothing at all or have proved to be counterproductive. When they have not ended in tears, attempts at reform have ended in tantrums. The reason for this pathetic record and why all their energy has been dissipated is because successive Governments have been obsessively introspective. They have concentrated their efforts at reform on themselves, in the form of the Executive branch of government. Changes were often made on account of the siege mentality of the last Labour Government. The Executive started to do things, the motivation for which was to try to make things easier for themselves and to dig themselves out of holes. That is managerialism running absolutely riot. It led directly to ludicrous levels of state secrecy—to the Clive Ponting affair, Cathy Massiter, Peter Wright, GCHQ and the whole debate that surrounded the replacement of the Official Secrets Act. It also led to an increasingly political and politicised civil service. That led to all sorts of problems that we are now reading about—Westland and the unattributable briefings of Bernard Ingham. In addition, it led to the browbeating of the broadcasters—the "Death on the Rock" fiasco, the Zircon case and all these other incidents and issues that caused a great deal of concern for those of us outside government who could see what was happening.

In all three areas of our policy—the judiciary, the legislature and the Executive—we need to throw open the doors and windows of Whitehall, Westminster and the courts and let light and air into the innermost recesses of the processes of government. The proper ordering of our polity requires not just recasting the activities of the Executive but renewing the roles of both the legislature and the judicial branches of government. Modernisation, properly conceived and executed, is not just about efficiency, narrowly defined. It is about democracy in the very widest and most generous sense. Equally, and just as important, it is about contriving a framework where the one can operate effectively in relation to the other. We need to renew the context in which the requirements of the Government machine can be accommodated alongside the needs and rights of, and the ability to serve and protect, individuals and communities.

In the recent past, discussion and practice have focused almost exclusively on management techniques rather than on constitutional remedies. Against all the innovations undertaken in the name of improved efficiency, I can think—other hon. Members may be able to assist me here—of only two offsetting reforms of a truly democratic and constitutional nature: the appointment of ombudsmen to cover various aspects of public policy and the modifications and improvements to the Select Committee procedures of the House. Welcome as both those modest steps are, they are modest indeed in comparison with what is required.

One of the major drawbacks and the main reason for the very limited success of recent reforms of the Executive branch of government is that they were imposed from the top down. Objections and criticisms were rejected, on the basis that they were no more than dinner table talk at the soirees of the chattering classes. The debate, such as it was, about the inadequacies of the Government system and the shortcomings of the constitution was seen as being conducted between two elites—the Government Front Bench and readers of The Guardian. The mass of voters were said not to be in any way interested in any of these questions. That perception is now shown to be wholly wrong. The general public are fully aware of the parlous state of the machinery of government and of the inadequacies of constitutional provision. They hold strong and consistent views about how they should be redressed. The reason for the public's apparent silence on these great matters of state is simply that they had never been asked.

A recent MORI poll—a substantial piece of work that is bed-time reading for hon. Members—was commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree reform trust, of which I am a director. I therefore declare an interest, although the office of trustee has no financial reward. It carried out a national survey of public opinion on the state of the nation. It was the first time that such extensive soundings had been taken on the subject, and the results showed a widespread and profound desire for democratic constitutional reform.

A clear majority would like to see improvements in the system of government. Three quarters think that a freedom of information Act is needed. Seven in 10 think that we need a Bill of Rights. Six in 10 think, not surprisingly given the Thatcher legacy, that the Government are too centralised. Three quarters favour greater use of referendums for major decisions, and more think that a petition of 1 million signatures should trigger a referendum. That is a plea for more consideration and participation if ever I heard one.

There is considerable popular support for electoral change. Eight in 10 think that national campaign spending should be limited. On a topical note, perhaps, the Prime Minister might like to be aware that more than half the electorate support fixed-term Parliaments—amen to that. Half the voters favour electoral reform, and the momentum for a change to a system of fair voting is gathering speed at such a rate that it is reluctantly engaging the attention of the Labour party.

The House may be interested to know that 59 per cent. think that Parliament works well, and 16 per cent. disagree. That might be a direct result of the positive impact of television. When the same question was asked in 1979, only 54 per cent. thought well of the workings of the House, while 39 per cent. thought that it worked badly. Significantly—this correlates closely the feeling of overcentralised government—50 per cent. think that Parliament has insufficient control over the Government. Only 23 per cent. disagreed with that proposition. Forty per cent. favour an elected second Chamber to replace the House of Lords, while only 29 per cent. disagree, and 54 per cent. believe that the Government can change citizens' right too easily, while 22 per cent. disagree. Thirty eight per cent. think that citizens' rights are less well protected in Britain than in the rest of the European Community, and 24 per cent. disagree.

There is strong and growing support among Scots for a devolved assembly. In September 1989, 44 per cent. of Scots favoured that reform, but now 51 per cent. do so. More generally in Britain, six out of 10 favoured devolved assemblies for Britain.

The motion is clearly timely. The MORI poll revealed general disquiet among the public about the state of the nation, especially about the functioning of government and the need to review our constitutional safeguards. It is equally clear that, in many instances, those who campaign for improvement—many organisations democratically campaign for change—speak for a majority constituency of our fellow citizens. With help from the Freedom of Information Campaign, I have had the privilege of steering two freedom of information Bills through Parliament. They dealt with small but important aspects of public access to files held by various bureaucracies. In this Parliament, we managed to establish the same right for access to national health service records.

The Freedom of Information Campaign is an important organisation. In their different spheres but in similar ways, the Constitutional Reform Centre, Charter 88, the Scottish Constitutional Convention and the Electoral Reform Society are resonating with the spirit of the times.

No quick fix or big bang will adequately modernise our constitutional provision. I well understand that the Government are taking action, such as inquiring into the future pattern of local government, and have recently appointed a royal commission into the working of the legal system. Both announcements are welcome but belated signs of the Government's still too dim awareness of the crisis of governance that confronts us.

Much more than these measures is called for. Constitutional reform is a multifaceted matter. It requires sensitivity to the inter-relatedness of the organs of government and the need to keep in balance one with the rest. It requires vigilance and it is, rightly, a continuing process. Of late, the House and the country have been deficient in that regard.

The modern nation state, and Britain is no exception, is threatened by pressures from above—the European Community and the international community—and from below of growing regional and local awareness. Those pressures must be accommodated and reconciled. We must seek to create a coherent and codified new constitutional settlement that will decentralise power and yet be consonant with, and contribute to, the development and democratisation of the institutions of the European Community.

We must apply nationally the sustained energy and effort that has been shown by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the past few weeks. In an apparently intractable political situation, he has been trying to achieve positive, lasting change. Such commitment is needed to solve the problems.

Sooner or later, the Government, of whatever colour, and the House, whatever its composition, will have to apply themselves to a systematic review of the constitutional framework of the United Kingdom. Liberal Democrats will continue to press for such a review and robustly to argue our party political agenda to establish the need for change. I hope that the debate will allow the House to express a view. I have deliberately avoided a partisan, party-political approach. I hope that we shall be able to test opinion in the House. I remind hon. Members of the adage coined by George Bernard Shaw on the need to get one's jacket off and fight for what one believes in. He said that people have to be careful to get what they like, or they might have to like what they get.

10.7 am

Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

The House owes a debt to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) for raising the major issues of constitutional change. I quote George Bernard Shaw, who said that he could suggest improvements when he got to heaven. Some hon. Members would undoubtedly concur with that view.

I speak as a reactionary. I make no apologies for being a reactionary; if there had been a few more reactionaries among the Gadarene swine, they would have lived a little longer. The sweep of progress took them over the hills and to their own fatal destruction.

In 1641, Lord Falkland, speaking on an episcopal matter, said: When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. I repeat that for the benefit of those listening: When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. In other words, if something is working, the case has to be made for change—and considered very carefully. Often, the best is the enemy of the good. In trying to make a good system perfect, one tends to pull it to bits and nobody wants the end product.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, in his scholarly and informed speech, mentioned changes in the past 25 years. Most of the changes have been disasters and the relics of those disasters are littered round the place. An example is comprehensive education, which was introduced with the best of intentions by the Labour party. It presumed that it would lead to a more egalitarian and learned society, but I do not believe that it has. It has handicapped working-class children more than any legislation this century and has lowered education standards.

Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow, Govan)

In Scotland, comprehensive education has been broadly accepted by the community and operates to the satisfaction of most people. By any measure, we far outscore the English education system. If comprehensive education is so fundamentally flawed, why is Scotland doing so well educationally?

Sir Rhodes Boyson

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) because he makes my case. Comprehensive education was a natural growth in Scotland. In this country it was implanted by a Government against the wishes of the majority of people and it does not work. The hon. Gentleman must regularly come along when I make my speeches and we can perform a twin turn.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Will the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) relate his views to the constitution that brought about the system of education that he dislikes and which, according to him, allowed a system to be foisted upon a country that did not want it? Does not that suggest that there is something wrong with the constitution?

Sir Rhodes Boyson

I rather like that—the hon. Member has made a good point. I cannot win them all so I shall merely nod cheerfully to him on that issue. What he said bears out what I said first. As long as the system works overall, that is all that we can ask for—we cannot have a system that works all the time.

Local government was mentioned and I believe that my party's local government reorganisations in 1964 and 1972 were disasters. Similarly, conglomerates were built up in business and it was the fashion for them to buy up everything. Another fashion that swept the country, which was not a constitutional issue although it came from the House and from a desire for change, was that for tower blocks, which have probably harmed family life more than anything else in the past 25 or 30 years. They came about because people wanted change and said that the walkways in the sky were a good thing.

There is now much talk about regional assemblies—a Scottish assembly, a Welsh elected chamber and others—which appear to be the fashion of the time of the month. I believe that, overall, our system of one-Member constituencies with a Member who is responsible to the electorate and who is a member of a party, works well. Usually, it means that elections result in firm government and at by-elections along the way—I believe that there was one yesterday—there is a chance to test public opinion. By-elections tell the party in power that it should consider what it is doing if it wishes to remain on the Government Benches after the next general election.

Let us consider minority Governments. There were minority Governments in 1923, in 1929–31 and again in 1974–79, and each was a disaster. There was not a Government with a working majority about which everyone could grumble or which everyone could praise, but a mishmash. When we vote in a general election under a one-Member constituency system, we at least know for whom we are voting—we are voting for a member with a name; he is a member of a party and the party has a leader. We cannot give everyone a view; that would be an idyllic situation. I have no idea what the system is in heaven and I sometimes wonder what the economic situation is in heaven, let alone the constitutional system. If the system does not give a clear majority, one cannot know who will be the Prime Minister, or which parties will come together, and decisions are taken not by those who cast their votes in the ballot box but by those in what used in America to be called "smoke-filled rooms" and what are now "non smoke-filled rooms" or "no-thought rooms".

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)


Sir Rhodes Boyson

I shall give way as I see that there is great agitation on the Opposition Benches, probably in agreement with me.

Mr. Hughes

The right hon. Gentleman argues that we need a Government with a clear mandate. The fallacy of his argument is that we consistently have minority Governments who represent minority views, but who impose policies that the majority of people do not like—the poll tax is a good recent example—and which then have to be changed. There is a strong argument for strong government, but there is a much stronger argument for government with majority support. With respect, it is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to defend the present system on the basis that it works well, but it does so only from the point of view of minorities that get power, but not from that of the people who are not given power under the present system.

Sir Rhodes Boyson

If 100 people get together, there will be 100 opinions. It is difficult to define the majority view, but there is more likelihood of attaining a majority view with a clear two-party system under which each party must appeal to the mass of the electorate than under a system where each party appeals to minority social groups. There is no ideal system—I am not saying that we have the best system that the world has ever known, but I am saying that it works. If we mess around with it, we shall worsen it. I know that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and his party believe that they can change the world overnight in an astonishing way so that we should all be wearing rose-coloured spectacles.

I began with a quotation and I shall finish with a quotation to round off my speech. I said that our system works tolerably well, so we should realise how fortunate we are to have this Chamber and all our arrangements when we look at history and other systems around the world. We have not always had one-Member constituencies—we had two-Member constituencies until fairly recently. There are arguments for two-Member constituencies, especially those with two votes for all, but the one-Member constituency has two advantages. First, it ensures that the Member stays in touch with the people who have elected him and, secondly, it acts as a defence against an over-powerful party system especially if he keeps his links with those people. Proportional representation could be disastrous, where the party is in charge, and the Member moves up and down a list and bows to the people in power and does not argue. If the Member stays in touch with his constituency, he knows what is going on and there is a chance that the majority will be satisfied, and there is a defence against an overwhelming party system.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North West)

The only difficulty that I have with the point that the right hon. Member for Brent North (Sir R. Boyson) is making is that it is not true. The individual Member of Parliament is not a bastion against an overweening party system. If the right hon. Gentleman, with all his distinction, flamboyance, knowledge, and—let us say, for the sake of argument—his popularity in his constituency, were to change party and stand as Sir Rhodes Boyson, Independent, he would lose, and he knows it.

Sir Rhodes Boyson

The hon. Member makes a tempting offer, but I must resist it and not make another constitutional change along the way. Marginal seats are held or lost according to the service of the individual Member. It is important that people know who their Member of Parliament is—he should be identifiable. Last night I was in my constituency to deal with a road-widening scheme and I shall be there tonight and on Saturday and Sunday. The same is true for most hon. Members. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newham, North West (Mr. Banks), for whom I have the greatest respect, for bringing another matter to my attention although he may later wonder how he did so, but he can think about that for the rest of the day.

This week there was an illustration in Brent of what happens when we move too far from a two-party system. Last year, the election in Brent was hung and we could not elect any chairmen of committees. The council was hung in more ways than one—by its behaviour and by the way it was regarded by the electorate. There were no chairman of committees—it depended on who got there first. Some people stayed up all night in hammocks to get inside first and as soon as the clock struck, they became chairmen for that meeting. The electorate in Brent did not like that.

I do not want to hurt the Opposition's feelings, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I shall speak more quietly and we shall whisper between ourselves. Two Members of the Labour party in Brent formed a new party called the Democratic Labour party, which is an improvement. Great thought was given to what the new party should be called. There is now a majority in Brent again and I noticed as I came through the streets this morning how different things are. People are whistling on their way to work because one party now has a majority. Who knows what may happen nationally? There may be an alliance of the Conservatives and the Democratic Labour party. The idea may sweep the country.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

After the attractive intervention by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), I was thinking that he made a point that was no doubt true for most of us. The one person of whom it would not be true would be my right hon. Friend. That is a point against my own party, so I hope that he will not leave our party and stand as an independent.

Sir Rhodes Boyson

Who knows? If there are constitutional changes, what may arise? At 2.30 pm today, the whole country may change in its way of doing things.

I want to make another point in a puckish and helpful way. It is always interesting to realise that the parties in the House that are most interested in constitutional reform are those that do not have a majority. It is surprising what a change there is when there is a majority. I have great respect for the 19th century Liberals. I wrote a biography of the brother-in-law of John Bright and the closest confidant of Cobden. It is a good book which I can recommend to all hon. Members. If hon. Members want a present for the new Democratic Labour party or whoever, the opportunity is there.

If the Liberal party had replaced the Labour party as the second party in the 1983 election, would the attitude of Liberal Democrat Members be the same? It is nice to see Liberal Democrat Members in their places. Similarly, is the reason why some Labour Members support proportional representation the fact that Labour has lost three elections? What would Labour Members' attitude be if the misfortune arose that they won an election? I make that as a puckish point. I may be wrong in my deductions, but they are worth putting forward.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

Is not it the case that the Liberal party, when it was last in power, was very much opposed to proportional representation? Liberal Democrat Members' enthusiasm for it is far more recent.

Sir Rhodes Boyson

I believe that that is the case. I did not want to push the point too far because I did not want to hurt anybody's feelings.

We live in a fallen world. I accept the garden of Eden and the fall of man both spiritually and politically. There is no ideal society in this world and people who try to make society ideal, eventually burn people to keep it that way. We are privileged when we get a system that works and we must be careful that we do not make it fall apart by trying to improve it even further. Many of the electorate—in what we used to call the public bar—are suspicious of change.

I end where I began with Lord Falkland's statement of 1641, which was repeated in the debate on the 1832 Reform Bill.

Mr. Tony Banks

Whose side would the right hon. Gentleman have been on?

Sir Rhodes Boyson

The hon. Gentleman is trying to divert me, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I must have your protection against being interrupted when I am trying to make a minor peroration. My compass bearing is to believe that when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. I see no need to change the political system at present.

I am also very concerned about the pressure coming from Europe for a change in our voting system. I agreed to the economic market in Europe, but I am not interested in the European Community legislating about the crisps that I can eat or about the way that we vote. If Europe continues to do that, there will be a backlash in this country against the Common Market.

10.23 am
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

I strongly welcome the debate. It is the first time in the 40 years in which I have been here that there has been a day devoted to constitutional reform as a whole. I welcome the spirit in which the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) introduced the debate. I also welcome the theological note introduced by the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson). I first remember him when he strongly advocated comprehensive schools. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) was a member of the party that introduced those schools. I am reminded that this debate cuts across party lines.

Some people outside may hear the words "constitutional reform" and wonder what they mean. I heard Professor Norton say the other day that he had never met anyone who was in favour of constitutional reform. I thought therefore that I would look back at our history and mention one or two examples that will be familiar to the House.

When William the Conqueror arrived in 1066, he was engaged in constitutional reform. He was the second man to try to get us into the Common Market. Julius Caesar was the first and William the Conqueror was the second. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) was the third. When William the Conqueror made his coronation oath in Westminster abbey on Christmas day 1066, he laid down how he was going to govern the country. He gave all the land to his Norman friends. When the barons went to Runnymede in 1215, they insisted on constitutional reform and the king had to yield to their pressure. A few yards from where we are sitting, in Westminster hall in 1649, Parliament tried King Charles I and later executed him a few feet along Whitehall. That was an act of constitutional reform.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I do not think that the barons in 1215 were seeking constitutional reform; they were seeking to restate what they believed were their traditional rights.

Mr. Benn

It could be argued that the present case for constitutional reform is exactly that. It could be argued that we have lost rights that we had and I shall come to that point in a moment.

When there were great debates on the Reform Bill in 1831, which led to the Reform Act of 1832, they were about constitutional reform. When the Chartists had their major march for the petition in 1839, they were demanding constitutional reform. When the suffragettes demanded votes for women, they were engaged in constitutional reform. I have now put up a little plague in the broom cupboard in memory of Emily Wilding Davison who hid there on the night of the census.

When there was a conflict between the Lords and the Commons in 1910 over the Parliament Act, which allowed the present Government to carry the War Crimes Bill against the opposition of the House of Lords, that was constitutional reform. When American forces were allowed here after the war, when we joined the European Community and when the Greater London council was abolished—they were all constitutional reforms. Let no one have any doubt that constitutional reform is central. Democracy is a process. If one discusses the process and wishes to change it, one is discussing constitutional reform.

It is widely agreed that there are now many issues on which people are interested in change. Proportional representation has been cited. The argument that a Government elected on 42 per cent. were able to enforce their will and that those in opposition to it were a majority, although a minority in the House, must have attention given to it. However, those who advocate proportional representation should consider one or two other points. In the Labour party national executive recently, I expressed my doubts about proportional representation. I said that if we had a list system, on that list my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and I would be 649 and 650. One of my colleagues—I will not mention his name—asked whether we wanted that in writing.

There is also the question of a hung Parliament. As the right hon. Member for Brent, North rightly said, people would go into a room and come out with a policy and a Government for whom nobody had voted. Zero per cent. would vote for a Government emerging from a negotiation after an election. We have a view which I strongly share—and which may be rather old fashioned—that everyone should know the policy before polling day and not after it. I am doing no more than trying to raise some serious questions about the matter. The matter is not as clear cut as the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire makes out. After a hung Parliament, when constituents asked "Why did you do this, Mr. Benn?" I would say that I was afraid that it was forced on me by coalition partners. MPs would then not be responsible for what they had done.

I am in favour of the matter being discussed and I do not want to exclude anything. There are people who favour proportional representation. Mr. Arthur Scargill is a strong advocate of proportional representation on the principled ground that you should not have any power until you have a majority of over 50 per cent. The Prince of Wales is a strong advocate of proportional representation and so is the Liberal Democrat party now, although it was not in favour when it had a parliamentary majority.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The right hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in campaigning for constitutional reform for many years, and properly so. Does he agree that given that, under our present system, two bodies decide the law—one not elected by anyone and the other supported by a minority not of 40 per cent. but of just over 30 per cent.—the fundamental matter on which to agree is whether those who pass the laws should be elected with the support of the majority? I should be happy to dispute with the right hon. Gentleman the secondary question whether we should have single-member or multi-member constituencies, if we can agree on the principle of a democratic majority for legislation for Britain.

Mr. Benn

I am coming to that, although personally I think that changing the voting system would not change very much, for reasons that I shall give in a minute—and not least because this House is overridden by the Commissioners in Brussels, whom we do not elect at all.

Then there is the question of people's rights. We have no rights in Britain. We are subjects, not citizens—I shall come back to that matter when I refer to the Crown—and there is an argument for a Bill of Rights. Women are grossly under-represented in this place. The 300 Group, which thinks that half the House of Commons should be made up of women, has a case. I am not personally in favour of what is called positive discrimination, but I am in favour of equality of representation, which is quite a different principle. I have no doubt that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will move to higher things and that you, along with Edith Cresson, the new Prime Minister of France, will help to redress the balance.

I have always believed in the case for home rule for Scotland. We are talking about the old Keir Hardie principle. Freedom of information, devolution, local democracy, civil liberties, relations between Parliament and the Common Market are all massive questions which must be discussed. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire had it right when he tabled his wide motion. People are interested in constitutional reform because they want this place to serve them. Very few people have an O-level or an A-level in government, but they know that, if they want something done and this place will not do it, something is wrong. I always think of this place as a steam engine. It needs some steam to move, but if there is lots of steam and the engine is defective all that happens is a great release of hot air; the engine stays where it is, which means that our mechanism is defective. I think that people are beginning to realise that.

There has always been opposition to reform. The remarks of the right hon. Member for Brent, North were in line with those of many of his predecessors. Opposing the Reform Bill in 1831, Sir Robert Peel said: I am convinced it is not founded on the acknowledged principles of the constitution—because it does not give security to the prerogative of the Crown—because it does not guarantee the legitimate rights, influences and privileges of both Houses of Parliament. Of course, Robert Peel was wrong.

Let me refer to other demands for reform—for example, the demand for votes for women. Mr. Asquith—the former Liberal Prime Minister—was a bitter opponent of votes for women. On 12 July 1910, he said: In the long run, if you grant the franchise to women, you will have to grant it on the widest possible basis, and with all the consequences to which I have referred."—[Official Report, 12 July 1910; Vol. 19, c. 250.] There spoke the great Liberal leader. There are one or two conservatives on these Benches, too, but I am too discreet to mention them.

What about the classic Conservative statement made by Bagehot in 1873? In plain English", wrote Bagehot, what I fear is that both our political authorities will bid for the support of the working man; that both of them will promise to do as he likes if he will only tell them what it is, that, as he now holds the casting vote in our affairs, both parties will beg and pray him to give that vote to them. I can conceive of nothing more corrupting or worse for a set of poor ignorant people than that two combinations of well-taught and rich men should constantly offer to defer to their decision, and compete for the office of executing it. Vox populi will be Vox diaboli if it is worked in that manner. The right hon. Member for Brent, North did not go so far as to say that he would like universal adult suffrage to be removed, but I had the feeling that that might be at the back of his mind. That was certainly what his party did in London.

It is impossible to discuss the constitution without discussing the Crown, because, as I said earlier, we are subjects and not citizens and we have no rights whatever. I shall come to the implications of that in a moment. The thing about a royal or monarchical system of government is that all power comes from the top, and that makes it more difficult for pressure to come from below. I always attend royal occasions, because one learns so much from the speeches made from the throne. We tell the public that we are a democracy. In this place, we are cautious; we say that we are a parliamentary democracy. When the Queen addresses us, however, she says that we are a constitutional monarchy. There is all the difference in the world between the three.

This is not a theoretical question at all, so let me give a practical example—patronage. The figures that I cite are not the latest figures, which I could have produced, because I do not want the matter to be mixed up with the past 12 years of Conservative Government. I want to present it in a rather different way. Between 1945 and 1976, successive Prime Ministers made 1,494 Ministers by the use of the royal prerogative—309 Cabinet Ministers and 1,185 non-Cabinet Ministers.

There is also the power to create peers—and remember that it takes 43 million people to elect 650 Members of Parliament. Between 1945 and 1976, a total of 568 hereditary and life peers were created on the advice of seven Prime Ministers. Taking honours generally, those same seven Prime Ministers created 118 baronetcies and 264 knighthoods and appointed 85 chairmen of nationalised industries. In a mere 26 years, 2,564 major appointments were made in the name of the crown.

We talk about Europe. As people are beginning to realise, the problem is that when Ministers go to the Council of Ministers—and I was president of the Council of Energy Ministers at one time—all the laws to which they assent are assented to under the royal prerogative of treaty-making. That is why we are an impotent body, gazing at Ministers who come back here to tell us how the prerogative has been used in our name. That is something which has not happened since 1649. Similarly, the power to make war does not lie with Parliament.

The whole question is bound up with the oath that we take. Whether they have sworn or declared and affirmed hon. Members have one thing in common. To take our seats, we have to say: I swear"— or affirm— that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. her heirs and successors according to law, so help me God. The first woman elected to Parliament, Constance Markievicz, would not take that oath. I shall erect a plaque in her honour following that in honour of Emily Wilding Davison. Constance Markievicz would not take an oath of allegiance and, although she was the first woman here, she was never—and is not—recognised in this place. It is a funny thing that we should call ourselves a High Court of Parliament. People would not normally swear that oath in a court. They would swear to "tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." That is not required of Members of Parliament—although it would not be a bad idea if it were. We make no pledge to our electors. I share the view that the relationship between an hon. Member and his electors is a very important one, but we do not swear to uphold the rights of our electors.

I am a Privy Councillor and, the other day, I dug out my oath: You will to your uttermost bear Faith and Allegiance unto the Queen's Majesty; and will assist and defend all Jurisdictions, Pre-eminences, and Authorities, granted to Her Majesty, and annexed to the Crown by Acts of Parliament … against all Foreign Princes, Persons, Prelates, States, or Potentates. What about Jacques Delors? And what about President Bush with his 30,000 troops in Britain? When I reached the end of the Privy Councillor's oath, I said "I haven't said anything." I was told, "You don't have to say anything. We've administered the oath." In our system an oath is like an injection. One does not even have to say that one agrees.

The relationship between Church and state is very important. The previous Prime Minister created 33 bishops—including two Archbishops of Canterbury—which is not bad for one person. In 1953 I attended the coronation—for the reason that I gave, which is that I find such occasions most educational. I noted then that the only pledge that the archbishops asked the Queen to give was as follows: Will you, to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? … Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof? will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their Charge, all such rights and privileges? The Queen replied All this I promise to do. I then looked up what a bishop says when he is appointed and I had a bit of a job getting the information. The new Archbishop of Canterbury would have recounted this homage: I"— George Carey, I suppose— having been elected"— well, that's a bit of a laugh— confirmed and consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury do hereby declare that your Majesty is the only supreme governor of this your realm in spiritual and ecclesiastical things as well as in temporal". That is to say, the Church and the King or Queen are bound together in that way. The history of that is interesting. Henry VIII nationalised the Church of England. It is our oldest nationalised industry. He wanted a priest in every pulpit on every Sunday telling the people that what the King said was what God wanted them to do. Charles II nationalised the Post Office in 1660 because he wanted to open people's letters and the only way in which he could do that was to have a Royal Mail. The Tories nationalised the BBC because they wanted a pundit telling people every night that there was no alternative to what the Government wanted people to do. The relationship between Church and state and Crown and subject is very subtle.

If people think I am talking about ancient history, they should remember what hon. Members say when they attend Prayers. An hour ago we said: Almighty God, by whom alone Kings reign, and Princes decree justice; and from whom alone cometh all counsel, wisdom, and understanding;

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is that what is said?

Mr. Benn

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover may not have been present, but I have heard that said many times.

It is not possible to discuss the matter without considering the Crown. I am perhaps one of the few people who, as a lifelong republican, has no ill-will towards the royal family. Willie Hamilton used to come here and make fun of the royal family, but I think that that is insulting. After all, the Queen did not choose the job, although I suppose she could have given it up. However, the Crown is a totally insupportable basis for a constitution. I read yesterday that both Houses of Congress were very polite to the Queen when she addressed them. Why was that? The answer is that she had no power there. If she had been George III, it would have been a very different business.

In 1791 Tom Paine said of the crown: But, after all, what is this metaphor called a Crown, or rather, what is monarchy? Is it a thing, or is it a name, or is it a fraud? Is it 'a contrivance of human wisdom', or of human craft to obtain money from a nation under specious pretences? Is it a thing necessary to a nation? If it is, in what does that necessity consist, what services does it perform, what is its business, and what are its merits? I share that view. When I read that Princess Anne was to give a lecture in memory of Tom Paine, I wondered whether members of the royal family were moving towards a similar view.

I am of the opinion that we should adhere to the sovereignty of the people. On 1 May 1649—an early May day—John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn produced The Agreement of the People and this is the basis upon which we should restructure our method of government. They wrote: We, the free People of England,"— this was before the Act of Union— to whom God hath given hearts, means and opportunity to effect the same, do with submission to his wisdom, in his name, and desiring the equity thereof may be to his praise and glory; Agree to ascertain our Government to abolish all arbitrary Power, and to set bounds and limits both to our Supreme, and all Subordinate Authority, and remove all known Grievances. And accordingly do declare and publish to all the world, that we are agreed as followeth, That the Supreme Authority of England and the Territories therewith incorporate, shall be and reside henceforth in a Representative of the people consisting of four hundred persons, but no more; in the choice of whom (according to natural right) all men of the age of one and twenty years and upwards (not being servants, or receiving alms, or having served the King …) shall have their voices. That was a basic principle. If we are going to unpick the British constitution, we must go back to that.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

The right hon. Gentleman had no need to apologise when he referred to England. His statement with regard to England was perfectly accurate. Does he accept that Scotland has a different constitutional history founded on the declaration of Arbroath of 1320? The Scottish Constitutional Convention, to which the Labour party in Scotland and my party have contributed, is based on a claim of right that asserts the sovereignty of the Scottish people.

Mr. Benn

I agree and Keir Hardie advocated that view. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire has, by coincidence, come top in the ballot for motions just when I am about to present a Bill to the House on Monday on which I have worked for five years. My Bill is entitled the Commonwealth of Britain Bill and its long title states: Bill to Establish a democratic, federal and secular Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Wales dedicated to the welfare of all its citizens; to establish fundamental human rights within that Commonwealth; to lower the voting age to 16 years and to make other provision with respect to elections, including equal representation for women; to prescribe a constitutional oath; to establish a Commonwealth Parliament consisting of the House of Commons and the House of the People and to make provision for the term of a Parliament and for legislative and other procedure; to establish the office of a President, and a Council of State, and to prescribe the powers of each; to provide for the formation of governments; to amend the law relating to official information, the armed forces and the security services; to make fresh provision for the participation of Britain in the United Nations Organisation and the European Communities; to make the basing of foreign forces in Britain dependent upon the approval of the House of Commons; to make new provision with respect to the judicial system and to establish a National Legal Service; to set up national Parliaments for England, Scotland and Wales; to amend the law relating to local government, the district auditor and the accountability of police forces; to end the constitutional status of the Crown and to make certain consequential provision; to abolish the House of Lords and the Privy Council, to end the recognition in law of personal titles, and to provide for the acknowledgement of service to the community; to disestablish the Church of England, abolish the offence of blasphemy, and to provide for equality under the law for all religions and beliefs; to end British jurisdiction in Northern Ireland; to provide for a Constitution and for constitutional amendment; and to make transitional and related provision. I have introduced parts of the Bill as other Bills over the past 10 years and the Crown has always readily assented to place its consent at the disposal of the House for the purpose of debating those Bills. However, there is a long radical tradition, of which the long title of my Commonwealth of Britain Bill is a summary, of people who have taken a contrary view to that expressed by the right hon. Member for Brent, North.

Contrary to the popular mythology that this country has been ruined by lazy workers, militant shop-stewards, incompetent managers and political extremists, what is really wrong in Britain is wrong at the very top where powerful people have succeeded in protecting their position and their privileges. We are always boasting that Britain is the mother of Parliaments and that the whole world envies our system of government. The truth is that under the cover of a mass of ritual and tradition, this House of Commons has become a shell concealing its political impotence against the Executive under a cloak of panoply, and has surrendered one by one the rights which earlier generations wrested so painfully from the authorities of their day.

In conclusion, if hon. Members are inclined to laugh at my proposals, I can say only that my experience of change is as follows: to begin with, if you advocate reform, it is ignored. Then it is mad. If you continue after they say you are mad, it is dangerous. Then there is a long pause and then you cannot find anyone who did not agree with it in the first place. It was by that means that the peerage and referendum Acts were carried.

If there is a criterion by which we should judge people with political power, I offer the House five questions that I have developed during my time in the House. When we meet a powerful person, we should ask those five questions: What power do you have? Where did you get it? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? How can we get rid of you? If we put those five questions to people with power, we will identify the right guiding principle upon which to base a modern constitution for this country, for our relations with Europe and the United States and its bases and possibly for a new world order which is not dominated by one super-power.

10.48 am
Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

The whole House is indebted to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) not only for the choice of subject but for the thoughtful way in which he introduced it. It was refreshing to hear a Liberal Democrat make a speech on constitutional reform without mentioning proportional representation. Therefore, his points are all the more to be appreciated and seriously considered.

The House is indebted also to two Privy Councillors for their speeches. Both speeches were instructive and based upon much common sense, particularly the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson). However, the speech of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), which I enjoyed also, was airy-fairy and theoretical and took the matter away from reality and from what can be done as opposed to what should be done. One has many more questions about his propositions than one might have supposed. Although many things are desirable and although many improvements could be made, the great practical problem is always how we do something and how we achieve the objective. That is why the right hon. Gentleman's questions are very important and illustrate the nub of the problem.

What has evolved in our constitution has evolved as a result of pressures. For example, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield spoke about constitutional reform. He mentioned William the Conqueror and said that the 1215 and 1832 reforms were constitutional reforms. He was actually talking about the redistribution of power, which he would say is constitutional reform but which is not all-inclusive. The mechanics of the constitution are not necessarily anything to do with the redistribution of power.

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield is a contemporary of mine in many ways, although on the other side of the political scene. He did not address the problem of how we make improvements based upon practical knowledge and reality, but spoke about the theoretical concept of ways in which one might achieve an ideal system of democracy. Sovereignty, for example, is one such idea that can easily be misunderstood. Sovereignty is simply the right to do as one wishes without being overridden by an external authority. Sovereignty of this kind applies only to a state, and that is of great importance to us in the United Kingdom.

Clearly, in reality, what we can do as a sovereign state is subject to our desire to obtain benefits by co-operation with others. We sign treaties which limit our sovereignty. We engage in understandings. We become allied to others for the purposes of defence. We commit ourselves to all sorts of things that limit our sovereignty. We do not need the treaty of Rome to establish that. We have constantly abrogated our sovereignty to some extent. It is happening all the time. It happens in reality, with or without giving legislative recognition to it. One of the problems in debating a subject of this kind, important though it is, lies in trying to be clear about what we are discussing and not to introduce, as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield occasionally did, concepts such as votes for women, the Scottish Assembly, and so on.

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman may not know it, but women actually have votes now. If I advocated it, it was not a radical proposal.

Mr. Stanbrook

I was assuming that the right hon. Gentleman was taking an historical perspective in which he wanted votes for women, and that he was accusing the Liberal Democrats of having opposed votes for women—through their own leader, at one stage. Those are interesting developments along the road to the redistribution of power. The extension of suffrage to universal adult suffrage takes time and still does not exist in many parts of the world. No doubt, if the right hon. Gentleman were still in an Administration who had an empire, he would insist upon the colonies adopting universal adult suffrage throughout the empire. We were never able to do so, because, naturally, we took account of the wishes of the people concerned.

I was interested in the approach of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire because it seemed fundamentally to be that of the centre party. If it were possible to stand back from our political spectrum and address the overall problem, we would first have to say, "What an enormous lot we are agreed on." A huge number of political subjects are covered by consensus and we do not even discuss them in this place. It is true that we spend much of our time discussing marginal issues that are apparently important and certainly topically important from time to time, but the essential and fundamental matters and the institutions of our constitution are not often challenged. Why is that? It is because we know that they work pretty well. We should take, for example, what is singular in all advanced civilised states of the world—our parliamentary system. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield laughed about it. I do not see why he should. In some ways ours is the best system of democracy.

Representatives of the people are elected. Forget about mechanisms, proportional representation and all the rest of it. Representatives of the people are elected to exercise total power over the country. That is our system. It does not exist in the United States. The United States constitution was written a couple of centuries ago by theorists like the right hon. Member for Chesterfield. It was written according to the needs of the age those two centuries ago. It may have been necessary then, but it now inhibits progress in the United States. We do not have that system here. We have a wonderful system that happens to have evolved naturally. Of course, one of the right hon. Gentleman's objections to our present system is that at the apex of this parliamentary system there is—there must be in logic—one individual.

Mr. Tony Banks

Elect him or her.

Mr. Stanbrook

The hon. Gentleman says, "Elect him or her." However, that is where the genius of the British people, their evolution and experience in the world come in. We are an island race. We have not been conquered for 1,000 years. We have our own way of evolving what is best for us.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have been listening closely to what he is saying. Until now in this discussion of the power of this place, he has made no mention whatsoever of the European Community, the institution of the European Commission and the secretive decision making of the Councils of Ministers. We are witnessing the continuing diminution of parliamentary power and the growth of the untrammelled, unrestrained power of strategic decision making in Brussels. The hon. Gentleman surely has to face up to that struggle of power between the 12 national legislature in the European Community and the power—the quite remarkable power—cif the European Commissioners and the Councils of Ministers.

Mr. Stanbrook

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) for listening to me so closely. I take his point. He is talking about a further evolution by which, whether we like it or not, in practice or by legislative decision, we are becoming part of a greater whole. He is referring to no more than the problems that faced the Scottish Parliament before the Union. Did Scottish people want to be governed as a small part of the United Kingdom from the capital of the partner, England, where the vast majority of Members of Parliament would not be Scottish? No doubt, that was part of the argument and no doubt it provided a good debate. We are talking of transferring such a problem on to a European stage. Britain is no longer so great a power in the world that it is in any sense truly sovereign. Therefore, Parliament does not have the relationship with the rest of the country that it enjoyed in earlier centuries. I accept that point.

Mr. Butterfill

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be open to this Parliament at any time to resolve to leave the European Community if Parliament deemed it to be in our national interest? We are not bound to the Community indefinitely or, indeed, any longer than we perceive that to be in our national interest. Similarly, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be extremely unlikely that the Queen would refuse to give Royal Assent to a Bill such as that proposed by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)?

Mr. Stanbrook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point for me. That is precisely the position in which we are placed in Britain. We are not building a constitution from nothing. We do not say that our system is perfect. It is not necessary for us to elect the person at the very top of the system—the head of state. It is not necessary—

Mr. Arbuthnot

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know that it is against the rules of the House to call an hon. Member a liar. I should like to ask your advice on the status of a candidate who has been elected to the House but has not yet taken his seat. In the Monmouth by-election yesterday, statements were made which were clearly lies. Can we have an early debate on the importance of truth in electioneering and the apparently new policy of not proportional representation but distortional representation by the Labour party?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. The hon. Gentleman asks for a debate on a certain matter. He should refer the matter to the usual channels and find out whether there is time for a debate on it.

Mr. Skinner

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The point that we have just heard has been well rehearsed by the Tory party, which is whingeing in defeat after the Monmouth result. The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) and the pompous schoolboy type who is now Secretary of State for Health are casting a slur on the people of Monmouth who made that historic decision yesterday.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Decisions on those matters have been taken outside the House. Let us get on with the debate.

Mr. Richard Holt. (Langbaurgh)

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are discussing the constitution. It strikes me that in the House of Commons there is one rule for the vast majority of us and a separate rule for the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). You made a ruling a moment ago. You said that the matter was not a point of order. Every one of us respected that decision and kept our seats, except the hon. Member for Bolsover who seems to have the right not to respect the Chair.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that I have to listen to ascertain whether a point of order is a point of order or not. I made it plain that the decisions were made outside the House and had nothing to do with the Chair.

Mr. Stanbrook

It is not necessary for us to elect our head of state. To do so would not perfect our democracy, even if that were possible. It so happens that, by experience and general practice under our constitution, we have evolved a system whereby the head of state is automatically created. The head of state is non-political and does not interfere in party politics. The head of state is subject to the golden rule—as Dicey described it—of the supremacy of Parliament. [Interruption.] One of the worst things about this place is the party game which often obsesses us when we should be discussing more serious matters. I hope that hon. Members, especially the Whips—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps the hon. Member for Orpington, who has the Floor, will get on with what he has to say.

Mr. Stanbrook

I am much obliged, Madam Deputy Speaker. It would be a great help if I had an attentive audience for a moment.

I was dealing with the position of the Queen. In Britain we have evolved a system under which our head of state does not need to be elected. We need only consider the United States of America and ask ourselves whether the British people would like a system in which a party politician was the head of not only the Government but the state and was embodied with all the qualities that the British people—the subjects—regard as their corporate national identity. It is impossible for any party politician to achieve that. In a sense, the United States of America is a disunited country because it does not have our inestimable advantage of a constitutional monarchy. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield said that there were three different roles.

The constitutional monarchy is a separate institution of the state. It is not the constitution, as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield sought to make out.

Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Stanbrook

I see that the hon. Gentleman is bursting to make a point so I shall give way to him, if that is what he wants me to do.

Mr. Tony Banks

I am not bursting to make a point. I should like to make a point and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to do so. He said that we should ask ourselves whether the people want an elected head of state. That is not the case. We should ask the people of Britain whether they want an elected head of state. They may say no, but they should at least be asked. This might be one matter on which a referendum would provide the answer.

Mr. Stanbrook

That is an interesting concept. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield is the one person who has forced a referendum in Britain. He uses that device for ascertaining opinion on membership of the European Community. With respect, he did so because he thought that the result would be to his advantage.

Everyone knows that by every test available, including the much discredited public opinion poll system, the vast majority of people have only one opinion on the monarchy. The British people like their monarchy. There is no point in going through a referendum to find out what everyone already knows. In any case, what are we here for? We are not mere symbols. We are here to exercise our judgment as individuals.

It is easy for people to agree and there are many pressures and inducements on them to go along with the party line. Parties are an essential part of our democracy. They are the means by which people of similar outlook and views can associate to obtain power. That is perfectly creditable. However, the party system can break down. There is dispute about the election mechanism and how the representatives of the people should be returned to this place.

I wish to take up the method of electing the representatives with regard to Scotland and other points which have been made about the sovereignty of the people. Sovereignty of the people is a grand concept, but one must remember that we are talking about millions of people, some of whom do not even bother to vote and do not have the slightest interest in our form of government. When one seeks some way of establishing the sovereignty of the people one ends up with a system such as ours, especially when a country has the historical tradition that we happen to have. If one started on a level playing field and built up a constitution for a new state, one might evolve a different system; but in Britain we have a system under which the sovereignty of the people exists.

Speaking as a lawyer, I know that the practical effect of the law provides for the sovereignty of the people. That is why the right hon. Member for Chesterfield is so fundamentally wrong. He is obsessed by the form of the government and by the letter of the law. He does nor. see that, behind all that, the system would not exist but for the support of the people. People say that treaties are made under royal authority and refer to patronage, and so on. That is perfectly true. When such measures return to the House, would they last five minutes if they did not have the approval of the majority of Members? Of course they would not. That is the reality of the British constitution. Sovereignty is an attribute of the state. Supremacy is the quality of the House.

Mr. Benn

I respect what the hon. Gentleman is saying. We are having a serious debate. When the American forces came here after the war the Labour Prime Minister, Mr. Attlee, said that they were coming on a training mission. In fact, they were establishing permanent bases. Even Parliament did not know, yet that was possible under the prerogative. When the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) signed the treaty of accession, it had not even been published, yet that was possible using the royal prerogative. The hon. Gentleman underestimates the way in which our constitution, which he has described in romantic terms, gives us the right to determine crucial matters affecting the nation's future. Will the hon. Gentleman consider those two points?

Mr. Stanbrook

I do not accept that. The right hon. Gentleman's point demonstrates the flexibility of our system. In the United States treaties and declarations of war must be approved by Congress. Such matters are subject to the will of Congress. That hiatus often produces great troubles for the Americans and results from their written constitution. We would have the same problem with a Bill of Rights. There would be no flexibility. Neither this place, nor those whom we trust on the Front Bench, would have power to make correct decisions. They would have to suspend their judgment until after a debate and vote in this place. They should know, and do know because of our party system, that they can depend on the support of the majority in the House. That is how our system works. It is not a bad one. It has produced something decent, wholesome and good. The system should be commended by us, even if, from time to time, we seek ways of improving it.

11.10 am
Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow, Govan)

I want to say a few words about the constitutional choice facing Scotland, but first I shall pick up one or two of the general points raised about the British constitution.

As I understand the British constitution, it is a perfect mechanism for the establishment to continue to control the state as it wishes while being able to make adjustments in response to the general cry of the population from time to time, without ever giving away too much of its essential core of power.

When I was lectured on constitutional law, I was told that ours was an unwritten constitution and that, therefore, it had many inherent merits—indeed, a greater number than a written constitution. Yet when we examine this unwritten constitution, we see that it is a mirage. The nearer we get to it, the less distinct it becomes. When we reach out for something solid within it, there is nothing whatever, except what the establishment will tell us is the convention of the day. That is my understanding of the position. It is an undemocratic system on which to found a modern state as we approach the 21st century.

It would be much better to have a written constitution that laid down basic individual human rights. It would then become the superior legal instrument of the state. No Parliament and no monarch or anyone else could climb above it. All would be subject to basic principles on how the state should run its affairs in relation to the individual. We hope that that will be the case in an independent Scotland.

Even if the population wishes to retain a monarch for whatever reasons, sentimental or based on folklore or on mythology, the existence of a written constitution would fundamentally transform the role of the monarch inside the state. At present, the monarch is above the law, at least in the English constitution. I shall return to that in a minute. That is the theory. With a written constitution, the monarch could not be above the law. The monarch might be an elevated person, but he or she would be just one person among millions governed by the written constitution. When that happens, the basic background power, about which the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) was talking, disappears automatically, because power is vested in the written constitution on behalf of the people. I insert those general remarks into our extremely good discussion.

I must tell the right hon. Members for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) and for Chesterfield that it is always nice to have one's prejudices and views confirmed. Their speeches confirmed me in my opinion that the quicker Scotland is independent and people like me are away from here altogether, the better it will be for our country. [HON. MEMBERS: "The hon. Gentleman will be away from here soon."] That is interesting, because yesterday most Members of Parliament got some sort of pre-election document about marginal seats and I am not in it. I expect to be returned—but, unfortunately, here—after the general election. I look forward to the day when I or someone else will take my seat, not here, but—

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

In the House of Lords.

Mr. Sillars

No, the Scottish National party will not take any seat in the House of Lords. We will not in any way whatever give that place any democratic legitimacy. I regret that the Labour party has not adopted our view. That is a digression and I do not want to be put off making my remarks on the Scottish position.

The right hon. Member for Brent, North made a valid point about Scotland in response to my intervention. He said that comprehensive education in a sense grew out of the social, political and cultural soil of Scotland. We are an egalitarian society, so comprehensive education fits in exactly with the political and social climate that we have created. I was fascinated when the previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), addressed the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In that famous or infamous speech, depending on one's view, she invoked several great figures from the Scottish enlightenment, but missed one. Whether it was deliberate or she could not bring herself to mention him, we know not, but she missed the greatest figure, Robert Burns.

Burns is the man whose philosophy has had the greatest influence on the creation of egalitarian ideas in Scotland. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield told us all about patronage. As he spoke, I was reminded of Burns' poem that: A prince can make a belted knight, A marquis, duke and a' that; But an honest man's aboon his might, Guid faith, he maunna fa' that. The essence of the Scottish view lies within that short quotation. We are all Jock Tamson's bairns. Nobody should be elevated above anyone else. We are all human beings with considerable qualities and a contribution to make to our decent society. Because we are a different nation with a different set of philosophical principles, we can operate them only by having a Government of our own.

The speech of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield was, as ever, fascinating. I am extremely glad that in my parliamentary life I have bumped up against intellects such as his. He has strong views, but is always willing to listen to every other view and give an intellectual argument the utmost respect. He talked about what is essentially the English constitution. The Scottish constitutional position does not accord with it. I refer him to further research, particularly to Lord President Cooper's speech in the Court of Session in the 1953 case, McCormick v. Lord Advocate, in which he described Mr. Dicey as an extremely cynical individual. He pointed out that the Scottish constitutional view of the sovereignty of Parliament did not concur with that of Mr. Dicey, that we took an entirely different view and that we believed in the sovereignty of the people.

As the right hon. Gentleman delved into the democratic tradition of what he thought was Britain, he was drawing entirely upon the English experience. He was almost wholly ignorant of the Scottish contribution over a long period to the idea that the monarch should not be all-powerful and that the people themselves should be sovereign. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) quoted the declaration of Arbroath in 1320. He could have quoted the legal case when James VI was on the Scottish throne only and thought that he could not be taken to the King's court. The judges ruled that he was no different from anyone else and that if he had violated the law, he had to turn up in court and be judged like everyone else.

The great problem that I have with people such as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield is not that they are malicious—he is not, because he is in favour of home rule—but that when it comes to an essential interpretation of circumstances and power he, like many others, forgets about us altogether.

Mr. Benn

I do not want to disturb the courteous words that the hon. Gentleman is using and, as he knows, I am only half English. If he considers Tom Johnson's "History of the Scottish Working Class Movement", which he will no doubt know very well, he will discover similar traditions in England and in Scotland. Slavery existed in Scotland at one time. The hon. Gentleman may think that the Scots have been oppressed by the English, but England is the last colony of the British Empire. The Scots may get out of the system under which we are governed earlier than we do. The hon. Gentleman would do better to draw a parallel between our traditions rather than suggest that my speech should have been twice as long in order to consider the great contribution of the Scots.

Mr. Sillars

I am aware of the right hon. Gentleman's Paisley ancestry so he need not worry about that. I want to disabuse him of the idea that people like me think that the Scots have been oppressed by the English. That is not the case and I have not argued that for a single minute.

I believe that we are badly governed under the present system and that, in Scotland, principles of political policy that were born in England are visited upon us. They are not put upon us maliciously, but they are sometimes derived from ignorance, indifference or from the belief that that is the medicine that the Scots require. That is the message we got in the past 10 years of what is known as "Thatcherism"—people with a dependent mentality needed a strong dose of what came from Finchley.

Unfortunately, there is a difference of political philosophy north and south of the border. That does not mean that there are no radical traditions in England from which we have not learned, contributed towards or received contributions from. The rise of the trade union movement shows that there is no such thing as an artificial dividing line either within the United Kingdom or anywhere else. The Transport and General Workers Union has members in the Republic of Ireland, Malta, Gibraltar and elsewhere. I am not guilty of the implied charge made by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield.

Scotland faces a number of choices. The first is the status quo in which the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland believes. Another is devolution and then there is our policy of independence within the European Community. I shall not spend a lot of time on the status quo. It carries with it an alien philosophy which would never become the governing idea in an independent Scotland.

For the first time outside the parameters of the Scottish Constitutional Convention I shall concentrate on its option and subject it to critical analysis. That has to be done and I do not think that anybody in the convention would object to me doing so.

Mr. Stanbrook

Before the hon. Gentleman does that, will he explain what he means by Scottish independence within the European Community? The Scottish National party always qualifies independence in that way. The European Community exercises powers over the United Kingdom, so does the hon. Gentleman believe that an independent Scotland should accept the restrictions on sovereignty that now apply to the United Kingdom?

Mr. Sillars

Yes, we would have exactly the same status as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, France, Germany and the other member states. Both north and south of the border and in Northern Ireland and Wales, we are tied to the Community not constitutionally, but economically for trading purposes.

The Scottish Constitutional Convention suggests that a solution is possible within the context of the United Kingdom. The Scottish National party did not join that convention because it is not our policy. It would have been wrong of us to lend our weight to something in which we do not believe. We do not believe that it is correct to establish an assembly within the United Kingdom. We have said practically nothing about the convention policy until now because we felt that it was quite proper to allow the convention time to develop and debate its ideas, to produce a package and to promulgate it throughout Scotland. However, there comes a time when the ideas must be subjected to criticism by people who do not necessarily agree with them.

The first point, which is a constitutional one, will interest hon. Members from England. Can unilateral devolution be delivered by the House of Commons? I do not believe that it can. The decision will have to be made here by a majority of hon. Members from English constituencies and they are bound to ask "What is the cost to the English political system of Scottish devolution?" I bear in mind Enoch Powell's accurate definition of devolution—power and sovereignty retained in the House of Commons.

It has been suggested that if there were an assembly in Edinburgh only Scots would be able to deal with educational policy for Scotland. Fine, everyone can agree to that. But Scotland sends 72 Members of Parliament to this place and they vote on the education of the constituents of the right hon. Member for Brent, North. From the English point of view, there are constitutionally valid arguments against that, the most important being that it is profoundly undemocratic for me to claim that I can vote in my own back patch and then come here to impose my views on others. That is the unsolved problem which lies at the heart of the convention package.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important problem, but I remind him that it is not a new one. It was discussed at great length during the debates on the measures introduced for home rule for Ireland and then Ulster from 1886 to 1920. After discussing various options, a solution was adopted in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which reduced representation roughly in proportion to the revenue raised by different institutions. Should the problem arise again there is no reason why a similar solution should not be adopted.

Mr. Sillars

I do not see that arithmetic has anything to do with the principle. For example, suppose the number of Scottish Members of Parliament were reduced from 72 to 50, the principle would remain the same. Let us consider a hypothetical position in which a Labour Government had a very slim majority in the House of Commons borrowed from hon. Members from Scotland. That Government would not have a majority within the English polity. Would the English accept or object to that scenario?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Allan Stewart)

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and does not he agree that he is putting to the House the West Lothian question, which, for more than a decade, the devolutionists have wholly failed to answer because, in the words of the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel), there is no answer?

Mr. Sillars

I do not believe that there is an answer. My complaint about the constitutional convention is that it has either asked that question in private, so that it does not have to answer it in public, or it has deliberately refused to ask it in private, so that it does not need to answer it in public. However, it will have to answer that question in the public debate which has now begun.

The position of the Secretary of State for Scotland in the Cabinet raises the same problem. If his powers were devolved to a Scottish assembly in Edinburgh, what function would he have inside the Cabinet? Would English Members be content with what they would regard as a disproportionate amount of influence being exercised by Scottish Members and the Secretary of State for Scotland? That is why I do not believe that the convention package can be delivered once it is subject to a line-by-line examination, even supposing such a Bill is ever introduced.

There are other problems, not so much of constitutional principle, but relating to the fact that constitutional power relates to the ability to run the country. Major problems arise out of the package as put forward. It is being sold north of the border as a powerful Scottish parliament, yet it is clear from the document that it would not have macro powers over the economy. There is talk of strategic economic authority, but it is a different matter when it comes to macro economic powers. They are not supposed to be assigned to the parliament in Edinburgh.

I have written to Canon Kenyon Wright, who has been in correspondence with the Prime Minister claiming that the Prime Minister has been unfair to the constitutional convention by suggesting that it might increase taxation in Scotland to an insupportable level. I wrote to Canon Kenyon Wright, who is the executive chairman of the constitutional convention, asking him the simple but important question whether the Scottish parliament as he proposes it would have unlimited additional taxation powers or would be capped. If he said that it would be capped by 1p, 2p or 3p, the Scottish people might believe that that was a price worth paying. We are entitled to an answer to that question.

There is a degree of dishonesty in the convention's document. It talks about the functions, powers and responsibilities of the Scottish parliament over fisheries and agriculture and claims that it would have a special role in the European Community. It says: Scotland's parliament should establish a representative office in Brussels to facilitate relations between itself and the European Community institutions. There is nothing new in that. The Italian ice cream manufacturers do it now. It goes on: There should be a statutory entitlement for Scotland's parliament and/or executive to be represented in United Kingdom ministerial delegations to the Council of Ministers. Does that mean that the Scottish Minister from Edinburgh in the devolved parliament would go to Brussels with the United Kingdom Minister and cast a different vote from him? Would they cast a block vote of 10, or, when there was a difference of opinion, would they split the vote 7–3, 5–5 or 8–2? What would happen if there were a Labour Minister from north of the border and a Tory Minister from the United Kingdom Parliament? The proposition is made by fools or by people who are engaged in putting a fraudulent prospectus before the Scottish people.

Dr. Godman

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on many points. In particular, I cannot accept his allegation that the genuine, decent and honourable people who formed the convention are dishonest. The only supporter the hon. Gentleman has in the House when he makes the claim of their fraudulent behaviour is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), who wants the United Kingdom to remain as it is. Perhaps the convention has not solved to his own satisfaction the immense constitutional problems to which the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) refers, but the only way in which those immense issues can be dealt with is by setting up an independent Scotland. I repeat, the people involved are not dishonest.

Mr. Sillars

I would not dream of calling, and would not be allowed to call, the hon. Gentleman dishonest. If the convention members have been sitting for two years and the best he can do is put in that plea for clemency—that these are extremely important issues which are difficult to resolve—one must reply that the convention was set up to resolve them. It was designed to analyse and take apart the problems and produce a solution to Scotland's problem. The hon. Gentleman is a member of the convention. Will he explain how we shall resolve the power equation in a joint delegation to the European Community when there is a fundamental difference of policy between Scottish and United Kingdom Ministers? Who will wield the 10 votes?

Dr. Godman

How would the hon. Gentleman solve the problem of the relationship between an independent Scotland—having got to that point—and the United Kingdom Parliament and constitution and the constitution of the European Community? His party ducks many questions concerning the position of an independent Scotland within the European Community.

Mr. Sillars

We are not ducking any questions. If we vote for our independence and the European Community is the democratic institution that it claims to be, it should acknowledge that declaration for member state status. I am amazed at the way in which the hon. Gentleman's mind works on this issue. I do not believe that there is anything fraudulent. I would describe them as nightmares based on nothing. Somehow he believes that the Scottish people, unlike everyone else in west and east Europe, have the mark of Cain on their foreheads, marking them as different, in terms of treatment, from everyone else.

The German Democratic Republic of 18 million people, who have never been in membership of the European Community and who were in a Marxist centralist state, can perhaps join, through the back door, with West Germany. Despite all the inherent problems for the Community and the GDR, that can happen without any problem. We can entertain Norway, Sweden, Austria and even Switzerland as potential member states of the Community, but for some reason, the 5 million of us north of the border are in a different category from everyone else, even though we present no problems, except for physically finding an extra seat at the table. We have been in the Community for almost 20 years. All the necessary adjustments have been made and there is no material constitutional problem on one side or the other. But the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) finds that difficult to understand.

Dr. Godman

The hon. Gentleman is making a fascinating speech. I am perfectly willing, by the employment of a referendum, to put the three questions to the Scottish people: do we remain where we are within the United Kingdom? Do we go for the system put forward by the convention? Or do we ask the Scottish people to accept the SNP's conception of an independent Scotland? It seems that by the use of a referendum on such an immense constitutional question, we could follow the lead given by the young Irish Republic, which has sought to solve certain constitutional issues by the use of the referendum.

Mr. Sillars

One reason why we are not members of the constitutional convention is that we suggested at the negotiating meeting that there should be a three-way referendum. We asked not for a two-way referendum, because we recognised that the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), though perhaps he represents a minority, was entitled to have his position tested. So we asked for a three-way referendum on the status quo, on the convention package and on independence in Europe.

The Labour party, led by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), rejected that, and the suggestion has been rejected time and again when it has been put by the leader of the SNP, my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). I am pleased to hear that the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow does not agree with the leader of the Labour party in Scotland, the hon. Member for Garscadden.

The convention is propogating the idea of entrenchment and says in paragraph 2: The Convention endorses the principle of entrenchment in relation to Scotland's parliament as regards its powers, the Scottish executive and Scotland's relationship with the United Kingdom Government and the European Community, in order that these would be incapable of being unilaterally amended at a later date by the Westminster Parliament. I cannot think how one drafts a devolution Bill which, if it does not simultaneously alter the British constitution, taking away from this House what it always claims, which is that one Parliament cannot bind its successor, can entrench a Scottish Parliament. I have tried to do so; I have had long and learned discussions with professors of constitutional law and have corresponded with lawyers from Oxford and Cambridge. None has come up with a solution.

I thought on one occasion that I had found the way, but in a single exchange of correspondence a lawyer—from, I think, Cambridge—demolished my argument in its entirety. That lawyer pointed out, quite fairly, that if the British Parliament could be persuaded to shift what is regarded as the cornerstone of its operations—the principle that one Parliament cannot bind another—a solution might be possible; such a shift is, however, a prerequisite.

Arguments are advanced by people who are too simple to understand the nature of the problem or who are—I use this term advisedly—exercising a deliberate fraud on the people of Scotland.

Mr. Allan Stewart

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's prescription for an independent Scotland; however, it is significant that I, a Minister, have yet to find anyone who disagrees with his essential proposition that the entrenchment proposals are not deliverable.

Mr. Sillars

Given the party-political nature of the cockfight taking place in Scotland, my problem is that if I agree with the hon. Gentleman, or if he agrees with me, we are both damned by others—and the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow had better be careful about agreeing with me, because he could well be damned by internal elements.

This is, however, a civilised discussion, and it is true that the problem could not be resolved when it was last debated in the House. The debate continued to dominate the Floor of the House for nearly two years: we debated the so-called West Lothian question, along with the entrenchment question. I do not believe that a solution is possible.

The people of Scotland have a choice. If they wish, they can continue as they are. The right hon. Member for Brent, North said that if something was working it should not be changed. The political system in Scotland is manifestly not working, for there is deep disillusionment, great unhappiness and a lot of anger boiling away in Scottish society. We believe that we are now being governed by an English Tory Government, and the system must change.

At the coming general election, the choice to which I referred must be between the position of the unionists—that of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and others in the Scottish Tory party who say that there should be no significant legislative constitutional change—and that of the Scottish National party, which says that Scottish people must face up to their responsibility for what has happened to their country, and accept that responsibility through independence.

11.43 am
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

Before tackling one of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sinus), let me touch on some of the remarks of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn).

The right hon. Gentleman said that the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill, was a strong believer in proportional representation and that Mr. Scargill thought that a policy or proposal should be supported by at least 50 per cent. of the membership before being enacted. I tried, without success, to intervene. That is no criticism of the right hon. Gentleman; I merely wish to ask why, in 1985, the same Mr. Scargill refused to ballot the entire membership of the NUM on whether a strike should be called. I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman's response would have been had I put that question.

The right hon. Gentleman pointed out that new Members do not take an oath—as we would in a court of law—to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Perhaps that is just as well for the newly elected Member of Parliament for Monmouth, who has told a number of untruths during his campaign. For instance, he has said quite baldly that the local hospital is to opt out of the national health service. That is simply not true.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

I hope that my hon. Friend will not be too hard on the prospective hon. Member for Monmouth, who is not alone in telling such "untruths". The same thing is being said by the bulk cf the Labour party—and, I believe, by sections of the Liberal party that are resisting the establishment of NHS trusts, in my constituency and others. My hon. Friend should not be too hard on our poor new colleague.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. This is a wide-ranging debate, but I hope that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) will relate his remarks more closely to what is one the order paper.

Mr. Riddick

Of course, I take your comments on board, Madam Deputy Speaker. My comments related to the oath that new Members of Parliament must take, but I am none the less grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), who has made his own point very well.

The fact is, however, that Labour politicians have been going round misleading members of the public about this issue. First, no decision has been made in Monmouth—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I called the hon. Gentleman to order only a few moments ago. I hope that I shall not have to do so again; I am sure that he will now relate his remarks to the oath taken by Members of Parliament, which is, I believe, what he was attempting to talk about.

Mr. Riddick

Again, Madam Deputy Speaker, I take that point on board. I simply wanted to ensure that the record was put straight. Given the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton and my own earlier comments, however, I think that enough has been said to ensure that the record will show the extent to which the public have been misled.

I rather agree with the hon. Member for Govan. There are, I think, many attractions in the idea of some form of Scottish assembly. The hon. Gentleman would go further; he is calling for independence within the European Community. But many Opposition Members want a Scottish assembly—indeed, it is official Labour policy. As an English Member of Parliament, I do not think that that is a bad idea.

First, Scottish Members of Parliament are grossly over-represented in the House, as the hon. Member for Govan has already pointed out. Some of us rather resent that. If we take the population of Scotland as a basis, Scotland should have between 40 and 50 Members of Parliament. As the hon. Gentleman says, at some stage in the future—although not, I hope, for some time—a Labour Government may be in power simply by virtue of those extra seats. Secondly, the Scottish people enjoy a higher level of spending per capita than the English. That is hard to justify. Giving Scotland some form of self-government would provide an opportunity for that imbalance to be reversed.

Finally—I am afraid that this is a rather blatant point—if they had some form of regional assembly the people of Scotland would experience a dose of socialism. If the opinion polls are to be believed—I see no reason why they should not be—the Labour party would probably win a majority in such an assembly; and, as history shows, whenever the British people have any experience of socialism, they reject it decisively at the next general election. I have no doubt that that would happen in Scotland—and, what is more, more Conservative Members would then be sent to the House of Comons, notwithstanding the fact that there would be fewer Scottish Members in total.

Having said that, let me add that I do not believe that a regional assembly would be good for Scotland. It would result in higher taxes and more bureaucracy. I am surprised at the hon. Member for Govan: he seems almost to want to be swallowed up by the European Community, with which Scotland's ties are surely far less secure than are its ties with England. Scotland has long-standing historical ties with England, which have stood the test of time and, surely, have done Scotland more good than ties with the Community could possibly do.

Mr. Sillars

I do not understand the logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument that Scotland should remain tied to the European Community through the United Kingdom, but should not be so tied through its own independent Government. The logic escapes me.

Mr. Riddick

The fact is that this Parliament and this country have far more power and influence, because it is one of the major players on the European scene, than Scotland would have if it were one of the smaller countries in the European Community. The hon. Gentleman cannot deny that Germany, France and the United Kingdom are the big players on the European scene. That is because we are the largest industrial nations and have the largest populations.

Dr. Godman

May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that for the vast majority of the people in the Irish Republic, being under the shadow of Brussels is a much better prospect than being under the shadow of London?

Mr. Riddick

That is not an option. The Republic of Ireland has had its independence for 70 years or so. That point is irrelevant in the context of this debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on initiating this interesting debate. He referred to the history of the last 25 years and to the result of a MORI poll that suggested that the British people are desperate for constitutional change. However, during the course of his congenial speech he failed to spell out how the specific changes that he wishes would be introduced. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need for regional assemblies, for a freedom of information Act and for proportional representation, but he also has a responsibility to tell the House just how he would introduce them and what form of proportional representation his party wants to introduce. That would have been helpful, but we did not get it. The truth is that his party advocates proportional representation because it believes it to be the surest way to get a taste of power.

It is revealing that the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, Shirley Williams and others—and perhaps, for all I know, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan)—showed little interest in proportional representation when they were members of the Labour party, but they showed great interest in it once they switched parties and became part of the alliance. It was not always thus.

The report of Mr. Speaker's conference in 1916–17 unanimously concluded that proportional representation, or the single transferable vote form of proportional representation, should be introduced on an experimental basis in one third of constituencies. One comment that I read was that there could be no doubt that PR would have been carried at that time, if the Government had supported it. Lloyd George's Cabinet, however, adopted a position of neutrality and the House of Commons delivered a verdict against PR on a free vote.

Mr. Trimble

The hon. Gentleman is aware that flowing from the recommendation that he mentioned, proportional representation—particularly the single transferable vote form of proportional representation—was introduced and legislated for by this Parliament in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and that consequently it went into operation both for local government and parliamentary elections in both Irish jurisdictions that were created by virtue of the Government of Ireland Act. Consequently it survives, although it is regarded as very much of a mixed blessing.

Mr. Riddick

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is advocating PR and suggesting that that was the right or the wrong thing to have happened, but the Liberal Government of the time did not believe it to be appropriate to support the case for PR in England. It is interesting that a contemporary observer noted how Asquith while lucidly defending the desirability of a valuable experiment was at least as lucid in explaining its unsuitability to the county of Fife, his own constituency. The Liberal party's interest in PR has increased as its own electoral fortunes have decreased.

Mr. Maclennan

This is a point which is often wrongly made. Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise that the case for proportional representation relates to the extent to which the voting system results in disproportionate representation in the House of Commons? At the time that he spoke about and until relatively recently—the last 15 years—the votes cast in the country were broadly reflected in the proportion of Members sitting in this House.

Mr. Riddick

In response to the hon. Gentleman's point, let me refer to what Lloyd George said shortly after he had lost power: Someone ought to have come to me in 1918 and gone into the whole matter. I was not converted then. I could have carried it when I was Prime Minister. I am afraid it is too late now. He saw clearly that PR would have been the way to give the Liberals the chance to stay in power.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the parish councils in the constituency of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Bellotti) consists 100 per cent. of Liberal Democrat members? Does my hon. Friend think that the individual members of that parish council would be, for their own purposes, in favour of proportional representation?

Mr. Riddick

I understand my hon. Friend's point. I am afraid that I know none of those parish councillors, but there is a fair chance that they may be having second thoughts about proportional representation. The fact is that PR gives power to the minority parties.

After the general election in 1987, the Conservative party polled about 43 per cent., the Labour party 31 per cent. and the Liberal Democrats 23 per cent. Having negotiated in smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors in the bowels of this building, the Liberal Democrats, with proportional representation, could have come to an agreement with the Labour party that the Liberal Democrats would support a Labour Government.

Therefore a minority Labour Government could have come to power, which I believe would have flouted the wishes of the British people.

Mr. Burns

Does my hon. Friend agree that in the case of Israel the vast majority of the people there have voted either for the Likud party or for the Labour party, yet the democratic wishes of the electorate are being thwarted because a very small number of members of the Knesset, members of minority parties, are using their unrepresentative power to dictate to the people of Israel what sort of Government should govern them?

Mr. Riddick

My hon. Friend must have had a prior look at my notes. That was the very point that I was going to make. It is true that in some cases, and Israel is a classic case, very small minority parties are given enormous power—I would say disproportionate power. That in itself can tie the hands of the majority party. Either that can happen or, alternatively, chaos reigns. Italy is now on to its 30th, 40th or 50th Government since the last war. That is no recipe for good government.

The other possibility with proportional representation is a weak coalition Government, in which the weakest—the lowest common denominator—decide Government policy. That is because consensus has to be reached. I believe, therefore, that weak government could come about. The call for PR is all about power. One is entitled to ask how the specific party that stands to gain most from the introduction of PR would perform if it were introduced in this country. We have already had a taste of that—the infamous Lib-Lab pact in the 1970s, which was an example of a weak coalition Government. The Lib-Lab pact was a shabby affair intended to keep a discredited Government in power and to give the Liberal party a taste of power. What did the Liberals achieve? Did the right hon. Member for Tweedale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) stop the Labour Government nationalising the shipbuilding and aircraft industries? Did he reverse the closed shop legislation forcing 7 million or 8 million people to join trade unions when many did not wish to do so? Did the Liberals reverse the Education Act 1976, the provisions of which forced local authorities to turn schools into comprehensives? Did they stop the Labour Government cutting capital spending on new hospitals by 30 per cent? Did they stop the defence budget being slashed by £2.5 billion? The answer to those questions is no.

Mr. Trimble

I am a little confused. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was arguing that proportional representation gave disproportionate power to minority parties. How does he reconcile that with what he is saying?

Mr. Riddick

The obvious answer is simple: the Liberal party kept the Labour party in power. If that is not disproportionate, I do not know what is. We desperately needed a general election in 1977 so that my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) and the Conservatives could take office and tackle some of the fundamental problems that we have now tackled.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

Is my hon. Friend aware of the more recent example of the Liberal party keeping the Labour party in power in the London borough of Brent? The Liberals have supported that tyrannical regime, to the detriment of people of the borough. It was not until two Labour Members had the courage to resign that the people of the borough were rescued.

Mr. Riddick

I am grateful for the point. Until last year, Kirklees council was hung. The Liberals refused to do a deal with the Conservatives to remove the Labour party. Nine times out of 10, they voted with Labour.

Mr. Burns

Like here.

Mr Riddick

My hon. Friend is right; nine times out of 10 they vote with the Labour party here.

Liberals on Kirklees council voted with Labour to spend almost £1 million on an unnecessary equal opportunities unit, to refuse £2.5 million of Government money for Kirklees' schools under the technical and vocational education initiative and to introduce some absurd nuclear-free zone signs. When Liberals get a taste of power, that is what they get up to.

Liberals argue for PR because they see it as the surest way of getting more power, but their record suggests that they do not deserve a greater taste of power.

12.3 pm

Mr. Alistair Darling (Edinburgh, Central)

The remarks of the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) would have carried more conviction if he had remainded us that after 1974 election his party attempted to negotiate with the Liberals in order to cling on to power. On reflection, he will find that his comments against the Liberals were misguided.

Mr. Jacques Arnold


Mr. Darling

I do not want to be detained on this point; I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman at an appropriate point.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on instigating the debate. We do not discuss constitutional matters as often as we should. It is an opportune moment to discuss constitutional arrangements, because Britain stands at a crossroads. In 1992, with the completion of the single market, we will see further and substantial steps towards the integration of decision making in Europe. The constitution of the United Kingdom is in a poor shape to meet that challenge and needs drastic overhaul. It is not capable of providing a check and balance against Westminster, let alone Brussels. Nor can it provide the regions and nations of Britain with the opportunities that they need and want in the new Europe.

I disagree with the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson), who is no longer in his place, who said that change is not necessary. Change is not only necessary but vital if we are to respond to the challenges that Europe presents. Our constitution was designed for the 19th century nation state, not a Europe of regions without frontiers. A new political and economic focus for the regions and nations of Britain and a new constitutional settlement for the citizens of the United Kingdom and Europe are essential.

Electoral reform has been mentioned by many hon. Members, though strangely not as much as one might have expected by the Liberals. One concludes that the rush of blood to the head of the leadership of the Liberal Democrats after the local elections a fortnight ago and the Ribble Valley by-election has subsided in the light of last night's result in Monmouth.

In 1989, the Labour party signalled that, in addition to establishing national and regional assemblies, it might be appropriate to elect the new bodies by a system different from first past the post. Last year, we established a working party under the chairmanship of Professor Plant to study the electoral systems that might be applied to the different bodies of this country. I am a member of the working party. We have completed much work and hope to publish an interim report in July. There is nothing else that I can usefully say, except to make the general point, in response to the comments of the hon. Member for Colne Valley and others on the question of fairness, that, having studied the subject in depth, I have reached the conclusion that there are advantages and disadvantages with any system. No system can claim to be perfect; we are not dealing with a perfect science. It is perfectly possible to have a different electoral system for different elected bodies. It is not necessary to apply the same system to every body that we elect.

This has been a useful debate and, as there will be little business in the long summer months, perhaps we should return to the matter. Perhaps the Government should instigate a debate on constitutional reform. It appears that there will be no general election in June, so in the months ahead Parliament could usefully discuss such matters.

We do not often discuss our relationship with the regions and nations of Britain or with Europe. It appears that the Government are hopelessly adrift, have lost direction and are hoping that something will turn up, so we can have such discussions in the next few months.

May I deal with a point that was made by the hon. Member for Colne Valley and an organised smear earlier in the debate? I hope that in the long, hot summer ahead some of the intemperate comments that we have heard in the past few hours, which are thoroughly unsuitable for the classroom let alone the Cabinet room, are stopped. I believe that the Prime Minister is a decent man, no matter what I think of his policies. I hope that he will tell his colleagues to get a grip of themselves and stop using language that is inappropriate to the conduct of political debate.

Mr. Riddick

The leader of the Labour party should get a grip on his candidates in by-elections and ensure that they do not tell lies. If he is not prepared to do so—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. That has nothing to do with the motion.

Mr. Riddick

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was simply responding to the point that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) made. You did not pull him up.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I was busy in the Chair making some notes. I hope that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) will refer directly to the motion.

Mr. Darling

I was referring to the language that we use rather than to particular points. I gave way to the hon. Gentleman because he raised the matter. I shall not prolong the matter because the point has been made.

Constitutional change will be part of the next general election campaign. The economy, health and education will dominate that campaign, but the need to protect individual rights and to decentralise power from Whitehall to the regions and nations will be important. They will once again show the philosophical difference between the Conservative and Labour parties. I welcome the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) who raised a number of interesting matters to which I have no doubt that we shall return on more than one occasion.

We propose to give real power and choice to the citizens of this country. Under the Conservative Government, the United Kingdom has become one of the most centralised of the large countries in the European Community. Over the past 12 years, local government has been taken over by central Government; Ministers have acquired more power and under the Education Reform Act 1988 the Secretary of State took up on himself 200 more powers. From hospitals to housing; from schools to social services, Whitehall and Tory Ministers say that they know best. On civil liberties, we must not forget that the Government organised a midnight raid on the BBC in Glasgow to recover tapes of programmes that they did not like. In 1987, the Government impounded copies of Pravda at Heathrow so that British people should not know what every Soviet citizen knew—what was in the book "Spycatcher".

We shall introduce legislation that will, for the first time, set out clear and specific rights and remedies available to every British citizen. Our charter of rights, published in January this year, has set out our programe. We shall provide for a Freedom of Information Act, which is long overdue. We shall provide laws to protect privacy and to strengthen the data protection provisions, including the implementing of substantial parts of the Calcutt report. We shall put the security service on a proper footing, making it answerable to a Select Committee of the House. We shall legislate to promote equality of opportunity. They are specific rights. I have yet to be persuaded about a Bill of Rights. I have no objection in principle to such a Bill, but it is important to avoid room for judicial manoeuvre. This Parliament—or the regional or national parliaments—should be able to spell out specific rights so that citizens are left in no doubt about where they stand. These rights are essential and long overdue in the United Kingdom, but they will be even more necessary in the Europe without frontiers.

Mr. Sillars

Would those rights be justiciable?

Mr. Darling

There is nothing in the land that would not be justiciable. For example, under the Freedom of Information Act the system that we envisage is that a request for information would have to be answered within 30 days. In the event of the commissioner's saying that the information was not to be released, that would be justiciable.

I think that the point that brought the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) to his feet was that under a Bill of Rights, which would tend to contain general assertions, the room for judicial manoeuvre would be considerably greater than if there were tightly drawn legislation, which reduced the scope for a judge to decide that no matter what Parliament thought that it had decided, something else was intended.

Mr. Wallace

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Labour party were to come to power and legislate for citizens' rights, a succeeding Conservative Government, who were elected on the basis of 40 or 42 per cent. of the electorate and had absolute power, could legislate away those rights as easily as the Labour party could legislate for them?

Mr. Darling

I shall deal with that point a little later. The hon. Member knows that in our proposals to reform the second Chamber, we propose to give it the power to delay—no more than delay—any attempt to tear up what we regard as fundamental rights, such as a Freedom of Information Act. The supremacy of Parliament means that no Parliament can bind its successors. The best that we can do under the present constitutional arrangements is to make it more difficult and especially to force a Government to fight a general election on the proposal to tear up what I regard as fundamental rights.

I was referring to Europe because it is the driving force that will force us to amend our constitutional arrangements, and there is one especially striking example. After 1992, EC citizens will be able to move around Europe with their families, and frontiers will largely disappear. However, individuals will be subject to internal controls, certainly on continental Europe where they will be stopped and asked to account for themselves at various stages. Immigration authorities and police will have access to a common information system. Without data protection legislation and freedom of information legislation extending across Europe, citizens will be at a disadvantage against the bureaucracy that will be set up. Therefore, it is essential not only that we set out citizens' rights in the United Kingdom, but that the Government should argue in Europe that the same rights should be available to all EC citizens no matter where they happen to be in Europe at any time.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield raised an important matter with which I shall now deal—the royal prerogative. The treaties that are being entered into and the agreements made between Ministers in connection with the freedom of movement reveal the problems that we face. Ministers are doing things in the name of the Crown, for which they are not properly answerable in Chamber. They are being done under the royal prerogative which gives Ministers the right to do more or less whatever they want. It is rare for a Minister to come to the Dispatch Box to account to Parliament for what he has done.

It is essential that when the royal prerogative is to be used, Parliament must be able to give or withhold its consent to proposals that Ministers bring before it. Ministers should not be able to go to Brussels and sign away the rights of the citizens of this country without Parliament's having an opportunity to decide whether it supports those proposals. It is essential that the royal prerogative powers are substantially trimmed. That is what we propose and what we have set out clearly not only in our policy review documents over the past two years, but in our charter of rights published in January this year.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield also made an important point about patronage. One of the reasons why we want to establish regional assemblies in England and national assemblies in Scotland and in Wales is that we believe that the scope for patronage from Ministers in the House of Commons should be curtailed. It is unjustifiable that the Secretary of State for Health, for example, can pack health boards with people merely because he believes that they will support his political party in ramming through reforms that no one living in the regions or in the localities wants. With reference to what my right hon. Friend said about Privy Councillors, I have yet to meet one who is willing to give it up. I wonder whether in addition to the oath being administered, it also said that one would be guaranteed to be called whenever one wanted for any debate. That appears to be the most compelling reason to become a Privy Councillor.

It is essential that rights are protected across Europe. The charter of rights that we have proposed for the United Kingdom will always be incomplete unless it is accepted that those rights are available in Europe. I said that a Freedom of Information Act and stronger data protection provisions are needed. It is interesting that the data protection provisions directive promulgated by the EC, which would go some way—although not as far as I should like—to improve the situation across Europe, is, I understand, to be blocked by the Government. That is indicative of precisely what is wrong with the Government—they will not accept that individual rights are very much on the political agenda in Britain and that people's concerns must be met.

It is also interesting that although we have heard much about the social charter and the promotion of employment rights in Europe, there is little legislation to outlaw racial discrimination. For all the criticisms that I and others in my party make of the Government on that subject, it must be said that Britain has a far better record than many other European countries on legislation to protect individuals against racial discrimination. It is essential that when Europe deals with the rights and remedies available to its citizens, especially when there is increased freedom of movement for some, but not for all those living in the EC, we must strengthen legislation to outlaw discrimination no matter where it occurs.

Mr. Bowis

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that at the time of the Notting Hill riots, it was not written changes in the constitution or changes in the law which put a stop to them, but firm action in the courts? The great danger of having a written constitution is that the courts will be so tied down in the details and niceties of the law that they would not be able to extend the law as they are now able to do by setting precedents.

Mr. Darling

I was not advocating a written constitution and I do not want to go into that subject unless the hon. Gentleman wants me to do so. I agree that one of the problems of a written constitution is that it provides a field day for lawyers, and I speak as a lawyer. Although it is tempting professionally to advocate something that would keep me in living for the rest of my working life, as a politician I think that there are severe drawbacks to setting up a written constitution.

Race relations legislation is justiciable. It can be extended and interpreted. I do not follow the argument of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) that had there been race relations legislation that affected not only Britain but Europe generally, it would have made a difference to what happened in Notting Hill. It is important to stress that although there is legislation in Britain that outlaws discrimination—and which needs to be strengthened—such legislation does not exist in other European countries. It is essential that it should exist in other European countries.

The hon. Member for Battersea will know that after 1992, there will be substantial freedom of movement for all European Community citizens. However, about 15 million people living in Europe are not citizens, although they have the right to live in the country in which they are settled. They will be subject to stops and checks. There is a risk that unless there is protective legislation, those people will be subject to racial harassment of the type that we have seen in France with people from north Africa, in Germany with the Turks and in Brussels only this week, when unfortunate incidents took place. I suspect that they took place partly because of a lack of protective legislation.

Mr. Bowis

I do not suggest that one should not have protective legislation. I said that such constitutional considerations should not be so tightly circumscribed that the courts are unable to be flexible. Courts can often solve problems far more quickly than waiting for laws to be changed.

Mr. Darling

I come back to my earlier point, which is the thrust behind the proposal that we intend to introduce. Such legislation should be fairly tightly drawn because it is important that Parliament's intention is set out clearly in legislation. It will always be open to people to go to court to seek a different interpretation. I should not like there to be a very general statement. A judge could perhaps make the law better. However, as we have seen in employment legislation, judges have taken the view that they cannot see why rights should have been afforded. No matter what Parliament may have thought it was doing, judges would ensure that those rights would be restricted.

Protecting the individual rights of citizens is only one part of constitutional reform. It is essential to pass power from Whitehall to Westminster to the regions and nations of the United Kingdom, not only for political or social reasons, but because it makes sound economic sense. The south-east, until recently, has been choked with high house prices, a consumer spending boom and high labour costs, whereas in the north, the opposite is true. It is absurd that most of the headquarters of our large companies are based in the south-east. That sort of thing does not happen in the United States. There is a feeling that our regions are better known in Tokyo, in Washington and in Brussels than to City financiers, civil servants and Ministers.

The channel tunnel illustrates the absurd position that we have reached. The channel tunnel will effectively stop at Waterloo for the first few years. Britain is out of balance. We need elected assemblies in Scotland and in Wales, but that is not enough. I touch on a point that was made, for all the wrong reasons, by the hon. Member for Govan. I accept that devolution has a substantial degree of merit. However, it will not work if we attempt to devolve power only to some parts of the United Kingdom and not to others. The pattern will be different for obvious reasons.

Let us consider the continental examples. Germany has a full federal system and Spain has a quasi-federal system in which people recognised that some regions of Spain wanted substantial powers and had a clear identity, while other regions wanted less power. Both countries—and others—realise that there is much to be said for the regions fighting alongside the national Government to get their fair share of what Europe has to offer. That is not true of this country, so I believe that it is essential for power to pass from Whitehall to the regions of England.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the reasons for the concentration of power in London is nationalisation, which centralised many small and medium companies in transport, in energy and in steel? It is rather sanctimonious for the hon. Gentleman to make suggestions about the cause.

Mr. Darling

If the hon. Gentleman studies the registered offices of all the companies in the country, he will find that a tiny minority are nationalised companies. Many had their headquarters in London, but most private sector companies are also based in London. They will not move out of London. I come from Edinburgh where we have desperately tried to get in some companies. Guinness is the supreme example. We know that there is a reluctance to get people out of London. It is thoroughly undesirable that there is so much concentration in London. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) will know of the problems of congestion and of the throttling of the south-east. In the north of England, people are desperate for some of those jobs. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman could see the common sense of my argument.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

Whatever regional assembly and different forms of local government the hon. Gentleman creates, he will have no effect unless he is saying that he will direct companies on where they should set up their head offices and where they should make their investment.

Mr. Darling

That is definitely wrong. We have no intention of directing companies. There are clear examples in Spain and in Germany, where companies coming into the country will study the country and decide which region suits them best. That has worked in Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales constantly tells us that the Welsh Development Agency has been an outstanding success—and it has been. I argue that the north of the country would like exactly the same opportunity. Surely the Minister can see that in European countries that are far more successful than we are, part of the mark of that success is the fact that power has been passed away from the capital city. People have been encouraged to develop and set up businesses, and they have been attracted by the federal or quasi-federal system.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has referred to the success of the Welsh Development Agency. However, he did not argue for a development agency elsewhere in the United Kingdom. He argued for another tier of local government.

Mr. Darling

I am not arguing for that. Regional assemblies would be based on power being passed away from Westminster to the regions. That could apply to many of the functions of the Department of Trade and Industry, of the Department of Transport and of the Department of the Environment. We are not talking about another layer of local government. It is common ground that we must go to single tier local government.

At an early stage, the northern region would set up a development agency for the obvious reason that if Scotland had one, the northern region would otherwise be at a disadvantage. The model that we propose, which was set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) in a speech in Leeds at the weekend, is a phased approach. We recognise that regions have different demands and want to go at different speeds. They will be given the power to take whatever powers they think are appropriate. It is high time that the Government realised that the strangulation and the centralisation that their policies have promoted over the past 12 years have ill-served the country.

The hon. Member for Govan will not be surprised to hear that the one thing on which I agree with him—albeit, perhaps, for different reasons—is that the sooner he is out of here the better. I was intrigued that the hon. Gentleman should have engaged in what he called a critique of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Why did not he come to the Scottish Constitutional Convention? He came for a couple of hours—just long enough for the press to receive the notice that he sent out in advance to say that he intended to walk out, which he did create a photo-opportunity. Why has the hon. Gentleman chosen to come to London rather than Edinburgh to discuss the Scottish Constitutional Convention? Is not it strange that he and the Conservatives are at one on the matter? The Conservatives need the nationalists as much as the nationalists need the Conservatives, and it is ironic that the hon. Gentleman should choose to launch an attack on his Scottish countrymen not in Edinburgh—where he has been invited to speak on many occasions—but in the House of Commons, in London.

Mr. Sillars

I must request the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his allegation that I issued a press statement, went along to the constitutional convention and then staged a walkout. I have never entered the door of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, and the hon. Gentleman should know that full well. I entered into the early negotiations; that was all. I never issued a press statement in advance and I never walked out. I repeat that I have not attended the constitutional convention for a single minute. The hon. Gentleman must be mixing me up with someone else and I would ask him to withdraw.

On the question of where we should debate these matters, I would say that, unfortunately for us, we have to debate in both places—London and Edinburgh. If the hon. Gentleman wants a debate, I shall be happy to have a public debate with him on any platform in Edinburgh or in any other part of Scotland that he and I can arrange.

Mr. Darling

I shall certainly take the hon. Gentleman up on that. We will have that debate in Edinburgh at any time that he chooses. The hon. Gentleman's main complaint seems to hang on a technicality to do with when the Scottish Constitutional Convention started. I thought that the negotiations that the nationalists and all the parties except the Conservatives attended were the start of the convention, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to take issue with that, I can only say that it is a comparatively minor point.

I have already touched briefly on the reform of the second Chamber. Much of the controversy over the War Crimes Bill would have been avoided had we had a properly established, democratically elected second Chamber, part of whose functions was to act as a check and balance on the House of Commons. If that Chamber then chose to block or delay any piece of legislation, there would not be a controversy. The decision would be accepted, as is the case in the United States, Australia and other countries throughout the world that have bicameral systems. It would be a normal part of the democratic process. I believe that a second Chamber is necessary, but it must be democratically elected. The present arrangements are not only out of date; they are clearly intolerable.

Our proposals are part of a comprehensive programme of reform—the rolling programme that we intend to introduce from the beginning of the next Parliament. We believe that our proposals will deliver power to people so that they can decide what course of action they want to adopt and will give people real power, in a way that has never happened before.

We have looked at the examples of countries throughout the world. We are told that this Parliament is the mother of all Parliaments. Given what other Parliaments have done since our Parliament was set up, it appears that this mother of all Parliaments has a great deal to learn from some of its children.

12.32 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on winning the ballot and on obtaining this debate. We have a first-past-the-post system for private Members' motions and I imagine that, at least today, the hon. Gentleman regards that as a satisfactory method of selection. I am sure that the House will agree that the hon. Gentleman has chosen an absorbing and important series of topics to which it is right that we should direct our attention.

The hon. Gentleman remarked that it was a long time since we had discussed constitutional questions. It may be a long time since we had a debate given over to constitutional questions in general, but many of the subjects covered by the hon. Gentleman and by other hon. Members have been dealt with thoroughly in this Parliament and in earlier Parliaments.

If the scope of constitutional change can be broadened to include official secrets, one can see there have been changes there. We have also had changes in electoral law, with regard to overseas electors. We have had the Single European Act—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) devoted a large part of his speech to our relationships with Europe. Although we may not have had as wide-ranging a debate as this, constitutional questions have certainly not been missing from our agenda.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire has certainly helped us to focus our view. He made an excellent speech, which covered a great deal of ground, and he delivered it with much sincerity. From that encomium, it will be pretty clear to the hon. Gentleman that I fundamentally disagree with much that he said.

The case made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire was that our democratic institutions and, at the very least, our arrangements within them are failing people. I do not accept that. The rights and freedom of the individual and their protection lie at the heart of our constitutional practices. Over the years, they have developed pragmatically in response to society's needs and perceived problems and in keeping with the British tradition. Our system continues to allow us to adapt and change where change appears to be necessary. Some of the issues that we have debated and legislated for in this Parliament show that when the Government believe that change is necessary, they bring forward the necessary measures.

Mr. Wallace

Does the Minister believe that the banning of trade union membership at GCHQ was a pragmatic step in the development of the rights of the individual worthy of this Parliament?

Mr. Lloyd

I fear that that was a very necessary step which had to be taken as a result of the constant industrial action at GCHQ which had interfered with our intelligence-gathering capacity. Now that the hon. Gentleman mentions the matter, I recollect that some trade unionists boasted that they could bring the intelligence gathering to a halt. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) is right. That change was made with much regret and if there is a criticism, it is that it was made too late. The change was made in answer to a particular problem that lay at the heart of the security of this country.

Mr. Darling

Why was it necessary for the Government to spend so much taxpayers' money trying to stop "Spycatcher" being published when every Soviet citizen and the rest of the world could read that book? Why did the Government try to stop the British people knowing what the rest of the world already knew?

Mr. Lloyd

Mr. Wright and his publishers were pursued. It was not the intention to deny the British people the knowledge of what that book contained. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central said, it was clear very early on that the information was available elsewhere. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General made clear at the time, the Government's point was that a member of the security services, contrary to his undertakings, had published a book from which he sought to make profit. We were not protecting the British people from knowledge—most, if not all, of which was entirely inaccurate and which was available as soon as the book had been published.

Although I said that we would avoid change for change's sake, I would not begin to claim that our institutions are perfect. I am certain that they will continue to change as society evolves. With regard to the liberties, opportunities and democratic rights afforded to the citizens of the United Kingdom, our arrangements compare favourably with those elsewhere where arrangements that are attractive to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire are in place.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire made much of the MORI poll conducted for the Rowntree trust, of which he is a director. Like other hon. Members, I found the results interesting. They are undoubtedly a helpful incentive to further debate. However, I do not regard them as a practical or desirable blueprint for reform or believe that they represent clearly what the general public really wants. I say that not because the voters are not capable of knowing their own minds but because involved questions do not conveniently refine down to simple "agree" or "disagree" answers.

Answers on a complex matter such as a Bill of Rights are determined by the question asked. In one case, a Bill of Rights apparently had the support of nearly three quarters of the respondents. However, it is impossible to have a meaningful Bill of Rights without requiring judges to make decisions that are essentially political. I wonder what the answer from those respondents would have been if they had been asked whether they favoured removing some political decisions from the elected House of Commons and giving them to non-elected judges and whether they thought that judges should be brought into party political controversy.

Mr. Tony Banks

A way around that problem is to have a supreme court and to have judges elected. I see no reason why the spread of democracy should not go as far as the bench, as it does in this place as well.

Mr. Lloyd

I agree that the subject is arguable. As soon as one begins to look at it, one realises that it ramifies into a series of other decisions, such as those that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire mentioned. People were not asked whether they wanted an elected High Court. Perhaps they would have agreed with the hon. Gentleman—perhaps they would not—but that was not part of the question that was posed to them.

Mr. Butterfill

Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that we are a signatory to the European convention on human rights and therefore subject to decisions of the European Court of Human Rights already creates a problem which has been identified by the hon. Member for Newham North-West (Mr. Banks)? We have non-elected judges—they are not even non-elected British judges; they are non-elected foreign judges who make political decisions for us.

Mr. Lloyd

We decided on another constitutional change to adhere to that convention and we accepted the final jurisdiction of the court in those questions. It is debatable whether it was right to do so. I believe that it was, and I believe that it provides an added protection. I suspect that my hon. Friend's opinion is entirely different from that of 99 per cent. of the respondents who answered that survey. They did not know that we adhered to that convention and that it was possible finally to take a case to that court.

Mr. Maclennan

On the point about political elements in judicial decisions, what distinction enables the Minister to conclude that it is acceptable for foreign judges to determine matters of human rights in this country, but not British judges? Every constitution that this country prepared for other countries that gained independence within the Commonwealth made provision for Bills of Rights which apparently have been acceptable in those countries and have not been repealed. Why does the Minister think that it was right for this country to do to others what it was not prepared to do here?

Mr. Lloyd

The experience of many countries to which we have given independence has shown that Bills of Rights are not worth the paper that they are written on. No doubt, the reason we sought to give them was that countries without our traditions and our unwritten constitution needed something. From experience I believe that it was second best. Other countries do things in their own ways and according to their own traditions. The hon. Gentleman's point would be good if Bills of Rights had acted to any benefit to those countries to which we gave independence. On the whole, they did not, and the hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that.

In that MORI poll, 49 per cent. of people favoured compulsory voting, as compared with 42 per cent. against—not a measure that would extend freedom, or be very practical, either, as the determined abstainer could always spoil his paper. Did the respondents want the electoral registration officer to check each paper to see that it was correctly filled in and to prosecute if it was not? I am sure that they did not, but they were not asked to think the matter through. That is another reason why I regard the poll with great interest but am sceptical about whether it represents the thought-through conclusions of the people who were questioned.

Most people sensibly believe that the right to vote is precious and should be used, so, when faced with an opinion pollster and without opportunity for further reflection, they agree that voting should be made compulsory. I am quite certain that there is a similar tendency behind the thinking of the 50 per cent. of respondents favouring proportional representation. I imagine that the question emphasised that PR gave a fairer representation of parties in the House according to votes cast. Not surprisingly, it secured wide consent. The only puzzle is that, put like that, more than 50 per cent. did not agree. Again, I imagine that the poll results would have been very different if respondents had been asked whether they were in favour of changing to a voting system that weakened or terminated the personal connection of a Member of Parliament with his constituency.

The respondents were not asked whether they were in favour of a system that put the choice of candidate into the hands of party managers who controlled the lists and gave a far greater chance that a small party with a minor share of the votes would exercise a decisive influence on the make-up of the Government.

All the features that I have mentioned are characteristic of proportional representation. If those features had been implied or stated in the question, I am certain that the respondents would have come to different conclusions.

Mr. Tony Banks

The Minister is being patronising, perhaps insulting, about the intelligence of those who responded to that MORI poll. We know all about the way in which questions can be framed. First, the Minister could make a better case than simply to disparage the poll and, therefore, those who participated in it. Surely he accepts that it demonstrates dissatisfaction among the public with present institutions.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman described only one form of proportional representation. There are many forms of PR. The hon. Gentleman should deal with whether we want a system that enables a Government to say that they speak with 50 per cent. plus of the vote. I believe that we do and that that is what the British people want.

Mr. Lloyd

There are many forms of proportional representation, not all of which terminate the connection with the constituency. That is why I added that it may weaken the connection. However, there is no form of PR that leaves the connection as direct, complete and unarguable as the single-Member constituencies which we have at present.

I also made it clear that I found the results of the poll interesting. One always looks behind public opinion polls to find out what is in the minds of those who reply to them. I do not disparage the electors. I believe that their hearts are in the right place. They want rights to be protected and they want people to vote in elections. They want as much information as possible to be available to them. I agree with all those aspirations. But, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) will know, unless one is familiar with a complex subject, it is difficult to answer detailed questions about what one wants.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West will have answered public opinion polls. A questionnaire may be sent to us in the House about aspects of policy. We have time to consider those aspects of policy. One cannot simply fill in the answer, as pollsters require people to do on the spot. The problem with the surveys in which we are asked to answer deceptively simple questions—one knows that they are deceptively simple—is that it takes Members of Parliament a long time to respond to them. That is why many of us have decided that it is not possible to reply to all the surveys that are sent to us.

I do not imply any disrespect to the electors. I simply seek to look behind what was in their minds when they answered the questions.

Mr. Butterfill

My hon. Friend admitted that it was not necessary to lose the link with the constituency under PR systems. The most obvious example of where the link is not lost is the additional member system which exists in Germany where one member is elected for the constituency and then an additional member is added. Surely the problem with that system is that it is the one that enhances most securely the power of the party list.

Mr. Lloyd

That is right. It weakens the link because the selection of the member is not made in the constituency, as it is in our system. There is no system of PR that in one way or another does not weaken the connection.

Mr. Wallace

Although the Minister subsequently accepted that there were various forms of proportional representation, he seemed to be obsessed, as was the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), with the party list system. A list system has never been advocated by anyone in my party. Does the Minister accept that if a multi-Member constituency system were adopted voters would have a choice between a Bruges group Conservative, a No Turning Back group Conservative and so on, to take the Conservative party as an example? Such a system would give more power to the voters to make a choice even between candidates from the same party. At present, voters can choose only the candidate whom the management committee or the local party decides to select.

Mr. Lloyd

There are all sorts of PR systems. They do not all destroy the connection with the constituency, but they all weaken it, including the one that the hon. Gentleman just mentioned. A multi-Member constituency must be large, so it is difficult to keep the personal connection that most hon. Members like to keep and, indeed, enjoy keeping with their constituency. When there are several Members, instead of one Member, responsible across the board to people from all parties and none, constituents tend to go to the Member whom they think will be most favourably disposed to them or to one who specialises in a particular interest. The connection is weakened. I am not saying that on that basis these alternatives have no merit and could not possibly work. I am saying that they are far more complicated and that the arguments against them are stronger than they would have been in the questions in the survey.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West reminded me that he intervened in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson). The hon.

Gentleman said that everything depends on party anyway and that if my right hon. Friend resigned and then stood under another flag, even my redoubtable right hon. Friend might not be re-elected. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman meant it that way, but that has nothing to do with any constitutional shortcoming—it is the decision of the electorate. By and large, they vote according to party. There is every choice under our system to vote for an individual, but, for the most part, the electorate do not choose to do so, and that is their free decision.

Mr. Tony Banks

The Minister spoke of the free decision of the electorate, but electors do not have an alternative. One could draw his conclusion, but, equally, as electors do not have an alternative, one could conclude, that they do not have freedom. The party system is a fact of life. I am not complaining about it. When the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) said that an individual Member stood as a buttress against the overweening party, I merely pointed out that that did not happen. All of us are here not because of our wit, great wisdom, good looks and excellent speeches, but because we all wore certain party labels at the general election.

Mr. Lloyd

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but that is not the result of constitutional rules imposed on electors; it is because of the choice that they make. If too few independent candidates stand, it is because they know perfectly well that the electorate will not choose them.

The hon. Gentleman argued that under our system Back-Bench Members have no influence whatever on behalf of their constituents. I disagree. If we had a list system, the incentive and opportunity for Members to bring pressure on behalf of their constituents would evaporate almost entirely. As I was a Whip for four years, I know that a single-Member constituency means that Members on both sides of the House return on Monday morning after a weekend in their constituency with clear ideas of what their constituents want or do not want, which are impressed extremely hard on the party with much effect. The whole exercise is a balance between particular pressures from constituencies and the demands of national government.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

During that exchange, the issue of independent candidates standing for election was raised. They will stand if there is sufficiently strong local feeling. For example, only two weeks ago, feelings in Liverpool were so strong that candidates came forward to oppose the overweening might of the Labour party, and were elected.

Mr. Lloyd

Perhaps I inadvertently misled the House and my hon. Friend when I said that independent candidates rarely came forward. They do and they call themselves Liberals, Social and Liberal Democrats, Alliance or whatever.

I am sure that the MORI survey accurately reflects the public's real and admirable concern to ensure that personal freedom is upheld, that people use their vote and that the electoral system is sensitive to their opinions and reflects them.

Mr. Darling

The Minister is making heavy weather of his criticism of the MORI poll. He has acknowledged that the poll expressed the public's concern, so will he explain why the Government will not introduce a freedom of information Bill and why they will not strengthen the data protection legislation?

Mr. Lloyd

The Government believe that a freedom of information Bill would not be helpful to the public, just as it is not helpful in most countries with similar legislation—

Mr. Darling

Including the United States?

Mr. Lloyd

Yes, including the United States. It is more important to follow the Government's course of providing more meaningful information about the basis on which policy decisions are taken so that the public and those interested can make their own judgment. The Select Committee is part and parcel of that exercise. A freedom of information Bill would not in itself be helpful. It would be more helpful if Governments provided the information and the arguments that have led them and have weighed with them when arriving at conclusions. It is also necessary—it is difficult to put this into legislation—in government and other areas for conversations to take place in reasonable privacy. We have removed the bar in the Official Secrets Act 1911 that prevented information becoming available except in special circumstances when, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central would agree, that information needs to be safeguarded. In the past decade, there has been a great change and I hope that we go further in making plain to the public the basis for our decisions.

Mr. Darling

Does not the Minister think that it is absurd that in many cases information about the British Government's actions is obtained from the United States? The United States has to declare some of its dealings with our Government and the information can be freely obtained under its Freedom of Information Act. We then receive that information by reading American newspapers.

Does the Minister accept that there is a distinction between matters of genuine national security and the political advice that Ministers receive? No one would suggest that information on national security should be made commonly available, but there is a case for enabling citizens to discover information on matters such as health and safety. I do not understand why the Government will not do that and why they are so obsessed with secrecy and withholding information. That disease has affected many Governments, but this one seems worse than many of their predecessors.

Mr. Lloyd

Certain information about this country has become available in the United States, but it should not have done so. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are matters which could reasonably be made public. It is not a matter on which I have detailed knowledge, but I recollect that some of the cases in recent years have related to the period when the Labour party was in office.

There is a difference between not passing declamatory laws and making germane information available so that decisions can be maturely and sensibly judged by not only the newspapers and television but the public at large. I do not wholly disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but I think that the right approach should be an administrative rather than a legislative one.

I conclude, following the remarks of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, that our current voting system has decisive merit, which the Liberal party historically appreciated until it gave up hope of winning power again through it, after allowing the Labour party to take over the bulk of the support that it used to enjoy in the country.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This morning's dramatic news that inflation has fallen by 1.8 points to 6.4 per cent. is of great national importance and will cause great relief and excitement to the public. Is it—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. What is the point of order?

Mr. Taylor

Would it be in order for us to request that a Treasury Minister comes to the Dispatch Box to explain to the country how such a dramatic improvement has been achieved and to affirm that the Government will continue their policy—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is not a point of order for me.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I hope that it is more genuine than the last one.

Mr. King

That is for you to decide, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I urge you to use your channels of communication and to consider whether it would be appropriate, after the experiences of the electors of Monmouth last night, when they were "trash-krieged" by the Labour party in connection with a document—[Interruption.]—that was mischieviously inaccurate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is about as bogus as the last point of order.

Mr. King

I was about to ask if you were aware. Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, subsequent to that leaflet being issued, the Leader of the Opposition confirmed his support for the leaflet. Have you heard whether the Leader of the Opposition wishes to make a statement to the House—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that those are not matters for me.

Mr. Riddick

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you advise me how we can make the Leader of the Opposition accountable to the House of Commons when he has agreed with lies that have been made outside the House? Are you able to demand that he comes before us—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I fear that we are moving into very dangerous territory. Perhaps we had better get back to the debate.

Mr. Darling

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You were not in the Chair when exactly the same thing happened earlier this morning, when a systematic attempt was made to spread a smear in the Chamber—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. What is the hon. Member's point of order for me?

Mr. Darling

I urge you to impress on hon. Gentlemen that we are engaged in an important debate that should not be disrupted by a party which is clearly stung by the defeat that it suffered last night. Conservative Members have no business spreading smears—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I agree with the hon. Member that we should get back to the debate.

Mr. Lloyd

They may not have been points of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am sure that you will agree that the news about falling inflation is welcome and should be regarded as such by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I was speaking about the link between the constituency and the individual hon. Member in single-Member constituencies. I believe that most electors would be loath to lose that link. They place great value on it and, if asked, would say so.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I am grateful to the Minister for warmly welcoming the news on inflation. Would he equally welcome an opportunity for the appropriate Opposition correction to be made—[Interruption.]—because the proposal to create NHS trust hospitals, remaining within the NHS framework, is designed to make managements more efficient? Does the Minister agree that that should be clearly stated?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I trust that we can now return to the motion that is before the House.

Mr. Lloyd

The electors, local elections, constituencies, by-elections and hon. Members are all sensitive to public mood, and it is no pleasure for me to acknowledge that immediately after the by-election at Monmouth. But the Labour victor believes that he won mainly because of concerns about the NHS reforms. That is despite the fact that what he and the Labour party said about those reforms and intentions are untrue and will be shown to be so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that the Minister appreciates that if I allow him to proceed we are likely to end up engaging in a debate on the national health service, and I will not allow that.

Mr. Lloyd

I have no intention of departing from the rules, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If you allow me to continue, I am sure that you will realise that what I am saying is germane to the points that I am trying to answer.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Minister will recognise that, whatever doors he opens, I shall find it difficult to prevent other hon. Members from going through them and following in his footsteps. I hope that he will bear that in mind.

Mr. Lloyd

I will certainly bear it in mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker—and I hope that, when I have made my point, you will acknowledge that it was entirely in order.

It is interesting to note that the candidate for the party represented by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire did not claim that the electors felt that the contest was being conducted according to a system that prevented them from registering an effective vote. The claim has been that the argument was all about a particular piece of Government policy—or several pieces of Government policy. If the candidate did indeed say that constitutional issues were dominant, a hunger for constitutional change certainly did not seem to be what moved the electors of Monmouth. If that was what they felt, the Liberal Democrats could have articulated their feelings and, presumably, won the seat. However, different issues influenced the voters.

The great advantage of our system, apart from the strong constituency link that it secures—a link that I am sure the public do not wish to sever—is that, to succeed, a party must appeal to, and win over, the centre ground. Our system exacts a heavy price from the parties that lose, as Labour has so signally done over the past decade.

The reason why the Liberal Democrats have come nowhere near holding office for 50 years has never been the electoral system. The reason is that, having been displaced by Labour a couple of generations ago—under, it should be noted, the first-past-the-post system—and despite various name changes since then, the Liberal Democrats have never been able to convince enough Labour or Conservative supporters that they would form a better Government than their parties would.

Mr. Wallace

I am sorry to disrupt the Minister's carefully prepared attack on my party. He seems, however, to be using the Monmouth by-election result to suggest that constitutional reform is not uppermost in the voters' minds because the Liberal Democrats did not win. Why, then, do not the Government respond immediately with a full package of constitutional measures? My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Bellotti) won that by-election with an overwhelming swing of support towards the Liberal Democrats. Constitutional matters were debated at that by-election, and, indeed, the issue of the Scottish Parliament was mentioned at one point.

If the Minister is going to persist in his argument—admittedly, not a very good argument—why should not the Government pay attention to constitutional matters, given the resounding victories for the Liberal Democrats at Eastbourne and Ribble Valley?

Mr. Lloyd

I do not believe that the by-elections were won and lost on those issues. I have never believed that. They were won and lost on entirely different issues, regardless of whether those issues were presented honestly.

I am trying to respond to what was said by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, who believes that people's minds are much exercised by constitutional questions and that they feel that our constitutional arrangements are inadequate and damaging and want them to be changed in a number of ways. I dispute that. I dispute the strength of feeling and also the nature of the change that the hon. Gentleman says the people want—when they want any change at all.

Mr. Arbuthnot

The motion calls for "extensive modernisation" of our constitutional provisions. Does my hon. Friend agree that a travesty of our constitution is created when we have no opportunity to question the Leader of the Opposition when he supports election pamphlets that have produced lies? Should there not be constitutional modernisation to introduce such an opportunity?

Mr. Lloyd

The House can engineer what opportunities it wishes to question and raise points with either Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen or the Government.

Mr. Darling

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the good things about the constitution—especially the rules and procedures of the House—is that we are encouraged not to use intemperate language, and in particular not to make allegations concerning impropriety on the part of any hon. Member? Does he think that it would be a good idea if both he and all his right hon. and hon. Friends—in particular, the members of the Cabinet—were to refrain from making allegations, the sole purpose of which is to smear an hon. Member who is soon to join us? Would not it be far better if they abandoned their intemperate language, which would not be tolerated in any school classroom, let alone around the Cabinet table?

Mr. Lloyd

If the Opposition would agree to a self-denying ordinance, I am sure that the Government would wish to join in. It helps the business of the House if points and issues are discussed sensibly. However, as both the hon. Gentleman and I know, it is the nature of this place that feelings sometimes run high and that strong feelings are expressed.

Mr. Roger King

As my hon. Friend just pointed out, the motion calls for extensive modernisation of the United Kingdom's democratic institutions and constitutional provisions. After a candidate has been elected, the normal process is for his or her expenses to go forward for examination. That is right and proper. Does my hon. Friend believe that it would be a worthwhile innovation if we subjected election material to an audit, so that the kind of trash that I am holding in my hands, which was given to the people of Monmouth, can be examined, as a result of which the candidate would be disqualified?

Mr. Lloyd

I dare say that the election literature will be looked at both inside and outside the House and discussed and debated for some time to come.

The most interesting aspect of the speech of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire was the absence of new ideas, or the forceful advocacy of any particular idea among the old ones which he mentioned. He did not even especially press the case for regional government. However, I know what he was doing—he was laying out a series of issues. Therefore, I am not surprised that that issue was not pressed, even though it was taken up by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central. My experience suggests that the public mood is moving away from a superfluity of regional and local bodies towards reducing them and relying on single authorities that are as near as possible to the people whom they serve—the very antithesis of regional authorities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment intends to take soundings on that issue so that we can return to the shape of local government that people would like. My right hon. Friend has also said that the shape may vary in different parts of the country, according to the predominant feeling in and the needs of those areas.

The point about the lack of a sharp focus on particular reforms that the hon. Gentleman would want a future Liberal Government to pursue was taken up in the commonsense speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North. He told me that he had a constituency engagement at lunchtime that would require him to be elsewhere, but he praised the continuing link between a Member of Parliament and his constituents and urged us to make no change to our constitution, or anything else unless there is a very good and considered reason for it. He said that ill-considered reforms, some of which he listed, can be extremely damaging. That must be right. He underlined the value of single-Member constituencies. I am sure that most hon. Members agree with him about that; so, I believe, do most members of the public.

I enjoyed the speech of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). As usual, it was wide ranging, humorous and idiosyncratic. The right hon. Gentleman is coming to, so I shall repeat what I just said. I enjoyed his speech, which was witty and wide ranging. I wish that I could make mine with similar humour, and so does the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central. I am concerned about two points that the right hon. Gentleman made. He was worried about the House of Lords holding up the democratic will of the people. Since the Parliament Act 1911, the other place cannot resist the will of the elected Chamber, as the War Crimes Bill showed; it can merely delay. If the second Chamber were elected, it would, no doubt, resist being overruled and it is likely that constitutional conflict and delay would follow.

Mr. Benn

There are many arguments about the Lords. When I was a member of Cabinet in the minority Government, I remember the Leader of the House of Lords saying, "We cannot try that; we will not get it through the Lords and it will mean another passage through the Commons." Measures are killed before birth if it is thought that the Lords will be difficult. That is a historical fact that the Minister must not deny. Statutory instruments cannot be considered if the Lords refuses to accept an instrument that requires an affirmative resolution.

The argument about patronage is powerful. A young Member comes to the House with radical ideas—I have seen this many times—but discovers within 24 hours that to be made a Minister he must please the Prime Minister. When he gets to my age, if he wants a pension for life and a seat in Parliament, he must please the Prime Minister. The power of the Prime Minister—all Prime Ministers have done it; there is no difference between the last one and anyone under whom I served—to put people in Parliament for life is enormous. Jim Callaghan threatened to resign the leadership of the Labour party on the night of 2 April 1979 if we insisted on putting the proposal to abolish the House of Lords in our manifesto. Please do not think that it is not significant; it is very significant.

Mr. Lloyd

I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman's revelations about the arguments and considerations that moved a Labour Cabinet. I cannot comment on that—certainly not with his authority. In the debates and arguments in government, no one worries whether, one day, they might end up in the House of Lords. That is a fanciful suggestion. It might have been true of Governments in which the right hon. Gentleman served, but it is not of the one in which I play a small role.

In a remarkable passage of constitutional misinformation, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield asserted that as we are all merely subjects, we do not have any rights. We are also British citizens—a term that is used in the British Nationality Act 1981. The right hon. Gentleman misses the point. Rights and freedoms are inherent in being part of our society. It is not a matter of rights having to be conferred by some legislative instruments: such rights exist, except where they have been removed or circumscribed by decisions of Parliament after debate and voting.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) made a sensible and realistic speech—at least it started that way. I apologise for missing most of it, but I had to leave the Chamber on urgent departmental business.

I heard the speech of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars). Not surprisingly, he devoted his arguments to Scottish independence and devolution. He generously gave way twice to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart). Therefore, I shall not deal with the points that were made in that exchange.

A significant fact that has been mentioned by several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, is that at the last general election 85 per cent. of the votes cast were for parties committed to maintaining the Union. There was no sign that anything other than a small minority wanted independence. The referendum on devolution later produced a low turnout, suggesting that most Scottish electors had no strong feelings about the matter and that only a minority was in favour.

Far from ignoring Scottish feelings and interests—an idea which is sedulously developed north of the border—the Government were determined to avoid imposing on Scotland, at considerable expense to the Scottish people, yet another tier of government, especially a tier with tax-levying powers. If it were not so armed, what would be the point of it?

The Government are fully committed to the Union which they believe brings great benefits to all the people of the United Kingdom—the Scots, the Welsh, the English and the Northern Irish. We value and admire the enormous contribution that Scotland makes to the Union and we respect and take pride in the separate national identity of Scotland. However, we believe that we should not invent yet another tier of local government, which the hon. Member for Govan in effect said would inevitably lead to conflict, if not in Brussels, which he particularly mentioned, then at home. We believe that we should maintain the present arrangements—Scottish Ministers working through the Scottish Office, and the maintenance and development of separate Scottish legislation and a separate legal system.

I listened carefully to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick). I do not endorse all that he said. As I hope that I have made clear, the overwhelming feeling in the Government is that the Union, as it is, is a source of strength to Scotland and to the rest of the United Kingdom. I agree with his prediction of the unsatisfactory experience that would result if a devolved assembly became a reality.

I also listened with interest to the many points made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central. He underestimated the Government's success with their various economic development bodies in attracting investment from abroad—not least that of Japanese car firms—to the Provinces. We are especially successful when compared with the rest of Europe which has the regional government that the hon. Gentleman applauds. Our success has been greater without that extra tier of local government.

I was interested in and especially struck by the fact that the hon. Gentleman said that, although the Labour party would have no Bill of Rights because that would be impracticable, it would introduce other rights which would be justiciable. I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman had in mind, and I do not think that he was clear about it. However, I look forward to hearing the outcome of his discussions with his hon. Friends and to hearing how they will solve the conflict that was reflected in his speech.

Other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall sit down. I look forward to hearing what they have to say. Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire on introducing this welcome debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I can see six hon. Members trying to catch my eye. We have 67 minutes of debating time left, so the arithmetic is obvious.

1.23 pm
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I will take your hint, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although it is unfortunate that today, which is primarily for Back-Bench Members, so much time has been lost through too-lengthy speeches from the Front Benches, if the Minister will forgive me for saying so.

I want to take up some of the Minister's points. He gave the impression at one stage that he regarded the present constitution of the United Kingdom as close to perfection and that he was unable to see any failings in it. I represent a constituency in Northern Ireland and I found those views difficult to accept. How can the Minister square his views with the almost total absence of any form of representative and democratic government in Northern Ireland? In part of the United Kingdom, the electorate are unable to affect any decisions that are taken with regard to them. One of the Minister's colleagues said to the people of Northern Ireland in a television interview the day before an election that it did not make any difference how they voted because it would not make any difference. The tragedy is that the comment was true.

The Minister referred to the advisability of Select Committees. I hope that he will look at motion No. 39 on the Order Paper today, which is a proposal for a Select Committee on Northern Ireland, which I hope that he will consequently endorse.

I want to develop the Northern Ireland aspect now and then to turn to other matters. There was a long discussion about the merits and demerits of proportional representation. I find it rather strange that people discuss the issue without considering the experience of proportional representation in Northern Ireland. I believe that the single transferable vote system which has been imposed upon us is just about the worst form of proportional representation. No one seems to look too closely at that experience. Instead, standard comments are trotted out about the effect of proportional representation which I should dearly love to take up at greater length. In view of the time, it would not be right to do so now, but we may have the opportunity to discuss the issue on another occasion.

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is unfortunately no longer present. In his interesting and entertaining speech, he gave a survey of various constitutional reforms and changes. It was interesting and possibly characteristic that he omitted from his catalogue the most important of a series of constitutional changes which present the foundation of the modern British constitution and of the modern British state. I refer to the Glorious Revolution. It seemed to pass by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield although—and the right hon. Gentleman referred to this on another occasion—Revolution hall is located in his constituency. It is the place from which the letter inviting the successful Dutch invasion was sent.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) is not here. I know that he had to leave to catch an aeroplane back to Scotland. I had hoped to leave here over an hour ago to catch an aeroplane. The hon. Member for Govan stated his preference for a form of independence for Scotland. I am sorry that he is not here now, because I wanted to ask him a significant question. If there should ever be independence for Scotland, which is not impossible, what would be the best course for us in Ulster? Should we stay with England or go with Scotland? We should have to make such a choice, and it would not be an easy choice. Although our legal history and constitutional forms may seem to suggest a closer link with England, in social, cultural and economic matters, there is a far closer identity between Ulster and Scotland. The hon. Member for Govan referred to an important feature of Scottish cultural life which he felt determined the nature of Scottish society. He referred to poetry, of which Robert Burns was the chief exemplar. Exactly the same forms existed in Ulster even before Burns, as they did in Scotland.

The Scottish National party leaves out the social, cultural and economic links throughout the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman may desire a greater degree of self-government for Scotland, but I am sure that the essential connection between the peoples of the United Kingdom will be the determining factor.

Devolution is important and desirable. We regard with interest the contrast between the Government's position on Scotland and their position on Northern Ireland. They oppose devolution for Scotland, for the good reason, they argue, that devolution in respect of one part of the United Kingdom is potentially divisive and might break up the Union. Then we wonder why on earth they are in favour of devolution for Northern Ireland. The Government's argument that devolution may lead to a break-up is, in theory, correct, although I would point out that the actual experience of devolution in Northern Ireland over a 50-year period was very different. Devolution strengthened the Union, and the Union has been under greater threat since it ended.

That points to a fact that we should bear in mind in debates such as these: in the end, it is not the constitutional form that is important. What is important is the structure of society and the desires of people—the way in which they want to structure and organise their lives. Constitutional form may have some significance in affecting that, but it will not determine what happens or what people want.

Questions about devolution are not new. We have discussed the matter many times before. I have referred to the various home rule Bills from 1886 onwards. Between 1917 and 1920 we had serious debates in this place on PR and on federalism. At one point, the House seemed close to adopting a form of federalism, and since then we have had Kilbrandon and the pressure for devolution in Scotland and Wales. I do not think that devolution will go away. We shall come back to it and, in some respects, the present time may be particularly favourable.

The Government's period in office has been characterised by the steady centralisation of power in London and in the House, and the consequent diminution of the role of local government. Local government has steadily been stripped of more and more of its powers—most spectacularly a few weeks ago, when its revenue base was reduced to 14 or 15 per cent. That is not a good way of running a country. It is not a good system to concentrate everything here. It causes enormous problems by overloading hon. Members and this House and it makes the House more subservient to the Government because it renders the needs of the Government much greater.

It would be beneficial to the House, and would improve the quality of our representative democracy here and in the regions, if responsibilities were taken out of the purview of the House and moved to institutions elsewhere. Decentralisation may give us the opportunity to do that. The Minister has referred to the trend in favour of a single tier of local government. I think that that is a good idea. We should have a single tier and then—as the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman suggested—place on top of that a series of regional administrations, which would be more than simply local authorities. The opportunity is there, and the reaction to the changes in local government point in that direction, as do developments in Europe.

As has been pointed out, we are the largest country in the European Community that does not have an effective system of regional administration, and that already causes considerable problems in the operation of European regional policy. In applying regional policy, the Commission, and, to some extent, its Council of Ministers, have to try to discover the views of the region concerned. In Bavaria there are no problems; one simply goes to the Land administration, which will give its views of the needs and desires of the Bavarian people. The Land will give a Bavarian view, not a German Government view.

In the United Kingdom, it is a different matter. Officials may go to Cardiff or Edinburgh to research some aspect of regional policy for Wales or Scotland. But the Welsh and Scottish Offices do not give a distinctive Welsh or Scottish view; they give a British Government view. There is not the opportunity for regional views to form in the United Kingdom because of the concentration of power in this place. That is causing considerable difficulties for the development of the application of regional policy and is leading to an absurd situation.

Civil servants and presumably Ministers are not formulating proposals in respect of which regional grants might be available because they know that that would not be to their advantage, given the way in which the Treasury operates the system. I identified a development in my constituency to civil servants as a candidate for European regional grants, but I was told that there was no point applying for such grants and that the money would have to come from another source.

The development of regional authorities within Europe and Europe's effect on their development is significant. We will have to take account of such developments if European enterprise develops along current lines. Although we cannot predict the future in that respect, European developments are yet another reason for considering regional administration in this country.

I have referred to devolution, but the various regions of Britain should not be saddled with the kind of administration provided in the Northern Ireland Assembly Act 1973. Presumably the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is trying to foist a similar assembly on us. I doubt whether that form of devolution is worth while, particularly because of the tremendous limits placed on the authority of the kind of assembly proposed in the Northern Ireland Assembly Act 1973. Hon. Members should consider that Act as an object lesson in things to avoid.

Regional administration will have no value unless it has its own legitimacy, rights and resources. The resources are important. People are worried that if we have another body, there will be an additional tax. There cannot be effective regional administration without resource powers. A local income tax is attractive and it will be worth considering that as one source of funding. However, there should be a mixture of resources. There tends to be a variety of sources from which funds are raised in those countries that have extensive federal or regional administrations.

The powers of a regional administration, whether they be legislative or simply administrative, are less important than the creation of such an administration. The details of the powers are less important, because such an administration would take some of the burden off this place. Regional administration would also give back to the regions their identity.

It can be argued that some English cities have suffered in terms of their development because of the absence of regional administation. There is a tendency to undervalue local government. That is strange and it was not always the case. In the latter part of the 19th century Joseph Chamberlain used Birmingham as a base and that point is referred to in the current edition of The House Magazine. Regional administration in England would benefit certain cities which would become regional centres. It would also benefit other parts of the United Kingdom.

Such a change would be ineffective and unsuccessful unless there were consequential effects on this place. The creation of regional administration should result in a diminution of the powers and responsibilities of this House. That is possibly why such an administration has not been created so far. We are up against the myth of parliamentary sovereignty and the desire to concentrate powers on this place.

The hon. Member for Govan pointed out that the view that is often expressed in the House about the extent of parliamentary sovereignty is distinctively English and does not correspond with the constitutional law of Scotland. Indeed, it does not survive any sensible, intelligent study of how this Parliament, which dates from only 1800, came into existence. Hon. Members should consider that point further. If they do so, they should not pay any attention, I am sorry to say, to the history of Parliament contained in "Dod's"—it is empirical. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to realise that this Parliament came into existence in 1800 only by virtue of the decision of two other Parliaments which then ceased to exist—the Parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland. The Parliament of Great Britain dates from only 1707. People seem to insist, and even the decor in the House seems to assume that the Parliament of England is still in existence. It is not. It has not existed for more than 200 years. Of course it would be open to the Queen, who has the royal prerogative, to assemble it again if people still wished, but that is another matter entirely.

We need to get rid of or at least to put on a more sensible basis the way in which our constitution works.

The matters to which the right hon. Member for Chesterfield referred with regard to the powers of the crown were a little exaggerated when he pointed out prerogative powers. It is significant that the ghost of the absolute monarch still exists to a certain extent within the House, but it is located on the Government Front Bench. That is where we should concentrate our attention. It would be a good thing to draw up a written constitution for the United Kingdom. Of course it could include provisions such as a Bill of Rights which, again, is another matter entirely.

The absence of regional administrations and of a written constitution and the fact that we have only the one legislature tend to reinforce the belief that the United Kingdom is a unitary state. It is not. The United Kingdom is a multinational state. It divides the original homeland of at least half a dozen distinct nationalities or ethnic groups. Other groups have been added as a result of later immigration.

As I said, the constitution should reflect the reality in the state and the reality of the social structures that exist within a particular country. Our unwritten constitution does not. It overlaps those realities. Until perhaps a generation or two ago there had been an understanding within the governing class of the reality—the multinational state and the fact that there is a series of different tendencies within the country. Perhaps that reflects the time when a significant number of the governing class came from Scotland, Wales and Ulster.

We now have a system that is overdominated by people from southern England who assume that the appearance of the unitary state reflects the reality. Of course, the reality is otherwise. In a way, that explains why the party of the present Government is so unpopular in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and, indeed, to a certain extent in northern England as well. The Government do not appreciate the social reality that the constitution underlies. The constitution should reflect reality, whereas the present constitution distorts it.

1.42 pm
Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

I, too, think that we are indebted to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) for moving this important motion. I was interested to see that it was inspired by a MORI poll. To the extent that this debate may have cast some more light on the issues referred to in that poll and to the extent that people may be better informed if they listen to the debate—indeed, hon. Members may be better informed having listened to each other—the hon. Gentleman will have done us all a service. However, his enthusiasm for some of the reforms proposed in the MORI poll are misplaced, and I shall say briefly why.

The hon. Gentleman advocates a Bill of Rights. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) talked about a written constitution. That would be profoundly mistaken. If we look at the history of democracy in this country, we see that after the supremacy of Parliament, which was established by Cromwell, we have made an enormous transition from what amounted to a feudal monarchy to a modern democracy with universal suffrage and that we have gone through huge social and economic changes without wars or civil commotion of any significant degree. We have made those transitions relatively smoothly because we do not have a written constitution and we have the flexibility that is inherent in our present system. In other countries where that flexibility does not prevail, there has been much greater upheaval as a result of such social changes. In many cases, that may stem from the fact that the country has a written constitution which is relatively inflexible.

Where our country is subject to some form of written constitution, problems have arisen, which were mentioned in the debate. We are signatories to the European convention on human rights, which is written. It sets out in a detailed treaty certain rights for individuals who live in the countries that are signatories to it. The problem is that decisions that are often of a political nature are taken by judges. In the case of human rights, the judges are not resident in the United Kingdom. Their decisions may not reflect the customs, practices and wishes of people in the United Kingdom. That is profoundly unsatisfactory.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that corporal punishment was against the convention. Whether or not the House of Commons wished to restore corporal punishment, it could not do so because of the decision of three foreign judges who are not accountable to the British public.

The court has also said that if we voted to restore capital punishment—to which I am opposed—it would consider that it had a right to rule on the matter. If we established a written constitution we would tie ourselves unnecessarily and undesirably to a written, inflexible framework which could override the democratic wishes of our citizens.

Several hon. Members touched on freedom of information and suggested that we should have a freedom of information Act. Indeed, I believe that that is Labour party policy. But it should consider what would be involved in such an Act. Where such an Act exists, in America for example, it brings with it a politicisation of the civil service. The reason for that is obvious if one thinks about it.

If a Minister in a British Department is considering a change in the law or some innovation, he can ask his civil servants to consider the possible results of a series of actions that he might take. The civil servant can come back and tell the Minister that if he takes one action it will be a disaster for one set of reasons and if he takes another it will be a disaster for another range of reasons. In privacy and confidence with his civil servants, the Minister can consider those actions and rule them out.

If we had a freedom of information Act, as the Opposition suggest, the position would be different. All the options considered by civil servants under the principle of confidentiality would become public knowledge. Ministers would not want to have egg on their faces so they would not be innovative. The only alternative is a system whereby the whole civil service is politicised and changes with the Administration. In the United States, when the President changes, the Administration changes with him. That is highly undesirable. One of the strengths of the British political system is that our civil service is apolitical. It is prepared and confident to serve successive Administrations impartially. The day that we throw that away, we shall live to regret it.

I shall not deal at length with devolution because time is pressing and I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. As an English Member, I have no objection to Members from other parts of the United Kingdom coming here and participating in our debates, although it is beyond doubt that other parts of the United Kingdom are over-represented. In many cases, citizens from other parts of the United Kingdom receive a much greater proportion of the gross national product than English citizens. But that is our constitution. We are a union and Members from other parts of the United Kingdom have a right to be here. However, I object when those self-same Members kick up a stink if English Members choose to speak on matters affecting their part of the United Kingdom. We are a united kingdom and we should always be able to express a view on anything pertaining to any part of it. There must be parity between us on that.

There is an idea that somehow proportional representation would solve many ills and more accurately reflect the view of the general public. I do not believe it for one moment. Under the present system the general public have become sophisticated. They are accustomed to voting tactically. As a result, the party that is deemed likely to come second has its vote over-emphasised. Those living in a safe Labour constituency who want to get rid of a Labour Member are more likely to vote for the party that will come second than for any other candidate, and those living in a safe Conservative constituency who wish to get rid of a Conservative Member are most likely to vote for the party that will come second, which in most cases happens to be the Liberal Democratic party. Our present system exaggerates the level of real support that it would have if we had a proportional system. Hon. Gentlemen should ponder that before they continue to advocate such a system.

The real problem of PR is that it would give undue influence to minority parties. Hon. Members have referred to what happens elsewhere. For example, in West Germany one party held the balance of power almost since the war. It demanded as a price for its support for whichever party won the majority the right to have the foreign ministry and to dictate what happened in German foreign affairs. That is not desirable. It has inhibited all sorts of developments. Its influence on agricultural matters has been a major reason why we have been unable to reform the common agricultural policy decently. In all those ways minority parties would have far too much influence.

It is no use saying that there would be a threshold. In Denmark there was a 5 per cent. threshhold, yet the extraordinary Progress party was elected with 16 per cent. on policies to abolish income tax and Danish membership of NATO, and all sorts of other such matters. It was run by a tax lawyer for self-promotion and he ended up in gaol. That is what can happen under a proportional system and it cannot be desirable.

Still less desirable under a PR system would be the unpleasant minority parties and all sorts of nutcases who would be elected. They could be much less pleasant than Liberal Democratic Members—who are, indeed, extremely pleasant—and might not be such congenial companions in the House. The equivalent of Mr. Le Pen's party would not make happy bedfellows for them, particularly if such a party held the balance of power. PR is an incentive for people to become more extreme. If they appeal to a minority in society, they are likely to be represented in Parliament.

The present system rules out extremism. Under the first-past-the-post system any party that wants to gain power in government must remain a broad church. It must have broadly moderate policies that are acceptable to the widest possible section of the population. The Labour party moved away from that and to the far left. As a result it paid a terrible electoral price in successive general elections. It appears now to have learnt its lesson, although perhaps it is just dressing itself up a little better. It is certainly true that if a political party wants power under our system, it must be a broad church, accommodating a broad range of opinion. A proportional system encourages extremism and extreme minorities.

Hon. Members have referred to the position in Israel. On a visit to that country I met the President, Chaim Herzog. He said that if there was one thing that he could do to improve his country before he ceased to be President, it would be to change the system of proportional representation back to the first-past-the-post system. He believed that the power of the minorities in Israel, particularly that of the religious groups, had profoundly damaged that country and prevented the settlement of the long-standing problems in the middle east.

1.54 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Some time ago, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, asked for 10-minute speeches and I shall time myself precisely. There is no less receptive an audience than that made up of people waiting for the speaker to finish so that they can participate. I wish that other hon. Members felt the same sensitivity.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) made an interesting speech. I was struck by his idea that we have an impartial civil service. I have never believed that and, in many respects, it is a constitutional myth. If one reads Sir Bernard Ingham's book—after all he was a civil servant—he gives the lie to that statement. I admit, however, that he was something of an exception.

This debate has been excellent and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. It has been instructive and it has shown the House at its best. It has also revealed how conservative we can be and how exceedingly resistant this place is to procedural and constitutional change. The atmosphere in which this debate has been conducted, the motion behind it and public opinion demonstrate that the desire for change, and the readiness to discuss that change, is now widely accepted in this place and outside. That must be healthy for our democracy, as we should always be prepared to look critically at our institutions.

It is ridiculous to suggest that we have the finest electoral system in the world. I accept that we have one of the better ones, but there is plenty of room for improvement. We are sitting in a Commons where the Conservative party holds 60 per cent. of the mainland Commons seats, achieved with under 43 per cent. of the British vote. If the Government carry on losing by-elections, as they did last night, that statistic, which equates seats with the proportion of votes cast, will look better. However, there is a long way to go.

I am not seeking to make an anti-Conservative point—I am more than ready to do that on other occasions—but I believe that the Government of the day should he able to speak with the authority of the majority of the popular votes cast at the ballot box. A Government can then genuinely say that they represent the majority of the people.

There are many different forms of PR and we should be prepared to discuss the matter honestly and openly. I have not got the time to discuss all those different options now, but, in the same way as the Government should get 50 per cent. plus of the vote, I want to ensure that every individual Member is subject to that condition. A run-off ballot might achieve that end. We might have a second election day which would solve all the other arguments about the one-to-one relationship between the Member of Parliament and the constituency—a relationship which should be preserved. If we had such a run-off ballot at least it would mean that an hon. Member could come to the House and say that he or she genuinely represents at least 50 per cent. of his or her constituents.

I believe that the principle of PR is coming into favour in the country. It is coming into favour within the Labour party. There is still some way to go, but its day has arrived. However, the idea of PR comes better from one of the major parties, Conservative or Labour, than it does from the Liberal Democrats. When that party makes the proposal one can accuse it of being self-seeking, as it knows that PR is the only way in which it can increase its level of representation. When the proposal comes from the Conservative or Labour party, however, there is no self-seeking motivation. It means that those parties are making a genuine attempt to address the democratic argument and to try to find a way in which to achieve greater fairness within our electoral system.

In February 1931 the Labour Government passed a Bill through all its Commons stages to introduce the alternative vote for all-party elections. I do not know what Liberal MPs did at the time.

As I say, PR is coming, if for no other reason than that the European Community will at some stage insist that there should be proportional representation as a system of election throughout the EC. In Britain, it is gaining favour because people see it as a fairer system.

There are many aspects of our political institutions that I wish I had time to debate. I am in favour of a written constitution. There would have been no abolition of the GLC in those circumstances, but that is not my only reason for wanting a written constitution. I am in favour of a Bill of Rights and the abolition of the House of Lords. I take the Minister's point that if we had an elected House of Lords, what would we say if the other place said that it also had a mandate? My party will have to address that point in due course. I hope that we can at least agree that something must be done about the House of Lords, for one cannot defend any democratic system that maintains in one of its constituent parts the principle of heredity. We should have an elected head of state and we should have a greater use of referenda.

In February 1987 I put forward a Bill under the ten-minute rule procedure. It was designed to have a fixed term Parliament—a fixed election period—so that we would know the election date, as we do in local government, in the EC and in the United States. We are seeing today an unseemly exercise, with the Prime Minister exercising enormous powers and patronage. The ability to determine when an election shall be called gives him enormous power. All Prime Ministers want to retain such power. I would give them less, rather than more, power.

It is unsettling now to have a Government who are on their uppers, as it were, in the dog days of this Parliament, with the Prime Minister desperately trying to find a political window of opportunity. Whenever it comes, or when he thinks it has arrived, he will dive through it to his certain political suicide. But that is another matter.

We should remove that power from the Prime Minister and there should be an election before the date previously set only if a Government lose a vote of confidence. Other than that, they must serve out their time. That would bring back into the system far more certainty, and that would be good for the electorate and for business, because the unsettling aspect of when there will be a general election unsettles business nationally and internationally. I hope that Conservative Members will consider the point.

I introduced another Bill in the early part of 1987. At that time we were in a similar situation as we are today, with the Government looking for the most appropriate moment to serve the interests of the Conservative party. One cannot blame the Government of the day for doing that, but that power should not be possessed by any party. In that Bill I proposed compulsory voting at general elections, with a public holiday being declared on election day, as happens elsewhere in Europe.

People in this country sense the need for change. It may have something to do with the 11 years of Toryism. It certainly has something to do with the authoritarian style of the last Prime Minister. The right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) has put the desire for constitutional change very much on the political agenda. We should not embrace constitutional change merely because we do not want to see somebody like the right hon. Member for Finchley suddenly re-emerging from the political grave, though I know that I speak for many Conservative Members when I say that we do not want to see that happening, and that would be reason enough to go for constitutional change.

The British people are ready for change in the way in which we elect and organise our system of government. We should be prepared not only to discuss but to grant those changes because to do so would be good for the electoral process, which in turn would be good for the House of Commons.

2.4 pm

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

I postponed constituency business to attend the debate, because I was attracted by its title—"Constitutional Reform". The motion, however, refers to an obscure document, The … MORI opinion poll on the State of the Nation I have not seen the contents of that document, although its impressive bulk has been waved at me from the Liberal Democrats' Bench. The motion refers to this House, noting the results of the MORI poll, but we do not know what is in it: as I discovered last night, it is not even in the Library. I therefore assumed that the real subject of today's debate is the Liberal Democrats pet hobby horse, proportional representation, and I shall confine my remarks to that.

Anyone observing the Chamber at this moment would be impressed by the absence of Members of Parliament. Why are our colleagues absent? It is because they have departed for their constituencies, be they in Brent, in the far reaches of Orkney and Shetland, in furthest Ulster, in Cornwall or in Wales.

Our constituents have a valuable asset, in the form of local Members of Parliament who are solely responsible for the smallest possible areas in the United Kingdom. We are elected locally, by local people; we are selected locally by local Liberal or Conservative associations, or by local Labour parties—unless, that is, the Labour candidate is gazumped by the new rule, "Kinnock knows best".

We are solely responsible for tackling local issues I, for instance, have taken up in the House the subjects of the channel tunnel rail link, our local Gravesend hospital, the national dock labour scheme and various local road schemes; and I have done so because I am solely responsible to my constituents. Any system of proportional representation would break that powerful local link.

To be most arithmetically proportional, the system would have to provide for multi-Member constituencies. Each one of us can think of an example of what that would mean to us locally. I would be one of eight Members of Parliament representing west Kent: I would have to serve not only the people of Gravesend and Northfleet, but those of Dartford, Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge and, no doubt, the Medway towns and Maidstone—let us chuck those in for good measure. It would not be practically possible to get to know all those areas well enough to achieve the standard for which we all aim. Local contact would be diluted.

Under such a system, I would be one of eight Members of Parliament representing west Kent—five Conservatives, two Labour and one Liberal, let us say. What a buck-passer's paradise that would be! When my constituents came to me, I would say, "Which party do you support? Oh, you support Labour"—or the Liberal party—"so you should go and ask your own Members of Parliament to solve your problem." Alternatively, they might approach me as Conservatives, but with a problem that I could not or did not want to tackle. I could then say, "I am not a specialist. Try your luck with the other four Conservative Members for west Kent."

I want to be a Member of Parliament; how do I ensure that I am one of the five Conservative Members who are returned for west Kent? There are only two systems under which that would happen. Either the electors would elect a party list already ranked in order, or they would rank their Conservative candidates in a certain order, and they would be elected from that list.

In the first instance, I would know what to do. I would need to get chummy with the Conservative party establishment of west Kent, and grovel my way to the top of the list. In the second, I would have to contact the largest possible number of Conservative voters in the area. I would go to where the Conservative vote is the densest—[Laughter.] I mean that in a demographic rather than a mental sense.

I would go to Sevenoaks, to Tunbridge Wells and to Tonbridge; I would not go to Gravesend or Northfleet, which are in my current constituency, because proportionally there are fewer Conservatives to be found there. Conversely, not many Labour candidates would be seen on the streets of Sevenoaks or Tunbridge Wells. As for the Liberals, they would not know where to go to find their voters.

Either way, the system would make us, the elected Members of Parliament, more remote from our constituents. Our constituents would lose out. Just look at the size of those constituencies and ask how closely our Members of the European Parliament keep in touch with their electors. We know the answer to that question. Above all, we know what the practical pressures are on those of us who wish to serve in Parliament. It would push us towards our party hierarchies and away from our electors.

There is an alternative that could keep single-Member constituencies under proportional representation—the single transferable vote. We could keep the one Member, one constituency, but the result would be well and truly distorted. This was best summed up by Sir Winston Churchill who, in 1931, described it as the worst of all possible plans … the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal. The decision … is to be determined by the most worthless votes given to the most worthless candidates. The pressure on the candidate would be not to be positive, not to stick his neck out and not to offend people, or he would lose their second preference. In other words, "Be all things to all men." Speaking for myself, I was lucky enough to get 50.1 per cent. of positive votes, so I should not have that problem, but that is not guaranteed. I should have to be mighty careful not to upset those second and third candidate votes that might be redistributed to me.

There is yet another alternative proposal put before us—the so-called German system, under which one doubles the size of the constituencies. They each have one Member of Parliament. The other half of Parliament is slotted in by the national political parties, in accordance with the proportionality of the entire vote in the country. What would happen? We should become proportionately more remote from our constituents if we were constituency Members of Parliament. The top-up Members would be solely responsible to their national political parties and not to the electors.

What, then, would happen on a weekend such as this? I should be off to my constituency, my surgery and my work for double the area. The top-up Members of Parliament would be off to the golf course and the beach and would have no concern for the constituents. All that they would need to do would be to keep in with the party hierarchy in order to keep coming here. Any big move of the electoral tide would not dislodge most of them, particularly the Liberals who would be the top-up Members. I say particularly Liberal Members because they would continue to fail to win constituencies, yet their vote nationally would be piled up and dozens of Liberal Members would be coming to the House with no constituency contact whatsoever.

Why should there be any change? The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) tells us that proportional representation would be fairer. I sought to explain why I thought that it would not be fairer to my constituents, or to those of any other Member of Parliament. To whom would it be fairer—to the Liberals, to the pundits, to ordinary people? It might certainly be fairer to parties, but the House represents people; it does not represent parties. Just because parties cannot gain enough local support to return sufficient Members of Parliament is no reason for changing our centuries-old system of representative democracy, whereby Members of Parliament represent particular towns or parts of counties. Every Liberal Member of Parliament today is here because he obtained sufficient support locally. It is a worthwhile reflection, is it not, that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) would be the only Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for a vast area of south-east inner London. How would he cope with that and give to his constituents the sort of service on which he prides himself?

It is also worth reflecting on the fact that the Liberals would not be the only beneficiaries of proportional representation. It would also benefit other small parties, such as the communists, the Liverpool Militant Tendency—which, as we saw, defeated Labour candidates in Liverpool during the city elections only two weeks ago—the National Front and the Raving Loony party. When proportional representation was tried in France recently, it was reversed pretty quickly. It gave France Le Pen's extreme nationalists. There is also the example of Israel, which we have heard about today. Italy got the communists.

The siren message in favour of proportional representation that is put to our electors will do nothing but lose them their local Member of Parliament and local champion and stable government. That would help only the Liberal Democrats' narrow political interests, the pundits of the chattering classes—who would enjoy the statistics—the statisticians and, above all, the lovers of smoke-filled rooms.

2.14 pm
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

In his last sentence, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) sought to write off the complaints of those who are concerned about our constitutional arrangements as the background noise of the chattering classes.

An article in The Economist on 11 May, which thankfully is no longer edited by Walter Bagehot, said: It is absurd to write off such complaints as the background noise of the chattering classes. I agree. He characterised the British constitution by saying: It ain't broke, but like much of British industry in the 1970s its proper place is in a museum. It does not need to be fixed; it needs to be replaced. If public opinion about our constitutional arrangements is changing—I have no doubt that it is—it is not because of the theoretical attractiveness of models of proportional representation, which have advantages and disadvantages, but because the public recognise that the system of government under which the country has operated is not delivering the goods. Measured by international yardsticks or against public expectations and hopes, successive Governments have fallen far short in delivering what a political system is expected to deliver.

The theoretical arguments about the structure of our constitution carry little weight with the sensible British public. What carries weight is their awareness that whereas Britain was once the most prosperous in Europe, our rating in the international league has declined steadily in the past two decades. They have seen the poor environment of our inner cities, the inadequate provision of services in rural communities, our education shortcomings and, compared with other countries, our failure to take people on to further and higher education. They have seen many brilliant scientists and inventors failing to translate their ideas into industrial pre-eminence. They have seen successive Governments committing themselves to curb the expansion of crime, but have noticed that crime is rising and now live in greater fear for their personal security.

Although we have a long-established legal system, in which many people have taken pride, there have been some spectacular failures and miscarriages of justice, which called into question the adequacy of our arrangements. The public have recognised that the legal system is inaccessible, except to the rich and very poor, who enjoy legal aid. They recognise that throughout the country provision for the arts and the environment is, at best, patchy. They recognise the extent of monopolist abuse. Above all, they recognise that for 20 years Conservative and Labour Governments have set themselves the twin targets of increasing employment and reducing inflation, but that, compared with countries operating under other constitutional systems, they have failed. The British public are increasingly convinced that it is not the dogmatisms, but the system that allows those dogmatisms to prevail against the good sense of the public, which is the explanation for the transparent failures of Governments in Britain.

Is it merely insularity and complacency that can lead to the conclusion that the Minister took 53 minutes of our debating time to expound? It is impossible to stand before the British public and laud the achievements of two decades of Labour and Conservative Governments. There have been two decades of missed opportunities, of late decision-making and of opportunities denied to the British people. I believe that the reason why the Minister chose to speak for 53 minutes in what has conventionally been regarded as a Back-Benchers' day was that he wanted to demonstrate one of the central weaknesses of our parliamentary democracy—the complete domination of the Chamber and of the legislature by the Executive.

Mr. Peter Lloyd


Mr. Maclennan

I do not propose to give way once in view of the time that the Minister took. Fifteen minutes of his speech dealt with adversarial disputes about what happened after the by-election in Monmouth. That was the level to which he saw fit to drag a debate about the institutions of government. He began by saying that it was many decades since we had had such an opportunity, but he swept it aside to satisfy some of his headline-seeking Back-Benchers who wanted to abuse this opportunity.

Mr. Arbuthnot

In fairness to my hon. Friend the Minister, I must say that one reason why he took so long was that he had the courtesy to give way to other hon. Members.

Mr. Maclennan

The Minister is usually an extremely courteous man and I have exchanged views with him on many occasions. Indeed, I did so earlier today. However, I was incensed—justifiably so—by the way in which he twisted the debate and made it marginal and trivial when it is central and major. The reason why this country cannot get itself off its back is that we do not debate the issues raised by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) in his powerful speech, much of which I agreed with.

Some commonsensical statements have been made in this debate by some of the less elevated members of the House. The right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) spoke simply and said that the system works so leave it alone. Do the British public believe that the system works? It is increasingly clear that they do not. They think that the way in which the Minister treated the subject today is a bit of a farce. They think it a farce that bloated and inflated claims are made for the success of the Government against all the evidence of failures.

It is clear that our constitutional arrangements are almost unique in the democratic world. In the past 40 years, different Governments applying widely differing theories within the same constitutional framework have failed to deliver not only what they tried to deliver, but certainly what the public expected.

What is most striking in our constitutional arrangements is not so much that they are not defined in a written constitution, singular though that is. What is unique is the almost unlimited Executive dominance over the nation's affairs. Governments with only minority support are able to treat the whole country as a test-bed for a temporarily fashionable economic nostrum or political theory. Our unitary constitutional system, without effective checks and balances, causes the country to lurch in a zig-zag fashion according to the will of the flock master in Downing street. The people of Britain are not sheep to be corralled thus. Although it is imperfect, we live in a democracy. A halt is ultimately called to the wilder nonsenses of Governments such as the poll tax or Labour's utopian attempt to impose its so-called "social contract" on the nation's unwilling employees in 1978–79.

Mr. Tony Banks

The hon. Gentleman was a member of the Labour patty then.

Mr. Maclennan

I learned from that experience. The reversals of policy do not come in time to prevent hardship and great damage to the country's prospects. Our constitutional arrangements have not given us stability and direction. They have not given us constancy of purpose. An erratic course has been steered by successive Governments guided by dogmatism and doctrine.

What is most characteristically different about our constitutional arrangements is that we have the most centralised system of central Government in western Europe. Our system of government is even more centralised than that of France, where provincial government is being developed. Our system is more secretive than any other. The Minister told us today that he would like us to hear all that the Government thought that we should hear. It is precisely against such ministerial arrogance that constitutional safeguards need to be written in.

Our constitutional arrangements pay scant regard to the fundamental rights and freedoms of our citizens who are more frequently required to go to the court in Strasbourg to protect their rights than are the citizens of any other country in western Europe. Other countries settle such matters domestically in accordance with the tenets of a fundamental law which gives people rights that can be protected in their own courts. They do not have to go to Strasbourg.

The matters to which I have referred are strange and our country is singularly different from the other democracies with which we are associated in the European Community. The most dramatic and unacceptable feature of our parliamentary democracy is its unrepresentative nature. It results in the election of those who are dominant in the country, but who bear no accurate proportional relationship to the votes cast in the general election.

Electoral reform must be at the heart of constitutional reform. Anyone who believes in true democracy would want to see the wishes of the electorate reflected in the votes that can be cast in the House by hon. Members who are elected at large.

In the last general election, 43 per cent. of people voted for the Conservatives, yet the Conservatives ended up with 57.7 per cent. of the seats. Labour, with 30 per cent. of the vote, won 35 per cent. of the seats. The alliance, with rather less than 23 per cent. of the vote, won 3.4 per cent. of the seats. That is a travesty not only of fairness but of democracy itself.

The matter will not be put right until Conservative Members' attitude is more in tune with the expressions of opinion to which my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) drew attention, and until people at large cease to dismiss public opinion, as the Minister does, by trying to suggest that people do not understand the question. That sort of attitude displays—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.